FEBRUARY News 2007 Reviews by Stuart Broomer, Jon Dale, Nate Dorward, Lawrence English, Vid Jeraj, Richard Pinnell, Massimo Ricci, Dan Warburton:

Alexander von Schlippenbach
In Concert:
LMC Festival 2006
Fred Lonberg-Holm
Ralf Wehowsky
Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza
Reissue This: Afro Soul Drum Orgy
Andrew Hill / Rudresh Mahanthappa / The Reveries / Joe McPhee & Paul Hession / Oluyemi Thomas / Patrucco, Honsinger, Mengelberg, Baars & Bennink / The Electrics / Fernandez, Guy & Lopez / Baars & Henneman / Joëlle Léandre
Mark Wastell / Tammen, Harth, Dahlgren & Rosen / The International Nothing / Jay Crocker & Chris Dadge / Mike Pride / Tsukasa, Yukie, Hiroshi / Monotract / Iconoclast
Peter Zummo / Tom Johnson / Natasha Anderson / Giacinto Scelsi
Rosy Parlane / Marc Behrens & Paulo Raposo / John Duncan / Asher
Last month


Before some smart alec writes in, I know that A. K. Salim's Afro-Soul / Drum Orgy has indeed been reissued relatively recently - on vinyl only - but it seems once more to have sold out and disappeared. Hopefully Stuart Broomer's excellent piece below will whet appetites and maybe even prompt some eccentric millionaire jazz fiend to invest in a proper CD reissue, before the legions of bloggers out there start posting ripped versions for free download. Meanwhile, if readers are looking for a good investment themselves, they could do no better than hunt down a copy of Azioni, the wonderful 2CD + DVD box from Die Schachtel documenting the wild and wonderful late 60s work of Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza (go to www.die-schachtel.com), lovingly reviewed by Jon Dale below. And, as you'll see, there are plenty of other treats in store. Thanks as always to everyone who's sent material in for review, and apologies as always to those whose music we haven't managed to cover this time round. Bonne lecture.-DW

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Alexander von Schlippenbach

This is a major release, make no mistake. The mere idea that some kind of middle-ground might exist between strict dodecaphony and free improvising is exciting enough: that Alexander von Schlippenbach, in only his third solo recording in a career that spans over 40 years, has actually found it is enough to establish this pair of albums as one of the most important musical documents to have appeared in the past decade, maybe even the past half century. Quite a claim, eh? Let's see if I can make it stand up to some scrutiny. If you're the kind of bug eatin' ape that falls asleep after half a paragraph of music theory, you'd better swing off to another part of the jungle right now (though I will try and make this easy enough for my worthy constituent Wire reporter Phil Freeman to understand).
Imagine a piano keyboard. There are different names for the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, five black and seven white, ebony and ivory living together in perfect harmony side by side on my piano keyboard oh lord, depending on where you come from. In Britain and the US we call the white ones A, B, C, D, E, F and G (to complicate the issue, B for the folks in Germany is what I'd normally call B flat: they use H for B natural, and there's also an S for E flat – hence Johann Sebastian Bach and Dimitri Shostakovich's little musical games on their own surnames, B-A-C-H, D-S-C-H etc. – smart, eh?). In France they use a system called solfège – remember Julie Andrews in The Sound Of Music? Doe, a deer, a female deer etc. – a cute system whose invention is credited to a merry monk named Guido of Arezzo who chose as mnemonic devices the first syllables of a Latin text set to an existing plainchant melody that just happened to correspond to the first six white notes, starting with C ("UT queant laxis / REsonare fibris / MIra gestorum / FAmuli tuorum / SOlve polluti / LAbii reatum /Sancte Johannes"). In case you're wondering where "do" and "si" came from, a bloke called Bononcini started substituting the former for "ut" in 1673 and Anselm of Flanders added the latter at the end of the 16th century. God knows why they couldn't have stuck with A, B and C, but never mind.
Going back to the question of racism Macca touched upon in that annoyingly cloying ditty quoted above, what about the black notes? As has been the case for centuries, blacks get a raw deal, in music notation as in anything else: they don't get their own letter of the alphabet (except sometimes in Germany, as I mentioned earlier) but have to make do instead with "sharp" and "flat". (Notice the inferiority implicit in the nomenclature – we talk about "accidentals"..) Anyway, without wanting to stir up religious hatred by blaming all that on the monastic orders of medieval Europe, let's move on before Phil falls asleep. Most of you can understand what we mean when we talk about key, I imagine. If a piece of music is "in D major" it had damn well better end with a D major chord, or else (I'm assuming even Phil knows what I'm talking about when I say "major" and "minor"..). That's why that Mozart piece called A Musical Joke (Ein Musikalischer Spaß, K. 522, 1787, which I've never found all that funny to be honest) ends with a godalmighty dissonant crunch instead of a nice, clean major triad.

By the end of the 19th century, composers were getting pretty bored with pieces that stayed more or less in one key. Wagner had put the cat among the pigeons with the opening of Tristan und Isolde (first performed in 1865) by writing a chord sequence that seemed to be not in one key, but point to several possible harmonic destinations (American musicologist Robert Bailey built up a whole theory of double tonality in Wagner, and I'm still looking forward to his long-awaited book on the subject – in the meantime you'll have to make do with his essay Richard Wagner: Prelude and Transfiguration from "Tristan and Isolde", in the Norton Critical Scores series, Norton 1985). Tonality was in trouble: by dint of a whole network of such harmonic ambiguities, it was possible to write whole stretches of music that weren't in any key whatsoever. Check out the early works of Schoenberg, the late symphonies of Mahler or the early operas of Strauss (that's Richard, not Johann, Phil btw) for examples of tonality ready to split at the seams, a steamy, queasy world of permanent doubt and unresolved tension. Unresolved, that is, if you're expecting it to resolve – but what about just staying put in the twilight zone and basing your harmonic system precisely on the in-between-ness of so-called dissonance?
This is precisely what Arnold Schoenberg was doing in his so-called "free atonal" works of the early 20th century (from the Second String Quartet Op. 10 to the Four Songs Op. 22). And it made the music he wrote literally impossible for his contemporaries to analyse using traditional theory terms predicated on the idea of tonal centre. In fact, nothing very sensible was written on pieces like Erwartung (1909) until after World War II, when a younger generation of American music theorists, including composer Milton Babbitt, began formalising what's become known as set theory. Now, before we get bogged down in concepts of pitch class and K / Kh complexes (I can hear Phil yawning already), it's quite simple: just ditch all the old A, B, C bullshit and start using numbers to refer to those twelve tones. C is 0, C sharp / D flat is 1, D is 2 etc. That way a C major triad – C, E, G – can be written <047>. Of course, given our denary counting system, we run into a problem when we get past 9 (or the note A, if you prefer): B flat should by rights be written as 10 and B natural as 11, but that way we'd have difficulty representing, for example, an E flat major triad, because <3710> is not a triad at all, but a rather scrunchy Feldmanesque tetrachord, E flat – G – D flat – C (before Music Theory doctoral students write in and complain, I'm not getting into questions of p- and pc-space here, if you don't mind). So set theory has opted instead for "A" and "B" to represent B flat and B natural. (Confusing, I'll admit – what I grew up calling B is what Germans call H, my B flat is their B and now I've had to get used to calling B-flat A, but never mind.)

Once you've got the hang of the notation, though, you've got it cracked. Any collection of pitches, either horizontal (melody) or vertical (harmony) can be represented by numbers. And any subsequent transformations of pitch material – transpositions, modulations, whatever – can be expressed clearly and understood by just about anyone with a basic grasp of simple mathematics. (And if you're bright enough to figure out how to fill in those IRS forms, that includes you too, Phil, old chap). One of the first things you realise when you get to grips with set theory is that the four triads we all learn in music school – major, minor, augmented and diminished – are in fact only three of twelve possible trichords. (Wait a sec, how did four become three? Easy: the minor triad and the major triad are both in the same set class, as we ahem set theorists like to call them – "3-11" is our name for it – one is the mathematical inversion of the other. Start on middle C and count four plus three semitones up and down: the C major triad inverted is F minor.) Just imagine for a moment a system of Music Education where students were taught to recognise by ear all twelve trichords. It wouldn't exactly lead overnight to the situation Anton Webern dreamt of – the milkman whistling his music – but, hell, we wouldn't be far off. The whole corpus of so-called "difficult" Western 20th century music, from Schoenberg to Stockhausen, Berg to Babbitt, would suddenly become not so difficult after all. Just a thought..
Meanwhile, you ask, were composers like Schoenberg and Stravinsky really thinking about all this mathematical stuff back in the early years of the century? There's plenty of evidence to indicate that they indeed were, though they weren't using set theory notation to describe it – in any case, music always comes first and theory comes later to explain it: if it's the other way round you're in trouble. Set theory is also an invaluable tool in analysing Bartók, Varèse and Ives (read Allen Forte and you'll find there is an answer to the Unanswered Question), and of course all twelve tone music.
Ah, at last we're getting to the point; what is twelve tone music? Very simply it's a compositional system to assure structural coherence by basing part or all of a piece on a row, a statement of all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. Instead of going to Wikipedia (sorry Phil), you can get a clear idea of what it's all about here: jan.ucc.nau.edu/~krr2/12tone/12tone1.html. As you see, there are quite a few rules to follow if you're going to produce a strictly dodecaphonic composition, the most restricting of which is the system's inbuilt aversion to repetition: no pitch or group of pitches (melody, chord) can be repeated until all twelve have gone round again. (It also goes without saying that twelve tone theory and equal temperament go hand in hand, but that, along with microtonality, is another can of worms I'll refrain from opening right now, if you don't mind.) It's a kind of enforced democracy – and as we've seen in Iraq, enforced democracy doesn't work. In the case of Schoenberg, the difference between free atonality (I should have inserted that "so-called" again, because "free" isn't the word, as any analysis of his pre-twelve tone music bears out) and strict dodecaphony is striking: compare the Op. 19 Piano Pieces (1911) to the Op. 25 Suite (1923). The former are clearly moving towards the twelve tone universe, and offer rich pickings for set theory analysis, but they haven't got there yet – they're still haunted by the intervals and melodic shapes of tortured fin de siècle expressionism; the latter, however, is strangely wooden, due in part to Schoenberg's decision to use already outmoded dance forms, but also because of the bland non-memorability of the melodic lines. In short, I can sing along to Op. 19, but I can't to Op. 25, and I've studied them both.
Before hardcore Schoenberg fans start jamming the switchboard with angry messages, I should admit that my own personal lack of enthusiasm for twelve note Schoenberg (with a few exceptions) is well known. I don't have the same problem with Berg and Webern, or with the music of the generation that followed them in the aftermath of the Second World War. But it's worth pointing out that total serialism – i.e. applying the same principles of structural organisation to other musical parameters such as rhythm, dynamics and timbre – though necessary as a blast of rejuvenating dynamic modernism to a Europe decimated by social and political upheaval, led down a blind alley and ended up bashing its head against a brick wall at the end of it. The way out of that impasse was to loosen the composer's stranglehold over the proceedings, either by introducing an element of indeterminacy into the performance, in terms of both notation and structure (the influence of Cage), or by changing the basic rules of the game to reinsert a sense of gravitational pull in the pitch domain, by allowing certain constellations (Pierre Boulez's term) to be repeated and developed.
If you were wondering what the hell all this has got to do with two discs of solo piano music by Alexander von Schlippenbach, you can stop wondering. Introducing an element of indeterminacy into performance and allowing certain pitch constellations to be repeated and developed is what the German improvising pianist has been doing since the 1960s, and the miracle of these performances, recorded over just three days in June 2005, is that Schlippenbach manages to integrate both the spirit and the letter of twelve tone composition into a highly developed and utterly distinctive individual improvising practice.
As you might expect, it's no haphazard affair. Each of the two albums falls into two halves (the whole set could just as well have been released as a 4CD or 4LP set), each beginning with one of the four "Twelve Tone Tales" themselves. With the exception of the first, these consist of an opening "Invention A", followed by a "Paraphrase" and a closing "Invention B" (the first TTT dispenses with the second Invention). To quote Bert Noglik's liners to the second disc, "the Twelve Tone Tales [..] each begin with an invention composed with twelve tones [..]. Their improvisational extensions in the paraphrase (and, in some cases, the second invention) also relate to the same twelve-tone row."
While many of his contemporaries who helped kickstart European free improvisation in the mid / late 1960s have gone out of their way to distance themselves from jazz, Schlippenbach has not only never denied his roots, but proudly dug them up and displayed them on several occasions, either by arranging pieces by W.C. Handy and Jelly Roll Morton, or covering the music of Eric Dolphy and Thelonious Monk (including the extraordinary recording of the complete Monk songbook in 2004's Monk's Casino). On Twelve Tone Tales he also pays a direct homage to European contemporary music, in the form of his teacher, Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918 – 1970). The only piece on Volume 1 not penned (if that's the word) by Schlippenbach is Zimmermann's spiky twelve tone "Allegro Agitato", which is an extract from incidental music Zimmermann wrote in the mid 60s for a radio play called Die Befristeten (with text by Elias Canetti) and subsquently arranged for the Manfred Schoof quintet, as Bill Shoemaker informs us in his notes. Far from sticking out like a sore thumb, it fits perfectly into Schlippenbach's formal scheme, sandwiched between the more rhapsodic "K2" and "The One", which closes the first half of Volume 1.
But it's perhaps in "Devices And Desires", which follows on from "Twelve Tone Tales (I)", that Schlippenbach's harmonic system reveals itself best. As Noglik points out, he "has developed the ability to work out a sequence of six-note chords with left and right hands in the sense of a twelve-tone row". Maybe that remark needs some explanation: go back to the old piano, close your eyes and plonk the little finger, first finger and thumb of your left hand down on the keyboard. Chances are you've hit some recognisably tonal subset of the good old major scale (especially if you've just hit white notes – after all, those pesky little accidental blackuns are narrower and have been made deliberately harder to hit, haven't they?), either a major or minor triad, or a first inversion thereof, or a McCoy Tyner-like pair of stacked fourths (D-G-C, E-A-D, etc.). Let's assume for the sake of argument that it's D-G-C (<027> if you prefer). Now, find those same three pitches with your right hand thumb, first finger and little finger an octave higher, and amuse yourself by moving the right hand trichord up by semitonal increments while keeping the left hand where it is. Immediately you end up with some crunchy "dissonances". Mess around for a few minutes with a pen and a piece of manuscript paper and you can soon come up with a set of block chords that sounds both recognisably jazzy and that uses all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale. This, essentially, is what Schlippenbach is up to here, though with a whole multitude of two, three, four and five-note chords derived (or not) from his original starting row – check out on "Devices And Desires" how the same trichord moves outwards in contrary motion (at about 0'44" into the piece, and again more prominently at 1'05"), generating some pretty dense harmony from remarkably simple means. And you can hear it. There's no need to portray your own dumb ignorance as a virtue by describing yourself as a lower order of primate and revelling in the fact – all you have to do is listen. If you sit back and just wait to be entertained, entertained you will be, make no mistake: Schlippenbach's music does indeed swing hard, and it does indeed take strange, surprising and often amusing turns, but it also engages the listener – if s/he is prepared to make the effort – in an active process of discovery of music's basic building blocks. And in the world of solo piano music it stands alongside the most convincing offerings of the past sixty years, both composed – from Barraqué to Boulez to Stockhausen to Ligeti to Finnissy – and improvised – from Taylor to Pullen to Mengelberg to Blake to Van Hove.
Indeed, as the psychiatrist said, walking down the stairs at Fawlty Towers, "there's enough material here for an entire convention" – from the delicious Monk chord that opens "Twelve Tone Tales II" (listen to how Schlippenbach moves the inner voices up and down by strategic semitones, from Thelonious to Bernd Alois in two seconds) via "Meo", whose angular lines and crashing octaves move effortlessly into and out of rich sonorities worthy of Gershwin or Debussy before exploding into a display of pianistic virtuosity comparable to the finest and most ecstatic moments of Fred Van Hove and Cecil Taylor, to the terrifying motoric toccata "LOK 03" that closes Volume 1 so spectacularly.

