by Clifford Allen, Jason Bivins, Nate Dorward, John Eyles, John Gill, Marc Medwin, Massimo Ricci, Michael Rosenstein, Dan Warburton, Matt Wuethrich:|
In Print: The BSC
On Another Timbre: Skogen / Taus / Osvaldo Coluccino / Caddy; Krebs & Mayas
Reissued: Steve Lacy
On No Business: Lazro, Pauvros & Turner / Ran Blake & David Fabris / Nobuyasu Furuya
VINYL SOLUTION: Sean Baxter / Brand / Brötzmann, Edwards & Noble / Moore, Montera & Ranaldo / Mike Shiflet / Tetras / Asmus Tietchens & Kouhei Matsunaga
JAZZ & IMPROV: The Ames Room / Baker, Bruckmann & Zerang / Bonnie Barnett / BassX3 / Peter Brötzmann & Jörg Fischer / Dixie's Death Pool / Dominique Eade & Ran Blake / Marty Ehrlich
Jason Kao Hwang / Kidd Jordan / Noah Kaplan / Paul Kikuchi / Daunik Lazro / Nils Petter Molvaer / Keith Rowe & John Tilbury / Heikki Sarmanto / Wadada Leo Smith / Irène Schweizer / Testoni, Alesini & Di Loreto / Dick Wood
CONTEMPORARY: Antoine Beuger / David Buddin / John Cage / Eleanor Hovda / Lucia Mense / Alex Mincek / Ensemble Pamplemousse / Michael Pisaro / Thomas Tilly & Jean-Luc Guionnet
ELECTRONICA: Keroaän / Wade Matthews & Alfredo Costa Monteiro / Merzouga / Lasse-Marc Riek / Marées de Hauteurs Diverses
For a group that hardly toured and released only one recording which is currently out of print, the BSC has made a significant mark in the global discourse on improvisation over the last decade. At the time they formed, in 2000, groups of musicians centered in cities like Berlin, London, and Tokyo were challenging the way that listeners and practitioners were thinking about improvisation. And the Boston posse that came together under the leadership of Bhob Rainey were active participants, carving out processes and practices for large group improvisation while pushing sonic explorations through a myriad of projects and ad hoc collaborations. For those with even a passing interest in the workings of this group of musicians including Rainey, Greg Kelley, Mike Bullock, Vic Rawlings, James Coleman, Chris Cooper, Liz Tonne, and Howard Stelzer, the recently published book Manual along with the three accompanying recordings is an indispensable document.
I'm not even close to being objective in this area, I should say up front. I've been living in Boston since the early 80s and experienced the development of this music first-hand. I've developed friendships with the musicians over the ensuing years, having spent countless hours with most of them listening, talking, and drinking. And I began studying improvisation and electronic instrument construction with Vic Rawlings a few years ago and have since had the pleasure of playing with Vic, Mike Bullock, and James Coleman, experiencing their insight and support in new ways. That said, all of this gives me a uniquely intimate perspective on Manual and its associated recordings.
The book provides a unique view of a working ensemble of improvisers. Where books like Derek Bailey's Improvisation and Eddie Prévost's various publications provide distinctive personal viewpoints about improvisation, Manual strives to capture a collective view. Rainey's introduction frames the book and Damon Krukowski's prose poems offer an oblique view of the effect that the BSC has had on him. These set the stage for Aaron P. Tate's central essay, which uses extensive interviews to delve into the history of the group, capturing the evolving viewpoints of Rainey and the members of the ensemble. But his own take on the formal analysis of the music of the BSC, and electroacoustic improvisation in general, is just as key here. The dialogue between extended quotes from conversations with the members and his own exegesis of the materials makes for an absorbing read.
While Tate states that he is not attempting to provide a detailed history of the Boston music scene, his reliance on interviews with BSC members misses some of the musical context that the group arose from. One thing that has always struck me about the Boston scene is its long history of players with a commitment to exploring processes outside of canonical jazz-based playing. My first experiences were in the 80s, when I heard musicians like Joe Morris, John Voigt, and Tom Plsek working with Lowell Davidson (whose work is sadly undocumented). Equally important (and still going strong) was the artists' collective Mobius, where Plsek and other musicians gave performances in which improvisation was presented side-by-side with works by composers like John Cage as well as sound installations.
In the 90s, there were regular meetings of a group of improvisers under the leadership of Matt Samolis with backgrounds ranging from conservatory training, to jazz, to folk music, who met with regularity to work out collective approaches to playing. There were also musicians like Laurence Cook, Eric Zinman, Glynis Lomon, and Syd Smart who had studied or worked with Bill Dixon and who were working to foster an active scene. And of course there were Joe Maneri and Masashi Harada at The New England Conservatory of Music, who became magnets for those interested in stretching the way they thought about improvisation. The ongoing efforts of people like David Gross and Angela Sawyer as presenters, organizers, and musicians should also not go unmentioned.
Tate picks up the story in the late 90s when a new group of musicians converged in Boston, but anyone with a passing interest in what was going on at the time should take a look at the lineup for the Autumn Uprising festival started by Gross and James Coleman in 1997 (http://tautology.rednotebook.org/AUhome.html). While the first edition of the festival was predominated by a free jazz aesthetic, the members of the BSC were starting to make their mark. By the 2000 edition, which featured guests AMM, and performances by undr quartet, a trio of Ron Lessard, Jason Lescalleet, and Howard Stelzer, a Rainey / Bullock / Tucker Dulin trio, and Eddie Prévost's Boston Procession (essentially BSC, Prévost, and a few guests), a new aesthetic had been firmly established, though not without some upheavals and heated public debates. The evolution of the festival closely mirrors the evolution of the scene with regular gigs at venues like the Playground series, in-store shows at Twisted Village (a local record store that served as a central meeting place), local churches, and other ad hoc settings. I bring this up because it is critical to note that BSC was coming together in an environment where noise, improv, and performances of pieces by Cage, Cardew, and Wolff were feeding off each other, building a strong, supportive community of musicians. Ben Hall's essay edges out Tate's in this area, compactly nailing the zeitgeist of the community.
Where Tate hits it, though, is in his ability to elicit from Rainey and crew articulations of the group's working methods from early rehearsals through to performance. Spend any time talking to members of the group, and the hours they've spent together, playing, discussing, and working through collective strategies comes through. It's all about clarity of vision: the ability to consciously shape the direction and definition of a piece; to balance playing and listening; to manage momentum without falling back on habits and patterns; to develop a clear notion of a group sound while keeping things open for invention. Read any of the interviews on Paris Transatlantic and you will get plenty of great thoughts from individuals on how they think about these sorts of things. What sets Tate's piece apart is how he manages to weave together multiple views of playing into a cohesive and thoughtful whole. And that gets right to the heart of what has made BSC such a unique endeavor. From early on, Rainey and crew committed themselves to honing in on a very specific musical language.
Tate describes it effectively here, summarizing two points that came up during his conversations. "(1) the realization that in order to move forward there was much to be rejected, reworked, or rethought, in in the name of improving the group's flexibility and attentiveness to musical shape, structure, and form, and (2) the express desire to cultivate an attention to form so acute that it would allow each player to think and talk in significant detail about the effects of any sound, change, entrance, exit, or other sonic intervention, at any moment, on the shape of the evolving piece as a whole." The fact that the group was able to rehearse with relative frequency and perform (mostly around New England) with regularity over a number of years enabled them to develop a shared dialectic which is central to their playing as an ensemble and in their projects outside of BSC.
The final section of Manual is also an essential read. Here, Mike Bullock dives in to a detailed formal deconstruction of a performance with Pauline Oliveros accompanying the book. He analyzes the piece, providing a focus on the transformational events which serve as the core kernels the ensemble uses in constructing the dynamically evolving form. His exploration provides a lucid approach to musicological evaluation which so often eludes this type of music. For another take on this, it is well worth searching out Lou Bunk's assessment of the BSC along with a detailed transcription of a recording from their performance at the Philadelphia Phoneme festival as part of the book Analytical and Cross-Cultural Studies in World Music (Oxford University Press).
The book is accompanied by three recordings, one from Hampshire College in 2003 at the tail end of their only major tour, one recorded in 2007 after the three-night Phoneme Festival in Philadelphia (previously released on its own and reviewed here in July 2010), and a concert from 2009 with guest Pauline Oliveros which was part of Bullock's doctoral studies at Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute. "Hampshire 2003" charges out with an energy and intensity many wouldn't associate with this group (though it is a strategy that they've often drawn on). The striations of sound are there right from the start with groans, metallic squiggles, abraded electronics, and Tonne's quavering vocal overtones buffeting against each other, dropping down to near silence a quarter way through, and then launching off from there with long tones, needles of feedback, warped and chopped tape fragments, and visceral scratches, scrapes, and cracked electronics. What comes through is a sense of collective placement of sounds within an engulfing whole, avoiding obvious peaks and valleys and instead mining timbral pedal points, duration of tone and texture, and the shifting interplay of the various voices. Though there are seven musicians (James Coleman was unable to make the tour), four of whom are amplified, the sound never becomes over-saturated, as each member actively balances transitions of sound and silence, allowing for a constant shift of field and ground as various intersections rise into focus and then dynamically morph.
The piece with Oliveros provides a different though complementary view of the ensemble. Her reedy accordion brings a new sound to the mix, providing a harmonic field to the group. The ensemble responds by opening up while taking a more active approach. Sketched lines, daubs of scrabbling textures, and resonant tones hang against a spare collective ground. Bullock's arco and Rainey's split-toned soprano play off the accordion as the improvisation gathers force about halfway through, driven by Cooper's stuttering electronics and Tonne's spattered vocals. But rather than crescendo and then jump to release, tension is developed by dropping dynamics and drawing out the duration of notes, providing a sort of reverse focus to the improvisation. From there, tension is maintained through understated, scrubbed electronics and clipped arcs of activity as various members drop in and out of the mix. Confounding expectations, though, the piece finishes with gathering intensity, ending with a swirl of long tones which drop out in the final minute, letting individual sounds hang with weighty presence.
It's been over a decade since the formation of the BSC, and the logistics of getting the group together have become far more complex particularly since Rainey relocated to New Orleans (though word is out that he's heading to Philadelphia which at least puts him in the North East). But while the community they were part of has had some significant changes, it is no less vital. Bullock, Rawlings, Kelley, and Coleman can still be heard in a variety of contexts. Stalwarts like Gross, Sawyer, Steve Norton, Lou Cohen, and Jed Speare are constantly pushing things, and there are musicians like Morgan Evans-Weiler, Forbes Graham, and Ernst Karel who are injecting new energy. On any given week, between the weekly intimate shows at Sawyer's Weirdo Records, Studio Soto, Mobius, and organizers like Open Sound and Non-Event, there are a plethora of choices. The dedicated focus of the BSC is missed, but the impetus behind their development is still there.–MRo
IST GEFALLEN IN DEN SCHNEE
Anthea Caddy / Annette Krebs / Magda Mayas
Antoine Beuger recently lamented the fact that so many interpretations of John Cage's music lack a basic sense of beauty and phrasing, an observation that came to mind as I listened to these four new releases from Another Timbre. Whether for large ensemble, trio, duo or solo player, and whatever the syntax employed in the music's construction, each is imbued with a sense of beauty that is often overwhelming. Sometimes raw, often sparse and occasionally embracing something akin to silence, these are some of the strongest offerings in the fairly young label's catalogue. Skogen's Ist Gefallen in den Schnee and Taus's Pinna share a fairly strict focus in terms of pitch content, while Thread (Annette Krebs, Magda Mayas and Anthea Caddy) and Atto (Osvaldo Coluccino) tend toward a more disjointed aesthetic, yet all derive, at least in part, from the music Cage left, whether from the wild pointillism of his 1970s etudes, the never-silence of 4:33 or the majestic long-toned grandeur of late orchestral works such as 103.
