SEPTEMBER News 2005 Reviews by David Cotner, Nate Dorward,TJ Norris, Nicholas Rice, Massimo Ricci, Dan Warburton:

RIP Luc Ferrari
In Print: Simon Reynolds: Rip It Up And Start Again -Post punk 1978-1984
Jon Rose & Hollis Taylor:
Great Fences of Australia
On H&H Production:
Yukijurushi / Nakatani-Chen Duo
Elliott Sharp
In concert:
Brian Ferneyhough's Shadowtime
Spontaneous Music Ensemble / John Stevens Quartet / Punctual Trio / Tony Bevan / Evan Parker & Stan Tracey
Chris Abrahams / Erik Griswold / Rod Cooper / Philip Gayle / Bruce Arnold / Tom Hamilton / Ursel Schlicht / Adam Lane
Murail / Reich / Glass / Carter / Ravel / Doyle
Jason Talbot / Daniel Menche / Nullkommajosefh / Pholde / Compest / Nihilist Assault Group / Andrew Chalk / VVV / Hafler Trio / Autechre
Last month

Editorial - Luc Ferrari RIP

As you get older, obituaries gather around as death closes in on every side, until the day comes when the bell tolls for you – though you won't be there to see it. (Not unless you fake your own death Reginald Perrin style or believe in reincarnation or something. Damn, been reading too much of that Harry Potter. And still a couple of years to wait before Volume 7.. shit.) I tend to avoid obituaries – reading them as much as writing them – for the simple reason I have a hard time believing people are actually dead when I'm listening to their music. Dumb, but true. Every time I spin Out To Lunch I half expect to turn round and see Eric Dolphy standing behind me.
Luc Ferrari died in Arezzo, Italy, on August 22nd, aged 76, from pneumonia. Over the past few years he'd been pretty busy, travelling frequently to the States and Japan to work with the bright-eyed youngsters he affectionately described as "les nouveaux concrets". The interview he gave me back in July 1998 still remains one of the most entertaining (and most visited) pages on this site, and I like to think that it, along with the article I wrote on Luc for The Wire that it led to, helped generate a bit of interest in his music. Please read it (you can do so in English and French, by the way), if you haven't already – it's fun. And humour was essential for Luc Ferrari. If you want to read a really good obituary of the man read what David Grubbs wrote at I'm off to play Music Promenade at cow rending volume. Bonne lecture. – DW

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In Print
Simon Reynolds
Post-punk 1978 – 1984
Faber & Faber 577pp ISBN 0-571-21569-6
Simon Reynolds, described rather glowingly by The Independent as [Britain's] "finest and most intellectually engaging music journalist" (they may just have a point there), begins this magnificent book with a personal confession: "Punk bypassed me almost completely. [..] When I got into the Pistols and the rest, around the middle of 1978, I'd no idea that this was all officially 'dead'." Well, that strikes a chord with me. By the time I started getting into the music that Reynolds discusses here with such infectious passion, the period under discussion (the author's timeline extends as far as October 1985 but the book effectively ends with the "appalling bombast" of Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Welcome To The Pleasuredome) was coming to an end. Sure, when punk broke, I remember seeing strange fluorescent snot-green posters plastered across Manchester advertising the now legendary July 76 debut of the Buzzcocks (supporting the Pistols) at the Free Trade Hall, and three years later found myself in a pub near Hulme playing darts with a group of lads who turned out to be Joy Division, though I hadn't heard a note of their music at the time and only knew Tony Wilson as the smarmy git who presented programmes on Granada TV. (I later found out he was the smarmy git who ran Factory Records.) Ah, happy bygone days..
Anyway, back to the matter in hand.. Reynolds' book falls into two parts, "Post-punk" and "New Pop and New Rock", each further divided into chapters devoted to individual groups (PiL, The Pop Group, Devo, Scritti Politti..), scenes (No Wave, 2-Tone, Mutant Disco..) or cities (Sheffield, Manchester, Leeds, Cleveland..). It's a logical and intelligent move, but confusing in terms of chronology, so the author provides that nine-page timeline by way of an Appendix. Just skimming through it is a powerful reminder of just how absurdly creative and influential the period was: for instance, the first six months of 1979 alone saw the release of classic debut albums by The B-52s, The Fall (Live At The Witch Trials), and Joy Division (Unknown Pleasures), as well as lesser known but influential first outings such as Alternative TV's Vibing Up The Senile Man, Swell Maps' A Trip To Marineville and Stiff Little Fingers' Inflammable Material, debut singles by The Specials (Gangsters), The Pop Group (She Is Beyond Good and Evil), A Certain Ratio (All Night Party) and The Raincoats (Fairytale in the Supermarket), not forgetting other landmark releases including The Human League's Dignity of Labour EP, Cabaret Voltaire's Nag Nag Nag and PiL's Death Disco. Phew.
"Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" sneered Johnny Rotten at the audience at the Sex Pistols' infamous last gig at Winterland, San Francisco, on January 14th 1978. Reynolds' first chapter focuses on the singer's subsequent project PiL (for which he reverted to his real name John Lydon to avoid legal complications with the Pistols' svengali manager Malcolm McLaren, who'd copyrighted the Rotten moniker himself) with bassist Jah Wobble and guitarist Keith Levene (correctly identified as post punk's first bona fide guitar hero). Reynolds charts PiL's influence across the scarred post-industrial landscape of pre-Thatcher Britain and beyond, and their subsequent split after the departure of Wobble and, later, Levene (the acrimonious tale of the group's swansong album Flowers of Romance makes for gripping reading) concludes the first half of the book with admirable if somewhat depressing symmetry.
What emerges most forcefully from the opening chapters is how consciously artistic the whole post-punk scene was: musicians pilfered group and individual names, song titles and whole concepts from 19th and 20th century art history, from Romantic poetry (the Buzzcocks' Pete Shelley) via design and architecture (Bauhaus), Dada (Cabaret Voltaire), Futurism (Zang Tuum Tumb) to nouvelle vague French cinema (Subway Sect's Vic Godard), with heavy doses of existentialism (The Fall took their name from Camus's novel) and Burgess, Ballard and Dick thrown in for good measure. Reynolds explores certain groups' fascination with the imagery and ideology of totalitarianism (both left and right, from Gang of Four's Maoist moniker to more suspect appellations such as Joy Division and the March Violets) with sensitivity and care, and his discussion of how maverick early punk icons such as Howard Devoto and Vic Godard quickly distanced themselves from punk is both informative and entertaining. The chapters devoted to the nascent post-punk across the Atlantic in Ohio ("Uncontrollable Urge: the Industrial Grotesquerie of Pere Ubu and Devo") and New York ("Contort Yourself: No Wave New York") are superb, notably his descriptions of the environment the groups grew up in, from the glaring blast furnaces of Cleveland to Manhattan's drug-infested Lower East Side. As well as providing concise potted biographies of key groups (the Contortions story is especially good, and I love the description of Pere Ubu's David Thomas, sounding "like Beefheart if his balls had never dropped"), he also pinpoints key influences on the scenes, notably Suicide, Bowie and Eno, whose role as a key player and producer cannot be underestimated.
Similar attention to detail is to be found in the chapters on local scenes back in Britain, from the "militant entertainment" of Gang of Four and the Mekons in Leeds, to the dub and funk driven manifestos of The Pop Group and the benign anarchy of Alternative TV and The Slits. "Autonomy In The UK: Independent Labels and the DIY Movement" charts the rise of key indie labels Rough Trade, Fast Product (the importance of the former's Geoff Travis has never been in question, but it's good to see the latter's Bob Last being acknowledged), Factory and Mute. Inevitably, given a scene that was exploding into life all over the place, some names get overlooked: it's wonderful to be reminded of how influential the DIY aesthetic of the Desperate Bicycles was (hands up if you remember them), and great to see Fatal Microbes, Notsensibles and Spizzenergi namechecked, but surely a little more space could and should have been devoted to Crass.
In focusing his discussion of the well-documented Manchester scene on its two most influential personalities, Joy Division's Ian Curtis and The Fall's Mark E. Smith, Reynolds neatly sidesteps the morbid idolatry that has typified numerous books written on the former (Smith's jibe "there are two kinds of factory in Manchester: the kind that makes dead man and the kind that lives off a dead man" is telling), but still discusses Curtis's songwriting and Martin Hannett's hugely influential production with precision and understanding. "Living For The Future: Cabaret Voltaire, The Human League and the Sheffield Scene" is a collection of clear thumbnails of cultural life in that city (for the seven million pixel big picture, readers can always check out Martin Lilleker's recent Beats Working For A Living: Sheffield Popular Music 1973 - 1984), and it's a more affectionate portrait than "Industrial Devolution: Throbbing Gristle's Music from the Death Factory". Reynolds is correct to pinpoint Genesis P-Orridge's origins in the hippy era (his description of TG's "Slug Bait" and "Hamburger Lady" as "a corroded, ailing Tangerine Dream" is spot on), and tells the tale of their infamous "Prostitution" show at the ICA and the group's subsequent work with American noise terrorist Monte Cazazza with admirable concision, but it's clear he has little time for the likes of Whitehouse. A later chapter in Part Two, "Conform to Deform: The Second-Wave Industrial Infiltrators", which discusses, amongst others, Psychic TV, Coil and Foetus, is equally efficient, but it could be argued that more space should have been devoted to Steven Stapleton's Nurse With Wound – though hardcore fans of English esoterica by now will probably have well-thumbed copies of David Keenan's more comprehensive study of NWW, Current 93 and Coil, England's Hidden Reverse.
Other notable omissions include XTC (1978's Go2 surely deserves a mention, even if later more arty projects don't), the Cocteau Twins (summarily dismissed as "Goth-lite".. wonder what John Peel would make of that) and The Cure, who Reynolds witheringly describes as having produced "the most neurasthenic rock music ever committed to vinyl", all of which prompts the question as to what qualifies as post-punk in the first place. The further Reynolds moves away from the English heartland (and let's be clear, the JR of punk for him is Johnny Rotten, not Joey Ramone..) the more difficult it is to work out exactly what he means by the term post-punk. The two chapters on developments in California, "Freak Scene: Cabaret Noir and Theatre of Cruelty in Post-punk San Francisco" and the later "The Blasting Concept: Progressive Punk from SST Records to Mission of Burma" are informative as one would expect, but one wonders why so much space is devoted to bands such as Chrome and Factrix (even though the stories of Mark Pauline's Piggly Wiggly, a macabre robot with pig's feet and cowhide are hilarious), and questions to what extent post-My War Black Flag doesn't qualify as straight up in yer face rock. Then again, it's all too easy to quibble – there are, after all, several more specialised books on the market that document developments across the Atlantic in more detail (Steven Blush's American Hardcore: A Tribal History and Joe Carducci's Rock and the Pop Narcotic are both mentioned in Reynolds' excellent bibliography) – though it would have been nice to have a little more factual detail on early 80s Tuxedomoon instead of the somewhat uninteresting anecdotes about songwriting credits on Talking Heads' Remain In Light.
But what the hell, there's no such thing as objective rock journalism in the first place, and Reynolds makes no attempt to hide his love for Scritti Politti, from the descriptions of Green Gartside's squalid Camden squat that adorns the 4 A Sides EP to the sugary trash of "The 'Sweetest' Girl" (and I agree with Julian Cope that those inverted commas around 'Sweetest' are fucking annoying). Then again, Scritti's evolution from well-intentioned if scruffy Marxist idealism to post-structuralist quasi-intellectual wank cop-out (c'mon Simon, you gotta admit that Cupid and Psyche 85 has aged veeery badly) is very much the story of the times, and Part Two of the book documents with depressing precision the return of bloated stadium rock and Top 40 pap. There are concise and cogent discussions of the careers of The Specials, Dexy's Midnight Runners (good to see them included) and Situationist puppeteer Malcolm McLaren, as well as a refreshing glass of Orange Juice in "Postcard and the Sound of Young Scotland" (and while I might disagree with Reynolds about Scritti, I'm with him all the way on The Associates), but for some reason the chapter on "Mutant Disco and Punk-Funk: Crosstown Traffic in Early Eighties New York (and Beyond...)" is merely a collection of choice quotations from the people involved, several of them culled directly from Ian Penman's liner notes to the Mutant Disco compilation, rather than a direct commentary by Reynolds himself. And while "Dark Things: Goth and the Return of Rock" manages to squash bands as diverse in aesthetic as Killing Joke, the Birthday Party and Bauhaus into just 19 pages (for more detail readers should check out Mick Mercer's Hex Files: The Goth Bible), "Glory Boys: Liverpool, New Psychedelia and the Big Music" gets bogged down in irrelevant anecdotes from Julian Cope's Liverpool Explodes about members of the Nova Mob – who never even played a gig in the first place – nattering in a café instead of actually rehearsing. At least Reynolds is on the one when he writes that Cope's The Teardrop Explodes went "from the next big thing to has-been with incredible speed".. Appropriately enough, the story ends in Liverpool with the extraordinary hype of Frankie Goes To Hollywood: "On another deeper structural level, Frankie were a taste of pop to come – the return of the boy band," concludes Reynolds. "Perhaps that accounts for the curious hollowness, even at the very height of Frankiemania, to the phenomenon. In the end, both the consumers, left clutching the lavishly-appointed bombast of Pleasuredome, and the band, bemused by the faint trickle of royalties coming through and humiliated by the general perception of them as ZTT's creations, might justifiably feel an ancient plaint rising in their throats. Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"
When all's said and done, what differentiates good rock journalism from amateurish scribbling as far as I'm concerned is its ability to get me scurrying back to my shelves of dusty vinyls or even off to the local record emporium (to pick up a new copy of Gang Of Four's Entertainment! in this case). Reading this 550 page tome (three times) has been a rich and rewarding experience, and a timely reminder of just what an extraordinary period of music history 1978 to 1984 really was. Check it out – the music and the book. -DW

