LENT 2009 Reviews by Clifford Allen, Paul Baran, Nate Dorward, Jean-Claude Gevrey, Guy Livingston, Richard Pinnell, Massimo Ricci, Dan Warburton:

Editorial; Interview with JOE GIARDULLO
In Print: Cornelius Cardew - A Life Unfinished
In Concert:
Heiner Goebbels
On Prêle:
Cordier & Tricot / Frédéric Nogray / Revenant
Vinyl Solution:
Emaciator / Dror Feiler & Lasse Marhaug / Dylan Nyoukis / Placenta Popeye / Reverse Mouth / Taku Sugimoto / Sun Stabbed
DVD: John Cage
AMM with John Butcher / aspSEC / Big / Brötzmann & Lonberg-Holm / John Butcher & Gerry Hemingway / Command All Stars / Bob Downes / Neil Ardley / Epicureans / Fulminate Trio / Guy, Crispell & Lovens / Fred Hess / Tomas Korber & Utah Kawasaki
MEV / mkm / Andrea Parkins & Jessica Constable / Rebecca / Keith Rowe & Taku Unami / Alexander von Schlippenbach / Christine Sehnaoui & Michel Waisvisz / Gérard Siracusa / Totem> / Trio3 + Irène Schweizer / Yoshimura, Sugimoto, Tsunoda, Okura
Cornelius Cardew / Michael Peters / Mathieu Saladin
Xabier Erkizia / Cem Güney /Jason Kahn & Asher / Locrian / Francisco Lopez & Lawrence English / Omit / Pixel / Steinbrüchel / Vomir
Last issue


The record industry looks like it's in crisis? Not from where I'm sitting, matey – January and February (so far) have seen an unprecedented number of arrivals in the PT mailbox (132 CDs, 11 LPs and one cassette – cheers, Locrian!), which I suppose warrants some kind of line like "this is our biggest issue yet.." Dunno if it is – that's for you to find out – but there should be enough here to keep you busy for a couple of hours at least. Warm welcomes this time round to Paul Baran and Jean-Claude Gevrey, new contributors. Paul has been busy lately making his own music in Amann Studios (more of that later), but I've managed to lure him away from the mixing desk to pen a couple of pieces here, having enjoyed his writing over at Bagatellen; Jean-Claude usually writes for the eminent French publication Octopus, but a few weeks sent me a kind of desperate email saying something along the lines of, I've got this Incapacitants 10 CD box and I simply have to review it.. Well, who am I to say no? I trust he lives in a secluded spot somewhere in central France, because if I tried to play a ten CD Incapacitants box where I live, I'd probably be writing this in jail now. Also big thanks this issue to our man in Texas, Clifford Allen, for turning in the interview with Joe Giardullo (and look out for forthcoming albums from Joe on Mode), as well as the usual suspects, Messrs Livingston, Pinnell and Ricci – and of course Nate Dorward for dotting the i's and crossing the t's. Bonne lecture.-DW

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In Print
John Tilbury
1072pp ISBN 978-0-9525492-4-6
Over twenty years in the writing, John Tilbury's biography of British composer Cornelius Cardew finally appeared towards the end of last year. 1026 pages long – excluding appendices, lists of primary and secondary sources, list of works, bibliography and discography – it's a monumental work of scholarship that needs several months, maybe years, of close reading, preferably cross-checking with Cardew's own writings, which appeared in 2006 in Cornelius Cardew – A Reader (also published by Copula, a division of Eddie Prévost's Matchless Recordings). Indeed, although Tilbury quotes extensively from Cardew's writings on music – and what an able and articulate writer Cardew was – no reader should attempt to approach this biography without familiarising him/herself with Cornelius Cardew – A Reader (hereafter referred to as CCR) beforehand. This probably explains why, to date, so few reviews of A Life Unfinished have appeared; there's simply no way to do justice to such a work in a mere 500-word been-there-done-that capsule review dashed off at high speed for a hip music mag. For Cornelius Cardew was neither high-speed – even deceptively simple works like the Schooltime Compositions were the result of much thought and serious study – nor hip, especially in the last seven or eight years of his life, when he turned his back not only on the avant garde establishment he had grown into and helped shape, but also on his own early music.
And yet in recent years Cardew has become strangely hip, in a way; not because of his own work as a composer – none of the few available recorded versions of Treatise does much more than scratch the surface of Cardew's extraordinary work, a 193-page graphic score that occupied him for more than four years, and the world still lacks a recording, problematic though it would be to produce one, of the equally monumental seven-hour Great Learning – but because of his associations with the pioneering free improvising group AMM. After over three decades of being treated as free jazz fringe lunatics performing for three men and a dog in upstairs rooms of Stoke Newington pubs, improvisers are finally being accorded the status of serious musicians and invited to perform in major festivals of contemporary music (not as much as they should be, of course, and they still need plenty of door gigs to pay the bills if they're heroic enough to try and make a living from their music). But there's no equivalent of Perspectives Of New Music or Journal Of Music Theory to legitimize improv – informed and erudite writing on the subject has been alarmingly thin on the ground (one reason being that those best qualified to discuss it, namely improvisers themselves, are often busier doing it than writing about it, which is probably as it should be). Cornelius Cardew's Towards an Ethic of Improvisation, in the Treatise Handbook, is, along with Derek Bailey's Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music, one of improvised music's few texts of seminal importance. One imagines then that most of the people who have read Tilbury's book (or who are in the process of so doing – many of my acquaintances are still only a third of the way through) are more interested in Treatise, AMM and the Scratch Orchestra than they are in the inner workings of the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist), and more likely to have a copy of The Crypt than We Sing For The Future on their shelves at home.
Here I am, 592 words into the review and I haven't even opened the book yet. Be warned: this is no résumé of the Cardew life story (that would run to several thousand words for starters – and, fan though I am of Nat Hentoff-style liner notes, I believe there's little point to reviews that merely describe what intelligent listeners / readers can hear / read for themselves), nor even a collection of key quotations from Tilbury's book (though my copy is peppered with over 500 Post-It notes), which would be more than twice as long as a complete monthly issue of PT. Why bother? John Tilbury tells the story much better than I could. Indeed, one of the most attractive things about A Life Unfinished is how well it's written (one might moan, as Julian Cowley does in his Wire review, about the occasional flourish of lyricism, but to do so seems petty and churlish), even though my first reaction on thumbing through this mighty tome was one of foreboding: how am I going to be able to get through the latter part of the book, over 500 pages devoted to Cardew's activities in the CPE(M-L), complete with discussions of that post-Great Learning music, which I have always found – and still find – foursquare, plodding and dreadfully banal compared to the compositions of the 1960s. But Tilbury's painstakingly researched and passionate discussion of the composer's later life, from the break-up of the Scratch Orchestra via the unswerving commitment to (and subsequent repudiation of) Maoist ideology, to his final desperate years getting up at the crack of dawn to sell barely half a dozen copies of the Party rag to striking workers in the bleak dawn of Thatcher's Britain, and his ignominious death in a hit and run accident (supposedly), is as eminently readable as his discussion of Treatise, AMM and The Great Learning.
At 1026 pages, the book is certainly long, but at times the music theorist in me would like it to be even longer. Tilbury takes us up to 1961 in just 123 pages, covering the family background, early life and school days concisely and effectively with carefully chosen salacious titbits from Cardew's Journals relating to his sex life adding colour and spice, but the composer's infatuation with serialism – not just his, but his whole generation's – and exactly how his own works of the late 50s approached it is probably worthy of a book itself. The vocal writing in Voice from Thel's Grave, a setting of part of William Blake's Book of Thel, is, judging from the brief extract on page 46, accomplished and eminently singable, and makes for an interesting comparison with Boulez's Le Marteau sans Maître, which Cardew obviously knew well (he played guitar in the first English performance). His friendship and rivalry with Richard Rodney Bennett (hard to believe now that the composer of the soundtrack to Murder On The Orient Express was once the enfant terrible of English new music) is discussed, but one would have liked a little more detail on Cardew the composer and Cardew the performer, especially those "legendary" performances of La Monte Young. Similarly, the coverage of the period Cardew spent in Cologne as assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen leaves one hungry for more, but Tilbury presumably felt Cardew's experiences copying Stockhausen's Carré had been documented in greater detail elsewhere in the Musical Times piece Report on Stockhausen's Carré, included in the CCR (once more, an essential companion read to A Life Unfinished). Nevertheless, several questions – questions best answered, no doubt, in the context of a seriously detailed Journal Of Music Theory-style set theoretical analysis – continue to haunt me. What exactly did Cardew get from Stockhausen? How did his application of serial procedure evolve during that period, and how important was Carré in that evolution? How did the often frustrating task of copying Stockhausen's monumental four-orchestra monster ("82X Bridge of evil – copying it for the second time. No composer could have written this." (p.84)) affect the music Cardew was writing himself at the time? What relationships exist between the notation of Stockhausen's Plus Minus – a work Cardew knew intimately, having performed it on numerous occasions – and Cardew's own experiments with notation in the early 1960s?
"My age of romanticism is over. Sensations, moments, drop away. My desire is to experience long-term continuities as beautiful. In the Treatise to create the coherent code which expresses the truths we do not know and cannot live up to," wrote Cardew in his Journal in September 1963. No wonder performers have experienced "exquisite frustration" (Richard Barrett) or even felt "thoroughly inhibited" (Brian Dennis) when confronted with the work. When it comes to discussing Treatise, John Tilbury – who along with Keith Rowe must be the musician who's spent more time with Cardew's monumental graphic score than anyone else alive – is the man for the job, and his chapter here is essential reading, for performers and non-performers alike. His observations on the work's notation (pages 232 and 233 deserve to be quoted in their entirety) and how it relates to Cage's, its performance history and how it connects to Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus (essential reading for Cardew, and for anyone coming to terms with his work), are as illuminating as the score is fascinating. Equally thought-provoking are his remarks on the more conventionally (well, somewhat) notated compositions that occupied Cardew while he was working on Treatise, many of which – thinking particularly of the fearsomely difficult Volo Solo – offer important insight into the larger work they spun off from. Let's also hope that someone might get round to recording Bun No.1 too.

The chapter on AMM was, Tilbury informs me, "written fairly early on", which means that anyone looking for tasty quotes about the group's recent evolution, particularly relating to the departure of Rowe a few years ago, will be disappointed. Not that that was ever part of the brief; Tilbury has written a biography of Cardew here, not of AMM, and naturally enough his chapter concentrates on 1965 – 1971 (during which period Tilbury was not, of course, a member of the group himself). His discussion of Cardew's social origins – "class was Cardew's Achilles heel.." (p. 290) – and his background in classical / contemporary music, as opposed to jazz, is telling, and his description of The Crypt magnificent. Of course, there's an element of manifesto to the chapter – no improv group has ever spent more time explaining its procedures and beliefs than AMM – but the tone is never dry or polemical.
From pages 333 to 551 the biographer is in his element, describing the rise and fall of the Scratch Orchestra and going into considerable detail on The Great Learning. His enthusiasm for Cardew's seven-hour epic is perhaps only matched by Michael Nyman's (whose own observations on the work in Experimental Music are well worth reinvestigating), and one is left longing to hear a recording of the whole piece, even if one could never fully do justice to its numerous visual and theatrical elements (tapes do exist, though, and plans to release them are underway, I'm reliably informed – watch this space..!). The history of the Scratch Orchestra, its membership and constituent factions ("Scratchers" vs. "Slippery Merchants"), concerts and camping trips, evolution and eventual dissolution, makes for a great read, often a hilarious one (pity the "Slipperies" cooking up seaweed on a cold Cornish beach, smoking threads pulled from their own trousers and collecting nails to sell to scrap merchants for ready cash! (p. 423)). But the political issues, factional infighting and recriminations that ultimately led to the Orchestra's breakup are never far from the surface, and Tilbury documents the group's inexorable shift towards the world of radical (Maoist) politics with both precision and compassion.
A word of advice to those readers who make it to the start of chapter 13, "Maoism and the Art Schools", and who are tempted to put the book aside, because the political subject matter and/or Cardew's late music is of no interest to them – don't. Thirty-odd years on, it's all too easy to scoff and snigger at the Dave Spart-like twists and turns of the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist) (and those brackets do get awfully tiresome) as they struggled to rewrite the Party line after Mao was officially discredited in 1978, but Tilbury's painstakingly-researched documentation of Cardew's activities – musical and extra-musical, from his analysis of Mountains, the Thälmann Variations and Boolavogue to his dealings with mysterious Party luminaries Carol Reakes and Hardial Bains, from his love of Irish folk song to his arrest and expulsion from the House Of Commons ("this house stinks of racism!" he yelled on October 27th 1981, as Enoch "Rivers of Blood" Powell stood up to speak (p. 1007)), is one of the most compelling reads I've had in long years. The book's final chapter, recounting the events surrounding the composer's death on the night of December 12th, 1981, is utterly gripping. "I would not be surprised if agents of the state had decided his time had come," QC Michael Mansfield stated to Edward Fox in an article in The Independent magazine (quoted on p. 1023) – but Tilbury, whose writing is as polished and nuanced as his piano playing, allows the reader to draw his/her own conclusions, prefacing a list of "unanswered questions" (the lack of both witnesses and accurate photographic evidence at the inquest, Sheila Kasabova (Cardew's partner)'s inability to contact the ambulance crew who were called to the scene of the "accident" etc. etc.) with a chillingly premonitory quotation from Cardew's Journal written when he was barely 18 years old: "I have an insane desire to be an unsolved mystery. The only difficulty is to find a murderer clever enough to carry this out. Not only clever, or escaping justice, but with enough wit to get my epitaph engraved with the following: 'he died as he lived, an unsolved mystery'."
Early death has a nasty habit of freeze-framing an artist's life and work into glorious, misty-eyed eternity. It's probably just as well that the likes of Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison (and maybe even Curtis) checked out when they did – one only has to reel in horror at Shaun Ryder in the 24 Hour Party People DVD bonus interview to see what they might have become. But what would Cornelius Cardew have gone on to do, had he not been killed that night? Would he have teamed up with Billy Bragg, writing protest songs during the 1984-85 Miners' Strike (and would he have followed Bragg into comfortable middle-aged soft left New Labour orthodoxy barely a decade later?)? Which side of the Berlin Wall would he have been on in 1989? Would he have mourned the death of his Leninist hero Enver Hoxha and the downfall of Nicolae Ceausescu? What would he have made of rave culture, gangsta rap, and Britpop? More importantly, would he have returned to AMM and free improvisation (a move he was apparently considering at the time of his death), or, as a composer, moved back towards the richness and complexity of his pre-Scratch Orchestra work?
And what would he be doing today? Drinking latte in Starbucks? Texting his comrades on a Blackberry? What would he make of Merzbow, Marilyn Manson and Malfatti? Would he be reading The Wire online or watching The Wire on satellite TV? Or standing in respectful silence before the tomb of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery like Cyril in High Hopes, mourning the passing not just of a great man, but of the philosophy and practice he brought into being? Who today, after all, still believes Marxism will triumph in the world of Beyoncé, Beckham and Britney? Questions to ponder, perhaps, as you work your way slowly but surely through this magnificent and essential book.

