by Clifford Allen, Jason Bivins, Charity Chan, John Eyles, Stephen Griffith, Marc Medwin, Natasha Pickowicz, Massimo Ricci, Michael Rosenstein, Dan Warburton, Matt Wuethrich:|
FMP In Retrospect
Music for Merce
On Erstwhile: Michael Pisaro & Taku Sugimoto / Graham Lambkin & Jason Lescalleet
On Drip Audio: Aeroplane Trio / Subtle Lip Can / Gord Grdina Trio with Mats Gustafsson
On &Records: Labrosse, Lauzier, Tanguay / Alexis O'Hara / Tiari Kese
LP / K7: Alfredo Costa Monteiro / Eleh / Ferran Fages / Rene Hell / Three Legged Race / Hering Und Seine Sieben Sachen / Steve Baczkowski / Eli Keszler / Marsfield / Mem1 / Szilard Mezei / Oscillating Innards / Concern / Rale / Stephen Cornford / Saivus / Phillip Schulze / Oluyemi Thomas, Sirone & Michael Wimberly
JAZZ / IMPROV: Bertrand Denzler / Joel Futterman / Joëlle Léandre / Trio X
CONTEMPORARY: Michel Chion / Luc Ferrari / Alvin Lucier / Earle Brown Contemporary Sound Series Vol 2
ELECTRONICA: Thanos Chrysakis / cyclo. / Bernhard Gal / Emmanuel Holterbach / Jason Kahn
One of my New Year's Resolutions this year was to listen to fewer discs and spend more time with each one, but before I had time to take down the Christmas Tree some Higher Power (i.e. La Poste) immediately gave the finger to that idea by delivering the monumental six-kilo FMP Im Rückblick box and the New World Music for Merce set, on the same day. Thankfully Michael Rosenstein bravely volunteered to take on the former, and I've been stuck in the latter just about ever since. Thanks go out as usual to our many contributors – and welcome aboard to Charity Chan, checking in with a triple header review of latest releases from &Records – for allowing me the time to fry my ears with David Tudor. I also predicted that 2011 would be the Year Of The Grouch, that I'd somehow been too nice in earlier reviews and should put the boot in a bit more. Not sure I've kept that promise either – that's for you to decide – and the traditional noble effort to give up smoking lasted precisely four days. But one New Year's Resolution I'm determined to keep is to write shorter PT Editorials. So I'm off. Bonne lecture. Oh yes, forgot one thing: if you're wondering what "K7" means (see below), try pronouncing it in French: ca-ssette..-DW
FMP IM RÜCKBLICK – IN RETROSPECT
One thing about FMP, they know how to celebrate milestone anniversaries with significant documents. To mark 10 years, there was the For Example – Workshop Freie Musik 1969-1978 set, while their 20-year anniversary brought the massive Cecil Taylor in Berlin 88 set. Ten years later, the label was in a state of flux (more on this later), but to mark its fourth decade Jost Gebers, once more at its helm after protracted legal battles, has chosen to go out in style with FMP – In Retrospect, a deluxe set celebrating the achievements of one of the seminal artist-directed organizers and documenters of free music. Weighing in at close to 10 lbs., the box contains 12 CDs (both reissues and previously unreleased material) of music recorded between 1975 and 2010, and a lavish 220 page book. The discs are all available separately, but the real reason to spring for this (and act fast because it is a limited edition of 1000) is the book. Seven essays offer complementary viewpoints on the history of the organization and the label, accompanied by a treasure-trove of photos by Dagmar Gebers. A comprehensive listing of concerts, Total Music Meetings, workshops, and studio sessions (along with reproductions of original posters) and a complete catalog listing of FMP, SAJ, and Uhlklang records, singles, special boxes and CDs serve as a phenomenal reminder of how important these labels have been in documenting the polyglot and constantly evolving world of free music.
Wolfram Knauer, director of the Jazzinstitut Darmstadt, kicks things off nicely with an account of the origins of Free Music Production, tracing its roots back to 1966 and the formation of the New Artists Guild in Germany by Manfred Schoof, Alexander von Schlippenbach, Peter Brötzmann, Peter Kowald, and others. Starting out with a series of concerts titled "Jaa am Rhein," these musicians sought to develop a European response to American free jazz, synthesizing its urgency and energy with Fluxus (via Brötzmann) and European composition (via Schlippenbach), and drawing together communities of like-minded musicians in Cologne, Wuppertal, and Berlin. In November 1968, Brötzmann and Jost Gebers organized the first Total Music Meeting as a response to Berlin Jazzdays, incorporating both pre-existing groups and ad-hoc collaborations. From there Knauer follows the growth of the organization from a collective for producing concerts and recordings until Gebers took on responsibility for running things in the late 70s, focusing on the documentation and development of international free music in a professional manner. What is unusual in an essay of this type is that Knauer doesn't shy away from questioning FMP's current role, going so far as to state that "today, FMP may rather represent the creative past than the aesthetic discourse of the present," balancing that by stressing FMP's and Gebers' role in the preservation and continued documentation of this important period in history.
While the search for a European voice was central to FMP's activities, American musicians were actively welcomed from the beginning, with musicians like Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy, Noah Howard, and members of Gunter Hampel's Galaxie Dream Band included in concerts and recordings. Essays by Ken Vandermark and Bill Shoemaker provide a US point of view. Reading their essays brought back my own memories of hunting down recordings on labels like FMP, Incus, and ICP in the pre-Internet days of the early 80s, trying to piece together the developing European response to the Fire Music I had grown up with. Shoemaker's detailed analysis of Schlippenbach's The Living Music and his melding of improvisational and compositional strategies makes for a great read.
Another critical thread in the FMP story is the way that the organization mirrored the cultural, political, and social upheavals in Germany since its inception. Bert Noglik's essay is particularly insightful on Berlin's cultural history – from the student revolts of the late 60s and the tensions between East and West to the fall of The Wall and the cultural upheaval of reunification – and on how Gebers championed GDR musicians, nurturing important alliances early on with the East Berlin scene. Felix Klopotek's essay explores FMP's development of a pan-European network through concerts and "(Anti)-Festivals" which "were like laboratories and performance stages, noisy trade fair stands and meditation space for self-reflection… demonstrating working processes, the intricate paths of creativity." Klopotek's piece gets particularly interesting when he charts the balancing act Gebers faced as producer / presenter trying to keep the label, workshops, and festivals all alive and afloat, meanwhile grappling with developments in the second wave of German Free Jazz in the 80s – figures as diverse as Georg Gräwe, Möslang and Guhl, Johannes Bauer and Helmut Joe Sachse – and the "re-Americanization" of the label with the likes of Charles Gayle, William Parker, Bill Dixon and Cecil Taylor. Both Klopotek and Wolf Kampmann dig in to the dirt of the last decade as Gebers handed over the reins of the label and production company to Helma Schleif, only to see things get ugly fast as the imprint foundered and legal battles began to rage. The District Court of Bielefeld eventually decided in Gebers' favor in 2006, but repercussions persist to this day: "Ms Schleif still violates the stipulations of the settlement as laid down by the Higher Regional Court of Appeal Hamm, the copyrights (texts, photos) and the competition law by offering CDs which are no longer available," Gebers complained last year.
Perusing this mighty tome, one bemoans the missed opportunities for recordings: an early Schlippenbach Quintet with Parker, Lovens, Günter Christmann, and Buschi Niebergall; a night of electronic improvisations from 1979 with solos and a quartet by Hugh Davies, Alvin Curran, Peter Cusack, and Michel Waisvisz; a Brötzmann group with guests Don Cherry and Hugh Davies; and the 1986 "Trombone Project" which featured just about every major free trombonist (except, curiously, Paul Rutherford): the Bauer brothers, Günter Christmann, Radu Malfatti, Mangelsdorff, George Lewis, Garrett List, and Giancarlo Schiaffini. But we can at least rejoice at these 12 CDs, which combine long-out-of-print reissues and new music from the archive, and their clear commitment to charting the development of a pool of musicians over the course of four decades.
Baden-Baden '75 – Globe Unity Orchestra + Guests kicks things off in style with a quintessential example of what FMP has always been about, combining a core group of German free players with visitors like Enrico Rava, Kenny Wheeler, Anthony Braxton, and Paul Rutherford. While Globe Unity could always brew up a mighty roar, this recording shows the importance of compositional forms. Rava's "Maraño" is a free lilting swing that brings to mind Brotherhood of Breath, and Braxton's "U-487" a tour de force of ensemble colors with a proto-march theme that acts as a connective thread for features by Schlippenbach, Lovens, Wheeler, Braxton, Schoof, and Brötzmann. Kowald's "Jahrmarkt", the only previously issued piece on the CD, breaks the ensemble down in to various sub-groupings to romp through skirling, cacophonous roars shot through with deconstructed kernels of Monk, Charlie Parker and polka along with killer solos by Mangelsdorff and Braxton. And Schlippenbach's "Hanebüchen" and "The Forge" show the pianist's knack for improvisational orchestrations, whether massing the sections of the ensemble or hocketing lines around the group in swirling, spontaneous antiphony.
Und? … plus is a reissue of the second FMP recording by Radu Malfatti and Stephan Wittwer from 1977 (along with one previously unissued improvisation), and one I've been searching out for years now. From the opening scrabbled, steely scratches and hauntingly resonant breathy tones, it captures a notable transition in Malfatti's language away from the muscular free jazz he'd been playing in London and towards the hyper-focus on pitch, sound and silence of his work today. The dry, intimate recording captures the bristling textures and timbres of these improvisations with detailed intimacy, as the musicians push beyond individual extended trombone and electric guitar technique into intimate timbral explorations.
Leap ahead two decades and Manuela + Live in Berlin captures Rüdiger Carl, one of FMP's stalwarts, in a group with Hans Reichel, Carlos Zingaro, and Jin Hi Kim from a previously unissued performance at the Total Music Meeting in 1999. In many ways, this group's music couldn't be more different than Malfatti's duo with Wittwer, with its infusion of melody, folk sonorities (accordion, violin, and komungo) and comedic edge (the encore of "Those Were the Days" is a hoot), but there's the same sense of an improvisational language being created on the fly. Reichel's mad daxophone grunts and groans against Carl's warm, woody clarinet, propelled along by the percussive, quavering resonance of Kim's komungo and the sonorous swoops and sawed flurries of Zingaro's violin. This is a great example of the type of projects encouraged by Gebers over the years and a commendable inclusion in the box.
Solo performances have been an important aspect of the FMP project over the years and the box provides some spectacular examples. Check out Was Da Ist (Live), a recording of Peter Kowald's solo performance at the 2000 Total Music Meeting two years before his untimely death. In 1994, Kowald took a year off from touring to spend time in Wuppertal, during which he led weekly workshops with the Ort Ensemble Wuppertal and recorded a set of 23 compact studies for solo bass. This live recording expands on the basic ideas outlined in the studio session, weaving them together into a program of seven improvisations. Kowald's astonishing technical mastery is reason enough to recommend it, but there's far more at play here than a display of instrumental facility. There's a clear overall trajectory to the performance, with its juxtaposition of sputtering activity and rich, static fields of overtones; variegated string harmonics and droning Tuvan vocals; delicate detail and muscular propulsion. Few recordings of Kowald's solo performances have been released, so the inclusion of this one is a particular treat.
Soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy was a frequent participant in FMP events, so it's fitting that a reissue of Stabs (1975) is included. As well documented as his solo work is, this performance stands out. Lacy had only been playing solo for a few years at this point, but his notion of form and pacing was truly starting to gel. Included are incisive readings of "The Duck," "No Baby," "Deadline," and "Coastline", pieces he returned to often in the years to come. Listening to the kaleidoscopic ruminations of the title tune, the whispered wafts of "Moon," the crying lyricism of "Deadline" and the way he chants "No Baby" before diving into a crystalline solo, is simply spellbinding. The CD is filled out with two pieces from the quintet release Follies recorded two years later (unfortunately, tape degradation precluded the inclusion of the entire recording), with Steve Potts on alto, Irène Aebi on cello, Kent Carter on bass and Oliver Johnson on drums. It's a masterful balance of composed structure and spontaneous energy, particularly on the blistering version of the rarely recorded title tune.
From 1975 also comes the Irène Schweizer / Rüdiger Carl / Louis Moholo trio recording Messer, paired with Side A from Tuned Boots (again, only partially included due to tape master issues). Here is the full-bore European response to free jazz from one of the seminal first wave groups from the FMP stable. The contrast between the muscular assault of Carl's playing here and his playing on Manuela + is staggering, but there's the same flair for elliptical lines and canny sense of phrasing he brought to his later work. He and Schweizer are a consummate match, driven along with free polyrhythmic flair by Moholo. While the music is informed by the Taylor / Lyons / Cyrille trio, there's a unique sense of mass and drive here, particularly on a piece like "Göndsi mitenand" with its refracted piano shards, vocalized overblown alto, and sputtering drums. "Tuned Boots," recorded two years later, opens up the sound, as Schweizer dives inside her prepared instrument and Carl breaks apart his phrasing with angular stabs against the piano's shuddering resonance. Moholo responds with splashing cymbal work, tuned rim shots, and sizzling brushes, boosting the energy of the 20-minute piece as it builds in crashing waves of intensity and release. Let's hope Carl's King Alcohol and the Schweizer / Carl collaboration Goose Pannée also find their way back in to print.
Like Schweizer and Carl, pianist Fred Van Hove was an integral part of FMP from the start, as part of the groundbreaking trio with Peter Brötzmann and Han Bennink, a member of collectives like The Wuppertal Workshop Ensemble or M.L.A. BLEK (a killer quartet with Marc Charig, Paul Rutherford, and Radu Malfatti which you should grab it if you ever see it) and as a solo performer. Picking reissues for the box can't have been an easy task, and while it's too bad that the monumental Church Organ was passed over, the pairing of the live set Prosper from 1981 and the studio set Die Letze from 1986 is a worthy inclusion. Listening to Schweizer and Van Hove back to back reveals how both pianists absorbed the vocabulary of free jazz piano to hone personal styles which, while built from a forceful intensity and fascination with timbral manipulation of the instrument, sound nothing like each other. On the live set, Van Hove makes the most of a particularly distressed instrument, making maximum use of its shaky tuning, dead spots, and jangling rattles for almost orchestral effect, and the nine compact improvisations fly by with a singular focus of momentum and form. The studio session finds Van Hove on a proper instrument and his playing is more precise and textured, with flurried runs that cascade over each other with striking articulation and potent elegance, providing a fitting companion to the live set.
Of course no FMP retrospective would be complete without the inclusion of Peter Brötzmann, an artist who, more than any other, is inextricably tied to the label. Brötzmann is hardly under-represented as far as reissues go, so it's somewhat surprising that his first solo disc, a studio session recorded back in 1976, is only now making its reappearance. Over the course of 12 compact improvisations, most in the four-to-five minute range and only one clocking in at close to 10, he brings out clarinet, bass clarinet, alto, tenor, and bass saxophones to explore the intersections of bellowing brawn and raw melodicism (his tarogato playing wouldn't find its way to recording for four more years). Things kick off with a blast of blistering, shredded roar, but over the course of the next 48 minutes Brötzmann moves through all kinds of thematic snippets, scabrous overtones and craggy overblowing, with one piece using two horns at once à la Roland Kirk and another whipping through a mashed and twisted march.
