Robert McDougall Unfinished Studies
AUSTRALIA ANGKLUNG EDITIONS ANG01 LP (2012)
Now an ultimately absorbing and beautifully realised slice of vinyl hailing from the antipodean quarter, 2012. This comes in the form of the Unfinished Studies l.p. by Robert McDougall, a Melbourne-based electro-acoustician and label boss, who certainly appears to have a fresh handle on investigations into the disciplines of avant-garde composition. A pleasing meld of pre-production treatments, electronics and field recordings can be found on the four long pieces within the somewhat anonymous-looking sleeve art. Starting with “Platter Study No. 2″; in which the platter in question appears to be a recording sourced from some ancient eastern ceremony, where distant gong/metallic bowl (?) tones are under threat of being consumed by a fluctuating foreground hum of unknown origin and, of course, the reassuring crackle that only distressed shellac can produce. “Untitled No. 4″ uses the same brand of disconcertingly blurred perspective as “Platter…”. The shimmer of a gently uncoiling keys/guitar figure is set against the distant hubbub of what seems to be a village market and reminds me of one of those gauzy dreams that’s remembered on the very cusp of awakening, before melting away forever. Further distant metallics are employed in “Installation Study No. 2″ in which the sound of an all pervading outboard motorboat drone is eventually punctuated by some quietly struck drawing-room piano chords, giving added dramatic import. My favourite though, is derived from a piano piece by Anne Boyd, a music professor from the University of Sydney. “Angklung Study” sounds, for all the world, like an outtake from Cluster, during their fields and streams period, circa Sowiesoso. Rather damn fine. A soft insidious assault on the senses, where…more or less, less is more.
A limited edition of 300 through Angklung Editions.
Monica Brooks & Laura Altman As Is
AUSTRALIA IT’LL BE AWESOME 002 CDR (2012)
Curious CD from Sydney. Very spartanly presented, very spartanly instrumented. Our two antipodean artistes utilise on this recording accordion and clarinet, respectively. Both make tentative enquiries in the higher registers of both instruments and use extraneous and ephemeral effects of non-standard physical sound generation, what is known as “extended technique”. The extended technique is not extended much further than these quiet high frequency forays, however; restraint, or hesitancy, is the order of the day.
The restrained and reduced instrumental approach might ordinarily be an encouragement to deep listening, go deep here and you find yourself contemplating mass transit systems, airport terminals, the undersides of caterpillar treads. Potentially uncomfortable places to rest for any length of time. These intimated locations remind me of certain scenes in Patrick Keiller’s films: long, static shots presented in a documentary manner of localised manifestations of global capital such as highly automated ports and out of town shopping centres. Places often edited out of existence (understandably) by the psychic censor.
The title As Is suggests that this disc is conceived of as a verité document, the results of an experiment presented for inspection. Extrapolated, perhaps it is the situation of two artists negotiating their wider real-world context. We hear the dry sounds of a fragmentary indoor busking, unwilling to be heard, the two wind instruments doing a fair impression of the slow squeak of metal grates against the distant backdrop of diesel generators and diggers reversing. The specific (muted) urban-industrial backdrop that is sharing the acoustic space is throughout a tonally confusing monotone alongside the (spare) musical information. Subdued shadings in chalk and charcoal on concrete walls, faint luminescence of contradiction.
Apparently As Is was recorded in a ‘concrete room’ in a former brewery in the middle of multiple construction sites; the low growling grey concrete dust of the metropolis is a constant throughout all tracks. Despite being enclosed within a building, the low-frequency sounds of mechanised urban activity still manage to seep in, subtly crowding the acoustic space. In between silences, underneath quiet sustained high register pitches, the muffled rumble of activity sits discomfitingly under what might in another context become delicate interplay.
However rather than interplay, the two distinct aural elements come across as mutual incompatibility, a contrast highlighting an underlying tension or even antagonism (at least in the configurations attempted) – there may be more specific dialectical implications to be teased out here by those with the inclination. The only time that the artists seem to compete with the background noises of the playing environment is when they move briefly towards the lower register or make more definite gestures. In the third track, ‘In distinction’ (a telling title?), the tonal spectrum broadens to include lower instrumentally-generated pitches and more movement. This indicates a way out of what can seem a fitful impasse. It turns out to be only a brief moment. Perhaps the artistic decision was to throw such brief moments into relief by surrounding them with determinedly introverted and self-effacing playing?