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In Concert
Heiner Goebbels

Conception, direction, and music by Heiner Goebbels
Text by Adalbert Stifter
Music by Goebbels, Bach, chants of the Columbian Indians, and songs of sailors of New Guinea
Audio recordings of Claude Lévi Strauss, William S. Burroughs, Malcolm X
Projected paintings of Paulo Ucello and Jacob Isaack van Ruisdael

Théâtre de Gennevilliers, France
January 14th 2009
First off, the title of this eccentric masterpiece: "Les choses de Stifter" doesn't really translate well. Nor does "Stifter's Things." Perhaps "Stifter's Stuff" says it better. The romantic author Stifter, whose text in the show is puzzling, makes an appearance as the narrator of a mysterious ice-storm in a Germanic forest. Goebbels would naturally have been attracted by the sounds described in this haunting story: the shattering of glass, the branches falling off the trees under the accumulating weight of freezing rain. The sinister danger, the stillness, the lack of any human or animal presence, the loneliness of the explorer. But for the rest, it's not clear why this text is in the performance.

In this show, the audience is the explorer. Except for two technicians who arrive early, accomplish nothing, and mercifully do not return, there is no human presence on stage - all is done (literally) with smoke and mirrors. The protagonists are five partially disassembled pianos, mounted on rolling platforms, over three reflecting pools of water. The waves on the water are "amplified" by spotlights, reflecting onto scrims and curtains. The sound waves of the pianos are amplified by microphones, and projected into the audience. The pianos are amazingly manipulated, prepared in bizarre ways, and entwined in machinery for stroking, hitting, and rubbing them. A disappointment is that so many of these surprising sounds are made with tiny means, far too tiny for us to perceive from our seats in the audience. Only afterwards, permitted to explore on stage, did we discover many of the sound sources, awesome in their inventiveness. I would have put some of the pianos in the hall, amongst the audience, or added video cameras and screens, to bring the audience into the joke. Probably neither fit into Goebbels' aesthetic. And there is a very strong one.

Nothing is left to chance. This is not the aggression of Nancarrow, this is not the wildness of George Antheil, there is none of the improvisation of Jean Tinguely. Everything is very tightly controlled. It's as if the show is in a specific language of his own. Paradoxically, this language seems to be very refined and restricted to a limited grammar. Yet the means employed to create the sounds are insanely complicated (and probably exceedingly expensive). Except for the robotic performance of Antheil's Ballet Mécanique at the National Gallery in Washington two years ago, nowhere have I seen such a sophisticated robotic setup with such complicated and precisely controlled musical effects. But Goebbels exercises immense restraint in the deployment of his all-powerful machines, and much of the show moves at an aggravatingly slow (for some in the audience, used to faster MTV-like special effects) pace. This piece is about reflection and perception. We are walking in the snow, the water is underneath our feet, the sound of a paving stone excruciatingly dragged over a concrete causeway becomes an infinite refrain.

So Stifter's stuff, his things, are Goebbel's things: a cabinet of curiosities, a collection of obsolete machines (old pianos) manipulated using the latest high-tech computer and MIDI controls. After the show, I argued with my companion over whether the performance had a soul or not. She said "yes", as exemplified by the performance (a little sad, a little hesitant) of the Bach Italian Concerto on one of the pianos. Sure enough, that's a recording of Goebbels himself playing the piece, and its poignancy is amplified because it's played in the rain (yes, no expense was spared – a peaceful rain fell onstage during the concerto). I argued "no": that the loss of human error and passion on stage defeats the purpose of a performance, and relegates the experience to the dispassionateness of a Victorian diaporama or a museum exhibit. Even Tinguely's machines could (and often did) go violently amuck, spraying ink, fire, or nuts and bolts everywhere. But the precision and accuracy of this show, its squareness (everything is at right angles, all the things, all the stuff, are placed with care in a rigorous grid) defy the craziness needed to conceive it in the first place. And I suppose we should admire the artist's restraint. After all, it would have been all to easy given these means to create something more along the lines of Broadway or an Imax movie. The sobriety of the realization makes us think, makes us reflect, and when the ending, sad and full of regret, finally comes, we leave the show with great nostalgia for these mournful machines.–GL

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Pica Disk
In these troubled times of armed conflict, global warming, financial crisis, job insecurity and depression on every level, there aren't many occasions to rejoice. There aren't likely to be many for a while either, but at least we now have the ideal soundtrack to accompany the end of the world: cryptically entitled Box Is Stupid, it's the work of two fine Japanese gentlemen employed, respectively, by a major bank and a government office. Toshiji Mikawa and Fumio Kosakai are no ordinary salarymen, though. They've been making some of the most unremittingly ear-shattering racket for decades as Incapacitants, one of the most significant noise outfits to emerge from the groundbreaking Japanese scene in the early 1980s, and still one of the most radical and powerful. Initially, Incapacitants was a recording-only solo project of Mikawa, who established his longstanding partnership with Kosakai when he moved from Osaka to Tokyo. Over the years, the duo made quite a name for themselves with their uncompromisingly extreme sound and apocalyptic live performances, recognition that spread to Europe and North America after 1999, the year of their first gig outside of Japan. In 2007 they travelled abroad twice, to perform at the All Ears Festival in Oslo and at Carlos Giffoni's No Fun Fest in New York. Both gigs were subsequently released on CD, the Norwegian show as Burning Orange on Pica Disk, an increasingly essential label run by noise activist Lasse Marhaug.
Thinking – rightly so – that Incapacitants are ripe for (re)discovery, Marhaug has struck again with an impressive box set of first-rate archive material from the vaults of Mikawa and Kosakai. It's a safe bet to say that, apart from the artists themselves, virtually nobody else has ever heard this material in its entirety, as it was previously released exclusively as limited cassette editions on obscure imprints. With this massive reissue of seven releases (ten tapes), spanning a period from 1993 to 1997, the full Incapacitants cassette back catalogue is now available in digital format, following the reappearance of Pariah Tapes on Finland's Freak Animal in 2006 and El Shanbara Therminosis on Sweden's Segerhuva a year later (why only Scandinavian labels should have undertaken the task remains a mystery..).
Noise has always been closely associated with the underground DIY cassette culture. Predating the era of digital domination, there was a time where artist-run labels putting out primarily, if not exclusively, tapes were legion: Toshiji Mikawa's own Pariah Tapes, Masami Akita's ZSF Produkt, Koji Tano's MSBR Records, Masonna's Coquette, Aube's G.R.O.S.S. or Hiroshi Hasegawa's Endorphine Factory are just a few examples from Japan alone. Though still a fetishized format in some experimental music niches where trading is common practice and sound fidelity not necessarily the main concern, cassettes now tend to be replaced by CDRs, which are easier to self-release. Even worse from the chromium dioxide diehard point of view, the tyranny of durability seems to impose professionally-pressed CDs as the medium of choice for reissuing documents that would otherwise remain inaccessible to new audiences. Lasse Marhaug knows this very well, and launched his own Pica imprint with a commanding CD release of his early tape works. Marhaug, a long-time Incapacitants fan, also has a background in graphic design. Put the two together and you get a pristine edition of 10 CDs containing a total of 8 hours 15 minutes and 3 seconds of relentless sonic onslaught remastered from original DAT tapes, packaged in lovely glossy cardboard sleeves with revamped artwork and accompanied by a booklet of informative liner notes by Mikawa, Kosakai, Jim Sauter (of Borbetomagus fame) and Otomo Yoshihide, which are useful to both the noise connoisseur, who will find interesting points of view as well as historical context, and to the uninitiated, who are left in no doubt as to what to expect: "My intention was consciously extreme – to attack the audience's auditory canals with my noise and thus render them incapable of fighting back" (Toshiji Mikawa). "Noise is neither art nor propaganda – rather it is sheer acoustic pleasure." (Fumio Kosakai). Get the idea? Now let's delve into this thing a little more closely..
Discs 1 and 2 – Stupid Is Stupid (Sound For Consciousness Rape, France, 1993)
A total immersion into the world of Incapacitants. All the main elements are there: analogue equipment tortured to death resulting in a unique, ever-changing sharp metallic crashing ultra-dynamic assault that never stops once underway. "Don't sleep while we explain", orders track two, as if anyone could. CD 1 consists of studio material, and CD 2 contains two live performances recorded in the early 90s in Tokyo, one building slowly to end in extreme confusion, the other close to total chaos from start to finish. Snippets of ecstatic high-pitched gurgling vocals can sometimes be heard buried in the mix – get a taste of the fun these guys were having onstage back in 1992 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=taOVp6KxNto
Disc 3 – Extreme Gospel Nights (Vanilla Records, Japan, 1993)
Michio Teshima's Vanilla Records is one of the Japanoise-defining labels, so it's no surprise to find the name of Incapacitants on its artist roster. "Gospel" refers to the place where the recordings were made, so don't expect traditional spirituals. Instead you get some truly alien performances, complete with sporadic screaming of vivisected baboons drowning in the sonic sludge. There are two tracks; "Bitter Insect", probably recorded directly from the soundboard, and the super lo-fi "Accelerated No(i)sebleed", followed by the appreciative howling of the 15 people in the audience at the end, proof that human life can indeed survive an Incapacitants live show.
Discs 4, 5 and 6 – Ad Nauseam (Banned Productions, USA, 1994)
Here comes the pièce de résistance of this box, the aptly-titled Ad Nauseam, originally released as a triple cassette on experimental turntablist AMK's imprint. An ambitious work in three parts – Edition Mikawa and Edition Kosakai (which use the same sound sources but yield very different results) and a third Edition Live in case you still can take more – Ad Nauseam represents a shift from previous releases, and perhaps a deal breaker for some harsh noise fundamentalists, as identifiable structures and even beats (yes, beats!) can be distinguished at times. This isn't a problem, though, as when Mikawa is in control there's hardly any recognizable material to be heard. And when he decides to call each of his three tracks "abrasive", he means it. As hard as it is to imagine, he seems to have his set-up cranked up even higher than before, resulting in a multilayered noise barrage that slowly moves from one dense massive block of sound to another – really thick but with a nice crispy edge throughout. The second edition kicks off with "Technodelicatessan" [sic], a ludicrous title that becomes more meaningful when one reads Kosakai's testimony about how a DJ set by Jeff Mills in 1992 made him realize the potential of frequency modulation through filters. So we finally get to know the nature of those sound sources: for starters, there's some old school techno, gradually dismembered and pulverized at the end of the first track, then something that sounds like a grindcore-infused Godzilla smashing buildings, while the final half hour-long track is under the nasty influence of doom metal, with heavily distorted deep growling, low-tuned bass slowly melting into slimy, deleterious lava flow. The third part documents live appearances from 1993-4: two sets of great intensity that convince us again that the full power of Incapacitants is to be experienced live.
Disc 7 - D.D.D.D. (Destroy Devastating and Disgusting Derivatives) (Old Europa Café, Italy, 1995)
The name D.D.D.D. has nothing to do with the Dynamic Diplomats of Double Dutch but rather is a wink at C.C.C.C. (Cosmic Coincidence Control Center), the defunct psych noise project of Hiroshi Hasegawa (now operating as Astro) and Mayuko Hino. Kosakai was a regular additional member of the group, playing electronics, drum machine and unidentified junk. It's hard to tell if the title is to be understood as a tribute, but, whatever the case, the sound is taken to a new level: a gritty white noise avalanche with little dynamic variation occupies the foreground almost perpetually, while some intense activity can be perceived in the distance, as if a contact mic had been placed inside an ant hill. Brutal cut at 30 minutes precisely (ha! good old c60 days!) and off we go again, side B boldly riding a giant tidal wave with a school of dying whales.
Disc 8 – The Tongue (Chocolate Monk, UK, 1996)
This one was originally issued by the truly eclectic cassette-then-CDR label run by Dylan Nyoukis, Chocolate Monk (which, in addition to a roster of genitalia-oriented artists – Prick Decay, Harry Pussy, Cock ESP.. – has also put out material by the likes of Folk Implosion, Trumans Water and Melt Banana, not to mention an international bunch of noise acts). Here we step into the filthy realm of no-fi: smoking circuits, out of control static, super-grainy abrasiveness, constant saturation and sporadic tape bumps. Not the most crucial recording by Incapacitants but still good to have it available once more.
Disc 9 – Cosmic Incapacitants (Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers, UK, 1997)
The first thing we notice here is the eye-catching cover with its small box full of candies. They look pretty edible but one suspects that they might contain substances a bit more mind-altering than sugar, an impression strengthened when you hear the corresponding disc, which sounds as loaded as the livers of Lester Bangs and Hunter S. Thompson combined. Again a departure from previous outings, Cosmic Incapacitants is a fitting title for this glorious odyssey through celestial bodies. Weird sci-fi B-movie soundtracks seem to be the source of inspiration for the intro, where rusty flying saucers meet early electronics experiments. Blistering waves of warm sounds progressively phase in with solar winds and metallic pulsations to achieve a kind of hypnotic kosmische space music, complete with occasional bell-like and organ-like sonoroties. Definitely a stand-out in the discography of Incapacitants and probably the most accessible material to be found in this box, this is the one to start with if you are a newcomer to the noise field.
Disc 10 – I, Residuum (Less Than Zero, Italy, 1997)
The coup de grâce comes with this overwhelming release from 1997, whose sound is particularly impressive, painfully dense and full of detail – there's very little air to breathe here. It's basically an Incapacitants all-in-one featuring the trademark frenzy, colourful psychedelics and sonic steamroller, all sounding crystal clear. Perfect to make your head explode, which is what you were looking for in the first place after all.
With such an imposing release, one that stands proudly next to the unrivalled Merzbox in the pantheon of intimidating box sets, Incapacitants have not only secured their place in the history of noise, but also demonstrated that noise can stand alone, absolute and vibrant, without the transgressive imagery often associated with it. Incapacitants never had to splash bodily fluids onto their audience, like early Hijokaidan or C.C.C.C., or trash gear and venues like Hanatarash; their noise takes root not in violence or gimmickry, but in pure energy. For those brave enough to approach this "stupid" box, be prepared: Incapacitants create inexhaustible chaos verging on the sublime, and take you on a truly excruciating journey toward catharsis. Listen to it as loud as you can, perhaps with a glass of your favourite beverage in hand, and enjoy the end of life as we know it.–JCG [photo of Incapacitants courtesy Natasha Li Pickowicz]

