Thursday, December 24, 2015

Toward the end of the 80s, I was becoming increasingly disgruntled with what I perceived as the lack of new ideas and energy in jazz. Having cut my teeth, since 1972 or so, on the AACM, JCOA and offshoots and other amazing individuals and organizations, I was hearing a kind of stultification setting in, a complacency of sorts. Sure there were still the occasional bursts of excitement and creativity--I still think of Anthony Braxton's notion to have his quartet interpolate entirely other compositions at will to be the last "great" idea in jazz--but more and more it seemed that musicians were treading water. The raw creativity heard in, say, Roscoe Mitchell in 1968, seemed to be a thing of the past. I cast around, of course, finding temporary solace in the burgeoning downtown New York City scene, whose sizzle pretty much evaporated within a decade (and scarce little of which I can return to these days without grimacing) but was always on the lookout for solution to the dilemma I perceived. For a while one such might have been the combination of solid, Mingusian themes and arrangements with free soloing and more expansive structures. I'd been a big fan of the Willem Breuker Kollektief since seeing them several times at Environ in 1977 or '78 but by 1985, their shtick had begun to wear very thin. Bands led by Henry Threadgill, Olu Dara and, to a lesser extent, David Murray made things click for a few years but those too eventually succumbed to a kind of laurel-resting torpor (though, of course, many would disagree).

I'm guessing it was in the review section of Cadence or possibly Coda that I first came across the mention of Simon H. Fell and, if I'm remembering correctly, those write-ups cited Fell's use of robust structures (Mingus' name was certainly invoked) integrated with aspects of free playing from the European school, another area I'd begun reinvestigating since more or less abandoning it in the mid-70s in favor of AACM and other American jazz avant approaches. It seemed to me a possible source of new and exciting work so, around 1986, I ordered Fell's Compilation I on the Bruce's Fingers label (I'd get Compilation II a few years later). I've long since given away almost all of my vinyl and no one's seen fit to upload music from either of these recordings as near as I can tell, so I can't say with any exactitude but recollect that I was hot and cold on the recordings, enjoying some portions the more robust and bluesier it got, finding other parts too cleanly abstract (in the "standard" British free-improvising sense), a bit oil and water, though overall my response was positive (see All Music reviews here and here). His band, Persuasion A and their release, "Two Steps to Easier Breathing" (1988) struck me as much more successful, ably drawing on South African musical traditions. Things were quiet on the Fell front until the late 90s when my friend and Cadence critic Walter Horn wouldn't stop proselytizing about "Composition no. 30" (1998, also on Bruce's Fingers), a 2-CD set for a big band of some thirty musicians (including several whose work I would devour in upcoming years, like Mark Wastell, Rhodri Davies and John Butcher). Once again, my reaction was mixed, enjoying some parts while finding others overly arid, though I began to get the sense that this was precisely what Fell was after and that, simply put, his aesthetic interests were somewhat different than my own, especially as I grew more and more disenchanted with new jazz, and so it went.

My next encounters with Fell came from a very different direction, however. I forget which arrived first but in any case, they were in the forms of IST (with Davies and Wastell, also the sole context in which I've seen Fell perform live, at Tonic in the early oughts; more on that below) and VHF (with Graham Halliwell and Simon Vincent) on the very first recording issued by Erstwhile in 1999. Along with groups like Polwechsel and Sugimoto's "Opposite", VHF was very significant for me, gradually laying open the world of "quiet improv"; I recall spending many an hour listening to it, listening in a different way than I had before, unpeeling translucent layers on each go-round. IST was slightly different, still having half a foot in the efi tradition; I'd love to hear that Tonic show again, curious if there was a divide between the harp and cello and Fell's bass. I was sitting directly in front of Fell and he put on a mighty performance--I found myself worrying several times that he might injure himself, including when he stuck the fingers of one hand under the bass strings and bowed atop both and when, his hands otherwise occupied, he used his left ear, rather forcefully, to depress strings on the fingerboard.

In the intervening years, I've only come across Fell's work sporadically, most recently in a pure improv context on Confront releases of older material with Derek Bailey and IST. Receiving the disc in question today brought back all of the above memories and having shortly thereafter serendipitously met Fell in Huddersfield and engaged in an all too brief conversation, I was intrigued to hear the latest in his compositional series, No. 79, "The Ragging of Time". And, dammit, I find myself having the same issues...

Some context. The work was presented as part of the Marsden Jazz Festival of 2014 and some thought was apparently given to commemorating the onset of World War I. I take it that John Quall, the festival's producer, more or less commissioned the piece, understanding that the date was roughly contemporaneous with the first jazz recordings and that Fell would incorporate thematic material from the time with contemporary sounds, restoring "the birthright of early jazz to make those traditional sounds new, to make them shocking, to make them the 'Devil's music' as it was once before." A tall order, indeed, but one that could, as far as I could glean from those 80s-90s recording of Fell's, fit comfortably into the structures established back then. Fell assembled a very strong sextet whose instrumentation referred to common ensembles of the era (Percy Pursglove, trumpet; Alex Ward, clarinet; Shabaka Hutchings, bass clarinet; Richard Comte, guitar; Fell, double bass; Paul Hession, drum set) and had at it.

The work is in three sections and the band immediately launches into a Morton-esque theme, bouncy and reasonably convincing, before quickly veering into a free improvisation featuring some blistering clarinet work from Ward. In microcosm, this is the model in use throughout: areas of thematic material interlaced or overlaid with a fairly aggressive but not atypical (within efi) improvised section, sometimes with written lines traced in the background, recalling (for me) a strategy used by Braxton among others. Different attacks and groupings are apparently scored with exactitude as the shifts within a given section are crisp and finely contrasting. All of the playing is first rate, especially Ward and Hutchings (the latter a name new to me) and I guess if you listen to the music from a post-Bailey, etc. point of view, you'll be well satisfied. I find it impossible to ignore the framing, however, and wonder about the reasons (aside from its seeming commissioned origins) to construct things this way. I mentioned the Breuker Kollektief above and there's something similar in structure here (albeit without the goofy humor and typically isolated solo turns, though the latter appears once or twice). As said, I have an affinity for much of that work up to a point, but that point was reached in the mid-80s and is difficult for me to regenerate enthusiasm thirty years on even if allowing for the fact--and I think this is decidedly the case--that Fell's group is more serious and committed. I think I would have far preferred it had no overt references to early jazz been made, instead touching on the matter more obliquely as occurs in the lovely three horn section toward the end of part one. On the other hand, the themes themselves, especially that from the second "movement", are extremely attractive and tastily arranged, as is a lovely secondary theme introduced about halfway through. It's simply something about the juxtaposition that bothers me, that oil and water thing. Shocking? No, not at all, just not integrated in a way I found engaging.

But much as this general language isn't something I'm too keen on nowadays and as much as I have issues with the (to me) forced confluence of styles, there's a decent portion of music that's simply exciting, even thrilling (for example a section beginning some five minutes into the third track). It is reminiscent of past musics, though these connections are likely more on my part than Fell's. I pick up a bit of John Carter now and then, for example, not a bad point of reference at all. And to be sure, those listeners with less of a bone to pick with this school of free improv will (and should) ignore my quibbles entirely and dig in; they'll have a great time and experience work at a very high level.

(While writing this piece, I found a wonderful video of Fell playing solo. There's an enormous amount of subtlety and beauty going on here. It's more in accord with where my focus is these days and has me hoping that, at least, he one day creates a bridge of sorts between this approach and his ensemble work. Perhaps he has and I'm simply ignorant of it.)

Bruce's Fingers

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Jürg Frey - string quartet no. 3/unhörbare zeit (Edition Wandelweiser)

What to say? Two works, Frey's third string quartet (2010-2014) and a piece for string quartet and two percussionists (2004-2006), with Quatuor Bozzini on each, assisted by Lee Ferguson and Christian Smith on the latter.

I get the impression that if you half-listened to the string quartet, you might get the impression of stasis and self-similarity though nothing could be further from the truth. In his notes, Frey compares it to "the silence of a square, a room, a wall or a landscape" and that gets to the heart of the matter--one merely has to listen the way one can simply and deeply observe a wall to perceive not just the variations but the progressions, the story even. Recent releases from Frey have varied between the surprising melodic lushness heard on the Musiques Suisses recording and the grayer, more austere approach heard on "Grizzana" (Another Timbre), both of which I love deeply. The two works here strike me as somewhere between; more accurately, ranging from one boundary to another, and much else besides.

