JUNE News 2004 Reviews by Nate Dorward, Stephen Griffith, Walter Horn, TJ Norris, Wayne Spencer, Dan Warburton:

Freedom Of The City 2004
Alvin Curran
Matt Davis
What Next?
Elliott Carter
Alexandre Bellenger
On Sedimental: Tonalamotl / Seth Nehil & Olivia Block / Giuseppe Ielasi / Reynols / David Gross & Liz Tonne
Songs of Norway / Zach & Grydeland /
No Spaghetti Edition / Eskelin, Parkins, Black / Rich Halley / Craig Taborn /
Steve Lacy / Derek Bailey / Jon Mueller, Bhob Rainey, Jim Schoenecker / Sophie Agnel & Olivier Benoit / Mike Hansen & Tomasz Krakowiak / Steuart Liebig & Mentones / Free Fall
Glenn Branca / Paul Zukofsky performing Cage, Loos, Babbitt, Feldman
B Fleischmann / Invisible Structure / Alex Keller & Meri von KleinSmid / Steve Barsotti / Paolo Raposo & Marc Behrens

Last month


To keep this on the brief side (as monthly issues of this magazine are getting bigger and bigger, thanks to the enthusiastic participation of our new correspondents), I still receive numerous mails enquiring whether this or that album submitted for review has indeed been covered. The answer to that is quite simple - anyone whose work is reviewed here is individually notified immediately prior to publication. The home page each month features direct links to all material reviewed in the previous twelve months, and if the review is over a year old it's still easy to find using the inbuilt search engine, and/or the pulldown menus. If you spend a bit of time scouting around you'll find all kinds of odd things buried away. So, on with the party - thanks this month to Wayne Spencer for covering FOTC in London, one of improvised music's most important annual meetings (whether correctly funded or not). As Martin Davidson is fond of reminding us, London is home to well over a hundred free improvisers, not all of whom can be squeezed into the Conway Hall in three days, so I'm also happy to be able to profile the work of Matt Davis in the same issue. And lots more stuff - read on. Bonne lecture.—DW

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Freedom Of The City 2004

Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London
Saturday 1 May - Monday 3 May 2004
London is an important international centre of musical activity, with music in the city providing the equivalent of 34,000 full-time jobs and sustaining a market in which approximately £1.1 billion is spent annually by London consumers and London based companies. One relatively esoteric field of musical endeavour in which the city has been important in recent decades is that of free improvisation. The history of free improvisation in London can be traced back to the 1960s, the decade in which John Stevens (of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble) established an important venue upstairs at the Little Theatre Club in Monmouth Street and the group AMM (formed in 1965) played frequently in the city, exemplifying an even more radical repudiation of the jazz paradigm than that pursued by the players associated with, or influenced by, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Subsequently, new focal points for free improvised music arose, including the Old Place in Gerrard Street (formerly the premises of Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club, made available to free improvisers when the club moved to Frith Street) and the London Musicians' Collective building at 42 Gloucester Avenue (see Clive Bell's Brief History of the LMC at http://www.l-m-c.org.uk/archive/history.html). Today, free improvised music is played almost every night in London, utilizing both ad hoc venues and the array of clubs and other establishments that host the music on a more or less regular basis, including the Bonnington Centre in Vauxhall, Free Radicals in Stoke Newington, the Klinker Club in Dalston, the Red Rose in Finsbury Park and Sound323 in Highgate. Festivals of the music, however, are still relatively rare. One such is Freedom of the City, an annual festival curated by Martin Davidson, Evan Parker and Eddie Prévost. The 2004 festival was held at the Conway Hall in Holborn, a rather austere remnant of nineteenth century humanism owned by the South Place Ethical Society. As with the first three festivals, state funding was denied by the Arts Council of England; indeed, the festival benefited from no official funding at all this year, a fact publicly lamented by the curators. Parker in particular expressed bitter regret that the paucity of funds prevented the same hospitality being given to overseas visitors as senior British players experience when travelling in mainland Europe. None of the organisers seemed inclined to take the view that a position outside of the self-justifying cultural discourse of the state was sufficient compensation for the indigence in which the festival found itself.
Saturday 1 May 2004
The music began on the Saturday afternoon and was curated by Prévost and Seymour Wright, a London-based saxophonist who has recorded for Prévost's Matchless Records and is part of a group of younger musicians associated with the TwoThousandAnd label. Due to the Communist Party of Great Britain's standing booking of Conway Hall for the evening of May Day, there was time for only three ensembles. First onstage was AMM. After an opening series of sharp block chords from pianist John Tilbury, the group largely worked with quiet dynamics and spacious textures, Tilbury contributing haunting short phrases and subtle inside-piano sounds, Prévost working mainly working with bowed cymbals, and guitarist Keith Rowe insinuating drones and snatches of radio (including a startling visitation from a thundering drum'n'bass group and jabbering DJ) into the spaces in-between, before falling into silence for perhaps the last five or ten minutes of the set. It was a beautifully nuanced performance, a spare but arresting field of recondite extemporisations full of undemonstrative mutuality and amply repaid the attention it demanded.
The second set of the day was by The World Book (photo, left), a trio made-up of Ross Lambert (guitar), John Lely (computer) and Seymour Wright (alto sax). The group distributed in advance copies of a set of encyclopaedia entries on the subject of 'freedom'. These texts seemed to be Cold War-era ideological apologies for liberal capitalism. What relationship they had to the music was unclear. Also unclear were the links between the music and the still photographs projected onto a screen behind the group. As for the music itself, this was sadly disappointing. The group clearly aspired to explore sonorities and principles of construction falling outside of the established pathways of acoustic free improvisation, but what ensued was too often an undisciplined rummaging through sonic hypotheses entertained with scant regard to their potential as profitable avenues for musical expression and pursued with too little attempt to combine the individual players' efforts into a meaningful collective whole.
The day ended with a rare London appearance by Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV), a band formed in Italy 1966 of expatriate Americans whose pioneering explorations of live electronics and improvisation have often prompted comparisons with the coeval work of AMM. According to Eddie Prévost's introduction, MEV and AMM have just recorded their first CD together, but for this live performance MEV (Alvin Curran on electronics and horn (photo, right), Frederic Rzewski on piano, and Richard Teitelbaum on electronics) played alone. The sound they created was a curious one, featuring both elegant and often tonal piano work, cheesy keyboard sounds, and rapid-fire, gnarled aggregations of electronics and samples (which included animal noises, Frank Sinatra, breaking bottles and much else besides) - with Curran's gleeful and rather selfish torrents of electronics often submerging everything else. While there was undoubtedly something exciting in all this, at times it rather resembled an Alfred Brendel masterclass conducted in an unruly special effects workshop. It left me wondering in melancholy fashion as to the distance MEV has travelled from its original revolutionary social and musical aspirations (in his Parma Manifesto of 1968, Rzewski aimed high, regarding the group's music as a dialogue that sought to "create a new form of communication through which human sensitivities can be awakened to presence of danger on the highest level and to the necessity for creation in order to avoid it efficiently"). I fear that MEV's current juxtapositions are far closer to entertaining sonic vaudeville than any process of creative critique or subversion of the sounds and values of the wider society.
Sunday 2 May 2004
The second day of the festival, curated by Martin Davidson of Emanem Records, began with the first appearance by the group Quaqua as a quintet. Made up of John Russell (guitar), Stefan Keune (sax), Phil Minton (voice), Phillip Wachsmann (violin) and Georg Wolf (double bass), the ensemble adopted the pointillistic style that emerged as one of the characteristic voices of British free improvisation at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s. It was a superlative performance, as tightly knit undulations of small gestures ebbed and surged with a serrated grace, exemplifying the virtues of close listening, acute responsiveness and genuinely collective improvisation. My one regret was that Quaqua did not engage with the new instruments, timbres and textures that have been embraced by younger improvisers in recent years, for without such an engagement there is surely a danger that the basic notions of collective improvisation will come to be associated in the minds of younger musicians and listeners with stagnant and irrelevant antiquarianism.
After Quaqua, the quartet of Alex Ward (clarinet), Luke Barlow (electric piano), Simon H. Fell (double bass) and Steve Noble (drums) struck me as a disappointment. Too often the group's rather colourlessly frenetic playing fell into well-worn free jazz furrows, giving its interplay an unhappy air of the stereotypical.
Next up was the duo of Roger Smith, the elusive acoustic guitarist who was a member for many years of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (see PT interview) and drummer Louis Moholo, one of a number of exiles from apartheid South Africa who graced the European scene from the second half of the 1960s onwards. Smith has recently worked largely solo and unfortunately his long withdrawal from collaborative playing seemed evident in his playing, which was nervously virtuosic but rather unheeding of his partner. For his part, Moholo initially sought to provide Smith's guitar with a percussive foundation of rapid taps; later he evidently attempted to exercise a greater influence on events through more contrastive playing. This process of slightly one-sided negotiation and adjustment was fascinating to watch, but in the end I regretted that more room for genuinely mutual musical discourse had not emerged.
The final act of the afternoon session was Clive Bell and Sylvia Hallett. Using violin, amplified bicycle wheel and saw (all three played with a violin bow), Hallett set up shifting looped samples of her own playing, over which Bell played a succession of woodwind instruments taken from various musical cultures. It was refreshing to see the resources of non-Western music explored with none of the pietism or commodified assimilation to Western popular music endemic to so-called World Music. The unique juxtaposition of Bell's alternately piercing and floating woodwind sounds and Hallett's metallic rotations was striking, and their encore, one of only two during the entire festival, was richly deserved.
Proceedings resumed in the evening with a set by Planter Box (Gail Brand, trombone, and Morgan Guberman, vocals). It was quite a tour de force, as a swaying and gesturing Guberman emitted streams of strange quasi-linguistic utterances like a person with a motor speech disorder struggling to communicate, and Brand, stamping her foot from time to time for emphasis, ran through a gamut of extended trombone sounds. Within and across the two tracks in the set, the music shifted effortlessly through moods and textures, both players showing a keen ability throughout to live off their musical wits and follow each other down some very anfractuous paths.
Chris Burn's Ensemble is a group that has existed in various configurations for some 20 years; the line-up on this occasion featuring Burn (piano), John Butcher (sax), Clare Cooper (Gu Zheng - a Chinese harp), Jim Denley (flute and sax), Will Guthrie (amplified percussion) and Matt Hutchinson (synthesizer). The group often used "reduced" instrumental gestures and quite a busy, pointillistic style, but there was a tendency to fall into monotonously regular rhythms and rather unvarying textures. I came away disappointed.
Ensemble was followed by the festival's only solo performance, by Paul Rutherford on trombone. It seemed that this was structured around a clearly articulated improvised melodic line, with fairly conventional notes and at least loosely tonal progressions, periodically interrupted by slower passages of groans and slurs, accelerations into rapid microtonal flurries, and quasi-speech and growls through the instrument. Rutherford moved through this engaging improvisation with great skill, yet it has to be said that it added little to the work documented on the seminal 1974 recordings released as The Gentle Harm of the Bourgeoisie (Emanem). His undoubted fluidity and skill sadly seems to have purchased at the price of abandoning further innovation and confining himself within a closed musical terrain.
The second day closed with a session of free jazz from Tony Bianco (drums), Paul Dunmall (tenor sax) and John Edwards (double bass). Almost from the start, Bianco's unremittingly thunderous drumming propelled the group into a fast and furious workout, with Dunmall firing out a mutating series of powerful short phrases and Edwards plucking and scraping with considerable force. A slower but still intense piece followed as the second and final encore of the festival. As the enthusiastic reception by the audience attested, this was well-played music of huge power; however, as with much of the other music in the festival, it was also a reiteration of a form that is over 35 years old. To arrest the music in this condition surely requires disavowal or ignorance of multiple lines of musical discovery and elaboration that have occurred in the decades since free jazz reached maturity. Why has the pursuit of broader horizons of musical possibility characteristic of the great jazz innovators been abandoned? What functions does a music that has been reoriented towards retrospection in this way serve for audiences, players and society? I found these to be troubling questions.
Monday May 3 2004
The final afternoon of the festival was curated by saxophonist Evan Parker, and was ushered in by the first London appearance in some 8 years of his trio with Barry Guy (double bass) and Paul Lytton (percussion). Lytton was in rampant mood, helping to bring a strongly propulsive quality to the trio's playing. Parker mainly responded with some forceful playing on tenor, twisting out his usual avian involutions, although he also produced a fine circular-breathing passage on soprano during one of the intermittent quieter interludes. For his part, Guy raced across the length and breadth of his double bass, plucking and bowing in jagged accompaniment, and occasionally inserting objects to be oscillated between the strings. It was a good instance of the trio's music, but one that conformed quite strongly to a pattern (especially in terms of cadences) that has long been evident in their live and recorded performances.
Brono Nettl observed in a 1974 article in The Musical Quarterly that an improviser always has something to work on, "certain things that are at the base of the performance, that he uses as the ground on which he builds". This foundation he calls a "model". According to Nettl, an improvisational model has two key components: "points of reference, [..] a series of obligatory events which must be observed, either absolutely or with some sort of frequency, in order for the model to remain intact" or any given performance to be regarded as a legitimate instantiation of the model, and "building blocks" or the tones, melodic motifs, harmonic intervals, interval sequences, etc that "the tradition accumulates, and which musicians within the tradition make use of, choosing from among them, combining, recombining and re-arranging them". As Sutton and Nettle and Riddle's studies of Javanese Gamelan and Arabic musicians (both published in the 1998 collection In the Course of Performance: Studies in the World of Musical Improvisation) respectively suggest, a model may be such that a musician can display a marked degree of uniformity in his or her playing across different performances. Can the same be said of Parker, Guy and Lytton? In the case of free improvisation, Nettl's notion of obligatory "point of reference" might have to be supplemented or replaced with one of habitual or preferred combinations or responses, but it does seem that there is a prima facie case for saying that over the years Parker, Guy and Lytton have developed a set of building blocks, principles of combination/development, and types of response that is sufficiently narrow and fixed as to impart a marked degree of similarity to each of their performances, even performances that might be quite distant from each other in time. Of course, at any given moment, even the most radical of improvisers may well utilize a relatively small and consistent "model": after all, few if any players play completely differently from one performance to the next. It does however seem problematic when a model for an individual or group becomes so immune to change that it adheres unaltered over the course of many years, especially when there is considerable change and unexplored possibility in the wider musical world. Is such a refusal to change not an inherently conservative inclination - a deliberate preference for the already known and the habitual?
The next set was by two visiting Swedish musicians: Sten Sandell (piano) and David Stackenas (guitar). During two long improvisations, they covered a considerable amount of ground. Stackenas' work at different times resembled both that of Keith Rowe and Derek Bailey, and Sandell's playing (which included direct playing of the inside the instrument and electronic modification) seemed strongly influenced by contemporary classical models. It was all expertly played and warmly received by the audience, although I found it rather disjointed and lacking a strong individual imprint.
To end the afternoon, Parker's trio and the Sandell Stackenas duo joined forces as a quintet, finding common ground in an egalitarian pointillism, a music of modesty and restraint full of fine-grained changes in the flow of contrasts, accentuations, punctuations and parallels through which each player acted on, and reacted to, the others. An excellent set.
The evening session was dedicated to a performance by the London Improvisers Orchestra (who performed conductions by Dave Tucker, Steve Beresford ("A Concerto for B.J. Cole"), David Leahy, Terry Day (a song in praise of Liberace) and Philip Wachsmann), Maggie Nichol's open-to-all collective known as The Gathering, and finally members of both groups. As I have little taste for large group performances in any field of music, I had better leave commentary to those better qualified to do so.
Overall, I enjoyed the festival. The atmosphere was casual, unpretentious and friendly, and the music often displayed some excellent improvisational skills. My reservations concern the advancing age and perhaps staleness of the musical paradigms in which the featured groups tended to embody their improvisations. Newer currents of improvisation do exist in London, being regularly presented in the basement of Mark Wastell's Sound323 shop and elsewhere in the city, but have never been strongly represented at Freedom of the City. This is no doubt a reflection of the tastes and preferences of the organizers, who are of course under no obligation to put on performers who do not appeal to them. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the main festival dedicated to free improvisation in London is largely given over to the music that established the city's reputation as a centre for free improvisation in the late 1960s and early 1970s and not the cutting-edge developments that will keep the music alive as a radical force in the twenty-first century.—WS