If I have any quibble with the set, it is with the inclusion of the previously unissued November 1994 Total Music Meeting performance by Die Like a Dog, Brötzmann's quartet with trumpeter Toshinori Kondo, bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake. When their first album came out, Parker and Drake had just begun their long-term collaboration as the go-to foundation for free jazz stalwarts like Frode Gjerstad, Fred Anderson, and Jemeel Moondoc, and Brötzmann's re-examination of Albert Ayler's legacy came as a jolt, revisiting the roiling intensity and probing spiritual quest of Ayler's music. This set has its moments, particularly the fiery interaction between Brötzmann and Toshinori Kondo's skronked-out, overdriven trumpet and electronics, but the circuitous 46 minute piece and its 12 minute follow-up often seem to ramble. It would have been nice to see something from the criminally out-of-print trio with Harry Miller and Louis Moholo or the short-lived trio with Peter Kowald and Andrew Cyrille instead.
While the Globe Unity set provides a notable example of Alexander von Schlippenbach as organizer and composer, At Quartier Latin, which reissues Side B of Three Nails Left and all of The Hidden Peak, provides a view of one of the true heavyweight ensembles of free improvised music, his trio with Evan Parker and Paul Lovens, joined here by Peter Kowald. Jost Gebers had no qualms about cutting the live session up into short segments, some of which are further edited here from what appeared on the original LPs. The results aren't simply fades in and out, but a more cinematic set of edits which frame scenes within the extended live performances, like the dazzling Lovens / Kowald duo that opens the final cut. The trio's work with Kowald and Alan Silva in the late 70s / early 80s was never about simply adding a bass. On these sessions, Kowald's broad palette is fully integrated, and it is fascinating to hear how his harmonics and dark groans play off Lovens' variegated textures, Parker's looping skirls and Schlippenbach's crystalline clusters. It's great to have this back in print.
Even given the diversity of the CDs included in this box, Choral-Konzert by the Manfred Schulze Bläser Quintett stands out, a set of compositions for wind quintet. Schulze was an East German who came up through jazz and dance bands in the 60s. In 1969, he formed his first wind quintet, and, working outside of any academic environment, began to write pieces drawing together 17th-century German choral polyphony and serialism, interleaving tight notation and sections for open improvisation. By the time this set was recorded at the 1998 Total Music Meeting, Schulze had been sidelined due to serious illness, so a quintet of frequent collaborators was assembled to tackle his pieces. Though the musicians sound somewhat hampered by the formal structures, the brass (trumpet and trombone) and saxophones (alto, tenor, and baritone) provide a rich range of sonorities to work with and the individual voices, particularly Johannes Bauer on trombone and Manfred Hering on alto, deliver strong solos.
The last disc of the set, Stretto, is a duo recording from 2010 by Tristan Honsinger and Olaf Rupp. There are no surprises here, aside from the inclusion of field recordings: this is "old school", ebullient, conversational improvisation with ideas bounced back and forth and grainy textures juxtaposed. The crisp recording reveals the nuances of attack and resonance of Rupp's steel string acoustic guitar and Honsinger's unamplified cello, as the improvisations move between spiky activity and quietly evolving pools of reverberant detail.
There's no question that there is still plenty of gold to mine in the tapes Jost Gebers has stashed away over the years. The biggest question the box brings up is what happens to the FMP archive now that Jost Gebers has called it a day, and one wonders, now that FMP has weathered the storm of the last decade and the dissipation of generous funding, where its future might lie. We'll just have to wait and see, and hope that through FMP Publishing, Gebers will deliver a 50th anniversary celebration as essential as this.–MRo
MUSIC FOR MERCE
I saw the Merce Cunningham Dance Company perform on several occasions, but the one I remember most clearly was in Edinburgh in the early 1980s. The show took place in a large gymnasium, at one end of which scaffolding had been erected to support rows of seats – I remember this because at one point during the show John Cage amused himself (and scared the hell out of my mum) by bashing the metal pipes beneath us with a large mallet. The other musicians performing that day were Takehisa Kosugi, whose scratchy violin playing also scared the hell out of my mum, but in a different way, and David Tudor, who I recall had attached contact mics to what looked like a cactus and spent much of the show gently tapping its needles, a tiny gesture translated into a deafening shriek of feedback as it passed through a Medusa's head of cables strewn across Tudor's table. What do I remember of the dance? Alas, very little, except for vague memories of a Cunningham solo where he flicked his tongue at us menacingly like a snake. Oddly enough, my mum enjoyed that bit.
One of the great innovations of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was that music and dance were allowed to share the same space and time without taking cues from each other. The music could exist independently of the dance, but of course in many of the recordings of the live performances which make up this handsome 10 CD set, complete with 120-page book with a long, detailed (but rather dry) essay by Amy Beal, shorter texts by Christian Wolff and David Vaughan, discographies, biographies and lots of cool photos of the MCDC in action, it didn't. The sound of the dancers' feet and, more noticeably, the reaction of the public is also part and parcel of the package. And when the punters laugh out loud and even burst into spontaneous applause, you wish New World had put out a DVD as well as (or instead of some of the) audio CDs.
The first of the ten discs covers the period from 1952 to 1958, and much of it sounds a little arid and ascetic to our 21st century ears. Even so, nearly 60 years on, the rather primitive squelches and hisses of Christian Wolff's oscillators in 1952's For Magnetic Tape haven't lost their power to surprise (or annoy), and Cage's Music for Piano 1-20, performed on two pianos by the composer and David Tudor, is similarly impressive, if a little dry and dusty like the 1954 archive recording (this despite Gordon Mumma's heroic work sprucing up the old tape). Tudor's virtuosity as a pianist is simply stunning on his carefully prepared version of Wolff's For Piano I – listening to those recurring pitches, frozen in their register, is like having icicles inserted in your ears – and in the ferociously difficult piano reduction of Earle Brown's Indices, originally written for 9-piece ensemble, but it's his impeccable reading of Bo Nilsson's Quantitäten (1958) which stands out. More fluid, dramatic and (dare one say) expressive than the New Yorkers' works, it's a reminder, not that one is really necessary, of what an extraordinarily meticulous performer Tudor was of the European as well as the American avant-garde piano repertoire.
Like the Brown piece mentioned above, Morton Feldman's Ixion (1958) was originally scored for a 10-piece ensemble, but the composer also prepared a version for two pianos, which opens disc two, performed once more by Cage and Tudor. It marks a return on the part of the composer to the "graph paper" notation of the early 1950s, but with its concentration on the upper registers of the instrument and fondness – in this version at least – for more continuously flowing figurations, it's less spiky and pointillistic than the pieces on the opening disc, and a delightful surprise.
Not all the surprises on disc two are delightful, though. As an impressionable teen I used to drool over Herve Gloaguen's photograph – reproduced on page 37 of the booklet – of Tudor, Mumma and Cage performing the latter's Variations V (1965) (or rather overseeing the system in which Cunningham's dancers "performed" the piece by interrupting light beams and triggering a whole truckload of electronic gadgetry), but finally hearing the 13-minute excerpt recorded in Paris in 1966 on disc two is something of a disappointment. Apart from some occasional ticking foreground polyrhythms, its disembodied snatches of Dixieland emerging from a grey foggy hum sound like a 12th generation cassette copy of a Christian Marclay piece played on a malfunctioning ghetto blaster locked in a closet.
Similarly, the diagram showing the "gate matrix schematic" for Mumma's own Mesa (1966), is jolly impressive (though to someone like me who has difficulty changing a light bulb it means little), but Tudor's grainy bandoneon clusters doing battle with Mumma's gritty transformations and the shuffle and thud of the dancers aren't as colourful as the desert landscape that provides the piece with its title. And despite being recorded in that most momentous of months, May 1968, with an all-star band featuring Malcolm Goldstein on violin, David Behrman on viola, Max Neuhaus on percussion, Cage on piano, Mumma on horn and Tudor on piano (both Mumma and Tudor also double on electronics), Toshi Ichiyanagi's Activities for Orchestra (1962) sounds remote and uninvolved, its sounds scurrying around like small scared nocturnal animals illuminated by occasional beams of pure feedback.
Disc three is also somewhat frustrating. Five of its six tracks are extracts from longer works, but one wonders why certain pieces elsewhere were not included in their entirety – why stop the Earle Brown piece on disc one after 21 minutes when the whole thing lasts only 29 (I can only assume there must have been some sort of problem with the original tape) and include here an only mildly amusing ten-minute conversation on walkie talkie between Tudor and performer Jean Rigg extracted from Pauline Oliveros's In Memoriam: Nikola Tesla, Cosmic Engineer (the title's the best thing about it)? One might also question the rationale behind providing a three-minute excerpt of a piece (David Behrman's) entitled For Nearly an Hour, or including a rather lacklustre reading of Wolff's For 1, 2, or 3 People, unless it was to show off Tudor's organ playing. The extract from Wolff's Burdocks is more fun, with trombonist Garrett List and pianist Frederic Rzewski giving minor triads and arpeggios a thorough workout, but, judging from the gales of laughter from the spectators watching Cunningham and his crew dancing "Borst Park", you can't help feel you're missing out on something.
52/3, a 1972 three-way collaboration between Cage, Tudor and Mumma is uneven – Cage's piano is frosty and forbidding, and things only get interesting when the electronics kick in halfway through – as is Mumma's Telepos, but you can probably blame the dancers for that: for the accompanying dance, "TV Rerun", wearing elastic belts fitted with acceleration sensors and radio transmitters which translated their movements into pitches, they were, as Mumma puts it, "collaboratively responsible for the nature and continuity of the sound." So it's probably churlish to complain, especially when Cunningham reminds us that both musicians and dancers "were involved in a process of work and activity, not in a series of finished objects." That's about as good a definition of experimental music as you'll ever find – you ask Michael Nyman – but it's no excuse for releasing dull music, which, sadly, much of this is.
As has also been mentioned elsewhere, David Tudor is the standout performer / composer of this ambitious set, appearing on 25 of Music for Merce's 52 selections. That's a misleading statistic too, as a quarter of them, the "Events" on Disc 10, are little more than snippets – in point of fact, Tudor is directly involved in nearly two thirds of the music on offer. His own live electronics compositions – Toneburst, Weatherings (Nethograph #1), Phonemes, Sextet for Seven, Webwork, Virtual Focus and Neural Network Plus – are the backbone of the box, and the highlight of discs four through seven.
1975's Toneburst is, in the words of Cunningham Company sound engineer John D.S. Adams, "the definitive Tudor composition, because it wraps up in one complex package the mysterious ideas and elusive philosophies behind the conception, realization and performance of his music." Turn up the wick and burn your ears off with its churning wildness and you can see why Tudor is revered by today's noise musicians – but don't for one minute be fooled into thinking it's just hit-and-miss mucking about with whatever might be lying around: Tudor might have performed "without a [safety] net", as Ron Kuivila puts it, but he spent hours designing, setting up and testing his system before taking it to the stage. It might sound raw and primitive, but you try doing something like this yourself – without using a computer: remember back then these guys did it by hand – and see how difficult it is. It's literally awesome stuff, from the vertiginous panning on 1978's Weatherings (Nethograph #1) (headphone listening not recommended for the faint of heart) to the mysterious muted groans and wails of 1982's Sextet for Seven (be warned: it's not all quiet – 11 minutes in an express train runs over your head), from the monumental Phonemes (1981), whose opening thick, farty glissandi are as bold and brash as a Franz Kline black brushstroke, to the mindfuckingly weird Neural Network Plus, on which Tudor and Takehisa Kosugi do wild and wonderful things with a "synthesizer designed around an analog neural network chip by the Intel Corporation" (to quote "Blue" Gene Tyranny). This latter is a 13-minute extract from a 61-minute performance, and I'd dearly love to hear the whole thing one day. That said, traditional notions of beauty and good taste don't apply here, and Tudor makes no concessions to the listener: he certainly likes to send those sounds whizzing around the stereo space, but the ear tires of the constant swinging back and forth in Virtual Focus (and blues 99, his duet with John King – see below). I wouldn't recommend listening to this on your back in the dark after a tuna sandwich and a few pints at the local – remember what happened to Hendrix.
The pieces Tudor shares the bill with on discs four to seven are colourful and well-crafted, and no doubt worked wonderfully with the dance, but often fail to convince as pieces of music in their own right, the exception being Maryanne Amacher's gorgeously inscrutable Remainder (but even there one wonders what the work would have sounded like in situ – was there ever a composer whose music is less well-suited to the recorded medium?). Jon Gibson takes time off from practising his arpeggios with Phil Glass, but his tootling flute of Equal Distribution, occasionally doubled at the minor third (a perfect fourth would have made more sense) rambles. So does Yasunao Tone's Geography and Music, which consists of texts from a 10th century Chinese encyclopaedia read – rather prosaically one syllable at a time and crudely hocketed from left to right in the stereo space – by Cage, Kosugi, Tudor and Martin Kalve, who also accompanies proceedings with odd plinks on a qin, a Chinese zither. Even the pretty gloops and gurgles of Cage's close-miked water-filled conch shells on Inlets drag after a while. Maybe that's OK – one of my favourite Cage quotes is "if the mind wanders, let it" – perhaps they were selected to provide some sort of light relief to offset the Tudor offerings, but I'm not sure how many times I'm likely to return to them in the future.
The four offerings by former Taj Mahal Traveller Takehisa Kosugi, who succeeded Tudor as Music Director of the MCDC in 1995, are pleasant but inconsequential. One gets the impression that Kosugi is quite content to fiddle around (in both senses of the word – he's a violinist too) and let the pieces go their own way. As a result they tend to wander off into the background (S.E. Wave/E.W. Song) or get bogged down in their own special effects (Spectra), though fans of latterday psychedelic hypnagogic or whatever they call it this month soft noise will feel perfectly at home listening to the sci-fi soundtrack swirls and bleeps of Spacings.
I thoroughly enjoyed John King's guitar playing in Heiner Goebbels' Die Wiederholung a few years back, but blues 99, a duet with Tudor using some of the latter's sound processing devices to muck about with King's dobro, is disappointing. There's more in 19 seconds of Mike Cooper than there is in 19 minutes of this, however impressive the technology that went into creating it was (the booklet features a screenshot of a software interface King developed for the piece, but it's not clear whether this was for a 2007 performance, in which case one wonders why it's included here, as this recording dates from 1994). His longtermparking (2002) is as lame as its title, a disappointingly ineffectual montage of clickety-click percussion tracks and microtonally challenged piano patches which sounds more like my old Korg M1 than a state-of-the-art laptop. 1985's gliss in sighs is more fun to listen to, but, rather like the current occupant of the Elysée Palace down the road from here, it spends a lot of time running all over the place looking busy without actually doing very much. We're a long way from Quantitäten and For Piano I. Michael Pugliese's Peace Talks (1989) is similarly gabby, but its busy rattle and hum soon slinks into the background and stays there.
