by Clifford Allen, Jason Bivins, Stuart Broomer, Tom Djll, John Eyles, Stephen Griffith, Massimo Ricci, Michael Rosenstein, Dan Warburton, Matthew Wuethrich|
In Concert: Unwhitstable Festival
Reissued!: Bill Dixon's Intents and Purposes
In Concert: Gino Robair's I Norton
On Senufo Editions: Jennifer Veillerobe / Renato Rinaldi / Kassel Jaeger / Jarrod Fowler / Gregg Kowalsky / Raionbashi / Daniela Fromberg / Stefan Roigk / Bellows
VINYL SOLUTION: Af Ursin / Sean Baxter / Elodie / Dickie Landry / Lionel Marchetti & Jérôme Noetinger / Mattin / MIMEO / ROVA:Zorn
JAZZ & IMPROV: Harrison Bankhead / Pascal Battus & Michael Johnsen / Berne, Black & Cline / Rudiger Carl & Oliver Augst / eRikm & Norbert Möslang / Simon H. Fell / Satoko Fujii / Hertenstein, Heberer, Badenhorst & Niggenkemper / Sven-Ake Johansson & Annette Krebs
Gerry Hemingway / Hubbub / Joëlle Léandre & Phillip Greenlief / Jason Lescalleet / Pascal Marzan & John Russell / Joe McPhee, Ernie Bostic / Misha Mengelberg & Evan Parker / Abdul Moimeme & Riccardo Guerreiro / Joe Morris, Taylor Ho Bynum, Sara Schoenbeck, Agusti Fernandez, Spanish Donkey / Seijiro Murayama, Jean-Luc Guionnet, Stéphane Rives / Joe Rigby / Wadada Leo Smith / David S. Ware, Cooper-Moore, William Parker & Muhammad Ali
CONTEMPORARY: Alessandro Bosetti / Michel Chion / Philip Corner & Manuel Zurria / Philip Corner & Malcolm Goldstein / Harley Gaber / Anne Guthrie / Meredith Monk / Eliane Radigue / Dimitri Voudouris
ELECTRONICA: Kim Cascone / Michel Guillet / Illusion of Safety / Tom Lawrence / Francisco Meirino & Jason Kahn / Nicola Ratti / Sustained Development / Eisuke Yanagisawa
You'll just have to take my word for it: I'd already finished my write-up of Malcolm Goldstein's awesome readings of Philip Corner (Pogus, see below) and was scouting around the www to see if anyone else had reviewed it and came across Frank Oteri's piece at newmusicbox.org, which made the same comparison with La Monte Young. Yikes! Not so much "great minds think alike" as "small world", perhaps. And for much of the music that this rag concentrates its attention on, it's getting smaller. It's probably significant that the events that our roving correspondents John Eyles and Tom Djll covered this issue both took place in churches. Audiences for the post-EAI / austere Wandelweiser stuff that seems to be the rage right now (Simon Reynell's last half dozen releases on Another Timbre being the most enjoyable examples to come my way lately) are, after all, more like congregations these days. Thou shalt not prop up the bar and natter with thy neighbour during the show, and thou shalt sit still throughout and pray thou dost not fart between notes.
Seems like a long way from the sweaty dives where this issue's featured interviewee Richard Landry plays his swamp pop. Many thanks go out to Dickie, and our man in Tejas Clifford Allen who journeyed down to Louisiana to interview him (for background info for his liners to the reissue of Landry's Fifteen Saxophones on Tommy McCutchon's splendid Unseen Worlds label – see below, also). And, needless to say, to our other regular contributors and all those who continue to send music this way. Bonne lecture.-DW
St Peter's Church, Whitstable, Kent
July 2nd 2011
Every year between 2003 and 2008, Evan Parker's psi label released an album of music recorded at the previous year's Appleby Jazz festival, at which, on a Sunday afternoon session in a nearby disused church, Parker organised the Free Zone inviting regular collaborators such as John Edwards, Barry Guy, Tony Levin, Tony Marsh, Mark Sanders, Kenny Wheeler and Philipp Wachsmann as well as overseas visitors including Gerd Dudek, Paul Lovens, Paul Lytton, Rudi Mahall, Joel Ryan, Alexander von Schlippenbach and Aki Takase. Partly because of its pastoral location, there was a relaxed friendly atmosphere to the Free Zone, with pots of home-made jam as well as CDs on sale, but sadly, for financial reasons, 2007 saw the last Appleby Jazz festival.
In July 2008, artist Polly Read and film-maker Neil Henderson invited Parker to play at St Peter's Church in Whitstable, on the north coast of Kent. The concert went well, people attended, a film was made, and wizard recording engineer Adam Skeaping (himself a Whitstable resident) recorded the saxophonist's performance which was released as Whitstable Solos (psi 2010) to great acclaim. So began Parker's love affair with St Peter's. The following year he recorded several albums there for psi – Psalms, Hyste and Stops bear witness to the warmth and detail of the church's acoustic and its historic organ – and in July 2010 organised a one-day festival at St Peter's Church, entitled (wittily) Unwhitstable. As was the case in 2008, it also featured films by Henderson and drawings by Read, and was just as successful. July 2nd this year accordingly saw the second edition of Unwhitstable, with a cast of musicians including Robert Jarvis, Aleks Kolkowski, Sebastian Lexer, Mat Maneri, Liam Noble, John Russell, Mark Sanders, Roger Turner and Matt Wright. Works from Henderson and Read were on display as well as ceramics by Vicky Hageman and photographs by Caroline Forbes, who also served welcome refreshments at the back of the church. The atmosphere throughout the day was highly reminiscent of the laid-back friendliness that used to pervade Free Zone.
The music began at two o'clock with a duo from Lexer playing the church organ and Kolkowski on his distinctive horned Stroh violin plus electronics and cylinder recorder. The location of the organ within the church meant that they performed at a considerable distance from the audience, so it was impossible to see exactly what Kolkowski was doing, but the combination of organ and violin made an excellent opening to the day, highlighting the quality of the building's splendid acoustics, which are as impressive in real life as they are on disc. On piano, Lexer often favours treatments and effects but on organ he played it straight and kept it simple, producing atmospheric music that complemented his playing partner, with some impressively melodic passages.
As he often does, Kolkowski made a recording onto a phonograph cylinder which he then played back as the finale to the duo's performance through a large horn which dominated the stage throughout the day. Having seen this party piece several times, I'm still not sure how to react to it: the demonstration of recording and playback using a phonograph is intrinsically fascinating, but the novelty of its eerie disembodied sound soon wears off, and the music sounds like it belongs in a museum rather than as part of a concert. Nonetheless, the duo's performance was so well received that Parker rightly decided they should play another set later as part of the evening programme.
The afternoon continued with solo performances from two players who would feature again in the evening as part of a quartet. Drummer Mark Sanders's performance focussed on timbre rather than rhythm, beginning quietly using thin sticks and fists to produce delicate sonorities from his cymbals. By scraping and softly using mallets he conjured a range of sounds, making good use of dynamics and texture in a wide-ranging demonstration of percussion playing. Violist Mat Maneri also benefitted from the acoustics, filling the space with his superb sustained tones. A model of concentration, keeping time by tapping his foot, at times he was reminiscent of an old time fiddler. His fluid technique was a pleasure to watch, and the music he spun out was melodic, soothing and tranquil.
The afternoon session closed with a set that formed the centrepiece of the day, a duo from Evan Parker and Matthew Wright, following on from their recent psi album Trance Map. Before they began, Wright constructed a complex network of eight small speakers spread out across the performance space and connected to his bank of equipment, which included a laptop and a deck. The set began with Parker playing his soprano saxophone in his customary manner, his flurries of notes surrounded by an ever-shifting kaleidoscopic soundscape from Wright using processed recordings of Parker, live treatment of the saxophonist's playing, samples (including bird song) and scratching effects from vinyl. Wright was constantly active, balancing these different elements and occasionally adding others such as playing the record deck's tone arm or a thumb piano. As on the CD, the total effect was mesmerising, sounding like Parker playing in a jungle clearing well populated by birds and insects.
The break between the afternoon and evening sessions gave listeners a chance to go for a stroll by the sea, adjourn to a restaurant to sample the local fish and oysters, or visit a local pub, and everyone returned happy and refreshed for the seven o'clock set from the long-standing duo of guitarist John Russell and percussionist Roger Turner. For all the years they've played together, these two never give the impression they're going through a familiar routine, and always sound vital and innovative. Turner always gives the impression that he is on a personal voyage of discovery, and so it was here. Playing with great delicacy throughout on a small kit with a pedal tom at its centre, he scraped his cymbals to generate high frequency screeches but became engrossed (as did the audience) with the wah-wah effect that resulted from holding a cymbal close to the drumhead using the foot pedal. Although Russell and Turner seemed to be exploring independently of each other, they miraculously hit their crescendos together, to thrilling effect. At the end of the set both had broad grins and engaged in mutual back-slapping. As Russell said himself later, "That really gelled."
The next set was billed as a solo performance by trombonist Robert Jarvis, but thanks to his extensive use of time-delayed playback, the end result was really a duet with himself. Jarvis, who plays regularly in the London Improvisers Orchestra, is a very controlled, smooth and melodious player and displayed great control of the dynamics of his playing throughout. Constantly anticipating the sounds that the system would produce, he would pause time and again and wait for the playback strand to finish before adding to it himself, so that the two voices neither overlapped nor worked at cross purposes but combined effectively and coherently. It was an impressive display of duo playing, well received by the audience.
Suddenly, remarkably, we were into the final set of the day from the quartet of Parker, Maneri and Sanders with Liam Noble on electric piano. This was a very low-key performance with no roaring crescendos, with Parker and Maneri both playing almost continuously and Noble supporting well, occasionally instigating rapid-fire clusters of notes from all four, giving the music a staccato feel. It brought a fine day's music to a fitting and satisfying conclusion. Unwhitstable 2011 was just as successful as its predecessors, and will hopefully become an annual must-attend event. Make sure you book the first Saturday of July 2012 in your diary.–JE [Photographs courtesy of Andy Newcombe.]
INTENTS & PURPOSES: THE BILL DIXON ORCHESTRA
One of the reissue events of the year is Chicago label International Phonograph's long-awaited presentation of trumpeter-composer and polymath Bill Dixon's (1925-2010) Intents and Purposes, a staggering set of compositions for orchestra, small group, duo and solo instrument recorded for RCA-Victor and never before issued on CD. The context surrounding this record's reissue is somewhat complex, however, and deserves some discussion. Though it has mythical status in the annals of modern improvised music, in recent years its lack of availability has overshadowed Dixon's recent work, much of which has been misunderstood or misrepresented by the critical establishment, often with a statement like "and by the way, when are they going to reissue Intents and Purposes?" Things improved in the last couple of years of Dixon's life – two orchestral works from 2008, 17 Musicians in Search of a Sound: Darfur (Aum Fidelity) and Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra (Thrill Jockey) were well received, as was the two-disc/one-DVD set Tapestries for Small Orchestra (Firehouse 12, 2010), perhaps not coincidentally because it almost could be construed as a summing-up of the various threads in Dixon's oeuvre.
It might seem strange here to harp on the critical interest around recordings from the past decade, but because these discs have frequently been measured using the 60s-stick, noting it seems warranted. As a composer and improviser, Dixon was greatly concerned with the present of his work; that doesn't discount what he accomplished in years prior, but the continual dialing back of the conversational time-machine with respect to his music has been a problem, especially because criticism predicated on "what came before" faces the danger of irrelevance. I've been guilty of that myself in the past – Intents and Purposes was one of the first "avant-garde" records I purchased, and though initially it was puzzling, I doggedly persisted trying to grasp its contents to the point that it's a rather well-worn and mentally imprinted LP. Though I was familiar with his later recordings, when I first interviewed Dixon in 2004 a significant amount of my personal interest centered on that recording and its context.
Intents and Purposes came out of an incredibly fertile period in Dixon's career, when he was working with the dancer-choreographer Judith Dunn and the Judson Dance Theatre Workshop. The relationship between Dunn's work and Dixon's is interesting – rather than accompaniment for one or the other, the Merce Cunningham-trained Dunn was part of the cooperative ensemble and began improvising as a result of this collaboration. Early on, the group was a trio involving bassist Alan Silva, and when he left to work with Cecil Taylor Dixon began rehearsing an ensemble for the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1966 featuring Dunn, bassist Bob Cunningham, drummer Tom Price, and saxophonists Louis Brown and Ken McIntyre. The pieces performed were a suite entitled "Pomegranate," which is in part the origin of the orchestral piece on Intents and Purposes, "Metamorphosis 1962-1966." At the Newport performance, Brad McCuen of RCA and John Hammond of Columbia both offered Dixon contracts. Dixon chose the former and began working on "Metamorphosis" (for which dance was not used) less than a month after the performance.
The Dixon ensemble convened for Intents and Purposes included reedmen Robin Kenyatta, George Marge, and Byard Lancaster, percussionist Robert (Cleve) Pozar, cellist Kathi Norris, multi-instrumentalist Marc Levin, and bassist Jimmy Garrison. Trombonist Jack Jeffers and bassist Steve Tintweiss rehearsed with the orchestra, but Jimmy Cheatham and Reggie Workman, respectively, replaced them for the recordings, which commenced on October 10, 1966. The quintet ("Voices"), duo and solo works ("Nightfall Pieces I and II") were recorded in January and February 1967. Apparently, a spoken-word track explaining the music was also recorded by Dixon, but it was not issued as part of the LP and has not subsequently surfaced. Dunn wrote the original liner notes, though she was uncredited. International Phonograph has presented the music as it was on the LP, with a faithful reproduction of the front cover and liners in a mini-LP style gatefold cover, thankfully relegating to the inner jacket "The Jazz Artistry of Bill Dixon" tagline, which Dixon hated and which did not reflect the composer's and participants' view of the recording. He had hoped the date would be issued as a Red Seal Victor classical / art music album, as Ornette Coleman's Forms and Sounds had been.
Dixon spoke to me in 2008 of viewing music and sound "like a cube – that it could be walked into" and experienced. It's hard to convey that concept on record, though early steps in that direction are present on Intents and Purposes. At Newport as well as during rehearsals and recording for the Victor dates, the ensemble stood in a circle facing one another, producing a visual-sonic relationship that is non-linear, reflective and layered. Despite stereo separation, there's a pervasive cloudiness to the recording – and that's not necessarily a negative thing. Rather, as forceful as the music often is, it has a tendency to surround the listener with areas, masses, and distinct flickers. Though Dunn was not a part of these proceedings, the music does have the three-dimensional, spatial, very human presence of dance. Sound moving outward, in this instance, from the speakers into a cloud is analogous to a visual-corporeal experience of movement in dance, and supports this notion of human composition. Dixon did compose "humanly" – he's famously said that "in this music, if you're a leader, notation is how you enter a room, how you take the horn out of the case" and that his choices for an ensemble were themselves a form of composition, even as the music itself might not utilize traditional methods.
That being said, "Metamorphosis 1962-1966" and "Voices" are extremely densely notated works – Dixon wrote the hell out of those pieces, basically, as he said, because at that time he "didn't trust the musicians to do what they did." Put another way by trumpeter Stephen Haynes, "when I asked Bill why he wrote down so much of the material versus the more recent work, while it used written parts [and] far less calligraphic notation, he told me that, at the time, writing things down was the only way he knew how to be sure to get what he wanted from the musicians. 'If I knew then what I know now, I would have written a lot less.' Understand that, even without writing, Bill was always in control, and we all knew it. He had a range of other techniques that he employed to get you to do what he wanted." In a way, that rigour did help to get extraordinarily concentrated performances out of certain individuals and there's something to be said for that. The music on Intents and Purposes was a sort of culmination of Dixon's painstakingly written music. The music he composed a couple of years later for the Orchestra of the University of the Streets, while highly structured, included large colored circles to denote massed hues while other sections were traditionally written. In the ensuing years, Dixon might explain how the pieces work orally and encourage the musicians to work their way through instructions toward intuitive rightness. It seemed as though Dixon trusted the musicians more than they trusted themselves.
"Metamorphosis 1962-1966" starts with an ensemble overture and, while one can feel it as an enveloping mass of ebbing fields, the color combinations are sharp and striking. Trumpet, alto and percussion are spiky against bass, cello, bass clarinet, bass trombone and English horn in dissonant parallels. Dixon's solo is first, his sputtering chuffs diving against ensemble strength. He switches to flugelhorn, wisps snaking their way through duetting pizzicato basses. As the full orchestra returns, the heaving, oddly sweet dissonances remind one of early 20th-century music – Debussy or Dello Joio perhaps, maybe early Elliott Carter – though Kenyatta's harrowing, bluesy alto and Pozar's absurdly frantic blocks and shoves are distinctly postwar. Pozar was trained as a classical percussionist at the University of Michigan, which makes him both a strong choice for the rhythmic engine and an interesting contrast to the jazz-trained horn players. At almost seven minutes in, a fantastic, stately horn trill enters out of nowhere, clambering and then descending into deep browns and greys before being texturally reprised in the form of an incredibly detailed percussion duo between Pozar and Levin, like a two-minute dialogue between the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Les Percussions de Strasbourg.