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Alvin Curran

Alvin Curran
Tzadik 7097
"[B]ehind my attempts to transform the earth's entire landscape into a concert hall, there is and always has been a steadfast composer of notes and benign anarchy," writes Alvin Curran in the liners to this compilation of "selected fragments of orchestral, choral, solo keyboard, electronic and installation works created between 1987 and 2003." Benign anarchy makes its presence felt right away in "Toto Angelica", billed as a "live sound portrait for the celebration of ten years of the Angelica Festival, Bologna", 89 seconds of sampladelic madness which sound as if Curran has loaded up a MIDI keyboard with samples of just about everything imaginable and then proceeded to play one of Liszt's transcendental studies on it. In stark contrast, "Music Is Not Music" is a slow moving (and, paradoxically, extremely musical) setting of extracts from John Cage's Norton Lectures for four-part chorus, trumpet, tuba, piano and percussion. While the exquisite chromatic movement of the inner voices recalls (curiously) John Tavener, standing in the shadows are Stravinsky and Satie.
After such delicate beauty, "Maritime Rites - Wasserkorso" comes as something of a shock. Extracted from one of Curran's large-scale environmental projects, in this case for the 750th anniversary of the City of Berlin, it's scored for computer-controlled ship foghorns, which must certainly sound impressive in situ but come across on disc as rather crude beasts. "For MG" was originally created for the Trisha Brown Dance Company - Curran's involvement with contemporary dance has been major and longstanding - and is scored for piano (a deliciously old-fashioned sounding one at that) and tape. The string of juxtaposed yet seemingly unrelated consonances once more recalls Rosicrucian period Satie, and one imagines, were he listening to it, the maître d'Arcueil might let slip a sly smile at the arrival after about one and a half minutes of a burst of field recordings, specifically what sounds like a lawnmower trying to start up. The piano returns, and the tape recedes into the distance, only to return later - more ship foghorns, apparently. It's certainly an eventful journey, though I'm not quite sure where to.
"In Hora Mortis", heard here in a 1996 recording from the Schwetzingen Festival, is a chamber orchestra work written for the Achim Freyer theatre company, and if Stravinsky is still lurking in the background, it's a distinctly Mengelbergian reincarnation, complete with aimlessly tootling ostinati, snatches of tango overlaid with swirling Xenakis glissandi, circus guffaw trombones and decidedly cheesy organ. It's not hard to see why such a wacky polystylistic collage would appeal to Tzadik head honcho John Zorn. The same might be said of "Endangered Species" (not a Parliament cover version, unfortunately, but another wild cocktail of improvised piano, vocal fragments, pop samples and diverse field recordings whacked into Curran's blender, shaken not stirred and hurled into your earhole), and "Pittura Fresca", billed as a "concerto for violin", here ably performed by David Abel. The Paul Dresher Ensemble's long experience playing their musical director's elegant minimalism serves them well in the tightly pulsing rhythms of the opening section, which nevertheless avoid the Day-Glo tonality associated with the genre in favour of more decidedly chromatic harmony. Once again though, the (intentionally?) dreadful wobbly keyboard patch at the two minute mark, not to mention a hefty chunk of a Mozart's "Requiem" and, apparently, the sound of a basketball, seem designed to throw the listener off the scent. As Zorn once famously asked, "So what kind of music was that, anyway?"
If Stravinsky, Satie and maybe even Zorn himself come to mind on several occasions, "Inner Cities 2", a solo piano work dating from 1990, recalls Morton Feldman, not so much in its dynamics - the piece opens with a series crashing sforzandi, something hardly ever found in Feldman's output, and spends much of its time far from that composer's trademark pianissimo - but in its obstinate exploration of four-note cells, spaced widely in rising arpeggio configurations that allude to the kind of voice leading explored elsewhere in "Music Is Not Music". What is most definitely not Feldman-like is the unexpected - but on further listening beautifully prepared - slide into a smooth, Bill Evans-inflected "Body and Soul" towards the end of the piece.
According to the liners, "Erat Verbum John", a "sound portrait of Cage", also features the composer on piano, though unless it's a sampling keyboard (or Curran is simultaneously performing 4'33"), I can't hear any. Instead it starts with what sounds like a cat purring in your earhole, followed by a tape montage of fragments of laughter and various field recordings - cries of wild animals, passing traffic, footsteps and police car sirens. Fun as far as it goes, but it definitely sounds like little more than an extract from a larger work. As does "Romulus and Remus Make A Ruckus", originally a sound installation. In this version, curated by Domenico Sciajno, its superimposition of howling wolves and snarling improv bass clarinet is surprisingly close in sound and concept to Basil Kirchin's groundbreaking "Worlds Within Worlds" projects. But at this stage in the album, we're on our guard, so the inclusion of what sounds like snippets of violin music remixed by Christian Marclay and spluttery trumpets (imagine a Franz Hautzinger solo album fed through Max/MSP) comes as no surprise. Closing the album with a flourish is "Return to Sender", performed by the rather grandiosely titled Alvin Curran Filharmonia (in fact an all-star band featuring Shelley Hirsch, Joan Jeanrenaud, Fred Frith, Domenico Sciajno and William Winant). Hirsch is particularly impressive, running the gamut of multiple vocal personalities as successfully as the late Cathy Berberian. Jeanrenaud plays a disarmingly simple folk-like theme as if it was unaccompanied Bach, layering versions on top of each other, while Curran sketches out the theme and Hirsch and Frith wail and slide in the background. Eventually, Curran's sampler takes over, once more smashing the music into pieces and frisbeeing them around to create a crazy pavement crossing a veritable compost heap of sound, from shattering crockery to Stéphane Grappelli.
In his liners, Curran acknowledges that "most of these pieces had durations spanning a minimum of thirty minutes to over five hours, but here the chosen snippets are presented as the antipasti and the main course all in one." Coming from someone who long ago adopted Rome as his home, it's an appropriate image, and while it's true that one could happily gorge oneself on antipasti and forget the primi, secondi and dolci, the overriding effect of listening to Lost Marbles is one of information overload. Curran does indeed provide evidence of a clearly defined personality as a composer, a fondness for predominantly diatonic pitch cells and an open affection for jazz and other forms of popular music, but the persistent inclusion of sounds from the world at large and the tendency of pieces to self-destruct, or at least metamorphose into something completely different (I imagine the composer would approve of the Monty Python reference) is mildly disconcerting. It in no way detracts from the listening pleasure - Lost Marbles is one of the most fun packed outings on Tzadik in recent years - but does raise the question as to where Alvin Curran himself is to be found in the midst of this joyous, sonic pandemonium.—DW

