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Text of Light - Rotterdam 1

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Artist: Text of Light

Album: Rotterdam 1

Label: Room40

Review date: Apr. 30, 2007

The Text of Light project, begun in 2001, took as its aim a melding of classic experimental cinema and contemporary improvisation, though, as the group makes clear, the amalgamation wasn’t meant to be wholly integrated. The music is performed as an accompaniment to the visuals, using what's on the screen as inspiration without working in an explicitly representational or illustrative manner. The divorce, then, of Text of Light's sounds from their concomitant sights is performed with little hindrance, and the group has released a small collection of CDs and LPs between their inception in 2004 and the present. Since membership in the ToL troupe is rather fluid, each release has the potential to showcase a new configuration of musicians, though guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Alan Licht remain constant throughout the group's discography. Rotterdam 1, recorded at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in early 2005, features a trio of men who've been mainstays of the ensemble in recent years: saxophonist Ulrich Krieger, turntablist DJ Olive, and percussionist Tim Barnes. There's nothing to confirm what constituted the band's visual backdrop that night, aside from the disc's packaging, which offers some photographic evidence, but no written notation. That's of little concern; while the live Text of Light experience is the best way to enjoy them, the group's performance philosophy ensures that enjoyment of the ensemble doesn't depend solely on a multi-media presentation or the consideration of their music within the context of its visual counterpart.

Though the 3" CD spans just less than 20 minutes, Rotterdam 1 gives Text of Light ample time to flex their musical muscle, and the disc's development doesn't feel overly condensed. It's a tad formulaic; tranquil tones slowly pick up steam as increasingly jagged ingredients are added until the track reaches its peak intensity, from which it descends into something more calm, a parallel to the disc's beginning. But where Rotterdam 1 disappoints in overall trajectory, it redeems itself in smaller ways, most notably in the diversity of sound fostered by the group, and a respectable collection of moments that don't fail to surprise and impress. The skill and ingenuity of guitarists Licht and Ranaldo are well-recognized and accepted amongst most who are familiar with their oeuvre, and that the duo represent the backbone of the performance is surely a positive. Each is capable of adapting to any number of contexts, and it's this skill, in both Ranaldo and Licht but also the group as a whole, that is Text of Light's primary asset.

Playing chameleon might not put the spotlight on the efforts of any one individual, but it makes for a more cohesive group sound, and though Ranaldo and Licht seem to be most prevalent in the mix, almost obtrusively so at times, the group's voices mesh well, to the point that identification of singular contributions with their creators is a tricky task. Of course, the session's percussion won't often be mistaken for Krieger's sax, but Tim Barnes does a laudable job working with the context of the group. William Hooker, ToL's original drummer, can be subject to fits of overplaying, in which he, unintentionally I'm sure, tends to snow under the efforts of his compatriots. Barnes, however, seems to possess not just a wider array of techniques, but a more sensitive ear, and while his playing is too low in the mix, Barnes' ability to adjust to his sonic surroundings is something to appreciate. Krieger's saxophone is often subject to an array of effects, so much so that he's credited with "sax-tronics" in the album's notes. Like Barnes, Krieger is held at bay by the mix until things reach a fever pitch, at which point his wailing voice rises to the top, and as the music decompresses, he takes a more prominent role. Rotterdam 1 features a good bit of such patient, take-turns improv, though not so formally that it sounds like a predetermined artifice. Instead, as the disc progresses, the sound's path feels natural, and, at any given moment, each musician seems to be willing to work in the best interest of the music, even if it means sitting out a few minutes, or adding rather anonymous atmosphere behind another's more salient work endeavor.

As Rotterdam 1 drifts to its conclusion, DJ Olive seems to make his most noticeable appearance on the disc with a repetitive series of wordless vocal samples. The sound might be Krieger, though, looping a bit of breathy sax, and the obscurity of the sound's source is indicative of the collaborative symphony with which Text of Light are capable of working, an "all for one" mentality that, while a supposed tenet of nearly all improvisation, often loses out to egos, artificially constructed parity, or simple differences in musical mentality. On Rotterdam 1, it seems, the music's the thing, and while one who picks apart the individual strains of improv might find some of it uninspiring, even pedestrian at times, the effect of the group effort and the life of the sound, larger than any one ingredient, is where Rotterdam 1 stands out.

By Adam Strohm

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