issue 4 :: Summer, 1997

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Record Reviews

About 26,000 records are released each year. Not all of them can be worth listening, can they? In fact, a vast majority of them I don’t even want to know that they exist. The following record reviews are for the most part records that I have found to be worth my time listening to. I have found a huge number of records, musicians and approaches that I find interesting, and I find it impossible to keep up. I rarely borrow records from friends these days, so much in my (admittedly not that big) collection I still need to digest. And then there is the promo material I receive for this zine and N D. Below are about 1/3 of all the records I wanted to talk about for this issue, but these are the ones I felt most comfortable writing about. Not that this is meant as a gesture of journalistic integrity or anything, but entries preceded by a * were sent to me as promos, and one should generously reward these labels for being supreme enough to send me stuff, and stuff worth listening to at that. Ted Mentele drew the superb drawings which grace the review section.

As overjoyed I was at Tortoise’s self-titled record, the subsequent remix LP, and the first three 7”s or so, their most recent full-length, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, left me cold. The 20+ minute first side “Djed” had an interesting groove, especially where the basses drop out and let the tinny keyboard go at it against the hiphopish drum backing. I was indifferent to most of everything on side 2: too much familiar guitar texture and not enough of the fusion grooves that interested me on the first record. I had my suspicious as to what had happened, and these were confirmed with the release of Directions in Music by Bundy Brown, Doug Scharin and James Warden. The absence of Brown and his marvelous bass sound has really affected Tortoise. Directions in Music presents to me everything that I found lacking from Millions, most especially Brown. All that is missing is a vibraphone! I don't think any of the 8 seemingly untitled tracks on here is as powerful or “experimental” as the first Tortoise record, and the 3rd song on side one is indistinguishable from the music underlying a Sea and Cake record. Like Tortoise, all tracks here are instrumentals (although let’s not forget what a powerful and stunning cover of Freakwater’s “Lonesome Sound” was) and are fairly nice. If you were disappointed by Millions, I suggest getting this record and playing both at the same time: the deficiencies in one will be covered by the strong points of the other.
* One of my many aborted ideas for this issue was to have a little section on guitar/drums punk duos. DQE, Kicking Giant, the Spinanes, Heavens to Betsy. Someone suggested that I write to England’s Avocado Baby. I did and sent a copy of MMPP. They wrote back with a 7” and a note saying they could not be a part of my guitar/drums duo section, as they weren't a guitar/drums duo. This shattered my dream, but the Queen Boy and the King Girl 7”, crammed with 10 short songs of guitars, basses, xylophones, recorded voices, and cute lyrics made up for all that. Lofi, quirky and charming. “I feel like a glass of milk sometimes. When you drink me, lift your elbow up high.” sings the boy; “I wrote a fucking love song, I wrote a fucking love song, I wrote a fucking love song, and I wrote it for you,” sings the girl. They have a few tapes and at least one LP out. Why don’t I have it?
You know I like Felt (see Felt record guide in the printed MMPP1), and have been dismayed to see few bands cover them. At last the Spanish label Elefant (who have also been responsible for 2 7”s by PO!) has released a tribute record in honor of Felt. I have heard of none of the bands in any great detail, but if they covered Felt, then they can't be all bad. At least not all of them. I don’t think this record will turn too many people onto Felt, but it is a nice collection for Feltophiles like me. Le Mans sticks out from the 17 other bands: taking a mediocre Felt song (“My Darkest Light Will Shine”), singing it in French with sparse guitar/bass and a melodic piano solo at end, and actually improving on the original. In French, Lawrence’s banal lyrics (verses and choruses of “What’s been happening? I’ve been away.”) turn compelling and stirring when sung in French by a sexy female voice. The very faint drum machine backing doesn’t even bother me. I going to find other recordings of Le Mans in the near future. The 2 other tracks that I play most often are also mediocre Felt songs, both from the Me and a Monkey on the Moon LP. Red Letter Day has the Felt impersonation down on “I Can’t Make Love to You Anymore” (listen to the outro guitar solo...) and the Pearly Gatecrashers do a bouncy country-ish "Mobile Shack.” Usura do a fine job of combining “Declaration” and “Riding on the Equator” (but no 4 minute guitar solo here!). It’s somewhat surprising that all of my favorite versions are sung by women: Le Mans, Usura, Spring, the Pearly Gatecrashers. Evergreen Dazed does a horrendous lofi techno exercise of “Mexican Bandits” that I have to skip over every time it comes up. This would be the Martin Duffy tribute. Red Letter Day, Hula Hoop and Venus all do a convincing job of trying to sound like Felt, which is not a bad thing, but... I’m not selling my Felt records just yet.