In the original liner notes, Dixon is quoted by Dunn as saying "make up stories if it makes you more comfortable. Find the music programmatic, but know it wasn't done that way… there are no stories, no symbols. One day we won't even have titles – or our titles will be poems in their own right." The ensemble voicings – not riffs, exactly, but somber horn arrangements behind the cutting, harrier trumpet and alto solos (the second is from Byard Lancaster) – do present an interesting, almost narrative contrast between tightly organized and ferally unhinged playing, sacred and profane or whatever one wants to call it. Lancaster's solo is a classic, its braying wide-vibrato scream perfectly buoyed by percussion and bass thwacks, exuberance rising from the deep, where the element of garish surprise is quite special.
"Voices" is for quintet (trumpet / flugelhorn, bass clarinet, cello, bass, and drums), though it was originally performed sans bass and with Marc Levin on cornet along with Dunn's movement at Hunter College in November 1966. There are no solos in a traditional sense, but receding and foregrounded elements creating an element of push-pull not unlike the paintings of Cézanne or Hofmann. One of the most interesting things about the work is that, because of the centrality of rhythm/time, one can certainly see its connection to dance and movement, even if its rhythms are not "danceable" in the traditional sense. At the piece's outset, gongs, cymbals and tympani outline puckered brass and bass clarinet in an area that teases out harshness from an otherwise drifting group sound. The second section finds Pozar keeping aggressively minimal time on his ride as Dixon pulls forward, bass clarinet, cello and bass adding small outbursts around him. Splashing cymbals and Garrison's bluesy rejoinders underpin congealing, bright horn activity that abates only to give way to a rapid passage for Pozar's drums that is almost balletic in its execution, albeit set against static wind and string parts.
Closing both sides are different renditions of "Nightfall Pieces," each utilizing overdubbed trumpet and flugelhorn with the first adding George Marge on alto flute. Apparently, they are derived from longer works commissioned by the Dance Theater Workshop and including Dunn. Dixon would use overdubs extensively in the 1970s solo trumpet works (collected on Odyssey, Archive Edition, 2001) and these presage the interest in electronics and delay evident in his later instrumental work. It's a short piece, under four minutes, and walks a delicate line between incidental and incisive music, flutes sometimes high and string-like while Dixon works through subtonal growls, calls, and deviant pilings. Interestingly, in the April 18, 1968 issue of Down Beat (p. 40), Freddie Hubbard was given this piece in a blindfold test and gave it four stars. "I liked that – very impressionistic… I think they complement each other, trying to build tonal colors… But this style of playing I think you have to be careful with, because it tends to lag, to bog down at times, and there doesn't seem to be enough excitement. If you're going to play free without chords, it has to be more dynamic instead of just staying on one level. I'll make a wild guess and say that was Bill Dixon on trumpet… But I liked that. In fact I'd like to do more of that style of playing in the future, so I'll give that four stars."
Had BMG issued Intents and Purposes on CD years ago, or had it not gone so quickly to the cut-out bin at the turn of the 70s, Dixon's mid-60s output might have been seen differently. Up until this point it was overshadowed by a sideman appearance on Cecil Taylor's Conquistador LP (Blue Note, 1966, recorded a week prior to "Metamorphosis 1962-1966"). In that case, Dixon was essentially doing a favor to Taylor, who wanted him on the date even though it was counter to his principles, and it's a rare instance of Dixon as a sideman. Intents and Purposes is one of the cornerstones of 1960s creative music, and it's completely different from anything else from that period. International Phonograph have done an excellent job with the reissue, which is taken from the master tapes. It's worth noting, however, that the Dixon archives contain photographs from the sessions, scores, contemporaneous writings, and rehearsal recordings that would have fleshed out the package immensely. Allowing the record to stand on its own is fine, but it would have been worth providing it with additional context. I can only envy anyone hearing this record for the first time – the many years I've spent with Intents and Purposes have been wonderful and illuminating – and hope that its reissue will not overshadow the release of Dixon's last work, Envoi (Victo), recorded live at Victoriaville in May 2010. Instead, may the two albums serve as the beginning and end of a large-scale composition forty-odd years in the making.–CA
Presbyterian Church of St. John the Evangelist, San Francisco
July 5, 2011
Here we have one of those rare phenoms in San Francisco, a hot, still day. Normally fog-swaddled and blustery, the City By The Bay today basks in calm oceans of sun, nowhere more than the Mission District, cradled in a sun bowl (really a "fog shadow") made possible by the stature of Twin Peaks, rising twenty blocks away to the west. The Mission streets are teeming with sun-seeking hipsters, but inside the Presbyterian Church of St. John the Evangelist, just off 15th and Valencia, the benches are filled with organists, and they're in a sweat, not just on account of the weather but from the sounds coming out of the church's pipe organ, a formidable device the size of a bus and packing the decibel pressure of a jumbo jet when it gets its bellows up.
Right now, that organ's being put to decidedly nonstandard uses. As the man at the manuals gets beyond the first few phrases, funny things start to happen. The score he's playing calls for some organ stops to be somewhere between fully open or closed. What started as a mildly skewed chorale — pleasing contrapuntal lines hitting a dissonant guardrail here and there — passes into a spiraling sound tunnel wreathed with dark, furtive wraiths that slip by, intoning "wo-wo-wo-wo." A few stops later, the organ-bus ride opens up into a valley bathed in candy-flake beating tones that make ears flutter and eyes brim. No wonder the audience, convention-going members of the American Guild of Organists, are fanning themselves with their programs. Doubtless many of them have heard of these phantom effects, yet one wonders how many church organists have ever been allowed to test them out on their congregations, let alone expand such sonic heresies into a 10-minute improvisation complete with a two-foot-long block of wood for mass pedal clusters. It's a well-built church: the windows aren't rattling.
What is that rattling, though? Heads turn to see Joshua Norton, played by Tom Duff, resplendent in tatty tux and feather-festooned top hat, jangling a ring of church-size keys at organist Dave Hatt, who lifts his fingers and halts the thunderous whoomping. As the bellows expire in an asthmatic wheeze, Emperor Norton announces: "Something is definitely wrong with this organ." Having given the diagnosis, he heads back up the center aisle to where his desk has been set up and takes up a pen, presumably to write another of his decrees. For two suspended minutes, there's not a sound. Then, on cue, the choir starts ringing bells.
So opened San Francisco's July 2011 performance of Gino Robair's I, Norton, "An Opera in Real Time." [http://www.rastascan.com/catalog/brd063.html] Its subject is the life of one Joshua Norton, who, unhinged by a tycoon scheme gone wrong, in 1859 declared himself "Emperor of these United States, Its Assorted Territories and Protector of Mexico." Norton quickly became a fixture in San Francisco's streets and press rooms, where his jaunty decrees against Congress and injustice — Tweets of Yesteryear [http://tweetsofold.com/] indeed! — started selling papers. As San Francisco's first and most celebrated eccentric, Norton inadvertently set the stage for the characterization of the City by the Bay as a fog-haunted bughouse.
Gino Robair has put The Emperor's legacy to more profound uses. Events and proclamations from Norton's life become the generative texts for musical activity. Improvising itself into being everywhere it lands, the life-and-death story is carried by the composer anywhere and can be up and running overnight, like a traveling curiosity show. He says: "I, Norton was created as a kit that could be performed by any number of people and assembled in a unique way for each performance… I, Norton takes the shape of an improvised collage structure that combines conduction (using hand cues), graphic scores, and memory-based improvisational structures. The opera can be performed by a mere handful of people or with a large ensemble. Although the score includes text-based material for speakers and singers, a realization of the opera can be completely instrumental. The piece does not require staging, sets, lights, or costumes. It is meant to be performed anywhere, anytime: A 'mobile guerrilla anti-opera,' if you will. One of my intentions is that it serve as the culmination piece of a festival, where I, Norton gives all the festival participants a chance to do a structured improvisation together, whether they're musicians, dancers, or visual artists."
Performances have been staged so far in San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, Chattanooga, Birmingham (Alabama), Athens (Georgia), Miami, Toronto, Milan, Palermo, and Stockholm. In addition, ROVA took a quartet version on tour through Europe, and Shoko Hikage's koto quartet toured Japan performing sections of the piece. The fall, 2011 performance is slated for Sweden, as part of "(Re)thinking Improvisation, International Sessions On Artistic Research in Music," at the Malmö Academy of Music.
The "collage" presented at the 2009 San Francisco Electronic Music Festival found its subject (who is usually played by Mr. Duff) tormented by a cloud of visions and voices, distorted echoes of his own. The psychotic chorus was sampled and processed by the laptops of Chris Brown, Kristin Miltner, and Jon Liedecker (aka Wobbly). What transpired was a desolate-feeling performance [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CqtbzypeidU] spotlighting the Emperor alone in his garret and losing the rest of his mind, spouting incoherent yet still somehow portentous babbles, after a long electronic interlude where he simply sat, motionless — think Krapp's Last Tape overlaid with Gesang der Jünglinge. There followed an episode of time travel, as the Emperor disappeared from the stage while digitally scrambled crustaceans from the 25th century clicked their claws and growled their growls.
Altogether different in forces and effect was the first Bay Area performance of I, Norton, performed by approximately 40 musician friends on the occasion of Mr. Robair's 40th birthday. An appropriately celebratory mood ruled the room, amid a raucously DIY approach to opera staging. Excerpts may be sampled in the Robair segment of Tim Perkis' film Noisy People, at around the 7'42" mark [http://vimeo.com/channels/noisypeople#24341136]. The October 2008 performance with sfSound (plus the laptop trio of Brown, Miltner and Liedecker) groaned with Ivesian density — Ives was, after all, the granddaddy of musical collage — massed strings and dual pianos lobbing tone-cluster mortars into the fray [http://vimeo.com/2515822].
Robair's "anti-opera" fête of the outsider Mr. Norton is a wink-nudge tribute to the rebel spirit of the musical scene the composer himself inhabits. Robair's bona fides may easily be found elsewhere. Suffice it to say that since 1986 or so, Robair, a classically-trained percussionist with a deep background in avant-rock and degrees in composition and electronic music from Mills College, has been one of the dominant figures on the Bay Area improvisation and new music scenes and has played with practically everybody and recorded with most. Case in point is the just-released Scrutables (Weight of Wax), a studio recording from 2000 with John Butcher and Derek Bailey. As with many American artists, Mr. Robair has found Europe a greener pasture for his efforts.
Besides performances in Milan and Palermo (the latter a favorite stomping ground for Robair), Stockholm was the scene of I, Norton's June 2011 incarnation, in an extended workshop setting that gave the composer a chance to get his music played while simultaneously initiating young musicians into the mysteries of improvisation — a tried-and-true formula. Robair says of that one, "Stockholm blew my mind because I had a fearless butoh-trained dancer and a painter, both of whom had never improvised before, but who found unique ways to explore the score."
To return to the July 2011 performance in San Francisco... Normally it's against my policy to write up projects I'm personally involved in, but I have to make an exception in this case. The fact is that this event was so singular, so moving and beautiful, that it's replayed itself vividly in my brain these past few weeks, demanding some kind of documentation, or maybe just this simple bit of tribute prose.
After Duff held the audience in hushed suspense at his desk, Robair cued the organ back in, and coaxed some "gasps and fissures" from Kyle Bruckmann (that's how they're indicated in the score: it's also the name of Bruckmann's solo oboe release on 482 Music.) There followed a series of activity / repose cycles for the Emperor at his desk, while different ensemble combinations were brought in and out.
Act II, "Letter to Miss Minnie Wakeman," extended the hushed wonder of the sounds in Act I, building onto them a crescendo of pathos via the antiphonal voices of Dana Anderson and Hannah Williams (age 11), intoning the letter, a shy plea from the never-married Norton to borrow the lady's name in a proclamation: "My Dear Miss Wakeman, In arranging for my Empress, I shall be delighted if you will permit me to make use of your name. Should you be willing, please let me know. But keep your own secret…It is a safer way I think…Your devoted loving friend, The Emperor…." At the close, after the horns and organ died for the last time, Mr. Duff read the letter again slowly, line by line, followed close upon each phrase by young Miss Williams. A long pause before the applause allowed all present to reflect on the transience of life, illustrated by the demise of a harmless yet prolifically creative and peace-loving man who died, alone, in the street.
The organ / church combination played no small part in the poignancy of the moment. The 100-year-old instrument offers a range of stops, which keyboardist Hatt exploited using the following fabulously-named combinations:
1. Air effects, from the Great Open Diapason 8', Fifteenth 2', Swell Nasard 2 2/3', Tierce 1 3/5', Flageolet 2', Pedal Open Bass 8'
2. Basic flute tone, from the Great Doppelflute 8', Lieblich Gedeckt 16', Swell Gedeckt 8', Gemshorn 8', Fugara 4', Pedal Bourdon 16'
3. Loud reed sounds, from the Great Trumpet 8', Swell Oboe 8', Pedal Trombone 16'
Robair says about the pipe organ effects: "I was planning to notate the position of the stops until I realized I should just let Hatt do what he does as an improviser. I consulted with him on the general tone I wanted to hear in the opening chorale, but after that I left it up to him. Despite having only a few stops compared to the huge modern instruments, the tracker organ (in which the linkage from key to pipe is mechanical, with no electric or pneumatically-assisted action) is capable of great timbral complexity once you begin working with fractional stops (i.e. a stop that is not engaged fully, like a half-valve effect on the trumpet, where the air flow is split between two or more pipes instead of one). And I didn't get enough time on the organ before the event to go through all the possibilities — I'm not even sure you can go through them all… Dave and I had one of these instruments at our disposal at the University of Redlands, where we met. We'd do this thing where we'd hold down clusters, then power the organ down. It was like having dozens of balloons deflate simultaneously. I could've made a record with just that sound, over and over again."
"What I didn't realize (and something that seems to have surprised Dave, as well) was that there is a lot of unpredictable behavior in the fractional stops when you hold down a pedal cluster AND clusters on the upper manuals; as you pull out a stop, the timbre doesn't always change in a linear fashion. The reason has to do with the amount of air you're drawing when holding so many notes down and what stops are chosen. You're asking for a lot of the organ's air when you hold down 20 or 30 keys. And as you move stops slowly in and out, you get all sort of sonic surprises, because that air gets redirected in uncontrollable ways. It's pretty exciting to experience first hand — a recording of this just doesn't capture the feeling you get sitting near the organ when it sounds as if it's going to explode."
I was sitting about 10 feet from the big wooden cage housing the bellowing pipes. In between was the extraordinary sound artist Krys Bobrowski, playing her self-designed Gliss Glass in a delicate passage exploiting sliding difference tones with the organ. Her instrument uses the physical principle of water seeking its own level and the bowing of glass with wet fingers to form its unique sounds [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3TAfL2ptJ0].
Robair pulled out a few more stops, figuratively, to create opportunities for difference tones, or as he calls the phenomenon, heterodyning. The horn section, besides Bobrowski (French horn) and myself (trumpets), was comprised of flutes, oboe / English horn, and clarinets, handled by Polly Moller, Kyle Bruckmann, and Matt Ingalls. Moller was called to duo duty with pianist Matthew Goodheart, who brought his instrument's strings to life using an eBow. And the Cornelius Cardew Choir moaned, hummed, hooted on bottles, and rang little bells. A sort of a Large Heterodyne Collider, if you will. The combination of setting, instrumentation, performers and audience, together with the "libretto" excerpts, made the emotional content of the piece swell and throb like the 32' pipes in the hall.
Robair says: "I agree that the setting and instrumentation added to the intensity of this performance. I also feel that it's because I set up a time-line, where certain sections would begin and end. This version had to be a specific length, and I wanted to feature certain instruments, so it made sense to give the event a narrative arc. That's something I typically avoid with I, Norton, in order to open the door for surprises. But I do like how a narrative shape can deliver emotional impact, so I wouldn't rule it out in planning other performances.
"One more thing: we rehearsed this piece in that form, with the order of events predetermined. I haven't done that since the premiere in Chattanooga. That one was linear and scored, but I wasn't happy with the results. Now it's designed so that we rehearse each improvisational strategy on its own, and then let the order and overlap emerge in performance. I love that method of working, but I definitely see the benefits of rehearsing the overall structure ahead of time. Part of me feels that the open structure is one thing that sets this piece off from other operas, so I'm not inclined to give it up. However, it's extremely useful and I would consider it an option for the future — particularly by having a narrative arc or two nested within a larger unstructured performance.