The string quartet is deceptive. On my first listen to the disc, it was "unhörbare zeit" that grabbed me but upon repeated listenings, it was clear how much I was missing in this piece. It begins with single whole note chords, grainy and exquisite, separated by a brief rest, in a calm sequence that has a little bit of a back and forth quality. After three minutes, the single notes separate into pairs, retaining the initial serenity. Back to single notes for a short time, then back to pairs, the tones acquiring a more worried and tense quality though the pacing remains the same. It subtly shifts into groups of four chords some 6 1/2 minutes in, sadder now. The emotional tinges throughout are always changing. Frey may object, but I hear a kind of narrative thread, finding myself in the mind of someone taking a long, quiet walk, perhaps remembering a friend recently lost, the highs and lows. This is encouraged by the fact that one hears (especially when listening on headphones) the breathing of some of the musicians as well as other non-instrumental sounds. Whether intentional or not, it acts to personalize the setting quite beautifully. The chords are attenuated, thinned to whispery lines, almost weeping, their sequencing becoming sparser, the spaces between lines lengthening a bit, before richer tonalities emerge. About halfway in, the mood becomes languorous and, dare I say, hopeful. The comparison may not be apposite, but I found myself thinking that this is the kind of music that, a few decades back, I hoped Gavin Bryars would write. But this is more profound, lush while retaining the requisite trace of bitterness. In the meantime, the pacing, while never disappearing, has become more blurred--there are many things happening throughout and I hear different aspects each time I listen. The music becomes more hushed, still richer and deeply grained, but barely stirring, longish lines wafting one by one through the air in the room like breath in the cold. In the end, the "walk" resumes, with more a sense of the inevitableness of loss combined with moving onward. A stunning, truly moving work, my favorite piece of composed music in quite a while.

Which is not to slight "unhörbare zeit", which is sumptuous as well and, indeed, in some ways is not so dissimilar. The added percussion provides a fertile layer of sound, hear dark and rumbling there softly jangling. Again, the pacing is calm and steady, individual "blocks" of sound looming into audibility, evanescing. If I can extend or at least refer to the imagery the first piece conjured in my head, understanding that I may be imputing too much, one difference might be that this work is more purely sound-concerned and less emotionally suffused. Still, the somberness of, say, the heavy but hollow, low percussion blows, sounding singly against string bowing that as become less regular, more fragmented, carries a dark intensity of its own. The world is bleaker, more concerned with the immediate environment than memories. There's some amazing music herein, though, including a set of chords late in the piece that sound for all the world like accordions, baffling me and lending a slightly queasy air to the conclusion of the work, very unsettling and effective.

Fantastic music, in any case. For anyone at all partial to Frey's work, it's an automatic. Personally, it's my favorite recording of composed music heard in 2015, possibly for longer than that.

Edition Wandelweiser

Also available from Erst Dist

Friday, December 04, 2015

Devin DiSanto/Nick Hoffman - Three Exercises (ErstAEU)

In a previous post, I mentioned the group of sets heard at AMPLIFY:exploratory that, as a whole, I found more interesting in approach, all of which involved Graham Lambkin and Taku Unami. Unami, here and in his 2011 visit, seems to come prepared with one basic idea which he iterates during all or most of the sets in which he's involved. This time it was fans, floor level and standing, employed both for the movement and noises they created on their own (sometimes interacting with each other) and their effect on garbage bags and the occasional small cardboard box. He also engaged in a little bit of surprising but very apt piano playing as well as wielding an electronic device or two. The festival opened with Unami and Sean Meehan, the latter playing (I think--he was seated on the floor and my view was entirely blocked) a set of bells. It was lovely and very quiet, the fans whirring softly, sometimes, by virtue of their rotational abilities, jangling against each other, blowing the green/black bags in a hushed rustle. There was plenty of silence and, several times, this was broken by an unexpectedly brilliant bell cascade. Really nice, made me want to hear a festival in which Meehan played in every set. But it also signaled that "other" path, the one more oriented on actions than musicality. In some ways, this dichotomy was expressed at its most extreme within the confines of a single set later that evening with Lambkin and Michael Pisaro, who more or less reproduced the ambience from their prior release on Erstwhile, "Schwarze Riesenfalter", Pisaro possibly playing some of the same piano chords heard therein, I'm not certain. Lambkin, however, apparently under the influence of sundry substances, delivered a performance that was in some ways truly dangerous; he seemed to walk a thin line between control and recklessness (but always, as ever, deeply and oddly musical!), breaking a glass candle here, toppling a mic stand there, threatening to lift a massive speaker and do who knows what. Pisaro, calm as ever, negotiated these events wonderfully, incorporating them into the overall structure even while being wrestled bodily. It was a thrilling set, at least partially because of the utter lack of predictability involved.

I confess, writing more than a month later, that I've forgotten most of the details of the Lambkin/Unami collaboration. There were fans and bags, of course, as well as more piano from Unami. Lambkin was in greater control. I have an odd sense of enjoyment though, for the life of me, I can't recall specifics! Ah well....

Unami played three sets during the festival, his final with Devin DiSanto. The bulk of the idea seems to me to have been DiSanto's (implicitly borne out by his activity on the "Three Exercises" recording) with Unami adding "commentary", but I could be wrong. In any case, it resulted in perhaps my favorite set of the weekend. DiSanto was seated at a table with a monitor and other equipment, the image from the monitor's screen projected on the wall behind him. Unami sat crouched in a corner delivering electronic sounds that conveyed a vaguely Japanese science fiction film feeling, an interesting tinge but not distracting from the action center stage. There, DiSanto, his chiseled face, slicked back hair and white shirt buttoned to the collar inevitably evoking Kyle McLachlan and thereby imbuing the affair with Lynchian overtones, engaged in a Personal Assessment test. I'm guessing from his demeanor that despite knowing the general parameters of the test, he wasn't aware of the specific questions. In any event, he pretty much maintained a straightforward, non-overtly ironic approach, patiently answering questions to the extent he could (there was an "Uncertain" button which was pushed once in a while, rather amusingly). It was funny, sure, but I had the impression that DiSanto has a deep fascination with these kind of tests, with their tenuous association with reality, etc. I found it absorbing to experience as well as a bit uncomfortable in the invasion-of-privacy sense. Granted that there are many precedents for this kind of performance activity, from Fluxus and beyond, but still it's rare enough in my experience to remain stimulating and thought-provoking.

While I assume that the contributions of DiSanto and Hoffman to the recording in question were more or less equal, the cover photos indicate a situation that has the former's name written all over it. In fact, it cries out for a video so one can get an idea of what's occurring. Nonetheless, my favorite aspect of it is the sheer immediacy one feels, of being palpably inside this room, this school gymnasium (?) while all the baffling activity is taking place. It seems to be presented quite matter-of-factly, from beginning to end though I wouldn't be surprised if there was a decent amount of post-production collaging (as with the Parks/Rossetto release, all credit due to Joe Panzner's mastering). It begins ("preparation/introduction") with several minutes of the sounds of the room, various clicks and bangs as things are placed on tables or floors, the people involved are shuffling around, talking, tape is being pulled, etc. Very transparent and mysterious at the same time. The piece is indeed introduced and commences with a short roar. Throughout, there are interjections like this, sequences of a more "musical" nature but the bulk of the recording isn't so far from it's first section, except that instead of preparing the field, certain designated activities are taking place within it. One senses a kind of system, opaque as it is. DiSanto saying, "...paper. Two: deer. Three: pier. Four: read." (or "dear", "peer", "reed"?), talk of placing numbers near ping pong balls and what sounds like an excerpt from a Bingo game all speak to processes ranging from arcane to banal. Descriptions of activity are heard, subdued and grainy, by male and female voices. Whatever the process is, it's always apparent, a strong sense of steps being taken. Sonically, it's like a hyper-concentrated Ferrari piece, relaxed and seemingly "true" but suffused with purpose. It sounds pretty spectacular, which at the end of the day, is enough. On second thought, I'd probably rather not see a video, preferring to conjure up my own images and explanations.

Fine work and exemplary of the kind of approach I found so invigorating at the festival.


Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Some thoughts on this past weekend at the 2015 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, seven concerts and two talks from memory, no notes taken).

Arriving in Manchester early Friday morning we were quickly and almost efficiently whisked Huddesfield-ward by the indomitable Richard Pinnell, admiring the Pennines on our way. We made it in plenty of time for the noon concert: Ensemble Grizzana playing four pieces by Jürg Frey, from his album, "Grizzana" on Another Timbre. The performers were Frey (clarinet), Mira Benjamin (violin), Richard Craig (flute), Emma Richards (viola), Philip Thomas (piano) and Anton Lukoszevieze (cello). I can't locate any etymological information on the name, but when I hear "Grizzana" I think of "grisaille", helped along by the sublimely beautiful grayness of Frey's music. The first two, "Fragile Balance" and "Grizzana" were with the complete sextet, very quiet and delicate, grainy. This was the first time I'd actually seen Frey perform (or, I think, heard any live music of his?) and, apart from the airy beauty of his conceptions, his clarinet playing was extraordinary; such control combined with calm emotion. As lovely as those pieces were, when only the piano, cello and clarinet remained for "Area of Three", a 30-minute work, something immediately clarified and the atmosphere became more crisp as the instruments entered in that order, creating great tension and concentrated precision. Even so, my favorite was "Ferne Farben", the full sextet augmented by a super-subtle tape of field recordings, the instrumentalists adding "simple" tones within certain time parameters but leaving much to their discretion (I think). In any case, a stunning work.

I'd had less than two hours of sleep in the previous 48, so I reluctantly begged off attending a set of three films by Huw Whal revolving around AMM performances and one done by Philippe Regniez in 1986 about Cardew which subsequently received good word of mouth. I did rouse myself, however, to see an interview of Eddie Prévost by Philip Clark. As an interview, it was rather disappointing, either dwelling on anecdotes that most AMM aficionados are likely to have already known or beginning to delve into interesting questions but never quite getting there. However, I was pleased to see Prévost in apparent good humor, an impression solidified over coffee and dinner prior to the next show. He was nothing but warm, funny and generous all weekend, quelling any fears I may have had about the upcoming "reunion" set. Dinner also precluded the possibility of hearing George Lewis' collaboration with the Berlin Splitter Orchestra though reports were middling, sounding like something along conduction lines.

