NOVEMBER News 2006 Reviews by Clifford Allen, Jon Dale, Nate Dorward, Lawrence English, Stephen Griffith, Vid Jeraj, Richard Pinnell, Massimo Ricci, Nick Rice, Derek Taylor, Dan Warburton:

In Concert: Erstquake 3
In Concert: Strotter Inst.
In Print:
The Future of Modern Music
In Concert: György Kurtág 80th Birthday Celebration / Wolfgang Rihm
On Kranky:
Chihei Hatakeyama / Keith Fullerton Whitman / Bird Show / Gregg Kowalsky / Jessica Bailiff / Benoît Pioulard / Boduf Songs / Chris Herbert / Christina Carter
From Canada: Keith, Oswald & Turner / Rob Clutton / Nimmons & Braid / Lisa Miller / Carsick / François Houle / Jesse Zubot / Fond of Tigers
ONJO / ONJQ / Akiyama, Ambarchi & Licht / Temperamental Trio / Aaron Siegel / Steve Lacy / Steve Lantner / James Beaudreau
Flaherty, Corsano & Yeh / Randy Sandke / Art Ensemble of Chicago / peeesseye / Elliott Sharp / Frank Wright / Adam Lane / Zlatko Kaucic
Earle Brown / Brian Ferneyhough / Julian Anderson / Christian Wolff / Virtual Rhythmicon
Astra / Fhievel / Post / Biphop Generation
Last month


"Nobody does more harm than people who feel bad about doing it," as William S. Burroughs once drawled. I guess he's got a point. I'm reading and re-reading the book review included below and wondering whether or not I'd be better off deleting it altogether and using the space for other reviews. The fact of the matter is I don't really enjoy writing negative reviews of albums, books or concerts, for the simple reason that they rarely serve any positive purpose. That sounds like a pretty dumb thing to say for a start – since when was negativity positive anyway? – but sometimes it's the case. Reading a review of a restaurant that totally trashes the place could save you from a nasty case of food poisoning (having just had one myself, believe me they're worth avoiding). With books and records though, a hatchet job is rarely more than a pedestal for the critic to perch on and rain urine down on artists / labels / publishers (maybe even readers / listeners) cowering below.
I was taken to task recently by a Ms Lisa Seitz about the review of the Gendreau / López split LP on CIP in last month's issue: "I write to you not to chastise any of your opinions. I have never written to any critic before. I felt compelled to write to you because I was rather pissed about how your review was so obscure. If I didn't already know about this record, I wouldn't have known much more after reading your review. I was incensed; I could not even understand why you would bother. It was as though you were taking care of a task without any interest in presenting the work. There's so many releases that are put out each week, why not review something you actually like and that you have something to say about? Or review something you don't like, but let the reader learn something about the work. I suppose that this is my little personal gripe, nothing against you in particular, but against critics at large. I also expected a lot more depth from a reviewer at PT – but then again, I'm not in the business and maybe this is how business is done."
I replied at some length explaining my reasons for reviewing the disc in the first place (which to be honest had more to do with the way the music was presented by the CIP press release than how it actually sounded), but point taken. One of the sad facts about "the business", as you call it (though "business" usually implies money changing hands, which isn't the case here – the only currency in PT land is LP/CD/DVD, and the odd cassette) is that you can never listen to an album as many times as you'd like before having to write about it. This is an old beef of mine, and has been discussed at length elsewhere on several occasions, but it's central to the Gendreau review. In short, I think you're right, Lisa. I'll be returning to the album for another listen soon. Don't expect a new review though.. I won't have time. I'll be too busy trashing someone else's work, haha.
Sometimes, however, the question as to whether one should or shouldn't put pen to paper, as it were, simply doesn't arise. James McHard's book just hit a raw nerve. I'm sure he's a lovely person, and his wife too (I suppose it's his wife), who sent a very nice letter along with the book. No doubt I'll have disappointed – if not infuriated – both of them with the review below. But with a title like The Future of Modern Music you've more or less got it coming to you however good the book is. (Had been called My Thoughts About Modern Music, would I have requested a review copy, though? I doubt it..) So why am I still feeling pangs of, if not guilt, let's say unease? Perhaps because even the lousiest crappiest dumbest dollop of third division trash (I'm not referring to McHard's book here btw) is something that somebody somewhere has laboured over with enthusiasm, dedication and love. It's someone's baby. And who feels good about beating a kid? Nobody. But sometimes they deserve a good smack.
Anyway, as I've had my time cut out polishing up the knuckle dusters, I've enlisted the services of our man in Canada, Nate Dorward, who is hereby appointed Editor of this august journal. For over a year now he's been proofreading the issue just before posting, and I've been amazed each month at his ability to spot the tiny errors I invariably miss. A safe pair of hands, as they say in cricket. Thanks also this month to Tomas Korber for his interview with Mark Wastell, to Richard Pinnell for his dispatch from the Erstquake zone, and to all those too numerous to name who've helped out with additional info and photos. Bonne lecture.-DW