Much of the rest of the album involves tones which are dissatisfied with their own audibility, which seem quite happy and relieved for a reprieve from the task of making a sound when a passing delivery van or dropped pen takes centre stage. In some ways this can be confusing, certainly leading to an unsatisfying listening experience, in others it perhaps contains something of the Taoist approach to confrontation, making a virtue of weakness.
The uncomfortable contrast between the tentative, de-centred, lop-sided approach of the duo and the noisy construction activity occurring in the same soundfield induces a mindset in which speculations on the relationship between the personal and industrial, entertainment, art, commerce and capital occur and within such a framework demonstrates two peoples’ own oblique strategy when confronting such questions. Rather a dry subject when framed and limited in this way. Still, although in some ways frustrating, there is food for certain modes of thought here, if not much for the ears or the more exuberant areas of the psyche.
What we can say definitely, concretely, at the end of this is that this is ‘as was’, these sounds were performed in this particular situation. Reasons and results remain notionally obscure, coloured by a murky wash of exhaust particles. This very obscurity of hidden purpose may hold a key to understanding, though. The plain presentation, lack of adornment or transformation is the essential nature of the artefact. Not seeking to construct an imaginationally transfigured situation it invites us instead to contemplate the implications and nature of a specific real-world nexus of different human activities.
Australian musicians Thembi Soddell and Anthea Caddy effectively give us a good dose of music from the bughouse on their Host (ROOM 40 RM448) CD. Through clashing atonal cello music with ghastly stabs from a keyboard sampler, they bounce acoustical mayhem off the walls of our padded cell, inviting the blindfolded ear to guess at the shapes that are force-fed through our respective feeding tubes. To increase the sense of apprehension, the musical attack lacks any sense of continuity, and the information is spewed outwards randomly, in horrid fragmentary bursts that don’t fit together. Any patient forced to endure this cruel and unusual treatment will be a candidate for the rubber room in short order. Three long tracks of this mental torture are available on a CD whose almost-blank packaging contains basic geometric shapes to further confuse the mind of the mentally ill as they are unwillingly engaged in vicious parodies of a psycho-geometric test. The second track not only has the best title – ‘A Shut In Place’, highly vivid description of a mental ward – but is also the most ominous music on the set, easily rivalling most sick industrial drones from the 1980s that used to rattle on about depravity and decay like kids playing in a trash-heap. Thankfully this bleak vision lasts only 8 minutes but it feels like an eternity to the prisoner, condemned to writhe in their straitjackets and beat head against bars in futile manner. One of the most effective “bedlam” music records I’ve heard, and I’ve heard ‘em all. From 11 April 2012.
Now for a good ocean-going record. This powerful maritime theme has been used by every musician from Benjamin Britten to Charles Hayward of This Heat, and more recently Isis. To be accurate Leaving Ocean For Land (DEBACLE RECORDS DBL075) is not exclusively set on the brine and is more of a transitory piece, depicting a nameless odyssey of doomed sea-dogs returning to the mainland with their scratchy beards and a poisoned cargo stowed in the hold. The suite is realised in seven parts by two important American doom-noise mystery merchants, Vertonen and At Jennie Richie. The former is Blake Edwards and has drilled inroads into the minds of many with his disturbing electric gougers, often released on his own Crippled Intellect Productions label. The latter act we have never been able to identify for certain, so reclusive is their identity, although their name is taken from the works of Outsider artist Henry Darger. On this joint work, the melded tones of queasy, nauseating electronic sludge are sewn together like eighteen rats in a seaman’s canvas bag. The slow glorp exudes a motion exactly like the swell of the waves on a sluggish Sargasso sea. Lurking in the mix are creepy disguised voices, murmuring unintelligible groans, rescued radio broadcasts from wracks and disasters. The seven parts segue into a compellingly nightmarish trip lasting 46 minutes, passing on the effect of being drawn slowly into an enormous maelstrom, or cataract. The evocative cover photographs depict a grim forgotten hulk ground ashore and encrusted with barnacles. The voyage did not prosper, methinks. From 17 April 2012.