Volume 2 is just as impeccably sequenced, moving from the austere opening Invention of "Twelve Tone Tales III" into the florid extravaganza of "Allegorese" and out via the short power punch of "Wildcat's Proper Hit" (which proves that Schlippenbach can cover just as much distance in 1'10" as he can in ten minutes, when he wants to) to the delicate arabesques of "Born Potty" – note how this revisits the same descending triadic territory as the piece that preceded it. In the final section of Volume 2, after "Twelve Tone Tales IV", and the hectic flurries of "Off With Your Coat Hassan", Schlippenbach lets his hair down with a set of cracking cover versions – Eric Dolphy's "Les", "Out There" and "Something Sweet, Something Tender", Jerome Kern's "All The Things You Are" (these last two also appeared on Schlippenbach's 2002 quartet outing Broomriding) and, finishing off with a bang, Monk's "Trinkle Tinkle".
The choice of Dolphy is significant, and a reminder that Schlippenbach is not, after all, the first musician to attempt to marry the seemingly incompatible worlds of twelve tone composition and hard swinging modern jazz. Remember Dolphy's scorching work on 1960's pioneering Third Stream album Jazz Abstractions? Both the oblique post-bop harmonies and the angular lines of his themes fit perfectly into Schlippenbach's universe; not surprisingly the Berliner is one of very few musicians who's covered Dolphy material convincingly.
Jerome Kern might not seem, on the face of it, to have much to do with dodecaphony, but get ur Realbookz on and check out how the underlying bass line of "All The Things You Are" walks nearly all the way round the circle of fifths and becomes a tone row in its own right. Not here though – in what is perhaps the most cunning cover on offer, Schlippenbach retains only the (recognisable) melody line, and throws the window open to freeze dry it with the "air from another planet" that blew through early Schoenberg. The harmonies he conjures up are so richly and exquisitely ambiguous, one wonders if he hasn't just written the damn piece out. And if he has, who cares? To quote Gunther Schuller's notes to Jazz Abstractions: "This [..] will undoubtedly raise the old ghostly question: 'But is this jazz?' The answer – whatever it may be – is irrelevant, since musicians on both sides of the fence are not necessarily concerned with whether a given piece be jazz or not. They are satisfied that it be music – music not of yesteryear's categories, but of today's musical realities."–DW [photo of AVS by Giovanni Piesco]

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In Concert
LMC Festival 2006
15th, 16th and 17th December 2006
ICA, London
The London Musicians Collective's Annual Festival of Experimental Music has long been the highlight of the London avant-garde music calendar. In 2006, for its 15th incarnation, and the second under the watchful eye of curator Ben Drew, the festival moved to a weekend just seven days before Christmas, and to the ICA, a more central venue that ensured a 100% advance sell-out (but which also meant that a bottle of beer cost £3 and came with a slice of lemon wedged into the top).
The first night opened with a purely acoustic duo featuring Tom Chant and Sharif Sehnaoui. Chant is a versatile saxophonist, having working with everyone from Evan Parker to Coldcut, and this was not his first performance with the Lebanese guitarist. Their understanding of each other was clear, with Chant restricting his input to sustained notes and breathy flutterings to meet Sehnaoui's earthy undercurrent of strings softly stroked with a collection of metal files. The dry cyclical textures proved very pleasing on the ear, with the reward coming from the superimposition of musical elements rather than any sense of narrative. Things became more active later, with Sehnaoui picking over the strings with what looked like wire wool and Chant's burbling chirrups gathering pace, but the most successful moments of the set came in its early stages.
Having enjoyed the music of Dutch laptop composer Roel Meelkop on CD, I was looking forward to his music in a live setting. Meelkop creates slow-moving, luscious constructions that could be lazily categorised as lowercase, but tonight his music often reached high volume, with layers of fizz and hum cascading over warm tones and digital glitchery, crescendos cutting away suddenly to reveal quieter strata of sound underneath. The material itself was enjoyable and was executed with surgeon-like precision and impeccable timing, but the performance meandered somewhat, never really adding up to anything more than the sum of its parts. Every time the music approached what seemed like a natural ending, it started up again. The audience remained respectful (a notable feature of the weekend), but was uncomfortable and fidgety, fighting to retain focus with little to see happening onstage.
The final two sets of the first evening both came from a large group put together by Otomo Yoshihide (photo) to perform two very different versions of his Anode project. The ensemble featured a mix of electronic and acoustic players from a variety of backgrounds. Angharad Davies (violin), Matt Davis (trumpet), Tom Chant (sax), Sarah Washington (electronics), Tim Barnes (percussion), Stefano Todescu (vibes), Ichiraku Yoshimitsu (drums), Ishikawa Ko (sho), Mark Sanders (drums), Rhodri Davies (harp), Sachiko M (empty sampler), Masahiro Uemura (drums), Andrea Neumann (inside piano) and Otomo himself on turntables made up a group that formed a circle around the perimeter of the room with the audience at its centre.
The two sets showcased the two extremes of Otomo's music. In the first the musicians were instructed to play as quietly as possible, and follow precisely the opposite approach in the second, building a wall of thunderous noise around the audience trapped in the centre. The first set was stunningly beautiful. Though the musicians weren't supposed to pay any heed to what was being played by others around them, no more than two or three of them seemed to be playing at any given time, and the music that resulted retained a slow pace throughout. It crept up on you from different corners, small sounds tiptoeing past before being replaced by others. Separating it from the natural ambience of the room became difficult, and I found myself straining to hear sounds that may not have been there to hear. The removal of the traditional situation we are used to in a live setting in which the music comes from one direction and exterior sounds from another made for an interesting and very beautiful listening experience that proved to be the highlight of the festival.
Oddly enough, the noisy set was remarkably similar: as it became difficult to discern individual sounds in the room, the brain struggled to link this to the visual messages it was receiving. Matt Davis could be seen blowing hard into his trumpet and Angharad Davies urgently thrashing at her violin, but the only way to hear what they were doing was to walk over to where they played and listen up close. People began to get up – at Otomo's suggestion – and move to experience the music from different parts of the room, removing barriers between audience, musicians and performance space. Whether that was Otomo's intention or not I can't say, though the thought crossed my mind as I left the hall, ears ringing, at the end of the first night.
The Saturday night opened with a solo set from the Berlin based electronics wizard and inside-pianist Andrea Neumann. Her instrument consists of the guts of a piano hooked up to a mixer and assorted other electronic paraphernalia. Live, it sounded more like Keith Rowe's guitar than John Tilbury's piano, as her set developed slowly through a delicate layering of static fizzing and growling abrasions with an undercurrent of something feeding back below the surface. The way she controlled these diverse layered elements was particularly impressive. Ten minutes or so in, the music wrestled itself to a dead halt, then started up again with a series of phasing electronic sounds that sounded alien to the rest of the set but which soon made way for a pattern of industrial scrapes and syrupy tones with the chime of a struck piano string appearing very occasionally from below the surface. While perhaps a little predictable (solo performances with this kind of instrumentation have a tendency to drone), Neumann's set was well constructed and very enjoyable, though I have to admit I'd have preferred to hear her performing in a duo.
Texturizer is a Greek duo featuring laptopper Coti K and Nikos Veliotis, whose customary cello was placed to one side in favour of his video manipulations projected onto a large screen above the stage while he and Coti sat modestly to the side. Veliotis's cello was far from absent from the proceedings, however, as much of the music seemed to originate from the instrument, with samples used to build up a loosely rhythmic churning of gravelly layers. The revolving drone element of the music wasn't subtle enough to keep me interested, but the interaction between the sound and the video certainly was. The images were (I think) all sourced from abstract stills taken of the cello, projected in black and white but then affected directly by software driven by the music, in a similar manner to the recent Billy Roisz / Toshimaru Nakamura AVVA DVD (Erstwhile). As the music became more agitated, so did the images, descending into pure abstraction from their only vaguely recognisable starting point. There's much room for growth in this area of audio-visual interaction, but on this occasion one half of the equation outperformed the other.
Having witnessed percussionist Tim Barnes' sublimely sensitive playing on several occasions, the prospect of hearing it combined with the minimal austerity of Ishikawa Ko's sho was an exciting one, and the music they made in what was their first duo encounter was indeed beautiful, with Barnes's gentle nuances as enthralling as ever. He concentrated on a single snare drum in the early part of the set, moving to a tam tam later on, while Ko's limited palette of sounds imbued the music with a sense of charged hush, not often silent, but with a ritualistic feel. And yet somehow, the musicians didn't come together as well as I felt they could. There seemed to be an awkwardness to the music – perhaps intentional, perhaps due to their not having played together before – that disrupted the flow in places. Often Ko just stopped playing for extended periods for no apparent reason, and what would have made for natural end to the set after about half an hour was ignored and the duo went on playing. Enjoyable, and a joy to behold, but I can't help feeling it could have been so much better.
The night closed with two presentations of tape works by French musique concrète grandmaster Bernard Parmegiani (photo). For this performance four speakers projected sound from each corner of the room, the multi-channel aspect allowing Parmegiani's music to be heard in a manner far surpassing the everyday CD experience. The first of the two works was a performance of one section of his De Natura Sonorum from 1975. Listening to it in a big room under these conditions was a great experience, and the slightly dated feel of the music didn't seem to matter as the sounds flew about the head, mixed live by the composer standing in the centre of the room. More disappointing was the UK premier of his Au gré du souffle le son s'envole. Following some obvious use of synth sounds to create the impression of strong winds blowing, the music returned to a world not far from De Natura Sonorum, its synthetic sounds and jagged, fast moving segments sounding very dated. It's somewhat disheartening to note that the most recent work from a composer who was so ahead of his time thirty years ago sounds so irrelevant in 2006.
The final night of the festival began with a set from bassist John Edwards and drummer Chris Corsano. The young percussionist's skill and poise was very apparent as the pair set off at high speed, exchanging dramatic gestures and adrenalin-fuelled flourishes, working through a colourful set of hyperactive shape-throwing and flying drumsticks with obvious dexterity, but the music just wasn't my cup of tea, tending towards the more traditional free jazz orientation of improvised music, an area I am less interested in these days. Clearly a large section of the audience felt otherwise, however, as much whooping and hollering summoned the pair back for a short encore.
Tomas Korber followed with a solo set for electronics. Sat alone at a table centre stage he looked a jaded figure, having suffered from a bout of food poisoning all day that had nearly led him to cancel his performance. His piece was a composition that began with him using a guitar to generate feedback which was then controlled and looped until the guitar could be placed aside and the rest of the set executed by manipulating the electronics and mixer alone. It was quite stunning in its execution. Beginning with a pattern of lurching metallic feedback interspersed with pregnant silences, the piece grew with the addition of pure tones and for a while a pulsing bass throb that died away to allow shimmering lines of feedback to slip over each other and coalesce into a hypnotic wash of sound. This grew in intensity for the next ten minutes or so before disappearing into huge clouds of hissing interference that filled the room and held the audience captive for several minutes. This pressure-cooker atmosphere was brought to a close when Korber folded the immense sound in on itself to leave a single high pitched feedback tone that he gradually allowed to wither away to a gentle hum to end the set. Korber's performance exuded a confident grandeur that was missing from some of the other solo performances of the weekend. The composed element to the piece no doubt allowed him the time and space to execute the work with great precision, and this showed in a performance that balanced beautiful craftsmanship and dramatic power in equal parts.
There followed another semi-composed solo set, this time by American composer and sound arranger Olivia Block. Block's work on CD is generally made up of field recordings and fragments of specially recorded instrumental sounds that she meticulously pieces together to form rich, cinematic works. The question of how this could work in a live situation was always likely to be an intriguing one. In effect, she played a recording prepared in advance – mostly field recordings, and possibly fragments of her recent release Heave To – into which spaces had been left for improvised insertions on a small autoharp laid on the table beside her, which she scraped, plucked and played with a beater. While it was a pleasure to experience Block's soundworld at high volume, it didn't really work for me. The mix of recordings and live material seemed clunky, and the autoharp didn't really add anything of consequence. It felt almost as if it had been added simply for the sake of having a live performance element. An unfortunate and annoying buzz emanating from one of the speakers didn't help matters much either. As a big fan of Block's work on CD I would have been perfectly happy with a presentation of the pre-recorded material alone through a good quality sound system. If she'd had the same PA set-up as Parmegiani did the night before, the comparison between old and new electroacoustic composition would have been most illuminating.
The festival closed with a collection of works by various Fluxus and Scratch Orchestra composers performed by Keith Rowe and Ben Patterson. Not announced beforehand, the pieces played were performed in a fluid manner, some happening sequentially and some taking place at the same time. The entire performance was met with a degree of bewilderment and laughter by the audience, which began when the duo walked onstage along with their "assistant" Lee Patterson, who spent the entire performance attending to three coloured birdfeeders at the back of the stage (photo) which dripped water continually into contact miked bowls beneath them. These formed the basis of George Brecht's composition Drip Music. Much amusement followed as the trio, wearing white labcoats for the occasion, stood about discussing the drips and making notes on clipboards before Rowe and Ben Patterson walked to the front of the stage, leaving the drips tapping out an irregular percussive pattern. After a very brief realisation of Christian Wolff's Stones, which involved them scraping stones together near microphones, the pair picked up a series of sheets of paper, which, as Rowe sat reading the headlines, Patterson began to tear up and scatter about the stage in what I assume to have been a performance of his Paper Piece. Rowe soon joined in this paper tearing activity, and rustled contact mics as Patterson set off up the central aisle of the auditorium, handing out sheets and balls of newspaper and encouraging the crowd to make as much noise as possible with their newly discovered "instruments". Patterson then left the stage as Rowe, behind his guitar at last, introduced a loud hollow drone into the proceedings. Patterson then returned in a suit to conduct the audience with their balls of paper, seemingly a performance of George Maciunas' Solo for Conductor, which also involved him cleaning his shoes and jacket with brushes. Things continued at this somewhat chaotic pace until Patterson sat behind his instrument (an unidentifiable stringed instrument hooked up to an assortment of effects pedals), and the pair set about a ten-minute performance of a page from Cornelius Cardew's Treatise. Throughout the set Keith Rowe's mobile phone rang three times, a modern day version of Brecht's Telephone Piece. At first he ignored it, but eventually answered, and had a brief discussion with Ben Drew (sitting just offstage) about how the performance was going. The biggest laugh came with a rendition of Robert Watts' piece C/S Trace, which involved Patterson shooting ping-pong balls at Rowe, who caught them in a pair of cymbals with a crash. Rowe and Patterson then went back to the birdfeeders to check progress with Lee Patterson who had been studiously refilling them during the performance. They compared notes, nodded in agreement and then with a bow, left the stage.
As the composers were announced afterwards, there were apparently other compositions by Takahisa Kosugi, Cardew and Gavin Bryars buried amongst the bedlam, but goodness knows where. Serious in places and hilarious in others, it was great to witness, particularly as I had not seen most of the pieces performed before, and we all left the venue with smiles on our faces. It was a great way to end a festival so close to Christmas. Hats off to Ben Drew and the LMC - I'm looking forward to next year.–RP