This is not to say that Cage is the sole point of reference: certainly these musicians are well versed in other grammars. I remember hearing Luciano Berio's completion of Schubert's 10th symphony and being struck by the "dream" music that connects the fragments of Schubert's unfinished manuscript. It isn't just that pianist and composer Magnus Granberg's vision takes its title from a Schubert song: the more time I spend with it, the more I hear the music on Skogen's new disc to be a natural follow-up to Berio, taking his ideas to the next level. In an interview with Granberg on the AT site, Simon Reynell likens the music to Feldman, but I also hear some of Berio's busyness and layering in the ever-evolving textures (the Stockholm-based ensemble has been expanded from five to nine players, including Toshimaru Nakamura and Angharad Davies). While a slow and somewhat clichéd movement from sparse to full textures pervades the disc, the way in which the space is filled is anything but expected. In the single movement, the ensemble glides through a series of pitch areas, some intervallic, others not, but each leading naturally to the next. Though the dynamic level is in constant flux, there's a sense of unity as each sound takes its place, as if fitting into a puzzle. But just when the formula seems clear, there's a stunning moment of near silence and vast space, punctuated only by Nakamura's electronics, before the activity begins again and several unexpectedly louder sounds infiltrate the space. This flouting of (what has become) established form is one of the ingredients that makes the disc so successful: this music, whose wide dynamic range and brief glimpses of tonality within a rigid formality, is refreshingly beyond simple categorization, though a tonal palette similar to Cage's prepared piano music of the late 1930s and 1940s provides an easy point of reference.
Pinna also runs the gamut, from near silence to staggering volume, although its soundworld is quite different. This is a live recording of a concert given at a church in Vienna, and, unlike The Organ of Corti, Tim Blechmann and Klaus Filip's 2007 disc on L'innomable, the space is integral to the duo's sound, and the first-rate recording ensures we're immersed in it. Blechmann and Filip's fairly limited sound palettes combine astonishingly well, as single sounds coalesce and arch to a dull roar, all sense of environment subsumed in an a powerful, almost glacial wave. All areas of the pitch spectrum are explored, and good loudspeakers (or decent headphones) are especially important to appreciate fully this beautiful and powerful music. In its rawness at climactic moments, Pinna is different from anything either has done before. Don't expect, for example, the sparser textures and subdued shifting plains of Filip's imaoto with Radu Malfatti from two years ago. Nor does it rival his noisier excursions with Manuel Knapp, but fills the soundstage in the same way, punctuated by soft but sinewy tone clusters reminiscent of Cage's number pieces.
Thread and Atto inhabit a world where form is not so easily categorized. Of Atto, Osvaldo Coluccino states, in an interview on Another Timbre’s site: "The acoustic sounds that occur are neither the result of musical instruments, nor recognisable sounds that can be associated with a particular object (as happens in musique concrète and with field recordings). I wanted to escape completely from the limitations imposed by the cages of our cultural habits, and to look for independence from existing methods. For me the situation is, both as a composer and a listener, a vivid, natural and necessary situation; it is the bread of our time and yet classical at the same time, not just a provocative gimmick to attract attention."
The composer speaks, in the same interview, of wishing to tap into deep emotion, with every sound "suggesting the structure of a space", but the deep natural reverberation in which everything is bathed seems to cloud the issue, rendering both space and emotion more obscure. This is some of the most elusive and enigmatic music I’ve heard in some time – early AMM is certainly a predecessor, but I'm reminded, at certain moments, of Roland Kayn's electronic symphonies as pitches appear and recede just as quickly, only to be replaced by seemingly unconnected sonic events – but its composer's ear for subtlety, ensures a timbrally pleasing and structurally diverse listening experience.
Thread shares Atto's similarly rapid sense of movement, and is also a multi-movement piece ("Sand" acting as a prelude to the much longer "Shore"), conjuring now-lost worlds of musique concrète, an allusion further fostered by frequent insertions of recorded speech fragments. Further comparisons could be drawn to Cage's Imaginary Landscape series, where pointillistic radio transmissions were also a key element. Dynamic range is a crucial element here – an ensemble swell can give way, dizzyingly and without notice, to near silence – and the trio often sounds larger than it is, given the extraordinary array of timbres at each player's fingertips. Caddy's cello and Krebs' electronics form a particularly felicitous unity, one often picking up a phrase the other began, all against the seemingly limitless sounds emanating from Mayas' piano.
Following on from Simon Allen, Chris Burn, Lee Patterson and Mark Wastell's reading of Cage's Four4 in 2010, it would be wonderful if Another Timbre could release some further works by the composer in this, his centennial year. But even if that doesn't happen, these four fine discs are proof that Cage's legacy is now being explored, in the improvised music world, with the conviction and insight I wish more traditional "classical music" performers would employ.–MM
AVIGNON AND AFTER, VOLUME 1
This pair of discs reorganizes and expands on material previously available on the CD Weal & Woe, and, as usual with Emanem, the bonus music is a thoughtful addition rather than an arbitrary stocking-stuffer. The 1972 Avignon recordings were Lacy's very first solo recitals, at a time when Braxton's For Alto had just set the jazz world aback. (Incidentally, we have this music to thank for Martin Davidson's creation of the Emanem label in order to release it, after Lacy had fruitlessly tried to interest record producers in the tapes.) Each piece is – like an origami model – clean, geometric, and wittily evocative of the animal world: ducks and owls and mice all make a showing, not to mention a fuzzy radio station playing Brahms. It's stunning music, expanded with four further tracks just as good as the original album. The killer here, though, is a previously unheard 1974 solo reading of the "Clangs" suite, which has some breathtaking moments of lemonsqueezing extremism, as Lacy narrows in on a pealing whistle or split tone. There's little point in expending too many words on music that seems itself to work with a larger vocabulary than any spoken language: if you're a Lacy fan, this is an essential acquisition.
As is The Sun, which contains material from 1967-1974 that shows Lacy experimenting on a variety of fronts, in the process of moving from a period of absorption in free playing to the later concentration on suites and poetry settings. In part it's the story of new collaborators: Irene Aebi and Richard Teitelbaum. On the sardonic 1967 track "Chinese Food" Aebi's reading of Lao Tzu's texts (about the foolishness of dictators and the long suffering of the people) is almost indecipherable, a wildly sped-up/slowed-down speech-song; Lacy and Teitelbaum's harsh, episodic improvised commentary is the musical equivalent of political graffiti.
"The Sun", from an unissued 1968 session in Hamburg, turns a dense Buckminster Fuller text into a throbbing psalm whose abstract multisyllabic glaze generates its own quieter ironies concerning the persistent gap between humanity's "objective evolution" and "the residual facts of disillusioned experience". Four tracks from Rome, 1968, were originally issued as side A of the Sideways LP (Roaratorio, 2000). There are two takes of "The Way", Lacy's first song composed for Aebi, and on both of them, singing a cappella, she handles the challenging melody superbly. There are also two fine Lacy/Teitelbaum improvisations: I especially love Lacy's obstinate, I'm-not-going-anywhere growling throughout the warbly synth hailstorms of "Numero Due".
If "Chinese Food" approaches the Vietnam War through satire, the 1973 suite "The Woe" is by contrast almost unbearably angry and direct, its 17-minute centrepiece "The Wage" collaging tapes of battlefield noise with a churning onslaught by Lacy's group of the period – Aebi, Steve Potts, Kent Carter and Oliver Johnson – before the baleful but more distanced and formal elegy of "The Wane" ("a sort of beguine", Lacy remarks, featuring a fine early extended solo by Steve Potts). Like a funeral, the suite ends with "The Wake", a setting of Guillevic's "Massacres".
Together these CDs make for an extraordinary confluence of Zen philosophizing and despairing agitprop. (The disparate occasions of recording are telling: a beautifully resonant church in Avignon for the solo session, versus a Zürich radio studio the day before the Paris Accords were signed for the quintet.) Every track on these two albums seems to ask fundamental questions: how to improvise, why improvise, with what materials? how do you get from here to there? What relation does tone have to melody, noise to song, text to context, chance collision to careful juxtaposition? (On the solo pieces, it's noticeable how Lacy builds shifts in tone and timbre right into the tunes, rather than their being added "expressive" features.) Steve Lacy was among the most self-critical and self-aware of improvisers throughout his entire career, but such questions seem especially to the fore in the recordings contained on these two CDs, and even 40-odd years later the results are startling and provocative.–ND
Daunik Lazro / Jean-Francois Pauvros / Roger Turner
Ran Blake / David Fabris
Nobuyasu Furuya Quintet
After just four years of activity, Lithuania's No Business Records already boasts a catalogue of nearly 50 releases, ranging from the impressive to the essential, and this latest batch of No Business LPs continues the label's practice of releasing the work of major players alongside less well-known improvisers. French alto and baritone saxophonist Daunik Lazro has performed and recorded frequently with multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee, and it's no wonder that the two players have such an affinity for one another. Like McPhee, Lazro's solo music is bred from wayfaring solitude (as the recent Ayler solo baritone CD Some other Zongs – see review below – attests), and it can bleed into his group work as well. Curare is a slightly different beast, presenting Lazro in a trio with Parisian guitarist Jean-François Pauvros and English percussionist Roger Turner on four collective improvisations. The opening "Morsure" builds from low, breathy pops and nattering cymbal work to bulldozing gestural swoops, Pauvros' curling strums and charged obsessiveness stoking the fires in his mates' lungs and forearms. "White Dirt" finds the guitarist coaxing queasy vocal wails by bowing the head and neck of his instrument, with baritone and feedback droning underneath while Turner builds pattering waves into localized explosions. Lazro seems to favour drummers (or, rather, musicians) who use a stripped-down approach to create monolithic tension – Turner's seismic displacement is an extension of Sunny Murray and John Stevens, and Pauvros also directs simple actions into voluminous, garish areas. Switching to alto for the final piece, "The Eye", Lazro emits high-pitched squeaks and crumpled calls over a latticework of shimmering electricity and delicate concentration, as warped glissandi and percussive churn build to an intense driving hum.
Vilnius Noir presents solos and duos from veteran pianist and iconoclastic interpreter Ran Blake, joined here by guitarist David Fabris. Fabris has appeared on three of Blake's prior recordings (one on Soul Note and two on Hat Hut, including the excellent Something to Live For), and has consistently provided an exciting foil for the pianist. Where Blake is stark, reticent and ambiguous, Fabris is bright and wryly surefooted; when the pianist is full and pushy, the guitarist is spiky and delicate. They're a cantankerous, moody pair but it's obvious that they're having a grand time pushing one another about. The pianist's composition "Cry Wolf" is a case in point, where Fabris inserts barroom blues-rock phrasing alongside Blake's silvery, ringing distance. Their pairing on George Russell's "Stratusphunk" is jovial and funky, though Blake's strange microcosmic boogie-woogie remains untouched. Unaccompanied, Blake is enigmatic as always, moving from boisterous atonality to coy romanticism in a few notes. He's a pretty strong foil for himself, which is what has always made his solo work intriguing, but he can also present absolute, rarefied beauty, as he does in a few simple and bright phrases on the traditional Jewish folk song "Shlof Mayn Kind", or Michel Legrand's haunting classic "Watch What Happens". If you like your Third Stream peppered with a little folk-blues eclecticism, look no further than Vilnius Noir.
Nobuyasu Furuya is a relatively little-known Japanese reedman who lives in Lisbon, where he's been making associations with some of the city's finest improvisers. Following his 2009 debut on Clean Feed (Bendowa, with bassist Hernâni Faustino and drummer Gabriel Ferrandini) he's back with The Major, joined by the RED Trio (Faustino, Ferrandini and pianist Rodrigo Pinheiro) and trombonist Eduardo Lála in six original compositions ranging from pulpit-pounding to cagy sonic exploration. On tenor, Furuya's playing is reminiscent of Peter Brötzmann and Mototeru Takagi, and the RED Trio is akin to a contemporary version of ARC or a free-improv version of the Garland / Chambers / Taylor rhythm section. They're surely one of the most cohesive improvising trios in modern music, and collaborations with figures like John Butcher, Nate Wooley and now Furuya are extra icing on the cake. The three build up a detailed storm behind his gruff, burnished shouts and Lála's tailgate on "Jap Agitator Caught Again", bashing and whacking brush alongside the leader's manic sear. Opening the flip side, "Where Are the Brothers and Sisters?" has a chunky ragtime to no-time rhythmic bash, with Lála's Rudd-like slushy chortle sailing on the pianist's eddies. The trombonist is an impressive member of the front line, belting out jovial and brusque commentary. The Major is an enjoyable and frequently compelling session with strong, engaging interplay and flashes of studied seamlessness. What more could one ask for from a second date?–CA
Paul Schütze / Simon Hopkins
EUROPE: CONCERTS 1998 – 2001
FILLE EN AIGUILLES
THE VOID YUKIO
For someone who renounced music for photography and other media only a few years ago, Paul Schütze has been very busy over the past two, continuing his series of collaborations with guitarist Hopkins, but also hatching what some might regard as a suicidal assault on his own reputation as the brainiest brainiac in the "ambient" field with his new art-death-metal project NAPE. The Twilight Science label (and website) is a new project Schütze has launched to release uncompressed hi resolution audio versions of his work, untouched by the garbage-compactor effect of the MPEG download.
