issue 5 :: Spring, 1999

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Record Reviews

“There’s something about an afternoon spent doing nothing. Just listening to records and watching the sun falling.”

I have a hundred records that deserve to be mentioned here, and a hundred more that I should track down and include as well. However, I feel that my writing can do these records-or perhaps any music-little justice. Better and more relevant writing can be found in the pages of N D, Opprobrium and Popwatch. That is where I get the majority of my record information. Staalplaat’s Vital Weekly newsletter and the weekly Anomalous Records catalog updates, both via email, are also useful resources. Due to the time and energy that I put into this publication, I am only going to write about records that I find worthy of writing about. Hopefully the ones not worthy will go away if we all just ignore them. As I wrote earlier, there are a hundred records that I would have loved to include here.
Kathleen Hanna’s first solo record, Julie Ruin surprised me. Most of the songs are Hanna, a drum machine and a single guitar. Some songs have keyboards or sampled rhythms or sampled bits from rap songs. All in all everything is rough and beautifully tossed together. Vocally, no surprises: the same mix of outrage, silliness ("I’m making bullshit disappear like I’m Hou-fuckin-dini"), politics, slogans, pop-references that have filled past Bikini Kill records. She still jumps through voices like she’s playing all of the cast in a play. The “Hou-fuckin-dini” song, which is called “V.G.I.” (although I haven’t figured out what that stands for, Valley Girl Intl?) sounds like a catchy BK single, and “I wanna know what love is” is an angry spoken rap against police harassment. If I told you where the chorus lyrics and melody came from, you wouldn’t believe me. Hanna comes across as intelligent, defiant, creative and crafty. I feel sad about the demise of Bikini Kill, but this cheers me up.
The perfect pop band from England, and I can only be talking about PO!, continue to delight me, now on their 4th album, Horse Blanket Weather. Although, like their previous records, much too short, only eleven songs on here, two of which appeared on an Elefant 7", I will take what I can get from this band: hummable melodies, jangly guitars, a touch of sadness, an overflowing box of mischief. This last word perfectly describes the paradoxical “I Took My Head on a Date,” which relates the date between the adventurous singer and her more sensible head, and touches on the themes of responsibility and growing up that are central to many of the band’s songs. Ruth Miller sings (through some sort of eq that gives her a distant sound) “and in the end, I slept with her, although I imagined she was someone else.” “Charity Girl” jumps from the impressions of a small girl of a crippled girl begging on the street ("Where is her mother? Is she being punished?") to the viewpoint of mother whose own child is similarly troubled. All of PO!’s records remain the most cherished and worthwhile pop music in my collection: I highly recommend all of them. You’ll probably have to write directly to them to order: like most treasured things in life, you have to seek them out.
The first CD from a 14 year-old musical partnership between Brian Locklin and John French (note: not the drummer associated with Captain Beefheart) offers 15 more-or-less rock instrumentals, with a fair amount noise fuckery spread about like salt sprinkled over French fries. Knowing only of French from his friendship with Abrasion Ensemble guitarist Rick Reed, I didn’t expect Runaway Mind Train to be so straight-forward: the first track is legit surf music, tremolo-y reverb on the guitar and all. The rest of the record shows off influences ranging from early Floyd to Felt. Rick Reed appears on one track, a different version of one of the tracks with French and Dianne Murray that appeared on Reed’s LP on Ecstatic Yod. One 9-minute track consists of squeaking gates at a local peacock farm.
I bet Jim O’Rourke has been amassing for years the courage to release his new record, Eureka. For years he has been mentioning in interviews his love for the music of Van Dyke Parks, and Eureka is the ardent product of that love, a collection of schmaltzy pop songs (including one by Burt Bacharach!) whose purpose is to infect your mind with vocal melodies and lyrics. Numerous Chicago luminaries lend assistance, including Fred Lonberg-Holm, Edith Frost, Jeb Bishop, Darin Gray and Ken Vandermark (doing a cheesy saxophone solo, I can imagine O’Rourke setting the parameters: “think the ending of Saturday Night Live!"). I like this record, no buts, but did I mention O’Rourke has a very pleasant singing voice?
