Archives, 1998-99

critiques by DAN WARBURTON, Paris Editor

Delight at the End of the Tunnel

Music of David Slusser

Deciding where to draw the line between music and sound effects-a question which raises itself when considering the music of David Slusser, erstwhile sound designer for Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and David Lynch-is effectively nothing more than a late twentieth-century update of the old polemic of "absolute" versus "programme" music. The simple fact is, not many people believe in the idea of absolute music anymore; apart from a handful of ivory-tower academics and some zealots buried alive at IRCAM, most of us have come to accept that music, be it by Wagner, Morricone or Carl Stalling, can remain damn good music even if it is at the same time depicting the waters of the Rhine, a Clint Eastwood gunfight, or the coyote falling yet again to his death at the bottom of the canyon. Certainly John Zorn, who handpicked Slusser for an album on his Tzadik label (as a way of saying thanks for his participation in numerous performances of "Cobra" a few years back) as a diehard fan of both film and cartoon music, would have little truck with the aesthetically anal concept of "pure music".

In choosing to include-at Zorn's behest-extracts from sound documentaries written for radio ("Suite Machines") as well as a "cinematic tone poem" entitled "Kubrick", Dave Slusser evidently doesn't seem at all fazed that listeners might exercise their visual imagination. From his straightforward and frank sleeve notes we also learn that "Ill-Prepared" consists of nothing more than "various sounds.. experimenting from under the piano lid", and that "Dragon"'s soundworld "evoked a dragon in my mind". This kind of refreshing naïveté (exemplified also by his lousy puns as titles: "Delight at the End of the Tunnel", "Suite Machines", "Hip Replacement" and "Olive Arrows"-the latter for Pauline Oliveros, of course: try saying it with a California accent) places Slusser in the great California tradition of what-the-hell experimental music (along with John Cage, Harry Partch and Brian Wilson, another Zorn favourite). Like Partch, he also includes some intriguing home-made instruments, notably the Beetle, designed by Tom Nunn-"a table-like instrument, with a contact mic and all kinds of strategically imbedded tuned rods, bolts and tines played with mallets, bows and other props, yielding a surprising variety of sounds.."-and the Slussomatic, "a very primitive synthesizer, built from an old video game chip". The album reveals his glee (still evident despite years in the business as a hardened pro) in making, recording and manipulating sounds-that is, after all, what "composition" means, a putting together. Zorn's choice of Slusser for his Composer series (along with, among others, the nearly-forgotten French master of the objet trouvé, Luc Ferrari) would seem to indicate that he shares this idea of what a composer is at the turn of the third millenium. Like Ferrari, Slusser is not averse to poking a bit of fun at popular musics-while not sharing Paul Schutze's opinion of "Hip Replacement" as "truly awful", it definitely belongs in the same bin as Morricone's cheesy pop take-offs and the insane collage of Ferrari's "Music Promenade".
There is something very American here though, perhaps a throwback to the composer's jazz training back in Akron, Ohio-what a shame his sleazy big band piece "Angelo" (a homage to David Lynch's house composer Angelo Badalamenti) isn't a bit longer. Let's hope some of Slusser's sax work with Rubber City finds its way over here soon. Along with Zorn's resurrection of Ferrari and Eyvind Kang's "7 Nades", "Delight at the End of the Tunnel" is one of the most interesting things to come out on Tzadik since the label's inception. That said, we're a long way away from Kang's rain-sodden post-Cobain Seattle sickness here; Dave Slusser sounds right at home in the sunny, wacky pluricultural Bay Area. I look forward to catching a gig next time I'm over there. [Tzadik TZ 7024]

Musica Impura

Music of Mathias Spahlinger

"A fundamental cleavage, with which man's psychism is confronted throughout his whole life, is that between autonomy and constraint.. Transposed into the sphere of music, it designates between the en-soi of the acoustical element and the restricted order of composition.." This quotation from Peter Niklas Wilson's sleeve notes, though perfectly comprehensible, is typical of the texts which invariably accompany new releases of European contemporary music. Improvised and experimental rock are not entirely philosophy-free anymore, especially since the suicide of Gilles Deleuze (there are more "rhizomes" in German techno than at IRCAM these days), but, for some reason, contemporary music has a peculiar affinity for post-structuralist philosophical jargon. Perhaps it's because composers these days tend to write as much about music as they do music itself-if composers in the eighteenth century were faithful civil-servants, and mad romantic visionaries in the nineteenth, then the stereotype of the late twentieth-century composer lies somewhere between medieval scholar and nuclear physicist. It's not that I have anything particular against such sleeve notes (Wilson's here are pertinent and informative); nor would I advocate the "this-is-what-you're- going-to-hear- and-here's-how-you- should-listen-to-it" style of Nat Hentoff and Michael Cuscuna on those old Blue Note and Prestige albums-but there is much to say about this music without discussing the aesthetic/philosophical stance it purports to take.