Europe: Concerts 1998-2001 is the most recognizable Schütze / Hopkins work of the three (Hopkins is also incriminated in NAPE, along with cohorts Kevin Pollard on bass, Nick Haverson on drums and Francois Tetaz, mixing and mastering the results). This is a "composite" of live recordings made in Brussels, Nantes, Bologna, Torino and London, with occasional assistance from guitarist Raul Björkenheim, percussionist Dirk Wachtelaer and the woodwind exotica of Clive Bell. Björkenheim and Wachtelaer are stalwarts of Schütze's take-no-prisoners post-jazz-rock guerrilla squad Phantom City; Bell was heard on Schütze's earlier Third Site and Partial Site projects. Whether set against seductive rhythm tracks or floating free in his signature rich washes of sound, this again proves Schütze's genius as a painter of noise. If you could download a Barnett Newman colour field on to your iTunes (uncompressed, that is), it might sound something like this.
Conversely, Fille en Aiguilles is a collection of new Schütze and Hopkins compositions. The opening "A Further Thirsting Eye", with its sultry insect funk rhythm and splintered guitar and keyboards, is superior to anything on either Remain in Light or My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and because Schütze doesn't approve I'm resisting any disparaging comparisons with Eno's recent, inferior, Small Craft on a Milk Sea or Drums Between the Bells. But that should triangulate this recording for the uninitiated.
Fair warning of what is massing on the horizon appears with the 10-minute sonic trailer for the next release here, "The Birth of NAPE", explained below. This lean, muscular and faintly menacing rhythm workout, set against Schütze's typically vast skies and strange weather, slowly coils its grip around the head like an impending migraine.
From a glimpse of an as-yet unpublished Schütze text, NAPE would appear to be a metaliterary entity, a nemesis like Genet's Querelle or Burroughs's several fictional alter-egos. This seems to connect the title with the cover image, which I take to be a detourned still from Yukio Mishima's film, Yukoku, of an actor playing a Japanese military officer committing seppuku. Schütze has spoken of his disenchantment with 99 per cent of current electronica and of his admiration for the slamming noise onslaughts of bands like Benea Reach, and from the rip-this-joint, almost Pistols-like opening of "Humid Geometry" it's clear he's intent on jettisoning any remaining followers who might have mistaken him for a specialist in rarefied minimalism. Even on the 15-minute title track the tension rarely relents, driven by militaristic percussion, snapping bass and guitars turned up to eleven. The intensity verges on the oppressive, but if you liked the darker moods of Phantom City, you might have seen this coming. It's Robert Fripp's worst nightmare given monstrous form.–JG
SOLO DRUMKIT IMPROVISATIONS
The Bocian label is based in Poland, but, as their website itself admits, you might not think so perusing its predominantly Antipodean roster of artists. Solo Drumkit Improvisations isn't the first outing on the imprint by Sean Baxter (Bucketrider, Pateras / Baxter / Brown..), but it's a much more substantial and satisfying survey of what he's capable of than last year's seven-incher, Metal / Flesh. With the exception of "Harmonics", the track titles – "Plates", "Woklids", "Chopsticks", "Junk", "Hands", "Windchimes" and "Brushes" – refer, as you might expect, to what Baxter chooses to attack his kit with, and not surprisingly there's plenty of joyful clang and clatter to enjoy (if you want a foot-tapping rhythmic workout, you should head instead for another Aussie percussionist's latest solo outing, Will Guthrie's Sticks, Stones & Breaking Bones). No bullshit, no bluster, no overdubs, no hidden messages, just good clean fun with sound.–DW
Gary Smith / Silvia Kastel / Ninni Morgia
In late 2009, guitarist Gary Smith left his native London to settle on the east coast of Italy. Long renowned for his distinctive stereo guitar work, solo and in groups such as Mass, Powerfield and Aufgehoben, he exploited the move as an opportunity to re-examine his own playing and to forge new links. One was with the duo Control Unit, consisting of vocalist / electronics player Silvia Kastel and guitarist Ninni Morgia, both of whom had spent some years living and playing in NYC before moving back to Italy. Together the three now make up the trio Brand, and this is their first album, available both as a limited edition LP and as a download.
As guitarists, Smith and Morgia sound like kindred spirits, each with roots in and an abiding penchant for rock. But they've both moved beyond those roots into the realms of extended technique and experimentation, acquiring their own personal trademark sounds in the process. Nonetheless, on occasions they happily turn their amps up to eleven and let rip, as they demonstrate impressively here on "Allied Forces", whose title tells its own story. Elsewhere, the guitarists' styles contrast more starkly, with Smith characteristically favouring short, rapid notes in the upper register, while Morgan holds the middle ground. But this is a trio and Kastel plays a vital role in it: alternating between voice and synth – the two sometimes so similar that they cannot be told apart – her sounds complement the guitars well, mimicking and interacting with them, adding colour to the full soundscape. The three combine most impressively on the closing "Exit", fitting together perfectly like the pieces of a jigsaw. A trio to watch, for sure.–JE
Peter Brötzmann / John Edwards / Steve Noble
...THE WORSE THE BETTER
Since it opened in Dalston in April 2008, Café OTO has become London's new music venue of choice for the likes of the Sun Ra Arkestra, Joe McPhee, Mats Gustafsson – and Peter Brötzmann, whose first residency at the club in January 2010 yielded this inaugural release on OtoRoku, Café OTO’s new in-house label. The night in question was the first time Brötzmann had played with bassist John Edwards and drummer Steve Noble, and the decision to team them up was inspired. With Alan Wilkinson, or in Decoy with Alex Hawkins and NEW with Alex Ward, Edwards and Noble have a deserved reputation as a thrilling high-energy rhythm section. And as Brötzmann is no slouch when it comes to high-energy playing, the combination is explosive. Right from the start of the set – the first that evening – it's obvious why this was selected to christen the label. All three players jump straight into top gear, with Brötzmann setting a cracking pace, his torrent of sound characterised by that hard-edged tone which makes him such compelling listening. ...the worse the better sets a high standard for subsequent releases to match. But, as every night at Café OTO is recorded and there's a wealth of fine music waiting in the wings, including quality recordings from Otomo Yoshihide and Wadada Leo Smith, OtoRoku looks like a label to watch. –JE
Thurston Moore / Jean-Marc Montera / Lee Ranaldo
LES ANGES DU PÊCHÉ
Sonic Youth completists, get your chequebooks ready (you poor sods). But beware: this isn't a trio outing, but two duos, one featuring Thurston Moore, the other Lee Ranaldo, and both with French guitarist Jean-Marc Montera. They couldn't be more different, either. "In Memory of Martin Strumpf" (who engineered this session in SY's studio back in 1997, eight years before his untimely death – one can only hope the musicians didn't come up with the track title on the day they recorded it) is a gnarly, noisy affair, listening to which is like trying to cure tinnitus by ramming a screwdriver in your ear. On the other hand (on the other side), "From Another Room", recorded in 2010 in the studios of the GRIM, Montera's Marseille artspace, is a spacious, luminous and for the most part tonal meander through landscapes that will be more familiar to fans of Loren Connors (with whom these three chaps have also recorded, you may recall). What the two pieces do have in common though is intensity and integrity – whether or not you like what these guys say, it's abundantly clear they mean what they say.–DW
When Morton Feldman famously claimed to an incredulous Stockhausen that he didn't push his sounds around, he provided us with a good measuring stick for a lot of the music that has come after, of the improvised and composed variety: to what extent, and how, does an artist push his or her sounds around? Mike Shiflet definitely likes to nudge his sounds here and there, but he does so in subtle and manifold ways, adding, subtracting and highlighting different aspects with each release. To hear just how it is that transforms his signature cloud of chattering, sizzling electronics, line up three of his more recent full-lengths. Omnivores is a degraded, noisy affair, all severely filtered static and sculpted wall noise, while Llanos clears the scuzz away to reveal bright melodic shapes and harmonic movement amid the storm. And then there's Sufferers, which combines the wildness and constraint found on those two releases into a more surreal trip.
The found medical recordings folded into the whirring, tape-saturated fabric of "(Sufferers)" set the tone right off. If Llanos was all about the experience of thriving, natural ecosystems, this record is internal, closed off, an examination of strange, sometimes uncomfortable, mental states. Shiflet often sets up multiple layers of activity – beds of pointillist static, low-frequency throb, glassy mid-range drones and flickering harmonics – then gradually shifts their dynamic relationships. What starts small and seemingly decorative suddenly becomes the focus of the piece, while other events drop away. The rest of the pieces work in the same way. As they bleed into one another, they give the album a nice narrative arc while heightening the impression of memories and emotions collapsing and colliding like so many dying neurons.