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In Concert
Erstquake 3
Tonic, New York City
26th September – 2nd October 2006
Photographs by Terence Andriolo
For the third successive year the Erstquake Festival in New York was curated by Erstwhile's Jon Abbey and Chris Wolf, and Tim Barnes, head honcho of the Quakebasket label. The programme, spread over twenty sets and four nights, clearly reflected the diverging tastes of the three curators, and the audience found much to discuss and argue about. Each night began with a very quiet set, the plan being for the volume to rise throughout the evening with the closing sets showcasing the festival's cautious embrace of the currently in-vogue noise scene. I found this element of the festival refreshing and invigorating, and worked hard to leave any preconceptions I may have had about any of the music behind with the over-exuberant Heathrow airport security officials.
Either side of the festival I was able to catch an outside show featuring some of the performers in town for the main event. Shortly after arriving, in a lack-of-sleep-induced haze, I found myself sitting amongst a small throng of people in a tiny patch of Brooklyn parkland, surrounded by the incessant noise of the city, listening to the trio of Greg Davis, Albert Casais and Jeph Jerman in two acoustic sets using almost entirely natural objects (stones, leaves, shells, twigs..). Their intensely focused, intimate scrapes, whispers and crackles blended into the city sound (and often disappeared altogether), creating a little bubble of serenity in such a wildly active environment. The small audience clearly appreciated the opportunity to really open their ears.
In the bright light of New York's Tonic the following day, some of the magic I have always associated with Davis and Jerman's music seemed strangely absent, but their performance was well up to standard. They began in a similar vein to the night before, with tiny sounds made by rubbing and stroking sticks and stones (and at one point the beautiful sound of conch shells half full of water), but this time amplified to room-filling levels. The image of the musicians conjuring sounds from such unlikely sources was possibly a little too diverting, and I found myself closing my eyes to take in the musical conversation hidden behind the visual spectacle. If I had to find fault in what was a very beautiful start to the festival, it would be that both musicians seemed to feel the need to use everything on the table, instead of choosing fewer sounds and allowing them to develop over time. It gave the music a slightly restless feel that it could probably have done without.
The following set from Los Glissandinos, the clarinet / laptop duo of Kai Fagaschinski and Klaus Filip, was eagerly anticipated after my immense enjoyment of their 2005 Creative Sources album Stand Clear. Fagaschinski is an exceptionally accomplished clarinettist who can produce a remarkable array of sounds, and Filip's stark, simple sinetones complement them perfectly. The familiar contemplative austerity of the Los Glissandinos sound was beautifully realised live, with Filip providing a translucent base through which Fagaschinski threaded his soft tones, occasional piercing attacks and warm flutterings. The opening piece induced an oddly appealing claustrophobia, as the sounds hung heavy in the air around us, a Rothko-like sense of weight and depth that was one of the highlights of the festival.
Bryan Eubanks and Barry Weisblat (photo, left) played two short pieces, the first more interesting than the second. Weisblat miked up a naked flame to create an unpredictable crackling undercurrent which was amplified and mixed with the static interference of small fluorescent light tubes interacting with a radio and Eubanks' open circuits and tone generators. It managed to steer clear of the inevitable drone, forming patterns of occasionally cyclical stabbing, disruptive abstraction. The refusal to fall back on long drawn-out sounds was commendable, but not always successful; the set seemed to suffer from a lack of familiarity between the musicians. The flow was disrupted and from time to time the music seemed to lose its way. In the second piece Eubanks introduced a pattern of short rising tones that further muddied the focus and interfered with the communication. It all eventually settled into an uninteresting ten-minute drone.
The set by Scenic Railroads – Joe Panzner on laptop and Mike Shiflet on laptop and electronics – was a lot less interesting than their work on CD. Relatively obvious digital scribblings and crackles met sustained bass tones and other sonic leftovers in an unfortunately predictable tinnitus-inducing crescendo, which (to the musicians' credit) eventually dropped away to a more restrained dynamic plateau. But after this the pair seemed to lose direction, and the set petered out instead of going anywhere interesting.
One man renowned for cooking up a storm is Basque laptopper Mattin, who began his appearance with electronics/percussionist Tim Barnes by placing a huge guitar amp somewhat precariously on a wobbly table in front of the stage, causing myself and others to scatter to the rear of the hall to what appeared to be relative safety. Barnes began to build a beautiful stream of cold metallic sound by rubbing a cymbal slowly (photo, right) and passing the sound through simple effects, and Mattin started prowling around the back of the room, circling those of us that had sought safety there with his laptop held at head height, a high pitched screech stretching the computer's internal speaker. As Barnes' playing grew in intensity, Mattin began (as he does) shouting anti-consumerist expletives as he prowled around the room. Fighting the temptation to either laugh or trip him up, I watched as he approached the amp, stabbing the output lead in and out of the laptop, filling the room with tearing bursts of white noise and feedback interspersed with his barely comprehensible screams. The set ended with a jolt soon after. Mattin has always sought to provoke a reaction (instead of worrying about making good music), and his antics became the talk of the festival. For those of us that had seen him do similar things before though, it amounted to little more than mildly diverting, yet boringly predictable theatre, albeit with a rather good backing track.
The second night began with a set from Sachiko M and Sean Meehan. No two musicians in this area could be better suited to one another, and the music they produced was intensely powerful, working with extremes of space and dynamics to produce tension. Sachiko's sole means of amplification was a pair of headphones placed on the table in front of her, resulting in an exceptionally quiet music that fought with external noises throughout. She played just two sinewaves during the course of the set, bisected by a short burst of twittering chatter halfway through. Meehan chose his moments to insert sustained tones into this most simple of sound pools, rubbing dowel rods against cymbals placed on an upturned snare drum. The resulting music was spellbinding, balancing tightly wound tension and frozen austerity. I enjoyed it immensely, but wonder if it could have ever failed. With such simple basic elements involved, what would a bad Sachiko/Meehan set sound like anyway?
Michael R. Bernstein's work in the Double Leopards was completely unknown to me prior to the festival, so his duo with Mike Shiflet was a discovery. Shiflet played laptop again, alongside what appeared to be Bernstein's analogue synth. It began promisingly enough, with bursts of electronic chatter and bass-heavy throbs giving way to gritty, abrasive sounds, which held the attention for a few minutes before the music was overtaken by an annoying reliance on rhythmic loops. Some of the basic elements were interesting, but there was little real invention in terms of overall structure.
One of the most exciting groups I've heard on disc this year is English, the duo of Bonnie Jones and Joe Foster, so I had great expectations for their appearance. My hopes were not in vain as their half-hour set, filled with strong arresting gestures, false starts and tense silences, held the audience in suspense. While both musicians used similar set-ups of broken circuits, digital delay pedals and other electronic ephemera, Foster's trumpet brought an acoustic immediacy to the music (although at no stage did he come close to producing a trumpet-like sound). English's music is hard to describe; on a basic level they work with similar sounds and instrumentation to many of the other artists on the bill, yet their intensity comes from the shapes and spaces within the music, the frequent gaps of silence and contrasting sounds that play with raw power and nameless emotion in a bright, edgy manner. Great stuff.
In a masterstroke of festival curation, English were followed by the duo of Burkhard Stangl and Christof Kurzmann, who set about changing the mood of the evening completely with a reprise of their Schnee project, which has already produced two CDs for the Erstwhile label. Schnee explores the boundaries between pop and the more abstract music catered for by this kind of festival. Stangl switched between guitars and piano, and Kurzmann alternated laptop and clarinet, and ran through an improvised comedy routine with a squeaky microphone stand. A short and brilliantly executed Derek Bailey tribute from Stangl was a nice moment that reflected Jon Abbey's opening night dedication of the festival to the great man. When Kurzmann broke into an awkward rendition of Neil Diamond's "Song Sung Blue" and joined Stangl in a short jazzy duet you had to chuckle at the cabaret. It all came as welcome relief from the seriousness of the rest of the festival.
While earlier sets had touched on the noisier end of the current music scene, the final set of the second day was the first to truly embrace the noise aesthetic. The duo of longstanding noisemonger Lasse Marhaug and former Wolf Eyes member Aaron Dilloway (photo, left) looked pretty menacing – two foreboding figures behind a table of electronics that looked destined to be abused – yet when they began I was surprised at how much detail could be heard in the music, albeit it of the ugly, looping variety that had plagued the Bernstein/Shiflet set earlier. A queasy, off-kilter loop occupied much of the foreground early on, above steadily growing organ-like sounds, and for a while there was something to listen to. About fifteen minutes in, though, the pair seemed to tire of this and began to build that familiar featureless wall of noise so popular these days. Trying to make out any detail then became a painful waste of time. Dilloway and Marhaug began to bounce about behind their tables, throwing gestural arms at control knobs and slamming fists down dramatically on whatever was below them. Dilloway by now had a microphone rammed halfway down his throat and was probably adding roaring vocals into the maelstrom, but they were impossible to make out. Apart from a few halfhearted swaying bodies rocking in their chairs, the audience sat pretty motionless, which seemed to defeat the purpose of listening to such physically arresting music. If there's nothing to sink your ears into then at least get up and move. As things were, the set failed to grip me in any manner other than as a testosterone-fuelled pantomime. Someone later told me I didn't "get it" because I was "just too old." Maybe so, but get it I didn't, though not for want of trying.
Saturday opened with what was for me the set of the festival. The last time I saw trombonist Radu Malfatti live was with Polwechsel in 1994. Mattin, of course, I'd seen much more recently, but this partially composed set sounded like neither of those events. Sitting opposite his collaborator in the centre of the room, Malfatti followed a score that cued the beginning and ending of his long, dry low notes, a small clock at his side timing the lengthy silences between them. Mattin sat silently for the first few minutes, appearing to do nothing, though he was in fact recording the noise of the room, complete with shuffling chairs, the creaking wood of the Tonic bar (and the occasional guilty cough). He then set about playing the recording back into the room via the PA system, sometimes alone, sometimes following Malfatti's cue. The combination of the trombone lines and the Mattin's eerie sounds created an intense atmosphere as the audience sat, unsure of what exactly it was they were listening to. It struck a perfect balance between musicianship and listener input. As Malfatti's trombone was also recorded by Mattin, there were occasions when it could be heard though he wasn't playing, adding a playfulness to the set probably only noticed by half of the room. This was music of immense beauty performed with admirable precision.
Burkhard Stangl and Kai Fagaschinski (photo) followed, in a set of intertwining tones, picked guitar notes and angular interactions that continually threatened to break into melody but just kept itself in check. Stangl again moved through guitars and techniques, beginning by bowing a contact mic resting on his thigh as Fagaschinski wove warm tones in and around the resulting texture. Stangl went on to bow and strum the guitar, extracting precise sounds with ridiculous ease, to be met by an equally assured response from the clarinet. Having stayed just on the abstract side of the dividing line for the majority of this involving set, towards the end the duo gave way to the melodic urge. As Stangl picked out a gentle chord Fagaschinski played a mournful tune the pair had written together (years earlier) to bring things to a close. I enjoyed this set a great deal, and found the subtle manner with which it addressed the influence of pop far more palatable than the annoyingly self-conscious irony of the Schnee performance the day before.
Though I'd only seen Cosmos (Ami Yoshida - photo, right - and Sachiko M.) live once before, I had an idea of what to expect. It was intriguing to hear Yoshida's alien vocalisations, focussed in a tightly defined area of high pitched guttural yelps and placed at regular intervals over some of the most interesting sounds I've heard Sachiko produce for a while. Small splurts of digital shrapnel mixed with the more familiar long tones created the perfect landscape for Yoshida to build upon, but she resisted the urge to move outside her narrow sonic range, seemingly rooted in a way of improvising that hasn't evolved much in recent years. It was a great set, though, if hampered by my wishful thinking.
After Cosmos, GOD (Bryan Eubanks and Leif Sundstrom). As I seem to be one of the few people that didn't get much out of the their 2005 album Anti Sex, Anti Wiretapping, I was ready to discover what it was that everyone else could hear. As it happens they set about doing something quite different with their array of electronics, mixer and miked-up cymbal. The grainy roughness of the album was less evident as Sundstom began with a deep bass-heavy roar. This formed a foundation for shifting layers of static until Eubanks added precisely the same rising tone pattern he'd used in his set with Weisblat two days earlier. To use this sound again was odd, and it didn't work any better this time round. For a while Sundstrom met Eubanks' persistent tones with notes that created a beating pattern as the pitches crossed, but it quickly became boring. Overall I remained unmoved, but I have greatly enjoyed a new GOD CD I picked up at the festival. There's hope for this atheist yet, perhaps.
The prospect of a solo Aaron Dilloway set after an evening of intense listening was not appetising, but I dutifully took my place at the bar at the back of the room with open ears, and was pleasantly surprised at least to hear the first completely unpredictable set of the festival. The intense volume of his duo with Marhaug never fully materialised, but what remained only really confirmed my suspicion that, deprived of the sheer physicality of full-on noise assault, there is very little of interest. An ugly churning, nauseous sound very similar to one he had used in the Marhaug duo became a key element in the set, blending into sheets of shapeless noise and a ridiculous routine that involved Dilloway placing handfuls of mikes into his mouth before chanting in a dreadful "voice of God" manner. It all floundered to a halt without the seemingly inevitable rise in volume that most of us had expected. Even after he was called back for an encore, Dilloway refused to allow the volume to run away again (to his credit), but unfortunately the uninspiring featureless sludge we were left with barely made it above the embarrassing.
The final night opened with the only entirely acoustic set of the festival: the percussion trio of Jeph Jerman, Tim Barnes and Sean Meehan. Three highly sensitive percussionists working in very different ways to create a finely constructed improvisation of immense poise and sophistication. Jerman dropped his natural objects for a small drum that he set about caressing with remarkable dexterity using his hand and a small vibrating motor; Barnes focussed on tiny metallic sounds, often based around a tiny bell-like object, and Meehan filled in the gaps with his subtle dowel tones. What really made this set was the level of sensitivity and egoless interplay. It was one of the few performances of the festival that was solid from start to finish and did not overstay its welcome. I'd very much like to see it appear as a CD release.
Outside of Cosmos I have never been fully impressed by Ami Yoshida as an effective group improviser, but her performance with Christof Kurzmann was the most convincing I have heard yet. She proved to be far more versatile than she was in the Cosmos set the day before, swooping and gurgling her way through the doodles and squiggles blurting their way from Kurzmann's lloopp software. My problem was that I just didn't enjoy Kurzmann's sounds. His input had a cheesy feel to it, a Carl Stalling-like playfulness that broke with expected traditions. It obviously involved a great deal of skill, but I found it hard to enjoy. At one point a series of loud bass drum thuds seemed to herald the end of the set as Ami ground to a halt, but things picked up again until an odd finale, where Yoshida stood in a motionless trance for several minutes after a bemused Kurzmann had finished playing. A brew full of strong moments, but not really my cup of tea.
The combination of Sachiko M and the epileptic electronics of English was one of Erstquake's most intriguing matches. Questions about how it would work were partially answered by Joe Foster's decision to play acoustic, focussing on blowing through the trumpet mouthpiece onto a single drumset (photo, left) to create a hovering vibration which he altered by shifting position or by switching from the drum to a small bowl wrapped in a taut balloon. The delicacy of his sounds complemented a restrained Bonnie Jones, whose fractured blasts of noise punctuated Sachiko's pure tones, leaving space in the sound for the trumpet work to shine through. This set showed great promise from the start and English drew Sachiko slowly towards them, until around halfway through when a sudden eruption of clicks and pops from her empty sampler were met with a rough edged hiss from Jones and rasping harshness from Foster, in one of the festival's most vivid moments. If the set could be faulted it would be for its overly long closing sequence; an earlier break in the music could have been used to bring things to a halt. But this is a minor niggle in what was overall a powerful set.
Phill Niblock isn't known for his collaborative improvisations, so it was no real surprise that his approach to performing with Jason Lescalleet was less of a duo, more of a conceptual partnership. Niblock began alone, sitting offstage playing a series of pre-recorded drone based pieces through a simple mixer and at high volume. A rich, warm flood of sound made up the main element of the music, a typically opaque Niblock wash that was then blended (somewhat clumsily to my ears) into a series of running water sounds, other field recordings and more abstract sources. After twenty minutes or so Lescalleet got up from his chair and set about his arsenal of instrumentation strewn across the stage. A laptop, several old Casio sampling keyboards and a mountain of ageing reel-to-reel tape decks provided a myriad of possibilities, and it was soon difficult to ascertain what sound came from where. Initially he recorded or sampled Niblock's output, extracts of which reappeared throughout the performance, before delving deep into the droning morass to add a thick, growling resonance to Niblock's cleaner lines. Lescalleet works as a constructivist, taking simple blocks of sound and building them up into a towering structure, and this was especially evident tonight. Watching him go about his work was inspirational. By the time Niblock had stopped playing about ten minutes later his absence was barely noticed, as Lescalleet crawled about his audio playground in a heaving mass of noise. On a very basic level this harsh mass wasn't that different from what Dilloway and Marhaug created two days earlier, but its detailed approach and careful construction were considerably more satisfying. The set ended with Lescalleet manually disrupting one of the tape reels to bring proceedings to a crashing halt while the original, now slightly degraded, water sounds trickled away in the background. Great stuff.
That's where the festival should have ended. The final duo by Jazkamer (Lasse Marhaug and John Hegre) produced a set lacking in any focus or direction, an aimless, energy fuelled heap of wildly twisted dials and runaway power electronics. It was loud enough to clear half of the exhausted room to the lobby, but the volume was not the problem. I have no idea how much control Marhaug and Hegre had over the resulting music – they barely looked at their equipment as they wrenched it about – but it suffered from a complete lack of depth and substance, consisting of little more than a scrambled screeching mess of sound. As it came to an end my escape from the hall was rapid.
As most of the audience headed back home to their particular corners of the world I made my weary way back to Brooklyn the following evening for a final show. Houndstooth, the venue, turned out to be a charming little menswear shop in which merchandise was pushed to the sides to create a space big enough for maybe thirty people. Once Kai Fagaschinski (photo, right) could be prised away from trying on trilby hats his Kommando Raumschiff Zitrone duo with Christof Kurzmann set about playing a set to launch their CD First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, recently released on the Quincunx label. In the intimate proximity of the room the slow, dreamy abstractions the duo produced wafted out into the noisy city. Some of the swaying decentred sounds from First Time reappeared, eliciting new responses from Kai ranging from dry fluttery whispers to icy high register blasts. Near the end of the piece a barely recognisable piano snippet evolved into a recording of Elvis Costello's version of the Charles Aznavour ballad "She" which slowly built in volume until it was all that remained, blasting out in orchestral majesty as the musicians departed the stage area. It was a relaxing, lighthearted and highly enjoyable paean to the pop song that proved a perfect partner to the CD in question.
There was one more performance, and it was quite simply stunning. Radu Malfatti played a rare completely improvised set with Klaus Filip made up of only the bare essentials. Malfatti sat relaxed in an old 50s-style armchair, conjuring extended tones from his trombone that often just escaped into audibility, each separated by lengthy gaps into which Filip placed equally careful and well chosen laptop tones. The noise seeping into the tiny venue played a big part in the music. It seemed to annoy Malfatti from time to time, but also created the perfect backdrop for the softly developing music. Malfatti tapped his finger slowly on the edge of his bell in an almost metronomic manner, making a sound so quiet it may have been out of the reach of those at the back of the room. This was sublime, wonderfully thoughtful music in a superb setting. I only wish that it had come earlier in my trip as my ability to listen with the necessary focus was limited at this point, but I enjoyed this as much as anything else at Erstquake. Riding the subway home that night it occurred to me that it was fitting that after a festival curated so that each night ended with music of extreme volume, the last music I saw in New York should be something exceptionally quiet.
My overall feelings about the festival are that it was a huge success, even if very few of the musicians strayed beyond their safety zones, and this year's focus on more established groups made a certain level of predictability inevitable. I attended with open ears and an open mind. I may not have connected with all of the performances, but the aim of the festival was never to appeal to all. One of the most invigorating and enjoyable elements of Erstquake is the social interaction between fans of this music, and discussions before during and after the festival. While I struggled to hear much of merit in some of the noisier sets, others found them inspirational for completely different reasons. It's precisely this mix of tastes, reactions and values that makes for a good festival. Whether or not Erstquake will happen again next year has yet to be confirmed, but as a model for how an intriguing and exciting festival should be put together, this 2006 edition provided the perfect blueprint.–RP

