APRIL News 2007 Reviews by Clifford Allen, Jon Dale, Nate Dorward, Lawrence English, Vid Jeraj, Richard Pinnell, Massimo Ricci, Dan Warburton:

Editorial: Musicora 2007
Radu Malfatti
Reissue This:
New Phonic Art
Fred Frith
Richard Lerman
Charlemagne Palestine
Spontaneous Music Ensemble
Exploding Star Orchestra / Talibam! / Flower & Corsano / Sugimoto & Unami / Minton & Weston / Bauer, Lehn & Rose / Eugene Chadbourne
Cor Fuhler / Traw & Rhodri Davies / Furt / Otomo Yoshihide / Günter Müller / Ingar Zach / Korber & Schurer
Dimitri Voudouris / Stephen Scott / John Cage
Damion Romero / Sixes / Roman Torment / The Rita / Evenomist / Mike Shiflet / Daniel Menche / Jason Kahn / Mecha Orga
Last month


Musicora, the annual Parisian music industry showcase and cultural exhibition, used to be something of a European event, attracting professionals and public from neighboring countries, and offering vast opportunities for networking and discovery. Now it has deteriorated into a commercial lowest-common-denominator (grand public, as the French so delightfully put it) fun fair, one that makes the professionals nervous and fidgety. Contemporary music, which used to take advantage of the gigantic audience (thousands of people attend every year) has virtually disappeared from sight, probably because the booths cost more and more, and the audience has been correspondingly dumbed down. Le Living, a cheerful collective of new-music groups run by the Ms. Ondine Garcia, was the one faint hope at Musicora for those of us who believe that French music did not stop with Debussy. Le Living’s goal is to unite France’s diverse small new music groups, initiatives, competitions, magazines, etc. And they are doing an admirable job. But I wish they had more support. Grassroots initiatives like this can be a lot more effective than the government-run, state-sponsored, bureaucratic institutions, which still dominate French culture.
Indeed, during the weekend, the liberal Libération newspaper ran an article attacking the centralized nature of French culture (easy target), and revealing that most cultural leaders are really bureaucrats, in it for power rather than artistic reasons (wow). Of course this is not news. It’s a big problem in France, and one that is slowly strangling the country’s creativity. But the article went on to present the "American Culture System" as the solution. The what?! At least there is still money for the arts circulating in Europe, even though the days of Jack Lang and his largesse are long gone. But please don’t start holding up America as a model of cultural enlightenment! The American cultural system is one of government neglect, corporate dictates, and conservative meddling. Cities like New York host a hell of a lot of creativity, but that is not due to some cultural policy – it’s more a matter of sheer numbers, enthusiastic but over-extended private foundations, money from Wall Street, the glorious potential of the melting pot, yankee ingenuity, and the mind-numbing state of the arts in the rest of the country which pushes the most creative artists to flee to the big city. Paris will never be New York. And New York will never be Paris. Meanwhile, France actually has made big progress in recent years decentralizing their cultural institutions, and they should keep doing so. Maintaining the desired level of cultural supremacy is not an easy task. It was hard for the Esterhazys and it’s hard for the French.
Meanwhile, in the Baroque heaven of the instruments hall at Musicora, lost among the violin makers, bow rehairers, mother-of-pearl carvers, and other fine craftsmen, arched over their precious woods, I stumbled on one of the Baschet instruments. The Baschet brothers' beautiful high-tech conceptions are on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but they're equally famous for their low-tech pedagogical instruments, which are still used by schoolchildren all over France, with their delightful if somewhat limited musical possibilities. But the elaborate instruments such as the enthrallingly sensual one I played that day are far too delicate and complex to use, not to mention difficult to build. The crystal keys of this contraption are stroked with wet fingers to produce a vibration which is picked up by a calibrated steel weight, and transmitted through metal rods out to shiny spaceship-type wings which act as amplifiers. It’s entirely analog, and has (nifty!) no moving parts. Like a Theremin, the effect is eerie and breathtaking, but in the hands of the wrong person, excruciatingly cloying. Many eccentric instruments attract players who are so delighted with the initial sounds of the instrument that they never investigate further, which results in superficial music, transcriptions of pieces for other instruments, and showpieces that are about as exciting as the phone book (in the hands of John Cage, the phonebook was pretty darned exciting, but that’s another story..). The French government should create a multi-million Euro center for these kinds of groundbreaking instruments so we can really discover their full potential. Wait, on second thought, let’s put that center in New York. I hear Nike is looking for new sponsorship opps..—GL
Apologies first and foremost to my good pal Brian Olewnick for not officially welcoming him on board the good ship PT last month, with his splendid Robert Ashley review. Hope we'll see more of you in the future, Brian (though I know somebody has to hold the fort over at Bagatellen). A warm welcome back this month to Bob Gilmore, who contributes a fine interview with Phill Niblock (and in case you were wondering what happened to the regular flow of PT interviews, fear not – there are three more in the pipeline). And of course thanks to all our regular contributors and to the folks who've sent stuff in for review from all corners of the globe. How about that for a dumb cliché.. since when did a globe have corners? Never mind, back to the matter in hand: thanks also to The Wire magazine for allowing me to run the Misha Mengelberg concert review in last month's PT. As it didn't appear in the March Wire I assumed it wouldn't make it to the April issue, but I see it has. Still, to quote another dumb cliché, you read it here first. Bonne lecture.-DW

