On Factory Photographs (ROOM 40 EDRM426), two Australian sound artists calling themselves Hexa attempt to represent images of factories in sound. And goodness me, what a literal job they’ve made of it; these would-be abstract sounds quickly resolve themselves into sound-images of crashing metal, machine presses, steam, sparks, foundries, whistles, hooters, and many other prosaic interpretations of what a factory makes or does. The images in question were created by everyone’s favourite limner of the bleak industrial landscape, David Lynch, who has been doing it in cinema since the late 1970s (and in my view rarely surpassed his take on gloomy factories since Eraserhead). As a sideline to his cinematic work, Lynch has been taking photographs of disused and abandoned factories for many years, a fact which somehow fails to surprise me. I’d also point out that disused and abandoned factories have been preoccupying many other visual artists for some time, and we’ve reviewed a few of the results in these pages. The idea to create this banal sound-fest was down to Jose Da Silva, who commissioned the work while there was a Lynch exhibition at the Brisbane Gallery of Modern Art in 2015. Hexa are Lawrence English and his friend Jamie Stewart, who have been collaborating since 2009; they are planning an audio-visual version of this album using Lynch’s images. This probably isn’t as objectionable as I am making it seem, but if you compare it with the eerie and subtle sound effects that Alan Splet and Lynch created for their films, it feels rather overstated and superfluous. Lynch was profoundly and personally affected by the urban squalor he beheld in Pennsylvania and continues to explore it, for reasons that are probably mysterious even to him. I’m just not feeling the same depth or obsessive qualities from this Hexa record. From 27th October 2016.
Mystical droney sound art from Ariel Guzik has been captured on the LP Cordiox (VON023), a limited edition LP from the VON label. This wasn’t really produced as an album, but it captures some episodes from a sound installation called the Cordiox which Guzik made in Venice, a 12-foot high sound sculpture which was exhibited in San Lorenz Church in Venice as part of the Biennale. The sculpture seems to be made of quartz and wires, but from pictures found online there also appears to be a wooden box with knobs, dials, and lights which looks like a Renaissance art version of a synthesizer, and may or may not have some connection with the sculpture itself. On the record are some very solemn drones and resonating purrs, with faint echoes of a chiming sound of some sort buried in these multi-layered depths. One of the accomplishments of Guzik’s sound in this case is that it defies conventional musical notation as it spontaneously generates harmonic series that are impossible to capture. “Invisible magnetic forces” propel the work and create these sounds.
Invisible forces seem to have preoccupied Guzik for 25 years; this Mexican-born creator and polymath has worked at the Nature Expression and Resonance Research Laboratory in Mexico all that time, where he concerns himself with “the phenomena of resonance, mechanics, electricity, and magnetism”, all of which can be harnessed to make music. Unlike conventional scientific research, which sometimes might appear intent on explaining everything away, it is Guzik’s mission to preserve the mysteries of creation, and imagination and fantasy play a large part in his work also. Press notes supplied here by Karla Jasso and Carlos Casas speak freely of time-travel and dreaming when they encounter this strange music; Casas, at least, has been fortunate enough to visit the installation in situ, and returned with a fanciful tale about the dream of Marconi along the lines of “sound never dies…it emanates and resonates eternally”. Casas is convinced we can gain insights into the past, present and future through contemplation of the Cordiox. The label owners are persuaded that this LP is “the most hermetic and fabulous” release in their catalogue. From 27th October 2016.
Last noted English player Phil Maguire in late 2016 with a very limited CDR he made for Linear Obsessional. Here he is again with a cassette tape called smll hand / dctfl hnd (DRONE WARFARE TAPES DW005), containing seven tracks all identified by lower-case strings of gibberish characters which may have leaped out one day from a codebase stored somewhere on github, meaning little to human beings. Although this is an “old” release (from 2014) I’m prepared to give it the time of day, as we enjoy Maguire’s process art music very much. The 2016 album was made using a Raspberry Pi, but I have no information or insights as to how this cassette came about, and I remain content to wallow in the single-minded unvarying tones that emanate from its core, emitting patterns and regular shapes with an obsessive insistence. There’s something quite inhuman, yet strangely satisfying, about the way these eerie sounds coalesce and change, and they breed and multiply like alien life forms which have dropped down to earth from a microscopic galaxy. Virtually impossible to second-guess what directions Maguire might wish to be taking us, yet while we’re here under this steel canopy it seems the most natural place on earth. From 25th October 2016.
