Tagged: computers

Get into the GROOVE

MAY2014046

Laurie Spiegel
The Expanding Universe
USA UNSEEN WORLDS RECORDS UW09 2 x CD (2012)

Due to the cost of development and difficulty using the first computers and synthesizers, the narrative surrounding the earliest computer music innovations appears relatively clear. Unlike the development of the Blues or Post-Punk, endless influences, complexities, lack of recordings and overlapping canons produced by anyone picking up a guitar, the development of audio synthesis technology is constricted by availability and condensed history. That narrative elaborates on a handful of technicians and programmers, committed musical amateurs alongside composers, experimenting with vast unwieldy equipment across international laboratories and research groups. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Electronic Music Studios, Cologne’s Studio for Electronic Music of the West German Radio, the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Centre, Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique in Paris, The San Francisco Tape Music Centre, to name a handful, all working towards new means to produce and conceptualise sound. I have always found this narrative of obsessive scientists playing with ring modulators and basic coding, competing and collaborating on synthesizers and new systems particularly gratifying despite being an obvious oversimplification.

Laurie Spiegel is a composer, software designer, hardware engineer and programmer who has a prominent position within this narrative of innovation. Her previously out of print début, The Expanded Universe, is here reissued so definitively that it barely resembles the four pieces comprising the original. The extensive and insightful liner notes provide detailed production notes for each track and clearly align Spiegel within this perspective. Her contributions to early computer music and audio technology are well observed and as her reputation as a visual artist has grown so has awareness of her myriad innovations with analogue and digital synthesis.

The entirety of the pieces spread across two discs were composed at Bell Telephone Laboratories using Max Matthews’ Generating Real-time Operations On Voltage-controlled Equipment, or GROOVE, system. Matthews, on staff to test the quality of telephone dial tones, is possibly the most significant figure in the history of early computer music and discounting university departments or commercial studios, Bell Laboratories was certainly the period’s greatest private lab concerned with computer audio synthesis and audio research. As AT&T were the USA’s sole telephone provider they were under a great deal of pressure to encourage this type of high-level research and development. GROOVE’s combination of analogue and digital components is the major source of its innovation. Operating from 1968-79, it was a hybrid system with a rudimentary graphical interface. Whilst several similar hybrid projects existed or were in development, Musys at EMS, Xenakis with UPIC at CEMAMu slightly later or Donald Buchla’s work at Dartmouth College for instance, none had yet reached the scale and complexity of GROOVE.

A Honeywell DDP 228 microcomputer, costing the department $400,000 controlled a modular synthesizer. The complex patching possibilities of the modular unit was controlled by keyboard or algorithm input, realisable in real-time rather than the drawn out process usually necessary for computer composition. Such synthesizers were notoriously difficult to keep in tune and extremely responsive to changes in temperature and using the computer to initiate control values effected on the modular addressed this in some way. Twelve voltage controlled operators, seven voltage controlled amps and two voltage controlled filters; GROOVE could enact continuous changes to sound not conceptualised as notes or scales, potentially reproducing the complex sounds of bowed or wind instruments. It also stored musical data for later editing and operated as an extremely rudimentary graphical sequencer of the type that dominates electronic music production now. Each user would have their own unique configurations and could effect these immediately. In many ways the supremacy of MIDI and graphic sequencing in contemporary electronic music, although emerging from systems like GROOVE, makes this music seem much more alien and expressive.

Spiegel cited GROOVE as ‘the ultimate hybrid modular synthesizer’, embracing the limitations of composing for something so fragile and unstable that it would inevitably become redundant. The Honeywell was discontinued in 1978 meaning the end of the system as a cutting edge unit for composition. In 1991 a compilation of Spiegel’s work entitled Obsolete Systems was released. Playing with the image of these vast and ancient mythologised technologies, it provided an interesting counterpoint to Spiegel’s otherwise relentlessly progressive and innovative approaches, such as her work with ‘intelligent’ compositional tool Music Mouse. The music on The Expanding Universe was already ‘outdated’ by its release; a brief glimpse of an alternate form that could never reach fruition. The piercing sine waves, real-time alteration and graphical sequencing were by 1998 reproducible in extremely basic form on hand-held game consoles.

If this was the case, why does The Expanded Universe possess such a reputation or warrant returning to once more? As the product of experiments with a single piece of technology it establishes its own novelty as a metric for quality. But why should we canonise a work eclipsed by the rapid pace of innovation it contributed to? Spiegel followed GROOVE and left Bell Labs in 1979 whilst continuing to develop both hardware and software environments for composing with computers. Neither then nor now has she expressed an interest in nostalgia or deifying previous technology. Similarly, Emmanuel Ghent’s work with GROOVE is often perceived as being both more substantial and innovative than Spiegel’s, yet outside of dedicated discourses his name is unknown (interestingly he also served as Spiegel’s private musical tutor in the 1970s).

This reissue addresses these issues by framing those original four pieces not as a ‘lost’ anachronism, but as the culmination of an astonishing and vital process we can now access. The focus on this narrative of technical innovation, although satisfying, obscures Spiegel’s incorporation of her background performing on banjo and lute. The first pressing of The Expanded Universe was issued by PHILO records, a company established to distribute folk and traditional music. What distinguishes Spiegel’s work with GROOVE from someone like Ghent is that it does not feel out of place in that context. The surrounding material presented here confirms the unique balance and tension alluded to on the original; generating immediate and communicative ‘folk’ forms on a system that required moving between two rooms.

Clusters of notes pulse and swell, gradually modulating and phasing between one another as attack and decay are varied and clipped square waves are drawn out like meticulously organized finger picking. It remains striking that the composition reflects the idiosyncrasies of the system as drawn out by Spiegel. GROOVE processed only voltage data; Spiegel is disconnected from ideas of notation or divisions of improvisation and composition. The music is literally programmed and automated, making the arpeggios, harmonies, complexity of form and emotional affect even more beguiling. Adding to the sound palette are a handful of strange percussive experiments; bell tones forced into complex polyrythms imitating Sub-Saharan Africa’s traditions, as well as swelling drone pieces that connect with later Kosmische traditions.

Spiegel deviates from, but also enriches that narrative of early computer music. The expression of traditional modality within this idiosyncratic and irreplicable technology, as well as Spiegel’s incredible compositional clarity mark The Expanded Universe as a strange and brilliant anomaly.

