issue 3 :: 1995

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Record Reviews

These reviews were written for two reasons: 1) I want to give something back to the people whose music I enjoy, and if anyone reading these reviews decides to explore any of the following bands, then I will feel that I have accomplished something. This is why there are so few negative reviews here: there’s too much that I like, and by and far music I do not like is not worth mentioning. I do slag on a few people though, but only because I enjoy it. 2) I honestly want these reviews to be used as a resource: there are only a few zines out there whose opinions I trust or even talk about the music that I like. I hope you find something worthy of your attention in the below. Any prices mentioned are correct to the best of my knowledge, and are for US use only. I do review recordings people send in, but I have very picky tastes, and I have no qualms about telling my readers how bad a recording is. Send at your own risk.

Lida Husik has two new records out, An Evening At The Garage and Joyride, but I haven't heard either yet. What I have heard is her Rough Trade Singles Club 7”, which has a song from each. “Star” is typical Husik: multiple overdubbed vocals–sweet–husky–speaking–singing, over a bed of guitars. I can't think of anyone better at layering vocals. It's a shame that her instrumental abilities aren't better shown off here as well. The mopey lyrics and tone throughout are met at the end by Husik’s repeated affirmation “I’m an American not American’t.” I’ve known it all along. “Starburst 7” is a techno version of “Star” put together with Beaumont Hannant. As techno, it has a bit of a house feel to it, esp the dubby bass, and I don't like it as much as “The Match From Mars,” but anything from Husik gives me a reason to smile.
The Ex are an intelligent, resourceful, and principled punk band. They avoid any similarities with the Sex Pistols, the Clash or American hardcore (besides the categorical). There’s no point in rebelling against stale musical conventions by blinding imitating equally stale conventions and feigning involvement in the rebellion. Being punk is more than playing 50’s rock music with fuzzed out guitars and shouting obscenities. Sad to say, many people are taken in by these charades. Thankfully, there are bands like the Ex, who strive to find challenging situations for themselves and again join cellist Tom Cora on And The Weathermen Shrug Their Shoulders for a second brilliant collaboration. Suffice it to say that everything on here is inventive and spirited. Sing-songy “Lady Lamp” and “Everything and Me,” with its ranted list of sundry items (“stamp collection!”), are my faves.
That Dog's “Old Timer” is an odd indie-rock song with quirky harmony singing. It has the right blend of twee cuteness and punk grit for me. “Paid Programming” reminds me of an escaped lullaby lifted from Suzanne Vega's first record (this is a compliment). It has that artsy feel to it, with melodic bass, plucked acoustic guitar and cello, and mournful violin supporting simple, yet touching singing on finding comfort in late-night TV programming. “I wish the vacuuming hair-cutting machine would go mainstream” is a plaintive yearning for subdued Futurism. “Angel” is sorta a combo of the two: the indie-rock and the plaintiveness bonding together for minor harmony acapella and middle-easternish violin over distorted arpeggio guitar. Besides writing catchy songs, I like the way they incorporate violins and cellos into their grooves, and also the harmony singing. There is a CD out on some major label (Geffen?) that rerecords these songs, but I have a cool double 7” on Magnatone.
My friend Seth Tisue invites me over to Steve Albini's place to listen to the new Shellac record. We are in a small cluttered room, not the “famous” bedroom that is seen in ButtRag et cetera; there is a mattress in front of me, in the corner to my right, and a mattress behind me. I am in some low-lying chair in the corner to the left. There is a stereo in the corner behind me and a door out of the room forward left. Seth is playing some Shellac song for me that is pointed out as being their “delicate” side, as if I don't want to be frightened by indelicacies. I am listening on headphones but there are speakers on as well. Steve comes in with someone I don't recognize in tow just as Seth is pointing out some detail with the guitar playing. Steve comes in and puts in a new tape, and acknowledges Seth's pointing out the detail. He doesn't introduce himself (we've never met before) and I am too shy to think of introducing myself. He plays the new tape; another “quiet” piece. The guitar “solo” is overdubbed over the main guitar and I ask if it was made by overdubbing 12 guitars feeding back, which was a stupid thing to ask, as that's not what it sounded like at all. Steve replies “no, it's just hammer-ons on a 12-string,” (at least I got the 12 right) and the guy who came in with him is leaning against the wall to my left, indifferent. Seth goes over to his bag which is on the bed behind me and removes a bag of Ruffles brand potato chips, a bag of those whole-grain chips, a pack of budget cigarettes, and a matchbook. He throws these last two items at my feet. At the sight of the smokes, they are in a blue package, I recoil in disgust; Seth should know I only smoke a particular brand of Turkish imports (this is true, although Seth in reality would not know this). Steve goes over to the other “bed,” lifts up the mattress and brings out a bag of weed. Seth tells Steve: "roll a big fattie for my friend here,” and starts munching on the Ruffles. I wake up. Needless to say, Shellac's 7” The Bird Is The Most Popular Finger, which I have just heard for the first time, sounds nothing like the music in my dream. Gee, can I write for Feminist Baseball now?
