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Alterations - Voila Enough!

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Artist: Alterations

Album: Voila Enough!

Label: Atavistic

Review date: Jun. 24, 2003


For the sake of argument, let’s say there are two schools of free improvisation: the European and the American. I realize pinning style and genre on nationality is a dangerous game, but there are fundamental discrepancies between Ornette Coleman and Peter Brotzmann, between Eugene Chadbourne and Derek Bailey, between Henry Kaiser and Fred Frith. In theory, American improvisation is very much concerned with the same issues of national identity and cultural reflection that saturated the work of earlier American composers like Charles Ives and Conlon Nancarrow. Coleman’s freedom, for instance, was born through idiomatic jazz, Chadbourne’s was born through idiomatic roots music. The easy antithesis to this, the one most likely to be pinned on the European school of thought, is that they are more interested in ideals, purity of sonic approach, more rooted in abstraction. Perhaps it is merely an issue of translation, the fact that American listeners can’t easily hear the frame of reference for Derek Bailey with the same assuredness with which they approach John Zorn. If Bailey represents freedom from form, the American response claims the form of freedom.

Atavistic’s Unheard Music Series has once again revealed a missing link and altered the well-documented accounts of what is European and what is American, as well as the well-documented accounts of what is free improvisation. Voila Enough, a collection of recordings by Alterations, a group of highly notable British improvisers at the near beginning of their careers, seems to set straight any misapprehension. The division between Brotzmann and Coleman obviously isn’t nationality, it’s a solely a question of approach. Alterations proves that our frame of reference for music is, in fact, international, emphasizing that cultural musical difference is something purely ideological. (The context of these ideologies, the histories that explain the need for formal devices of musical liberation, why the things we assume are “free” seem free to us, is another, more complicated question)

The culturally-loaded approach that separates John Zorn from Evan Parker makes up a tangible, almost adolescent, ideological conflict on Voila Enough. There is a constant battle between the sound-for-sound’s-sake, timbre-centric approach of AMM, the physical, ritualistic gesturality of Brotzmann, and the sound-as-significant-of-long-standing-cultural-historical approach of the allegedly “American” school of thought. All are embroiled in an unfolding psychodrama, both violent and tongue-in-cheek.

This is unique to Alterations because in cases ranging from James Tenney to Albert Ayler to Sonic Youth, the issue of integrating noise and abstraction into formal, historical, American idioms has always paled, seeming more likely to represent the idioms themselves! Playing The Shape of Jazz To Come is sure as fuck less likely to alienate people than Machine Gun – its harmolodic approach, though in many ways definitively abstract, is still rendered comfortable through its jazziness. Voila Enough seems to be one of the few recordings, debatably alongside of some of Zorn’s game pieces, to have a genuine balance between idiom and non-idiom, something that is both distinctive and frustrating.

In the liner notes, written by Alterations guitarist and now inexplicably loved music critic David Toop looks back cynically, suggesting that the “bloody mindedness was loosing its sense of good humour.” And that “the constant clash of idioms and personalities had its dark and somewhat vengeful side.” Yet, this is precisely what is so urgent about this release. With the impending forces of academic stiffness and inhuman rigidity usurping the once gloriously flawed, vital and anarchic character of the avant-garde in the form of a nearly fascistic electronic elite, Voila Enough contains a long overdue dose of awkwardness and uncertainty. It is something not necessarily identifiable by either nationality or ideology, but rather experimentation and confusion, a release seemingly comprised of visible effort and labor.

By Matt Wellins

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