But what most excites about Shiflet's music is the way it seems impossible to pin down, either in process or mood. Sufferers could be a single-take improvisation for table-top guitar and electronics, a detailed composition crafted through arcane analogue and digital processing or the capturing of some weird electromagnetic phenomenon with contact microphones. It examines dark, dissonant territory, but also feels liberated – and liberating – in how it balances a meditative steady-state with more turbulent passages. Shiflet very obviously knows when to push and how much. This is slippery, evocative music with real depth.–MW
Flingco Sound System
My trusty online dictionary defines pareidolia as "the imagined perception of a pattern or meaning where it does not actually exist, as in considering the moon to have human features", but as far as musical patterns go, there's often a clear sense of pulse and pitch to the work of this trio featuring percussionist Jason Kahn, bassist Christian Weber and The Ex's sound engineer Jeroen Visser on organ and electronics. It certainly makes a change to hear the likes of Kahn and Weber getting stuck in a groove, though if you're expecting some kind of Larry Young action from Visser, those dirty drones (the press release is on the one to namecheck This Heat – that organ is right out of Cold Storage) might come as something of a disappointment: free jazz this is not. Hardly surprisingly, the percussionist and bassist spend as much time exploring sustained sonorities here as they do on their other albums. But when it comes to playing the waiting game, Visser wins hands down, often sitting stubbornly on a note long enough for his playing partners to start hearing it as part of a harmonic and rhythmic structure which they then go about building around him, until he eventually joins in (side three is terrific). If you like your improv on a Wagnerian scale but find The Necks too hippy trippy, you'll find much to enjoy here.–DW
Asmus Tietchens / Kouhei Matsunaga
What a shame these two fine sound artists had to split an LP, when they're both great collaborators – fond memories of Tietchens' work with Thomas Köner in Kontakt Der Jünglinge, and of Matsunaga's CD with Alan Courtis on Prele a while back – and what a shame it's all over so quickly. Still, there's plenty to enjoy, from the ghostly embellished plagal cadences of Tietchens' "Die kopflosen Frauen von Unger" (though as the guitar sounds he uses on that come from Fear Falls Burning I guess you could call it a kind of collaboration after all) to the chattery minimalist glitter of "Gitter" (I take it the 'l' is omitted on purpose), and, on Kouhei's side, the crystalline austerity of "Margin Sequence #1" and the heavy dominant drone of "Chasing The Night". More please, a CD packed to the 80-minute hilt next time. God, I sound like Martin Davidson.–DW
The Ames Room
As I think I mentioned when I reviewed The Ames Room's debut LP on Monotype a couple of years ago, Jean-Luc Guionnet's website sorts his considerable discography into various categories – Acousmatique, Dispositifs, Improvisations, Compilations and "jazz". Yes, that's "jazz", lowercase, in inverted commas. Those quotation marks might indicate his reluctance to be labelled as just another jazz saxophonist (though he knows his jazz history as well as anyone I've ever met, and I'd argue that Shepp, Lacy and Coleman – two Colemans, in fact, Ornette and Steve – have had a great influence on his playing), but they are certainly appropriate when it comes to discussing his work with Clayton Thomas and Will Guthrie in The Ames Room. For, despite its appearance on a jazz label, Clean Feed, the 46 minutes of Bird Dies (more on the title later) have more in common with noise. It's worth remembering that one of Guionnet's first albums under his own name, Axène, inaugurated the Californian noise label Ground Fault, and on a personal note, I recall his near boundless enthusiasm for the Sickness album I Have Become The Disease That Made Me on that late, lamented imprint. Noise, even Wall Noise, is always the same (noisy) and never the same, and there's the same relentless death drive in the music of The Ames Room. Sure, there's no shortage of "material", ideas chewed up and spat out with unbridled intensity, and there are moments where the texture thins slightly, but there's nothing resembling jazz's head-solos-head structure, nor the climactic ebb and flow of "traditional" free improv. It's the aural equivalent of a Pollock action painting or the excremental jouissance of Céline. Is the Bird of the title is a sly reference to Charlie Parker? Maybe. But, if so, more interesting is the tense of the verb that follows: this is no "Bird Is Dead" punky middle finger to Jazz Tradition, but a simple present tense. And despite its hyperactivity, Bird Dies is brutally simple. And present. And tense.–DW
Jim Baker / Kyle Bruckmann / Michael Zerang
Recorded back in 2006, before oboist Kyle Bruckmann went west young man and put down roots in Oakland, this was originally supposed to come out on the colourfully named Lebanese label These Kids Must Choke under the name Extraordinary Rendition, which I'll admit I prefer, with its sinister overtones of Gulf War nastiness. It's another superb outing in the company of two of Bruckmann's former neighbours in Chicago, Michael Zerang on drums and the criminally unsung Jim Baker on ARP 2600, a wild, whirling dervish of a disc, powered forward by Zerang's drumming – and if you'd forgotten how good MZ was at actually playing time, this will remind you – a no-holds-barred tussle to the death between Bruckmann's suona and Baker's delirious synth scrawls. The combination of free-squealing electronics (Bruckmann's also a dab hand when it comes to that) and rock solid groove is thrilling and colourful. Sun Ra's beamed back down and set up his Moog in the middle of the Place Jemaa El Fna. Master Musicians Of Jajouka? Never heard of them.–DW
Bonnie Barnett Group
IN BETWEEN DREAMS
Bonnie Barnett's cheerful round face, accompanied by her permutations of ironically twisted jazz sensuality, deadpan soliloquies and made-up texts, is a welcome presence in the room. In Between Dreams is a classy set by the Los Angeles vocalist, who exercises her renowned skill in the company of reedman Dick Wood, bassist Hal Onserud and percussionist Garth Powell. They motivate her throughout a network of cultivated intuitions, their communication free from rhetorical staleness and permeated by the legitimate intention of transmitting artistry in fine expression. It's not just fake poems and chomped syllables, though. "Matisse" and "Nothingness" are settings of, respectively, Gertrude Stein and Jean-Paul Sartre, delivered unsmilingly as the guys around look for openings to tickle the leader under her dress of seriousness. Mission nearly accomplished when they turn stern recitals into absurdist scenes of sorts, our attention partially stolen by their impulsive nimbleness and awareness of finer details. A statement of intent against warts-and-all shoddiness, needing several spins to be successfully absorbed.–MR
Transatlantic is the second release by BassX3, following their eponymous 2005 debut on Drimala. Gebhard Ullmann is still leader, here playing bass flute as well as bass clarinet, again with Chris Dahlgren on double bass, but Clayton Thomas replaces Peter Herbert as the second bassist. The trio retains its unique instrumentation and focus, with low-end frequencies dominating the album. The title composition, in three parts located at the beginning, middle and end of the album, forms its backbone, a common theme running throughout. Dahlgren and Thomas maintain a sustained bowed drone, creating a dark, brooding mood and laying down a solid foundation over which Ullmann blows a selection of breathy sounds as well as soaring melodic phrases, his bass clarinet sounding high-toned in stark contrast to the ominous backdrop. It's mesmerizing. At almost 12 minutes, "The Epic" is the album’s second longest track. Appropriately named, it's an episodic musical journey that integrates diverse elements into a satisfying whole. Towards its end, rather than shadowing each other, the basses play independent lines and interweave in a stunning duo that promises much but is over too soon: "The Epic" would lend itself to being expanded into an album in its own right. On "The No Piece", Ullmann plays bass flute and, rather than soloing, indulges in a call-and-response dialogue with the basses, often prepared with an assortment of common, household items to create surprising and unusual vibrations and percussive rattlings. The mournfully affecting theme and atmosphere of the two-part "Berlin is Full of Lonely People" make it the most beautiful track on an album that looks like a cert for the Best Of 2012 lists.–JE
Peter Brötzmann / Jörg Fischer
At the risk of boring you senseless yet again by trying to define the difference between free jazz and free improvisation, let me nail my colours to the mast once and for all and put Peter Brötzmann on the jazz side of the boundary line, wherever you happen to find it. Sure, he might have to opt for death if someone puts a gun to his head and orders him to play "Relaxin' At Camarillo" in B flat and-a one, two, a-one two three FOUR! but if so you'll find him laid out in the morgue alongside Albert Ayler, Frank Wright, Charles Gayle and Arthur Doyle, to name but a few of the great hornblowers who've left their mark on jazz history without ever setting foot in Berklee. There's always been a rich vein of blues-bruised lyricism in his playing (not to mention traces of Doyle's old favourite "Nature Boy" in "Song for Fred"), and his legendary fire-breathing is all the more impressive when the flames are being fanned by some sort of pulse momentum. It's no coincidence that most of the drummers Brötzmann has played and recorded with the most often in a career spanning nearly half a century can also swing / funk their ass off – think Han Bennink, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Hamid Drake – and local lad Jörg Fischer, who probably helped set up this concert at the Thalhaus in Wiesbaden on June 24th 2009, can stand alongside those titanic big-hitters and hold his head up with pride. This is a super set, well worth checking out.–DW
Hong Chulki / Jin Sangtae / Kevin Parks
Ryu Hankil / Hong Chulki / Choi Joonyong
Balloon & Needle
A flurry of recordings on the Balloon & Needle and Manual labels over recent years has helped spread the word about the pool of musicians working out of South Korea, with the 5 Modules series and Hong Chulki and Choi Joonyong's hum and rattle revealing an active scene with a visceral approach to improvisation using contact mics, mixers, and open-circuit electronics along with cracked and hacked electro-mechanical devices, including damaged hard drives, clock mechanisms, typewriters, and the innards of CD players. These two recent releases offer a look at what the crew has been up to lately.
The five extended improvisations on 音影 (pronounced "eum young", the Korean words for shades or chiaroscuro and sound) feature turntable-activated grit and texture from Hong Chulki, crackles and stutters from Jin Sangtae's deconstructed hard drives and the buzz and hum of electronics and guitar from American ex-pat Kevin Parks, whose suspended chords sound almost radical amidst the usual rattles, clatters, pops and buzzes. The album is held together by the looping pulse of the mechanical devices, which propel the music forward and provide a cascading backdrop for the gestural activity, and by the active manipulation of space and silence. There's the feel of a mad machine gone awry in the first piece, while the second is a more jumpcut scratch-and-scrabble affair, whose constantly shifting layers and timbres are steered with clear articulation and masterful control. The final track stands out, with Parks' twangy, resonant, detuned guitar hanging against the sizzling sonic graffiti of his partners. Recorded (superbly) in the close quarters of Dotolim (check out YouTube to see just how tiny the space is), every nuanced sound comes through with clear separation.
On Inferior Sounds, Chulki is joined by Ryu Hankil on typewriter and snare drum and Choi Joonyong on CD player for two extended improvisations, which, without the foil of Parks' guitar and electronics, are rawer and more rambunctious. There's a rough, noisy intensity to the playing, but also the sense of material barely under control. Process seems to be as important as result and all too often the inherent instability of the sound-generating devices seems to escape the musicians (the gadgets have, after all, been set up to do just that – it's a strategy central to the music). Seeing it live makes more sense, but on a recording the level of engagement is difficult to maintain. Crank it up and it's easy to get swept away for a while by its boisterous vigour, but there's not enough to pull you in for the long haul.–MRo
Rhodri Davies / Mark Wastell
LIVE IN MELBOURNE
Those looking for New London Silence will be in for a surprise. By the time Rhodri Davies and Mark Wastell recorded this set at the Melbourne Festival in Derbyshire in 2005, they'd been working together for over a decade in a variety of contexts, but this duo recording (their first as it turns out) catches them at a transition point, moving towards a more vigorously active sound. Davies (on "low-fi live electronics" instead of his customary harp) and Wastell (mixing desk, digital delay pedal, contact mics, recordings, and various odds and ends, from sandpaper to singing bowls to ceramic tiles) mine scumbled textures, quavering drones and variegated electronic tones, deftly modulating densities and dynamics in a 37-minute piece that bucks and caroms in ways that one wouldn't expect from these two. If you're coming to Wastell and Davies for the first time, this is not the best place to start, but it provides an intriguing look at a previously undocumented aspect of their sonic explorations.–MRo
Dixie's Death Pool
THE MAN WITH FLOWERING HANDS