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Strotter Inst.
Strotter Inst.
Galérie Joëlle Possémé, Paris
September 14th 2006
The term kanalstrotter refers to the urban poor of pre-World War II Vienna who eked out an existence by dredging the canals of the Danube for whatever they could find, often discarded animal fat which they then sold on to soap manufacturers. It was a harsh existence, and it's a harsh image, but an appropriate metaphor for the work of Swiss turntablist Christoph Hess, aka Strotter Inst. "As [the Strotter] were standing on the edge of society, today Strotter Inst. stands on the edge of art and music, working with stuff thrown away by others", proclaims Hess's website manifesto (go to:
That "inst." also "stands on the edge of art and music", being an abbreviation for both instrument and installation, and the visual aspect of Hess's performance is as important as the extraordinary sounds he conjures forth from his customised dubplates and Goldring Lenco turntables. These are carefully mounted on metal stands specially adapted so that large elastic bands can be stretched across them and plucked by objects whizzing around underneath. The pick-ups – often prepared with needles and string – are placed gently on the elastic bands suspended above the turntable, and amplify the passing twangs. It sounds as good as it looks.
"The optical comprehension of how the sound is generated gets more and more important," Hess writes. "The turntable gets the honour, not the DJ." Strotter Inst. music is about recycling, but recycling objects themselves, not other people's music. An old sound effects disc sits on a low table in the corner of the Galérie Joëlle Possémé in Paris where Hess is performing to accompany the opening of an exhibition of paintings by Heini Bürkli (a relation, as it turns out), but it's only a bit player in Strotter Inst.'s cast of characters.
A Strotter Inst. performance is no haphazard affair; it's carefully calibrated to suit the acoustics of the performing space, and scripted in the form of a rough written score Hess uses to cue up his various discs. The signals from the turntables are fed into a mixing desk and the loops, drones, rumbles, cracks and clicks are meticulously crafted into a coherent and powerful 45-minute span of music. Hess's concept of turntable-as-instrument might recall the work of performers like Martin Tetréault, Otomo Yoshihide and Ferran Fages, but the music he makes with them is closer to the world of Philip Jeck – the accent here is more on composition than improvisation.
Hess began activities as Strotter Inst. in 1998, and his debut album, appropriately enough a handsome 180g vinyl entitled Schlepper, appeared on Bauer im Anzug Produktion in 2001. For his first CD release, Monstranz (same imprint, 2004), Hess decided to cross "the bridge between the archaic and the contemporary" in an amusingly original way: the album's first track is embossed in the digipak itself and only playable on a turntable. And, looking to the future, the last track is only available as a download from the net. The remaining eleven pieces are arranged around the central 33-minute long eighth track, a drop-dead masterpiece of phase-shifting loops that anyone who knows and loves the music of Steve Reich simply cannot afford to pass by.
In addition to his solo work Christoph Hess also performs with the intriguingly entitled Herpes ö Deluxe (check out 2003's Havarie on Everest for some jaw-dropping electronica complete with soundbites from Werner Herzog and Alice in Wonderland), and more recently, Strotter Inst.'s work has popped up on the RLW I.K.K. - Purpur album on Sirr (which is where I first heard about him) and on a 7" entitled Anna ( Each side of this disc contains two tracks, and each ends in the same locked groove: one track plays from the centre of the disc outwards. It's typical of Hess's uncompromising approach to his work: a Strotter Inst. production is a unique and precious document, and the creativity doesn't stop when the musician hands over the master to the pressing plant. If Christoph Hess happens to be dredging the fat out of your local canal, make sure you go along to see him do it (watch out for those mousetraps though) – meanwhile get hold of his discs before it's too late.–DW

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In Print
James L. McHard
Iconic Press
You're asking for trouble writing a book called The Future of Modern Music. Books three times the length of this one have been written on just one of the many composers featured here (and we're only talking composers, too: if you're expecting any discussion of what the future of modern music is really about, i.e. the extraordinary revolution taking place in the domain of technology, the explosion of electronic music in all its forms, the evolution of the recording industry and the rise to prominence of just about every type of music which can't be accurately described as "composition", you're going to be disappointed). Trying to deal with figures of central importance – Janacek (odd that a book published in the 21st century should kick off with a composer born halfway through the 19th), Debussy, Mahler, Ravel, Malipiero, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Bartók, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and Varèse – in a mere 107 pages inevitably involves such a degree of dumbing down it's almost laughable. But James McHard isn't out to address the academic community, despite his claims to the contrary: "I offer these words and insights primarily to you, the concertgoer, as a means for discovering new treasures of sound. However, ancillary value can be obtained, as well, by the interested professional, especially by those forward-minded professors and teachers; their students; and, of course, the composers themselves who are in search of new means by which to reinvigorate their arsenal of musical materials." A pious wish. "Missing are the terms pregnant with the mechanical gyrations that are so much a part of the musical jargon of the past modernism," he goes on. In other words, don't expect any music theory, because you won't get any. McHard is probably justified in having a go at the "sandbox entertainment" of erudite publications like Perspectives of New Music, but in choosing not to provide even the briefest layman-friendly definition of Schoenbergian dodecaphony, it's impossible for him to back up statements like "[Schoenberg's] best and most expressive works are the pre-serial, freely atonal ones, from the 19-teens", a position I happen to agree with but one that requires careful analytical underpinning.

It's clear McHard has little time for serialism, but his definition of "sound-based music", which he posits as an escape route from Darmstadt's dead-end street, is unfortunately vague to the point of incoherence: "This is music that is created by the manipulation and transformation of raw sound materials from one characteristic state to another. It focuses on the qualities inherent in sound; i.e. composition focused solely on natural phenomena that access the very doorways to comprehension by the ear and the mind." The problem with such a term – excluding for the moment the bizarre, almost insulting notion that serial music is not "sound-based" (I wonder what Schoenberg, Webern, Stravinsky, Boulez, Dallapiccola and Wolpe would have said to that) – is that it encompasses a truly bewildering number of extremely different musics. You know what McHard is trying to get at – he's championing those composers who write "by ear", trusting their own intuition rather than letting themselves be guided by the dogma of that or that -ism – but a "category" that includes composers as radically different in philosophy and approach as Cage, Scelsi and Xenakis (to name but three) is problematic indeed.
This, combined with glib recycling of well-worn clichés, becomes rapidly annoying. "Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun saw the dawn of an intuitively sound-based music. Debussy consolidated his musical experiences and created an exotic, dreamlike world of sound. Harmony was stripped of its functionality, as sounds rolled through vague patterns. Colors emerged in shifting patterns. There was scant concern over next-ness; that is, over whether there ought to be a 'B', now that an 'A' had made its appearance." One might wish to excuse McHard for not having read extensively on the subject – if he really wants to discover the functionality of Debussy's harmony he could start with Robin Holloway's Debussy and Wagner [Eulenberg, 1979] – but any freshman musicology student with a copy of the score and pair of ears can very easily produce an analysis of the piece that would refute such fatuous nonsense. For a more professional job, check out William Austin's analysis of the work in the Norton Critical Scores edition (1970).

McHard's "Historical time-line chart of the development of sound-based compositions", which begins with Debussy and ends with Julio Estrada and Gerard Pape (McHard studied with both, so he's not surprisingly keen to write nice things about them) is so nebulous and sectarian it's basically useless. Where are Ligeti, Cerha, Penderecki, Grisey and Murail, "sound-based" composers if ever there were such a thing? Answer: tucked away in an appendix entitled "Additional Composers". This is a veritable tour de force in which McHard manages to "deal with" Hartmann, Prokofiev, Roussel, Honegger, Orbón, Leifs, de Falla, Toch, Eisler, Markevitch, Schnabel, Skalkottas, Revueltas, Lilburn, Saygun, Kamran Ince (hey, my old college room-mate!), Hába, Cowell, Nancarrow, Partch, Antheil, Russolo, Ligeti, Kurtág, Berio, Maderna, Pousseur, Goeyvaerts, Penderecki, Górecki, Crumb, Takemitsu, Dutilleux, Barraqué, Barbaud, Bussotti, Schnebel, Kagel, Evangelisti, Clementi, Donatoni, Henze, B.A. Zimmermann, Cerha, Koenig,Terterian, Ustvolskaya, Rihm, Grisey, Murail, Dufourt, Neuwirth, Lachenmann, Sciarrino, Scodanibbio, Hoffman-Richter, Feldman, Brown, Wolff, Tudor, Young, Oliveros, Scavarda, Cacioppo, Wise, Sheff, Reynolds, Ashley, Mumma, Lucier, Behrman, Yasunao Tone, Toshiya Tsunoda and Otomo Yoshihide (misspelt to boot) in THIRTY-TWO pages. Quite why he should have chosen to include someone like Heinz Hoffman-Richter (try Googling that and see what you dredge up) while mentioning seminal figures like Pierre Schaeffer and Steve Reich just once (and not mentioning Luc Ferrari and Terry Riley at all) is as bizarre as it is inexcusable.
But the more "extended" features – the author calls them "analyses" but they're not – are sadly just as full of asinine platitudes. Each of these composer profiles consists of a brief biographical sketch (sketchy biographical brief, rather) entitled "His Life" – they're all men, these composers, by the way – and an attempt to summarize "His Style". There follows a list of "His Major Works", which are neither dated nor listed in chronological order. Instead of doing the job properly and employing correct and detailed footnotes (too reminiscent of Perspectives of New Music, perhaps?), McHard has the annoying habit of sticking in bracketed references to works included in the (far from) "Complete Biography" he provides at the end of the book.

Throughout it all, McHard comes across as a nice chap, and his heart's obviously the right place, but such sloppiness tends to sap your enthusiasm. Vulgarisation is one thing – and I'm all in favour of trying to present complex notions of music theory in a way that the layman might understand (most folk could, for example, easily handle the basics of set theory) – but inaccuracy like the following just will not do: "As though to confound his critics and admirers alike, Stravinsky did one more stylistic about-face. In the early 1950s – significantly, after Schönberg's death – he adopted serialism, a device he had deplored (much as he deplored its founder, Schönberg). Although, the particular brand of serialism Stravinsky used was based more on Webern's system, with its canonic counterpoint, than on Schönberg's. Retaining his characteristic austerity, Stravinsky wrote many works in this style, most notably his Agon (1953) ballet with orchestra." Agon was started in 1953 but not completed until 1957, and only its central section is serial. McHard, not being a fan of Perspectives-style "technical musicology", is presumably not aware of Stravinsky's use of rotational arrays (Boulez is the influence here, not Webern) and would have done well to sit down with a copy of the Huxley Variations and the Requiem Canticles before committing himself to print. Perhaps the most perplexing thing of all about this obviously well-intentioned but frustrating book is the fact that two musicians of considerable stature – Estrada and Pape – should have given it their blessing. They really should have known better, for I seriously doubt that any "forward-minded professors and teachers" either now or in years to come will wish to include The Future of Modern Music on their library shelves. I'm afraid I won't let it anywhere near my coffee table.–DW

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In Concert
György Kurtág’s 80th Birthday Celebration
London Wigmore Hall
September 20th, 2006
In the year that British composer-pianist Thomas Adès (photo, left) has turned 35, his former teacher, the Hungarian composer-pianist György Kurtág (photo, below right), has turned 80. This birthday celebration for Kurtág, devised by Adès for the Wigmore Hall, therefore offered an opportunity for Adès to pitch his wits against the master miniaturist’s, and, surprisingly, the younger man emerged unscathed.
Adès’s music making has been criticized for being too facile, too white – in other words, complacent. Yet the refinement of both his piano playing and his compositions suggest otherwise. It is true that his talent is usually confined to the comic, lyric and conservative and rarely ventures into the tragic, epic or radical, but he has found a niche that, for all its pastiche of older forms, is genuinely idiosyncratic and sometimes profoundly sorrowful.
Perhaps Adès’s most affecting performance of the evening in this respect was of the opening piece, Kurtág’s Three Old Inscriptions (1986-7), performed in near darkness. Soprano Valdine Anderson captured the elusive vulnerability of the first inscription, an epitaph for a flower darkened by shifting microtonal shades. Accompanying her at the piano, Adès ruthlessly eliminated all exaggerated gestures and achieved a quiet menace, especially in the counterpoint he brought to the deep basses of the second piece (a bridegroom’s doodles in the stocks after a fight over his wife). The third was another angular little Schubertian epitaph, with a tortured “rest gently in peace” at the end.
The lights went up in the hall in time for Einige Sätze aus den Sudelbüchern Georg Christoph Lichtenbergs, a Kurtág song cycle consisting of 22 tiny aphorisms by the Swiss writer Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, a near-contemporary of Schubert’s. This time, Anderson was accompanied by double bassist Corin Long instead of Adès. Many of these miniatures consist of a surreal throwaway comment (e.g. “a soporific church chair”) followed by a long drawn-out yawn, but the concentration required to execute them is deceptive. If anything, Anderson overdid it a little, saving too little energy for the other song cycle in the program. Long was most effective in the sections where the double bass imitates an orchestra, much like the orchestral effects Kurtág’s fellow Hungarian Franz Liszt achieved on the piano. In “Prayer”, he mimicked the improvisation of ritual drumming, and in “Touropa” he hit the back of the strings with his bow, harking back to the makeshift military bands that might have been employed by the Goths and the Vandals described in the aphorism.
The first half ended with a performance of Adès’s Arcadiana (1994) by Kurtág’s former students, the Keller Quartet. The form of this seven-movement string quartet inevitably recalls late Beethoven – the sixth movement, O Albion, is almost a parody of the Cavatina in Beethoven’s Op. 130 – although Adès wrote it back in his early twenties. The underlying theme of the quartet is, like most of the concert, a little closer to Schubert: that one can only find one’s bliss, or Arcadia, in death. First violinist András Keller played the opening melody of the first movement, "Venezia notturno", at a ghostly distance from the rocking gondola imitated by the rest of the quartet, bringing it closer and closer until the movement stopped abruptly, like the sweet grapes held out to Tantalus in Hell, only to be pulled away at the last moment. The second movement is, like the sixth, a parody of a Viennese Arcadia, although with Mozart as the precedent. All the even-numbered movements are related to land, and all the odd-numbered ones to water – the third is a drugged-up party version of Schubert’s Auf dem Wasser zu singen (a trend Adès continued with his Rite of Spring pastiche in Asyla), the seventh is named “Lethe” after the river in the Greek underworld, and the fifth, "L’Embarquement", is the second of two references to French painting (in this case, Watteau’s L’Embarquement à Cythère), the first being the fourth movement, which refers not only to Poussin’s Et in Arcadia but also what Adès describes as a “tango mortale” from Bizet’s Carmen.
The second half proceeded along similar lines – the Keller Quartet, spread around the auditorium and joined by Long and violinist Krzysztof Chorzelski, opened it with the straightforward “Doodles” from Signs, Games and Messages (1989-97), followed by Adès’s edgy solo piano rendition of a little Prelude and Chorale from Játékok, or “Children’s Games” (1975). Then Valdine Anderson launched into another exhausting 20-item song cycle, the Attila József Fragments (1981). These unaccompanied “snapshots of desperation”, as Adès was later to describe his Billie Holiday parody, Life Story, are, like Schubert’s Winterreise, stripped to their saddest and barest particles, a musical equivalent of the tiny poems Kurtág’s Eastern European contemporary Paul Celan wrote soon before committing suicide. This gruelling programming stretched Anderson’s endurance, which had the perverse advantage of underscoring the world-weariness of lines like “The water thickens, swelling into ice [appropriately, she thinned her tone on “ice”], and my sins gather into death."
The evening concluded with another quartet and another early piece by Adès. Kurtág’s Six Moments Musicaux for string quartet (2005), a reference to the Schubert piano pieces of the same name, were mournful and ferocious by turn, handled with a remarkable variety of texture by the Keller Quartet. The birdsong of the whimsical fifth piece, an etude for harmonics entitled “À Tabea Zimmermann…Rappel des Oiseaux”, would have had Messiaen in raptures, before the ghosts of the Germanic tradition return in the fading funeral march at the end of the sixth. Appropriately enough, this prefaced the final contribution, Adès’s Five Eliot Landscapes for soprano and piano (1990), which demonstrate how influenced Adès’s piano writing was at the time by Messiaen (the third, “Usk”, begins like the second of the Vingt Regards and the final “Cap Ann” is even subtitled “Hommage à Messiaen”), and Ravel (the second, “Virginia”, is reminiscent of Gaspard de la nuit). What is remarkable is that Adès manages to throw in enough dramatic quirks to convince you that there is an original voice behind this without venturing beyond stylistic parody. As a result, the Five Eliot Landscapes are a party piece of the utmost solemnity, and Anderson and Adès gave them a suitable send-off.

