DECEMBER News 2006 Reviews by Clifford Allen, Nate Dorward, Lawrence English, Rachel Grace, Stephen Griffith, Massimo Ricci, Nick Rice, Dan Warburton:

In Print: Rock, Pop
On Creative Sources:
Ernesto Rodrigues, Guilherme Rodrigues, Mathieu Werchowski, Joseba Irazoki, Wade Matthews, Bechir Saadé, Punck, Christine Sehnaoui, Sharif Sehnaoui, Neil Davidson, Ricardo Arias, Günter Müller, Hans Tammen, Sabine Vogel, Neumatica
In Concert:
Dancers on a Tightrope: Beyond Shostakovich
Masayuki Takayanagi
Harry Partch / AVVA
Roscoe Mitchell / Mattin & Axel Dörner / Free Zone Appleby / Nels Cline / Peter Evans / Roswell Rudd
Nafta / Quintet Avant / EKG + Giuseppe Ielasi / Scott Fraser & Bruce Friedman / Jeff Kaiser & Tom McNalley / Empty Cage Quartet
David Tudor & Gordon Mumma / George Cacioppo / Tod Dockstader / Manfred Werder / Helena Tulve / Walter Marchetti
Eric La Casa / Vertonen / KTL / Chris Watson & BJ Nilsen
Last month

Editorial (slight return)

It's that time of year again when the ol' mailbox fills up with requests from people I've never met from the other side of the world asking me to submit my year end Top Ten Best Of lists. Before you ask, I'm not going to submit one here. It was hard enough doing the Top 40 I did three years ago. Anyway, I've chosen ten for The Wire again, somewhat under duress, but the whole idea of trying to choose so few discs from a year that still has still has more than a month to run has always struck me as pretty daft. As if to prove the point, no fewer than 67 discs have arrived here in the past seven days. And there's still another one due I'm looking forward to: Revolt Music, due out shortly from this month's featured interviewee, Weasel Walter. And if you're expecting more bla bla from me here, forget it. I'm too busy checking out this huge pile of discs. Meanwhile, have fun with Weasel, and the rest of this month's issue. Bonne lecture.-DW

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In Print
Philippe Robert
Editions Le Mot Et Le Reste 314pp 20 Euros
Rock, Pop is the work of French music journalist Philippe Robert, who writes for Les Inrockuptibles, Mouvement, Vibrations and Jazz Magazine. It's subtitled un itinéraire bis en 140 albums essentiels – "itinéraire bis" meaning, for those of you who don't read French, "an alternative itinerary". I think you can work out what "en 140 albums essentiels" means for yourself. The 140 essential albums – well, OK, I translated it for you anyway – were recorded between 1965 and 2005 (so if you're a Buddy Holly fan, you can scroll down the page right now), and Robert provides brief contextual reviews of each of them, accompanied by tips for further listening and a black and white shot of the original album cover. If you haven't guessed already, it's all in French, but don't let that put you off reading this review, as the book raises issues of central importance to anyone interested in new music, and not just rock and pop.
For anyone with a modest record collection, the difficulty of choosing just 140 albums to represent the entire history of rock and pop should be immediately apparent. It'd be hard enough to pick just "classics" (leaving aside for the moment the tricky question of what constitutes a "classic" rock or pop album.. we'll come back to that later); pitching your tent leftfield and going for more obscure albums is even more dangerous. A voracious record collector – Philippe Robert most definitely is one – could all too easily opt to play the snob card and select a whole bunch of long out of print "cult" albums (we'll come back to that definition too later), but Robert has chosen to avoid that path by deliberately selecting albums that are (or should be) currently and easily available on CD.

A bit of background for readers not familiar with the small world of French rock journalism: last year the doyen of French rock journalists, Philippe Manoeuvre, Editor-in-Chief of Rock & Folk magazine, published his Rock'n'Roll: La Discothèque Rock Idéale (Editions Albin Michel), the ultimate bourgeois yuppie coffee table book, a lavish affair with full page colour reproductions of the original sleeves of the 101 "records that changed the world". (Not sure The Libertines have changed the world yet, but never mind, that's another story.) Coming hard on the heels of such an aggressively marketed volume by a truly charismatic writer (perhaps the only one in French rock / pop journalism: Manoeuvre is the kind of medicine man who could sell you a bottle of table wine and have you believe it was Château Margaux), Rock, Pop faces something of a problem. Even though his mission is avowedly different – this is the itinéraire bis, remember – Robert admits that he excluded several albums precisely because they had already featured in Manoeuvre's book. Even so, he makes an exception for Trout Mask Replica and Rock Bottom, and manages to slip in an odd "classic" or two that probably should have made it to PM's shortlist (notably Astral Weeks, which will probably bring a smile to the face of Lester Bangs in the hereafter).
What's most striking though about Robert's selection is its bias towards the late 60s / early 70s. It's no surprise he opted not to list the albums in chronological order, as the reader would only reach the mid 70s two thirds of the way through the book: if these albums were grouped into four ten-year time periods (1965-1975 inclusive, 1976-1985, 1986-1995 and 1996-2005), no fewer than 93 of the 140 would appear in the first. A cursory glance through the list gives you a clear idea of what Robert likes: folk and folk-derived (Tim Buckley, Vashti Bunyan, Karen Dalton, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Bill Fay, The Incredible String Band, and more recently Devendra Banhart, CocoRosie and Joanna Newsom..), lavish arrangements (David Ackles, David Axelrod, Van Dyke Parks, Talk Talk, Jean-Claude Vannier..), early 70s prog, especially Canterbury-related (Caravan, Egg, Soft Machine, King Crimson, Van Der Graaf Generator..), and, with very few exceptions (Guru Guru, Neu!, Can..), it's all Anglo-Saxon. The only French albums that make the cut are Magma's Kobaia, Vannier's L'enfant assassin des mouches and Dashiell Hedayat's Obsolete. Whether this is a case of snobisme or not is something of a moot point – why choose Vannier's album and not Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson that he provided arrangements for? (perhaps because Manoeuvre snagged it first) – but what about Brel, Brassens and Ferré? Does French chanson constitute another genre entirely separate from rock and pop, as most record stores in this country would have you believe?

Obviously, the answer to these questions lies in the subtitle: this is one alternative itinerary, not the alternative itinerary. Rock, Pop is, like all the best rock journalism, unashamedly subjective. But unlike Manoeuvre, who stated once with breathtaking tongue-in-cheek mauvaise foi that August Darnell (remember Kid Creole and the Coconuts?) was one of the Three Great Figures in Black Music, or Ben Watson, who can argue the merits of Johnny "Guitar" Watson or the Prime Time Sublime Community Orchestra with truly missionary zeal, Philippe Robert feels the need, it would seem, to justify his choices by reminding us that they've been rubber-stamped by today's hip arbiters of taste and fashion in, notably Thurston Moore and Jim O'Rourke (but also David Tibet and Steven Stapleton.. that ol' Nurse list still has a lot to answer for).
Back in the early 90s the FNAC record stores here in Paris printed up millions of groovy little circular labels marked "JOHN ZORN!" that were duly stuck on any album in the bins that had even the remotest link to the man himself, from Napalm Death (the Mick Harris connection) to Faith No More (Mike Patton) to Juan Garcia Esquivel (a JZ favourite), knowing full well that it would sell out mighty fast. As it happens, Philippe Robert hasn't got much time for Zorn (though he does include Naked City in his top 140, of which more later), but he's on good terms with Sonic Youth, having co-produced the excellent MMMR LP with Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Loren Connors and Jean-Marc Montera in 1997, and is more than happy to milk the connection for what it's worth. And why not? If people reading Rock, Pop rush out and buy Skip Spence and Slits albums, that's fine by me.

But this brings us back to the question I asked earlier: what constitutes a "classic" or a "cult" rock / pop album? Who decides which albums will "stand the test of time"? The answer is straightforward enough: we do! Journalists, more often than not backed up by the enthusiastic man-you-gotta-hear-this raves of enlightened insiders like O'Rourke and Moore. If rock and pop ever become truly assimilated into the Western Art Music Canon and studied at universities and music schools, I'll hazard a bet that the walls of the faculty libraries will, a few years down the road from now, be lined with back issues of Mojo and The Wire (in France, Rock & Folk, and hopefully Les Inrockuptibles.. at least the old monthly version of the Inrocks before the rag went all weak and weekly). Somewhere along the way though, some kind of line has to be drawn between one's wild enthusiasm for relatively obscure figures like Linda Perhacs and Jan Dukes de Grey and the heavy responsibilities that come with the job of being a well-respected cultural commentator. I'm no great authority on (nor fan of) hard rock / metal, but if I'd been assigned the task of writing a book like this (actually I would have refused point blank, but never mind), I would have at least tried to include a few more examples than Philippe Robert does here. Blue Cheer's Vincebus Eruptum and Earth's Hex: Or Printing In The Infernal Method are hardly representative of the diversity of the genre. Similarly, punk and post-punk / New Wave hardly feature at all. Excluding the Sex Pistols and Joy Division is fair enough (Manoeuvre covered them, after all), but what about the first Damned album? Or Buzzcocks' Another Music In A Different Kitchen (perfect pop punk if ever there was such a thing)? Or The Associates (one would have thought that that voice and those arrangements would have made it to Roberts' shortlist without hesitation)? Sandinista is all well and good, but for a truly volcanic crossover between reggae and hardcore, what about Bad Brains? The answer to this last question touches on another one of the book's self-imposed shortcomings: the total absence of Black Music. No Motown, no James Brown, no Parliament / Funkadelic, no Prince. The reason for this, as the author explains in his introduction, is that he's apparently considering another book specifically devoted to the subject. And a truly terrifying prospect that must be: covering ALL black music – jazz, soul, funk, disco, hip hop, R&B, techno and reggae and Afrobeat in one 100-album selection (rather you than me, Phil!).