The five late Cage pieces on discs six to nine are more satisfying, and are welcome additions to his already huge discography. Indeed, there's now so much Cage available on disc I'd be surprised if anyone reading this hadn't got at least one version of Four6 somewhere at home. Though if I didn't know in advance that track three on disc nine, a real toybox full of bleats, tweets, nursery rhymes, didgeridoos, not to mention serious contact mic friction from Kosugi (who sounds like he's trying to saw through the table), was a performance of that particular number piece, I'd never have guessed. 1991's Four3, on which Tudor (on piano – this must be one of his last recordings on the instrument) plays snippets of chance-determined variations on Satie's Vexations while Kosugi, Pugliese and John Adams wave rainsticks around (Kosugi also slips in a Sachiko M-like high oscillator sinewave), is more sedate, and the Tudor / Kosugi / Pugliese realisation of Sculptures Musicales in Zürich in 1991 is splendidly austere in its alternation of sound and silence (not that there is any such thing, but you know what I mean).
It's also nice to have another version of Cage's last great orchestral piece, 108, to join the one released on Mode nearly a decade ago, especially in this "cello concerto" version performed simultaneously with One8, but what a shame we only get 14 minutes worth – I'd have happily ditched a King or a Kosugi or two to make room for it all. But ten minutes is long enough for the excerpt from Voiceless Essay (1985-86), on which Cage recorded his own computer-generated mesostics derived from Thoreau's On the Duty of Civil Disobedience – make that n th Dt f Cvl Dsbdnc as all the vowel sounds were subsequently removed – before the music was transferred to cassette tapes for use in live performance (you've got to admire the incongruity of working in a state-of-the-art computer music facility in Brooklyn only to stick the result onto a humble cassette).
If disc one of the Music for Merce set was dry and daunting, discs eight and nine, documenting the post-Tudor period of the MCDC, are much more user-friendly affairs. And the music is not dry by any means – indeed, Stuart Dempster's Underground Overlays is as wet as they get, in the sense that "wet" often refers to a reverberant acoustic, in this case a two-million-gallon former water tank outside Seattle. Why do we love reverb? We seem endlessly fascinated by it, adults and children alike – I remember when hiking out of the Grand Canyon a few years ago a particular bend in the Bright Angel Trail under an angular rocky overhang that sent echoes bouncing in several directions, left, right and centre, and a whole bunch of hikers just standing there, whooping and hollering and clapping their hands like idiots. It was hilarious. Maybe it's an opportunity to stand outside oneself, perceive oneself as existing in a world beyond the confines of the body, maybe there's something "mystical" or "spiritual" about it (reverb = cathedral, cave, holy place..). Maybe some smart semiologist could write an essay on the subject. Meanwhile, another obvious reason for our fondness for reverberant spaces is that whatever sound we make in them always sounds good. Like singing in the shower. So whatever Stuart Dempster and his band of trombonists recorded in the "Cistern Chapel", with its 56-metre diameter and 45-second reverb was bound to sound awfully impressive. Personally I'd have preferred something dense and Niblockian instead of the rather Fanfare for the Common Man-like flourishes (and the rather dry hacking coughs of audience members at the performance in Seattle in 1996 break the spell somewhat).
David Behrman's Long Throw (2007) is a calm, reflective homage to half a century of Cunningham creations, in the form of a leisurely jam session with featured solo spots (of sorts) for Christian Wolff on prepared piano, John King on guitar and Takehisa Kosugi on violin. Kosugi's fiddle is also showcased in his Wave Code A-Z (1997), but its dreamy drone is a long way away from the scrapes and squiggles of Spacings. And though you could hardly imagine Annea Lockwood's Jitterbug (2007) playing gently in the background in Nature & Découvertes while you shop for essential oil diffusers and scented candles, its delicate montage of subaquatic insect noises can indeed "accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular" and is often "as ignorable as it is interesting". You can't say that of the Wolff piano music on disc one. Not that Wolff isn't still very much in business (and, since Cunningham's death in 2009, is arguably the last aquilifer of the New York School): there's nothing ambient about his shards of melodica on 1994's Or 4 People. What a shame this compelling interaction between trombone (Dempster), violin (Kosugi) and laptop (Jim O'Rourke) lasts just six minutes. Sixty would have been fine by me.
The final disc of the set brings together thirteen extracts from "Events" staged by the MCDC between 1993 and 2009. As Cunningham explained, "the Events were originally intended as a means of giving performances in unorthodox surroundings... Since we, the dancers, had no awareness of what the continuity of sound would be, we were free to involve ourselves in what we were doing... We continue to present Events in orthodox and unorthodox situations, usually with four musicians... Each is a composer, and each makes a sound ambience separate from the others, using the Event time as he chooses." The pieces, ranging in duration from 3'09" to 7'30" are little more than brief snapshots, but many are very pleasant nonetheless, if glitzy displays of laptop chops are your thing. There's plenty of super colliding MAXing and relaxing, and even if Jim O'Rourke and Christian Marclay's trawl through the soundtrack soundfiles doesn't add much that we haven't heard already, it's pretty and fun. Kosugi's swooping violin works well with Behrman's electronics, and it's a treat to hear Steve Lacy jamming along with them on track three.
Now that the MCDC is approaching the end of its valedictory Legacy tour, Music for Merce will, for better or worse, probably stand as the enduring epitaph to a remarkably fruitful six-decade-long adventure in modern music and dance. But, as there seem to be hundreds of hours of music lovingly packed away in the archives, it'd be nice to think that more buried treasure might be unearthed and released in the years to come. How about a 10-CD David Tudor box next time?–DW
Graham Lambkin / Jason Lescalleet
Michael Pisaro / Taku Sugimoto
2 SECONDS / B MINOR / WAVE
In certain circles of jazz criticism and conversation, much is made about the perceived merits and drawbacks of what pianist Vijay Iyer has recently called "historicity." The self-conscious impress of "the Tradition" has been evaded as long as there's been the notion that jazz constitutes a tradition. As Monk once said: "It's about freedom. More than that is complicated." Lately I've been thinking about these issues in relation to the non-genre still clunkily known as "EAI" (which, paraphrasing Voltaire's well known quip about the Holy Roman Empire, may be neither electroacoustic or improvised, depending on what you're listening to). Specifically, as I've tried to digest the two recent – and extremely different – releases from Erstwhile, I've been wondering about the weight of influences and expectations in this general area of sound.
I'm completely uninterested in assessing these releases with an eye to something called the "state of the field" in "EAI." That's unfair to the artists, and possibly a misleading way to think about music altogether. But one of the things that's so consistently attracted me to this amalgamation of styles – and hey, all the interesting areas of music are the ones discussed under misleadingly unifying tags, including "jazz" – is the way it produces moments of sheer beauty, inscrutability, and provocative meta-musical considerations in a way that very, very rarely seems inorganic to the music. This heady mix of experiences seems to converge in this music around certain key areas of instability. There's the skeptical regard for (and occasionally sabotage of) conventional notions of instrumentalism, and a simultaneous openness about and obliqueness regarding method. And there's a fascinating dance between concealing sound sources and really naked forms of communication.
Different musicians, styles, and scenes understand and navigate these concerns differently, of course. But what's fascinating as a listener (and sometime participant) is that these concerns are live, resolutions held in suspension, possibilities maintain free of dogma. On 2 Seconds/B Minor/Wave, it often sounds as if the very basic properties of musical "meeting" or even communication are those things held in static open air, never settling. Indeed, while composer Michael Pisaro and guitarist Taku Sugimoto might be said to share some musical preoccupations or interests – duration, space, oscillation – their extremely different methods and orientations make this convergence one of interesting possibilities. The pair recorded separately, with guidelines only as indicated by the three linked subtitles that make up the disc. On my initial listens to "2 Seconds," I was unconvinced by the meeting; its long tones of sculpted glass (sometimes stacked, sometimes isolated) set against steady metronomic clicks (sometimes like raps on the body of an acoustic guitar, sometimes like beer bottles clinking) seemed distant acoustically, conceptually, performatively. Even realizing that might be partly the point, and despite my appreciation of the occasional muffled static pop or fan blowing, the piece seemed to me to be too furtive, too focused on the strategies of avoidance that sometimes preoccupy musicians in this general area. But as I got to know the record, I grew to love this piece as an opening of what seems largely like some suite to me. As the record flows into "B Minor," the music opens up into some mournful guitar chords (you can guess the tonal center), sort of sounding like a Rhodes. Sugimoto, while still quite subtle, is more expressive here; interesting note choices abound, and quirky non-resolutions keep things from sounding static or merely consonant. Over its length, the music seems to grow tired, more spare, but towards the end rears up with huge drones and sparkling guitar, moving in and out of the foreground. By the time the album reaches the welling crackle-static of "Wave," the music seems positively effusive. Here the tones emerge from beneath the foreground rush of sound (which itself changes in density and articulation, from rustled paper to roar), welling up high and low in blooming overtones and thin wire. Inscrutable in ways, despite its open methodology. Richly emotional in other ways, despite its occasional distance. Oddly, this music is such that you forget it sometimes, so thoroughly does it inhabit its environment.
The environmental concerns of Air Supply – the second Erstwhile album featuring sound alchemists Graham Lambkin and Jason Lescalleet – are of a different sort. The idea of, as Lambkin has often put it in interviews, "exposing the music hidden in the home" is one that compels. To me this record – recorded at the Lescalleet manor in early 2010 – isn't quite as head-turning as its predecessor, but it succeeds because it transforms the mundane domestic sounds so thoroughly, rather than simply situating them in provocative sonic frames. "Because the Night" unfurls ominously like something from Sunn0)))'s Black One, but with that strange contrasting dynamic one hears so often from Lescalleet in particular: its frosted drones are met by the dry acoustic of a small room filled with boxes and clatter. Interestingly, the laminal sounds on these pieces aren't used conventionally – to stitch together the spaces and so on – but instead it's these pitches and tones which seem at the mercy of the domestic: they suddenly dissipate with the arrival of clacks or steady analog disruptions that send the sound off on strange angles (a deep rumble, a coalescence into a chord). On "Layman's Lament" particularly, the spectral near-vocals bubble up from a textural overgrowth to be joined by bowed metal; but what makes the piece is the persistence of interruptions like bird chirps, a shoe stamping on old hardwood, a patch cord on a guitar jack. You could hear it as mischief (as I hear them taking the piss out of Fennesz on "Color Drop") or you could hear it as simply an accurate sonic rendering of the impossibility of concentration in the home. Too, you can listen to the playfulness and musicality of even the dullest interactions (listen to Lescalleet ordering something over the phone, for example) or, over the progression of humming and moaning tracks that precede the closing "Air Supply," you can even take delight in the ways harshness and insignificance and glacial void are collapsed into each other, oscillating blue and silver.
It's taken me a while to get my head into each of these records, though visceral pleasures were there from the start. What I find most rewarding about them is how, once we isolate and analyze their preoccupations, you can hear how free they are from conceptual hangups and historic inheritance. There's wisdom there, and beauty too.–JB
Erstwhile releases are always fascinating, but it's becoming increasingly difficult to speak of a label aesthetic, given the diverse sounds Jon Abbey's excellent roster of musicians is unleashing. That said, these two most recent offerings seem to be more unified than most. Beyond the obvious fact of collaboration, they constitute self-conscious studies in tonal, spatial, timbral and dynamic environments. By “self-conscious”, I mean nothing pejorative; there is simply very little attempt made to obscure each sonic object's pitch, context or provenance. Whatever occurs in the areas of space, key or volume, process is established and laid bare, even celebrated, rather than disguised.
Environmental concerns are most traditionally obvious on the second collaboration between Jason Lescalleet and Graham Lambkin, which builds on the groundwork laid two years ago. The Breadwinner's gently rustic and serialized unfoldings are replaced with a more cosmopolitan series of multilayered rapid-fire environmental juxtapositions. The low-fi aesthetic that made Breadwinner rich and earthy is still integral to the proceedings, but the boundaries and physical locations evoked here always seem permeable. Just to cite one example, the album's opener, "Because the Night," begins with some sort of internal environment—maybe a room with fans and clocks—but another space gradually usurps the first, confusing spatial awareness as the sound of leaf-raking becomes audible. A third space, possibly that inside a small car augmented by cars passing across the sound stage, follows suit. Many of these locational switches took the form of slow fades on Breadwinner, and that's how they occur on "Because the Night," but that track's conclusion hints at things to come when the carpet is yanked out from under the listener's feet as all sense of the external momentarily evaporates, leaving only a disembodied drone in its place.
The rest of the disc presents an expansion of the duo's aesthetic. The emergence of the outdoors that concludes "Layman's Lament," after something that sounds like a Rhys Chatham gong piece, is miraculous. When traditional instruments are heard, such as the guitar and amp buzz on "Color Drop," the environment also proves transient, growing larger and smaller by turn as tasteful reverb is employed. These shifts in environment are subservient to more conventional looped juxtapositions of the same material in different octaves, stretching time in typical musique concrète fashion; it's the combination of temporal and spatial skewing that makes the music successful.
Beyond these environmental subtleties, we are presented, in the same track, with a moment of what I take to be the music's creation. Dreamlike, a snatch of conversation and computer manipulation emerges from the dizzying sonic layers, allowing a glimpse behind the curtain. The effect is similar to an analogous passage from Stockhausen's Hymnen, where studio conversation interrupts the work's multinational reverie. Then, there are the sudden and dislocating bursts of noise that disrupt the fabric of whatever surrounds them, throwing any sense of linear development into a tailspin.
Pisaro and Sugimoto's take on environment is radically different, if just as complex. Their first collaboration yields a series of more stable soundscapes, but each location is explored in stunningly intricate detail. Even the word "location" must be understood more loosely here, as the concept of key becomes a location to be transcended. On one track, the tonal center of B minor becomes an environment to be destroyed. The process is gradual, with Pisaro introducing tensions and dissonances over Sugimoto's beautiful, vaguely 18th-century progression. Even the final chord, a shattering B-major at heightened volume, isn't really the final word, as Pisaro interjects an insidious second over it.
The other two works present more complex studies in pitched and non-pitched environments. Unlike Air Supply, location is a less permeable construct. Each environment exists autonomously, maintaining its own characteristics while coexisting with its companion. In "Two Seconds," Sugimoto contributes a series of clicks from what I take to be a metronome and other percussive objects. These move around a fixed space that occupies the full sound stage, and a sense of three-dimensional perspective is also achieved through subtly changing room acoustics. Sugimoto's environment is contrasted with Pisaro's microtonally inflected and variously articulated sine waves, presented dry, as they are in his epic Transparent City series on Wandelweiser. In fact, that set of pieces shares many characteristics with "Two Seconds," notably the enhancements of an everyday environment by juxtapositions with the sine tones. Fast and slow pulses add another layer of intrigue to the starkly contrasted environments. "Wave" works along similar lines. Each literal wave from Pisaro's field recording emanates from the sound stage's left region, and while Sugimoto's tonal waves do encroach upon them, they always retreat to the right, a true merger never occurring.