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Fred Lonberg-Holm
Fred Lonberg-Holm Quartet
Carlos Zingaro/Fred Lonberg-Holm
Self Release
David Stackenäs/Fred Lonberg-Holm
Self Release
In Zenith
Fred Lonberg-Holm's Bridges Freeze Before Roads is a challenging album that distributes delicacies and abrasions with extreme balance and exquisite finesse. Lonberg-Holm is not a "leader" but a coordinator of revolutionary minorities, fragmenting and seaming his ideas into incidental murmurs and self-conscious vibrations, his cello gleaming in a malaised sunshine. Clarinettist Guillermo Gregorio's excruciatingly difficult anti-structures alternately sting and caress, highlighting his utter control of timbre; his pregnant emissions splinter into thousands of harmonics then reunite, if necessary, into a sine wave. Jason Roebke and Glenn Kotche are nothing like a "rhythm section": Roebke uses his bass to warm what could be icy music, plucking and snapping in spurts, while Kotche's percussion is like falling leaves, faint breaths and dessicated fruits on an ancient table, ants crawling all over the place to look for stale crumbs, brittle remnants of what once was defined as beat.

You'll rarely find a violin/cello duo richer in fantasy, inventiveness and – why not – lyricism than Lonberg-Holm and Carlos Zingaro. The improvisations on Flying Aspidistra #2 were recorded in Chicago in 2003; the music is snappishly spontaneous, taking shape in the space of a few seconds only to catch sight of itself in a broken mirror and run away. The musicians are armed with dazzling technique, as well as a willingness to give one another handsome presents and furuncular eruptions in equal doses. Zingaro can make his violin sound guttural and whistling, eligible for a pungent seance with any wacky troubled soul willing to stop for a chat. Lonberg-Holm saws and carves away in a spirit of dauntless exploration, constructing multicoloured kites that fly around his comrade's fiddling. These excellent tracks confirm both musicians' place on the cutting edge of radical string-playing, introducing the listener to new gospels of dissonant egalitarianism and plucky musical intelligence.

Flying Aspidistra #3 is a direct-to-DAT series of duos for guitar and cello recorded in 2004. It's very different from #2, a tranquil, almost pensive album which only seldom abandons the prevailing mood of thoughtfulness and reflection. For the most part, Stackenäs works with delicately dissonant, resonant chords, which he lets unfold with a contemplative satisfaction without hurry or nervous juggling. Lonberg-Holm complements him effectively, elaborating elegant on-the-spot counterpoint and droning melancholy, spiced with heartbreaking contrasts in a sort of hybrid Veliotis-meets-Cora style. Even when the players immerse themselves in harsher kinds of meditation – as on tracks 5 and 6 – we can't help but appreciate the downright clarity of their interplay. Another unknown gem in the Aspidistra series.

In Zenith is a trio of Lonberg-Holm, Jeb Bishop (trombone, bass, guitar) and Michael Zerang (drums). They play an electrifying concoction of styles marked by a fun-drenched optimism (CD title included). The first comparisons that come to mind are Curlew and the Tiptons, yet the music is often slightly more consonant – as in a cantabile theme like "Betsy Come In". If you need a helping of tangential bobbing-and-weaving fury instead, look no further than the splendidly titled "Morton Gets the Urge", where the musicians seem to be looking for a quick hiding-place after throwing a rock at a sleeping grizzly. In this genreless mayhem Lonberg-Holm's cello is the main voice, while Bishop – except for a few more lyrical trombone parts – performs a multitask, high-energy role. Zerang sustains the whole structure and adds his own interpolations and flurries. The disc was mastered by Jim O'Rourke, and it's a nice one, likely to be appreciated by alternative rock and RIO aficionados, even if it is a notch below Bridges and the Aspidistras.–MR

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Ralf Wehowsky
Domenico Sciajno / Ralf Wehowsky

RM74 / RLW
Bhob Rainey / Ralf Wehowsky
Tony Conrad / Ralf Wehowsky / Jim O'Rourke
A while ago I submitted a little essay to Mark Wastell and Brian Marley's collection of articles + DVD Blocks of Consciousness and the Unbroken Continuum, which, for those of you whose coffee table isn't adorned with a copy, began with the following paragraph: "Here's a little test for you to try out on your friends: ask them to name ten 20th-century composers. Meaning born after 1900 – so Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Stravinsky, Bartók, Debussy and Ravel are excluded. Pop stars or jazz musicians don't qualify (though one could certainly make a case for including Ellington, Monk and Mingus), but Gershwin and Bernstein do, so I suppose you could also accept Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim and even (gulp) Andrew Lloyd Webber ... and, by extension, Ennio Morricone, John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. If they manage to come up with ten, ask them to do the same for composers born after 1950. Unless they're new music nuts, or just plain nuts, they'll be hard-pressed to come up with half a dozen. The point I'm making is simple: what's usually laughably referred to as 'contemporary music' in major record outlets consists for the most part of work written by men (not women – that's another point worthy of an article in itself) who are either dead (Cage, Xenakis, Berio, Nono, Feldman...) or old enough to be my father, even grandfather (and I was born in 1963): Carter, Boulez, Ligeti, Stockhausen, Kagel, Ferrari, Ferneyhough. Here in France the work of John Zorn, Bernhard Günter and Heiner Goebbels – who I would classify as composers without a moment's hesitation – is normally found in record store bins intriguingly titled 'musique nouvelle' (as if Justin Timberlake, REM, Slayer, Massive Attack and Marilyn Manson weren't new), along with the kind of music Gil Scott Heron once ironically referred to as 'miscellaneous'."

Zorn, Günter and Goebbels.. Hmm, I should have added Ralf Wehowsky's name to the list (especially since, if the interview he gave me in July 2005 is anything to go by, it was he who more or less pointed Bernhard Günter in the direction of the ultra-quiet music he's followed ever since). Since the members of the pioneering P16.D4 collective (see the interview and save me having to write all that out again, will you?) went their separate ways, Wehowsky has produced a considerable body of solo and collaborative works which defy classification and as a result slip neatly into the crack between contemporary classical and electronica – or into any crack you care to mention. The music of P16.D4 was often mistakenly tagged as "Industrial" and mentioned in the same breath as some of the noiseniks they collaborated with (Merzbow, notably), and some of that mud seems to have stuck to Wehowsky, hence perhaps his popularity in alt.music circles and the willingness of certain alt.rock major players – David Grubbs, Bruce Russell, Alan Courtis – to seek him out. But, at the risk of going against my own definition of composition in the article cited above (it wouldn't be the first time I've contradicted myself, and it won't be the last), the music Wehowsky creates is most definitely composed, in the sense that it's put together slowly and painstakingly, reorganised, mixed and remixed with the kind of attention to detail associated with academic composition of the highest order. And yet, he had no formal conservatory training in composition, and his music isn't, to the best of my knowledge, studied at any university music faculty or conservatory, though other notable names in musique concrète such as Henry, Parmegiani and Ferrari certainly are. That's partly because, as mentioned above, he's still associated with music and musicians glibly referred to as "popular", but more significantly because his oeuvre flies in the face of traditional definitions of what a composer is, being for the most part collaborative – either reworking someone else's material, or working jointly with another musician at various (sometimes all) stages of a project.
Collaborative projects are now frequent in the world of new music, or at least that corner of the world of new music this magazine tends to specialise in: the advent of the Internet, the CDR and various applications in music software has made it surprisingly easy for musicians on opposite sides of the planet to work together, sometimes simultaneously. Wehowsky has always been interested in joint ventures, and many of his most important releases, most notably the epic 5-CD set Tulpas, have featured contributions from many musicians of wildly different persuasions. "For me music is about communication. Once it was a rather one-way communication, addressing everything to God (and waiting for a reply), today it's more about communication with other human beings. A rock group is a typical example of a communicative system. In ideal circumstances there's no unique authorship, no separation between composer and performer, and a constant interchange of ideas and musical material," he says. No unique authorship, no separation between composer and performer.. hard to sell that idea in the staff room of the music faculty, eh? You can't imagine Brian Ferneyhough and Helmut Lachenmann writing a piece together, however tempting that might sound. Composers are, egos apart, solitary figures. The old Ken Russell stereotype of wacky / tortured (delete where appropriate) genius is hard to ditch. Somehow the image of a discreet, almost elusive, bloke tucked away in the Black Forest making music in his spare time and releasing it in limited editions on obscure labels isn't the kind of thing that is likely to attract the Powers That Be.

"Is there a beginning?" Wehowsky muses in the liners that accompany Gelbe Tupfen, his split release with Italian laptopper / composer Domenico Sciajno. "Or is there an end? Did Christoph Schmid really invent the lyrics for Ihr Kinderlein Kommet, back in 1794, or was he simply the one to write down verses already in the air? Did my daughter Sonja deliberately try to sing moving around the notes of that song a few days before Xmas 2001, or was she just fooling around? Is it a sign of higher intelligence to release an (anti)Xmas record on 7" vinyl once every year like the Belgian label Meeuw Muzak does, or just a flirt with bad taste? Was it clever to supply them with an electronically treated version of Ihr Kinderlein Kommet for 2003's yearly event? And was it a wise decision to extend this experiment in a different way, seen by many as more serious, and to invite other artists to join this experience?"
If the resulting music is anything to go by, yes. The I.K.K. material has generated several collaborative ventures, including one I.K.K. - Purpur on Sirr which I was honoured to participate in myself. But unless you're lucky enough to own a copy of the original single of Wehowsky's daughter gasping her way enthusiastically through the Christmas carol, you'd probably be hard pressed to identify it from the music it has spawned. Sciajno's i.Dk.Sk. (user-unfriendly titles are a Wehowsky hallmark too) transforms the source recordings using a self-designed set of patches in MAX/MSP. It's a classy piece of work, as elegant and subtle as anything Sciajno has released to date. If Sonja is hard to spot in the forest of metallic drones, gurgles and pops, some of Wehowsky's own organ tootlings peek out of the foliage. In effect, it's a typically Wehowsky-like remix of a remix, layers of meaning and structure accumulating at each reworking, and the resulting music is rich and dense – some say difficult, but I don't buy that: Webern sounded difficult to me when I first heard it, but now it's as easy to listen to as Mozart – not something you can appreciate fully at first listening. (That's my cack-handed way of avoiding the hoary old cliché "richly rewards repeated listening.") The same applies to Wehowsky's own i.k.k. - mneme gelb, a slow trawl through the icy waters of exquisite, glistening drones. (It's too late now but remind me to ban the use of the word "drone" as my New Year's Resolution 2008, please – it means next to nothing anymore).