The latest buzz band in Austin is 16 Deluxe. Like the previous band to be crowned “next big thing” in Austin, Sincola, 16D is a bland rehash of a few nationally famous bands. I guess Sincola is in the same unlistenable area as Pixies and Throwing Muses, and at their best, 16D clearly rip-off the Smashing Pumpkins and otherwise the lackluster My Bloody Valentine sound. I know Spin and CMJ will lay a lot of hype into this band and their first record, but that only proves my point on how pointless they are.
When I saw my first Gastr del Sol show in May of 1993, they had a powerful duo bass guitar groove that would later become the basis of Tortoise (see below). In releasing Crookt, Crakt or Fly, Gastr del Sol has become an interesting collaboration between David Grubbs and composer/experimental musician Jim O'Rourke, who plainly sing abstract poetry against plinky angular acoustic guitars. Of course, they do much else, as in “Work From Smoke,” which smartly contrasts a gloomy atmosphere of drones with vibraphone, bass clarinet, cymbals and subtle electronics. And then there are the post-hardcore, gritty rave-ups on two of the songs on side 2, the first of which segues into a long percussion-as-abstract-sound-environment with acoustic guitars hiding in the background. I think this record is one of the most exciting records of 1994, and it saddens me to be missing out on their now frequent live shows in Chicago.
Let’s not mince words here: I’ve been listening to a lot of Tortoise since the last issue. Until their recent 12” on Stereolab’s Duophonic label, I had it all: the 3 7”s, and both LPs. All is in need to be placed on your Go-Out-And-Get-Right-Now list. Tortoise, a Chicago supergroup of sorts, flirts with many different styles, including, noise, fusion, country and hiphop, all filtered through a proggy eclecticism which I find refreshing a stimulating. Their second LP Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters is tracks from their first LP remixed by such Chicago scenesters as Jim O’Rourke, Steve Albini and Brad Wood. O’Rourke’s mix, very droney, is instantly recognizable as his mix. Albini drops in recordings of footsteps and radio before turning on one of the more powerful vibes/2 bass/drums grooves on the first album. I don’t view the remix record as being inferior or secondary to the first record, just a differing version of it, no less relevant/interesting.
I don't understand Jandek. There's no way I can pretend to. His take on the blues is as original and intense as Lightning Hopkins, let's say. But Jandek's blues is one of an almost nightmarish intensity of horror and desperation His singing is languid and sleepy—or is that resigned?—muttering image to image. But like a dream, a Jandek song compiles its identity from the disparity contained within. Graven Image is his 23rd record, and his first on CD. As I write this, there is another CD out. Graven Image is the first to feature solo accordion pieces, which fits in with the voice and plinky guitar that dominates most of his albums. There were a lot of references to fish and water on this one, which is about as far as I can delve into this.
Diamanda Galas and John Paul Jones's CD The Sporting Life and corresponding show in Austin: There are ways to mix the “cutting edge” with rock music in creative and interesting ways. Too bad the shock-diva and Led Zeppelin bassist could not find one of them. While Galas' voice can match the sonic energy of an electric guitar, against the bland riff bass of Jones and moronic drumming of whoever that was, Galas not only looks/sounds out of place, but also ridiculous. Jones and Galas, both out of their elements and pushed past the limits of their creativity, flounder in meaningless measures of the grandiose, while suffocating substance and innovation. Beyond that minor problem, in fronting a band, Galas' pretensions are brought forefront. “Look at me,” she seems to be shouting, “I'm so adventurous because I can shriek over dumb rock music.” I have looked: please make it stop. As for Jones, he should stick to bloated movie soundtracks.