Yet, even the fairly simple environmental relationships I've outlined here fail to capture the collaborations' sonic complexities. Pisaro's waves emerge from silence, divorcing each from the continuously morphing sound worlds so familiar to those that have spent any time near the ocean. Beyond that, each wave's timbral spectrum seems to be modified, giving them a sense of otherness, separating various parts of their timbral essence, just as Lescalleet enhances certain characteristics of the sounds he employs. In "B-Minor," a superficially simple study of melody and harmony, Pisaro's sine tones, often enhancing and modifying his electric guitar's decay, generate microtonal complexities that blur the boundaries between harmony and melody. They also change the nature of each pitch's contour, rendering minute swells and broadening the timbres beyond their usual boundaries. Similarly, there are many hints of major in Sugimoto's contribution, foreshadowing the piece's cataclysmic conclusion.
Where Lambkin and Lescalleet thrive on extroversion, Sugimoto and Pisaro plumb the depths of each environment, whatever its nature, to mine the last detail. Anyone who knows each contributor's work will not be surprised at these relationships, but repeated listening reveals the success of each project, individually and in comparison with the other.–MM
DE MUSICA INVERSA
"Alga Marghen very proudly presents the only authorized reissue of all Walter Marchetti original recordings previously released by Cramps Records. An LP sized 4CD box set including La Caccia, In Terram Utopicam, Per La Sete Dell'orecchio, Natura Morta and Vandalia. Also included is the new book by Walter Marchetti titled De Musica Inversa, an instruction manual of both theory and practice for the proper and improper use of music. A method for perfecting oneself in composition annotated and commented upon by Gabriele Bonomo."
This handsome package was my Christmas present to myself last year, but imagine my surprise when, settling down in my armchair to thrill once again to the sounds of Le Secche Del Delirio, in which pianist Juan Hidalgo performs to an audience of noisy pigs (yes!), all I heard were strident high frequency test tones interspersed with silence. As it turned out, this was a bizarre pressing error (my thanks to Alga Marghen's Emanuele Carcano for sending a replacement copy of the disc), but at first I assumed it was another one of Walter Marchetti's Fluxus-inspired jokes. Especially after reading his words in the accompanying book: "We offer a prayer to all those, who in a hypothetical future, might want to occasionally listen to our pieces of music, bless 'em, that they listen to all the component sounds for what they are: useless and with very little sense."
Information superhighway notwithstanding, I'm impressed that there's so little about Marchetti online – one brief, linguistically awkward but illuminating interview with Howard Slater http://www.metamute.org/en/node/5859 and reproductions of press releases of the albums is about all you get. There's more on his erstwhile partners in the ZAJ collective, especially pianist and composer Hidalgo, but precious little in the way of serious discussion of the music. The 180-page LP-sized book in this box set doesn't go into much detail either, consisting as it does of 85 brief texts (or one extended text broken into 85 bite-size chunks, each with a footnote by Bonomo), but as with the writings of John Cage – clearly the single most important influence on Marchetti – an aphorism or brief anecdote often tells you more than a lengthy manifesto.
The one piece that does come complete with score and performing instructions is 1965's La Caccia ("The Hunt"), and they make for fascinating reading. Each part consists of alternating letters and numbers, the former referring to a birdcall chosen in advance by the performer ("if the number of available birdcalls is fewer than the letters of the alphabet, a single call can be assigned to two or more letters", the composer helpfully informs us), the latter to the "rests, or silences" that follow each sound. When performed indoors, numbers of one or two digits are counted off silently in any tempo the performer wishes ("with figures of more than two digits, use is made of only the third or the last two"), but for an open air performance, they refer to the number of steps that the performer takes ("in any direction, from any starting point") before making his/her next sound. As some of these numbers are quite large – each part contains about a couple of dozen more than 1000 – one imagines the performers could get well and truly lost if they went their separate ways in a forest, not to mention out of earshot of each other, which raises intriguing questions about when and how the piece is supposed to finish, not to mention who could ever hear anything more than a tiny part of it. Thankfully, we have the CD version in all its 42-minute tweeting, twittering, hooting glory. But good luck to you if you manage to listen to it in one go, not that Marchetti would care a hoot himself if you didn't: "The most fascinating thing about our musical art is that it concerns an infantile activity, useless, purposeless, and leading nowhere."
The text, despite its self-deprecating nature (maybe even self-defecating – how about "the more we make music, the more the stench increases... there's really a big odour of shit in the air"?), is often funny and at times quite poetic ("we were as if drowned by sunlight: like the liquid forgetting of a kiss"), and the same can be said of the music. Natura Morta comes with a text describing the pitches as characters in a kind of soap opera ("the triad A-C-E is not on friendly terms with with D-sharp and E-flat, also because E-flat, who is G's cousin, takes an equally dim view of G-sharp, who.." etc.), which is as colourful and amusing as the fruit and veg adorning the poor, long-suffering piano in performance, but the music itself, 69 minutes of delightfully aimless single-line melodies, is gentle and touching.
Erik Satie comes to mind, and Marchetti is evidently familiar with his work, as the title J'aimerais jouer avec un piano qui aurait une grosse queue makes clear. This is an aphorism Satie contributed to Francis Picabia's Dada journal 391 in 1921. It's a saucy little pun, too: piano à queue is French for grand piano, but queue also means penis. Not so much the Well-Tempered Clavier as the Well-Hung Clavier, if you like. Marchetti's piece apparently calls for piano and 40 hands – goodness knows how it's notated, let alone performed: the photographs in the CD booklet, taken at various performances of the piece in gallery installations in 1975 and 1976, seem to indicate that the piano itself is physically unplayable, as strings several metres long are attached to its keys, stretched out into the surrounding performance space and attached to small rocks. That said, one of the shots shows Hidalgo, dressed in a white jumpsuit (reminds me of the spermatozoa in Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex), sitting down gingerly at the keyboard. There seem to be several pianos involved in the recording, if the stereo panning is anything to go by, as the listener is assailed on all sides by huge crashing octaves. Maybe Marchetti was thinking of this particular realisation of the piece when he wrote the following: "Everything in it is monolithic, frozen, and the notes of music which slowly, more or less, are thickening around the listeners wrap them all in dripping blankets of death."
That sounds awfully depressing, but if Marchetti doesn't care for the music human beings make much, he's still got a great ear for sounds occurring in nature. In Perpetuum Mobile (1981) he sets up his mics next to what sounds like a pond full of frogs by the side of a motorway. The piece alternates their noisy croaking over the roar and blare of passing motor traffic with silences of varying lengths. Song For John Cage (1985) also features the near incessant beeping of animal life (more frogs? crickets?) over which another brief text – "Se ci si vuole opporre all'ordine vigente è cosa saggia appena si presenta l'occasione provocare il caos" ("if you want to oppose the status quo, it's wise, as soon as the occasion arises, to provoke CHAOS") – is read one word at a time, at intervals ranging from 12 to 77 seconds apart.
I can't for the life of me figure out what's going on in Per La Sete Dell'orecchio' (1981), which sounds like someone throwing heavy objects down a well, twenty-seven and a half minutes of impressively resonant crashes and occasional post-impact drips and squelches. I'm reminded of some of Kuwayama Kiyoharu aka Lethe's performances in abandoned warehouses, but page 27 of Marchetti's text also seems relevant here: "Music has made its atmosphere unbreathable, stagnant; nothing more than a stinking air, made up of sounds or residues of sounds by now dead, but the strange thing is that all of it is capable of a sickening sweetness."
Sickeningly sweet is certainly not how I'd describe the two pieces of "home-made electric music" on offer here, 1966's Adversus and 1973's Osmanthus fragrans, neither of which would be out of place on one of today's bijou noise imprints (I see Aaron Dilloway's Hanson Records site is proudly trumpeting the availability of the vinyl version of this box set, Il divano dell'orecchio – that figures). Osmanthus fragrans, unlike the pretty evergreen shrub that gives the piece its name, is a gorgeous snarling ugly mess, and Adversus's dirty drone sounds like it was recorded inside an electricity substation, though goodness knows where or how it was made, and Marchetti's not giving anything away: "The author cannot give any advice to the interpreter or interpreters of this, his composition, not the least suggestion as to its realisation."
"Often, while composing, there is the clear sensation of finding oneself in front of a pile of garbage. Every sound to which we try to give life leaves in its wake a stench beyond compare," he writes in another pongy paragraph. Maybe I've lost my sense of smell then, because I like listening to this stuff very much, though I'm at a loss to explain why. And Marchetti has a few words of warning for reviewers as well as listeners: "To all those who intend to sit down on the heads of others, writing any old thing, a kiss on the mouth and a blow straight to the heart." Time to wrap this one up, methinks. I'll leave the last word to Walter: "To compose music is to tell lies. Just listen!"–DW
Subtle Lip Can
SUBTLE LIP CAN
Gord Grdina Trio with Mats Gustafsson
These latest releases from Drip Audio form an especially challenging threesome. The Aeroplane Trio is one of the many groups to emerge from the sessions at Vancouver's late lamented Sugar Refinery in the early 2000s, and given the presence of two common members – trumpeter JP Carter and drummer Skye Brooks – it can seem something of a delicate acoustic freebop / improv sister-project to the fuzzy dark post-rock of another Drip Audio/Refinery band, Inhabitants. Despite the Trio's longevity, Naranja Ha is their first full-length release, and Drip Audio have made it a special occasion: disc one offers a 2009 studio session, while disc two is a DVD featuring a 45-minute set from the stage of Ironworks, the city's main post-Refinery venue for out jazz at the moment, and "Getting to Naranja Ha", a 17-minute interview featurette. Both videos are quite snazzy: the doc doesn't get deeply into making-of stuff but has lots of enjoyable stills and footage, both vintage and new – my fave being the glimpse of Brooks tending his garden (he mentions he was originally going to be a horticulturalist before getting lured into music college) – and the Ironworks gig is a well-edited multi-cam video, catching some lovely moments on the fly. Carter's bossa "Callejuela", for instance, unfurls beautifully out of Brooks' cracked-egg taps and dry brush-swishes, and you can virtually see the deepening shades of moody blue from the close-ups on the faces of Carter and bassist Russell Sholberg. The studio tracks are short and nicely averse to pursuing the obvious paths (on the opening track they twice back off from an enticing climax, for instance). I always have a soft spot for players who take the Lee Konitz / Don Cherry route of onstage self-analysis, and Carter's definitely in this line, working from the sidelines even on freebop numbers, and making use of a very individual, discreet but constantly surprising improv vocabulary of crushed-paper textures and slow-release aches and quivers.
The memorably named Subtle Lip Can (sounds like an anagram – but of what?) is an improvising trio from Montreal: violinist Joshua Zubot (brother of Jesse, the violinist who runs Drip Audio), guitarist Bernard Falaise and percussionist Isaiah Ceccarelli. The music draws on both traditionally talky, event-saturated improv idioms and the fine-grained slabs-of-texture of recent minimalist approaches, and the disc is organized in such a way as to accentuate this polarity, beginning and ending with the near-stasis of "Chickle That Bottom" and "Out of In" and building up to and moving away from the rattling, combative density of the central "Suddle Lip Can". But ultimately the CD doesn’t fit into either stylistic category: instead, call it the sound of unease – vague monstrous stirrings and mouse-like lyrical skitterings, twining sonic tentacles reaching towards you with what might be either hostility or sensuality, a largely quiet but peculiarly invasive soundworld suggesting a musical attempt to explore the inner workings of disgust. Ceccarelli is largely in a percussion-that-isn’t-percussive bag (bowing and scraping and rubbing), and there are plenty of "who's making what sound?" moments here, though not programmatically so – on "Suddle Lip Can", for instance, Zubot bursts into pleasurably damaged, fussbudget violin rhapsodies, and Falaise grounds several improvs with ear-tickling electronic loops.
Vancouverite Gord Grdina is a jazzrock guitar shredder who's got a nicely varied palette, from acid-toned string-tickling skitter to boring-down relentlessness, which he deploys with real class. There's also a nice Middle Eastern flavour to his playing, and indeed he's a fine oudist, deploying it on Barrel Fire for a reading of a traditional Iraqi song, "Enshakoota". His trio with bassist Tommy Babin and drummer Kenton Loewen is tongue-in-groove tight and in-the-red loud, knitting together into a pulsing forward-driving thump and pummel that (on "Burning Bright" and "229") shifts into some of the most brutal one-one-one-one-one metreless drive since Tony Williams left the planet. The wild card here in this set recorded again at Ironworks during the 2009 Vancouver jazz festival is guest Mats Gustafsson, post-Ayler / Brötzmann king of saxophonic ugly beauty: when his baritone rears monstrously up out of "Enshakoota"'s deep-knit rhythmic matrix and "ay-ay-ayyyy" vocals it's like you're getting two forms of ecstasy for the price of one, and the unaccompanied interlude that follows is singing, stinging, and scalding hot... then gets even better when he backs off into keypad-caressing quiet. The set is rounded off by the title-track, which drops into the kind of grinding odd-metre shuffle / feedback loop that Fond of Tigers specializes in – indeed you'd swear there were two drummers (and two bassists, and two guitarists... but nah, there's only ONE Mats Gustafsson). The only thing that could possibly improve it is some nasty slide guitar work – and Grdina happily obliges.–ND
Diane Labrosse/Philippe Lauzier/Pierre Tanguay
&records is not just a record label, it's also what you could think of as an ongoing conceptual art project, managed by two Montréal based artists: Fabrizio Gilardino and Michel F. Coté. Both have been active on the Montréal music scene for many years, both releasing work on the Ambiances Magnétiques label and producing the annual "jazz sur mars" series. &records started in 2003, and has been putting out new albums ever since. 2010 proved to be one of their most prolific years, with over seven releases, spanning everything from solo recordings (Jean René's Fammi), to noise rock (La Part Maudite), from electroacoustic improvisation (Palétuvier (rouge)) to lush pop extravaganza (Alexis O'Hara's Ellipsis).
What's intriguing about the label is the concept behind it: &records is an imprint with a set end date: when Coté and Gilardino reach a total of 24 releases, the label will close its doors. It's an interesting idea, and one that differs from the usual means of organization for a label, presenting the listener with the feeling that everything has been carefully considered and curated. The care that goes into the project is evident from the discs themselves, with each album featuring graphics by Gilardino silkscreened onto its cover. Packaging is minimal, with only the bare necessities in terms of descriptive text, but the craft and thought behind the project are obvious.
These three albums are among &records' most recent releases, and despite their striking musical diversity, covering a gamut of musical approaches and techniques, they share a consistent atmospheric and evanescent quality. Whether electroacoustic, sample-based, purely improvised, partly composed, experimental sound art, noise or even indie post-rock style, the music makes you feel like you've walked into a fantastical treasure trove of sound. Blink once, and it might all be gone. Often making use of subtle and quiet electronics, these are intimate moments, further reinforced by the rhetorical understatement that seems to be the preference for all three groups / artists.