MAY2014047

Crystal Gazing

Big French are an underground American rock band who play bizarre songs and their Downtown Runnin’ (WHARF CAT RECORDS 006) LP was sent to us from Brooklyn 23 July 2013. It’s mostly the work of Quentin Moore, who wrote the songs, sings them, and plays guitar, while the frantic tunes are filled out with some very fluid lead guitar lines perhaps played by Colin White, and some freaky synth blat from the fingers of Zach Phillips. Given the brevity of most of the songs – few last beyond two minutes – it’s much to their credit that the band members find room to express themselves at all, and mostly they do it by overplaying their lines against each other in exciting ways, and pile their colourful riffs on top of the effete and mannered vocalisings of Moore, who sings in quite a high range. A bit like hearing Russell Mael sing alongside Brian May’s guitar, yet the whole shebang is happening in the context of an album which, if released by SST in the 1980s, would now be regarded as a fine example of experimental rock-pop music. Sorry if I appear at all equivocal, because I kinda like this one; while Moore’s work is an acquired taste, it’s catchy; the more you listen, the more addictive do the songs become. It’s on vinyl, but I have a promo CD copy.

Another unusual item from Intangible Cat, an obscure Illinois label whose output I would never otherwise hear were it not for their frequent mailings and the power of the mailbox. Dog Hallucination is the duo of D. Petri and Doggy P. Lips, and when we heard their 2011 record Bob Hallucination we felt quite a buzz from its unpredictable zanery and cut-up pranks, even when this was mostly due to radical remix work and hackerment from cutting devices of said Bob, whom they specifically asked to reprocess their recorded work. Serving Two Masters (CAT-19) is completely different to that experiment, and comprises just six short tracks of unobtrusive yet exquisite guitar-based ambient music. I say “ambient”, but if that word triggers associations involving droney background synths, then check out the door right now, bubba! Dog Hallucination create gorgeous tapestries using strum and glide on guitars, processing them to the exact degree that gives them that underwater, misty-morning, gauzy distance that they’re looking for. In the process, they are extremely careful not to lose definition of the overall image, and the sounds of the chiming strings ring clear and true even at low volume. By the time we get to fourth untitled track, it’s clear that this subtle strategy is paying off, and allows them to create a passable (and highly compressed) impersonation of Popol Vuh. They tell me this EP is just the prelude to an entire album on these lines, to be called Mitzi, which was due in later Summer of 2013 and which we look forward to hearing. The enigmatic and elaborate package includes inserts and “fabric dyed with beet leaves and stems & pressed sage leaf from D. Petri’s garden”. From 09 July 2013.

Jonas Gruska is a sound artist from Czechoslovakia who studied composition in Poland and The Netherlands, and whose main work as Binmatu involves computers and electronic music. There’s a visual side to his work too, hence the multi-media release Crystylys (KVITNU 28), a pressing which includes video files alongside the audio content – what’s more the same musical content is served up in multiple formats, including WAV and MP3. My computer isn’t sure where to navigate next, and as a human being I’m not faring too well either. On one level, it seems Binmatu is all about the process – he exhibits an interest in “complex air pressure modulations” and enjoys the “brain-twisting modulations of oscillators”, effects which are matched to some degree in the computer-art abstract visuals he generates in the movie files. Yet on another level, Binmatu intends to pass on a “greater spiritual theory”, using “sound as an intimate power” and performing a “holy purpose”. He regards himself as a “priest of sound”, which is quite an ambitious statement. He wouldn’t be the first to have made claims for the spiritual dimensions to be found in minimal droney music – Terry Riley and Charlemagne Palestine spring to mind – and it’s a commonplace now among many writers to ruminate on the connections between trance states, prayer, and repetitive, monotonous sounds. Gruska’s mysterious drones are pleasant enough, but unfortunately I find he’s unable to sublimate his processes in any meaningful way. I feel he’s got a long way to go before he achieves the transcendence and depth he’s aiming at, but maybe I need to devote more time to exploring these works. From 22 July 2013.

Rough Techno & Pianos

Sultan Hagavik are a Polish duo who malarkey around with cassette tape players and dictaphones, using found recordings as well as their own tapes in their crazy bricolage method. 9 Symphonies (BOLT RECORDS BR K001 / NIKLAS RECORDS n/008) is the highly entertaining result, where in just 9 tracks and 37 minutes they speedily exhibit a variety of inventive approaches with mucho good humour and mild surrealism: layers of juxtaposed recordings, odd music fragments, wacky sound effects, slowed-down voices, and many other unidentifiable elements in an atmosphere of carefully contrived insanity. Some pieces are like détourned ambient or easy-listening music, the saccharine melodies transformed into a diabolical blob of garbled filth by these interpolations; on other tracks, the duo arrive at a tongue-in-cheek version of modernist atonal composition, such as on ‘Piano Trio’, where the arbitrary clusters of notes resemble a parodic take on the seriousness of the highbrow conservatoire. The subtitle of this one also tips its sardonic beret in the direction of Górecki, one of the most famous Polish composers, and flippantly remarks that he is “fairly unknown”. Mikolaj Laskowski and Jacek Sotomski allow all the physical characteristics of their chosen medium to work in their favour: distortion and rough sound quality is one element, spontaneity and chance accidents is a second, and a third strong component has to be the way that tapes are manipulated (perhaps by hand) in real time, using controls and buttons to introduce random speed variations and crazed tape wobbles. There have been several composers and improvisers who make free play with these techniques and source materials (just the other night I was wondering whatever became of Stock Hausen & Walkman, those UK zanies who used random found tapes as grenades to throw into their irreverent and chaotic live improvisations), but Sultan Hagavik claim to be the first and only band in Poland “which performs music using tape decks”. Either way, there aren’t many musicians who do it in such a spirited and lively manner, and evidently have a great deal of fun while doing so. That sense of fun may not be immediately obvious from the very sober front cover, but the walrus drawing on the back cover (by Katka Niklas) is a brilliant stroke of incongruity which will connect listeners to John Lennon’s ‘I Am The Walrus’, itself a masterstroke of tape juxtapostions, editing, and happy accidents in the studio, hence a perfect precedent for this album. From 28 November 2012, this is the first in a series of records called “Kikazaru Pleasures”.