Had I been discussing any amount of literature in this zine (a direction which changes this issue), I would have mentioned Elisabeth Belile's wonderful collection of cut-up poems After With Hope. These poetic structures seem to have been assembled from word fragments which have been arranged on a black rectangle. The common template among pages provides continuity to the somewhat surreal images. From the first I picked this up, it has become one of my favorite works of poetry. I really cannot explain its powerful effect on me, but the word choice, although seemingly haphazard, is perfect. One day I discovered a web site that features a short bio on Belile and some more conventional poetry. I also discovered a CD on New Alligence called Your Only Other Option Is Surgery. On the CD, Belile uses a number of different approaches that show off her command of inflection and inventiveness. Four of the pieces on here are from another chapbook of hers, Blind Stumbling Afterlife, but it took me a couple of listens to realize this, her spoken interpretations being stronger than the mental voice I heard while reading. She likes to yutz it up mimicking regional accents to mock the conservative and/or stupid. Belile sings a country-ish song about guys who pretend to be feminists to get at the cool chicks, a steamy sex tale, psychic experimentation with a retarded sister, a rant on LA, an amusing list of contrasts between her country and her cunt, an introspective look at a happy relationship, and a strange piece on the super-uber-feminist Empress Nag.
After With Hope
The latest, if not the last, from The Coctails is a catchy guitar/pop record called Peel, like something from the Feelies, or Luna. Instantly likable are the bouncy “Miss Maple” and “Postcard,” both sung by Barry Phipps, with backing vocals from the rest of the band. These two songs were very likely to be running through my head on any given day this Spring. One of the many aspects that should be praised throughout the entire record is the masterful and appropriate use of guitar textures and arranging that, unlike many other bands, does not relay on gimmicky effects to hide bad playing. First of all, there is no bad playing here, and the creative interplay of melodies and apt chord voicings is inspiring, even to an ex-rock guitarist like myself. A lot of the guitars here are played clean, even “twangy,” but mixing in fuzz at all the right points. That the Coctails aren't hailed as rock gods across America is disheartening to me, but what do I really expect. Their cohesion as a group distinguishes them from lesser bands, even under the many different line-ups the band possesses, with everyone sharing almost equally in roles as drummer, bassist, and guitarists. Mark Greenberg's vibes are wonderful on the few songs they appear in, but that's only expected. It is also expected that this is a fine album, full of catchy well-conceived songs. They even came to Austin and put on a superb show. Need I say there will be an interview next issue?
The lofi award of the issue goes to the self-titled by Cane, which is Ana Kravitz singing and playing guitar on rough 4-track songs. Although poorly produced, I liked the somewhat drowsy lyrics that were full of anger and teen-nihilism. “Sometimes I'd like to kill you; your laughing really gets to me” is sung in a manner-of-fact matter. Another line echoes sentiments familiar to me: “I don't know what I wanted and I still don't know and I'm getting bored.” I generally liked the rough guitar sounds, although sometimes the fuzz guitars sounded like they were directly recorded, which made them turgid and un-crunchy. But the interactions between Kravitz’s lead and rhythm guitars was better than most bands I casually hear on the radio (which is not hard). Certainly someone to keep an eye out for in the future.
Gigantic was kind enough to send me their “Cross My Fingers” 7”. However, their kindness ended when it came to sending me a 7” worth listening to. The press releases included in my package hail this 3-piece as the next Nirvana/Husker Du/Television, and if that means being as predictable/posey as Nirvana and as dull/mediocre as Hüsker Dü, then this band is on the right track! I'm not too sure how Television fits into all of this, as that band had a good guitar tone, which Gigantic lacked on this record.
The spunkiest song I've heard recently is “Birthday Cake” by Cibo Matto, two Japanese women in New York who play rap music. They evoke Shonen Knife emulating the Beastie Boys instead of the Ramones. Just as the Knife have finely reworked the instrumental sounds of their genre (at least before their overly-slick records on Virgin), Cibo Matto masterfully use samples and sequencing as a genuine rap band would. One can't mistake the somewhat grating girlie Japanese accent for anything what it is, but I like it. The samples of organ, sax and guitar riffs are all right on the mark, and the catchy hipster lyrics (“I pour pot in the birthday cake, so what! Say what! For my own sake...”) are amusing, especially during a tacet where the singer firmly states “I donít give a flying fuck-a-do.” I won't even mention what's on the b-side, cause you wouldn't believe me...
Project W is a free-jazz trio from Seattle. They have a tape and 7” on Apraxia, both of which are in my possession. I was shocked how good this band is, how they push all the right post-Braxton buttons. I approve of the alto sax, cello, and drums trio, and just everything exactly matched all of my requirements for good jazz. The loud bits go for the best Albert Ayler frenzy since, well, since the last time I played Spiritual Unity. he slower, more intricate sections are what really grabbed me. A lot more deserves to be said about this, especially the powerful, adventurous playing of the sax and cello. The tape is $6ppd, the 7” is $3.50, and both are must-hears.