The best spots on the radio dial are always the ones between stations, where songs and voices bleed into each other among unexplained noises and cosmic fuzz – you bask in gentle cognitive dissonance, only to be blown away by the occasional perfect momentary juxtaposition. The Man with Flowering Hands is kind of like that: not so much songs as ghosts of songs, leaking out from a rather fascinating pile of sonic detritus. Dixie's Death Pool is the long-running project of B.C. artist-musician Lee Hutzulak, and it's been through a number of incarnations, firstly as a Victoria-based band and then (after Hutzulak's relocation to Vancouver) a series of studio projects collaging together electroacoustic noise, homemade instruments, contributions by various musicians, field recordings, foley sounds, and Hutzulak's frail voice and acoustic guitar. Kind of like a quiet folky version of an Olivia Tremor Control album, maybe. This would be great mood music, if only you could figure out what mood it is, exactly, beyond "hazy". "Tranquilizer" is just that, a siren call inviting you to float away into the vastness of space and forgetting, but niggling little noises still poke in: the anesthetic hasn't quite blocked out the sounds of the operation. The lazybones blues "Chuck Will's Widow" accumulates grandeur and additional instruments like lint, while the title track is more of a Rube Goldberg contraption, clicking away in not-quite-mechanical fashion. On the more epic ventures like "Sunlight Is Collecting on My Face" or "Sky Woman's Directive", is that celestial radiance peeking through the murk, or just radiation? Hutzulak gives that rhetorical question an ironic answer in the way that the blissed-out conclusion of the latter track is taken up by the cheesy robotic church music of "Disorganized Thoughts" (yes, there's a silly verbal pun in the way the phrase "disorganized thoughts" is warped into synthetic organ chords). It requires heroic efforts to sort through the densely printed page of personnel, instrumentation and sources (that's Coat Cooke's lovely flute, but who's the trumpeter? Todd Hutzulak, I think? And yep, I remember the "Train Yards behind Alexander St., Vancouver" quite well and am pretty sure that's them on "The Passenger") – but whatever the exact details, the results are kind of queasily brilliant, an existential hangover compressed into a silver disc.–ND
Dominique Eade / Ran Blake
Of course, there will be comparisons with Jeanne Lee whenever pianist Ran Blake lays down duets with a female voice. But there's something extremely distinctive and compelling at work on this record. You don't have to wait until the end of the set to get there, but when Eade sings that her "Dearly Beloved" was made by heaven just for her, the densely swirling, fragmented chords and her unaffected voice give things a surreal, at times even spooky feel. I don't mean to suggest that this is distant, unemotional, or excessively arch. But each of these 13 concise improvisations is just so strange and surprising. It's jazz, and emphatically so, but its fierce and unapologetic inventions take the music into very unexpected directions (especially given how many standard pieces are here). It's natural, too, to compare the bright flashes of this "My Foolish Heart" with the Evans / Bennett of the mid-70s. Yet here the close harmony and glimpses of dark reflection and descending chromaticism are so effective with Eade, as she glides perfectly in the atmosphere before settling into a bluesy flourish or ascending unexpectedly into an improbably high register. (I love how she worries, almost nasally, the phrase "the same sensation" before she rattles off an avian, twirling "lost in the magic of a kiss"). Blake's brilliantine chords seem to fill everything up, yet he leaves so much space. And then there are all those crazy interesting note choices from the pianist, so apposite to the material but so fucking out. All the while, Eade is unbowed, her at times vibrato-less delivery perfect. She's subtle, very inventive, able to convey a buoyant innocence and a flat disenchantment in the space of half a bar. Hear this in particular on her abject performance of "The Wind" or the lovely fragility on "Go Gently to the Water". There's nothing overly serious or morose about the pieces, though. And in fact, on "Old Devil Moon" they even get downright playful, digging into and pulling apart implied tempi and harmony, mashing percussively here and lilting there. But perhaps the most engaging sequence on the album comes in a series of tracks united by their feel of abjection and lostness: "Pinky", "Falling", "Where Are You", and "Out of This World". They achieve a balance of emotional heft and disaffectedness, withdrawn woundedness and dreamy confession. Simply lovely stuff.–JB
Marty Ehrlich's Rites Quartet
FROG LEG LOGIC
As a longtime Ehrlich freak, I was knocked out by the debut recording from this fine, Hemphill-inspired group. On Frog Leg Logic, Ehrlich is back along with trumpeter James Zollar, both in slashing form here. But there's a change in the cello and drum chair, from Erik Friedlander and Pheeroan akLaff to Hank Roberts and Michael Sarin. The bustle and swagger of the title track opens this disc in righteous fashion, with cracking percussion the fuel to the multiple lines that whip around. Ehrlich's always got a heart-rending lyrical tale to tell, as with the superb reading of "Ballade" here (kudos to Zollar for nailing the harmonic / emotional interface so brightly and vividly). And when it opens up into a bubbly, mid-tempo funk it kills. Atop the supple groove, there are tasty bent notes from both horns, digging into the space between the beats in ways both raunchy and elegant. Roberts is key to these grooving sections, by the way, and to the whole disc. His deep, soulful melancholy combines with a percolating funk and occasional flurries of noise, and he can totally carry an unaccompanied spot. His countrified sound opens "Solace", a longtime Ehrlich fave here given a spare arrangement that emphasizes the brass and the rattling timbre Sarin contributes (with Ehrlich contrasting gracefully on flute). At a tight 50 minutes, this disc has the logic and pacing of a live set. And the band has even more range here than on their debut, taking in styles as far-flung as the tart, slightly keening alto / cello duet "My Song" and the vaguely ominous "Walk Along the Way", with low tuned drums, grunting bridgework from Roberts, and all manner of growls and animal sounds. But at the end of the day, it's the groove pieces that get me, like the bright bounce of "You Can Beat the Slanted Cards" and the funky "The Gravedigger's Respite". More, please.–JB
Jason Kao Hwang / Edge
Jason Kao Hwang / Spontaneous River
SYMPHONY OF SOULS
Edge is a now well-established ensemble featuring the terrific violinist (and on two tracks here, violist) in the company of Taylor Ho Bynum (trumpet, flugelhorn), drummer Andrew Drury, and bassist Ken Filiano. The contrast between brass, strings, and Drury's tuned drums and all-sorts percussion (think Hollenbeck in a more free context) is the key to the group's distinctive sound in many ways, especially as the lissome Hwang and buoyant Bynum interact marvellously in slashing lines, bright unisons, and fanfares or growls. There's big support from Filiano on tunes like "Elemental Determination", where he anchors with a supple groove but never constrains the flow of the music, even when navigating the tricky little rhythmic punctuations Hwang writes into these spacious tunes. Throughout these episodic compositions, Hwang smartly writes in little duos and breakdowns, and does so in ways that never sound arbitrary. There are gorgeous bass / drum interludes, with resounding bell-like metal and furious double-stopping. There are muttering, start-stop violin / trumpet conversations, like a drunken argument on the stairwell. And there are plenty of terrific solo passages too. Not to slight the thematic material, though. "The Path Around the House" opens like a mournful ballad, then enters a kind of Threadgillian space of abstracted vernacular themes before moving into a righteously grooving polyrhythmic swing, with some nimble, buzzing fluegelhorn and a beautiful Filiano solo. The mournful "Transients", with a resolute sounding drum solo and dour bass, is perhaps the best feature for individual, idiosyncratic statements, all leading up to the punchy groove that closes things out. Whirls of overtones open the super spacious title track, which only occasionally wells up with thematic statements between textural essays. Another terrific document from Edge.
On Symphony of Souls, Hwang brings his violin but is mostly in the role of composer and conductor of a 39-piece (!!!) ensemble, all string players plus Drury. Seriously, how did six bassists, five cellists, seven guitarists, five violists, and the balance of violinists all cram into Systems Two? Regardless, it's a glorious piece, organic and spectral sounding at once. At its heart are huge beds of texture and oscillation, with layers of brilliantine chords fading in and out of the structure. Even though the disc is chock full of vibrant and shimmering colour, as early as "Movement Two" you hear that it's no mere hour-long textural essay. Rather, the sheer weight of the ensemble is used to create intensely detailed interlocking harmonic movement. Hear this in the slowly boiling pizz that builds into a swaggering ostinato on "Movement Three", with basses churning as bats flit in the upper register. Details swirl, gather and dissipate in each section. But Hwang never piles on. "Movement Four" dials things back for lone cello and select voices, for example. And "Movement Six" rides forth with spritely pizz, snippets of guitar, and then sounds of whorling air. Yet it's hard to deny that the power is in the sheer scale of this orchestra, whether they're swinging furiously ("Movement Ten") or shifting between almost brassy textures and rough, almost violent slashes on "Movement Five".–JB
Kidd Jordan / Joel Futterman / William Parker / Alvin Fielder
LIVE AT THE GUELPH JAZZ FESTIVAL 2011
You don't have to live in a centre of the jazz universe – New York, Chicago or London – to build lasting creative relationships and work in a revered and kaleidoscopically heavy ensemble. Saxophonist Kidd Jordan is based in New Orleans and drummer Alvin Fielder in Jackson, Mississippi, but they've been playing together since the mid-70s. They began working with Virginia Beach pianist / saxophonist Joel Futterman in 1994, sometimes as a trio and often with stalwart New York bassist William Parker in a quartet that has required bridging distances in space and time between gigs and recordings. But any doubts about "togetherness" are dispelled from the first notes of Live at the Guelph Jazz Festival 2011, a seamless eight-part suite clocking in at three-quarters of an hour. Despite the fact that the music is open form, each musician is closely tied to tradition, and as volcanic as the improvising sometimes gets, swing and lyricism lie at its heart.
Things begin sparsely with wooden flute, piano strings and finger cymbals, though it doesn't take long for squalling tenor and florid upper-register piano runs to surface, with Parker's framing of the tonic and Fielder's pot-stirring looseness maintaining a firm anchor. Following a spellbinding tenor solo in the second movement (Jordan is, along with Sam Rivers, Von Freeman and Odean Pope, one of the most original tenor players you're likely to hear), Futterman strikes out with arpeggiated superimpositions in a multidirectional latticework that soon moves into short, lobbed phrases. There's a particularly handsome phrase he comes back to a few times in the set, somewhat rooted in McCoy Tyner's gospel roots, which he brings out in a wonderfully eliding vamp in the fifth section, running it into tempestuous pointillism and boppish turnarounds. This is tradition-bound and tradition-extending improvisation, and it's beautiful to hear.
On Fire is a different proposition, presenting Jordan in a trio with New York percussionist Warren Smith and Chicago bassist Harrison Bankhead in a programme of four improvisations. It feels closer to post-Ayler power trio at the outset, but Jordan balances braying split tones with a stomping bluesy shuffle on the opening "Officer, That Big Knife Cuts My Sax Reeds", trading angular volleys with Smith's geometric rhythms. This is the first time that Smith has played with Jordan, but he's an excellent partner for the saxophonist, bringing a dry, brash approach to the kit that calls to mind Max Roach. Bankhead starts out supporting the pair with deep, droning bottom before unspooling rapid pizzicato lines as they set off at a crackling pace. The closing "Harrison Carries out the Coffin" is one of two showcases for his detailed yet muscular bass playing. "The Evil Eye" is sparser, with Smith creating taut rustle with his brushes and gradually increasing the density of his patterns to form a varied centre around which bass and tenor ornament and stay the course, building up an incredible storm of sound with relatively minimal instrumentation – brushes and gongs, bass, and tenor saxophone. Halfway through, Bankhead and Smith start to walk, thrumming and moaning a stately march. Jordan's tone here is sublimely deep and throaty, reaching back towards something much older than himself, a moving reminder of how closely tied the avant-garde is to the jazz tradition.–CA
Noah Kaplan Quartet
Tenor and soprano player Kaplan has on board guitarist Joe Morris, electric bassist Giacomo Merega and drummer Jason Nazary (whom many might know from his work with Darius Jones). But don't look at this instrumentation and think it's going to be a rundown of the kind of antic electric fare Morris explored on, say, Sweatshop. Rather, there's an airy, abstracted feel to the set, especially on the tone-bending "Pendulum Music", and the band often sounds to me as if they're precariously perched midway between a Maneri jam and something from Threadgill's Where's Your Cup? But it's not a date defined simply by its timbral contrasts. Listen to the bubbling counterpoint and flirtation with groove on "Descent", with Morris so understated but essential here, sending forth little ripples, a querulous interval, a jagged mirror. The piece slowly morphs into an urgent throb, with keening tenor pulling away from tasteful, contained guitar lines while a turbulent rhythm base boils beneath. The feel of "Ether" is one of all sun and bronze, while "Rat Man" is big and loping, a ragged swagger set against a single bent tenor note, with glossy chording and burbling bass strings. The skittering, polyvocal "Wolves" is the most free sounding piece here, with Kaplan antic on his swooping, avian soprano. Each player tugs so fervently in a single direction that the piece breaks down into a boxy, lumpy section of fragments, almost wounded sounding instruments marching forward undaunted before Kaplan returns to revive things. There is wonderfully contained heat and tension on the concluding track "Untitled". Kaplan is again so effective in holding and sustaining a single tone (morphed gently) across an anxious rhythmic base, and it concludes a set of probing, distinctive music.–JB
PORTABLE SANCTUARY VOL.1