For those who like a suggestive narrative undercurrent to their abstract music, you could do no better than bending an ear to In The Library of Dreams (POGUS PRODUCTIONS POGUS 21064-2) by Frances White. The album showcases six pieces of very delicate music by this award-winning American composer who has also been featured on soundtracks to Gus Van Sant films. The works have been realised by guest musicians, such as the string players David Cerutti and Liuh-Wen Ting, the flautist Ralph Samuelson, and the chamber ensemble Eighth Blackbird. Small and mysterious sounds are one of her specialities, as shown on the two electronic pieces ‘Walk Through Resonant Landscape’ 5.1 and 5.2; they are simulated virtual worlds, replete with replicants of birdsong and insects, synthesised in a way that matches Pauline Oliveros and her Alien Bog. ‘The Ocean Inside’, scored for a small ensemble and using conventional acoustic instruments, is more romantic and melodic; but the same degree of attention is paid to tiny details, expressed in percussion and delicate woodwind-piano passages. The title track is the most evocative, both in its Surrealist title and loving execution, and Cerutti’s full-bodied work on the viola da gamba here is an apt soundtrack for wandering around the attic of the mind, a melancholy reminisce about clutching at near-lost memories. No post-modernist she, White is not afraid to imbue her work with meaning. From 17 April 2012.
Argentinian saxophonist Lucio Capece continues his explorations into long-form music on Zero Plus Zero (POTLATCH P112), on which four of the tracks are quite extensive (between 15-20 minutes) investigations into sound-generation. He does it by making unusual electro-acoustic interpolations between him and his instrument, for example the ring modulator, equalizers, cassettes, and applied objects; and ingenious use is made of cardboard tubes as well. That said, woodwinds only actually feature on two tracks here, the remainder being executed with the sruti box or by purely electronic means, such as sine waves or equalizers being fed through cardboard tubes. It’s a rather process-heavy album and sometimes I wonder whether the long durations are justified, but ‘Inside the Outside I’ is a truly heavy magnetized hum that could hypnotise a bucket of sand into thinking it was the Sahara desert, while its sister track ‘Inside the Outside II’ is an implacable throbbing beast, whose electronic pulsations move in and out of phase to suggest a vast reservoir of power. It is well that Capece has all this power at his disposal, but I’d also like to hear him do something a little more constructive with it than simply present this very static music. From 2nd April 2012.
We last heard from the London micro-label Foredoom Productions in May 2011 with four fine cassettes of abstract noise. This odd mini-CD is called -1 (FOREDOOM FD008) and is credited to VA AA LR, in fact the trio of Vasco Alves, Adam Asnan, and Louie Rice. The main event is eleven minutes of extremely puzzling digital noise, often very minimal and fugitive with lots of dropouts and empty segments, prompting the sort of “where-is-it” exasperation I normally experience when chasing the flies out of my bedroom. Gradually it turns into a highly abstracted digital glitch which has been rendered down into a strange pile of rubble. There’s a bonus track which delivers three more minutes in the same rubbly vein. Given how little actual content or variation there is on here, I’m inclined to wonder why it took three people to produce it. I would tend to characterise it as a slightly more refined version of the kind of intense digital mayhem we find on the label Copy For Your Records, only more approachable. The original release has sold out now, but most of it has been published on Soundcloud, along with more of their studio work. Received 10 April 2012.
Australian improvising percussionist Will Guthrie boggles the mind with his extended techniques on Sticks, Stones & Breaking Bones (ANTBOY MUSIC AM11 / LESPOURRICORDS LPR0008 / GAFFER RECORDS GR032) which arrived here 8 March 2012. It contains three recordings which demonstrate his fluency with a particular and highly personal method of drumming which he has been working hard to develop over many years. Now in case you think you’re in for a dissonant listen along the lines of Les Percussions De Strasbourg (the Silver Series LPs that few in their right mind want to collect), I must stress that Guthrie’s work on this record is not completely disjunctive or broken, nor filled with the delicate tinkling of wind chimes or other aesthetic posturings. To put it bluntly, Guthrie rocks like a devil. The first track ‘Sticks’ is one which we can recommend to any honest fan of rock music, as it’s a blastin’ piece of muscular improvisation characterised by a steady pulse and inventive cross-rhythms, played with clarity and precision, resulting in room-filling thwomps that start by agitating the teacups and end up cracking the plaster on your ceiling. John “Drumbo” French fans should dismount instantly and fill their canteens at this oasis. On the strength of these 8 1/2 minutes alone, we have to nominate Guthrie as the best drummer Frank Zappa never recruited; he could have made nine types of mincemeat out of ‘Inca Roads’.