On Pirouetten, Wehowsky, using his nom de scène – well, not really.. he hasn't performed in public for over a decade – RLW, teams up with Swiss electronician Reto Mäder, aka RM74 (check out Mikrosport on Domizil). Not sure if the word "lighter" is appropriate, but it feels lighter than Gelbe Tupfen. Maybe that's because the tracks are shorter, maybe because the source sounds (Wehowsky plays gamelan, sitar, guitar, trombone, chimes, and Mader organ, accordion, cello, bass, guitar and harmonica, and there are some wild field recordings) are at times more evident. But even in the tracks where they are there's a lot of crafty transformation going on further back in the mix. It's precisely this contrast between what you think is going on and what you know deep down isn't that makes the album so fresh. That and the beautiful winter tree photographs of Elisabeth Blättler that accompany the release on separate cards (another collectible Crouton, folks). I don't know what liners are on about with their references to "centurial folkways" (?), and I don't understand the bit about Lacan and Freud (then again, I never understood much Lacan in the first place), but it sounds fabulous.

As has been hinted at above and elsewhere, Wehowsky albums take their time to appear, and the gestation process of the magnificent I don't think I can see you tonight, his collaboration with Bhob Rainey, is lovingly described in the notes printed in the gatefold cover of the disc. For example: "April 2003 With some goading and inspiring suggestions by Ralf, Bhob records numerous saxophone excursions, most significant of which is a variation on Ralf's 'Drunken Walk' suggestion, where Bhob plays saxophone, rolls around in an office chair, bounces a ping pong ball with his feet, and generally causes distress in an already cluttered attic where he lives. Ralf invokes Sun Ra's Black Forest Myth, Cecil Taylor's Tales From The Black Forest and Brötzmann's Schwarzwaldfahrt on his own journey through Germany's dark woods: Black field recordings by Ralf." And so forth. Amusing and honest, but not quite what you'd put in your CD if you were applying for a teaching position in a composition faculty. Not that I'm suggesting that's where Wehowsky belongs (he already has a good day job as it is, thank you very much), but from where I'm sitting this is one of the most important works of electronic music to appear this decade. Or musique concrète, if you prefer, though I think the old ideological distinction between the two doesn't mean much anymore. Field recordings – and there's another expression that's outlived its usefulness: how can you make a field recording in a cluttered attic? – are here to stay, but Rainey and Wehowsky show that there's a lot more to making music than just slapping them into Max / MSP or some such application, diddling about with EQ and adding a few fades and FX here and there. Take the time to understand your material, live with it, get to know how it behaves, what it will and won't do, and then take the time to design and build a compositional structure that will reveal it to its best advantage and surprise both you and anyone listening to it, again and again. Above all, take the time. As the irritable old geezer who repairs Woody's arm in Toy Story 2 says, "you can't rush art!" Listen to how the title track emerges slowly from a shell into which fragments of recognisable noises are being sucked as backwards soundfiles, taking nearly seven minutes to reach the open air, where distant sounds of children at play, footsteps and tiny smears of saxophone multiphonics and all manner of sonic building blocks both recognisable and tantalisingly inscrutable are gradually brought together to construct the musical equivalent of a Gothic cathedral.

Avanto 2006 – if that is indeed the name of the disc, as AAAAA seems to be the name of the label (though where I live it stands for Association Amicale des Amateurs d’Andouillettes Authentiques: yumyum) – finds Wehowsky in the good company (record saleswise) of Tony Conrad and Jim O'Rourke. Conrad's DAGADAG is a 13'26" add / subtract round for multitracked violin, and seems to be dedicated to La Monte Young. (Maybe I've missed out on something here, but wasn't it only recently that Conrad was picketing Young concerts? Remember that old spat about ownership of the Dream Syndicate music? Well, maybe they managed to sort something out. Someone write in and tell me please if that's the case. The only references I can find to this piece on the WWW are in Finnish, and you know how my Finnish is. Who knows, maybe it's an old piece.) O'Rourke's Out with the Old is dated "1990 / 1991 / 1994 / 2006", which would seem to indicate it's another recent reworking of old drone pieces from the early 90s. There've been a few recently, and this is very pleasant indeed at Niblock-rending volume, even if it isn't my personal favourite. This particular disc is worth the price of admission alone for Wehowsky's Würgengels Lachende Hand, an impressive and at times disturbing work sourced from material sent to the composer by Finnish guitarist Topias Tiheäsolo and recordings of The Rovalli Revival Band, which (sorry to blow your cover Ralf) features the young Wehowskys Sonja and Sören and RLW himself on oud. The title, though hard to translate accurately, comes out roughly as "Death Angel Laughing Hand", and refers to an artwork in Prinzhorn's Bildnerei der Geisteskranken, a collection of artworks created in mental institutions in the early 20th century (what later became known as "Art Brut"). "When looking at the pictures I was reminded of the almost surreal texts the children invented for the recordings, and the way conventional elements are interwoven with strange ones in unconventional ways," Wehowsky writes. You'll need a smattering of German to understand "die Raeuber betteln jetzt um Geld" ("the robbers are begging for money now") and "passt gut auf, ihr kinderlein, bald werdet ihr zerquetscht sein....ihr seid bald alle tot und das ist kein mord" ("take care you children, soon you will be crushed... all of you will be dead and this is no murder"), lines whose sinister comic book noir undertones are deftly picked out by Wehowsky's unstable, granular drones. Nothing is quite what it seems – it rarely is in Wehowsky's music. Things that sound simple first time round prove to be incredibly complex, and vice versa. The structure of the piece is also cunning: it falls into six sections (0'00"–3'26", 3'33"–5'51", 5'55"–12'29", 12'30"–13'47", 13'55"–18'20", 18'29"–22'25" according to the composer), and the development of the material is far from linear. The piece has its own crippled logic, and is as arresting as one of Prinzhorn's artworks, but in its use of raw, untreated source material it's also in a sense some of the most direct music Wehowsky has created to date. Here's hoping that some of the kids who invest in this to top up their Conrad and O'Rourke collections will get a kick out of Ralf Wehowsky's music and start collecting that with equal passion – I'm sure Tony and Jim would second me on that one – because they'll find there's as much on offer as in any piece of new music you care to mention.–DW

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Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza
Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza
Die Schachtel
Could there have been a more appropriate imprint to unearth previously unreleased documentation of Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza's most important line-up than the superlative Italian label Die Schachtel? The label is named after one of Gruppo leader Franco Evangelisti's most powerful pieces, and they've spent much of their time digging for gold in Italy's underground – for example, their Marino Zuccheri reissue. Better yet, the Die Schachtel commitment to quality packaging means Azioni is a joy before you bung the first disc into the player, a gorgeous cloth-covered box housing two CDs, one DVD (all in digipak), a poster and a book. The latter includes an essay from Evangelisti, further commentary by Gruppo members Walter Branchi and John Heineman, and an excerpt from an extended study by Daniela Tortora.
For those who have been on the lookout for the Gruppo's music, but who are unprepared to pay excessive prices for rare LPs, Azioni comes as manna from heaven. It's a perfect complement to the Ampersand reissue of Musica Su Schemi and the Editions RZ compilation of tracks from the outfit's 1960s and 1970s albums. Perhaps some day, some enterprising label will reissue those titles in full: 1966's Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, 1967's The Private Sea of Dreams, the 1969 album issued as part of Deutsche Grammophon's Avant Garde series, 1970's The Feedback, and 1973's self-titled album. There's also the Dagored reissue of Ennio Morricone's soundtrack to Gli Occhi Freddi Della Paura, in which you can hear Nuova Consonanza get as close as they ever will to playing, umm, "funky". (It's an astonishing listen, easily one of Morricone's best soundtracks.)
Evangelisti formed the Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza in 1964. The line-up was mutable, and at various points featured the aforementioned Branchi, Heineman and Morricone, alongside Roland Kayn, Ivan Vandor, Mario Bertoncini, Egisto Macchi, Jerry Rosen, Antonelli Neri, Giovanni Piazza, Giancarlo Schiaffini, and for a time, Musica Elettronica Viva founder Frederic Rzewski. There was indeed some overlap between the aesthetics of Nuova Consonanza and MEV, though one suspects the fundamental difference lay in MEV's desire to completely reject their entire history as academically trained composers (to paraphrase Alvin Curran). The Gruppo, under the guidance of Evangelisti, drew instead on their dual status as composers and improvisers to enact a kind of instantaneous composition (but thankfully without the hippie airhead vibes of, say, the latter-day Damo Suzuki). Significant among Evangelisti's tactics was his encouraging the Gruppo to practise to strengthen the group's internal resolve and their ability to think on a dime. You can hear the results through all of their's recorded output, and it's central to the works collected on Azioni.
The first CD collects three pieces from the sextet of Bertoncini, Branchi, Evangelisti, Heineman, Macchi and Morricone. "Kate" focuses on percussion, sounding out this territory with playing that can shift on a dime from apposite to opposite, if you will. "Untitled" feels relatively open-ended, though it reaches a point halfway through where the piano all but swallows the listener, dropping you into its guts via spectrum-sweeping extended technique. This is surgical music, but not in any clinical sense; rather, this is what Evangelisti calls the "traumatic" (ab)use of traditional instrumentation, open-heart antics performed on instruments, at times splaying them across the recording tape. This approach also allows for great intimacy, as in "Untitled", where breaths whisper through valves while bowed metals ring out, bringing one of the Gruppo's most suggestive performances to a close.
With "Es War Einmal", the sextet move between moments of fragile repose and all-out assault, reaching a high level of density around nine minutes into the piece. (A similar section appears just after the twenty-minute mark.) Though those moments are galvanising, one is drawn more to airier, less programmatically intense passages on the recording. When the cloud cover clears at the thirteen-minute mark to unveil bird calls and harmonics scraped queasily from lone strings, the metaphoric breath of fresh air shifts the music closer to a European take on the Art Ensemble of Chicago. (This comparison, coincidentally, also arose while playing sections of Azioni to Will Guthrie, who immediately latched onto the percussion in "Kate" as some kind of continental parallel to the AEC.) Towards the end of "Es War Einmal" brass and strings enter into an acutely responsive dialogue that could only come from studious, "prepared"- or, at least, "exercised" - improvisation.
On the second disc, the Gruppo divides into variously populated cells. The trios and quartets tend to zoom in on one specific area of exploration. On the two recordings of "Fili", Branchi, Bertoncini, Evangelisti and Heineman dedicate their energies to a thorough investigation of the internal workings of the piano. It's slow and ponderous, a product of deliberate study as opposed to uncharted spontaneity. The Heineman, Morricone and Vandor trio shoot brief pulsing tones into "Trix 3 (prove concerto '67)", only to scratch its eyes out with lip smacks, breaths and bruises for trumpet. When the full line-up converges on "A7" and "A7-2" - this time around, with Kayn and Vandor in tow (but without Macchi) - they move into polyglot territory, stretching out even further than the first disc into extremes of volume and density. Yet it's never too much; these composer-performers share an ability to load their performances without cluttering. In other words, this is not your usual scratchy, desiccated improvisation - not that there is anything inherently wrong with scratchy, desiccated improvisation, but its regular lapses into rote disconnection can make for a grinding listen, which is not something that you could say about the Gruppo's music.
It can, however, be a grind to watch. Azioni's DVD component, a forty-seven minute documentary by Theo Gallehr titled Nuova Consonanza: Komponisten improvisieren im Kollektiv, makes for great historical viewing: finally, a chance to see the outfit in action, rehearsing for a 1967 performance in Rome. Once the sense of discovery starts to fade, you're left with some staggering music, some less-than-staggering interview fragments that sometimes verge on self-importance, and one golden moment where Ivan Vandor drops the mask for an all-too-human plea for, well, "contact". It's especially hilarious given the context, and pricks the bubble of experimental music in a slyly charming fashion. I'm happy I've seen Gallehr's documentary, though I'm not exactly rushing back to the TV and DVD to watch it again.
In his review of Azioni in The Wire, Byron Coley ponders what, if anything, separates this work from similar recent releases in the field, arguing that "it's not easy to hear how this material is too different from what a similarly outfitted group of improvisers would do today". Well, that's perhaps the great victory of Azioni, though I'd make that claim with a caveat of sorts. While any of this music could be recorded and released by a gaggle of improvisers in the here and now, I suspect any review would immediately try to carbon-date the players' listening habits almost forty years - everything would sound "like the Gruppo". (Or MEV, or early AMM, or....) Yet another justification for the ongoing relevance of this music in our schema. Azioni was 2006's most potent, historically necessary archival issue, and a timely poke in the eye for those who reduce the history of "composerly" improvisation to the giants of abbreviation, MEV and AMM.–JD