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On Prêle
Denis Tricot / Eric Cordier
Frédéric Nogray
"Prêle", the label website informs us, is French for horsetail, or equisetum, "primitive plants which have spanned geological time thanks to their ability to survive in difficult environments." It's a great name for Eric Cordier and Satoko Fujimoto's Paris-based imprint. You've been warned: easy listening this is not – it's meant to stand the test of time. The first two horsetails to appear on the label, Anla Courtis and Kouhei Matsunuga's 2005 untitled outing and the following year's Mars, a titantic guitar tussle between Jean-François Pauvros and Makoto Kawabata, are still worth digging up and taking home if you find they've taken root in your local record shop, but meanwhile three more have sprouted.
Eric Cordier's own recorded output so far has documented either his hurdy-gurdy playing (in Enkidu, with Chie Mukai and Seiichi Yamamoto, and Phéromone, with Jean-Luc Guionnet and Pascal Battus) or his sound art, which includes field recording (last year's Osorezan on Herbal is excellent and well worth seeking out), musique concrète (2003's Digitalis Purpurea on Ground Fault) and in situ installation work (notably a handful of fine albums with Afflux in the company of Guionnet and Eric La Casa). Orgue de bois ("Wooden Organ") is the latest of these projects. Conceived and built with Denis Tricot, it's a huge construction of undulating long wooden slats specially designed to occupy whatever public space commissions its construction (the twelve-page booklet accompanying the CD contains many splendid photographs of the mighty beast in different settings). Piezo pickups are attached to the wooden slats, which can then be played – bowed, struck, scratched, or whatever – after which "the audience is free to explore and discover the instrument's vast potential for musical sounds and noises." Over the past four years Cordier and Tricot have set up their organ in over 30 different venues, and the three tracks on this CD were recorded, respectively, on the Ile de Charentonneau in Maisons-Alfort just outside Paris on May 20th 2006, in La Ferté-sous-Jouarre south of Paris four months later, and in front of the Hôtel de Ville in Vaux-sur-Mer in Charente-Maritime in October 2007. The disc is beautifully recorded, and does indeed reveal the wooden organ's "potential for musical sounds and noises" (though I'm not sure I'd call it "vast"), but you need serious stamina, or maybe a horsetail infusion, to maintain necessary concentration throughout nearly 70 minutes of what sounds like a rather torpid giant daxophone. Like Cordier's 1999 Synapses outing with Jean-Luc Guionnet on Selektion (which, incidentally, would win my prize for the most hideous album cover ever, notwithstanding several Emanems), one often feels that listening to the sounds themselves is not enough, and longs to know how they were created.
After putting the no input mixing board through its paces on 1999's a!meushi?! (La Belle Du Quai) and 2003's Panotii (N-REC), Frédéric Nogray has now turned his attention to large bowls made from quartz melted at high temperature. Originally destined for use in industry (I wonder what for, exactly), the incredibly pure frequencies they generate – put that down to a 99.99% silica content, Nogray's MySpace site informs us – sound extraordinary at sufficiently high volume. Nelki is one of those pump-it-up-close-your-eyes-and-find-your-way-around-your-apartment records, where the slightest movement of the head can change the frequency spectrum with quite alarming results. (So don't try and play it on headphones, you'll be wasting your time.) Moreover, as the human body itself contains silica, Nogray tells us, listening can also be an intensely physical experience, either sleep-inducing or stimulating, depending on the listener – and the playback volume. The louder the better, so your neighbours don't think you've gone all New Age and buy you a set of fucking windchimes.
The third horsetail on offer is the work of what can only be called a field recording supergroup – Yannick Dauby, Olivier Feraud, John Grzinich, Hitoshi Kojo and Patrick McGinley – who got together in a forest near the village of Topolò just across the border from Slovenia in October 2006 for a symposium entitled "Pushing The Medium", and spent many a happy hour exploring the woods. I wonder if they found any horsetails in there. "All sounds originated from materials found in situ. No overdubbing or editing was done in order to document this specific action and location in time," says the booklet, in typical field recordist style, though the final track does feature Grzinich and Kojo playing pitch pipes and I rather doubt they just came across them lying around in the undergrowth, but never mind. There's plenty to read in the booklet – once more twelve pages long, beautifully produced with classy layout and photographs – as each of the participating artists contributes a text of his own, ranging from Kojo's concise prose poem ("Excrements of the Spirit") to McGinley's patient explanation of the album title ("revenant [..] a folklorist's term for ghost, but the word circumscribes the idea that something has remained, is repeating, its impression is retained in so much thin air.."), but the listening experience alone is intriguing enough as it is.–DW

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Vinyl Solution
Accidie head honcho and fellow contributor to the bunfights over at IHM, William Hutson, has enclosed a handwritten note with this handsome double album apologising for sending it along so late. It seems it's been out and about for a few months already, long enough perhaps for all 300 copies to have disappeared (though perhaps the fact he sent me one means there are still a few out there to be had, so go and find out for yourself). Whether it is still available or not - and it wouldn't be the first time I've scribbled about an album that's sold out - it's terrific. All this "despairing", "bleak" and "rock bottom hopelessness" I read about in the press release just confuses me, to be honest. OK, what we've got here is slowmoving, uncompromising stuff – I'll go along with "ghostly synth-based melodies that drift over a churning urban landscape of gritty static" – but there's a sureness of touch, a sense of pacing and a fine ear for detail too, and those are qualities I find uplifting as a listener, whatever the genre of music. Emaciator is another alias for Jon Borges – you may already be familiar with Pedestrian Deposit – and, as usual, this top quality vinyl platter comes after literally dozens of cassette releases, many on Borges' harsh noise cassette imprint Monorail Trespassing, which I've yet to hear (as if I didn't have enough stuff to listen to as it is). On the strength of Reflection, though, it seems as if Borges, like Emeralds, Carlos Giffoni, Dominick Fernow (and a host of others), is yet another noise wunderkind who starts out wanting to make an amorphous terrifying mess and ends up making structurally coherent, enjoyable music. Out of the strong came forth sweetness, as it were. Well, on second thoughts, I don't think I'd call this exactly sweet, but it's sure as hell tasty.–DW

Dror Feiler / Lasse Marhaug
No Fun
Talking of Emeralds and Carlos Giffoni, I was just pinching myself while listening to the new Emeralds CD What Happened on No Fun, worrying in case I'd accidentally slipped back through a hole in time to the mid 1970s (more on that later, if I stay awake long enough to review it). If you've heard that disc, and are wondering whether label bossman Giffoni has suddenly gone all soft and cuddly, get an earful of No More Drama and reassure yourself. You might be able to take your copy of What Happened round to mum and dad's place to play at discreet volume during Sunday lunch, but if you want them to leave you anything in their will when they die, you'd better leave this one back in the crib. Unless they're hip enough to thrill to these two terrific scorching live sets from Norwegian noisenik Marhaug and Swedish-Israeli activist (musical and otherwise) Dror Feiler, one recorded in Trondheim in November 2004, the other two and a half years later in Düdingen, Switzerland. A blurb I came across online (in several places) said something about "Borbetomagus playing a storm or being in the middle of a bombing in Palestine" – a reference no doubt to Feiler's prominent support for the Palestinian cause – but I was watching Marathon Man again a few days ago and I rather fancy the famous dentist drill torture scene probably sounded something like this inside Dustin Hoffman's head. But anyway, have a listen and choose your own image.–DW

Dylan Nyoukis
No Fun
"These weird new muscles are starting too [sic] ache," begins the text on the back cover of the LP, next to a strangely disturbing photo of Dylan Nyoukis whose eyeballs seem to have disappeared up into his skull (well, that's what comes of living in Brighton, I guess). And strangely disturbing is certainly how I'd describe the eight tracks on Inside Wino Lodge (four each side, blurring into each other – it's not always easy to figure out where one ends and the next one begins), which feature Nyoukis on vocals, reel to reel, organ, violin, radio, bowed springs, electronics and etc. As noise goes – and it's with noise that Nyoukis (Blood Stereo, Ceylon Mange, Prick Decay / Decaer Pinga) is usually associated – it's not particularly loud, but it's certainly unsettling. There seems to be some serious mastication going on on "Two Periods Of Strange Eating", but exactly what is being eaten is impossible to determine – the microphone, perhaps. "The Festering Lab" is aptly named; this dollop of queasy sludge is the sonic equivalent of that piece of Cheddar you forgot about in the fridge and discovered six weeks later. Gobble it up and those weird new muscles will indeed start to ache. Yikes!–DW

Placenta Popeye / Reverse Mouth
Absurd / Phase! / Tanzprocesz
We're a long way from the United States of Europe, but cross-border cooperation between EU member states is flourishing nevertheless. Dame – make that Damn – Margaret Thatcher, if she wasn't suffering from Alzheimer's, would shudder at the thought, and probably throw up in her handbag if she heard this wonderfully strange split 7", featuring a track each from Marseille-based Placenta Popeye (who says they don't dream up great band names anymore?) and Greeks Reverse Mouth. Both duos, but there the similarity ends. PP's offering is a "real" "song" – though I can't make out the words, not that that matters – built over a solid thudding bass with some nasty fuzzy guitar scribbling in the harmonic details, such as they are. Sort of sounds like Pere Ubu meets The Birthday Party, and if that sounds too trad, try it at 33RPM instead of the recommended 45. On the flipside, which you should play at 33, Panagiotis Spoulos and Sofia Zoitu get into some really weird territory. There's a guitar in there, but goodness knows what it's doing and what else is going on around it. I've just played this sixteen times in a row and I still haven't figured it out. Great! Absurd indeed, and as usual a beautiful object in a limited (400) edition. Buy two copies, send one of them to Maggie's nursing home and you might polish the old witch off once and for all.–DW

Taku Sugimoto
Weird Forest
Though it's wonderful to see this long OOP debut solo album back in circulation, one has to wonder what the lowercase-lovin' punters at whom it's presumably targeted, who probably know Taku Sugimoto as one of Pope Radu's most ascetic cardinals, are likely to make of it. Recorded way back in February 1988, when even Radu Malfatti was still blowing his brains through his trombone, and long before Taku started taking refuge under that distinctive hat, it's a blast of searing guitar noise worthy of Rudolph Grey, Donald Miller, Thurston Moore or any other Noise Guitar Hero you care to mention. Hard to find anything else to say, really, about this or other similar offerings of six-string feedback apocalypse; it is what it is, to quote Phill Niblock, and very enjoyable it is too at Niblock volume (though I doubt the rest of my family would agree with me on that one). There's even a little yelp of delight from someone in the crowd when it's all over (the audient stood on its foot?). First time round there were only 100 of these babies, but this is an edition of 500 (even so it'll probably disappear quite promptly, if it hasn't already – I picked my copy up a couple of months ago), which means, I suppose, that Taku is five times as popular today as he was back in 88. At this rate he should be due a major label release sometime in the middle of the next century. Watch this space, folks.–DW

Sun Stabbed
Hats off to anyone who launches a label into the stormy seas of the current credit crunch / recession / depression (delete where appropriate according to mood), even if this seven-incher leaves you hungry for more. Grenoble-based Thierry Monnier's Doubtfulsounds imprint kicks off with him and Pierre Faure following on from their debut release Radio a couple of years back on PseudoArcana – that New Zealand connection gives you a clue as to what to expect: Dead C heads sit up and take note – with two all-too-brief extracts from live appearances in Saint Etienne ("De l'ambiance sonore dans une construction plus étendue", recorded there in October 2006) and Lyon ("Toute l'eau de la mer ne pourrait pas...", dating from six months earlier). The A side, whose wonderfully rough recording captures the ambiance sonore of St Etienne local traffic as well as the guitar duo, starts off rambunctiously but soon settles into a more contemplative tick / loop mood. It's impressive how much these guys cram into just over five and a half minutes; Tardis-like, there's more on the inside than you'd expect to find. The same is true of the B side, a somewhat more stable but no less tense exploration of guitar resonance. With true analogue missionary zeal, Monnier's website (if you want a copy of this you're encouraged to contact him directly at doubtfulsounds1@gmail.com) announces that the label will be vinyl only – let's hope his next release will be a full-length LP from these lads. Nice.–DW

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John Cage
John Cage's contribution to Edition Peters' 1977 "Waltz Project" was a list of 147 street locations in New York City's five boroughs (Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island), chosen and arranged in 49 groups of three according to chance operations and marked "for performer(s) or listener(s) or record maker(s)." The composer gave no other indication of how the work was to be performed or realised, but two years after his death in 1992, Don Gillespie, accompanied by Roberta Friedman and Gene Caprioglio, set about visiting each of the 147 locations, setting up a video camera and filming / recording what he saw / heard there, the camera panning left and right in accordance with a durational scheme devised by Andrew Culver, who used his own I Ching software programme to generate a string of durations ranging from 16 to 224 seconds (the total length of the entire piece was fixed at 122 minutes).
It took Gillespie over a year (with occasional reshoots) to film all 147 locations, which explains why the film often cuts from snowbound streets to summer sunshine. Though the durational scheme might account for the speed of the camera panning, it's not always clear whether the width of the pan angle and the number or directions of pans were also determined in advance. Presumably Gillespie also allowed himself some licence regarding the time of day when filming took place, and the exact position of the camera in the street (not always in the street, either – we go down into the subway at 126th and Lexington in Waltz XI and into the HMV record shop on West 72nd Street in Waltz XVII).
As Mode's Brian Brandt writes in the booklet, "the original High 8 source seems a bit crude to our eyes used to HD, but it imparts a grittiness and rawness that seems to fit New York of that period." Quite. We're talking News From Home here, not Do The Right Thing. In terms of sound, the dull roar of motor traffic near and far is, not surprisingly, almost omnipresent. Wailing sirens, planes coming in to land at nearby airports, and the occasional snatch of music identifies the urban location, but there are also birds singing, and more of them than you might think. There are amusing moments – the guy shovelling snow in Waltz VI thrilled to learn he was appearing in a film ("what channel I gonna see?"), the seals hooting in the Bronx Zoo in Waltz XIII – but for most of the time we're presented with "a dimension of perfectly ordinary reality." And if that doesn't suit you, you can always follow Cage's instructions and make your own version of the piece: "transcriptions may be made for other cities (or places) by assembling through chance operations a list of 147 addresses and then, also through chance operations, arranging these in 49 groups of three."