We’ve got a breathing space on second track ‘Stones’ which starts out with long metallic tones perhaps made by brushed cymbals, but it livens up at midpoint to kick into an even more elaborate worked example of Guthrie’s ingenious method. He explains it for the listener in friendly, jargon-free prose with the enclosed handout, and it’s a device that involves the repetition of short and very limited rhythmic phrases, but interpreted in multiple fashions – the phrase can start in the middle, be played backwards, or have its order or direction changed in pretty much any way that suits the player. He calls this method “mirror image rhythms”. It seems to involve memorising a tremendous amount of musical information without the aid of notation, and requires Herculean intellectual and physical efforts. Guthrie freely admits this approach is meticulous to the point of being obsessive, and often feels he’s in danger of losing himself in a “house of mirror music”, never to escape.
The payoff for all this is to be heard on the colossal final track ‘Breaking Bones’, where for 16 minutes Guthrie grinds his way through one of the most simplistic phrases in a drummer’s repertoire, and his aim in performance is to turn himself into a drumming machine, effecting almost mindless mechanical playing. You may think you’ve heard one of the ultimate expressions of this non-human aesthetic on the record made by Tony Conrad and Faust, but brother – you’re in for a surprise. Guthrie’s intention here is to push his body to the limits, stretch his muscles to the point where his own arms and legs start making involuntary spasmodic decisions on their own; it’s all part of the aim of the work, which he has performed live a number of times, and for which he has to get into physical shape (through hard exercise) before he even attempts it. It’s almost a matter of life or death for him, although he may not be putting himself in as much physical danger as fellow Australian Lucas Abela has done, with his madcap antics.
I’m still intrigued by what “mirror image rhythms” means as a technique, but one part of it I do understand is that perfection in executing it is virtually impossible, either because there’s too much information to remember or it’s too physically demanding, or both. As Guthrie admits, he cannot do the same thing note for note even after practising it for so long, but surely the point is that he tries. The act of attempting this physically challenging music is the artistic process that is relevant, whether or not absolute success is attained. Even Stockhausen admitted he was often scoring music that was too complex for any violinist to play, but when they achieved even 70% success, he was more than delighted with the results. In grappling with his mirrors and putting his tendons and ligaments through a stressful Hell that even exceeds the toughest yoga exercise, Guthrie says, “it keeps resulting in engaging music for me”. That’s putting it mildly, Will!
So what has good old Oren Ambarchi been up to the last coupla years? We don’t seem to have reviewed any of his records since TSP 18. The more we heard from this seriously talented Australian musician, the more facets appeared…a guitar-player of highly avant-melodic dimensions, he evolved and crafted an incredible personal style and distinctive sound on his instrument which to this day no-one else understands how to achieve. He also continued to amass an enormous collection of extreme Black Metal records during the years when that genre was hot, just because he loved the stuff; and also found time to pursue pop music in his band Sun, tour with Sunn O))), and appear in various doom metal projects such as Gravetemple and the Burial Chamber Trio. Not to mention appearing alongside improvising guitar veteran Keith Rowe as a member of 4G. Talk about your hardest-working man in showbiz…
Now we have his new record Audience Of One (TOUCH TO:83) which we received 17 February 2012. It’s a pretty unclassifiable album. I suppose the first thing to say is that it’s very beautiful music, and that it’s also rather lonely and sad in its fragile beauty. Through slowness, stillness, economy of means and other refining tactics, Oren has composed and directed four pieces of exceptionally poignant contemporary music. Did I forget to mention it’s also a collaborative work? Oren plays guitars, percussion, and keyboards, while important guest players provide strings, horns, piano, and percussion. On one of the most limpid cuts, ‘Passage’, there’s the splendid Eyvind Kang adding viola and piano to the mournful elegiac music. Kang is making good with his “spectral” compositions for Ideologic Organ just now. There’s also the delicate voice of Jessika Kenney on ‘Passage’, barely appearing, and moving through the track like an imperceptible breeze, barely leaving a stain on the tape. crys cole is doing something equally nuanced with her brushes and contact mics, while Oren builds his transparent layers of sound with guitars, Hammond organ and wineglasses (the glass harmonica I assume). After some six minutes of still waters running deep, ‘Passage’ segues into ‘Fractured Mirror’, the eight-minute epic that closes the album and represents another side of the pop and rock music loving Oren…for starters, it’s based on a tune by the Kiss lead guitarist, Ace Frehley 1. Oren plays virtually everything, apart from some acoustic guitar assist from Natasha Rose, and it’s a tightly-structured instrumental of minimal Krautrock, the guitar sound of Daniel Fichelscher set to an early 1980s drum machine click track, with a murmuring mellotron drone at the bottom. Of all the music here this is the one track that wants to try and rejoice, even in the face of great sadness; it’s a glorious bittersweet melange of emotion.