Wolfgang Rihm – Kalt, Chiffre I, In Frage
London, Queen Elizabeth Hall
October 5th 2006
Wolfgang Rihm (photo, left) could not be described as one of London’s favorite composers, but it seems like his considerable “retro” reputation on the Continent and particularly in his native Germany is winning him some space in the chamber music programs at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. In February, the Alban Berg Quartet will be dropping in to perform Grave, Rihm’s homage to their late violist Thomas Kakuska, and members of the Philharmonia plugged the gap on October 5th with a versatile concert consisting of Kalt (1989-91), Chiffre I (1982-3) and In Frage (2000) as part of the orchestra’s “Music of Today” series introduced by British composer Julian Anderson (watch this space for an interview with Anderson).
Both Kalt and In Frage were UK premières, and both more than confirmed Rihm’s celebrated range and formal skill. In Kalt, or “Cold”, hoarse, wintry breaths slither across the viola, cello and double bass, before an oboe and a cor anglais play a single note back to one another, building faster and louder until the three strings and other instruments (piano, trombone and percussion) join a new dialogue, which disappears in a receding series of unaccompanied drum beats ending in widely-spaced strokes of fresh force and savagery. The sustained notes on the woodwinds and the clipped notes on the drums made the silence around them resound differently, the former imitating a bare, biting wind, the latter a frozen, open stillness.
In Frage, the third and last piece in the programme, continued the trend: a static drama reminiscent of the first part of Boulez’s Pli Selon Pli, it opens with a series of echoing piano chords that might have been torn straight from a late Scriabin sonata, followed by a chant and a deadlocked instrumental dialogue (for clarinet, bass clarinet, cello, double bass, percussion, harp and piano this time) that give equal weight to each instrument’s signature figuration before a quavering, practically unaccompanied viola melody leads the participants off into silence (violist Rebecca Chambers stole the show after some outstanding ensemble work in all three pieces, notably from conductor André de Ridder). Both pieces displayed Rihm’s ability, reminiscent of Greek tragedy, to generate stark drama from alternating conversation with monologue. (Not surprisingly, Rihm has written an opera based on the version of Oedipus by pre-eminent post-war German playwright Heiner Müller).
Chiffre I, the second item, was a boogie by comparison, bearing more resemblance perhaps to Prokofiev than any other composer. Pianist Sarah Nicolls cracked the whip in an unusual instrumental ensemble (also including clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, two cellos and double bass), chasing what Rihm self-deprecatingly described as the piece’s "enigmatic, sketchy art." It's a comment one does not readily associate with a musical dramatist as self-aware as he is.–NR

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On Kranky
Chihei Hatakeyama

Keith Fullerton Whitman

Bird Show

Gregg Kowalsky

Jessica Bailiff

Benoît Pioulard

Boduf Songs

Chris Herbert

Christina Carter
I've always been intrigued by the Kranky label. The Chicago-based imprint started in the mid 1990s, when underground independent labels were experiencing boom time via the resurgence of the 7" format and the serious beginnings of indie rock/pop's dalliance with experimental music (Sonic Youth notwithstanding). Shacking up with the post-rock phenomenon, Kranky released some of the movement's defining sides - Labradford's A Stable Reference, Jessamine's The Long Arm of Coincidence and Stars of the Lid's The Ballasted Orchestra – and early on they also championed the out sound of New Zealand, releasing music by Roy Montgomery, Dadamah and Flies Inside the Sun. I doubt I'd be alone in saying, though, that until recently, largely thanks to their signing Dean Roberts and Charalambides, I'd felt Kranky were a bit behind the eight-ball, releasing discs of sweetly polished "sublime", mostly quite pleasant but often lacking edge.
Kranky strikes me as the American 4AD: there's always been a definable sound that unites the bulk of the label's releases, and their artwork shares a vaguely similar aesthetic, though thankfully they've not employed an in-house design team to out-perform the label itself. A while ago, one of Kranky's founders revealed their fondness for the ECM label, and though this conjures up images of wallpaper-music hell, it's worth remembering that ECM's early catalogue was relatively forward-thinking (Art Ensemble, Keith Jarrett, Charlie Haden etc). ECM also occasionally deign to step outside of their comfort zone, as with Herbert's recent remixes of Nils Petter Molvaer – a move that maps (albeit a bit uncomfortably) onto Kranky signing dance-rock outfit Out Hud.
Ultimately, though, Kranky appear most comfortable moving through the possibilities of post-post-rock Ambient/texturology, with recent releases by Chris Herbert and Loscil, for example, among the label's best. When they move into pop/song territory they're nowhere near as decisive, and some of their signings in this field have been problematic. But given they've provided both Charalambides and Dean Roberts/Autistic Daughters with a good home, and their aesthetic radar has obviously become more finely tuned.

Recently Kranky have been navigating similar territory to German label Kompakt and their Pop Ambient series: indeed, any piece from Chihei Hatakeyama's debut disc Minima Moralia could have fallen from one of the annual Kompakt Pop Ambient compilations. Based in Tokyo, and performing in the Opitope duo with Tomoyoshi Date (with whom he also runs the Kualauk Table label), Hatakeyama produces music that floats in that non-space between seductive, grainy ambience and pellucid New Age mannerism. By trickling tiny string-streams of acoustic guitar into these reflective puddles of non-demanding sound, Hatakeyama risks devolving to folktronica. However, while Minima Moralia shares an auralessness peculiar to so much 21st century drone-dream construction, Hatakeyama's light touch allows for more breathing space than usual, resulting in music content to eddy and swirl away in a backwater of its own design.

Keith Fullerton Whitman's Lisbon documents a live performance from said city that took place on October 4th, 2005. To this point, my fondest memories of Whitman's music involved his Amen break mastication on Hrvatski's Oiseaux 96-98. Subsequent releases have seen him absorbing the internals of guitars, computers and the Sonic Arts Union with varying degrees of success and/or failure, with Lisbon his strongest solo recording yet. It starts with pure-tone post-Lucier hum, but quickly detours through many fields of glistening and drowsy computer love. Whitman's editing hand is extremely decisive even in the live context, allowing buzzing, angelic noise to reach a heady plateau several times, only to slice off limbs in exacting fashion. Another great reconfiguring of the digital-guitarrorist interface.

Lightning Ghost is Ben Vida aka Bird Show's second shot at his own private Ethnomusicological Forgery Series. Some may know Vida from his time in Town & Country and Pillow, or perhaps the earlier Bird Show album Green Inferno. I've always really liked the idea of Bird Show – chants built from repeating cells of vaguely Occidental percussion, flecks of Juju guitar and the scour and hum of undefined wind instruments – even if the actual outcome doesn't always live up to expectations. The main obstacle is the multitracked vocals, which start to sound a bit nasal and whiny, close to that babbling little shit from the Microphones. The lack of energy neuters songs like "Field on Water", but Lightning Ghost takes off midway through with the suite-like structure of the extended title track and the fog-wise melody of "Greet the Morning"; and there's certainly something charming and very open about the whole affair. But I'd love to hear Vida explore these ideas in a more adroitly psychedelic and instrumental manner.

Gregg Kowalsky has performed for several years under the Osso Bucco nom-de-plume and studied at Mills College. Through the Cardial Window returns us to Kranky's fascination with modern dronology, and this disc is one of their more successful forays into the field, shifting between dense and heavy scorings for refrigerator hum tonalities ("Gara Note") and glittering starlit buzz ("Long Distance Decade"). Kowalsky's academic background comes into play on the closing "Tangents (guitar pickup)", which feeds recordings of the Mills Ensemble through an acoustic guitar pickup, but it's balanced with "Into the Marshes They Drove Me", which sources material from the decidedly non-conservatorium faux-metal group Isis. Kowalsky's compositions are sturdy and they can fill or gingerly tint the room – though Through the Cardial Window actually functions best in the latter context. And if you assume that's the album's primary purpose, to lambaste its non-demonstrativeness would involve accusing it of crimes it never intended to commit. I guess.

Jessica Bailiff's first few albums for Kranky drenched her fragile songwriting in waves of post-flying saucer attack distortion, a relationship consummated by her Clear Horizon collaboration with fsa's David Pearce. Feels Like Home presents Bailiff's songs in denuded form, and the gentle dappling of reverb around acoustic guitar and voice, coupled with Bailiff's faux-frail delivery, reminds me of the first few His Name Is Alive albums for 4AD. No surprise, then, to find HNIA's Warren Defever credited with "silverizing" (me neither) in the liner notes. If you enjoy music of such deliberation you might get something out of Feels Like Home, but stripping the thick layers of paint from Bailiff's production leaves me wondering whether her songs were always so slight and precious.

A similar problem befalls Benoît Pioulard aka Thomas Meluch's debut for Kranky, Précis. There are a few charming songs on the album – "Ash Into the Sky" and "Together & Down" are both gorgeous, lambent ghost-melodies – but too often, Précis is simple indie pop given a surface-level glaze of quote-unquote mystery, with perfunctory songs strummed on acoustic guitar and subsequently drizzled with enough effects-pedal or tape-deck "atmosphere" to register as slightly Other. While not unpleasant, it struggles to define its own space within an overpopulated genre. The debut Boduf Songs album, Lion Devours the Sun, bears a similar relationship to folk music, regardless of how much Southampton, England's Mathew Sweet protests otherwise. The constant pluck of a dampened acoustic guitar, coupled with Sweet's half-whispered vocals, signifies neo-folk construction and the textural touches rarely lift the songs, acting as stopgaps or, at best, painterly interludes. I suspect Sweet has it in him to make a great record, but this ain't it.

Also from England – Birmingham this time – is Chris Herbert, whose debut Mezzotint is the secret jewel in Kranky's 2006 crown. Herbert's gritty, post-Gas/Voigt texturology moves far beyond the terrain traversed by ten-a-penny Ambient dunderheads, and though it shares space with the Hatakeyama and Kowalsky discs, Herbert's pieces are both the most natural and most effortlessly exploratory. The cover says it all: pure grain and pattern, no images or symbolism, and the music is, in one sense, curiously devoid of representational faculty; yet it's also very eloquent and often rather moving, especially when sad, churchy organ tones rise and fall through the latter half of the album. Most music of this persuasion, unable to escape the curse of "faceless ambient dreck", mistakes the repetition of one tendency for the exploration of a pre-proposed idea. Herbert, by contrast, grabs the natural dialect of Ambient and makes it work simultaneously due to and yet somehow beyond cliché. A very circular way of saying that this is excellent sound work, effortlessly done.