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AMM with John Butcher
"AMM with John Butcher" would seem to indicate that saxophonist Butcher is merely guesting with Eddie Prévost and John Tilbury, and not a member of the group, in the same way he was a member of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and Polwechsel. Maybe it's not all that important, but 1987's The Inexhaustible Document, for example, lists Rohan de Saram alongside Prévost, Tilbury and Keith Rowe; no question of "AMM with Rohan de Saram", even though it was the cellist's only appearance on record with the group. 21 years on, that "with" seems somehow significant, as if Prévost and Tilbury have, since the departure of Keith Rowe in somewhat acrimonious circumstances a while back, closed ranks, and aren't considering any permanent replacement, at least for the time being. Trinity, then, refers to Trinity College of Music in Greenwich, where Sebastian Lexer recorded these four exquisite tracks in January 2008, not, one imagines, to the old idea of AMM as a three-man outfit.
If I seem to be dwelling on this point excessively, it's because the music, breathtakingly sensitive though it is throughout, never quite escapes its two-plus-oneness; however well Butcher handles his ever so delicate multiphonics, fluttertonguing and occasional key slaps, they often sound like something that's been added on, an extra wash of colour to a canvas that would probably hang perfectly well without it. In short, it's possible – less so in the final "Conduit", in which the saxophonist is more prominent – to imagine what the music would sound like without Butcher, mentally erasing him from the mix. As Tilbury doesn't go in for the rapid fire exchanges of musical ideas so typical of mainstream improv (he tried once, with Howard Riley and Keith Tippett, on 2002's Another Part Of The Story, and it didn't really work), Butcher spends more time picking up on the pianist's pitches, modestly allowing himself to play sheep rather than sheepdog.
In terms of volume, the set as a whole is slow, quiet and intimate – but remarkably vivid, and intense: just what you'd expect from AMM, of course. By now John Tilbury must be fed up with being mentioned in the same breath as Morton Feldman (though if he is, he has only himself to blame!), and Eddie Prévost tired of being complimented on his bowed cymbal work, so I'll leave that for others to do, and go back and listen again. Because, like all AMM albums, Trinity really does, if you'll forgive the dreadful cliché, richly reward repeated listening.

Self Released
Not exactly a memorable band name, let alone a pronounceable one, but this is a colourful collection of six untitled improvisations recorded in Naples between June and September last year in the basement studio of A Spirale (hence the ASp), two of whose members, Maurizio Argenziano on guitar and electronics and Mario Gabola on reeds, team up with remarkably versatile keyboard player Mimmo Napolitano (best known perhaps for his work with Weltraum, but do a Google and surprise yourself) and, on the two last tracks, vocalist Emilio Barone. All four clearly have a wide working knowledge of improv idioms and techniques – maybe too wide, in fact, as many interesting ideas go undeveloped and a couple of tracks seem to end too soon – but are at their best when most abstract. The slower, more EAI-inflected pieces (tracks two and four) are more coherent and satisfying, and the electronics more convincing than the acoustic instruments (Barone's warbling and clucking don't add much, and Gabola's fat multiphonics on track four could have been much further back in the mix, though his rubbery flurries on track five do fit in well). Elsewhere the lazy twanging guitar and harmonica on track three sound out of place, curiously nostalgic for a safe, comfortable world of recognisable harmonic ideas, even a sense of tonality. Leave it behind lads, and head for the desert.–DW

Tony Bevan / Chris Corsano / Dominic Lash
Tony Bevan likes to jokily acknowledge the terrifying power of his signature ax, the bass saxophone – his label is called Foghorn, after all, and this new power-trio outing rightly goes by the name of Monster Club. But though he can be a sonic terrorist in the Brötzmann/Wilkinson vein, I prefer to think of him as just as much a Harry Carney rhapsodist – listen to the way he caresses a note during the quieter moments of this album's centrepiece, "This is Murder", or to his tender flutters and chromatic waverings on "You're telling me!". He also has a taste for jaunty, elbows-out rhythms that make him virtually a second percussionist in this kind of group, which is one reason why this encounter with whirlwind drummer Chris Corsano (best known for his fearsome duo with Paul Flaherty, though he's also been spotted lately in a trio with Evan Parker) is especially memorable: sometimes it's a succession of blocks, feints and punches as minutely choreographed as a kung-fu teahouse brawl; while at other times (like the title-track's closing minutes) it's more like a stupendous head-butting contest. Bassist Dominic Lash is third-billed, but it's always worth picking out his inventive countermelodies (thankfully free of do-your-own-thing arbitrariness) from the surrounding hurly-burly. He also gets a nice solo spot, where he zeros in on a sympathetic buzz in the room and unleashes some below-and-above-the-bridge polyphony à la Barry Guy. The four tracks, recorded last July at the Wheatsheaf in Oxford, range from the enormous "This is Murder" to a tiny warm-up for soprano – shame Bevan seems to be disinclined these days to give it much exposure, because he sounds great on it, strikingly full-bodied rather than nasal – to two tough, mid-sized outings for the tenor. Nothing here with the lunar grace of Bevan's work with the quintet Bruise, perhaps, but Monster Club is still a great example of jazz-in-extremis.–ND

If you're thinking Photek, Goldie and Spring Heel Jack (I mean early Spring Heel Jack, before they crossed over the Wire fence into hip free jazz / improv territory), think again. Drummer Edward Perraud and bassist Frederick Galiay are about as far away from that lot as Derek Bailey was (though it didn't stop him making a rather fine drum'n'bass album himself). Ruins and Lightning Bolt come a bit closer – especially Ruins, who, despite their name, specialise in ultra-tight metrical mindfuckery. Perraud and Galiay also have a fondness for angry prog rock, which they explore in another incarnation of Big called Big Pop, with saxophonist Daniel Erdmann thickening the plot, but this raw little three-incher is the original two man line-up, and pop it most definitely is not. These four nasty little tracks, entitled "Tank", "Mute", "Dry" and "Lips" (and, remembering Galiay's garish, disturbing collage artwork for Chamaleo Vulgaris a few years back, I suspect we're not talking the kind of lips you find on the face, either), each a glorious trainwreck of twisted metal and burning plastic, are guaranteed to start your day off on the right foot. Though your neighbours may not approve.–DW

Peter Brötzmann / Fred Lonberg-Holm
The pairing of Peter Brötzmann (alto & tenor sax, b-flat clarinet and tarogato) and Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello & electronics) ensures a crackling punch-a-thon, though they also detour into several lick-my-wounds moments of dazed woolgathering; the second and longest section, in particular, offers a serene oasis amid the disc's skin-scathing sandstorms. Yet this set, recorded by Lou Mallozzi at Chicago's Hideout in 2007, is so jam-packed with slicing shards, rusty spikes and Tasmanian Devil whirls-and-sputters that any attempt at description is doomed to failure. At times Lonberg-Holm's electronic gadgetry sets a cunning trap from which Brötzmann barely manages to escape, flames spitting from his nostrils as he counterattacks with acrimonious bellows. Elsewhere we witness a squabble between equally balanced forces, FLH's unremitting acridness versus PB's hysterical loquaciousness; picture a husband-and-wife quarrel involving flying dishes and broken vases, the participants making rare (and mostly useless) attempts at cooling off. These artists may have become known quantities in the world of improvisation, but their encounter here offers previously overlooked facets of their musical personalities with every listen.–MR

John Butcher / Gerry Hemingway
This decade has seen saxophonist John Butcher making several successful solo forays into the worlds of electroacoustic and environmental improvisation – the former best documented on his Fringes solo disc Invisible Ear, the latter on last year's Resonant Spaces (Confront) – but in case you'd forgotten how good he is at burning it up with a drummer, this latest offering on Gerry Hemingway's Auricle label will remind you. Not that Hemingway, despite impeccable free jazz credentials (think of all those killer Braxton albums for starters) is exactly a hard swingin' bebopper: his ear for timbral nuance and feeling for space is just as keen as, say, Burkhard Beins's. And his kit isn't entirely acoustic, either: on Buffalo Pearl he makes judicious and impressive use of a sampler too. Recorded as you might guess in that upstate NY city on April 17th 2005, it presents five carefully worked examples of the kind of in-the-moment interplay that has characterised both men's work for over 20 years, since Butcher's stay in John Stevens' SME and Hemingway's boisterous mid 80s debut with Braxton. Comparing this to the other Butcher outing reviewed above with AMM probably doesn't make much sense, but as I've been listening to them back to back lately I'm tempted to – and the saxophonist seems to be more at ease with Hemingway, more willing to take the initiative and display his formidable technical mastery, from tight flutter flurries to those meticulous split tones. Hemingway is no less impressive, and his excellent recording and the pair's post-production (another date was recorded at Roulette two days prior to the gig in Hallwalls – maybe we'll see that out and about shortly) capture every detail to perfection. A pearl for sure.–DW

Command All-Stars
Reel Recordings
Bob Downes Open Music
Reel Recordings
Neil Ardley's New Jazz Orchestra
Dusk Fire
A "jazz purist" friend of mine once asked me what I'd been listening to lately, and I told him Brotherhood of Breath. His response was, "isn't that one of those British fusion bands?" If one were to stretch the definition, sure – their mixture of kwela and township music with free jazz and Ellingtonia was a kind of fusion, but it certainly doesn't fit the term as it has come to be understood. Nevertheless, the example does go to show how integrated in the minds of jazz fans are 1970s British improvisation and "fusion." At the time, there was an extraordinary amount of cross-pollination; bands like King Crimson, Soft Machine and Colosseum enlisted jazzmen like Keith Tippett, Elton Dean, Nick Evans, Jon Hiseman and Dick Heckstall-Smith, and the Softs played in jazz venues like Ronnie Scott's club in addition to the art-music festival circuit. Three archival releases out this winter from arranger Neil Ardley, reedman-composer Bob Downes and the Command All-Stars (featuring Tippett and Dean) all testify to this jazz-rock conflation, but the ultimate result is still beautifully and defiantly modern jazz.

The Command All-Stars were a one-off group whose lone album Guilty but Insane was recorded for Ronnie Scott Productions in 1972 but has remained unissued until now. Produced by King Crimson's Robert Fripp, the date brings together pianist Tippett with trumpeter Marc Charig, trombonist Nick Evans, drummer Keith Bailey, bassists Harry Miller and Johnny Dyani, and Elton Dean on saxophones and electric piano for five rousing group improvisations. Apparently one of the tapes has been lost, but Reel Recordings' Michael King was able to salvage the music from one reel for posterity, adding on a performance from Maida Vale that features Louis Moholo, bassist Neville Whitehead and guitarist Jeff Greene. The first two tracks, "Guilty" and "But Insane" work together as a suite, Tippett and Dean trading volleys on acoustic and electric pianos as the twin basses and Bailey's light, all-over wash tug at notions of swing underneath. Tippett's florid stair-steps and prosaic anthems are here in full force, but not in service of any discernible song structure. Yet the music also bears little resemblance to the windswept silences of his contemporaneous work in Ovary Lodge, which makes his playing here an interesting neither-nor proposition and foretells such relentless performances as those on Tern (SAJ, 1982) and in Mujician. The tape dropout that separates the two pieces and the abrupt halt to "But Insane" as the proceedings are clearly just warming up are unfortunate, but thankfully the shimmering forest walk of "African Sunset" and Miller's staggering wooden flute solo are clear and intact.

Flutist and saxophonist Bob Downes was a sometime associate of Tippett's and also worked in bassist Barry Guy's London Jazz Composers' Orchestra (appearing on Ode, Incus 1972) and guitarist Ray Russell's Rock Workshop. However, it's with his Open Music outfit that he made his mark in creative improvisation, recording for Philips and his own Openian label from 1969 until 1974. Crossing Borders, comprising studio recordings from 1978 and 1979, is yet another archival resurrection courtesy of Reel Recordings. Downes is joined here by Guy, as well as drummers Denis Smith and John Stevens and other British jazz regulars, on five original compositions inspired by time spent in South America with the London Contemporary Dance Theatre. If you're expecting a free-improv session because of Stevens, Guy and trombonist Paul Rutherford (who appears on "Basking in the Sun" only), then Downes' vamp-heavy, highly rhythmic music might come as a bit of a surprise. As a soloist, he alternates yelps and shouts on flute with sharp, biting saxophone work. The lengthy "Jungle Chase" is indicative of these approaches, beginning with a duo between the darting, woody elisions of Downes' Colombian pipes and Guy's supple pizzicato. Switching to a Western flute, he approaches classical poise atop a shapeshifting vamp, before changing direction into chiaroscuro, bent notes and birdsong that seamlessly blend folksong and art-music. "Sad Señorita" – which adds Mark Meggido on second bass and guitarist Brian Godding (ex-Blossom Toes) – starts off as a lazy blues, with Godding's vibrato hanging well behind the rhythm section's easy lope. Alto curlicues add keening lace around electrified wisps and simple fragments, and the ensemble breaks into dance as Guy's arco sings beneath an open window.

Composer Neil Ardley's New Jazz Orchestra employed the cream of the British jazz-rock crop of the period, including bassist Jack Bruce, drummer Jon Hiseman, members of Colosseum (guitarist Clem Clempson, organist Dave Greenslade, drummer Jon Hiseman, bassist Tony Reeves and saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith), and flutist Barbara Thompson. Camden '70 truly runs the gamut in terms of performance, featuring tunes by Coltrane, Miles, and George Russell alongside music by Bruce, Mike Gibbs and Mike Taylor. On the opening "Stratusphunk", brass shouts alternate with Russell's characteristic wily detail; Henry Lowther's trumpet solo is crumpled yet defiant while Derek Wadsworth channels Curtis Fuller over a thin carpet of vibes, bass and percussion. "Tanglewood," Gibbs's ode to the music program where he studied in the early sixties, merges a dry backbeat with recollections of mid-century American composers like Copland, reedy drones, and organ-trio funk in a caterwauling collision of mass and groove. On Bruce's "Rope Ladder to the Moon" (a scorcher from Songs for a Tailor, Polydor 1970) flecks of organ and guitar are surrounded by vaulting brass and reeds. Bombast is tempered by speed and precision, and Ardley's arrangement adds a dissonant sonic architecture to the tune's blistering rhythms and theatrical exhortations. One wishes that Clempson's vocals and some of the soloing were clearer – the recording was improperly balanced – but even with some details obscured the soloists' intentions and the sheer weight of the NJO are present in spades. The cross-discipline chops of the Colosseum crew are in better focus here than on their own dates, and the whole set is an absolute gas – from Jimmy Philip's paint-peeling tenor to the gauzy impressionism of vibesman Frank Jellett, all carried along by a front line that would make the Clarke-Boland Big Band proud. Neil Ardley's work remains sorely underrated; if you're looking for a single Ardley disc for your shelves, this might just be the one.