The title of the book itself also might lead you to expect some kind of definition on Robert's part of what rock and pop actually are, and how we're supposed to differentiate between them. Wisely perhaps, he steers clear of the subject. But some of the albums he includes clearly belong to neither category: Julie Tippetts' Sunset Glow is indeed a rare and wonderful treasure, but it's sure as hell neither rock nor pop. Nor is Naked City, and goodness knows what Merzbow's Door Open At 8AM is doing there. And why is Keiji Haino – Robert is a major league Haino fan – represented by a relatively obscure release on Michel Henritzi's Turtle's Dream label (sure that's still in print, Philippe? I have my doubts..). Surely a vintage Fushitsusha would have been more in line with the mission statement?
From the point of view of the penmanship itself, I find an occasionally fusty quality to the writing at times (at least that's how it strikes someone who's not a native French speaker); a heavy use of the imperfect, pluperfect and conditional tenses seems to consign the albums to a kind of hermetically sealed archive. Even a disc as recent as Animal Collective's Feels sounds curiously remote, as if the author is trying to imagine himself twenty years from now looking back at it. Does he loves the music so much he wants to be nostalgic about it in advance? Or could he perhaps be a little afraid to nail his colours to the mast à la Manoeuvre and commit himself to print with the unbridled enthusiastic present tenses and imperatives of his heroes (and Rock, Pop's dedicatees) Julian Cope, Richard Meltzer and Byron Coley? A discuter..
Of course, the fact that this review has gone to such lengths to pick and poke is a clear indication of how thought-provoking Robert's book is. Though I might take issue with a few of the things he says and have lingering doubts about some of his choices, I'm the first to recognise that a book such as this is nothing short of a heroic undertaking, and is strongly recommended. Providing your French is up to it, that is, as I doubt it'll be translated into English in the foreseeable future. All the more reason for you take the plunge and learn la langue française. Jette-toi à l'eau!–DW

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On Creative Sources
Ernesto Rodrigues / Mathieu Werchowski / Guilherme Rodrigues
Despite the standard string trio line-up (Mathieu Werchowski on violin, Ernesto Rodrigues on viola and his son Guilherme on cello) this is a sweetly uncommon outing. On "Graduation" conventional string playing is shredded into a swarm of disemboweled, frictional harmonics, with continuous ghostly bowed whistling counterpointed by wooden encounters of the nth kind, extracurricular spring boinging and all manner of percussive clatter. It's a sort of tiny superdense instant revolution destined to fail within minutes, a DIY deconstruction of polyphony disguised as small-scale industrial clangour. After the stop-start charges, scrambled Morse code and queasy glissando traffic jams of "Light", "Metaphor" begins with icy scraping – sort of Hans Reichel meets Radu Malfatti – then walks on a bounce-and-resonate tightrope, saturating the acoustic space with throbbing hums, hyperactive chattering and spicy dissonant pizzicati. A truly orchestral hysteria sets in, the players totally possessed by a Webernesque St.Vitus' Dance before they return to picking, plucking and bumping. I'm wondering if I should have this played at my funeral, especially that fabulous concluding descending cascade. "Solitude" mixes Hitchcock and Jon Rose, shining like bleached bones in the desert, forcing the attention on substances that are barely perceivable on first listening, but in fact form the very skeleton of these awkward miniatures. Everything is just perfect.–MR

Joseba Irazoki
Unlike the inputless mixing boards, empty samplers, customised FX pedals and the whole arsenal of amplified bits and pieces in use these days, the guitar comes with a whole lot of cultural baggage, from classical to free via flamenco, country, jazz and rock. A lot of guitarists today go out of their way to avoid any reference to existing styles, but Joseba Irazoki positively revels in the sonorities of the venerable instrument, from the scrabble of "Behin Baileyrekin Olatuetan" (my Basque is pretty rusty but I take it that's a reference to the dear departed Derek, even if there's a good dose of Sonny Sharrock in there) to the delicate arpeggios of "Behin Bashorekin Olatuetan" (Basho as in Robbie that is). Irazoki also plays lap steel and banjo – not surprisingly, he's performed with Eugene Chadbourne – and the seven tracks wander delightfully like an ant threading its way through the blades of grass that adorn the album cover. Lovingly played and well recorded, Olatuetan is another fine addition to the solo guitar outings that grace Creative Sources' ever-expanding catalogue.–DW

Wade Matthews / Ernesto Rodrigues / Bechir Saadé / Guilherme Rodrigues
On Oranges The Rodrigues duo is back in action against with Bechir Saadé on bass clarinet and nây [an end-blown flute of Persian origin – DW] and Wade Matthews on alto flute, bass clarinet and electronics. The album is divided into nine movements in a kind of suite, if a far from uniform one, opening with beautiful Nikos Veliotis-like regretful string drones accompanied by discreet electronic backgrounds and the light crackle of wood, while Saadé's lingual flutters generate hisses and clicks. Elsewhere, lively microtonal activity is contrasted and enhanced by the strings' preparations and extended techniques, and there are spurts of insurgence from the repressed elastic warp and squelch of Matthews' electronics. The fifth movement is an engrossing juxtaposition of close intervals (and probably the best track in terms of emotional depth) which turns into airy multiphonics and koto icicles courtesy of Ernesto plucking in the red light district of his viola. The granular battle between subtraction and addition takes these daring improvisations into the kind of territory that could leave less seasoned explorers dying of starvation and dehydration within minutes.–MR

This reminds me of the strange French habit of spelling "steak" with an extra "c": "steack" (they do the same with Franck, don't ask me why). There's nothing punk about Adriano Zanni's music though; instead of taking out that "c" you might want to remove the "n": this is more Puck, Midsummer Night's Dream rather than Never Mind The Bollocks, evocative and superbly crafted music for laptop and field recordings. It's also, unless I'm very much mistaken, pretty much composed – if Zanni can produce this kind of stuff live I want to see him – which I suppose also raises the question as to why it's on an improv label like Creative Sources (wouldn't it attract a little more attention if it were on Bowindo, I wonder?). The six tracks follow each other without a break, from the cavernous slightly disturbing percussive rattles of the two opening tracks to the strange atmospherics of "44°25'37N 12°34'28 E" (that had me looking for a Fennesz connection, but a Google search for the precise co-ordinates only got me as far as an Italian astrology website, but I think it's somewhere in or near Genoa.. maybe someone will enlighten me) to the distant police cars and barking dogs in "From Belleville to Ravenna" and the exquisite chill of the closing "Hagakure (II, 105)". Wherever and whatever it is, A Constant Migration is worth checking out.-DW

Ernesto Rodrigues/Guilherme Rodrigues/Christine Sehnaoui/Sharif Sehnaoui
Joining Ernesto on viola and Guilherme on pocket trumpet and cello are Christine Sehnaoui on alto saxophone and husband Sharif on electric guitar. "Sitting On A Fence" is full of Frithian halos, expanded reverberations, low snarls and bundles of harmonics, an amorphous mantric radiation ruptured by surreptitious quivering percussion. "Flip Coins" starts with a deep drone accompanied by what sounds like a feverish gasp, before evolving into wails and wheezes layered over harmonically imbalanced abrasion and harsh angular counterpoint. About five and a half minutes in, you feel the presence of a monster about to wake up, but instead the music shifts towards scarcer, breathier configurations. "Over Turn" works in the dangerous area of barely contained restraint, the players going to pains to keep the sonic train on its tracks despite the absence of a driver. Sharif Sehnaoui’s appliance-stimulated guitar produces an endless, trance-inducing flow of electricity, while the boundary lines between the other instruments are blurred by the protective cushion of near-silence provided by the ominous and omnipresent hum.–MR

Neil Davidson
Creative Sources
If Phill Niblock's ever up in Glasgow and stuck for a guitarist to perform Guitar Too, For Four he could always give Neil Davidson a call, because there's some serious eBow droning going on here, and very pleasant it is too, if that's your cup of tea (i.e. if your collection already includes several Ambarchis, Lichts and Torals). It's not all stasis though – not that the drones Davidson lays down on tracks like "Incidence" and "Across" are ever really static: there's a lot happening on the micro-level if you take the time to listen carefully – on "Cast" his playing is as fragile and spiky as Tetuzi Akiyama. That said, the attention sometimes wanders, if you let it. Maybe that's part of the plan.. For myself, I have a slight preference for Davidson's earlier duo outing Flapjack on FMR with Raymond MacDonald. But judge for yourself.–DW