In Palétuvier (rouge), the fourth in the Palétuvier series, Diane Labrosse (sampler), Philippe Lauzier (bass clarinet and saxophones) and Pierre Tanguay (drums) present a hushed yet focused series of four improvisations constructed almost purely from wisps of sound, and playing as much with silence and space as with sound itself. Even when there's a sense of consistent momentum, or where the music appears busier, as in the opening track "Miso Eratu", there's still plenty of space left in between its pulses and grains. The beats on "Dextrus Fitera" feel a bit plodding and heavyhanded, but they nonetheless contribute to the impression of this album being one long composition, as opposed to four pieces related only by propinquity. It's almost as if the musicians were slowly breaking down the component parts of the first track into shorter, quieter, and smaller elements, until, by the time the final "Alvarum Macenza" is reached, what remains is barely audible, forcing the listener to strain to hear what is going on. It's as if the music is progressively slipping away, with Lauzier's gossamer-thin threads of sound the final echoes of a barely remembered dream.
Alexis O'Hara's Ellipsis provides a similar aesthetic of understatement, but with a quiet fortitude that imparts a greater sense of grounding and permanence, albeit one that still maintains the fundamentally translucent and soft character of her compositions. For this album, she's joined by a coterie of Mile End/Montréal musicians, including Sophie Trudeau (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-la-la band), Alexandre St-Onge (Shalabi Effect) and Radwan Moumneh (Jerusalem in My Heart).
The first thing to strike you upon listening to Ellipsis is the seductiveness of O'Hara's voice, whose close, whispered quality makes it seem like she's standing right beside you, telling you sly secrets no one else knows. At times it's overdubbed, at times layered under the instrumental accompaniment, in a process of masking and unmasking that makes listening both hard work and something to relish. It's compelling and intoxicating, the lyrics (in French, English and Spanish) switching from playful to somber in a heartbeat, all the while retaining their mildly acerbic wit. Even when the songs adopt a marginally disturbed character ("Inside Joke (love is)”, "Twenty-Three" and "Bugs"), they remain beguiling and enthralling. Ellipsis is a gorgeously and skillfully rendered set of pieces that calls for listening to over and over again.
If Palétuvier (rouge) and Ellipsis are dreams wearing rose-colored glasses, Ave <W> is their distant cousin in slightly nightmarish Technicolor, sonically denser, with harsher, grittier textures, more strident in character but by no means overwhelming. This is a project by one Tiari Kese, who, according to Coté, is "a world-renowned pianist and French horn player, known for his interpretations of John Cage." In fact, Kese is actually Coté, who also credits himself on percussion and electronics and joins trumpeter Gordon Allen (a.k.a. Ellwood Epps) in a set of pieces originally commissioned by Sylvain Émard Danse. The music is a mix of live recordings and samples featuring a wide range of influences, including (as Kese names them): Satie & Cage, Tétreault & Falaise, Siewert & Brandlmayr, b. günter, Fennesz, Neina and Oval.
Coté's fondness for noisy, distorted sheets of sound combined with sweeter harmonies penetrating a morass of grainy distortion is evident throughout, as it is on his recent Mecha Fixes Clocks (À l'inattendu le dieux livrent passage). This proclivity of Coté's for "musical white noise" is particularly clear on "Marge Brute Du F ", where "Kese" performs sharply punctuated chords (courtesy Erik Satie) on the piano, their attacks triggering a patch that distorts and augments their overtone material. This and the opening "Unit Vector in Vratsa" are probably the most forceful of the pieces on offer here, the rest of which returns to the bittersweet atmosphere common to all three of the albums, well in line with the general aesthetic of this fine label.–CC
Alfredo Costa Monteiro
The Spartan white sleeve with its fascinating numerical artwork is the perfect container for an essential album. Both creations are courtesy of Alfredo Costa Monteiro, a bright mind signified by ever-interesting gasps and sputters whose talent goes beyond painting and playing (he also creates conundrums and puns, and I wouldn't be surprised if he could cook better than many renowned chefs). Here the Portuguese guerrillero of intelligent noise is armed for the occasion with a mere accordion, and he does well to underline that "all the sounds are acoustic" on the album cover. Most of us know what the guy is capable of with a single machine (years of aural attacks, alone or with sympathetic allied forces of Ferran Fages and Ruth Barberàn, have trained us well), but those arriving in ACM's universe for the first time might be surprised to learn that these irksome wheezes, raucous clusters, phobic flies buzzing round a tree hung with cymbals in a field of bitter drones come from the same apparatus that rendered the names Oliveros and Klucevsek famous. Ample proof of the experimental ingenuity that lies behind the freshest discoveries in the realm of improvised investigation of a specific sound source.–MR
Following my upbeat review of Location Momentum (Touch) here last May, I'm now bemused by the clamorous contrast between the diffident "let-the-music-speak" attitude hitherto shown by Eleh (whose identity still remains a mystery to most people) and his/her incongruously egotistical comments (low-budget piousness?) released in the Rewind 2010 section of the January Wire. The former has obviously worked wonders in rendering him/her a cult figure of latterday electronica, but let's hope that the verbal threnodies for dead birds, and moans about the hardships of daily life won't continue.
There's no question that the music works pretty well, but there are no radical inventions here. The pulsating minimalism born from Eleh's synthetic waves is nothing more than the result of a cheaper, less painstaking process reproducing the psychoacoustic effects achieved – following months of hard studio labour – by the bona fide masters of the bordering pitches (do we really need to name names?). Nevertheless, the consequence is functional: the heartbeat slows down, the brain receives the desired rubdown, the cadence of pumped blood pushes from within, altering the balance of hearing. Too bad about that horrible melody spoiling the end of the second track. Radiant Intervals is destined to add further degrees of adulation to its creator, which is fine by me if music remains his/her only means of expression, but beware the notorious tendency to swiftly increase the number of releases after having found an audience ready to swallow three or four outings per semester.–MR
LULLABY FOR LALI
On a glacial January afternoon, the sky stuck in a will-it-snow? kind of grey, I decide to play Lullaby For Lali expecting stridency, if not blasphemy. Can't explain why, especially considering the relative tranquillity of Ferran Fages' recent solo releases and the tenderness of the sepia-tinged cover photo, and I feel a right fool when a slow sequence of swelling glissandi and sparse acoustic plucks begins, leaving me staring at the void. Wonderful, indeed. But it changes after a while, and the real lullaby starts: strummed guitars, a basic melody played on a metallophone, the simplicity of a children's tune. Still, there's something underlying the apparent naiveté: the oscillation lingers on, destabilizing the mood just a bit before elliptical cycles return to end the story. The second side comprises an "electric" version (though my copy of the LP seems to have both parts and labels reversed), a chain of clear-cut chords and stagnant layers revealing a solid harmonic building characterized by powerful lows. The growing tension turns this simple progression into an original stab at contemporary minimalism: think Tony Conrad recorded in someone's living room minus the grating overload, accompanied by Loren Connors at his best. Eventually, guitar (and guitaret) remain alone, a pitch-shifted duet occurring in between a serene disembodiment. Fages and dedicatee Lali Barrière have managed to craft a precious little object, not distant from certain intimate pages of Jim O'Rourke's diaries.–MR
Rene Hell / Three Legged Race
VIOLIN PETAL (AUDEN) / WHIPPED SECRETS
On this split release from Mike Pollard's Arbor, Rene Hell (a.k.a. Jeff Witscher) and Three Legged Race (a.k.a. Robert Beatty) turn a number of synth signifiers on their head. In their hands, outward bound becomes inward bound and kosmische exploration morphs into cortical probing. In other words, their take on synthesis is refreshingly idiosyncratic, somehow intimate. Open-ended jams are traded in for briefer, almost song-like structures. There's less drift and more purpose. And they do it through relatively simple means, maintaining a live feel throughout, as if these could have been improvised.
The four pieces Witscher contributes are busier and more more pulse-driven than Beatty's and hence slightly more accessible. Even when he's just cycling through a few simple chords, the effect is rich, with an irresistible forward motion. Built as they are from terse themes, insistent riffs and a clear, spare palette, it wouldn't be hard to imagine these pieces as part of a soundtrack – and not just for some abstract, experimental video work, either, but something with real character development. In fact, someone really needs to get the Portland-based Witscher scoring films, as much of his recent work (the Porcelain Opera LP on Type in 2010 being the most high-profile example) is full of narrative drive and strong point of view, something a lot of so-called experimental music often lacks.
Beatty's set is even more personal, reaching back to a more classic, monophonic synth sound at times. Think of a more home-brewed Buchla version of Thomas Hamilton's "Pieces for Kohn" and you're getting close. But if you're only familiar with Beatty's more surreal double LP on Tone Filth or his collage of live solos on his What The!? LP, then you'll be taken aback by the feel for melody he shows on the first part of the suite. Beatty lays out an earworm of a theme, and even as he adds some counter-themes to it and gets into heavier, more pointillist action, that simple melody will gnaw at you, playing over and over until you move the needle back to the beginning of the side.
Neither Beatty or Witscher will wow you with technique, nor are they blazing any new paths here. Rather, their skill lies in careful selection and arrangement of materials. They make shapes where others might settle for a drone or some endless sequences of riffs and sound effects. In the process, the pair each make a strong case for the true appeal of synthesizers: they are pure pleasure machines, able to deliver sheer tonal pleasure, confounding dissonance and a host of moods, from playful to creepy and back again.–MW
Hering Und Seine Sieben Sachen
In prosody, a caesura represents a complete stop or pause in a line of poetry, meant to reflect the natural cadence of speech patterns. In musical notation, it's a complete cessation of musical time. It's also the inspiration for //cae-sur-a//, a new label from Rochester, New York (the "double pipes," or railroad tracks, are what indicate a caesura in notation). //cae-sur-a// is run by Jen Marquart and Cory E. Card, the creative pair behind the blissfully dense ambient-drone project Stone Baby, and earlier this year issued its first two cassette-only releases, Hering und seine sieben Sachen's Nautical Twilight and Steve Baczkowski's Tone Arm, with sophisticated, elegant packaging reminiscent of the American chapbook aesthetic.
Hering und seine sieben Sachen, a solo project of Daniel Voigt (also of Autistic Argonauts, Pawned Pajamas, Horzes, and Phantom Limbo), brings a muted, sentimental-futuristic touch to kosmiche, drone and New Age traditions. Nautical Twilight prods sputtering, scrambled electronics and flickering drones into something measured and serene. "Strudelwurm Mit Rennstreifen" is a zero-gravity swirl of Kate Bush's "Nightscented Stock" and Edgar Froese's synthetic galaxies, and the smeared melodies of opener "Affenhaar" are engrossing, but it's the woozy, slightly unsteady New Age drones on side two that are really great.
Tone Arm, Steve Baczkowski's first solo release, takes a more collaged approach. Distorted field recordings of bird chatter, remote flutes, and shuffling feet are sandwiched between tone arm manipulation of Baczkowski's own home-modified vinyl records, resulting in an unpredictable arrhythmia of sounds, looped, sped up, slowed down, or reversed. The Buffalo-based saxophonist has collaborated with percussionist Ravi Padmanabha as well as a number of fine American contemporary free jazz practitioners, including Paul Flaherty, Chris Corsano, and Bill Nace. The vibrant drones of his baritone are impressive – its fleshy timbre sounds uncannily like a didgeridoo – but his delicate, eerie collages, somewhere between Marclay and Moondog, are irresistible.–NP
It's strange to think that a recording on ESP-Disk' would be the most visible introduction to an artist's work, but the music industry has changed hugely since the 1960s. Providence, Rhode Island-based multi-instrumentalist, inventor, sound and visual artist Eli Keszler is a case in point; most of his work over the last few years has appeared on self-released CD-Rs and cassettes, noticed only by keen-eyed and keyed-in cognoscenti. Oxtirn is his first release (on LP only) for ESP, and it strays far from the label's general free jazz thrust, exploring regions of sound art more extreme than even Alan Sondheim's 1968 T'Other Little Tune. Keszler engages percussion, bowed and miked sheet metal, guitar, miniature cymbals, self-made harps and other objects, and he's joined by clarinetist Ashley Paul, brass multi-instrumentalist Andrew Fenlon and pianist Sakiko Mori on two sidelong improvisations.
The first piece starts with furious percussion and bowed objects, like Paul Lytton and Evan Parker at warp speed, hulking industrial masses fronting against coagulations of absurd detail. Fenlon's trombone, tuba, French horn and trumpet are indistinct among the masses, though different pitches emerging from droning metal function as a sort of pedal point; the same goes for long-toned clarinet fluffs. Certainly there are precedents for this music – Music Improvisation Company, Gentle Fire, and some of David Behrman's work come to mind – and Keszler's electroacoustic work has much more in common with that dense earlier work than peers in the Erstwhile school, as he mines high brass and reed harmonics and low, moaning metallic sounds for a robust and raw physical presence. It's no surprise that Keszler was recruited by multi-instrumentalist Anthony Coleman to perform Mauricio Kagel's Der Schall in 2008 in New York, though this sound world is far more extreme – violent, even – than anything in Kagel.