That night, the wonderfully sensitive Philip Thomas presented three more compositions by Frey (all of which appear on the new Another Timbre release, "Circles and Landscapes"), his final showing of the festival, where he'd been composer-in-residence all week. The relatively brief (about five minutes long) "Extended Circular Music No. 2" (2014) was up first, a darkish work with troubling chords that makes me think of a slow-motion, downward stumble--absolutely fantastic. This was followed by two longer, far more "difficult" pieces, "Pianist, Alone (2)" (2010/2012) and "Extended Circular Music No. 9" (2014/2015). My immediate frame of reference was Satie's music from the Rosicrucian period, things like the "Ogives" with their impressive steady sparseness. Speaking with Frey afterward, he said that while many of his compositions tended to "stay in one place", he had become interested in works that progressed, went from here to there and there's certainly a kind of processional feeling at play, exceedingly serene in forward motion if delightfully unsteady in tonal content. Their length (about 30 and 22 minutes respectively) makes it difficult, for me at least, to really grasp as a whole, but I found them quite mesmerizing and listening right now to the above-mentioned CD--well, it's pretty incredible music. A special joy over the course of the festival was hearing Thomas for the first time--quite a wonderful and sensitive player.

Saturday brought three events. First up was the string quartet, Quatuor Diotima. My memory for specifics isn't good enough to give any real assessment, but each of the four works had at least a few charms: Thomas Simaku's "String Quartet No. 5" (2015) and Dieter Ammann's "String Quartet No. 2 'Distanzequartett'" (2009) I recall as being enjoyable enough (sleep deprivation beginning to assert itself once again). Heinz Holliger's "String Quartet No 2" (2007) was also fascinating, resolutely "old school" in some respects but entirely solid and imaginative, ending with an extremely effective last seven or eight minutes worth of the players humming along with their strings, really strong. Here's a version by the Zehetmair Quartet.

In the early evening, Apartment House (Gordon Mackay, violin; Hilary Stuart, violin; Bridget Carey, viola; Lukoszevieze, cello; Thomas, electric keyboard; Simon Limbrick, percussion) put together an imaginative program of seven pieces, beginning with a wry one from George Brecht, "String Quartet", which consisted of the four string players shaking hands politely. :-) This led to an enjoyable string quartet by Toshi Ichiyanagi followed by a hazy sextet work form Jon Gibson, "Melody IV Part I" (1977). More to my interest was Peter Garland's "Where Beautiful Feathers Abound", a delightful collage of seeming (Native) Americana, very much an outlier and a fine one. An ok Christopher Fox work, "BLANK" was followed by an intriguing one credited to Louise Bourgeois, "Insomnia Drawing". Now I know that drawings within that category exist but I have no source listing her as a composer, so my guess is one of her drawings served as the score, but I'm not certain. In any event, it was a nicely shaky set of lines, indeterminate and blurry, something I'd like to hear again. Finally, the sextet performed Cage's "Hymnkus" (1986), a piece I don't believe I've heard before and a very fascinating one. Having since read a description, I get more of an idea about its structure, but its odd, blocky sense of repetition, never quite regular at all but having some overall sense of semi-transparent self-similarity, remains enticingly obscure.

The one set during the weekend that I didn't think worked well at all was the Berlin Splitter Orchestra later that evening. It was broadcast live on BBC and a pre-concert interview with Robin Hayward and Anthea Caddy indicated much discussion and planning for the event. It was inside a large older structure still in use as a mill, the seats and musicians (some 24 of the latter) spread throughout the capacious room. But apart from a staggered entrance of various groupings and perhaps some "rules" regarding iteration of sounds, I couldn't really discern much to distinguish the resultant music from what often happens when large bunches of improvisers get together, which is to say, not much. Granted, I stayed put at one end of the festivities, in close proximity to Andrea Neumann, a young trombonist and a drummer, within easy hearing distance of an electronicist, bassist Clayton Thomas and Hayward, but I could still make out much of what else was occurring in the room, notably contributions from Burkhard Beins and (I couldn't see them) either/both trumpeters Axel Dörner and Liz Albee. There were many fine musicians present--apart from the above, Kai Fagaschinski, Sabine Vogel, Ignaz Schick, Boris Baltschun and others--but for me, things never gelled. I could easily have been missing something.

Noontime Sunday allowed me to experience the Arditti Quartet for the first time, though I've little real idea how the ensemble has changed over the years, violinist and founder Irvine Arditti being its only original member. Two of the four pieces I found entirely competent but more or less forgettable, John Zorn's "The Remedy of Fortune" and festival stalwart Harrison Birtwhistle's "String Quartet No. 3: The Silk House Sequences"--more technical flash than substance to these ears, though bearing craftsmanlike elegance. A nice surprise, though, was Iris ter Schiphorst's "Aus Liebe", especially its first half which featured some astonishingly moving writing for viola. I don't think I've heard her work before and need to fix that post haste. But the real stunner was Klaus Lang's "Seven Views of White" a 40-minute study of restrained tension, minutely variable lines relayed from instrument to instrument, needing to be handled with supreme delicacy while also imparting tensile strength, like stretching filaments of grainy gauze. Outstanding work, breathtakingly performed.

In the late afternoon, I attended a talk by David Toop. Speaking with him the day before, he hadn't quite decided on his approach to the subject, AMM. I understand that, in recent years, he;s tended toward not doing "lectures", instead presenting small environments of a personal nature. Here, armed with computer and turntable, original vinyl copies of "AMMMusic" and "The Crypt" leaned against the front table legs, he recounted his early experience with AMM, whom he first heard in 1966, often doing so over portions of music from those recordings. He was visibly moved at a few points, acknowledging how important this music had been to his development (and not just of a musical nature). Some attendees expressed skepticism about the personal nature of his recollections, preferring a more distanced approach but I found it to be a very welcome and warm way of explaining to the audience, a decent portion of whom were students, the context of the times and how AMM's stance could so deeply inspire the 17-year old Toop. I enjoyed it enormously and learned a fair bit in the bargain.

Finally, the first performance of trio AMM in about twelve years. I know there was some tense going early on in the circumstances revolving around the arrangement of this event but, as said above, any fears as regards untoward tensions had evaporated in the previous two days, so I went into the concert hall quite relaxed. As an AMM set goes, it was perfectly satisfactory if hardly transcendent. FOr the vast majority of its duration, the music remained very quiet, the most notable disturbances being a violently upthrust keyboard cover on the part of Tilbury (very effective when it occurred) and a world record Longest Sustained Cough by an Audience Member (although there were a few pretenders to the throne as well over the course of the concert). As a whole, it was fairly steady-state, none of that "AMM arc". Prévost was predominantly doing bowed cymbals and metals, with great sensitivity, enough that some members who don't normally care for that avenue weren't too upset. Me, I thought fared very well, gradually honing his attack until a sublime moment when, holding a cymbal by its stand (a small sock cymbal, maybe?) over the snare, he bowed it and very lightly allowed it to touch the top of the drum, resulting in an exquisite buzz. Rowe intentionally limited his palette to three or four sounds, most of which resembled what's been heard in his recent Twombly-esque period (sans any classical samples) but also, in a historical reference to AMM, brought out his radio which had been MIA for a while. His most striking contribution occurred toward the end when he picked up a pop song, allowed it to linger around longer than usual and then let a second one appear, this bearing lyrics that referred to "yesterdays" and suchlike (I wish I could recall more specifics). Perhaps due to that, he let it remain for four or five minutes, really pushing things, drawing a quizzical glance or two from Prévost. But if I had to pick a highlight, it was Tilbury, particularly his kneading, even caressing of the piano. Kjell told me later he's been doing this lately (though he hadn't when I saw him in Paris). It takes several forms. One involves laying his hands flat on the keys, exerting extreme tension between upward and downward movement, eventually, just barely depressing a key or two, sometimes resulting in a sound, sometimes not. It was so gripping. More, we would caress the body of the instrument, rubbing his hands along the keyboard cover, underneath the keys, on the sideboards, very much as a lover. One couldn't help but think of his age (79), his relationship with the piano, his corporeal love for the instrument. So intimate, so moving.