Phonos ek Mechanes are a trio of Polish composers, all of them graduates from various music academies, experimenting with computer generated music. On C+- (BOLT RECORDS BR 1016 / NIKLAS RECORDS n/010) they play their instruments – piano, electric guitar and violin that are often themselves prepared or retuned to a microtonal tuning – and feed the signals directly into computer processors. We never hear a single second of “natural” music from the source instruments, and these performances are exercises in computer signal manipulation, using devices to mangle and transform the sounds in real time. The trio of Cezary Duchnowski, Pawel Hendrich and Slawomir Kupczak all have an interest in electro-acoustic composition and advanced computer composition, and are making manifest their faith in the power of the machine with as much fervour as the Italian Futurists – except where the Italians fell on their knees before the motor car and the airplane, our Polish friends worship the pre-determined actions of the microprocessor. Well, it’s not uncommon now for improvising groups to experiment with this methodology, and to my mind one of the best (and most radical) performers to get exciting results with real-time manipulation in a live situation was the great Kaffe Matthews, who produced some remarkable documents of her live sampling work in the late 1990s. More recently, there’s Han-Earl Park and his “machine musician” io o.o.1. beta++, a most remarkable automaton capable of adding its computerised contributions to a live collaboration. Our three Polish friends are probably interacting as gamely as any live improvising combo, but I think for the most part this record is about the sound they make – often a very strange and fluid melange of highly unusual sounds, which resemble neither the instruments they were sourced from nor any form of electronic music you or I would recognise. In short it’s more like electro-acoustic compositions produced in real time – and in spite of Duchnowski’s avowed support of improvised music and his frequent collaborations with jazz players, it lacks some of the sizzle and snap you normally get from live music, emerging as rather gloomy and turgid mixed-frequency droning. Then again, the threesome do manage to get very agitated on ‘Pianolenie’, which is like hearing Cecil Taylor and Max Roach being force-fed through a gated reverb device with a plastic dragon roaring and snorting in the background. It would also be a mistake to dismiss anything involving Slawomir Kupczak, whose Report CD for this label won resounding cheers in this house. The other odd thing, given that the group name simply means “sound of the machine” and how determined they are to turn the computer into an instrument and vice-versa, is how non-mechanical it all sounds. Most music played by sequencers has the simple repetition of a sewing machine, but there’s none of that on offer, nor the sort of over-processed thrice-filtered bilge that emerges from most contemporary laptop music. Instead, the music is quite unpredictable and has a living, breathing presence, with very “glorpy” and organic notes of great bendiness, shiny fluidity, and shapes as tactile as coloured dough. If this is a battle between the man and the machine, then the humans are winning. From 28 November 2012.

Bolt Records
Niklas Records
Distributed by Monotype Records

Minority Report

Slawomir Kupczak‘s Report (BOLT RECORDS BR 1015 / NIKLAS RECORDS n/009) is a superb piece of modernist avant composition from a contemporary Polish composer, who comes to us with an academic background and is also a member of the improvising ensemble Phonos Ek Mechanes. Report is a fascinating and bewildering assemblage blending spoken word with computer music; as soon as you hear the first spoken sentence, your attention is firmly grabbed by the chilling authority of the voice (and its sound). The texts may appear to be documentary clips from a TV show or radio broadcast, but it seems they are all scripted by the writer Pawel Krzaczkowski (the full libretto is printed as an insert, in Polish and English), and recited by two readers, Irmina Babinska and Jacek Paruszynski. These texts alone are worth your entry money; spoken in Polish, but judging by the English translations they are a series of impassioned observations about life, work, and ideas – a tapestry of quasi-diary entries or fractured anecdotes, amounting to a pessimistic and exasperated search for the meaning of life. As the title indicates, all of these stories are “reported” – which is to say they are mostly written in the third person. “What did he say about values?” is the first piece, mounting a series of interrogations which ends with “What did he say about life?”. It’s as though we’re hearing excerpts from an official report written by the great cosmic civil servant in the sky, filing his observations on the life and peregrinations of a Polish Everyman. “All of my life I’ve lived in a game of lies”, is but one example of the world-weary utterances found in the mouth of this contemporary put-upon and somewhat downtrodden character.

Kupczak’s treatment of Krzaczkowski’s texts are where he adds his compositional value on this single 38-minute composition. To put it briefly, distortion is his plan. The readers can barely get a word out before it’s subjected to studio interference – tape loops, overdubs, filters to mangle the syllables, backwards masking, and other layers of precisely-calibrated mayhem intended to place perceptual barriers between us and the content, blocking our understanding, scrambling the data. Yet the meaning continues to burst through the walls at every opportunity; the emotion, in particular that of the male reciter, is enhanced and magnified through these interpolations, his urgent statements increasing in paranoia the further he is pushed into the echo chamber. The female reciter is sometimes transformed into a cold authority figure (a doctor or judge) passing sentence on the listener. Elsewhere, the voice becomes the distant voice of officialdom, some faceless administrator speaking through a telephone, its clipped tones announcing a certain doom. Other voices become a sinister overdubbed murmur of whispers, as of an army of dispirited bureaucrats working steadily in the typing pool. All of these strategies completely reflect and support the tone and spirit of the texts; Report is a modern-day Kafka episode, with strong undercurrents of paranoia, surveillance, and nightmarish images about frustration, the “dead hand” of authority, the impossibility of escape.

The work also includes computer-based music, of course. Taken as a whole, it’s a compelling suite of sinister abstract droning which binds together the texts into a coherent whole, before climaxing with a refreshing melody of a synth-pop tuneage which somehow succeeds in striking a note of total triumph while simultaneously undercutting it with the certain knowledge of imminent defeat. Along the way we hear a fascinating array of intelligent ambient textures – a lonely attenuated drone, a chaotic chatter of renegade machines, the abysmal soothing background hum of a shopping mall, and abstract squiggles that come close to delineating the condition of madness in sound. Kupczak’s compositions for electronic music are refreshingly free from cliché, especially in the sound, and he has found new and subtle ways to give voice to computer music without once leaning on over-familiar pre-sets. Every episode is given its own musical identity in this thought-through work, and there’s not a moment of wasted space.

Report amounts to a moving and impassioned portrait of modern society, with enough layers of conundrum and enigma to repay further returns. It’s a triumphant blend of libretto and music, where the elements are fully integrated into a carefully planned compositional schema. A modern opera for the alienated and disaffected. (28/11/2012)

Slawomir Kupczak
Bolt Records
Niklas Records
Distributed by Monotype Records
Hear excerpt on this TSP podcast

This CD is part of a generous bundle of items on the Polish Bolt Records label received here in November 2012, including a massive 3-CD survey of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio. We have a lot of time for this label so I hope (eventually) to give many of these CDs the attention they deserve.

Meirino Blanket

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Francisco Meirino
Untitled Phenomenas In Concrete
AUSTRIA CAVE12 C12O03 CD (2012)

The information about Francisco Meirino I’ve come across online states; “active since 1994 (as phroq until 2009) in sound and live performance, he explores the tension between programmable material and the potential for its failure by working mainly with the computer, magnetic fields detectors, reel-to-reel tape recorders, piezo transducers and various acoustic devices…” So Untitled Phenomenas In Concrete is quite a departure.

It is a composition for UPIC and field recordings (“…recordings of snow falling, bones cracking, magnetic fields and insects”), assembled and mastered by Meirino between 2008 and 2012. The press release tells us “UPIC is a computerised musical composition tool, devised by the composer Iannis Xenakis. It consists of a digitising tablet linked to a computer, which has a vector display.” No doubt there will be an app for your phone that does that soon.

Untitled Phenomenas In Concrete commences with a noise that sounds like an electrical substation being switched on – it happens a second time at 10 minutes 15 and again around 27 and a half minutes after a minute or so of silence. This is an extremely loud and physical noise which made me feel like I was getting defibrillated by means of a strong electric charge. Not quite what I was expecting as I settled down to listen to this disc for the first time with a glass of wine after a long day, but exciting, nonetheless.