Barbara Manning’s In New Zealand is a too-short 7-song CD made with numerous NZ people, including Chris Knox and David Kilgour. Not that this has much effect on Manning, she sings her pretty, sad songs in the simple, ernest manner that I’ve admired for years. More piano and organ than usual though, with different players on each song. One song that has stuck itself in my teeny brain is “Walking Stick” with frantic guitar by David Mitchell. My favorite is the sad-tinged country ode by the Clean “Whatever I Do Is Wrong.” How can she sing this while creating such a moving song? “Your Pies,” the track done with Chris Knox, is crazy and weird, full of yelling, backwards-recorded drums and carnival organ. The record closed with an 8-minute instrumental which reminds me, in part due to the repeating rhythm guitar that sounds like an accordion, of the closing music to a Hal Hartley film, where the heroine stands defiantly, her hair blowing in the wind as the anti-hero is being driven off by the police. The music repeats the same two sections, as if reliving that one moment of separation over and over.
The work of drummer Tatsuya Nakatani, who lives in Boston, has recently come to my attention, first through Green Report 5, number 5 in a planned 12 part cassette series documenting his work, both solo and in collaboration with others. 5 is all solo percussion, and presents delightful constructions ranging from Organum-like bowed cymbal soundscapes, to bustling full kit work-outs, to quiet tom poundings, to a strange section involving a grooved object being rubbed across something (I can’t figure out what this object is, maybe a guitar string being rubbed against the drums?). Throughout all is a sensitivity and precision to silence, negative (sound-)space, and a lively non-rhythmic flow. I will someday track down the other volumes of this series.
After I listened to Green Room a few times in as many days, a CD called Real Time showed up. A live recording of a trio with Nakatani, Philip Tomasic on electric guitar, and Dan DeChellis on piano documented, according to the press release, “the first meeting of these three musicians.” I’m not a fan of improv guitar or piano, but with Nakatani involved, I was willing to give it chance. To be honest, it didn’t seem to me that these three musicians gelled together the way that I wanted them to. The individual playing was exceptional for the most part, especially Tomasic’s quiet first solo, but there was little that really held my interest throughout. The tension of Tomasic’s guitar sometimes seemed to be so loose that it was like he was playing through a guitar synthesizer, ack!
Somewhere between the press releases that came with these two records, I learned that Nakatani had been on the first CD of the improv trio nmperign, the same nmperign that had astounded me as a duo when they played in Austin. Bhob Rainey (saxophone) and Greg Kelley (trumpet) played so quietly, producing little squeaks and breathy noises totally outside my expectation of what these two instruments should sound like. I felt that I was listening to highly-developed electro-acoustic compositions, not fuckin’ improvised music. I didn’t have the money on me to buy the CD there, and I was too shy to sing laudations to them, although I regret this now. But to finish this article I did rush order their CD 44’38"/5, which turned out to be quite different from the duo performance I attended. For one, an increase in sonic density coupled with more vertical movements made the CD closer to a highly adventurous Anthony Braxton group than the ultra-minimal sensitivity of the Austin show. I’m not complaining, the squeaks, growls and roars make an adventurous listening, and Nakatani propels the pieces with the right mixture of traditional drum sounds and strange thumpings/slappings. This is one of those CD’s I will make all of my musician friends listen to. [Later, Bhob and Greg stayed in our living room on their next visit to Austin: the sofas were not lumpy on purpose.]
Photo by Josh Ronsen.
What do you get when you mix Derek Bailey, Motoharu Yoshizawa, Kaoru Abe and Toshinori Kondo? Who? Derek Bailey is of course a singularly tenacious guitarist from England. Yoshizawa was interviewed in Halana #3, and the only thing I have heard from him is the CD UZU on PSF that he did with fellow bassist Barre Phillips. He passed away recently. Abe plays saxophone and Kondo plays trumpet: I admit my ignorance about both of them. Perhaps this will be inexcusable to some. Regardless, one night in Japan in 1978, these four performed together, and the results have finally been unearthed on a CD with the name Aida’s Call; Aida being Aquirax Aida, a seemingly important person in the Japanese free-jazz world who was responsible for organizing this show. Responsible? Responsible like a scientist who aims two beams of high-speed protons together to see what pops out of the collision. During the first piece, I was surprised to hear a section where guitarist, bassist and saxophonist all merge together to long-held tones. I assume Bailey is kicking out the feedback from his electric guitar, while trumpet notes flutter about this tonal trunk. The rest of the record is a topsy-turvy free for all, Bailey plicking and plunking, Yoshizawa pulling deep grumbles from his bass, somehow managing to stay beneath the fray, Abe and Kondo squeaking and skronking I imagine right into Bailey’s ears. Sometimes it sounds like 4 people playing in separate rooms, and others it achieves a luminous unity.