Ricardo Arias/Günter Müller/Hans Tammen
On this excellent release Ricardo Arias plays a bass-balloon kit ("a number of rubber balloons attached to a suitable structure and played with the hands and a set of accessories, including various kinds of sponges, pieces of Styrofoam, rubber bands, etc"), Günter Müller is featured on his customary selected percussion, mds, iPod, electronics and processing and Hans Tammen mangles his "endangered" guitar. You'll search in vain for a wall to bash your head against, blood pummelling your temples into a dull ache, as huge rumbling bubbles host a gathering of a million squeaking mice against a backdrop of earthquake and thunder. Cybertermites munch their way through your floorboards over a Jackmanesque wave of harmonics and low-frequency interference, irregular convulsions perched nervously above Tammen's extra-terrestrial tampoura, and the music crumbles and splinters into a cauldron of earth loop and suffocated volume swells. Your padded cell has been invaded by a battery of radioactive rats, tiny irregular heartbeats amplified in sickening, Chernobyl-like oppression. Don't try to understand.–MR

Sabine Vogel
Creative Sources
I may as well admit it: I'm suffering from Solo Wind Instrument Improv fatigue. Even if you're a dedicated fan of this kind of music there surely comes a point when you have to ask yourself how many albums of fffplschpllllkrrrschfff you need, not to mention how often you're likely to listen to them all (even discs I've very much enjoyed in recent times by David Gross, Stéphane Rives and Michel Doneda have sadly been gathering dust on the shelves here of late). I'm certainly not singling flautist Sabine Vogel out for particular attack, having very much enjoyed her work on Schwimmer with Bosetti, Griener and Thieke, and nor is this particular album "just another solo wind instrument improv outing", interleaving as it does Vogel's improvisations with (all too brief) field recordings of ice and an extended exploration of the city of Stockholm, but there's something about the music that leaves me cold. And it's not just the album title. Successful solo improvising is hard to pull off, and it's all too easy to fall back on simple (maybe not so simple technically but simple musically) extended techniques. One is impressed by the sounds – wow, is that really a flute? never mind penguins, a lot of this stuff sounds like hippos having fun in a mud bath – but ultimately longs for a note or two. But, as I say, it's the end of a long week listening to solo wind improv outings here at PTHQ (others include the latest outings by Jack Wright and Henry Kuntz). I'll come back to this one when I've thawed out.-DW

Noise therapy, from Pablo Rega (homemade electronic devices) and Alfredo Costa Monteiro (pickups on turntable), and it's pretty scary. Those lullabies mummy used to sing are by now forgotten, it’s time to learn survival. Machines start buzzing, their menacing yet familiar presence soon overwhelming. Everything is intensity, in tension, in question, a progressively blurring stain. A couple of crunching hand grenades of distortion and, when the smoke clears, distant metallic drones like the cellar door about to close. Light a match and you realize how dirty the place is. Those goddamn workers in the apartment next door, don't they ever stop? The air conditioning doesn’t work properly, either. There's a bad smell of fried eggs and the radio won't tune in, yet messages can still be detected, their meaning barely decipherable amidst sounds of boiling water. Someone's trying to break in. Water is running down the wall and the paint peeling off. Breath failing, lack of oxygen. A coin spins on a metal sheet. Sounds of footfalls, burning coals, eternal war. You might feel better later.–MR

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In Concert
Dancers on a Tightrope: Beyond Shostakovich
London South Bank Various Venues Oct. 13th–15th
Eastern European composers seem popular with British arts institutions – that is, as long as they’re already dead. London has practically force-fed itself commemorations for the centenary of Shostakovich’s birth this year, but few venues have found space for a close examination of the Soviet and post-Soviet contemporary composers who have emerged from under his shadow (or overcoat, as the Russians say). The Proms concerts alone featured eight of his symphonies, three concerti and a concert version of the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk along with a host of shorter items, but they only included seven more recent Soviet or post-Soviet works, five of which were by composers who are no longer alive.
So the South Bank and composer Gerard McBurney deserve congratulations for bringing us “Dancers on a Tightrope – Beyond Shostakovich”, a weekend festival that showcased not only Shostakovich and the late Alfred Schnittke, but also five living composers: the Russians Galina Ustvolskaya and Sofia Gubaidulina (photo, left), the Georgian stalwart Giya Kancheli, the possibly minimalist Ukrainian Valentin Silvestrov, and the very definitely minimalist Estonian Arvo Pärt (not that he needs many more champions – it might have been preferable to have seen some younger composers given a hearing instead, as all the featured composers were at least 65 years old).
The three-day marathon featured films – alongside an evening of Shostakovich’s film music – and talks as well as the standard musical fare in the concerts, which were well programmed but could have sometimes benefited from a more theatrical staging, particularly in the two opening concerts of the festival on October 13th. In a last-minute reordering, both opened with a piece by the Webern-influenced Gubaidulina, continued with an early Webern-like work and then a later, more extended “tone-poem” by Silvestrov, finishing with large scale funereal works – from Schnittke in the first concert, given by the Arditti Quartet in the Purcell Room, and from Ustvolskaya in the second, given by Reinbert de Leeuw and the London Sinfonietta in the larger Queen Elizabeth Hall. Both ensembles had variable success, however, in exploiting the more cinematic aspects of this fluid sequence of repertoire.

The opening Sinfonietta item, Gubaidulina’s Dancers on a Tightrope for violin and piano (1993), not only gave the festival its title, but also elucidated the “tightrope” symbolism of the long sequences of repeated notes around which Gubaidulina’s music is sometimes structured. Using single notes to center atonal music has become a post-war mannerism; for instance, heavy crescendos during sustained, repeated chords, first developed by Varèse back in the 20s in Amériques, have been done to death as a “suspenseful” dramatic device by a number of composers, including Nono and Birtwistle. Gubaidulina’s love of more Webernesque smaller forces has perhaps given her a suppler, more lyrical perspective on this type of “pedal point”, and as a result virtuoso figurations on the violin gradually fan out from her initial single-note “tightrope” without the “tightrope” becoming tediously insistent. During this precarious dance, the pianist menacingly scratches the strings inside the instrument and then claws out howling clusters of protest from the keys in the bass, forcing violinist and pianist into a bitter argument with many plucked strings before the violin part finally pirouettes into thin air. In what was almost certainly a portrait of Soviet and maybe even post-Soviet censorship under strain (the piece was written for the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., home to the Soviets’ Cold War opposition), pianist John Constable invested the censors with steely fingers and suitably impassive facial expressions, while violinist Andrew Haveron embodied the artist’s anguished mania, breaking so many hairs on his bow in the process that one concertgoer was heard to ask whether or not this particular effect was intended as a symbol of the tightrope snapping under the strain of official distaste. In retrospect, this performance explained the similar “tightrope” structure in the Ardittis’ earlier rendering of the composer’s String Quartet No. 2 (1987), although it didn't explain why the quartet couldn't convert their vigorous interpretation into something more visually stimulating (even a few dimmed lights might have helped in this case).

The Silvestrov (photo, right) performances in both programs had similar hitches and virtues. From the start, the Ardittis had the advantage: the three-minute Quartetto Piccolo from the composer’s student days in Kiev uses its material rather more economically than the repetitive Symphony No. 2 from 1965 (performed by the Sinfonietta), and the style played to the Ardittis’ more abstract, anti-theatrical tendencies. The Quartetto Piccolo’s remarkable “stop-start” moments, a Silvestrov trademark in which the piece tails off into silence and suddenly begins again, found an even fuller expression in the later String Quartet No. 1 (1974). This 20-minute single movement opens with an old-fashioned elegy recalling Glinka and late Beethoven string quartets, before angular ornaments intervene and gradually break the melody until it peters out. The effect recalls the ghostly distortions in the photographic paintings of Gerhard Richter, or a Beckett character’s fumbling for words and phrases, and it would have been appropriate if, to accompany their excellent dry-eyed performance, the Ardittis had opted for world-weary hearthside lighting, although the wooden structure of the recital hall already roused nostalgic sentiments. Silvestrov’s setting of Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale (1983) in the Sinfonietta concert was more colorless: most of the images from the poetry, such as the poet’s drowsiness, the nightingale’s unchanging, immortal calls, and the “bell/To toll me back to my sole self” were incorporated into the music, but Keats dances between the concepts with an entertaining and nimble rhetoric, while Silvestrov repeats them with little variation in a monotonously minimalist fashion. Although soprano Susan Bickley sang her part “in full-throated ease” (Keats), there was little the Sinfonietta and de Leeuw could do to enliven the score.
The most unqualified triumphs in both programs were the final contributions by Ustvolskaya and Schnittke. Ustvolskaya’s work is not often performed in the UK, although she is the most significant Russian composer of the generation between Shostakovich and Schnittke. Her Symphony No. 2, de Leeuw’s 2005 performance of which was screened in a documentary about her the day afterwards, is as “minimalist” as the work of her American contemporary Morton Feldman, although it is naturally much closer to the aggressive instrumental writing of Prokofiev (Ustvolskaya frequently requires the pianist to punch the keyboard, in the manner of Prokofiev’s first War Sonata). The Sinfonietta played her wordless 50-minute requiem Three Compositions (1970-5) in semi-darkness, building a giant wall of sound that collapsed apocalyptically onto the listener. The first movement employs a tuba, piccolo and piano in an exploration of the most extreme registers, while the second features a hammer struck on a wooden coffin (or equivalent), a line of double basses (which sounds like workers sawing the coffin down to size for a funeral) and piano (their barking foreman, perhaps). Ustvolskaya’s tiny adjustments of the simplest elements, such as insistently repeated chords, grip the listener throughout, except arguably in the third and shortest Composition, which is in any case a tiny amen compared to the anguished prayers of its predecessors.

Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 2 (1980), which concluded the Arditti recital, was cinematic enough not to need any additional theatrical effects, unlike his String Trio (1985), which violinist Gidon Kremer and his group Kremerata Musica brought to the Queen Elizabeth Hall the following afternoon. Schnittke incorporated Orthodox chant material into the quartet in memory of the director Larissa Shepitko, for whom the composer wrote two film scores, and the work as a whole might be seen as an account of the car crash that caused her death and the mourning that followed. The work opens with a slow, listless sequence, followed by wide, galloping bowing on the strings, a calmer reflection on previous material, and more wild bowing until the music comes to an abrupt halt. Melancholy drones and another gallop lead into some warmer, more nostalgic drones and a whistling flicker of hope at the end. The cinematic format gives a dramatic logic and control to what otherwise could have been indulgent pastiche, and the Ardittis provided a suitably unsentimental response.
The String Trio, by contrast, was written to mark the anniversaries of Berg’s birth and death, and here Schnittke is content to ruminate on the styles of Berg, Shostakovich and Bartók with little dramatic variety (or concision – the piece lasts over 25 minutes). The Kremerata Musica were unable to transcend the material, but they fared better with the other items in the first half of their program, the Silvestrov Sonata for violin and piano (Post-scriptum) (1991), which was very similar in idea and form to his String Quartet No. 1, and Pärt’s short minimalist gem Fratres (1977) for violin and piano, in which pianist Katja Skanavi outdid even Kremer in providing each chord with a separate weight, dynamic and texture. The second half was more consistent: Gubaidulina, like Silvestrov, recapitulated the successful formula of her String Quartet No. 2 in her String Trio of a year later (1988), with some other textural tightrope acts thrown in for variety – the piece ends with a tiny motif dancing into the upper reaches of the violin – and Giya Kancheli (who was spotted in a black moleskin jacket outside the concert hall giving a soft-spoken interview to Estonian TV, a cigarette smoking constantly beneath his white moustache) contributed a quiet, genial Piano Quartet (1997) to match his pre-concert persona (although rumor had it that after the final concert in the festival “Ivan the Terrible Vodka” would be providing some suitably “relaxing” drinks). L’istesso tempo, as the quartet is subtitled, alternated traditional material such as elegies and waltzes with some ferocious clusters, particularly on the piano; it is a tribute to Kancheli’s formal skill that it sustained its material for over 25 minutes without any extra padding, although the swift repeat of the climax was probably superfluous. A stuttering Kancheli encore concluded the contemporary contribution to a festival which demonstrated, as its title promised, that there is life beyond Shostakovich.–NR

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Masayuki Takayanagi New Direction Unit
Doubt Music
Working with his New Direction Unit in the early to mid-1970s, guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi came up with a useful twofold concept of free improvisation. In what he terms "non-section music," there are two different ways in which improvisations are structured: "mass projection" and "gradual projection". With their attendant cosmic/spiritual implications, gradual projections steadily climb to the stratosphere, offering subtle investigations of sounds by small groupings of players. Mass projection, on the other hand, is an all-at-once engagement with weight, density and condensation of material – sound moving in chunks of high-octane activity rather than delicate conversation. Of course, it wouldn't be free improvisation without a subtle dialectic between these yin and yang options, neither of which would exist without the other.
Takayanagi was born in 1932, and spent much of his early career as an orthodox jazzman, playing straight-ahead gigs with figures like pianist-arranger Toshiko Akiyoshi. A steadily increasing interest in the avant-garde led him to work with percussion wizard Masahiko Togashi in 1969 and, soon after, an occasional duo with altoist Kaoru Abe. Togashi's We Now Create, a quartet with Takayanagi, reedman Mototeru Takagi and bassist/cellist Motoharu Yoshizawa, was released on Victor (and later reissued on CD by Bridge Recordings); the music features elements of both mass and gradual projection. "Variations on a Theme of Feedback" points in the direction of things to come, building a huge sonic weight on the back of Takayanagi's raw, drawn-out feedback. The guitarist's engagement with freedom is subtle: rather than opting for the pyrotechnics of Ray Russell (whose career followed an uncannily similar trajectory) or Derek Bailey, Takayanagi's playing is an odd mix of fragmented but traditional guitar chords and ringing feedback, offering a measured calm beneath the stormy work of Takagi and Togashi.
Though at first little-documented, Takayanagi's groups gained a moderate level of underground recognition by the mid-70s. Axis: Another Revolvable Thing, his third "mature" set, was cut as a double LP for Offbeat Records. Takayanagi is joined by drummer Hiroshi Yamazaki (who also played in a duo with Abe), reedman Kenji Mori and bassist/cellist Nobu Ino for readings of his "Mass Projection" and "Gradual Projection" pieces. Both volumes were recorded live on September 5, 1975 at Tokyo's Yasuda Seimei Hall; to fit them better onto the original LP sides, the pieces were taken out of concert order – though the magic of modern technology can rectify that.
Volume One features a fragment of gradual projection ("Fragment II"), a solo percussion piece ("Fragment III") and an extraordinarily unruly mass projection ("Fragment VI"). "Fragment II" is music of subtle shading, despite the constant hum of activity. It begins with low rumble from bass clarinet and barely-audible cello harmonics, before Takayanagi and Yamazaki enter, the acoustic guitar responding to the percussion chatter with plinks and shards. Yamazaki's percussion solo is a masterpiece, moving from an unrelenting surge into a shimmering wash that quickly fragments into angular melodic shapes, slabs of hot copper intermingled with tom jabs and jittery activity. Volume One's centerpiece, though, is "Fragment VI," a 23-minute salvo of feedback, soaring alto multiphonics and Sunny Murray-like percussion chatter. Mori's alto sax spews pure skronky melody that pushes and pulls against Takayanagi's tendrils of feedback and distortion. As the slabs of sonic color blend together, one would expect the piece to become almost static, but there's instead a continually ratcheting-upward of tension that gives it an extraordinary power.
Speed and dexterity characterize the opening gradual projection of Volume Two, with Ino's pizzicato bass and Takayanagi's acoustic guitar dancing together, tense accents from Yamazaki's kit underneath and Mori's pan-flute shading in shrill harmonics (he's a revelation on flute, his birdcalls sounding nearly tape-manipulated in their twisted vocalization). As delicate as this music might appear, it's imbued with frightening dexterity and animated dialogue, its movements far from what one might call "gradual." The second and third segments of Volume Two, despite being mass projections, are less dense at their outset than "Fragment VI's" twisted slab – the former centers on waves of feedback and percussion, flute skittering atop a wash of electricity, while the latter is built around the peals of a gong, punctuated by soprano whinnies and sludgy detuned guitar. It would appear that, in Takayanagi's lexicon, mass projections are built from long tones dense in themselves, rather than a collective density. If only his terminology had caught on, we might today think of music as diverse as Company and Sunny Murray as two sides of the same coin.

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Harry Partch
Innova's Philip Blackburn has astutely realised that the VHS video cassette will soon be as hard to find as Harry Partch's beautiful original instruments, and has duly reissued this priceless document in DVD format. Stephen Pouliot's 1972 film profile of Partch, The Dreamer That Remains, has been revised and tidied up a little for the occasion, and though the definition is still rather fuzzy (and we shouldn't dwell on the sartorial elegance of Danlee Mitchell and the members of his ensemble.. dig those sleeveless tee shirts!), it's an essential and unique profile of a true original. While anyone in search of serious biographical information on Partch is strongly advised to invest in a copy of Bob Gilmore's exemplary Harry Partch (Yale), Dreamer provides us with a rare and wonderful opportunity to see and hear the man in action, especially in the bonus outtake which shows him making rose petal jam (don't think he would have landed a job at La Tour d'Argent, though). The grainy and often badly-lit footage of Partch's "ritual of dream and delusion", Delusion Of The Fury, is frustrating, but the sound quality is good and it's an essential document of a performance of the work in UCLA's MacGowan Hall in January 1969. Partch's typically eclectic scenario, based on Japanese Noh theatre and African folklore, but also referring to his own experiences as a hobo during the Depression years, might be a little dated, and Virginia Storie Crawford's choreography hasn't aged all that well, but neither detracts from the work's originality and affective power. The disc is rounded out with a splendid Slideshow in which Partch describes and demonstrates each of his wonderful instruments one by one. Tasty. (I might pass on the rose petal jam, though.)