The Amoebic Ensemble's “Driving Music” 7” is perhaps the most surprising item ever sent to MMPP for review. How many 8 piece avant-jazz bands record 7”s and send them to me? I was floored. A part of their success (besides the obvious refinement of their promotional instincts) stems from the employment of not-often-heard-in-jazz instruments: accordion, bouzouki, bassoon, hurdy gurdy, french horn. Instead of sounding like a poor-man's jazz band, they effectively use these diverse sounds to further jazz. There is no bass, but the drumming is outstanding; a drum kit teamed with “found objects and homemade percussion” played by Paige Van Antwerp and Jonathan Thomas, forms a busy backing of rhythmic cacophony. The glass bells used on “Hell in a Handbasket” caught my attention. The music here has that off-kilter feel to it, reminiscent of Anthony Coleman and Roy Nathanson's partnership, except arranged for a pan-ethnic Mingus ensemble. Supposedly the Ensemble is adept in other “jazz” areas as well, and a tape exists, which I look forward to hearing someday.
Something I have been listening to recently that has greatly interested me is a set of short spoken word and guitar pieces by Derek Bailey. Bailey is someone of whom I've heard a little, but have never adequately explored, although his importance is unquestionable. Two of these spoken word pieces are on a collection (Darn It!) of poems by Paul Haines set to music by a variety of musicians. Sad to say, only Bailey's two interpretations are of any interest, so I won't even mention who else is on here. Bailey has an inciting way of modulating his voice that brings out the surrealness of Haines' words. Nonsense is given a verbal context, and Bailey's use of alternating excitement and restraint is fascinating. “The odor to that room: one of snakes...with fevers!” he cautions on “Art in Heaven.”The ultra-plucky guitar, rich in brief bell-like harmonics is the perfect background for his tumultuous verbal escapade. Bailey is out of control on “route doubt,” the guitar manic as he ups the surreal ante by not reciting the poem correctly. The line in the CD book reads: “He had decided to become a politician--a kind of carless hood ornament.” Bailey clearly substitutes “chairless” for “carless,” which only improves the poem. The third piece is on the No. 5 Aerial compilation, where he describes the technical procedure behind making “the last song on the record,” (from a Frank Zappa interview) which involves detailing which sound samples were fed into a Synclaver. The best part is where he debates himself whether the a in Synclaver is long or short. If anyone knows of more pieces with Bailey speaking, please let me know.
Zusaan Kali Fasteau is a composer and multi-instrumentalist and her approach to jazz, to music, yields a provocative coalescence of free and ethnic interests. Having traveled throughout the Middle East and Asia for 10 years studying and playing local musics, she has the ability to fuse these differing traditions in to a cohesive unity so that the non-Western elements do not seem gimmicky. Prophecy is her fifth release on her own label, and she plays soprano sax, cello, piano, various non-Western flutes such as the ney and shakuachia, as well as singing and chanting. William Parker plays bass on many of the pieces and numerous people contribute various percussion. The mood on many of the pieces on this record are akin to the percussion heavy pieces by Sun Ra. “Curved Space” has Fasteau on three (overdubbed) cellos, and made me think of Xenakis, esp. the constant glissandi on one of the cellos. Both “Lunar Wisdom” and “Cosmopolis,” two quartet pieces for sax, violin, bass and drums, both start with Indian-like drones before jumping into angular post-bop or free grooves. I was greatly impressed by this record and will present an interview with Fasteau that I recorded last year in the next issue.
