Tagged: improvised

Portable Crocodiles

A moody, sullen collaboration is what we’d expect when Miguel A García and Nick Hoffman play together, which is what Vile Cretin (INTONEMA INTO010) delivers across four tracks of seething desolation. In terms of what I’ve heard from either of these players, it’s one of the more three-dimensional improvised efforts, by which I mean the elements are distanced and positioned in ingenious manner, perhaps using skilled studio placement techniques, to suggest vast depths and enormous spaces. There may not be much happening in the aural department other than surly crackles and nameless echoing whimpery whispers, but they are happening in a fabulously resonant manner. Their two personalities, as far as I understand these enigmatic creators, can be discerned manifesting themselves on the album to some degree, for instance I’d like to think that Garcia brought the bad tempered sulking aspects to track 01, while Hoffman’s penchant for steely and imperceptible anti-sounds has dominated track 02. But the pair succeed in creating unusual sound art that is more than the sum of their personal characteristics, and it’s a fine slow-moving broodster of electrical gloomery. Of course, Hoffman’s surreal and violent cover drawings, this time printed in a sumptuous red, may give you a completely different impression of the work. From 29 November 2013.

Coen Oscar Polack and Herman Wilken paint two landscapes in sound on their Fathomless LP (NARROMINDED NM064); one side depicts the Barents Sea, the other side a green wilderness in the Sundarbans. And my goodness, what a very literal job they make of it; the first side is sluggish ambient drone spread thickly with sound effects that imitate the sound of the ocean tides and Arctic winds in a highly prosaic manner. The “jungly” side is peppered with bird-song effects, and hazy drones attempting to invoke shimmering heat of the baking sun. Atmospheric and pleasant, but not very imaginatively done; it’s one step away from being a BBC Sound Effects record. From November 2013.

Haven’t heard from The Magic Carpathians Project for some years, but they sent us a couple of interesting items which arrived 11 November 2013. On T.A.M. (WORLD FLAG RECORDS WFR 043), the duo of Anna Nacher and Marek Styczynski are joined by Tomasz Holuj for five extended group improvisations, which they describe as “symbiotic music”. I suppose the term “symbiotic” is another way of highlighting the dependencies that can grow between musicians who play together. The Carpsters have made a name for themselves over the years, on account of their unique way of extending the traditional musics of Eastern Europe by blending them with Indian music, free jazz, radio waves, and the unusual singing styles of Anna Nacher. At one point it seemed like they were going down quite well with your latterday psychedelica revivalist types, and they enjoyed an association with the American label Drunken Fish Records – home to many freaky wild-eyed droners in the late 1990s and early 2000s. T.A.M. seems to be more in the area of traditional music, being mainly acoustic and featuring a lot of percussion instruments, but it’s also very strong on ethereal droning effects and unusual stringed instruments, and the music they create is extremely original and hard to pin down. The trio just keep on playing, wailing, hammering and droning in a deceptively gentle mode, doing little to vary the mood, tempo or root note for long periods of time, until a species of greyed-out Nirvana is attained. Not an immediate “grabber”, but your listening perseverance will pay off. I think the recordings are all live, there’s no overdubbing and the mixing was done in real time. Released on their own label World Flag Records. My copy has a nice original artwork insert.