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A. K. Salim
Prestige 7379
An obscure leader? A title that links African drumming with an orgy and a cover photo of dancing and drumming tribesmen in loincloths, all in a red wash? It's hard to know what combination of factors might keep an important record from reissue these days, but whatever the cause, A.K. Salim's Afro-Soul/Drum Orgy, recorded on October 8, 1964, and released in 1966, is an exceptionally good record, one that could stand musically with almost any contemporaneous recordings.
What little I know about A.K. Salim comes from Leonard Feather's New Encyclopedia of Jazz (1960), Tom Lord's Jazz Discography and Robert Levin's 1965 liner note to Afro-Soul/Drum Orgy. Salim is – astonishingly, to my mind – absent from the nearly 3000 double-column pages of the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 2nd Edition. Even his full name is inconsistent. Feather, Lord and Levin have it as Ahmad Khatab; AMG-online has it as Ahmad Kharab. He was born in Chicago on July 28, 1922. One entry in the Lord discography gives his original name as Albert Atkinson, while Feather provides A.K. Atkinson. He attended DuSable High School with Bennie Green and Gene Ammons and by 1939 was playing alto with them in King Kolax's band. He jammed at Minton's and associated with Lester Young, Parker, Gillespie and Monk. He stopped playing in 1944 when his jaw was dislocated, meanwhile arranging for Lucky Millinder and Count Basie. His best-known tune was "Blee Blop Blues" for Basie. A period out of music, from 1949 to 1956, is explained by work in real estate, interests in photography and studies at the Manhattan School of Music.
In the mid-1950s, he wrote arrangements for Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman, Tito Puente and Machito (this last a fine album called Kenya: Afro-Cuban Jazz with Cannonball Adderley). Salim's own discography is very small, including a few sessions on Savoy from the late 1950s on which his compositions are played by all-star groups that include Nat Adderley, Phil Woods, Johnny Griffin and Philly Joe Jones (Blues Suite and Pretty for the People have appeared on CD, as well as a track on the sampler Jazz Is Busting Out All Over; Flute Suite and the shared Stablemates – half Salim, half Yusef Lateef – have not). Afro-Soul/Drum Orgy is the last recording on which his name appears in the Lord Discography.
Though little is known of Salim, he was clearly a visionary, ready to work with unusual circumstances. Afro-Soul/Drum Orgy was apparently the idea of producer Ozzie Cadena, who wanted spontaneous music played over African rhythms. Salim would act as conductor, composer and arranger in the studio, and I assume he had a great deal to do with putting the band together, which consists of trumpeter John (usually "Johnny") Coles, and reed players Pat Patrick and Yusef Lateef. There are six percussionists in the band, but only Philemon Hou, playing an African xylophone, was an African, "a Zulu ... working at the World's Fair." The rest are described as Latins with experience in Afro-Cuban music, among whom "Julio Callazo knew some African rhythms and helped to set patterns for the drummers." The backdrop, then, is Afro-Cuban, a music in which Salim had considerable experience with Gillespie, et al. Four of the drummers – including Callazo and Osvaldo Martinez - are playing congas; William Correa is playing timbales. The result is a pulsing wall of polyrhythms created by musicians who use the pitches of their congas to create micro-melodies, tonal shifts that signal rising tensions, and sharp metallic ostinatos from the xylophone and timbales. The music is extraordinarily improvisatory, with the introductory figures worked out on the spot and three of the four tracks completed on a first take. Suddenly, in a world almost bereft of harmony and dense with time, the three sidemen spark brilliantly.
The opening "Afrika" (conveniently translated as "Africa") is melody reduced to a moan against the dense drumming, a four-note figure within a minor third, a half-valved smear from Coles that launches a stunning solo, some of the freest and most expressive trumpet work you're ever likely to hear. The theme of "Ngomba Ya Tempo" (Elephant Dance) is played by Lateef on argol (more usually "arghul"). It's an Egyptian clarinet with two tubes, one a drone, and Lateef uses it to create sinewy lines with close pitches. Lateef's flute establishes the mood on "Kumuankia Mzulu" (Salute to a Zulu), the piece's initial shape deriving from Philemon Hou's xylophone. "Pepo Za Sarari" (Trade Winds) has the three horns blasting elemental chords.
I consider Coles, Patrick and Lateef very underrated musicians, but I would know far less about their abilities and potentials if I had not heard them here. Coles and Patrick spent their public careers in the shadows of very powerful identities: the former with Charles Mingus and, in effect, subbing for Miles Davis with Gil Evans; the latter anchoring the Sun Ra saxophone section. While Lateef worked and recorded as a leader, his own groups were often relatively conventional affairs with a good deal of exotica grafted onto hard bop underpinnings. He, too, achieved prominence as a sideman, with Cannonball Adderley. Here they're in a very special situation – not leaders, but not sidemen either, getting to work out heads on the spot. They're also formally liberated, playing without recourse to a harmonic framework.
The resultant music is startling, with all three musicians happily discarding chord changes and just intonation. Coles constructs a whole musical language out of half-valve slurs and asides and quarter notes. Patrick, playing alto on two of the tracks, is a scintillating player with the kind of huge sound that only a dedicated baritonist might be expected to have. Lateef often concentrates on his tenor's lowest register, pulling out great elephantine roars and blasts that create walls of harmonics, further triggering wails and rootless arpeggiating runs. Each horn plays as if quarter tones and drones were its natural language, even when the saxophones superimpose some bop runs on the congas' complex pulsations. Some fine musicians create an essential moment in which ideas of origin and liberation and collective creation are questioned and focused. At the same time, it is music that feels polished and completely realized. For Salim, no doubt a frustrated improviser, it's an act of the highest creativity. His remark that "The horns were playing for sounds rather than traditional or conventional jazz lines… They were really having a conversation," is an apt description. This is one of the earliest recordings that might be described as conducted improvisation.

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Andrew Hill
Blue Note
There’s no better indication of Andrew Hill’s perpetually awkward position within the jazz world than the fact that Time Lines represents the third (!) time he’s been signed to Blue Note, after his initial 1963-1970 run during the label’s heyday and a brief 1989-90 spell on its revived incarnation. The disc features his current working band, with Greg Tardy on tenor sax, clarinet and bass clarinet, John Hebert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums, and they’re fully attuned to the obliquities of Hill’s music. Tardy is now a veteran member of Hill’s ensembles, having been on board since Dusk (Palmetto, 2000); he’s in especially strong form here, unafraid to use his solos to push a performance in a sharply different direction. The album’s most striking presence, though, is the elusive trumpeter Charles Tolliver, who’s been little heard-from in recent years but is on excellent form here, his pungent ideas and full but beautifully weathered tone cutting through on every track.
While the mood of Time Lines is less brooding and dangerous than usual for Hill, the music is still full of his trademark harmonic and rhythmic ambiguities. He seems to be experimenting even more than usual with multiple layers of activity – fast and slow, metrical and ametrical – which don’t necessarily sync up to a fixed downbeat. On several tracks it’s hard to decide even what the basic time-signature is, and the sense of perpetual instability is increased by Hill’s presenting two pieces, “Ry Round” and “Malachi” (a tribute to the late Malachi Favors Maghostut) in markedly different versions: “Ry Round 1”, for instance, is a slow almost-blues with a fast clickety-click drum pattern, while “Ry Round 2” is even harder to pin down, leaning towards march rhythms but also dropping into bizarre cuckoo-clock repetitions. McPherson’s drumming is strikingly fluid and elided – a potent mix of not-quite Latin, not-quite free, not-quite swing – and even when Hebert is elaborating a fixed bass ostinato the repetitions seem curiously unanchored, less a reference-point than just one more texture. Hill’s playing is more fragmented than it used to be, more Monk-minimalist; the effect is sometimes like half-speed, off-balance gospel, sometimes like ultra-calligraphic gestures where one or two notes are left to stand for an entire line of melody. Like Monk, he’s a challenging comper, often dropping out to leave soloists (Tardy in particular) to their own devices.
I’m probably in the minority among jazz fans and pundits in not being entirely sold on the two cornerstones of Hill’s current resurgence: the comeback album Dusk and the belatedly released 1969 session Passing Ships seem to me fascinating but uneven recordings. Time Lines, though, is a different matter entirely: this is vintage stuff, a disc that stands comfortably with the best of the pianist’s back catalogue yet not quite like anything he’s done before. The one flaw is a slightly wonky recording – drums low in the mix, the miking of the piano catching some stray noise and pedal-thumps – but that’s only a minor quibble about one of the best jazz releases of 2006.

Rudresh Mahanthappa
Last time I reviewed a Mahanthappa disc for PT, I called his pieces "alien, awkward streams of notes – urgent broadcasts within a narrow frequency band, more like transmissions than melodies." The metaphor has now become literal, except the transmissions are now also coded: the compositional methods used on Codebook involve "adapting ... methods of cryptography to melody and rhythm." (If you want more details, see this handy article in Wired. The packaging, in a cute touch, includes a decoding disc and two encrypted messages, one of which gets you a free album download.) If the disc's subject-matter is on the surface abstracter than the meditations on colonial history and postcolonial identity that formed the background for Black Water and Mother Tongue, it still has troubling resonance in this age of paranoia, surveillance and identity-theft; Mahanthappa further points up the link to current US political life by borrowing Bush's ludicrous self-description as "The Decider" for the title of one of the disc's most vehement tracks.
By now Mahanthappa and his regular companion, pianist Vijay Iyer, have developed a particular pattern for their quartet albums – solos of boiling intensity that are nonetheless grounded in tightly worked post-M-Base metric mazes; one or two tracks revisiting a more traditionally jazz idiom (here it's the Andrew Hill-flavoured "D (Dee-Dee)"); and a wrap-up track that resolves the accumulated tension of the rest of the album in a beatific farewell. But the conversation between Mahanthappa and Iyer has developed with every album: Mahanthappa's playing works an increasingly complex balance between passion and disenchantment (a combination that seems very much of this particular cultural moment), while the pianist seems to get increasingly looser and more playful, both as soloist and accompanist – listen, for instance, to his little flickers of chording on "Enhanced Performance", or the way he constructs entire solos by batting rhythms back and forth between his hands. With this album, more than most in this sequence, there's a slightly upside-down feeling to the whole thing, at least if you're weaned on a traditional jazz feel: one feels that the music's jittery central pulse is set by the sax and piano, and that bass and drums (regular bassist François Moutin and newcomer Dan Weiss on drums) are providing an active but relatively smooth canvas on which the metrical structure's "hits" are clearly marked. (Compare, for instance, the fluid, downbeat-blurring approach to odd metres on Andrew Hill's Time Lines.) Codebook marks a strong continuation of Mahanthappa's work for the Pi label; I'm not sure how far down this particular stylistic path he can go before he'll need to vary the instrumentation or approach, but it's well worth following him to find out.–ND

The Reveries
Who knows exactly when the mass of old pop songs got sorted through and canonized under the name of the Great American Songbook, otherwise known by the ugly acronym GAS. Ella Fitzgerald's Songbook series for Verve in the 1950s is an obvious landmark, and appeared near the end of the era when the GAS was still open; by the mid-1960s the canon was more or less set in stone, and jazz's dialogue with popular music became altogether more fraught and unequal.
Whatever you think of the GAS as an ideological/artistic concept, it's a body of music that's still endlessly pleasurable and adaptable for the way it deals so intensively but literately and articulately with that most unruly of emotions, love. The charm of the Reveries – the Toronto-based trio of Ryan Driver, Eric Chenaux, and Doug Tielli – is the way they let these classic songs ("Gone with the Wind", "Mood Indigo", "Close Your Eyes", etc.) unravel back into love's original sweet emotional inarticulacy. The instrumentation includes guitars, harmonica, "thumb-reeds" and "quasi-ruler bass", but their signature device is the "mouth-speaker": a disassembled cellphone speaker placed inside the mouth-cavity. By contact-miking their instruments, running the sound through the mouth-speakers, and manipulating the oral cavity, the Reveries create a feedback loop where the sounds of one player's instrument may issue (subjected to buccal wah-wah and guttural distortion) from another's mouth. The mouth-speakers also have the bonus effect of adding layers of drool and horrendous speech impediments to the dreamy, lullaby-like vocals (think early Chet rather than Ella). In an interview with the Toronto paper Eye, Driver describes their music succinctly: "Basically, the concept for The Reveries is setting existing love ballads that would normally be largish productions into a lo-fi, surreal context through the use of simple ‘exotic' instruments and a tangle of basic electronics, creating physical complications for ourselves. ... I think we might do this in order to musically accentuate the inherent vulnerability, mystification and confusion that so often come with the sorts of sentiments we are dealing with lyrically."
Listening to Live in Bologna (the trio's second album, following 2003's Blasé Kisses) often made me think of my hours as a child spent devising annoying noises to horrify the family (some kids practised faces in the mirror; I practised sounds); but it also made me think of the hospital patients in The Singing Detective, wracked with tremors and disease but breaking into radiant song. The tracks generally take their sweet time – they don't call themselves "The Reveries" for nothing – but you wouldn't want to break this lazy after-hours-on-Mars ambience too suddenly: by the time each piece has drifted to its conclusion, "You've Changed" (as one of the tunes puts it). Or everything else has.–ND