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Great Fences Of Australia

The Wall may have come down in 1989, but The Fence is still very much in evidence. And for British-born violinist Jon Rose, it's not merely a potent symbol of what separates men from their environment (and each other): it's a musical instrument in its own right. For over two decades, Rose has been travelling the world, recently with his partner and fellow fiddler Hollis Taylor, recording the music of fences wherever he goes. His website (a veritable treasure trove of information for violinists and non-violinists alike) features chilling photography of fences from around the world, from political hotspots – Cyprus, Israel, Korea – to the great sprawling fences that span his country of adoption, Australia. These are the fences that Rose and Taylor have documented in Great Fences of Australia, a huge project first embarked upon in 2002, since when the two violinists have travelled 24,000 kilometres playing and recording the unique sounds of hundreds of fences in every state and territory of the fifth continent (including the well-known Dingo Fence, whose 5,309 kilometres make it the longest man made object on the planet, twice as long as the Great Wall of China), and documenting the lives and histories of the people who build, look after or use them.
Great Fences was first hosted by The Melbourne Festival 2002 under the title Bowing Fences. Over 9000 people heard 60 performances on the specially constructed fence, since when the project has featured in festivals in Barcelona, Madrid, Porto, Sydney, Adelaide, Darwin and, appropriately enough, the ghost town of Malparinka in Sturt National Park. In accordance with Rose's fascination with tuning systems (if you're not already familiar with his astonishing double CD on Emanem with Veryan Weston, Temperament, you ought to be), a project is underway to construct a specially-designed Fence based on the principles of Just Intonation and the Fibonacci series. "With financial support, its construction should take place in Western Australia in 2005. It is designed to remain in situ after the initial performances and be powered (Aeolian-style) by the strong winds of the outback." The Fences project has already been documented in the form of a radiophonic hörspiele for ABC, Voices from the Fence, and a CD on Melbourne's Dynamo House label. In May this year Rose and Taylor presented Great Fences in the newly-converted Art Nouveau splendour of Brussels' Musical Instruments Museum. Video footage of the pair in action in the Australian outback was projected as a backdrop to a specially constructed fence which Rose and Taylor played live in several concert presentations of Bowing Fences, a carefully constructed partly improvised suite of movements showcasing the enormous variety of sounds that can be summoned forth from the fence, both by friction and percussion.
"Fences can be seen as analogies for the old battle between our species and nature," writes Rose, "for the desire of exploration, control, and exploitation of resources; they indicate a frontier history of extreme hardship. They also mark the close physical association of man with his environment, the notion of belonging, the boundaries of cultures and political systems, a sense of the private and public, a statement that says I exist." In Australia, fences are a relatively recent addition to the environment. They started going up within months of white settlement, and their construction clearly interfered with, if not helped destroy, the Indigenous Australian's nomadic way of life. Rose quotes Dr. John Pickard ("Australia's leading fence-ologist"), who estimated that by 1892 there were over 2.7 million kilometres of fences in New South Wales alone, using up to 20 million cut down trees with an estimated value of $5.6 billion in today's money. Pickard is currently working on an estimation of total fencing kilometres for the entire country at the beginning of the new millennium. "The numbers will be serious," comments Rose. "Fences are by far the most visible artefacts that we have made on this continent."
Since Alvin Lucier's Music On A Long Thin Wire, long string instruments have exerted a strange fascination over composers, performers and listeners alike. Rose's Great Fences belongs alongside the highly acclaimed work of Paul Panhuysen and Ellen Fullman as one of the most significant explorations of the phenomenon. "On straight stretches of a simple five-wire fence, the sound travels down the wires for hundreds of metres. The music is ethereal and elemental, incorporating an extended harmonic series (the structure of all sound); the longer the wire, the more harmonics become available. The rhythms of violin bows and drum sticks uncover a fundamental sonic world. The fence music encapsulates the vastness of the place. Music of distance, boundaries and borders."
"From the Great Wall of China to Israel's latest attempt to imprison the Palestinian people through building a brand new security fence, the species never seems to learn that (in the long run) fences, walls, barriers always fail - the foreigner, the refugee, the enemy, the stranger, or simply the other is part of us. All fences are in fact transitory, finite. Even the longest fence in the world, the so-called Dingo Fence of Australia, will eventually succumb to nature despite the efforts of those who painstakingly and regularly repair it. The geography will survive the history." Great Fences of Australia is as musically rich and fascinating as it is symbolically potent. If by any chance you have the opportunity to see the work live, don't miss it. In the meantime, do your best to get hold of the Dynamo House CD, which comes complete with specimen of rusty barbed wire. Just be careful when you're putting the disc back in the box, OK?–DW