I was in a fantastic record store: they had hundreds of rare items at cheap prices. Not rare as in silly collectibles, but rare as in good records that one doesn’t see for sale every day. I immediately went over to the Albert Ayler section to see what they had, and they had many CD’s I had never seen before (I never managed to make it over to the LP section), recordings of concerts and sessions hinted at in biographies. The most interesting item I remember was a record Ayler did with percussionist Barry Altschul, not of jazz music, but a action (or ackshun) / movement performance, that I was quite surprised to read about in the CD liner notes. Ayler and Altschul convened in a large room with a maple wood floor. The performance involved spreading a mixture of water and sand across the floor with stainless steel planks. The color photos in the CD, which was one of those plastic-less fold-out paper sleeves, showed a close up of the sand being spread on the yellow natural varnish of the floor, as well as pictures of the sweaty bare-chested performers. There was a lot of small text surrounding the photos, giving a history of the performance. The music was the sound of Ayler and Altschul spreading the sand out, and while I did not listen to the CD, I could accurately hear the music in my head. What a record: and it was just $12. (you can’t buy this record, it was a dream)
Eric Cordier, if you haven’t been reading MMPP or N D, has made installations and tape music under his name and in UNACD. Erres, his latest CD released under the name Schams, provides a boisterous free-jazz workout on the level of William Hooker or Peter Brötzmann. Cordier plays the hurdy-gurdy, which creates an awful squawk, filling up the spaces between Jean-Luc Guionnet’s alto saxophone and Eric Brulebois’s drums. The hurdy-gurdy, I admit not an instrument familiar to me, goes from sounding like an amplifier being kicked down a flight of stairs to a maltreated violin to Tuvan throat singer through a bullhorn. Scary, wild, intense playing.
A Japanese quintet calling themselves Computer Soup has provided one of the most enjoyable new jazz experiences I’ve had lately. With instrumentation consisting of trumpet, piano, drums and unspecified electronics, they weave a fine shimmer of soft rhythms and subtle textures that both soothes and entrances me. The muted trumpet outlining mere impressions of melodies reminds me of Miles Davis at his coolest—I don’t make this comparison lightly—gliding above piano and drones or bloops from the electronics. I enjoyed the relaxed mood throughout the record, due mostly to the sparse density of events, while keeping the actual sounds adventurous and unpredictable. Sometimes the trumpet drops out and the keyboards move into Sun Ra-ish organ doodles. The mixture of electronic and acoustic sounds achieves a rare balance totally absent from the awful concoction known as acid-jazz, which merges the most simple and mundane aspects of electronic music and jazz. Computer Soup, the opposite of this, deserves your attention.
Kozo Ikeno’s solo record Trumpet & Electronics mines a similar territory to that of Computer Soup. When I first heard this record, I was sure that he was the trumpet player of Computer Soup (in reality Satoru Hori). Gone were the piano and acoustic percussion, replaced with rhythms of a more techno nature, some of them-i.e., cheesy synth-bass-perhaps too “clubby,” but certainly ok in the small doses here. Any of these pieces would make great background music for a movie, or a relaxed party.
Many recordings possess a clearly defined listening volume, due to the link between recorded media and a live performance: one plays a recording to simulate the live performance, volume included. Recordings of audio art, like Emanations by Steve Peters, pose an interesting question: what volume does it require? Although originally used to accompany minimalist paintings and sculptures by Claire Giovanniello, I wasn’t there (were you?). The music itself is finely tuned (through a graphic equalizer) notes of feedback from a microphone and amplifier. At times two or three tones are heard at once, sometimes producing difference tones that tremble in and out of audibility. I usually listen to this CD at a very low volume, allowing a lot of silence, with the tones creeping into existence. This makes the perfect background music for me: I can concentrate on folding zine pages or whatever and be rewarded every now and then with a beautiful faint note. At times I turn the volume up and engage the “loudness” button on my NAD 3240 stereo amplifier, filling my room with deep rumbles and high-pitched wails that lie on the edge of irritability.