Drummer Paul Kikuchi is most familiar as the engine behind the Empty Cage Quartet, a terrific West Coast freebop outfit that's really come into its own over its decade-long existence, though they've been a little quiet since the double whammy of 2009's Gravity and Take Care of Floating. I've always loved the downright tunefulness of the Cage's rhythm section, Kikuchi and bassist Ivan Johnson, which really started to come to the fore with the thrumming grooves of their 2005 opus Day of the Race. But Kikuchi's solo work, it turns out, is rather different in orientation, focusing on sound art and site-specific works. Portable Sanctuary leans more towards that side of his CV, a set of sparse compositions and improvisations offering an intriguing mix of the meditative and the downright ominous. "Faster/Still" is a stunning long-form opener, a Morricone showdown in a John Cage rock garden. Bill Horist's achy, snarling guitar work is tremendous, twisting spaciously around Kikuchi's minimalist electronics in the piece's midsection and then accelerating as Kikuchi switches to drums, with Stuart Dempster's trombone sparse and elegiac as the guitarist's squiggles become ever more frantic and ecstatic. A follow-up improv is also a winner, Kikuchi patiently working over a stripped-down drum pattern as Dempster engages in hiccupping self-dialogue and Horist contributes slithery bowed guitar. The last two tracks, an improvised "Prelude" and a composition entitled "Tomorrow's Flowers", are the work of a different band: acoustic guitarist Jesse Olsen Bay replaces Horist, and there's additional percussion from Bay and Alex Vittam. "Tomorrow's Flowers" is simplicity itself – a handful of moody question-mark motifs for the trombone, a few answering chords from the guitar, soft metallic percussion and slow-drawn drumming – but these elements shift around and pull against each other, drawing attention to the microtonal dissonances between the various instruments even as the harmonic environment remains static. Lovely, thoughtful music, well worth seeking out.–ND
SOME OTHER ZONGS
Here is the work of a man who relishes isolation, throwing out impulses with arresting fervour, each discharge of blood-and-guts cruciality a direct and dramatic connection with the heart. When an artist's life is genuinely devoted to an instrument, there's no danger of compromise, and in these six live baritone sax tracks, recorded between 2010 and 2011 in Le Mans (at the Europa Jazz Festival) and Paris (at the church of Saint-Merry), every pitch, every harmonic, every bodily process projects an almost painful tendency to the affirmation of truth. Ranging from the illustration of inner conflict – occasionally adding strained utterances to the quivering reeds, as in "Zong At Saint-Merry 3" – to the quest for physical answers in the in-depth acoustic investigation of a specific location, Lazro's mix of lyricism and dirty-nailed humanity, perfectly symbolized by the desperate raucous cries heard halfway through "Zong At Saint-Merry 4", might trouble those who approach a solo saxophone album expecting to hear something familiar. Here instead they'll find a receptacle of uncomfortable feelings disclosed in utter severity. What a splendid record.–MR
Nils Petter Molvær
The title of Baboon Moon's opening track, "Mercury Heart", is an immediate (involuntary?) nod to David Torn's Cloud About Mercury, a genuine milestone that came out back in 1987. It seems trumpeter Molvær and comrades Stian Westerhus (guitar) and Erland Dahlen (drums) have got themselves stuck in the same year – there's a been-there-done-that sigh of resignation to these nine tracks, plagued by over-processed guitars, clichéd loops and Mark Isham-meets-Jon Hassell fog. Not to mention the headache of those whopping drum 'n' bass patterns. With its Marc Anderson-like steel drums (Steve Tibbetts' percussionist, in case you forgot) and pseudo-theremin ("Blue Fandango", possibly the record's lowest point), the "texture" is straight out of a National Geographic documentary, complete with fake drama, weedy lyricism and predictable crescendos. An obvious kowtow to ECM at every available opportunity. Add a purportedly "suggestive" piece with superimposed female voices and a black and white close-up of the leader with serious facial attitude and voilà, the product is ready to be played nice and loud while driving on the highway in your 4x4.–MR
Keith Rowe / John Tilbury
E.E. TENSION AND CIRCUMSTANCE
Of course, you know this may be it. Not the "it" as in long-awaited follow-up to 2003's Duos for Doris, though it certainly is that it. And not the "it" as in one of the finest electroacoustic recordings of the last year, though it's that it too. No, for all we know this may well be the final recording between Rowe and Tilbury, who performed together in AMM for over 20 years until Rowe departed in 2003. This 2010 Paris performance was dedicated to Rowe's late mother, as its predecessor was to Tilbury's. And there's a similarly intense, if abstracted emotionalism to the music. Here, it's felt in the power of the restraint, the unspoken word, the held gesture. This isn't to say that the music is necessarily spare. Indeed, there are moments here where the exchange of information is comparably dense, given the aesthetic of these two musicians as they've developed in the last two decades. But even in the most unexpected moments – as when Rowe's low slurring sounds galvanize some quite antic and intervallic figures from Tilbury – there's a control and pared down quality that maximizes the effect of each detail. The music over the course of this hour moves through several discrete phases, like a concerto. There is a period of sizzling contrast, where the small buzz of a live wire is set against the distant circling of some avian, vibratory object. There is a long spacious period of rustle, clatter, scrape and distant signals (with occasionally the briefest flash of instrumentalism). And then amid the swirl we have the first moment, limpid three-note figures building slowly into a Feldmanian recital, with Rowe making slight noises like tears in your speaker cone. It's followed by a glorious passage where a sculpted low tone is buffeted by a chorus of steam-heat whines and contained shrieks, like a Ligeti choir filtered through analogue purgatory. It tumbles forward into a sheer roil of sound, not loud or showy but suffusing, and then ends with a flinty, bitty spell, like two prisoners rapping out code from behind their cell walls. Incandescent throughout, this marvellous performance really does sound like a distillation of Rowe and Tilbury's history, with musical tension and difference here as a kind of third instrument, one that does nothing to undermine but is in fact a vehicle of discovery.–JB
Juhani Aaltonen & Heikki Sarmanto
Heikki Sarmanto Big Band
EVERYTHING IS IT
Though first-time collaborations can often be extremely rewarding, the comfort and naturalness of a long-lasting relationship is where the fruit of instant composition lies. Think of the quarter-century involvement of Cecil Taylor and Jimmy Lyons, or the decades-long (if slightly sporadic) association between Mal Waldron and Steve Lacy. Though the Finnish team of pianist-composer Heikki Sarmanto and reedman Juhani Aaltonen isn't as well known, it deserves more than passing mention. Active in the Finnish jazz scene of the mid-60s before relocating to Boston and attending Berklee together, they formed the Serious Music Ensemble with drummer Craig Herndon and guitarist Lance Gunderson. Whether in small groups or big bands, Sarmanto and Aaltonen are important players in Scandinavian jazz (with Aaltonen's associations with Edward Vesala, Peter Brötzmann and others keeping him visible on the broader European stage), and these two discs, one brand new and another reissuing scarce Finnish vinyl, are prime examples of their combined energy.
Conversations is the result of that nearly five-decade partnership, a two-disc set of original compositions, spontaneous improvisations, and two Dietz – Schwartz warhorses ("You and the Night and the Music" and "Alone Together"). Aaltonen's tenor playing is like Gato Barbieri's, hard-bitten and throaty, with searing romanticism. Healthy doses of pillowing tones à la Ben Webster and Paul Gonsalves are teased out with a measured and crisp sense of detail. Sarmanto's attack is tough and robust, yet not without elegance and lushness. Early in the Serious Music Ensemble discography, my ears picked up Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett and McCoy Tyner, but any sense of phrasal ambiguity or scalar overlap has been replaced with stately, unadorned harmonic blocks. The recording quality is absolutely superb, allowing one to hear the subtle gradations of escaped breath and ringing overtones. The word once again is crisp – it's perhaps why both musicians seem light on their feet even when engaging massive frameworks, the kind that one can imagine underpinning Sarmanto's sacred orchestral music. Aaltonen floats and weaves throughout knotty, rolling arpeggios and pointed intervals, yet the music rarely seems to revel purely in athletic feats. I suppose that's where the naturalness gleaned from companionship comes in. That said, at the heart of their musical relationship lies a sense of power and drama, giving "You and the Night and the Music" a steely garishness that's quite a thing to revel in. Clocking in just shy of two hours, this is a far-reaching set that leaves one feeling privy to a complex and beautiful comradeship.
The second in Porter Records' reissue program of obscure Sarmanto – Aaltonen dates for EMI-Odeon, the 16-piece band on Everything Is It also features such heavies as trumpeter Bertil Lövgren, saxophonists Eero Koivistoinen and Seppo "Paroni" Paakkunainen, and bassist Pekka Sarmanto. The disc mostly consists of the four-part suite "Marat", fleshed out with two additional pieces ("The Dream of It" particularly recalls Surman / Wheeler orchestration). "Marat" is rooted in the lyrics of the poet and frequent collaborator Diana Glass, sung by Taru Valjakka and bolstered by a plastic ensemble identity. Sarmanto has long worked with literary themes – the notes to Conversations detail the poems and plays that inspired his songbook, and the poem "Once" in Everything's liners recalls the linguistic reductionism of certain Scandinavian countercultural poets – yet the music is lively and quite accessible, with "The Pawn" (the suite's longest movement) sounding like Fairport Convention arranged by George Russell, electric piano burbling against the loose, splashy drums of Craig Herndon and Esko Rosnell and fleshed out with a lilting muted brass and flute melody. Aaltonen's flute solo is full of vocal, gulping flits, gossamer but characteristically intense, while Koivistoinen's tenor is much more bop-derived, but fits in well with a rousing groove. "The Game" is compressed and sinewy, but gives Lövgren ample room to stretch out with a surprisingly cutting midrange solo, followed by Koivistoinen's best George Coleman impression. The feeling throughout is of strong radio big band postbop (not hard to find in Europe in those days), but with Aaltonen, Sarmanto, Lövgren and Herndon as principal voices – not to mention a folk-jazz undercurrent – you can't go wrong.–CA
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN
When Irène Schweizer sits alone at the keyboard in Zurich's Tonhalle in April 2011, two months before her 70th birthday, the magic in the air materializes fast. Broad-shouldered fairy tales are narrated with the impassioned grace of someone intimately acquainted with the instrument, acting as the causal factor of sound's chemical reaction with the surrounding air molecules. Tackling a programme including affectionate homages (of which Carla Bley's "Ida Lupino" and Thelonious Monk's "Four In One" are both outstanding), the pianist questions the very meaning of the term "interpretation", turning known quantities into utterly individual expression, a combination of concrete philosophy and extrasensory intuition – imbued with harmonic permissiveness – lying at the basis of convincing execution. And then there's the veritable spiritual restitution of Schweizer's own material: "Hüben Ohne Drüben", chimerical and exact at one and the same time, "Jungle Beat III", a sabotage of jazz triviality mixing wit and technical skill, and the masterpiece "Bleu Foncé", an archetype of invigorating pulse and earnest polyphony that should be used as a tutorial in music schools. The older she gets, the better she plays.–MR
Wadada Leo Smith's Mbira
DARK LADY OF THE SONNETS
With his latest combo Mbira, Smith is exploring musical territory that (to this reviewer's ears at least) hearkens back to some of his earlier work with Bobby Naughton and New Delta Ahkri. The instrumentation is clearly different, as Mbira consists of Smith's trumpet and flugelhorn, Min Xiao-Fen's pipa and voice, and Pheeroan akLaff's drums. But there's something about the spare, open-ended lyricism here that – when contrasted with Smith's recent heavy engagements with the Golden Quartet or one of his electric ensembles – seems to represent the outgrowth of those earlier preoccupations. To say this, though, is to overlook the consistency of vision and even sound that animates all of Smith's music (to our great good fortune as listeners). From the opening notes of "Sarah Bell Wallace", with Xiao-Fen's playing so marvellously percussive and lyrical at the same time, Smith gracefully holds high tones across the cushion that akLaff lays down, giving the sound a feel of elastic time. As with many of the tunes here, Mbira finds its way into a deep groove, and amidst the bustle and fanfare Xiao-Fen's pipa sometimes sounds almost like No Wave guitar. "Blues: Cosmic Beauty" bursts forth with a flinty, bustling energy that could almost pass for trumpet, zipper, and cymbal. After a lambent, reflective pipa / trumpet duo, the relatively brief "Zulu Water Festival" is tight, its spare repeating lines almost sounding like an improvisation on traditional materials. A similar feel suffuses the title track, with gentle vocals from Xiao-Fen and gorgeous muted work from Smith (tons of subtle, delicate runs) and the most tasteful cymbal commentary from akLaff. It's a great disc overall, its energies both sublimated and expressive. Characterized by terrific interaction, an intense focus on space and dynamics, and tons of superb duets and solos, it's a distinctive sounding and sublimely spacious new joint from a player who these days can do no wrong.–JB
Marco Testoni / Nicola Alesini / Max Di Loreto
Tre Lune Records