Joe McPhee / Paul Hession
Just when you thought Flaherty and Corsano had the sax'n'drums market cornered, here comes the mighty McPhee, on tenor and soprano, touring England back in 2003 with the stupendous (and still to my mind undersung) percussionist Paul Hession. Oddly enough, Hession tells us in his brief liner notes that he did in fact play with both McPhee and Paul Flaherty in Amherst MA back in April 2002. I wonder whether that was recorded. Fortunately these six improvisations from Liverpool's Bluecoat and the Leeds Adelphi were, by the aptly named Geoff Clout. But comparing A Parallax View with one of Flaherty / Corsano's cow-rending rollercoasters isn't all that useful, in point of fact. McPhee, though he was making the Black Nation rise when Corsano wasn't even a twinkle in his daddy's eye, has never gone in for all out vein-bursting apocalypse à la Brötzmann (to whom, along with Michael Zerang, the closing "What Can We Do?" is dedicated). And Hession, while he can build up one hell of a head of steam when necessary ("Tipping Point"), is at his best playing those Sunny Murray vibrations, exploring each and every nuance of a small number of instruments – his snare drum work on "From Eremite to Termite" recalls Murray's vintage late 60s outings (and that's a compliment). This is poised and mature work from two master improvisers. "We will make music in the forest, in the cool, green light of evening," intones McPhee at the opening of "Blue Coat, Blue Collar" (shame Hession and Clout couldn't have found a cool, green photograph to grace the album cover instead of the murky pine cone (is it?) and nocturnal snapshot of the players standing on what must have been a pretty draughty waterfront in Newcastle). "When the studios are silent, vacant relics of the past, we will still be here." I hope so, Joe, I hope so.–DW

Oluyemi Thomas / Kenn Thomas / Eugene Wilson IV / Howard Byrdsong
Not Two
With the exception of the Eremite duo with Alan Silva, Transmissions, I've been somewhat bemused if not underwhelmed by recent appearances on disc of "the magical mystery man from the West Coast", as William Parker once memorably described Oluyemi Thomas, but there's something about this latest outing that keeps me coming back for more. Put it down to the instrumentation as much as anything: free jazz albums featuring synthesizers and fretless bass are certainly thin on the ground, so it's refreshing to hear Kenn Thomas's keyboard work (even if the synth isn't actually credited on the album itself) and Eugene Wilson IV's fat, rubbery bass behind Oluyemi's strangely touching bass clarinet bleats and smears. Fire Music is very much alive and well these days, it seems – see elsewhere in these pages, and witness the explosion of interest in cats like Paul Flaherty and the much trumpeted release on ESP of Frank Wright's Unity (talking of Alan Silva, I had the man on the phone before Christmas fuming about that particular release, but we'll leave Bernard Stollman to field questions of proprietorship..) – so it makes a welcome change to come across a free jazz album that manages to steer clear both of post hardbop stylings and all out neural meltdown. And even if the opening "Nigeria (After Orie & Benjamin)" eventually moves into the kind of harmonic territory you'd normally associate with Masada, the way Wilson's bass prowls around the Phrygian undergrowth is certainly striking. The nine tracks follow on from each other without a break to form a coherent and satisfying suite of pieces. All are credited to Oluyemi, though "Life Long Journey" is a solo piano spot for Kenn (and a curious one too, somewhere between Burrell and Ravel) and the following "Prayer" finds Wilson bubbling and gurgling away Pastorius-like to himself. On the closing "The Other Side Of Self" Oluyemi takes up the musette where the late great Dewey Redman left off (though it should be added that this was recorded back in September 2001), sensitively backed by Byrdsong's deft if discreet cymbal flecks and Wilson's springy bass, while Kenn once more tries to pull the strands together into some sort of modal logic, before giving up altogether and heading out into cluster country just over halfway through. It's an intriguing end to an intriguing album, and there's nothing more intriguing than the photograph of a snowcapped mountain peak with pine forests that adorns the inside of the gatefold. If that's Nigeria, I'm Sonny Rollins.–DW

Patrucco / Honsinger / Mengelberg / Baars / Bennink
"Why is it 95% of albums featuring vocal improvisers are awful?" my co-editor Mr Dorward recently asked in exasperation. "Because 95% of vocal improvisers are awful," I replied. No personal disrespect intended to Alessandra Patrucco here – I'm sure she's a lovely person, and she certainly has a good singing voice, but what she does here just doesn't work. Perhaps teaming her up with some of the most idio(syncra)tic figures in the improv world isn't a good idea, either. Hell, if there's one sound I hate it's the sound of my idols toppling off their pedestals.. I can't think of another album with Misha Mengelberg on it that I actively dislike, so I guess that means Circus is in a class of its own. It all hinges on that most elusive quality in music, especially improvised music: humour. Mengelberg and Bennink are pastmasters at it, not only in the schtick of their onstage activities (Bennink's theatre of the absurd antics, Mengelberg's deadpan hunchback plunking) but, more importantly, in the music itself, the notes. Mengelberg is one of the few musicians I can think of – Steve Beresford is another, and before that you'd probably have to go back as far as Haydn – whose music can make me laugh out loud. None of that raw bar room brawl skronky German humour à la Brötzmann / Van Hove, or the prima donna tra-la-la nonsense Joëlle Léandre lapses into all too easily; we're talking subtle, like playing Round Midnight in a major key. When it's done right it's magnificent; when it's overdone it's bloody awful. Like any comedy, really. Patrucco's earnest operatics just don't fit into the quirky, Monky world that Han and Misha bring to life so well in their duos and at the heart of the ICP Orchestra. As for the other two participants, Tristan Honsinger's sense of humour is more like Spike Milligan's: it's funny / uneasy humour, humour on the edge of insanity. And Baars, if his latest duo Stof with Ig Henneman is anything to go by (see below), doesn't have a sense of humour at all. He did on Kinda Dukish, but I guess it got lost somewhere on the way to the studio to record this. Shame. In a catalogue that's been so consistently excellent for over three decades, Circus sticks out like a sore thumb.–DW

The Electrics
If it's live at the Glenn Miller Café, it's on Ayler. Label boss Jan Ström has his own corner at the bar and he's probably signed a partial lease on the stairs in the adjacent apartment building where the sound engineer usually sets up his gear. (There's no room in the GMC itself, take it from me.) This time it's The Electrics – Sture Ericson (tenor sax and clarinets), Axel Dörner (trumpet), Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (bass) and Raymond Strid (drums) – with the long awaited sequel to Chain Of Accidents (in the strange numbering system Ström uses that was aylCD035, whereas this new one is aylCD034, even though it was recorded four and a half years later). It's also the best recording yet to emerge from the GMC, thanks to some serious mixing by Ericson and Strid which helps capture the stereo image of the tiny venue better than anything I've heard from there before. They obviously thought the music was worth the effort, and they were right. The Electrics is another one of those groups after my own heart, one that can play free and swing hard and see no contradiction between the two. Improvised Free Jazz, I called it elsewhere. It's wonderful to hear Dörner playing crisp and clear, the Tony Fruscella of new music, instead of gurgling and hissing (which he also does, and very well too). The interplay between him and Ericson, especially when the latter takes to the bass clarinet, recalls the mighty Die Enttauschung (and, standing behind them in the shadows, the Dolphy / Little Five Spot quintet.. though of course there's no piano here). Not all the music is at the same high level – as with any improv, there are peaks and troughs, and the fact that the musicians consciously choose to work with the more recognisable vernacular of free jazz means that it's easier to spot the latter – but when these lads start cooking they're a match for the chef at the Glenn Miller Café, who's pretty damn good too. It's a great place to eat as well as catch fine live music. Next time you're in Stockholm, check it out. Reserve in advance though; you won't believe how small the place is.–DW

Agustí Fernandez / Barry Guy / Ramón López
Think Agustí Fernandez meets Barry Guy and you're probably thinking of the kind of deluge of molten lava that characterised the Spanish pianist's volcanic contribution to Guy's Oort-Entropy back in 2005, or his spectacular scrap with Mats Gustafsson on Critical Mass. Add wildcard dynamo percussionist Ramón López to the mix and you've got all the makings of a Fire Music trio of epic proportions, right? Yes, well, right, but if you won't get any of that here. In fact, if this had been recorded by Jan Erik Kongshaug up in Rainbow Studios in Oslo or by Martin Wieland in Tonstudio Bauer in Ludwigsburg, it'd be perfectly at home in the ECM catalogue. Indeed, it makes for an interesting comparison with the 1998 Paul Bley / Gary Peacock / Paul Motian reunion outing on ECM, Not Two, Not One (though López's flick / splatter percussion probably has more in common with the work of Tony Oxley, so perhaps In The Evenings Out There would be a more sensible choice, even if that was recorded seven years earlier). Fernandez has penned all the tunes on offer, with the exception of Guy's "Odyssey" (previously recorded on the Barry Guy New Orchestra Inscape-Tableaux album), and they're unashamedly tonal throughout, revealing a side to the pianist's playing that aficionados of Fire Music are probably unfamiliar with (though closer listening to the Fernandez discography reveals a strong current of lyricism, even romanticism – check out Dark night, and luminous with Marilyn Crispell). And Guy, whose spiky virtuosity has been a cornerstone of aggressive modernism in both free and contemporary classical music for nearly 40 years, proves he's just as good at running up and down the standard scales as Eddie Gomez or Dave Holland. López's flecks of tabla, brushes and rattles are a good foil to it all: though he can, when he wants to, ride that cymbal as well as Jon Christensen (on "Rosalia"), he's really in his element sprinkling tiny showers of colour and light over the canvas. With a more conventional drummer like Motian behind the kit it could all too easily sound sentimental, even maudlin. As it is, it might be a little too pretty for hardcore free jazzers, but if you're prepared for once to accept that there's more to life than blowing the other guy (no puns intended) into the Oort cloud, this is a welcome reminder that music can also be tender, subtle and unashamedly beautiful.–DW

Duo Baars-Henneman
Well, here's proof that Wittgenstein was wrong: yes, there is such a thing as a private language – or at least one that's a very well-kept secret between two people. The first names of husband and wife team of Ab Baars (tenor sax, clarinet, shakuhachi, noh-kan) and Ig Henneman (viola) suggest characters out of Endgame, and indeed Beckett might have appreciated this duo, both for the aphasic, waterdrops-wearing-down-a-stone obsessiveness with which they pick at a note, and for the bleak, directionless playfulness which takes the place of an actual sense of humour. The grey mood reflects the circumstances of the recording, which was made shortly after the death of Henneman's sister Eiske. The title-track is an elegy for her (she was by trade a clothing designer – "stof" means both "fabric" and "dust"), and it's the most absorbing thing on the disc, especially the closing section where Baars' pure clarinet tugs against the viola's stoical double-stops. The other tracks are mostly freely improvised. The duo's tendency to take sketchy materials and subject them to microtonal scratches and dings is at times like a stony, minimalist echo of the Maneris, and Baars' shakuhachi on "Giallo di Napoli" also suggests Cage's rock-garden meditation Ryoanji. But the music of Cage and the Maneris is far more generous in what it offers the listener; Stof, by comparison, is often thin and uncommunicative.–ND

Jöelle Léandre
This double CD showcases the full multiplicity of Jöelle Léandre's talents within a variety of ensemble combinations, everything recorded between April 26 and May 1, 2005 in Le Mans. Such a varied collection inevitably presents many climaxes and some minor plateaus; despite this, the two hours are full of excellent music. The most extraordinary moments are Léandre's duets with fellow bassist William Parker, a series of dialogues that twine round like DNA code, raising spiritual forces through spiky figurations and technical wizardry. On the same demanding level, the three tracks with violinist India Cooke (check out their Firedance on Red Toucan) are a gathering of volatile ideas that nevertheless gain a monumental weight; Léandre's flavoursome designs work wonders with Cooke's glissandos and elegant doodads, complemented by her heartfelt vocalizing in "Just now three". While there's probably no need to explain what kind of stuff the trio Les Diaboliques plays (except maybe to the person who spelled Irène Schweizer's surname as "Schweitzer" all over the CD booklet), here they're nicely represented by two sensitively theatrical improvisations in which singer Maggie Nicols performs the main roles in mockingly dramatic style, while Léandre and Schweizer construct and instantly destroy sets and scenery behind her. Another trio – with Mark Nauseef and Markus Stockhausen – is less satisfactory, mostly due to Stockhausen's Miles-inflected muted trumpet, which – ironically or not, as the liners would have us believe – at times makes this sound like an outtake from Decoy. The four segments featuring the quartet of Léandre, Paul Lovens, Sebi Tramontana and Carlos Zingaro possess heart and a sense of humour, even if at times the musicians revert to tried and trusted tricks.–MR

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Mark Wastell
If someone asked me what Mark Wastell's "field of research" was, my answer, after listening to this sober yet intense effort, would be: "defining the shape of resonance between silences". Scored for grand piano, tam tam and tubular bell, Amoungst English Men is the direct consequence of Wastell's Vibra albums for solo tam tam. It's music that must be played (and listened to) with Templar concentration, acknowledging its influences – Feldman, most notably – and achieving the noble result of putting listeners in a state of almost complete detachment by delivering them from tension, little by little. The composition is articulated through three "phases"; the first 15 minutes feature barely moving harmonic cascades and looming phrases, courtesy of Wastell's manipulating the keys in the Steinway's bottom octave, a reflective exploration of an area of the instrument prone to timbral deterioration given the conflictual nature of resulting overtones. Wastell avoids dead spots by leaving the necessary space for the music to fill our mental mould while he prepares us for the second and most engrossing section. There, at first, piano and tam tam play a sort of slowed-down call-and-response game, until the gong is left alone to fill the room with amorphous halos and caressing throbs which recall not only Vibra but also "Amann", the closing track of Keith Rowe and Toshimaru Nakamura's magnificent Between. In the last five minutes or so, a rarefied and almost imperceptible tolling diminishes the sound weight progressively and effectively, bringing the piece to a perfect conclusion. Amoungst English Men confirms Mark Wastell as a truly sensitive musician, and one who's not afraid to express fundamental truth with minimal means, carving deep signs in the wood of our essence.–MR