>>back to top of APRIL 2007 page

Radu Malfatti

After an initial cursory listen, it seemed easy to compare discovering this cluster of new Radu Malfatti releases to wandering into a room full of Barnett Newman's mid period paintings. Many of these discs feature sparse, emotionless music made up of single lines of sound separated by large expanses of silence. Yet whilst around half of these twelve limited edition self-released recordings are similar in compositional structure, close repeated listening reveals a continual development across the past ten years, and a rich, detailed understanding of the thorny relationship between sound, silence and the grey areas in between.
For a listener, approaching a dozen discs of Malfatti's compositions is a daunting prospect. The veteran Austrian trombonist's outings as an improviser are somehow easier to come to terms with than the rigid austerity of these new CDRs. The former can be approached and assessed in terms of the human emotional qualities associated with the brief history of improvised music, but there is less to relate the latter to. The late works of Cage, Feldman and Nono point some of the way towards Malfatti's work, but any further comparison falls short. Radu Malfatti has got to where he is after nearly forty years of musical investigation – and he hasn't stopped moving.
The first four b-boims are typically unforgiving. hoffingerquartett (2005) is scored for string quartet, but is presented on this disc in an "electronic realisation" by Malfatti himself, in which samples of each instrument are painstakingly sequenced by computer to create a virtual quartet. The score of the piece consists of a list of precise timings that exist as windows within the digital silence into which Malfatti places his sounds, dry layers of bowed wood that sound more like a passing underground train than any traditional string quartet. The timings seem to be based on a simple mathematical structure whereby the durations of the sounds and the silences between them are defined by the score to form recognisable patterns. The cold harshness of the sound itself is amplified by the clinical manner in which it begins and ends.
2004's zeitschatten for clarinet and cello is also heard in an electronic realisation made two years later, but 2005's friedrichschofquartett features the instruments it was written for – flute, clarinet, trombone and contrabass recorder – played by Malfatti's colleagues from the Wandelweiser Group, Antoine Beuger, Jürg Frey and Eva Reiter. Even so a degree of post-production remains evident in the recording as the silences in the music are inserted digitally, depriving the recording of any Cageian room noise and creating a confusing, unnatural feel to the piece that further challenges the listener's ideas of what music is and how it should sound. The score calls for subtle changes in the individual sounding events, but these remain barely noticeable as the extended silences cause the mind to re-evaluate its memory of the preceding events. Appropriately, several of the b-boim discs come with brief koan-like quotations from Malfatti's old friend Francis Brown. "If no sound is being created, can the memory of previous sound be interrupted?" "How many dimensions does sound have?" "Does the mind stop listening between sounds?"
b-boim 004, 2006's düsseldorf oktett, returns to the electronic realisation process and reduces the eight different acoustic instruments – guitar, clarinet, alto saxophone, trombone, violin, viola, violoncello and vibraphone – to a thick sinewave-like hum. This time the composition involves separate lines that start and finish independently, overlapping in places, and its overall effect is accordingly different from the three previous releases. It's a less confrontational music, whose warm sounds and hint of conversation between the different layers comes across as slightly more human (yet it also for this listener results in a slightly less rewarding listening experience).
The fifth release in the series is a very different animal. In February 2006 Malfatti and fellow Wandelweiser composers Jürg Frey and Michael Pisaro each performed a solo work of their own composition simultaneously at the New York's Merkin Hall. Three Backgrounds captures the event through a recording that contains plenty of coughing, people milling about and even a mobile phone ringing, the music nestling deep amongst what sounds like the hum of air conditioning and distant traffic noise, highlighting perhaps the irony implicit in the title of the piece. Frey's clarinet, Pisaro's guitar and Malfatti's trombone go about their business independently, occasionally overlapping, often fighting for air amongst the clamour of an audience trying to remain silent. Though Malfatti's interest in silence and how it can be used in music extends beyond the Cageian theory that formed the starting point for the Wandelweiser Group, Three Backgrounds references Cage's 4'33" more closely than the other b-boim releases, not least because Malfatti's own contribution is but a part of the whole. While the other releases confront the listener with silence, asking him/her to deal with it as a fundamental element of the composition, Three Backgrounds rejoices in its impossibility, and makes for a much easier, but also very beautiful listening experience. Malfatti had reservations about releasing it, owing to dissatisfaction with the recording quality, but we can be grateful he did. It's one of my favourites of the series.
b-boim 006, 2006's hoffinger nonett (2006) is a piece composed for sinewaves, (presumably nine of them, though it's not possible to discern nine distinct voices in Malfatti's electronic realisation), and returns to low pitched sounds interspersed with silence, this time running simultaneously with short snippets of higher pitches, whose overlay suggests regular patterns in the listener's mind. The eighth b-boim, das pelzige M, dating from the same year, inhabits similar territory. The extended tones constructed on Malfatti's computer are listed here as flute, clarinet, trombone and cello, sampled to create the smooth clear tones of this piece. Between these two releases sits wechseljahre einer hyäne (2003), ("the hyena's menopause"), again similar in structure, with long lines of precisely sustained notes broken up by periods of silence. Here the work is performed live by the saxophone quartet Intersax, featuring Ulrich Krieger, who commissioned it, and after the two digitally created pieces the warmth of the saxophones and the tiny delays in co-ordination stand out noticeably. The releases here that use real instruments come across as more richly detailed, and easier on the ear. The skill involved in performing such music becomes more apparent, and the music feels less alien. Even the occasional cough from the audience is a small comforting familiarity that roots the music almost subconsciously in the mind of this listener.
Radu Malfatti has gone on record, most famously in his interview with Paris Transatlantic, as stating that one of a musician's biggest enemies is stagnation. Indeed, the cover of Going Fragile, his 2006 improv release with Mattin (Formed) was plastered with texts to this effect. The casual listener then could probably be forgiven for thinking that the similarity in these compositions flies in the face of such statements, yet these twelve discs span a ten-year portion of a long career that has seen continual change, and there is a sense of clear progression in these recent pieces, in which Malfatti's music seems to be pushing even further away from the received wisdom of how recordings of music should be constructed and perceived. The ninth release on the label, nonostante II (2000), dispenses with sustained notes, and is written instead for solo piano, played by Malfatti himself. The familiar extended silences remain, surrounding tiny, carefully defined groups of piano pitches. The very long silences that separate them test the memory of even the most attentive listener, and it's far from easy to relate one patch of piano sound to the next. Brown's unanswered questions come to mind once more, but it's a text from Michael Pisaro that adorns nonostante's sleeve, including the line "the music is really always there, but like an iceberg, (or the English underground) it only comes to the surface at discrete moments". There is definitely the sense of a longer work existing here, large portions of which have been erased, not dissimilar to Futatsu, Malfatti's celebrated duo with Taku Sugimoto (Improvised Music from Japan).
The tenth b-boim is probably the least successful to these ears. raum-zeit I (1997) is composed for a full string orchestra, built up here once more by massed samples of individual instruments. Dating from a decade ago, it's decidedly "musical", its long sustained tones preceded by short passages of slow fragmented melody, the beginning of a mournful tune that never quite arrives. The layered effect of the sampled instruments is less successful, and the discernible looping betrays their artificial nature. Whereas the previous electronic realisations made no attempt to sound real, raum-zeit's layered strings try to do so and end up sounding fake, and detract from the overall effect of the composition. The eleventh and twelfth releases thankfully return to live recordings using real instrumentation. 012, nonostante III (2000) is scored for four string instruments and a clarinet. This piece is the most complex yet; the sustained notes are still present, but incorporate rising and falling sections, and there are numerous extraneous sounds coming in from the surrounding silence: strings pressed down, shuffling, scratching, people moving about the room. The silences here are charged, full of the aural detritus of the room, sounds that could well be part of the score, leaving the listener uncertain as to what is intended or incidental. Listening on headphones projects you into the space, but the tense, decentred nature of the music requires massive concentration to decipher what is present.
The sound of a "silent" audience also fills the eleventh (and to my ears most successful) b-boim. rain speak soft tree listens (2003) is a recording for string quartet and piano that also features the voices of twenty five guests each simultaneously whispering one of the words from a line taken from a Robert Lax poem: the five words of the work's title. At the heart of the recording remains the sound of the concert hall environment in Dusseldorf, complete with the usual shuffling and creaking, but also external sounds can also be clearly heard: voices calling, traffic passing, even church bells. Over this backdrop the strings place long slabs of dense, dry sound that peter out in places, leaving single instruments to finish before cutting away abruptly to silence. The piano contributes only single notes spaced wide apart in the recording, often close to the brief moments when the massed voices whisper their shapeless words. The cumulative effect is one of immense beauty. The restrained use of these composed elements set with precision amongst the unexpected external sounds is truly magical.
Radu Malfatti remains one of the most uncompromising and challenging composers today. Far from merely making quiet music, his compositions confront our expectations; listening takes focus and concentration. They ask questions about our perception of sound once it is placed into the medium of recorded music, and how it is affected by a human memory that is conditioned to understand a musical moment by the sounds preceding it. Much of this music troubles you as a listener, asking you to continually reprocess what you are hearing, not allowing you to take any moment for granted. As such, Radu Malfatti's work extends Cage's ideas further, and these twelve discs document that process admirably.–RP

>>back to top of APRIL 2007 page

New Phonic Art
New Phonic Art / Iskra 1903 / Wired
There is a dictum attributed to Anthony Braxton in which he differentiates his music from other AACM musicians on the basis of influence – sure, the music sprouts from Africa, but the pieces he studies most are by Cage, Stockhausen and others. (In fact this also applies to the music of many of his AACM colleagues, even if they don't admit to it as readily). The Art Ensemble of Chicago brought blues, rock, and bebop dexterity to their program of Great Black Music, amidst disparate percussive forays that had perhaps more to do with contemporary concert music (my ears have pegged Les Percussions de Strasbourg) than with your average Folkways set. What one can't appreciate from audio examples is the theatrical end of the AEC, involving not only costume, poetry and commentary, but also elaborate staging around a maddening array of instruments. The AEC and other AACM units seemed to find even the sonic options provided by free jazz to be an idiomatic trap, and therefore found their aesthetics a certain distance from Coleman, Coltrane and Cecil Taylor.

In Europe during the late 60s, there was no historical precedent for free jazz, but improvisation was seen by composers as a way to escape the dead end of serial music, with composers like Penderecki, Stockhausen, Morricone and Bernd Alois Zimmermann employing free musicians to various ends. Argentinian-born, Cologne-based composer Mauricio Kagel even went so far as to bring homemade and non-Western instruments (and improvisation) to his situationist excursions. The Paris-based group New Phonic Art, formed in 1969 by trombonist/composer Vinko Globokar, jazz/classical reedman Michel Portal, percussionist Jean-Pierre Drouet and Argentine composer/keyboardist Carlos Roqué Alsina, had connections to the very different music of Kagel and Stockhausen. Though initially New Phonic Art performed compositions, by the early 1970s their meetings became wholly improvised.
Despite such settings as Kagel's Exotica (which found Portal, Globokar and friends surrounded by a few hundred non-Western instruments, not to mention AEC-esque face paint), New Phonic Art focused as much on action and interaction as color, and their sonic palette was derived from semi-traditional instrumentation, albeit used in some rather bizarre combinations and to extreme tonal ends. Alto and tenor saxophone, various clarinets, taragato (Romania), zurna (Macedonian oboe), trombone, alphorn, organ, bandoneon, piano, and a vast arsenal of percussion all feature prominently, but the group was known to employ non-European instruments as well. This led to one memorable incident (recounted by Portal in an interview at www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=18096):
"[On tour in Mexico] we had a huge variety of instruments from Afghanistan, Morocco and other places, and had to have them shipped. When we got to Mexico, we had to tell the customs officers who we were and what we were doing. So I was to tell them that we were the New Phonic Art Ensemble, and we play music. We had to fake the documents to make it easier. The officer asked us what kind of music we played and so I told him that we played classical music. And he said 'You have a lot of instruments. What kind of music is it?' 'Contemporary.' 'What is the name of your group?' 'New Phonic Art.' ' Como?' 'New Phonic Art.' 'Hmm.' So then he said to his comrade, 'No fornicar.. ("No fucking.."). Open the cases!' Nobody had a clue what was going to happen, and we had to open up all the cases and try to explain what was in them."