On Vtoroi (MIKROTON CD 25), we have the team-up of two Russian heavyweights – the most estimable Ilia Belorukov, and Kurt Liedwart, who is in fact Vlad Kudryavstev and the owner of Mikroton Records who released this sulky brooder of contemporary improvisation. On these 2012 sessions, Belorukov is playing a prepared saxophone, an iPod, contact mics and objects – in short, the sort of setup I used to associate with the “EAI” school of improvisers; at any rate I recall that Günter Müller frequently used an iPod as part of his live processing. Liedwart brings his field recordings and objects to the table, along with ppooll, a program which appears to be some sort of networking bridge that works with certain implementations of Max/MSP. The majority of this record is a bit too under-eventful for me on today’s spin, particularly the long track ‘Ikkemesh’ with its hissing, beeping, and long periods of uncertain rustling and clunking, but I’m very taken with ‘Antra’, which is a nice extended slab of grumbly white noise mixed up with other scuzzy layers, and containing just the right amount of semi-musical content to keep it interesting. It gives off a mood of existential futility. The duo sustain this taut position for over ten minutes, as if performing painful physical exercise, and probably gazing into the mirror with blank expressions the while. Kurt also did the cover art, showing some Stephen O’Malley influence in overlaying a found photograph with geometric shapes. From 6th November 2013.

Crossed Wires

epaugust215

Got more nice CDRs from the German label Attenuation Circuit from 28 November 2013. One of them is part of their Concert Series, and it’s an exceptionally fine volcanic eruption of delicious semi-dangerous noise performed by a noise “supergroup”, of sorts. The team of elektrojudas, Sustained Development, Kim Jong-Un and EXEDO call themselves Knark Esion, and their Disturbed Communication (ACC 1010) is a lovely wodge of dynamic, rough-edged and snaggletoothed improvised blat. How long have this quartet been working together? They’ve already got it down; no meaningless, wasteful feedback blather or egos getting in each other’s way. Instead, taut discipline and high-performing band dynamics are the watchwords. Through combined synths, electronics, drum beats, voice samples and guitars, frightening images of destruction of instantly evoked, including the usual hideous fantasies I am regularly haunted with – collapsing buildings, attacking helicopters, and a general brouhaha among the populace. As observed, I wouldn’t want you to think they’re just creating 25 minutes of formless howlage, which as a genre has been done to death since 1990 onwards in any case; instead, they leave enough space for all the broken pieces of the jigsaw (very large pieces, probably made of concrete or steel) to lock together effectively. Except that the jigsaw, when assembled, makes no sense whatsoever to eye or brain. There’s also enough space for the listener to insinuate self into gaps, providing that is you don’t mind near-misses from runaway trains, being scorched by blasts of flame, scathed by falling boulders, or nearly being munched to a pulp by large electronic crocodile teeth. I’m clutching at images of violence and broken-ness to convey some of the sense of this electrifying performance, but even so I can’t seem to encompass the grandeur and towering melancholy which its creators share, creators who start to assume the proportions of disaffected Pagan gods, tearing their own creations into pieces and howling into the cosmos as they do so, before retiring to some nameless Valhalla to drink red wine from the skulls of the fallen. The label notes allude to “the use of noise as a sabotage of cultural codes”, a subversive approach which is well and good, but I think Knark Esion are aiming for something far less cerebral than that, and this is the sort of powerful grotesquerie that really feeds the fires in your bones and your belly.

epaugust216

Colin Webster is a young improvising sax player based in London and who is a member of The Uniteam All Stars and also plays in Anthony Joseph and The Spasm Band; I think we last heard him on Languages, whooping it up with Mark Holub and Sheik Anorak (Stuart Marshall praised his guttural barking on those live Vortex recordings). His Antennae (GAFFER RECORDS GR039) cassette is more of a process-thing, where he’s keen to showcase a tight range of very minimal saxophone sounds where the stress is placed on his own breath and the “mechanical noises” that result from his operations on the sax, performed under the discipline of what I take to be very strict rules. To this end, he’s insisted on close-miked recordings to allow us to hear every nuance of the real-time creative endeavour he has undertaken. This is by no means the sort of “reduced improv” music which is excessively quiet and where event and drama is all but lacking; on the contrary, Webster not only has a pulse, but he scuttles about like an entire sackful of hopped-up cockroaches who have been spoonfed cocaine in large doses. But it’s also incredibly austere sound art, with a very limited range; recognisable musical notes are not really allowed here, and it’s as though he stifles them at birth rather than let them escape from the bell of his instrument. I admire the rigid control that is presumably required to do this, but Antennae remains a very tough listen, a true bowl of gruel for the lugs. I think he’s done something for Richard Sanderson’s label too, so watch this space for notice of that item. This arrived 18 October 2013.