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Matt Davis

Matt Davis / Rosa Munoz
Field 002
Ladder (Matt Davis / Ben Lancaster)
Field 003
Matt Davis / Joel Stern

[linnomablerec@yahoo.com / matthdavis@btopenworld.com]

Matt Davis' solo trumpet CD Mute Correspondences was originally released four years ago on the Confront label back when it was a CDR imprint whose ridiculously limited editions sold out far too quickly, so its reissue is cause for some celebration. This new edition on the trumpeter's own Field imprint - slim transparent boxes and text and visuals on pale grey onion skin vellum - is in fact credited to Davis and Rosa Munoz, who is in fact a dancer (but dancers make noise too) performing with Davis on four tracks recorded in Salamandra Dance Studios in Barcelona in October 2000. For the reissue Davis has selected just seven of the original eleven cuts, dispensing with four multi-track pieces (shame, as they were rather wonderful: all the more reason to search out an original Confront if you have the patience) and also apparently changed round some of the titles. As a solo trumpet outing (no disrespect intended to Ms Munoz), Mute Correspondences certainly ranks alongside Franz Hautzinger's Gomberg, Axel Dörner's Trumpet and Greg Kelley's, erm, Trumpet (well, what's in a name?). It might not push things to the same extreme limits as Dörner, whose aforementioned offering on A Bruit Secret sounds more like an industrial ventilation system, studiously avoids the raw testosterone blasts that characterise much of Kelley's Meniscus album, and sure as hell doesn't come with a ranting set of liner notes by Bill "Trademark" Dixon like Hautzinger's, but for sheer musicality and, excuse the tired cliché, listening pleasure, Mute Correspondences has my vote. Extended tech trumpeters now seem to be all over the place, so high pitched whistles, barks, flaps, snaps, gurgles and plops might be familiar to several listeners, but what makes the difference here is not the vocabulary itself but how Davis puts it together to create organic and intricate pieces of music that richly reward repeated listening. It's been one of my favourite solo albums ever since I got hold of a CDR copy, and I can't recommend it too highly.
Compared to the arch lowercase austerity of his subsequent work with the so-called New London Silence scene (correct me if I'm wrong but I think we have Ben Watson to thank for that label), notably with Mark Wastell and Rhodri Davies in groups like Broken Consort, Davis is in remarkably chirpy form on Seen, putting the trumpet to one side to concentrate on field recordings and electronics in the company of Ben Lancaster on sampler and electronics. Ladder's music is certainly lively stuff, positively fizzing with activity. I've long been of the opinion that the incorporation of field recordings into improvised music - or recording improvised music in the field itself - is one of the next avenues to follow, and Davis reveals that even distinctly recognisable source sounds such as barking dogs, motorcycles, footsteps and tin cans being kicked along a street can be combined with more "standard" electronica material (stuttering soundfiles, queasy drones and all manner of not particularly pleasant clunks and rips) to build rich and rewarding sound structures. These eight untitled pieces are fine examples of what Jérôme Noetinger would call "cinema for the ear" (hence the title).
Small Industry is another limited edition outing, this time on the new Slovenian label L'innomable. Joining Davis (on electronics but also back on trumpet this time) is Joel Stern, who provides "concrete sound, feedback and electronics". It's a single 33-minute span of music recorded in Hackney (London) in January 2003 and mixed and edited by Stern after he returned to Australia later that year. Compared to the crackle of Seen, it's more sedate - perhaps it's the breathy blast of the brass instrument, or Stern's chilly drone - but much more dramatic. There's a distinct sense of tension, even menace, here - what is happening at the six-minute mark? It sounds as if Stern is tearing up and setting fire to a polystyrene box (which he most likely isn't, as the musicians would probably have asphyxiated themselves) with Davis lurking in the background like some heavy breathing monster. Despite the stated intention of several notable contemporary improvisers to avoid expressivity - Keith Rowe's observations on atmosphere, the empty turntables of Otomo, empty mixing board of Nakamura and the empty sampler of Sachiko - music still communicates on an emotional level, and its inexplicable capacity to make the hair stand up on the back of the neck is not something to be sniffed at. The fragile strands of birdsong and wonderful distant cloud of Ligeti-like harmony that float into earshot about the 23-minute mark are simply gorgeous.
As we all know, the world of the trumpet also includes another M Davis, and if you file away your albums in alphabetical order, Matt sure enough ends up next to Miles. Alphabetical proximity apart, the two have more in common than you might think - impeccable timing, a tendency to compress and understate rather than go over the top (several early 70s Miles outings excluded, perhaps), a deceptively fragile sound that belies rock solid technique and understanding of what's going on in the music at micro and macro level. Each one of these albums is as worthy of your undivided attention as Davis' excellent Erstwhile outing last year, Open, with Mark Wastell and Phil Durrant. Check them out.—DW

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Elliott Carter

ECM New Series 1817
There's a lot that is mysterious about Elliott Carter's 1997 one-act opera What Next?, even if we exclude questions about how a nonagenarian could have created it. To begin with, have the five characters in the work (along with boy alto Emanuel Hoogeveen as "Kid") actually had an accident on the way to a wedding (possibly between "Rose" and "Harry or Larry")? Did they lose their memories/identities, or are they Pirandello-style ghosts that never had either and are waiting for author or audience bestowal of such goods? Whether or not these specters exist in the manner their words imply, are there actually corporeal, if silent, "Road Workers" that "Mama," "Rose," et al. at some point try to convince of their (apparent) predicament, or is someone just imagining that others later appear on this bizarre scene? The ECM packaging, which includes Paul Griffiths's complete libretto, as well as an essay by David Hamilton and a "Gee-Whiz!-I'm-Actually-Working-Knee-to-Knee-With-My-Long-Time-Hero" journal by the librettist isn't terribly helpful on these matters. The printed "Situation" that precedes Griffiths's libretto says: "There has been an accident. Of the six 'victims,' all quite unhurt as far as we can see, the five adults have different views of how they are related and how they have come to be in the same place at the same time." The Hamilton piece adds that "[t]he arrival of Road Workers (played by percussion players) reactivates the sonorities of the opening until they leave." However, the libretto proper, at least as it appears here, has nothing whatever about the entrance of any characters at all after the curtain rises. (Further confusing this matter for me is a review of a live performance I've seen that suggests that the ensemble comes to be confronted not by paver/percussionists but by a policeman!) For its part, the Griffiths journal focuses almost exclusively on what seems like an intent to convince the reader that very significant work was contributed by the librettist (sometimes even during meals with the great maestro himself!!). For example, Griffiths informs us that he picked up some reference materials relating to the names of celestial bodies, that he wrote several drafts, that he thought or worried about the work while in bed on occasion, that he received 25% of some commission fee or other from Boosey and Hawkes for his efforts (half in advance), etc. But as to whether we may at least take the "Situation" literally, and so rule out any Malone/Unnameable "brain-in-a-vat" theories - whatever may be the case about the veracity (or sanity) of any or all of the characters - there is nothing. A Robert Craft journal this is not.
I hope the reader won't take the foregoing as the foundation or prelude to an attack against the opera, the libretto, or even the packaging. The Beckettesque aspects of the work must preclude puzzled opera-goers from expecting answers to such mundane questions as "What the hell is actually happening here?" On the contrary, the fundamental haziness of the ECM booklet allows us the fun of focusing on other sorts of internal clues, both musical and literary, in order to develop our theories regarding the "story." Here's my current take…subject to later amendment, of course.
The piece opens with some raucous percussive banging. Naturally, this could represent a physical accident, like a car crash, but the first words uttered are:
MAMA: Sh - Ss - Sh - Sh
STELLA: SS - SH - Shh - tar
ROSE: Ss - Sh - arr
ZEN: Star
ROSE: Star
MAMA: Star
KID: Star
ZEN: Starts
ROSE: Starlings
MAMA: Starch
STELLA: Starkest
KID: Starve I'm Starving
The entire crew then goes on to talk about stars, starts and startles, and there are numerous references to various celestial bodies (Alpha Canis Major, Sirius, etc.) as the piece proceeds. "Stella" even claims to be an astronomer on her way to the observatory at the time of the "accident." I take from this - and from the fact that the percussion blasts opening the work go on too long to be representative of a discrete, crash-type event - that these people (I'm not quite willing to make the leap to each singer representing one or more aspects of a single person or some other entity, like humanity as a whole) are "seeing stars." I concur, that is, that they are awakening confusedly from something (anesthesia, or coma or nothing at all), or perhaps, like the characters in one of Sartre's plays, they have just died. The point is that the proximate cause of these "stars" is as likely stroke or congestive heart failure as a pile-up on Route 9. This interpretation makes the subsequent non-responsiveness of the "Road Workers" more sensible - to me, anyway. Whether they're physically present or not, they simply can't see or hear our heroes. Of course, they could be deaf and blind - or just uncaring representatives of an overly bureaucratic world. Was there going to be a wedding? Was someone on her way to work? Quien sabe? Finally, before I turn from the narrative (such as it is) to Carter's music and its performance, it is worth noting that the above excerpt from Griffiths's libretto should not be taken as representative of the work as a whole, which actually contains any number of complete sentences and even a few jokes. For example, in response to Rose's questions: "Do you believe in God? Do you believe there is a creator? Do you believe we are in the hands of another being?" "Zen" answers, "It depends on what you mean by 'believe'." Keeping in mind that this response is from a character whom the "Situation" strongly suggests is a megalomaniac fraud, it's hard not to find this cutely anti-Clintonian.
Speaking of Canis Major, after about ten times through this knotty 40-minute work, I began to wonder why there isn't more in the text about Ursa Minor. The rising minor third (along with a rising tritone) seems the most prevalent musical motif in the work - making its appearances apparently unrestricted to any particular instrument, ensemble or character. At any rate, those two pitch shifts are what now cling to me most doggedly after the last note of the work is heard. As is his wont, Carter has linked particular instruments/groups with specific characters or ideas. Here, the easiest coupling to discover is the pairing of flowery soprano, "Rose," (who may or may not be a singer still buzzing from audience cheers after a recent concert) with piano. If these sorts of associations sometimes seem only half-hearted in Carter's mature scores, it is largely because there are always at least forty other intervallic, rhythmic, timbral and dynamic associations simultaneously being developed, any number of which can obscure the connections we've noticed. What I'm referring to can be described (with only a dollop of exaggeration) along these lines: "When the second flute repeatedly plays dotted-eighth G-sharps in its lower register, one can expect a reference to early Blake - except, of course, when this pattern is accompanied by a lightly trilling oboe and celli sul ponticello an octave down, when these instruments together imply either the tragedy of the commons, or, if flutter-tonguing is used, Leonardo's prefiguring of such tragedy." That level of nearly insane complexity has always been Carter's stock-in-trade, so one shouldn't expect Wagnerian leitmotifs or Peter and the Wolf instrumentation schemes. What's most amazing about Carter, however, is that this extreme multi-level approach has never been pure gamesmanship or allowed to spiral into unintelligible muck: it has simply provided rich rewards to repeat listeners. While there is almost no end to the depths of understanding one may reach regarding many of his works (Ph.D. theses no doubt proliferate), they are also often very beautiful to those who have no use at all for that sort of analysis-so long as these listeners are willing to let a fair measure of dissonance flow into their lives. Carter's works are thus like forests, or oceans, or life itself. In What Next? Carter's ability to create gorgeous and intensely moving surfaces is perhaps best heard in the orchestral interlude entitled "The Singing Stage." This brief, wordless scene is filled with longing and nobility and is lovely, whatever connections we mortals are likely to be missing. (His facility is also made quite clear throughout the dizzily spinning Asko Concerto, a 12-minute piece for chamber orchestra from 2000 included on this ECM disc. I won't discuss that work here except to say that it is lovely, a good deal lighter and more quicksilver than the 1970 Concerto for Orchestra, and that it is brilliantly performed here by Eötvös and his Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra.)
In discussing the performance of a work as obviously difficult as What Next? I want to stress that I have not seen the score, and, even if I had one handy, would need to take a tremendous amount of time and trouble before I could comfortably make any assertions regarding accuracy. Anyone can hear, however, the beauty of tone of both singers and instrumentalists as well as the apparent effortlessness of the production. I remember a time when only one pianist in the world could perform Carter's Piano Concerto - and then once a year. Times have obviously changed: Eötvös and his Dutch masters toy with Carter's metrical modulations, cross rhythms and other former near-impossibilities as if they were Flemish folk tunes for children. Everyone in the orchestra is perfectly wonderful, but I'd feel remiss not singling out the English hornist, the four percussionists, and the pianist for special praise. The cast is just as good. It includes the nervous, here-and-now "Mama" (soprano Sarah Leonard); cynical wiseguy "Harry or Larry" (baritone Dean Elzinga); Con man guru "Zen" (tenor William Joyner); narcissistic coloratura "Rose" (Valdine Anderson) and the tough, stargazing "Stella" (contralto Hilary Summers). All seem entirely undaunted by the rigors and difficulties of the Carter/Griffiths approaches to melody, rhythm, prosody, and expression. Further, words are always clearly enunciated, despite the score's demand for consummate athleticism, and they deliver their lines with just the right balance of emotional involvement and dreamy detachment.
It is amazing to me, as it must be to so many others, that, even at 90, Carter was able to create a first rate work in a genre new to him. Perhaps even more striking, however, is that What Next? is radical in ways that many supposedly avant-garde operas by younger composers are not. To give a couple of examples, Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre and Rihm's Die Eroberung von Mexico are delightful and original pieces, utilizing such devices as car horn choruses and "coloraturas of the sea," but both also contain, if not traditional arias, at least "set pieces" in which particular instruments or easily identifiable themes, rhythms or sonorities are relied upon for significant periods during discrete scenes. There are "hooks," or at least footholds. As indicated above, that's not Carter's way. Nor is he the type to include dancing Maoettes or references to languid Brando movies in his works. (Still, What Next? demonstrates that he's not completely arid: he didn't keep Griffiths from throwing in a reference to Big Macs..) There's no question that the composer is more at home with Ashbery than with South Park, and his opera is no exception. What Next? fits comfortably into his heady vocal catalogue alongside A Mirror On Which To Dwell and Syringa. By now, I suppose it's pretty clear that Carter, like Cecil Taylor, Pierre Boulez and Derek Bailey - to name three other 20th Century icons of stubbornly difficult music - is not a crowd-pleaser. By his own admission, he was never quite at ease during his brief 1940s foray into the world of consonance and relatively easy tonality. He preferred to follow Ives. But it wasn't Foster or Sousa or "Nearer My God To Thee" that he wanted to bring to the contemporary concert hall, it was Donne, Milton, Bowen and Einstein. Carter has always been an intellectual's intellectual, ever refining his page-long algorithms, consistently offering layer upon layer of meaning for those interested in diving deep. Even so, Elliott Carter has never sacrificed the beautiful to the lesser divinities of the intricate or the cerebral. His priorities have invariably been flawless. As a result, he is one of the most prolific creators of profoundly beautiful art - not only of our time, but of any time.—WH