The second side is a duo with broad scope, bringing together Keszler’s motors, cymbals, piano and percussion with Mori's prepared piano for an improvisation which grows out of Behrman's Wave Train and related piano resonance/action pieces. Subtonal vibrations mesh with bowed, clattering gestures, tweaked chords and whining crotales to create an agitated, if sparsely decorated environment. Oxtirn is an excellent introduction to Keszler's work and, if Steven Stapleton ever updates his Nurse With Wound List, Keszler's name should be on it.–CA
THREE SUNSETS OVER MARSFIELD
Marsfield is one of the several projects involving Hull's Andrew Chalk, who hopefully needs no introduction by now. On this LP, his creative partner is the unsung Brendan Walls, an Australian sound artist who came to relative prominence thanks to Cassia Fistula, and one of the Englishman's regular collaborators. The music on Three Sunsets Over Marsfield is dated 2002, but heaven knows why nine years have elapsed before its release, since it belongs among the most stunning works that both men have ever produced. I'll say this at the risk of Chalk's discontent: this music is deeply reminiscent of Mirror, so nostalgic admirers of that duo will, like me, thrill at its ash cloud of inert vapours and torpid, thick layering. On the first side, murmured melodies lie under a wavering mantra, like those phantom creatures you see trembling on the horizon while staring at the water at sunset. The second half is just as amazing, mixing leaden shades and indiscernible shifts of vibrational intensity into a subaqueous chorale of dejectedness. You could listen for weeks and unearth new inspiration every time – a CD reissue must be the crucial next step.–MR
Laura and Mark Cetilia (on cello, analog modular and electronics) have been quietly producing a body of work in which consistency of purpose and spiritual strength seem to proceed in tandem. Recorded in a short time span during spring last year, Tetra represents their effort to create pieces "evocative of an extreme environment", and this limited edition (300 copies in transparent vinyl) will definitely satisfy geared-up audiences through its morphological fusion of an acoustic (if heavily processed) instrument and its relative synthetic cumulus into a lone voice. It's difficult to separate the components in this music whose droning gravity dissolves into steamy miasma and ruthless dissonance in compositions frequently steeped in inescapable brutality. Not only because of the near-identicalness of the album title with Roland Kayn's Tektra, it occasionally recalls some of the late cyber-genius's Pindaric flights in its most intangible figurations, particularly the imposing darkness of "Hræsvelgr". Through speakers (highly recommended), clouds of distorted pitches and capricious upper partials will transform your room into a trap for ominous codes.–MR
Szilard Mezei Szabad Quartet
Februári Fadöntés documents a fairly rare appearance on wax of Serbian-Hungarian violist / composer Szilárd Mezei, who's worked in formats ranging from string trio to orchestra, mostly in situations that allow a commingling of Hungarian folk forms (he also plays traditional music) and free improvisation. He's joined here on three suites by tenorman/clarinetist Péter Bede, bassist Ernö Hock and drummer Hunor G. Szabó. The sidelong piece which opens the record, "Akkorra / By Then", starts with a lilting melody played by unison tenor and viola, moving toward a swirling lament underscored by the chug of bass and drums. It's closer in feel to a Billy Bang loft-jazz unit than to the modern-classical camp with which Mezei is often associated. Painterly arco swabs (both sweeping and microscopic) hang in direct parallel to Bede's backwards-leaning Gerd Dudek-like peals. While not flashy, the rhythm section is substantive and gives constant nudge to the front line with blocky, unison bounce. The side closes with a gentle atonal theme, allowing areas of sparse clatter and gutsy push-pull between bass, viola and tenor amidst its funereal calls.
The flip opens with "Pákák / Sedges," a measured environment for Mezei's languid bowing, hushed clarinet burble, and brushy outlines. The quartet moves in and out of short written passages, reflecting and gradually expanding on snatches of thematic material into flits, whispers, trills and tiptoes. The closing title track has a jagged, rondo-like swing that hinges on repetition; as Bede stretches out on tenor, the rhythm section adopts a cascading roll to match his funky, Rollins-like spurts. Taking the second solo, Mezei works through structural cells that make clear a compositional intent present throughout the entire set. Equal footing is given to tuneful heft and open-ended propulsion, making for an exciting and cohesive listen.–CA
Accidie / Isounderscore / Iatrogenesis / Phage /Rainbow Bridge
Evolution usually gets drawn as a straight line. It starts at point A and ends at point Z, that end point seemingly inevitable and logical. But this is our a priori view of evolution. In reality, it's anything but logical, anything but inevitable where an entity starts out and where it arrives, and the getting there is filled with diversions and detours, false starts and dead-ends. It would be easy, then, to apply the straight-line version of evolution to the artistic development of Gordon Ashworth. Over the past decade, his sound has gone from the harsh noise walls, surreal collage and dark ambient of his early project, Oscillating Innards, to the acoustic-based, droning sound-clouds of Concern. But as the two-cassette retrospective Irretrievable (co-released by no fewer than five small labels) shows, it was neither logical nor inevitable that Ashworth's sound would become the warm, world-embracing sound we hear on the Caesarean LP. And if his liner notes can be taken at face value (there's no reason they shouldn't be – they're some of the most honest, personal and insightful notes I can remember reading in a while, at least in terms of illuminating the work at hand), then it wasn't even a given that Ashworth would still be making music in 2011.
Just compare the opening of "Discrete Memorial" from Caesarean, recorded in 2009 and 2010, to the beginning of "Gloom", from 2006, which opens the cassette box. Where the former stutters to life with some looping, broken piano chords, fumbling towards a melody, the latter flashes through a snippet of recorded rainfall before throwing the listener into a full-on electronic tempest of unyielding static rumble, the high frequencies filtered just enough to ward off pain levels. Sides one and two of Irretrievable are filled with such moments of near-discomfort and tension. Caesarean, by contrast, just gets richer and more elegant as it develops, accruing layers of clarinet, shruti box, acoustic guitar, tape saturation and reverb.
While the play of reedy textures, overtones and slow cyclical rhythms Ashworth builds up on Caesarean allows you to slip into a soporific comfort zone, the sharp edits he utilises all over Irretrievable create a spectre of threat, even fear. Anything could appear: ear-shredding noise, biting feedback or bludgeoning low-end. But behind each of these edits are glimpses of Ashworth working to transform his sound. "VIII", at the end of side one, prefigures some of the creeping, reverb-heavy atmosphere of Concern. Side three features an ever heavier use of collage, with Ashworth never settling into one soundworld for long. He chops up voice samples, field recordings, feedback and more HNW-type waves and throws them at the listener with gusto, making this side, in some ways, the most difficult of the four. The hard-edged drones and slower movement of side four come as a relief, almost, with room to breathe among buzzing, scraping textures, made with an assortment of bows, cymbals, guitar and more field recordings. Strangely enough, these most resemble his work on Caesarean, but they are some of the earliest recordings in the set, as if Ashworth's evolution has led him backwards to start over from an earlier form.
As an end-to-end listen, Caesarean is the more satisfying album; Irretrievable is just too much to digest in a single sitting, too restless. The three-part suite radiates warmth and an openness, the statement of someone confident with themselves. But there is an openness in the pieces collected on Irretrievable as well, one helped along by Ashworth's liners, which personalise what would otherwise be intimidating soundscapes. There is evidence of both success and failure – of the human as well as the musical kind – making it an equally fascinating audio document, and the one I may end up returning to more.–MW
SHADES OF THE UNBORN YEARS
Gifts Nobody Wants
Gifts Nobody Wants
Gifts Nobody Wants
While listening through these three selections from the most recent batch on Gifts Nobody Wants (a sub-label of William Hutson's Accidie Records), I can't escape the feeling that what I'm listening to are not thought-out compositions or improvised performances, but really some kind of environment or natural audio phenomena captured in situ. These aren't, of course, field recordings, but they have the same the flow, the same broad scale and immersive textures we're used to in environmental sound.
I'm not sure any of the three parties involved here had this concept specifically in mind when recording, but the effect is there all the same. The vivid micro-events on Stephen Cornford's Hysteresis seem alien and not man-made; the dense, shifting mass Hutson navigates (under his Rale moniker) on The Unborn Years is unrelenting yet elegant; the shuffling episodes on Saivus' Overnight are distant and inscrutable but also engrossing. Things you can't, in other words, readily explain, but can intuitively grasp: the shuffle and buzz of a domestic landscape, the constant, far-away hush of traffic or, more secretively, the hum of activity from inside walls and machines or the invisible motion of radio waves.
Part of this could be the various set-ups each employs. As the equipment isn't immediately familiar or identifiable, the sounds and movement they generate are hard to pin down. Of the three, only Hutson's can be identified with any certainty. He's most likely got a modular synth rig, but his touch is so subtle and gradual that it feels hands-off. Change comes slow in his pieces, as he takes recognisable gestures and shapes them into supple new forms. The crunch and rumble of a harsh noise wall gets filtered and broken up into a chattering, tactile underbelly of activity, while a thick, cord-like drone wraps itself around the upper frequencies and all sorts of shadow tones appear and disappear. A few actual field recordings of traffic noise actually do peek through the mix, but their presence is phantom-like, leaving you wondering if you really heard them or not.
The title of Cornford's tape, Hysteresis, references this confusion directly. Hysteresis is, in simple terms, the phenomenon when an effect lags behind its cause, so much so that you can't easily link the two. Using a homemade tape delay, microphones, glass vases (on the A side) and steel ducts (on side B), Cornford establishes his own natural system and then lets it run. High, glissing tones sing against gritty, mechanical rhythms, whistling streams and glottal interjections. As these layers of almost peripheral sounds accrue, a looping feel emerges. But it's never repetitive, more like a lo-fi Alvin Lucier instead.
Cristopher Cichocki, working as Saivus, produces the closet thing here to a narrative arc. His methods, however, are probably the most obscure – if only because he doesn't list them in the notes like Cornford does. Cichocki is a multi-tasking artist in the fields of video, audio, installation, and performance, yet based on the hyper-active video shorts available on his Table of Contents DVD, one wouldn't expect the somnambulant rhythms and muted textures of Overnight's single, 30 minute piece. Numerous phenomena suggest themselves – wind, breath, flowing water, insects, tunnels, jets taxiing, factory machinery – but it could also be all tape manipulation, mixers, and synths. What results then is a surreal landscape, a Tarkovsky film without the images. Like the Russian director's work, it's disturbing, almost as if it's manifesting some corner of your imagination better left buried.
So these aren't field recordings, they're not improvised and they're not compositions. But they do more than just break down the old dichotomy of improvisation vs. composition – they make it irrelevant by adding all sorts of new elements to the debate. That these releases are simultaneously all of these things and none of them means they've uncovered a little sonic corner of the world we hadn't found yet.–MW
CAUSE, UNFOLD, PROCEED I-V
Phillip Schulze is an electronic musician and improviser based in Düsseldorf, though his education as an artist and instrument designer partly comes from study at Wesleyan University under Ron Kuivila, Anthony Braxton and Alvin Lucier. Cause Unfold Proceed is a two-LP and one-CD boxed set, ambitiously self-released and exploring five versions of one central composition. "Cause Unfold Proceed II" is the only one to have been previously released, on the Quartet Solo Series I compilation curated by Jonathan Chen (also a Wesleyan grad) for the Striking Mechanism imprint – the other four variants are enjoying their first outing here. It's important to note that Schulze is not basing his music on samples or previously created forms, though it is computer music – he's designed software patches that encourage activities to take place, utilizing the literal components of the computer as well as feedback routes that layer and eventually contribute to the distortion of the resulting material. What Schulze has set into motion is a decidedly organic, humanist approach to computer music, systemic but utterly natural.
Each of the five realizations of Cause Unfold Proceed is dedicated to a different composer - Highlife pioneer Prince Nico Mbarga, Maryanne Amacher, house artist Terre Thaemlitz, Sun Ra and Hasil Adkins. As with Anthony Braxton's sometimes surprising dedications, Schulze draws from a wealth of musical / artistic interests and experiences, even if direct influences might be hard to peg. The fourth piece, in homage to Ra's "Fate in a Pleasant Mood," doesn't recall the airy, cloud-basking pulse of later Chicago-period Arkestra, carving out instead phase patterns and didactic rhythms. Listening to the two compositions back to back, however, a certain ethereal sway analogous to the Ronnie Boykins-John Hardy motor emerges in the first part of the piece, gradually decaying into a clunk underneath massive, fuzzy snags and a descending, medium-pitched phrase abstracted from the Ra saxophone line. Further along, the clarity of this relationship starts to collapse, puttering with a cyclic limp towards a return of the theme (analogous to the play between Gilmore and Cohran on the original piece) before fading into a stretched-out tone. (My thanks to Austin guitarist Jonathan Horne for pointing out the structural similarities.)
It's unclear whether the pieces' dedications were made after or before they were composed, and thus whether the affinities are due to chance or deliberate borrowing. There's a clue in the composer's text, perhaps, which reads: "The piece's sonic outcome may vary drastically each realization and yet retain its compositional identity. The regulated freedom creates oscillations between intuition and knowledge." Intuition seems to account for a good portion of Schulze's music, allowing a meaty groove to emerge from the thudding low tones and speaker rattle of the first variation, dedicated to Mbarga's "Music Line." Whether it reminds you of Highlife or not, Cause Unfold Proceed is a fine exploration of the sound of feeling.–CA
Oluyemi Thomas / Sirone / Michael Wimberly
BENEATH TONES FLOOR
It's surprising, perhaps, that with the exception of one appearance with Cecil Taylor, the work of bassist Sirone went undocumented by the FMP label. For the last two decades of his life, he was based in Berlin, passing away in 2009 aged 69; it would have been interesting to hear him in duet with Peter Kowald, as they had much in common. What set Sirone apart from other free jazz bassists in the late 1960s and early 1970s was his taking the instrument into an area of massive sonic exploration. Using amplification, he brought guttural, earth-shaking tones to the forefront of the ensemble, either obstinately hollow or deliciously resonant; his bass could sound flatly electric, suggesting precedents such as the muted West African lute, the balafon and John Cage's prepared piano and brake-drum percussion.
Beneath Tones Floor, recorded late in 2008, finds him in a trio with Bay Area reedman Oluyemi Thomas and drummer Michael Wimberly in a series of improvisations listed as a multi-part suite on side A and as individual selections on side B. Each piece has a corresponding poem written by Ijeoma Thomas, which is included in the booklet of the CD but, oddly, not with the vinyl. While Sirone is not the leader here, the recording presents him front and center, directing the improvisations with furious growling wisps and surges that crackle with electricity and dovetail with Thomas's bass clarinet squawk. Switching to musette on "Reflections of Silence, Paintings of Silence, Images of Silence," Thomas unfurls bent tones in an Arabic dance-like motif set to easy, scattered taps and bullish fiddle. "Newest Happiness and Joy" is bunched pizzicato dives outlined with cymbal padding before being supplanted with quavering soprano, which curls into an ambling threesome for "Rotation 360 Degrees Hummingbird." The series of unaccompanied and additive movements that make up "Heavenly Wisdom" exhibit the bassist in a solo that goes from deeply honest classical tones to miniscule caressing vibrations. Sirone was never as well documented as he should have been, so it's all the more wonderful that this fine release captures his artistry within this very sympathetic trio.–CA
In the score of section III of his composition Burdocks, Christian Wolff's only instruction to each musician is to play 511 different sounds on their instrument. Not a straightforward instruction on any instrument, and on a saxophone, it requires considerable inventiveness with the variables that shape the sound of a note – attack, breathing, embouchure, tonguing and so forth. Enter tenor saxophonist Bertrand Denzler, best known as a member of the quintet Hubbub, the saxophone quartet Propagations and Trio Sowari with Burkhard Beins and Phil Durrant. Tenor is his first solo album, and in keeping with recent Potlatch releases, it combines bold experimentation with a satisfying listening experience.
The album consists of three very different tracks, on each of which Denzler only plays one note – or, more accurately, maintains the fingering of only one note. The first, "Filters", opens with a series of repeats of the note, each held for the duration of one breath. Initially, each version seems to be played as cleanly as possible, until Denzler gradually introduces subtle modulations into his playing of it. The closer one listens, the more details and variation become apparent, achieved by breath control and use of the tongue. At times, you think he could be playing a different note, as changes in timbre create the illusion of changes of pitch. It would be fascinating to see him play this, live or on video, to know exactly how he achieves all these variations. As the complexity increases, the track builds to a storming climax before subsiding again, to end as simply as it began. It's one of those pieces that demands to be heard again as soon as it has ended.