Tammen/ Harth/ Dahlgren/ Rosen
In many ways the original free jazz label, ESP relaunched itself a couple of years ago with reissues of its classic recordings. Now the label has ventured much closer to the present with this 2001 performance. It would be hard to imagine a contemporary band more appropriate to the label, for the quartet of "endangered guitar"-ist Hans Tammen, reed player Alfred 23 Harth, bassist Chris Dahlgren and drummer Jay Rosen manage to play energy-school free-jazz in a fresh way, something seldom managed in American jazz these days. It's the result of a wholly collaborative effort, but it begins with the two Germans, with Harth's fidelity to the sound and style of Albert Ayler (and Wright, Brötzmann, et al.) and the extraordinary resource of Tammen's horizontally-played guitar, with its endless stream of bowed, struck and plucked sounds. While there's an inevitable temptation to treat this band in terms of its national origins, Dahlgren and Rosen are more sonically resourceful (at times sounds are not immediately attributable to Tammen, Dahlgren or Rosen) than is in any sense typical for American rhythm sections these days, and the group consistently manage to engage both musical thought and feeling. There's a lot going on here with traditional modes of stylistic mimesis. It's definitely not "non-idiomatic" but pluralistic instead. At one point it sounds like a saxophone imitating a band imitating passing airplanes; at another a flock of (Messiaen-ic) birds. "Retained Notions of Speed and Purpose" combines the pained wobble of the Ayler ballad style with some wonderful, high-pitched electric violin-like lyricism from Tammen. "From One Place to Another" has Harth squealing against some chugging machine rhythms generated by the rest of the band until the saxophonist arrives at "When the Saints Go Marching In." "A Long Trip by Water" has well-sustained atmospherics from Tammen that float in between Harth's intense wail and Rosen's falling-down-the-stairs backbeat, suggesting a group that's comfortable in several places at once. Tammen opens "A Place that Has Emotional Significance" with some swirling pentatonic runs that begin with an almost reed-like sound and ultimately invoke the continuum of blues and rock guitar pyrotechnics. In all, it's a fine performance of consistent focus and intensity from a band that should work together regularly.–SB

The International Nothing
By rights this shouldn't be in the Jazz / Improv section at all (though to be honest I've long since stopped worrying about where to draw exact boundary lines), since, as the accompanying press bumph makes clear, each of the eight tracks on the cheekily-entitled Mainstream (it isn't) is carefully composed. But the two men behind the project, Berlin-based clarinettists Kai Fagaschinski and Michael Thieke, are noted improvisers, and Ftarri is an offshoot of the Improvised Music from Japan label, so you'll stand a better chance of finding a copy of this by looking in the Improv bin than in Contemporary Classical. The name they've chosen for their group is either depressing or ironic, or both – a sly comment on the music's wilfully obscure niche market or a nod to the network of lowercasers strategically positioned around the globe (Berlin Reductionism + Tokyo Onkyo + New London Silence = International Nothing?)? – but the music isn't. It's a vibrant (in several senses of the word) if at times deadpan exploration of the tonal combinations and combination tones of two clarinets, and it's refreshingly free from the plink plink fizz of extended technique fluster and bluster. Just tune your instruments carefully, hit those pitches dead on, and leave your listeners to thrill to the acoustic beats. Personal fave tracks: "wenn alles wehtut und nichts mehr geht" and "feathered machine song". Talking of songs, the album actually contains two: On "and the morning", Berlin's answer to Karen Dalton (without the dental problems), Margareth Kammerer, adds vocals and guitar, and Christof Kurzmann provides the odd nightmarish berceuse "hauntissimo" that closes the album. Neither are ever going to make it into the Top 40, so don't be fooled by that album title, but they do stick in the mind, almost annoyingly so. On "lovetone" – now there's a Top 40 title for you – the clarinettists are joined by bassists Derek Shirley and Christian Weber for a grisly Polwechsel-meets-Scelsi workout. Great stuff. All I need to know now is why the cover is adorned with a rhinoceros, a hippopotamus, a walrus and an armadillo.–DW

Jay Crocker / Chris Dadge
Bug Incision
The titles say it all, really. Both the name of the album, which describes quite well a lot of the sounds Messrs Crocker (banjo, preparations, percussion) and Dadge (percussion) make here, and the label name, with its attendant associations of insect music and laboratory experiment. Bug Incision is a CDR label run out of Calgary, Canada, which if I remember rightly is where Eugene Chadbourne fled to to avoid the draft. He must have left some kind of lasting impression there, as Crocker's banjo work (inevitably?) recalls some of the good Doctor Chadbourne's thornier outings. But there's more percussion than banjo on offer here, and the musicians' concern for small sounds brings mid-70s John Stevens and the SME to mind – which means I'm definitely not following Brooker Buckinham's instructions in the liner notes: "Zen mind. Forget everything you know about music. Forget every piece of music you've ever heard." But then again neither is he, when he describes it all as "skeletal jazz phantoms from an alternate universe – one where a bizarro Derek Bailey get [sic] drunk on moonshine in the Appalachians and curses the mountains through brittle invectives voiced on a beat-up banjo." That sums it up nicely.–DW

Mike Pride's Scene Fucker
Public Eyesore
Back in November last year I got a huge package of discs from "Omaha's most unknown label", Bryan Day's wonderfully active and often ignored Public Eyesore, which first came to my attention a while back when I was asked to write liners for Jack Wright and Bob Marsh's Birds in the Hand. I haven't heard much from PE – that's Public Eyesore, btw, not Public Enemy (though come to think of it I haven't heard much from them lately either) – for a while, so forgive me if some of the releases I'm nattering on about here aren't exactly new. This one for example was recorded way back in February 2003 and appeared a couple of years after that. It's one of an ongoing series of releases by the ahem attractively named Scene Fucker project, which is basically percussionist Mike Pride and anyone he can get his hands on. Very much Improvisation, as opposed to Improvised Music (if you read what I wrote on the subject in last month's Wire): we're talking a gnarly no-holds-barred snarling mess of moments, some inspired, some less so, but all constantly entertaining. Like life, really. Joining Pride, who plays percussion, glockenspiel (though as the glockenspiel is a percussion instrument to start with you wonder why it merits a separate mention), electronics and microcassette, are Gerald Menke on pedal steel, Jessica Pavone on viola, Brian Moran on electronics and Aaron Ali Shaikh on soprano and alto saxophones. At times lyrical (Pavone sounds great, and so does Menke – imagine Bill Frisell playing Scelsi), at times gritty and combative (Pride is especially good at throwing spanners in the works – he even gets stuck in a kind of drum'n'bass groove at one point, to the apparent indifference of everyone else involved), it's a fine example of what American improvisers do best: get down, get dirty, take risks, go for it.–DW

Yagihashi Tsukasa / Sato Yukie / Higo Hiroshi
Jabrec Art Music
This is another one that Bryan Day slipped into his care package, though it's not on his label (if you want a Public Eyesore release featuring Yagihashi Tsukasa, try Automatic, but it's not as much fun as this). Tsukasa plays alto sax here, accompanied by Sato Yukie on electric guitar and "electro goods" (that sounds intriguing) and Higo Hiroshi (of Friction fame) on electric bass and "electro" (more electric goods, I imagine, though it's hard to tell). Phil Zampino over at Squid's Ear wasn't all that smitten, but from where I'm sitting this is an unusually fresh, unpretentious kind of improv, open and spacious, catholic in its tastes – yep, there's even a melody or two in there – and very satisfying to listen to. It's kind of like a cross between Acid Mothers Temple and early Incus, and if that doesn't whet your appetite I don't know what will. The three musicians manage to kick up quite a head of steam when they want to, but they're just as good at opening up the window and letting it all drift outside. Good stuff. Electro good, even.–DW

Public Eyesore
Strictly speaking this isn't just a Public Eyesore outing, since seems to have been co-released by Imvated, Carbon, Gold Soundz, Humbug, Audiobot, and Breaking World as well (now that's what I call co-production), but I hope they have the same groovy psychedelic pink'n'orange hand-folded packaging as this one. Monotract is the trio of Carlos Giffoni, Nancy Garcia and Roger Rimada (originally from Florida, now New York based, I think), who specialise in a kind of lo-fi anarchic post-punk free improvised Industrial No Wave disco techno, the sort of gleefully colourful what-the-fuckery that will either have you wringing your hands in despair for the Future of Music (what future?) or jumping for joy at the continued creativity of the scene (which scene? well, take your pick). Divine artlessness has long been the hallmark of great alt.rock anyway, so it should come as no surprise that this lot were taken under Thurston Moore's wing for All Tomorrow's Parties' Nightmare Before Christmas. Free souvenir Butlins beermat for any of you who can sing along with the cover of Throbbing Gristle's "United." Yikes.–DW

Fang Records
Since 1990 Iconoclast NYC has consisted of saxophonist/vocalist Julie Joslyn (who uses pedals and live electronics), and drummer/keyboardist Leo Ciesa; both musicians also play on homemade instruments such as plastic tubes and copper pipes. Listening to their most recent recordings, I can't help thinking that they've lately been going in circles. The music is heavily folk-inspired, linear and massive, building a whole tune from a single phrase; it tends towards a naïve lyricism, something like chamber prog with some free-jazz elements. I sympathize with their yearnings toward transcendence, but the group's expressive elegies played on top of straight marches instead bring to mind the Seven Dwarfs singing "Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho". Ciesa's solid drumming serves as a strong basis for Joslyn's kaleidoscopic contributions, but her saxophone improvising is tame compared to her anarchic vocals – it's like Frank Lowe tripping on LSD versus Diamanda Galas. There are interesting moments, of course, such as the Kimmo Pohjonen-style psychedelic-accordion echoes from Joslyn's electrified saxophone on "Corrective Jerk". But in general the music is rather predictable – bit like No Wave for moshers. –VJ

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Peter Zummo
New World
A few years ago, Arthur Russell albums were rare as rocking horse shit, but, thanks in no small part to the good people at Audika, there's a lot of good stuff available once again, and I see from the Audika website that no fewer than four new Russell projects are scheduled for release this year – not surprising perhaps since he left a huge archive of unreleased recordings behind him when he fell victim to AIDS in 1992. One of the cellist's most frequent playing partners was trombonist / composer Peter Zummo, whose velvety tones have graced the discographies of David Behrman (My Dear Siegfried), Peter Gordon (Brooklyn) and Guy De Bièvre (Bending the Tonic, twice) and can be heard throughout Russell's Calling Out Of Context and First Thought Best Thought. Similarly, Russell's distinctive, gossamer-light yet strong-as-steel-wire cello playing and impeccably pitched, understated vocals are essential elements of Zummo With An X. So all you Arthur Russell fans out there take note. Originally released on Loris Records (exactly when I'm not sure – haven't been able to Google up much on this mysterious label – but let's say mid 1980s), Zummo With An X contains music written for Trisha Brown's 1985 ballet Lateral Pass and a 1980 work entitled Instruments. This latter is a seven-movement work for trombone, cello (Zummo and Russell), trumpet (Rik Albani) and marimba (Bill Ruyle), and is described so well on the New World website I can do no better than quote their text: "short phrases based on intervallic jumps are repeated at individual repetition rates; the ensemble listens for a unison playing of the phrase, and reverses the phrase at that moment. Different notes sound together in unplanned ways, resulting in combination (bass) tones." The piece, Zummo notes, was recorded "in a Soho loft with a full-track Nagra tape recorder and, in 'classic' monophonic recording style, used only one microphone, a Sennheiser 42." In keeping with his desire to get away from a "militaristic" sort of minimalism, Zummo also left the loft windows open, so the low rumble of distant traffic is as much part of the listening experience as the conceptually rigorous yet remarkably supple exploration of intervals (one for each movement). Perhaps those combination tones could have been captured better in a pristine studio recording, but that obviously wasn't the composer's intention.
Lateral Pass, Zummo comments, is "curiously like a four-movement symphony", though it's not scored for conventional symphony orchestra. Joining Zummo and Russell is Ruyle (tabla, marimba) once more, along with Guy Klucevsek on accordion and Mustafa Ahmed on additional percussion. Sci-Fi is a haunting work that owes as much to Russell's distinctive vocals as it does to Zummo's delicate muted smears. The final movement, Song IV, is the most substantial, and appears on the CD reissue in two versions, one for trio (Ruyle, Russell and Zummo) and one, previously unissued, for the quintet. It's a remarkably simple yet compelling investigation of a four-note descending scale, propelled gently yet decisively forward by Ruyle's tablas, and featuring some exquisite work from all involved. Not sure I'd entirely agree with the Audika people and call it a "sublime masterwork", but it's certainly very fine and highly recommended.–DW

