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Ssssh! Quiet . . . Fall 2007 - eai Roundup

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Dusted's Jason Bivens keeps it down with the latest fleet of EAI- oops, sorry, "eai" records.

Ssssh! Quiet . . . Fall 2007 - eai Roundup

From Seoul’s Balloon & Needle comes a fine duo disc featuring the peripatetic and always interesting Tomas Korber (electronics) and computer ace Bernd Schurer. A brief, 18-minute improvisation from a squat concert on September 25, 2004 (the disc’s title), it’s filled with abundant events both insistent (the opening face-blast of feedback) and subtle (the carefully intertwined sine waves and feedback, both poked and provoked via contact mic). Bulbous tones float to the top and pop, yielding images of clouds, water, and other indeterminate forms (as well as the earthen crackle of a newly discovered tomb). There’s a lovely conclusion, a flickering repeated rhythm filled with dense chords that weirdly recall Pauline Oliveros.

Gauntlet (Mego 088) is a typically intense effort from Kevin Drumm (guitar and noise), here collaborating with drone master Daniel Menche (organ and noise). A studio construction from Fall 2006, it opens with the most idiomatically guitar-like noise Drumm has produced in recent memory, looped and stretched out to infinity, and quickly blanketed with fuzz and strapped to a dark monolith of pure sound. But this is not your usual 30-minute plangent drone, billowy and somehow soothing; this is raw, menacing, metallic, and pregnant with anxiety. Indeed, one of its dominant sounds is a cross between an army of knives being simultaneously sharpened and the cawing of ravenous birds. A third of the way through, the harsh clangor of Sheer Hellish Miasma rears up to spit at you, warping into demonic helicopter blades and riding out on a rough needle in groove.

Mitsuhiro Yoshimura’s release and so on (the first from the (h)ear rings imprint) is a boilingly pure program constructed from the base elements of microphone and headphone. Three lengthy improvisations – recorded live in Tokyo and Fukuoka in 2005 and 2006 – situate Yoshimura in the company of Sachiko M and Toshimaru Nakamura, two artists who use similarly “elemental” setups and who pare sound down to its rudiments, its rawest expression. Here the sound is captured by microphones and projected through headphones, a fascinating improvisation on equipment and function, and one that’s used to explore the sound resonance of particular spaces/rooms in new ways. The coiled tone on “and” gleams intensely bright, occasionally shifting back and tacking like a suddenly repositioned guitar feeding back. Yoshimura slowly polishes the sound, almost like Jacques Dudon’s audible light compositions, producing something that makes you think of what it must sound like when stars are born or when they die, their last arc traced through the firmament here rendered sonically. Elsewhere, the flickering flame on “so” – hiccups, missteps, breaks, and a bit of roughness – grows thicker, more intense, and ping-pongs around the inside of your skull. It chirrups like pond life too. Spare and unwilling to speak in a language other than their own, these pieces are packed with fascinating detail and vitality.

From the always interesting For4Ears come the second and third volumes of Signal to Noise, documents of a March 2006 Japanese tour pairing well-known “eai” musicians like Günter Müller, Jason Kahn, and Norbert Möslang with usually lesser-known Japanese players. Volume 2 (For4 Ears 1864) documents a brief performance (two untitled improvisations) by Tomas Korber (guitar, electronics), Christian Weber (bass), and Katsura Yamauchi (sax). Deep, Haden-like thrums and soft breath open the concerts. Across many minutes Weber and Yamauchi build a harmonic contrast out of the timbral one, opening space for Korber’s insinuating feedback and sinewaves. As Yamauchi finally coaxes a recognizable saxophonic interval from the sonic mass, Korber has enveloped the whole with a massive oscillation like bowed or rubbed glass.
Volume 3 (For4Ears 1865) features Müller (percussion and electronics), Kahn (percussion and electronics), and Möslang (cracked everyday-electronics), live at Tokyo University. Helicopter blades and a rustling pulse track mingle on the first untitled piece, with layered high tones whose dynamics are continually altered. The second piece dives deep into some amber substance, wherein muffled tones resound deeply. The sound field opens up once more on piece 3, with flinty sounds like scraped bells, and the concert concludes with the clicking, clattering feel of an old Voice Crack improvisation. It’s fine, accomplished music, shimmering with details and moving with purpose. But the problem may be that it’s too accomplished, too carefully sculpted by these players who know each other so well. Its pleasures, in other words, aren’t those of chance-taking and provocation.