Blue Baroque

AUG203

It’s been about five years since we heard from the Scottish sound artist Brian Lavelle, when he released Ustrina on the Italian AFE Records label, a record which seemed to perceive the simple forest canopy as the gateway to a spiritual experience. He’s here now with My Hands Are Ten Knives (QUIET WORLD FORTY TWO), a title which may have led you to expect a slicing attack of sonic violence or at least some impression of “sharp edges” in the sound, as befits this Edward Scissorhands-styled description. Instead, Lavelle offers a hypnotic ambient drone with rather soft beguiling edges, but also one with remarkably opaque and near-mystical qualities, and a hard core of rigid concentration at the centre. As we listen we can glance with one eye at his processes, which usually involve blending the textures from field recordings with electronic tones and electric guitar music, but that doesn’t begin to account for this haunting sense of the other-worldly. After just 30 minutes, the patient listener is rewarded with a harmonic epiphany that seems to resolve the secretiveness of the work’s first half. The mystical enigma is not exactly explained away, but we can perceive its contours better. I’d be interested now to hear his record from 2000 called How To Construct a Time Machine which was released by Bake Records in the Netherlands. Indeed that particular item was one of the faves of Mr Quiet World, who released this. Lavelle has also done collaborations with the uncategorisable musician Richard Youngs, and others groups such as Space Weather and Fougou, besides running two labels techNOH and Dust, Unsettled. From 17 September 2013.

AUG202

Through the Mysterious Barricade at Holysloot, Holland (QUIET WORLD FORTY SIX) is an astonishing record of powerful piano improvisations by the American Fluxus composer Philip Corner. As I glance at some of the records we’ve received in recent years when his name comes up, I’m amazed at the depth and breadth of Corner’s remarkable achievements. Member of a group called Tone Roads in the 1960s with Malcolm Goldstein and Charlie Morrow. Experimenter with gamelan forms to produce long-form minimal metal percussion pieces. Using calligraphic methods he learned from a Korean expat to create graphical scores of great character. Notorious deconstructer of a piano at a Fluxus event in Germany. I also refer you to T. Shrubsole’s excellent research he conducted for this review. To this list of achievements we clearly have to add the gift of “free improvisation”, but once again even that genre or style of playing has been co-opted and made by Corner into something joyous, something non-academic, replete with spiritual richness, in short something uniquely his own. With the first 38-minute piece, I’m intrigued by the spiky beginnings and bold glissandoes as Corner waves his hands over the open strings inside the piano, then I’m overwhelmed by the powerful block chords and fortissimo-pedal effects that he strikes when the music really picks up its pace, and becomes a delirious and passionate meditation with an intense, thickly-clotted sound full of resonating notes and sympathetic vibrations…haven’t heard the likes since Charlemagne Palestine nearly vibrated a grand piano apart on stage at the LMC Festival in London…the power of this non-stop barrage simply increases in intensity, almost becoming violent with stamps and thuds, and only gradually subsiding into a quieter mode where we can once again hear the birdsong through the open window and the creaks on the floor of this home-made recording…a terrifying beauty…Well, Corner’s been doing this particular series of piano improvisations for many years, for his own personal reasons too deep to fathom. Apparently he bases the structure of each improvisation on a composition by Francois Couperin, a baroque tune which is eventually revealed as the “code” of the work when he quotes it (in this instance, not until 30 minutes into the work). These two pieces, recorded in 1989 and 1992, were made in the home of his unwell brother, a fact which may or may not add to the emotional intensity of the works. Quiet World can feel proud of this remarkable release, issued as a signed limited edition item (at any rate, Corner has provided signed business cards for insertion) although it’s not the first time Corner has been released on this label.