* Azalia Snail used to be too weird for me, c.f. her Burnt Sienna record and the times I saw her live in Austin in 1994 and 95. Her music was too chaotic and diffuse for me too understand. I didn’t dislike it, it was just too weird, which is something I can say about not that many musicians. Her 4-track recordings and methodology perplexed me to no end, and it wasn’t the kind of confusion I could enjoy. It seemed to me that the various overdubbed guitar and vocal tracks had very little to do with each other. And her curious use of echo to create a swirl of noise. This all changed with the arrival of her solo record Escape Maker (on Garden of Delights). Not that there was that much of change, but I started to see the pop beauty of her voice and songs. “Baby Apricot” won me over. By the time she came back into Austin in October, 1996, I was ready to grok, er I mean rock. It suddenly clicked. Escape Maker was just her singing, playing electric guitar and xylophone, along with the very psychedelic echo. Live, she played an electric 6-string Rickenbacher guitar (a change from the acoustic 12-string used at previous Austin shows), along with a mic’ed cellist, electric pianist, and trumpet (Austin’s David Kay) and black and white movies. At the show, I bought her new LP, Deep Motif (on Candy Floss), which failed to disappoint. Here Snail played with drums, trumpet, cello, and other singers. “Baby Apricot” shows up again, as well as a nice cover of Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love.” Now I a fan, awaiting her next showing in town.
There's a new Jandek CD out (and actually another one will be released by the time this will be printed according to my sources). The title is “White Box Requiem”, with the quotes being part of the title. It’s mostly solo acoustic guitar and less than half of the songs have vocals. No harmonica or accordion, and I think there is one drum crash that seems to haphazardly appear in one of the early songs. No surprises here, just more creepy Jandek music. Title themes include Cognition (“Second Thoughts,” “Thinking,” “Wondering,” “What Should I Do”) and Movement (“Eternal Waltz,” “Walking in the Park,” “Moon Dance” and “Approaching the City”). I always think that there is some hidden meaning behind a Jandek album, and I always want to read religious interpretations behind every song I do not understand much of what goes on: I just enjoy the creepy, bluesy mystery of it all. Oh, and on the cover is Mr. Jandek with inappropriately bushy sideburns.
DQE has taken a surprising and wondrous change of direction on their first The Making of Americans (God Is My Co-Pilot’s personal label) record, Jump On In. I thought that on GodCo’s label, they would accent their brash punk chaos. Instead they continue with the old-style country sound that so mesmerized me on the “Tell Me Why the Ivy Twines” 7”. If it wasn’t already taken and so well-known, the name Credence Clearwater Revival would suit this new sound, equal parts bluegrass, southern blues and country heartbreak. Still a drums and guitar duo, Grace Braun’s melodic singing and guitar playing shine through the simple, catchy songs. There is a powerful ballad version of Roy Orbison’s “Tryin to Get to You.” On “Sugary Sam,” a sing-longable reproach to a sweet-talking lady's man, they equalize the entire track to sound like it’s coming through an AM radio, which only lends to its charm. Throughout the record, Braun’s electric guitar playing is lively and inventive in use of combining melodic runs with supporting chords, like on the instrumental “Diddley Links.” Braun’s singing stands up alone against drums on the bluesy “Walkin,” a tale of infidelity and revenge. It is sad to think that few will hear this amazing record.