Grosse Abfahrt (Creative Sources 065) is a fine summit meeting between European electronics whizzes (Serge Baghdassarians and Boris Baltschun) with six of the Bay Area’s finest: Chris Brown (piano and electronics), Tom Djll (trumpet), Matt Ingalls (clarinet), Tim Perkis (electronics), Gino Robair (analog synth), and John Shiurba (guitar). They produce a thick, rich brew that’s heavy on percussive sounds and styles – burbles from Robair, rough scrapings from the excellent Shiurba, and extended pulse play from Baltschun and Baghdassarians. The disc gets off to a somewhat slow and muffled start with the opening “am anfang Zerstorung.” But it seems to find its voice in the nearly 20-minute “interkontinentale luftschiffahrt,” which opens with Ingalls and Djll popping away like the bastard cousin of nmperign, blanketed in sonar pings and a canopy of noise. Chris Brown is central to the piece’s success, with his jabs springing loose a middle section for creaking, wheezing electronics. “Morrell remained hopeful” is a tasty bagatelle, while “riesenflugzeugabteilung” covers your head with a thick electronic sheen.

Trumpeter Nate Wooley and guitarist Chris Forsyth meet up for the brief but satisfying The Duchess of Oysterville (Creative Sources 087). The quietest of quiet, nearly a minute goes by before faint breath, squeak, and amp noise. The pieces slow thickens and gets almost impossibly dense (any multi-tracking?), bursting with high whistles, low gurgles and prepared guitar mutterings. As feedback rises, Wooley does a scary wet breath thing like ghosts tormenting or crying for release. But the piece then cuts off abruptly, ceding into an extended period where Forsyth sounds like he’s gently thudding the body in order to get a nice series of overtones. The disc rides out on small percussive noises and amp hum. Nice stuff.

Graham Halliwell and Tomas Korber have produced on the year’s most beautiful records to date, The Large Glass (Cathnor 003). The sound is full and billowing, with rough textures or micro-incisions from Korber insinuating their way into the rounded whole. The players are wont to conjure up long, long oscillations like endlessly rubbed or bowed glassware; frequently they also explore the contrast between high glistening noise and ominous lower register pulses or drones. The effect is similar to the kind of work Halliwell does in Plus Minus, but with an added grit or electric anxiety courtesy of Korber. The 30-minute opening “The Essence of Things” slowly works up (or pares down to) a gorgeous half-step pitch bend that repeats for many minutes, almost like the stoner rock moment in eai. The beautiful stacked tones and overtones on “In Mezzo, Nel Mezzo” sound like a hurdy-gurdy played through a distortion pedal, with some truly lovely half-stepping again and intense, head-clearing oscillations. The intense “Coarse Ashes” sounds like an airplane hangar to begin with, huge engines gassing up, and releases pressure into the upper atmosphere to close. A fine release from this excellent young label.

Ten years ago, who could have predicted that MIMEO (Movement in Music Electronic Orchestra) would continue to exist in a time when opportunities for large ensemble improvisations are ever scarcer? Part of the reason for the group’s continued thriving is that they don’t simply get together for concerts and play; they are beset on posing new conceptual challenges, often rather daunting ones, for themselves. With Sight (Cathnor 004), MIMEO digs right into one of the thorniest issues facing improvisers: the importance of listening. Of course, it’s not an “issue” insofar as everyone recognizes its centrality to music-making. But within the small tribe of improvising musicians, there are those who foreground this craft and generally sublimate ego in its service, and there are those who (like Keith Rowe or the late Derek Bailey) tend simply to concentrate on their own sound, understanding that the results of collaborative music are always unpredictable anyway and usually quite different than players’ perceptions in the moment. Here, each of the players (Gert-Jan Prins, Thomas Lehn, Kaffe Matthews, Peter Rehberg, Jerome Noetinger, Marcus Schmickler, Christian Fennesz, Phil Durrant, Rafael Toral, Cor Fuhler, and Keith Rowe) was given a simple but intimidating task: record five minutes of music anywhere they wanted on a 60-minute blank CD-R, without actually being able to see or hear the other players. Diving into a space void of communication, the musicians – taking their cue from a method often used by painter Cy Twombly – had to anticipate, preconceive, or just throw their hands in the air. Finally mixed by Marcus Schmickler, nobody listened to the music until after the sleek black digipaks came back from the printers. Some of it is quite good, and it does usually – and admirably – avoid falling into predictable patterns of swell and swirl, rough cuts and continuo, and so forth. No one simply tries to fill up all the space around them (even if there are some jarring moments of Rowe guitar chaos, for example, or some depths-plumbing synthesizer drill bits). The amalgam is interesting, the dynamics varied, the palette wide. This is certainly not one of those records that can be summed up by chronicling its progressions; instead, it can really only be understood in terms of its discontinuities, its gaps and hesitancies. A fascinating and provocative disc, but not necessarily an “enjoyable” one.