I suspect a few people were thrown by the relative accessibility of the Charalambides' recent album A Vintage Burden; after the rhapsodic freefall of their mammoth Joy Shapes, it certainly felt like a bit of a regroup and rethink. (With Heather Leigh Murray now devoting her time to the excellent Taurpis Tula trio she shares with David Keenan and Alexander Neilsen, A Vintage Burden saw Charalambides return to duo format for a relatively straight-laced set of devotionals.) Christina Carter's Electrice also surprises. Carter sets strict parameters for aspects of the project, with everything in the same key and guitar tuning, all coated in a slightly sickly glaze of digital reverb/delay. I'll cop to being fonder of Carter's unadorned, punk-primitive sides like Living Contact or her recent astonishing acapella CD-R I Am All the Same Song, but Electrice reveals itself hesitantly, its initially unyielding and monomaniacal quality slowly disrobing to reveal yet another complex set of cellular, crepuscular (non-)songs from Carter's gilded pen. When viewed as a whole, her music is in a constant state of flux, each release slowly unveiling different aspects of the same thing. The ever changing same? Hey, don't sweat it. If it worked for Jandek..–JD

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From Canada
Michael Keith / John Oswald / Roger Turner
Rob Clutton
Phil Nimmons / David Braid
Lisa Miller
Green Ideas
Drip Audio
François Houle
Drip Audio
Jesse Zubot
Drip Audio
Fond of Tigers
Drip Audio
Toronto’s free jazz and improv scene has historically been hardy but small and uneven in quality, despite the presence of institutions like CCMC, the city’s worthy if hit-and-miss answer to AMM and MEV. One encouraging development in recent years has been AIMT, the Association of Improvising Musicians of Toronto, which focusses on bringing out-of-town musicians to Toronto for workshops and collaborations. Number Nine is the result of one such collaboration, a meeting between British percussionist Roger Turner and two Torontonians, the guitarist Michael Keith and CCMC’s resident saxophonist John Oswald. The trio’s music is strongly reminiscent of classic British free improv at its most ragged and gritty. Keith clearly knows his Bailey and Russell, but also draws on his blues-rock background – at one point he even manages to pull off what can only be described as a free-improvised trucking song. John Oswald is most famous for his plunderphonics work, but he was playing free-improv alto sax long before he gave Michael Jackson a sex-change. He’s a staunchly non-virtuosic player, a valid approach but one that places serious demands on an improviser’s ear and powers of invention. Oswald’s scattershot abrasiveness rarely gets that far, unforunately, and while it’s entertaining in small doses it definitely wears thin across an entire CD. Turner isn’t as insanely inventive here as on his records with Phil Minton, but he does find useful ways of interacting with Oswald, treating him almost as a second percussionist. Nothing on the CD is going to knock your socks off, but the music still keeps the synapses twitching pleasantly, and Keith is a name to watch out for in future.

Bassist Rob Clutton is a member of countless Toronto ensembles, most often working with the trumpeter Lina Allemano and the guitarist Tim Posgate. Dubious Pleasures is a solo bass recital, a genre that Clutton handles with the requisite virtuosity when needed but without making too big a deal about it. “How Big Are the Dots” is the key track, a virtuoso exercise in real-time sound-morphing that can also be heard as a whimsical portrait of neurosis. It begins with a fearful, stunted elegy that emerges from a seething subterranean world of scrapes and grumbles then melts into eel-like squiggles. Eventually the piece reaches an unsteady lyrical plateau, before breaking up into hysterics and finally sinking back into the lower depths. This mode of surreal musical narrative is where Clutton tends to be most impressive – another example is the briefer “Taken Over by the Hounds of Reason” (another great title, too!). Most of the other tracks on the album, though, are rather different, offering a series of near-static exercises in style. This approach works well on shorter tracks, but less so on the album’s longest piece, the (excuse the pun) decidedly stagnant “Pond”. Forget about that track, and the rest of the disc sounds just dandy. The recording is good, too, and catches some amusing background noise, including bird-chirps and a disconcerting chorus of stomach-growls.

Clarinettist Phil Nimmons is a much-decorated veteran of the Canadian jazz scene, while David Braid is a young Toronto jazz pianist who’s mostly known as an up-and-coming mainstreamer. Beginnings was recorded as part of a classical music concert series, and perhaps the occasion set them free to disregard genre expectations: surprisingly, it sounds like the audience responded warmly to this handsome but sometimes thorny set of free improvisations. Song-form isn’t neglected, though: some pieces draw on familiar forms, such as “Eeh”, a bouncy truncated blues in the manner of Paul Bley’s “Figfoot”. In other pieces they invent new tunes on the spot: “Cee,” for instance, is a cross between “Peace Piece” and one of Mingus’s Ellingtonesque rhapsodies, while “Ayy” is a pastorale that any Impressionist composer would have been happy to put his name to. Best of all though is “Eff”, a late-Romantic whirl of tremulous emotions and dramatically changing harmonies. Even the Cecil Taylorish tempests of “Dee” are handled with a traditional sense of theme and variations, developing fluently out of a little bumblebee phrase. Minor recording flaws are noticeable on the first two tracks, but nothing too irritating, and the music itself is refreshingly uncategorizable. Pity about those track titles, though.

Vancouver has a much more feted avant-garde jazz scene than Toronto, and it’s also a busy crossroads for players from the US and Europe. West Coast pianist Lisa Miller’s Q, for instance, sounds like the work of players in close and extended contact with the US and European scenes; drummer Dylan van der Schyff in particular shows a fine grasp of everything from jittery Euro-style free-play to tricksy modern jazz drumming. Miller’s band is tight and well-balanced – as well it should be, since the quartet pairs two married couples: herself and bassist Sean Smith, and van der Schyff and cellist Peggy Lee. This is the kind of avant-oriented disc that gets labelled “accessible.” Call it a chamber-music take on the modern jazz quartet: the main mood is a distilled slowmotion lyricism, and that feeling somehow persists even during the occasional testier exchange or odd-meter groove. Miller seems to be trying to find musical forms in which classical, jazz and free-improv traditions come together not as some weighty cross-genre fusion but as something altogether lighter on its feet. There are moments where the music touches on darker moods – notably the haunting “Weary,” a drifting edge-of-sleep improvisation that narrows down into a slow dance – but in general the feeling is of elegance tempered with a pleasing (rather than bleak) melancholy. It’s an admirable and enjoyable debut album, though a bit too tastefully done: some rough edges wouldn’t have gone amiss.

The last four in this bunch are from Vancouver’s Drip Audio, one of the most reliable sources for smart, genre-flouting music in this country. Carsick is a duo of cornettist J.P. Carter and guitarist Dave Sikula. Their self-titled debut initially seems to be a set of melting Americana mood-pieces à la Frisell, punctuated by brief electronic-improv interludes, but this balance is up-ended by the album’s last, longest and best track, the mini-epic "Rise to Downpour". Carsick’s use of electronics is tasty and purposeful: they have a knack for turning fiddly sonic crumbs into sharply pointed arrows, and know exactly the right moment to bite off a loop (rather than letting it drag on, as happens in too much electronic improv). They are willing to be disarmingly simple: the guitar part on "High Over Sand", for instance, is just five arpeggiated triads repeated ad infinitum. But the most exciting feature of this duo is how, on the improv-oriented tracks, they summon deliciously lyrical music (rather than non-idiomatic austerity) out of minimalist hisses, plinks, chokes and wheezes. The first eight tracks, while enjoyable enough, don’t quite seal the deal, but "Rise to Downpour" is a different matter, showcasing all these players' virtues: sensitive acoustic interplay, a wry melodic sense, and a great use of electronics, as the piece drifts seductively into a swirling, smeary mass of noise.

I’ve never quite understood the point of holding solo recitals in obtrusively reverberant spaces like cathedrals or empty water reservoirs – sure, it’s very pretty, and the echoes give the improviser something to respond to, but the music tends to get pushed in predictable directions and after a while the audio saturation becomes monotonous. Give me a nice dry pub back-room any day. Anyway, François Houle’s Aerials is a set of solo improvs for clarinet that strongly foregrounds a particular acoustic space: he is playing into the interior of a piano (a technique Steve Lacy used on occasion), using it as a sympathetic resonating chamber. Houle is one of the few players to tackle Evan Parker's example head-on, and it’s uncanny to hear Parker's patented sonic cycloids duplicated so exactly on another instrument, though Houle tends to be briefer and never quite matches EP's bristling density of event (though "Circulaire" gets darn close). Most of the album is considerably sparser, though: sometimes Houle focuses intently on a particular technical area or idea without developing it too far past the initial premises; other tracks (the most successful, I feel) have a more Lacy-like concentration on spinning out pure melody, with more wide-ranging and unpredictable results. The overgenerous 70-minute running time tends to show up the music's limitations, unfortunately, especially Houle's fondness for predictable call-and-response between clarinet and answering reverberation.

It's an enormous distance from the chill beauty of Houle's disc to the other solo outing in this bunch, the appropriately named Dementia by Drip Audio's head honcho Jesse Zubot. His notes are worth quoting: "This music was documented during a condensed period of contemplation (June 2006) and is meant to reflect the decline of a human’s cognitive state. The urge to go back and edit problematic musical events was purposely avoided in order to capture moments of confusion, paranoia, hope, agitation and the momentum of passed time." It was Elliott Sharp, I believe, who suggested that the only truly "free" improviser was an amnesiac one. What kind of music, then, might emerge from other abnormal mental states such as "Delirium", "Dementia", "Delusions", and "Apraxia" (to name four track titles)? In this cracked, self-undermining sound-world, it's as if every time the violinist reaches for a humanly expressive extreme – a melodic arabesque, a snatch of a folk tune – it's cruelly revealed as the utterance of a virtuosic but broken music-machine. Which of course only prompts Zubot to redouble his efforts, until the whole thing becomes a twisty agitated mental/musical act of tail-chasing, an attempt to catch a glimpse of the back of your own head or jump out of your own increasingly uncomfortable skin, even as it constantly throws up damaged moments of beauty and wonder. Who knows if it's a good idea to play this album over and over again – it's the kind of thing that could permanently alter your neurons if you aren’t careful – but I guess I’ll take the risk, because it sounds better each time.

Fond of Tigers' A Thing to Live With is the hardest album in this bunch to pin down: kaleidoscopic prog rock laced with out-jazz, barbed-wire noise and ambient weirdness. The seven-piece band, led by guitarist Stephen Lyons, features two drummers (Skye Brooks and Dan Gaucher), and there's a lovely cinematic depth to the whole thing, players slipping in and out of focus or shifting from the margins to the centre before you know it. The results are a fine balance between mindbending tightness (convoluted odd-metre riffs delivered with virtuosic precision) and even more mindbending doses of fuzzed-out bliss. "North" and "Elkore" are dizzyingly intense rock powered along by the double-drummer groove and cracked open by Zubot's scorched-earth violin; even better is the gentle canon of "A Thing to Live with That Will Live with You". But the best stuff comes in the album's second half, with a pair of tracks whose near-identical titles will please Lynne Truss fans. "Here, You Are Hated" is a seven-minute epic built around a stately trumpet/violin melody: layer after layer of piano, guitar and drums are added and adjusted until waves of sound start sloshing around like water in a pool. "Here You Are, Hated" is the album’s most exhilarating track, a neurotic race from one bone-crunching Mahavishnu-style riff to the next and back (the band handles the relentless switcheroos with aplomb). Like the Carsick album, this one ends with a long track that’s stylistically distinct from what's gone before: "Parade Rehearsal" begins with a long dip into sunburned unease, before the guitars and drums thrash it to bits and the music plunges into a dense parade-ground musical clash. The textures then unexpectedly thin out for a little spacey improv, and then there’s a final upswing into a sunny guitar-and-vibes groove, with Carter adding wistful trumpet. Marvellous stuff. -ND

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Otomo Yoshihide’s New Jazz Orchestra
Doubt Music

Otomo Yoshihide’s New Jazz Orchestra
Doubt Music

Otomo Yoshihide’s New Jazz Quintet
Clean Feed
Otomo Yoshihide’s passion for jazz is well known, and has fuelled two of his most highly acclaimed working units since 1999. The ONJQ evolved into the ONJO around 2004, after the departure of saxophonist Kikuchi Naruyoshi and the arrival of Kahimi Karie, Alfred Harth, Sachiko M and Kumiko Takara. Aside from serving as a showcase for Yoshihide’s unique compositional skills, ONJQ/ONJO have celebrated artists as diverse as Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Jim O’Rourke, James Blood Ulmer and even the Beatles, reinventing their compositions as an utterly convincing mesh of EAI and furious free jazz. Familiar themes expand inexorably into free-for-all improvisation, at times homing in on scattered, near-silent small sounds while on other occasions (such as their version of O’Rourke’s “Eureka”) reaching for Last Exit-style devastation. It’s a peculiar sonic morphology that generates hours of ear-cleansing, high-octane material.

ONJO – the album – is the more “intellectual” of the two Orchestra outings. “Eureka” is sung in Jane Birkin-like French by Kahimi Karie, who whispers and sighs until Otomo’s gentle chordal accompaniment gives way to hundreds of contrasting lines in an explosion of intertwining counterpoint. “Theme from Canary” starts with ruined vinyl and continues with a melodic motif worthy of Gil Evans. Charles Mingus’s “Orange Was the Colour of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk” (already recorded by ONJQ on Tails Out) walks along the cliff-top of pulverized freedom, and Ornette Coleman’s “Broken Shadows” rises out of a boiling lava of false starts and snippets. By contrast, the closing “A-Shi-Ta”, with Hamada Mariko vocalising over a slow percussive pattern, could almost be incidental music to a theatre piece, its evocative depth and intensity perfectly counterbalancing the preceding tracks.

There’s a strong element of humour in Out To Lunch, as Dolphy’s milestone is both honoured and dissected by an army of expert students transformed into mad scientists at the flick of a switch. The themes are fought over with an enjoyable mixture of mercurial irony and transcendence, with the honours going to “Hat And Beard” (also one of the Quintet’s strongest covers, as demonstrated by their superb version on the DIW album ONJQ Live) and the title track, both pieces offering themselves in sacrifice to chaotic collective interplay. “Gazzelloni” meanwhile is a brutal four-minute beating with a punkish flavour (I’m reminded of Hal Russell’s NRG Ensemble). “Something Sweet, Something Tender” starts with an unbelievable bass clarinet solo from Harth. The Seoul-based Frankfurter is one of the most recognizable voices in the Orchestra, along with Axel Dörner, Mats Gustafsson and Sachiko M, the latter applying her sinewaves discreetly throughout both discs. “Straight Up And Down – Will Be Back” closes the show with a 28-minute trip through EAI, everything insinuated rather than affirmed in an invisible bridge linking two worlds that have more in common than you might think as far as inquisitive musicianship is concerned.