Though its members appear on recordings of music by Stockhausen (Aus den Sieben Tagen on DGG, Harmonia Mundi and Shandar), Kagel (Exotica, Acustica, and Der Schall on DGG), Puig, Berio, Thomas Kessler and others, New Phonic Art only released three albums in their five-year lifespan, despite being regulars on the festival circuit. Meeting in Baden-Baden (Wergo 60.060, 1971) was their first foray, and was followed by the ultra-rare Drama/Correspondences (BASF/Harmonia 202.1803, 1973, released under Globokar's name). The final installment was New Phonic Art 1973, their contribution to the notorious Free Improvisation 3 LP box (DGG 2740.105, 1973 which also included music by Iskra 1903 and Wired).
Probably the least restrained of the three is the DGG session, cut shortly before the group's 1974 dissolution. The recordings were made in Paris at Polydor Studios, one before a group of close friends and the other without a live audience. According to the liners, the three improvisations chosen for release "best mirrored the situation within the group, its human relationships and forms of musical communication." The LP starts with a brief piece, call and response from alto and trombone over a pummeling beat of organ and percussion, a manic assault of high jinks that, when compared with the measured tonal explorations of the third improvisation or the Wergo disc, seems almost out-of-character. Portal explained the theatricality of the group as follows:
"Kagel was someone who liked to make fun of people and he had me act as an old blues player, as an old tired jazzman, and he would incorporate noise elements into this as well. He would direct me to say something odd while making some sounds – 'no more water, no more water..' – a lot of pandering. There was a lot of involvement with the Living Theatre, where we would go onstage just speaking nonsense. We defied a lot of the rules, and even Xenakis told me just not to care and not to worry if what came of it was good or not. I'd be asked to play a phrase or make a noise and not to think about the context or what others were doing. The proposal was to free myself and the other musicians from questions of 'why do you play that way' or 'what are you doing?'"
(Portal's own groups from the period also embraced theater, involving audience participation on Chateauvillon '76 ("L'Escargot", with Pierre Favre, Bernard Lubat, Béb Guerin and François Mechali) and strange, improvised recitations by Barre Phillips and Howard Johnson on Portal's CBS 1971 LP Splendid Yzlment.)

If one follows the literature of the time, New Phonic Art was a group trying to make their way back to music making as sound, action and communication, without any predisposed attachments. Quoting again from the DGG liners: "the basic guidelines [were] no prior discussion, no verbal, visual or audible subject matter, no focusing on a broader aesthetic, psychological or social proposition, and no time limits." Inasmuch as the group was able to develop its own very specific sound universe - so specific that one can expect certain things from it (and we'll get to that in more detail later) - their improvisations can either defy the analysis befitting most contemporary music or much improvised music. Whereas Braxton's contrabass clarinet solo on Jacques Coursil's Black Suite (BYG Actuel, 1969) is full of rage, power, and a facility that at times nearly matches Warne Marsh, in the hands of Portal the instrument is only breath and mass in response to the burble of Globokar's trombone or Alsina's fluttering piano. Though I've been critical of John Litweiler's portrayal of Portal as coldly emotionless before, in the context of this ensemble, it's apt in a way, insofar as the tropes of Fire Music are separated from all meaning to become just one of many sonic possibilities in a very wide palette.
Certainly, we can talk of a "typical" New Phonic Art beginning - as when chortling alto, searing trombone, and a marimba-darbouka dialogue open "Improvisation 2" on the DGG set. It's only when the music opens up to a field of woodwind and vocal nonsense that the possibilities begin. Classical percussion tradition and organ music are obliquely referenced, providing an undertow of poise beneath obnoxious trombone farts and contrabass clarinet rumble, a "Rip, Rig & Panic" for the conservatoire. Is it possible as a musician to avoid one's past - whether it comes from a record collection or a recording career? Of course, groups like AMM made statements to the effect that one could get away from reference, and the liner notes to New Phonic Art recordings point in a similar direction. Whether references to other music are just chance associations that surround what are, first and foremost, sounds is a matter for dialecticians. But this music is necessarily knotty, for the contradictions are easy to find. Surely, when Alsina plays faux-classical organ phrases to the accompaniment of bandoneon and laughter (both literal and instrumental), it can evoke a cabaret after the audience has split. And, strangely enough, the group returns to this evocation after a lengthy and arrhythmic percussion foray, Globokar blatting away on alphorn to the organ-bandoneon sawdust song.

All this isn't to say that the group couldn't get down and get seriously heavy - a nearly apocalyptic weight characterizes the sidelong improvisation on Meeting in Baden-Baden. There's the shimmer of tam-tam, expanding and contracting in density as chirps and sighs from clarinet and trombone engage in bleak dialogue, while Alsina's organ bleats spacey tones and his block chords are the music's cement shoes. Here, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Brötzmann-Mangelsdorff Quartet, or Sunny Murray's stately sound-fields enter as sonic reference points. Indeed, this might be the closest New Phonic Art ever got to free jazz, and it would be something that subsequent recordings backed away from.
What dissolved New Phonic Art was something entirely natural - the group couldn't go on forever. The gradual establishing of clichés made true free improvisation impossible, according to Portal, and an interest in freedom as a tool within compositional contexts also became paramount: "Eventually we had to stop the group, because we had reached the limits of what could happen with the personalities of the players and with the ensemble. Though it was pure improvisation, one could tell what the others were going to do before they did it. One of the musicians was a sad guy, and he'd always start his improvisations with a lament: 'oooh, oooh, mmm...' and I always thought, 'I know who's doing that!'"
Indeed, if one is familiar with Portal's music, or has listened to his (and Globokar's) work with Stockhausen and Kagel, certain actions become predictable. Similarly, when Brötzmann plays a solo with Bennink, you know Bennink is going to stop drumming, let the saxophonist hang out unaccompanied, and return with a yell and a slam of the toms. So it goes with free improvisation: when one plays group music, a group sound begins to develop. As a soloist, too, clichés develop just as language develops. It's a sign of personality and that we're human. New Phonic Art embraced the necessary pitfalls of improvisation with a view to freeing up group situations, in the knowledge that being in the present is the real way to go from "ancient to the future."

>>back to top of APRIL 2007 page

Fred Frith

Fred Records/ReR
Fred Records/ReR
Janet Feder/Fred Frith
Ad Hoc (CD + DVD)
Fred Frith's long-time collaboration with choreographer Amanda Miller is the basis of The Happy End Problem. Consisting of two separate soundtracks – "Imitation" and the title track – the music manifests its beauty from the opening of "Ukon" (the first part of "Imitation"), where gorgeous intersecting arpeggios flow into suspended chords of rare emotional intensity. The music benefits enormously from the stunning performances of all the players involved: particular mention should be made of the truly awesome Carla Kihlstedt on violin, whose graciously incisive phrasing perfectly defines the borders between dance, dream and conscious intention in this magic symmetry of notes and space. The other important voice in "Imitation" is shakuhachi-player Kikutsubo Day, whose bent whispers add both East-Asian and Gaelic flavours to the piece's many influences, even if it remains pure Frith in its essence. "The Happy End Problem" is a 21-minute track that uses snippets of Igor Stravinsky's Firebird Suite to build tensions and repetitions in an otherwise calm setting, enhanced by environmental recordings and additional pancultural references. Kihlstedt executes her parts flawlessly, while Frith's contributions on bass, guitar and laptop are more elusive. My soul undergoes a meltdown about 15 minutes into the track, when Wu Fei's delicate gu zheng figures remind us of the frailty of purpose amidst the often overwhelming forces of life.. one of the most touching sections of what Chris Cutler rightly calls an instant classic.

Fred Frith loves "roaming the corridors of music schools", and any PT reader who's done this will be familiar with the educated cacophony deriving from the many different sounds coming out of adjoining classes. On Impur he sets this pandemonium in a structure of sorts, dividing the musicians of the Ecole Nationale de Musique de Villeurbanne (near Lyon) into "various groupings and ensembles" and giving them instructions (and stopwatches) to play predetermined pieces at various times. The departments involved even include African Drumming and Early Music (together with the obviously abundant phalanx of rockers) but for some reason the jazzers, evidently too snotty, declined to participate – at least officially. It's a enjoyable 55 minutes of clashing brass sections, acoustic chamber delicacies-cum-tribal subdivisions and guitar chords getting lost in a haze of sulphuric distortion and phased-out reverberation, but probably an experience that better rewarded the audience that witnessed the event in the flesh.

Frith and Denver-based guitarist Janet Feder turn in a real surprise with Ironic Universe. I was expecting a radical album of bowed/scraped strings and bumps-on-wood, a kind of sacred ceremony for the dismemberment of the instrument. Instead, these twelve pieces, which include six Feder solos, are refined fingerstyle improvisations, with just a touch of preparation that lets the strings gently buzz and sizzle, placing imaginary mirrors for the chord shapes to refract and counter-refract. It's a lovely record, and one that needs at least two or three spins to reveal its depth. Take a superficial "background music" approach and you might think Windham Hill or Adrian Legg, but this is serious, inquisitive music by two sensitively capable guitarists. The set is complemented by a DVD containing solo performances in Colorado by the two artists: Frith in Boulder (2004) and Feder in Denver (2006). If you still had any doubts, the DVD alone should be enough to make you place an order.

>>back to top of APRIL 2007 page

Richard Lerman

Richard Lerman was born in San Francisco in 1944 (but ended up in Milwaukee by the end of his teens) and studied at Brandeis, where he started experimenting with tape music back in 1963. After a 20 year stint teaching film, performance art and computer music at Boston Museum School, he took up a position at Arizona State University West in 1994, where he still teaches Media Arts. Originally released on Folkways in 1982, Travelon Gamelan was an ambitious project for amplified bicycle wheels (Jac Berrocal eat your heart out) presented both in a "concert version" or in a "promenade version", a kind of moving installation. Piezo pickups and portable amplifiers were attached to the bicycles and the sounds of plucked and bowed spokes, squeaky brakes and twanged cables – all notated in a score, by the way, which is available for consultation on the first of these two enhanced CDs – mingle, in the prom versions, with the sounds of the street and Lerman himself giving instructions to his cyclists. The first CD features no fewer than five versions of TGam, promenade versions recorded in Boston (1979) and Amsterdam (1982) and concert versions from Pittsburgh (1981), Amsterdam once more (recorded on the same day as the prom version) and Wellington (1986). There's even an 18-minute film of a performance in Vancouver in 1987. It's a fun piece to listen to, watch and read about, in the copious and beautifully prepared booklet accompanying the discs, complete with numerous photographs, Lerman's original liners to the Folkways LP, and a fine essay on Lerman's music by Arthur Sabatini.