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Alexandre Bellenger

Alexandre Bellenger / Quentin Dubost
Alexandre Bellenger / Olivier Queysanne
4X 7 MIN 30
Alexandre Bellenger / Quentin Dubost / Olivier Queysanne / Romaric Sobac
Woom (Alexandre Bellenger / Miho)

Various Artists
Alexandre Bellenger / Jean-Philippe Gross
Some musicians - composers, primarily - seem to function best in glorious isolation from what is going on around them, but I happen to agree with Steve Lacy, who once said that it was nothing less than a musician's duty to be aware of the work of his/her contemporaries. If that is the case, then the frequent presence of guitarist and electronician Alexandre Bellenger, one of the younger generation of French improvisers, at concerts here in Paris is a sure sign that he's doing his duty. Moreover, like many others, he takes full advantage of the availability of the latest home studio technology to document his work on self-produced CDRs on his ARR imprint (which retail at the bargain basement price of 6€ and are available from the email address above), of which these eight (eight!) represent but a selection.
As might be expected from such an avid follower of the new music scene in all its forms, Bellenger's work reveals evidence, direct and indirect, of numerous influences. One can hear echoes of Niblock and Conrad in Requiem for the Self, a four-movement graphic score interpreted by Bellenger on DR5, SP303 and A100 synths and Quentin Dubost on bowed electric guitar and engine. 4 x 7 min 30 is precisely that: Bellenger, on A100 and Ineko, is joined by Olivier Queysanne, who's credited as playing "Osc.Num.Mod./data-crash sur Mac iBook". Queysanne's penchant for pushing the laptop over the edge recalls Mattin, and the resulting scrimmage is far more engaging than his (Queysanne's) previous solo outing on Pricilia. Top Cheap Reality Shocks! (not too sure if that last word is a noun or verb) also features Queysanne, in characteristically more lowercase mood, and Dubost, whose onkyo fingerpicking graced the recent Japanese / French collaboration from:/to: Bellenger sticks to acoustic guitar here, and Romaric Sobac (on objects and radios) makes up the team. The point of reference here is more obviously recent Keith Rowe (those radios..), or maybe Annette Krebs, and the two extended pieces respectively lasting 32'54" and 20'05" need patient and concentrated listening to yield their secrets.
Woom is Bellenger's duo with his partner Miho (on "Tascam, etc."), who also performs in the trio Bobby Moo with Bellenger and Arnaud Rivière - watch out for a forthcoming album on Textile - and Diary is altogether more active and chirpy, despite some rather ugly synth patches. Pursuing the erstwhile / Erstwhile analogy, if Reality Shocks is the bastard child of Weather Sky, then this belongs to the same hyperactive world as Thomas Lehn and Marcus Schmickler's Bart. Mister Run Run Version 2 is a solo project featuring Bellenger on synths, percussion and turntables, the result of several months work in the N28 Studio in La Varenne outside Paris. Sounds come thick and fast, piling up in logjams only to be smashed apart by waves of Kevin Drumm-like noise. In stark contrast, the beautiful, clear and unashamedly diatonic, nay tonal, guitar on Dring Dring Guitars would seem to indicate that Bellenger's been listening to Grubbs, Fahey and Connors too, not to mention Siewert and Stangl. If the music has picked up something of the pale beauty of the aforementioned fingerpickers, it has though also inherited something of its aimlessness, particularly the second 21 minute cut. Near Acoustic Extensions Live is, as its title suggests, a concert recording from La Guillotine in Montreuil, and features Bellenger with Olivier Brisson (bass drum and cymbals), Thomas Charmetant (cello), Quentin Dubost (guitar and objects), Jacques Pochat (tenor sax), Arnaud Rivière (cymbals and feedback) and Romaric Sobac (guitar frame, turning objects (!) and rubbings (!!)). The two pieces, entitled "Satique 3" and "Satique 2" - a pun one imagines on "statique" and "Satie" - return to the sombre slowmoving dirge of Requiem. If the furniture music of Satie is intended to be a reference point, one can only say that the furniture concerned must be as grey and dusty as the identical suits discovered in Satie's Arcueil apartment after his death.
Each of these discs has much to commend it, but for my money the pearl of the collection is Afternoon Ride, with Metz-based Jean-Philippe Gross on electric conductors and mixing board and Bellenger on "dj stuff slightly modified" (I should point out that the fact that Bellenger healthily abuses one of my own albums on his turntables has in no way coloured my judgement..). Once more, Mattin comes to mind in the extreme juxtapositions of noise and silence - one recalls the Basque laptopper's equal admiration for artists as diverse as Radu Malfatti and Whitehouse - culminating in some spectacular and thrilling sonic train wrecks. It's no coincidence that this is also the most recent recording of the set, as it's solid proof that Alexandre Bellenger is evolving rapidly into an artist to watch. It's clear he's quite at home wearing several different hats, and at some stage one imagines he might have to choose which one of these distinct voices he really wants to develop. That is in no way intended to sound haughty and demeaning - Bellenger is, after all, doing his duty. It's worth bearing in mind though that the abovementioned advice comes from none other than Steve Lacy, a truly distinctive voice in recent musical history if ever there was one. Meanwhile, if you have any € to spare, you know right where to go.—DW