"I could tell during the rehearsal that we were heading in the right direction, but I was not prepared for the level of musicality reached in the actual event itself. I was happy that I could really listen to what was going on and not worry about constantly cueing. In Act II, where everyone was exploring beat frequencies, I crept into the center of the room to see if I could hear everyone, and — bottles, flutes, Gliss Glass, winds, vibes, organ — all there. It was a breakthrough concert for me, in terms of the opera and the kinds of things I strive to make happen in music, generally."–TD
I suppose any album that sets out to document the work of a musician as unclassifiable as Charlie Morrow, whose activities run the gamut from loudspeaker design to TV commercials, via sound poetry and installations large and small, is destined to fail – maybe that's why, unless I'm mistaken, there's only been one of them until now, an audio cassette, Bear, released way back in 1972, two of whose tracks have also made it to this ambitious, well-documented and lovingly produced triple disc set. But as failures go, Toot! is a damn good one.
Morrow's first acknowledged work, Very Slow Gabrieli (1957), "written" when the composer was just 15, is included here in what seems to be an archive recording of its 1957 premiere in Burlington, Vermont. As the title indicates, it's nothing less than a slowmotion performance of Giovanni Gabrieli's antiphonal Sonata Pian'e Forte (1597) (hence the quotation marks in the previous sentence), in which, Morrow adds, "performers' physical gestures are slowed as well. A Ghost (pulsed drone) Ensemble and Grand Pauses are added to reveal the Ghosts – strolling outside the performance space in hallways, stairwells and out of doors – through open doors and windows." Not sure whether I can hear any ghosts, unless the occasional extraneous noises and the inevitable imperfections of the performers count as such. As a historical document the University of Vermont Brass's reading is of obvious value, but one wonders whether or not a spanking new, meticulously engineered recording (studio or live, but without the bronchial splutters that seem to appear from nowhere every time human beings come together in large numbers to listen to a piece of music) wouldn't do the work more justice. It'd make for a nice comparison with another great piece of slowmotion sound from the late 50s, La Monte Young's Trio for Strings. Then again, as we'll probably have to wait another half century or more for Charles Curtis's recording of that to appear, it's hardly likely any of us will still be alive to make the comparison.
Slowed-down classics also feature in the two pieces entitled Chorale Bounce 1 (2007), which take as their basic material William Billings's splendid Vermont Hymn, played exquisitely on violin and viola by Yuval Waldman. From the same year come Central Park 1850 and Central Park 2007, in which Morrow collages archive recordings of birds from the Cornell Ornithological Laboratory, presumably in an attempt to recreate what Central Park might have sounded like respectively four and 161 years ago (either that or the 1850 and 2007 refer to the number of featured bird calls, as there's a whole lotta tweetin' going on).
True to the Cageian spirit of "letting life obscure the difference between life and art", the sounds of the world around us – that's what I guess he meant by those Ghosts in the Gabrieli – are of great importance to Morrow. But one wonders whether a humble compact disc is the best way to experience them. 1997's Windsong is sourced in material Morrow collected for his "interactive Arctic sound storeroom", an installation for the Arktis-Antarktis exhibition in Bonn in which visitors opened drawers and doors to reveal the sounds of the frozen north. It's pretty, but feels frustratingly slight, as do many of the shorter pieces on offer here, from the pocket poésie sonore of Breath Chant (1971) to the two-track overdub live headphone feedback of Late Afternoon Chant and the music boxes and chiming clocks of Feather (2001).
Thankfully disc three allows Morrow to stretch out, with the glorious 53'25" Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves (1992), his "celebration of colourful and at times humorous miniature paintings by Flemish Master of Cleves commissioned by Catherine of Cleves in 1540. [..] As nature images frame each page, natural sound designs frame the music, which begins and ends outside the church with bells ringing." Performed by the Utrecht-based Camerata Trajectina, it's an absolutely ravishing montage of bells, bees, birds, voices and the delicate timbres of the period instruments, with Morrow allowing his lines of modal melody to unravel in whatever direction they please. Listening is like wandering through an old Dutch town on a bright sunny morning without a map.
The other standout piece of the set is Marilyn Monroe Collage, in which a decidedly acidic dissonant string trio accompanies a carefully arranged selection of soundbites from Monroe's films and recordings and fragments from her interviews. Originally conceived for Andy Warhol's memorial show in New York City in 1967, it explores that event's stated theme – "the star as victim and performance as confession" – to perfection. Though Charles Morrow Productions these days has addresses in both Vermont and Finland, there's something about this work that could only have come from New York City. You can imagine those punters at the Sidney Janis Gallery smirking smugly when Marilyn purrs about retiring to Brooklyn. This is, after all, as Laurie Anderson humorously put it in "Say Hello", the Garden of Eden, and, says Morrow, in a distant echo of Steve Reich's remarks about his Six Pianos, probably the only spot in the Western Hemisphere where you're likely to be able to get thirty harps to play together.
Even so, it must be frustrating for Morrow, who's spent so much time investigating the technology of sound spatialisation, to have to make do with a simple stereo mix of 1984's Wave Music VII for 30 Harps, in which the performers sat in a figure 8 formation surrounded by the audience in NYC's St. John the Divine and traced sonic waves moving across the cathedral, coordinated by a voice and click track via an FM link to their headphones. Its glorious micropolyphony sounds like nothing else in the minimalist canon (ever so much more delicate than Rhys Chatham's later extravaganzas for multiple guitars), as long as you can bring yourself to accept the resonant throaty coughs of the punters as part of the experience. Open the door to the Ghosts again.
Wave Music I for 40 Cellos is less satisfying from the point of view of the recording – that said, I doubt even a state of the art studio session would have been able to make much of a difference: cellos, when gathered together, invariably sound rich and claggy – though I imagine its premiere as part of 1977's New Wilderness Solstice celebration, "following the transition of sunset colours" in Wave Hill Gardens, Bronx, with Simca Heled joined by seven other "virtuoso" cellists and 32 more seated in a semicircle facing the audience, must have been quite something.
As a purely aural document, TOOT N BLINK Chicago (1982) fares less well. But as this was an ambitious open-air event calling for ships in a harbour to blast their horns and flash their lights on cue, there was never any way that it would work on disc. Even Cage, who was in attendance at this premiere, said he "preferred the blinks". And it's a shame we get eight minutes of this rather inane radio announcer chatter (punctuated by a couple of mighty blasts) and just a 3'46" extract ("Vocalise") of what sounds like an enticing 28-minute exploration of acoustic ecology, 2001's A Future Harvest (2001).
Perhaps a double CD would have sufficed, but without the chunky 3CD box there would have been no room to put the accompanying booklet, a splendid 36-page affair featuring essays on Morrow by Julian Cowley, Jerome Rothenberg, Robert Freedman and Michael Schumacher, and plenty of photos of this dapper, bowler-hatted gent whose music has accompanied me on my wanderings for the past couple of months now and brought great pleasure. Pick up a Toot! and enjoy yourself too.–DW
DYED IN THE GRAIN
(co-release with Entr'acte)
BATTERY TOWNSLEY (LP)
Raionbashi / Daniela Fromberg + Stefan Roigk
DER STRICK / BLOWING UP THE MASTER'S WORKSHOP (LP)
Maybe the world was like a revolving door, it occurred to him as his consciousness was fading away. And which section you ended up in was just a matter of where your foot happened to fall [...] And there was no logical continuity from one section to another. And it was precisely because of this lack of logical continuity that choices really didn't mean very much.Wasn't that why he couldn't feel the gap between one world and another? – Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Confronted with a such a lack of continuity, how are we supposed to arrive at anything like comprehension of the world around us? On her debut solo recording, Zweifarbige Gesten, Jennifer Veillerobe, co-curator with Giuseppe Ielasi of Senufo Editions, proposes a solution similar to the one questioned in the passage above: don't fight the discontinuity, embrace it. Over the course of the CD's single 30-minute piece, she alternates between modular synth miniatures and acoustic field-captures, creating a collage where there are only discrete events, with no real connective tissue or binding theme. To spend an afternoon with it is to slip into the same waking dream that Murakami's character does, a place where logic holds no sway and intuition prevails.
This effect could also stand for what the whole Senufo project represents, namely, a way of describing discrete concepts, phenomena, and environments through sound. The label's dozen and a half releases cover a swath of approaches to making modern sound art and experimental music. Each release is unique in method and result, yet they are linked not by any particular approach but by a common perspective, one that suggests a human presence behind the music but doesn't necessarily privilege it. The composers and performers aren't mimicking or creating or imagining their sonic environments – they're channeling them. The label's minimal sleeve design (usually hardy, letter-pressed cardstock) is evocative without being overbearing, providing only the barest essentials of recording details and context.
Take releases like Renato Rinaldi's Dyed in the Grain or Kassel Jaeger's two discs for the label, Aerae and Algae. Rinaldi sourced all the material for his 20-minute piece from a ceramic tile factory, capturing not only the factory itself but, more importantly, the entire atmosphere of the manufacturing process. Given a palette of mechanical clicks, percussive strikes, humming drone passages and gaseous tonal clouds, he creates a work that is a conceptual as well as aesthetic journey. This is no hackneyed tour, nor a simple audio documentary with a vague message about industrial processes; it's an aural exploration of the idea of a factory through its own ambiance. We're taken there, but in a very subjective way. Without the sleeve note, you certainly wouldn't know the specifics, but the feel would be there: industrial, automated, busy.
Jaeger's discs take a similar conceptual approach to field recording but with very different means. Using synthesizers, a positive organ and various stringed instruments (including the koto, rebab and tremoloa), he creates rich, dense event-fields that buzz with activity. His sources are recognisable but he's after something more than disguising how he made the pieces. He wants to obscure the idea of a controlling presence. The synth moves are minimalist and automatic, and the strings aren't played as much as agitated. Jaeger's environments have little to do with the natural world except for its flow: on the surface there is no change but close inspection reveals teeming life and continual transformation. That his beginnings and endings are arbitrary doesn't matter – so are nature's.
Percussion Ensemble, one of the conceptually and sonically heaviest records on Senufo, turns the gaze on music performance itself. Jarrod Fowler is ostensibly a percussionist, and while whether he played or sampled the vast range of percussion instruments that appear over the piece's 51-minute duration is not really clear, the message is. Simply put: doubt what you hear. And not just musically but philosophically and conceptually. The way you have to sort through the overload of textures, tempi and tonal information is akin to how our brains sift through information to arrive at a clear thought. That Fowler provides his own solution through a captivating paring down of the sound from a Harsh Noise Wall attack at the start to a drifting, effervescent finale is an added bonus. Like Xenakis wielding critical literary theory and a sampler.
This mix of concept and rich sonic activity is present on almost every Senufo release. Even more straightforward works, like Gregg Kowalsky's LP Battery Townsley or the split 12" between Raionbashi and the duo of Daniela Fromberg and Stefan Roigk, find ways to stimulate contemplation of ideas as well as sonics. Kowalsky presents a live performance of his Tape Chants series, this time from an abandoned bunker along the California coast. The weave of droning figures (sourced from cassette recordings of gongs, pianos and sitars placed around the performance space) is captivating, but so is the feeling of space. At moments you can hear how he was moving around, hitting buttons, shifting the position of his tape recorders, changing the cloud of sound. But while the results are unbearably rich, it makes you realize what you're probably missing – the real sense of the enormous space, the true impact of the sound. The performance was the thing, but the recording becomes something else, a meditation on loss and decay. The two sides of the split 12", both head-scratching slabs of creepy musique concrète, also work on two levels. Both pieces get an intellectual kick from accompanying references (Raionbashi quotes philosopher E.M.Cioran and Fromberg/Roigk take their inspiration from Max Ernst) but they could easily work on the same gut level as good horror movies, all atmosphere and tension and queasy, unsettling, unidentifiable noises. Things that go bump in the night.
But being intellectual or highly conceptual is not what Senufo is about. It's about intuition, about hearing discontinuity without gaps. So if this discontinuity, the inability to tell where one part and approach ends and another begins, is a Senufo hallmark, then so, as a rule, is the feeling that all these releases are essentially incomplete, merely parts of a whole or a documentary of a larger process. While a CD like Veillerobe's evokes the sensation almost literally, Bellows, the duo of Ielasi and Nicola Ratti, suggest it through a look at memory and recordings. On Handcut, they work with contact mics placed in the grooves of vinyl records and sine waves, investigating, on one level, mechanical failure and physical decay, and on another, the way in which our minds cover the cracks in our perception. Through the swelling sine tones, tattered crackle and heavy surface noise, we hear half-melodies, subliminal rhythms, even ghostly harmonic movement. But we can't be sure. How much do our brains fill in? How much is created by our listening and how much is actually there on record? The resulting music (and Handcut might be the most musical of all the Senufo releases) is not easy or obvious, but it is accessible. You feel the tension – the gap – between the noise and the song quite quickly, but you accept it and understand it. You're just not sure why or how.–MW
La Scie Dorée
Subtitled "Un Réveil Sidérant Dans Le Passé Décomposé", this new LP by Af Ursin – the solo project of Timo Van Luijk, of Noise-Maker's Fifes and In Camera fame – comes in a sepia-tinged non-figurative cover reminiscent of Mirror and Andrew Chalk's artworks. The first side starts with simple (but not simplistic) wind / brass counterpoint, soon replaced by the mysterious "Marche Arrière", with its echoes of early Univers Zero (that bassoon demarcating the general gloom..). The closure is an atonally wavering abstraction of pre-taped womanly pitches, initially disturbed then besieged by weird electronic noises, somewhere between Akira Rabelais, György Ligeti and Rafael Toral's recent machinations. The second part begins with a short melancholic introduction for ancient-sounding piano – think Asher subjected to a further spin of a time machine – leading to the eerily seducing sonorities of "Un Réveil", whose sparse orchestral elements and recurring ghostly voices are gradually sustained by an unremitting slow pulse (tubas?). Tony Conrad meets Yog Sothoth, the puzzlement even greater than before. Anyhow, don't mind the comparisons: Van Luijk is a legitimate representative of no-frills, all-substance sound art.–MR
METAL / FLESH
Much as I understand the difficulty of putting out "real" records in these troubled times and greatly admire the good people who still do so, I wonder whether the seven-inch format is really appropriate any more, except for a good old three-minute shitkicking pop / rock single. Australian percussionist Sean Baxter (Bucketrider, Embers..) is one hell of an exciting player, especially in his long-standing trio with guitarist David Brown and pianist Anthony Pateras (Metal / Flesh is dedicated to them both), and it's wonderful to watch him hurl fistfuls of chopsticks over his kit or thrash it with flails of metal pipes. But it's awfully frustrating to hear him stop after barely a few minutes. Having said that, I've enjoyed Christian Wolfarth's quartet of solo percussion releases on Hiddenbell (see reviews passim), but I'm really looking forward to being able to sit down to listen to them all back to back on a CD without having to haul my butt out of the chair every five minutes. Perhaps Sean's got the same idea and there's a whole plateful of similar solo stuff to come – hope so, because this is little more than an amuse-gueule, albeit a tasty one.–DW
La Scie Dorée
Debut of a new duo consisting of Timo Van Luijk and Andrew Chalk. As you might expect with this imprint, it's a vinyl edition with typically attractive retro cover art. Divided into rather short fragments, the music perfectly corresponds to the album title. It's a little jewel where one can almost smell the flowers and the grass surrounding the players (Van Luijk and Chalk with Daisuke Suzuki on percussion on one track) occasionally captured in open-air settings with twittering blackbirds and flowing water underlining the serene pensiveness of guitars, zithers (?), unspecified wind instruments and electronic keyboards. The tender intensity and honest introspectiveness of this bucolic idiom (Darren Tate also comes to mind) never fails to entice, even in episodes that border on naiveté. When, in "Racines Eternelles", a bagpipe drone is carved by the straightforward melody of what appears as a cheap clarinet, the heart inexplicably starts to beat more regularly. But with the fleeting finale "Impression Lointaine", it nearly stops.–MR
Plenty of info on this album in this month's featured interview with Richard "Dickie" Landry, conducted by our man in Tejas, Clifford Allen, who also penned liners for this reissue on Tommy McCutchon's fine Unseen Worlds imprint (nice cover too, a helluva sight more attractive than that gaudy purple thing on the 1978 Wergo). I suppose most folks who picked up a copy back then were looking for more of the seamless hypnotic arpeggios that characterised Landry's work in the Philip Glass Ensemble, but I bet they were rather disappointed (I remember I was). Instead of using his overdubbing facilities as a means to layer through-composed pieces of process music in real time (à la Reich's Counterpoint series), Landry just lets himself go, in love with the sheer physicality of his instruments – tenor and alto flute – and unable to resist frequent flights of fancy into the saxophone's upper registers, not as fire music howls of rage but pure cries of big bird blue sky joy. Great to see this out and about again.–DW
Lionel Marchetti / Jérôme Noetinger
PARIS - GENEVE
πτώματα κάτω απο το κρεββάτι
Can't for the life of me pronounce, let alone read, the label name, but it apparently translates as "Corpses Underneath The Beds". Great photograph by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre from their book The Ruins Of Detroit – and you should see what happens to the building on the back cover, once it's been subjected to these two relentless attacks from Marchetti and Noetinger, both of whom are credited on (only?) Revox B77s. This is the best thing I've heard from this pair since their two feisty contributions to Ralf Wehowsky's epic Tulpas 14 (gulp) years ago, since when a whole generation of young noiseniks has emerged on the scene. They could do themselves a favour and check out the work of the maestros here. Side A was recorded in 2009 at Geneva's peripatetic squat artspace Cave 12, while the flipside was a live set at Paris's prestigious PRÉSENCES électronique festival a couple of years earlier (though if you're expecting the musicians to make any concessions to the snobby Parisian public at the latter, forget it). I suspect there's been a bit of judicious editing here and there, but I couldn't say where the axe has fallen, so mangled and bloody are the sounds throughout. Who needs Max/MSP? Vive l'analogique!–DW
OBJECT OF THOUGHT
Mattin, as anyone who's been following his career will know already, always makes sure that whatever he releases is also available for free download, and indeed that's how I've managed to get hold of this one while I wait to get my paws on the real thing, which is a gorgeous object in its own right. As he made abundantly clear in his PT interview last year, Mattin these days seems to be more interested in the ideas behind music – its social, political and philosophical implications – than he is in what it actually sounds like. That's a shame if, like me, you're a boring old fart who still believes in old-fashioned notions of musical form and content, and music's power to move the listener in ways s/he can't explain (bourgeois mystification? you betcha), but it hasn't stopped me from listening carefully to, and usually enjoying, any Mattin offering that comes my way.