Disc one is fun all right (makes you wonder what else is lurking in the Folkways archives and crying out for reissue), but disc two is even better. For Two Of Them (1964) has been described as an "early Plunderphonics piece", though that's stretching it a bit: Lerman approaches his source materials – recordings of Mahler's Sixth Symphony and the Stan Kenton Band playing Bob Graettinger's City of Glass – with a primitive reverb unit, a bank of filters, a white noise generator and unbridled enthusiasm for sonic exploration, but hardly the conceptual rigour (nor the postmodern irony) of a John Oswald. The original pieces are barely recognisable, but that's not a problem. It's a great swirling mass of scary noise, and a fitting companion to other better known pieces of 60s American tape music by James Tenney and Pauline Oliveros. Sections for Screens, Performers and Audience (1975) is a 16mm film projected to both audience and performers alike, which serves as a graphic score for live improvisation. The musicians in this archive performance from 1975 are Basil Bova (piano), Earl Grant Lawrence (flute), George Cordeiro (alto sax) and Lerman himself on sho and live electronic transformations. The tape is rather hissy and the musicians are clearly classically trained cats improvising as opposed to, ahem, "professional" improvisers, but it's none the worse for that. From the look of the images printed in the booklet, this is a piece that deserves to be performed by some of today's top notch players, especially now that graphic scores, since the revival of interest in Cardew's Treatise in recent years, are hip once more. Perhaps Lerman could circulate DVD copies of the film to some interested parties.

End of the Line: some recent dealings with death (1976) features an eight-piece ensemble playing sombre sustained tones along with a tape delay system, itself also subtly modified (filtered, ring modulated..) by the composer. Tape delay also features in Accretion Disk, Event Horizon, Singularity (1979), an ambitious project modelled on the idea of a black hole – "all the sound is eventually captured by the 'system' – it simply becomes more and more dense, unable to escape", the composer writes. Indeed, this recording of the work's first (?) (only?) performance at Godard College in Vermont in 1979 was so good that the names of the performers got sucked into oblivion too, it seems. 2 1/2 Minutes for a BASF Loop (1980) actually lasts 13'22", and is notable for the incorporation into the loop system of recordings made outside during the performance – specifically, a rather impressive rainstorm; once more Lerman's technical set-up is available for consultation as a pdf file on the enhanced disc. If the BASF loop piece drags a bit, the same unfortunately can't be said for Soundspot (1982), an intriguing installation featuring a 40-foot long slinky and metal tines from a toy piano, suspended from the ceiling and amplified thanks to Lerman's beloved piezo devices. What a shame its ghostly whines only last just over a couple of minutes. The set closes with the intriguing Music for Plinky and Straw (1986). Lerman explains: "Because the plinky amplifies the vibrations inside of different gauges and lengths of harpsichord wire soldered to a piezo disk, it is reminiscent of the sound of a gamelan orchestra. The straw, which fits over a condenser mic capsule models the sound of a microphone inside a bendable organ pipe. The score's performance instructions are notated by physical gestures and text. The same gestures applied to both instruments in performance, yield widely differing sounds." Once again, there's a brief (and I mean brief, i.e. 33 seconds long) Quicktime movie included showing how it's done in performance, which is interesting enough but not as much fun as listening to the piece and trying to imagine how the sounds are made.

All in all, this is a superb set, produced with real loving care – the booklet is exemplary – and taking full advantage of CD technology to include scores and film footage to accompany the music. One can only hope that the good folks at EM Records might get their hands on some of that ONCE Festival archive material. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Lerman is an unjustly neglected genius – the music is very good, not great, and the recording quality doesn't always show it to its best advantage – but in his place I'd be as happy as a pig in shit to see my own work documented with such affection and attention to detail. Well worth a flutter, ladies and gents.

>>back to top of APRIL 2007 page

Charlemagne Palestine
Charlemagne Palestine

Charlemagne Palestine
Cold Blue
Perlonex with Keith Rowe/Charlemagne Palestine
Once upon a time buying a Charlemagne Palestine LP without resorting to a bank loan was the stuff of dreams.. It seems nowadays we're virtually forced to select keepers from the batches of CDs that appear each month. Well, maybe I'm exaggerating a little. For the record, I wouldn't give away anything from my Palestine collection (except Karenina). And certainly not The Golden Mean, which comes in a limited edition of 1000 copies with a soft velvet cover [comes in five different colours – mine's orange, what's yours Massimo?-Ed.]. The performance was captured at la Chapelle de la Sorbonne in Paris, 1979 and finds Palestine sitting between two Bösendorfers (the photo makes him look like Keith Emerson) in search of the Holy Grail of overtone contrast. The music comes very close to the spirit of this minimalist maverick's old masterpieces, whose repeated middle Cs, with gradually increasing intensity and the addition of adjacent semitones, slowly develop into ear-caressing domes of clusters and chords that shine like water droplets dangling from a rainbow's arc. It's a magnificent work, one that puts the listener in peace with life for about 40 minutes and totally justifies the long wait that loyal Palestine followers have had to endure after Shiiin announced its release as "imminent" – at the beginning of last year.

A Sweet Quasimodo..
is another performance for two pianos, this time recorded in Maybeck studio (Berkeley, California) in 2006. Palestine begins with a short spoken introduction, also rubbing harmonics out of a glass of cognac and vocalizing in his own unique falsetto. Then the piece begins, and what we get is definitely less serene than The Golden Mean, but still engrossing. Starting with the usual reiteration of solitary notes, Palestine builds in a dynamic process that's almost violent at times, a breath-like, come-and-go cycle of superimposed dissonances that ends with a long silence and a few final words before the applause. As always, you've got to play the thing quite loud to perceive the high resonances fighting and embracing, which is what Palestine's music is all about. At a first listen, I found it somewhat detached and less inspired, but repeated spins convince me of its staying power.

Perlonex is the Berlin-based trio of Ignaz Schick (turntables, live electronics), Jorg Maria Zeger (electric guitars) and Burkhard Beins (percussion, objects). For their fifth anniversary concert, held at Podewil in 2004, they invited Keith Rowe and Charlemagne Palestine to join them, and the results, heard in Tensions, are exactly what one would expect from these musicians. The first disc features Rowe, who seems completely absorbed in the group's music, in a slow, if uneasy mantra that inches forward to become unbearably strained and edgy at midpoint, with its necessary frictions and ruptures, but with all the players involved showing an accomplished sense of sound placement and interaction. The set with Palestine has its moments, too, but while the American's synthesized waves mesh well with Perlonex's dynamics, his piano is completely out of context at times: the tolling chords he hits with all his might struggle to get heard (at least in this particular mix), often seeming more superfluous than complementary. Still, there are enough transcendental, mesmerizing sections where the four instruments fuse into one to make it worth keeping.

>>back to top of APRIL 2007 page

Spontaneous Music Ensemble

Never was an album so aptly named. Recorded on February 3rd 1974 at London's ICA, these 85 minutes of music created by John Stevens (percussion, cornet), Derek Bailey (guitars), Kent Carter (cello and bass) and soprano saxophonists Evan Parker and Trevor Watts stand as one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest, documents of free improvisation, full stop, period, endae fuckin story, as Irvine Welsh so eloquently put it. Some might marvel that this was the first time all five men had actually played together, though considering that they'd already worked with each other in various combinations for several years, the extraordinary near-telepathic interplay between them and the quality of the music it helped create should come as no surprise. In improv, sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't. Most of the time it's better when it is happening, but even if it isn't it can be fun; mistakes, wrong turns down blind alleys, slight misunderstandings or even cussed bloodymindedness can lead to some great music, and improvisers as different as Misha Mengelberg and Jack Wright have created a lifetime's worth of fine music by thriving on such tension. Others prefer to nurture longlasting relationships, Evan Parker being the most obvious example – his trio with Barry Guy and Paul Lytton has been around for about a quarter of a century, and the Schlippenbach Trio with Alex von Schlippenbach and Paul Lovens a decade longer than that. But however one choose to plan out one's career, or whoever one chooses to play with, it all boils down to the same thing: improv is created in the moment, and in Quintessence there is, as the old cliché goes, never a dull moment. Never.

I could make quite a long list of such moments and attempt to draw your attention to what's going on in each of them ("check out Bailey and Carter at 16'45" in "Forty Minutes (part 1)" etc.) but what would be the point? You know how to listen, for Chrissakes. Or least you should do by now – if not what are you doing with this album in your CD player? But if by chance you don't, or you're coming to free improvisation for the very first time, these gentlemen will show you how to listen. And you'll listen hard – give this music the attention it deserves and you'll be as exhausted and exhilarated after it's over as these guys must have been that memorable night 33 years ago. I'm reminded of that story of George Bernard Shaw who once told violinist Jascha Heifetz he should play a wrong note every night before going to bed, because "the gods are jealous of perfection".. it's almost a shame that "less than a minute" of music in "Thirty-Five Minutes" was edited out "to remove two brief moments of untogetherness", to quote Martin Davidson's liner notes. It almost makes you want to have them back in there to remind us that these chaps were human after all.