The Epicureans
Public Eyesore
With track titles like "Cumulative Wound", "Delayed Appearance of Putrefaction" and "Blade of Fury" you might be forgiven for wondering why David Gross (sax), Ryan McGuire (bass) and Ricardo Donodo (drums) have chosen to align themselves with a philosophical movement whose principal belief was that Man should flee pain and pursue pleasure, but there is, I admit, something distinctly jouissif about this music's uncompromising ugliness, from Gross's hippo mudbath growls ("Awn") to McGuire's epic wrestling match with his bass (I'm not sure who wins) and what sounds like Donodo trying to saw through his kit (Han Bennink would be impressed). Listening to this is like enjoying the stink of your own sweat after a serious workout, but you feel like taking a shower when it's all over. There's something heroic about the musicians' unrelenting trek into the murkiest, grimiest regions of their respective instruments to wallow in the filth of their own creation, but it's not all Borbeto brainfry – there are many relatively quiet moments of considerable subtlety, especially on "Delayed Appearance of Putrefaction", even if it's the viciousness of the ensuing "Blade of Fury" you're more likely to take with you to your grave.–DW

Fulminate Trio
From Jeff Arnal's imprint comes an interesting concoction of styles and personalities at the border of progressive jazz and improvisation. Fulminate Trio are Michael Evans (drums, percussion), Ken Filiano (double bass) and Anders Nilsson (guitar), all three members also using electronics throughout. Evans has worked with God Is My Co-Pilot and at least two Parkers (William and Evan), Filiano has been active for years amidst luminaries such as Vinny Golia, Bobby Bradford and Nels Cline, and Nilsson's past collaborators include Sabir Mateen, Raoul Björkenheim and Kermit Driscoll. Starting with a delicate rendition of Carla Bley's "Floater", the CD rapidly shifts gears in a manner that might or might not be particularly inspired by the pre-syrup era of Bill Frisell (circa Lookout For Hope); there are also occasional moments of ascension (pun intended) towards jarring harshness and visceral robustness, Filiano's timbre often so full that my headphones buzz. Evans' solid drumming is by no means excessively brutal, holding the group together in a concerted effort brimming with repressed instrumental expletives, but Nilsson attempts to fuse Frisell, early McLaughlin and maybe a pinch of Tisziji Muñoz into a single molten alloy, to be honest not always succeeding. Although executed with the right intentions and commitment, this music functions only in spurts, usually the most violent ones, almost never reaching peaks of meaningfulness.–MR

Barry Guy / Marilyn Crispell / Paul Lytton
It's always worth wondering how much of your response to music is inflected by titling and packaging, such as the bassist Barry Guy's fondness for austere, Xenakis-style Greek titles. His trio with pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Paul Lytton debuted with Odyssey (recorded 1999, released in 2002), which I found rather frostily formal in its beauty – but was that just the lofty Homeric title? Still, its sequel, named (you guessed it) Ithaca (2003) was altogether friskier and more varied, and now with Phases of the Night Guy has abandoned the classics for another longstanding obsession, surrealist art: as with his early Ode, each of the four movements of this suite pays homage to a painting by a favourite artist. This is (compositionally-assisted) free improv in the grand manner, almost disconcertingly free of the gap between thought and action that's central to so much improvised music (witness the Veryan Weston disc reviewed elsewhere in this same issue for a beautiful example). Which isn't to say that lightning reflexes and absolute certitude/commitment aren't themselves exciting to listen to, of course. The result here is an awesome collision of spirits, and the players effortlessly handle these four big musical canvases with due attention both to the explosive power of individual gestures and to the way these contribute to the larger whole.
The title track (Max Ernst, 1946) slides gradually into the disc's nocturnal soundworld via one of Guy's trademark solos, his stretchy, twisting lines peppered with percussive counterattacks. The trio slowly converges on a free ballad, then announces the piece's knotty midsection improvisation with a fanfare a tad reminiscent of "Blue Rondo a la Turk". Crispell's in great form here, effortlessly modulating from crashing-chandelier drama to scattered hop-skip improv, then pulling everything together with a sustained alarm bell ring just before the return of the head. There are plenty of similarly intense passages elsewhere on the disc, but the tracks also offer some of Guy's sparsest, most dignified balladry. "The Invisible Being Embraced" (after Wilfredo Lam) touches on churchy monody, Debussyesque tone-poetry and the kind of lush Iberian rhapsody that previously surfaced on 2006's excellent Aurora (Agustí Fernández / Guy / Ramon Lopez), while "With My Shadow" (after Yves Tanguy) has the eerie beauty of a deserted temple. Crispell's notes resound like they're bouncing off marble walls, and while Guy's decision to tie the whole suite together with a return of the Brubeckian fanfare and a pell-mell finish makes perfect sense, I almost wish that I could linger permanently in those echoing hallways....–ND

Fred Hess
In a jazz scene where so much music is just cosmetic variants on the same general consensus, it's great to hear someone like Fred Hess, who's identifiable from a bar or two. There's usually a lot going on in a Hess arrangement, the quicksilver parts interlocking in the manner of say an early George Russell chart, even if unlike Russell the harmonies and rhythms show a hummingbird tendency to hang elegantly in the air. (In any case, I can imagine Russell nodding in approval to Hess's opener, the bitonal "Blues for Bonnie Belle".) In the liners to Single Moment the saxophonist expresses admiration for Shorty Rogers, and you can also hear that West Coast vibe in his music sometimes, the combination of genuine experimentalism with a compact, slightly perky surface. His previous CDs with his working quartet – with Ron Miles, trumpet, Ken Filiano, bass and Matt Wilson, drums – all sounded dandy, but the group got even better once fellow saxophonist John Gunther joined them for two later albums. This new release continues the trend by keeping Gunther and bringing in veteran guitarist Dale Bruning, who's probably now best known for being Bill Frisell's mentor. Single Moment is probably as "mainstream" a record as Hess will ever do (hey, a harmony instrument at last!), but that certainly isn't a complaint: actually, it's great to hear him tackling some repertoire material, and Bruning contributes several fine tunes and arrangements that make this the most sonically and stylistically varied of Hess's albums (which can otherwise seem a little self-enclosed in their textures). The originals pack a lot of twists and turns into their frame – the zippy "Norman's Gold" manages to give everyone their say in a mere 2:45, for instance – and it's a pleasure to hear the sextet tackle Benny Golson's not-quite-standards "Thursday's Theme" and "Out of the Past" (and, as with Golson, Hess's sophistication as a composer is complemented by his hair-raising unpredictability as a soloist). Bruning's comping sounds a little de trop on the rangy 12-minute title track, a memorial for the late Michael Brecker, but otherwise he fits right in; he also delivers a glowing unaccompanied reading of "Spring Is Here" - warm-toned but matter-of-fact in its steely reinvention of the tune's harmonies.–ND

Tomas Korber / Utah Kawasaki
One of the joys of improvised music, particularly when it involves the uncertainty of rough electronics, is the impact of chance happenings on the music. How musicians deal with this, both in the moment of recording and sometimes then later for the production of a CD is an interesting question. At some point in 2006 the Swiss-Spanish electronics and guitar manipulator Tomas Korber and the Japanese analogue synth / guitar dabbler Utah Kawasaki recorded together in a tiny space in Kawasaki’s Tokyo apartment. Without much forethought they set about conjuring up the buzzes, hums, hisses and crackles we would expect from such a collaboration, Kawasaki's microphone capturing noises and feedback from his guitar, but also sounds leaking in through the open window, plus a fair amount of hiss and room tone. Korber worked with feedback loops fed through his guitar and the occasional field recording, sounds that were in turn picked up by the microphone and threaded back into the revolving cycles that formed in the music. With so many sounds in such a small space, the tiny room became a kind of resonating vessel itself, rich with feedback and hiss, some of it deliberately generated by the musicians but a good deal of it also coming as a surprise. As one of the musicians changed something or added a new sound, the whole sonic ecosystem responded, the slightest tweak of a dial having a resonating impact on the music.
As a result, the main central section of the thirty-five minute piece that makes up the excellently-titled Pocket Size Isolationism has a strange, formless quality to it, a raw flowing stream of sound. Although the musicians drive this continually evolving mass, it has a strange coincidental feel to it that extends beyond the roar of passing motorbikes and cries of children playing that seep in through the window. Rather than wrestle with the situation, the musicians worked within it, responding to changes in the music without knowing where they came from, allowing the music to drift slowly without any strong sense of structure.
To regain some compositional control over the music presented on the CD, they later added an opening and ending to the piece, a set of bookends lasting just a couple of minutes each. Although these edited segments could be considered a frame within which the wilder elements of the music are held, they remain true to the spirit of the recording by confounding expectations. Playing the CD for the first time, my first response to the opening wrenching scream of feedback was to reach out and lower the volume. But this lasts just some fifty seconds or so before it's replaced without warning by a minute of very quiet tones. The curious thing about this opening is that it contains the loudest and quietest moments of the entire disc – neither extreme is touched upon again. The expected rollercoaster ride of extreme dynamics never arrives, although you find yourself waiting for it right the way through. The sounds used throughout Pocket Size Isolationism are not uncommon in contemporary improvised music, and will be familiar to followers of Korber or Kawasaki’s past work, but through a mixture of chance and composition they are arranged here into a work of intriguing and engaging structure that never really does what you might expect. A mature, interesting work that thoroughly repays repeated listening.

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Musica Elettronica Viva
MEV 40
New World
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the founding of Musica Elettronica Viva – though by now nearly 42 years have passed since Frederic Rzewski, Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum, Jon Phetteplace, Allan Bryant, Ivan Vandor and Carol Plantamura first got together in a room overlooking the Pantheon in Rome – New World have brought together eight extended recordings of MEV in action recorded between 1967 (a performance of "SpaceCraft" recorded in Berlin's Akademie der Kunste on October 5th of that year) and 2007 ("Mass. Pike", recorded in Tanglewood on August 7th), in an impressive 4CD set accompanied by a typically handsome 44-page booklet with an authoritative essay on the group by David W. Bernstein, "composers' notes" from MEV's three major protagonists, Rzewski, Curran and Teitelbaum, biographies, bibliographies and discographies. There aren't too many entries in the MEV discography, though – despite being frequently mentioned in the annals of free improv history, the group has barely half a dozen recordings to its name, reissues included, which is all the more reason to invest in a copy of this.
Disc One contains the abovementioned "SpaceCraft", which makes for an interesting comparison with the previously released version of the piece (on Alga Marghen, coupled with 1990's "Unified Patchwork Theory"), recorded in Cologne as part of the same tour, and "Stop The War", recorded at New York's WBAI in December 1972. Disc Two jumps forward a decade, with an April 1982 concert in Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum (part two of which opens Disc Three) and a 1990 set from the Kunstmuseum in Berne. Disc Three also features a 1989 performance from the Knitting Factory, and Disc Four opens with a June 2002 recording from Ferrara, and closes sedately in Tanglewood as mentioned above. Rzewski, Curran and Teitelbaum are present throughout, joined by trombonist Garrett List (on all but the earliest and latest tracks), soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy (in Amsterdam, New York and Ferrara), Allan Bryant, Ivan Vandor and Carol Plantamura (on "SpaceCraft" only), percussionists Gregory Reeve and Karl Berger ("Stop The War") and second trombonist George Lewis in Ferrara.

Back in 1967 Frederic Rzewski had come to the conclusion that the piano was a "bourgeois" instrument and decided to boycott it with revolutionary zeal, concentrating his efforts instead on an amplified plate of glass with springs attached. Along with Bryant's "homemade synth made from electronic organ parts", Curran's "mbira thumb piano mounted on a ten-litre AGIP motor oil can", Vandor's tenor sax, Plantamura's voice and Teitelbaum's modular Moog, plus contact mics galore, it certainly made a racket, and the hostile reactions "SpaceCraft" managed to provoke at the time are duly documented here, with the energetic booing and catcalling that breaks out when the piece peters out after about half an hour. Forty years down the road, now that Merzbow, Mattin and even Metal Machine Music are politely, even ecstatically, received, it's hard to see what the fuss was about; one imagines the Berliners were more shocked by MEV's attitude and appearance than by what the group actually sounded like.
Five years later Rzewski had returned to the concert grand, and was milking its "bourgeois" associations for all they were worth, making no attempt to hide his classical training – the Romantic virtuoso pianism he committed to paper three years later in The People United Will Never Be Defeated is very much in evidence on "Stop The War", as is his fondness at the time for minimalism. With Berger's chattery marimba, Teitelbaum and Curran's enthusiastic squiggles and List's joyful blowing, "Stop The War" is certainly a colourful affair, much more so than "SpaceCraft", even if the incorporation of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home", "Bandiera Rosso", "Auld Lang Syne" and "The Last Post", though no doubt well-intentioned, sounds rather dated, as does the music's reluctance, once more presumably deliberate, to move far away from a tonal centre (B flat).
The 1982 concert features a five-man MEV lineup, with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy on board with List, Rzewski, Curran and Teitelbaum. By this time Rzewski was preparing and electronically transforming his piano, and Curran and Teitelbaum had extended their arsenal to include Serge modular, PolyMoog and MicroMoog synths, and a SYM 1 computer. There's plenty of room for the musicians to reveal their individual contributions – the second part of the concert on Disc Three also features some bona fide Lacy compositions – but things get pretty dense when they all get busy together, with pitch doublings further thickening the plot. As a result the music goes off on a muddy ramble through a forest of its own creation – especially the second half of Part One, which Lacy's pristine intervals eventually manage to clean up after harmonizer fatigue sets in just past the half hour mark. Eight years later, in 1990, sampling keyboards were all the rage, so it's no surprise to find Curran and Teitelbaum in Berne performing on Akai 6000 and Prophet 2002, as well as Macintosh computer and Yamaha DX-7. This 24-minute quartet outing finds the group at their most eclectic and wacky, List and Rzewski playing musical chairs and spot-the-quote (no prizes for recognising "'Round Midnight") while Curran and Teitelbaum take great pleasure in pulling the rug out from under them.
The fourth disc begins with a 67-minute performance from Ferrara, Italy, in June 2002, in which the quintet was joined by George Lewis on trombone and computer. Those who like their improv "pure", i.e. uncontaminated by pre-determined compositional stratagems, idiomatically self-sufficient and without the need of accompanying text, either spoken or sung, are likely to find it a somewhat frustrating experience. The heartbeat is predominantly slow and the mood serious, with weighty speeches about culture and consciousness; the contrary-motion pentatonic scale theme (Lacy's presumably) that kicks in at 11'40" sounds sombre, even weary. There's relatively little full ensemble playing, and one senses the solo contributions, notably from Lacy and the perennially wonderful Lewis, deserve better (more traditional maybe?) underpinning; Rzewski's Beethovenian flourishes are always impressive, but one longs for a touch of that Mal Waldron understatement. Minor quibbles, perhaps – but compared to the rough energy of "SpaceCraft" and the gaudy patchwork quilt of "Stop the War" the music from Ferrara sounds resigned rather than combative, scattered rather than focussed. A reflection, perhaps, of how much the world has changed in thirty years. The final "Mass. Pike", recorded in the Seiji Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood in front of "a conservative audience in an iconic space" also finds Rzewski looking back to "When Johnny Comes Marching Home", while Teitelbaum and Curran pillage their library of samples for everything from foghorns to political slogans. Once more the music seems to be looking over its shoulder to happier bygone days, and despite a stage bristling with the latest gear, sounds at times more like it was recorded in 1987 than 2007.