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On H&H Production
H&H Production HH-5
Nakatani-Chen Duo
H&H Production HH-6
The New York City borough of Bronx isn't exactly somewhere you'd expect to find tanned curvaceous beach volleyballers sipping batida de coco, so a Bronx-based Bossa Nova band isn't exactly something you're likely to forget about in a hurry – especially since none of the musicians is Brazilian. Bassist Todd Nicholson is American, but California's a long way from the Bronx. And Japan's even further away; guitarist Eiji Obata hails from Kyoto, percussionist (and vocalist) Tatsuya Nakatani comes from Kobe. They got together to form Yukijurushi in 2001, and Mott Haven is the follow-up to last year's eponymous debut. Reviews of that disc described it as "surprisingly unsurprising", but there are a few odd postmodern twists and turns on this one. For a start, Nicholson pens three compositions, Obata one, and the standards are interspersed with field recordings for local colour (Mott Haven, by the way, is the South Bronx neighbourhood where Nakatani set up his H&H – that stands for "Heaven & Hell" – music and dance studio in 2003). Compared to the meringue-light classic Joao Gilberto version, Dorival Caymmi's "Doralice" here sounds rather torpid, though the trio's take on Vinicius de Moraes' "So Danso Samba" (the reason I'm giving you all this composer info is that it's not on the disc, and it should be), complete with thumping bass drum offbeats, is more authentically samba than the version you probably know on Getz - Gilberto. The reading of the old chestnut "The Girl From Ipanema" is more skewed, starting half way across the bridge and never really getting to the other side, while the other Jobim tune on the disc, "If You Never Come To Me" (which also goes by the title "Useless Landscape" and if anyone can tell me the name of the album where Ella Fitzgerald sings the song I'll be eternally grateful because I've lost my old cassette copy and love it to death), is played straighter, but Nakatani's percussion still sticks out rather wonderfully.

As it does on Limn, definitely one of the freshest and most rewarding improv discs of the year so far, featuring Nakatani and cellist / vocalist Audrey Chen in an exquisite collection of studio recordings made at Nakatani's former home base in the Bronx and seven live tracks culled from the duo's tour in early April this year (in Atlanta, New Orleans and Chapel Hill, North Carolina). While Nakatani's work with the likes of nmperign, Peter Kowald, Jack Wright and Michel Doneda will be familiar to many readers, Audrey Chen maybe needs some introduction. After stints at the New England Conservatory, Manhattan School of Music and Columbia University she moved to Baltimore to study at Peabody with the celebrated new music soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson. That might explain what my colleague Mike Parker in a characteristically sprawling feature in the columns of Bagatellen ( describes as a "reliance on cliched patterns of post-European expressivity", though I have to disagree with him when he describes such forays into the world of "classical" vocal technique as an "Achilles heel". If all the pieces on the disc were as typical improv bubbly gabby as "Liplash" and "Sprawl" it'd be a pretty exhausting set; what makes Limn so rich is precisely its variety, beautifully highlighted by the expertly thought out sequencing of the tracks. There's an up in the air feel to it all, reflected not only in Chen's avian twitters and squawks, but also in the track titles ("Owl Monkey", "Finch", "Kestrel Beating"..), and pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn guesting on the opening and closing tracks is icing on the cake.-DW

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Elliott Sharp Roundup
Lauri Bortz/Elliott Sharp
Abaton 013
Jersey City's Lauri Bortz is a well known playwright and the founder of Abaton, the book and music publishing imprint on which this short opera is released. Set in a future urban America where women have lost most of their power, the plot finds a male couple waiting for their first heir, whose blissful relationship undergoes "complications" with the arrival of Minette, a female infant at first rejected by one of the men. Things change, until the finale.. well I won't reveal the plot here (unfortunately, the libretto is not included in the CD, but it is available from Abaton). Elliott Sharp's score calls for the Yellin string quartet and singers Devorah Day, Ben Miller, Eric Mingus and Joan Wasser, and its harmonies are less strident than usual, though you wouldn't say that while listening to Miller and Mingus's hopeless, oblique river of symbolic fake grief, the concluding "Here today, gone tomorrow". Elsewhere, like in the magnificent interlude "Blue by who?", the New Yorker's lines are played by the Yellin quartet with sapient sensitivity, a kind of cross between Bela Bartók and post-Schoenbergian bitter indulgence, very pleasant to the ears and not too heavy for the data storage capacity of the brain.–MR

Elliott Sharp
ZOAR Portal Series ZPO-02
This soundtrack for "What Sebastian dreamt", a film by Rodrigo Rey-Rosa set in the Guatemalan rainforest, consists of 20 short pieces containing some of Sharp's most "accessible" music, including the Spanish-sung "Fugarse" and the almost Easy Listening "Casa Rosa", whose accordion and clean guitar dance on an incredibly economic drum machine pattern. But besides the nice'n'easy commentaries, there are several deeper moments featuring Sharp's gorgeous fretwork on his array of acoustic guitars (including tenor and baritone models) and more exotic instruments like zither, baglama and hammer dulcimer. The masterly command of shimmering chords and bright harmonics is as in evidence here as it is on the recent Emanem solo release The Velocity of Hue and Quadrature (see below). Other sections include field recordings of birds, insects and frogs, alone, enhanced by computers ("Denser"), or in the form of a distant prayer ("Insect Gamelan"). All in all, this album could be an excellent toe-dip into Sharp's bath of surprise for any unlucky ones out there who still don't know his work.–MR

Elliott Sharp
ZOAR 025
Referring to his "suburban New York 70's roots", director Jonathan Berman asked Elliott Sharp to "quote an era, riff on a feeling, steal a dream". The result is a soundtrack that transports the listener right into that period, with fast-footed psychedelia, quicksilver turnarounds in standard rock format and acoustic blues on a fingerpicked dobro. Sharp's chameleon-like attitude could be misconstrued as overindulgence, yet he remains so proficiently sober that one forgets about the role of certain "lookin' back" movie atmospheres and learns to enjoy the sheer musicality of these nuggets (it's worth hunting out the CD for "Panic"'s harmonized guitar line alone) performed by Sharp with Michelle Casillas on vocals, Dave Hofstra on acoustic bass and Sim Cain managing all drum duties.–MR

Elliott Sharp/Ronny Someck
Zuta Music 1010
This CD is pretty rare, so do yourself a favour and get your copy soon, because it's a real underground gem. Following the path traced on their two previous albums, Revenge of the Stuttering Child and Poverty Line, Sharp and Israeli poet Ronny Someck once again reveal ample evidence of their respective skills in about 43 minutes of authoritative acoustic guitar improvisations alternating with the grave voice of Someck reciting his poetry. Although the English translation probably loses something of the original idiom, the texts are all permeated with a beautiful sense of silent anguish which allows them to be appreciated even by a non-expert. Someck's timbre always remains melancholically incisive even in short bursts, which, coupled with Sharp's expressive fingerpicking and intelligent harmonic textures, generate a peculiar state of mind in the listener, who is led to imagine a cross between bionic flamenco and avant-blues under the inquisitive supervision of a serious teacher who's seen many days of sorrow yet is still able to transform his suffering into strengthened identity.–MR