Zo Rel Do: a curious and intriguing mix of drone folk and electro-acoustic improv

2064600

Mohammad, Zo Rèl Do, Antifrost, CD AFRO 2064 (2014)

Mohammad is a Greek trio employing cello, contrabass and electronics to create a curious fusion of drone folk and electro-acoustic improv. “Zo Rèl Do” is the first part of a trilogy exploring the music and sounds of the musicians’ homeland and immediate neighbouring areas in western Turkey and parts of Bulgaria and Romania.

We start off with some field recordings dominated by a solo flute melody and conversations that might have been recorded in a market-place. These are swept aside by low booming scrapey string instruments, deep and rhythmic, with a very minimalist melody loop: the music is a bit like an acoustic doom folk version of Sunn0))) at times. A scratchy spitting drone accompanies the raw and sonorous dirge-like march. The track seems very serious and solemn although there are moments when it appears not to be taking itself too seriously and almost parodies itself.

“Kabilar Mace” takes up the repetitive circular structure, applying it to a drunken seesaw melody and torments it with a nagging grinding string accompaniment. The two opposed melodies can be very amusing to listen to as one tune insists on going its own sedate way and the other buzzes around it like a jumpy pooch. The music steadily escalates to an extreme intense and quite deranged level with the odd pause or two to let off steam.

Subsequent tracks stick to the minimalist template of repetition (with variation), building up to an almost hysterical climax, and the sound lurches about clumsily as if in an empty and dark room feeling for the light-switch. One later track gives the impression of nearly falling over in a heap. “Samarina” in particular sounds a bit like the aforementioned hooded ones playing unplugged after having gone on one or two too many benders; this is probably the most memorable track in spite of it not sounding quite as accessible melodically as the others – it does have a certain mournful grace. The album concludes with what could be a barely audible recording of night crickets that might be overlooking a secret nature ritual.

While this is a fairly short recording, “Zo Rèl Do” has a massive sound and a clear ambience that emphasises the rough-hewn texture of the music. The mood alternates from bleary-eyed somnambulist slouch to solemn and serious to something suggesting a wry sense of humour at work building up the music to a near-insane, mind-transforming level. Though the music does not vary a great deal, the mood and humour behind it keep this listener transfixed, wondering what surprises these Hellenes might pull out next from within their instruments.

The thought has just occurred to me that Mohammad’s objective is to bring listeners deep into their world of native folk and other influences and to take their audiences right to the edge of infinity by mixing serious solemnity and playful teasing in equal measures. Beyond that edge, we become merged with the fabric of the cosmos itself and are at one with it.

Contact: Antifrost,  Mohammad

Amulet: the deep and the commonplace in mystery ceremony revealed by iPhone recordings

1391283160_cover

Oren Ambarchi, Amulet, The Tapeworm, cassette TTW 65 (2014)

Korean director Chanwook Park made a short movie not long ago using a cameraphone so it was only a matter of time before a musician made an album with an iPhone. The surprise is that of all people I can think of who might do it first, Oren Ambarchi should have been the one. (Though he may have been preceded by others and I just haven’t noticed.) This is a really intriguing effort from Ambarchi: it’s an ambient soundscape, sometimes industrial-sounding, that includes what field recordings, whirring cymbals and other percussion or intrusive background noises that he opted to leave in.

In spite of its fairly short length, the recording seems expansive and blackly cavernous. We start with sharp metallic drone and buzz rolling across a huge flat plain in pitch-dark atmosphere on Side A. A rhythm of sorts is established with a loop of mechanical dolly clicks and there are other little noise effects that tinkle and thrum. The work or parts thereof must have been done live as indicated by audience applause somewhere in the middle of Side A of the cassette.