Gdansk Queen isn't Erstwhile's first foray into the world of DVD – there was Jonas Leddington's splendid documentary balance beams in the AMPLIFY02:balance box, you will recall – but it is the first DVD specially conceived as a separate release on the label. The disc contains seven tracks, ranging in duration from 3'06" to 18'40", created by Toshimaru Nakamura (no-input mixing board) and Billy Roisz (video mixing boards). It goes without saying that you'll need to have your DVD player hooked up to the stereo if you don't want to have to listen to the music through headphones or through a crappy pair of speakers, but even if you do it'll be hard for the video to compete with the music, in terms of total environment, that is. Nakamura's music, at correct volume (and you know by now what that means) completely impregnates the listening space, bounces off walls and ceilings and totally reconfigures the acoustics of the aural environment, not to mention your brain. The slightest tilt of the head changes the harmonic spectrum often to an extraordinary degree. The ideal video complement to such a musical experience would, I guess, to be in a similarly all-enveloping environment. An IMAX cinema would be awesome, but as it stands even the largest commercially available home cinema screen would still not be large enough. There's no equivalent to a pair of headphones in the world of video (except in Wim Wenders movies); even if you view in the dark you'll still be able to make out – and be distracted by – other objects in the room, bathed in the glow of Roisz's superb primary colours. But ultimately – and this coming from a HUGE fan of Billy Roisz's live video work with Efzeg – the distraction here is the video itself. Music is capable of defining and exploring several parameters (not to mention substrata within each) simultaneously, whereas video, even exquisite work like this, seems inevitably primitive in comparison. For the most part, Roisz seems to be following Nakamura, which is logical enough given the music was recorded first, in November 2004 in Tokyo and June 2005 in Vienna. When the music changes, so does the image (it's not always as unsubtle as that makes it sound, mind), which, impressive though it may be, still leaves one with the impression that the video is of secondary importance. Watching the visuals with the sound turned off is pleasant enough but not entirely captivating, whereas if Nakamura's music were released separately as an audio CD it would, as far as I'm concerned, be among the finest things he's released to date.–DW

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Roscoe Mitchell Trio
This trio with bass/cello and drums is one of the more conventional line-ups in Roscoe Mitchell’s extensive discography, but still retains the edge of his earlier work. The two discs are separately titled "No Side Effects" and "Frames", but the divisions between them aren’t obvious, and I found myself instead mentally grouping the pieces into four categories: 1) loping, upbeat pieces with attractive melodies, often in waltz-time, which Roscoe handles with a disjunctively note-to-note manner; 2) slow, sombre pieces with notes held as long as possible; 3) furious hornet-attack blowouts featuring Roscoe's circular breathing, Harrison Bankhead's incomprehensibly rapid bass strums and bowing, and Vincent Davis's splashy cymbal work; and 4) quiet, chamber-like percussion pieces. Mitchell leaves the clarinet at home but brings his flute and piccolo in addition to the usual array of saxophones – there’s one circular-breathing bass sax feature on the second disc that has to be heard to be believed. There’s some excellent work from Davis, but it’s Bankhead who really stands out. In Eight Bold Souls his contributions were mostly absorbed into the group sound, but lately he's been surfacing more in small-group settings, and they reveal an absolute monster on the bass. All told, this recording stands as an excellent "state of the trio" release in the tradition of Rollins' Live at the Village Vanguard and Joe Henderson's State of the Tenor.–SG

Mattin / Axel Dörner
You may remember the story a few years ago of the rap group A Tribe Called Quest who were, if my memory serves me right, sued up the ass for having sampled Lou Reed's "Walk On The Wild Side" on a track on their first album called "The Luck Of Lucien." The legal action was apparently the idea not of Lou, who was probably too busy at the time designing those dumb glasses he wears in Brooklyn Boogie, but of his then wife (this is before he shacked up with Laurie "O Superman" Anderson btw). On this latest magnificent outing from Mattin and Axel Dörner there are no direct quotations from Mr Reed's music as far as I can make out (though it would have been relatively easy to slip a blast of Metal Machine Music in at times without anyone noticing it), but the album cover – not a jewel box, not a digipak, but a nifty canvas bag – is embossed with an image from the cover of Berlin (the famous one). Lou Reed aside, this is the most enjoyable Mattin album to come my way this year, and goodness knows there have been plenty of them; for once he's not content to lurk at the extremes of the dynamic spectrum, but darts across it, counterpointing Dörner's trademark breathy blasts and growls with extraordinary musicality. Yes, you heard it right, I said musicality, you cynical bastards.–DW

Various Artists
The latest entry in psi’s Free Zone Appleby series of Evan Parker-curated improv symposiums breaks the hitherto austere pattern of FZA releases with a round robin of free jazz quartets and trios, topped off by the inevitable all-hands-in nonet. It’s a surprisingly entertaining album, ideas popping back and forth relaxedly between the musicians and the mood slipping easily from whimsy to galumphing frenzy to dark meditation. The band is stellar, and on paper it looks like overkill: three saxophones (Parker, Paul Dunmall and Gerd Dudek), two basses (Paul Rogers and John Edwards), two drummers (Tony Levin and Tony Marsh), not to mention trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and violinist Phil Wachsmann. But the three trio tracks are excellent: Wheeler’s in his best lyrical/scorching form on “Red Trio-1”, the perennially underrated/underrecorded Dudek burns through “Red Trio-2” (with Edwards at times sounding like he’s setting out to compete with Marsh’s bass drum), and Paul Dunmall, Phil Wachsmann and Tony Levin turn “Red Trio-3” into a Theatre of the Absurd performance. The quartet track is even better: 20 minutes of Parker and Dudek in glorious spiralling dialogue, drawing on Coltrane but also on the Konitz/Marsh duets for a style of nuanced rapid-response interplay where each player instantly grasps the contours and implications of the other’s line, works a parallel to it that blurs distinctions between mimicry and Talmudic commentary, then adds a final twist. John Edwards and Tony Levin don’t so much support as frame the horns' interplay, standing apart in arched-eyebrow silence then diving in with furious intensity. “Red Earth Nonet” makes for a suitably grand if somewhat uneven finale to the disc, the twin basses giving it a grave quasi-orchestral grandeur. Parker’s ability to make extraordinary music with large ensembles (and their subdivisions) seems to grow with every year, and this album stands with the recent Crossing the River as one of the best latterday examples of his work in this area.–ND

Nels Cline
Andrew Hill has finally "made it", in the sense that the jazz mainstream is at last throwing plaudits and record contracts in his direction and the classic Blue Note dates have mostly returned from cut-out limbo. That said, who knows what the adulation means, given that the mainstream prefers to canonize idiosyncratic figures without actually incorporating more than surface features of their music, as the earlier examples of Monk and Nichols show. But there's perhaps more to Hill's belated recognition than just giving a neglected master his due: though the dark ambiguity and inner turmoil of his best music make it a body of work that's never going to be truly popular, they give it added relevance in this era of post-millennial unease and distress.
Guitarist Nels Cline has already made two excellent forays into Coltrane's repertoire (Interstellar Space and a crucial role in ROVA's extraordinary Electric Ascension), demonstrating his ability to dig deep into hallowed classics and find something new and strange. On New Monastery he offers a fractured, free-form take on Hill's music, generally avoiding straight time- and changes-playing (aside from the joyous blues spree of "Yokada Yokada/The Rumproller") and often collaging multiple pieces together, a practice he notes is an extension of Hill's use of episodic form on pieces like "Spectrum". It's an ensemble bursting with colour and celebratory energy on the uptempo pieces, as if liberated by the strange orderly flux of Hill's compositions, and genuinely attuned too to Hill's estranged balladry (which at times Cline gives a faintly country twang). The core of the band is Cline's Singers trio with bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola, augmented by the guitarist's percussionist brother Alex Cline on two tracks. Andrea Parkins' accordion throws Jackson Pollock blobs and splashes and Dino Saluzzi tristesse into the mix, while Ben Goldberg steps into Dolphy's formidable shoes with some excellent clarinet and bass clarinet work. The key player here, though, is veteran cornetist Bobby Bradford, whose soulful eloquence reaches to the heart of these tunes – sample his playing on Hill's great ballad "Dedication", fully worthy of comparison with Kenny Dorham's work on Point of Departure. The 24-minute collage of "No Doubt" (from Black Fire), "11/8" (A Beautiful Day) and the title-track of Dance with Death drags a bit – though the last part is worth the wait – but the rest of the album is superbly achieved, from the perpetually scrambled and resurrected marchtime of "Not Sa No Sa" to the astounding skronkfest "Compulsion", with its truly demonic solo from the leader. Cline is adamant that this disc is not a "tribute record" but just "a view into the music of Andrew Hill"; that sounds like hair-splitting to me, but whatever you call it it's a cracking good record, which ought to be stuck in the ear of every Blue Note hardbop fan clutching their Mosaics and Connoisseurs.