Elliott Sharp
ZOAR 024
A postmodern multi-act rap play? An abstract representation of intelligent America's unrepressed rage against the desperate idiocy of power? You could call Radio Hyper-Yahoo this and a hundred other things but I'll use just the word confirmation. Confirmation of our hope to keep finding brains that work – just listen to the great Eric Bogosian on his green-smiling lucid rant in "No Crime" – confirmation of the assumption that corrosive irony is better than a bullet – check out Lisa Lowell singing "In the Country", a nightmare of songwriting cliches whose lyrics are the nails in the coffin of many mediocre ideals – and above all, confirmation of Elliott Sharp as maybe the most gifted assembler of nuclear-powered sounds in today's roster of new music composers. Where else you will find techno, blues and computer music, sometimes mashed together into a single track, like the final "Ask Me", without feeling a nauseating sense of excess of ingredients? Sharp has the talent and the attributes to undermine the commonplace while maintaining complete control over the outcome of each and every one of his records. Third in the "Yahoo" trilogy (the first two were In the Land of the Yahoos and the fabulous Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Yahoos), this stunner is the direct consequence of the world disintegrating; before you return to your PlayStations or switch over to the Hallmark Channel, stick this pin of truth in some vein of your resigned body to see if you've still got the urge to get up and take the right direction, for once in your life.–MR

Usui Yasuhiro/Elliott Sharp
Bakamo BKM 003
Strangely enough for the slinger that he is, the things I like least in Sharp's oeuvre are his efforts with other guitarists – I still remember a double whammy of disappointment from the GTR OBLQ trio with David Torn and Vernon Reid, firstly on the CD and then in concert. Unfortunately, Volcanic Island confirms this theory with a series of electric duets (not too well recorded either, with an unpleasantly muffled / distorted sound) that consist of little more than tentative accumulations of tension which never seem to find a target to explode on. The excessive stereo separation between the instrumentalists accents the lack of coherent interplay, as if each player was intent on noodling with his back turned to the other, trying without success to find something of interest. It sounds at times like some cheap cassette made by youngsters and, not having heard Usui until now, I can safely declare that Sharp should try to keep stuff like this off the market and keep his higher profile immaculate. If you really want to appreciate Elliott Sharp's six-string mastery, go instead for Quadrature.–MR

Natsuki Tamura/Elliott Sharp/Takayuki Kato/Sakoto Fujii
Libra 104-011
The unsettling nature of this quartet keeps our attention riveted for the entire 68-plus minute duration. Atmospheres verging on the mysteriously nervous are punctuated by serpentine movements and animated exchanges between Tamura's trumpet and Sharp's soprano sax, while Fujii is often almost imperceptible, John Tilbury style, yet her piano can become obstinately percussive – as on "Crowing Crab"'s most intense pulses. It's not always easy distinguishing Sharp's guitar sound from Kato's timbral shades, as both guitars are mostly used as a background colour and rarely come out into the foreground. In "Flying Jellyfish" we're treated to a fusion of post-Industrial and sound narration from a B horror movie whose incomprehensible plot is balanced by the pretty face of the monster lurking behind the door. Once more it's Sakoto Fujii's piano sound, so strangely reminiscent of long-gone past eras, that gives the ensemble a fascinating old-style experimental vibe. And that's how the record ends, with Tamura taking a slow, sad trumpet solo while Fujii's sparse chords and the guitarists' silent string-breathing measure space for the thoughts to walk away from our mind.–MR

Elliott Sharp
ZOAR Portal Series ZPO-01
A limited edition of 200 autographed copies, Quadrature is a fantastically dynamic solo guitar release performed on a modified Godin Duet Multiac and a Turner Renaissance Baritone, with the addition of a Powerbook G4 in the final track, "Lissajous". "Escape of Velocity" opens the album with an active reflection about electroacoustic energy, where slide and eBow characterize a well-tempered, painkilling modern blues. "Angularus" finds Sharp pinching, scraping and tapping the baritone, until majestic harmonics spring out of the soundhole, conjuring images and noises of an enormous helicopter overhead. The cicadas outside my house, an overwhelming chorale this torrid Sunday, seem to mix perfectly with "Paracentric", whose eBow treatments and percussive fingerings join the entomological mantras in a chiaroscuro world of resonance and countenance which once more shows Sharp's total command of his improvising skills in an almost shamanic, hypnotizing allure spiced by dissonant impulses. "Lamina" is a post-Paris Texas desert soundscape, its breathless patterns alternating among converging horizons and phosphorescent sunsets, while the Max/MSP software used in "Lissajous" transforms the guitar into a polymorphous fusion of alien studies, a half-detached slide towards an uncertain tomorrow. A masterpiece.–MR

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Brian Ferneyhough

Lincoln Center, New York July 22nd
Shadowtime, a “thought-opera” composed by Brian Ferneyhough to a libretto by Charles Bernstein, received its North American première at the Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater on July 21st, followed by a second performance the day after (the one reviewed here). As a static opera charting the life of a thinker, it's tempting to compare it to Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise, and if that work was an apotheosis of early modernist techniques anticipating an early modernist revival, Shadowtime is an apotheosis of later modernist techniques which may perhaps anticipate a later modernist revival – if Rihm’s New Simplicity yields to Ferneyhough’s New Complexity, or Seamus Heaney gives way to Bernstein, that is. The subject in question is the suicide of the German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin during his flight from the Nazis in 1940, which Ferneyhough treats in a manner similar to the 17th century rappresentazione. “Representation” is a key concept in Benjamin’s thoughts on philosophy and Baroque drama, which the rappresentazione aimed to fuse. Perhaps the closest parallel would be with one of Ferneyhough’s favorite operas, Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, where Seneca is ordered by the tyrannical Nero to commit suicide. It's a concept balanced by Bernstein’s references to German lyric poets, including Heinrich Heine (Benjamin’s supposed relative) as well as his beloved Friedrich Hölderlin.
The first scene begins just before midnight on the border between France and Spain, where Benjamin and his companion Henny Gurland are told by an innkeeper that their visas are invalid and that they cannot leave occupied territory. The innkeeper’s polite forms of address counterpoint the terrible news which he bears, creating a verbal effect not dissimilar to a fugue; Bernstein has pointed out that the whole opera is “like a death fugue”, in a reference to the famous Holocaust poem by Paul Celan. Director Frédéric Fisbach mirrored the effect by placing the interlocutors behind impersonal mannequins, while Ferneyhough’s teeming, dissonant lines accentuated Benjamin and Gurland’s panic. The dialogue even acquired a Heideggerian twist: a lecturer introduced the scene with comments on Being, while Benjamin sat in a Bauhaus chair meditating on Time. Benjamin starts having conversations with figures from the past, including his future wife Dora, his closest friend Gershom Scholem – a great historian of Jewish mysticism – and Hölderlin. With Dora, he discusses the relationship between Eros and Culture, so crucial to the Frankfurt School as well as to Freud and his successors, and the hopes and despairs of Marxist students. With Scholem, he discusses the need to hear as many voices as possible to produce a balanced critique of reality; as Bernstein says, “mourning is a kind of listening/Where the dead sing to us/And even the living tell their stories”. Benjamin puts it even more bluntly to Hölderlin: “What is alive/Can be perceived/Only by means/Of what is not”.
Such quotes serve as the perfect introduction to the next two scenes, inspired by Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, which Benjamin bought in 1921. The second is an interlude for solo guitar and instrumentalists entitled “The Beating of Gabriel’s Wings”, during which train timetables and burning books flickered on the back wall of the stage. The reference to Nazi book-burning was obvious, but the timetables were more ambiguous, suggesting the social mechanisms and movements Benjamin documented throughout his career. The third is sung by the “angels of history”, a reference to Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History”, in which he says: “There is a painting by Paul Klee called Angelus Novus…This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe”. The scene consists of thirteen canons, which illustrate Benjamin’s doctrine of similarity, or our understanding of interconnections in historical time. Full of word-games and allusions to darkness, they accompany Benjamin on his descent into the underworld.
The fourth scene is set in a Las Vegas casino, reminding us of the sleazy clubs and bars that dominated Berlin nightlife between the wars. That said, Kurt Weill and Benjamin’s associate Brecht have little to do with this interlude for speaker-pianist, which, like the Klavierstücke in Stockhausen’s Licht, deserves its own life in the concert hall – it's one of Ferneyhough’s most powerful contributions: despite its similarity to the piano works of Xenakis, its hell-raising individuality is absolutely unquestionable. The speaker-pianist is the philosophy lecturer who appears in the first scene; in Nicolas Hodge’s remarkable interpretation, he whirled around the stage like a malfunctioning robot, opining anarchically and shouting out nonsense rhymes. By the fifth scene, which consists of 11 philosophical interrogations, several members of the audience had quietly walked out, and after Marx, Hitler and Einstein had tested Benjamin’s intellectual prowess the opera reached its two final scenes, featuring texts by Heine and Benjamin’s contemporaries. The last scene consists of a magical chorus, set partly to a language invented by Ferneyhough, in which the ethereal singing of “the angels of history” fades out in a “spiral” of electro-acoustic effects.
Aesthetically, Shadowtime has few parallels. The soundworld is close to Boulez, Xenakis and Stockhausen, but Ferneyhough's “quick run-through of the entire history of Western music from the year 1000 up to about 1825” in the fifth scene only vaguely resembles its models, unlike Wozzeck or Le Grand Macabre. Bernstein’s libretto is a mixture of dialectics and outright formalist experiment, creating a discourse which seems abstract and surreal but is in fact concerned with the hallucinations of experience. Like Benjamin, Ferneyhough and Bernstein avoid conclusions, because, for the librettist, they "would be sentimental and wrong…resolution is exactly the Fascist problem”. Not that this huge effort is an attempt to totalize: although it runs uninterrupted for over two hours, Bernstein prefers to refer to the opera as a “constellation”. Fisbach’s direction was sensible, providing little more than a frame which helped give the libretto and the music a context, while Jurjen Hempel and the Nieuw Ensemble Amsterdam hung on every note with breathtaking stamina. The singers were faced with an uphill struggle, especially Ekkehard Abele as Benjamin, but all of them emerged victorious, with some remarkable singing from the chorus of the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart. Overall, a magnificent performance of one of the major contributions to post-war opera. –NR