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On Sedimental

Sedimental SEDCD 033
Seth Nehil / Olivia Block
Sedimental SEDCD 034
Giuseppe Ielasi
Sedimental SEDCD 035
Sedimental SED1LP
David Gross / Liz Tonne
Sedimental SED10in01
Having made some spectacular mistakes in the past while reviewing discs, I now spend some considerable time cruising round Google for background information before committing pen to paper (a dumb expression, that, considering I only ever pick up a pen these days to sign a rent cheque). With Texas-based Tonalamotl, the web search is as long, multidirectional, occasionally frustrating and occasionally hilarious as their music - these three extended pieces of improvised music were originally recorded back in the happy days of 1997 and 1998, when Blur and Oasis were battling in Britain, Tony Blair was actually popular, and the only people who knew shit about George W. Bush were the good people of Texas, presumably including the musicians featured here, who include Andy Beta, Chris Branca, Sam Sanford, Ryan Sawyer and Jeffrey Filla (contrary as to what might be gleaned from the sleeve, Rick Reed does not play on this recording). How the world has changed in six years.. Leaving Bush and his cronies out of it, now we have something called "eai", which is more or less what Tonalamotl are engaged in producing here (though I imagine they'd be happier just to call it "music"): spacious, predominantly slowmoving, laminal improvisation featuring a wide range of colourful instruments and techniques, acoustic and electronic. It's tempting to play the "American primitive" card here, the paucity of information on the group conjuring up images of bearded marginal loons living in isolated shacks, but if you did so you'd be in the wrong casino. One only has to read through Andy Beta's favourite albums of 2002 (go Google) to discover the guy has a wide knowledge of the field and exquisite taste to boot. It's not surprising he digs Jac Berrocal's Musiq Musik, one of the freshest, weirdest, wildest and least pretentious albums of improvised music ever released. Branca and Filla, who appeared with Sedimental's Rob Forman on the splendidly titled Abrasion Ensemble's "Music for the Same 50 People" on Beta Lactam Ring know their onions too. The music on these three tracks manages to reference a wide range of influences while remaining stubbornly original and not slipping into improv cliché. Nonetheless, that funky triangle kicking in at the opening of "I35" comes as a surprise (what is this? Latino impro?). Over a grisly pedal point, layers of sound pile on top of each other - passing police car sirens, birdsong, a set of claves, what sounds like a bicycle bell (Beta playing Berrocal again?), until the piece begins to pull itself apart after about eight minutes, with a flurry of footsteps, furniture being dragged across the floor (homage to La Monte Young?) and various things being thrown to the ground, until someone finally calls for the machines to be turned off. But the tape continues to roll throughout the band's post mortem discussion: "You can't just end a piece like that!" "It was over.." "Maybe for you, but.." "It's too late now.." Indeed it is too late, because "I35" is out and about - and has been for a while now - and well worth hunting down.
So is Sunder, Unite, Olivia Block's third outing on Sedimental (after 2001's Mobius Fuse and 1999's Pure Gaze). The music is recognisably Nehil and Block, in that it shows their habitual concern for building huge mass effects out of hundreds - maybe thousands - of tiny shards of sound, often sourced from recognisable materials (stone, wood, fire..). As the title suggests though, the surface is more discontinuous, sprinkled with sonic sawdust originating from material Nehil and Block recorded in concert, as well as from contributions from guest musicians including Michael Northam (on "objects") and reed players Kyle Bruckmann and Michael Shannon. Don't expect instantly recognisable blasts of Bruckmann multiphonics, though - his material is just as subject to the same process-heavy manipulation as the field recordings. Shannon is more recognisable in the final track, but just when you think you're getting a handle on things, the music stops without warning at 1'50" only to reappear for one second at 2'07". The effect, coming as it does at the end of the album, a moment when one normally expects if not a sense of resolution at least one of closure, is quite disturbing. Further listening only deepens the mystery.
There's a fair amount of sundering and uniting to be found on Plans, a single 31 minute span of music recomposed from music apparently recorded live at various venues in Europe, including our local watering hole Les Instants Chavirés, by guitarist / electronician and Fringes label manager Giuseppe Ielasi. Here he's at his most accessible: there's even an odd backbeat and some unambiguously tonal harmony in there, though it's often buried under a moss of field recordings and trademark eai crackles, crunches and wheezes. There's also a lot of percussion (it may be my imagination, but it sounds like Ingar Zach), though it too has been mulched into a thousands of tiny fragments and scattered across the stereo space. It's curious that the inner sleeve art shows a handful of people standing on a seashore in front of an expanse of blue grey sea, as many of the disc's most memorable moments are distinctly inland, and predominantly urban - a montage of slamming doors, a garden full of a birdsong - but the hazy, slightly sepia-inflected photography suits the music's spacious feel rather well nevertheless.
The exploits of the Argentinean band Reynols are no doubt familiar to readers of this site (if they aren't, go check out last year's interview). "Everyone deserves a Reynols gig," Roberto Conlazo famously observed, and by the same logic, every record label in the world deserves a Reynols album. Looking at the group's enormous discography it seems many already have one. Sedimental's release, a one sided LP (side two sounds great too until the needle skids into the label at the middle) released in a limited edition of 500, was recorded in Buenos Aires in mid 2002, when the group still officially existed (technically, Reynols no longer exists - at least not with its original founder member / guru Miguel Tomasin - but as the group claimed never to have existed in the first place, this is open to discussion). It features a quartet of differently pitched whistling kettles, humorously described as baritone, tenor, contralto and soprano instruments, a classical music allusion pursued in the work's subdivision into three movements - Andante Mogal, Moderato uno Surido Fermo and Allegro Repuliom Lanidelo. Gerard Hoffnung must be chuckling in the hereafter. But as was the case with Reynols' most notorious projects - the 10,000 Chickens Symphony and Blank Tapes - the musical substance behind the tongue-in-cheek anarchy is more than compelling. The use of whistling kettles is not only perfectly coherent with Reynols' exploration of the drone in its many diverse forms, but is eerily moving. As anyone who has a whistling kettle will tell you, the pitch of the whistle when the water comes to the boil is never stable, but fluctuates erratically in a manner very close to the human voice. When transposed up - as in the finale - it becomes a penetrating screech. What might seem on face value as a mere joke is in fact a coherently structured and rewarding piece of music.
Based as they are in Boston, it's only natural that the Sedimental catalogue should prominently feature the music of the city's improvising community, of which saxophonist / clarinettist David Gross and vocalist Liz Tonne are important members. Gross' playing has certainly come a long way since the earwax melting assault of 1999's Fetish (Tautology), and Tonne's vocal talents, already eloquently featured on another fine and strongly recommended Sedimental outing, James Coleman's Zuihitsu, are most impressive in this two all too brief extracts from concerts the duo gave in Houston and Atlanta in November 2001. Curiously enough, it's Tonne who often sounds more like a saxophone, indulging in some bloodcurdling multiphonics (Diamanda Galas would be proud) on "Houston". Gross' horn meanwhile sounds more like a grainy tape loop. It's a shame there isn't more of this amazing stuff on offer, but there is something to be said for choosing the 10" format. There's a distinct sense of overkill in today's improvised music, an apparent need on the part of many artists (one might, unfortunately, include my friends Reynols in this) to release as much as possible into an already saturated market, instead of taking the time to select only truly exemplary material for release. And exemplary the music certainly is, not only on this EP but throughout the Sedimental catalogue.—DW

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Songs of Norway
Beta-lactam Ring mt058a LP + 7"
No, don't worry, we haven't branched out into Norwegian folk music at PT - yet.. though I do have a rather wonderful album of Hardanger fiddle music - a quick glance at the personnel involved here (Nick Mott, Aaron Moore, aided and abetted by Daniel Padden and Stewart Brackley on a couple of tracks) reveals that Songs Of Norway, which is indeed the name of the group, is another incarnation of Leicester's finest alt.rockers, Volcano The Bear. Or rather pre-incarnation, since, as percussionist Moore points out by email, SON started up in 1995, six months before Volcano The Bear. VTB, of course, went on to become rather well-known, especially after they released the deliciously weird Five Hundred Boy Piano on United Dairies, the mythic label curated by Steven "Nurse With Wound" Stapleton, to whose isolated Irish homestead our intrepid Leicester lads were duly driven to say hello. SON, meanwhile has continued in the shadows ("we've only played about a dozen gigs so far", confides Moore). Now that Daniel Padden has relocated to Glasgow (or thereabouts) and Laurence "Earth Trumpet" Coleman seems to have withdrawn from circulation somewhat, VTB have recently taken to appearing as a Mott / Moore duo, which is effectively what SON has been since it started. "I think we were trying to be a jazz improv band," Moore continues. "Imagine a couple of ex 'rock' musicians and a standard jazz musician undoing what they knew and creating a new way to play. I suppose we were quite naïve, Leicester not being the free music capital of the world, but we stuck to our guns and came up with Despite The Cloak."
The album title as it appears on the cover of this glamorous and wonderfully heavy vinyl is peppered with accents, not only the de rigueur umlauts, but even a stray circumflex and cedilla too. It's a typical VTB/SON gesture, an affectionate nod towards a seemingly inexplicable tradition (why did metal bands start sticking bloody umlauts on every available vowel? Who started it? Blue Oyster Cult? Write in and tell me, I'm curious). So is the music - what makes Mott and Moore's work so refreshing and enjoyable is its avoidance of just about any and every standard improv cliché. Mott's guitar and violin playing are about as far from a Bailey or a Wachsmann as you could probably hope to get, and Moore's percussion work steers well clear of the clatter / splash of improv legends like Bennink, Lovens and Turner. And though both intone vocals from time to time, their throaty droning seems to have beamed down from an alternative solar system. Nor is the music a conscious attempt to be weird for its own sake - in fact it doesn't sound weird at all - or a subversive Alterations-style anything-goes anarchic melting pot. This is remarkably lyrical, even melancholic, music, and has more in common with the more bucolic fringes of early 1970s free jazz (Marion Brown, Sea Ensemble..) than with "traditional" improv.
In concert - witness Mott and Moore's recent appearance under the VTB moniker at the Textile Festival - these guys are just as original. Avoiding the dully matter-of-fact stage presence (non-presence, rather) of "serious" improvisers, especially the new species of laptoppers who stare fixedly into Powerbooks as if they were dealing intra-day corn futures for Goldman Sachs, Moore rolls his cymbals and round the stage, stands on chairs and toots his trumpet into Mott's earhole, before scurrying back to the kit for a passionate volley of splattery post-prog percussion. And the great thing is that throughout such antics the quality and creativity of the music they make remains consistently high. Of course, improv snobs better steer clear - you could even sing along with some of this, and that just won't do, will it? - but if you're in search of a fresh take on free playing, seek this out (this and the recent VTB outing The Idea Of Wood on Textile). Some of the deluxe heavyweight LPs come with a 7" single tucked away inside containing two songs entitled "Freddie" and "Hubbard", but all come decorated with Mott's gently surreal artwork - somewhere between Chagall, Picasso, Keith Haring and prehistoric cave painting. All in all, a splendid outing from a team of real originals.—DW

Ingar Zach/Ivar Grydeland
Sofa 515
No Spaghetti Edition
Sofa 513
My previous exposure to the Zach/Grydeland duo was "Dog," a track off their previous Sofa CD Visiting Ants included in a label compilation. It was cut-and-thrust guitar/drums improv, in direct descent from the Derek Bailey/Han Bennink encounters of the past. On You Should Have Seen Me... they decamp for the minimalist-improv zone. There are just two long tracks, recorded a few months apart in 2003 but very similar in texture and pace. Grydeland works thoughtfully away at his acoustic guitar; Zach bows cymbals, uses mallets or strokes bells, or elicits from a sruti box a gentle, ever-changing drone (somewhere between a harmonium and the whine of a distant lawnmower in the summer heat). It's a very small palette, but Zach and Grydeland make the most of it, and at 48 minutes the disc doesn't overstay its welcome. Very nice - maybe too nice.
No Spaghetti Edition is the name given to a series of large-ensemble projects on Sofa which bring together a core trio of Norwegian players (Zach, Grydeland and bassist Tonny Kluften) and an ever-changing battery of European improvisers. For the concert on Real Time Satellite Data, recorded last June in a church in Oslo, the European contingent contains many of the usual suspects from the more astringent end of the improv scene: Axel Dörner, Xavier Charles, Michel Doneda, Rhodri Davies, Andrea Neumann. Someone with a dry sense of humour seems to have been responsible for the track titles (the two longest pieces - 21 and 30 minutes, respectively - are called "In Gasping Death" and "Who Is Changing Places") and for the digipak design, whose only image is a snazzy red piechart that graphs how much of the album's running-time goes to each track. The music is similarly far from austere: the volume level is generally low and the pace leisurely, as is the fashion nowadays, but the activity level is nonetheless quite high, which is good for impatient finger-drumming types like myself. There's an intriguing range of musical approaches here. The idioms of players like Davies, Neumann and Dörner are so abstracted from recognizable instrumental sounds that most of the time it's pretty hard to pick out their contributions, while the Norwegians' drums, guitar and bass mostly sound like drums, guitar and bass. Doneda and Charles are somewhere between these poles of abstract sound and more familiar instrumental sound. Just about every branch of improv is delicately broached: scrape/pling guitar; scrims of neutral electronic hiss and fizz; guess-who's-playing puzzles; scaled-down twittering Evan Parkerisms; stretches of near-inaudibility; rummaging-in-a-drawer percussion; microtonal drones; the odd barnyard squabble. Despite the size of the ensemble the general tone is light and silvery, and it makes perfect sense when Zach's chimes ring out midway through "Who Is Changing Places". Good stuff, from a particularly strong edition of the No Spaghetti Edition.—ND