It's abundantly clear from this splendid career retrospective that the stylistic eclecticism of MEV predated both the so-called "second generation" of London-based improvisers (think Alterations) and the early 80s Downtown scene in New York, but MEV 40 also serves as a somewhat disconcerting reminder that postmodernism – assuming you'll accept my equation of that term with stylistic eclecticism – often sounds as if it's been around longer than the modernism that is supposed to have preceded it. Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against postmodernism – having once been branded a postmodernist critic myself by Ben Watson (though I doubt he meant it as a compliment) – in music, art or architecture, even if I'm still not quite sure what the term means. "That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism," begins the entry on postmodernism in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy online. Quite. You should see how battered my copy of Jean-François Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition is. But I think Alvin Curran is on to something when he writes, on page 24 of the booklet, about what he calls "the MEV constitutional law about human trust", which "implies that in an ideal state, all performing musicians will listen with equal intensity and understanding to every audible sound and musical gesture as if it were their own, and respond only when they must. An important corollary allows this agreement of trust to be momentarily voided, in cases of inspired autism. Furthermore, this premise, while centered on an instinctive understanding of creative risk and the benefits of increasing it progressively, did not make us – the MEV group – immune from getting screwed or from making lousy music, but it did help in getting us to some impossible spaces – territories on the other side of time, density, chance, ego, silence, ordinary societal demands, technique, technology, and occasionally to the other side of our own crude and sublime animal behaviour." Go further. Make new rules. Break them at will. Take risks. Here's to the next 40 years.

Günter Müller / Jason Kahn / Norbert Möslang
If you'll allow me to demystify the hip hyperminimal lowercase / underscore album title, "mkm" refers to Müller (Günter, ipods and electronics), Kahn (Jason, analogue synth) and Möslang (Norbert, cracked everyday electronics), recorded in Mexico and South America – hence "msa" – in March and April 2007. Six extracts of live sets in Mexico City, Bogotà, Santiago, La Plata and Rio (two different venues), recorded by Kahn and mixed / mastered by Müller, add to the already substantial discographies of the three musicians, both individually and collectively, following on from the Signal To Noise series of albums that documented their Japanese adventures in 2006. Once more the music is impressive and satisfying, moving at a leisurely pace through a landscape of gradually shifting textures, colourful (but never garish) drones lightly peppered with pulsing pops and puffs. There's even what sounds like a vestige of a rocky binary backbeat at the beginning of track four.. perhaps a nod to Müller's past as a percussionist? The For4Ears website describes it as "the group's strongest recording yet", which may well be the case, but recent years have seen so much high quality product from mkm it'd take some serious relistening to confirm that. Still, completists won't want to be without it, and anyone new to the world of cracked everyday electronics is well advised to check it out, and read Jason Kahn's profile of Möslang in the last issue.–DW

Andrea Parkins / Jessica Constable
As Nels Cline points out in his liners to this long-awaited (by me at least) debut album from The Skein, aka Andrea Parkins (electric accordion, laptop, keyboards and voice) and Jessica Constable (voice, electronics), "it is easy to think of these pieces as composed songs: they are at times quite melodic, exemplifying coherent extemporaneous form. And no matter how unpredictable the sonic content, implicit in all of these pieces is the presence of the human cry: the blues." Those of you who dream of a real experimental album by the likes of Beth Gibbons, Joanna Newsom or Björk (who's very good at recruiting musicians from leftfield to boost her avant garde street cred but never gets very far out herself), will find much to enjoy in Cities And Eyes. I'd willingly trade the last three Björk albums for Constable's "backroom / no introduction" at a moment's notice. Her raw, folk-inflected singing, with or without the effects boxes she routes it through, is arresting and haunting, but set against Parkins' colourful backdrop of mangled samples and dense treatments, it remains deliciously unpredictable; none of these eleven songs, only four of which get beyond the five-minute mark, goes where you'd expect it to. Bass riffs, chord progressions and even backbeats appear and disappear without warning, but despite the music's refusal to sit still, nothing sounds out of place or arbitrary. Cities And Eyes is a thrilling ride; get on board.–DW

Ach, maybe I should never read press releases. Knowing that this exquisite 31-minute piece of music is the "final recording and ultimate statement" by Rebecca, aka Kai Fagaschinski (clarinet) and Michael Renkel (guitar, zither, preparations) lends it a special poignancy. Had the two players decided it would be the final cut before they recorded it, back in 2005 at Amann Studios in Vienna, or did they go their separate ways afterwards? Who knows? In any case, there's not the slightest hint of animosity or conflict on the musical level, though the two musicians' distinctive personalities are evident throughout – Variation no. 12 is a fantastic demonstration of everything I happen to like in latterday (post-?) reductionist instrumental improvisation. Virtuoso listening (check out how they pick up on each other's pitches throughout), technical mastery (Fagaschinski's ghostly multiphonic flutters are breathtaking, and Renkel's bowed – and, I suspect in places, ebowed – zither delicate and beautifully placed), and a keen ear for structure at both the micro and macro level. In short, consummate musicianship. It's great to see Esquilo back in action, but a little sad to think that we won't be hearing any more from this particular duo. But, if you're going to go out, go out in style. Best parting shot since Harold Budd's Avalon Sutra.–DW

Keith Rowe / Taku Unami
Erstlive 006
Keith Rowe has been at the epicentre of the ongoing dialogue between European improvisation and the stealthy, silent gestures of contemporary Japanese onkyo for the best part of the decade. His ruminations on the fretboard have borne fruit with Toshimaru Nakamura on 2001's Weather Sky and 2005's between, and with Nakamura, Sachiko M and Otomo Yoshihide on 2004's monumental ErstLive005. While these superb releases showcased an intrinsic understanding of interspatial dynamics, subtlety of attack, and shades of a pan European/Oriental nuance, this recent outing, recorded live at last year's AMPLIFY festival in Japan, seems to this ear at least, too rushed in its conceptualising.
The main problem is Taku Unami himself; his own approach of grafting sounds from comical everyday sources comes across far too agitational, and insensitive to Rowe's new-found pared down style, as if the student is too eager to please his sensei. The majesty of Rowe’s present work is that relies on strong thematic or contextual precepts; every sound is traced, reshaped and discarded from the source of his personal sonic inventory of objects. If in the past, he referenced Jackson Pollock, laying the guitar flat to be splashed, plucked, and scraped from his subconscious, his sparser recent music, as if threatening to parallel the work of his hero Mark Rothko or the crucifixion drawings of Michelangelo, leaves inferred details to dry on the mind of the listener at every turn. For 37 minutes, Rowe presents his collaborator with a series of twitching koans, but Unami seems not to be listening intently, preferring instead to joke with him as if he was a postmodern manzai master, humorously plodding along on his laptop with a series of drill sounds, pink noise punchlines and granulated non sequiturs. But his laptop strangulations and granulations are too unfocussed, with little narrative drive to counter Rowe’s gentle calligraphy, and the processing seems too self consciously jokey and fails to retranslate through the amplifiers. The nature and fun of improvisation is its haphazard essence – perhaps this was doomed to be a mismatch.

Keith Rowe
ErstLive 007
In what must be a rare, maybe unprecedented move for an improvising musician, Keith Rowe has provided us with copious notes on his solo performance at last year's AMPLIFY festival in Tokyo. These explain, amongst other things, the set's overall structure – based on Jackson Pollock's 1952 painting "Blue Poles" – and details on each of the four "cultural templates", i.e. the incorporation of "the music I love, the sounds that have influenced me", the poles that divide the 36'19" work into its constituent sections. In order of appearance, these are extracts from a 1717 oboe concerto by Alessandro Marcello, a motet by Jean-Joseph Cassanea de Mondonville, "Tristes apprêts, pâles flambeaux" from Jean-Philippe Rameau's Castor and Pollux, and Dido's Lament from Henry Purcell's 1689 Dido and Aeneas, and their inclusion invites us to reflect on several weighty issues: respectively, the role of the artist in society, the question of profundity in the digital age, how revolutions become absorbed ("no matter how different, how revolutionary and new we think our creations are, they will become a part of the mainstream") and why we make art in the first place. Important questions indeed, and Rowe's text not only discusses them, but makes reference to figures as diverse as James McNeill Whistler and the Venerable Bede, Duchamp and Dante, Picasso and Pliny the Elder. And – of great interest to those of us who've always wondered how he makes his particular sounds – there's a blow-by-blow, second-by-second description of the equipment used, including a contact microphone attached to a piece of charcoal, to "literally draw around the objects on the table in front of me, in a sense confirming how I regard my musical performances as acts of painting." Also worthy of mention is Rowe's description of several sounding events as "motives" – notably "the death motif, which is created by a handheld battery powered face fan with its propeller fan modified", and his admission that the final "deep throbbing drone" whose terrifying crescendo brings the piece to a sudden and violent end "is reminiscent of the sound I was exposed to as a child during the blitz of Plymouth 1941, lying in a cage at night, under a table waiting for explosions."
Whether listeners would, if Rowe didn't mention it in his text, automatically reflect on the question of "profundity in the digital age" on hearing the Mondonville motet, or associate that whirring fan with death, remains, of course, open to question, but the references to mortality in the (very well-known) Purcell aria are perfectly, painfully clear, and the ensuing crescendo is all the more emotionally powerful as a result. What this Tokyo performance makes clear – clearer, perhaps, than 2007's solo Erstwhile outing The Room, a work whose depth and complexity I'm still digesting and am likely to be doing for some time to come – is that Keith Rowe's music is indeed an "emotional state made audible", and that it has finally erased the charcoal dividing line between improvisation and composition, between music and the visual arts, between Art and Life.

Alexander von Schlippenbach
"This spontaneous chamber music establishes further advances in the development of improvisation as compositional process", proclaims the back cover of the disc proudly (Evan Parker's words?) – and if that isn't enough, the accompanying booklet includes a splendid, detailed essay by Ben Young and some telling remarks from Alexander von Schlippenbach himself. All worth quoting in detail, but within seconds of hitting play you realise that the music is as good, no, scratch that, much better, than the words would have you believe. Each of these twenty relatively brief tracks – the longest just under seven minutes in duration, the shortest just two – is an absolute killer. I'm no believer in astrology, but some planets out there must have been in benign alignment on April 2nd and 3rd last year when pianist von Schlippenbach was joined by cellist Tristan Honsinger and clarinettist Daniel D'Agaro in the Arte Suono Studios in Udine, the historical regional capital of Friuli, fifty-odd miles north west of Trieste. Either that or they ate lion for breakfast. It goes without saying that we're talking virtuosity here – von Schlippenbach's has never been in doubt, and nor has Honsinger's (though a few misguided individuals of my acquaintance, who shall remain nameless, have dismissed him as "that lunatic scraping away in the ICP orchestra"). The real revelation here is local hero Daniel D'Agaro (his website spells it "Daniele", but we'll give psi the benefit of the doubt this time), whose discography isn't extensive, but contains some choice cuts – the two hatOLOGY albums, 2005's Chicago Overtones with Robert Barry, Jed Bishop and Kent Kessler, and 2003's Strandjutters with Ernst Glerum and Han Bennink, are crackers. But technical prowess is only a means to an end, not an end in itself; the real virtuosity here is musical, the ability to create totally coherent finished pieces of music in real time. As most readers will know, I'm a great fan of improvised music that takes risks, heads off down blind alleys and ends up nearly falling over the edge altogether, but I'm equally in awe of discs like the SME's Quintessence where everything just seems to go right and not a note is out of place. This is one of those. Nothing much more to say really, as I'm not going to attempt to describe in words what these three master musicians can pull out of nowhere in mere seconds, and I'm certainly not going to bore you with more laudatory quotes from Ben Young. You'll have plenty of time to read them yourself when you buy your copy of the album. And if you don't, more fool you.–DW

Christine Sehnaoui / Michel Waisvisz
Al Maslakh
Michel Waisvisz, who died last June just weeks before his 59th birthday, left the world with far too few discs to his name, but – through his groundbreaking work in live electronic instrument design and his artistic directorship of Amsterdam's STEIM – a huge number of friends and admirers to continue his pioneering work. Thankfully, saxophonist Christine Sehnaoui persuaded him to go into the GRM studios in Paris in the autumn of 2006, and Shortwave is the result. And what a splendid disc it is: five colourful, riotously inventive improvisations, ranging in duration from 3'50" to 17'30", featuring Sehnaoui's alto sax and Waiswisz's hands. Make that "the hands", because that's the name of the instrument he's playing, which he explains better than I could do at http://www.crackle.org/TheHands.htm. Anyone fortunate enough to have seen him playing them – I did, but just once, with Schnack (Paul Hubweber and Uli Böttcher) at Les Instants Chavirés, just about the time he was recording this album – will have been blown away not by the sheer variety of sounds he was able to trigger (that's MIDI wizardry for you), but by the phenomenal amount of control he had over them, modifying several musical parameters at a moment's notice, with a research scientist's precision and a dancer's physical elegance. In the hands (forgive the pun) of a less skilled practitioner, it could all too easily turn into a snarling, fizzing mess, but Waisvisz's sensitivity as a performer was as great as his talent as an inventor. Shortwave provides abundant evidence. In choosing to work with Sehnaoui, who's rapidly established herself as one the most exciting young saxophonists in France, Waisvisz must have known he was taking a risk - one inch to high or two too far to the right and her subtle gurgles and fragile breaths could have been obliterated – but, amazingly, even in the busiest, noisiest moments (and there are plenty of them, notably on "The Bottom of the Pond"), her impeccably placed flutters and hisses are right there. Total joy from start to finish. Buy now or cry later.–DW