Untitled Phenomenas In Concrete certainly runs the gamut of sounds possible with UPIC. Other electronicists fortunate enough to be able to use the system produce, at least to my ears, quite similar sounding work in terms of sounds rather than composition; Russell Haswell, for example… 1

The piece begins with a series of ragged encrypted data files shorn of all rough edges angrily, by plastic surform; bought from Wickes, until they once again come to resemble the real-life sounds they were possibly sourced from. Meirino then delves into pseudo academic software composer sounds, like if Stockhausen had designed Korg’s recent fevered re-imagining of the MS20 monosynth; to put it in layman’s terms, then: avant-garde fizzing noises. Then there’s a passage around 24 mins where Meirino lets loose a subtle theme that puts me in mind of Mogwai’s repeating motif for their soundtrack to the French television series Les Revenants, (screened under the title The Returned on Channel 4). There follows a tranche of abrupt and violent noises which put me in mind of those bygone days when fiddling around with synthesiser patches meant playing around with actual voltage and not simply prodding a cursor disinterestedly around a computer screen. This is music that wants to be thought of as shudderingly new and contemporary and yet it still manages to sound not unlike Stockhausen’s Telemusik or Kontakte – pieces that were recorded nearly fifty years ago.

Ultimately, UPIC is a visual control surface, and as such, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that the drawings made by the operator are as important as the resultant music. Happily, the sleeve of Untitled Phenomenas In Concrete features three examples (00’00” – 07’21”) of Meirino’s draughtsmanship used on the UPIC system to produce Untitled Phenomenas In Concrete, plus an inserted folded A3 poster printed, white on black, with the remaining drawings that make up the composition, (07’21” – 34’17”). This is a welcome addition and goes some way to help the listener properly appreciate the composition. The press release points out that Meirino “…spent nearly four years composing/drawing line by line…listening to every line, gradually adding on lines and sounds, erasing, reassembling…”

A nice package – a gatefold card sleeve with a wraparound sticker applied to it holding all the black and white printed visual information; you have to carefully slit the sticker on one edge to access the disc and poster.

Franciso Meirino
CAVE12

[Editor's note: of course there is no such word as "Phenomenas". The plural of Phenomenon is Phenomena, so the addition of the plural "s" is redundant. Meirino's computer compositional skills are not in question, but he doesn't know his Greek!]

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  1. See this post for Haswell and Hecker’s work with GenDyn.

Horn Beam Fantasmas


Loopy and intense noisy jazz rock blurt from Cactus Truck, a trio which showcases the saxophone malarkey of John Dikeman as much as the tangled guitar lines of Jasper Stadhouders, while drummer Onno Govaert urges these two rabid loons to propel themselves over the cliff edge. Their album Brand New For China! (PUBLIC EYESORE NO. 119) has a ten-minute opening salvo which will let the listener know instantly if they’ve the stomach to stick around for more of the same. These “spiky” fellows have caused much agitation in and around Amsterdam where they are based (this was recorded in a Netherlands studio), but many improvisers and veteran jazzmen on the international circuits also tip their hats to Cactus Truck. They make sure to put on gardening gloves first, though. I’d like to report a melange of Albert Ayler lines on top of Beefheartian blues rhythms, but their ultra-aggressive music favours surface sound and technique over structure. Not that you’ll notice as you succumb to the joyous free energy on offer here. (09/07/2012)

From the Belgian duo NDE we have Kampfbereit (COLD SPRING RECORDS CSR146CD), their second release which in typography and cover art at least is “disguised” as a Black Metal album, but turns out to be a wild experiment in suffocating, extreme noise – situated in the “Death Industrial” sub-sub-genre, as the press notes would have it. As they hurl around their buckets of distortion, hammering percussion, and excessively filtered screaming vocals, NDE also prove they can do dynamic changes pretty well, and the album is designed almost purely as an extreme listening experience, where we are given few clues or map points and the listener’s imagination must work hard to process the scrambled information. A few quieter tracks paint “bleak and empty” vistas of desolate misery, but most of the content is simply intolerably repellent and over-layered loud noise. A painful and torturous journey to the depths of a Pandemonium-styled Hades. (28/07/2012)

Is it too early to say Northern Spy Records are taking up the slack from ESP-Disk? The latter label used to make a point in the 1960s of signing up eccentric performers from rock’s margins, some of them recruited direct from the street, and gradually made history thereby (even if they sold few records at the time). I’m getting a similar vibe from Diamond Terrifier, although my impression is based largely on the photo inside the gatefold of Kill The Self That Wants To Kill Your Self (NORTHERN SPY RECORDS NSCD026), and I may be misreading it completely. This odd record is a one-man show by Sam Hillmer, who exhibits untrammelled raw passion when playing his saxophone, recorded in strange ways and at strange times, with minimal (or zero) accompaniment. That woodwind instrument has rarely sounded so other-worldly. It’s not just microphone placement, either; Hillmer is reaching down into a very deep personal place to extract these hollow bellows and loosing them into the ether like mind-drenching fog clouds. Diamond Terrifier, who cutely expresses his name as <>T, is a truly original primitive. This is his debut record; will the world allow a second release? P.S. – the fauvist version of the American flag on back cover is a nice touch, clues us in to the “alternative” universe of Mr. Hillmer. (19/07/2012)

Blindshore is James Adkisson, a Texas guitarist who used to play in Seven Percent Solution. Hollow (SELF-RELEASED) is a solo album on which he plays everything, and freely owns up to his influences – some of them rather conventional, such as Adrian Belew or Brian May, along with his first loves Fripp and Sonic Youth. The results are agreeable and competent modern rock music, but given his proclivities for progressive rock and melody (no bad things, I hasten to add), Blindshore is unlikely to be mistaken for a carbon-copy of solemn post-rockers such as Isis or Red Sparowes. Adkisson’s vocals are a tad thin, but he uses the singing voice as another instrument in his very thickened mixes, where no space is left unfilled and there is barely space for the listener to move. (18/07/2012)

Attacca are an improvising trio based in Berlin active since 2010, who declare O’ The Emotions! (SCHRAUM 15). Two German players, the trombonist Mattias Müller and the bassist Axel Haller, are joined by Canadian Dave Bennett, a refugee electro-acoustic student who has made his home in Europe’s financial capital and contributes guitar to the trio’s sound. Attacca seem to be all about the very rich sound they make together, rather than owing much of a debt to jazz or even improvised music, and don’t wish to draw attention to their respective techniques. Instead, we hear a compelling and integrated combination of tones and textures, with repetitions and patterns arrived at by very natural means. The ebbs and flows of this watery gelatin suck us in like so much quicksand. The “emotions” of the title are thus very hard to name or identify, and clearly they can only be processed by the players through their exploratory work. (12/07/2012)