Musically, A Love Extreme is the consummate product of an assimilation process in which the revolving cast of Blowhole sum up years of musical experiences and perceptions. As such, it achieves a synthesis of the most varied formative principles. Each of the four sides of the double-LP presents the improvisers with a differently structured frame of reference: relatively freely treated jam recordings on side one, smaller Swell-Maps-like constructions on side two, and a live side of each extended and short pieces, throughout all unflinchingly using free jazz and/or noise techniques. The Staples 7” has become my favorite release from this band: each side has two pieces, one on each stereo channel of the record. One side is somewhat sparse and tactile actively abstracting the sound sources. The other goes for some more “out” playing with jazz drumming and guitar feedback. The Uncoastin' 7” has five pieces, all duos and trios of a diverse nature. I like how each person recorded his tracks in different parts of the country. Also worth mentioning: the grossly amplified eating sounds on the first track, and the unabashedness of putting as the second piece a slippery '70s-ish jazz guitar trio. So far, Blowhole has yet to disappoint
I've been listening to a lot of Anthony Braxton recently. It would be a shame not to mention any of it, although I do not have the time to say anything useful. Read Ronald M. Radano's New Musical Figurations: Anthony Braxton's Cultural Critique for that! But I have the following brief descriptions: Trio And Duet (1974) First side is with Mooger Richard Teitelbaum and trumpeter Leo Smith. Of course the piece, a Braxton composition, is fantastic. The other side is duets with Dave Holland on three standards, which were a bit dry for my tastes. The Complete Braxton 1971 at only 2 LP's, not quite “complete” but still a useful document. the sessions are mostly with the members of Circle, with Chic Corea appearing on two piano/sopranino duets, both interesting, esp the curiously deadened piano sound on the second one. 3 quartet pieces with trumpeter Kenny Wheeler. This is one of my often-played Braxton records, if you must know. Knitting Factory (Piano/Quartet) 1994 is a 2CD set of live standards with Braxton on piano, with reeds, drums and bass. Standards included two by Mingus, two by Monk, an Ellington, a Brubeck and even “The Song Is You.” I liked this best of the few Braxton standards records, perhaps because at an average of fifteen minutes per tune, there was a lot of room for experimenting. Six Duets (1982) with John Lindberg on bass is excellent, both of them in fine form and working very well together on these six Braxton compositions. Four Compositions (1973) is a somewhat rare album from Japan featuring a one-time quartet that meshes Braxton's jazz and abstract impulses quite well. Five Compositions (Quartet) 1986 presents a version of his most recent and most stable quartet with David Rosenboom sitting in for Marilyn Crispell. There is some Braxton that actively grabs my attention, and other Braxton that I can enjoy only by sitting back observing it. This is of the latter case, and the playing makes for rewarding observation. Composition 96 is an orchestra work dedicated to Stockhausen. It’s on the obtuse side, and I haven’t gotten a grip on it yet. I’m trying though...
Giancarlo Toniutti's 1986 record Epigènesi has been an astounding and important record to me these past few months. First of all, I purchased it at random, without knowing anything about Toniutti except that he is Italian. The first side of the record is a relentless assault of pulsing organ, an eerie microtonal chorus of male voices, faint electronic noises, and hideous squeaking, the kind that comes from rusted metal hinges turning. The piece, called “Tèndine Lividissima Cesàia” does not develop in a conventional sense, but it is far from static. My attention was constantly challenged by these diverse noises, trying to discover some linking, some logic between them. A comparison to Xenakis' “Bohor” would not be out of place. I cannot find the words to describe how powerful this piece is to me. The second side, “Ethmòs-crivèllo,” has less of a drone-landscape feel to it, and a nervous, pointilistic splattering of piano, a "maltreated” horn sound and a racket of percussion noises that actually recalls the percussion in “Bohor.” There are, of course, more unidentifiable electronic noises in the background. The record comes with a booklet of esoteric essays and artwork, which is designed and typeset quite adeptly. I have written to Toniutti and have received a reply. Sadly, he has few (3) other records and a few pieces on various compilations. He also distributes a number of obscure experimental music recordings, and his catalog, not surprisingly, is a typographical masterpiece. Last I checked, RRR had a few of his LP's in stock, or you could write to him directly at Via Sistiana, 29, 33100 Udine, ITALY.
Another astounding recent discovery: Un Peu de Niege Salie (a bit of oiled snow) by Bernhard Günter. First off, the packaging advises, exclaims no less!, playing the disk at very low volume; an astute decision to further distance the already quite abstract music. Depending on how quietly I listened to the pieces, I heard either a bed of silence or quiet rumbles, with high-pitched tones faintly being heard (or imagined), as if my ears were ringing. At times I would not pay attention to the music, until I some aspect of sound jarred my attention. Was that the CD? Or a noise outside? Or is my needle skipping? (except CD players don’t have needles...) The sounds I listened to quietly are so intriguing that I could not help to listen to the CD at high volume. The magnification transformed the quiet rumbles into what very well sounded like playing computer data stored on audio cassette. There is a revealing interview in N D18 and N D distributes Selekton, which has released this and Günter's second CD, so you only have one address to write to.