The principal sound source for the 30-minute Object of Thought is Mattin himself, holding forth on as is his wont on the subjects dear to his heart: language, noise and improvisation itself, though he rarely gets to the end of a sentence before being interrupted by another layer of text (sometimes whispered, sometimes filtered or treated almost beyond recognition) or a blast of noise, presumably from his trademark computer feedback. As such it has much in common sonically with 2009's monumental six-hour Feedback Conceptual. It's clear that a lot of work has gone into this (one wonders if he sketched out the mixing process in advance and kept a copy of his notes – presumably not, as that would make it a composition, but I'm curious), and the result is probably the most attractive and – he might hate me for saying this – musical Mattin release of the past half dozen years.
Though that certainly matters to me, I wonder if that matters to him. If the raison d'être of this disc is simply to get the listener to call into question his/her assumptions about music, I would say his 2007 release with Taku Unami, Attention, did the job much better, irritating beyond belief though I found it. But apparently, judging from one of the reviews I've read recently, it's not even about music anymore but something called non-music, Mattin's latest intellectual punching ball / punch bowl, in homage presumably to François Laruelle's concept of non-philosophy. Now, having spent at least 40 of my 48 years trying to figure out what is or isn't music, I seriously doubt I'll be able to get my head around the concept of non-music before I die, but I dare say I'll return to this album from time to time and find much to enjoy. That'll be my guilty, boorish pleasure.–DW
The Music In Movement Electronic Orchestra, originally led "from the rear" by Keith Rowe, hasn't released much since it first convened in 1997 – this double LP, which takes its name from the place where it was recorded in Poland on November 14th 2009, is only the group's sixth outing – but seven of the ten musicians featured here were on the eponymous debut album, and the other three (Kaffe Matthews, Marcus Schmickler and Rafael Toral) have been aboard since 1999. Hardcore MIMEO heads (including Erstwhile's Jon Abbey, who released the orchestra's third album, The Hands Of Caravaggio, with pianist John Tilbury, in 2002) maintain that the best MIMEO recordings are the ones that haven't been released, notably (parts of) their celebrated 24-hour concert at Musique Action in Vandoeuvre-les-Nancy in 2000. Maybe one day someone will conduct a guerrilla raid on Jean-Marc Foussat's archives. In the meantime, Wigry is for my money the most satisfying MIMEO outing yet. Neither as freighted with Music History as the concerto grosso of Caravaggio, nor as conceptually head-scratching as 2007's Twombly homage Sight (Cathnor), it's a straight, live, no-frills set.
It takes a while to get going, though – you can hear the musicians feeling their way into the sound throughout the first disc (Cor Fuhler's piano, as the only acoustic instrument in the line-up, stands out, and there are a few inimitable sprrrrroinnggs from Thomas Lehn's analog synth), but by the time you hit side C it's really cooking. And it's a bummer you have to get up to turn the disc over for the final side. Then again, there's something about vinyl that suits this music, a warmth and depth to Marcus Schmickler's masterly mastering that at times seemed lacking on the group's first two albums (great fan though I am of the Grob double CD Electric Chair + Table). Even so, how much more exciting it must have been live, with the musicians strategically placed around the space and the audience free to roam among them. Wish I could have been there, but this is the next best thing. Worth buying a turntable for, if you haven't got one. –DW
SOME KISSED CHARMS THAT WOULD NOT PROTECT THEM
Some Kissed Charms...opens with a rich cluster of tones, almost like an orchestra sounding its full timbral range in a simultaneous slow-burn, a rapid swelling in volume and density, suggesting a coming onslaught, but then receding into...silence. Nearly two minutes of it. The cycle repeats, and the silence re-emerges. But lest you think Rale, aka William Hutson, is going all Malfatti on us (as suggested by Nick Cain in The Wire), know that his use of silence is only a prelude to a much more complex work, a detailed, end-to-end composition that feels like it could have been done in a single take. The real effect of the silence is two-fold: confound our expectations of where the piece is headed and establish a measured, more reflective pace. Without this intro, it would be a very different piece.
By essentially slowing our ear down, by making us wait, Hutson primes us for the gradual way he moves his blocks of synthesized sound in and out of the mix. It's an approach that breaks down ingrained listening patterns. He uses a modular synthesizer to source all the material here, but when listening, you don't think of it as synth music. Fearsome chunks of crackling, sizzling noise start to bubble up, but, as we wait for some more aggressive passage to develop, we're shown only low-level, peripheral activity. What we might expect to become a throbbing, overtone-rich drone instead starts to sound like a heavy brass arrangement, somewhere between mournful and ominous. Some piercing oscillator tones creep in, only to wither away before they are transformed into anything. Metallic grating shuffles through the background but never outs itself as field recording or synthesis. It's like Hutson has created a self-sustaining environment from the most minimal of ingredients, a system charged with both creation and entropy. It's listening to this push-and-pull and trying to decide which will dominate (spoiler! the conclusion is ambiguous) that makes Some Kissed Charms... such an engrossing experience from start to finish.–MW
THE RECEIVING SURFACES
Let's get this out of the way first: this gorgeous, limited edition LP is an edition of only 300 copies. So should you act fast? By all means! This set recorded last August at Yoshi's is a dilly. It might not seem especially obvious for Zorn's saxophone language – spitting, acerbic, and mischievous, with bop obsessions too – to fit in with ROVA's admittedly broad soundworld. But not only is Zorn himself a canny navigator of structure (and a far more flexible improviser than some have admitted), but ROVA has always been a superb collaborating unit.
The success of this meeting is audible from the very first moments of "Arc Fuse 1," which smolders with contained heat and buzzing drones, occasionally giving rise to spats or flurries of trills. As the piece builds, so does the heat, and there is a moment – a focused one, with no unnecessary indulgence – for blowtorch exchanges between Zorn and Ochs, the former then stuttering furiously atop an elegant group passage. Like many of the great ROVA performances, these pieces with Zorn brim with a tension sparked in the balance between urgency and repose, chaos and form. "Helicoid" opens like something off the Parachute Sessions or the Social/Science Sets, appropriating the instrumental languages forged between the late 1970s and early 1980s and deploying them in a mature and assured formal context, with control and aesthetic focus: just listen to how Zorn's vocalizations match up wonderfully with Raskin's low-end / keypad work. The piece is a marvel, as it becomes a kind of saxophonic topiary (the metallic sound recalls ROVA's Trobar Clus pieces) and finally untethers itself and unties its knots into a gorgeous drone. "Saddle Scroll Song" delivers up a bit of fury, with more vocalisms, squawks, unison rapid blasts, and tremors, but the finest moment of this sterling recording comes with "Arc Fuse 2." The saxophones oscillate as one, their massed sound like polished amber, as long held tones shape the bitty, choppy fragments that never interrupt but somehow contribute to the extension of pure sound.–JB
MORNING SUN HARVEST MOON
AACM bassist Harrison Bankhead has long been known for his work with figures like tenorman Fred Anderson and flutist Nicole Mitchell, though he hasn't stepped out as a leader until now. Harvest Moon is the debut recording of his sextet, which has been together since 2010 and unifies a couple of different branches of the Chicago tree. The bassist is joined by drummer Avreeayl Ra, Afro-Latin percussionist Ernie Adams, violinist James Sanders, and reedmen Ed Wilkerson and Mars Williams on eight original pieces.
Following a meditative introduction for wood flute, alto clarinet, violin and percussion, the ensemble launches into the funky "Chicago Señorita," a dry motoring groove with Ra's break-beat rims supporting supple, reed-borne trills. The character quickly shifts as Sanders' poised triple-stops take over. Known for his work as part of the Chicago Latin jazz scene, Sanders has also played with Nicole Mitchell and saxophonist Mwata Bowden, and his sweaty, clambering arpeggios bridge Stuff Smith and harried classicism. Starting out with dense fanfare, "East Village" moves into a hybrid of kwela and Afro-Cuban rhythms, lilting alto and tenor in cottony dialogue with pizzicato violin and a bright, loose beat. "Red is the Color in Jean-Michel Basquiat's Silk Blue" grows outward from a clarinet duet to a surging ensemble piece, nattering violin taking the high road as alto, tenor, bass and percussion congeal into a ferocious bottom-heavy lament. Williams and Wilkerson are a curious pairing, the former's raw emotionalism contrasting with the latter's pillowy, laconic introspection. Bankhead's meaty tone carries vamps beautifully, allowing Ra and Adams to skim lightly across the rhythm on "22nd Street Hustle (in Memory of Fred Anderson)," as reeds and violin offer brief commenting flurries. Morning Sun Harvest Moon is a fine leadership debut for one of the most unflagging bassists in modern improvised music.–CA
SIMBOL / L'UNIQUE TRAIT D'PINCEAU
Michael Johnsen / Pascal Battus
Organized Music from Thessaloniki
In recent times, French improviser Pascal Battus has abandoned his table guitar – or "guitare environnée" as he used to call it – in favour of new sound sources. On last year's Ichnites (Potlatch), with Christine Sehnaoui, he disembowelled a Walkman with spectacular results, and on this new double album he turns his attention to, respectively, cymbals ("using specific techniques, some known to percussionists, others of my own invention"), polystyrene and a contact-miked bass drum.
It's by no means easy listening. One feels throughout that the experimentation, the search, is as important as – maybe more important than – the result: as Battus's intention seems to be to take listeners with him on the journey rather than merely present them with a beautifully painted picture of the landscapes he's travelled through. On Simbol it's a polar wilderness, icebergs of steely sustained tones floating in a sea of deep, dark hum; in L'Unique Trait d'Pinceau ("a single brushstroke" – titular homage to Shitao) an arid desert region with withered trees of inscrutable thuds and scrapes sticking up out of the silent sand. But listening casually to either album there seems to be something missing – that's not a put-down, by the way – a feeling that if we could just see Pascal at work, all might suddenly make more sense. Having had the pleasure of playing with him on several occasions, take it from me that that's not the case (fun though it is to watch him tinkering with his tiny trinkets) – if it were, I suspect he'd have released a DVD. Nope, this is music, and what's missing is your input: you have to join the dots and make the required effort to appreciate its subtle secrets.
The Bitche Session with Michael Johnsen on saw and electronics (cassette only, but if your deck is showing signs of wear and tear like mine you might want to spring for the download instead) is a much rowdier and readily accessible affair. Both musicians are clearly having a ball, and their sense of humour is evident throughout. There are some truly outrageous yelps and screeches from time to time – if your idea of EAI is someone rustling away in the background at a volume level that won't offend anybody, I'd say you should leave this one be – and they're delivered with the kind of punchline timing a professional comedian would be proud of. Watch the family dog just after the beginning of side two, too. The title refers to the place it was recorded in Nantes, by the way, even if it is a bitch of an album.–DW
Tim Berne / Jim Black / Nels Cline
In the last year the question "what has Tim Berne been up to" was successfully answered, although "has he been playing in any clubs" was left open until this release. This trio, which had been previously formed for a radio broadcast, played at The Stone in July without the benefit of an air conditioner in an I-hope-the-fire-marshal-doesn't-come-by crowd situation. In short, perfect conditions for a sweaty set of skronky improv. And improv it is; don't be fooled by the track titles since they're just place marks for changes in motifs in one long mosh that contains enough variety to differentiate it from an unrelenting grindfest, but by a slim enough margin to keep everybody happy. Berne has always worked well with electric guitarists (most recently Marc Ducret, but previously Bill Frisell on Fulton Street Maul, one of Columbia's brief forays into jazz before the beancounters ordered them to cease and desist, and even a brief fling with Vernon Reid), and his musical relationship with Cline goes back to the Empire days and who knows how many one-offs since then. Cline has been on a real creative upsurge of late, perhaps financed by the Wilco cash cow but more importantly a product of an abundance of ideas. But Black is the real surprise here: in Bloodcount he never seemed to be more than a cog in a machine, but here from the start, when those rapidfire clicks on the side of the snare bring Joey Baron in Naked City to mind, he has much to add, on both drums and laptop.
Whether providing skittering accents against Cline's lines when emerging from the ethereal "Momento" into "The Barbarella Syndrome" before moving to a high-hat driven funk beat as Berne rejoins the fray, or providing the insistent accelerando backbeat against the saxophonist's tart, twisting lines in "Rescue Her", Black is on fine form. And Berne shows that his intricate and insistent motifs alternating with staccato honks are as fitting in a fully improvised setting as in written charts. For those of us that would've loved to have been there, this is the best way to enjoy it.–SG
Rüdiger Carl / Oliver Augst
OBEN (BELTZ REMIXED)
Dig out your copy of Rüdiger Carl's seminal King Alcohol (1972), one of the first FMP LPs, and it would be pretty much impossible to project the perverse trajectory his burly tenor playing has taken since then, from the early work with Globe Unity to his later turn to the accordion in collaboration with Irene Schweizer, Hans Reichel and others. So when Mille Plateaux decided to launch their sub-label for "Avant Garde, Dada, and Obscure" music, who better than Carl and his latterday collaborator Oliver Augst to raid the tape vaults of Matthias Beltz, cabaret performer, comedian, television and radio host and satirist who began as a member of the 60s radical group Socialist German Student League. Carl and Augst have put together a "remix" of his chants, rants, and sardonic monologues, jump-cutting between German and English across 14 short tracks which transform Beltz's histrionic delivery into stuttering set pieces shot through with cracked electronics, percussion, wheezing accordion and quavering claviola. No doubt my lack of German means that I missed some layers to this mix, but even if you can't follow every thread, there is plenty of gleefully abandoned activity here to savour.–MRo
eRikm / Norbert Möslang
Odd name for an album that isn't at all what I'd call stodgy ("heavy, dull, or uninteresting; tediously commonplace; boring; of a thick, semisolid consistency; heavy; stocky; thick-set"). True, there's some thunderous low end and plenty of ominous squelching and rumbling going on in these three relatively brief – total duration just under half an hour – pieces by Mr. m ("3k pad, loop, system and electronics") and and Mr. M. ("cracked everyday electronics"), but the overall feel of the album is quite punchy and boisterous. We're back to that old (yawn) question of where to draw the lines between EAI, noise and electronica again – when things get going you could be forgiven for identifying it as Merzbow at his most user-friendly, and the musicians' fondness for rhythmic periodicity in the form of crunchy loops is a further reminder that these two blokes have never been easy to pigeonhole. You might even argue that Möslang and his erstwhile sparring partner in Voice Crack, Andy Guhl, were busy making EAI long before anyone had even started worrying about what to call it. But whatever shelf you choose to file it away on, Stodgy is a refreshing blast of creative strength from two experienced professionals.–DW
Simon H. Fell
COMPOSITION NO. 75 (POSITIONS AND DESCRIPTIONS)
Since the mid 80s, bassist and composer Simon H. Fell has been developing compositional strategies for working with various combinations of improvisers, classically trained musicians, and pre-recorded electronics, producing along the way a body of incomparable recordings on his Bruce's Fingers label (he has subtitled these "Compilations", which, in his notes for Composition No. 62, he describes as pieces which blur "the distinction between jazz, improvised, and classical musics, between immediate and retrospective interaction, between intentional and chance relationships…"). It's been six years since Composition No. 62, so it's great to get a chance to hear another one of Fell's ambitious projects. Positions and Descriptions was commissioned for the 2007 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, which allowed him to assemble 15 musicians including regulars like Jim Denley, Alex Ward, Rhodri Davies, Philip Thomas, Steve Beresford and Mark Sanders, along with violinist Mifune Tsuji and Americans Tim Berne and Joe Morris (Clark Rundell conducts the ensemble).