Gérard Siracusa
Signature Radio France
In his review of a recent solo fiddle album of mine over at Vital Weekly, the indefatigable Frans de Waard seemed to be somewhat disappointed that "the violin here sounds as [sic] a violin and nothing else", as if improvisers today were somehow obliged by some unwritten law to make their instruments sound like anything else other than what they actually are. Those that do have "cracked it", to quote Keith Rowe – but that doesn't mean that those who don't, or who don't even try to, are irredeemably consigned to some backwater of "stagnation" and "regression" and unworthy of attention. Percussionist Gérard Siracusa, who's been quietly ploughing his furrow for over three decades – his first outing on disc dates back to 1976 (Nommo's Dans le caprice amer des sables, with André Jaume and Raymond Boni on Jef Gilson's "mythic" Palm label) – doesn't need eBows, handheld fans, polystyrene blocks, Kaoss Pads, contact mics, Brillo pads, packets of chick peas, pine cones or whatever other accessories today's solo percussionist carries around, to construct a 50-minute album of maturity and power. It's not surprising that Christian Tarting's liners refer to Max Roach, because Siracusa is one of a (not so long) line of drummers who are able to construct motivically coherent and musically convincing extended instant compositions using little more than the bare essentials of the kit. Roach comes to mind, along with Dannie Richmond, Tony Williams, Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell and Barry Altschul.. and if Siracusa is flattered to find himself in the company of such giants, that's because when it really gets going Drums Immersion is that good. If this had been released by one of the abovementioned drummers, you can bet your tom toms you'd have heard about it already. Anyway, now you have. So check it out.–DW

Totem> is the latest project to include guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil, a New York-based artist whose name doesn't crop up nearly as much as his impressive pedigree might lead one to expect. He's a wide-ranging musician, his work including everything from ambitious large-group composition (an orchestral recording from 2001 still remains in the can, apparently) to free-thinking small-group improvisation (his recent pair of recordings for Nemu deserved far more discussion than they got). He's joined on Solar Forge's four group improvisations by West Coast percussionist / object-collector Andrew Drury and bassist Tom Blancarte; together, the three coax an incredibly expansive palette of sounds from strings, wood, metal, skin and power cables.
Eisenbeil's playing in small to medium-sized groups has always been attention-grabbing, unraveling lines like spools of wire and glinting off the ensemble, and in Totem> the other players develop this aesthetic into an entire group language. On "Austenized" the trio moves with tense inhalations and exhalations, stuttering brushes and palms mating with subtonal bass wisps, high harmonics and muted half-phrases. Imprecise forms arise from Totem>'s unified entreaties, then recede as individual lines uncoil in delicate parallel gestures. Midway, what appears to be a rhythmic consensus erupts into the pitch and yaw of scraped strings and manhandled membranes, like metal being wrested into deliriously twisting forms. "Hephaestus' Wrath" finds Eisenbeil and Drury dramatically trading volleys, at first channeling Derek Bailey's fractured soundworld. Eisenbeil erupts into a language of barks and smears suggesting overblown sax, spurred on by Blancarte's horsehair grit and Drury's pared-down Taiko. The trio seems caught in a metallic tug-of-war between poles of hyped-up clatter and phased molasses, their jagged movement revealed as a potent form of all-over swing. Sure, Totem> are a power trio, but they generate a plugged-in energy unlike any of their peers.–CA

Trio 3 + Irène Schweizer
As the world population grows inexorably, the chances are we'll all have to work a few more years before claiming that state pension (if you're lucky enough to live in a country that actually has such things, that is). Not that raising the retirement age from 65 would be much of a problem for Irène Schweizer, Reggie Workman, Andrew Cyrille and Oliver Lake, as they've already passed it and show no signs of letting up. Recorded live at Berne's Taktlos Festival in November 2007 – with the exception of "R. I. Exchange 1", a Schweizer / Workman duo recorded the following day in Zürich – this is a fine hour's worth of good solid free jazz, alternating compositions (the oriental pentatonic freebop of Cyrille's "Aubade" always sounds good, and the version here makes for a nice comparison with the one on Cyrille's 2001 trio outing with Mark Dresser and Marty Ehrlich, C/D/E) and improvisations (the closing "WSLC" is a damn sight more imaginative than its title). Though pianist Schweizer's technically just sitting in, she sounds like she's been part of the group for years – the interplay between her and the other members of the group is dazzling, and the album is structured to reflect it, alternating quartet tracks and impish, Monkish Schweizer duets with the three others in turn. Hence the inclusion of that track I mentioned above. So what if it wasn't recorded in Berne; no point letting a little thing like that get in the way of a good concept.–DW

Veryan Weston
The problem with free improvisers including chunks of idiomatic material (or, as a jazz fan would say, "standards") in otherwise abstract performances is that these can end up feeling either like knowing skits, or else like little rewards to the listener for wading through the surrounding thickets of dissonance, like oases plopped into the middle of the desert. When pianist Veryan Weston does this during his new solo recital, though, you're hardly likely to relax even when you do stumble upon a familiar melody. Sure, it's fun playing spot-the-tune, sometimes with an assist from the punning track titles ("Into a Mood/Out of the Mood" includes a sidelong view of "Monk's Mood", "Prelude and Fug" is a fantasia on "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"), but his take on this material is as shrewdly inquisitive as any of his slippery freeform playing. Take that Monk tune, for instance: Weston fastens onto the discrete gestures within it – the ear-stretching arch of its opening phrase, the long passages of chromatic downwards drift and upwards screw-tightening – then swirls them delicately into each other, the tune's logical consecutive question-and-answer phrases blurring into layers of internal commentary. Somehow the melody remains oddly inviolable however much he knocks the literal notes off-course. This is music that never seems to be simply fast or slow, dense or sparse; rather, its rhythm is twofold, taking its pace from the way thought can act as a drag on the fingers or jump ahead of it, or the two can rush together in tandem – there's a beautiful example of him shifting between all three modes in "Traces of Nuts" – and Weston has a special love of textures that suggest a fugue where the parts have gotten a bit out of whack (Martin Davidson's liner notes indicate the pianist's admiration for Conlon Nancarrow's player-piano studies). It's often dazzling music – "Prelude and Fug" and "Getting Somewhere" are astonishing performances, in particular, the latter turning "Salt Peanuts" into a lightning Bartókian dance and ending with "Over the Rainbow" emerging from a mushroom-cloud – but never forbidding in its virtuosity. Not a wasted note, either.–ND

Mitsuhiro Yoshimura / Toshiya Tsunoda / Taku Sugimoto
Mitsuhiro Yoshimura, Masahiko Okura
The first two releases on the very welcome new Presqu'ile label from France each feature Japanese musicians exclusively, with Mitsuhiro Yoshimura appearing on both. Yoshimura's music has fast become something of an enigma. His first two releases, a solo disc followed by a duo with Taku Sugimoto both seemed to contain the same input from Yoshimura, a continuous screaming wall of detailed, high-pitched feedback created by manipulating a pair of headphones around a microphone. Given that these fine threads of dog-friendly drones seemed to provide Yoshimura with a somewhat limited palette, the interest in the duo recording sprang from trying to work out what he and Sugimoto were actually doing beside this relentless barrage. As different elements appeared here and there the music became something of a Fluxus-sponsored whodunnit. As interesting as that recording is, one suspected that the game would become tiresome quickly if future collaborators with Yoshimura couldn't find a different way to approach this most difficult of situations.
Santa, again featuring Yoshimura and Sugimoto joined by Toshiya Tsunoda fails in this respect, sadly. The recording took place at an event held in a bookstore to promote the trio's occasional newspaper of music writing, also entitled "Santa" (a term borrowed from a Japanese gambling game rather than Mr Claus, alas). As with the previous duo release the "instruments" listed do not help with the task of attributing sounds to their originators. Sugimoto is listed as playing "papers" while Tsunoda is credited with "buzzer and brass sticks" and Yoshimura's usual tools are augmented by a single book. The feedback squeals are present throughout, but every so often they're joined by a thicker, continuous tone that flicks in and out of proceedings without warning, adding to the claustrophobic feel of the recording. One assumes that Yoshimura adds this additional sound, but this isn't clear as the output of Tsunoda's buzzer cannot be easily identified. A few vaguely electronic sounding scratches that appear in the background here and there could be his, but seeing as it is also hard to guess what sound "brass sticks" might make, nothing is certain. If the thick oppressive tone didn't originate from Yoshimura, it would throw a different light on the recording – but the problem is we just don't know. And whether Sugimoto adds anything audible to the CD at all is equally unclear.
Of course, it is not uncommon at all in this area of music for the individual contributions of musicians to be indiscernible, and more often than not I take great pleasure from engaging with this kind of puzzle. My problem here though is that I find the task of listening carefully through the recording is neither easy nor particularly pleasurable; Yoshimura's sound at its harshest can be quite grating, and combined with the additional thicker tone the music becomes oppressive. Making it through the recording more than once becomes, for this listener, difficult.
The second release here captures the duo of Yoshimura and alto saxophonist Masahiko Okura in two separate live recordings made at the same venue a few months apart in 2006. The title, Trio, applies a Cageian conceit to recognise the part played by the sounds already present in the room, and in places audience rustles and the clink of glasses at the bar do indeed make their presence felt. Okura's playing throughout is lovely. His choices of long smooth tones and the occasional more breathy lines complement Yoshimura's feedback perfectly, allowing for interesting comparisons between man and machine, and control and chance. Yoshimura's piercing slithers remain omnipresent, but on the first track he seems to approach the collaboration from a different and decidedly more musical direction. During this first seven-minute piece – notably titled "Duo" – he's certainly responding to Okura's quiet, yet forceful playing. There's been some debate over the degree of control Yoshimura has over his sound. He seems to manually shape the feedback by altering the position of the headphones in relation to the microphone, a process that seems to allow for a considerable degree of indeterminacy to enter into proceedings; but here, as Okura switches between extended notes or leaves a silence, a response can clearly be heard from Yoshimura. The sound might thicken or alter in pitch slightly, sending the music in other directions and demanding a response from Okura.
"Solo(s)", the title of the second, much longer piece on the disc suggests less interaction, which indeed seems to be the case – any trace of traditional call and response structures are absent. There is certainly a considerable amount of interplay between the two musicians' inputs here, but it seems incidental, the result of two separate threads becoming tangled rather than a perfectly woven twine. If Okura and Yoshimura are paying attention to each other, it doesn't come through to the listener. Somehow though, this second approach becomes all the more fascinating for just this reason and makes for an engrossing forty minutes of music.
In his brief liner notes Yoshimura suggests that the music on this disc poses the question "What is improvised music?" There are potentially two different answers on this CD, but is one more valid than the other? If two players pay no heed to each other, does the resulting music rid itself of some of the rules and traditions of collaborative playing and in a sense become freer? No idea, but in posing the question, the second of these two releases makes for a much more interesting listen.

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Cornelius Cardew
The older I get the more inclined I am to think that life's not about finding the right answers but asking the right questions. And if you're looking for interesting (musical) questions to ask, you can't do much better than Cornelius Cardew's Treatise. This 193-page graphic score, which occupied the composer for four years, and which performers are encouraged to interpret any way they feel appropriate (though useful tips abound in the Treatise Handbook Cardew published in 1971) is rich, elusive and thought-provoking enough to keep you busy for a lifetime. You ask Keith Rowe. This October 1967 recording of the work – not the complete score, as Petr Kotik's liner notes here make clear (it would have been nice to know which pages were performed.. one assumes not the last 50, which Cardew completed in Buffalo earlier that year) – comes from a concert in Prague, and features flautist Kotik with four other members of his QUaX ensemble, tenor saxophonist Pavel Kondelík, trombonist Jan Hyncica, percussionist Josef Vejvoda and pianist Václav Zahradník. The tapes have been carefully restored and remastered, but there's still plenty of vintage analogue airiness to the sound.
It's abundantly clear that the musicians were grappling with something difficult here, and that they'd spent some considerable time preparing their performance. And, although Treatise has often attracted free improvisers, we're definitely not talking anything goes n'importe quoi (I have serious doubts about some of the other available recordings of the work, though); you can hear the players thinking, both in the long stretches of silence and in their explorations on instruments "none of us really knew how to play." It's a huge, sprawling performance, 128 minutes long, with more stumbling and soul searching than flashes of inspiration, but one imagines Cardew would have approved of that (John Tilbury does, in the booklet), though I wonder what he'd have made of Zahradník's cocktail bar comping on disc two. Not so sure I like it much, but, if "every honest utterance makes sense" (Cardew), it certainly has its place here along with Kotik's squeaking trumpet (played with a bassoon reed) and bouncing ping pong balls. All in all, this is a disc to admire and respect more than love – which is fine, because that's just the way I feel about Treatise.

Michael Peters
"I don't need the calculations anymore," Iannis Xenakis announced back in the early 80s. But Cologne-based Michael Peters evidently does, proudly informing us that the 16 tracks on Impossible Music are "based on a strange attractor named after Igor Gumowski and Christian Mira, CERN physicists who discovered it during their research in nonlinear dynamic systems. Starting out with an (x,y) value pair, the next value pair (xn,yn) is computed like this: xn = a * y + p * x + 2 * sqr(x) * (1 - p) / (1 + sqr(x)); yn = -x + p * xn + 2 * sqr(xn) * (1 - p) / (1 + sqr(xn)) with "a" typically being = 1.0 and "p" being a constant between -1 and 1." The album title presumably refers to the impracticality of performing these compositions live (impracticality rather than impossibility, as many of the pieces could quite easily be transcribed and played by any standard new music ensemble); instead of real musicians Peters uses self-designed software to transform the mathematical data into MIDI information, which is sent to a digital piano and a sampler loaded with percussion sounds. This guarantees accuracy but soon tires the ear; by the time you get to the clattering Zappa marimbas of "Woodenfall" and the tinny quasi-harpsichord of "The Black Edge", fatigue has set in. Add to this the music's stylistic diversity, veering between the manic and the motoric (imagine a cross between Ferneyhough's Bone Alphabet and a samba band, or Cage's Music of Changes morphing into Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux via Conlon Nancarrow) and you're thoroughly confused. But I've never really understood strange attractors in the first place, to be honest.–DW

Mathieu Saladin
Editions Provisoires
Pressed for time as I always am, I was delighted to see the total duration of just 1'10" flash up when I popped this little three-incher into the CD player – but then I read the notes: "Experimental Music is a sound game of chance. Play the disc in shuffle mode until the sequence Experimental Music is properly broadcasted [sic]. In case of anagram, play again. Repeat mode possible." By way of explanation, the disc contains seventeen four-second tracks, each consisting of a (female) voice reading one of the letters – e, x, p, e, r, i, m, e, n, t, a, l, m, u, s, i, c – which means that the total number of possible permutations of is 17!, or 355,687,428,096,000. Assuming you could set up the disc to repeat play in shuffle mode until the letters appear in the correct order, you'll have to sit around picking your nose for anything up to 11,271 years, if I've done my sums right. Put another way, if our hunter-gatherer forefathers at the end of the Pre-Boreal Stone Age epoch had had CD players instead of stone axes and decided to take Saladin at his word, the piece could probably still be going on today. Howzat for conceptual art, eh? FWIW, the tracks played in their original order (not using shuffle mode) spell out "Permute In Climaxes." Can't say the disc has pushed me to the brink of orgasmic ecstasy, but as the man says, "in case of anagram, play again." And again. And again.–DW