More splendidly sickened and corrupted computer noise from dsic, the New Zealand expat who lives in Bristol and whose LF Records netlabel rarely disappoints. Public Benefits, Private Vices (LF020) is one of his more aggressive concoctions, seething with hateful noise for most of its duration, and feeling entitled to pummel the listener’s head with cruel buffets. When this punch-up with a street drunk subsides, we are left with curious passages of disaffected half-noise, which pulsate and sizzle like an angry insect poised to strike again. The only variations to the above scheme are found with the final track, a soothing potion of pure tones deployed in random fashion; and the curious voice loops which last for 36 seconds on track two. Whole album could erupt into violence at any moment, creating a tense and invigorating spin. When I grow tired of “polite” and well-manicured laptop music, I always turn to dsic, a man who’s never afraid to show his Samsung just who wears the pants in his house! (24/07/2012)

Just heard from Alfredo Costa Monteiro yesterday, and here he is again as part of an ad-hoc trio called 300 Basses, with Jonas Kocher and Luca Venitucci. Sei Ritornelli (POTLATCH P212) was recorded in late 2011 when the three of them were on a residency in Switzerland. Although I personally would welcome the formation of an orchestra of 300 musicians playing only the upright double bass (and hopefully doing so at the Hot Gates), the music of 300 Basses is in fact predicated on the accordion. Continuing to pursue his radical, deconstructionist approach to conventional instruments, Monteiro attempts to refashion the very workings of the accordion according to his own diabolical schemes, rethinking the respective purposes of the bellows, keys and buttons. If applied to to the fields of biology or zoology, I suspect his “what-if” approach would lead to his being banned under various international anti-vivisection agreements. The resultant horrors are laid bare on this extreme record, where to my ears the accordions simply seem to be begging for mercy under this cruel and unusual treatment. Still, that’s clearly the intention. Kocher used to make me a little impatient with his earlier slow-moving minimalist releases like Materials and Solo, but there’s a little more fire to be heard in this collaborative work. (09/07/2012)

012

Miniature Candies


The Replace (EDITION DEGEM DEGEM CD10) compilation was put together by Marc Behrens for a Berlin label. He poses pointed questions about the many ways in which modern electro-acoustic music seemed to promise artistic utopias in the 20th century, and whether this notion still has any currency today. 14 modern electronica artistes (see image for full list of names) contribute to the debate in both musical and annotated form, covering topics such as philosophy, landscape painting, YouTube, spirituality, colour and geometric forms, and a chess-playing machine. Ambitious in scope, but so much of the music feels drab, unfinished, and half-baked.

A similarly difficult conundrum about modern life is posed by the ever-active Francisco López on his Untitled #284 (CRÓNICA 066-2012). He asks questions about reality, virtual reality, and the disappearance of real things, wondering about what it is we might actually be perceiving, as we flit about from coffee shop to shopping mall. Is it the real thing that is missing, or are we just feeding off our memories of reality? Armed with these Cartesian sentiments, and to further this poignant discussion, he reprocesses some field recordings he made in Lisbon in 1992. The accoutrements and blandishments of the modern urban world – if that is indeed what we are hearing – have rarely sounded so threatening, chaotic and alien. Looks like López peeled back the mask which cloaks reality, and didn’t like what he found.

Assured and entertaining retro-rock from Vibravoid on their Gravity Zero (SULATRON RECORDS ST 1201) album. If only they’d been operating in the UK around 1988-1989, then Spacemen 3, Bevis Frond and Sundial would not have enjoyed quite the same monopoly on lush psych-influenced muscular underground rock music. This album benefits from the rich additions of mellotron, Theremin and other far-out instruments to the punchy mix, but these Europeans also know how to compose a decent chord-filled song and stick to it. Their update on H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The White Ship’, one of my personal faves among bad-acid dirges from the late 1960s, is one of many highlights.

Pierre Alexandre Tremblay is one of many Canadian electro-acoustic composers showcased on the empreintes DIGITales label who enjoys having their work presented as a 5.1 surround sound experience in stereo, pressed on a DVD for improved audio quality. Quelque reflets (IMED 11109) contains a number of his meditative and philosophical musings in sound form, of which I most enjoyed the tripartite opening number ‘Reflets de notre société crépusculaire’, with its title highly suggestive of an unpublished Edward Gorey book. Tremblay endeavours here to express his feelings of powerlessness in today’s world. Similar ethical dilemmas are expressed on the other works.

FilFla‘s Flip Tap (SOMEONE GOOD RMSG013) is a collection of short and concise instrumental pop tunes put together by the Japanese composer Keiichi Sugimoto, and an instalment in the ’10 Songs in 20 Minutes’ series, this label’s plan to celebrate the joys of avant-pop music. Sugimoto evidently has the skill of compression and his deftness in creating these upbeat and jolly episodes with their near-perfect production sheen is considerable. If only there were some actual melodies one could sink one’s teeth into. Seconds of high-pitched and extremely pleasant electronic miniaturised candy shapes fly by, but without much apparent song-form structure to underpin them. I’d imagine this is like watching a day’s worth of Japanese TV commercials in the space of half an hour.

I’m not a serious soundtrack music collector, but I gather there has grown up a rich subculture where individual composers of library music for KPM, De Wolfe, Chappell and others are being identified and celebrated after the fact, elevated from their formerly rather anonymous positions, while original pressings of the records are eagerly collected by covetous fans and DJs. Perhaps a similar mindset informs Sid Chip Sounds: The Music of the Commodore 64 (ROBOT ELEPHANT RECORDS RER013), an extremely unusual compilation which gathers examples of music for computer games designed for the Commodore 64 home computer system, first launched in 1982. Bob Yannes is named as the pioneering maestro who made this possible through his development of the SID Chip, and a number of composers – among them Martin Galway, Matt Gray, Ben Daglish, David Whittaker and others – are all showcased with examples of their musical endeavours. The games, including Last Ninja, Gauntlet 3 and Comic Bakery, are likewise namechecked. Musically, the album may feel a bit undernourished and the annoying limitations of the squelchy electronic sound may start to grate on some ears after only 10 minutes of play, but there is much interest to be derived from the inventive ways in which the musicians learned to overcome those limitations, to produce bouncy and entertaining music. That said, I think to call them “revolutionary composers”, as per the press release, is a massive overstatement. This release plugs into a whole retro subculture of young DJs who grew up with this material as part of their personal soundtrack, and are now restating it through assorted lo-fi subgenres such as 8-bit, chiptune, and gabba. Issued as a CD and double LP; only the packaging is a massive disappointment, and I’m not sure why it couldn’t have featured some colourful screengrabs from the games (licensing problems perhaps).