On Side B, the fragments of delicate metallic bell, gong and chime along with a quiet background and the static nature of the music, suggestive of a soundscape snapshot, give the impression of an ongoing mysterious ritual. You end up concentrating so closely that your mind becomes completely entranced and for a brief while you become part of the scene. Whichever side is played, and depending perhaps on the frame of mind you’re in, whether you’re tired and need soothing or you are just curious, the atmosphere can be quite intense and your anticipation of what might come with the drones keeps you hooked. A motor stutter vibration helps to concentrate your mind as well.

Anyone who is familiar with Ambarchi’s activities and the musical company he’s been keeping over the years might see the two sides of the cassette as representing the polar opposites his music has often straddled - Side A is very black and sinister, and Side B is tranquil – and the cassette and vinyl 7″ formats certainly lend themselves to such an interpretation more so than if the music had been released as a mini-CD. So I’d caution TSP readers not to allow a little knowledge about Ambarchi’s history and the choice of music format to influence their listening experience too much.

I don’t know how familiar Ambarchi is with recording music on his iPhone, if this is something very novel for him and if he will continue recording in this way on occasion, so I’m prepared to give him some leeway with the loose free-form structure of the music. The editing in parts can be crude – that audience applause cuts out very sharply – and any beginnings and endings are determined by the cassette format and the length of the tape. Had the musician and the label thought of the idea at the time, this music might suit a Moebius-trip cassette format, to be played continuously according to the whim of the listener.

Savage Pencil provides the odd(eye)ball cover artwork which plays up the voyeuristic role that the listener is forced into, in listening to this music that might serve as accompaniment to a secret ritual or ceremony. Whether the ceremony is a long drawn-out process involving animal sacrifices or just one’s bed-time routine being read to by a preschooler eager to show off by making up stories about a moon-worshipping rabbit family s/he sees in the picture-book, “Amulet” will be an ideal mystery backdrop. There’s something of the profound and the commonplace in these recordings.

Contact: The Tapeworm 

The Loving Tongue

JULY191

Here’s the latest outburst of mean-spirited evil acoustic gittarring hoodoo from Bill Orcutt, the guitarist from Harry Pussy who caused such a stir when he resurfaced from a long silence armed with an acoustic guitar so fierce that you could hear the very grain of the wood when he played it in his angry, restless and atonal way. On A History Of Every One (EDITIONS MEGO eMEGO 173) the ferocity that I seem to recall from 2009′s A New Way To Pay Old Debts may have mollified by one or two degrees, allowing us better to concentrate on Orcutt’s curious approach where he mixes primitive blues/country idioms with a very strong bent on modernistic free improvisation, so that he continues to comes across as a more forceful and grumpier version of John Fahey inhabited by a ghostly variant of Sonny Sharrock with thin reedy fingers clutching the neck like a lifeline. The sensation of hearing many poltergeists channelled through a single physical entity is reinforced by Orcutt’s eerie vocalisings on this record, which aren’t really singing so much as the sort of weird wailing that most great jazz pianists use, in what I had always assumed was a sort of guide-track to keep their keys in tune with the melody and their body in time with the swing. If you scope the back cover of this release you’ll see a clutch of titles that reflect either an appreciation of primitive swamp blues (‘Black Snake Moan’, ‘Bring Me My Shotgun’, ‘Massa’s in the Cold Cold Ground’) or allude to standards from the American songbook of Grade-A schmaltz, including ‘White Christmas’, ‘The Ballad of Davy Crockett’ and ‘Zip A Dee Doo Dah’ 1. And ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ may be intended as another nod in Fahey’s direction, viz. Fare Forward Voyagers or any of his works which hinted at his love-hate relationship with the Christian faith. However, as you will hear when he plays these tunes, they are by no means cover versions that remain faithful to their sources, and that’s putting it mildly, nor do they dwell in any known blues modes for more than five seconds at a time. While we’re looking at the cover, note how stark and unadorned it be with its sans-serif fonts and no images. Orcutt’s White Album, without a doubt. From October 2013.