Crawling With Tarts have created a compelling work on their LP Operas, which was constructed with 50 year-old homemade 78rpm records mixed with “real” instruments. The works sound like musique contrete experiments, but have that intense vibrancy of “industrial” (i.e. non-academic). The beginning of “Grand Surface Noise Opera No. 2”" starts with pipe-screeching a la the Toniutti record praised above. Much of this piece consists of manipulation of recorded voices, not all of them English, either overlaying differing voices or slowing the voices to a degree that they can hardly be recognized as voices. It is interesting to contrast these techniques with the vocal manipulations on the Hafler Trio's Bang! An Open Letter, which seemed to be based in tape processes. The brief liner notes mention that the LP as a medium for releasing music made with old, scratchy records is apt as the LP itself has a chance to degrade into something old and scratchy, thus enhancing the “noise” of it's sources. Also gracing this record are extended episodes involving a cello, which is fast becoming one of my favorite instruments. This is an incredible record, and I am glad to hear that a second volume has recently been released, although on CD. There is an insightful interview in Pop Watch #6 worth reading.
The Haters are a musical entity that creates music out of destroying things. Furniture might be smashed, books ripped, objects might be burned. In performing situations, the audience en masse might be invited to mangle, mutilate, mince, mow-down, crumble, crumple, smash, squash, squelch, seal the doom of, shatter, batter, crush, cut, detonate, pulverize, ruin, wreck, crash, expunge, raze, dismantle, annihilate, snuff, trample, eradicate or even ravage with fire and sword. Delenda est Carthago indeed. This hands-on approach is carried over to Hater's recordings, a few of which are “blank” with instructions on how to scratch them for listening pleasure. The Rot 7” (Apraxia) is not one of these records. The two pieces on here are dense, unfathomable concoctions of static, screeches, burblings, electronics and I don't know what else. The music is extreme, but inviting. And the record is on Apraxia, quickly becoming one of the most interesting labels in this country. All Hail Apraxia!
Gerard Klauder is a musician and taper in Chicago. His tape ~ is a collection of lofi tape-loops (?) that are on the sonic territory of Merzbow or the Haters; noisy, harsh and the source materials are completely unrecognizable. I think my favorite, although being most different from the above description, is the third piece, cryptically labeled as “Old Direct (From Radio)” in which in between the throbs of a noisy bass guitar (?) a snippet of a high-pitched noise pulses at some faster rate than the bass oscillation. The next piece, a unrelenting drone of grating noises and pulses is also notable. I am led to believe that part of the material on here was taped from a performance of fellow Chicago improvisers Terri Kapsalis, John Corbett and Hal Rammel (the later two have just released a record together, I'll have more details next issue). Klauder also DJs a tape show on WHPK focusing on hometapers and small labels. Write to him for more details on his activities with his show and his music. [see MMPP 21 for an archive of these and other tape tracks from Gerard.]
Speaking of Tom Cora, I just got a 1983 LP teaming him with vocalist/ percussionist David Moss. The record, Cargo Cult Revival, is filled with adventurous concoctions of sound. The cover is a dada-ish photo collage which fits nicely with the surrealist tone of the piece titles; “Unipods are Pacifists,” “Business Us not a Business,” “Boundary Janitor.” On “The Goat Explains the Can,” Moss employs a crowded buzz of pseudo-speech that sounds like a radio tuned to several stations at once, followed by a similar venture into mysterious whispers. Cora is fantastic, producing an assortment of textures on the cello. Sometimes I cannot tell what is cello and what is percussion. “Role of the Bait” has that Cage-ian abstraction of rhythm which fascinates me greatly. “Monkey Lens” sounds like a Xiymalloo song: a buzzy bass, er cello, line over cartoonish voice, bouncy and crazy. Long out of print on Rift records.
I rarely will buy the Special Limited Edition of any release. You know, the only-three-ever-made-comes-in-deluxe-outrageous-packaging rarities, like the tape that comes wrapped in a Ford Pinto. For one, the exorbitant price of these items forbade me from ever doing so. Secondly, I never found them that interesting to actually go out of my way to get. I mean, I appreciated the fact that they existed, but I was perfectly happy to delight in their existence from afar. Despite these reasons, the special edition of the new John Hudak tape, Dream Kit (the regular release has another name, which I forget, but you can ask for it as “the cricket tape”). It is on Apraxia, only $4 more than the regular release, and just knowing that it had something to do with crickets all made it an invitation to buy. I’ll describe in some detail this release, as at 40 copies, you’ll never see it. A 5” X 5” white box, about 1/2” deep, with the two large faces and the small face at the hinge covered by a blue piece of paper. On the large face on top, a middle-easternish map with the tape’s title, and on the bottom face a rough portrait of an ill-proportioned man. Inside: the tape, a bag and some 5” X 5” transparencies. The bag is cloth and tied shut with gold string, An olive-green “O” is one side. Inside the bag, some very smelly twigs. I can’t identify the substance, maybe jasmine? I’m really not all that up on smells. It’s a nice, but somewhat strong...periwinkle smell. I give up. The transparencies are six in number and are all of old maps, all in European languages. Nice to look at. Finally, the music: I know you won’t believe me, because it is the kind of thing I would make up in an poor attempt to imitate Borges, but I’m quite sincere when I say that the only sounds on the tape is a relentless dense mass of cricket chirps. (Did you know that the rate at which a cricket chirps is directly dependent on the temperature? This was not a part of the packaging, I just knew that from somewhere). Supposedly Hudak has processed the chirps in very subtle, minute ways, but it all sounds the same to me, which is not meant to be derisory. I think I hear the sound subtly changing, but my training as a scientist and intellectual has permitted me to realize that my mind, being beset upon by loud, high-pitched cricket chirps for long periods of time, would surely freak at some point and neuro-acousticly warp what I hear. This, the whole package, was very interesting, well worth the $10, and I play the tape every now and then, partly because I like cricket chirps, partly to perplex my neighbors.