A great three days, not only the fine music but all the warm and deep talk and camaraderie. Thanks to everyone involved.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Kevin Parks/Vanessa Rossetto - Severe Liberties (Erstaeu)

I kind of want to write about some issues that surfaced while in attendance at the AMPLIFY: Exploratory a few weeks back in New York and may take unfair advantage of this recording (and, possibly, its companion release from Devin DiSanto and Nick Hoffman later) to do so. Broadly speaking (very broadly), the two efforts map onto the two central strains that seemed to me to be represented at the festival (and Rossetto was, with Anne Guthrie, part of this). Part of it is the approach but also, as evidenced here, I think part may have more to do with the differentiation between live improvised sets and recordings that, to one degree or another, are structured in the studio. On the one hand, we had more purely instrumental performances: Olivia Block/Maria Chavez, Michael Pisaro/Ben Owen, Block/Jason Lescalleet, Rossetto/Guthrie and Lescalleet/Kevin Drumm. On the other, there were sets that had more to do with actions of non-instrumental and "extra-musical" nature: Sean Meehan/Taku Unami, Graham Lambkin/Pisaro, Lambkin/Unami and DiSanto/Unami. My reactions were mixed. While my favorite ten or so minute block of music over the three days was the beginning of the Rossetto/Guthrie set, overall I found myself much more absorbed with the work of the latter groupings which, as you can see, each involved either Lambkin, Unami or both though their companions were equal contributors in each case. Without being unduly critical of the former, which were all enjoyable to one degree or another, there was something a bit perfunctory about them or perhaps "constrained" would be a better term. Of course, they involved choices made on the part of the musicians, both what to include and what not to but I guess, for me, it wasn't so much a matter of honing in on the various attacks chosen, more a kind of automatic choice having been made prior to the concert, some kind of innate narrowing of range enough so that, as a listener, one quickly has a good general idea of not necessarily the specific sounds that will unfold but more the structural nature of the set is apparent from the beginning, that certain strictures are in effect which I wonder about. Granted, this may not be an obstacle of any sort for many and it goes without saying that I'd rather be in attendance at such an event than most anything else occurring these days. But, to take the clearest example from the festival, apart from the wonderful video intro (the sight and sound of Lee Marvin's shoe's walking down a hallway from Boorman's "Point Blank") there wasn't much doubt about what one would hear from Lescalleet and Drumm. To be sure, they delivered their goods quite well but part of me wanted expanded possibilities. I don't think we're at the point encountered in the early oughts when certain groups of musicians (which I unfairly would think of as the Swiss contingent) got into what I heard as a very rote set of procedures, music they could ably accomplish without half-trying and which became very boring, very quickly but the thought began seeping in around the corners.

Some, as said, may have to do with the difference in capability among some musicians when they're improvising live versus constructing material in the studio (whatever the source of that material). Small sample size and all, but I have that impression with Block's work. Her recorded output includes many of my very favorite releases from the past 20 years but as an improviser, I've been less enchanted. I believe she herself has said that she needs some kind of structure underpinning her music, which is (of course) absolutely fine. I get the impression that this is the case with more musicians than Block, that many would be better served outside of the free improv context. I've long held this belief regarding many members of the avant jazz community, that they'd be much better off in "straighter" environs, that not everyone is so adept at playing free and that there's nothing wrong with this. As with Block, I haven't seen Rossetto in live, improvisatory contexts apart from this and a set at the 2011 AMPLIFY: stones festival with Lambkin. Again, that Lambkin fellow. He certainly brings with him a feeling of uncertainty, very much so. The same could be said of my experience with Guthrie. In both her case and Rossetto's, I've loved most of the recordings they've created which are, by and large, constructions done in the recording studio using myriad sources, presumably including improvisations. They had, apparently, met a few times before the recent show and, I imagine, "practiced" or at least discussed options and perhaps that's a reason their set began so beautifully. But--and I'll use this as a general example of a type of thing that has occurred regularly, acknowledging the unfairness of doing so--when the ideas dissipated, there was (to this listener) less searching for new ground (or ceasing, for that matter, calling it quits) and more falling back on existing techniques or approaches. They appeared more separate, less a duo. Now, sure, this can also be a perfectly valid approach, a kind of existential acknowledgement of the difficulty or even impossibility of communication. Also, I'm long past the point of automatically expecting a "good" result from what is, one hopes, a serious exploration of possibilities where success is by no means guaranteed. There's a very complex and subtle matrix at play here in the mind/ears of the listener, trying to make qualitative judgments of both the intentions and achievements of the musicians, who might be on a different page altogether. It's just that over time certain patterns seem to gradually set in. Of course, i could be wrong.

All of this is a very roundabout way of getting to discussing the recording in question, which is very, very good. Unlike the vast majority of live concerts, which almost inevitably are presented as a single block of music (a minor peeve of mine, that this has become virtually de rigueur), "Severe Liberties" has three tracks and the structure of each is solid and, for lack of a better term, chunky. That is, there's a corporeality about it, an excellent blockiness to its complicated shape. Many of the elements are bits of aural detritus rescued and put to excellent use, molded into a volumized, plastic form. I have heard much more of Rossetto's previous work than that of Parks, so if I say that the whole strikes me as fitting in quite well with her oeuvre, I don't mean to say that she was the dominant force here, just that it does fit in very well. The sounds are placed adjacent to and interwoven with a perhaps surprising amount of (more or less) traditional musical sounds, mostly from Parks' guitar, which is featured on several occasions ranging from controlled feedback to gentle, sensitive strumming. Rossetto's viola pops up less often as far as I can tell which brought to mind the four or five times she lifted the instrument during her recent duo performance, making a brief noise of one sort or another, than returning it to her table with what appeared to me to be a look of disgust. I was curious whether that was an intended element or a spontaneous reaction.

The depth, the apparent layers between the sonically thick and thin is outstanding throughout; you get a strong sense of hearing through. A truly palpable sense of space, for example, around the eight minute mark of the first track, between Parks' delicately strummed guitar and the small welter of noise emanating, one presumes, from Rossetto--fantastic (Joe Panzner undoubtably deserves a bunch of credit for his mastering). The small vocal components are always wry and welcome, from a fellow alerting someone that a UPS man is outside, to crowd noise to (I take it) Rossetto asking Parks if he's tired, the latter answering in the affirmative, a touching allusion, perhaps, to the health issues he's had in recent years. When there's dronage, it's usually offset by rough clatter, not allowed to dominate which, in this context, I appreciated and each track contains a stretch of silence as well. There's an overall self-similarity to the disc while the constituent parts remain distinct and absorbing, no small feat. Also not much point delineating more descriptives. I found myself thinking how much more alive and vibrant, even jolting, I found this than the vast majority of "diffusion" or other INA GRM-derived music I heard while in Paris. For me, this stuff is the real deal. Hear it.

(Apologies for the above digressions but, hell, so it goes)


Monday, November 16, 2015

Ryoko Akama - senu hima (Melange Edition)

Akama has quietly become a very strong presence on what one might call the post-Wandelweiser scene, both with regard to her own music and her hand in the excellent Reductive Journal publication. Here, she takes on the role of interpreter, having requested scores from four composers, two of the senior members of the Wandelweiser collective (Jürg Frey and Antoine Beuger) and two of the most interesting members of a younger generation that draws from, among many others, that tradition, Sarah Hughes and James Saunders. As it happens, the works sent by Frey and Beuger date from 1994/97 and 1996 respectively while the other two are from within the past year or two.

I couldn't locate any scores for either the Frey or Beuger piece though I came across a citation of the former, titled, "Die Meisten Sachen macht man selten" (which Google translates--incorrectly or non-idiomatically?--as "Most of the stuff that makes you rarely"), which indicates that it was written for percussion. Akama substitutes single vocalized syllables and individually played piano notes and sine tones. Whatever the original score proposed, it's a beautiful choice. The sounds appear singly, the vocal spoken calmly but not whispered ("mo", "kuh", "hoh", "shi", etc.--I take it they derive from Japanese), the pacing almost but not quite rhythmically regular. I don't think any "type" of sound appears more than three times in succession and the variation follows no pattern that I can detect, injecting a certain amount of unanticipatedness mixed with security as one listens. Keeping in tune with much of the essential nature of Frey's work, Akama allows for an amount of basic melodicis--through the piano to be sure but also in the qualities she chooses to include in the sines and in her spoken voice. Static on the one hand but patiently, steadily forward moving, it creates a wonderful impression of walking through a space, sensually alert, not stopping but stepping slowly enough to be very aware of your surroundings as you pass through. An excellent piece.

Interestingly, as Sarah Hughes' "I Love This City and its Outlying Lands (1.2)" begins, you hear wooly static for a moment but quickly, the "same" piano as had been heard in the Frey. But here, it's the first note of a simple, three note rising figure and is a more or less consistent presence throughout the piece's 27 minutes, though wavering a little now and then, sometimes as though "seen" through thick, partially opaqued glass so as to possess some amount of uncertainty, its "melody" evoking a plaintive quality. At first there's also a low, thick hum maintained, it too varying in intensity as well as some just audible rustling of a metallic nature. With only these few elements (and a handful more that occur as the work unfurls) a fine sensation of vastness emerges, hazily lit, the melody seeking a path through. The rustling gets closer, other sounds--a guitar string plucked, a thunder-sheet sound, a fairly harsh, metallic screech like a rod drawn across a rusted surface appear--the latter darkening the ambiance significantly, abetted by a louder and low grainy throb. A steady, thick clicking sound that begins late in the piece does its part to help establish a sense of foreboding as well. A great balance of spareness and implied density and a super-impressive work and realization--wonderful music.

Beuger's "touw (voor joop)" might be the most radical piece presented here. I'm guessing that the sound source is left up to the player and Akama narrows her range all the way down to an individual "blip", a kind of partially muffled tone with a sharp center, an electric spark clothed in thick lint. In the first section the pitch remains the same (I think) and the tempo is almost regular, not quite. There's a pause and, while the pacing stays approximately the same, the pitches vary somewhat. If you can think of a 60s sci-fi film idea of the sounds a computer would make and then slow that down drastically, you might get the idea. The sections continue, the silences between lengthening. It's quite difficult, perhaps a little bit on the cold side. I'm wondering how it would sound using an acoustic instrument. Here, the rigor combined with the relatively clean and sterile sound source makes it tough to work one's way in.