Davidson originally released Quintessence as two LPs in 1986, and again on CD in 1997. With his typical concern for filling up the compact disc with as music as can comfortably contain (there's so much information on an Emanem disc you often think it might spontaneously combust), this double CD package also includes performances from the Little Theatre Club in October 1973 – three trio tracks featuring Stevens, Watts and Carter (on double bass this time) and a couple of gems by the Stevens / Watts duo, including the amazing "Corsop", whose explorations of tiny twitters and tweets often at the threshold of audibility seem to point forward to the lowercase improv that became à la mode over two decades later (drop the needle near the end and you could swear it's nmperign). The trio version of the raw, Ayler-inspired "Daa-Oom" (Stevens' wild yodels were described variously as "ghastly" and "virtuosic" at the time – you decide which adjective best applies) apparently "ran out of steam" after five minutes, but it's a hell of a five minutes, and makes for a fine comparison with the ten-minute duo version that rounds off the disc.

Somewhere in the shady recesses of my mind I hear the familiar strains of Eric Coates' music.. this is real Desert Island Discs stuff, and I'm left wondering why it didn't make it to the awfully self-indulgent Top 40 I compiled for these pages nearly four years ago. Remind me to put that situation right for 2013's Top 50. Meanwhile, I could quite happily listen to these two discs for the next six years, secure in the knowledge that I'll be as surprised and moved by the thrilling music they contain at each subsequent listen. Make sure you are too: if you missed out on the earlier releases of Quintessence, please don't miss out on this.

>>back to top of APRIL 2007 page

Exploding Star Orchestra
Thrill Jockey
Exploding Star Orchestra is cornettist / composer Rob Mazurek's most ambitious project to date, a 14-piece big band featuring the cream of the crop of Chicago new music – Nicole Mitchell (flutes), Jeb Bishop (trombone), Corey Wilkes (trumpet), Josh Berman (cornet), Matt Bauder (bass clarinet and tenor saxophone), Jeff Parker (guitar), Jim Baker (keyboards), Jason Adasiewicz (vibraphone), John McEntire (marimba), Matt Lux (electric bass), Jason Ajemian (acoustic bass), Mike Reed and John Herndon (drums) – and the foot-tapping swing of We Are All From Somewhere Else will soon be thrilling audiences throughout Europe on an extensive tour. But despite the fine playing of all concerned (special shot out again to Ms Mitchell) and some crafty writing on Mazurek's part, I'm left feeling somewhat underwhelmed. Mazurek seems all too willing to let the music get stuck in one of his infectious grooves, which is fine for a project like Sao Paulo Underground but tends to flatten this particular big band into something more resembling.. erm, Tortoise (surprise). Or rather Tortoise crossed with late 50s Mingus and late 60s AACM, with maybe a hint of late 90s Masada. Those telltale Tortoise keyboard percussion instruments are all over the place – there are more vibes on this album than in a Jean-Pierre Melville movie – and you end up wishing they'd take a break, or at least do something different from doubling the bass(es). Adding a bit of laptop weirdness and Mazurek's beloved electric eels (from his adopted home country of Brazil) is a nice touch, but it doesn't take long before Adasiewicz and McEntire come tinkling back in to drag us back to Chicago. After a brief Muhal-esque piano interlude from Baker, the second extended suite, "Cosmic Tones for Sleep Walking Lovers" – titular nod to another ex-Chicago bandleader there – comes clattering in. It sounds rather like Ascension-meets-Tubular Bells (both the instrument and the Mike Oldfield album) but unlike the Coltrane classic, the energy seems scattered outwards – exploding star indeed – rather than focused inwards, and instead of resolving itself through some sort of cathartic Brötzmann Tentet blowout, which would have been fun, it opts for the kind of pentatonic minimalist riffery Paul Dresher and Daniel Lentz were doing about 20 years ago, and better. The problem is that minimal riffs and grooves are cool but they go round and round instead of onward and upward; the only way to get out of the circle is to thin out the texture one voice at a time, which is just what Mazurek does – and no prizes for guessing which instrument ends up playing the riff. Part Three of "Cosmic Tones", with its lazy Dorian mode swing, inevitably recalls early 60s Coltrane, but the scoring is claggy and it isn't Elvin Jones behind the kit. One longs for a few more surprises, but they don't come all that often. Rob Mazurek has gone to great pains in recent years to distance himself from those Windy City hard bop roots, but it seems he still hasn't quite managed to hack through them and float free.–DW

The Fair School
Last time a Talibam! album came my way (accompanied, as you will no doubt recall, by a chunk of an old Doobie Brothers LP) I coined the phrase "Gonzo jazz rock fusion". The term "gonzo" is often misattributed to the late lamented Hunter S. Thompson, and "Gonzo Journalism", to quote good old Wikipedia, "tends to favor style over accuracy and often uses personal experiences and emotions to provide context for the topic or event being covered. It disregards the 'polished' edited product favored by newspaper media and strives for the gritty factor." That certainly seems to sum up the collective insanity on offer here, as Messrs Ed Bear (feedbacksaphone, sales pitch and vox), Matt Mottel (synthesizer, vox, rant) and Kevin Shea (drums, philosophical explanations) tear up the 40 Watt in Athens Georgia as impressively as Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo trashed their Vegas hotel rooms in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. Interspersed with musings from behind the kit from Mr Shea on life in outer space and genetic mutations, Hungry Hungry Hemispheres is just the kind of 180mph bike ride through a sandstorm Duke was dispatched to cover, and would have made the perfect soundtrack to Terry Gilliam's film of Thompson's book. God knows what substances our three time travellers were ingesting prior to recording this epic session, but to play with this kind of fearsome intensity I doubt it was decaf cappuccino.–DW

Michael Flower / Chris Corsano
I know exactly where I was when this music was being recorded on January 21st last year in the Instants Chavirés just outside Paris. Freezing my rocks off in a church in Cologne thrilling to the music of Phill Niblock, in fact. So I'm delighted that, thanks to the good offices of Textile Records, now in the capable hands of Fabien Louis since the untimely death of Textile's founder Benoît Sonnette (see last month's Edito), I can now enjoy the concert I missed. Or at least part of it. And what a cracker it was; Mick "Vibracathedral Orchestra" Flower's "japan banjo" (sort of lap steel sitar with FX pedals) taps into that rich vein of improvised one chord minimalism left largely unexplored since the legendary all night concerts of Terry Riley back in the 60s, and percussionist Chris Corsano drives the music on with some of the most inspired polyrhythmic pulse power he's ever committed to disc. It's a shame he's a tad far back in the mix compared to Flower, which makes it more of an Angus MacLise mantra than a Sunny Murray sizzle or a Bonham bash, but that's a pathetically minor quibble. When the musicians hit their stride – and it doesn't take them long to do it – what they produce is some of the most exciting drone jam since MacLise himself shuffled off this mortal coil back in June 1979.–DW

Taku Sugimoto / Taku Unami
Slub Music
Recorded live at Loop-Line in Tokyo in May last year, Tengu et Kitsune is a 45-minute (exactly) duo for electric guitars, a tale of two Takus, as Messrs Sugimoto and Unami hocket tiny commas of sound – most of them isolated pitches, often short and muffled, sometimes repeated – across an otherwise empty page of stereo space. It's nowhere near as ascetic as some of Sugimoto's other recent offerings (thinking Live In Australia and Principia Sugimatica here, though unlike the latter Tengu et Kitsune is entirely improvised, not composed), and quite lively by his standards. It's also refreshingly consonant in places. Imagine two superimposed 45-minute Jim Hall solos with about 99.75% of the notes erased. Those not familiar with Japanese folklore (me, for instance) might want to check out some tengu background at www.furyu.com/archives/issue2/tengu.html. FYI, in this duo Sugimoto is the tengu and Unami the kitsune (fox). I'll leave it up to you to decide whether Sugimoto is a karasu (crow) or a yamabushi (mountain priest). I did find one interesting snippet of info on that site, though: "The king of all tengu is Sojobo, an elderly, white-haired yamabushi tengu, famous for teaching martial arts and strategy to Minamoto Yoshitsune on Mt. Kurama, north of Kyoto." A reference, no doubt, to Radu Malfatti.–DW