I ran out of space last issue for PO!’s Ducks & Drakes, which is a fine fine record. I feel I must mention that I am not talking about Spin-approved New York Alanis Morriscrap wannabe Poe. Major major ick. No, PO! is a four-piece pop band from the English countryside. Since the last issue, they’ve released their third full-length. Not Marked on the Ordinance Map immerses one with a bright, crisp twangy country sound. I like PO! so much that it took me a few listens to get used to the somewhat new direction, but now I’ve started humming the new tunes in my head. Ruth Miller’s pretty singing and biting lyrics remain as laudable as ever, standing up for principles (“Maybe I lead a dull life, and I get pleasure from small things/you live and die minutiae, the gilded gossip of your kings”) or acknowledging when she doesn’t (“It’s not right! It’s not right! scream the children in my head... When it mattered I said nothing.”). Also included on the CD are the 7” recordings of the pretty “No Flowers” and the powerful political bitterness of “Northern Wonder.”
Although they’ve broken up, I must mention Kicking Giant’s Alien i.d. record. I bought it from the band after seeing them play in town. I had never heard them before and went purely on the basis of Caught in Flux and/or Second Skin record reviews. The all-too-brief show completely won me over to this guitar/drums duo. I won't say much about the record, except that it is probably still available from K records, and Sue P. Fox, who speaks/recites on the angst-inflamed “The Town Idiot,” completely and utterly rocks. “I fought the establishment/Now I am the establishment.” That line shatters me every time I hear it. And the repeated affirmation “I... Am... God!” that she works the piece around... The song embodies embarrassments and humiliations that I cannot find the words to describe. To hear Fox be so hip, evil, sarcastic, spazzy and weak about it... She has a tape out on Kill Rock Stars with musical backing by Kicking Giant.
Ok, anyone who doesn’t know of the Ex as a punk band (assuming an interest in punk music) should be told or something. Now, anyone interested in free-improv music who doesn’t know of the Ex as practitioners in that non-genre genre... Not that the Ex haven’t been doing free-improv for years, but Instant, their new 2CD set, is their first major document of their “instant compositional” work. Like their 1989 2LP magnum opus Joggers & Smoggers, (which dabbled in free to be sure), the addition of numerous guests diversifies the Ex to no end. In fact, a few of those guests, trombonist Wolter Wierbos and saxophonist Ab Baars, guitarist Dolf, appeared on Joggers... as well as 7”s and videos. Also included are drummer Han Bennink (who played in Eric Dolphy’s last concert), cellist Tristan Honsinger and noisemaker Michael Vatcher. So many instruments and approaches are heard here, saxophones, zither, thumb piano, taped bird chirps, self-made instruments, as well as the typical guitars. Perhaps best is that they don’t follow anything close to a Sonic Youth of Dead C approach to free-improv. Unlike Joggers & Smoggers, there are no songs or singing here, which is a shame in the sense that the Ex write brilliant songs, and in such an experimental setting, we could have expected some adventurous use of voice and text. In the Ex records I have heard, they often use the voice to set up descriptive impressions of life in oppressive society. While the titles do imply political consciousness and disgust with title references to atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and anti-nuclear testing, John Corbett's liner notes provide some insight: “Connections between a punk band and improvised music are clear then: refusal of authority, interrogation of traditionally lauded standards, investigation of creativity outside the strictures of commercial salability.” and sums it all up: “As I hear it, that steady punk chug reflects the dignity of labor...” (ref to the Ex's quadruple 1983 7” set? Nah.)
God Is My Co-Pilot are back (did they ever leave?) with Puss O2 (on Dark Beloved Cloud), which I think is their best big record since Speed Yr Trip (granted I completely missed Sex is for Making Babies and that special tour-only CD). Guests include Anthony Coleman, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Yoshimi Peewee, Chan Marshall and my favorite GodCo guest: Fly. The big prize here is Fly and Sharon's trade-off surreal story "...meanwhile...” Lot’s of great turns of direction on the as-always quite varied selection of tracks; heavy metals guitar crunches, funky dance grooves, banjos, the impeccable double (and sometimes triple) drumming, the great lyrics (“there will always be the cool, either these or others, it says so right here in Dirkheim”), the cartoon-country of “Chicken Reel” played by guitar, bass and mandolin. And then there is Sharon who is constantly changing as a singer, yelling, chanting, singing, shouting, teasing. I have so many GodCo records that I figure everyone must have at least one... For more info on GodCo, Alan Hise has assembled a good GodCo web page at <>.