Peter Evans
This is a cat-among-the-pigeons disc: just when solo trumpeters like Axel Dörner, Matt Davis and Franz Hautzinger have taken extended technique to Beckettian just-one-more-gasp, "you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on" extremes, up pops the young American trumpeter Peter Evans with – let's continue the literary analogies – an Olsonian (or Evan Parkerian) focus on body, breath, the scrapping of the body/mind-duality, the construction of whole new languages that seem virtually to speak themselves. "More is more", indeed (take that, Mies van der Rohe!), and Evans' CD artwork of monstrous hydra-headed instruments, a cross between a one-man-band get-up and a Brazil-style ductwork nightmare, perfectly captures the unruly excess of his music. Interestingly, he focusses on piccolo trumpet for most of the album, as if in analogy to the way solo saxophone has become a genre that favours soprano players – indeed, on "Clothes of Inhabitants Near or Far Away" he exactly mimics the sound of a soprano sax. There are passages where I'm not quite sure where Evans is going, but on the other hand there's never a sense of static presentation of a technique for its own sake: the trumpeter is interested in the way one sound grows out of another, in squeezing melody out of noise, in exploring the full range from extreme discontinuity to frightening singleness of focus. For all the echoes of the classic solo recitals by Evan Parker, Paul Rutherford &c, this disc ultimately strikes me as maintaining a stronger relationship to jazz – the touches of Roy Eldridge bravura on "Slender Explosions of Noises" are just one sign – and you could almost read the disc as a jazzer's riposte to that famous skeptic about improvisation, John Cage, as Evans rams the whole mundane external world of sounds that Cage loved through the bell of his horn: pit-bull growls, bird calls, abstract blips, helicopter whirrs, hiccups, scat vocals, bel canto singing, percussion ensembles and hideous screams. The results are a vivid and above all entertaining roaratorio for solo trumpet, and suggest that Evans is a major talent in the making.–ND

Roswell Rudd
Originally released only in Japan in 1979, Blown Bone features trombonist Roswell Rudd and a stellar 1976 pick-up band that "just happened to be available on these two days": a core quintet of Rudd, Steve Lacy (soprano sax, as if you needed telling), Enrico Rava (trumpet), Wilbur Little (bass) and Paul Motian (drums) augmented on the four-movement "Blown Bone" suite by Kenny Davern (clarinet, soprano), Tyrone Washington (tenor), Patti Bown (electric piano) and Jordan Steckel (bata drum). Vocals are provided by Sheila "Million Dollar Ears" Jordan ("Blues For The Planet Earth", "You Blew It") and Louisiana Red ("Cement Blues"). Sandwiched between the three quintet tracks and the suite is a previously unissued four-minute piece from 1967 entitled "Long Hope". For some reason the personnel here is only listed in the booklet and not, with customary Emanem concern for detail, on the back tray, but joining Rudd (on piano) are Robin Kenyatta (alto), Karl Berger (vibes), Lewis Worrell and Richard Youngstein (basses) and Horace Arnold (drums).
The opening "It's Happening" swings hard and fast, despite a few rhythmic hiccups here and there – perhaps if Rudd had had four days of studio time instead of two he might have had the luxury of being able to record several alternate takes – and it's wonderful to hear Lacy clucking and squeaking behind Sheila Jordan's impeccable scat on "You Blew It". There's a slight drop in recording quality on the 1967 ballad "Long Hope", originally the prologue to a jazz opera entitled The Gold Rush, but who cares when the music is so exquisite and beautifully performed (Kenyatta, yeah)? One wonders why it took nearly forty years to emerge. The Blown Bone Big Band is tight and punchy, and it's a treat to hear Lacy soloing over Patti Bown's almost funky electric piano. Rudd's arrangements are as skilful as his compositions, and he adds some tasty trombone behind Louisiana Red's "Cement Blues". After the Ellington-inflected interlude "Street Walking", an mbira (thumb piano to you) kicks in on the closing "Bethesda Fountain". The music settles into an infectious Latin groove and a winding, rubbery solo from Washington punctuated beautifully by Bown's Rhodes. There's a smooth clarinet solo from Davern, a brief percussion break, and that's it. Not a great album but a darn good one. Hats off to everyone involved in reissuing it.

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Ten Pounds To The Sound
Calling your group after an international trade agreement might sound like an odd idea (and it's a bugger of a job trying to get any info on Google as a result), but makes sense when it's a trio consisting of a Canadian, an American and a Mexican: respectively Kurt Newman, guitar, Chris Cogburn, percussion and Juan Garcia, bass. I'm not sure whether there should be one of those pesky little encircled "R"s indicating Registered Trade Mark (or whatever it means) after the name of the group, but as I never add one after Deep Listening and make a point of forgetting the "TM" after Bill Dixon I'm not going to make any exceptions here. Newman hails from Toronto, but until recently was based in Austin Texas, home not only to percussionist Cogburn but to a dynamic and refreshingly dogma-free improvised music scene. Garcia met Cogburn and fellow Texas improv prime mover Dave Dove when he moved to Houston from Monterrey, Mexico at the age of 17. His meaty bass makes a fine foundation for the music to build upon. Cogburn is as good at hitting his instruments as he is at bowing and rubbing them, and Newman's guitar playing is splendid, at times sounding like a koto, at times like Django Reinhardt beamed down to jam with late 90s Polwechsel. If you can't imagine what that could possibly sound like you ought to check it out for yourself. If you can't find one of the elegant hand-stitched CDRs (limited edition of 100), it seems the music is available for download at and there's also a video of this July 2006 concert at Okay Mountain for you to check out at–DW

Quintet Avant
Editions Mego
Despite the deadly dull album title (are Jérôme Noetinger, Lionel Marchetti, Jean Pallandre, Marc Pichelin and Laurent Sassi making a pitch for the bal musette market?) and the group name (very musique contemporaine, but actually arrived at by chance when they first performed at 1998's Musique Action festival in Vandoeuvre – "there was another group playing after us, so we were the 'quintet before', hence 'Quintet Avant'," Noetinger told The Wire a while back), this is one of the most entertaining and creative outings to hit the streets this year. The QA's first outing Floppy Nails was vinyl only – maybe indicative of Noetinger's resolutely pro-analogue stance, as is the use of Revox tape recorders ("not long ago, everybody dreamt of having a Revox! It was the Rolls Royce! Today there's this spurious idea of ‘progress’, this imposition of new technology by the market. There's something totalitarian about it. It's like asking a violinist why he doesn't play a computer") – but this one is a CD and even comes in a common-or-garden jewel box. It also comes with de rigueur Tina Frank design, which is spot on: the QA slice and dice everything from ducks and dogs to birds and beeps as spectacularly as Frank deconstructs what looks like a promo photo for office furniture into slats of pure colour energy. Ferme les yeux CRACK ! embrasse-moi SMACK ! SHEBAM ! POW ! BLOP ! WIZZ ! SHEBAM ! POW ! BLOP ! WIZZZZZ !–DW

EKG / Giuseppe Ielasi
EKG albums so far have been impressive, sober, even frosty experiences, and this latest outing on which Ernst Karel (trumpet, analog electronics) and Kyle Bruckmann (oboe, English horn and analog electronics) are joined by Giuseppe Ielasi (electronics, guitar, piano, etc.) is no exception. It is, though, thanks to the added colour of Ielasi's etc., a slightly more accessible release than last year's No Sign (Sedimental) and 2003's chilly Object 2 (Locust). It's a patient exploration of musical material – timbral, melodic and even rhythmic (fear not, EAI heads: the fragmented, looped percussion is still light-years away from Ultimate Breaks And Beats) – assembled from recordings made during a tour of New England in April last year, with additional sound recorded in Chicago, Berlin and Milan. And a carefully composed affair too, right down to the rondo lugubroso of the closing "Umweg". Another fine release from Will Benton's excellent Formed label.–DW

Scott Fraser/Bruce Friedman
With musicians coming from diverse backgrounds – Fraser is an electroacoustic composer who works as a sound designer for Kronos Quartet amongst others, and Friedman a trumpeter active in "free improvisation, jazz, symphonic, musical theatre, brass ensembles, mariachi and an assortment of pop musics" – you might expect a bizarre concoction fusing all of the above into a delirious quotes-a-go-go kind of human sampladelia. But here I am, following the sad, thoughtful lines of Friedman's trumpet in "Traces", and thinking of Mark Isham (don't laugh, about 18 years ago he was doing some damn good things). Friedman is a more economical player, and the simplicity of his statements contrasts effectively with the looping shades, sparkling chords and processed tones of Fraser's electric guitar. The album alternates this kind of ECM-derived, vast-landscape pensiveness ("As Visible Wind" brings back memories of Terje Rypdal) with "gentle cybernetics vs regular trumpet" peculiarities. It's an unusual release by pfMENTUM standards, and not a bad one, even if it is a tad lacking in terms of emotion.–MR