My personal favourite in this batch is the truly huge Live in Lisbon, which was recorded live at 2004’s Jazz em Agosto festival (and reviewed in these pages) and features Charlie Haden’s “Song for Che”, Dolphy’s “Serene”, Otomo’s “Flutter” and (again) O’Rourke’s “Eureka”. Special mention must be made of Mats Gustafsson, playing with ONJQ for the very first time that night, who is a force of nature throughout but so profound when needed (how can you not fall in love with that baritone on “Flutter”?), and drummer Yoshigaki Yasuhiro, whose explosive energy would make even Shannon Jackson envious. If “Song for Che” – a heartfelt hymn if ever there was one – and “Serene” elicit a few raised eyebrows among the non-believers pretending to be your best friends, then try harassing your neighbourhood by blasting “Eureka” at full volume: the spirit of O’Rourke’s simple melody, first extrapolated with gut determination, then cried out by the Quintet until their eyes pop out of their sockets, will send your teeth flying out. This version is THE ONE, five musicians touched by grace, playing their asses off and their hearts out. Jaw-breaking, positive, enormous music. Get a copy of this CD pronto and start digging through ONJQ’s back catalogue on Tzadik and DIW too. A revelation awaits you.–MR

Tetuzi Akiyama / Oren Ambarchi / Alan Licht
In his article "The Dark Blues" in the last issue of Signal To Noise, Kurt Gottschalk quotes a remark of Alan Licht's about Loren Connors: "In a way Loren has done for blues guitar what Derek [Bailey] did for jazz guitar. He threw all the traditional structure out the window. Derek was still playing through changes like a jazz guitarist would, but he threw the chord structure out. With Loren, it's saying 'let's take the modality and the string-bending and throw out the 12-bar or the structure or the lyrics, the 'my baby done me wrong', and do it in an improvised structure." It's an astute observation, not only for what it says about Bailey (recalling Lol Coxhill's famous description of him as "the greatest be-bop guitarist"), but also because it sums up what Licht himself and fellow string-benders Oren Ambarchi and Tetuzi Akiyama are doing on this 3" sonic postcard of a 2004 tour they made in New Zealand. Gottschalk's idea of the "one-bar blues" (not that it's really his idea – what else is early John Lee Hooker, when all's said and done?) isn't as daft as it might sound. After all, jazz was able to dispense not only with the changes but also the notion of regular beat (and with it that of the traditional rhythm section) and still stay jazz. Free Jazz, they called it. So why not Free Blues instead? Taking its cue from John Fahey of course, as well as Connors' work both solo and in duos with Jim O'Rourke and Licht, it's tended so far to be leisurely (critics might say lethargic), introspective and more often than not melancholy. This applies just as well to Akiyama's early work, notably the wonderful and little-known Flagments Of Paradise with Taku Sugimoto, and his own solo Relator on Slubmusic, and Ambarchi's superb solo outings on Touch (Grapes From The Estate) and Idea (Triste). Willow Weep And Moan For Me is a more intense outing, principally due to the fact that there are three guitarists in action, each of whom has cultivated his own idiosyncratic take on the blues. Ambarchi and Licht are content to unearth their roots in drone, or one-chord rock (nobody ever complained about the term one chord-rock, did they?), while Akiyama is distinctly more combative, not surprisingly perhaps considering one of his accessories of choice is a samurai sword. In the current climate of anti-terrorist paranoia, one wonders how long that's likely to continue; if you can't walk on a plane with a tube of toothpaste and a bottle of mineral water in your hand luggage anymore, what chance have you got of bringing along a deadly weapon, even if it's checked in in your suitcase? Let's hope then that this magnificent outing is just the prelude to a full-length offering: a beginning, not an end.–DW

Temperamental Trio
Thanks to the noble work of trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj and guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui, news of the free music scene in Lebanon has reached a wider public in recent times, and was doing so even before recent events once more catapulted Lebanon centre stage. But we still know very little of developments in free improv south of the border in Israel, which makes the appearance of this set of 17 tracks more than welcome. Jean Claude Jones (bass and electronics), Loic Kessous (computer and electronics) and Stephen Horenstein (baritone saxophone) serve up a tasty mezze – oops that's a Lebanese dish.. but no matter, national boundaries do not exist in this music – of pieces ranging from tight, scrabbling insect music of "Dyad" (Horenstein's gnarly baritone reminds us of how great a player he is on those albums with Bill Dixon) to the spacier electronic landscapes of "Heavy Metal". None of the pieces outstays its welcome – only two tracks go beyond the four-minute mark – which also makes a welcome change, even if it leaves one a little hungry for more. Perhaps Kerbaj and Sehnaoui can negotiate the minefield of bureaucracy and get these members of Jerusalem's Kadima Collective to play at the next edition of their Irtijal Festival in Beirut. That'd be a more meaningful move in promoting cross-border understanding and reconciliation than the empty rhetoric of Mr Bush and Ms Rice.–DW

Aaron Siegel
Solo percussion albums used to be flashy, can-you-really-believe-I-only-got-two-hands affairs, but several recent examples have taken the opposite tack, shifting the emphasis from musician to material, from virtuosity to simplicity. After the elegant minimalism of Sean Meehan's Sectors (for Constant) and the tam tam explorations of Eddie Prévost (Entelechy, Matchless) and Mark Wastell (the Vibras on wmo/r and Longbox), here's another addition to the list. Unlike the abovementioned, however, Aaron Siegel, best known perhaps as Anthony Braxton's drummer of late, isn't interested in long duration: The Cabinet consists of 21 two-minute tracks, each of which investigates a small number of basic sounds in meticulous detail – the hieroglyphics on the CD back tray give you a few clues as to what they are – in a kind of acoustic equivalent of Jason Kahn's recent snapshots (see review of Astra Steloj below). Each track is intriguing in itself, but the album is best appreciated if listened through from beginning to end, as the sequencing of the pieces has been carefully thought out to produce a satisfying and convincing 42-minute span of music.–DW

Steve Lacy
Atavistic UMS
The mid-70s were fruitful years for Steve Lacy, finding him recording for numerous European labels and touring constantly. On Esteem, a previously unreleased 1975 performance recorded in Paris, he is joined by his regular foils, altoist Steve Potts, cellist/violinist Irene Aebi, and bassist Kent Carter, as well as new hire Ken Tyler on drums (pianist Michael Smith would complete the line-up later that year). The proceedings start with the wonky locomotive of "The Crust," on which Potts fills up every available space with dervish-dances of circular breathing, his horn often sounding strikingly like a musette. Potts could certainly let loose, as witness his performance with pianist François Tusques on 1971's Intercommunal Music (Shandar), or his work on Lacy's explosive Esthilaços (Guilda da Musica, 1972), but it's comparatively rare to hear him let loose these kinds of pyrotechnics in Lacy's mid-70s bands. Tyler may not have Noel McGhie's mastery of complex backbeat-laden Jamaican funk, but his dry snare-drum cracks and airy cymbals provide an open canvas for the horns. Lacy's solo on "The Crust" is almost out of place, a paragon of delicacy and melodicism in the morass of bass, cello and percussion – but with his golden tone he cuts through even these dense thickets. "The Uh Uh Uh" gives Tyler a chance to stretch his legs as Potts weaves a sinewy and funky solo that wouldn't have sounded out of place coming from Byard Lancaster or Robin Kenyatta. "Esteem" is a murky tone poem dedicated to Johnny Hodges (it first appeared on the 1972 America LP, The Gap), a piece that falls in a tradition of Lacy dedications that seem at first rather oblique but gradually reveal the depth of his emotional connection to his teachers and contemporaries. Here, the tune is given a dangerous rhythmic counterpoint that pushes it to a precarious climax. Esteem paints a picture of Lacy's band in process, and shows the multiplicity of possibilities available to an improviser who had already travelled from Monk's music to free improvisation in the previous two decades.–CA

Steve Lantner Quartet
It's a bugger of a job being a free jazz pianist. And it's all Cecil Taylor's fault. Just about anybody who smashes a cluster or runs up and down the keyboard and lets fly with a display of atonal pyrotechnics is automatically compared to him (where sometimes Borah Bergman, Don Pullen or even Bobby Few might be more appropriate). Put it down to Taylor's monumental discography and the all-encompassing nature of his work over the past half century, I guess. Scrolling down the comments on Paradise Road over at Bagatellen, it seems Steve Lantner hasn't managed to escape the CT comparison either. It's not entirely unwarranted: his light, darting work and especially the intervallic ping-pong with saxophonist Allan Chase inevitably recall the near-telepathic empathy between Taylor and Jimmy Lyons, and Luther Gray's ebullient freebop drumming more than once brings to mind the late, great Denis Charles. But that's about as far as it goes. Unlike Taylor's music, which is often so dense and information-rich it's almost exhausting to listen to, there's plenty of space in Lantner's music for the criminally underrated Chase's sweet alto sax to explore (if Paul Desmond had crossed the tracks and played free, it might have sounded something like this). And the rhythm section of Gray and Joe Morris (on bass of course) swings good and hard in a way that Taylor's bands never did. There's a deftness and sensitivity here often lacking in many latter-day free jazz outings, especially those juggernauts driven relentlessly forward by William Parker and Hamid Drake. Lantner is sure-footed and fleet, and even in the busiest passages maintains a stratum of recognisable melodic line as a structural reference point. It all makes for an extremely satisfying and accessible album. Don't let Holger Drees's rather dry architectural cover art fool you.–DW

James Beaudreau
These 24 mini-improvs were brewed up in the kitchen of Beaudreau's Brooklyn home, and the domestic ambience is part of the charm, as the guitarist's musing Nick Drake-meets-Derek Bailey improvisations are momentarily upstaged by a passing plane or a noisy bird, or receive incidental percussion from the house's other residents (including the cat!). These quiet, mostly acoustic performances evoke familiar song-forms, genres and shapes within their brief compass (most barely exceed a minute in length), but never stay in one place too long. An improvisation will start with a brief theme that initially seems straightforward but ends with a gentle harmonic dislocation. It's as if this seed theme were a question, which requires multiple answers, which in turn spread into even more diffuse digressions.. until things end with an abrupt return to the home theme or an arbitrary stop in mid-sentence, as if Beaudreau simply put the guitar down. The mood and approach are nearly unvaried from track to track - a peaceable, rather foursquare counterpoint - but there are many small pleasures and surprises to be found here nonetheless (like the whisks up and down the frets on "Hare"). At a lean 43 minutes Java St. Bagatelles never overstays its welcome, and it's hard not to enjoy this thoughtful, sun-dappled music. The glorious retro-minimalist mini-LP design, too, is irresistible, making the album look like a previously unknown 1960s folk album.–ND

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Flaherty / Corsano / Yeh
I dunno, maybe you can have too much of a good thing. Not that I'm exactly complaining about the market being flooded with Flaherty product, but there seems to be at least one new outing each month from the mighty hornblower of the wild American Northwest. On this one he's joined, as he often is, by drum powerhouse Chris Corsano and Spencer Yeh, aka Burning Star Core, on violin and voice. With track titles like "We Have To Check Your Equipment For Bombs" and "Do You Have Any Prurient Releases?" (yes I do, actually), it's no surprise that Flaherty's music appeals to the young noiseniks of the Ciccone Youth generation, one of whom, Wolf Eyes' John Olson, writing under the name of Johnny Coorz (couldn't he at least have chosen a decent beer?), has penned the typically racy notes that accompany these five tracks. It's very much the Aaron Dilloway school of neo-Gonzo music writing too, all "dudes" and "rules" and "killers". But there's a lot of pain, fragility and tenderness in Flaherty's music too, and pain, fragility and tenderness aren't nouns you associate with super flipped-out decibel-heads jerking off in their bedrooms to Moore, Merzbow and Mumma. (Lest that be taken as a swipe at Olson, I'd like to go on the record here and now as saying that jerking off in your bedroom to Moore, Merzbow and Mumma is a fine and noble thing to do.) Indeed, what's most interesting about this record for me is how it somehow fails to deliver the knockout punch either of F&C's The Beloved Music (I compared that to Interstellar Space and I'm sticking to my guns) or some of the tracks on BSC (that's Burning Star Core, not Bhob Rainey's big band, for Chrissakes) sampler Mes Soldats Stupides. Maybe the recording has something to do with it – it's very clear but not as upfront as other F&C outings – but I'm not so sure. Of course, there's plenty of blood and guts and a lot of passionate scraping from Yeh, especially on the first track (why the hell did they fade it out?), but I wish he'd laid down some melody behind Flaherty's wide vibratoed Brötzmann boom on "Dirty Firetrucker" instead of trying to take on Corsano (word of advice: don't try to take on Corsano). The exchange of vocals between Flaherty and Yeh that closes the album is certainly odd – it sounds like Arthur Doyle meeting up with Phil Minton in a Buddhist temple – but I wouldn't describe it as "killer end", as Olson does. But have a listen to it yourself and tell me what you think.–DW