ensemBle baBel / Christian Marclay
SWITZERLAND AUSSENRAUM AR-LP-006 2 x LP (2016)
Trying their hand at a compatriot’s fun and games are Lausanne’s ensemBle baBel, a resilient five-piece improvising group, largely schooled at the same city’s Conservatoire, and flying their national colours at full-mast on this tribute to the world’s favourite New York-via-Geneva sound art conceptualist, Christian Marclay. In something of a variant of his colleague John Zorn’s game pieces of the ‘70s and ‘80s, noted vinyl-splicer Marclay developed a number of image-based prompting systems from the mid-‘90s onwards, which ensemBle baBel has latched onto with an uber-patriotic fervour, to the point of ensuring that even the LP sleeve follows ‘the tradition of Swiss graphic design’, as they proudly note.
Which is far from saying that Mr Marclay is undeserving of the attention – I sense that the fun and childlike spontaneity he brings to the often dreary tenements of the avant garde are worthier of attention than the many more-of-the-same installations Brian Eno is deemed fit to be commissioned. Not that these particular recordings sound especially original nor whimsical when removed from their visual context, but divested of the fly-on-the-wall’s vantage point, the listener can take comfort in the fact that the Marclay cannot be covered – certainly not in the sweat of a lesser act’s well-meaning homage – only played with a sense of continual discovery.
The fittingly titled ‘Screen Play’ (2002) spans a full LP and lends itself to multiple readings, both that of veiled recreation and, more literally, that of Marclay’s ‘silent movie serving as a real time graphic score’ where improvisors follow and soundtrack the 30-minute video collage of split-screen videos overlaid with coloured lines and sharp edits; a kinetic, colliding score full of crashing waves, handstands and suchlike – playful visual koan stimulating a surprisingly cohesive, collective response from the players, who ooze and congeal as a single extra-terrestrial agglomeration with stray remnants of jazz instruments protruding from its pink, suppurating hide; occasional hints of percussive definition swiftly slinking back to the first state of beautiful (dis)grace. However many times baBel have rehearsed this act, this single rendition proceeds with an edge-of-seat sense of purpose that belies any familiarity. I suppose that if only one version of this film exists, it would likely have to pass through the grinder a fair few times to engender complacency in the ranks.
Besides, the group has other games to play in the meantime. ‘Graffiti Composition’ (1996-2002) and ‘Shuffle’ (2007) introduce and induce similar strategies: the former a set of responses to photos of poster-sized scores that had been hung around, weathered in and scrawled on by Berlin denizens in 1996. Thus essentially an anonymous composition and initially driven by dour, harmonic exchanges between electric guitar and double bass, it does attract all hands and builds a (severed) head of steam in due course. This forlorn foray could possibly be taken for a portrait of pre-unification East Germany, where the odd jazz motif peeps cautiously around cold, concrete corners. To stretch the metaphor: served in three separate ‘takes’, this puzzling piece’s back-to-square-one format openly exhibits the risks of being caught in the open.
Taking us further into the unfamiliar, ‘Shuffle’ plays with a similar deck – quite literally in this case, the deck in question containing 75 card-sized photos of tangentially musical ‘partitions’ for musicians to respond to in a similar wise to heretofore i.e. without recourse to familiar musical syntax. Thus, keening and irascible peals of sax and guitar provide a shaky surface for subsequent shenanigans, as well as modelling the miniature mode of each of these seven rounds, where a prompter changes the cards at regular intervals to uproot (I imagine) the players from whatever furrow they’ve dug themselves into. Greater stridency might be noted in these more abortive efforts, which may send more cotton-wool listeners screaming back to the womb of ‘Screen Play’ for renewed comfort.