* A band reminding me of GodCo is Kampec Dolores, a Hungarian quintet I've on the outer edges of European prog-rock. If one would have told me that this was the GodCo ethnic Eastern European record, I would not have questioned. On the CD Zúgó Rapid vocalist (and violinist) Gabi Kenderesi sings, or perhaps warbles, in a way that makes me think of Turkish or Middle-Eastern singing. The 5-member band eschews typical rock structures and grooves (although the second song, part 2 of the 42 minute title piece, sounds a bit like the “typical” Can chug), and at times sounds a lot like out-there jazz or new music. The CD is being distributed by ReR..
Masada is the John Zorn-led quartet that plays an Ornette Coleman-ish take on klezmer. They have 7-8 CDs out, Japanese-only imports, very pricey. The 2CD set Bar Kokhba is a collection of “Masada Chamber Ensembles” and features a cast of 11 familiar New York names. I was expected something grand from this and was initially disappointed to find that all of the pieces were for groups of 1 to 4. However, the musicianship on these recordings is so good that I can forgive the lack of grandeur. I was also surprised at the relative sedateness of most of the tracks. This was not free jazz, but rather jazz that I could see my father liking. Anthony Coleman isn’t forced to play much klezmer here: the opening track “Gevurah” is cool-jazz piano trio, straight no chaser, perfectly integrating those Jewish-sounding scales into post-bop mentality, and he really outdoes himself during a late section of low-end inversion comping. His duet with clarinetist David Krakauer is more klezmerish, and I am impressed by the way Coleman quickly pings dissonant chords, obscuring all harmonic value, leaving percussive slams for Krakauer to weave around. Marc Ribot’s acoustic guitar playing explores what Coleman called the “Spanish Tinge.” Everyone on here shines, Greg Cohen, Mark Dresser, Mark Feldman, and even John Medeski. Although both likable and listenable,
Anthony Braxton’s first use of recorded voice was on his debut LP as leader, 3 Compositions of New Jazz (Delmark). This mainly consisted of tone singing with Leroy Jenkins and Leo Smith. Throughout most of the ’70s and ’80s, I have not heard of Braxton employing much human voice in his compositions (wheezing and gasping for air, yes, and a spoken portion of his duo record with Joseph Jarman). Lately, he has been writing operas and scores that involve actors and/or narration. Composition No. 174 (Leo) for ten percussionists (and “slide projections, constructed environment and tape”) has the players also read from a script. The story is disorienting, convoluted and so divorced from normal patterns of discourse that it seems to be a farcical play on communication. Just like Braxton’s liner notes, you say. Exactly. The story here seems to involve a guided tour of an ski slope/amusement park called Alvaland that is part wild kingdom and part sound environment. The guides, some of them in authentic auto-pilot “guide voice,” provide such commentary as “Take routes B14, MQ 29, NO105 and R82 to experience the internal logics of this feature. Landing strips AA will connect to NO 96 (which maybe is ’over used,’ but at this point in time it was a question of available parts).” It occurred to me that many of these markers seem awfully similar to Braxton composition numbers, in this example, could NO 96 refer to the collage piece Composition No. 96 which has been often utilized (“over used?”) by Braxton in many situations. I am amused by the idea that the cryptic dialogue describes the piece as it unfolds. Many reviews I have read of these narrative and opera pieces have been negative, saying that they are too wordy, too confusing, too different, too intellectual. Just like Braxton himself, you say. Exactly. I am disturbed with the general impression of “it’s ok if musically Braxton is out there, but verbally he must speak like Robert Ashley or Laurie Anderson. How dare he do something experimental verbally?” I think instead that one should look at possible reasons why Braxton’s verbal ideas are presented in this way, just as one could look at why his “normal” music differs from normal “jazz.”