The alternation between the sparser and the denser continues with James Saunders' "overlay (with transience)", in pure sound range the richest work here. Akama brings forward multiple layers of very different electronic sounds ranging from bell-like to washes of static to ringing hums and more, weaving them through each other without any obvious overall system but not simply sounding like a drone stew either. Why this last is the case is, for me, hard to pinpoint. The music flows rather smoothly, the sounds tend toward the consonant, though speckled with the occasional harsh, electric spark. But you receive some sense of structure hidden somewhere beneath the quavering stream--I'd love to see the score. It's a marvelous work, mysterious and engrossing, somehow sidestepping much music that one might think of as superficially similar; there's something special going on here, some at least idiosyncratic if not unique approach to sound and structure.

"senu hima" is an outstanding release. If you're not as yet aware of Akama's work, this, along with her previous recording, "Code of Silence", is an excellent place to start.

ryoko akama

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Bryan Eubanks/Stéphane Rives - fq (Potlatch)

It's too tempting, writing this a day after the Paris attacks, two days after the bombings in Beirut and knowing of Rives' having lived for a long time in both cities, to draw some relationship between the horrors undergone in those cities and the extreme, keening sounds encountered here. Too facile, no doubt though Rives has long evinced deep political awareness; I'm sure Eubanks has as well although, in my experience, Rives has done so more publicly. It's an intense set, in any case, lasting only a half hour but filling that span well and, to its credit, uncomfortably.

The last time I saw Rives in Paris, playing solo at l'Église Saint-Merri, he seemed able to wrest as many as three distinct tones from his soprano and, in conversation afterward he said that this was the case, though he required reeds that were "damaged" in a certain manner to achieve this. Here, there's such a smooth blending with the sounds Eubanks conjures forth from his oscillators and feedback synthesizers that it's tough to tell but also, not so important. Depending on your volume setting, the beginning of "fq" could seem claustrophobic and oppressive. I turn it down a bit and hear all manner of things: high, quavering sine-like waves meld with equally high though grainier soprano lines, small, sputtering irregularities along for the ride with the latter; delicate interplay between them, thin weblike strands circling, catching, looping; what seem to be automotive sounds from outside also enter (though I suppose they could have been electronically generated) opening out the sonic space significantly, which space is treated with soft clicks and, throughout, Rives' super-subtle reed manipulation. There's a surge some eight minutes in, the wrenching electronics bringing things to a sudden stop, out of which a darker sensibility emerges for a while, transforming into an amazing birdcall-like section, dense and intense, arcing sounds whipping across the spectrum as though from some robotic jungle. Great stuff. A bit of a reverse arc ensues, the exterior sounds more prominent (though somehow also more "separate"), Rives in (or at least close to) that three-tome territory, the music gradually thinning, almost ending. There's a brief rearing up, however, Eubanks' oscillators matching those split tones and then some, setting one's inner ear to ringing and buzzing, eventually closing gently enough but with that fine sense of discomfort intact.

Strong, imaginative no-nonsense work, highly recommended.


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

It's very quiet around here.

Our house, which can be glimpsed a bit northwest of center in the above image, sits about 100 feet off a road which averages a vehicle every four or five minutes (more during what passes for rush hour, substantially less mid- and late-day) and, on the other side, about 200 feet away from a single train track, part of the Boston-Albany freight line. Perhaps twelve to fifteen trains a day go either way on that track (at some point on either side of Chatham, I take it, it splits into two), not terribly loud but certainly noticeable. They blow their whistles in town, some one and a half miles away, in what I've learned is a standard long-long-short-long sequence, each time they cross an intersection, three time in total. From this distance, it's far more evocative than aggravating; I somehow think of Partch. --.- is Morse for "Q"; there are various arguments as to how that became the warning whistle for trains.

State Highway 203 runs more or less parallel to our road, about 1,000 feet to the west. It gets regular, though not excessive traffic which I can hear faintly through the intervening firs when I sit outside in the gravel "backyard" on one of the red Adirondack chairs that the house owners left behind. I spend a lot of time there, reading, drawing and painting, solving arcane word puzzles. It might be the first time I've spent extensive time in such a rural environment, not on vacation or with any need to do things, just spending time there. In recent days, between 4 and 5 in the afternoon, I'll often just sit and listen. And it's pretty amazing. It's almost funny, in a way, given the plethora of field recordings of one sort or another that I've listened to over the past 20 years--I can't quite shake the feeling that I'm in the midst of one when out there. The complexity, though, is astounding, far more layered and (necessarily) three-dimensional than what one experiences via stereo speakers. The sense of distances/immersion is very strong, very liquid in an odd way, a feeling of some sounds being contained while others are attenuated, their boundaries difficult to ascertain. Birds, only a few of their calls identifiable by me, sometimes in pitched battles with squirrels (who have their own vast range of aural attacks) or chipmunks, but more, especially beginning around those late afternoon times, the insects. Wave upon wave of (I assume) cricket-ish sounds, innumerable pitches, timbres and durations, far more than I can perceive at a given moment. The density of the trees enables the tracing of breezes from one spot to another as well.

I begin to get more a sense of what has enraptured field-recordists all these years (I knew, of course, but hadn't experienced in such depth) while at the same time strengthened some of the reservations I've had about the value of issuing recordings of these events as opposed to experiencing them. I also realize that were I more perceptive, doubtless a similar range of sonic activity exists everywhere, including our apartment in Paris or my home in Jersey City and, to be sure, something of the sort was picked up in those places and others. But there's a difference here, a more unavoidable presence of sound, perhaps largely due to the relative quiet that allows the sounds to stand out in greater relief. It's pretty great.

I haven't had a stereo since arriving (I received word that our shipment from Paris has arrived in New York and, I hope, will be delivered up here within a week or so, after which time I'll likely write about some of the small pile of releases I've amassed here in the interim) but I haven't missed it so much as there's more than enough in the immediate environment to keep my earholes very, very happy.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Just a note, from here in lovely Chatham, for those who don't realize the blog is enjoying a hiatus--it is. I'll likely return at some point (after my stereo arrives, for one thing) and write about things as I choose but will no longer be accepting items for review. I post this as, via downloads, I'm continuing to receive such requests. So, one of these days, expect to see some words on various Erstwhiles and Wandelweisers but otherwise....

thanks for checking in.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Christopher DeLaurenti - To the Cooling Tower, Satsop (GD Stereo)

There are any number of ways to approach field recordings, of course, but one thing that will pretty much instantly predispose me toward a favorable stance is when the recordist documents an event, start to finish, without notable post-sculpting, simply presents the experience. This is what DeLaurenti does on this fine, immersive work. The cooling tower in Satsop, Washington was one of two, part of a nuclear power station begun in 1982 but never completed, left abandoned for 25 years. DeLaurenti wanders through the water supply tubes from, I think, one side of the structure to the other. The ultra-thick concrete and smooth, regular nature of the tubes are one source of sound-enhancement but the various irregularities encountered, from small rooms to old trash and boxes to the clear evidence of water on the floor, serve to provide endless layers of detail and elaboration. As does the general background hum, a hum that often seems like a subdued roar. DeLaurenti mentions that the exterior site is a very small town but you have the impression, doubtless amplified by the structure, of vast, swirling highways or streams of energy coursing through the parabolic surfaces. Echoing bangs and whangs are possibly the result of the recordist tossing hard items into the dark, ghostly punctuation. He walks until he's finished, his soggy footsteps trailing out to the open air, the listeners' lives having been subtly enriched by his passage.

Very strong work.

GD Stereo

Monday, June 22, 2015

Susan Alcorn - Soledad (Relative Pitch)

A recording of improvisations for pedal steel guitar (Alcorn) (and bass, Michael Formanek, on one track) on the music of Astor Piazzolla, again save for that one piece, composed by Alcorn.

My experience with Piazzolla's music derives largely from the recordings that began surfacing on the American Clave label in the mid 80s, as well as seeing the concert in Central Park that also saw release. I loved it very much and still do, though I have no real working knowledge of tango as such and have never deeply investigated the genre. Which is all to say that, even if I've previously heard the four compositions presented here--and I do recognize a good bit--I don't "know" them and am approaching this recording on a much more naive level. For that matter, I've only heard Alcorn on a handful of occasions at which times the music has nestled in a decidedly more free jazz/improv area than the sounds heard here.