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Spontaneous Music Ensemble
Emanem 4115
John Stevens Quartet
Emanem 4117

Back in the early 1990s when I was living in Nova Scotia and getting hooked on improvised music, John Stevens and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble were mostly just alluring names: the music itself was frustratingly inaccessible. Konnex and Chronoscope had released a few items from the back-catalogue – the 1993 reissue of Karyobin (1968) was a revelation – but until the assiduous Emanem reissue program got under way there wasn’t a lot around beyond A New Distance, the band’s last recorded statement. Brought out originally by the Acta label, it has now joined the rest of Emanem’s Stevens holdings in a spiffy new edition that includes extra tracks, interview material, and tweaked sound (the opening track “Stig” in particular gets a welcome boost). The original album contained a pair of live trio performances from 1994 by a group consisting of Stevens, guitarist Roger Smith, and saxophonist John Butcher. Butcher’s presence seems virtually symbolic, marking him out as being as central to his generation of free-improv saxophonists as Evan Parker and Trevor Watts (central figures in SME history) were to the first generation. The new edition’s bonus tracks backtrack to 1993 for a brief studio date featuring flute player Neil Metcalfe in addition to Stevens, Smith, and Butcher; Emanem's Martin Davidson has interspersed the pieces with relevant fragments from an interview with Stevens.
This is music I learned to listen to free improvisation by. Listening to it again, it still seems to me a textbook example of the genre’s virtues, even though in many ways it has qualities that make it sound unlike anyone else’s style of improvisation. Free improvisation (improvisation of any kind) inevitably involves a fair bit of chance overlap; there are some notable players who minimize overt interaction (the Derek Bailey style), while there are of course countless lesser players who just roar along optimistically. But on A New Distance there’s a rare, exhilarating feeling that every sound is significant, and that every member of the trio instantly grasps all that significance and acts on it – all the time. Though there are few of the “who’s playing what?” puzzles that turn up in other forms of improvisation, there’s nonetheless a radical parity between the (similarly high-pitched) instruments, so that sounds become a form of currency, freely and rapidly exchangeable. In one of the interview segments, Stevens describes his piece “Peripheral Vision” (“more like a discipline than a composition,” he remarks), which requires players to pair off and focus intently on each other’s playing, yet remain aware of the entire group’s activity: “To be honest, what we’ve been doing today is really demanding and really hard work; but I am excited about the fact that we were all together, doing that together, from beginning to end. And the manifestation of that commitment is the sound of the music that we made.” (That resonant last sentence is one to treasure!) Plenty of musicians have emphasized close listening as the key to music making, but I don’t know of any other music that takes that particular idea so far: every gesture on A New Distance seems charged with anticipation of an immediate counter response. It’s as satisfying an example of improvised music as any I’ve encountered; if you haven’t yet heard the album, now is definitely the time to check it out.
Hard on the heels of A New Distance comes another reissue, New Cool, a freeboppish set recorded live in 1992 and originally issued on Danny Thompson’s The Jazz Label. As usual with Stevens there’s a strong sense of his role as mentor here, leading a young, hot band – trumpeter Byron Wallen, tenor/soprano saxophonist Ed Jones, and bassist Gary Crosby – through a masterclass in Getting Inside The Jazz Tradition While Keeping It Alive: dedications to Dudu Pukwana and Johnny Dyani, pieces referencing Ornette and Trane, and the rhythmically slippery “2 Free 1”, a piece designed to free up “the relation with the ONE in the music”. Stevens’ drumming is marked by his love of Blackwell, Higgins and Elvin, but is unmistakable for anyone else’s; it's springy, relaxed, flowing from his exemplary cymbal work, attentive to nuances of sound and melody, never kicking the soloists along bluntly but nonetheless excitable and responsive. This disc may be less of a milestone than A New Distance, but it’s still cracking good music that deserves the widest circulation, especially in this new edition featuring an extra take of “Dudu’s Gone”: the pure, visceral joy of Jones and Stevens’ exchanges on that track matches anything on the original album.–ND

Punctual Trio
Rossbin rs019
I don't want to imply that violinist Carlos Zingaro and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm are ready to be wheeled into a retirement home, so I'd better not describe them as "veterans" of their respective improv scenes on both sides of the Atlantic – let's say "seasoned performers" instead – but between them they've notched up well over a hundred releases of outstanding improvisation with artists as diverse as Ken Vandermark, Weasel Walter, Voice Crack, Peter Brötzmann, Daunik Lazro and Kevin Drumm, signing extraordinary solo albums along the way (the cavernous reverb of Zingaro's 1989 Solo on In Situ makes for a fine contrast with the frantic claustrophobic scrabble of Lonberg-Holm's magnificent recent Dialogs on Emanem). But this outing with turntablist Lou Mallozzi could be their finest outing yet. Mallozzi's the new kid on the block here (though he has made some notable appearances already: a couple of outings on Penumbra and a couple of tracks each on Guillermo Gregorio's Faktura and Cardew's Material, both on hatART), and adds a healthy dose of swooping whizzing madness, as fresh and spicy as a kilo of chili peppers. The album and track titles invite us to meditate on the old idea of music as a language.. not a subject I want to get into here, as it happens, but whatever tongue these guys are speaking in is full of irregular verbs, subjunctives and conditionals. And all three, needless to say, speak it fluently. The music can and does go in many different directions (often at once), from post-reductionist deconstruction ("Predicate") via the ferocious Xenakis-like glissandi ("Direct Object") to the superb gritty lyricism of "Indirect Object". Zingaro and Lonberg-Holm's thrilling work is expertly counterpointed by Mallozzi's often hilarious interjections.. at the end of the opening "Subject" he throws in a snatch of a TV evangelist (presumably) intoning the words: "Jesus Christ! Now!" And that could be the motto for the whole adventure.–DW

Tony Bevan, Orphy Robinson, John Edwards, Ashley Wales, Mark Sanders
Foghorn FOGCD005
I’ve always admired Tony Bevan’s music. Compared to most free-improvising saxophonists he has a surprisingly handsome, even mainstream sound, but likes to wrench it around (there’s a moment here on “Leviathan” where he makes it sound like his bass sax is playing backwards), and his curt, syncopated riffing style is like no-one else’s. Bruised puts him in an unexpected context, a quintet featuring vibraphonist/steel drum player Orphy Robinson, the ubiquitous rhythm-section of John Edwards and Mark Sanders, and Ashley Wales’ “soundscapes & electronics”. The centrepiece is the 17-minute-long “Leviathan”, which builds very slowly indeed – for quite some time it’s little more than discreet elaborations on a brief loop of humming and clicking, but halfway through Robinson’s steel drums get looped back on themselves, swinging back and forth like a censer, and the whole thing turns into an epic essay in wavering ambiguity. There’s some soul-satisfying free blowing on “Tempranillo”, but most of the tracks are stylistically harder to pin down: “Sunhouse” is a slow descent into the maelstrom, hazily ringed round with steel drums and electronics, while “Rhinocrat” starts off like one of Zorn’s slashing string quartet pieces before ending up as pattering Africanized percussion, and “Bruised” is buzzsaw riffing and a heavyweight groove from Edwards and Sanders, plus an uncanny hall-of-mirrors coda. Bruised is an exemplary improv-meets-electronics project, and though Wales’ presence makes comparisons to Spring Heel Jack’s recent projects inevitable, its soundworld is very much its own, and the results are often more successful.-ND