* For those readers who didn’t read or heed the review of Project W’s self-titled tape last issue, or those whose couldn’t take a tape release seriously, Apraxia has re-released the full record on Compact Disc. This is extra good news as my tape copy has been borrowed and never returned by an unknown friend. Project W are a trio of alto sax, drums and cello that play a fierce and accomplished free jazz. Project W continue along some similar lines as Albert Ayler, whom I prefer over Coltrane on any day. Project W’s similarity to Ayler lies in their energy and interplay, they don’t really employ song-melodies as Ayler did (e.g. “Ghosts”), they come from a more abstract mentality, a lot more free improv than free jazz if you catch my drift.
When I was last in Chicago, actually the first time I returned after leaving the University of Chicago, I managed to see three bands play while I was in town: a piano and violin duo playing music from Hungarian composers (Bartók and Zoltán Kodály) at the Chicago Cultural Center, the Mingus Big Band at Orchestra Hall (classy and jamming, my father approved), and Luc Houtkamp at the Empty Bottle. The last time Houtkamp and I were in town together, in November 1992, I had to work that night and missed his performance on campus. Seth Tisue was kind enough to let my tape recorder accompany him. I have cherished that bootleg tape ever since. But after 4 1/2 years, I had another chance to see the Dutch saxophonist play. That night, in April 1997, Houtkamp played with drummer Michael Zerang and a bassist. It was something that is rarely seen in Austin, Texas. I bought a CD after the show: X-OR On Tour, X-OR being Houtkamp’s record label with percussionist Gert Jan Prins, and the CD a collection of various lineups playing live involving violin, piano, bass, drums, unspecified electronics, trombone, voice and guitar. All of it is the kind of noisy freely-improvised that is the product of players closely listening to each other, well, all except for a horrendous blues song sung by guitarist David Dramm, It was interesting to hear voice and electronics used in a free-improv setting. Houtkamp takes an extended technique approach to the saxophone that I find quite enjoyable, and I appreciate his attention to detail in the multiphonic tones he produces.
* Arsenije Jovanovic has been producing radio music for decades. This radio music is a sort of sound theater for radio and is more popular, or at least more often heard of, in Europe, and is called Hörspiel (“ear play”) in German. The four lengthy productions on Jovanovic’s self-titled release on La Legende des Voix lack the poetic/verbal component of the typical Hörspiel, but does utilize a chorus of human voices in a variety of instrumental ways: whispering, gasping, braying (on the spooky “The Island of the Dying Donkeys”), chanting, tone-singing. Primitive instruments, hand drums, marimbas and block flutes, add to the docimastic flavor of these pieces.
Another subtle Legende des Voix CD is Syllyk’s Ascendre a l’ombre du vent. The stark, mysterious textures on the one long track remind me of Small Cruel Party or Jim O’Rourke. The primary sound texture on here is static, and at points this static, which could be electronic white-noise, processed highway traffic or surf sounds, blends with metallic percussion and the bubbling of moving water. The percussion consists of a loud vibraphonish gong, and a fainter, it’s hard to describe, clanging whose origins I can’t guess at. Imagine a stick beating against moving bicycle spokes, or something rattling in a coffee can. The are also some electronic sounds here; a faint drone accompanying the percussion sounds. The mood throughout is pensive and introspective.
