The CD Reviews: Theremin to Beefheart

critiques by DAN WARBURTON, Paris Editor

Christian Wolff
Henry Cowell
Original Works for Theremin
Captain Beefheart
Chamaeleo Vulgaris
James Fei
Glen Hall
Anthony Braxton
Bruno Meillieur
Spring 1999 Releases
Winter 1999 Releases


Christian Wolff
Roland Dahinden / Hildegard Kleeb / Dimitrios Polisoidis

"Strictly applied chance procedures are the ultimate systemic procedures," writes Christian Wolff in his notes to his "minimalist" series of pieces (whose title refers of course to pianist John Tilbury, an associate of long standing). Anyone expecting old-school minimalism will be somewhat bemused by these deceptively fragile works, though: Wolff's underlying compositional systems are far from instantly discernible ("the idea is that sounds come in fixed cycles, like planets in a solar system. For example, sound x appears at a more or less fixed duration every 54 beats, sound y every 29, sound z every 11, and so forth."), and the flexibility of instrumentation, choice of clef and open- form structures reveal his evident desire on a musico-political level to leave the performer a certain degree of freedom-this in sharp contrast to the minimalism of Reich and Glass, where performers effectively become mere components of a machine ("once the process is set up and loaded it runs by itself", wrote Reich in 1968).

The piece here that most resembles the repetitive surfaces of mainstream minimalism, "Snowdrop", is Wolff's notated realisation of an open system similar to those used in the "Tilbury" series, though its gently rolling arpeggios are light years away from Phil Glass (who hadn't yet patented the arpeggio back in 1969 and 1970, when all but one of these works were written). The other pieces, their notes delicately poised in silence like flecks of paint on a blank canvas, turn back in the direction of Feldman and Cage (and ultimately Satie), rather than towards the austere droneworld of Young or the incessant chatter of Reich and Glass. The turn on/tune in/drop out aspect of minimal music (that endeared it to drug-ravaged rockers and ambient new-agers alike) is anathema to Wolff; as such, perhaps one shouldn't dwell on the minimal connection, though it is comforting to note that he has been able to return to the "Tilbury" series in all its limpid freshness recently ("Tilbury 5" dates from 1996), at a time when Reich has all but dried up altogether and Glass has lost all sense of what he's doing, awash in a sea of aimless twiddling.

Henry Cowell
Musicians Accord / Colorado String Quartet
MODE 72/3 (2CD)

Besides "inventing" the cluster at the age of 15 ("The Tides of Manaunaun") and instructing pianists to play inside the instrument ("The Banshee", "Aeolian Harp"), Henry Cowell (1897-1965) was a prolific composer of chamber music, much of which has been scandalously unavailable for years-what a pleasure to see this 2CD set). His "Quartet Romantic" (1917), with its rhythmic system derived from overtone relationships (this some forty years before Babbitt's time-point system and Stockhausen's pitch/rhythm continuum in "Kontakte") sounds amazingly fresh and modern-programme it as a new work by Anthony Braxton and how many would spot the difference? All the more extraordinary when you remember it was written by a twenty-year-old during the First World War. The "Quartet Euphometric" (1919) and "Quartett [sic] Pedantic" (1916) fearlessly incorporate the same "manly" dissonances that pervade the thorniest works of Ives and Ruggles.

Curiously, perhaps, Cowell never abandoned a concern for quasi-traditional musical forms and practices; "Polyphonica" (1928) locks its gritty counterpoint into a somewhat stolid rhythmic grid (bringing Schoenberg to mind, unfortunately.. though Cowell's pitches are much better), and the "Suite for Woodwind Quintet" (1934) is almost baroque in its incorporation of dance-form material. (Carol Oja, in her excellent liner notes, suggests Virgil Thomson's "Sonata da Chiesa" may have been a model.) Even the formal innovation of 1935's "Mosaic Quartet"-five independent mosaics which may be played "in any desired order"-is rooted in the tried and trusted soil of ground bass and traditional counterpoint (you may argue that the idea of repeating mosaics necessarily recalls certain principles of sonata or rondo form).

"26 Simultaneous Mosaics" (1963) consists of a set of parts divided into sections (six for piano, five each for violin, cello, clarinet and percussion), with the performers instructed to "start and stop.. choose the order of the movements as they please." This double CD includes no less than three takes of the piece, each strikingly different in form but all retaining the sense of joyful pot- pourri dictated by Cowell's material, which is eminently listenable, even conservative by the standards of the 60s avant-garde. Indeed, the "Quartet for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harp" (1962) is so pleasantly innocent that it could easily be included in a Sunday school soiree musicale without offending little old ladies with blue-rinsed hair. Strongly recommended listening for all the family.