Phil Minton / Veryan Weston
Oh gracious art, in many grey hours / When life's fierce orbit encompassed me, / Hast thou kindled my heart to warm love, / Hast charmed me into a better world! / Oft has a sigh, issuing from thy harp, / A sweet, blessed chord of thine, / Thrown open the heaven of better time; / Oh gracious art, for that I thank thee! Not perhaps the kind of lyric you'd associate with the rough growl of Phil Minton, but you'll be surprised how tenderly he sings Franz von Schober's words (in German too). In fact, you'll be surprised at more than that in this outstanding set of songs performed by the inimitable countertenor / tenor / baritone / bass / sub-bass / woofer / tweeter / crooner / belcher (delete where appropriate), accompanied by his long-standing partner at the ivories, Veryan Weston. It's not exactly new – the first seven tracks were recorded in Cologne back in 1987 (and released as Ways on ITM), the remaining 12 in London five years later (Ways Back on the same label). The two Brel covers, "Who's Next" and "Songs for Old Lovers", also appeared on another ITM album, Tribute to Jacques Brel. But you may have a hard time tracking those beauties down, so why not spring for this ceedee and get it all on one shiny galette. It's a regular pot pourri of delicious treats, featuring not only old masters (in addition to Schubert's "An Die Musik", D.547 Op 88 No 4, as quoted above, there are some pearls from Hugo Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch and Charles Ives' magnificent "The One Way"), old chestnuts (Arthur Sullivan's "The Lost Chord", which Minton apparently discovered on the legendary kitsch TV show Stars On Sunday), wild and wonderful covers ("Jailhouse Rock" becomes early Schoenberg, "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" emerges from a rainstorm of fisticuffs from Weston, Brecht / Weill's "Mandelay Song" is almost – but not quite – as wacky as the Flying Lizards' version) and some sensational originals, including settings of poems by Ho Chi Minh and a stunning set of lyrics to Eric Dolphy's "245". The Brel pieces are especially fine – Minton's blunt "cocks" and "fucks" make for a nice contrast with Scott Walker's glitzy reading of the song on Sings Jacques Brel, and better reflect the brutality of the original lyric. Both performers are truly outstanding throughout. Buy now or cry later. Or, if you have the old ITMs, buy again.–DW

Johannes Bauer / Thomas Lehn / Jon Rose
Hard to believe that analogue synth whiz Thomas Lehn, who kicks up a veritable shitstorm of electronic fury on this outing, was once a member of Radu Malfatti's near-mythical ultra minimal trio with Phil Durrant (remember Beinhaltung on Fringes, dach on Erstwhile?). He certainly sounds more at home tearing it up, and does it alarmingly well; this could be the best – it's certainly one of the best recorded – Lehn outings to date, and all the more welcome given the fact that much of his back catalogue has dropped off the radar along with the label it was released on, Grob. It's an odd trio line up, though; the hyperactive Rose is in his element here, turning in a display of serious virtuosity on violin and tenor violin that would make Nigel Kennedy sit up and take notice (check out those octave glissandi, man!). Trombonist Bauer's response to the demented video game he finds himself caught up in is to pick a few notes and phrases and try to blast the opponents into submission. He doesn't succeed of course, but he comes damn close. It's exciting stuff, not exactly subtle but none the worse for that. About time we had more fun in improv, which has been taking itself far too seriously of late.–DW

Eugene Chadbourne
House of Chadula
"New Directions in Appalachian Music" is one of six projects that Dr. Chad presented during Chadfest 666 in 22nd Musique Action Festival at Vandoeuvre-les-Nancy. The idea was to get the cream of European improv to play covers of bluegrass, hillbilly and country and western songs, and joining Dr. Chad on lead vocals, electric guitar and banjo is a fine line-up: vocalist Phil Minton, lapsteel guitarist Mike Cooper (also backing vocals on "You're The Reason"), Paul Lovens on drums and assorted cymbals, double-bassist Johnny Hamill and violinist Cedric Privé. The set includes Gram Parsons' "Hickory Wind", Kermit the [Appalachian] Frog's "Rainbow Connection", Ludacris' "North Carolina" and Beefheart's "Orange Clawhammer", among others. Besides the lead singer, who plays as straight as he can (whence the humour), Minton's vocal dynamics include weird yodelling and the Tuvan drone-overtones of "Hurry Home Darling". On "Hello Stranger" he even comes close to sounding like Johnny Cash. It's a typical Chadbourne gambit: you'd never expect these guys to perform this kind of repertoire at all, but they do, and they do it damn well.–VJ

>>back to top of APRIL 2007 page

Cor Fuhler
Recorded without overdubs or laptop electronics, Stengam is a 43-minute composition for grand piano, E-Bows and super magnets that flows without interruption despite being subdivided into eight tracks on the CD. It starts almost tentatively with "North-South", as if Fuhler is dipping a toe in the water before plunging in: gentle bumps and muffled tolling establish a calm mood, the atmosphere underscored by subtly elongated vibrations of the lower strings. On "Ferrous", wavering ripples and multiform frictions keep us on the edge, waiting for some sort of explosion or complication; it's the most aggressive passage in an otherwise inward-drawn music. The resolution to the tension comes in the disc's second half, the six sections of "Stengam". In part 2, magnets put the bass strings in continuous oscillation, after which Fuhler juxtaposes further adjacent tones, this time in the treble, generating beautiful sustained tensions that are kept at a safe distance from excessive brilliance via strident bowing, rarefied plucking and regular pulse, all of which reaching their apex during part 3. The end of the disc finds Fuhler returning to a more percussive, almost ritualistic approach, the final segment introducing additional suspensions and uncertainties before slipping into silence. Stengam presents several sonic combinations whose molecules spread in the air with authority, but I'm left with the sensation of barely scratched surfaces, secrets that remain locked in vaults. Fuhler hints at many aspects of the physics of vibration in relation to the piano, but somehow never fully gets to the essence of the matter, changing perspectives too often. It's a shame, because there is some real substance there. A fine and worthy effort, then – but a whisker or two short of true excellence.–MR

Traw/Rhodri Davies
Confront Collectors Series
The title, apparently pronounced "coimp uh DOO-err ahr GAnol deeth", translates as "water falls at morning's end" (thanks to the hounds at Bagatellen for that info). Traw (pronounced "trow" as in "trowel") is a trio of Welsh laptoppers – Richard Llewellyn, Owen Martell and Simon Proffitt – who went to work on some E-bowed harp improvisations sent them by Rhodri Davies before getting together for a live session with the man himself. The process of recording, reconfiguring and replaying is roughly similar to the celebrated Say No More series of albums Bob Ostertag put out a while back with Phil Minton, Mark Dresser and Gerry Hemingway (except there's no written score involved) but the sound world the Welshmen inhabit is several lightyears away. This is well thought-out, elegant EAI, leisurely in pace but rich in detail – if a tad heavy on reverb in places – ranging from the tiny helicopter flutters of "Sgwd Yr Eira" (sorry, don't know what that means, nor how to pronounce it) via the cavernous clangs of "Einion Gam" and the sinister "Mellte", in which ominous low thuds and mid and high register drones are gradually wrapped in a blanket of white noise fuzz, to "Y Pannwr" and the closing "Llia", which explore the austere clanging resonance of Davies' harp frame to great effect. Serious stuff, but eminently listenable. In fact, the only difficult thing about this album is pronouncing its title.–DW

In Flann O'Brien's novel The Third Policeman, "omnium" is "the essential inherent interior essence which is hidden in the root of the kernel of everything".. And if that isn't a pleonasm, God knows what is. Furt, aka Richard Barrett and Paul Obermayer, based this four-movement work – its movements are entitled "ever", "obliged", "yet" and "us" – on sounds sourced from the spoken voice (in several languages), gamelan (of Durham University), saxophone (Evan Parker), bass (Barry Guy) and percussion (Paul Lytton), which are sampled, sliced, diced, stewed, sautéed, grilled, flambéed and tossed around the stereo space with Marco Pierre White abandon. If you're the kind of hyperactive jitterbug who finds Stockhausen's Kontakte, Farmers Manual and Pateras / Fox too torpid, you'll love it. There are probably literally millions of pings, splats, fizzes and gurgles on offer, and they're impressive and exhilarating to listen to. Whether it all adds up to the essential inherent interior essence which is hidden in the root of the kernel of everything is for you to decide, but there's certainly plenty of everything in there.–DW

Otomo Yoshihide
Asphodel CD+DVD
In 2003 I had the pleasure of programming Otomo Yoshihide for a series I curate here in Brisbane called Fabrique. He borrowed my turntable for the concert and right before he performed he remarked, with a grin, "please don't worry when I use the turntable, I won't damage it, it'll be just like when you gave it to me". I'll admit I did feel a touch apprehensive, but he wasn't lying. The turntable was returned in the same condition, but metaphysically it was an altered device, the strength and gestural intensity of Otomo's handling suggesting brave new possibilities for this conventional piece of equipment.
On Multiple Otomo, an aptly titled CD and DVD document, Otomo Yoshihide's work with turntable, prepared guitar and electronics is examined in alluring detail. His augmented turntables operations, exploiting everything from "personalised vinyl" to cymbals, springs and other less-familiar items, are brought into a sharp scalpel focus. Tones find themselves slicing through the ears with shredding purity, while low frequency rumbles and corrupted layers of feedback invade the body. The physicality of Otomo's performance, both bodily and sonically is present here, but without a PA and one heck of a sub the experience can only ever be of a documentary nature.
With the DVD obscured by some fancy cut-up edits and digital effects (most of which complement his performance actions), this edition will appeal and no doubt attract an entirely new audience to Otomo's work. The abstraction associated with a purely audio document is removed and in place his actions, preparations and techniques take on a quality that's equally satisfying for all senses. In lieu of the real thing, Multiple Otomo is a worthy document of this vital agent of sonic debris.–LE