Next up is "Signals", the longest of the three tracks at over 19 minutes. Denzler's methods here immediately contrast with those on "Filters". At first he barely blows hard enough to stir the reed, creating a fragile breathy sound. Once he's in full swing, notes are not held for the duration of a breath but are shorter or consist of a series of pulses of varying lengths. One wonders if the title of the piece could literally refer to real signals and whether Denzler is actually playing Morse code! He deploys a range of methods, not necessarily exhaustively exploring one before introducing another, and the gradual evolution of the piece makes for edge-of-the-seat listening. The concentration and rigorous exploration are as admirable as the music.
Finally, on the 11-minute "Airtube", Denzler diverges from the methodology of the first two tracks and employs an extensive range of extended techniques. The title reminds us that we're listening to air being blown through a metal tube – trumpeter Axel Dörner's playing comes to mind – as popping key pads create resonances in the instrument body, and metallic clatterings and scrapings, alternations of sucking and blowing, and sudden explosive expulsions of air combine with unorthodox embouchures. It's a tour de force of exploration. Tenor's greatest strength is that it's truly compelling listening, and never sounds like a laboratory experiment. 511 different sounds? There are many more here, easy.–JE
Reedman Eric Dolphy (1928-1964) has become a qualified part of the jazz "mainstream," and that's a good thing. In the early 1960s, his work with John Coltrane was famously pegged as "anti-jazz," and even more recent critics like Tom Piazza have found his work to be "overly cerebral." Such a view seems bizarre: Dolphy's compositions, for instance, are filled with delicacy and care, often Monkishly whimsical, mixing earthbound weight with stratospheric possibilities. His reed playing has influenced the younger generation of players, cropping up even in young straight-ahead alto players such as Mike DiRubbio and Jacám Manricks, to name just two. As with Coltrane, Dolphy often preferred an ensemble with a chordal instrument, with Mal Waldron and Jaki Byard among his favorite pianists and Bobby Hutcherson a later collaborator on vibraphone. Remembering Dolphy is pianist Joel Futterman's paean to the late reedman, and it features six of Dolphy’s compositions, along with Waldron's "Fire Waltz" and two short improvisations, both entitled "Out to Dinner."
It's no surprise that Futterman and Dolphy have things in common; the compositions allow for wide interval leaps and a sense of freedom that springs from a very open approach to chord changes – this is music of possibility. To the uninitiated, it might have seemed like Dolphy was straying quite far from the center of the tune, but his improvisations were thematic and grounded: his explosiveness always made complete sense. Futterman's stream-of-consciousness approach mates perfectly with these tunes and their allowance for near-independence. "17 West," for example, is a frisky line, Dolphy's flute offset by Ron Carter's surging cello on its initial 1960 recording for Prestige Records. Futterman captures the contrast between airy, birdlike vocalizing and slippery low end, building it into blocky interdependence and internal ricochet, phrases extrapolating from one another in rapid succession. It's an athletic and at times pointillist dance that retains a connection to the deep, sawing metronome of the original piece.
Throughout the disc, Futterman's left hand creates supple-yet-thick strokes, building up controlled swing while the right makes grand gestures, wholly in keeping with a feeling of post-Bird velocity and foot-tapping groove. "In the Blues," from the third volume of Dolphy's 1961 European recordings, spirals rapidly up and out, holding a player-piano pace while scurrying through the underbrush. "Serene" takes on a Monkish texture, striding into a glass enclosure with a creeping, slow roll and occasional dissonant refractions. As volcanic as Futterman's improvisations can get, they always preserve these tunes' extraordinary sense of motion.–CA
LIVE AT THE ULRICHSBERG KALEIDOPHON
To celebrate Joëlle Léandre's 60th birthday later this year, Leo has released this double live CD recorded in Ulrichsberg in April and May 2009. The first disc features a tentet recording of a new Léandre composition, "Can You Hear Me", and the second an improvising trio with John Tilbury on piano and Kevin Norton on drums. Both beautifully highlight Léandre's versatility and talent. Alone, either disc would be highly desirable; together they are irresistible.
The group that performs "Can You Hear Me" is an equal mix of strings with brass and reeds, and at its heart is a string quartet of double bass, cello, viola and violin. Large improvising ensembles can too easily succumb to the "cocktail party effect" of incoherent chatter, as everyone tries to talk at once, but Léandre tackles that with typical humour and aplomb. The composition opens with the sound of the musicians actually chattering among themselves before Léandre gets things moving. Other instruments enter with short interjections, mirroring the verbal chatter, before a coherent theme gradually emerges, led by the strings. Kevin Norton adds a subtle wash of brushes on cymbals before his rhythmic percussion work leads Burkhard Stangl's guitar and the strings in the theme. Lorenz Raab's trumpet emerges for an impressively diverse solo, one of several punctuated by ensemble string passages. Léandre leads subtly, nudging things along when needed; she also takes two solos, in the second of which her bass combines effectively with one of her trademark freeform spoken rants. As cocktail parties go, this one is a pleasure – everyone has something worthwhile to contribute, there's no pointless small-talk or unseemly argument, and proceedings are never dominated by someone who wants to constantly hold forth. The piece ends with a prolonged coda in which Léandre wails mournfully and affectingly, before her subdued recitation brings it to a powerful close. Cue wild applause.
On the following day Léandre and Norton were joined by pianist John Tilbury for a totally different but equally stunning trio performance. Léandre plucks and bows equally (but does not sing), giving a solid foundation to the trio without anchoring the rhythm – as with the tentet, she subtly shapes proceedings, contributing snatches of melody or sustaining a drone as needed. Tilbury is typically economical and effective, interjecting small repeated clusters as punctuation but never overdoing it – his silences are as eloquent as his notes. For much of the time Norton favours vibes to percussion, moving the group away from piano trio territory and allowing all three to contribute evolving melody lines. The resulting soundscape has a diffuse, dreamlike beauty, to which Norton's percussion adds delicate coloration, occasionally shifting the group dynamic up a notch. It's fascinating to hear how that happens, like ripples caused by rising and falling spirals in energy levels. The three form an equilateral triangle, total empathy in action – it's the kind of piece you wish could last forever.–JE
LIVE ON TOUR 2008
What is it like to be on tour with an improvising trio during a seven-concerts-in-eight-days Midwestern tour playing art galleries and colleges / universities? That question is partially answered by this 5CD set of performances by a group whose debut at the 1998 Vision Festival went undocumented by the press – hence Trio X. Partially answered because only one of the complete performances, at the Krannert Art Museum in Champaign, Illinois, is included in the set. Were some songs from other performances edited out because of sound problems, subpar performances or indistinguishable differences from the same song included from the other tour stops? The answer to that is a mystery, like the group's name.
Trio X's most well known member is Joe McPhee, a multi-instrumentalist (on flugelhorn, trumpet, soprano and tenor saxophones here) whose early marginalization led to the formation of the Hat Hut label and whose playing is a uniquely personal melding of passion and innovation. It's difficult to imagine the group's touchstones of "Motherless Child", "Brown Skin Girl", "Old Man River" and "People Get Ready" without his presence. There are other identifiable markers laid down on the tour ranging from the unacknowledged (Sam Rivers's "Beatrice" shows up in the initial extended cut "Colgate Afternoon" as well as fragments of Miles Davis's version of "Round Midnight" cropping up sporadically when Joe plays his trumpet), to the indirectly-alluded-to (Monk's "Well You Needn't", restructured as "You Need You Need Not", as well as "Round Midnight": in the closing "Fragmonks" at Hamilton College) and directly-cited ("Waukee Hello Naima"). After hearing the Coltrane nugget subsequent songs featuring McPhee's soprano seem to be leading up to it again only to veer away, but would anybody in the audience have realized that was happening? How can we even speculate about that without this collection?
Bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jay Rosen are highly regarded within the NYC centric free jazz community, with much of their recorded output on labels in the Cadence family, Leo and the like. They react well to each other (hence perhaps the relative longevity of the group) but their sound isn't well served by this recording, which the listener is hectored into believing is the epitome of audio vérité per the standard CIMP verbiage. Perhaps the recorded signal has an unparalleled level of quality (although I don't think Blue Note had to remind listeners of the bona fides of Rudy Van Gelder at the time), but CIMP recordings need the volume level cranked significantly to get the same sound level as other discs. While on the topic of gripes, Robert Rusch's liner notes tend to range from informative regarding the songs, to the kind of verbose credit for the hospitality of certain individuals that's usually found in the "thanks to" summaries, and odd philosophical ramblings like "kids usually don't prejudge" (maybe because they have a limited base of experience to draw from?) or dismissals like "in the rear were yappers, snackers and transients" (on a college campus, what are the chances?). What is unfortunately missing from the notes are any comments by the members of the band on what their thoughts were of individual performances, or of the tour as a whole. Likewise the photographs in the packaging effectively show the small venues they played, as well as the time of the year (with a gorgeous shot of brilliant maples from a window behind Rosen at Colgate University), but show none of the works in the Krannert Art Museum, which the liners cite as an influence to the artists performing there.
Despite those caveats this is a wonderful representation of what it's like to hear how the music of an improvisational group develops over the course of a tour. Accordingly probably the best way for a listener to approach it is listen to it a disc a day, just like the tour progressed, although the last two discs are split up between the two Iowa stops in Waukee and Davenport on one and Bowling Green State University and Hamilton College on the other. You can hear how they vary the approach of the calypso "Brown Skin Girl" at each stop to keep the creative spirit fresh, never lapsing into note-by-note runthroughs. Sonny Rollins has made a lengthy career out of including "St Thomas" in concerts, so the fertility of that approach is well established. But why keep returning to "Brown Skin Girl" while there's just one version of the bracing "Prairie Fire", unless the Krannert Art Museum was the only venue where a fully improvised piece was recorded to which a title was subsequently attached? Maybe there always has to be something mysterious about this group.–SG
I think we have Lionel Marchetti to thank for digging up this magnificent piece of buried treasure, Michel Chion's 82-minute, seven-movement musique concrète "melodrama" originally created in the studios of Musique Experimentale de Marseille in 1979 and premiered in Avignon later that year (the last movement, "Nuit", has already appeared on disc as Nuit Noire on the 1993 empreintes DIGITALes CD reissue of Chion's Requiem, but makes more sense here as the final movement of the longer work). Marchetti had already sung its praises in his book on the composer, La musique concrète de Michel Chion (Metamkine, 1998), and he's also responsible for the mastering here, and provides some typically poetic liner notes.
The "story", such as it is, of Diktat is a monologue of fragments, real or imaginary, spoken, sung and even screamed by a certain Melchisedech, whom Chion describes as a clochard-prophète whose mind is "a battlefield between more or less hazy memories full of sonic obsessions (rain, storms, dogs, cats, an electric typewriter, etc.) and magical apparitions (such as the Mad Virgin) and the feeling that he has some kind of mission to accomplish, albeit with intense weariness." The texts, in German (a language Chion has always found "heavenly", as he told me in his recent Invisible Jukebox for The Wire) and Melchisedech's imaginary mother tongue "blave", are often unintelligible but profoundly disturbing and curiously moving. With the exception of Lanie Goodman as Donna in the work's central movement, "La vierge folle", Chion handles the vocals himself (I wonder, now that he's a highly respected Professor of Film Studies, what his students would make of some of his crazed glossolalia).
But it's the sound world he creates for his texts to inhabit that makes the work so compelling. Ever aware that he's working with sounds on tape and that we are to hear them as such – listen to how a recurring Terry Riley-esque keyboard passage gets warped upwards, and how the material returns and opens out in the final movement ("where, like in a Philip K. Dick novel, we wake up from one world only to fall into another") – Chion manages to accomplish something rare and extraordinary here: we're transported into a dream world while at the same remaining acutely conscious of our dreaming. It's no wonder the composer is a fan of Christopher Nolan's Inception. Amusingly, that clattering typewriter also reminds me of Godard chomping on his cigar in Histoire(s) du Cinéma – and while JLG is definitely not one of Chion's favourite directors, there are similarities between his films, especially the more recent ones, and Chion's music: both impress and amaze at once, but need time and patient study to reveal their many secrets.
I was, as the saying goes, gobsmacked during that Jukebox when Chion managed to identify one of Lionel Marchetti's pieces within seconds (especially since I'd gone out of my way to pick a more obscure work and select an extract occurring halfway through), but I'll bet Marchetti would be just as quick on the ball if you played him a snippet from Diktat. And that's something I aspire to with this music – it's taken 32 years to see the light of day, and I could quite easily spend another 32 listening to it. Outstanding. Get a copy. No excuse.–DW
MADAME DE SHANGHAI / APRES PRESQUE RIEN / VISAGE 2
Thanks in no small part to the tireless work of his widow Brunhild, there's been no shortage of new recordings and concerts of Luc Ferrari's music since his death six years ago. One has a sense, though, that we've nearly reached the bottom of the barrel, and two of the three works featured here, 1996's Madame de Shanghai and 2004's Après presque rien, though impeccably crafted and eminently listenable (that, of course, goes without saying), aren't exactly what I'd consider essential additions to your Ferrari discography. The former – this is a reissue of its second recording on the Scottish label 7things (an earlier version appeared on Musique d'Aujourd'hui in 1997) – is scored for flute trio and "digitally stored sounds", most of which were recorded in Paris's Chinatown where Li Ping Ting went into a video store and asked for a copy of, yes, Orson Welles's 1947 film The Lady from Shanghai. Needless to say we gets snippet's of Orson's fake Irish brogue and of the famous shootout in the hall of mirrors, and Ferrari's flute piece also plays with the idea of mirrors, in terms of both its pitch and overall rhythmic organisation. It's elegant and amusing, particularly when the composer starts rapping on about Peking Duck, but lightweight.
Après presque rien was commissioned by Art Zoyd, and collages fragments from the composer's earlier instrumental work Presque rien avec instruments, performed with zest by the Belgian Musiques Nouvelles ensemble, with all manner of field recordings, including excerpts from soundchecks and rehearsals, video game noises and even Mel Blanc's Woody Woodpecker laugh. Ferrari, whose discovery of Pro Tools when he equipped his studio in Paris in 1999 led to a spate of activity late in life, was clearly having a ball when he put this one together, and admits it in his typically pithy, witty liners, but compared to more substantial works like Archives sauvées des eaux it still feels like a fond de tiroir.