The debut release of Homefront Recordings documents a 32-minute improvisation by Annette Krebs (guitar, electronics), David Lacey (percussion, electronics), Keith Rowe (guitar, electronics), and Paul Vogel (computer). Recorded at the April 2006 i-and-e festival in Dublin, the piece opens with soft scrapes and rustles from Lacey and the now seldom-heard Krebs, with hushed tones blinking in and out like fireflies. The music really starts to come to life about six minutes in, with Krebs simulating a dying insect amidst lots of metallic noises (which made me think of a Frankenstein limp slowed down on an old cassette). This upward arc reaches its apex in an extended section of rough tape-mangling, muffled voices, and electric mashups. What I really liked, however, was the fairly abrupt drop-out in the middle, one that opens up a giant hollow pool with buzzing and swandiving electronic devices above the waterline. These elements then coalesce in a thick drone – now cool and thick, now hot and slicing – before dissipating into fragments of woody scraping and jagged feedback. Not bad at all, and certainly something that fans of these musicians will want to hear.

fORCH is a collective comprised of a kind of super-group of European improvisers (Furt [Richard Barrett and Paul Obermayer on electronics], John Butcher on tenor and soprano, Rhodri Davies on harps, vocalists Phil Minton and Ute Wasserman, percussionist Paul Lovens, and Wolfgang Mitterer on prepared piano and electronics). They deliver a giant slab of music, spin networks (Psi 07.05/06), from December 2005’s SWR NEWJazz Meeting. It’s a rich stew (nearly 2-1/2 hours long) of textures, with long passages of tranquility and languor broken up by slashing and crashing. At times the difference between acoustic and electric approaches is jarring, and my ears were wanting greater integration. But elsewhere, the boiled-down essence of free improv techniques submerges nicely into the ambient waters – in particular, Mitterer and the electronics get into some lovely long passages with Butcher granulating and Davies plucking harshly.
Things also work well on “volume,” with vocal overtones and electronics atop a supple ululating drone. Mitterer again impresses on “temperature,” jabbing while Butcher flutters against the backdrop of a big detuning sound, the billowing dark clouds of “plankton.” Things tend to lose their way on the drifting middle pieces of the second disc, but there’s much to enjoy here.

I haven’t been particularly enamored by what I’ve heard from BARK! (guitarist Rex Casswell, percussionist Phillip Marks, and Paul Obermayer on samples) in the past. Their latest disc, Contraption (psi 07.03), seems far more focused and diverse than the stuff I’ve heard in the past. In some ways they seem to be combining their earlier love of sheer density, filtered through the insect-prov long mastered by the London scene, with the kind of pulse-based explorations more commonly heard on recordings by, say, Voice Crack. Marks is obviously key to this, with very tight sounds and a shifting momentum halfway between Paul Lovens and Martin Brandlmayr. Casswell is pretty adept at creating small, frequently pinched animal noises that seem to move furtively between Marks’ oblique patterns, while Obermayer is more expressive in his deployment of often brash electronic spasms (only occasionally can you isolate the actual sound sources, as on the sax hocketing during “Mr Pointy”). The snarling “Snout” is a standout track, embodying the group’s increasingly distinct language, but I also dig the hot-and-cold industrial sizzle of “Spanners.”

Music from ColourDome (Psi 07.01) centers on the duo of Lawrence Casserley (signal processing instrument) and Simon Desorgher (flutes). The dynamics of the interactions will be familiar to fans of Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble (and indeed, Parker guests here, as do violinist Philipp Wachsmann and computer processor David Stevens). In general, the sound is one of ghost tones, abstracted instruments, and morphed sound careening around an electronic bathysphere. Performing in the resonant space of Peter Jones’ sculptures (from which the disc takes its name), this quintet creates a warm music that opens up into remote celestial spheres as well. This is heard especially during the pinwheeling comets of “Music from ColourDome 4,” though spare some time for the gorgeous choir of flutes on the third piece and Wachsmann’s superb work on the cloudy final piece, where he sounds like he’s channeling Pärt’s “Fratres.”