William deRidder is a sound artist who turns on a tape recorder and begins speaking without script. Or so he claims (association with the Hafler Trio tends to make me suspicious). Regardless, his voice and narratives are odd, disturbing and a favorite of mine to listen to. The first piece on the collaborative Voice and Sound 7” made with San Francisco musician Crawl Unit, starts with deRidder calmly explaining his method of storytelling using the most simple of terms. Slowly, as he gets ridiculously caught up in the metaphysical conclusions concerning his act of speaking/thinking, his narrative becomes more and more excited about the tyranny of consciousness that rules us all and makes us forever thinking and aware of the relentless onslaught of reality. Yeah, bummer. These philosophical ruminations form the basis of much of deRidder’s work I have heard. Who is the “I” that speaks? What does it mean to exist? To do? To learn? To record one’s voice for the purpose of asking these questions? DeRidder never answers any of these questions, but his accent-heavy voice and tactics are enough to draw me in, not to mention his use of a very personal “tu” is charming. The second side of the record presents the other side of the deRidder oeuvre: a surreal tale of horror, violence and cultural (i.e. language) alienation. Here, the story involves a four-leaf clover, a dying woman, coffee, corpse mutilation, a midnight chase in a cemetery, and an annoying cliff-hanger. Sad to say, with deRidder, the music sticks to the background, but Crawl Unit provides the appropriate electronic drones for the occasion. Interviews with DeRidder appear in N D 20 and Resonance 5.2.
One thing that is really starting to interest me now is the idea of performance, and especially performances that combine music, dance, visual projection, theater, invented environments, and so on, what someone might call action performances. Alison Knowles has been performing rather unique works since the early sixties, and is known to use themes involving beans, shoes and nature. For example, on the CD Frijoles Canyon, Knowles calmly describes her favorite pair of sandals for over five minutes, what they are made of, differences between the two, what sound they make when walked in. In this and the other spoken passages on the CD, Knowles presents her texts without drama, theatrics, pretension, or playing a character. Her voice reminds me of both John Cage and my good friend Tanya K. (whose voice I have recorded for a sound piece). On one piece she talks over very Derek Bailey-esque guitar playing, more thumps and knocks than vibrating strings. Other pieces on here are of strange and curious noises, things rubbing together or recordings of locomotive engines. I assume that these are recordings of movement performances, like the photo of Knowles on the cover kneeling and writing on a piece of paper attached to the wall, overshown by a slide projection of a mountain. The notes included in the booklet read like Fluxus text-sound performance instructions: “drag a metal cup slowly across a granite slab” or “describe the voice of anyone you admire.” I wish I could have seen these performances when they happened.
Itineraire is a rather unique collaboration/compilation involving Bernhard Günter, Giancarlo Toniutti, Achim Wollscheid, Frans de Waard, and Asmus Tietchens. The way it was explained to me: someone recorded some sounds, and passed the tape to the next person, who transforms the sound into something else. This gets passed on, until the material passes through everyone’s studio. I think the order is opposite the above listing (which is the track order on the CD). Concurrent to this tape passing, an object is passed along and modified as well. Photos of the object in evolution are printed on five accompanying cards. Realize there is no textual explanation anywhere on the CD. One card shows a large piece of Styrofoam packaging. Another shows broken bits of Styrofoam in a box. A third shows the Styrofoam bits strung together on a stick broken off from a tree. A forth shows a can of goopy material, bubbling as if something was just dropped in it. The fifth shows what appears to be the goopy stuff poured into a plastic bag. Actually, the object in the third card might have been made last: it is hard to tell if what is strung onto the stick is Styrofoam, or the Styrofoam removed from the mysterious goop. Anyways, I assume the music was composed in a similar manner. Bernhard Günter’s track is similar to what I praised in his first CD reviewed last issue: quiet scrapes or static isolated by stretches of silence. Quiet with occasional explosions of volume. People get so razzed up by Merzbow and the like. They have only bored me with their “extreme” noise: Günter's noise is so much more interesting to me (recall what Cage said about loud and soft sounds) (although I would love to hear each of them remix the other's material) (and actually as I edit this, a Merzbow remix CD has just been released with tracks by Günter and Jim O'Rourke among others). It makes me think about and try to decipher the sound/structure. Toniutti’s piece sounds like something being rubbed directly against a microphone, an insistent muffled scratching that again I found quite interesting. The other tracks I did not expect to like at all, but turned out to be much more concrete and complex than the synthesized sounds I was expecting. Throughout, this CD is not a record for those who like pretty sounds: the sounds and textures here are rough, expect for a few voice and drones that appear in de Waard's piece. This has been one of the best concept compilations I have heard. I am trying to get permission to reprint interviews with Günter and Toniutti that were originally published in French.