Florian Hecker compiled the double 10-inch LP set with the elaborate title 2/8 Bregman 4/8 Deutsch 7/8 Hecker 1/8 Höller (PRESTO!? P!?018), and the fractions involved in that naming scheme are to do with the amount of input from each contributor. It would be interesting to apply that degree of calibration to the thorny problem of composers’ rights, so maybe Hecker should consider contracting his skills to the international rights societies for music. Forty minutes of music are thus spread across four sides to be played at 45 RPM. The first two sections seemed to be nothing more than just minimal and extremely irritating digital sequences played randomly at high speed; anonymous ringtone music. But the third and fourth segments are slightly more engaging with their looped repetitions of a short vocal sound, which could be a micro-second sampled from the voice of a female announcer and reduced to a single syllable. Doubtless, if we listened to them for long enough we would experience the aural hallucinations which Disinformation has termed “Rorschach Audio”. These represent updates on the classic Steve Reich tape loops of voice segments, although our man Hecker evinces no interest whatsoever in the human emotions, politics or spirituality evidenced on ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ and ‘Come Out’. Instead, the entire work is trying to make a marginal point about sensory perception and the psychology of hearing. Accordingly the press release comes with a reading list of academic books and papers on the subject, to assist us in our investigations. I recall feeling equally unengaged and alienated by Hecker’s Speculative Solution from 2011, and sadly this one isn’t doing much to reconcile me with the current scientific directions of his work.

All the above arrived at TSP headquarters in February and April 2012.

001

Synchronisms


I think we last heard from Noah Creshevsky with his 2010 album Twilight of the Gods, released on the Tzadik label, and there is also the 2008 item Favorite Encores where he teamed up with If, Bwana. Now here he is on Al Margolis’ label Pogus Productions with Rounded With A Sleep (POGUS 21063-2), containing seven recent-ish examples of his dazzling and impressive “hyperrealism” compositions. Creshevsky is a meticulous electro-acoustic maestro who uses an extreme form of editing, cutting and pasting together sounds from multiple sources; on this record, he does it using the recorded performances of numerous musicians, so we have a rich array of musical notes and sounds from clarinet, voices, guitar, banjo, steel guitar, cello, bass, and improvised piano music. Twilight of the Gods went all-out for the wow-factor with its intense and utterly impossible layered compositions, its runs of notes rushing past at ridiculous speeds, and a generally breathless tone throughout most of the album. Rounded With A Sleep feels somewhat more manageable than that tornado, and its keynote to me seems to be an intimate contemporary form of chamber music. This may be simply because there aren’t as many instruments to listen to, but this outlandish composer does not skimp on the “can such things be?” factor, presenting us with a lavish feast of layered, cropped, varispeeded and intricately assembled musical phrases, the like of which hasn’t really been heard since Frank Zappa overworked the Apostolic Studios board on the Uncle Meat album in 1968. This is particularly evident on the clarinet and keyboard interplay on ‘La Sonnambula’, and the astonishing recastings made out of Stuart Isacoff’s piano work on ‘What If’, which is like a surrealistic walkthrough the history of classical European keyboard music. If I knew more about the field, I might be able to identify resonances with Bach, Mozart and Haydn with more confidence, but as it is I can only effuse my vague ill-informed impressions. I’m on slightly safer ground with the guitar-based piece ‘The Kindness of Strangers’, which offers us a virtual trio of guitar, bass, lap steel and banjo players, refashioned in the studio to create an utterly mangled form of anguloid country and western music, where not even the singing voice is spared the full Creshevsky treatment. One is usually left somewhat exhausted by listening to only ten minutes of this dense music, but it is clear Creshevsky is not simply out to surprise or stun the listener with a zillion cultural references and juxtapositions in the manner of many plunderphonics artists over the last 20 years. On the contrary, he aims to advance music. His sleeve notes here offer a robust critique of the norms of classical music performance, highlighting the “bad economics” of paying “good wages to a live performer who merely sings a 10-second coda at the end of a string quartet”. Creshevsky’s hyperrealism, and by extension any music that has been collaged in a studio through judicious selection of the best performances 1, offers a viable alternative to that old 19th century concert-hall based model. However the composer is not out to completely junk the past, and he is driven by traditional musical values of virtuosity, sonic palettes, and the production of an expressive musical language. His edits produce a form of super-virtuosity from the work of the already highly-capable musicians he works with. If his music seems exaggerated to us, it’s because he feels he also has to compete with the excesses of the information age, where we have been exposed to so much culture that he fears the power of music may be diminished. Creshevsky’s response to the situation is far from pessimistic; he devotes himself to creating energised and uplifting music, that truly refreshes the sensory passages. From 17 February 2012.

The American composer John Bischoff studied with Robert Ashley at Mills, and was also a member of the League of Automatic Music Composers. The latter team of experimenters made use of early (late 1970s-early 1980s) computer technology to generate random electronic music in endearingly home-made ways. On Audio Combine (NEW WORLD RECORDS 80727-2), we hear five of his more recent works dating from 2004 to 2011, which are broadly related in their use of physical objects or instruments being employed to trigger electronic sounds. There are subtle variations to do with the use of amplification, timing patterns, and attempts to subvert or re-order the original time sequences by ingenious methods. Most of this very process-heavy music seemed uneventful to me, but I enjoyed parts of ‘Sidewalk Chatter’ which was made using the STEIM crackle box 2 and effectively documents some sort of interactive hands-on dialogue between the performer and a computer, via the exposed metal circuits of the box. ‘Surface Effect’ is also sporadically exciting and works on similar principles, that is the interaction between a trigger device and a computer program, but this piece makes more extensive use of pre-planned random structures and allows, in a control-freak sort of way, the oscillators to create unpredictable patterns. A complex form of a detuned and unstable synthesiser, if you will, which benefits from being entirely hand-made by Bischoff. From 20 February 2012.

Trophies is the oddball project of the Italian composer Alessandro Bosetti, a vehicle for his complex prose-poem concoctions which he intones rather emotionlessly on top of a free-form musical structure provided by the drummer Ches Smith and the guitarist Kenta Nagai. Bosetii also adds uncertain electronic tones, colours and washes, and Nagai’s guitar is fretless, meaning he is able to make music while avoiding constructing familiar riffs or tunes. These strategies add to the deliberately obtuse contours of the sound and the open-ended nature of the compositions, producing sensations in the listener that are very hard to explain. Six examples of this perplexing music can be heard on A Color Photo Of The Horse (D.S. AL CODA #4), all recorded in Brooklyn in a single day in 2010 under the production guidance of Alex Waterman. Trophies music is always a bit daunting and overwhelming to listen to. For starters, the music is half-familiar, half-unfamiliar; at times it almost resembles a form of dissonant experimental jazz-minimalism performed without any sort of underpinning rhythm or pattern, and at other times proceeds with the urgency of a tricky Trey Gunn riff from a latter incarnation of King Crimson. Mostly, it is dissonant and unpredictable, wriggling about the turf like a structural-materialist centipede. Then there’s the equally tricky lyrical content, a jumbled explosion of prose verbosity which may sometimes repeat certain phrases, and which occupies some halfway mark between Samuel Beckett and Lenny Bruce. As soon as I think I stand on the verge of grasping the meaning of these breathless texts, they almost instantly collapse back into a sea of absurdity and gibberish. The situation is not helped by Bosetti’s studied ambiguity as he performs his half-musical recits, at times almost parodying the emotional dramas of a soul singer or operatic diva, but mostly rattling through his forests of words with the speed and efficiency of a human typewriter. True meanings are masked in this post-modern diatribe. Make no mistake, this is a truly fine art piece of business – conceptual art trammelled up with music in ways that make Laurie Anderson sound like pop music. In some ways this could be the closest we’ll get to hearing a Raymond Pettibon drawing in sound. This release is one of numerous oddities, including some DVDs, we received from this inscrutable art label in January 2012. All of them are packed in sleeves which cannot be unfolded.