Original works for Theremin: MUSIC FROM THE ETHER Lydia Kavina / Joshua Pierce / Elizabeth Parcells / Carol Eaton Elowe / Kristen Fox /
Portland String Quartet

There's enough info flying around cyberspace on the amazing life of Leon Theremin, so we won't go through the facts here (though it's a damn good life story); since his late comeback in 1989-he was 93!-Theremin and his instrument have acquired something approaching cult status among practioners of contemporary electronica.

Those of you not familiar with the likes of Robin Rimbaud have no doubt heard its weird swoopings on the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations", or in numerous Hollywood sci-fi soundtracks.Indeed, it was virtuoso thereminist Lydia Kavina playing on Howard Shore's soundtrack to "Ed Wood". This disc finds her in more "classical" surroundings, and it's a mixed bag of oddities. In the slight yet dainty works by Joseph Schillinger, Isador Achron and Friedrich Wilckens, it seems the instrument could easily be replaced by a violin-Kavina's sickly vibrato recalls Jascha Heifetz's early recordings of those wonderfully cheesy Kreisler salon pieces (no surprise to learn that Achron was Heifetz's accompanist for many years).

These works, along with Bohuslav Martinu's "Fantasia", where the theremin plays in the distinctly classical line-up of piano quintet plus oboe, have aged badly, while Percy Grainger's astonishing "Free Music #1" (1936) still sounds like music from another planet. Shame it only lasts 82 seconds.. Kavina's own compositions are somewhat stilted but obviously show the instrument off to great effect, as does Brazilian Jorge Antunes' "Mixolydia" (1995), the tape part of which was realised in part at the GRM (though you'd never guess), and Vladimir Komarov's "Voice of Theremin" (1996), whose eerie waltz works surprisingly well. At the end of the piece we hear a brief extract from Kavina: "Sounds like [it's] right.. can we listen to it?" Good question, Lydia-if you make it through all 68 minutes without a break, you'll be feeling pretty queasy; the theremin's pitch range and glissandi are definitely impressive, but its timbre quickly becomes irritating (especially with that wobbly vibrato).

Unlike the Ondes Martenot, immortalised in several major works by Messiaen including the "Turangalila Symphonie", the Theremin has gone down in history more as a ghostly sound- effects box, and even though this fine recording goes some way towards establishing it as a bona fide instrument, it leaves you wondering why there are no real twentieth century classics which feature it prominently.

Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band:
GROW FINS (rarities 1965-82)

Obviously, for Beefheart fans this is a must: storming live cuts from 1966 to 1980, an enhanced CD-ROM with rare archive footage, and healthy dose of radio broadcasts, out-takes and assorted anecdotal ejectamenta ("Herb Alpert overdubs his trumpet parts three times, I swear to God.."), and, the central pillar of the collection, the previously unreleased Trout Mask Replica rehearsal tapes.

These latter recordings, made in the Woodland Hills house where Beefheart practically incarcerated his malnourished and emotionally browbeaten troops, definitively give the lie to the old myth that the songs were spewed forth in a mere eight and a half hours and recorded over a year.. In fact, the opposite was true: that the Magic Band were so well-rehearsed they were able to go into Whitney Studio with Frank Zappa and cut many of the tunes in one take was due not to some superhuman surrealist voodoo but rather to hours and hours of painstaking hard work, much of which is available to us on Disc 3 of this set. Without Beefheart's vocals (added later) the pieces do lack some of their delicious weirdness, but the intricate mechanics of the guitar parts, executed fearlessly by Bill Harkleroad, Jeff Cotton and Mark Boston, are laid bare, and John French's drumming-which truly did re-define rock percussion as we know it-is a wonder to behold. Don Van Vliet owes a huge debt of gratitude to French, not only as his longest-lasting collaborator, right-hand man and confidant, but also as the archivist of the Magic Band-this boxset would be unthinkable without French's copious notes, which dwell less on the bizarre behavioural oddities of Van Vliet and instead re-examine the corpus of his work from the perspective of the musicians he worked with.