In his incisive liner notes, Fell describes the piece as combining three overlapping elements: a complex score, a "mobile" system of pre-recorded, inter-related electronic elements, and a series of solo and ensemble improvisations. The five-part structure finds room for cycling thematic kernels, real-time interaction of layered electronics and ensemble, inversions of tango and swing, extrapolations of Webern's Variations for Orchestra Op. 30, and, of course, extended solos by members of the ensemble. The contrasting timbres and densities are always striking, the buzz and oscillations of electronics countered by tuned percussion, high trilling piccolo, skirling sax, the clarion cry of the trumpet, the clarinet's rich chalumeau and the seismic rumble of the tubax. Fell avoids both Po-Mo pastiche and full-on assault, instead creating a genuinely impressive musical statement that never subordinates the musicians' individuality to structural concerns. For those who have been following his ensemble music this one shouldn't be missed; for those looking for an introduction to one of the most engaging explorers at the intersection of composition and improvisation, dive right in.–MRo
Satoko Fujii's Kaze
Satoko Fujii's Min-Yoh Ensemble
Satoko Fujii's Orchestra New York
Pianist / composer Satoko Fujii always seems to have a new ensemble up and running to give voice to her ideas, and the latest, Kaze, is among the freest sounding I've heard to date. She and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura are joined by second trumpeter Christian Pruvost and drummer Peter Orins. They range between a sound that very nearly resembles nmperign and Andrea Neumann (the lengthy "Noise Chopin") and some that sound like nods to Donald Ayler accompanied by martial drums. Also, fairly rare for Fujii, these performances contain relatively little conventional notation, and are just sketches of structure serving to knit together solo and duo as well as group statements. In fairness, only two of the six pieces are hers (three are by Orins and one by Tamura), and there are some clear harmonic frameworks here and there, as with the brilliantine arpeggios on "The Thaw", but Fujii fans will enjoy listening to the navigation of mood and atmosphere (and also to how Pruvost's clarion lines contrast splendidly with Tamura's comparable raunch). They operate in hushed dynamic territory on "Anagramme", with prepared piano, bowed cymbals, trumpet sputter, hush, and wheeze, but play with equal invention and commitment on the squealing, thudding "Polly" or the noise freakout "Blast."
One of the best Fujii dates of the last few years was Fujin Raijin, the debut from her Min-Yoh Ensemble, where she and Tamura are joined by trombonist Curtis Hasselbring and accordionist Andrea Parkins for a set of improvised explorations of Japanese folk themes and Fujii originals written in a vernacular style. Watershed opens with another version of "The Thaw," and it's realized particularly well by this instrumentation. After a splattery, noisy mid-section, Tamura and Hasselbring's nice folk line takes them through the floating world. The title track frames a gorgeous pair of duets, each with brass and keys, with a clarion theme (rendered wonderfully by trombone) laced through it. There is a superbly lyrical Fujii opening to the traditional "Takeda no Komoriuta," with slurred breath and a single whining note providing ace contrast. Similarly, a potent blast of noise and skronk opens "Soranbushi," which ends with gorgeous brass theme once again, this time set against a Parkins drone and clattery innenklavier. After the spiky, spidery "Cascade," there's another muffled drone piece, with occasional uncredited vocal accompaniment, on "Limestone Cave" before this lovely date closes with a pair of gorgeous lyrical miniatures.
Fujii's Orchestra New York is in simply cracking form on Eto, the majority of which is comprised of its eponymous title suite, a celebration of Natsuki Tamura's 60th birthday. Prefaced by the dynamic "The North Wind and the Sun", with sterling trumpet from Herb Robertson and Frank London, and echoes of Mingus's Tijuana Moods, "Eto" begins with a fulsome droning overture and then moves through a series of miniatures, each one based on a Chinese astrological sign. Beginning with "Rat" (with Fujii rocking out alongside Chris Speed's clarinet), these move through solos or duos and trios, each of which steadily engages the ensemble to rear up with a blast of sound or a fat groove (a tip of the hat to Stomu Takeishi and Aaron Alexander here, particularly on the block-rocking "Snake," with Tamura shrieking and squealing away marvelously) or, as on "Ox," some glorious, near Ellingtonian horn voicings. And for those keeping track, Mingus is summoned again on "Hare," this time sounding like Let My Children Hear Music. Individual solos are great throughout – special shout-out to Joe Fiedler's tailgating on "Dog" – and Fujii expertly uses the resources of her band, which also includes saxophonists Oscar Noriega, Briggan Krauss, Ellery Eskelin and Andy Laster, trumpeter Dave Ballou and trombonists Joey Sellers and Curtis Hasselbring. The suite moves like a whirlwind, and the disc's closing bookend consists of two fine workouts, the raging "Pressure Cooker," which shows that this Orchestra can deal with groove-based materials really creatively and elegantly, and finally the graceful, lilting "Stroll."–JB
Joe Hertenstein / Thomas Heberer / Joachim Badenhorst / Pascal Niggenkemper
Each time a Red Toucan comes out it's a cause for celebration, but recent releases have been lacking in the playfulness which initially drew me to Andrew Drury's wonderful (and alas out of print) Polish Theater Posters. It's not that I need a reincarnation of Willem Breuker or another Respect Sextet from the Montreal label, but some relief from the relentlessly dour, albeit well conceived and performed, run of recent releases on the label was badly needed.
Polylemma, according to the liners (but not the OED) means "a choice from multiple options, each of which is (or appears) equally (un-) acceptable or (un-) favourable." That sounds like a reasonable credo for a group made by adding bass clarinettist Joachim Badenhorst to the trio responsible for Clean Feed's 2010 release HNH with Joe Hertenstein on drums, Pascal Niggenkemper on bass and longtime ICP member Thomas Heberer on trumpet. The title cut gets things off to a nice start with a loping 5/4 beat: Heberer's initial growls grow plaintive after Badenhorst joins the fray, and they alternate playing off each other with bluesy uniform lines. Heberer's "Garden" follows, featuring lots of long-toned sequences by the trumpet over and under which bass clarinet and drums skitter quietly but energetically. "Sugar's Dilemma" swings along nicely until Badenhorst grabs the reins with a slippery careening solo reminiscent of Carlos Actis Dato, which gradually gets pulled back for an abrupt restatement of the theme.
As with the excellent Die Enttäuschung (featuring Rudi Mahall and Axel Dörner) the combination of bass clarinet and trumpet gives an unusual flavour to this quartet setting, and the group makes good use of the instruments' tonal contrast on Heberer's "One Ocean at a Time". This starts out like an updated version of "India", but rather than serving as a modal stage for horn explorations, it makes room for drum and bass solos amidst shifting motifs before ending on a surprisingly optimistic theme. My fears for the future of the label were entirely ungrounded.–SG
Sven-Åke Johansson / Annette Krebs
A duo between drummer Sven-Åke Johansson and guitar / electronics manipulator Annette Krebs might not seem a sure bet. Sure, Johansson has recorded with Krebs' fellow Berliners, and she tends to favour duo encounters – but Johansson's playing is all about fractured free-improv gestures and abstracted swing, while Krebs has lately been building improvisations from disjointed overlays, gauzy textures, and sonic detritus. In an odd way, though, the contrast is exactly what makes this eccentric meeting work so well. On the surface, it's as if the two happened to set up next to each other and start playing independently rather than attempting to find ways in to each other's soundworlds. Bowed cymbals and rubbed drum heads squeak and sizzle across fragmented recordings, low electric hums, and crackles. Johansson picks apart rhythmic motifs and paradiddles and methodically reassembles them as Krebs plays back a computerized voice reading a weather report, snippets from the radio and sounds of children laughing. Coughs, creaks, and audience sounds sneak in from the live recording, too. At 29 minutes, this is more a sketchbook than a fully-formed collaboration, but spend some time with it and you'll start to hear the juxtapositions as elastic give and take, full of mischievous playfulness building to shuffling momentum.–MRo
Gerry Hemingway Quintet
From the mid 80s through the mid 90s, Gerry Hemingway put out a series of seminal recordings, melding the collective strategies he had developed as part of Anthony Braxton's quartet with the sense of loose-limbed free swing honed with players like Ray Anderson, Mark Helias, George Lewis, Wadada Leo Smith, and other members of the burgeoning New Haven scene in the late 70s. Starting with the long out-of-print Outerbridge Crossing and on through a series of releases on Hat Art, Random Acoustics, and GM Recordings, Hemingway built a distinctive approach to small-group composition, making use of captivating metrical layering, snaking melodic threads, and plenty of room for collective improvisation. Core to that concept was a stable band with Michael Moore, Wolter Wierbos, Ernst Reijseger, and Mark Dresser. Since then, Hemingway's pulled together various bands with musicians like Ellery Eskelin, Herb Robertson, Frank Gratkowski, and Mark Helias; while all have had their high-points, none have quite gelled like earlier recordings.
With this newest ensemble, Hemingway has once again found that group alignment. Oscar Noriega (on alto sax, clarinet, and bass clarinet) is paired with Eskelin's tenor, and Kermit Driscoll is on board playing acoustic and electric bass; but the big change is the inclusion of guitarist Terrence McManus, whose contributions move from gentle washes to spiky, overdriven skronk. The group attacks the leader's themes, moving from lush voicings to angular counterpoint, collectively pushing an elastic approach to the pieces' harmonic and rhythmic structures. There's a song-like quality to Hemingway's writing and that often comes to the fore, as on "Gitar", which uses percolating cross-rhythms across a backbeat to support the reed players' arcing lines, until things open up for a driving guitar solo full of cutting distortion. There's also a marked nod to kwela groove throughout, on "At Anytime", "Holler Up", and "Backabacka". The recording is meticulously paced, the pieces seguing into each other in suite-like fashion, with a perfect balance between collective improvisations and thoughtfully-wrought solos. Let's hope Hemingway can keep this crew together for a while.–MRo
On their fourth album, and the third on Matchless, saxophonists Bertrand Denzler and Jean-Luc Guionnet, guitarist Jean-Sébastien Mariage, pianist Frédéric Blondy and percussionist Edward Perraud deliver three more impressive examples of musical teamwork, recorded in February and April last year in Lille and Poitiers. It's not hard to see why Hubbub music appeals to Matchless MC Eddie Prévost: apart from AMM, I can't think of another outfit in improvised music that has worked so hard to forge a group sound, a musical identity that's more than the sum of its parts. Keith Rowe's remarks on the subject come to mind: "In AMM philosophy three is four: the three players plus the group itself makes four. It's like the Chinese story of the man drinking a glass of wine in moonlight whose shadow becomes the third member of the company." In which case you could call Hubbub a sextet. Though they've been in business for over a decade now, the five musicians don't get a chance to play together all that often – Perraud now lives in Tours, and the other four, though based in Paris, spend a lot of time on the road with other outfits – but absence makes the musical heart grow fonder. It's often impossible to tell who's doing what, and it doesn't matter: Perraud's exquisitely bowed cymbals and crotales combine wonderfully with Blondy's inside piano and Mariage's eBowed guitar, and the saxophonists' sustained tones, slightly scuffed by multiphonics and raspy flutters, blend in beautifully.
So much for the compliments, then. If I have any reservations, they're not so much criticisms of this particular album but of what it says about the current state of improvised music in general. It seems abundantly clear that Hubbub, like many improvisers today, are operating according to a clear set of rules regarding what can – or rather cannot – be done. Extremes of dynamics are studiously avoided (there are a few menacing thuds from Perraud but that's about as far as it goes), and even if the music is allowed to grow in intensity and density – "BUB 2" does so to great effect – it never gets loud. Similarly, there are no sudden shifts of texture and timbre, and no quick changes in direction. As such, Hubbub's music still conforms to the principles of early oughties lowercase – you might even argue it's the ultimate refinement of the "genre" – if you're looking for something "new" you might want to look elsewhere.
Now, whether that's a good or a bad thing depends on your point of view. Personally, I like my improv a little more confrontational and risky, more a question of "thou canst" than "thou shalt not", and the thought that much of today's improvised music seems to have settled comfortably into a kind of middle-aged stylistic orthodoxy is somewhat depressing. Not that that'll stop me enjoying this album next time I play it – but, knowing each of these musicians well, and knowing what exciting players they are, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Hubbub's next outing (whatever they call it: looks like they're running out of homophones!) will thrill as much as it impresses.–DW
Joëlle Léandre / Phillip Greenlief
THAT OVERT DESIRE OF OBJECT
The debut outing from this new American label promises great things to come. Modifying a famous Buñuel movie title to identify the duo's implied "main theme" (human greed and its relative consequences), blue-collar wind virtuoso Greenlief offers intriguing perspectives and incisive methods to complement the larger-than-life personality of bassist Léandre. There are no frills here, and what's apparent even on a first listen is the non-oratorical character of the music as it unfolds in a series of "variations", an all-embracing report from two artists who share several biting points of view. Greenlief zigzags around Léandre's timbral stoutness like a mosquito out to sabotage a quiet picnic; the French anti-diva responds with nervous swats, upper-partial gnarls and ominous crackles only partially sweetened by her renowned arco passages to the majestic peaks of droning impenetrability. When they decide to exhale a little longer, we're treated to contrapuntal stability bathed in negative foreshadowing, vocal utterances deprived of joviality confirming a shared vision, cogent and pessimistic. After all, it's human beings we're talking about.–MR
THIS IS WHAT I DO, VOLUME 1
I still remember the first time I heard Jason Lescalleet about ten years ago, in a long, narrow church basement room with pipes and a steam radiator running along one wall and reel-to-reel tape decks scattered across the floor. He crouched and moved from one to the other, slowing down reels and manipulating long, crinkled loops of tape running between them. As the volume rose, a low rattle added to the physicality of the performance, which I eventually realized was the sound of the pipes banging away in sympathetic vibration and the windows rattling in their frames. Lescalleet's music is intrinsically linked to the interaction between sound and performance space, so he's never been one to put out many recordings, and most of what he has put out is no longer available, which makes this release so valuable. The title is blunt and to-the-point: This Is What I Do. It brings together pieces recorded between 1998 and 2004, some previously unreleased, others from out of print compilations.
Things start out quietly with the wheezing, looped drones of "Un Peu De Neige Sans Raison" (1998), which gradually gain volume and intensity to create pulsing oscillations. On "Needles", from the long OOP first Bremsstrahlung Lowercase Sound compilation, crackles, static, and chirps of frayed semaphore sound like phantom transmissions picked up on a garage radio late at night. Similar textures serve as the foundation of "Tape Deck Model RD-504" (from a compilation on Intransitive), joined by a creaking mechanical loop that gets woven into the mix as the piece gathers shuddering density (this would have sounded great thundering out of that beat-up Peavey amp that was another central element of Lescalleet's early performances). The three-minute "Put 'Em on the Glass", a piece to accompany digital images by the Italian duo Tu m', jumps right out of the speakers and then pulls back to sonar-like blips which hang and jostle against each other like a mobile. The set ends with "A Broken Mirror," a 2004 piece from Resonance FM whose vacillating tremors and throbbing mechanical clicks and clanks course along with an enveloping momentum.–MRo
Pascal Marzan / John Russell
John Russell and Pascal Marzan have been playing together since 2005, and this CD presents the results of two of their meetings, about 35 minutes of music from sessions in 2007 and 2010 which took place in Russell's former home in Finsbury Park and current home in Walthamstow, with Marzan acting as recording engineer. That sense of familiarity informs the music, extended dialogues between two acoustic guitarists attuned at once to the similarities and differences in their two traditions – Russell plays a steel string archtop with a plectrum, the heir to the dance band and jazz traditions, while Marzan fingerpicks a nylon-string flat-top and uses techniques from classical and flamenco – and both avidly exploring all the different ways you can make sounds with a guitar, including scraping and preparing its strings and rubbing its body with the thumb. There's a passage of intense rubbing on the relatively brief "Nightwork" that sounds at least as much like a duck as a guitar. Or perhaps a tale told to a guitar by a duck and later repeated. The dialogue is as much linear as timbral, sudden runs and rhythmic focuses delivered through a host of sounds that can suggest anything from slack-skin drum kit to ukulele to the upper register of a grand piano. Moments of wit and animation can give way to reverie, as on the extended (25 minute) "Kuulilennuteetunneliluuk." This is continuously engaging and shifting work that never sounds the same on subsequent listenings, our attention repeatedly moving between the two musicians and their roles in this stream of consciousness, always finding more detail, more points of intersection and divergence. In his note Russell warns, "if you don't like guitars you won't like this CD!" If you do, it's an essential experience. You're unlikely to feel further inside a guitar unless you're playing one yourself.–SB
Joe Mcphee Quintet / Ernie Bostic Quartet
LIVE AT VASSAR 1970
Corbett vs. Dempsey
The label imprint of Chicago's Corbett vs. Dempsey gallery seems to be picking up where the Atavistic Unheard Music Series left off (or at least the really "unheard" aspect), issuing curios and gems to fill the completist's shelves in small-edition CDs with elegantly simple packaging. Following a Peter Brötzmann-Harry Miller duo and a trio with Brötzmann, Pierre Courbois and Peter Kowald, recently the label has taken to mining the Joe McPhee archive. Live at Vassar 1970 is the second early McPhee set to be issued by the gallery, and it includes three sets of music – one by the McPhee Quintet of the time, two brief tracks from pianist Mike Kull's trio (basically the quintet minus horns), and a solid half-hour of music by sometime McPhee percussionist Ernie Bostic's group. All of the work was recorded on April 30, 1970 while McPhee was teaching black music studies at Vassar and living up the Hudson from his more well-known New York peers.