  1. By which I mean anything from George Martin with The Beatles to Teo Macero with Miles Davis.
  2. The instrument has its origins in an invention of Michel Waisvisz, who made an LP of it for FMP records in 1978. The device was also used briefly by Derek Bailey on Domestic and Public Pieces.
004

Transitive Axis


Last heard from Parisian-based electroacoustic musician Éric Cordier in 2009, with a batch of items from his own Prêle Records label. Here he is with a mini-CD La Cité Du Bruit (UNIVERSINTERNATIONAL UI-CD016) which arrived here 1st March 2012. In about 18 minutes, Cordier proposes an aural comparison between the sound of jet engines of fighter-bomber aircraft, and the sounds made by small river insects. He calls it a “confrontation” rather than a comparison. I for one would welcome a set-to between these roaring instruments of death and the harmless benign winged ones of the Loire, so that we could finally settle this long vendetta once and for all. However being of a technical nature, Cordier is more interested in the contrasts between large and small sounds, between loud mechanical noise and gentle organic whirring. In any case this binary approach to the matter leaves out the third element in these recordings, which is something to do with microphones going wrong – at any rate the discharging of electrons inside a condenser microphone, an event so microscopic I wonder if it can even be said to have occurred at all. Apparently it did though, and this CD contains the hard evidence. In case any listeners were hoping for a miniaturised version of powerhouse noise in art-music form, I may need to point out that this work is rather quiet and restrained, despite containing the word “Bruit” in the title and featuring the said Chasseurs Bombardiers and arriving with a Futurist-styled cover image highly redolent of noise, speed and power. Our listening interest derives from Cordier’s ingenious editing skills. The word “seamless” comes to mind when faced with these subtle collisions of unrelated sounds – in fact it’s almost like he’s melting the edits together like a glassblower with an acetylene torch. Presumably computer software makes this kind of smooth edit eminently possible, compared with the old days when musicians had to splice their magnetic tapes together by hand with a razor blade and a roll of tape. As he tottered around the cafés of the 8th arrondissement, Pierre Schaeffer frequently used to declare you weren’t worth beans as a musician until all your fingertips were raw and bloody 1. Now the worst dangers a musician faces are RSI, WRULD, eyestrain or backache.

On Ley (ENTR’ACTE E125), we hear the team-up of trumpeter Andy Diagram and Keith Moliné. The album is a stitched-together jumble bag of rags and oddments, and has a foreboding complexity and denseness you wouldn’t believe. They started with recordings of their own improvisations performed with trumpet and guitar (and tubes, bowls of water and other miscellaneous items) which were pretty idiosyncratic to begin with – they did it in the back garden with no amplification, and tried to enact that form of disconnect that is so valuable to creators, to get away from self-consciously “creating art” or evade the over-familiar patterns of playing. Then the recordings were subjected to further malarkey from programs running on Moliné’s computer. Along with the original recording data, he threw some “wild” data into the mix, apparently derived from digital image files and text files. This practice, by which I mean the repurposing of JPEGS, TXT and other non-audio file formats into something which an audio editing suite can process or play, seems to be cropping up quite a few times lately, so maybe it’s starting to enter the lingua franca of experimental music. On Ley, the process may not be directly used to generate sounds, but it has been used to trigger certain digital instruments and contribute to the overall process. This has resulted in a listening experience that is extremely chaotic and unpredictable. I do like the fact that Moliné’s method has blurred the edges almost completely between real-time improvising and post-hoc computer mayhem, and there are sound events taking place in the fabric of this music that are almost shockingly unfamiliar and strange. At the same time, I’m hard pushed to find any logical train of thought in these compositions; it’s as if the “wild” elements have taken over for 90% of the time, and the computer’s errant patterns of behaviour are guiding everything, making sonic mincemeat of the material. Put a madman behind the wheel of a very fast big truck, and wait for the fun to start. With this two-pronged approach to randomness, this pair are certainly trying to take aleatory composition to a new level, even at the expense of creating a rather indigestible music.

Another refreshing album of solid instrumental music on the Hubro label, this one from Ballrogg with their Cabin Music (HUBRO HUBROCD2515). The duo of Klaus Holm and Roger Arntzen (woodwinds and double bass, respectively) started out with a mission to render the music of Eric Dolphy in a more minimal, pared-down way, positing an alternative history where that lively free-jazz hooter had somehow come under the influence of Morton Feldman instead of Ornette Coleman 2. Ballrogg’s project then is to rethink jazz as “subdued chamber music”, and their efforts are recorded in crystal clarity across four long instrumental tracks here. On this outing they are joined by the guitarist Ivar Grydeland with his banjo and acoustic guitar, but also his pedal steel guitar which adds mournful and plangent notes to the already melancholic, wistful music. I like most of the album and only ‘Breakfast Music’ misfires, with its tasteful chords shading into easy-listening modes and producing music that more resembles Stan Getz with Kenny Burrell than Dolphy with Mal Waldron. For the most part though, this is a studied and focussed exploration of long saxophone / clarinet tones and precise, skeletal bass plucks, with entrancing results. Look out for Grydeland’s solo album on this label as well.

French musician eRikm has always been welcome here with his imaginative and bold use of the turntable in improvising situations (even though he mostly does it with a CD player these days). I was impressed to find on Transfall (ROOM 40 RM449) he’s now expanding his visions into something which could be termed a species of contemporary classical composition – at least the first track, 21 minutes of ‘Austral’, fits such a profile and was performed under his direction by Ensemble Laborintus. Two players from that group, notably the harpist Hélène Breschand and the clarinettist Sylvain Kassap are familiar to us from their work with Franck Vigroux, and indeed have made at least one duo record for his label; while the Ensemble as a whole has tackled the music of Stockhausen, Luc Ferrari, and François Rossé. ‘Austral’ has some surface connections to 20th-century composition with its generally atonal approach, crazy percussion and wild twists of compositional logic, but I’d like to think there’s also an improvisatory element happening somewhere in the midst of its open-ended structure. Is it just a coincidence that the title is very close to Cage’s ‘Etudes Australes’? Remainder of the CD is I think mostly eRikm’s solo electronic and electro-acoustic music, including the foreboding shades and textures of ‘Batfox Park’, or the ferocious alien insanity and menacing near-silent hisses of ‘Klein Surface’ – both of which are laced with the toughness and sullen attitude which this man has made into one of his trademarks. There’s also ‘Pavlova’ which incorporates some piano music supplied by Frédéric Blondy to produce a very sombre tone painting in multiple shades of black, using backwards-tapes, layering and digital judder in a fascinating update on more “traditional” musique concrète methods. Arrived 5th March 2012 and also available as a download.