John Grzinich was kind enough to give me a CD from Cyanosis with a hand-painted cover of a scary blue face on pink paper. The music on The Ethereal Stairwell Suite, made with guitar (Roger Hayes) and bass (Robert Clutter) through delays and reverb, evokes pleasant floating feelings, as if underwater. A hint of something sinister lurks about, and in listening to the CD for the first time, I wondered when the music would suddenly change, the undersea behemoth grabbing me and flinging me out into the air. I won’t spoil the story for you, but I will say Hayes and Clutter have done a good job in shaping the atmosphere here, much better than I would expect given the instrumentation and effects.
[I think Robert Clutter sent me this bizarre painting, made on a thick cardboard book cover, that is the image on the right half, as a reward when the print version of this review came out. That is how you thank your record reviewer. —Ed, 2014 note.]
Strange seeds come from odd flowers makes a good slogan as well as a apt description for a collaborative project between Augur and Birds of Tin, two one-person projects fronted by S. Brand and Brooke Oates. The music we hear is variously Birds of Tin processing material by Augur (I assume by mail), Augur processing Birds of Tin, and then solo pieces by each person. Birds of Tin’s territory seems to be an astute manipulation of synthesizers and electronic processing to achieve drones and shimmering effects. Augur deals in electro-acoustic manipulation, where sound sources can’t be accurately identified. Together they produce interesting soundscapes, think Illusion of Safety at their most experimental or Beequeen.
Machine for Making Sense, a group of intrepid Australians, creates a diverse mix of flavors and moods on Dissect the Body due to the creative talents of Jim Denley, Rik Rue, Stevie Wishart and Amanda Stewart. The biggest departure form their OO Discs CD is poet/vocalist Chris Mann whose cut-up style of speaking defined that earlier disc for me. Without him, Machine for Making Sense has more room for instrumental music, tapes to add snips of electronic beat music, guest musicians like koto player Satsuki Odamura, and Stewart’s spitting out of a sociology text as fast as she can, wooden flutes, violin, hurdy-gurdy, saxophone, all scrambled together. I get the feeling each player brings into the group elements that don’t fit anywhere else.
Kenneth Gaburo, composer, performer, publisher, has been sadly overlooked by the experimental music community in recent years. Although quite active throughout the 60’s and 70’s, running Langura Press and directing the vocal performance ensemble NCME, and also as an inspiring professor, only one CD of his work (that I’ve been able to track down) is in print on the Music & Arts label. The CD contains 2 long, large-scale works, perhaps the most expansive that he had composed. “Enough!---(not enough)---;” is for a group of 40 players to recite (I assume) text written by Benjamin Franklin. This group apparently walks around the stage in a pattern described on the score (which is printed in the CD booklet, but impossible to fully decipher) employing percussion and occasionally shouting or making coo-ing noises. They softly intone the text, making it impossible to understand. An orchestra, magnetic tape and two children’s choirs perform “Antiphony IX (...A Dot...),” but I couldn’t tell what the children were doing: I think they are moving about the stage as well. All I could hear was the disjunct, abrupt orchestra and the bloopy tape. Pogus records is releasing a CD of his tape pieces, and his two LP’s on Nonesuch and CRI can still be found at some mail-order catalogs.
“And then I thought of sounds we cannot hear because they’re too small, but through new techniques we can enlarge them, sounds like ants walking in the grass.” -John Cage, 1965 interview
Once upon a time, there was an experimental group in Austin called Alial Straa. I only saw John Grzinich, Olivia Block and Seth Nehil perform live a few times, and I missed the performance they did in the drainage tunnels underneath a nearby freeway. What I liked about the performances I did see included the unpredictable nature of the music, and the incredible focusing of attention to something that existed outside the physical music, something strange and wonderful. Using a few simple instruments-trumpet, clarinet, bowed strings, a contact mic rubbed on a speaker, mysterious sounds from magnetic tape-a spacious complexity took shape. Their music inspired me during a time of turbulent changes in my personal music world. This was before I came to know John and Seth as friends and comrades. Alial Straa doesn’t seem to exist any longer (although some of their tapes are being re-released on Alluvial Recordings, get them while you can), John and Seth (with Michael Northam) have infrequently performed as Erg (and more infrequently I have assisted them), and all three have released fantastic CD’s under their own names.