The CD is worth the asking price for Visage II (once more played with panache by Musiques Nouvelles), which unless I'm mistaken hasn't appeared on disc before. It was written back in Ferrari's Darmstadt days in 1956, and scored for two trumpets, trombone, tuba, piano and six percussionists placed strategically around the audience. "Because this was not done at that time, it was too impractical, the score remained unperformed, if not unplayable", the composer writes, but the piece was finally premiered by Friedrich Cerha's Die Reihe ensemble in Vienna in 1961. As you might expect, it flirts with serialism – flirts being the operative word, and a good description of Ferrari's attitude to musical genres and styles as a whole – but sounds more like Varèse than anything by his Darmstadt pals. It's a shame Ferrari's early works don't get more of an airing, as they've stood the test of time remarkably well. There was talk of Mode releasing the late Symphonie Déchirée a while back, but while we wait for that, how about a complete set of the five Visages? That would not be presque rien, but vraiment quelque chose.–DW
ALMOST NEW YORK
Alvin Lucier's music is a thing of icy calm and crystalline beauty somehow detached from histrionics, despite the intense involvement of its participants. Nowhere is this dichotomy more evident than in this two-disc set of recent compositions involving mainly acoustic instruments (the exception being the title track, composed in 2001, a piece for five flutes – played by one player – and two pure-wave slow-sweep oscillators). Two of them, Twonings (2006) and Broken Line (2006), explore the changing rhythmic beats formed when two instruments approach unisons. It's a concept Lucier's been examining since the early 1980s, and each instrumental combination is revelatory. The excellence of the performances is established from the opening notes of Twonings, performed by pianist Joseph Kubera and cellist Charles Curtis, whose gorgeous sostenuto brings back memories of his double-disc Lucier compendium of similar scope on Antiopic a few years ago. Indeed, whether they involve conflicting tuning systems or approached and ultimately achieved unisons, all three beat pieces receive finely crafted performances, with Broken Line especially noteworthy for flutist Robert Dick's use of a mouthpiece capable of glissandi. Almost New York, the other flute study here, is performed by its dedicatee Carin Levine, and once more the recording captures stunning detail, filling the soundstage as she moves between instruments.
The odd man out, as it were, is the expansive Coda Variations (2005), written for six-valve tuba in just intonation. Occupying the entire second disc, it shares length and austerity with the work of Morton Feldman, to whom it is an homage. Robin Hayward's performance renders the piece as much a study in timbre as in tuning, and as the work wends its nearly motionless way from note to note, each successive pitch sounds richer and fuller, a whole Webernian universe with each breath.–MM
EARLE BROWN CONTEMPORARY SOUND SERIES VOL 2
Between 1961 and 1973, Earle Brown curated 18 albums of new music from both sides of the Atlantic for his Contemporary Sound Series, and Wergo have set about reissuing them in six three-CD volumes, of which this is the second. It brings together a 1961 disc of Italian chamber music – Luigi Nono's Polifonica–Monodia–Ritmica (1951), Bruno Maderna's Serenata No.2 (1954) and Luciano Berio's Différences (1958-60) – Brown's own Music for Violin, Cello and Piano (1952), Music for Cello and Piano (1955) and Hodograph I (1959), sharing a 1962 album with Morton Feldman's Durations I-IV (1960-61), and, from 1970, New Music From London, which includes Peter Maxwell Davies's Antechrist (1967), Harrison Birtwistle's Ring a Dumb Carillon (1965), David Bedford's Come In Here Child (1968) and Richard Orton's Cycle (1967).
The Italian pieces, performed by the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Bruno Maderna and a smaller ensemble on Différences, conducted by Berio, have aged a little, but gracefully. The Nono piece wears its Webernian heart on its sleeve, and is rhythmically the most regular of the three pieces (but, thanks to its instrumentation, never plodding). It's amusing to think that this stuff was once considered dangerously avant-garde, and was even described as "unlistenable" – these days it sounds as delicate and diaphanous as Mozart. So does Maderna's Serenata No. 2. And don't give me that rubbish about not being able to hear tone rows and their transformations: they're as clear as the nose on your face. Whether you can work out the rhythmic procedures just from listening is another question – serializing rhythm was a problem the Darmstadt summer scholars grappled with throughout the 1950s, with varying degrees of success – but that won't stop you enjoying the music. The standout piece of the set though is the Berio, and this cracking performance by Jacques Castagner (flute), Walter Lewis (clarinet), Francis Pierre (harp), Walter Trampler (viola) and Seymour Barab (cello) still hasn't been topped, in my opinion. The real star of the piece though is the multi-channel tape, which kicks in with a vengeance about halfway through, gleefully shattering the instrumental lines and scattering their transformed shards around the stereo space. Four years on from the Maderna, we're clearly in a more complex world, but Berio's feel for melodic contour is just as sensitive and sensual as his compatriots', and the piece really sings, swings almost.
Some of the music on the New Music From London disc, though written about a decade later than the Italian works, actually sounds older, curiously. Not because a piece like Peter Maxwell Davies's Antechrist quotes and derives from the 13th century motet Deo confitemini / Domino, but rather because its instrumentation – piccolo, bass clarinet, violin, cello and percussion – and its angular canonic writing is so clearly indebted to Ragtime / Renard-period Stravinsky. Birtwistle also owes a lot to "the great Igor", as Claude Chabrol called him, but the Stravinsky influence is harder to spot in his spare, thorny setting – for voice, clarinet and percussion – of Christopher Logue's Ring a Dumb Carillon. And set theorists who come running to Birtwistle expecting to round up pitch class sets like sheepdogs often go running away with their tails between their legs. There's always been something forbidding about Birtwistle's sheer pigheaded refusal to offer instant gratification: you may need to listen to this half a dozen times before you decide whether you like it. And you may not even then. The other vocal piece on the disc, David Bedford's Come In Here Child (Kenneth Patchen), is more overtly lyrical and accessible, but the novelty of its instrumentation – an amplified piano whose volume is controlled by the pianist – soon wears off somewhat, despite John Tilbury's considerable skill in handling it. The score of Richard Orton's Cycle, performed by the composer (on piano, percussion and at times if I'm not mistaken what sounds like a Hammond organ) and Moray Welsh (cello), with its open form and concentric rings, might reflect the influence of Stockhausen's Refrain, but the music, despite starting out with the kind of rigorous investigation of just one pitch that Scelsi would have been proud of, is much more extrovert and virtuosic.
You know by now that I'm a sucker for informative and entertaining liner notes, and the texts Brown commissioned for his Mainstream discs are fine examples. If you wanted to find out some basics about the New York School, Morton Feldman's introduction to his Durations would be as good a place as any to start, as a general introduction to Feldman's aesthetic and compositional practice, complete with (obligatory?) Cage anecdotes. Amusingly, it doesn't go into much detail on the pieces themselves – for that I refer you to Frank Sani's article at http://www.cnvill.net/mfsani1.htm, which also refers to this particular recording. In the four Durations, Feldman dispensed with time signature, barlines and tempo (the instruction to the performer being "the duration of each sound is chosen by the performer"), and wrote each part individually and "simultaneously", a reference presumably to the notes' vertical alignment in the score, "knowing that no instrument would ever be too far behind or too far ahead of the other." Even so, David Tudor (piano) manages to lag behind Don Hammond (alto flute), Matthew Raimondi (violin) and David Soyer (cello) on Durations I (not that that's really a problem: I could listen to Tudor all day, myself), who were presumably encouraged not to stretch out too much in order to get all four Durations pieces on one side of an LP. The music never sounds rushed, but it's so gorgeous you wish it'd go on a bit longer sometimes.
Earle Brown's notes to his three pieces are, along with Cornelius Cardew's Treatise Handbook and David Behrman's What Indeterminate Notation Determines, required reading for anyone interested in notation, graphic or otherwise (you can check out sample pages of each score by clicking on the links here http://www.earle-brown.org/works.php). But the music is even better – crisp, clear, beautifully concise and superbly executed. Like everything else in this splendid 3CD set.–DW
Once upon a time people used to play Steely Dan albums to test a new set of home speakers [I still do - DW]. Now you can replace Aja with Subterranean Sky, a record conceived from "field recordings, synthesized and acoustic instrumental sounds". Perhaps Thanos Chrysakis is afraid of calling the fruit of his research "computer music" to avoid being filed away alongside the purveyors of cheap fizzle-and-glitch – if so, given the quantity of engrossing noises coming from my (old) stereo, his reluctance appears wholly justified. The right adjective is metaphysical; there's no evident reference to styles or past masters, apart from a pinch of Luc Ferrari when adult voices emerge from the kind of fluid hallucination of which the album is packed. The throb of subsonic matter, fluorescent glow of certain ejections and a correct application of the laws of randomness impart a feel of earnestness to the whole work. In addition to his machines, Chrysakis also employs metal percussion, clarinet, guitar and viola in selected episodes, but only the first of these is recognizable, while the others blend in so well with the ever shifting textures that discerning their influence is well nigh impossible. I trust the (de)composer's will to tell me if those racing cars and crickets were real, or a figment of my imagination.–MR
It’s been a decade since Carsten Nicolai and Ryoji Ikeda launched their cyclo. project, painstakingly combining specific frequencies, many beyond the range of human hearing, into sounds selected purely for their visual characteristics when analysed with stereo graphic equipment. The mission statement is quite unequivocal on the matter: “the audio element in the process is subservient to the desire and appetite of the image.”
Conceptually elegant for sure, but while we wait for the publication of the music’s visual component, how are we to approach this purely audio document? Download an XY phase scope and have a look at some of the sounds yourself, but make sure your computer is hooked up to a decent sound system first. Even listening on decent headphones won’t do, unless you're trying to spare the family dog a traumatic experience. Nicolai and Ikeda have beaten the sharity blogs too, as compressing the soundfiles into MP3 spoils their intrinsic beauty, to preserve which the album hasn’t even been mastered. Not that id is something you can take with you on the road – listening to its bludgeoning bass, impeccable clicks and scything soundwaves through crappy little earbuds is as daft as watching Jacques Tati’s Play Time on an iPhone.
Even so, this music is easy to admire but very difficult to love. You can tap your feet to it a hundred and odd times a minute, but you certainly can’t dance to it. The beat remains stubbornly foursquare throughout, but the texture changes remarkably often – one gets the impression that Nicolai and Ikeda have tried to include as much as possible from their extensive database of sounds. And of course you won’t find anything to hum along to. Melody and harmony are, presumably, not very nice to look at.–DW [reproduced by kind permission of The Wire]
Famously, Bernhard Gál's past work has been characterized by Asian implications, a connection made stronger in Same Difference. This extensive cycle of compositions makes use of the sonorities of traditional Chinese instruments, their timbres – pure or processed – exploited within prearranged settings, occasionally including metropolitan noises and voices (the arcane reverberations of "UTOO" being a compelling representation of the latter approach). Gál's method displays the lyricism of a defoliated minimalism while maintaining impressions of inscrutability and, not infrequently, irony. "Of Sound And Time" features three "fake listeners" hidden in the audience, interfering with Taiwan's Ensemble Chai Found Music Workshop's rigorous performance via coughs, sneezes and ringing mobiles marked as significant ingredients of the score. Elsewhere, as in "Uh-Jeh-Gal" (for mouth organ, zither and sound projection) a strategic placement of speakers and performers is essential for the diffusion of enticing textural shrouds and poised interpretative gestures. In "Xuan Zhuan", rubbed wine glasses and bowed crotales generate an uneven adjacency of shrilling pitches. Five short interludes comprising women speaking in Cantonese and Taiwanese complete a record whose cryptic traits conceal an unassuming charm.–MR
23 PANORAMAS DE FRÉQUENCES
Editions Galérie Roger Tator
Much of this handsomely produced 62-page book consists of photographs and descriptions of the locations where Lyon-based sound artist Emmanuel Holterbach made the field recordings featured on the accompanying CD. While the former often seem quite banal – who could imagine that passing traffic on an uninspiring stretch of motorway near Lorette might yield such gorgeous, rich overtones if recorded on omnidirectional microphones from inside a PVC tube on an adjacent building site? – Holterbach's description of his working method is often illuminating. On "Night creatures and fortuitous wind-harp at the edge of the Laval dam" he writes "this sound image doesn't exist. It contains creatures' singing that never mix with one another in reality. The singing of the toads and frogs can be heard in late winter, the insects in the hot summer."
Such an admission of compositional sleight of hand aligns Holterbach with Luc Ferrari, whose subtle manipulation of everyday sounds in Presque Rien N°1 Le lever du jour au bord de la mer still remains one of sound art's sacred cows, but elsewhere he's quite happy to leave his recordings well alone, as when he uses induction coils to capture the flashing neon sign of a pharmacy with phasing supplied by electricity supply lines. "There is no sound montage here, it is the voice of la fée électricité which produces the strange disruptions at the end of the sound image."
We're not exactly breaking new ground here – those familiar with Eric La Casa's investigations of urban spaces, both confined and open, are likely to identify (with) many of these sounds, Douglas Quin and Hildegard Westerkamp have explored the underwater world with similar rigour, and Toshiya Tsunoda has been listening to the world from inside pipes and tubes for a while now – but Holterbach's ear is just as acute as that of his abovementioned sound artists and his knack for finding himself at the intersection of the natural and man-made world commendable. The sound of children at play is instantly recognisable, but reflected by the walls of a block of flats and heard from inside a boiler room it becomes eerie and inexplicably moving, and the final track's seemingly incongruous mix of croaking frogs and the distant rumble of road sweepers is splendid, if, like too many of the tracks on offer, frustratingly short. Indeed, the brevity of many of the offerings often gives us the feeling we're encroaching upon something private (I feel the same way about much of Chris Watson's work), an experience so intense and personal it probably can't be shared with others. But I'm delighted Emmanuel Holterbach chose to do just that.–DW
BEAUTIFUL GHOST WAVE
"Beautiful Ghost Wave" was originally a name Jason Kahn gave to one of the soundfiles he was working with, but it ended up as the perfect title for a 37-minute composition that sets out to explore the creative process itself, with all its peripheral sonic material, which he describes as a musical equivalent to "reading between the lines." Those familiar with the large body of work Swiss-based American composer / improviser has created over the past decade may be surprised by the abrasive and at times decidedly noisy surfaces, especially with a title like that. Put it down, perhaps, to the influence of the feisty band of de(con)structionist improvisers from South Korea – Hong Chulki, Ryu Hankil, Choi Joonyong, Jin Sangtae and Park Seungjun – he's been frequenting recently. But here the dismantling and reconfiguring are enshrined in the composition itself; in addition to his analogue synth, mixing board, contact mics, shortwave radio and electromagnetic coils, Kahn set up microphones in his studio to capture sound of the machines being switched on and off and his own movements during the recording and mixing process. The result is music that steps outside itself, that goes out of its way to make listeners aware of the process of its creation. This kind of meta-reference is nothing new, of course – it's been a feature of musique concrète for well over half a century, and has also seduced rock musicians as diverse as Pink Floyd, Neu! and The Fall, but until recently it's something Kahn has tended to avoid. If his work a few years ago, notably 2004's exquisite Miramar (Sirr), had more in common with Eliane Radigue's in its concentration on long, slowly evolving sounds that appear and disappear almost imperceptibly, Beautiful Ghost Wave is definitely what Michel Chion would call "musique mediatiste", where you "hear that it's been edited and mixed and is coming at you through loudspeakers." As a realisation of the concept of "hearing between the sounds", it's an unqualified success. Listening to how certain elements – most notably the sustained C that opens the piece, which eventually becomes a blaring minor third – move between the musical foreground and background, as if trying to remember how they got there, is both haunting and beautiful.–DW [reproduced by kind permission of The Wire]
Copyright 2004 by Paris Transatlantic