Potential fun for all concerned in other words, and while not sounding like nothing we’ve ever heard before, the group shows sufficient variation in tack between one game piece and the next that it’s a good deal easier on the ear than a full sitting of Zorn’s Parachute Years. Given their apparent gusto for visual cues, I wonder what ensemBle baBel might make (or have made) of Cornelius Cardew’s Graphic Scores, were they not dead set for the time being on Keeping It Swiss.
French jazz pianist Jérémie Ternoy has never quite managed the full 15 lengths with any of the records he’s sent us. In 2013 we heard You Can Dance (If You Want) where his band TOC (piano, guitar and drums) were trying very hard to pull off the jazz-rock fusion thing, with very patchy results. TOC have now joined up with The Compulsive Brass on the record Air Bump (CIRCUM DISC CIDI1601), kind of like when Elton Dean, Mark Charig and others joined the Soft Machine only nowhere near as good, so we have Christian Pruvost on trumpet, Sakina Abdou on alto and soprano saxes, baritone player Jean-Baptiste Rubin and the tuba player Maxime Morel. If you want untrammelled lively squawking which passes for a form of free jazz, then ‘Stomp Out From Jelly’ is the one for you, which I found to be a largely indigestible morass of very soggy pudding spread out over 18 minutes. But I grudgingly admire the way the musicians keep flailing away, hammering at the music until it’s flattened into submission. ‘No Rag For K.’ is slightly less frenetic in pace, but the musicians still can’t get around the overall haphazardness of their scattershot playing; barely a single note feels like it’s in the right place. Drummer Peter Orins keeps pushing the elephantine mass along with an insistent heavy thump; he’s more like the drummer on a slave ship. I think the most off-putting element on this record is the highly florid tootles of the assorted brass players (Abdou may be the worst offender), which are very distracting; these French jazzers can’t seem to leave a note to manage for itself without ladling on eight pounds of excessive embellishment, extra dollops of whipped cream and spun sugar which we didn’t order. The album may be making some references to the music of Jelly Roll Morton and Kid Ory; and while early jazz is not my strong suit, I doubt that either Morton or Ory would have allowed this sort of flabby posturing in their bands. From 29th September 2016.
Very good acoustic improv trio work from Bertrand Denzler, Antonin Gerbal and Axel Dörner on Le Ring (CONFRONT CCS 65). The players are keen to point out their rapport has been hard-earned, and that this particular configuration represents years of work getting to know each other through means of brass, mallets, and perspiration. “Dörner and Denzler know each other for 15 years”, states the press note, while Dörner and Gerbal have been at it since 2011. Meanwhile Denzler and Gerbal, the French part of the act, have often played as a duo and appeared in many other projects, for example the record Heretofore which came out on this same label in 2015. Le Ring could I suppose refer to the tight inner circle which binds improvisers together, whether it’s the social milieu of concerts and touring, or the act of playing together which is (I would hope) not unlike creating a magic circle as used by John Dee, Simon Magus, or other well-known sorcerers. There’s also a “circle of life” thing implied in such a title, the slow rhythms of the artistic life, and the fact that these three players have been embroiled in the churn of playing together for so long means they are now as inter-twined as your clothes when they fall out of the tumble drier.
Not too long ago my life was ruined by hearing Sound Of Drums, the solo record by Antonin Gerbal which was so single-minded in its pursuit of a pure beat that you could have used it to construct a Roman road across Chichester. Fortunately he seems to have brought his fanatical approach down a notch or two for Le Ring, and contents himself with punctuating the general flow of the music with percussive shots inserted in unexpected places. However, when they other two give him five seconds of quiet, he’s straight back to his doomy funeral march antics, hammering out obsessive bonks and blams with the deathly precision of the grim reaper. As to Axel Dörner, I used to characterise this German trumpeter as one of the kings of the Berlin Reductionist School (or whatever they’re called) and his ultra-quiet work in Phosphor was enough to bring most strong men to their knees. He’s since become much more audible and less preoccupied with calling attention to his own breath, and his instrument is now a tube for releasing escaping gas into the room with a delicious light roaring noise. These two abstract-noise extremists tend to make Denzler – who actually hits recognisable notes now and again – the “conformist” of the group, which is really saying something in this context.