As a follow up to their excellent CD Stomach of the Sky, jgrznich & mnortham have assembled three more long soundscapes, collectively entitled The Absurd Evidence (see review in N D 21 for an analysis of this title). Whereas Stomach of the Sky was predominantly rich drone textures, the new record is mostly “surface” textures, i.e. the sounds of irregularly-shaped objects being rubbed or scraped together, resulting in a richness of sound not possible (as far as I know) from electronic sources. Drones and electronic (or electronically processed) sources do show up, particularly in the first piece, “Incubation,” where they link the various sections of scratchy sounds. Each listening uncovers new details, each detail adds to my mental map of the pieces, each map outlining a seemingly organic evolution. Obligatory references would have to include Syllyk, Organum, Small Cruel Party, etc, and like the music of those people, should be sought out and studied.
Many of the general descriptions at left would also fit Tracing the Skins of Clouds by Seth Nehil. In fact, I witnessed a performance where Nehil played his CD and The Absurd Evidence concurrently to video work by Rick Reed. The two CDs are similar enough that they compliment each other, but I would prefer to listen to the subtle details of each on its own. Whereas Evidence can be thought as mainly momentum, Tracing achieves a more gesture-oriented development. I can almost see in my mind’s eye cinder blocks being dragged on a string across concrete, small igneous rocks being rubbed together, rusty metal canisters being pushed across the factory floor. This factory has been abandoned, but the hum of large machines can still be heard, activated by the sun when the clouds move out of the way, the kind of clouds whose shadows you watch move across the ground (i.e. tracing the skins...). Yes, the two CDs are similar on paper, but listening uncovers a wealth of details from the individual hands and ears that created them.
Olivia Block, former member of the Marble Index and Alial Straa, reappears after a long absence and a move to Chicago with her first solo CD entitled Pure Gaze. Obviously much time was spent assembling the diverse elements that comprise the 27 minute piece; elements that include environmental recordings, piano, organ, radio, chamber instruments (clarinet, English horn, trombone). The entire CD is masterfully composed, recalling to my mind tape compositions of Jim O’Rourke like Scend and Disengage. By composed, I mean the structure of the piece: how is the piano used? how does one get the segment with piano to evolve into the segment with the wind instruments? how does one make this evolution into exactly the right flow, right in the sense of there is nothing for me to mentally improve or criticize. And here there is nothing to criticize: just the opposite, there are many things to praise and marvel at. Like the piano chord that is mysteriously and seamlessly extended for a long time, lingering in the background. Or the surprising appearance of sampled classical music that sneaks in under spasmodic organ playing (or is it manipulated tape?). Or the unidentifiable little electro-acoustic sounds that appear throughout. Or the waves of wind instruments, sounding like a rehearsal of one of John Cage’s “number” pieces. All in all: a wonderful and remarkably coherent piece that deserves your attention.
Every now and then I will stumble across such a cohesive and inspiring piece of music that I wonder how I could not have heard about it sooner. One such cassette was Monochrome Series II - Grey Issue by R.H.Y. Yau, a noise artist in California I had never heard of, but who has steadily amassed a body of startling and engaging work. On this release, Yau punctuates unidentifiable noise bursts with grunted vocalizations and unnerving stretches of silence, the transitions between the different events achieving a mysterious, if not spiritual, itinerary, like trying to recreate a long forgotten pagan ritual from the collective unconscious. An essay by Yau will be featured in the next issue of MMPP, so now is your chance to hear his work before you read his writing.