Jeff Kaiser/Tom McNalley
If you're an aficionado of strange sounds deriving from normal instruments overprocessed by effects and electronics, this is right up your alley. The "normal instruments", in this case, are Kaiser's quarter-tone trumpet and McNalley's electric guitar, which create a whole range of turbulent emissions throughout the 72+ minutes of the disc, every once in a while sweetened by some sensitive measure of linear phrasing, which comes naturally for Kaiser, as we can guess from the beauty of his regular tone. On the other hand, McNalley often has to resort to some (still pretty noisy) pedal effects in order to apply a lacquer of refined elegance to the few polite sentences that he manages to squeeze among the ultra-crunchy, grinding distortion that characterizes the most unpalatable tracks (this doesn't mean that they're not good, only a little difficult to follow if you're not concentrating). Eleven improvisations, ranging from one and a half minutes to the almost thirteen of the initial, extra complex "Carbon Fianchetto", in which there's about as much chance of finding two like sounds as there is of meeting the Dalai Lama at your local McDonald's. Cerebral, yet substantial stuff. To be swallowed in small doses.–MR

Empty Cage Quartet
Formerly known as the MTKJ Quartet, the Empty Cage is Jason Mears (alto sax, clarinet, wood flute), Kris Tiner (trumpet, flugelhorn), Paul Kikuchi (drums, percussion) and Ivan Johnson (contrabass). The four started playing together in 2002 ("horrible music", Tiner remembers), and have progressively worked to free themselves from the worst clichés of jazz and free jazz, all the while showing due respect to major players such as Coleman and Braxton. This double CD presents two live sets captured in Los Angeles at the end of 2005. It sounds like a single-microphone recording, as there’s a sense of collective wholeness to the sound rather than a focus on individual instrumental nuances. Tiner is the most prominent soloist, his lines remaining comprehensible enough even for regular jazz fans, but certain frictions between Mears and Johnson are the real attention-catchers on the first disc. The second evolves into a different kind of interaction, with Kikuchi and Johnson laying down riffs over which Mears and Tiner (unconsciously?) evoke the sound of classic British jazz (are you listening, Harry Miller?). As the performance develops, the quartet seems to be searching for some kind of illumination that lies over the hills and far away. Two things detract from an otherwise successful album: the recording quality (I would really like to hear these fine players in a studio setting) and the double CD format. Editing it into a 60-minute single disc would have distilled the music instead of diluting it.–MR

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Gordon Mumma / David Tudor
New World
Musicologist John Holzaepfel is currently at work on a biography of David Tudor, and his liner notes for this splendid disc provide us with a clear idea of what's likely to be in store: in addition to a concise potted biographical sketch of the pianist-turned-composer, they cover his early years in Philadelphia as a gifted organist, the epiphany of discovering Stefan Wolpe's Dance in the Form of a Chaconne, and his rise to prominence as THE interpreter of post-War avant-garde piano repertoire on both sides of the Atlantic. A full-length volume on the subject should make a fascinating read. Meanwhile, it's not just Tudor the pianist that concerns us here – this disc also includes two archive recordings of his most famous composition, Rainforest, one taped at a Merce Cunningham Dance Company appearance in Rio in July 1968, the other the work's first concert performance at Cornell in March of the following year. As a precursor of today's EAI and installation pieces, Tudor's live electronic music is of enormous historical significance, and it still sounds terrific, despite the rather crude panning on the Rio tape and a somewhat lacklustre recording. Tudor heads who already own the 1998 Mode release of Rainforest (Mode 64), which also features a 1990 recording of the piece made in New Delhi, won't want to be without this one either.
David Tudor's phenomenal talents as a performer are also in evidence in the recordings (once again archive stuff) of Gordon Mumma's piano music he and the composer made at various venues during Merce Cunningham tours in the late 1960s. Here the experimental nature of the compositions – the open form plan of Gestures II (1964), whose eleven sections may be played in any order, and the Mographs, whose scores were derived from seismographic data recording earthquakes and underwater nuclear test explosions – is matched by the innovation of the recordings themselves, which experiment with unconventional microphone placement and sound spatialisation to remarkable effect. The music still sounds as crunchy and uncompromising now as it must have done back in the 60s, and those lucky enough to have snagged New World's fabulous 5CD box set Music from the ONCE Festival 1961–1966 (of which more later below) will enjoy comparing this reading of Gestures II with Mumma and Robert Ashley's earlier recording. Oddly enough, the piece that seems to have dated the most is the most recent: Mumma's three-minute Song Without Words, written shortly after Tudor's death in 1996 and dedicated to his memory, which reaches back not only to Wolpe but also to the late 19th century piano repertoire David Tudor grew up with.

George Cacioppo
Mention was made above of New World's Music from the ONCE Festival 1961–1966 box, and those wise souls who invested in a copy will remember George Cacioppo (1926–1984) as one the lesser known members of the ONCE group (the list also includes Donald Scavarda, Bruce Wise, Philip Krumm and George Crevoshay). The release of six Cacioppo works on Mode is good news indeed, then, even if four of them – Time On Time in Miracles (1965), Advance of the Fungi (1964), Two Worlds (1962) and Bestiary I: Eingang (1960), already featured in the New World box (in any case, these smart new readings by the Ensemble 2e2m and the Atelier de Musique Contemporaine du CNR de Versailles make for an intriguing comparison with the archive recordings from Ann Arbor). The disc also includes Mod 3 (1963), for flute, percussion and double bass, and Holy Ghost Vacuum or America Faints (1966), a wonderfully lugubrious 26-minute exploration of the electric organ recorded by the composer himself back in 1966.
In the characteristically thorough liner notes, which also include an affectionate profile of Cacioppo by Gordon Mumma, Gerard Pape describes Cacioppo's music as "the missing link between American 'sound-based' music of the 1960s with [sic] the 'sound-centred' musics of Giacinto Scelsi and his disciples, the French spectral composers Tristan Murail and Gérard Grisey." Leaving aside the woolly terms "sound-based" and "sound-centred" (which were discussed in these pages last month), and the rather debatable assertion that Murail and Grisey were Scelsi "disciples", Pape does have a point. Cacioppo's music is intensely focused on the inner workings of sound, and avoids fast moving displays of technical virtuosity à la Boulez in favour of slow, spacious writing. But his music owes much to Varèse too, and the mastery of the melodic line and sensitivity to the interval has more in common with early 20th century music than with the often uneven semi-improvised fantasias of Scelsi. Cacioppo's vocal writing is also excellent (not something that can always be said of the Italian), for both solo voice – Janet Pape's work on Time on Time and Bestiary is gorgeous – and chorus, in the sombre title track. George Cacioppo's career as a composer was brief, and his life was dogged by health problems which led eventually to his death, but he left us with some of the most elegant and original American music of the post-War years, and it deserves to be much more widely known and performed. Make sure you check this out.

Tod Dockstader
Sub Rosa
Writing about Dockstader in the June 2005 issue of The Wire, Ken Hollings remarked: “Tuning through an old radio dial put you in touch with the space between stations, a mysterious zone of harmonies and distortions that existed and functioned according to a strange and distinct logic.” There is a parallel between this description and the position of this tape manipulating maverick, whose daily job in the audiovisual field brought him, among other things, to develop sound effects for cartoons such as Mr. Magoo; in fact, despite his evident talent, the academic establishment of the 60s prevented Dockstader from pursuing a career in composition, because he lacked the formal credentials needed to access the hi-tech studios where he could practice his advanced, if self-taught craft. Like many other composers who somehow slipped through the cracks of music history, he had to wait a long time before his genius was recognized. Aerial is his finest work – and puts him among the all-time greats.
Dockstader’s fascination with radio is rooted in early childhood, when, confined to his room due to a skin disease, he used to tune in to generate his own perspective on a world that he couldn’t really see. Throughout his life, radio has remained a constant presence, yet it was only when he began the arduous task of transferring all his analog shortwave recordings to digital and selecting the best material from hundreds of hours of tape that Aerial began to take shape. Using the first computer he’d ever owned (bought as recently as 2001!), he shaped the material into a veritable masterpiece.
The three discs, released separately [the image above is just the cover of Aerial 1 - DW] , contain a total of 59 tracks, totalling 225 minutes. The sequencing – the pieces follow on from each other without a break, as suggested by Dockstader's friend and frequent collaborator David Lee Myers – seems to have been planned to open new vistas onto the unconscious, stimulating new, unexpected reactions that sometimes verge on rage. Aerial 1 is full of emotional suspensions, tracing the boundary lines of that pregnant, unquiet stasis one finds in other thoroughly undescribable jewels such as Roland Kayn’s Tektra, as mutated chorales and celestial resonances ease hearts and stomachs through a slow descent into eternal muteness, dim light and harmonic eclipse. Aerial 2 is the most variegated, a cross of impenetrable poise and “stable anarchy” which stretches sounds to the very limit, as if Dockstader wanted to foment heavenly rebellion in his listeners by his acrid stabs of dissonance, only rarely sweetened by brief returns to calm. Here, more than on the other discs, one can hear what the composer referred to in the Wire piece as “a demented carousel or a pipe organ gone badly wrong”. Aerial 3, especially its final section, returns to the initial path with new dimensions – irregular repetitions, pulse waves and modulated spirals of incongruent shapes – which work miraculously together, establishing a new series of unanswered questions which allow this music to fast forward and carve its true significance in our soul before the mind has even started to adapt to its new codes.–MR