While Le Ring stops and starts and reorganises itself to head down side tangents on more than one occasion, it still presents a coherent argument in one continuous 41-minute spiel, which is more than most of us can do. Long tones are explored and tested and rubbed up against each other, like two dressmakers trying it on for size as they admire the heft of certain fabrics. Eventually, someone may or may not get an outfit to wear at the end of the process, but that’s not important. Throughout these lengthy ringing soundings, the drummer Gerbal is tapping impatiently at his rims and his skins, trying to bring the meeting to order. There’s such stillness and tension in the room that it’s amazing they get anywhere, yet forward movement of a lurching sort does take place. It’s likely though that we’ll end up at the same starting point in Le Ring, having circumscribed a circular shape right there on the floor, and come away enriched with mystical knowledge thereby. From 29th September 2016.
Hartley C. White was born in Jamaica but has lived in Queens New York for several decades. He’s been active since the mid-1980s, mostly self-releasing music, and a selection from his back catalogue appeared on the OSR Tapes label in 2014, called This Is Not What You Expect. Very active today, there’s a string of his records available through CDBaby such as Run The Gauntlet, Coming Out Fighting, Face The Music, and more. Today’s release is called Something Better (OSR TAPES OSR77) and is credited to Hartley C. White And Friends; among these friends are Zach Phillips, Christina Schneider, plus the lead guitarists Quentin Moore and Vinny Giannettino, percussionist Larry McDonald (who’s played with Lee Perry, Taj Mahal, Gil Scott-Heron and other notables), and sax player Kate Mohanty. Hartley himself plays multiple instruments, but he’s mostly a rapper / poet – and all the tracks here were built around his main vocal performance, with the instrumental overdubs gradually opening out to unfold the vision of the composer; the musicians worked to White’s extensive notes, indicating he possesses a very clear idea of what he wishes to achieve.
Hartley C. White’s vocal delivery is pretty much unique. Apparently it’s based not on conventional singing lessons, but on his martial arts technique. White has been a student of marital arts since 1966, and there’s a particular Bruce Lee move that inspired the “broken rhythms” of this unusual herky-jerky sung-speech. He himself calls it “Who-pa-zoo-tic Music”, and even called his record label by the same name. The words aren’t loping out carelessly, but are delivered with the intensity of a very accurate body blow. Don’t be fooled by the apparent insouciance in White’s tone; there’s a steely conviction in every syllable. There’s also a lot of passion in the lyrics, which dissect hypocrisy and dishonesty with the skill of a brain surgeon, in a highly compacted manner. Although a lot of these songs are short, mostly around the two or three minute mark, it’s evident that a lot of preparatory effort has been poured into their construction. The musicians perform an impressive feat keeping up with these unusual rhythms and non-symmetric patterns, and their instrumental contributions are spare and lean, punching home the meanings of each song. The net result is extremely unusual, constantly surprising the listener with its stop-start twists and turns. From 28th October 2016.
Lost Head (BIOLOGICAL RECORDS BR-07) is the latest project we’ve received from the very wonderful Dave Cintron, American guitar all-rounder who has come our way on great recordings by other Cleveland bands Terminal Lovers and Scarcity Of Tanks, proving once again that great things breed in large swarms on the shores of Lake Erie. This time, Cintron is joined by fellow Terminal Lover drummer Scott Pickering and bassist Rick Kodramaz, and you could hear their 2014 debut performance on a CDR called Zen Pissed released by Tom Orange. Orange, who blurts the alto sax on this album, had the guts to call himself Orange Claw Hammer on one cassette, but given the superficially “Beefheartian” vibe of this squiggly record, it’s a forgiveable lapse.