With all the great variety of Otomo Yoshihide’s musical projects, it’s often easy to forget that he first came to widespread attention through his turntable attacks. On the very fine Asphodel compilation Multiple Otomo, you get two views of his solo art: a CD and a DVD. He’s not limited to turntable here – his battery also includes guitar, sine waves, etc. – but he spends a lot of time in “home position,” as it were (though without the complacency that might suggest). The referential musics of Ground Zero are mostly long gone, and here you encounter the abstracted, reduced, pared away sound of machines coming to life. Many of the short films that populate the DVD – especially “Burner” – feature antic black-and-white manipulations of machines in slow motion (or melting), almost like oddly configured animals unsure of their gait, or disturbing flashes of women in repose in rooms, but always dissected by TV static and whiteouts. Thankfully we also just get to watch Otomo at work, a real treat (especially, for example, when you see him manipulate turntable stylus and rubber bands, play a record with tin foil, or abuse his SG on “Frets” or “Corrosion”). A particular high point for me was watching rosin dust flying off his bow on “Uncoiled,” as he saws away on a metal spring connected to the turntable. The audio CD covers much the same kind of territory, though there are no repeats. You won’t want to sit through both at once, in all likelihood, and for me the DVD takes precedence for its uniqueness. But the CD is still a valuable slice of the man alone in his laboratory. I love the long, nasty whine of “Turntable Feedback I” and also the serene flutter of “Surface and Sinewave.” Spare a moment, too, for the beautiful, Partch-like “Prepared Guitar,” the glacial wind of “Violin Bow with Homemade Needle,” the fat industrial nastiness of “Test Tone Records.”

Australian guitarist and electronician Oren Ambarchi has played often with turntablist Martin Ng, producing two excellent recordings. On Fateless (Asphodel DVD) their work is housed in the visual medium, with two long improvisations being given treatments. The music is as subtle and incandescent as you might expect, all soft tones quietly rising and falling, especially on “Vigilance.” Overtones and layers are finely constructed, shifting in ways both delicate and formidable. Listening in surround sound is great, and I appreciate the immersive experience (documented from a 2003 MUTEK concert, where Tina Frank – known for her visuals on numerous MEGO releases – generated the images in real time). But the visuals aren’t wholly convincing, like neon spirograph shapes against black backgrounds (one review I read likened it to the video game “Tron”). It’s most successful in the somewhat more aggressive, slicing middle sections of “Vigilance” – here Frank’s spiderwebs work best. But in general I think Robin Fox’s ghostly green celluloid imagery works better with “8 Seconds of Weightlessness” – a darker, dimmer piece that sounds like sonar coasting along ocean depths, and one mostly oriented towards a visual frame that acts in accordance with an algorithm Fox programmed. Again, there’s something slightly dissatisfying about the visuals – it’s not that I want anything referential, or jump-cut montages or anything, but there’s something so clunky about these first-generation gaming images that seems ill-suited to the nuance and fluidity of the music. Not as solid as the Otomo DVD, but Ambarchi and Ng are always worth listening to.

Matt Mitchell’s new release – vapor squint, antique chromatic (Scrapple 53412) – is a single 45-minute piece where the Philly-based pianist/electronician takes some basic recordings and tweaks or tortures them into a nice concrète-flavored piece that recalls Nate Wooley’s Wrong Shape to be a Storyteller. The dynamics are what compel here, shifting in their sense of proximity and distance, connoting both dry and wet feels, and brimming with a lot of craggy, cranky industrial musings (with, every so often, a snippet of the ivories). Listening to the sound of metal dragged against metal, leaves rubbed together, and drones that are altered like pickup positions being switched, I’m reminded too of Greg Kelley’s assembled sounds. The best bit comes just a few minutes past the mid-point (following some birds and wheezing pipes), with some caustic feedback and distant warehouse piano. Then knives are sharpened and ancient computers begin to run amok. There are some wet grinding noises late in the piece, sounding like being inside some fat animal’s digestive tract, and before you know it this rich piece is over.