That said, this is a largely gorgeous recording. With her own playing, as heard on "Suite for AHL", I hear her coming out of a kind of Hans Reichel/Fred Frith area, producing tones I tend to think of as "globular", free but with no aversion to implied rhythms or hazy tonalities. This approach is a fine match for tango, at least Piazzolla's idea of same, which combines both an incredible sense of languor with ferocious sharpness and acerbity, the perfumed rose lying in the cigarette-strewn gutter. The title track sets the tone with gentle but crisply struck chords, luminous but containing shadows, the melody beautifully stated, clear but immediately leaving room for expansion. She keeps to the basic tango melodic structure yet always allows for a certain haze, a tonal ambiguity that I find to be an excellent complement to Piazzolla's conception, never pushing it arbitrarily into atonal free playing. It's likely my favorite track here not only for those reasons but also for its relative concision; elsewhere, on occasion, things linger on a slight bit long. "Invierno Porteño" allows for a bit more diffuse spread into scattered attacks but, again, Alcorn only avails herself of it from time to time, just an added flavor and an acknowledgement of the possibility, remaining in slow to medium-slow tempi, keeping things suitably dark, even interpolating a bit of Bach (?)--can't recall if that was in the original. Piazzolla's "Adiós Nonino", written on the death of his father, is treated similarly though making greater use of rich hums, creating wonderful pools of sound out of which will sometimes emerge delicate cadences or a surprisingly straightforward expression of a theme. Alcorn's suite keeps with the sensibility of the rest of the disc, Formanek contributing with strength and imagination, Alcorn taking the opportunity to offer a few freer forays while also writing themes only tangentially related to tango and quite attractive on their own terms. The concluding piece, "Tristezas de in Doble A" is the one that, at moments, drags a little bit for me, the languidness threatening to overwhelm, Alcorn on occasion venturing perilously close to Frisell territory. But it's a minor quibble.

I've no idea how fans of Alcorn will react to this offering but think that Piazzolla aficionados will receive a huge amount of enjoyment. Recommended.

Nate Wooley - Battle Pieces (Relative Pitch)

A quartet with Wooley (trumpet), Ingrid Laubrock (saxophones, flute), Matt Moran (vibes) and Sylvie Courvosier (piano).

I was expecting to hear more of a Braxton vibe here (he's thanked and the recoding was done at the Tri-Centric Foundation Festival at Roulette) and you can pick up tinges not and then but, to Wooley's credit, there's little of direct import although the Braxtonian conception, I'm sure, had a part to play in this music's development. If anything, I found myself thinking more often of Leo Smith as well as detecting subtle nods to minimalist traditions but overall, it's very Wooley.

The seven tracks alternate "Battle Pieces" (I-IV) and "Deconstruction" (I-III), the latter worked up from tapes of Battle Pieces material. There are sections for solo and duo improvisation scattered throughout and one has the vague sense of some sort of scaffolding holding things together, the solos curling out like tendrils from the latticework. I'd be curious to see the score. Where I find the structure, obscure though it is (to me) intriguing, apart from Wooley himself, I find the language employed by the musicians involved to be somewhat less so. I'm guessing a bit, but I think the moments I find more enjoyable are those penned by Wooley. Where it seems clear we're dealing with improvisation, Laubrock (with traces of Mingus-era Dolphy occasionally emerging), Moran and Courvosier are more than competent but settle in to the sort of phrasing and construction that, for me, has been all too commonly heard over, say, the past 20 years. Again, by no means bad, just unexciting and really non-dangerous. Moran does often use enough distortion to render unto his vibes an old Fender-Rhodes kind of feel, which is welcome. Listeners more attuned to the current avant-jazz scene, particularly that around the compositional axis, will entirely disregard my concerns. Myself, I get the most reward when listening as a kind of chamber music, stepping back enough to appreciate the structure while trying to block out aspects of the individual contributions. In that case, there's much beauty to be found as well as several surprising resolutions that cause one to re-examine what occurred before. Im wondering if this is performed with varying ensembles--could be very interesting.

Still, as is, well worth hearing and a notable addition to Wooley's ever-growing canon.

Relative Pitch

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Alfredo Costa Monteiro - Um Em Um (Monotype)

A searing set from Costa Monteiro, credited with accordion and objects but generating sounds it's hard to imagine not incorporating bows, electronic, etc., but that's how he does on his axe of choice. It starts with keening overtones arriving in harshly shimmering waves, gradually drops into "standard" accordion range/pitch (though augmented with a sputtering gargle and other noises), maintaining the drone consistency but fluctuating mightily. Not so dissimilar in basic form to the his just previously reviewed collaboration with Lali Barrière but the acoustic nature of the sound production necessarily allows for more air, particulate matter and other irregularities that help to sustain extreme interest. The long winding-down process, beginning with a fantastic bellows-like section, is expertly handled, a gradual loss of respiratory functions, settling into a thin whistle. Very strong work, one of my favorite releases from Costa Monteiro.

Mirt - Mud, Dirt & Hiss (Catsun/Monotype)

I'm not quite sure about the provenance here. This was originally issued as a cassette by Catsun, a sub-label of Monotype, whose site lists it as sold out. But this seems to be a joint Catsun/Monotype release, complete with new sleeve, though I couldn't locate it on the Monotype site. In any case, we have a set of propulsive, often burbling electronics, synth-y streams (as is likely too often the case, I'm reminded of old Roger Powell tracks, e.g. "Cosmic Furnace") offset by crystalline percussive clatter and breathy sounds. Thrums proliferate, coastal birds appear, soon joined by more rhythms, a kind of Jon Hassell/Fourth World bit of action--very attractive, actually. The album continues in this vein, those kind of rhythms, vaguely tropical (Hector Zazou also springs to mind) but also decidedly Western, some loopy synth, the occasional pastoral interlude with flutes, bells and birds. I hate to say it but I challenge anyone to listen to "Swamp 2" and not think of "Evening Star". A quirky release but engaging enough if the sort of synth-rhythms described above appeal to you.

Astrïd - The West Lighthouse Is Not So Far (Monotype)

Astrïd is: Vanina Andréani (violin, juno, rhodes, crumar, harmonium, metallophone[Junos and Crumars are electric keyboards, I believe]), Yvan Ros (drums, rhodes, harmonium, metallophone), Cyril Secq (guitars, bowed guitars, juno, piano, charango, harmonium) and Guillaume Wickel (clarinets, rhodes, harmonium, saxophone). All those harmoniums! They're been around, at least as a duo of Ros and Secq, since 1997 but this is my first encounter with their work. Well, I'm not sure if it's a good thing that one's initial impression is of someone else's music but it's often tough to avoid. Here, Loren Connors rings out loud and clear, the clear, mournful, bluesy guitar over an organ-like bed of tones and free percussion. There's also, led by the mordant violin, a kind of Godspeed vibe, though a shade or two lighter and more polished, the latter not necessarily a good thing. Indeed, the arrangements are well-crafted enough and there are the requisite daubs of world music accents that this cold have appeared on Nonesuch in the 90s and received a good bit of airplay on NPR. Nice, somber colors throughout but too precious by half for my taste; it will certainly appeal to the darker fringes of the Frisell contingent.

Rydberg - s/t (Monotype)

Rydberg, I discovered, was a Swedish physicist who has both a highly regarded constant and a moon crater named for him. Here, it's the duo of Nicholas Bussmann (sampler, electronics) and Werner Dafeldecker (function generator, electronics). The first of three tracks, "Elevator", starts ingratiatingly enough, gentle faux-cello strums in an ambient soundscape, soon infiltrated by slow beats, which make for a kind of duet with that "cello", rather plaintive and attractive, slowly bleeding out into a hazier space, the beats still there but dissolving a bit. It's a lovely, complex location with much "minor" activity occurring--think a less fussy Radian. "Gardening" is a little jauntier, again, as in some of the music from Mirt, striking me as relating to investigations begun long ago by Jon Hassell. There's an interesting kind of discretion in play, the pair laying back, issuing new lines unaggressively (another sampled cello, if I'm not mistaken), allowing the steady but unplodding beat to absorb the various elements in stride, though it overstays its welcome a tad. In the final track, "And the Science", everything is given over to the beat and, to my ears, a pretty dull one, oppressively regular with tiresome synthed sock cymbals; the ornamentation with squelches and static can only do so much. It's very well produced, sounds great and has its charms but, obviously, will appeal to those who have more tolerance for regular beats than I do.

Dokuro - Avalon (Monotype)

Another duo, here with Agnes Szelag (electric cello, voice, electronics) and The Norman Conquest (synthesizers, sound manipulation). Szelag was part of a fine release with Jason Hoopes a couple of years back though I hadn't been too taken by what I'd previously heard from, um, Mr. Conquest. Fifteen tracks, not quite all of a piece but certainly sharing a general mode of attack: clouds of synth--hazy, ringing, growling--, darkly melodic cello lines, ethereal vocals hovering. Dark, intricate gauze, but gauze all the same. At its harshest (cuts like "23"), the pair approximates a pretty tame Galas. Rhythms surface intermittently, but never with any interest. Not my cuppa by any means.

Dave Phillips/Hiroshi Hasegawa - Insect Apocalypse (Monotype)

Six tracks from Phillips (field recordings from various jungles) and Hasegawa (filters, effects). I haven't been all that crazy about what (little) I've heard from Phillips in the past and I'm not sure if this isn't my first exposure to Hasegawa. Perhaps it's in relation to the previous releases in this review (with the exception of the excellent Costa Monteiro), but the music herein struck these ears as positively refreshing in context. The tapes are wielded imaginatively and with some degree of abandon, the interactions occurring in unexpected sequences, the noises themselves of reasonable interest. The insectile and other sources can be discerned lurking though they're all but buried in the dusty swirl. Pulses emerge now and then but don't overwhelm, approaches vary from engagingly assaultive to eerily subdued. A nice job finessing the field recording/soundscape divide, with less harshness than I might have expected but a lot of finely sifted grit. Worth hearing.


Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Meridian - Tuyeres (Caduc)

This one is presented me with some problems early on. Meridian is a percussion trio with Tim Feeney, N. Hennies and Greg Stuart, all of whom have provided me with great amounts of aural pleasure in the past. There are three tracks, lasting about 20, 15 and 7 minutes and, although I assume they possess at least a minimum of pre-conceived structure, no compositional credits are given. Also, the second work feeds directly into the third, despite the track differentiation. Even though there are often spaces of (near) silence between sections, on first listen I had the odd impression that a lot of it was improvised; the structure didn't leap out at me. After multiple listens, my guess is that the trio was going for a chaos vs. order dynamic, erecting a framework then (often) filling it in with masses of irregular, thorny and amorphous sounds. I could be wrong. I could also ask but I generally prefer not to. (This subject came up last week speaking with Jürg Frey and we agreed on the preference of simply reacting to what one hears without necessarily--at least for the moment--learning any unprovided details).

If the pieces are, in fact, something on the order of time-bracket works, I suppose the question resolves around the choices made (depending on latitude given) by the musicians. I'll further stick my neck out and guess that there was some degree of intent to go, for lack of a better term, beyond typical Wandelweiser tendencies, that is, to generally eschew the pared-down in deference to the tumultuous and difficult-to-isolate. So, for example, early on in the first track there's a complex rattle (perhaps sticks and other detritus on drum head? but also some watery sounds) alongside a dry, high whistling tone, all presented at substantial volume, linear in a sense but chaotic within that linearity. A severe thwack appears on its own, a drumroll commences. Often a regular component will serve to offset one or more woolier ones. There's an incredible sequence right near the end of the first track, an amazingly complex, off-kilter clatter. These "steps", so to speak, or movements sometimes strike me as borderline random; Curious to discover if any sort of system was involved. At the conclusion of the first piece, I'm left both invigorated by much of the content, a little dissatisfied with the overall form, though I suspect that's due to more to my inability to grasp than anything else. The next piece has a different character, at first playing three very separate rhythmic or quasi-rhythmic figures off one another: a steady tom-tom roll, an insistent dry tap and some slightly askew rim hits (I think). Again, it's unsettling in a way; you expect things to cohere but they refuse to do so, instead lighting out on their own trajectories, until one final *smack* ends that chapter. Broadly speaking, this approach continues in the following section, the individual elements varying, but then it splays out into an all rubbed/bowed area, sounding like a nest of Prévosts, eventually erupting in a squall of shrieks, bangs, harsh, loud rasps and grinding, resistant clicks. It might be great; I have a feeling I'll figure it out in time. Right now, I'm weirdly both baffled and awed. Some of these sounds, plus a bizarrely out of context snare roll, merge into the final track, the music soon melting into a lovely, rubbery thrum (no idea how achieved), the trio coursing through this territory, sounding like rapids, before shuddering to a halt.

I'm pretty much won over, though I'm sure there's more for me to ferret out an appreciate here. Not at all what I would have expected, always a refreshing thing. Do give a listen.

Blaast - from one coordinate to uncoordination (Caduc)

Another bit of unexpectedness as we find old favorites Lali Barrière and Alfredo Costa Monteiro wielding synthesizers instead of trumpets, accordions, turntables, paper, etc.

The work is a continuous drone of sorts, complex but essentially tonal. Its path is unbroken. The amplitude fluctuates somewhat but more importantly, the texture and timbre varies a good deal, perhaps charting a course from the more purely synth-sounding to an area more in the organ neck of the woods, again out into the electronic ether, back and forth over its 73 minutes. By the nature of the sounds employed, there's a lot of microtonal activity--portions are reminiscent of Partch's Chromolodeon. I guess Eliane Radigue's electronic works would also be a reference point. Beyond that, it's hard to say too much. It's significant insofar as it is, at least to the extent I know the prior work of Barrière and Costa Monteiro (much less of the former than the latter) such a departure from earlier work. The music is perfectly enjoyable, much fun to up the volume and wallow within. I can imagine experiencing it live and getting reasonably lost. I can't say that, essentially, it stands out from similar work, although one respects the perseverance involved and, I'm guessing, the depth of layering that I may be able to only partially distinguish. It didn't knock me out but it sits reasonably well on its own and, as said, forms an intriguing addition to the canon of each musician. Curious if there's a follow up or expansion. [Checking, I see this soundcloud file, under Barrière's name, titled "Blaast 1", which is in the same ballpark; I assume there's more I've missed.]


Monday, June 08, 2015

Yannick Dauby - chang, factory (Kalerne Editions)

A dystopic essay, "repeated gestures in a decaying factory, empty ritual for a globalized reverie", using field recordings taped in Xinzhuang, Taiwan. Dauby does an excellent job, conjuring up a bleak but endlessly detailed, claustrophobic world, where events materialize subtly, gaining power before you're aware of it it. Nothing is too spectacular, the sounds brewing for a good while, assuming prominence, burning or rotting away. Theres an overtone-rich hum on occasion that sounds like a ghost-choir of Tuvan singers. Gradually, sounds one might normally associate with factories intrude, though murky and ill-defined, as though smothered in wool: repetitive, banging, mutedly clinking. It passes through a more watery phase, equally desolate and beautiful before concluding with a sequence soft ringing tones, bell signals heard through an acidic haze, Exceedingly well-crafted and through out, an excellent, subtly frightening soundscape.

Yannick Dauby - Vescagne, Salèse (Kalerne Editions)

Dauby treads far different territory on this release--two tracks, the first recorded in a lignite mine in Vescagne (inactive), the second on an Alpine mountain, Caïre Archas. "Lignite" is mysterious while also being rather luminous and transparent, bearing a number of surprisingly "musical" sounds, zither-like strums and resonant, warm booms. Clearly composed and, I imagine, processing the field recordings a good bit (I could be wrong), it works very well, calm but with a subtly disturbing undercurrent, as though Dauby is disturbing an area that would rather be left on its own. The second cut is full of air, ice and snow, very much outdoors, with crows cawing, snow crunching, wind well as distant engines. The presumably electronically-produced drones add quite a bit of drama to the central section of the work. When they dissipate, leaving behind its echo and a wash of liquids, the effect is somehow very magical. It ends with several minutes of...I'm not sure, except it sounds like someone slogging through heavy, packed snow, deep in a crevice. Both pieces are very strong, really well designed and realized of this type.

Kalerne Editions

Jonas Kocher/Ilan Manouach - Skeleton Drafts (Bruit)

Accordion/saxophone (all soprano, I think) duets existing in that increasingly common tract of improvisation wherein essentially efi attacks--quick flurries of notes, saxophonics that can trace their lineage back to Evan Parker, etc.--manifest in space that allows for substantial silence, the periods of non-playing clearly contributing to the structure of the overall piece. It's an area I often find a bit uncomfortable, somewhat oil and water in that the played sounds don't always strike me as respectful enough, so to speak, of the silence, perhaps overly insistent on their primacy. Kocher, unlike many times I've heard him, plays in a more or less traditional manner (that is, using the keys and buttons of his ax as is normally done) and Manouach (who I don't believe I've heard before) does similarly, venturing into standard extended techniques but nothing too radical. Over three medium length tracks, the playing is concise and able but utilizes a language that doesn't engage me very much, too many vestiges of a kind of free improvisation heard many times before with nothing special added. Not bad, to be sure, no worse than many others but I've heard Kocher in far more interesting and challenging contexts. The blurb on the Bruit site posits a questioning of these approaches; perhaps I'm missing it, but I don't hear so many answers presented. ]]


Sunday, June 07, 2015

Steve Flato - Exhaust System (Kendra Steiner Editions)

I always find it especially exciting when a musician understands that some previous worked had opened up numerous potential pathways and acts creatively upon this discovery, which is what has occurred here. Using Alvin Lucier's classic, "I Am Sitting in a Room" as a starting point, Flato expands out from some of its basic ideas (not merely imitating certain particulars) and has formed a marvelous, immersive and entirely engaging piece of music.

It's scored for three clarinets, oboe, bassoon, cello, bass and sine waves (all in just intonation), No playing credits seem to be available; if Flato has begun to play all these instruments, it's news to me. Flato's words explain the process well:

In Exhaust System, each instrument is on its own timeline. The process, instead of linearly like Lucier, works backwards, from the middle, going 2x speed, half speed, etc and through different permutations. This creates a counterpoint between the instruments texturally and harmonically. Additionally, all the “swelling” notes played by the instruments was done so through a Reaktor script that randomized when these swelling events would happen. The effect is a shimmering, pulsating wave of sonorities that moves and changes so slowly that you can’t quite perceive any differentiation.

The tonality is deep and rich, those "swells" emerging and receding in a constant, slow flux, the specific interactions and overlappings always shifting. Flato also cites Terry Riley's "Persian Surgery Dervishes" and yes, that feeling is in the air as well. The thickness of the sonic plies varies throughout--dense here, thinner there, and the contrast between acoustic and electronic elements is always in evidence, the latter often providing a wonderful, icy, even alien shimmer to offset the ultra-warm and cozy reeds and strings. It's decidedly a process piece, simply allowed to unfurl, though the randomizing effect keeps one guessing a bit more than, say, the Lucier work, where the listener has a general idea of the direction of the gradual decay. The journey is a joy, endlessly blooming variations on a theme. Quite a surprise from Flato, at least insofar as my knowledge of his earlier work led me to believe, but a very welcome one.