Chris Watson’s Outside the Circle of Fire presents a sound diary of 22 location recordings of various creatures, usually mic’ed so closely that without the detailed descriptions one could not determine what they are. The deep rumbling on the first track turns out to be the purr of a wild cheetah. Brief notes give relevant details on the recording of snoring elephants, feeding vultures, roving spider monkeys, foraging rain forest insects and others, each track a brief window onto natural sound environments. The fact that this was released by Touch means something, but I’m not even going to guess... I am fascinated by the short recording of the purring cheetah: I program my CD player to repeat these two minutes for an hour, the irregular rumblings somehow make the most interesting music. My domesticated cats, Max and Chester, don’t seem to give a hoot about it.
Francisco López dislikes providing information about how his music is made. He thinks it draws attention away from the music itself, but on La Selva, he provides 42 pages of detailed descriptions and philosophical insight into his work, which he urges the listener not to read. Well, I read it. Unlike the almost zoological cataloging of Watson’s recordings, López has collaged the numerous sounds from the Costa Rican rain forest into one large 70 minute recording, a suite of chirping insects, howling monkeys, croaking frogs and falling rain. López, a biology professor when not a prolific and proficient electro-acoustic composer, has painstakingly cataloged most of the species heard on the CD. It is these direct sounds that we hear, unprocessed save for the recording and collage, which López never describes in details (why he puts what recording where), only that the CD should be thought of as a complete piece of music, completely distinct from the forest it was recorded. This method is completely opposite to López’s CD Addy en el pais de las frutas y los chunches in which forest sounds from Costa Rica are processed into something dissimilar from their origin. I was lucky to be at a live performance of Addy... in which the audience was inside a circle of 6 speakers, with 3 CD players providing the sound, and López in the very center, mixing/eq’ing it all. The show took place in complete darkness.
John Hudak does process the sounds on his CD Pond. The source is obviously crickets (or another chirping insect, presumably at the edge of a pond), or cricket, recorded and the layered back onto itself to create waves of twittering high-pitched tones that fall prey to interference patterns between each other. Each wave seems to be different, sounding more like pure electronics than anything of biological origin. When I listen to this CD, I focus on the waves, first trying to discover any electronic “seams” that would clue me in on what processes/devices were used. Not finding any, I allow the waves to ebb around the room, tickling my ears.
Playing the above three at the same time creates a nightmare of nature on the rampage...
Das Synthetische Mischgewebe (Guido Hubner) employs its particular form sound processing on Drum, using just a trap kit played by Samuel Loviton as a sound source. The results resemble creaking girder, electronic fuzz, metallic crinkles, a gong being lowered into water, a lopsided pottery wheel, a lumbering locomotive... At times the transformation are recognizable, at others not. The 12 minutes of diverse soundscape jumps through the different sections with little coherency in the trip: not that coherency is necessarily needed here, and the lack of any poetic title or imagery (the cover is a photo of drums), leaves me just to focus on the subject.
I consider Anthony Braxton a hero. His far-reaching ideas, his passion for exploring new concepts and configurations, his efforts in documentation and education, and his uncompromising self-realization have formed an image of the fully-creative artist. A perfect example is the disc-length Composition No. 173, “for 4 actors, 14 instrumentalists, constructed environment and video projections.” Sounds like a 60’s theater piece by Marucio Kagel or Kenneth Gaburo, does it not? And the result is not too far from the truth. As in Composition No. 174 (reviewed in MMPP#4), the speakers seem to talk about the music that goes on around them, only here it is readily apparent that they are doing so, both from the booklet of the character’s text that accompanies the CD, and the way the actors verbally mimic the sounds of the ensemble to illustrate their points (as well as being represented as a Braxton compositional title diagram in the booklet). After a 15 minute musical introduction of Frank Zappa-like cartoon music, the four characters begin to debate/argue with each other over the particulars of a sound environment, offering their suggestions for particular sounds to be used, and why these sounds would be most appropriate. The discussions are long and involved, dealing with loyalties, strategies, personal aesthetics. Each time they verbally illustrate a proposed sound, we hear one of the ensemble instruments bring this sound to life. For example: “What about a wavily sound that helps to map out transfer lines for decision-team 8? A sound that kinda gave the friendly experiencer a funnel cloud to enter into animate-space 3 and a43. I can hear that sound already, people. It would definitely have a kind of WWWNNOOOOOSSSPPPPHHHCCCCCCCNN [this is doubled by an instrument] kind of feeling.” Actors Steven Ben Israel of The Living Theater, Isha Beck, the daughter of the founders of The Living Theater, Julian Beck and Judith Malina (see the book The Living Theatre: Art, Exile, and Outrage by John Tytell for details), Laura Arbuckle and Baba Ben Israel joke, cajole, accuse, draw lines in the sand, an occasionally join in for simultaneous text recitals. Other composers would probably construct a tape to provide the noises and drones that accompanies the actors, but Braxton has the ensemble produce the needed music, at time sounding like electronic drones. Braxton, besides providing the text and having the actors talk concretely (well...) about sound, does little to help the listener get a grasp on exactly what is happening. Projected firmly into the internal logic of Braxtonland, one has few guideposts to illuminate what goes on. In a word, it is whacked, but thoroughly enjoyable if one has a bit of imagination to invest in the proceedings.