Günter Müller
I was just beginning to penetrate the mysteries of Günter Müller's remixing process on the splendid double CD on Esquilo, Live and Replayed, when this one appeared in the mailbox a couple of weeks or so ago. Cut CDs never fail to grab the attention, thanks to Jason Kahn's classy Op Art covers, and they always sound as good as they look. Reframed is for all you gong junkies who've already worn out their CDRs of Mark Wastell's Vibra 1 and redownloaded it from wmo/r. Which means it's right up there with James Tenney's Having Never Written A Note For Percussion, Mathias Spahlinger's entlöschend and Rhys Chatham's Two Gongs as one of the Great Bowed Metal Pieces (oops, forgot Eddie Prévost's Entelechy there). Though you'd probably never figure out that this gorgeous music is all sourced from bowed cymbals unless somebody told you – it could be distant thunder, passing traffic heard from a nearby hilltop or Gregorian chant recorded in the depths of a cave system – hard to believe such rich, deep and mysterious sonorities could come from those round shiny things you see sweaty drummers battering the shit out of on MTV. But it's true: listen carefully to track three and you might just catch a metallic edge to Müller's delicate crescendos. Elsewhere though it's as magical and inscrutable as Eliane Radigue (except perhaps for the fifth and final track where some of Müller's laptop clicks peek through the clouds). Wonderful stuff, check it out.–DW

Ingar Zach
Kning Disk
I'm not sure whether the word "percussion" shouldn't be struck out (pun intended) of the improv lexicon altogether, since so many of today's top performers have moved away from hitting things in favour of stroking, scraping and rubbing them. Eddie Prévost probably started it with those bowed cymbals, but since Burkhard Beins began using everything from polystyrene blocks to pebbles to rub around his snare drum, seems like everyone's doing it. Norwegian percussionist – make that frictionist, then – Ingar Zach has played with many of the scene's top performers (check out the track record at www.ingarzach.com/biography.htm) and this 26-minute solo set is a superb demonstration of what he's capable of. Starting with several minutes of beautifully placed and executed crescendos on bowed cymbals and crotales, In moves through some alarm-clock jingles and rattles (sounds like he's using one of those hand-held battery-powered fans or something) into some ominous growling bass drum resonance (E-bows? Who knows?). Slowmoving and majestic, it's all so well structured you'd almost bet it had all been plotted out in advance on graph paper. Some semblance of pulse clicks in about halfway through but is soon swallowed up by rich drones and washed away by waves of hissing noise, before a slightly scarred perfect fifth emerges from the ebbing tide, and Zach thickens the texture with more crotales and iron foundry clatter to bring the piece to its conclusion. The whole affair is superbly paced and the recording magnificent. Best solo percussion - sorry friction - outing since Christian Wolfarth's on For4Ears last year.–DW

Tomas Korber / Bernd Schurer
Balloon & Needle
In the letter that came along with this elegantly packaged disc from South Korea, Choi Joonyong informs me that this 18-minute set featuring Tomas Korber (electronics) and Bernd Schurer (computer) was recorded in a Zürich squat after a day's serious drinking. Well, nothing new there; I'll bet a fair number of fine improv albums were recorded after (maybe even during) the consumption of prodigious quantities of alcoholic beverage, though perhaps Mr Joonyong feels compelled to share this information with us in order to add a "human dimension" to this austere assemblage of pale sinewaves, mildly disturbing rustles and odd screes of bright white noise (the opening and closing blasts should be sufficient to clear any hangover you might be suffering from). It doesn't need it; the music works its charms very well all by itself, thanks very much. Another fine though perhaps not absolutely essential addition to the ever-expanding Korber discography.–DW

>>back to top of APRIL 2007 page

Dimitri Voudouris
Dimitri Voudouris was born in Athens in 1961 but relocated to South Africa quite early on, where he studied pharmacy, science of religion, philosophy and socio-cultural anthropology (whatever that is). He came to composition quite late, it seems (in the 90s), and describes his approach as being based on "research of cognitive psycho-acoustic behavioral patterns in humans" – though I dare say that would apply to just about any composer, whether s/he realised it or not. NPFAI.1 – that stands for "New Possibilities For African Instruments" – comes with a rather dry, detailed set of notes explaining how the sounds of a kundi (bowed harp) and an m'bira (thumb piano) are processed into 15 different sonic layers, manipulated and recombined. There's also a forbidding-looking diagram of the "sound field construction" which is well nigh impossible to understand without a powerful magnifying glass, but presumably designed to impress, as if the music wasn't impressive enough. NPFAI.3 gets busy with the sounds of a tenor marimba (tuned in Xhosa just intonation in case you're interested), applying granular, algorithmic and subtractive sound synthesis to end up with 13'30" of intriguing swoops and squiggles. To what extent it triggers archetypal images and thought patterns in accordance with the composer's Jungian intentions depends, I guess, on how closely you listen. Palmos is slower, longer (33'34" in fact) and easier to get lost in, weaving sounds sourced from a Hammond organ, an oboe and a bandoneon into a rich and carefully worked texture of great precision and beauty. But the best is saved until last: Praxis commemorates what Voudouris describes – alarmingly – as the Croatian genocide (the Croatians' systematic victimization of Orthodox Christians during the recent war), processing recordings of an Orthodox church service in Johannesburg into no fewer than 556 "sound compartments" which combine considerable complexity with real affective power. It's this kind of mixture of serious science and raw emotion that we associate with another famous Greek exile, Iannis Xenakis, and Praxis could stand alongside any of Xenakis' electronic works with pride.–DW

Stephen Scott
New Albion
You can blather about Feldman, Lachenmann, Cage and Xenakis as much as you like, but if you've never heard the Oregon-born composer Stephen Scott's Vikings Of The Sunrise (New Albion) you've missed out on one of the highpoints of contemporary music – we're talking Desert Island Disc here. Like all Scott albums, Vikings features his Bowed Piano Ensemble, a 10-member unit working the interior of a grand piano with all kinds of objects, notably rosined sticks and nylon threads, in intricate manual choreography to summon forth puzzling spectral halos and unprecedented harmonies. In recent years, Scott has added a new element to the music – the voice of Victoria Hansen – which has shifted the focus of his compositions towards the exploration of different kinds of melodic material. The Deep Spaces is a song cycle based on the words and music of famous poets and composers (including Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Liszt), inspired by the natural beauty of Lake Como in Northern Italy. Scott's settings for Hansen have a graceful savoir-faire, the delicate arpeggios and percussive caresses centering on her never-invasive timbre, the whole often sounding like the soundtrack to a fairy story, especially when the Ensemble tears your heart out with those unpredictable harmonic shifts and tangential bass lines so typical of Scott's work. A gentle lullaby theme based on a two-note octave fragment recurs throughout, but other facets of the composer's artistic vision are present in "Evening On Como", with its slow cavalcade of string resonance and contrapuntal auras. It's another splendid Stephen Scott album, one that reveals more of its minute details with each new listen. Time for the music establishment to finally recognize this man's merits – and for me to give this its fifth consecutive spin.–MR

John Cage
Originally released as a 4LP set back in the early days of Mode Records, the first two discs of this 3CD set document the two live performances of Cage's 1961 orchestral work Atlas Eclipticalis played simultaneously with 1957's Winter Music (in a version for three pianos) recorded at Seattle's Cornish Institute on December 11th 1983. Disc three presents what the label rather grandly describes as an "all-star" recording of all 86 instrumental parts of Atlas Eclipticalis, (the first of its kind) recorded under the composer's supervision at the John Cage At Wesleyan festival in 1988 – the "stars" include the Arditti Quartet, Alvin Lucier and Christian Wolff – and an version of Winter Music directed by Stephen Drury, overdubbing four pianists five times to get the required 20-piano result. As ever, the CDs are accompanied by an erudite and comprehensive set of liner notes, including, amongst other things, facsimiles of Cage's handwritten performing instructions and essays on the works by the composer, Matthew Kocmieroski, Don Gillespie and Stephen Drury.
While not questioning for a moment Gillespie and Drury's assertion that Atlas was the major Cage work of the 60s (like Concert for Piano and Orchestra was for the 50s and Sonatas and Interludes for the 40s), the Seattle performances are still a tough listen. One wonders whether it is really necessary to sit down and concentrate furiously all the way through, or let the mind wander ("if the mind wanders, let it", as the composer once famously wrote). But even if you choose to spin this while you busy yourself with other more mundane activities such as picking mushrooms or consulting the I Ching, the occasional fortissimo percussion crashes will soon shake you out of Ambient mode. The fuller textures on the 1988 86-part version are more engrossing, though for my money the late orchestral number pieces 103 and 108 are more satisfying. The 20-piano version of Winter Music is much more fun, its multitracked jagged clusters and pointy staccatos getting almost funky. Cage completists who missed out on the earlier LP box set (me!) can rejoice; it's a thrill to see this sitting on my shelves, even if I wonder how many times I'll return to it in the years to come.

>>back to top of APRIL 2007 page


Damion Romero
PACrec/P Tapes
Roman Torment
The Rita
Mike Shiflet
Troniks/Little Enjoyer

If you’ll allow the personal indulgence, before writing at any length about noise I need to air a disclaimer: I’ve spent a good portion of my past blithely dismissing noise as one-dimensional and hollow, rather than revelling in its seemingly infinite possibilities. Free noise from New Zealand was safe for me as its history and direct relationship with free rock and improvisation placed it within contexts I could grasp, whereas Japanese noise, for example, always seemed like an indulgence. Realising that both are worthwhile was a simple reality check only a blithering fool like me could take years to realise, though in retrospect my problems with noise were more to do with the ways people wrote about it or approached listening to it. Anyway, here are some disconnected notes on a batch of releases from one of the homes of American noise, the Troniks/PACrec stable, perhaps the most reliable of noise labels in recent years.