Manfred Werder
There's a heartfelt statement of intent inserted into the cover art for this debut issue from Toshiya Tsunoda's Skiti label: "We think that radical artists can be regarded as saints or hermits…we bring you radical sound works and conceptual compositions. You can hear a message from holy hermits". It's as if some holy doctrine were being decreed – a theological framework, which may go on to house an entire body of abstracted sound works curated by Tsunoda. The first dispatch from his monastery is Manfred Werder's 20061. Drawing from the same creative breath as Cage's 4'33", this piece places Toshiya Tsunoda (tambura), Tetuzi Akiyama (guitar, stones) and Masahiko Okura (alto sax) alongside a riverside sound-bed on the outskirts of Tokyo. Together these three musicians create a gentle range of metered emissions – never accenting them or provoking any dynamic shift, their actions refocusing the listener's ear from the wider sound field of the everyday to the sounds close to the microphone made by the performers.
There's a genuinely personal and intimate quality to this record, which begins with a hearty chuckle as the three players take position and concludes with their moving "off-stage" (and being applauded – by passers-by who stumbled into the session by accident?). The informal atmosphere is disarming, suggesting real passion and excitement bubbling forth from the musicians (and presumably Werder himself). As yellowheads fly past, scattering their cries across the stereo field, children laugh and play nearby, passers-by talk too loudly and trains shudder low frequencies into this recorded environment, find yourself transfixed by the simplest of everyday sources, gilded with acoustic insertions – a wonderful timed-exposure snapshot of a place, three men and a composition.–LE

Helena Tulve
Estonian Radio
Helena Tulve, at 34, is one of Estonia’s youngest composers. In 2000, she was awarded Estonia’s Heino Eller Composition Prize for her orchestral composition Sula ("Thaw"), which was chosen by the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers four years later as the "most outstanding" work. In 2005, Estonian Radio proudly declared her Musician of the Year. To date, she has been Erkki-Sven Tüür’s only composition student. Tulve’s focus is not on rhythm, but rather on sound and resonance. Her inspiration comes from modern classical and Gregorian chant, but she is also influenced by the organic elements of Estonian life: long summer days and dark, cold winters.
In theory, a recording should help make a composer’s music even more accessible, but this doesn’t seem to have been the case with Sula - the album - even if the white-on-white cover and origami-style casing sets the stage for a bit of intrigue. The chamber works on the disc are performed by the NYYD Ensemble and were composed between 1993 and 2004. The first three works, Saar ("Island"), Sans Titre, and Ithaka, are explorations in texture calling for minimalist instrumentation. …Il Neige calls, among other things, for harpsichord and kannel – a traditional Estonian stringed instrument. The fullest of the chamber pieces is Lumineux/Opaque, an interplay between absorption and reflection scored for violin, cello, piano, and three glasses. The title track is a complex orchestral piece performed by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra. Even at its most dramatic moments, it is still contemplative and somber. Tulve explains that the piece "denotes the process of thawing, melting – the transformation of ideas, materials, timbres and sounds from one state to another… there is a distinct direction as well as uncontrollable order to this massive movement." It rounds off an album full of beautiful and challenging compositions performed by top notch Estonian musicians.–RG

Walter Marchetti
Alga Marghen
This 140-minute work consists, quite simply, of the andata, a 70-minute composition for piano (subtitled "99 Variations without a Theme", though to be frank it's hard to make out if it's fully written out or partially or even totally improvised) accompanied by – or rather heard simultaneously with – the sounds of a particularly violent thunderstorm, and the ritorno, which is nothing more than the selfsame recording played backwards. It all sounds simple enough, and, well, it is simple enough, though it comes with a lot of intellectual baggage in the form of an extended multilingual prose poem by the composer and an earnest, erudite essay by José Luis Castillejo which goes into considerable detail on the work's "problematic", even "nightmarish" implications. Well everybody knows that time can't run backwards, except in the Beatles' Yellow Submarine (and maybe in books by Stephen Hawking, though I've never been able to stay awake long enough to finish one), but Castillejo seems to make quite a song and dance about the fact, seeing it as symbolic of some apocalyptic end-of-music-as-we-know-it scenario. But from where I'm sitting the point Marchetti is trying to make is straightforward enough: if the andata is the journey to utopia and the ritorno the journey back, I assume that utopia itself for Walter Marchetti is the point in the middle. When music stops altogether. As he has written elsewhere: "When I was young, I wasn’t shrewd enough to close my ears in time."–DW

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Eric La Casa
4'33" be damned – I always preferred that piece by Max Neuhaus where he shepherded the listeners out of the concert hall, onto a bus, stamped the backs of their hands with the word "LISTEN" and drove them off to the Holland Tunnel (I think it was). It's a pity Eric La Casa wasn't around at the time with his state-of-the-art mics to record it, as he's one of the best listeners in the business. Air.Ratio finds him lurking in the nether regions of various public buildings in Paris – the Pasteur Institute, the Maison Radio France, the Pompidou Centre and the more recent Pompidou Hospital, to name but a few – recording the sounds of the air ducts. You'd be surprised how different they all sound too, as the opening and closing "Calibrations" (one minute's worth of two-second extracts of each of the 30 two-minute tracks on the album, the aural equivalent of a photographic contact sheet) make abundantly clear. Actually the second "Calibration" isn't the last track on the disc – the album ends with a minute's silence. "The absence of sound reactivates the centrality of the listener in his attention to sound and musical construction, in his private place," explains La Casa (no comment on the translation.. I did it actually). Anyway, if you have to take a pee in the new National Public Library one day and find a bloke in there with a portable DAT recorder, don't be surprised. Is it art? Is it music? Who gives a toss? Listen.–DW

As you know, I'm quite fond of annoying readers by quoting the CIP website. Here's what main man Blake Edwards (aka Vertonen) has to say about this one: "This CD draws on elements culled from three years of live performances to create a finely decorated abbatoir of sound. Crystal candlesticks and creaking floorboards sit side by side, painting myriad sounds that aim to keep you on your toes from drones and abrasive rhythmic chugging to noise explosions and musique concrete – sometimes within the same piece." Stations is certainly the liveliest and most colourful Vertonen release to date, and now that Noise has been pitched well and truly into the spotlight (have you read Tony Herrington on Wolf Eyes in the latest Wire? your jaw will drop) let's hope we'll soon see Blake topping the bill at Victoriaville, or somewhere equally ahem high profile. Whether doodling around with touch tone phones ("Beltone Segue"), chopping up samples of rock ("Hands Up 1974!", "Nobody Walks" – Terry Bozzio?) or just slamming your head to the floor with breeze blocks of power noise ("Face Grab With Chlorine" is my own personal favourite), this is an action packed, genuinely fun release. If you haven't filed for bankruptcy after blowing all your pocket money on Wolf Eyes, pop down to the local emporium and get yourself a copy. You'll have a blast.–DW

Editions Mego
This new collaboration between Stephen O'Malley and Peter Rehberg is touted as a collision of extreme computer music and black metal, but the hype isn't quite borne out by the CD. Like so many releases of this nature, in which two artists of stature are locked together in an uncertain but crushing sonic embrace, the result teeters between genius and mediocrity. Thankfully, there are only a few unfocused excursions on the disc, and the pervasive use of tonal stasis and humming drones, even if garnished with meticulous texture, helps shape the individual pieces and the record as a whole. Of the four tracks, "Forest Floor Part One" is the most active and the least cohesive (proof of the old cliché "less is more"): O'Malley's rippling guitar is interrupted by a burst of Rehberg's SuperCollider patches, and drifts into a humid cloud of drone and feedback as the piece loses its way. The boiling textures of "Forest Floor Part Three" are far more successful, and the two other tracks, "Estranged" and "Snow", give us a glimpse of this duo's true potential: in this restrained and tempered context, O'Malley and Rehberg seem freed from the constraints of their respective discographies, and more willing to dispense with the expected masochistic blasts of noise.-LE

Chris Watson / BJ Nilsen
You could argue that Chris Watson is a magician of sorts. And in my humble opinion, a magician of the highest order. His magic involves simple acoustic devices worked with great care, transporting the listener to places that few of us may imagine, let alone visit. In theory it's a simple enough proposition – find a remarkable (or in some cases not) environment and document it with a microphone – but what's important is Watson's ability to envisage landscapes and their natural inhabitants in ways that pay heed to the richness of incidental sounds. Combine this with some finely tuned edits and ‘compositional' (for want of a better term) choices and you have some enthralling listening situations.
This duet release from BJ Nilsen and Watson meditates on the moments before, during and after the 'storm'. Watson's opening contribution is a discrete sound walk focused on environmental detail. Passing through gusts of seabirds to remote dark caverns, and returning into the sunlight to capture the sounds of various mammals taking refuge on the beach front, it suggests a certain narrative progression. Nilsen's work in contrast is defined by a broader sense of the storm itself – the forces of nature that hiss and pelt with vigour – and in many ways replicates the tones and textures of his recordings under the Hazard byline. In collaboration, these two field recordists establish a mutual appreciation of space that is equally attentive to epic vastness and microcosmic detail. A timely reminder to listen.-

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