I have two marvelous 3CD sets by the Barton Workshop, each set devoted one of the towering figures of 20th Century compositional music: John Cage and Morton Feldman. Each CD is 70 minutes long, leaving plenty of time to present thirteen works by Cage (including five works 25 minutes or longer), and twenty-eight pieces by Feldman. I found each set for a remarkably low price, and each offers a particular and insightful look into the works of these two “New York School” composers who have both explored indeterminacy, graphic notation, extreme virtuosity and new approaches to sound and composition.
The John Cage set takes a seemingly random selection of his roughly 300 compositions. 300 is somewhat misleading, due to the extreme adaptability of many of his pieces (i.e. two performances of “Variations 5” or “Europera 5” could sound entirely different), and also to modularity of “Concert for Piano and Orchestra” or “Songbooks,” a version of the former appearing on disc 1 with eight performers, and 2 parts (of 90) of the latter on disc 2, both for “amplified breathing.” Also included are two “modernist” sonatas for clarinets and flute from the early 1930’s, two prepared piano pieces from the 1940s (one of my favorite periods of Cage), two large orchestra pieces from the late 1950’s, here performed by a small ensemble, two “number” pieces that he composed in the last years of life, as well as others. Despite the wide range of time these pieces came from, and the diverse ways of composing them (Schoenbergian number theory, improvisation in a rigid rhythmic framework, subtracting notes from Satie melodies, various methods of utilizing chance operations), all of the pieces do fit together, due in part, to the methodical and dedicated approach of the Barton Workshop. “Five” (for five performers) (coincidentally with a duration of 5’) is the one I listen to most from this set, the two percussionists do not strike their unspecified instruments, but rather bow or rub them so that they produce tones that fade into hearing, combining into harmonies with a flute, clarinet and contrabass. There is a glorious section about two minutes into the piece where, after a moment of silence, a low note bowed from the bass juxtaposes with a mass of higher notes, that makes me think I’m listening to electronic music. I can’t describe why I like this particular passage so much, it is just perfect.
The Morton Feldman set collects a number of different editions from series of works from the early and middle of his career. “Projections 1-5,” “Intersections 2-4,” “Durations 1-5,” “Vertical Thoughts 1-5,” and “Instruments I-III” as well as some works with unique titles. Each series explores a new way of notation, and each number within the series presents a distinct set of instruments working with that notation. Eleven of these pieces have never been recorded before. I found the versions of the “Projection” and “Intersection” pieces that make up the bulk of the first CD, to be rather jarring, and unpleasant to listen to. In some of these pieces, the actually parameters of music specified are somewhat vague (i.e. “high(-pitched sound)") and hence the player(s) have a huge range of choices to make, a huge responsibility to take, and I feel that they made some rather poor choices in these two series. Immediately after, we are treated to an exquisite version of “Piece for Four Pianos,” in which each pianist is given the same notes to play, but without any time values. Each player goes through the piece at his own pace, creating a three-part echo that quickly becomes complex as the “fastest” pianist gets further and further ahead of the slower players. The volume and density is kept low. This piece was composed in 1957, and is thus one of the first instances of minimal or process music (can you think of others?), but no where in discussions of these ideas have I ever seen this piece included. Also on the CD are the “Two Pianos” and “Piano Four Hands” which takes this idea to smaller and smaller levels. I listen to these pieces the most from the collection. To be honest, I have just started exploring the second CD, and I haven’t even touched the third.