Damion Romero’s Negative tends toward near-stasis, but if there’s something rote about his choice of audio sources – the disc opens with recording of a downpour, crossed with the urban hum of cars burning up asphalt – Romero quickly detours outside of the square. Though it’s easy to latch onto dronological inquest as some easy access to the seeming-infinite, Romero never uses drone as anything so simple as a resting point. For one thing, he is too direct in his overloading of the sonic spectrum, pushing the drone into the realm of metal-on-metal contact or the malevolent purr of giant threshing machines and humming motors. Secondly, there is elegance to Romero’s touch, with each of the thirty-one minutes of Negative weighed down with an emotional tenor that almost approaches dejection – certainly a melancholy that is rarely evidenced in the field these days. Hive Mind and Justin Meyers also share this trait, the imbuing of noise aesthetics with emotional force. It’s powerful stuff.

Sixes’ Cursed Beast’s birth pangs are documented well on the disc’s sleeve, with equipment destroyed, teeth pulled, and a resultant throat abscess all adding personal context to the overarching gloom. These recordings are from 2002-2003, but you couldn’t have guessed it – one of noise’s great achievements is its suspension of chronology, and Cursed Beast could easily be passed off as dating from 1980 or 2007. The seven tracks are scored by machine clank that reverberates through a haze of delays, with electronics and guitars re-connecting on the cutting-room floor. The disc is all a haze of wires and burnt-out electronics, everything tattered and cindered. If it is sinister, it’s not trying to lapse into any clichéd sense of "foreboding": the tenor of Cursed Beast is rather one of comfort in negation, or perhaps the ultimate denial of the personal. Indeed, I prefer to think of the vocals that do appear on this recording as being channelled from an external broadcast, rather than performed by the artists themselves.

I don’t think any noise "column" can consider itself a serious proposition without covering one absolute ball-tearer of a record, and Roman Torment’s Skin Game is that beast, its punitive, speaker-shredding onslaught the very definition of noise at its most reductively defined. Except the Roman Torment duo of Evan Pacewicz and Jeff Witscher have a lot more going for them than simplistic recourse to noise mores. Though they roll out an endless blast of extremely rough-hewn noise, their pacing is perfect, with each track clocking in around the five-minute mark, allowing enough space for every cut to simultaneously be in your face and yet develop slowly. One of noise’s best traits is the great calm at the centre of its storm, and Roman Torment understand that borderline-lackadaisical progress helps to bring out both the immersive qualities and crystalline intricacies of walls of crunching distortion. When a peal of feedback breaks cover midway through, it almost feels like liberation. Almost.

Skin Game
is forgiving compared to The Rita’s Thousands Of Dead Gods, however. Sourcing raw material from great white shark cage diving, The Rita drives his resources against the wall and keeps them there for almost a full hour. As with Roman Torment, the initial blast slowly scrapes away to reveal detail, but it’s a different kind of detail to the musical micrographia of, say, reductionism, though it may carry a similar impulse within its magnification of a seemingly discrete moment. With Thousands Of Dead Gods, the unrelenting nature of the composition becomes its legerdemain, each tiny fleck of texture that peeps up from underneath the "raw wall" of power electronics blown up into near-revelation by the increased sensitivity of headphone listening. In other words, it’s loud and brutal but somehow manages to contain multitudes within its singularity.

I sometimes forget that noise is a broad church, a hangover I suspect from the days in which music press reportage misread Japanoise, for example, as being rigorously single-minded in its devotion to obliteration. After the more dirtied soundworlds of figures like Romero or Sixes, David Reed’s Evenomist synth project kicks in with great surprise, with walls of analogue tonology that hang in the air like a foul stench. Which is, of course, a great compliment. Of all the discs reviewed here, Reed’s feels the most like a throwback: he’s using a particular sound, heavy on the ectoplasmic, proto-electronica resonance, that dates his kit, if not his composition. It’s almost Kosmische, oddly enough, though those artists rarely reached for the kind of "suffocating expanse" that Reed inches toward here. Rather than being starbound with nowhere left to go, Abyssal Siege is cold to touch.

Mike Shiflet’s Ichinomiya 5.3.6 is as good a place to end as any, particularly as it’s quite anomalous within this context. At least, it appears to be at first blush – and then its insinuating computer buzz and standoffish personality reveals itself just as forthrightly monomaniacal as The Rita first appears. I’d not crossed paths with Shiflet’s work for some time before hearing this, but I’m not surprised to find that some of the busyness of earlier recordings, like his collaborations with Joe Panzner, have given way to an interest in the plotting of incremental variation across an almost-static horizon. Shiflet describes it as an attempt to "replicate the mindset" the rural Japanese village he lives in "inspires and (to) put the listener in the same headspace", which bungles my desire to abstract Ichinomiya 5.3.6 away from those problematic readings of Japanese stillness, zen, patina, wabi sabi etc. But it’s a gorgeous little disc, demanding a parallel internal immobility of its listener, wherein its gently paced play of cat’s-cradle high-pitch tones and grounded hum does its work.

Daniel Menche
Beta-Lactam Ring
Let's all stop identifying Daniel Menche exclusively with noise. Most of his past music already contained the seeds of imploded harmony, often a sort of disguised chorale finding its nourishment amidst unreasonable quantities of injurious distortion. In other releases, such as Garden (Auscultare Research/Ground Fault) with Kiyoshi Mizutani, we were led into states of highly charged standstill which projected us back to the deeply-buried traces of a long lost innocence. With Deluge & Sunder, Menche conjures up the healing qualities of drone music with the same shamanic spirit – mixed with the usual bad intentions – that have characterised the best records in the history of the genre. Conceived between 2001 and 2003 (Deluge was released on vinyl that year, while the sequel Sunder has remained unheard until now), these four tracks avoid boisterous affirmations in favour of growls and rumbles deriving from bowed / scraped / violently struck piano strings in conjunction with harmoniums, harmonicas and a lot of horns (to quote Menche, "it's a HORNY record"). Forget brass sections though, think instead of a subterranean purr, a superimposition of dissonant mantras acting as a sublime introduction to the "emotional pragmatism" of static music with sense. We've been told about La Monte Young, Tony Conrad and related pupils for years, with most people accepting as a dogma everything they've ever released. With Deluge & Sunder Daniel Menche skyrockets to that level: this surpasses many albums that people still pay $400 to get a copy of, most of which aren't worth more than $25 in any case. 66 minutes of goosebumps, serious emotions born from that "big vibe" that in theory animates life, yet which many ignorantly still consider to be mere noise.–MR

Jason Kahn
With an almighty hiss and tone, Fields highlights Jason Kahn's growing body of work concerned with field recordings and electronics. It's a bold way to commence proceedings, a mediated soundscape that brings to mind a train calling last passengers to an imaginary platform, impatient hissing clouding the stereo field in layers of sonic steam. As various tonal sections and pulses emerge, these visions evaporate and in their place a more developed compositional framework takes hold as spluttering synth-lines interconnect.
This relationship of uniting abstracted source materials to create strong visual impressions through sound is the residual thematic for the record. "4", with its gated bursts of noise and eventual minimal drone, masks a wonderful hinted at but never fully revealed field recording. Equally the distorted blusters of "6", which screen various chirping birds and other creatures within a hazy blur of microphone wind interference and adeptly deployed synth work, suggest an environmental document corrupted by technology. Memory dissolved, audio decayed and in the process a wonderful sense of character is laid bare. Kahn's field recordings assume texture roles more often than not – they bear little information beyond evidence of the technologies used to record them (mic hiss and other miscellaneous noises) and, as a result, connect perfectly with his measured synth and electronics embellishments.–LE

An elderly gent glances sidelong at the camera with an air of what seems to be mild suspicion, pipe in hand, walking stick hooked on the back of an adjacent empty chair. The back cover shows the same space, viewed from a different angle, devoid of people this time. Open up the gatefold and it seems to be some sort of cafeteria, maybe in an old people's home. Maybe not. Hard to figure out what's for lunch, too, but the music accompanying it is straightforward enough. Or is it? "Drone" is a word I'm trying to give up for Lent, but it's still the best one available to describe Yiorgis Sakellarious's 56:24 – that's both the title and the duration. Meta-drone, maybe. Nah, too vague and pretentious. Mega-drone might do. It all starts off simply enough with just one tone, which is gradually, almost imperceptibly joined by others, thickening to form a huge, pulsing cluster, the kind of complex simplicity Phill Niblock would love. La Monte Young once famously spoke about drones you could get inside, which seems to imply some effort on the part of the listener: concentrate enough on those frequencies and you'll access their higher levels of spectral complexity. With 56:24 you don't have a choice – it sucks you in, wraps you tight and nearly stifles you. Bees echoed dark carbon hums that dashed in nothing. Gnats fucked my ears and nostrils. Hit my brain like hones and numbed to nothing. Shame it all fades rather brutally at the end; a sudden plunge into black hole might have been more fun than fade to grey. But maybe that's what the guy in the photo's afraid of. Nice one, Yiorgis.–DW

>>back to top of APRIL 2007 page

Copyright 2004 by Paris Transatlantic