This said, I can't for the life of me decide whether "Grow Fins" is an indispensable masterpiece or a bit of a rip-off. Disc 1, apart from four live cuts from 66 and 67, offers demo versions of the A&M and Safe As Milk material, many of which are interesting but hardly shed much light on songs already available on "The Legendary A&M Sessions" and "Safe As Milk" itself. (A rehearsal version of the Milk material featuring Ry Cooder would have been a more tempting proposition; Cooder didn't stay long, quitting the band after Beefheart's catastrophic onstage "heart attack" at Mount Tamalpais).

Disc 2 consists mainly of live versions (all very good but raw in their sound quality) recorded at Cannes (France) and Kidderminster (UK) in 1968, footage of which is also available on Disc 4's CD-ROM. The rest of Disc 4 features a conversation between Van Vliet, Zappa and "the lady next door" (!), while Beefheart's girlfriend Laurie types out the lyrics in the background. Amusing though it might be to hear Herb Alpert tales and discussions about septic tanks, this material is presumably only of interest to bona fide Beefheart nuts. Finally, CD 5 is a mixed bag of live material (some excellent versions of the Trout Mask material as played by the Decals incarnation of the Magic Band, with Art Tripp on marimba), brief harmonica and voice snippets from radio broadcasts, demos and worktapes. Personally I would have preferred a complete set from Amougies in Belgium or Bickershaw in Lancashire (may we presume that complete recordings of these two dates exist?), and less of the jingles and worktapes; the piano demo of "Odd Jobs" is hardly a valuable insight into Van Vliet's working methods, and the two mellotron improvisations, though amusing (it's fun to hear the Captain berating hecklers in style), would surely have been more meaningful if we could hear them in the context of the longer live sets from which they were extracted. (Somebody has these tapes! Bring 'em out!)

The studio version of "Orange Claw Hammer" (with Zappa strumming along to what was originally an unaccompanied vocal on "Trout Mask Replica") is a killer though, containing some of the greatest lyrics ever penned. When Hip-Hop can come up with lines as good as these, I'll start taking it seriously again; in the meantime, while Van Vliet continues his self-imposed retirement (apparently not in good health), I suppose we should be thankful for what we've got. This may be a sprawling package, and it's conceivably too much, but there's a hell of a lot of magic in here.. However, newcomers to Beefheart might be better advised to start with the albums already available, especially since "Trout Mask Replica" has just been reissued on mid-priced CD. Fast and bulbous!

Chamaeleo Vulgaris:
Leo Lab CD 061

Chamaeleo Vulgaris is a 6-piece outfit put together by bassist Frédérick Galiay (isn't it also a plant used in homeopathic medicine which works wonders on teething babies?), and their music and inner sleeve artwork would seem to indicate they grew up with the Dead Kennedys and the Butthole Surfers-Gibby wouldn't sound at all out of place in "JUNGFRAU" (Galiay's photomontage also recalls Jacques Brissot's wonderful pop-art desecration of Titian on Luc Ferrari's "Cellule 75" cover). This is pretty extreme stuff, at times sounding like Naked City's "Absinthe", at times like Ground Zero (on a casual listening, Jean-Sébastien Mariage's guitar could be taken for Otomo Yoshihide), and you almost expect Jean-Louis Costes to burst on the scene and drench the mic with a typical torrent of scatological expletives. The longer tracks are interspersed with shorter, more intimate pieces, but for the most part this would be an appropriate accompaniment to, say, Monte Cazazza, reading Michael McClure's "Fuck Ode." Not for the faint-hearted.

James Fei:
Leo Lab CD 059

May we assume that the "AB" to whom this is dedicated is none other than Anthony Braxton?

Fei's saxophone sound and the earnest explanation of his compositional strategies in his clear and cogent liner notes (plus the fact that this was recorded at Wesleyan University and, oh yes, Braxton is a vieux routier of Leo Records) would seem to point to such a conclusion. Solo sax albums can tend to be pretty tedious affairs (even some of Braxton's are heavy going), but happily this isn't one of them. I venture to suggest this is because we know in advance that these are compositions, all meticulously titled according to their instrumentation and date of composition-good job Fei hasn't gone in for those batty Braxton diagrams-and that as such he can't be "just fucking about", as a friend of mine who should know better once described improvisation. You can even follow a score of Fei's delicate bass clarinet multiphonics, and he sure as hell looks serious in the photo. If he can get such awesome sounds out of the bass saxophone as this, may we look forward to an album of ensemble pieces, or is the playing technique too personal, too idiosyncratic to be reproduced?