Stan Tracey, Evan Parker
psi 05.04
Stan Tracey plays free, or Evan Parker plays jazz? I’ll sidestep that question for now, thank you very much, except to remark that other traditions (classical, choral, gospel) are just as important here, perhaps reflecting the ambience of the 17th-century church where this concert performance took place last year. I’ve always loved those moments of pale, drooping lyricism that turn up even on Parker’s more tumultuous albums, especially when he plays tenor sax, and it’s a side of his music that comes to the fore on Crevulations. Parker’s drifting melancholy gives this dark, rather delicate music much of its flavour and power, including some of his best tenor oratory on record. Tracey, the shrewdest and most sparing of accompanists, responds with sparse lines and tremolos that often uncannily mimic Parker’s playing; the pianist’s dry wit is also occasionally in evidence – at the start of “Babazuf” he even throws in a little dismantled bebop. The first track is a little too stop-start and sombre, but the rest of the album is beautifully judged, the general reflectiveness broken up by moments of intensity and even some Africanized grooves. Like the psi catalogue itself, which includes jazz recordings by Kenny Wheeler and Gerd Dudek alongside free-improvised outings, Crevulations is a stimulating meeting-place for two different strands of British improvised music.-ND

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Chris Abrahams
Room 40 RM409

Erik Griswold
Room 40 RM407

Rod Cooper
Room 40 RM406
OK I'll be honest with you – I don't like organs. Well, pipe organs, anyway. Hammond B3s are all right with me, but the sounds that come from those great beasts that lurk in churches and cathedrals just don't light my fire (three exceptions: Ligeti's Volumina, Charlemagne Palestine's Schlingen-Blängen and a couple of tracks on Jean-Luc Guionnet's Pentes). Even worse are those weedy, wheezy little positive organs. Not only do they have the misfortune of sounding like an organ, they can't stay on pitch either. Maybe that's supposed to be their particular charm. Anyway, the old heart sank a little when I saw that Chris Abrahams, best known perhaps as the pianist in the Australian improv trio The Necks, had given the positive organ pride of place among the instruments he uses in the nine tracks that make up Thrown, which also include piano, fortepiano and DX-7. And true to form its anaemic, pitch-unstable clusters are all over tracks like "Bellicose", "Hung Door" and "Car Park Land". When it's accompanied by strange piano rattles ("Coins in Vinegar") or the extreme registers of the synth ("Them Hitting") it's just about bearable, but the most satisfying tracks on offer here for my money are the inside piano workout of "Can of Faces" and the shimmering fortepiano drone of "Remembrancer".

Brisbane-based Erik Griswold opts for a more recent keyboard invention, the prepared piano, for three extended improvisations ("Wednesday", "Thursday" and "Friday") interspersed with "short and sweet" (his words, not mine, and he's right) excursions for music boxes and prepared toy piano. The spectre of Cage is never far away when prepared pianos are concerned – he invented the thing in the first place, after all – but the tight cellular rhythmic and tonal procedures of gamelan are also present in Griswold's colourful and refreshingly unpretentious work, which apparently originated in music he improvised to accompany a juggler with a circus company – hence perhaps its Satiesque playfulness and fondness for identifiable tonal centres.

Not content with existing instruments, or transformations thereof, Rod Cooper builds his own, which is not surprising given his background in sculpture and furniture design. Friction consists of four extended tracks featuring Cooper's predominantly metallic instruments. "Estuary Nocturne" is plangent and touching, while "Stratum" is, apart from a brief calm spell just before the end, a dense, noisy affair, a grinding rumbling factory of a piece. "Mandrel" and "Pearlite" are engaging enough, but, to quote Cooper, as "most of the tracks are pieces composed specifically for each instrument and are just recorded as one take," repeated listening doesn't exactly reveal much in the way of deep structure.–DW

Philip Gayle
Family Vineyard FV 38
Not sure whether the "row" in the album title is "row" (as in line, a row of objects) or "row" (as in heated argument), but I rather suspect the latter, as there's something slightly disturbing about the cover art, a beautiful photograph of a heavily pregnant woman by Kanako Sasaki which has been partially scribbled over in the sensitive places by Sasaki and Philip Gayle himself. This same frantic calligraphy is evident throughout the 11 colourful, often multi-tracked, adventures on which Gayle plays, in addition to guitars (12-string, 6-string, classical, 5-string cowboy model, Chinese double-neck toy model, even a one-string guitar), aluminium egg bar, mandolin, Chinese flat gong, kwengari baritone ukelele, tin shaws, wine glasses, violin, circular bars, hand held cymbals and prepared toy piano, and jings, whatever they are. Stylistically, Gayle's music is all over the map, too, from the Mike Cooper and Keith Rowe perform Harry Partch of "Kanojo no pan" via "The Payphone" (imagine Eugene Chadbourne playing John Fahey along with Fahey himself playing Cage's Suite for Toy Piano) to the strange gongs and fiddles of "Zoomly Zoomly" (think Polly Bradfield jamming with Jerry Hunt and the Court Musicians of the Kingdom of Bhutan) and the Robert Ashley ping pong of the closing "Yagamo". I'm sure whatever has since burst forth from the womb of the cover star will soon be digging this one as much as my six year old is. Haven't shown him the cover yet, though.–DW

Bruce Arnold/Tom Hamilton
Muse-Eek MSK 123
This strange mix of vintage electric guitar timbres, computer and electronics has its moments, even if it sometimes sounds like a kid's first bedroom guitar-to-MIDI experiments (no disrespect intended - good things often come from bedrooms). Bruce Arnold sends his instrument through a network of processors, pedals, SuperCollider software and 1957 Fender amps (for that "old school" vibe), while Hamilton's atonal flights on the Kurzweil synth (via G4) ensure there are many moments where it's difficult to make out who's playing what, as everything circles round an ever changing confusion of shooting stars and dissonant alien entities confronted by a jazz-rock guitarist launched into a distant galaxy by mistake. Space creatures look on curiously, but they must have a hard time understanding those power chords and post-bop fingerings.
Ursel Schlicht/Bruce Arnold
Muse-Eek MSK 124
Steering well clear of emotional detours, pianist and "sometime musical feminist" Schlicht and Arnold on SuperCollider guitar display great restraint as they develop a sonic choreography of sophisticated circumspection with echoes of 20th century avant-garde and somewhat dusty free-form abstraction. An adept of the "exploration of twelve tone applications to jazz improvisation", Arnold tries several alternatives to the commonly known use of multiprocessed guitar, and his volatile lines and volume pedal swells reveal excellent technique even if they sometimes lack staying power, probably due to the abundant use of the abovementioned software which tends to flatten his personal touch. Schlicht's influence on the music is pretty heavy: post-Schweizerian digital juggling and obscure, sparse chords à la Joachim Kuhn (circa Dark) contribute decisively to the impressionistic aura of the enterprise. The two tasty ingredients don't quite mix, but String Theory is certainly more palatable than Disklaimer.-MR

Adam Lane
CIMP 325
Bassist Adam Lane’s third release on CIMP (following the much-lauded Fo(u)r Being(s) and DOS with John Tchicai, Paul Smoker and Barry Altschul) features a hard-rocking free-jazz trio, with West Coast renaissance man Vinny Golia on saxes and the little-known Vijay Anderson on drums. Lane writes great one-chord riff tunes: he seems to have an endless stock of catchy, tailchasing melodies and taut basslines. On the face of it it’s something of a formula, perhaps, but Lane and Anderson discover a tumbling world of possibilities in every tune, meanwhile building up some of the most hypnotic, deepset grooves ever to grace the Spirit Room. Golia, forgoing the more exotic instruments in his arsenal, is swirling and passionate on soprano and tenor sax, wheeling around like Rivers or Coltrane and occasionally adding a welcome dash of old-fashioned blues holler. I take it from the title that Lane’s a fan of Roland Barthes – but he’s picked the wrong Barthes to celebrate: if you want to hear jouissance in action, just give Zero Degree Music a spin.-ND