I was delighted to receive a pair of discs from Dutch lutanist Jozef van Wissem, one on Bvhaast and the other on his own label, the newly-minted Incunabulum (both with gorgeous silver and black covers like those old Fushitsusha releases on PSF). He deserves inclusion here not simply because of the pared down aesthetic of his instrumentalism (stylistically he’s doing for the lute something like Fahey did for the acoustic guitar, but filtered through a sensibility recalling in equal measure his frequent duo mate Tetuzi Akiyama and the extraordinary melancholy of Loren Connors). One particularly rich element of van Wissem’s work lately is his very tasteful use of electronics. On Objects in Mirror are closer than they appear (Bvhaast 0905), van Wissem’s lute – with its woody sonorities and idiomatic resonance – stands in provocative contrast to the airport field recordings deployed throughout the record, the dogged chords and plaintive figures seeming to reflect both alienation (“Analogon”) and a resolve to cling to identity (“God’s Own Country”). It’s always a pleasure to listen to van Wissem play, but this new aesthetic is thoroughly well conceived and rewarding. A similar approach is taken on the solo Stations of the Cross (Incunabulum 004). It’s a bit more harmonically varied, but it still manifests van Wissem’s intense focus and vision. No recordings, though, on some of these pieces. That’s always nice contrast. But again, the melancholy of the lute sounds so stark, at times harrowing (“Low Mass”) when situated in airport noise. This guy certainly inhabits a haunting musical universe – just listen to the sound of abjection on “Without the Rose,” “Smokeless Altar,” or the lovely recordings of “Grand Central Confessional.” Van Wissem’s music is like, as Fred Frith once wrote about Hans Reichel’s music, like folk music from a tradition you’ve never heard of.

For those who doubted that the electroacoustic trio Mersault (Tomas Korber on guitar and electronics, contrabassist Christian Weber, and drummer Christian Wolfarth) were referring to Camus (despite the fact that they misspelled Meursault), the title of their new disc – Raymond & Marie (Formed 107) – confirms it. Who knows what to make of that (could they be thematizing abjection or detachment in their music?) but I thought it worth throwing out there. This sophomore disc, a follow-up to their lovely debut on Quakebasket, is as dark and intense as one might expect. The superb Weber opens up the first piece with a seasick arco figure, with Korber’s whining feedback and Wolfarth’s bowed cymbals rising like tides. I love the contrast between the abstraction of Korber’s playing and the intensely woody feel (even occasionally idiomatic) that Weber and Wolfarth get (the kind of thing that knocked me out when I heard them first with Momentum six or seven years ago). The opener works its way into a lovely, head-clearing drone that ultimately cedes to a truly intense feature for pizzicato and rough slashes of white noise. The feeling shifts on the next piece, dominated by sublimely ethereal overtones and a real oceanic feeling. Weber is in many ways the key to this music, spreading the sound around, changing pitch, or serving as a rhythmic fulcrum. But the group sound is ultimately what compels, an increasingly recognizable idiom that comes through whether in the most hushed passages or in the shrill nastiness that closes this fine disc.

Finally, it’s hard to imagine many contemporary improvisers more distinctive than Toshimaru Nakamura, who has not only developed a highly personal language on the no-input mixing board but who fearlessly enters all manner of challenging situations, regardless of how far afield they may seem to sit from his work with Sachiko M or Keith Rowe, for example. Consider ij (Formed 106), a powerful duo with Lucio Capece (soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, preparations). One’s immediate expectation is that these two improvisations will consist of a lot of controlled overblowing to blend in with high-pitched sine waves, almost the eai version of Steve Lacy and Evan Parker’s Chirps. Not so fast. The first piece grumbles and crackles with industrial intensity, as Capece squawks here and adds some gruff pulses via close-miking there. The sound is dense with thick hums, a buzzing hive of activity, and Capece creates some truly nasty feedback effects. The second piece opens with what sounds like bass clarinet, straining in the upper register and wrestling with some serpentine feedback. It quickly boils down to something more bitty and pointillistic, with low groans and mumbles, wheezes and croaks like the music has the flu. There’s also some fantastic glissing and sine-waves fifteen minutes in, before it descends slowly into a fine conclusion, with a quickly-oscillating lower register pulse (bowed glass and amplifier punishment) and buzzing bass clarinet. Another winner from Formed.

By Jason Bivins

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