Glen Hall:
HALLUCINATIONS: Muisc and Words for William S. Burroughs

WSB was never very explicit about what music he liked, so his acquired status as the père spirituel of rock led to numerous collaborations with artists as diverse as Laurie Anderson and The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (the well-intentioned but awful "Spare Ass Annie"). Given the impressive number of albums featuring the Old Writer's inimitable cracked delivery, reading his texts yourself is a hard act to follow. Glen Hall has a spoken voice pitched way up there with Eugene Chadbourne, and to attain the necessary gravitas he has to resort at times to transposing it down, producing unfortunate and inappropriate recollections of George Clinton.

This "sonic film" inspired by "Nova Express" and "The Wild Boys" inevitably plays with classic signifiers, the first of which (Burroughs = Beat Generation = Sleazy Jazz) brings wafts of Gil Evans (Hall worked with him), but also of Nino Rota and Carla Bley. Former Bley-sideman Roswell Rudd turns in some splendid-if raucous-trombone work, and Hall's sax is most impressive, but the band's sound (recorded live and it sounds like it) is hard-edged and not helped by wooden drumming and somewhat crude slide guitar. Signifier Number Two (Burroughs = Tangiers = Middle-Eastern scales/ languorous flutes/ swoony violins) has been done better by Bill Laswell on the memorable "The End of Words" from 1989's Material album, "Seven Souls", and by Richard Horowitz and Sussan Deihim on 1997's "Majoun"-admittedly not a Burroughs tribute, but as heady and intoxicating as his finest purple prose.

Aside from the rumpus of the live band, Hall also namechecks Luc Ferrari as a major influence, but compared to the Ansel Adams detail of Ferrari's Algeria in "Promenade symphonique à travers un paysage musical", Hall's sonic art is a tourist snapshot, albeit a good one. However, his occasional use of jump/cut mixing hardly does justice to the (musically) revolutionary potential of Burroughs' cut-ups-the techniques mapped out in "Electronic Revolution" are just crying out for exploration by today's laptop mafiosi. Despite its title, "Hallucinations" sounds curiously safe, even comforting, which is surely neither what Hall intended nor-one supposes-what Mistah Burroughs would have wished for.

Anthony Braxton:
Golden Years of New Jazz, GY 3

Despite a rather dead concert recording made in Bologna (though since when did a less-than-impeccable sound quality stop Leo Feigin releasing great music?), and the fact that James Emery's "electronics" sound a bit cheap (sort of Clangers vs. early Space Invaders.. well this was 1980..), the release of these two live sets is damn good news. The fluidity of Emery's guitar work (we'll leave the electronics out of this) adapts well to the rigour of Braxton's compositional design, trombonist Ray Anderson is outstanding throughout (the agility of his solo in the first set is breathtaking), and Braxton handles his armoury of instruments with evident glee — his clarinet work is esepecially fine. Leo's new-look digifile package also includes extensive liner notes by Graham Lock on "Composition No. 94", complete with extracts from the score, which make interesting reading but hardly explain the complex interface between composition and improvisation. Braxton, we are told, is synaesthetic, and apparently able to hear the odd geometrical shapes that often constitute his music's titles. Exactly how one is supposed to "play" one of these shapes is not always clear (and recalls famous 1950s polemics over the notation of Earle Brown's "Folio"), but the score nevertheless dictates a certain sound-world, angular, athletic and, if not accessible, attractive. It's also indisputably Braxton; the line-up and the aesthetic may be far from jazz, but that rusty, fluffy sound is as unmistakable as any major jazzman's.

Bruno Meillier:


NM 209 CD
distribution Orkhestra,

?These albums showcase two aspects of the work of saxophonist/flautist Bruno Meillier, a leading light in the improv scene in the south of France (through his association "Toto n'aime pas la soupe"); "Le Vaste Océan", a trio project with bassist Cyrille Cauvet and percussionist Dominique Lentin, presents essentially composed material, the dry trio sound at times recalling early Steve Coleman (with Meillier on flute James Newton also comes to mind). Maybe even a little too dry; perhaps a delicate touch of piano or guitar would have helped define the harmonic nature of the compositions, which are certainly worthy of attention.

?NM 209 finds Meillier in the company of guitarist Noël Akchoté, who's clearly picked up a lot of good tips from his Rectangle collaborations with Derek Bailey (use of volume pedals) and Eugene Chadbourne (hi-speed plectrum work). An odd match, at face value, since Meillier is more of a note-man and Akchoté a timbral innovator, but thanks to the condensed nature of the pieces (knowing where to stop is an art) it works very well. For those who thought that exciting French improv didn't exist outside Paris..