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Tristan Murail
Metier MSV CD 92097 (2CD)
Tristan Murail, now 58 and still Professor of Composition at New York's Columbia University, is best known as one of the principal exponents of so-called musique spectrale, a reaction of sorts against the dogma of total serialism (though by the time spectralists such as Murail, Gérard Grisey and Horatiu Radulescu arrived on the scene nobody was really writing hardcore Darmstadt-style all parameter serial music any more) in the form of a return to music based on its acoustic "roots" in the harmonic series. Murail has always been the most traditional of the spectralists – neither as uncompromisingly hardcore as Grisey nor as wacky and cosmic as Radulescu – and this fine double CD collection of his complete piano music, expertly performed by Marilyn Nonken (who also commissioned the single work that occupies the second disc, Les Travaux et les Jours) reveals ample traces of a typically French conservatoire background, steeped in Debussy, Ravel and, inevitably, Messiaen, with whom he studied before the obligatory Prix de Rome in 1971. Curiously, there's just as much Messiaen to be found in Les Travaux et les Jours, harmonically speaking, as there is in the two works that open disc one, 1967's Comme un oeil suspendu et poli par le songe... (title culled from a poem written by the composer's father) and the two-movement Estuaire, dating from five years later. Messiaen's celebrated "modes of limited transposition" (aka the octatonic scale, dividing the octave into alternating tones and semitones) are never far away, and the music retains – or regains – an almost Romantic harmonic sense of gravity. Murail is a fine pianist himself, and his writing taps into the tradition of virtuoso pianism stretching back from Catalogue des Oiseaux via Gaspard de la Nuit (referenced obliquely in Murail's 1993 tribute to Ravel, La Mandragore) to Liszt, a figure of considerable importance in Murail's music.
The central pillar of the first disc is the monumental 28-minute Territoires de l'Oubli, written in 1977 and strongly influenced by the composer's investigations into electronic timbral synthesis. It's a bugger to perform, since, as Marilyn Nonken notes in her liners, it explores "landscapes of pianistic impossibility and auditory illusion: notes heard but never played (sympathetic vibrations), microtones (resulting from the interaction of the harmonics) and sonorities that emerge seemingly without attack or decay." Nonken notes elsewhere that "it is not unusual for strings to break during performance", but her reading of the work, though forceful, is never brutal, and makes for an interesting comparison with the other available version of the piece, Dominique My's 1990 reading on Accord (200842).
In comparison, the rather prosaically titled (even if it is a quotation, from Hesiod this time) Les Travaux et les Jours sounds much less iconoclastic, but it's abundantly clear that the same magnificent pair of ears is at work throughout. The juxtaposition of upper register pyrotechnics and crashing block chords once more recalls Messiaen, but the central sonority of the opening movement is also close to the harmony of late Skryabin. The composer makes it clear that there are numerous points in common with Territoires, but the later work's division into nine separate movements refers us back to the grand unifying principles of the Romantic sonata. It's a monumental, superbly proportioned and moving work, and one that deserves to get as much exposure in years to come as the Ligeti Etudes have in recent times. "Can one still write for the piano today?" muses Murail. The answer is a resounding yes, and anyone who doubts it is invited to check this recording out at the earliest opportunity.–DW

Steve Reich and Musicians
Orange Mountain Music OMM 0018
"The audio tapes in the Kitchen's archive," writes Stephen Vitiello in his liner notes, "were all found in a number of dust-covered boxes three years ago, nearly lost to memory". The historical value of these performances may indeed be important, but I didn't find much to make me quiver with emotion in these live segments by Steve Reich's Musicians. If continuous annoying external street noise doesn't spoil the music (I tried to enjoy Shem Guibbory's fabulous reading of Violin Phase - the record's high spot - by attempting to imagine the traffic outside as an Organum-like active environmental complement to the composition, but failed), audience noise does, a case in point being the transition to the second movement of Six Pianos, one of my favourite moments in all minimalism, ruined by one of many classic coughs. Putting antisocial prejudices to one side, I enjoyed the rendition of Pendulum Music, where microphones swinging above loudspeakers generate clouds of feedback (predating future manipulations of the same matter by the likes of David Lee Myers and Asmus Tietchens), but Music for Pieces of Wood remains, like Clapping Music, more of an experiment than a real step forward, and hasn't aged well, unlike many of Reich's older pieces, which still maintain their fascinating aura, overquoted though they may be. The final excerpt from the fourth part of Drumming is well executed, yet the sound quality on this piece and on the disc as a whole is comparable to a well refined bootleg, which Live 1977 definitely is. For completists only. Nostalgia be damned.–MR

Philip Glass
Orange Mountain Music OMM 0004
After two decades of disappointment culminating in La Belle et la Bête, I'd finally decided to give up on Philip Glass. And yet, back in the days before CDs I once spent a fortune on a vinyl copy of Music with Changing Parts, so on glancing at the track listing on Early Voice I knew there was still a chance of hearing something good – and I was right. From 1972 comes the opening Music for Voices, performed by Mabou Mines at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York (yes, there's extraneous background noise again but it's not as annoying as on the Reich reviewed above), eight people facing each other in a circle, led by Glass's handclaps in a spiritual moment where silence and dynamics play a fundamental role. David Hykes' Harmonic Choir comes to mind initially, until the music evolves in a series of typically Glass interlocking patterns (with a touch of imperfection that makes one appreciate it even more). Glass's compositions from the first half of the 70s revealed him to be a visionary architect of geometrical repetition, and this is particularly evident in Another Look at Harmony Part 4, for chorus (Western Wind) and organ (Michael Riesman), a majestic 50-minute marathon in which vocal and instrumental material is carefully distributed across a complex illuminated tapestry. Think of a cross between Einstein on the Beach's slower sections and Koyaanisqatsi's more sober moments and you'll get an idea of what unique bright contrapuntal discipline sounded like before the crass symphonic bulimia took over.–MR

Maurice Ravel / Elliott Carter
Warner Classics 564 62160-2 DDD LC 04281
Pierre-Laurent Aimard is one of the world’s most remarkable pianists, yet, as this disc reminds us, one of the most puzzling. At its best, his light, graceful style can dart over any technical or interpretative obstacles; not a note is left inaudible or devoid of phrasing and colour, which, in a selection containing some of the twentieth century’s most difficult repertoire, is in itself impressive. However, whereas his performances of Carter are rhythmically dashing, his performances of Ravel, inexplicably, aren't. Playing Carter’s Night Fantasies (1980) is like trying to reproduce a de Kooning by hand: without nervous agility, the painting will lose all its vigour. Aimard is an old hand at this type of repertoire: the Fantasies, minus their chorale figurations, are after all modelled on the piano writing of Pierre Boulez, who made the nineteen-year-old virtuoso the first solo pianist of his Ensemble InterContemporain. By contrast, Aimard's reading of Gaspard de la nuit, Ravel’s major night piece, is plodding and blunted. There are superb moments – unexpected accents in Scarbo, and exquisitely floated diminuendi at the beginning and end of Ondine – but in general the phrasing is excessively fastidious and almost devoid of fluctuation in tempo and attack. The only time it seems to work to his advantage is towards the end of Scarbo, where sustaining the slow tempo enables him to savour the mysterious consecutive seconds and hold back the interlocking chords at the climax. It's just as well then that there's more Carter than Ravel on the disc, including the quirky Diversions (1999) and 90+ (1994), written for Goffredo Petrassi’s ninetieth birthday. Aimard’s renditions are as illuminating as his thoughts on the pieces, recorded on a bonus disc with musical examples.-NR

Roger Doyle
PASSADES – Volume 2
BVHaast, BVHaast 0505
Using the concept of the equestrian passade – that of a horse moving back and forth in the same space – Irish composer Roger Doyle (remember An Afflicted Man's MusICA Box and Ohren Des Kaiser Hirohito?) takes four-second increments of his past work (30 years of it) and the transmogrified voices of Mary Doyle, Olwen Fouere, and Paul Dutton and mutilates them lovingly beyond all comprehension or comparison – although the legions of people listening for uncleared samples at record pressing plants throughout the land might give him a run for his grant money. The extracts are, he explains, “fed into the software which would freeze them, and by mouse manipulation I would slowly move the material backwards and forwards on screen to see if there was potential for keeping those particular extracts. On a trial-and-error basis I collected almost three hours of material in this way. Each successful passade or passing over the material (real-time hand to eye to ear co-ordination – I felt almost like a calligrapher) lasted about two to four minutes before it began to lose its charm.” Difficult to be objective when examining one’s own discography so carefully for re-presentation; there's a dichotomy in this work – banging like a shutter in an angry wind – between what sounds organic and what seems to be little more than a spry finger on the fast-forward and reverse buttons on the CD player. It’s the difference between a mouse and a mouse, or a hand in the dark feeling spaghetti or lower intestines. But the end result is beauty you should treat yourself to, and with no existential dithering to constrain its vast spaces it finds its beginning, middle and end – triumphantly so. Must we really imagine Sisyphus as happy?-DC