The album begins however, not on a triumphant note at all, but with the slow sadness of ‘Salt’, a lugubrious song with pained vocals supplied by Paul Duncan from Warm Ghosts, plus a small string section (violin by Elizabeth Welsh, James Rushford on viola and piano) creating a romantic swell that’ll make your heart burst with empathy. Against this, Oren adds his treated guitar to sound like the unobtrusive ambient piano of Brian Eno, and also etches in his tiny details of discordant notes that add just the right degree of ambiguity to this hymn of uncertainty. This is probably what Scott Walker die-hard fans imagine they are hearing on disastrous records like The Drift, but when it comes to creating disturbing easy-listening styled modern pop ballads, Oren shows us how it’s done, almost effortlessly.
The main event of the album though has to be ‘Knots’, and at 33 minutes this track could have made a credible vinyl release on its own terms. The lineup here includes Eyvind Kang again, plus the cellist Janei Leppin, Josiah Boothby on French Horn, the percussionist Joe Talia and the singer Stephen Fandrich, all accompanying Oren with his electric guitars, autoharp, and percussion. The recordings have been made at different times across the world – Australia, Seattle, London, Luz and Milan – and assembled in the studio with the help of Randall Dunn. What results is a tightly integrated and intense piece of micro-tonal groaning, as nebulous as a swarming galaxy. As with all of this album, “understatement” is certainly the keynote of the day, but there is exquisite detail and discipline woven into every strand of this “knotted” composition, and it’s not simply another self-indulgent drone-morass of the sort that blights contemporary music like Dutch elm disease. Without wishing to dive straight into the deep end of the “superlatives” swimming pool at Swiss Cottage, I’d have little problem aligning this ambitious and sustained piece of work alongside recent compositions by Reinhold Friedl or Yannis Kyriakides; though to give credit where it’s due, it seems that most of the arrangement work for this exceptional piece was executed by Eyvind Kang rather than Oren. The press notes highlight the subtle but very propulsive percussion work of Talia, indicating that ‘Knots’ also works as an update on the electric jazz of Miles Davis, the confidence and swagger of Miles’ music restated with all the qualifiers of 21st-century doubt and uncertainty. And besides all the spectral composition undercurrents, there’s a hint of doom metal in the menacing bass growls…a very accomplished record and one that will probably come to be regarded as a significant benchmark in Oren’s oeuvre.