The Joe McPhee Quintet here features Kull, alto saxophonist Byron Morris, bassist Tyrone Crabb and drummer Bruce Thompson on two originals and renditions of "Stella by Starlight" and "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise," along with a wonderful version of "Muntu" by South African composer Caiphus Semenya. "Maybell's Blues" is in two parts (it appears as though a tape switch missed some music), and it's an interesting chance to hear McPhee's tenor squawk and jumbled excitement in the context of a rolling, simple blues. Byron Morris plays straight-man on soprano, with a full sound reminiscent of period Cannonball Adderley. "Softly" is a bit ramshackle as McPhee (on soprano) pulls far from the tune's changes, while Kull sticks to stately post-Bill Evans swing. "Stella" begins as a duet for McPhee's pocket trumpet and Kull's crackling right hand before settling into a loose, vibrant ramble. Rather than the heavy, volcanic playing that characterizes his work on Trinity (CJR, 1972), the pianist here shows a strong postbop sensibility, which would become his main expressive zone in the ensuing years. Morris's alto is saccharine and velvety in its primary solo spot, Thompson chomping at the bit with eager fills and Crabb's electric bass offering pliable comment. "The Looking Glass I" adds electric autoharp, saxophone overdubs and amplified kalimba to the mix with shades of the Survival Unit, and for the better part of eleven minutes the ensemble takes it out, heaving sound masses pitted against twittering reeds and disjointed clatter. Crabb's rubbery electric bass sounds perfect here, of and apart from the goo.
The Ernie Bostic Quartet is another animal, and the music doesn't burst at the seams in quite the same way as the McPhee tracks. The leader is featured on vibraphone, and is joined by alto saxophonist Otis Greene, organist Herbie Leaman and drummer Charlie Benjamin on a spiritual / modal improvisation titled "Flowers for Mattie B" as well as covers of "Bags' Groove" and Coltrane's "Resolution." "Mattie B" makes great use of merging resonances from vibraphone and B3, and Leaman's heavy vibrato and dense flourishes are reminiscent of Sun Ra. Following a jaunty reading of Milt Jackson's standard, with the fluttering, exuberant Greene in full flight and the leader's mallets ultra-glassy, the quartet moves into freer waters, albeit with a sense of depth and sensitivity befitting Coltrane's composition. Leaman's footwork almost sounds like there's an electric bassist is present (there isn't); when stratospheric alto emerges, there is no loss of clarity with respect to where the tune is, and the head-bobbing clip that follows is truly, unabashedly "in the spirit." It's a brilliant, joyous and swinging affair, and it will be interesting to see if more of this group's music emerges from the Upstate New York vaults.–CA
Misha Mengelberg / Evan Parker
IT WON'T BE CALLED A BROKEN CHAIR
In the early days of free improvised music 40-odd years ago, there were plenty of notable Anglo-Dutch joint ventures – by the end of 1970 guitarist Derek Bailey had already appeared on three of the first six releases on the Dutch Instant Composers Pool label, and ICP co-founder Han Bennink joined him and fellow Incus head honcho Evan Parker on that label's inaugural release Topography of the Lungs – but, amazingly, it's taken until now for Parker and pianist Misha Mengelberg (who, along with the late Willem Breuker, founded ICP and still, umm, "leads" the ICP Orchestra) to release a duo album (their only other appearance on disc together was on ICP 006, Groupcomposing). This long-awaited encounter between two of improv's most distinctive figures took place at Amsterdam's Bimhuis in February 2006, and consists of two extended tracks, "Broken Chair" and "At the Magician's", clocking in at just over an hour.
In a set of liner notes elsewhere a while back I floated the idea of "playing against" another musician – as opposed to "playing with", which folks normally say – as one does in sports and games. It's a Mengelberg speciality (you will recall he's quite a chess player too), and there are hours of hilariously inventive confrontations on disc, most notably in his duo recordings with Han Bennink. The result – final score, to pursue the analogy – is usually a draw: Misha might rack up more points with the judges, but Bennink has that killer rimshot punch, the volume advantage. With Parker, featured here on tenor throughout, the interplay is more subtle, but on the 26-minute title track it's Misha who's calling the shots, allowing himself to get resolutely stuck in his beloved ostinati (it's listening to all that baroque music that does it) and only occasionally throwing out a clear hook for the saxophonist to pick up and run with. But Parker is good at running off in unexpected directions too – not that Misha goes out of his way to follow him: he doesn't, but they manage to bump into each other along the way remarkably often. Even so, at half time it's Misha 3, Evan 2 according to my scorecard.
Mengelberg improvisations often feature extended passages of skewed two-part counterpoint which end up either in aimless plonking (don't get me wrong: I love it) and / or bored fisticuffs before settling into Monkish harmony and drifting into one of his own tried and trusted compositions. Bennink's reaction to the latter is often a raw explosion of frustration ("that Misha, he's so goddamn lazy!" he recalled with an exasperated laugh during our last conversation together in Amsterdam a few years ago for his Wire Invisible Jukebox), but on "At the Magician's" Parker's having none of it: he could bellow wildly (Ab Baars does this very well in his duos with Misha), but instead keeps the ideas flowing, forcing the pianist into taking another lap of the track just when he probably thought he was slowing up to the finishing line. Parker 3 Mengelberg 2 in the second half, result a 5-5 draw. Or maybe 50-50. But there's nothing middling about the performance: this is top-notch improvised music. Splendid liner notes from Steve Beresford, too ("my spell-check insists on changing 'Misha' to 'Mishap'", indeed!).–DW
Abdul Moimême / Ricardo Guerreiro
Guitarist Abdul Moimême is a member of the Lisbon free improvisation scene centred around Ernesto Rodrigues' Creative Sources Label, and has recorded with the Swiss electronics / percussion duo Diatribes (Complaintes de Marée Basse on Insubordinations) and (as a tenor saxophonist) with Lisbon's free improv large ensemble, the Variable Geometry Orchestra. There's also an excellent solo CD called Nekhephthu. Here he plays two table-top electric guitars, employing bows, metallic percussion, various forms of preparation and objects dropped and scraped against the strings. His partner, Ricardo Guerreiro, on "interactive computing platform," processes the guitar sounds in real time, a shifting mirror and transformer of Moimême's sonic materials.
Improvised music is difficult to describe in detail, but Moimême's qualities as an improviser seem to directly reflect his day job as a municipal architect in Lisbon (projects include a communications tower and public housing). This translates into his music in a keen sense of auditory space and precise relations within it; the use of the two guitars and electronics creates an extraordinary sense of distance, and echo, as much spatial as temporal, is as prevalent as the guitar itself, its metal-on-metal scrapings and pure gamelan sounds consistently reconfigured, like musique concrète. This is a recording of untoward beauty where the imagination and an exacting ear are unlikely to separate the original sounds from the alterations and reimaginings, or to locate them in time, which, by the end of the three long movements of "# 29", has begun to stretch elastically, to magnify, reverse and disappear. It's a stunning sonic meditation situated in the interstices between Moimême's guitars and Guerreiro's electronics, a Balinese train yard in outer space.–SB
Taylor Ho Bynum / Joe Morris / Sara Schoenbeck
Joe Morris / Agustí Fernández
The Spanish Donkey
Joe Morris isn't exactly unknown, with over 30 records to his name as a leader recorded over the past three decades, and dozens more as a member of other musicians' ensembles, but even those who know his music well can lose sight of what a keen improvisational strategist he is. Since the early 80s, and his collaboration with Lowell Davidson, he's been exploring concepts of mutable structures within the context of free improvisation (connecting as much to European free improvisation as to free jazz), and the past few years have seen fruitful collaborations in this vein, notably a project dedicated to Davidson with overlooked masters John Voigt and Tom Plsek, another killer trio with Simon H. Fell and Alex Ward and a duo with Anthony Braxton.
Trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum and bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck have both worked in Braxton's ensembles for a while now, and with Morris on board, the collective understanding is clear in Next's six relatively compact improvisations, each marked by the unique timbral combination of steely acoustic guitar, full-toned brass and the distinctive sonorities of the low-register double reed instrument. Textural layering is offset with line-based interaction, and the collaboration is as much about the spaces the musicians leave for each other as what they actually play. "Fireside" plinks and sputters like sparks against a night sky, while "Small Footprints of Unidentified Creatures" has a bent-note grace that brings to mind the free angularity of Jimmy Lyons (those bassoon colorations recalling his partner Karen Borca). On the more active "Consensus Struggle", Bynum's flutters and smears and Schoenbeck's bobbing lines ebb and flow against Morris's percussive scrabble, building to a spirited conclusion. The closing title track darts and jabs with overlapping fragments, with the guitarist's buzzing metallic crinkles and quavering resonance a striking foil to the drawn, daubed tones of his playing partners.
The meeting between Morris and Barcelona-based pianist Agustí Fernández is particularly inspired. Few US-based musicians have been able to leave the baggage of free jazz behind and engage in true partnerships with European free improvisers – one thinks of Nate Wooley with Paul Lytton, Peter Evans with Evan Parker, or Gino Robair with John Butcher and Birgit Ulher, but not many more spring readily to mind. Ambrosia quickly strides out of the looming shadow of the duos Fernández recorded with the late Derek Bailey and reveals itself as a fresh, intimate give-and-take between like-minded musicians at the top of their game. Ideas are picked up and refracted at lightning speed with razor-sharp precision as the musicians explore multifarious approaches to stretch and splinter the sound of piano and guitar. Often preparing their instruments to coax out subtle reverberations, they mine complementary resonances and probe at the contrasts between the percussive nature of hammer and plectrum against strings, moving from prickly rasps to shuddering roars. The pristine recording reveals every nuance of this spellbinding meeting.
For proof that Morris can still skronk and swing hard though, turn to his new release with the group Spanish Donkey, with Jamie Saft on synths and bass guitar and Mike Pride on drums and percussion. Here are two slabs of dark, seething improvisation with nods to Miles' "Rated X", metal squall, electro-noise bluster, and the ecstatic flights of free jazz. Where Morris's duo with Fernández is built from transparency and detail and the trio with Bynum and Schoenbeck from interlaced lines, this crew works with density of sound, brash momentum and thundering tattoos of crashing drums and cymbals. It's been a while since I've heard Morris rock out like this, and it looks like he's found the perfect partners in Pride and Saft to do it. On the opening "Mid-Evil," it's almost impossible to tease out the various elements, so tightly are they fused into buffeting tectonic slabs, until a squiggle of Saft's piercing synth peeks out, Morris' ringing distortion cuts through or Pride breaks out some slashing drums and percussive clatter. The title track opens things up a little, starting with Morris' snaking angularities before Saft's organ-like waves roll in on Pride's elastic free momentum and the three take it from there, surfing the riffing energy.–MRo
Jean-Luc Guionnet / Seijiro Murayama
Seijiro Murayama / Stéphane Rives
AXIOM FOR THE DURATION
Back in 2007 Potlatch released Propagations by Marc Baron, Bertrand Denzler, Jean-Luc Guionnet and Stéphane Rives, a saxophone quartet unlike any other, and subsequent releases on the label have focused on individual explorations by the members of the quartet. These two new outings, following hot on the heels of Tenor by Denzler, continue that trend, and mark the Potlatch debut of Paris-based Japanese percussionist Seijiro Murayama.
Guionnet and Murayama have collaborated regularly since their duo album Le Bruit du Toit (Xing-Wu) in 2007. Window Dressing consists of four tracks, the longest recorded live in Ljubljana in June 2010 and the others in Paris in December 2010. Murayama is an economical percussionist, favouring a spectrum of subtle, delicate scraping and rubbing sounds which act as coloration without being the focus of attention. He employs an extensive and well-calibrated range of techniques in response to Guionnet's sustained notes and truncated staccatos. The Ljubljana track, "Procédé", at 31 minutes, allows both players scope to display their full repertoire. When the saxophonist unleashes a sustained clarion blast with a harsh edge, Murayama responds with a series of rolls which only fade away when the Guionnet moves down a gear. His sustained notes attract scrapings of various surfaces interspersed with occasional snare hits. In contrast, on the shortest track, "Processus", both players are restrained throughout, the saxophone's swelling tones and the sound of breath through tubes totally compatible with Murayama's white-noise friction. One wonders whether the album cover, a photograph by Guionnet of a sculpture of two bodies seemingly locked in combat is appropriate to such agreeable music.
Axiom for the Duration is the first recording by Murayama and soprano saxophonist Stéphane Rives, and consists of one continuous improvisation lasting over 56 minutes (indexed as three tracks, for convenience) recorded at Naxos Bobine in Paris in May 2010. As on his 2003 solo album, Fibres (Potlatch), Rives employs circular breathing to play a series of sustained notes and multiphonics which create an evolving drone throbbing and undulating in pitch and volume. Murayama has less room here than he does with Guionnet, punctuating his scrapes with the occasional cymbal or snare strike as punctuation, almost as a reminder that he's still there. With the two players constantly interweaving, there is occasional scope for confusion about the source of a sound. Is that harsh metallic ringing high-pitched whine (used sparingly, thankfully) Rives or Murayama bowing a cymbal? This is a very compatible duo, and although Rives, like his fellow Propagations members, continues to push at the boundaries of his instrument, he never loses sight of the need for the overall result to make satisfying listening.–JE
Joe Rigby Quartet
Does the name Joe Rigby ring any bells? Let me refresh your memory. Roy Morris, who penned that article, is the guy behind this album, recorded in Dundee, Scotland on November 16th 2009, and featuring Rigby on tenor, sopranino and flute in the company of percussionists Scott Donald and Billy Fisher, and Calum MacCrimmon on penny whistle and bagpipes (I guess with a name like that he couldn't play anything else). To give Calum his due, he does a wonderful job on the accursed bleating sack, which, after the pipe organ, is about my least favourite instrument (they say HM The Queen is woken every morning by the skirrrrrrl of the pipes.. amazing the old bat's still alive, if you ask me). One octave and one key, and that's all you get. Still, if all you're doing is providing a harmonic springboard for the mighty Rigby to launch himself into the stratosphere, it hardly matters. The saxophonist – 71 this year – is on absolutely terrific form throughout, blasting us into that time machine back four decades to when the likes of Pharoah Sanders (whose playing Rigby's most closely resembles) could jam ecstatically on one chord for half an hour and get a major record label to release the result. Ah, those were the days. Nae mair, laddie, nae mair.. Here's hoping Roy wins Euromillions in the near future and takes Rigby into the studio with a killer rhythm team (I vote for Harrison Bankhead and Hamid Drake) and some serious guitars and keyboards. If you've worn your copies of Thembi and Summun Bukmun Umyun out and don't mind bagpipes, you'd better get hold of For Harriet without delay. Serve yourself up a wee dram, sit back and be blown away.–DW
Wadada Leo Smith's Organic
The term "purple patch" might have been invented to describe Wadada Leo Smith's last decade, ranging from his powerful solo and duo performances to triumphs with the Golden Quartet and multiple explorations of the language of Miles Davis' electric period. Smith told me in a recent conversation that this period of music is "so powerful that it could have been written yesterday, or tomorrow." On the basis of all his recent recordings, but especially this two-disc helping (his fifth for Cuneiform and first full-length from the band that debuted on the second half of the righteously good Spiritual Dimensions), that's emphatically true. With the trumpeter's beautiful copper bright sound squarely at the center of things, with all the space that implies, the music is conjured by guitarists Michael Gregory and Brandon Ross (with supplemental playing from Josh Gerowitz and Lamar Smith), drummer Pheeroan akLaff, bassists John Lindberg and Skuli Sverisson, keyboardist Angelica Sanchez (seriously grooving here), violinist Stephanie Smith, saxophonists Casey Anderson and Casey Butler, and laptoppers Mark Trayle and Charlie Burgin.