Jim O’Rourke’s latest solo CD is called Happy Days (the first on John Fahey’s new Revenant label). I never know to what O’Rourke’s titles refer, but perhaps "happy days" alludes to John Fahey and Tony Conrad’s recent comebacks into productivity and spotlight. This does not seem so farfetched considering that this CD brings to mind both of these musicians. The 47 minute piece starts with a solo acoustic guitar producing a monotonous octave pulse. Eventually O’Rourke adds some chords on top of the pulse. This would be the Fahey section. Beneath this, a faint buzz, which I have heard is a mix of 20 overdubbed hurdy-gurdies, appears, slowly growing louder and louder until the guitar is no longer heard. The buzz is one huge relentless drone and each minute change to the drone is instantly noticeable. Around the 21’ mark, the drone gets that piercing harmonic chord that I associate with Conrad. The hurdy-gurdy is such an unfamiliar instrument to me, that I don’t know if the sounds are processed or altered in any way. I think O’Rourke is one of the most interesting and dynamic musician/composers of this decade and this is just another example of that.
Speaking of Tony Conrad, The Table of the Elements label has just released his 1964 solo composition Four Violins, which, as the title implies, is Conrad overdubbing himself on violin. The results, unheard by the public until now, are pretty close to his sound now: grating, relentless drones that at times sound like harmonicas or accordions more than violins. I dislike the concept that “minimalism” was created by those who felt that the revolution in sound-thought associated with Cage was too ugly, and music needed to get back to melody and prettiness, or that performers were tired of “freedom” and wanted more direction from scores/composers. As if Cage forced everybody in the whole world to stop using melody. Two things that have made me ease up on the word minimalism are Tom Johnson’s book The Voice of New Music and the records of Tony Conrad. Johnson’s book is a collection of show reviews from the New York Village Voice throughout the ’70s when “minimalism” was the fresh thing in New York. Johnson links the m-word with all sorts of activities that I find interesting, as well as to LaMonte Young, Terry Reiley and Philip Glass, none of whose music I have ever found compelled to listen to. Conrad’s use of the word minimalism is especially encouraging: his music isn’t at all pretty or soft or attempting to be “definitive” or whatever. Conrad’s emphasis is on tone, which is something lacking in the synthesizers sometimes employed by Young, Reiley and Glass. Conrad is here to stay and Table of the Elements is planning to issue a 3 or 4 CD set by Conrad called Early Minimalism, which I am looking forward to hearing.
One of the many qualities I admire about John Cage is his refusal to mellow throughout his career. Although full of (self-admitted) contradictions, Cage continued to grow and explore, to question and devise, until his death at 80 in 1992. There was no shameful embracing of neo-classicism for this avant-gardist. Hence the works that he completed in the last years of his life possess all the wondrous indeterminacy used to imitate nature that propelled his work since his musical maturity in the early 1950s. Many of the works written in the 1990s are the 40 or so “number” or “time-bracket” pieces, each named after the number of instruments scored in it. “Fifty-Eight” is perhaps the most fantastic of these (but nowhere near the largest) and was written specifically for performance in a famous courtyard in Vienna. Each of the 58 wind instruments is played in one of the 58 arches of the rectangular courtyard surrounding the audience. The Hat Art recording of the premiere performance obviously cannot convey the rich spatialness of the situation, but simple stereo still manages to impress me with its elegant mingle of tones. The unified mass of held notes—at times quiet and sparse, at others dense and atonal—a product of many random choices of pitch and time-placement (with individual players determining volume and timbre) makes me want to scream at narrow-minded Cage-detractors (like Lang Thompson at Option magazine) that Cage’s methods were not “gimmicky.” They worked, effectively, intelligently, and with a profound respect for performer and listener alike. Although Cage always strove to remove emotional factors from his works, I cannot help but listen to “Fifty-Eight” from under a veil of sadness: Cage composed in order to expose himself (and others) to new sound experiences; the premiere performance of “Fifty-Eight” took place months after his death.