Aye, the Lost Head have quickly developed their own very convincing take on a punky rock-jazz thing, and they do it with no straight lines or “tasteful” licks, just plenty of squirming energy and action-painting effects. It’s as though they were trying to recreate a version of Ornette’s Prime Time without hearing a single note of music and just going on a description they read in a jazz journal. A jazz journal whose pages had somehow become interleaved with Maximum Rock’N’ Roll, that is. On two of the strongest cuts here, ‘Escapee’s Lament’ and ‘Northern Sledge’, the quartet create an ingenious, amorphous gaseous purple ball of jazz-inflected noise, where the rhythm section are phenomenal – never once settling into a familiar groove and keeping the pulsebeat living and breathing by playing “around” the beat (as the great free jazz percussionists of the 1960s aimed to do). ‘Squeezing Graphene’ is a little more conventional with the souped-up funky rhythms as if aiming for a more wired, coked-up imitation of On The Corner by way of James Chance and The Contortions, but the energy falters not for one second.
‘Cargo Cult’ is cut from another cloth, a mysterious foray into scrapey noise, atmospheric mystery and forlorn guitar lines droning in dissonant manner. If it weren’t for Cintron’s tendency to occupy every space he can in the music (this seems to happen on every record he plays on, and he seeks out like-minded musicians who do the same), this track would be a genuine chiller. Drummer Pickering did the cover painting also. A great release from November 2016.
The CD Stars Vomit Coffee Shop (OSR TAPES OSR72) by Frank Kogan is a 2016 reissue of a compilation that originally came out in 1986, self-released by Kogan with annotations and now here in CD form with a rejigged cover by Christine Schneider. It’s a fab set of post-punk songs recorded by Kogan solo or with his bands The Pillowmakers and Red Dark Sweet, and covers a period from 1981 to 1984. Kogan is an unabashed fan of 1960s rock and pop music, as he admits upfront in his sleeve note, as he listened to this stuff growing up in the 1960s and gives us a long list that covers everyone from The Kinks to The Electric Prunes and The Monkees, but he also adored The Velvet Underground. You know you can trust a man who says “I couldn’t listen to ‘96 Tears’ because it upset me too much’; he tries to account for the delicious sense of alienation that was hard-wired into the music of The Rolling Stones, and their many imitators, and was drawn to singers whose voice was used as an instrument – Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Bob Dylan.
The CD more or less charts his progress in New York as he worked his way through musical ideas that would give expression to his inner torment. He went from post-Velvets hard-lipped sneering to a wayward cross-breed of disco and punk, in the form of the trio The Pillowmakers, then found his way back to his roots with Red Dark Sweet. Kogan is a mite hard on himself and thinks his experiments don’t really come off, but I would beg to differ. In 1983 The Pillowmakers recorded ‘Linda Lu Pissed On Hitler’s Kneecap’ – Stefano Arata on bass, Carol Meinke on drums – which is a two-minute gem. It sounds like Lou Reed rapping a lost chapter from ‘Sister Ray’ to a disco beat. This song might contain trace elements of Kogan’s bid to bring “swinging blues and funk” elements to his music, after his friend Rich Campo had suggested he listen to James Brown records in the late 1970s. Kogan’s plan was to enlarge the “emotional range” of punk by crossing it with disco, and he thinks he didn’t succeed, but I’m not sure if we have any recordings from this period on the CD. These Pillowmakers tracks might not represent this period, but they are endearing and straightforward blasts of garage-enriched guitar swipes combined with elliptical syncopated bass rhythms, sure to appeal to fans of Magazine or Fire Engines. 1
By 1981 Kogan had met Andrew Klimek and Charlotte Pressler, and formed Red Dark Sweet – they were the core members, though drummers Donna Ratajczak, Rick Brown and John Spuzzillo also appear on some recordings. The 1982 tracks offered here were recorded on a cassette player “lying on the floor”. The songs here are closest in spirit and sound to The Velvet Underground, but it seems Andrew and Charlotte were musical omnivores with wide-ranging record collections, and showed Kogan new possibilities for freedom in the music of VU, for instance with improvisation and noise experimentation. These elements are most in evidence on the 15-minute workout ‘Mrs. Hanson / What’s That Sound I Hear?’, without a doubt their attempt to remake ‘European Son’ on their own lo-fi terms.