This latest project by the Rome-based percussionist, keyboardist and electronics manipulator Testoni and collaborators Alesini (soprano, "Italian folk clarinet", electronics) and Di Loreto (percussion) is in part at least built around one of his favoured instruments, the caisa drum, a deeper-sounding relative to both the steel and hang drum (a metallophone of wood and metal, it has a gonging quality that invites comparison to gamelan, but with that cheerful carnival sing-song of its more famous relative). It's just one of a wide battery of instruments employed here to evoke moods that range from Brazil to Japan, via Collin Walcott's Pacific North West, Duchamp's Paris and, on the closing track, the spookier moments of Gavin Bryars's The Sinking of the Titanic. The trio self-describes as merging ambient, jazz improvisation, electronica, minimalism and world musics, and there's much here to commend it to admirers of Jon Hassell, or Oregon, or Milton Nascimento's work with Wayne Shorter (Alesini's keening soprano also recalls the folksier tones of Jan Garbarek). But the stand-out for these ears is a cleverly simple re-reading of Joe Zawinul's "In a Silent Way" – or at least the Miles Davis version, rather than the version on the 1970 Zawinul album, which actually post-dates the Davis recording – with Alesini excelling as stand-in for Wayne Shorter. The most beautiful touch, however, is the central theme being picked out on what sounds like a child's toy (apparently, a glockenspiel), which makes it sound rather like the Davis version re-arranged for toy piano by John Cage. It is, if anything, even more spacious than Miles, adding colours unheard before, with the electronics, percussion and keyboards giving it the submarine feeling of the Bryars piece. That deftness of touch, literal and metaphorical, not least when Jackson Pollock walks in to explain his techniques over Alesini and the glockenspiel, marks this a great many notches above what lesser talents might have achieved with the ingredients listed above. A sunny, light but substantial recording, which reveals new depths slowly.–JG
NOT FAR FROM HERE
Reedist Dick Wood is something of a legend in the Californian new jazz scene, described as an "inimitable musician / raconteur / provocateur and general disseminator of freewheeling artistry, love and cuisine" by Nels Cline. In this long-awaited release he fronts a quintet whose members can extract improvising material from a pinhead and make you feel they're having a lot of fun doing it. The leader's alto flirts and tussles with Dan Clucas's cornet and flute impressively throughout, their heterogeneous conjunctions and vixenish allusions steeped in knowledge of the past. But putting the hype of the press release aside (practically the entire history of music is namechecked, though Sun Ra, Zappa and Mingus might be vague indications of where this stuff is heading), what's exciting in Not Far From Here is how, on close listening, one can size up the individual participants' contribution to the collective interplay. Marty Mansour's drumming waits for events to unfold, creating suggestions and spaces for the musicians to dive in, while bassist Hal Onserud's punchy clusters and the Supercollider-fueled unpredictability of Mark Trayle's electronics push the energy levels even higher. It's a spicy recipe, combining playing at exceptional technical heights with amusing ironic twists and genre-dissolving disengagement.–MR
un lieu pour être deux
Copy For Your Records
I want to like this pretty assemblage of synthesized tones (Ben Owen) and odd guitar notes (Barry Chabala) more than I do, but can't help coming to the conclusion that the Wandelweiser gravy train has run gently off the track into a siding in a field (recording). A long time ago, in an article for Signal To Noise on the Wandelweiser Group (one of the first?), which I later reposted here, I wrote: "the mind is alert not only to the music, but to the myriad sounds that surround us in everyday life, sounds that would otherwise be filtered out by the brain as either uninteresting or irrelevant." I guess quite a few readers out there still subscribe to that, given the seemingly unconditional praise heaped on every new platter of Beugers and Freys (with a side order of pleasant but surely somewhat overhyped Michael Pisaro), but after 12 years in this place, the hum of the ventilators in the courtyard below and the whoosh of distant flushing toilets on the floors above have lost their power to surprise. That said, I prefer the ambient sound of my own apartment to that of someone else's. How many recordings of traffic noise does one need, after all? Trucks sound the same the world over.–DW
You might be as surprised as I was to learn that ugEXPLODE head honcho Weasel Walter is a big fan of the music of Boulez (though it's hard to imagine the mighty Pierre repaying the compliment and bouncing up and down on his Zimmer frame to The Flying Luttenbachers' Trauma), but it makes sense when you think about it. If it's extreme, uncompromising, and polemical, Weasel will probably love it. There hasn't yet, alas, been a Boulez release on WW's splendidly-named label, and I doubt there ever will be, but if it's extreme, uncompromising, polemical serial music you're after, you might enjoy David Buddin's work. Might is the word, though: heaven knows it's pretty tough going, not because of its evident compositional complexity (the Darmstadt avant-garde stuff that scared the shit out people half a century ago now sounds as limpid and supple as Mozart to these ears), but because of its sound. It would be great to hear this music arranged for and played by a top-notch instrumental ensemble – the score, an extract of which appears in the booklet, looks pretty exciting – but, as one doesn't seem to be available, Buddin settles for the synthesizer instead. At least it won't storm out of rehearsals with a headache, and you're guaranteed a note-perfect recording, but, dagnabbit, some of the sounds the machine produces are, well, pretty hideous. The composer informs us that the music derives from a single six-note ordered set and its canonical transformations (yeah! Babbitt rules OK! – and if you think I'm taking the piss I'll show you my signed copy of Bob Morris's Composition With Pitch-Classes), but I'd probably have to listen to it a hundred times to be able to hear what's going on, and those farty, tinny patches don't exactly welcome me in first time round, let alone fill me with desire to return again and again. There are moments of relative calm and textural clarity where I can just about nail some of Buddin's set theory, but they're few and far between. What a shame he couldn't get a singer aboard – for what we have here is the accompaniment to a work entitled Canticles for Electronic Music & Soprano – and what a shame Weasel seems to be dead set on outrunning Emanem and Pogus in the race to win The World's Ugliest Album Cover.–DW
THE NUMBER PIECES: 6
Out of curiosity, I've just counted up the number of John Cage records in my collection. There are 108 of them – which, coincidentally, is the number of musicians called for in Cage's most ambitious number piece (released as Vol. 26 of Mode's Cage Edition back in 2002, you may recall) – including this latest set recorded back in 1994 by John Kennedy and Charles Wood's Essential Music ensemble. As usual, it's beautifully performed and recorded, and comes with clear and erudite notes on the number pieces written by Kennedy (though surely most Cage collectors will know by now what he's talking about), but, while enjoying it for the fourth time as I write, I wonder how many times I'm likely to listen to it once this review is written, posted, read (maybe) and forgotten. It's not that I have any particular reservations about these performances – though I do find the ensemble reading of Thirteen a bit busy for my taste, and the version of Five for blown bottles reminds me of happy, drunken times as an undergraduate performing John White's Drinking and Hooting Machine, which colours the listening experience somewhat – but, well, late Cage isn't something I reach for very often. Why is that? Maybe it's the Olympian detachment built into the system, but I rarely find myself moved by this music. Sure, there is much to admire in the compositional method and its execution, and the historical importance of the number pieces is without question – if this body of work didn't exist, where would the Wandelweisers be? – but I find my mind wandering (let it, said Cage) waiting for the odd happy accident, the rare moment of magic. In discussing his number pieces, Cage was fond of quoting Thoreau: "the best form of government is no government at all and that is the form we'll have when we are ready for it." Maybe I'm just not ready for it yet.–DW
THE ELEANOR HOVDA COLLECTION
Chapeau once more to Philip Blackburn's Innova imprint for bringing to my attention the work of a composer I'd never heard of before. And, as with Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings trilogy, I imagine we won't be needing a sequel to The Eleanor Hovda Collection in the near future, if ever: these four CDs, three of them enhanced and containing background notes and pdf scores of the pieces, provide as much information on her life (1940–2009) and work (26 pieces, produced between 1966 and 2001) as you're ever likely to need. But, grouch that I am, I wonder whether two might have sufficed. I'm sketching this review while riding on a train through the flat farmland of the Fylde in Lancashire, and find the music and landscape have much in common: the view is not unattractive, with rolling green fields dotted with copses and crossed by footpaths and canals, but it is rather forgettable. Fans of Scelsi will find much to enjoy in Hovda's patient investigation of sustained sonorities and overtones, but the same territory is revisited rather too often – you probably won't want to hear another oboe trill for a long time once you get through this. The music on the second disc, much of which was conceived with dance in mind, could have been dispensed with altogether, and Cymbalmusic: Centerflow / Trail II doesn't add much to the world of bowed cymbals that we haven't already heard, but it's worth the price of admission for Regions (1992), splendidly performed by the California EAR Unit (and easily as good as many of Count Giacinto's chamber works) and the 1988 string quartet Lemniscates, written (of course) for Kronos but superbly executed here by the Cassatt Quartet. That said, my favourite moment has nothing to do with Hovda at all, as it turns out: it's when a stray bird finds its way into the empty 40 million gallon water tank in Fayetteville Arkansas where Hovda, her partner Jeannine Wagar and the local mayor Dan Coody were recording in September 2001, taking advantage of the spectacular 60-second reverberation.–DW
Lucia Mense specialises in an instrument – the recorder – which immediately brings back memories of unruly classrooms. Here in the land of bel canto, educational programmes by successive governments ("left" or "right", it doesn't matter – is there a difference?) have always considered music as good as junk, and most "students" behave accordingly, using cheap plastic recorders to create teacher-exasperating cooperative chaos. But Mense is German, and has subjected her instrument of choice (a wooden one) to a steady diet of diverse genres, with particular predilection for contemporary composers – my first introduction to her work was Phill Niblock's Lucid Sea on Touch Three. The program here is reasonably varied, primarily characterized, as the album title suggests, by the incidence of electronics on live performance, theoretically improved by algorithms and real-time interactions. That doesn't imply that a "remarkable" sticker can be liberally placed everywhere, though. While Ulrich Krieger's Black Smoker and Manfred Stahnke's ImpansionExpansion prepare a terrain for the flute to emit semi-dissonant fluctuations and extended resonances (natural and artificial), providing us with momentous acoustic imagery and (a bit of) emotional response, pieces such as Georg Hajdu's Tsunami and Sascha Lino Lemke's [Re:re Record a:re] come across as little more than intellectual exercises, compositional complexity compressed into somewhat inconsistent statements. Marc Sabat's six-part Erbsen stands unpretentiously somewhere in the middle. In any case, Mense's prowess as an instrumentalist is above criticism, and allows us to forgive the weaknesses while remembering the strengths.–MR
LIFT – TILT – FILTER – SPLIT
I bet there aren't many people out there who've studied with both Bunky Green and Tristan Murail, but New York-based Alex Mincek is one of them, and, as saxophonist in and artistic director of the Wet Ink Ensemble, which plays three of the five compositions on this disc, a major player in the exciting world where New Complexity composition crashes headlong into the furious energy of free jazz and punk.
As the name implies, the series of works entitled Pendulum are "inspired by the physical, temporal and spatial phenomena demonstrated by the simple swinging motions of pendulums", but if that makes you think of Steve Reich, think again. There's some remarkably thorny mathematics involved here, and accordingly Mincek's exploration of pulse has more in common, in its harmonic and rhythmic complexity, with his teacher Murail's (in works like Mémoire/Erosion and Gondwana) than with the slick Downtown minimalism of yesteryear. But the gestures are strong and clear, and for all its considerable intricacy the music makes an instant and powerful impression: in Pendulum III the equilibrium position is clearly audible in each section, in the form of a central microtonally-inflected pitch around which notes are scattered from extreme registers of the instruments.
The string quartet that provides the album with its title, superbly performed by the JACK quartet, is a thrilling rush through a dark forest of just about every conceivable technique known to string players, while being pelted by vicious ponticello glissandi that scythe through the undergrowth when you're least expecting it. Poco a Poco's processes of transformation (again, mention of "gradual accumulation" in the liners might lead you to expect something more linear and straightforward) are articulated by regularly and not so regularly repeating blocks of sound, as crisp and clean as Varèse and Stravinsky. You can hear more of how Mincek puts his bits and pieces together in Nucleus, the austere, tight duo for saxophone (Michael Ibrahim) and percussion (Eric Poland) that brings this truly outstanding album to a close. Essential listening.–DW
RA AN NA JE DA KU
The album title isn't some odd haiku, but simply the first two letters of the first names of the five featured performer / composers – Rama Gottfried, Andrew Greenwald, Natacha Diels, Jessie Marino, David Broome – plus violinist Kiku Enomoto, who's also responsible for the artwork (wait a sec, shouldn't that be a "KI" instead of a "KU", then? Maybe it is some kind of poem after all..). The booklet accompanying the two discs, with its imaginary dictionary definitions of "pamplemousse" (French for grapefruit, not that it makes any difference) and photo of the musicians standing by a gravestone in a cemetery, is as amusing as it is informative: the music itself makes few concessions, but that doesn't mean it can't be fun. The ensemble line-up is quite light and bright – Diels plays flutes and piccolo, Enomoto violin, Marino cello and Broome piano and melodica, along with Russell Greenberg on percussion on three of the seven pieces and vocalist Maria Stankova on Diels's Pulse Compression.