I secretly decided that I’d review for MMPP only those releases which were both fantastic and unlikely to be reviewed elsewhere. Voices of Kwahn were once an electronica outfit that appeared on some techno compilations in years past. Pointing this out is no help in explaining their present sound. Operation Dismantled Sun is experimental music at its least trendy and best. A mysterious trek into the darker shadows of the mind’s primal wilderness. Similar to the most nuanced moments of early Nurse With Wound and P16D4 material, but not at all prone to those sometimes distracting absurdist lapses. There is an enduring unity here, a thread through all the dizzy permutations. Soothing yet twisted, and downright deceptively simple. Its an utterly perfect soundtrack for neurotic late night laziness. [Written by Jeff Filla]
The Complete Tape Music of Dick Raaijmakers (3CD Box with 200 page hardcover book) - Definitely a gem of a release for electro-acoustic fans who enjoy artists such as Pierre Henry and Bernard Parmegiani. Spans almost 40 years (1959-1996) of this Dutch composer’s dynamic career. Extremely varied and almost consistently spectacular (which was more than I expected given similar retrospective releases by Schaeffer and Henry). Raaijmakers is impossible to pin down in terms of style. My fave material here has a classic tape music dynamic and a bold, almost “post-industrial” flavor. Some other great moments resemble common ambient music in style yet are of a rare high quality and originality. Though I haven’t read any of the book, it is packed with amusing and perplexing photos. I wonder why I haven’t heard more about Raaijmakers all these years. [Written by Jeff Filla]
Without a doubt, [For: HT/RP/J&S] by John Clyde-Evans is one of the most out-of-the-blue brilliant releases to emerge in quite a while. The better part of this LP sounds like layers of droning strings that sway like a seasick lullaby. Waves of hissing, shimmering sounds fill the room and yield to creaks and screeches of heavy furniture being pushed across a wooden floor (or like some dying animal). Like an improv Xenakis “ensemble” if you will. Creepy and mesmerizing. [Written by Jeff Filla]
I have recently created a web page detailing the factual information I have about Iancu Dumitrescu. So enthralled by his music, I recently purchased four CD’s of his music at once (at full price), a humongous commitment for a tight-wad like me. All four CDs (no titles, just catalog numbers: EDMN 1002, 1004, 1006, 1009) also feature the compositions of Ana-Maria Avram, a fellow Romanian composer with a similar style. She is also his wife, and I think it was a bold and worthy move to have her work appear along side his. I probably would not have bought any CDs (due only to my meager resources) that contained just her works, and I would have been missing out. Both composers work in a world of intense, dynamic sound, typically using fiercely-bowed cellos and double basses, prepared pianos, and unusual percussion. Magnetic tape often augments the exploits of the performers, usually some version of the Hyperion Ensemble (formed by Dumitrescu to perform adventurous Romanian music). Completely abandoning traditional notions of structure, development, phrasing and harmony, they direct situations at once powerful, complex and alive. At times listening to an entire CD in one sitting proves to be too much: so much detail is presented, most of it utilizing abrasive timbres. Recommending a particular CD is difficult: with each piece mining similar sets of extended techniques, a certain uniformity exists among them, part of it due to my esteem. Avram proves to be a capable vocalist in her “Arche” for solo voice that could easily be mistaken for Joan LaBarbara. Eschewing words/syntax, she mouths a fluttering barrage of vowels intoning for various animal deities. She also plays what sounds like a Moog synthesizer on “Icarus,” slowing turning knobs to create a drone buzz. Both Avram and Dumitrescu take turns providing the electronic backing for the 30 minute Georges Astalos piece “Symetries,” recited here by Pierre Lamy, whose gravely voice turns the “metaphysical” text into a sermon of seemingly baneful intent (my French isn’t good enough to translate from speech). The music screeches and bubbles between the text. String sounds interest me personally, from the solo for bass “Gnosis,” or the piece for twelve cellos “Ouranos,” or the use of “monocordes and harryphones” on several pieces. All of the work inspires, and at the same time depresses me. How can I as a musician produce anything as powerful as the material on these discs?
Reviews written by Josh Ronsen, except for three by Jeff Filla.
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