Randy Sandke and the Metatonal Big Band
Evening Star
Like Outside In, trumpeter Randy Sandke's previous big band disc, The Subway Ballet features a band that crosses stylistic (or jazz-political) divisions: it's a pleasure to hear Lincoln Center guys like Wycliffe Gordon and Ted Nash blowing alongside Sex Mob slide-trumpeter Steve Bernstein and avant-klezmer clarinettist David Krakauer. Sandke's ballet score apparently still awaits choreography, but his liner notes walk you through its narrative of a subway-train romance in the 1980s between a girl and a punk-rocker. The piece's real subject, though, is New York in all its grungy cultural, social and musical diversity. Sandke's "metatonal" harmonic language works best when it's put in play with familiar idioms and tonalities, and the narrative's diverse subway-stops give him plenty of opportunities to do just that: our hero's entry comes in a lumbering punk number (and, yes, unlikely as that sounds as big band fodder, Sandke pulls it off); a troupe of Wall Street brokers dances in lockstep to austere S&M modernism; the Hassidic diamond-merchants are led by Krakauer in an accelerating dance; a quarrel between a blind beggar and Korean peddler is scored with Far East Suite-style Ellingtonia. Sandke's scoring has the spry, quick-moving feeling of small-group jazz, and while the soloists get less space than on Outside In, they make themselves felt nonetheless. There are notable spots for Gordon, Bernstein, Scott Robinson, Walt Weiskopf, and others, not to mention Sandke himself, but it's Ted Nash who takes the prize, for his two perfectly turned spots (for alto sax and flute) on the choo-choo interludes "Making Tracks" and "Express Stop".
Four bonus tracks from an unrelated 1988 session boost the album's running time, somewhat superfluously. Most of them are pretty off-the-wall, and only the raucous "Red Hook Blues" (with Jim McNeely on organ) adds significantly to the album's stature. But if they help do further damage to the usual image of Sandke as a swing revivalist, then that's all to the good.–ND

Art Ensemble of Chicago
The "Ancient to the Future" credo has never been as appropriate as now, with Roscoe Mitchell the only surviving member of the original Art Ensemble. This disc marks the first quintet lineup for the AEOC in a long while, following the trio record Tribute to Lester and (with the return of Joseph Jarman after a decade's hiatus) the quartet albums The Meeting and Sirius Calling. The young trumpet firebrand Corey Wilkes and longtime Mitchell associate Jaribu Shahid on bass step into the shoes of the late Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors. Wilkes proves his worth early on with hot playing following Mitchell's opening solo on "Song for My Sister", but what really seals the deal is "Song for Charles": after an outstanding Roscoe circular-breathing roller-skates-on-the-ice-rink play-three-lines-at-the-same-time alto monstrosity, Wilkes comes in with a solo that could be called "Lester Lives On", hitting on many of Bowie's techniques but stamping them with his own individual imprint. I think he's a keeper.
Make no doubt about it: this is Mitchell's group, kind of like Snurdy McGurdy and Her Dancin' Shoes with more instruments. Jarman has returned to the fold, but he isn't nearly the fire-breather of the 70s and 80s, although he has some nice sopranino duels with Mitchell on "On the Mountain". Roscoe contributes eight of the twelve compositions, and despite Wilkes' prowess and Shahid's fine rapport with the leader neither of them have the kind of compositional input that Bowie and Favors had into AEOC performances. That said, this strong, well-received live performance provides optimism for the future. The signature-tune "Odwalla" ends both sets (both times, unfortunately, featuring Jarman's weak vocals), and a sign of the band's enduring popularity is that although liberties are taken with the melody the audience stays with them every step of the way.–SG

Evolving Ear
Over the past few years The Artists Formerly Known As PSI, now rebranded peeesseye presumably to avoid confusion with Evan Parker's label of the same name (not that there's likely to be any) have established themselves as some of American new music's most adventurous envelope pushers. Not only have they moved away from the gritty EAI of their debut (The ___ who had begun his career as a useful ___ of the ___ court later became the ___ of ___ and the ___ of ___.) into more acoustic territory, but they've also reintroduced vocals – well I guess you could call the strange gargling on "oo-ee-oo" and the sinister whispers of "Distant Mud" vocals – and other hitherto forbidden pleasures, including some unashamedly tonal strummed guitar from Chris Forsyth (nice to hear a guitar that sounds like a guitar for a change). The music is a curiously compelling mixture of various elements usually associated these days with what David Keenan called "New Weird America": spaced-out drone and open-ended jams that sound more like Sunburned and Sunn0))) than Sunny Murray. Forsyth, Jaime Fennelly and Fritz Welch are joined by various guests, including Clare Cooper (pedal harp and guzheng) and Nate Wooley (trumpet), and there's a 22-minute ghost track field recording that will curl your toes up, especially if you like small animals and the sound of burning flesh. Curious? You ought to be.–DW

Elliott Sharp
Clean Feed
Though I’ve been acquainted with Elliott Sharp’s proverbial eclecticism for several lustra, the name Thelonious Monk was not one I ever expected to see associated with Downtown’s one and only cyberbluesman. Sharp’s passion for Monk’s music dates back to 1968 when, during a stint as a late night DJ, he discovered Monk’s “tart harmonies and percussive attack, his catchy but twisted melodies and his incredible rhythmic motion, always dry and economical”, but it’s taken 38 years for the New Yorker to display that admiration on record. Armed with a Dell’Arte Grande Bouche acoustic guitar, a few mics, preamp, compressor and ProTools, he recorded three versions each of the five Monk pieces covered here. The resulting homage is a treat, a set of heartfelt, crystal-clear improvisations.
Sharp might be best known as a composer, but he’s bad on the guitar. The theme of “Misterioso” is rendered with scholarly devotion, but when E# starts attacking the fretboard with his trademark percussive style, tapping and snapping the strings to elicit mind-boggling cascades of notes, you could be forgiven for thinking that Mr. Thelonious Sphere wrote the piece specially for him. “Well You Needn’t” is another “look-ma-both-hands-on-neck” eruption (no, Van Halen has nothing to do with it), ending with a lyrical yet intense virtual string/tabla duo that brings the whole body of the guitar into play. “Bemsha Swing” is probably the best entry point to the whole album, its theme executed with a cool blend of Montgomery-like octaves and half-strummed, half-plucked lines that could teach a few things to the snotty Berklee nerds lost in their Superlocrian finery. Perhaps the most impressive performance, though, is “Round Midnight”, played with enormous sensitivity using a complex mix of harmonics and plucked notes, before the improvised section casts us into the arms of a ghostly Joe Pass/John Fahey hybrid, each note perfectly calibrated to reveal its luminescent particles. A final eBow elegy seals this astonishing version of an otherwise pretty worn-out standard. The grand finale “Epistrophy” is a clamorous show of technical prowess and right-brain intuition: the evergreen is felled, sawn up and mashed into an infernal pulp of flamenco bottleneck blues.–MR

Frank Wright
In an effort to move away from just reissuing the same music for the nth time, Bernard Stollman and his ESP crew have shifted towards bringing fresh archival product to the table. This choice Center of the World concert taped at the Moers Festival in the summer of 1974 and issued under Wright’s nominal leadership arrives as the first entry in a promised series. The music’s "newness" is debatable, considering its history as a staple bartering chip in the tape and download trading communities, but it's still gratifying to see the set receive commercial issue, boasting a fresh audio scrubbing on what was already surprisingly decent sound for the era. The nearly hour-long performance falls into two halves. Wright and fellow ex-pats pianist Bobby Few, bassist Alan Silva and drummer Muhammad Ali raise a boldly emblazoned Fire Music flag and commence with a barrage of cascading percussion, bright Tyneresque clusters, furnace-hot tenor and pulsing bass that coalesces into a caterwauling charge. Discarding subtlety or nuance, the four continue the assault for much of the first part, even after Wright's temporary exit ten minutes in. Silva gets in some ferocious tree-felling arco, before ceding to a wildly athletic drum solo from Ali. "Part II" finds Wright on soprano, musing obliquely on Gershwin's "Summertime" prior to another extended ramp up into the stage shell rafters. Few lights a bonfire with darting keyboard sweeps and stabbing boogie runs, and Silva even walks (!) for a spell. It all leads to a glorious oompah-girded finale. True believers are likely to have already heard these sounds on crackle-dusted xth generation tape dubs. But for a completely new audience of free jazz listeners this disc delivers the goods, and at a reasonable asking price to boot.–DT

Adam Lane Full Throttle Orchestra
Clean Feed
Bassist Adam Lane has proven himself one of the most surprising younger players on the California scene. He holds a BA from Wesleyan University, and his CV includes work with Tom Waits (though who could ever replace Greg Cohen?) and John Tchicai; he has also recorded a number of fine albums for Cadence/CIMP. New Magical Kingdom is the second CD by Lane's Full Throttle Orchestra, featuring an all-original program that offers a well-balanced amalgam of European influences and American jazz. The opening "In the Center of Earth, Looking for Mike" is a piece for third-stream quintet (with an electric guitar instead of piano); it's clearly influenced by Mingus's Atlantic period, but strong enough to stand up to the comparison, and it's catchy enough to attract the attention of mainstream critics, nostalgic fans, and maybe even larger labels. During "Avenue X", I couldn't resist doing a little Charleston in front of the stereo: trumpeter Darren Johnston's work on this track is amazing, and the rhythm section of Lane and Vijay Anderson is wonderfully tight. Baritone saxophonist Lynn Johnston screams like a beast on "Nutria 1" (the last time I heard baritone playing this powerful was Werner Lüdi, playing with Brötzmann and Hano just a fortnight before his death), whereas on "Avenue X" she turns in a swinging solo that even Hamiet Bluiett wouldn't be ashamed of. Guitarist John Finkbeiner is a real discovery, making good use of his pedals in the collective improvs and on "Serenity" pushing Aaron Bennett's soprano sax to places where even Roscoe Mitchell hasn't gone before. On "Without Being" and "Sienna", Lane recalls Ingebrigt Håker Flaten in his ability to combine the expressive and the reflective. Among the other tracks, let me single out the fine soundscape piece "Objects", and Lane's nod to the great South African/British big-band the Brotherhood of Breath on "The Schnube". All told, this is a highly enjoyable album, adventurous but highly approachable.–VJ

Zlatko Kaucic
Slovenian drummer Zlato Kaucic has performed with, amongst others, Irene Schweizer, Steve Lacy, Kenny Wheeler, Radu Malfatti, Duško Goykovich, Misha Mengelberg, Paul Bley, and Enrico Rava. After the Third Stream-meets-improvisation of his Zlati coln / Golden Boat 2, featuring vocalist Irene Aebi, Pav ("Peacock") is a solo disc for drums, percussions, toys, glockenspiel, gongs, flutes, and voice, and its material itself is heavily folk-inspired. Irregular meters abound on the opening "Skoplje", as does non-standard instrumentation including šurle (a double Istrian flute with oboe reed), djembe and shepherd’s flute (often blown in Rahsaan-style parallel fifths on top of a theme), before the track ends up in a free duet between flute and bass-drum. "Rojstvo Anje" and "Home Land" are somewhat denser, with glockenspiel and bells and a two-tone ostinato on crash cymbal that could be easily mistaken for a sampler on first listening. The most intriguing compositions appear later: "Bohinjski Kravji Bal" sounds like some of Moondog’s tap dance collaborations, and "Solitude" is a fine example of how the raw Balkans kolo may be played gracefully, and gently, on glockenspiel. Kaucic simultaneously handles jaw-harp and cymbal on "Metal Rap", and adds some geeky vocals to boot, moaning over glockenspiel and drums on "Macau Dream" and accompanying the theme of the closing "Scatenato Irlandese" with a nifty solo on glockenspiel and steel pan.–VJ

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Earle Brown
New World
There's a rather forlorn afterword tucked away at the back of the CD booklet, in which Earle Brown writes: "I hope that future recordings will as successfully represent my work written between 1965 and 2050 as this does the early work." Amusing to think that Brown was expecting to live to the ripe old age of 124 – he died in 2002 in his 76th year – but there's a serious side to his plea. For far too long Earle Brown has been the forgotten member of the New York School; the John Cage discography must now be more than 1000 strong (though I haven't taken the trouble to count it at all – have a go yourself if you like:, and you'd need a decent sized suitcase to carry all the Morton Feldman currently out there. Even Christian Wolff's recent music has, thanks no doubt in part to his connections with Cornelius Cardew and John Tilbury (call it the AMM rebound effect) been quite well documented on disc of late. But there are still far too few recordings of the music of Earle Brown, and even fewer if you exclude several available versions of his most famous piece, Folio. This reissue of a 2000 CRI disc, itself a reissue of a 1974 CRI LP augmented by more recent recordings of Music for Cello and Piano and Michael Daugherty's readings of three of the pieces from Folio, is good news indeed, but makes you wonder how much more fabulous music is waiting to be discovered in the Earle Brown archives. Go and have a browse at Meanwhile, rejoice.
Selected Works 1952-1965 is worth the price of admission alone for the two magnificent performances of Times Five and Novara recorded in Amsterdam in 1974. It's a shame David Ryan's otherwise excellent accompanying essay presents no background information on these two pieces (though it does provide a concise and authoritative overview of Brown's career and key works in this period), as they're absolutely gorgeous. Times Five is scored for flute, trombone, harp, violin and four-track tape (much of the material on which was improvised by Brown on keyboards and keyboard percussion), and Novara for piano, flute, trumpet, bass clarinet and string quartet, and both reveal an outstanding ear for instrumental sonority and a masterly command of large and small scale open forms. Brown's formative experience as a composer was not his encounter with Cage in the early 1950s, but his thorough grounding in the mathematics-inspired music theory of Joseph Schillinger. (Someone somewhere should write a book on how Schillinger's theories impacted on a whole generation of musicians in the fields of both classical and jazz; Alan Silva for one has quite a bit to say on the subject in his interview for Paris Transatlantic, including the assertion that even Sun Ra knew his Schillinger inside out..) Brown used Schillinger's concepts in his own highly personal take on serialism in Music for Violin, Cello and Piano (1952) and it makes for a fascinating contrast with the more forbidding frozen pitch serialism Wolff was exploring around the same time.
Earle Brown remains best known for his pioneering work in graphic notation, notably 1952's Folio, and particularly the horizontal and vertical lines of December 1952. As Ryan points out: "Brown adamantly stressed that the score is not a picture. It is not, say, a response to the visual art of Piet Mondrian he so admired; rather, it is a graphic conceptualization of a mobile space or field of sound, and how the performers utilize this is open-ended." Brown described December 1952 as "an activity rather than a piece by me because of the content being supplied by the musicians." The disc shows just how differently the score can be interpreted, bringing together the austere clusters of David Tudor's version ("the best of many performances he made," Brown enthused) and Daugherty's more colourful reading using computers and electronics as well as the trusty piano. The disc also includes the tour de force collage Octet I, Brown's first foray into the brave new world of tape music in 1953, and a boisterous and brilliant version of Nine Rare Bits (1965), in which Antoinette Vischer and George Gruntz blast a couple of harpsichords into the outer stratosphere. It's a thrilling end to an outstanding release – let's hope we'll see more of Brown's music out and about before too long.–DW