Ellery Eskelin with Andrea Parkins & Jim Black
Prime Source DVD 3010
One of the more reassuring constants of the jazz world over the last ten years has been tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin's trio with Andrea Parkins on keyboards, sampler and accordion, and Jim Black on drums. Although all three play in other settings, there's a certain synergy to this group that makes each new release a cause for excitement. Seven albums, starting on Songlines with Jazz Trash and continuing on Hatology, document their growth as a group that doesn't run out of new things to explore with passion and integrity. In that regard they recall the George Adams / Don Pullen Quartet, another outfit that never lost its edge throughout years of performing.
Although Eskelin, Parkins and Black tour regularly, some of us off the beaten path haven't had the pleasure of seeing them perform, so the release of a DVD documenting their 2003 European tour as the players work their magic throughout France, Poland, Germany and the U.K. should be cause for celebration. But a few caveats are in order. First, anybody expecting to see footage of the quality of Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense is in for an unpleasant surprise. Shot with a camcorder seemingly thrown in on a whim, this provides few interesting views of the band. Moreover, because of either the varying quality of the video or other considerations, no song is shown in its entirety - as the DVD lasts an hour time should not have been a factor - and concert footage of the trio in action is interspersed with solo performances from the Festival Les 100 Ciels in Nancy which, although interesting in their own right, lack the group dynamic that the trio sustains so well. Also jarring to the group dynamic is the inclusion of vocalist Jessica Constable, who joins the trio in Paris (we see her penning in her name in on the list of groups appearing at the club). In between concerts, the group is shown in vignettes illustrating the DVD title, with each of the players maintaining likeable if clearly sleep-deprived personae. Taken as a whole, On The Road With pales in comparison to any of the group's albums, which can be recommended without any reservation.—SG
Read Ellery Eskelin's response to this review on the PT Letters Page —DW

Rich Halley
Louie 025
Louie 030
Rich Halley is a veteran but largely unheralded saxophonist from Portland, Oregon. Objects is classic sax/bass/drums blowing, and it's tremendous stuff all round. Halley's tenor-playing is stern and carefully-weighted, his lines so definite they sound like they're carved on the air; his soprano playing has something of the genial detachment of Steve Lacy. This is a group which often reverses roles: here, the horn is often the most stable element of the music, while bassist Clyde Reed and drummer Dave Storrs are the quickchange artists. There's one standard, a gorgeous, tumultuous "Over the Rainbow": Halley's tenor statement is full of echoes of gospel and spirituals, while Reed's solo comes straight out of Charlie Haden's book. The other five pieces take their bearings from simple but effective heads by Halley, though the performances are sufficiently freewheeling that there's no telling where they'll go. The tour de force is the 16-minute "Thickets/Pavements", which starts in exotic territory familiar to listeners of the Lloyd/Higgins Which Way Is East (wood flute and teeming percussive undergrowth) before Halley's tenor pierces its fabric. Reed and Storrs are particularly unguessable, from moment to moment holding back and letting fly, swinging and not swinging. The piece seems to draw to an end as its return to the opening thickets of percussion, but there's an unexpected coda, a strutting blues groove that brings the album to a satisfying close.
A year later Halley's group returned to the studio again to make The Blue Rims in the company of veteran trumpeter Bobby Bradford. The results are cooler and more linear than Objects. Bradford plays measured, lemon-ice trumpet, spinning solos out of small melodic cells - anything from a snippet of "Petite Fleur" to a "momma done told me" blues phrase can provide him with the basis of a solo. Reed and Storrs play well but without the whirling energy of the earlier disc, and typically gravitate towards loping mid-tempo grooves. It's when Halley steps to the mike that things begin to heat up - check out his winding, inflammatory solo on "Old Fields". Even that track, like others on the album, has its dead spots, though: the bass solo that follows is uneventful, but things perk up when Bradford gets off a good, cooled-out trumpet solo before the piece fades out rather weakly with a long drums and hand-percussion episode. It's nice to see Bradford back in front of the mics - every addition to his sparse discography is welcome - but if you want to hear Halley and his cohorts at their best Objects is the one to go for.—ND

Craig Taborn
Thirsty Ear Blue Series THI 57144.2
"Craig Taborn Is The Future Of Jazz", reads the little sticker on the album cover. It's the kind of statement that, despite the cool blue plastic of the jewel box, makes at least this reviewer see red, the problem being the use of that definite article - as if no other future of jazz were imaginable. At least Junk Magic is more interesting than the insipid McJazz of other recent Blue Series outings, which feature major league musicians like William Parker and Matthew Shipp playing down to the level of uninspired / uninspiring collaborators from the world of hip hop. In addition to playing keyboards, Taborn is responsible for programming here, and is joined by Mat Maneri on viola, Aaron Stewart on tenor sax and David King on drums. While the surface of their music is attractive, managing to combine the laidback and spacious - Stewart and Maneri complement each other well on the wan, pastel "Shining Through" - and the propulsive, the tracks are too often hampered by a conspicuous lack of harmonic movement. This is par for the course for a group like The Necks or Trapist, but somehow one expects something more flashy and impressive from a virtuoso pianist such as Taborn. The opening title track is a cunning seven against five polyrhythm that trucks along admirably until he unfortunately pulls the plug after just six minutes. Similarly, "Mystero" seems to kick up a head of steam without ever actually going anywhere, like sitting in a car and revving madly without ever shifting out of neutral. "Prismatica" starts out more openly funky, but its spiky post M-Base rhythmics are overlaid with so much reverberant programming finery that it the feet gradually stop tapping. "Bodies At Rest And In Motion" is more engaging, taking the technology out into more open pastures, but the crude binary drum machine slash of "Stalagmite" (comparing it to late 70s Brecker Bros and Doo Wop style Miles is doing both a disservice) manages in just 69 seconds to erase its subtlety. The closing "The Golden Age" sits on a pedal point throughout, taking the album out in more contemplative ECM mode. Terje Rypdal could come sailing in and one wouldn't be surprised, even though Taborn's keyboards sound more like Eno on the B side of Bowie's Heroes. Digital squiggles and swoops gradually cloud the clear blue sky, prompting Maneri to rise above mezzoforte (for once) in a beautifully paced performance. It's a satisfying end to a good album - if not the future of jazz, but certainly a future, and one for these musicians to explore further on subsequent outings.—DW

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Steve Lacy
Free Lance New Series FRL NS 0201
Since the mid-1990s Steve Lacy's preferred group format has been a trio featuring his long-time companions, bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel and drummer John Betsch. The Holy La was recorded in 1998, as something of a follow-up to Lacy's previous disc on the label, Bye-Ya (1996), though it took some time to emerge: it was eventually released in 2001, after Irene Aëbi completed it by overdubbing vocals onto two tracks; a new edition was released by Sunnyside in 2003, with different cover-art. The disc begins with a slightly sub par reading of his preferred latter-day set-opener, Monk's "Shuffle Boil": Lacy glides unemphatically over the changes, as if running his fingers over the tune's contours rather than pushing against them. Comparison with the brisk, acerbic version of the piece on his 1992 date We See (recently reissued on Hatology) reveals how wistful Lacy's sound has grown in recent years. The rest of the album - a set of eight Lacy originals, some old, some new - is fortunately well up to scratch. Beneath the music's angular surfaces and friendly trio interplay, the mood is full of autumnal echoes. The three new tunes are "Blue Jay" (dedicated to bassist J.F. Jenny-Clark, who died shortly after this recording was made), "Inside My Head" (a new setting of Robert Creeley), and "The Holy La", dedicated to Leonard Bernstein. Its title refers to A440, the standardized reference-point for pitch in Western music: the melody is echt Lacy - each phrase a musical question, which can apparently only be answered by repeating the question - and Lacy's solo is snaky and hypnotic. Of the readings of older material, one highlight is a shivery, radiant version of "Flakes", a piece inspired by the art of Mark Rothko and the pleasures of ice skating ("which I can no longer do", Lacy sadly remarks in his liner notes). It is marked by Avenel's extraordinary pizzicato bass solo which closely imitates the sound of a thumbpiano; as Lacy returns the music gently breaks apart, like breath dissolving in winter air. Skeptics about Steve Lacy's music generally fall into two camps: those who find his music rather chilly, and those who frown at his wife Irene Aëbi's singing. Both sides would do well to listen to "The Retreat", Lacy's setting of Thomas Gainsborough's words about retirement and approaching mortality. It is one of his most affecting performances. —ND

Derek Bailey
Paratactile PLE1116-2
If you missed out on the obscure Rectangle single a couple of years ago which featured Wire and STN journalist and poet Ben Watson reading his verse along with Derek Bailey's guitar, and are still waiting for Watson's forthcoming Bailey biography to provide more details on the numerous links that exist between British improv and the so-called Cambridge poetry scene, here is another brief helping of poetry plus improv, this time read by the guitarist himself. The choice of poets is contemporary and music-related (somehow I can't imagine Derek reading "Elegy in a Country Churchyard"...): Steve Dalachinsky's contacts with eminent American jazz musicians are well known, Lyn Hejinian is married to ROVA's Larry Ochs, and is a friend and collaborator of John Zorn, while Peter Riley is a friend of Bailey's of long standing, and was responsible for the first published interview with the guitarist back in 1974. His "Company Week" and "The Musicians, The Instruments" are worth seeking out as some of the few worthwhile instances of what Nate Dorward describes as "hybrid poetry/criticism on free improv". Those familiar with Bailey's spoken voice in the hilarious "George" on Play Backs and the more recent Chats (available from Incus as a CDR), might have difficulty associating his laconic delivery with the so-called serious world of poetry, or at least the received notion of what poetry ought to sound like when read - declaimed, rather - in public (the ranting melodies of Dylan Thomas, the taut emotion of Robert Lowell...). It's a shame the good people at Paratactile - RIP the label's executive producer Trevor Manwaring, by the way - couldn't have come up with extra cash to print the texts in a decent booklet, as the appearance of the poems on the printed page might suggest more structural cross-connections between the structure of the poetry and Bailey's inimitable guitar phrasing. (Maybe it's just as well they didn't, though, as Bailey does misquote the poems on occasion...) Whether he memorised the texts or had them in front of him while recording is unclear, but hearing Steve Dalachinsky's tales of junkies and jones read in the guitarist's inimitable Northern English accent sounds about as culturally mismatched as Kenneth Branagh reading "The Basketball Diaries", or Ginsberg reading Rupert Brooke. —DW