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Xabier Erkizia
To quote from the English translation of the manifesto (in Basque) accompanying Xabier Erkizia's latest offering, I Contaminate Therefore I Exist, "we receive and generate information without rest. We constantly send and receive messages that often nobody has asked us to do or to say or to send or to sound, and also we do not want or need to hear or to receive. There is an estimation that around 70% of the messages that circulate right now on the internet are spam or unwanted messages. [..] This record, as a collection of noises, is an exercise of translation of all this receive messages. Publicity and lies made sound. Spam music." Well, after Mark Trayle translating credit card mag stripe info into music and Mathieu Saladin plugging gold and crude oil prices into his free software, why not? I'm all in favour of recycling. And, unlike Trayle's Goldstripe and Saladin's Stock Exchange Piece, Spam Detect actually sounds as interesting as the concept behind it. But interesting isn't always synonymous with enjoyable – and I imagine most listeners would find many of the ear-scything, gut-churning sounds Erkizia's machine spits out after crunching up Viagra Pills, Red Drugs, Palmyra Wood and Green Beer (?) as downright irritating as the original junk email. Maybe they're supposed to be. The challenge now for Erkizia is to put the process in reverse, and figure out a way of sending a copy of his album to every motherfucker who spams us in the first place, configured to play on maximum volume without interruption each time they switch their computer on. That should have some impact on the Viagra market, heh heh. Actually, I'm a little disappointed that Erkizia's album doesn't include "Extend The Size Of Your Penis".. that was always my favourite spam message, and I don't get it anymore, sadly. I figured out once that if I gained a centimetre for each time I received it, the mighty organ would be long enough (given the right stimulation of course) to reach from the computer to the stereo and TURN THE GODDAMN RECORD OFF.–DW

Cem Güney
Previously unknown to yours truly, Cem Güney tackles several aspects of computer music with the right amount of profundity, the fragmentary nature of Praxis revealing itself as a value rather than a defect. In the press release the Turkish composer tries to focus our attention on the meditative qualities of certain kinds of sound by relating these features to the teachings of Nada Yoga, which enhances humans' awareness and response to predetermined acoustic phenomena – but this is neither a series of never ending "Om" nor something even remotely philosophica. Seriously enthralling moments exist, one of them being the evocative "Undulations" – appropriately dedicated to Janek Schaefer – which flows from damaged vinyl into a balance-altering decentralization of personal certainties. Güney is also eager to experiment with quick cut'n'paste ("A Phonetics Theme"), but what he does best is sowing the seed of his interest in a well demarcated range of frequencies and developing the whole investigation from there, the essential nucleus of the piece discernible from beginning to end. This is an album that discloses new meanings with each listen, definitely worth of attentive consideration. Loudspeaker listening is recommended for better interaction with the surrounding environment.–MR

Jason Kahn / Asher
There seems to be a gradually developing network among musicians who combine in-studio work with processed environmental recordings. This disc's partnership between Jason Kahn and Asher is so logical that I mentally exclaimed "of course!" as soon as he heard that a joint effort was forthcoming; and indeed the results are succinct, truthful, yet radiant. The disc's starting point was location recordings gathered by both artists in 2006 and 2007; Asher provided a selection of sounds from Boston's Back Bay neighbourhood, including "various mechanical rooms, generators, ventilation systems and idling motors", which he sent to Kahn for treatment. The latter captured other kinds of emissions, taping pre-dawn activity and environmental sounds on the shores of the Zürichsee and the sound of wind on the Swiss Alps.
On a casual listen, the music sounds like a mass of steam hiss and acute frequencies supported by a low throbbing pulse; you could call it "cold ambient", though that would be to ignore the compositional sophistication. Indeed, the subtle juxtapositions of sources and the barely perceptible shifts from one section to another require attentive examination through headphones; the organic breath of life becomes immediately audible when you let your ears crawl into this microscopic sonic underworld. The effect is like being suddenly aware of your own heartbeat in the silence of a room – a phenomenon we take for granted but are nevertheless afraid to think about, as if paying too much attention could cause it to stop. On Vista Kahn and Asher have successfully managed to blend their two distinctive personalities; it's apparent after just a few spins that the disc is a keeper, essential listening for followers of either artist.–MR

It's raining. It's been raining off and on for the past week, either that or snowing. Bloody miserable. Perfect weather for enjoying this package of goodies from Chicago-based Locrian. Andre Foisy and Terrence Hannum – though maybe I'm not supposed to reveal their first names, as on the discs it's just A. Foisy and T. Hannum – play, if the back cover photograph of the Rhetoric of Surfaces CD is anything to go by, guitars, synths and a battery of FX pedals, and have, over the past four years, been digging deep into the extremely fertile (even if at first sight it might appear barren) wasteland between heavy drone and doom metal. Limited edition cassettes and CDRs have often been the group's medium of choice, but, like many of their peers in the world of noise, they've sought to preserve some of the rarer (and presumably by now OOP) gems in CD form.
Rhetoric of Surfaces is the one to get then, and the opening "Drosscape" – the only track not previously released, it seems – establishes the mood of the album from the get-go. Over an ominous backdrop of sustained low register synth tones, guitar lines teeter on the brink of uncontrollable feedback. It ends suddenly, but distortion and delay is the name of the game once more on "Burying The Carnival" (this is also available on a self-released cassette, along with a companion piece "Exhuming The Carnival", though the sound quality understandably leaves a little to be desired compared to the CD.. not that that's ever been a problem for fans of this kind of sound), with extreme high register metal-derived guitar lines screeching like demented seagulls over a decidedly chilly bassline semitone loop. Dark, doom-laden stuff to be sure, but ravens and elemental human dread notwithstanding, the tolling bell that opens "Visible / Invisible" is convincing – and musical. But the best is yet to come, with "Amps Into Instruments", a carefully structured epic which finally settles on a four-note bass riff (the same four notes as The Cure's "A Forest", actually.. intentional?) and builds impressively to a powerful conclusion.
Meanwhile, for LP enthusiasts, Greyfield Shrines is a beautifully produced document on marbled ash grey vinyl, bringing together two more slabs of delay-heavy guitars and voices wailing inconsolably at the foot of an unscalable wall of fuzzy drone – and with its locked groove ending, the music can go on as long as you want it to. Recorded live on WHPK Chicago in late 2007, it's further solid proof that Foisy and Hannum know exactly what they're doing. The way they manage to sustain interest over fifteen or more minutes without ever moving away from an eternally gloomy minor home base, with guitars drifting across the grey sky like black clouds, is truly impressive. Wonder what it sounds like on a bright sunny afternoon.

Francisco López / Lawrence English
Francisco López and Lawrence English chose a simple procedure for this magnificent record, sending each other field recordings to manipulate in the studio, creating two additional works from the original material. "Untitled #175" is a classic by the Spanish soundscaper, featuring birds (only rarely accompanied by insects), a constant, muffled mumble-and-growl, wind brushing the microphone and what sounds like a perplexed polar bear in front of something unrecognized. It's masterfully transformed by English into "Pattern Review By Motion", the overall sonority altered by highlighting the environment's uneven breathing and heavy heart – except for a sudden thunderous dynamic shift – instead of focusing exclusively on the "lead chirpers" (they do maintain a central role, though, and English even adds some of his own in the final section). The Australian's "Wire Fence Upon Opening" is a beautiful example of "communicative idiosyncrasy", utilizing the same familiar elements with enhanced sensitivity: here, the distant rumble of the surroundings is absolutely crucial, becoming the link between our own physical reaction and the mental management of utter solitude. These eight extraordinary minutes of unfathomable existential perception are almost doubled (and thoroughly transformed) by López, whose "Untitled #204" concludes the program by confronting us once more with the threatening face of nature: crusty materializations underlined by distant roars, liquid and metal meshing their quintessence in an atmospheric setting that few could ever experience, quietness ultimately re-establishing its influence like slow death. Yet these vibrations are the basis of life.–MR

The Helen Scarsdale Agency
Interceptor sends the listeners back to the (not always) good times of post-Industrial trance, crushing their resistance with almost 140 minutes of drum machines, effects and analog synthesizers recorded between 2003 and 2004 on a damaged cassette deck. New Zealander Clinton Williams at the time was "pissed off with myself wasting time recording this stuff when I was trying to find a job", and the frustration shows in these 24 tracks. Listening provoked a curious chain of reactions: boredom tending to annoyance (wondering why a label such as Helen Scarsdale, home of several "crude masterpieces" over the last few years, should have released it at all) but eventually a sort of confidence, with Williams' whirring, spinning, creaking, thumping rhythmic reiterations, often corroborated by enthrallingly murky auras or inscrutable tone clouds, became pleasant enough company, as I think back to my enthusiastic youthful discoveries in the late 80s, when buying early vinyl by Asmus Tietchens, :zoviet*france: and (heaven forbid) Esplendor Geometrico was an occasion to celebrate. Interceptor manages to recall a fraction of that past life without sounding pathetic; some of the pieces are lovely, but a single disc with the very best material would have unquestionably improved the overall level.–MR

Raster Noton
It is timely for a sound designer to reclaim the transcontinental romance of the road movie and reconfigure its cultural ubiquity in an increasingly miniaturized but mainstream culture. With a strong background in jazz, and in particular the sensuous charged cache of the saxophone, Danish composer and producer Jon Egeskov is an anomaly in the purist aesthetic of the Raster Noton roster. He prefers to programme multi-layered clicks from power supplies and wire jacks, evolving them into danceable structures that ignore the more dry formalism of, say Carsten Nicolai. On The Drive, the intermodulated time signatures are still in evidence, but there's no trace of the Afrocentred nanorhythms that took centre stage in Egeskov's previous release Set Your Center between your part in order to in which android Mandroid Mtume was set loose on a set of pixelated conga drums in a war-torn village. Here it is the melodic and harmonic implications of drone music which resonates to the fore, not the complexity of time signatures. Imagine a quiet Sunday afternoon drive with Keith Rowe in the back seat improvising along to a radio that somehow finds itself moving along to a constantly shifting dial, drifting off quietly to the rhythms that keep apace.
All seven tracks take the listener on a crafted sequence of electronic Eulerian pathways, as illustrated by the accompanying booklet. Mimicking the deceptive rolling inertia of the M77 motorway, the opening "+280AE3542.88-80AE3713.02" seems to set the general template for this process, beginning and ending with the same dissonant drone. Mesmerized by a meta-stasis of tone colour and reverberation, we end up where we started. The following "+43AE3543.44-114AE511109" is more overtly coloured by chromatic tones, and is even more rhythmically promiscuous: insectoid ticks and flicks insinuate themselves like mosquitoes in a sunny clear day, while the drone seems to ululate in distorted waves, before ending with a terminal hum. The crisp digital interventions multiply and seem to suggest a new kind of motorik is being reframed, piece by piece. This is eventually made explicit in the forward momentum of the relatively conventional micro electro of track five, "+40AE4224.12-73AE5951". In many ways, this is the most engaging of the forms, the synthesis achieving equilibrium of clarity. By the time we get to the last track, the drone has been foregrounded, the motor of the imaginary Mercedes has been left running.
Credit has to go to Egeskov for attempting to graft experimental drone to a unique minimalist vision that never descends into uniformity and branding. The music is repetitiously terse, but effective in applying a new vocabulary in a popular culture that evokes empty motorway vistas, Wim Wenders and Jack Kerouac. He may have just succeeded in creating a new road movie for the twenty first century – but the cars are being driven not by humans, but Mensch-Machines.

The Belgian label in question is specialized in doze-inducing music – its name translates as "sleep well". The artistic criterion for publishing releases is that the material must cause label's boss Wim Maesschalk to nod off before the record is ended (!), so you have an idea of what kind of stuff we're talking about here. But I, for one, wasn't caught in the trap of somnolence: the 33 minutes that [Ralf] Steinbrüchel engendered by overlapping and electronically manipulating layers of gentle guitar arpeggios (by Daisuke Miyatani), although obstinately revolving around a single harmonic fulcrum – one chord in fact – draw out palpable hums and resonances, mostly from medium-to-low frequencies which, in a large enough room, can easily swell and completely encircle the listener. The effect is somewhat reminiscent of Laaraji's entrancing Day of Radiance, and the work of Andrew Chalk might also be a useful pointer, although Home is definitely less blurred at the edges of timbre and more monotonous (not necessarily a bad thing). Nothing else to report, but I can heartily recommend this CD to sufferers from anxiety attacks and tension in general. Not a masterpiece, but almost perfect to soothe the nerves.–MR

At War With False Noise
I'm having problems with this disc. Not that I don't like it – though a 76-minute harsh noise wall is not exactly something you like – just that I don't seem to be able to get through it all in one go. Not my fault, honest. The first time I tried was through headphones, but after barely three minutes I was reaching for the aspirin (after five, the bottle of La Charrette 55° rum). Second time I put it on, at 4pm on a Monday afternoon (when most "normal" people should by rights be out at work – don't ask me what I was doing at home at 4pm on a Monday afternoon, right?), the downstairs neighbour was at the door within ten minutes. No fucking taste, some people. The creep even came up and moaned a week ago when I was playing Funkadelic's "(not just) Knee Deep".. I mean, who could possibly dislike "Knee Deep", for Chrissakes? OK, so it was pretty loud, but it was Saturday afternoon and I figure everybody's got a little light under the sun.. I have to put up with the c**t's guitar playing after all, you'd think he might enjoy Eddie Hazel, but nooooo. So, anyway, I wasn't expecting him to dig Vomir (yes, you guessed it, that's French for "vomit", but you could have figured that out for yourself, I think), and he didn't. Neither did the folks upstairs when I tried it for a third time, at relatively low volume two days later. Vomir, whose real name is Romain Perrot, informs me that Jacques Oger, head honcho of the Potlatch label and purveyor of high quality lowercase improv, enjoyed the album very much. Living as he does in a house in a secluded street I guess he doesn't have the same problems with next door neighbours as I do, but I'll bet you the entire Potlatch back catalogue his wife and kids were out when he played it. Actually, come to think of it, his kids are nearly old enough to have moved away from home by now. If they haven't, he only has to put this fucker on again and they'll be out of the door pronto. So I'm still waiting for the right moment to inflict this in its glorious bloodcurdling entirety on the inhabitants of this building. Maybe I'll put the disc on repeat play one day, open the windows, and bugger off on holiday for a week. That'd serve them right. No, on second thoughts, I'd come back and find the apartment trashed. Well, anyway, good luck to you if you end up with a copy. Send me a postcard from hospital.–DW

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