Tom Johnson
Karnatic Lab
If, for Steve Reich, "performing and listening to a gradual musical process resembles [..] placing your feet in the sand by the ocean's edge and watching, feeling, and listening to the waves gradually bury them", the pleasure one derives from the ascetic minimalism that Tom Johnson has concentrated his attention on for the past quarter of a century is more like getting your kicks out of looking at a set of log tables. Though to be honest, comparing Reich and Johnson isn't all that fair (as Johnson would be the first to point out), for several reasons, most notably because Reich's musical processes take time to unfold (and when he abandoned the strict process aesthetic in the early 1980s his music subsequently sacrificed structure for surface and lost all interest), whereas Johnson is a master of the miniature, the tiny mathematically elegant aphorism. Indeed, when he tackles the large scale form, as in the notorious Chord Catalogue, the results are far less appealing. But I wonder if some of the 49 tracks that make up Symmetries couldn't have been longer – only four of them go beyond the one minute mark – or at least slower.
In 1980 Johnson started work on a series of symmetrical drawings using Stephen Dydo's music typewriter, which were eventually published in 1981 by 218 Press (the scores of all 49 pieces are included in the fold-out liners here, though you might want to get hold of a magnifying glass before you start investigating them in detail). What started out as a kind of "conceptual music" was subsequently arranged for two pianos and performed with Philip Corner. Even if you're not familiar with Johnson's work, it won't take more than one glance at the scores and about ten seconds of listening time to figure out what's going on. Needless to say, each of the 49 pieces is strictly symmetrical, which means that the joy of discovering something new is immediately tempered by the knowledge that it's not going to go anywhere other than back to where it started from. Hold up a mirror to your nose and see what you'd look like if your face was totally symmetrical: pretty strange, if not downright disturbing, right? What I like in people's faces, not to mention art, is the irregularity, the irrationality. Symmetry is cool – in several senses of the word – but I prefer mine crippled, as Morton Feldman would say. Sometimes it's fun, especially when the composer gets away from the rather tedious stacked regular intervals – octaves, sevenths, fifths and fourths figure prominently – that characterise much of his work; alternating thirds and seconds leads to richer harmony, and not surprisingly several tracks seem to hark back to the pitch universe of Bartók (19) and Stravinsky (10). Adding adjacent semitones to stacked perfect fourths (39) recalls Lutoslawski's Funeral Music (not to mention several pieces by Christopher Rouse), and the alternating tone / semitone configurations of 30 inevitably sound like Messiaen. But the regular rhythmic plodding quickly becomes tiresome, and the implacable symmetry soon removes what little magic there might be, even in the elusive Webernian closing track. And maybe that's the point; Johnson would, after all, probably be the first to claim there's no mystery to what he does – but some of his other recent pieces, especially those in which the mathematical processes are accompanied by spoken text, reveal a wry, dry sense of humour that wouldn't go amiss here.–DW

Natasha Anderson
Remember when you were a kid and you had to play the recorder? Not the tape recorder, dummy, the musical instrument. I'll bet your junior school Christmas carol concert never sounded like this. Natasha Anderson heads for the outer reaches of the recorder universe, concentrating her attention on the F contrabass and tenor recorders and the Garklein-Flötlein ("being only 6 inches long in total with only 3 inches covering all 7 holes, small fingers are essential!" it says at www.hants.gov.uk/hrs/range/garklein.html), plus a few odd middle joints and Max / MSP to mix the ingredients into the tastiest dish of recorder music since Berio's Gesti. Of course, there are the usual toilet splatters here and there – you might want to wait until your breakfast is well and truly digested before trying out "Revenge On The Head", and if you have recurring nightmares about killer bees the title track could be a bracing experience too – but Anderson's impeccable ear and sense of timing makes this Cajid's most exciting and convincing release to date, from the dizzy microtonal heights of "7/11" to the gloomy caverns of "Leach". Check it out.–DW

Giacinto Scelsi
Mode's Scelsi series reaches Volume 6 with three recordings made live at the Wien Modern festival in November 2005, featuring the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Concentus Vocalis and Wiener Kammerchor conducted by Peter Rundel and Johannes Kalitzke. Scelsi junkies will probably already have their copy by now, as the disc features the world premiere recording of the epic cantata for chorus and orchestra La nascita del Verbo, which was written between 1946 and 1948 and first performed a year later at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris (where, you will recall, Stravinsky's Sacre provoked a legendary riot at its premiere) conducted by Roger Desormière. It's an impressively weighty piece, the composition of which apparently plunged the composer into a period of creative crisis, but one whose orchestration and material – there's even a fully-fledged double fugue – looks back to the sprawling early 20th century choral works instead of forward into the brave new world of microtonality and "spherical sound" that the composer subsequently explored. The quintessential Scelsi orchestral masterpiece, Quattro Pezzi (su una nota solo), which dates from barely a decade later, is in another galaxy altogether. This remarkable work still sounds amazing nearly fifty years after it was written, and its exploration of microtonal and timbral nuances paved the way for Grisey, Murail and Radulescu (and I don't agree with Jean-Noël van der Weid that musique spectrale is an inept name for their music) and is one of late 20th century music's greatest treasures. I'm not sure the work has ever been recorded as well as it deserves to be – I don't know how many mics the Viennese techies had at their disposal but some of the myriad nuances sound a little far back in the mix – but Peter Rundel's reading of the piece is certainly as sensitive to detail as the other available recording of the work in my collection, conducted by Jurg Wyttenbach, which featured the orchestra and chorus of Polish Radio in Cracow. Without wishing to cast aspersions on them and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra on this new recording, it'd be great if one day the work could be recorded by a truly major league outfit with a huge budget – and no audience: sorry to come across all Keith Jarrett-like, but the coughs and splutters, not that there are many of them, are somewhat distracting. As Joëlle Léandre (quoted by van der Weid in his liners) rightly states, your perception becomes so intense when performing and listening to Scelsi's music that you actually become sound itself, as it were, and the bronchial spasms of the Viennese concertgoers do tend to break the spell a bit. Still, I'm not complaining. Especially since the disc also includes Uaxuctum (1966), subtitled The Legend of the Mayan City which they themselves destroyed for religious reasons, another monsterpiece for ondes Martenot, seven percussionists, timpani and 23-piece ensemble. In terms of both its scoring (chorus, ondes Martenot) and Mayan inspiration it makes for an interesting comparison with Varèse's 1934 Ecuatorial – was Scelsi familiar with the earlier work? van der Weid makes no mention of the piece in his essay – but where Varèse's setting of the Popul Vuh was taut and wiry, Scelsi is grim and dramatic, all sinister pedal points and rolling timpani thunder. Oddly enough, it seems to have dated a little more than the Quatro Pezzi, and though its harmonic language is far removed from the world of La nascita del Verbo, it shares with the earlier work a strong sense of theatricality ("horror movie music!" my eight-year-old described it, enthusiastically). Since Scelsi's oeuvre was taken up enthusiastically by a younger generation of self-proclaimed tone scientists it's been all too easy to overlook its raw gut power. This fine disc serves as a timely reminder how overwhelmingly emotional his music is. Here's to Volume 7.–DW

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Rosy Parlane
He is mostly unsung and not overly prolific – his previous Iris dates from 2004 – but Rosy Parlane is one of the kingpins of slowly uncoiling, constantly changing drone music whose purposefulness is directly proportional to its smothering beauty. Divided into three movements, Jessamine was composed between 2004 and 2006, and features important contributions on the guitar front from Tetuzi Akiyama, Lasse Marhaug, Anthony Guerra, Michael Morley, Donald McPherson, Matthew Hyland, David Mitchell, Stefan Neville and Campbell Kneale. In addition, Marcel Bear designed and built "amplified sawblade" and "shimsaws" (and also plays the latter in the first section). Parlane recorded the tracks using a plethora of electric and acoustic instruments, bowed metals, radio, computer and field recordings, masterfully assembling and layering his sounds to create textures that range from organic to post-nuclear. After the leaden quasi-consonant sky evoked by the dirty electric mantra that is "Part One", listening to "Part Two" made me think of a fenced-off radioactive area attacked by sonorous weapons of destruction which we're forced to watch in awe. Especially here and in the third movement, whose apex is a monstrous, hypnotizing wall of distorted guitars, Parlane shows his ability to create mind-numbing atmospheres without resorting to fancy tricks; a consistent framing "tonality" is established, but it's what happens inside the frames that counts – and that includes extraneous noise, electrostatics, subtle deviations. Overall, the album's most alluring feature is its sense of imminence, of waiting for an event that might or might not happen. During this uneasy anticipation of what's still to come, various paths to possible harmonic wholeness are glimpsed; the onus of foreseeing and understanding the right ones falls on us. It took more than two years, but Jessamine was well worth the wait.–MR

Marc Behrens / Paulo Raposo
Marc Behrens and Paulo Raposo have been running the Sirr label together since 2001, but this collaborative release appears on the increasingly wonderful and/OAR imprint, which is going from strength to strength these days. After some early cassette only releases, Behrens' first CD Advanced Environmental Control appeared on Bernhard Günter's trente oiseaux label in 1995, but, as is also the case with Francisco López, it's a mistake to associate him exclusively with the quieter end of abstract electronic music. Hades in fact is quite noisy, especially 34 seconds into the opening track, "Gate", a clattering, squeaking assemblage of sounds recorded on Portuguese ferryboats, but it eventually settles into more familiar territory: low rumbling drones and ghostly wails, accompanied by meticulously transformed natural sounds (footsteps, doors slamming, distant voices, and waves breaking). Hades, as Wikipedia will tell you (hey, if Wiki's good enough for Phil Freeman it's good enough for me – 'scuse me if I haven't got time to re-read The Odyssey), was "the gloomy abode of the dead, where almost all mortals go. There is no reward or special punishment in this Hades, akin to the Hebrew sheol. In later Greek philosophy appeared the idea that all the dead are judged after death and rewarded or punished. In this view, Hades was the destiny of those who were not particularly good or bad." Indeed; if you were good you ended up in the Elysian Fields (not my idea of fun, the Champs-Elysées, I can tell you), if you were bad it was off to Tartarus and if they couldn't make up their mind what to do with you you went to Asphodel. That probably explains why DJ Spooky ended up there. Anyway, whether the south bank of the River Tagus is Lisboan Paulo Raposo's idea of "the gloomy abode of the dead" or not is open to question (it looks a far nicer place to hang out than certain parts of Manchester I know), but if it's as beautiful as the music on this album I'll take my place in the queue to cross the Acheron right now. I'm waiting for the silent boatman / To ferry me across the unknown waters. Oops, wrong album.–DW

John Duncan
Vinyl On Demand (3LP + DVD)
Errant Bodies/Ground Fault (Book + CD)
The growing interest in John Duncan's work as a composer, performer and conceptual artist shows that even normal folk, if subjected to the right suggestions and stimuli, are able to recognize real talent, independently from their religious, sociopolitical and personal convictions. Duncan, for many years only championed by discerning fellow artists and independent-minded writers, has by now reached an iconic status which time will only help to enhance, as the man from Wichita remains a cutting-edge explorer who always manages to stick a salt finger in the wounds of truth. First Recordings 1978-1985 is a gorgeous 3-LP box set, a spartan black-and-grey artifact containing music originally released on low-budget and even lower-circulation cassettes and vinyls. It's a fascinating view of several back-pages in Duncan's book, which will bring back memories of youth for those who have been following him since the early days, when Viennese Aktionism and noise-boosted sonic terrorism were major elements in his work. Yet the most striking track on offer is "No", a Reichian (Wilhelm, not Steve) performance based on therapeutic anti-aggression hyperventilation exercises that took place in Los Angeles' KPFK station's open stage studio in 1978. Duncan's breathing starts normally, then becomes more and more violent until his gasps morph into desperate cries for help, as if he were being subjected to torture; snippets of pre-recorded sentences complement the whole. It's an intensely disturbing, distressing piece. The rest is equally compelling: "Dark Market Broadcast" is based on masses of shortwaves and unrecognizable utterances, transmitted by Duncan via pirate FM radio in 1985 when he lived in Tokyo, while "Station Event" is a recording of Tom Recchion and Michael LeDonne-Bhennet improvising live on KPFK on percussion and woodwinds while Duncan handles listeners' phone calls, putting their comments and rants on the air. The set also contains a DVD with two early videos, whose content could be stomach-churning for many; let's just say that you should keep the thing away from curious kids, if you have any.

The Errant Bodies book is a handy document of the many facets of John Duncan's art. Like the box set, it's pretty serious-looking – all black and white – with a lot of photos, graphics, drawings and explanations/instructions for most of the events that Duncan has devised, including the infamous "Blind Date", which for many years sentenced him to exclusion from the Los Angeles avant-garde scene and ruined his private life (read – or surf the Internet – if you don't know what we're talking about). The book also features eight different essays about Duncan. Aside from one or two misfires, these provide useful and incisive analyses of his work in relation to its cultural and social context (Giuliana Stefani's account of "Blind Date" is just perfect). The accompanying CD contains five compositions dating from 1980 to 2003, which is a good refresher course even for dedicated Duncan-followers: rediscovering the shortwaves and field recordings of Crucible (Die Stadt) is nice enough, but listening after many years to 1984's fabulous Riot (AQM) made me realize that many of today's noise gods – from Merzbow to Marhaug to Wiese – owe Duncan a bottle of wine or three.–MR

Asher’s procedures have ebbed and flowed over the years, but most recently they have come to focus on using repetition and minimal sonic development. These works require listeners to make their own journey – to lose themselves within his soundscapes. On Landscape Elsewhere’s four selections, gently understated tones roll freely across beds of crackling textures and low-voltage electronics. The combination of these two passive elements requires us to rethink how we engage with music: at one extreme, we can try for an absolute focus; at the other, we can permit the attention to swing back and forth between surrounding sound interruptions (like the cars outside my window and the child doing the dishes as I write this now) and the recorded compositions themselves. Records that encourage both kinds of listening are increasingly rare these days, and perhaps making such a document is a more complicated process given the chaotic day-to-day uses (and abuses) of our ears. Asher offers us a hand into his tempered environment, but never forces or pressures the listener – it’s a welcome experience, free from expectation but rich in sonic yield.–LE

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