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Jason Talbot
C.I.P. CD 014
Jason Talbot belongs to that illustrious group of Boston-based improvisers who are taking live electronics to the next level. Next level of difficulty, that is (think video games): if you've picked this up on a whim on the strength of the title expecting another sweet, white île flottante of dreamy ambient glitch, you picked the wrong label. This is C.I.P., not 12k (nowt wrong with 12k, I hasten to add), and that C.I. stands for "Crippled Intellect".. Which doesn't mean you have to be intellectually crippled to get off on Talbot's helter skelter of ferocious turntablism, but you do have to give it your undivided attention and several concentrated listenings before it yields up its many delights. Shouldn't be too hard – it's just under 21 minutes long and there's some deliciously gloomy electric piano about halfway through (think Portishead on downers sans voice remixed by Jason Lescalleet) to tell you you're on the home stretch. Play it nice and loud and your neighbours will soon be banging on your door to shine a hole through your heart too.–DW

Daniel Menche
Taalem Alm 23
Neon lamps flicker in the acrid gas surrounding them while rain pours down on bare wires that would like to melt in a plastic fusion but are instead forced to let electricity inside scream its burning blind fury.. A thunderous vibration seems to come directly from the ground, but it's just another corpse mangled and thrown into an incinerator where iron ants will eat its remnants. Daniel Menche keeps shocking our senses with releases that can be subtly menacing or extremely violent but are consistently high quality; the care the man from Oregon puts into the assemblage and perennially lucid orientation of his work carries with it the sick fragrance of death as definitive liberation from the futility of the stupid things of life. But it's that very end that becomes refreshed blood pumping in our veins, restarting the cycle all over again.–MR
Taalem Alm 24
This is the first time I've encountered Nullkommajosefh, a German dark ambient artist who floats around low-frequency domains to create his isolationist soundscapes. This 3-inch contains two tracks – "Panacea" is a well-assembled and operational if rather calm meeting between distantly Jackmanesque metallic entities (not to mention the circular flanging harmonics typical of Paul Bradley/Twenty Hertz or Colin Potter), while "Peninsula" could be described as Pink Floyd opening up live at Pompeii without noticing Vesuvius has silently restarted its activity. Everything remains looped ad infinitum while concrete reality is inexorably lost, becoming a mass of ashes in a desolate sunset.–MR
Taalem Alm 25
Canadian Pholde, aka Alan Bloor, plays wonderful metal sculptures (you can see them at that give birth to fantastic droning creatures which will have your windowpanes trembling at sufficient volume, while Bloor drags and scrapes more metal – shades of Z'ev – to offset his obscure sensual rapture with solemn flurries and shifting fragments of invention. His Taalem 3" consists of three blurred snapshots of his creative urge, surreal upsets and corkscrew staircases leading to what could be the antechambers of hell, were it not for a few touches of gentle inhumanity. Titles like "According to what is deserved" or "From a Place of Concealment" define the music's psychological attitude perfectly.–MR
Taalem Alm 26
Sometimes in the world of lo-fi noise terror one can find something interesting, like this well-crafted piece by Martin Steinebach (aka Compest), who also releases works under the monikers Monoid, StillStand and Conscientia Peccati. This disc opens with what sounds like a sweet being thrown away, captured by contact microphones and put into a distortion unit until it develops into a late-80s, ritual/Industrial low-budget symphony with repeated drum patterns, sci-fi synth patches and other crunchy sources. Don't know exactly why, but it reminded me of the Dutch project Het Zweet (anybody remember that?).. listener expectation is sufficiently stimulated and rewarded throughout this naive but effective soundscape.–MR

Nihilist Assault Group
7” + cassette box (RRR, RRR/NAG)
Yet another apparently unplayable artifact in the arsenal of Richard Rupenus, this box set in an edition of 50 features a 7” spray-painted gold-and-black and ending in a loop groove of crackling static, a similarly decorated cassette, and various inserts of absurdly styled, hand-painted collage (Frank Sinatra, John Cage and a celebrated quote from Charles Ives: “You goddam sissy! When you hear strong masculine music like this – get up and use your ears like a man!”). The three members of the Group, Rupenus, RRR’s Ron Lessard and Prurient / Hospital Productions’ Dominick Fernow, appear nattily dressed in black business suits and stocking-masks with Xs over their faces, two of them attacking turntable and soundmaking devices while the other sits down and enjoys a fine red wine amidst the din. The 7” throws other wreckers into the hungry hopper of a recycling machine to be chewed up and recast into new vinyl on which the old dead records make haunting, fleeting appearances, while the cassette seems to be a recording of the record heard on first blush, with attendant layers of spraypaint hiss removed to reveal squeaky casters, squealing squalor and the harsh laughter of machines just realizing that humans don’t like them that way.-DC

Andrew Chalk
Faraway Press No Number CD
Previously released on Three Poplars, the first part of this composition by Andrew Chalk is here completed by a much longer second instalment, a welcome extension bringing the total duration to almost 75 minutes. The music flows with the timelessness typical of the Englishman's work, both solo and in the oneiric therapy of his late lamented Mirror project with Christoph Heemann. The immobile mass of formless harmony that opens Part One draws out those feelings of silent sorrow we try (in vain) to fight, a blurred reflection of consciousness in the precious dream state where images and memories drift slowly across the mind without ever finding definitive resting places. Part Two is even foggier, rewinding the film back to an image of a child in the back of daddy's car, gazing out through an ever-changing mosaic of droplets of gentle rain forming small water courses on the windows, as surrounding fields and dark grey asphalt merge in a slow ceremonial of hypnotic succession, something to be relived later in adulthood, after too many wrong turns taken down the road to normality, where we inevitably return, crestfallen, after each weak attempt to flutter alone.-MR

Mego, Mego 075
Recordings from May 2002 by Mika Vainio, Ilpo Väisänen, and Alan Vega, who does his Suicide vocals (a bit more subdued but no less delayed and echoed) while Panasonic does the dance thing behind them. The surface of the CD case is embossed with moons and stars, which must be a pain when the plastic cracks. It’s not like you can just go down to the record store and order more. Grr. Jimi Tenor plays organ on “11:52 PM”, a prom anthem for more erudite schools, with Vega crooning and sighing his obsessed street anthems. This is the guy who jumped on Kraftwerk when they came to a Suicide concert because they looked “square”.. wouldn’t you like to see Suicide open for Kraftwerk? Like Ginsberg’s “Howl” or the roadkill robots of Survival Research Laboratories, Vega’s projections and phrasings are an acquired taste – but nobody else is doing this kind of poetry and music act these days, so we're better off for it. If rap is the black man’s CNN, this is the adventurous man’s CNBC.-DC

The Hafler Trio
Behind the gauzy, dura-translucent cover art and the dense, thoughtful phraseology lies the core of something strangely hollow, something quite chilling and fearless. Andrew McKenzie, now officially a citizen (?) of the Icelandic Republic, stands alone on another universally obscure and transcendent release whose focused drones and meandering spotlights of synchronized discord are nothing short of astounding. Recorded back in 1996, and dedicated to Hildur Rún Hauksdóttir, this was previously available exclusively in a limited edition of 451 hand-numbered vinyls, but now we Technics-less folk can gather round in ecstasy to witness the ultimate act of homage, as McKenzie's gyrating, joyful bumper car rides into the solitude of a howling wind. He may have made a courageous recovery, but the rest of us are, obsessively, still ill for the stunted planes of atmosphere he travels with or without us. It's a dramatic listen, something almost too sacred to find critical words to ink properly.-TJN

Autechre & The Hafler Trio
Die Stadt, DS82
The Hafler Trio’s Andrew McKenzie once remarked that he was aggrieved at the Mute reissues of his earlier Touch albums because they excised the care and detail he put into the packaging of their original incarnations. These 82 minutes would, in those days, have been a triple LP, with golden band and gold-embossed words on textured paper stock. Talking of words, liner notes have always been an integral part of Hafler Trio releases, so we might as well quote these: "The deformation of light entering several lives is simply a prismatic event and depending where the bottle spins, you're it. the acclaimed and cajoled, fussed over and clutched to multifarious bosoms is about to tread no water and several grapes, the resulting liquid pours off and conserved, but never leaving the family, in its way, that is, at least for some of us, and not very all others. be that as it may, and that is probable, it approaches with a glint in its eye, and full boots, not needing a high horse or even a fence to jump over. maybe a candlestick. tell us the time. are you in blue little boy? or are you grown up into what you always thought you would someday be? just asking. name? what's in any of them is out of the bag. The second part of the award winning and chart-topping confluence of the entities known sometimes as autechre and the hafler trio. or something very like it. longer, uncut, 50% less fat, and free house with every copy. that last part *may* not be entirely true." Gives you a reasonably good idea of what to expect. Why does anyone bother reviewing Hafler Trio records anymore? Like Korla Pandit, Joy Division and Ridley Scott, it goes without saying they are almost without fail some of the most challenging and satisfying examples of art one can encounter in life.-DC

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