Andreas Ammer and FM Einheit have made a large, dense collage of Dante's Inferno, that features Caspar Brotzman on guitar and John Peel (the DJ) on narration at some points. The reference to James Joyce and John Cage residing in the first circle of hell especially amused me. In fact, among the many samples used in this work are some of Cage himself, one a comment on Marcel Duchamp and the other reading his poethical writings. There was a lot of spoken German that I did not understand, but I was engaged by the changing styles of music; sometimes orchestral and dramatic, sometimes tribally percussive, and sometimes s a mesh of heavy-metal and 70's soul.
As a retrospective of an influential and controversial (not to mention inventive and charismatic) artist, The Barton Workshop Plays John Cage, a 3CD set on Etcetera, could hardly be improved upon. There seems to be an indication among people who write about John Cage to concern themselves with composition rather than the actual music. This is ironic considering Cage's personal viewpoints and revolutions on the relationship between sounds/listener and score/composer. It is certainly easier to relate Cage's nifty ways of assembling music than to describe what it sounds like. I certainly have been guilty of this otiosity in the past, but will try to refrain from it here. The 3 1/2 hours of this set present a bit of everything from Cage's long and prolific career. But it is not so much the diversity or selections of material that is important in this set, but rather the performances. The lengthy “Atlas Eclipticalis” consists of long and short single notes from five breath instruments, including bass clarinet and contrabassoon, and a contrabass. What interests me in this piece is the juxtaposition of the long drones against each other, and how one drone will suddenly stop, isolating the other instrument(s). Because of Cage's not-to-be-mentioned composition, the timbres, combinations, entrances and exits of each instrument all happen unexpectedly. “Five” and “Seven2” also deal with droning instruments, the latter delightfully so with its bass-heavy selection of instruments (bass varieties of the flute, clarinet and trombone, as well as cello and contrabass). All of these pieces are quiet, meditative and absolutely captivating. Also extra-notable are “Hymnkus,” with a somewhat nervous, jumpy quality to it, the two prepared piano pieces (which I adore in general), and the three clarinet pieces, two of them composed in 1933. This collection would make the perfect (albeit expensive) introduction to Cage's work, so masterfully performed.

I have been keeping track of every instance I see of those meta-movie guys at Mystery Science Theater 3000 poking fun at, let's face it: mocking, John Cage. So far, I have observed three separate instances (for those of you not in the know, MST3k is a show about two mad scientists who send an innocent guy into space and force him to watch cheesy movies. The guy rebels by building robots who assist him in launching a tirade of abusive comments at the movies as they watch).

1) A mummified alien is hiding in the boiler room of a college campus. A guy goes down to the boiler room and hears the mummy knock over some boxes. COMMENT: “I didn't realize they were having the John Cage concert in the boiler room!”

2) A jazz pianist, who has murdered his sweetie, is distraught over her ghost coming back to haunt him. At one point he violently slams his fist on his piano keyboard, producing a dissonance. COMMENT: “Oh, so you studied under John Cage.”

3) As a guy is looking at some records on a bookshelf, alien creatures hiding in the basement begin to make odd chirping/buzzing noise. COMMENT: “Maybe if I find something catchy they will take off the John Cage record...”