I could spend a page apiece praising the 6 LPs I have from Editions RZ, a German label that is a significant resource for the extreme, “maximalist” avant-garde music chiefly made in the 1960s. Iancu Dumitrescu deals mainly with intense and harmonically complex bowing on contrabasses. The amount of richness and power in “Medium II” puts any synthesizer or effects processor to shame. Helmut Lachenmann’s approach on his record is on quiet, isolated sounds on string instruments. Two versions by two different cellists of his “Pression” are offered, as well as an early string quartet and a piece for piano in which the strings are rubbed with fingers or sticks. On the Mathias Spahlinger record dynamics and inventiveness rule for a string quartet, a theater-text vocal ensemble, an orchestra and a tape music. The orchestra and vocal ensemble both utilize at times an interesting method of repetition where every instrument would repeat its “note” only after every other instrument repeated its, so the repetition was in this fixed series of events. In the case of the voices, someone would scream, and the next person laugh, then the next person sing, etc, although sometimes events would happen concurrently. I would love to see the score for this piece. I am still trying to digest and make sense of the five pieces on the Jani Christou record. All I can right now is that they seem worthy of figuring out. I expected to be unimpressed by the 3 pieces on the Luigi Nono record, but I was happily mistaken. These large ensemble pieces (some with electronic processing or spatial projection) are proud examples of Nono’s more experimental side, and even though one of the pieces is dedicated to Pierre Boulez, they are interesting and revealing works. Many of these records can be purchased cheaply from RRR records.
In 1977, Iannis Xenakis was commissioned to design an architectural structure or the opening of another, larger building in France. What he called Diatope was example of ultra-modernist ideas formed around hyperbolic surfaces, While Xenakis' building (no mere shack) existed for only a few months, we at least finally have a stereo mix-down of the 8-channel tape piece that was played as visitors moved through Diatope. La Légende D'Eer (on Montaigne) further cements Xenakis' reputation for impeccable electro-acoustic construction. Starting with faint high-pitched drones (made with his UPIC computer program which converts the X-Y axes of drawings into time-frequency output) which bloom into cicada-like buzzes, the piece slowly evolves into a dense mass of treated African percussion, faux-flying-insect whines and harsh electronic rhythms (and I don't mean drum machines!).
* Writing a zine that has gotten some amount of positive press, and with a somewhat provocative name, I get numerous press releases and promotional material. Rarely will any of the submitted material will be worth listening to (refer to the reviews preceded by a * for notable and appreciated exceptions) and I can only think of a single press release that captured my attention: Houlque by Eric Cordier. After I received this press release, and before I could respond to it, the actual CD was sent to N D for review. Having been impressed by the press release, I immediately staked my claim on the CD. Let me just quote what caught my attention in the press release, as it does a better job of describing the record than I: “These pieces are the stereo reduction of multi-track compositions diffused in sound environment using thousands of loudspeakers. The booklet shows the visual aspect [speakers mounted on walls and floor of old decrepit house] but these sound environments affect also the sense of touch (very low frequencies produce a state of resonance of the matters of the room: wood, iron, glass...)” I am quite interested in both sound as it relates to particular architectural structures (see Xenakis review above, as well as Tonhaus by composer Francisco López and architect Klaus Schuwerk) as well as how musical information can be transformed by resonating objects into a drastically different form/shape/sound. Houlque is nothing short of an amazing, inspirational work. Leaving aside the matter of how the music on the CD would be transformed by the house in the booklet, the music is an intense mass of sliding tones, which at the beginning sounds similar to an orchestra piece by Xenakis or Scelsi (“Metastasis” comes to mind). The liner notes gives few clues, only that hurdy-gurdy, dulcimer (both unrecognizable to my ear), harpsichord and church organ are used on a few of the tracks. The keyboard instruments particularly stand out, the sharp percussive attacks of the harpsichord and the 25 minute long “Climax” which features long drones on the organ which build and shift. This has been the most exciting musical discovery for me in 1997. I eagerly await further information on and releases by Eric Cordier.
“Reviews” written “by” Josh Ronsen.
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