Edited 09/11/2013 to correct gender of crys cole (his > her)
In my book, Oren scores 500 points for even name-checking Kiss, but he goes one better and records a cover version of a song by one of the band’s naffest members! ↩
Wadada Leo Smith is an Afro-American free jazz major player whose work is lamentably under-represented in my so-called collection, outside of his appearance on the Creative Construction Company LP of 1975. In the 1970s he played with experimenters Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins, Marion Brown, and many others; then the 1980s saw him making explicit musical statements and celebratory fanfares about the African experience, such as Rastafari in 1983, Human Rights in 1986, and Procession Of The Great Ancestry in 1989. At all times his music never lost sight of (a) the blues, which he considers to be at the root of everything he plays (Louis Armstrong is his chief progenitor) and (b) the importance of nature, as reflected in titles like ‘The Flower That Seeds The Earth’ and ‘Grainery of Pure Earth’. All the above themes continue to unfold and develop in Dark Lady Of The Sonnets (TUM RECORDS TUM CD 023), a new set of compositions for his trio Mbira, featuring the drummer Pheeroan akLaff and the Chinese musician Min Xiao-Fen who plays the pipa (Chinese lute-like object) and sings on the album. Her astonishing and other-wordly sounds are showcased all over the album, but especially on the title track where she intones the lyrical content written by Smith, indirectly inspired by Amiri Baraka’s prose-poem about the life of Billie Holiday – to whom this dance ballet piece is dedicated. ‘Zulu Water Festival’ expresses the ongoing Africa and Nature themes, intended as a near-cinematic vision of ’60,000 Zulus dancing’ alongside a 50-mile wide lake. And ‘Mbira’, another creative dance ballet work, draws its influences from the spiritual music of the Shona culture in Zimbabwe. That’s a lot of resonances and layers of cultural meaning to digest, and probably tends to make the music appear more complex than it actually is. Fundamentally, this is is a trumpet and drumming album of remarkable directness, with Leo Smith blowing his uncomplicated notes on top of a very dynamic percussive framework. Balancing out the bluster and assertiveness of the two males in the group, Xiao-Fen inserts her delicate and graceful notes in the spaces that remain, as surely as a spider spinning cobwebs of silk. Another well-recorded and handsomely presented release from Petri Haussila’s Finnish jazz label, which arrived 20 December 2011.
Roil is the trio of James Waples (drums), Mike Majowski (double bass) and Chris Abrahams (piano), all Sydneysiders who formed their jazz improvisation group in 2007. Frost Frost (BO’WEAVIL RECORDINGS WEAVIL42CD), recorded in 2010 and 2011, demonstrates their unique approach to playing together – mixing up atonal, scrapey and noisy improv with more melodic moments that at times hark back to Bill Evans or even Oscar Peterson. They sometimes do this genre-hopping within the same track and are not afraid of being accused of eclecticism or stylistic diversity. ‘The Swinging Treatment’ displays some high energy Keith Tippett-eseque piano runs mixed up with some slightly more melodic fills, and ‘Super Vicim’, while starting off quite bright, colourful and upbeat, ends on a more ambiguous note as the pianist rummages around the lower registers like Cecil Taylor in a very bad mood, while the bassman grumbles in sympathy and the drummer’s obsessive noisiness comes in very handy. My personal taste is for these darker excursions, but they are rare – mostly the record leans towards melodic and modal doodling, embellished with percussive effects.
Found another one from the Inam Records label, which arrived 14 November 2011. The label’s own Olekranon (Ryan Huber) joins forces with the Greek electronic glitcher-fellow, P.S. Stamps Back (Iason P.). Nine tracks on PS Stamps Back & Oelkranon (INAM RECORDS 097 / TILT RECORDINGS), of which six are actually collaborative – done by the file-sharing method. It’s an unsatisfying blend of elements – over-familiar sounds, detuned drones, off-key pitches, sequencing, beats, filters, and general noodling around without really getting anywhere. Olekranon’s penchant for over-amplified and distorted noise is occasionally allowed to surface, but it’s mostly a collection of unappetising electronic tones. The collaboration never really takes off; the ideas do not gel, the pieces do not fit together.
Ryan Huber also records as Sujo, and he made Eilat (QUIET WORLD NINETEEN) for Ian Holloway’s Quiet World label. This little release is notable for its monstrous title track – ten minutes of insane stoner rock mixed with coarse electronic droning keyboard elements and zombie-styled drum-pounding, this recording uses amplification and distortion to tremendous bludgeoning effect. A fine work of remorseless doom, only beaten into submission by its follower ‘Caliphate’, a beast which is another exemplar of distorted and silted-up noise but is lighter and faster on its hind paws. The need for expression is almost being stifled under the weight of its grandiosity – this ten-headed monster breathes much smoke and fire and nearly sets us alight in the process. ‘Jakarta’ alternates guitar-noise excess with thick and heavy drones, chanting voices, and bleak synthoid landscapes, pulling uncertainly across many stylistic territories; the extreme dynamics of loudness and quietness are overpowering, and the same device is used on the unsettlingly shrill ‘Yatom’. It’s a wonder Sujo can breathe when he’s making these suffocating multi-layered recordings, as he strives at times to out-sludge Nadja in the dangerous game of overdubbing and stacking. Grand stuff. But I sometimes wish Ryan would do it in a recording studio some time; his rich work can’t quite transcend the limitations of home recording equipment.