Jon Mueller / Bhob Rainey / Jim Schoenecker
Crouton Music Crouton 23
The problem of coming up with a satisfactory term to describe certain recent trends in improvised music is one we've been grappling with for a while - saxophonist Bhob Rainey's eloquent refusal to accept "reductionist" (in a letter published in Signal To Noise) is no doubt familiar to many readers, as is my own preference for "lowercase" (referred to elsewhere). The problem with "lowercase" though is that it not only implies that such music that is predominantly slow and quiet, but also that it somehow might lack intensity, that it's somehow cool - in the temperature sense of the word. But anyone listening to Rainey's work with Greg Kelley in nmperign, or recent outings on labels such as Creative Sources and Charhizma cannot fail to notice the terrific intensity of much of this music, its sheer heat. The cover of this latest outing on percussionist Jon Mueller's elegant Crouton label is a drawing of a toaster (with a Simon Templar halo floating above it), and even if you didn't know it was recorded "with one mic in a small room at Bhob's house, no ventilation, blazing hot out/in, sweating, and huddling around the a/c in between takes" (to quote an email from Mueller), you can practically hear sweat dripping. On "[here teething moths have passed]", Jim Schoenecker's synthesizer interfaces with Mueller's short-circuit driven snare drums and Rainey's molten saliva splutters to produce something that sounds like a Heftybag full of locusts being slowly grilled on a barbecue. As in the legendary AMM Crypt recordings, the acoustic of the space is the invisible fourth member of the quartet - had these three set up shop in one of those old, resonant Massachusetts churches the music quite simply would not have come out the same. Mueller's work at the beginning of "[holes]" sounds like a secretive nocturnal mammal rummaging in a garbage can after dark, but without reverberation, his swipes in the middle of the piece are suffocated in Schoenecker's warm drone blanket. Rainey even manages to sound like he's actually inside the snare drum, and it's hot in there. The two slowburning central tracks are bookended by brief squirts of lighter fluid, "[shredded paper, but]" and "[too tattered to read]". Be sure to use oven gloves to remove the disc from the sleeve in case you burn your fingers off: maybe it's not a halo after all, but a smoke ring.—DW

Sophie Agnel/Olivier Benoit
In Situ IS237
On the cover of Rip-Stop is a sculpture resembling a translucent bale of hay made out of wire, or the world's biggest steelwool pad. It's a fitting image for this encounter between two musicians who specialize in coaxing sounds out of metal under tension. The instrumentation - piano and guitar - recalls the AMM-minus-one of Duos for Doris, though Agnel and Benoit's palette is less colourful; they are similarly patient improvisers, constructing long improvisations through the patient addition and scraping-away of acoustic layers. Passages of violent activity are comparatively brief; on the whole, both the white-noise climaxes and the drawn-out near-silences transpire slowly and calmly, like snowdrifts piling up or vapour trails evaporating. Agnel's piano flecks and dots the dense, overtone-rich haze, on occasion rupturing it but more often just giving it a gentle stir. Despite the album's wide range in levels of volume and activity, it does come across as somewhat monochrome. It also tends to skirt moments of genuine uncanniness or of poetry, making this a much less rich and strange experience than Rouge Gris Bruit, Agnel's earlier trio disc with Lionel Marchetti and Jérôme Noetinger on Potlatch. On its own terms, though, Rip-Stop is a successful album, as elegant and astringent as that wire sculpture planted on the art-gallery floor.—ND

Mike Hansen/Tomasz Krakowiak
Spool Field 4
Mike Hansen is a visual artist and sculptor on the Toronto scene, and the host of WhyNot Jazz, a radio show devoted to free jazz and improv. The music on the show has shifted over the years from upper- to lowercase, and as a player Hansen has shifted with it, from drums to turntables and electronics. One of his regular playing partners is percussionist Tomasz Krakowiak, who uses a set-up similar to Lê Quan Ninh's: "amplified drum table" (i.e. an upturned drum used as a worktable for assorted percussion and small objects). Krakowiak is a very quiet player, sometimes to a frustrating degree. On Equation, an earlier trio album on Spool with Hansen and John Butcher, you could barely detect him at all (though the recording engineer may well have been at fault). Relay is better recorded, fortunately, and Krakowiak's contributions to the music are clearer. These four long improvisations were recorded at Hansen's studio space - there's even a contribution or two from passing Spadina traffic - and they have a suitably relaxed quality, rather like a slowed-down conversation. New material - a gentle scrape (a tap, a pop..) - is introduced and immediately looped; it's joined by another answering scrape (a tap, a pop..), which becomes a second loop with a slightly different periodicity. A few minutes go by, with some minor readjustments or additional layers, before the musical slideshow moves on. Eventually you begin to long for more singular events and less looping, or at least a subtler use of the technique: too much of this is machines murmuring gently but volubly to themselves. The encouraging thing about Relay is that it's entirely lacking in the doctrinaire chilliness of certain areas of the electroacoustic scene, but its actual musical processes are too predictable to hold the attention for the length of the disc.—ND

Steuart Liebig / The Mentones
After Ornette's Free Jazz and Sir Joe Quarterman's Free Soul, here comes free R&B - if that isn't a contradiction of terms - in the form of a four-piece band from LA fronted by the alto sax of Tony Atherton and the harmonica of Bill Barrett, and directed from the rear of the limo by bassist Steuart Liebig. At the wheel is testosterone-dripping drummer Joe Berardi, who, if he isn't quite Ronald Shannon Jackson (who is?), was probably weaned on the Decoding Society like the rest of them. Liebig's rubbery bass lines when things get funky certainly recall the finest moments of the Rev Bruce Johnson, but the real revelation here is Barrett, eloquently described by GE Stinson in his liners as "Little Walter crashing his Coupe de Ville into Ornette Coleman's harmolodien". Track titles like "Drifter", "Nighthawk" and "Gasoline Jelly" say it all; unless you're lucky enough to catch these guys live, and I would certainly like to do so, this is one to slap into the car stereo and cruise the streets to. From the Naked City style surf of "Burnt Umber" to the harmolodic punk funk of "Nowhere Calling", it's one fun drive.—DW

Free Fall
Wobbly Rail 013
Ken Vandermark must enjoy having multiple irons in the fire: his Website reveals that since the end of February he's appeared with the DKV Trio, Tripleplay, Vandermark 5, School Days, Peter Brötzmann's Chicago Tentet, a trio with Erik Friedlander and Tim Daisy, not to mention this current trio. And that is far from the full catalog of his musical groupings and associations. Free Fall was the title of the third and final recording by the 1961-62 Jimmy Giuffre Trio (with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow), a truly seminal album despite its intermittent availability over the years. Vandermark's trio replicates the instrumentation of Giuffre's group with pianist Håvard Wiik (who has previously appeared in Atomic and Element) and bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (also in Atomic as well as Vandermark associations in the AALY trio and School Days). The liner notes make it clear that this is not a Giuffre tribute band and the results of this October 2002 appearance at the Festiviteten in Eisvold, Norway (oddly bereft of any audience sounds) bear this out. On Furnace the trio plays throughout whereas half of Free Fall's tracks were solo Giuffre improvisations, and Vandermark employs an atypically loose and airy tone on his clarinet and bass clarinet (an instrument Giuffre didn't employ on the original) which is at odds with Giuffre's more piercing tone. Even so, the compositions recall the floating tempi and quiet fragmentation of the earlier disc. The majority of the compositions are by Vandermark, with each dedicated as usual to an artist that he admires; pianist Wiik contributes three selections and Flaten just one. I find the bassist's and pianist's compositions to be better suited for this type of music, with their employment of quirky melodies that sound at once familiar but unusual. Though Vandermark's compositions and playing are more enjoyable more in other settings, he still acquits himself very well. With the exception of the frenetic title track, the pieces are quite languid in pace, and nobody engages in ostentatious displays of instrumental prowess; the emphasis is on understated group interaction. It's very much in keeping with the spirit of the original Free Fall and represents a job well done. —SG

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Glenn Branca
Acute ACT 005
This isn't the first time Glenn Branca's "Lesson No.1" and "Dissonance", originally released in 1980 on Ed Bahlman's mythic 99 Records label, have appeared on CD, but even if you did invest in the first reissue you might want to consider picking this up too, since Acute's package also contains "Bad Smells", Branca's 1982 ballet score for Twyla Tharp (originally on a split LP called Who Are You Staring At? with John Giorno on his GPS label) and a 17-minute Quicktime movie of Branca conducting (if that's the word) his "Symphony No.5" in 1984. Moreover, the music has been remastered by that doyen of No Wave connoisseurs Weasel Walter and comes with a snazzy set of liners by mainman Alan Licht. I make that four damn good reasons to get your wallet out and your earplugs in.
I've only seen Branca's band once in concert, but won't forget the experience. As the guitarists filed onstage and plugged in, the amp buzz alone was as loud as most of music that ever gets performed in Paris' genteel Théâtre de la Ville; once Branca brought his fists down and the whole band kicked in, the sheer volume was absolutely terrifying. Thank God we were sitting near the back of the hall, an excellent vantage point from where we watched well over half the packed house run for the exits, fingers stuffed in bleeding ears. Two other events from that evening stick in my mind, one the sight of Branca anointing himself with the contents of a Coke bottle, the other that I couldn't hear a fucking thing for three days. Goodness knows what they were playing, but it wasn't "Symphony No.5", because that piece starts quietly before building to its inevitable surging climax. The sound quality on the Quicktime video isn't all that wonderful, but there are plenty of shots of Branca in full swing. Literally. And I used to think Lenny Bernstein overdid it.
Back in 1979, after formative experiences in No Wave outfits Theoretical Girls and Static, Branca's music was more angular and rhythmically defined. "Lesson No.1" is defiantly tonal (well, if tonal means sitting on one major chord throughout) and rocks out. In a recent email Branca took issue with Alan Licht's mentioning an anecdote of keyboard player Anthony Coleman to the effect that the composer at the time was "listening heavily to Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" ("you can almost sing Ian Curtis' melody over it", Licht states.. well, yes, along with several Velvets, Ramones, Voidoids and Stooges songs if you give the matter some thought), but put that down to Licht's mission statement in the liners that Branca was (is?) "the first post modern composer". "Dissonance" is much more, erm, dissonant, but what became the trademark ugly clusters of late 80s Branca were still intercut with more varied rhythmic patterns, including a part for sledgehammer. As Licht points out, it doesn't quite compare to Z'ev's sheet metal bashing on Branca's "Symphony No.2" - in fact it sounds more like someone playing a contact-miked metal ashtray with a ballpoint pen - but its irregular punctuations open up the structure and make "Dissonance" one of Branca's more accessible works. Accessible, yet uncompromising. The same can be said of "Bad Smells", which kicks off with a raucous gallop sounding like a cross between Ennio Morricone and Phill Niblock. Change comes thick and fast, huge slabs of punk drum power (courtesy Stephen Wischerth) slammed into your earhole. Shame they couldn't have dug up a film of the Tharp ballet - I'd love to see this kind of thing danced - instead of the "Symphony No.5", but I'm certainly not complaining. I don't know whether I'd qualify it as "post modern", but I sure love the way it kicks ass.—DW