Highly recommended, excellent work.

Kendra Steiner Editions

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Ingrid Schmoliner - карлицы сюита (Corvo)

An impressive suite of six pieces for prepared piano, inspired by the legend of Percht, a pagan goddess of the Alpine regions. Four of the six tracks involve propulsive rhythmic work while two are more serene. The preparations she uses seem to be not uncommon--a couple of the pieces remind me of Cages "Dances for Piano", but with more driving force, less gamelan (though that tonality is heard on "grul") and one track, "Бaбa-Яra", is remarkably reminiscent of the main spine from Rzewski's "Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues"--but Schmoliner has a fine sense of restricted color. I often found myself thinking of strong charcoal drawings with just hints of umber or ocher, something in the Kiefer range. She tends to set a pace, sometimes verging on the relentless (but not overly crowded) then seeds it with these delicate offshoots, dabs of sound that are gone before you know it like enticing images glimpsed from a hurtling train. On "Balaena mysticetus", presumably an homage to whale song, she bows the strings with great sensitivity, summoning wonderful waving moans while on "Teadin", she makes effective use of e-bow. Otherwise, it's full steam ahead, no looking back.

A solid, imaginative and finely performed recording--I'm eager to hear more from Schmoliner.

Isabelle Duthoit/Franz Hautzinger/Matija Schellander/Petr Vrba - Esox Lucius (Corvo)

A quartet (Duthoit, clarinet, voice; Hautzinger, quartertone trumpet; Schellander, modular synth; Vrba, trumpet, vibrating speakers) operating on that border between eai and free improv with more of a tendency toward the latter insofar as a relative lack of concern with aspects of silence or the inherent quality of a given sound and more concerned with maintaining a kind of conversational approach. They skirt a more abstract area on sections of pieces like "Check Radio" with its layers of soft static-like sheets and low burbles, clanks and wheezes form the horns but by and large, they adopt a more active, bristling attack, everyone almost always contributing. Even with the synth, one gets the impression of a horn quartet of sorts, which is a rather interesting way to listen. The dynamics remain fairly quiet throughout and the surface is resolutely active and prickly, the synth echoing the sort of goose-bumpy sounds that Hautzinger likes to generate. What they do, they do very well although it's not something that intrigues me so much, more interesting sound creation, less any overall conception of note that I can discern. Mileage, of course, varies.


Martin Tétreault - Sofa So Good (Tanuki)

A one-sided cassette release (Side B left open for the listener's own use), reviewed via CDr.

Though I've heard Tétreault's work for a long time, at least since his releases on Ambiance Magnétiques in the mid-90s, I've never followed it very closely, so doubtless have an incomplete notion with regard to the span of his sound. I've tended to think of it as very active, rapid-fire turntabling but I'm guessing that's a mistaken or at least incomplete conception. That said, I've no idea if the sounds heard here are even partially representative of his work, being both long-form and fairly smooth. Vinyl is definitely used though perhaps other electnoics as well, although it's only on occasion that one picks up the telltale clicks and scratches. You're immediately immersed in faded tones that recall fun house or skating rink organs, all warped and hazy, all buried in a morass of subaqueous hum and reverberation. There are some interesting, clipped percussive elements (backwards sounds, I think) that add some grit, some flotsam, but overall it's an attractive kind of murk, if carrying a sarcastic, even silly tone due to the quavering, sonic quality of the organs. Maybe a soupçon of Sun Ra. The music expands and contracts, lurches into a slowly rotating, grinding kind of area about midway through, full of deep washes and thuds, probably my favorite moments. It remains pretty much in pone place, far less frenetic and jittery than most of my previous experience with Tétreault. I don't find it terribly exciting but interesting in that it opened up a new facet of his work for me.


Monday, June 01, 2015

So, it's with substantial sadness but, admittedly, no small sense of relief that I'm announcing my virtual retirement from the music reviewing life.

As many of you know, Betsy and I are moving back to the US in a couple of months and I'd like to devote much more time to painting and drawing, something that's been difficult given the volume of new music that regularly appears in my mailbox (stuff you actually have to spend time listening to...). It's still really a huge amount of fun (mostly) but there are simply things I'd rather be doing for the time being. I'm sure I'll still write about new releases when the music moves me enough to do so, but I'm putting the kibosh on the routine of reviewing almost everything that comes my way. I'll still be here for a while as I promise to write up the pile of releases currently sitting on my table (20-30 of 'em) as well as any that are already in the mail and happen to trickle in over the next week or so but after that, all bets are off. I'll also look through the d/l items still sitting in my in-box, but make no promises on those. And I'll still keep my oars slightly in the water by doing a few reviews for Squid's Ear.

In any case: Please stop sending me music! There will be no one here to receive them in a couple of months anyway (no forwarding Paris to US is going to happen) but I'd appreciate it if the mail ceases quickly.

I can't say enough how thankful and touched I am that so many musicians, labels and listeners have steered things my way over the years. Thank you, thank you. It's been wonderful experiencing music I'd never otherwise have had the opportunity to hear and the greater part of my regret in closing up shop is the nagging feeling I know will surface regularly that I'm missing something vital, but so it goes. And I'm always especially moved by the notes I get from readers thanking me for the service I've provided in at least shedding some light on this music--it's the least I could do. Plus there are other excellent, younger writers out there (Ed Howard, Lucas Schleicher and more) who are more than able to pick up some of the slack and probably have sharper ears to boot.

Back to the lingering reviews later this week; should last me through the month, at least.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

The vinyl keeps on a-comin'

Robert Piotrowicz/Lukáš Jiřička - Samoobrona (Bôłt)

"Samoobrona" is a play written by Helmut Kajzar in the mid-70s which had been recorded for radio and elsewhere. Piotrowicz and Jiřička have taken the text (which I think was already conceived in fragmented form) and created a piece of radio theatre, further fragmenting, treating and redeploying the words while embedding them in a thick, vibrant mass of electronic sound. As much of a general problem I have with acousmatic music, I keep on finding examples of it (more or less) that contradict those issues and here's another one. The sounds are dense, swirling, occasionally rhythmic, the texts (in, I take it, Polish, though an English translation is provided in the inner sleeve) sliced and diced, the atmosphere infested with magnetic clangs, sizzling buzzes, whistling caroms and much more--yet it works for me. Some gorgeous moments here, as on Side B when a chorus of tones, like a pack of alien howler monkeys, erupts, surrounding the voices, threatening yet beautiful. The piece is very well paced, exciting to listen through despite not understanding the text. I'm not familiar with Jiřička's work and can't parse out his particular contributions, but I can say that, in terms of quality, this fits in very well with Piotrowicz's previous music and, indeed, is one of my favorite productions from him thus far.


R. Schwarz - The Scale of Things (Gruenrekorder)

An extremely impressive set of orchestrated electronics and field recordings from Schwarz, orchestrated in the sense of deeply constructed (at least, that's the feeling I get) from sounds captured in Europe, Africa and China, enhanced and integrated with synthesizers. I wouldn't go so far as to say "symphonic" but more like a tone poem, the elements densely layered with an implied sense of drama, even loose narrative, streams of dark buzzes and hums coursing through thickets of thistles and clangs. Per notes on the site, "based on the exploration of nature recordings for unheard details and hidden layers, focused on patterns of stochastic order and unique chaos created without musical intention." Though the sounds differ substantially, each of the seven tracks bristles with a similar energy and strong feeling of plasticity, sending the listener plunging through a cascade of noise, almost a sensory overload but so clearly limned as to to eliminate any possible cloying. Musique concrète without the overbearing and assaultive aspect that so often inhibits enjoyment for me. Really, really fine work.

Roger Döring/Konrad Korabiewski - Komplex (Gruenrekorder/Skálar)

Döring plays clarinets, tenor and baritone saxophones and Korabiewski supplies electronics, the pieces also ceding space to the environments in which they were recorded. The reed playing is generally somber and smooth, stating simple melodies with a dirge or folk character (reminded me of the slower portions of that old Skidmore/Osbourne/Surman recording on Ogun), only once delving into distortion when he runs the sound through a dictaphone. The electronics are very subtle, sometimes hardly there, although there's also either overdubbing of the reeds or real-time sampling. The music is moodily bleak, melancholic with a tendency toward sentiment. But at times, a certain balance is reached and the music floats wonderfully. "flucht", where Döring is on baritone, is my favorite track, one that recalls Roscoe Mitchell/AEC with deep, mournful flutters mixed with gradually strengthening scratchy interference-excellent. Most of the rest, while entirely pleasant, dwells in one area a bit overmuch; I'd like to have heard more chances taken.


Alessandra Eramo - Roars Bangs Booms (Corvo)

A 7" with eight brief pieces for voice and electronics using onomatopoeic words derived from Russolo's 1913 text, "The Art of Noises". As much as I often have my own difficulties with "free" vocal work, this set, perhaps due to its brevity and concentratedness, poses few such problems. Eramo inhabits these references to urbanization with gusto, not overdoing it, not allowing the electronics to dominate, but giving a forceful, pared down performance, guttural in parts, sibilant in others, even humorous on occasion as with (if I have my track demarcation right--there are no times or visual cues on the disc) "borbottii" low growls. Concise and well-handled.