I first came across the music of Mathias Spahlinger (born 1944, no other biographical information forthcoming on this album, intriguingly enough) years ago in a university record library, on what must now be a long out-of-print box set of new German music. The piece in question was the "Vier Stücke" (1975), for soprano, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. Familiar though I was with the ultra-condensed miniatures of Schoenberg and Webern, I was totally unprepared for the visceral intensity of these four tiny pieces (the longest lasting under a minute and a half, the shortest a mere eighteen seconds). Unlike the restrained expressionism of his Second Viennese School ancestors, Spahlinger's music frequently boils over into violent noise ("If the scrapings behind the bridge were taught in violin classes in conservatories, I would only write normal sounds from now on.."), exploding the work into something much bigger in scale. Henry Moore once remarked on the crucial difference in sculpture between size and scale-how a small piece (was it the Benvenuto Cellini salt-cellar from Vienna?) was in fact enormous in scale, i.e. the way it occupied and defined its physical space (in contrast, Moore's own works, though large in size, are relatively intimate, small in scale). A similar kind of process is at work musically here, in "128 Erfüllte Augenblicke" ("128 fulfilled moments") and "Aussageverweigerung / Gegendarstellung" ("refusal to testify / contradictory presentation"). This latter piece opens in almost Beethovenian fashion with its juxtaposition of sound and silence (or near-silence), and when the music really takes off later in the piece the effect is electrifying.
Not all the music here is as condensed: "Presentimientos" (1993) for string trio lasts just under half an hour; "Entlöschend" (1974), which gives the tam tam its most serious workout since Stockhausen's "Mikrophonie I", clocks in at twenty minutes. While this latter provides the performer with graphic notation and playing instructions, the string trio refers back-consciously-in its material to Schoenberg's Op. 45. However, where the earlier work seethes with tense activity, Spahlinger's assemblage of musical moments feels suspended in time. The idea of "a building which threatens to collapse" is reinforced by the inclusion of a tape part featuring sounds of breaking wood, as if the instruments themselves were no longer able to sustain the assault of the composer's unorthodox playing techniques. This is taken to the limit in "Adieu mon amour" (homage to Guillaume Dufay) (1983) for violin and cello, in which fragments of Dufay's rondeau appear as ghostly echoes sporadically interrupted by vicious scratches-the fact that the strings are seriously detuned makes the sounding result of heavy bow-pressure utterly unpredictable, and hence fragile, despite its brutality. This is music teetering on the brink of the abyss-Spahlinger, perhaps even more so than Reynolds, Kurtag or Barrett, seems very close here to the world of Beckett.
"Ephémère" takes the "objet trouvé" idea of musique concrète one step further, bringing the everyday objects-pots, pans, pingpong balls, clocks, rulers twanged on table tops, you name it-into the work as "instruments" in their own right, and playing them off against normal percussion and piano ("that bourgeois piece of music furniture" as Wilson describes it). Hearing this piece made me regret having read the sleeve notes in advance (a nasty habit I should get out of): the sheer fun of the clattering and banging home-mades along with the pointillistic piano writing brought to mind some of the early recordings of music by the New York School-in a blind test I would probably have guessed this was a version of one of Earle Brown's "Folio" pieces. At other times though it could be a school orchestra improvising their own response to Varèse's "Ionisation". About two thirds of the way through though, everything stops as one of the percussionists plays sixty-five slow rimshots "as regularly as possible". A fascinating moment, this: its obstinate repetition ("when the hell is he going to stop?") has the effect of erasing our memory of what came before, while our perception of what comes after the drumbeats is inevitably tarnished, rendered impure.. when the thrashing repetitions begin once again just before the end of the piece, we're on our guard. The whole piece is a fine example of Stockhausen moment form in action (remember the older composer himself is not averse to excessive repetition in his work-"Klavierstück IX", "Mantra"). One is also reminded of La Monte Young's "X for Henry Flynt".
All in all, this is an impressive and thought-provoking selection of work, splendidly performed-as ever-by the Ensemble Recherche from Freiburg. Put it on your shopping list right away. Now, when can we expect them to tour with an all-Spahlinger programme?
[Ensemble Recherche ACCORD 206222]

Thanks to David Slusser for information on the instruments: check out his website. Or see our interviews with leading improvisors and composers: toy virtuoso Eugene Chadbourne, guitar virtuoso Fred Frith, and piano virtuoso Misha Mengelberg. (And did you know about Misha's pet parrot?)