The French CD simply titled Giacinto Scelsi features various “small” works from this interesting and shamefully ignored Italian composer. I like best the two parts to “In Nomine Lucius” for organ, which slowly pulses and drones, unfolding into eerie masses of sound. Comparisons to Ligeti would not be unkind/unfounded. In fact, since Scelsi's use of Ligeti's microtonal-drone-sound-cluster predates Ligeti, we should consider Ligeti in terms of Scelsi and not vice versa, not that any book on 20th Century music is cultured enough to tell you this. “Tre Canti Sacri” sounds like Ligeti's use of choruses, but this predates Ligeti's “Lux Aeterna” by some five years. The second “Canti" is actually a requiem and it is interesting to compare these two composers who mean so much to me working with the same religious topic (much more interesting than the topic itself). Brief analysis: Scelsi wins for subtlety and beauty and Ligeti wins for spookiness and power. The singer of “Antifona” intones a six word phrase in different melodies and dynamics, to be responded by a unison chorus of four tenors and four basses. The results are somberly spectral, and I am surprised at how much I enjoy this Gregorian-chant-like music. “Pranam II” is a small but powerful ensemble piece, “Triphon” is for solo cello and “Three Latin Prayers” for solo voice. All are masterpieces. This was really my first exposure to Scelsi, and since I've heard this I have gone on to listen to about 40 of his other works, of which I will surely speak more. Scelsi has been ignored for far too long, and recordings of his works are now easy to find. What are you waiting for?
Rachel's Handwriting is the Jason Noble (of Rodan) led indie-rock take on chamber music. Rachel Grimes (Mountain Goats) plays piano. Three members of the Coctails play vibes, bass and bass clarinet (guess who plays what). There are other "names" I probably should recognize but don't. It is the Coctail's presence which motivated me to listen to this, and it is their presence that insures that the proceedings on this record will be, well, listenable. For the most part, the record is very listenable, considering that much of it is faux-neo-romanticism. You know, that sort of petty (pretty) emotional prodding one expects in some shallow-but-critically-acclaimed Eastern-European film. The beginning part of “M. Daguerre” is nicely dominated by a bass clarinet/vibes/piano groove, with other instruments weaving their way in. Then a reoccurring passage involving distorted guitar and strings comes in that sounds exactly like one of those overly dramatic themes from Pink Floyd's The Wall, which is by no means a compliment. In fact, it is a downright insult. A slap in the face. This is a comment that should make any antagonist to weak-spirited music shudder. But in saying that, there are interesting bits and textures throughout the record. Although not as exciting or crafted or avant-garde as the “classical” music I am used to, I do think it is far better than most popular classical music being written today, including everything I have ever heard from Gorecki, Philip Glass and Arvo Part. This is not a bad record, and certainly not an embarrassing one (except for the Pink Floyd crap) as most unions of rock and classical are.
My early admiration for Luigi Nono (see MMPP#1) was further strengthened on hearing the Deutsche Grammophon CD of two 1989 works “la lontananza nostalgica utopica futura” and “<hay que caminar> sonando”, both design interactions between violins. In the first piece, a violin is played along to eight tapes of violin recordings, each tape involving a different procedure to alter the violin sounds. The result is a subtle piece that is dominated by overlapping high-pitched sounds. Those who have decried the use of live instruments played to prerecorded tapes for one reason or another (such as Pierre Boulez, who was perhaps ashamed of his awful compositions in the field), are proven wrong with Nono's tape pieces. Nono sought to remove the “familiar and vulgar” elements of the violin in this piece, and the tape, mimicking or abstracting these sounds, enhances this new space. In the liner notes, Gidon Kremer, for whom the piece was recorded and who performs here, relates his involvement with the somewhat tense conditions the piece was composed. These humorous reflections endear Nono all the more to me. The second piece is for two violins, played by Kremer and Tatiana Grindenko, is somewhat similar to the first piece, full of silences and stark high-pitched drones.
My task of reviewing the 2CD set of Iannis XenakisMusique de Chambre (1955-1990) is somewhat of a futile one. Not only is my vocabulary of string quartets and solo piano pieces is somewhat sketchy, but my knowledge of Xenakis is still in a developmental stage. Yes, I've heard 25 of his compositions, yes I've read an in-depth biography of him and his music, but his brazen singular path is difficult to comprehend. Xenakis, from what I can gather, starts a composition based on some mathematical system, maybe statistics, game theory, or some aspect of architecture, and then formulates a musical approach imprinted with his personal aesthetics. This knowledge, although interesting and valuable to know if one is interested in composing, does not lead to immediate understanding of any given piece. “Kottos” for cello is my favorite on this collection. I was seduced by the huge opening scrape across all four strings. I can't at this time say many other worthwhile things about these pieces, which included three string quartets, four solo piano pieces, four pieces for solo strings, and a few other combinations. What I can say is that this set has been (and will continue to be) an important part in my understanding of Xenakis.
“Reviews” written “by” Josh Ronsen.
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