Brian Ferneyhough
It must be tough to sound relaxed performing the music of British composer Brian Ferneyhough – it isn't called "New Complexity" for nothing – but this is precisely what the Arditti Quartet and the Ensemble Recherche (plus guests) have achieved on their latest release for the Stradivarius label. The title is taken from the first and last pieces on the disc, Funérailles I (1969-77) and Funérailles II (1969-80) respectively. Like Ferneyhough’s later Études Transcendentales, they hark back both in name and virtuosity to the piano compositions of Liszt, although Ferneyhough’s funerals are scored for string trio, string quartet (including a double bass) and harp. The first resembles a cremation, with single note crescendo flames at the start and curling flesh trills towards the climax. Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima and Scriabin’s apocalyptic Towards the flame are distant cousins, although the piece also recalls disorienting Darmstadt-style serialism, particularly Nono. The second funeral is a slightly later reworking of the first, in which sudden string plucking creates a more disjointed structure. The vultures pecking at the corpse on its pyre.
Ferneyhough’s exploration of ritual continues in Unsichtbare Farben (1999), a breathless dance for solo violinist rather like the courtship display of a hyperactive fly. As Ferneyhough has stated, this type of piece offers a "meta-musical" experience, evolving so fast and from such tiny motifs that listeners are unable to keep up with the speed of its development and led to reflect on the limits of their musical capabilities. But even Irvine Arditti’s agile rendering of this challenging work is outdone by Christian Dierstein’s performance of Bone Alphabet (1991), a showcase for unaccompanied percussion. In this Ferneyhough manages to reconcile the accessible rituals of minimalism with the abstract rituals of Boulez, producing an effect as incomprehensible yet as familiar as the repetitive patter of an auctioneer. These works may be a little too long for some people's tastes, even if the album is still too short to justify the price (anyone who invested in the same label’s recent Billone disc may suspect a trend), but the musicianship on display is undeniable and unique.–NR

Julian Anderson
Britain is attracting more and more attention for young contemporary composers who seem able to traverse the full gamut of modern-day "classical" traditions without ignoring the influence of popular music. One of the most celebrated trendsetters in this regard has been Julian Anderson, who won over an early and powerful champion in an older eclectic, the Scottish composer-conductor Oliver Knussen. After half a decade, Ondine has finally released Knussen’s readings of five Anderson orchestral works from the 1990s, all of which more than compensate for the considerable delay. If you enjoy a roam through the styles of the last century, this is for you.
The first piece is what Anderson has described as his "Rite of Spring", Khorovod (1989-94), commissioned and played here by the London Sinfonietta. It's a manic dance incorporating popular music of all kinds, ranging from house and garage to folk music from Spain, Romania, Turkey and, not surprisingly, Russia, but also Lithuania (Anderson’s father’s homeland), whose tiny melodies also fuelled the punchy tunes of Stravinsky's Rite. New rhythms, textures and ideas from every section of the orchestra hasten to repeat and interrupt one other, while Knussen takes the piece slowly enough to invest it with a full-toned lyricism. Spain also figures in the other Sinfonietta performance on the disc, Knussen’s reading of the Alhambra Fantasy (1999-2000), in which Anderson’s bustling, melodious counterpoint recreates the construction of the palace and the glaring sun overhead, with oppressive repetitions that recall the music of the piece's dedicatee, Gérard Grisey.
The remaining works, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, illustrate how influenced Anderson is by Berg as well as by popular music, Stravinsky and the unusual tunings of spectralism (he studied briefly with Tristan Murail). The Stations of the Sun (1998), also inspired by the ritual progression of the seasons, fuses the worlds of Lulu and The Firebird, while The Crazed Moon (1997), written in mourning for a dead friend, recalls Mahler’s pining for his wife Alma in the Tenth Symphony, with dark bass groans also reminiscent of studies of melancholy by Birtwistle and Dusapin. Like a longer answer to Ives’s The Unanswered Question, it conjures another ritual atmosphere, funereal this time, with distant trumpet calls, solemn strings and bitter birdsong ornaments. Right up until the end of the final piece, Diptych (1989-90), Knussen’s interpretation of this mélange is rhythmically taut but, at the same time, harks back to the late Romantics in its operatic lyricism.–NR

Christian Wolff
New World
"The written music for Exercises does not specify instrumentation or number of performers, except that percussion material is specifically indicated – six items to be chosen by the performer in increasing degrees of resonance, from 1 to 6. For Exercises 1–14 the music consists of single line phrases, sometimes two line phrases. These are marked off by a notation that represents a pause whose duration, which may vary widely, is determined by each player in the course of playing. All players have the same music. All the music is written on a single stave that can be read in any two ways, usually in treble and bass clef, as each player decides and is possible for an instrument's range. Each player can play as much or as little of the material as desired, in effect an improvising at the time of performance of the instrumentation. Coordination of the players as well as ways of playing – dynamics, articulation, color – are also determined in the process of playing by a kind of real-time improvised aural negotiation. The underlying rule is that unison should be a point of reference, though it may not often be represented as such. You could say that heterophony is the basic procedure."
As is often the case with Christian Wolff's music, it all sounds simpler than it actually is. Not only for the performers – who are forced to take the kind of decisions they normally happily delegate to someone else, and find answers to questions of social organisation and responsibility that normally don't arise when they're just "playing somebody else's piece" – but also for listeners, who are frequently confronted with the strange twists and turns of a music that Frederic Rzewski describes wonderfully in his accompanying essay: "There is order, but also constant interruption, intrusions of disorderly reality upon regularity and lawfulness, combining to create an effect of both familiarity and strangeness." Rzewski knows what he's on about: he's been one of the foremost interpreters of Wolff's music for half a century, and here joins a crack ensemble of Wolff experts – Larry Polansky (percussion and electric guitar), Garrett List (trombone), Natacha Diels (flute), Michael Riessler (bass clarinet), Robyn Schulkowsky (percussion), Chiyoko Szlavnics (saxophone) and the composer himself – in twelve of these deceptively rich Exercises. In addition to Wolff's own performing notes quoted above and Rzewski's perceptive dissertation, the booklet also includes John Ashbery's fine poem "Blue Sonata", which says more in a few words than any longwinded CD review could hope to do about this elusive, fragile and all to human music: "We / Can see far enough ahead for the rest of us to be / Implicit in the surroundings that twilight is. / We know that this part of the day comes every day / And we feel that, as it has its rights, so / We have our right to be ourselves in the measure / That we are in it and not some other day, or in / Some other place."–DW

Various Artists
"The Rhythmicon was a keyboard instrument built in 1931 by Leon Theremin at the request of composer / theorist Henry Cowell. Each key played a repeated tone, proportional in pitch and rhythm to the overtone series (the second key played twice as high and twice as fast as the first key etc.). The Virtual Rhythmicon was commissioned in 2003 by American Public Media. The online version extends the functionality of Cowell's design and uses digital technology rather than rotating optical discs." It was Nick "Doctor Nerve" Didkovsky who in fact handled the programming, but he's not one of the artists featured here: Janek Schaefer, Annie Gosfeld, Innova head honcho Philip Blackburn, Jeff Feddersen, Matthew Burtner, Viv Corringham, Mark Eden and Robert Normandeau. Schaefer reroutes the Rhythmicon through FX pedals to generate a dreamy Ambient haze (despite its title All Bombing Is Terrorism), and Gosfeld contributes the distinctly metallic A Sideways Glance from an Electric Eye, while Blackburn's Henry and Mimi at the Y reworks Cowell's 1925 The Banshee into an eerie spectral etude, exposing the inner workings of the Rhythmicon as thoroughly as Cowell did with his old piano. There's little information provided on how sound artist and eco-technology pioneer Feddersen created This Time I Want Them All, but his website is worth a visit; meanwhile Matthew Burtner provides copious notes explaining the mathematical ratios he uses in his two pristine "machine lullabies" Spectral for 0 and Spectral for 60. Viv Corringham's Eggcup, Teapot, Rhythmicon uses everyday objects (including, presumably, eggcups and teapots) as vocal resonators, Mark Eden's Cremation Science is a snappy Pop Art collage complete with science lecture and samples of, amongst other things, West Side Story, and proceedings end with a serious plea for religious tolerance in the form of Normandeau's Chorus, dedicated to the victims of September 11th 2001. It's a colourful and entertaining selection of pieces in keeping with the eclecticism associated with Innova's earlier Sonic Circuits compilations. And if you feel like having a go at composing with the Rhythmicon yourself, you can – go to:–DW

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This encounter between Barcelona-based Greek electronician Ilios and Zürich's Jason Kahn was recorded in Ilios's adopted home town on, it says here, June 30th and 31st 2004. It's news to me that June now has 31 days, but then again Ilios and Kahn are good at doing funny things with time, and many of these sixteen brief tracks give the illusion of being longer than they actually are. The tight hard-edged editing – this is music that starts and stops instead of beginning and ending – is a Kahn speciality (cf. his Songs For Nicolas Ross on Rossbin, Sihl on Sirr and Drumming on Creative Sources), and the sonic Polaroid technique works especially well here, showing that Ilios's music can be just as powerful and effective in small chunks as it is in monumental slabs like Old Testament. The words "Astra" and "Steloj" both translate as "stars", by the way (the latter in Esperanto, as if you didn't know that already from your collection of ESP Disk' albums), and it's fitting for another stellar album on the magnificent Conv label.–DW

There are more stars on offer in Preghiera per una stella, the follow-up to last year's delicate, white-wool wrapped Le Baptême de la Solitude (Petite Sono), by Italy's Luca Bergero, aka Fhievel. It's another helping of gentle, contemplative electronica, 22'25" of sustained chords (tonal, broadly speaking, drifting imperceptibly from major to minor) fading in and out to the accompaniment of a gossamer-fine network of laptop flutters, pops and rustles (imagine someone shaking a tiny seashell full of sand near your ear). Not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but it doesn't set out to be; instead, this is music that works with a small amount of basic material and uses it effectively to draw the listener into its quiet, unassuming and undeniably beautiful world.–DW

Post is Melbourne's James Wilkinson, a player responsible for some outstanding moments with groups such as Bucketrider and High Pass Filter. With Post, he takes a step back from the more vibrant turf of those two groups to refine the art of electronically influenced pop. Picking apart the core values of this genre – melody, rhythm and measured structure – he creates a dissolving image of what pop might become in the hands of a more experimental craftsman. That said, the left-field inclinations of Wilkinson (and those of contributors such as Anthony Pateras, Robin Fox and Steve Heather) don't show through as much as you'd expect. Any slips into more chaotic movements or bursts of irregularity are kept to a minimum or mixed so as to be nothing more than flutters of background sound. "Dtld", for instance, features a good dose of epileptic synthetic tones, but they appear in the mix as mere background colour. Dynamic stasis is the keynote of this record: at no point does it shock or surprise the listener. It just unfolds, with little drama or highlight. Enjoyable, but somewhere in the production all of the energy of these pieces seems to have gone missing. A greater variety in dynamics and mixing might might have helped bring more life to these otherwise accomplished decomposed pop pieces.–LE

Various Artists
Bip Hop
Despite the slightly dated title, Volume 8 of this compilation series holds some distinctive listening – open expanses of floating textures, vanishing melodic passages and lilting pulses. None of the tracks is better at capturing this sound state than Murcof's contribution, a beautifully executed reductionist composition: when the sonic layers fall away halfway through, we're left with glimmering illuminations softly reflecting in a synthetic space, before they are overcome by waves of pounding sub-heavy electronics. Tennis's two contributions come closest to fulfilling the ideas behind the compilation's title, suggesting a return to the glitch-hop cum dub/glitchtronica of the early naughties. The unrelenting torrent of Minimo's offering is surprisingly heavy-handed for this Japanese unit; the second half of their 14-minute work, however, forgoes the 4/4 sine bleep for a moving pastoral suite which would fit beautifully into any number of filmic renderings of works by Kiriko Nananan. The final two sets by Tu m' and Strings Of Consciousness share similar production and aesthetic values – their electronic textures and welcoming tonal passages are offset by gusts of distortion and masked rhythm.–LE

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Copyright 2004 by Paris Transatlantic