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Gregg Kowalsky - Tape Chants

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Artist: Gregg Kowalsky

Album: Tape Chants

Label: Kranky

Review date: Jun. 8, 2009

This is the third and definitive recorded version of Gregg Kowalsky’s Tape Chants series. I say "definitive" because it leaves behind the piece’s site-specific orientation – the spectacle of Kowalsky moving around the space he’s performing in, ‘live-mixing’ the pre-recorded instrumental passages by changing the placement of six to 10 cassette recorders – and brings the listeners way inside the rich depths of criss-crossing, reverberating analog tones. The previous two recorded versions (Tape Chants a Million and Tape Chants Arroyo), besides being frustratingly unavailable, seemed more attempts at capturing the live experience of the piece. Ironically, Tape Chants is not a live recording, but it does a better job than those two at highlighting what it is Kowalsky has hit on with this piece – namely, how to use space and subtle, organic distortion to simultaneously alter and reveal not only his source material, but the listener’s relationship to it.

Splicing the DNA of Alvin Lucier’s "I Am Sitting in a Room" with Andrew Chalk and Christoph Heeman, he taps the former’s conceptual ingeniousness and the latter’s ability to build subtle gradations of tone into slow-burn, melancholy narratives. Another (unavoidable) reference point for Tape Chants (and most other modern tape-based ) is William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, a chanced-upon experiment in long-form tape loops the defining statement of decay as elegy.

But Kowalsky’s chants are more meditative than elegiac, more active than atmospheric and don’t have any air of scientific inquiry about them. The shifts from humid droning oscillator waves and thick bands of analog synth to measured bass drum pulse in "I-IV" are audible and engaging; the way he weaves them all together at the end is profound. And while the gauzy, blurring effect of the tape medium is present throughout, it’s there to underscore and bold the textures of his varied sound sources, not rub them out. So the piano, motors, pouring water, gong and more that he uses are very identifiable, often almost tactile, Kowalsky being smart enough to make both the medium and the content his message. There’s a lesson in Kowalsky’s method that composers, no matter their chosen idiom, should take to heart: simple means, ably executed, lead to sublime results.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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