Milton Babbitt
CP² 111
John Cage
Armin Loos
Paul Zukofsky is best known as a violinist - pick up a pile of old CRI or Nonesuch contemporary pieces featuring the violin and the chances are you'll come across his name pretty quickly - but, with the exception of the "Sonata No.2" by Armin Loos, it's as a conductor that he appears here. Cage's "Sixteen Dances" date from 1951, a critical turning point in the composer's career just before the composer wholeheartedly embraced chance procedures. Several of the movements look back to the rhythmic structuralism of the composer's 1940s work - dividing the piece into x sections of x measures duration - others can be seen as precursors of the I Ching inspired works of the later 1950s. The diversity of the work's compositional procedures comes across in performance: some of the dances (numbers 4, 8, 9, 12 particularly) jog along with the jauntiness of Cage's Satie-inspired piano music, or partake of the gentle diatonicism of the first "String Quartet", others are more angular, sparse and surprising. The recording dates from 1982 and was originally issued on an LP co-produced by, amongst others, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation but still sounds remarkably fresh.
As a violinist Zukofsky has always been an enthusiastic champion of composers both well known and unfairly neglected, Armin Loos being one of the latter. Born in Darmstadt, Germany in 1904, Loos settled in New York at the end of the 1920s, where he worked in the family banking business until ill health forced his retirement in 1962. Like Charles Ives, composing music was not a principal source of revenue, but was nonetheless something far too important to be cursorily dismissed as a "hobby". Unlike Ives, who wrote practically nothing during the last three decades of his life, Loos soldiered on, producing a substantial body of orchestral and chamber music. The second violin sonata was the last work he completed before his death in 1971. Bearing in mind when it was written, its mixture of earnest dodecaphony, tough lyricism and occasional motoric rhythms sounds rather dated at times, but Zukofksy and pianist Michael Torre perform it with love and conviction, and it makes for a satisfying contrast with the detached elegance of the Cage dances.
In July 1997 Zukofsky was in London to record with the Composers Ensemble work by two of the most distinctive characters in post-War American music, Milton Babbitt and Morton Feldman. Though both ended up in influential teaching positions - Babbitt at Princeton, Feldman at Buffalo - a glance at their respective discographies reveals both a shocking dearth of available Babbitt music on record and an equally alarming surfeit of Feldman. The standard explanation for this is that Babbitt's music is too "difficult" - presumably to listen to, since for performers it's tricky but no more technically challenging than Carter and arguably easier than a lot of Ferneyhough - but the Composers Ensemble's limpid and delightful readings of "Septet But Equal" (1992) and "Fourplay" (1984) give the lie to that notion. As I have written elsewhere, Babbitt has been something of his own worst enemy, having become almost as well known for the thorny technicalities of his prose and his rather cringeworthy titles (is you thought "Fourplay" was limp, try "The Joy of Sets") as he is for his compositions. I am tempted to ask those listeners who scratch their head saying "I don't understand it" (the "it" in question being not just Babbitt's music but the serial procedures he has so enthusiastically championed throughout his career) whether they really "understand" more outwardly accessible examples of late twentieth century music, or for that matter, Mozart, Bach and Monteverdi. (As young Heinrich muses in Don DeLillo's "White Noise", "Can we make a refrigerator? Can we even explain how it works? What is electricity? What is light?"..) You could probably put the number of people out there in the world who fully understand Babbitt's pitch and rhythmic procedures on a suburban commuter train and have a carriage or two to spare. True, the music is dense, multilayered and doesn't make many concessions to you, but listen closely to individual details, how tiny details - a couple of discreet pitches here, a recognisable interval there - are taken up and transformed by the other instruments, and little by little the work's architecture reveals itself.
Feldman's music, on the other hand, is mistakenly assumed to be "easy" listening in comparison. Sure, it's predominantly slow, ideas tend to be repeated and thus manage to impress themselves in one's consciousness, and, after all, wasn't Feldman one of Cage's buddies who abandoned all that twelve tone crap and just wrote music starting at the first page of the score and stopping when he reached the last page? Indeed, but considering the composer's oeuvre as some kind of new age mood music for high IQ snobs who wouldn't be seen dead listening to a Windham Hill album but approach Feldman in exactly the same way is a grave mistake. Unlike several recent Feldman outings that seem to treat the music with kid gloves - pianissimo is not synonymous with wimpy - Zukofsky's readings of "Instruments 1" and "Three Clarinets, Cello and Piano" engage with the notes in a direct and refreshingly unpretentious way, a perfect illustration of what Feldman refers to in his essay "Crippled Symmetry", quoted in the liners: "the degree to which music notation is responsible for much of the composition itself is one of history's best kept secrets." —DW

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B. Fleischmann
Morr Music 2CD
Morr Music and Charhizma recording artist, twenty something Vienna-based multi-instrumentalist Fleischmann is no stranger to cross-bending territory where traditional themes are intercut with uptempo glitch and fuzzy overtones (cf "Guided by Beats"). Microfunk-laden tracks give way to pale harmony and German narrative on "02/00", and Fleischmann permeates his work with lush and dreamy piano and vibes discourse on "Pass By" (otherwise a bit of fluff with rambling tightfisted drumming). There are even moments of Sigur Rós in the forlorn "Grunt." Welcome Tourist is a vacillating narrative that's as sonic ("The Blessed") as it is cute on the Lou Reed-y "Le Désir", where he sings as proletarian "have you ever tried to reach the sky on a sunny afternoon...we have dreams and we want them to come true". Disc one falls to "Sleep" with Fleischmann's awkward vocal about thinking about a sleeping girl, buying milk and bread and other sundry items. Love the line "don't get me wrong, it's just a song." Drowsy travelogue synths graze over a syncopated backing track like a contemporary update of Charles Schultz's Peanuts theme. Disc two is a single forty-five minute long track, "Take Your Time". If static's what you came for, let Fleischmann reshape it for you. The bent buzz and lapping rhythmics open this long player with blurted, bleached, censored art house vocals. Adding some light guitar strumming and the signature piano, which could be excerpted from anything from a Carpenters love song to the latest opus by Mum, and the mix becomes fuller. It's something of an urban rodeo record, complete with dust and twang, basking in a midday afterglow like there's no tomorrow, upright fat jazz basslines and all.—TJN

Invisible Structure
To be frank I'm not sure this is the title of the (mini) album (less than 19 minutes long), since I haven't got round to Googling out the answer, having spent most of my time trying to get the CD to stay on the little transparent plastic mounting thing inside the cover (without success). Nice packaging apart from that, complete with punched out holes on the outer cover, which nearly made me want to go back and listen to OMD's Dazzle Ships. I fortunately resisted the temptation, but have a sneaking feeling this one will age just about as badly. The "concept", and hardly an original one at that, is to have the 99 tracks play on random shuffle. Or, if you have a programmable CD player, in an order of your choosing ("I strongly wish the person receiving the sound not merely to receive but also to participate in this sound revolution", it says here). Fine, but if you manually programme all 99 tracks it'll probably take you longer than the CD does itself to play. As for the sounds, they're par-for-the-course buzzes, crunches, glitches and all manner of digital ejectamenta. With some elementary software you could use them to make your own piece(s), but that's something I would have preferred Koji Takagi to have done for me.—DW

Alex Keller / Meri von KleinSmid
Mimeograph MIMEO 001
This album documents four site specific sound installation projects organised by Alex Keller and Meri von KleinSmid in and around Seattle between November 2001 and October 2002. "Phar Lap" was recorded in Seattle's Vital 5 Gallery and features a Texas Instruments Speak'n'Math and five toy parrots, while "The best station is no station" finds our two protagonists armed with transistor radios in an old gasworks (and also features the sounds of a family playing hide and seek nearby). Ten minutes of such random dial twiddling would have been sufficient, but the piece is twice as long and drags horribly. So does "Focused on the conflict at hand", whose novelty bleeps and buzzes sourced from old Ataris wears off as quickly as the toy parrots. "Messages from Bunker 23" is sonically richer, being a location recording in an old Navy bunker, but one wishes the performers would stop fucking around with their cassette players and just listen to the sound of distant aircraft and local seabirds, which is far more interesting. I can imagine that these events would have been fun to attend, but seriously question the necessity of releasing a compact disc of such proceedings.—DW

Steve Barsotti
Mimeograph MIMEO 002
Formerly a sound engineer at Chicago's Experimental Sound Studio, Steve Barsotti is now a sound artist based in Seattle. This CD presents two of his studio works, "noise reduction on back porch" and "tintapemic", and two excerpts from live performances, one from a show entitled "Threshold of Hearing", the other "Threshold of Pain" (which gives you a fair idea what to expect). The two openers are less predictable - on "noise reduction" Barsotti weaves together numerous and diverse field and studio recordings into a heavy tapestry of sound, where in yer face square wave buzzes are intercut with all manner of strange rattles and crackles, as well as more recognisable elements (bird song and the tinkle of a music box). It sounds almost as if it could be improvised - there are quite a few Berliners whose music sounds remarkably similar - but it isn't. In fact Barsotti has been tinkering with this and "tintapemic" for about five years. The second track explores the same territory, Barsotti playing expertly with depth and drama in the mix - close-miked sounds inhabit the same space as distant, echoing crashes - eroding the idea of foreground and background. The two live tracks, entitled "hey" and "HEY" (no prizes for guessing which is loud one) are less successful, but are interesting examples of sound art's increasing preoccupation with positioning itself at one or the other end of the spectrum: it's either noise meltdown or ultra lowercase, Merzbow or López (though one shouldn't forget the latter's spectacular blast of metal a couple of years back). In both categories, there are more interesting offerings than this, though; "hey" can't hold a candle to bernhard günter, and "HEY" is far less exciting than a good old Japanoise brainfry. But as both are extensively sourced from the two other works, it is interesting to hear how Barsotti has reconfigured his composition in a live context. That said, you're likely to return to the sophistication and mystery of "noise reduction" and "tintapemic" in a hurry. Now I know how to pronounce it, Steve, what does "tintapemic" actually mean?—DW

Henrik Rylander
Ideal Recordings IDEAL 016
Former drummer for Union Carbide Productions, Henrik Rylander takes his percussive interpretations to task on this absolute blockbuster: Traditional Arrangements of Feedback is the experimental record of the year (so far). Plug it in, tune up and go-go-go. The funk-industrial "Formations of Feedback" proves hard sounds can have beat without dipping into the vestiges of Goth. Göteborg-based Rylander uses the "Repetition" of saw-toothed pulse-beats and a rocking underbelly to form these techno haikus, part Einstürzende Neubauten, part Peaches (sans four-letter words and no hole in the middle), but wholly enormous walls of controlled sound to be reckoned with. Through the fuzz of it all, like collecting individual hair strands of static pulse, Rylander harvests something gem-like, something awkwardly infinite. There's instant elation when he tools with materials that could easily lead to haphazard mistakes but which make great sound effects, proving that such obstacles can be both overcome and controlled. "Destroyer" sounds like a small digital press with spikes and loose metal objects that have gone awry inside; the mechanism keeps going, pulping what's in its path, slowly rolling on with the precision of a diecut machine running over the same tracks with a few imperfections along the way. The post-op version of "Warm Leatherette"? No, "Flange" is like one of those giant Lego robots turned into a smiley-faced clown menacing a Mumbleboy video. Massive and graceless and twice as happy as any Avon lady that may have stepped cross your threshold lately.—TJN

Paolo Raposo / Marc Behrens
Cronica 008
As my Wire colleague Keith Moliné puts it rather eloquently, "remixed remixes of the inaudible" - based on remixes of Nosei Sakata's 0.000 (which consists solely of frequencies outside the range of human hearing, but must be a smash hit with the worldwide bat community) by Taylor Deupree, His Chuang Cheng, Aube, Richard Chartier, Akira Rabelais, John Hudak, bernhard günter and Steve Roden (bring on the usual suspects), Further Consequences of Reinterpretation consists of 21 tracks crafted by Marc Behrens and Sirr Records label boss Paolo Raposo. Gloops, glitches, beeps and crackles abound, but - excuse me for being particularly unoriginal and quoting Moliné once more - the overriding impression is that of "impressive software playing with itself". What on first hearing comes as a welcome surprise, i.e. the refreshing brevity of tracks, ends up as frustrating, leaving the distinct impression of unfinished sketches and scribbles rather than the kind of finely crafted soundscape we have come to expect from Behrens and Raposo. Perhaps it's meant to give that impression - this is, after all, on the concept-heavy Cronica label - but it's far less satisfying that Raposo's recent outing with Carlos Santos, Insula Dulcamara, recently reviewed in these pages.—DW

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