Andrew Greenwald's On Structure requires flute, violin, cello and piano to "make sense of a rapidly descending concentric circle of contradictory input. Signification, once held in lock-step with narrative continuity, is recontextualized, subverted and distorted." And if that sounds difficult, you should see the score (I see Brian Ferneyhough gets a hug and thank you – that figures), but its gasps and rasps are sequenced and spaced with great finesse. Gottfried's Nest, constructed out of nested repeating units as its title suggests, is busier and, with the toy piano and electronics (who's on electronics?), colourful proof that post-Lachenmann "extended techniques" can be as accessible and enjoyable as playing it straight. Diels's Symbiosis explores similar territory, but is a sparser, more jittery affair, the strings making extensive use of scattery spiccato bowing. Her Pulse Compression in which "phrases of consistent duration are chopped, cancatonated [sic], sliced, smashed vertically and squished horizontally" is a tougher nut to crack, but as the material "torturously" undergoes its "continuous process of simplification" it soon makes sense. The recording's a tad dry, though – a touch of reverb might have added a little depth.
Broome's Effective Temperature: from the Herzsprung-Russell Project, based on a grid illustrating the relationship between temperature, size, mass and luminosity of stars (reminds me of Boulez's famous line about moving out of the world of Newton and into that of Einstein), is, despite the presumably forbidding maths that went into its construction, a more melodic and linear affair, unravelling clusters into Ligeti-like (at times) micro-ostinati. Violinist Enomoto really has a ball on Greenwald's Sofrut, scrunching and skittering her way through what sounds like a ferociously difficult tussle with Diels's piccolo, a terse, thorny dialogue punctuated by occasional taps on an adjacent snare drum. Thankfully, things finally quieten down with Jessie Marino's closing Gnomon, based on a limited number of pitches played by three music boxes, which are picked up and picked apart by violin, melodica and bass flute. To quote those liners again, it's juicy and sweet and tender and tart, and another great outing on the ever-impressive Carrier label.–DW
FIELDS HAVE EARS 6
I well remember the shock, upon reading Salman Rushdie's The Moore's Last Sigh, of realizing that Rushdie was unifying his corpus, Faulkner-like, by incorporating characters from earlier works. It seems that Michael Pisaro is following a similar path, as demonstrated on this newest and most exciting Gravity Wave release. "Exciting" is perhaps not a term often associated with Pisaro's music, but this hour-long composition is precisely that, and becomes more so with each subsequent listen as certain pieces of the puzzle fall into place. Pisaro's notes detail the composition's complicated history, which saw the original guitar-and-sinetone conception grow to become a palimpsest of American and European field recordings, recorded music, performances of the work and additional layers of multitimbral guitar. He likens the process to a transformation from "regulated garden" to "rather unruly city park." The comparison seems apt, as sounds regularly leap unceremoniously to the fore in ways unfamiliar in Pisaro's work. The first part of the FHE series, recorded for Another Timbre, constitutes a precedent for the regular guitar sonorities offsetting the vibrant thrum of sinetones and environmental sounds. But nothing quite prepares you for the blaring carhorns, snatches of orchestral music and seemingly stray bits of conversation. There's a stunning moment, late in the piece, when a major triad, presumably in sinetones, is shattered suddenly by a clanging guitar sonority.
And yet, the gentle timbral undulations to which Wandelweiser devotees have become accustomed are in play. There are points at which all field recordings and guitar disappear, leaving a magically shimmering haze of sinetones. The outside world reasserts itself slowly, almost imperceptibly at first. The sensation of waves forming, breaking and receding invokes Pisaro's various wave pieces, alone or in collaboration with Taku Sugimoto. Like Wave and Waves, varying densities follow each other in slow dance, but, as with the Hearing Metal series, what I'll call harmonic motion is often accelerated. The combined effect comprises constant change over a backdrop of calm, a strangely inclusive juxtaposition. The fields' ears are hearing in broader panorama these days, and Pisaro's Transparent City has become a transparent world, encompassing the composer's musical autobiography and the sonic universe that informs its authorship.–MM
Thomas Tilly / Jean-Luc Guionnet
STONES AIR AXIOMS
As my pal Jean-Luc Guionnet is something of a renaissance man, equally at home drawing, painting and copiously annotating one of his many books of philosophy as he is making music, this particular project must have been right up his street. Or up his organ loft, as it were, as Stones, Air, Axioms is a site-specific project based on and commissioned to be performed in the basilica of Saint-Pierre et Saint-Paul in Poitiers. Like medieval masons, JLG and fellow sound artist Thomas Tilly set about measuring the distances between the organ and the supporting pillars of the building, and used them to calculate the frequencies of the standing waves, which Guionnet plays on the venerable François-Henri Clicquot instrument (details galore on Wikipedia if you're an Organ Morgan) and Tilly on a sinewave generator. The measurements are also used to calculate durations in the four movements that make up the work, with "silences" filled up with filtered recordings of the empty cathedral itself. The result is a splendidly austere assemblage of drones and tones punctuated by occasional cluster blasts on the organ and the pale whines of Tilly's sinewaves. It must have been awfully impressive in situ, but sounds pretty damn good in my front room too.–DW
DAUNTING IN ITS VARIOUSNESS
Copy For Your Records
Keroaän is a "musical artificial intelligence" developed by Ian Fraser and Reed Evan Rosenberg "that performs by implementing Xenakis's Dynamic Stochastic Synthesis [..] Pushing and pulling between sections of hard noise, singing glissandos, jagged melodic scribble and other sonic curiosities, the program liberates the computer from its position as a mere tool of hyper-productivity and transports the machine into a state of creative and performative being." Well, yeah, I guess so. But while one can easily admire the skill that went into designing and programming it, there's little reason to listen to these 19 minutes of, erm, hard noise, singing glissandos and jagged melodic scribble more than once. I might be more inclined to do so if I suspected there was some compositional forethought behind it and if it didn't sound so god damn ugly. Maybe it's more fun live – I see that the clever little machine also generates its own light show (shades of Xenakis, again) and even its own dry ice fog – but I can't honestly say I'm in much of a hurry to find out.–DW
Wade Matthews / Alfredo Costa Monteiro
Copy For Your Records
Matthews may be best known to some PT readers as a saxophonist and Monteiro as an accordionist, but on this deliciously frosty five-track record each situates himself deep in the gears of sound-making devices. Matthews is credited with "digital synthesis" and "manipulated field recordings", Monteiro with amplified strings, electric motors and radio. Through these devices, the pair make of disparate sounds their own bestiary, whose forward march is a terrific listen. "Aconite" is like listening through barriers to the sound of paper, exhaust tube and the grind of machines. A deep rush of air opens the lengthy "Crookneck" in an unfolding oscillation, which seems to summon lapping waves of low tones and whining metal. What makes the track, more than the lovely coalescing low drones, is the appearance of a tertiary layer midway through, a stylus or some kind of metal probe sounding as if it's trying to break into the piece. A crackling snare is morphed into whorls of sound on "Flounder", with the amplified springs very effective here. And after the tightly controlled sizzle and bowed glass on "Haven", there's a final layering of permafrost along with moaning rusty faucets on "Savory". Curiously, during the late moments of this track, it sounds like some distorted Japanese instructional tape vocals emerge from the tape slashing and power tools. A message buried or offered for our puzzlement?–JB
MEKONG MORNING GLORY
Those who think "Morning Glory" is the third course of "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast" on Atom Heart Mother might like to know that's it's also a tropical vegetable (aka water spinach) native to South East Asia, which influenced Eva Pöpplein and Janko Hanushevsky (aka Merzouga) as they sailed down the Mekong river across Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in 2008. As for the musical outcome, the voyage represents an interesting stab at combining field recordings and processed instruments, with a prepared bass guitar the lone extra-environmental source. The gradual increase in sonic concentration maps the transition from unspoiled nature to downtown bedlam, as sinuous oneiric washes delineate a virgin landscape progressively morphing into the typical traffic-burdened accents of a messy borough in the midst of its daily activity, with a number of scenes underscored by customized low frequencies. Throughout the journey we're greeted by noisy animals and humans, with children mixed well up front, while the river itself remains relatively quiet, apart from the roar of the waterfalls at the Cambodian border. It all sounds much better than an average day at the office.–MR
That Lasse-Marc Riek is one of the founders of Gruenrekorder is evident from the similarities between some of the atmospheres informing Saison Concrète and the vague, half-tangible depictions of diverse environments in Merzouga's Mekong Morning Glory (see above). This 44-minute work emerges from a protracted silence, after which all the possible variations on what we already know on the subject are presented one after another: buzzing insects, far-flung droning, tinkling objects, whimpering dogs, rustling steps, rain, children, birds, reiterative aspects of unknown mechanical processes. But what sets this CD apart from the rest of the worthless crowd is the way in which Riek has composed the whole, attributing the right specific weight to every acoustic illustration and deciding which details to highlight. The consecutiveness of the events is as carefully scripted as a piece of theatre, each occurrence a definite character moving across the stage and flawlessly reciting a part. The brilliant finale – a barrel organ emerging from a sea of bells and choirs to seal the envelope with a popular waltz – would seem an appreciative nod to some of Christoph Heemann's ironic twists. But Riek deserves better than mere comparisons: the smoothness of his work's overall impact is directly proportional to the sense of involvement it generates in the listener. Tedium is not a factor.–MR
Szilárd is the solo project of Jeremy Young, formerly guitarist with the splendidly-named post-rock outfit [The] Slowest Runner [In All The World], and Spokes is a song cycle of sorts, featuring poems by Charles Baudelaire (Les Fleurs du Mal, or maybe we should say The Flowers Of Evil, as they're read in translation) alternating with gentle, haunting chord-sequence based compositions. These are scored mainly for guitar (Wim Mertens comes to mind at times), but there's also a wonderful slightly out of tune old piano in there (shades of old Ludwig's Moonlight Sonata on the first track), nestling in a bed of delicate field recording. It's no surprise to learn Young has worked with Aki Onda, who's one of the guest musician readers here, along with Cathérine Métayer, Ella Joyce Buckley and Liam Singer, as much of the music emerges from and recedes into what sounds like warm cassette hiss. But, like Onda's solo work, this is hi-fi lo-fi, exquisitely mastered by Greg Davis, and each composition is structured with exemplary precision. OK, so nebulous dronery is nothing new, but when it's done this well I'm not complaining. Beautiful stuff, do yourself a favour and check it out.–DW
MAREES DE HAUTEURS DIVERSES
I'm not normally a huge fan of compilation albums, either as things to listen to (they rarely work for me as coherent and consistent statements and I end up skipping the less interesting tracks) or write about (I invariably forget to mention someone, and they get all pissed off and then I end up spending more time fielding angry emails than.. oh never mind), but I've been intrigued by this one, maybe because it takes a leaf out of rock / pop's book by setting out to remix an existing album, piece by piece. The album in question, Complainte de Marée Basse, came out a year or so ago on the same (net)label, Insubordinations, and was by Portuguese guitarist Abdul Moimême and the Swiss duo Diatribes (Cyril Bondi and d'incise), and it's both entertaining and enlightening to compare the seven original tracks with their remixed versions here.
By and large these latter pieces tend to iron out the rough bits of the originals while scrupulously respecting their original character and texture – Nicolas Bernier's remix of "crustacés" being the most user-friendly example, but (for my money) Mokuhen's "poisson silence, oki" the most rewarding. Of course, modern computer technology being the wonderful thing that it is, enabling blithering idiots to create something of Ferneyhovian complexity in about the time it takes to brew a cup of tea, I can't for the life of me say how much work went into each of these mixes (I suspect seasoned practitioners like Francisco López, whose "untitled#279" graces this selection, could do one in their sleep), but I like what I hear and that's all that matters. Don't write in if you're on this record and I forgot to mention you.–DW
SOMEONE ELSE'S SUMMER
Currently studying for an MFA in Electronic Music at Mills College but originally from Chapel Hill NC, Andrew Weathers seems to be remarkably busy if his website is anything to go by, but there's nothing rushed about this fine solo album. The 45-minute title track is a luminous chord whose constituent sinewave notes rise and fall in amplitude, dipping in and out of the mix and giving rise to gentle Lucier-like pulses, with occasional flecks of sunlight from an acoustic guitar. It's bookended by an all-too-brief guitar prologue, "Last Summer (Cedar Falls, IA July 2010)" and the nine-minute "Transient Summer", which unless I'm mistaken is a recording of a clock ticking not far from an open window – the odd car passes from time to time and the music (far far away this time) sweeps gently up and down through the partials of another chord. The tonality throughout the album is unashamedly major, but the music is contemplative, even introspective. Discreet, fragile, unassuming but skilfully crafted and warmly recommended.–DW
Copyright 2004 by Paris Transatlantic