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Fred Lonberg-Holm / Axel Dörner & EKG - Object 1 / Object 2

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Artist: Fred Lonberg-Holm / Axel Dörner & EKG

Album: Object 1 / Object 2

Label: Locust

Review date: Jun. 26, 2003

Locust Documents New Improv

Locust Music’s Object Series is “an ongoing program devoted to creative electronic, electo-acoustic free and composed music that asks players to attempt to search out ties between sound and static, non-musical objects.” Its first two releases are Object 1 by Axel Dörner and Fred Lonberg-Holm and Object 2 by EKG.

Axel Dörner, from Berlin, and Chicagoans Fred Lonberg-Holm, Kyle Bruckmann and Ernst Karel are practitioners of a new sort of improv that’s slowly gaining followers in major cities in the U.S., Germany, Britain, France, Japan and elsewhere. As with most artificially defined groups, there are significant differences between these improvisers, and none of them fit neatly in any category. In general, though, these musicians are heavily influenced by plenty of music besides free improv, including musique concrète (concreteness = the opposite of abstraction), environmental sounds, noise, and the music of composers like John Cage and Helmut Lachenmann. These new improvisers coax strange sounds from acoustic instruments using extended techniques, or create entirely new ones using electronics. Their music generally avoids the traditional melodicism of free jazz, instead organizing events in time in non-linear ways similar to those of composer Morton Feldman. This sort of improv still isn’t especially popular, but it’s becoming increasingly attractive to young players. In my area alone, there’s Bhob Rainey, Greg Kelley and others in Boston, Memorize The Sky and others in New York, and several composers and improvisers at Wesleyan University in Connecticut that closely follow the activities of performers like Rainey, Kelley and Dörner.

Even though many people would consider it “abstract,” much of this music could be considered representational if it were actually trying to represent something. The music that Rainey and Kelley make together as nmperign, for example often sounds like an electric fan or an old computer. When I told a friend that a section of Dörner and Lonberg-Holm's Object 1 sounded like rats running through a malfunctioning refrigerator, she responded that she had no idea what I was trying to say – what did I really mean? But there's nothing metaphorical or abstract about it: it really did sound like rats running through a malfunctioning refrigerator.

So it makes sense that Locust asked participants in its excellent new Object Series to soundtrack a number of mundane objects – Dörner and Lonberg-Holm, for example, were given a chest x-ray, a bowling ball, and a brillo pad. Neither Locust nor the artists reveal the exact relationship between soundtracker and soundtrackee, but it isn't hard to imagine one. More than any other music performed on acoustic instruments, this new improv sounds like everyday life: like a scratch of a brillo pad, or a bowling ball rolling down a lane.

Over the last decade, Dörner has developed a vocabulary of sounds for trumpet that consists of very controlled versions of the noises that immature kid in your high school band used to make when he wanted to get a few laughs. Dörner blows through the instrument without producing pitch; he plays long tones that sound like a police siren at half speed; and he produces unruly low-end blurts that sound like an elephant's flatulence. Of course, he doesn't do any of these things to make a funny – he blends these sounds with tremendous sensitivity.

Much of Fred Lonberg-Holm’s playing on his previous projects was light years away from what he does here, but he's a wonderful foil to Dörner on Object 1. The cello and other bowed string instruments aren't utilized much in improvisations that revolve around extended techniques, but perhaps they should be – as Lonberg-Holm demonstrates here, string players are capable of generating an amazing array of weird sounds by making slight changes in bow pressure and placement. Lonberg-Holm and Dörner are often almost indistinguishable from one another, even as the textures they create are constantly changing.

Kyle Bruckmann and Ernst Karel, a.k.a. EKG, take Dörner's style of improvisation to its next logical step: Dörner and others make improv that sounds like cheap electronic appliances, so why not improvise with cheap electronics? When I last saw them live, EKG were about half electronic, half acoustic, with Bruckmann and Karel playing oboe and some sort of pocket trumpet, respectively. On Object 2, they're credited with playing english horn, suona and trumpet, but only occasionally is it possible to identify those instruments. Perhaps, like Dörner, Bruckmann and Karel are really good at playing acoustic instruments so that they sound like electronics, but they've probably actually just processed their acoustic instruments to such a degree that the 'natural' sounds of those instruments are no longer audible.

Here, Bruckmann and Karel mostly eschew the event-pause-event feel of much extended-technique improvisation, instead creating dense, static-heavy soundscapes that sound a bit like Keith Rowe's recent work, even though Object 2 features a greater number of dramatic changes than a new Rowe album probably would. Like Dörner's, EKG's music sounds something like a new sort of musique concrète: improv as the whirs and hums of everyday life. But EKG's music is more directly related to the idiom of electronic music than Dörner's, both for obvious reasons – Bruckmann and Karel actually use electronics – and not-so-obvious reasons: EKG's sustained textures are closer to those used in current non-academic experimental electronic music (which was itself born from moving-moving-always-moving DJ culture) rather than the sparser, more non-linear approach taken by improvisers like Dörner and nmperign (born, perhaps, from the non-linear phrasing of Iannis Xenakis’ stochastic electronic music).

Whatever their differences, though, Object 1 and Object 2 are both powerful statements for a new sort of improv. Dörner, Lonberg-Holm, Bruckmann and Karel are offering new possibilities for improvisation that are far removed from the traditionally melodic, call-and-response moves of free jazz. In their own ways, Object 1 and Object 2 are fine examples of improv’s embrace of electronics – not just the technology itself, but the sounds and approaches associated with it.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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