Smith has long had an investment in traditional forms, and is committed to the notion that even something as seemingly hidebound as blues is filled with creative potential and possibility. The basic ingredients are stomping grooves, wafting ominous textures, wah-inflected trumpet, and tons of gorgeous keyboard and guitar obbligatos, all coming together in a fabulous array of textures and propulsions and contexts that proves Smith's basic point. The music is hypnotic but not narcoleptic, continually generating innovation and elaboration within the form. After the opening swagger of "Don Cherry's Electric Sonic Garden," the remainder of the first disc's hour is devoted to a wide-ranging title suite subtitled "Splendors of Light and Purification (for Shaykh Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili)", whose opening movement centers on Sanchez's harmonically intense musings, blooming from the core sound with cymbals and lovely lines from the unmistakable Ross. There follows an absolutely superb Lindberg solo in "The Dhikr of Radiant Hearts, Part II" before the churning funk of "The Majestic Way," and – after a series of textural pieces – the dirty, grinding "Certainty." The second disc opens with a fabulous akLaff solo, which leads into the closing three sections of the suite. "The Well: From Bitter to Fresh Sweet Water" practically pops with energy, and Smith's playing here is riveting. As it progresses, the music becomes pulseless, entering the void whose edges are skirted throughout, a little like Miles' "Lonely Fire". Two dedications round things off. The piece for Toni Morrison ("The Black Hole (Sagittarius A*), Conscience and Epic Memory") is a restrained beauty, with Sanchez and Sverisson fabulous together, and the entire band is impassioned and intense on the 20-minute "Leroy Jenkins's Air Steps." I suspect it won't be long before another Smith recording appears, but for now, Heart's Reflections is one of the best from a seriously heavy period of a major artist.–JB
David S. Ware / Cooper-Moore / William Parker / Muhammad Ali
As saxophonist David S. Ware has entered into another phase of life, one initially beset by questions of mortality, it seems as though his work has a new-found intensity. Part of that could also come from the fact that his longtime quartet disbanded, allowing him to explore new instrumental avenues with collaborators like guitarist Joe Morris and drummer Warren Smith. During this period, Ware has also recorded two extraordinary and highly personal discs of solo saxophone music. Planetary Unknown finds him in the company of longtime confrere, bassist William Parker, as well as pianist Cooper-Moore and drummer Muhammad Ali (Rashied's brother, best known for his work with Frank Wright and Noah Howard). Though it has been a while since Ware and Cooper-Moore recorded together, they were part of the cooperative group Apogee in the late 70s with drummer Marc Edwards and bassist Chris Amberger, and have been friends for a long time. As a bassless trio, they recorded Birth of a Being for Hat Hut in 1977. Though Ware and Rashied Ali did perform together, this is the saxophonist's first stint (alongside a concert appearance) with the younger Ali who, after years of obscurity, has recently returned to the scene.
Though Planetary Unknown reprises the instrumentation of the "classic" Ware quartet, it's an entirely different animal, with the Philly-bred Ali lending a strong bebop cast to the proceedings. Back in the heady 1970s, his thick, rolling approach pushed tumultuous collective improvisations forward with a fleet sensibility, and the fact that he studied with Philly Joe Jones and played with Jackie McLean and guitarist Thornel Schwartz is apparent. He opens "Passage Wudang" with light and mildly distracted timekeeping, and the quartet gels immediately, Ware's gobs of notes sailing over loose rhythms abetted by full-throated pluck and Cooper-Moore's behind-the-beat blocks. Listening to Parker and Ali together, one hears the essence of "free time," as they lock into a toe-tapping swing that continually roils and rearranges itself, the drummer's bombs and cymbal splashes setting out a brilliant carpet underneath interwoven chords. Following a particularly harrowing tenor salvo, Ali plays an unaccompanied spot that draws on Max Roach and Kenny Clarke, and it's probably the first time in memory that his percussion work has been so accurately and clearly recorded. Cooper-Moore brings stride, ragtime and volcanic pointillism into the ensemble fabric, reminiscent of Jaki Byard and Dave Burrell. And his delicacy during the closing moments of "Passage Wudang" is a testament to his sensitivity.
The drummer is on brushes at the outset of the duo "Duality of One," with Ware abstracting from a velvety croon into heated runs, keeping an insistent patter as the base of circular motion and subtly imparting extra gas. As intense a scrawl as Ware's lines might be, there's certainly a strong sense of swing hidden in Ali's accompaniment. "Divination" begins as a duo for piano and sopranino, a stark ballad with near-minimal keyboard pulses offsetting a thin, reedy clamber. Bass and percussion enter with a continuous burble as Cooper-Moore begins to flesh out his chords with robust filigree, lush glissandi countering Ware's straight-horn dervish whirl. The closing "Ancestry Supramental" finds Ware on stritch (a favourite axe of Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Elton Dean), and the rhythm section enters in full clip, its insistent bash and pot-stirring thrum egging the saxophonist into bluesy sway and harried glossolalia. On a mid-range horn, Ware's excited playing seems particularly in tune with Cooper-Moore's upper-register swaths and Ali's unhurried beat, and while his voice is often front and center, once again it's the power of the dance between piano, bass and drums that steals one's breath. The piece enters into a loose trading of fours midway through, Ware quoting Dolphy's "Miss Ann" – another one of many points that connect Planetary Unknown with past jazz history.–CA
René Lussier's Le Trésor De La Langue and Frank Zappa's "The Dangerous Kitchen" and "The Jazz Discharge Party Hats" on The Man From Utopia are the first examples that come to mind of pieces which exploit the compositional feature massively employed by Alessandro Bosetti throughout Royals: i.e. the near-carbon copy of instrumental lines upon pre-recorded speech (in this case by himself, Fernanda Farah, Ksenija Stevanovic and Christopher Williams). Here, Bosetti, who's already given us several oddly charming works and one disturbing masterpiece – Il Fiore Della Bocca on Rossbin – seems more concerned with getting a polished stability between some of his (hypothetical?) influences and a relatively edible electroacoustic mélange than with leaving the listener dumbfounded. Attentive ears won't fail to catch unconscious hints to Alvin Lucier, Fred Frith, Aqsak Maboul circa Onze Danses Pour Combattre La Migraine – what an unsung record – and the Ratledgeian minimalism of certain Soft Machine trips. The proverbial seamster fastidiousness of Bosetti's loops, fragments of domestic orchestral activity (he plays all instruments except the double bass, courtesy Rozemarie Heggen), bizarre strata of vocal formants and field recordings guarantees a quality level that renders the music congenial, even its moments of moderate futility. Genuine uniqueness? Elsewhere.–MR
LA VIE EN PROSE
It's been a good year for Michel Chion albums. After the long-awaited release of Diktat (Nuun), languishing inexplicably in the vaults since 1979, here's La Vie En Prose (2006-2011), which the composer unashamedly describes as une symphonie concrète. A "Symphony of Energy", indeed. Nearly an hour and a half long, it has the customary four movements ("Le chant des heures/Moderato", "Le souffle court/Scherzo", "Dans la chambre/Adagio" and "Salut au jour/Allegro"), though I wouldn't take those tempo indications to heart too much: even Chion's Adagio can move pretty smartly when it has to. And despite its title (not a cheap Edith Piaf pun, but a quotation from Flaubert), the work is more poetic than prosaic (and it's certainly not prosaic in the sense of "commonplace, dull, matter-of-fact"), a trait Lionel Marchetti was quick to recognise in Chion's music, which he discussed at length in his book on the composer (English translation, anyone?). In the same way that the elements of a poem – individual words, images, typographical layout, even punctuation – create networks of intellectual and emotional cross-connections of considerable complexity, Chion has a knack for putting sounds together that's constantly surprising, even shocking, always thought-provoking, and supremely musical, logical, right. Recognisable recurring motifs – a car spluttering to life, a newborn baby crying, a fit of coughing – serve as structural signposts both within individual movements / sections and across the work as a whole. The snippets of dialogue a couple of minutes into "Le chant des heures" (between a husband, his wife and children during an unexpected power cut) introduce characters who reappear at the opening of the slow movement nearly an hour later, ensuring large-scale formal coherence, while the dazzling assemblage of snatches of well-known and not so well-known chestnuts in the Scherzo (a real Mahlerian Scherzo it is too, half an hour long) provide the necessary lightness of touch without which such an ambitious work could all too easily end up as heavy and humourless as Pierre Henry. It's tempting to trot out that old "cinema for the ear" line again, recalling that Chion has written extensively and lectured on film, but apart from a couple of delicious blasts of Gato Barbieri's Last Tango in Paris soundtrack, comparisons with cinema will only take you so far. For like all great symphonies, this one creates its own unique frame of reference and stands proudly on its own two feet. A great work: à consommer sans modération.–DW
Philip Corner / Manuel Zurria
Malcolm Goldstein / Philip Corner
PIECES FROM THE PAST: BY PHILIP CORNER FOR THE VIOLIN OF MALCOLM GOLDSTEIN
"I've always been fascinated with the vision that some composers of our time devoted to works conceived in a non-traditional notation that is a textual code more about the emotional impact than the education of heights," writes flautist Manuel Zurria in the notes to this magnificent collection of five pieces by Philip Corner written (is that the word, then?) between 2000 and 2008. "A hypertext," Zurria continues, "sensitive to different and multiple levels of meaning and awareness. Philip Corner was among those who did such a sweet revolution." Amen to that, but it would have been nice if the booklet had reproduced all Corner's scores, such as they are. Not that that would explain what Zurria did with them: for that, one simply has to listen.
FIRST TRAVELS IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM "for solo glissando instrument around a sustained drone tone" is a truly magical montage of flutes and various recordings Zurria made during a trip to Japan, including in the planes and trains along the way. Glissando is the name of the game again in Gamelan SITU, for three bass flutes and drones; it's another one of Corner's slow sweeps up through pitch space, not laboratory squeaky clean like Lucier, but ghostly and veiled, punctuated by temple clangs and chilled by distant spectral wind, the spirits of Horatiu Radulescu and Harley Gaber ascending Mount Fuji. Feelings (a music), whose score consists of "a text that says what you can do (but the opposite is also true, just to disorient you...)", is the most austere piece on offer here. "I imagined the sound result of this page without rehearsals, without any written or recorded traces of what it would have been," writes Zurria (rather curious, that past conditional). The piece starts out with him zipping and unzipping something (his instrument cases, perhaps?) before gurgling, clicking, grunting and whistling enthusiastically into his assorted flutes. Jim Denley would be proud of him, and I imagine several large aquatic mammals would be irresistibly drawn to him too if he made these noises in their vicinity.
By way of scherzo, Zurria's reading of Stravinski Could-be calls for "suoni ambientali e iPhone" (that sounds better in Italian), the former being more field recordings from Hong Kong and Greece intercut with strange bleeps and squiggles and percussive flutters (presumably from the mobile – but did we need the brand name, I wonder?). And there's more childlike wonder in the closing title track (whose score – which is reproduced in the booklet – is merely a drawing containing the title of the piece), collaging "raving and hysterical piccolos" with a squeaky plastic mat and a halo of fourth grade students' voices, and, masterly closing touch, one of those cheap toys that moos at you like a cow if you turn it upside down.
One of La Monte Young's most celebrated pieces, (Composition 1960 #10 (to Bob Morris)) consisted of the text: "Draw a straight line and follow it." Admirable advice, but I have to say I prefer a wavy line myself. And Philip Corner's Piece for Malcolm Goldstein by Elizabeth Munro is precisely that, a looooooong swooping, squiggling line Corner and Munro drew on a roll of adding machine paper in 1962 and which violinist Goldstein played at New York's Experimental Intermedia in 1984. Nearly 21 minutes long, it's a truly awesome virtuoso performance (though as you know when it comes to Malcolm, I'm biased), and one wonders why it's taken so long to appear.
Talking of lines, every time I hear Goldstein I can't help thinking of Picasso's amazing sureness of touch, revealed magically in Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le Mystère Picasso (1956). Especially how, without a moment's hesitation, he draws right over existing lines and in the space of a few minutes totally changes the work. Goldstein does something similar here, superimposing three different readings of Gamelan Antipode/s (1983) and adding Piece for String Instrument #3 (1958) for good measure. It's another long haul, at 18 minutes, but it's one hell of a trip.
After this, Gamelan Maya (1980) comes as something of a relief, but I wouldn't call it light relief. I seem to recall it was Stravinsky (could be) who commented on the sheer incompatibility of piano and violin, with reference to his Duo Concertant (1932). He could just as well have been talking about Gamelan Maya, in which the contrast between Corner's gently pulsing piano – a single note widening over the course of the piece to a major ninth – and Goldstein's unstable, scratchy, dithering bowing (complemented by his shigin-like chanting / singing) couldn't be more extreme. "Very passionate!" indeed, as the composer notes.
The Gold Stone (1985), also from Corner's Gamelan series, was originally released on Goldstein's Sounding the New Violin back in 1991 (a reissue of this terrific set of pieces by John Cage, Ornette Coleman, Pauline Oliveros, James Tenney and Corner and Goldstein is long overdue). It's another 14-minute tour de force of violin playing, after which the Piece for String Instrument #5 (also 1958) forms a brief (three-minute) but equally stunning epilogue. And for those who claim this record is a tough listen, there's even a nice G major pizzicato chord a minute in.–DW
IN MEMORIAM 2010
"Perhaps the belief that consciousness permeates everything and transcends – by that I mean encompasses – the cyclic nature of living and dying, would allow us to accept the inevitable beginnings and endings of things as part of a meaningful continuity, not just a tragic aberration". These words by Harley Gaber, dated September 2010, resonate deeply following his recent suicide. Commissioned by the Dan J. Epstein Family Foundation, In Memoriam 2010 springs from the reworking of an earlier piece that "already had existed in two incarnations": Portrait And Dream, subsequently transformed into Portrait And Dream: In Memoriam Kenneth Gaburo. Gaburo, a former teacher and friend of Gaber, constitutes a fundamental presence – via processed snippets of his own recordings – in the 63-minute piece. He's in good company, for Gaber also uses fragments of Verdi, Beethoven, Feldman, Werner Durand, Paul Paccione, Philip Blackburn and himself to shape this arresting blend of morphing fluids and mind-bending frequencies. Ironically, the lone rhythmic device, a short hiccuping loop recurring in the composition's second half, derives from a vocal fragment of Rothko Chapel. So much for the association of Feldman with quasi-infinite duration and timelessness.
A striking similitude connects several facets of this set with some of Roland Kayn's excursions around the tortuous meanders of awareness, despite differing attitudes towards the creative process (Gaber meticulously specifying intentions and details as opposed to the German's relinquishment of the typical traits of a "composer"). In particular, "In-formation", the chapter that will leave drone-craving listeners with mouths agape, procures a nearly identical state of existential rewinding in rational oblivion. Sonic incidents keep occurring under the depths of these nebulous stratifications, the original concept being that of a devastating event for humanity – symbolized by the initial "Cataclysm And Threnody" – followed by a rebirth of life. Gaber, who was enduring a profound crisis and ended up blowing his savings on a second-hand car that exploded right after the purchase, had probably realized that when contingent events undermine one's commitment to earthly persistence, it's time to officially merge with the same vibrations that surround us all. The vital exhaustion he was tardily diagnosed with was nothing but the result of a scary quantity of data stored in a brain that generated amazing sounds, signified by a pair of penetrating eyes, part altruistic alien, part snooping toddler. "Perhaps there is no gap between what we perceive to be outside and apart from us: We are part of the entire equation".–MR
PERHAPS A FAVORABLE ORGANIC MOMENT
Copy For Your Records
The windows have been well and truly thrown open between the closed space of "music" and the world outside – maybe with time the misleading phrase "field recordings" will disappear along with other inanities like "drone" (who knows, perhaps one day the word "music" itself won't mean much any more, but I don't think we're quite there yet) – and this fine album by French horn player / sound artist Anne Guthrie enjoys the fresh air in style.
On the opening track she pointed a Sony PCM 50 out of her bedroom window and hit RECORD while she practised Wendell Hoss's transcription of the "Prelude" from J.S.Bach's second Suite for Unaccompanied Cello, complete with the gentle clicks from the valves of the horn itself and the sound of passing traffic. She then played the tape back on a "tiny Radio Shack speaker" placed in a large bell jar, and re-recorded the results Alvin Lucier style to create a rich cloud of subtly delayed sustained frequencies and glistening feedback, from which fragments of Bach (not to mention the odd car horn and various inscrutable jingling sounds) shoot out like shafts of sunlight from time to time.