I like these free-wheeling and discursive Red Dark Sweet tracks, but there’s also a lot to be said for Kogan’s pop-influenced song style. The four opening cuts on the CD were recorded in 1984 and to me they’re near-flawless examples of songcraft, often delivered with just one guitar and a voice. Strong melody, simple riffs, and very concise; everything a song should be. Frank Kogan surely deserves to be located near J Mascis in the canon of American post-punk songwriters.
Hugely enjoyable CD; it’s been a delight to discover this hitherto hidden chapter of American song-based music, a chapter which might perhaps have been swept away the tsunami of 1980s punk that came in the form of Black Flag and all who followed. I’m glad that no attempt was made to clean up the sound; to me it’s like hearing a well-loved and cherished cassette tape lent to you by a friend. Recommended. From 28th October 2016.
- Interestingly, many bands in the NDW scene also melded disco and punk starting in 1981, but Kogan makes no mention of this. ↩
Jean-Luc Guionnet has released another fascinating compositional work in the form of Distances Ouïes Dites (POTLATCH P416), a French phrase which roughly translates as “Hearsay Distances”. He did it with the modern chamber ensemble Dedalus, who in honour of their namesake have elected to share lodgings inside a labyrinth in Crete 1. This seven-piece of talented musicians play stringed and brass instruments, with the addition of an electric guitar and a vocalist, and have appeared on this label before in 2013 performing their own music. Distances Ouïes Dites is a single work segmented into 15 index points, and it was performed in an art centre called Le Consortium in Dijon, France. The idea is that the musicians were all placed in different rooms of the centre, and the audience would be set apart in Salle 7, where they could only have sight of Cyprian Busolini, the viola player. The audience would have heard the music, but removed at some distance. If you have any trouble visualising this unusual set-up, there’s a helpful architectural plan of the layout included inside the CD gatefold, with red lines printed on yellow indicating precisely where each musician was located.
It’s evident that Guionnet likes to set “challenges” to his collaborators. In this instance, he’s quite explicit about it, and it’s something to do with negotiating the space, the distances between their fellow musicians, and the distance from the audience. It involves coming to terms with the environment, understanding the acoustics. Against these barriers, the players must work hard to “spread musical ideas in their environment”. Part of the challenge is doing it in real time; presumably the Consortium presented its own problems on the day, no matter how well composed the piece may be. The musicians meet these challenges. They play the music in a poised, deliberate fashion, perhaps exhibiting a certain amount of caution, but they hit the mark. After all, this physical separation must have denied them one of the fundamental characteristics of ensemble playing, i.e. the possibility of visual communication with your fellow players by movement, eye contact, nods, or whatever. Sealed in your cell this way, you are very much thrown back on inner resources.
The use of the word “hearsay” is therefore no accident, but indicates that music, in these circumstances, acquires some of the qualities of an elaborate game of Chinese Whispers, where meaning becomes distorted and blunted through the process of muffled hearing and sensory deprivation. Guionnet has deliberately created a situation where we only learn fragments of the story, leaking out in segments and possibly arriving in a garbled form. In today’s climate of “false news” and scrambled messages arriving by email in the form of corrupted data, the work is not without a certain resonance.
The recording of Distances Ouïes Dites also sounds splendid, making the most of the acoustical resonances and echoes of the building, as if The Consortium itself was also a musician or a player in the score. This is not unlike another Guionnet work Quelque Chose Au Milieu from 2016 2, where he did it with two saxophone players and recorded them in unlikely spaces such as a public swimming pool and a bridge under the motorway. The titles of the 15 segments of Distances Ouïes Dites also contribute to the meaning, referring directly to the space of building, its rooms, its height and depth; and to waves of sound crossing the physical space itself. While all of this may appear reflexive and descriptive, Jean-Luc Guionnet’s music – and the superb performances by Dedalus – never fail to create beautiful and intoxicating music, transcending the boundaries of space. It may prove something about how great art can travel time, pass through barriers, create “l’espace mental” where communication can succeed and bring us all closer. A triumph. Received 11 November 2016.