  1. He never said any such thing.
  2. This isn’t too fanciful a scenario when you remember that Dolphy attended the same college (LA State) as another composer who would later go on to scale the wall of minimalism, La Monte Young.
029

Desks of Steel


Gimlet Eyed Mariners are the English duo of Michael Fairfax and Barry Witherden. On Dark Secret Love (SLIGHTLY OFF KILTER SOK040) they offer us four examples of their all-improvised, no-overdubs and one-take approach to making music using two Korgs, guitar, percussion, computer, and other keyboards. ‘In the howling storm’ has a nicely aggravated edge to its bleak and slightly formless soundscaping, but ‘Great Central Lake’ is somewhat more structured, arriving at a sort of open-ended melody which unfolds for 11 minutes on top of a simple keyboard pattern. This one reminds us of a very long Residents tune or a less-polished version of a lost track from the Sky Records label circa 1982. So far what they have working in their favour is a very “quirky” sound where the unadulterated voices of wonky synths shine forth with little attempt to file down the edges with some “tasteful” filter effects, which is generally a good idea for synth combos who don’t want to end up like Colin Potter has done. GEM also keep all their “mistakes” in the final product, thus proving they aren’t really mistakes at all. Next to be scanned by the laser device we have ‘Fifi catches the Voodoo Up’, which is a deliberate joke on the famous Miles Davis title. In fact the band consider this 15-minute whirlamaroo to be their “Miles Davis” piece. Reading this prepared me to expect some sort of harsh 70s evil funk, but it ends up as an endearingly British version of lo-fi bedroom warped disco with barely a danceable moment to be had in among the awkward avantish blocks of noise. Percussion loops clatter like tiny bracelets and synth lines swirl and wobble in crazy doodle shapes. After all that fun-loving rodomontade, the title track returns us to their version of “dark industrial murk”, with its semi-comical distorted murmuring and gabbling voices and shudderingly wayward dronescapes pulled out of the intestines of the synths with many gasping protests. This track could well be the one that earns them the Nurse With Wound comparisons, if they wanted to tread down that route for their next release. Mr Witherden wrote the notes to this release, and he is at pains to stress the absence of pre-conceived ideas in their working methods, pointing out that the track titles are only added after the fact and are not intended to colour our views of the music in any way; the music, he insists, is only “about itself”. Fair enough, but I remember when I was 19 my art-college buddy Albert tried the exact same line about “no pre-conceived ideas” with regard to his paintings. The tutor, Harry Weinberger, was having none of it and responded with a long lecture about how that was completely impossible, that every visual stimulus you see influences you in some way, and there was no such thing as this sort of “free painting” ideal. This one arrived 17 January 2012, and the duo are described as “more mature music makers”, who are also evidently quite literate and draw some inspiration from the writings of William Blake.

Improvisation of another kind now from the duo of Rhodri Davies and Mark Wastell. The Welsh harpist Davies is forsaking his usual stringed instrument to manipulate his live electronics set-up on these old-ish (2005) live recordings, from Melbourne (the small English market town, not the Australian city). Mark Wastell likewise has left his tam-tam at home and is electing instead to play lots of close-mic’ed objects, along with his CD player, mixing desk, and electronics equipment. We don’t hear so much of this kind of playing in the improvisation world these days. At one stage there seemed to be a minor upsurge in the incidence of players seizing inert materials like plastic bags or blocks of polystyrene, rubbing them together, and using small contact microphones to amplify the results. Often the results were quite boring, in spite of all that avowed “experimental” activity. Live In Melbourne (MIKROTON RECORDINGS MIKROTON CD 10), I am happy to report, is very successful on the musical front, contains a lot of incident and interesting sounds (no long pauses or pointless silent contemplations), and above all is clear evidence of strong musical skills and an outstanding rapport between the two players. 36 minutes of intense and absorbing abstract micro-shuffling mixed with controlled feedback drones and high-pitched whining sounds. From Russia, this arrived 31 January.

Another item from the bundle of Unfathomless CDs is Aguatierra (U06) by Juan José Calarco. It’s two long suites, mostly captured from the Xohimilco Ecological park in Mexico City, where the artist pursues his interest in canals; there are also sounds from a nature reserve in Argentina, and a collaborator Pablo Reche assisted with parts of the work. As the title suggests, the sound is an elegant and seamless blend of water sounds and earth sounds. The cover artworks also achieve this blending; they were assembled by Daniel Crokaert, using artworks by Calarco. I like this one better than the previously noted item from this label; Calarco seems less “mystical” and more plain-spoken in his artistic deliberations, and the work has a clarity and simplicity that can’t fail to appeal to lovers of the “phonography” genre. Purchase this for a relaxing and slow journey through a very calm and serene landscape / waterscape, with the gentle songs of birds and chirring of insects to pass the hours.

The diametric opposite of calm and serene is that strange inhuman noise offered by Keroaän, on a mini-CDR called Daunting In Its Variousness: First in a suite of an Indeterminate Number of Pieces (COPY FOR YOUR RECORDS CFYR03). This crackling and human-crushing diabolical noise may have had its origins in computer code, if the notes are anything to go by; they refer to Keroaän artificial intelligence, developed by Ian M. Fraser and Reed Evan Rosenberg. The actual music of course is performed by Keroaän itself “without any human intervention whatsoever”. Give yourself time to work through the unfamiliar and near-painful sensations afforded by the gritty surfaces here, and eventually you may be rewarded with near-musical swipes and unearthly screams of complaint issuing from the bowels of this huge chunk of code as it passes through the functions of a media player. The performance is also chopped apart into segments that incorporate heart-stopping silences in among the grunckering brattlements, acting in a grotesque parody of conventional musical dynamics. It may seem stilted and unnatural at times, but the achievement here is the glorious impossibility of it; no human being could ever bring themselves to the point where they might conceive of making noise music in this way, let alone have the courage to execute it. Proof once again that the machines are taking over, and they will win. Fraser and Reed may one day manage to write a machine-readable script that acts as a simulacrum for a virtual Merzbow. Note also the use of the Cagean term “indeterminate”, and the painterly brush work on the disc adding a splash of fine-art loft-scene vibe. From 16 January, another nifty slice of marginal New York experimentism.