The central track was recorded in the lobby of Renzo Piano's snazzy New York Times Center in Midtown Manhattan, in which sounds both recognisable – snatches of guitar, echoing footsteps and voices near and far – and mysterious (where do those lovely steely drones that close the track come from?) combine to form a beautifully complex sound environment. It should come as no surprise to learn that Guthrie is currently a doctoral student in Architectural Acoustics at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. On the strength of this track alone I'd give her the degree right away.
On track four Guthrie took her mics out to Fort Tilden Beach ("the city's best-kept secret", according to the New York Summer Guide) and recorded the sounds of a metal grid bridge, which she processed and combined with herself singing of "Annie Laurie" recorded "under a stone arch in Prospect Park." The unadorned rendition of an old Scottish folk song makes for a touching conclusion to an excellent album, one that's as intriguing and thought-provoking as it is fun to listen to.–DW
SONGS OF ASCENSION
ECM New Series
Inspired by the "Songs Of Ascents" which, according to Kyle Gann's liners, were "fifteen of the Psalms that are said to have been sung by people ascending during pilgrimages", Songs Of Ascension was conceived as a site-specific work after Meredith Monk was invited to perform in a tower created by visual artist Ann Hamilton in Sonoma County, California. The building is characterized by two staircases (which spiral upward in double helix fashion and come together at the top) and the music was devised exclusively for instruments that could be easily carried up them – no mallets, no keyboards. The performers – besides Monk's Vocal Ensemble – include Todd Reynolds and his (String) Quartet and two complementary choirs: M6 and the Montclair State University Singers conducted by Heather J. Buchanan.
The echo of Buddhism is an important presence in Monk's recent output. Like Eliane Radigue, Buddhist teachings have helped her – through work – to come to terms with a shattering personal loss (of her long-time partner, Dutch choreographer Mieke Van Hoek), the mixture of feelings following such an event informing a sound that combines the attempt to rationalize disappearance while vaguely contouring an inexplicable aim beyond materiality. In strictly stylistic terms, the influence of Steve Reich on some of the instrumental sections is not disguised ("Shift", "Summer Variation" and especially "Burn"), whereas the voiced constructions range from the reciprocal calls – with percussion – of "Mapping" to the imposing finale "Ascent", played on interlocking contrapuntal accumulations. Also impressive are the elusive choral shadows of "Clusters 2". The lone childish complaint from this admiring veteran: Monk's voice is more absent than usual, only rarely at the forefront. When that happens – "Fathom", or the truly extraordinary "Respite" – I'm brought back to the heartrending emotion of Do You Be or Mercy. The same spirit that animated those masterpieces is clearly at work in Songs Of Ascension.–MR
We owe many thanks to Manu Holterbach, self-nominated manager of the tape-to-digital transfer of Eliane Radigue’s archives. As he points out, only with the advent of the AVE (After Vinyl Era) have we been allowed to enjoy long-lasting works that had remained buried for over twenty years, Transamorem/Transmortem among them. Conceived on an ARP 2500 analogue synthesizer in 1973, the monophonic tape was meant to be reproduced via four speakers placed at the corners of an empty (carpeted) room in an installation comprising the projection of faint white lights. Premièred in 1974 at The Kitchen under the artistic direction of Rhys Chatham, this 67-minute cycle of unchanging frequencies – the lower ones revolve around a B, while others manifest themselves in the shape of hyper-acute pitches – is one of Radigue’s most "inert" compositions, its few slight variations probably not even noticed by anyone unfamiliar with her music. As in every respectable statement in the fine art of vibration, a sensitive adjustment to the frequency perception is what determines the movement within each listener; playing the piece at substantial volume is obviously recommended, in order to experience the pressure of rebounding waves and cancel any fortuitous temporal reference perturbing the mental vacuum. Her masterpiece Adnos was yet to come, but the lady – how wonderful she looks in those old shots – had already reached her destination.–MR
AΘ=Φ / UVIVI / 1:Θφ4 / ONTA
A South African of Hellenic descent, multi-talented Dimitri Voudouris creates stimulating computer music soundscapes, paying special attention to the dismemberment of the human voice within frameworks exploring "psycho-acoustic behavioral patterns" in constantly mutating environments. This follow-up to the outstanding NPFAI.1 / PALMOS / NPFAI.3 / PRAXIS on the same imprint pursues the same distinctive sonic research, which the composer promotes by recurring to incredibly complex formulas (partially "explicated" by equally intricate graphic scores and meticulous liners). It requires some application on the part of the listener, due to the lengthy duration of the disc at over 73 minutes, but the rewards are compelling. AΘ=Φ is an "attempt to attach language to emotions" through the construction of pre-linguistic expressions via TTS (Text To Speech Synthesis) and an ensemble of 24 speaker interactive robots, an erratic hotchpotch that connects with our perceptive system with a certain ease despite the profusion of phonemic snippets and bizarre mutations thereof. Uvivi (Zulu for "daybreak") is a piece for dance (!) based on a Helbing equation, a mathematical procedure which takes into account "the linearity and infinite memory in the kinetic flow of vehicular traffic". Who could imagine that cars stuck in traffic jams in Mozambique (where the main data for this study was gathered) could produce such evocative aural shades in terms of non-linear digital sonorities? While 1:Θφ4 is a gorgeous paradigm of unearthly synthetic singing derived by disassembling components from four different languages (Greek, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian), the 28-minute Onta (Greek for "beings") really tests the listener's persistence with its ceaseless contrasts, implosions and explosions symbolizing the energies animating life in a city or familiar environment. "Encounters, events, architecture, weather, gesture, (mis)behaviors – all become means of interaction". Voudouris is surely the first to realize that no words can explain the fractal involvedness of the ensuing concoction.–MR
THE KNOTTED CONSTELLATION
Subtitled, intriguingly, "fourteen rotted coordinates" ("each one a point on a decayed map of a dystopian soundscape"), this 32-minute piece is subdivided into discrete episodes collaging or simply juxtaposing Cascone's own elegant digital reworkings of sounds provided by guest musicians – including Spencer Yeh, though I haven't managed to locate him here yet – with diverse field recordings made in his home state of California, as well as Belgium, Canada, Germany, Spain, Lithuania, Turkey and France (the latter an SNCF platform announcement informing passengers of the imminent departure of a train for Bar-le-Duc, a place I have about as much affection for as Bill Murray does for Punxsutawney PA at the beginning of Groundhog Day – though to be fair, he and Andie MacDowell do eventually decide to settle there). There's also radio static sourced from a Wikileaks video on Collateral Murder, which adds a sprinkle of Pynchonesque paranoia to proceedings.
Nothing here is quite what it seems: the tolling church bells that open the piece soon collapse into reversed soundfiles, and what sounds like laughter ten minutes in is in fact a pitch-shifted recording of frogs (thanks to Massimo Ricci for teasing that info out of the composer). Quite how the dots connect is for the listener to figure out, but connect they presumably must, as Cascone hasn't provided his rotted coordinates with individual index numbers on the CD (which would have tempted me to play the disc in shuffle mode). Dedicating the disc to the memory of Pete "Sleazy" Christopherson might be a clue, but the Nurse-like "surrealism" also connects to the latest fad for throwing sounds from all over the place into the pot and leaving the listeners to cook them up themselves. As such it has more in common with recent outings on Kye and Erstwhile than with Coil. Which means, dear readers, you'll probably love it.–DW
Don't let that title put you off – there've been plenty of nearly nothings in musique concrète over the years and they've all been really something. This sequel to his Without Shade, adapted from a piece Guillet presented at the PRESENCES électronique fest back in 2008, is an impressive collection of eight dense and carefully worked pieces. Guillet, working quietly and patiently away just up the road from here, combines the intricacy and subtlety of classic GRM concrète with the gristle of Xenakis and a Noisy fondness for rough static and raw hiss. But whether it's sourced from analogue or digital sound (both, I suspect), it's the composer that wins out: there's some serious ProTooling (or Sound Forging) going on here, with every sound precisely placed spatially and temporally to assure maximum effect. Fine, uncompromising work – check it out.–DW
Illusion of Safety
FIN DE SIECLE
After Perdition Plastic's reissue of Probe last year, here's another reminder of how far ahead of the game Dan Burke and Kurt Griesch (his then playing partner in Illusion of Safety) were back in 1995. These days drones and birdsong are all over the place (if I gathered together all the CDs I've received this year which feature tweets and twitters I could make a cute nesting box for the local pigeons), but 16 years ago this limited edition LP, sourced from material the pair selected for use in a tour of the Southwestern USA, must have sounded pretty strange, with its gloomy Dafeldecker bass and distant wails.
For this CD reissue the two original tracks ("Part One" and "Part Three", ha) have been bookended by a prologue and epilogue composed last year, presumably by both Burke and Griesch, though it's the latter who pens the liner notes. The prologue is a slight affair, a claustrophobic Tsunoda-like tunnel of sound out of which the click and flutter of empty vinyl emerges, but the epilogue is a beautifully paced 22-minute span of shifting drones (I can almost hear our man Ricci whooping and hollering for joy). It's restful and meditative stuff, unlike what precedes it, the impressively, almost menacingly, building "Part One" and "Part Three"'s opening five-minute meander through a desolate urban soundscape, but just lacks that back-of-the-mind unsettling quality that's the hallmark of IOS. Still, who's complaining?–DW
WATER BEETLES OF POLLARDSTOWN FEN
To quote acoustic ecologist David Dunn (who certainly knows what he's talking about): "All of the sound we hear is only a fraction of all the vibrating going on in our universe." Well, there's certainly a hell of a lot of vibrating going on in these ten tracks, and it started thousands of years before Tom Lawrence took his hydrophones into Pollardstown Fen, a 550-acre alkaline post-glacial fen in County Kildare, Ireland. As the album title makes clear, most of these amazing sounds are produced by insects rubbing bits of their bodies together – "stridulation" sounds better – and Lawrence had to sit heroically through hours of thunderstorms to record it ("this song was actually recorded at the end of an eight-hour stridulation"). As you might expect, the eight-page booklet provides not only precise details regarding the recordings, but also background historical information and long lists of local fauna, though you don't have to know that the area is home to Pugsley's Marsh Orchid to appreciate the music. I'll stick with the word "music" too, if you don't mind – if you'd played me parts of this (the end of track three, for example) and told me in advance that it was a live electronic sound sculpture by David Tudor, I wouldn't have been at all surprised. In fact, I'm in two minds about the excessive documentation that seems to be a prerequisite of field recordings (and a Gruenrekorder speciality): sure, it's fascinating to learn that these extraordinarily weird gurgles, buzzes and bleeps are produced by those little beasties I used to fish out of the Rochdale Canal as a kid (I fished out plenty of old shoes, rusting bicycle parts and used condoms too), but being able to visualise the little critter somehow detracts from the magic of the sounds it makes. Here's hoping you managed to listen to this before reading the notes accompanying it. And this review.–DW
Francisco Meirino / Jason Kahn
MUSIC FOR AN EMPTY CINEMA
Recorded at Lausanne's Cinema Oblò in 2009 (presumably not in front of an invited audience), this single 38-minute track features local resident Francisco "Phroq" Meirino on computer and magnetic field detectors and, visiting from the other side of the rösti gap, analogue synth whiz and shortwave radio twiddler Jason Kahn. Anyone familiar with either man's previous work will know what to expect: ever so slowly shifting layers of low hum and sizzling drone, lightly peppered with the kind of whirrs and clicks that had me reaching for the mp3 player and wondering if I had the headphones plugged into it correctly. Dumb idea in any case, listening to this kind of stuff on the road through a set of cans – like any good Kahn album it deserves and rewards listening to at considerable volume on a decent sound system. Not sure whether it adds anything new to the story, but that hardly matters when the quality level is as high as it is here.–DW
A somewhat "Basinski-in-flip-flops" foreword, "Air Resistance", launches this 36-minute CD by Nicola Ratti, in which analogue synthetizers [sic], strings and organs make their way meekly among skipping LPs, low-budget electronic minimalism and vaguely in-sync Muslimgauze-ish pulses ("Untitled #2" is pretty scandalous in that respect). Everything is genially evanescent and woefully lacking in artistic depth. The Italians seem to have found a goldmine of sickening benevolence for this sort of parent-approved experimentalism populated by well-connected dabblers and incompetent cosmic howlers. It's a typical Die Schachtel problem, this continuous swinging of the pendulum from meaningful projects (the Gruppo box set, the recent Corner / Zurria, masterpieces by 7k Oaks and Stephan Mathieu) to the hyping of second division stuff, including manufactured cult figures (Luciano Cilio, Teresa Rampazzi..) and outright hoaxes such as Catherine Christer Hennix's The Electric Harpsichord. Ratti's work is clearly the fruit of hours of studio toil and no problem at all to listen to, but the world is already inundated by substandard music and things like 220 Tones should stay put on the hard disk.–MR
By far the best release among a handful that arrived here recently on Sascha Stadlmeier's Attenuation Circuit label, Sustained Development brings together five pieces documenting the work of Augsburg-based Gerald Fiebig over the past four years. "6'39'' über Halberstadt" collages street sounds and the bells of St. Buchard's Church in Halberstadt with sustained organ tones from within the building, where "the longest-running and slowest piece of music ever composed", Cage's Organ2/ASLSP, has reached its third note in a "performance" scheduled to last 639 years (!). "Kammerflimmern", which the composer helpfully informs us means "ventricular fibrillation, a potentially lethal cardiac dysfunction in which the heart twitches very rapidly without being able to pump properly", is a dark, dirty drone sourced in the sounds of a "dysfunctional" harmonium, which "could be described, paradoxically, as rapid movement in complete stasis towards a catastrophic climax." Yikes.. but if that sounds scary, wait till you hear "Melting into Air". Again (lazy swine that I am) I can do no better than cite Fiebig's accompanying notes: "This is a piece of programme music about today’s global markets and their acceleration towards chaos. The piece is based on two sounds: that of an organ, representing tradition and stability, and that of a 'no-input' feedback device, representing the volatile and highly virtual character of today’s financial markets. Both sounds were digitally processed. The numeric parameters used in processing mirror the development of two important stock market indices (DAX and DJ Euro Stoxx 50) between 15 September 2008 (crash of Lehman Brothers) and 21st February 2009." Fine, but that does little to convey the mounting unease of the continually rising bass over which nasty high register clusters swoop like eagles. This must have been what life sounded like to Prometheus as that bird ate his liver out day after day. After this, the intimate vowels of "Remembrance", based on varying articulations of the letters M, A and O (another homage to Cage) come as (sort of) light relief before the closing "A Scanner Darkly", title culled from Philip K. Dick, sounds culled from weight machines in a gym, various household appliances and, towards the end, an MRI scanner. And you'll probably feel like getting an MRI scan yourself after this splendidly disturbing album.–DW
Though this release, like the Tom Lawrence disc mentioned above, is part of Gruenrekorder's Field Recording series, there's no way you could actually ever hear the sounds it contains in a field, or anywhere else for that matter, since, as the title makes clear, they lie outside the range of human hearing. "All ultrasonic sounds were captured and real time converted by a bat detector," writes Yanagisawa, so it's not surprising the disc kicks off with four and a half minutes of.. bats, which, when "converted" (transposed down, is that?) produce a strange and rather attractive fluttery clicking. Of course, you'd never know you were listening to bats if the record liners didn't tell you, but you might just be able to guess that the second track is a "Cicada Chorus". It's certainly more fun to listen to than the dull clicking of "Automatic Gate" and the monotonous buzzes of Yanagisawa's Dell computer. Marginally more interesting are the ultrasonic bits and pieces the detector manages to pick up from more "normal" (audible) sound environments: a television, a set of wind chimes, and a busy street in Dogenzaka, where all the machine seems to capture is the muffled jangle of keys in pockets along with some odd shuffling sounds I assume to be Yanagisawa's footsteps. Not that I really care that much. Unlike the Lawrence disc, which I've returned to several times because I think it just sounds great, this stuff tries the patience after a while. Once the initial novelty has worn off, there's little to hold the attention in the way of music. Again, forgive me for using the M-word here (maybe someone would like to explain coherently once and for all what the difference is between "music" and "sound art"), but this is a CD on a record label and has, presumably, been released in order to provide some sort of listening pleasure, or edification, to those who purchase it (and maybe a modest sum to its "creator"). The omnipresent grainy buzz – presumably that's the bat detector – irritates, and there's little behind it I want to listen to it again.–DW
Copyright 2004 by Paris Transatlantic