JULY192

Another strong record from the Norwegian trio Cakewalk who we last heard with their 2012 debut album Wired; they use synths, guitars, bass and drums to produce excellent improvised instrumental work, situated somewhere more or less in the area of avant-garde rock music, but enriched with plenty of ideas, innovation, and just sheer tough-mindedness driving every note, plus a great approach to making records that ensures clarity, depth, and a straight left to the jaw for every listener. Stephan Meidell, Øystein Skar and Ivar Loe Bjørnstad work hard to escape cliché and over-familiar sounds, and they can be quite indignant if ever challenged about their supposed “resemblance” to any given band or genre of music: “chances are we’ve never listened to them”, they assert, when presented with a music journalist’s review studded with lists of references. For the most part, Transfixed (HUBRO MUSIC HUBROCD2526) has a sombre and heavy approach in the performances which I would liken to holding a conversation with a troupe of heavy-set tattooed wrestlers who have somehow been awarded professorial chairs at a school of advanced study, and who now hold no truck with dissenters as they lecture from the podium on their chosen subjects with gravity and authority. This is especially true of the relentless chugging motion of ‘Ghosts’, a piece of music whose stern aspect is only slightly leavened by a surface of decorative electronic trills used about as sparingly as silver balls on a miser’s birthday cake; and the controlled hysteria of ‘Swarm’, which could be used to provoke a riot in any given crowded situation, for example the New York stock exchange floor. ‘Bells’ is trying a shade too hard to be more likeable, and in places could be mistaken for a media-friendly arthouse movie soundtrack, and ‘Dive’ is a misguided attempt to do the ‘bleak ambient’ thing, which this trio are not suited for; they’re just too loquacious for effective minimalism. But the remainder, ‘Dunes’ and especially the dour title track, deliver just the right tone of steely menace, all set to a thrilling rock beat. From 07 October 2013.

  1. That last title is its own double-edged sword; it famously appeared in Disney’s Song of the South, the kitschy 1946 movie which has since been frowned upon, for what are now perceived as racist themes.

Analogue Karma

Full marks to this gargantuan double CD set of remastered rare tracks from latterday industrial-mode doomoids Maeror Tri. I only ever heard them on a seven-inch split they made with Crawl Unit in 2000, which represents but the merest sliver of the back catalogue of these gloomy droning Germans who did everything with masses of diabolical guitars and effects pedals. Meditamentum (ZOHARUM ZOHAR 046-2 / NEW NIHILISM NN X) is itself a compilation of Meditamentum and Meditamentum II, released in 1994 and 1999 respectively, and it gives the listener a rich slew of material originally released on cassettes in the 1990s (mostly). Any clown who’s ever formed a “Cold Depressive Black Metal” tape in their bedroom in the last fifteen years pretty much owes everything to Maeror Tri, who prove themselves past masters of the atmospheric, oppressive and miserablist drone. More than that, they did it with real authority and the weight of conviction behind every flanged note they struck from their filthy black Telecasters, plus there’s a lot of variety and texture in their multiple approaches to music construction. I’d say there are enough “alternative sonic worlds” in this pack to keep you busily exploring for years. Only the artwork is a bit drab; it would have been nice if the band’s “monad”, composed of three sticks in a triangular form, could have been more prominent. From 03 October 2013.

Syrinx likewise have a tinge of darkness in their Landscapes (QUIET WORLD THIRTY), but it’s tempered with a respect for nature and an outdoorsness that Maeror Tri, locked in their unholy temples of Hermetic insanity, would not dream of. These three Northampton UK lads Baylis, Plenderneith and Saunders blend their instruments into a morass of pullulating frequencies until guitars and synth – if such devices were indeed involved in the making of this record – lose their voices in the collective tones, which ring like ghostly church bells of a gigantic size suspended over impossible landscapes. Solemn almost to the point of grimness, yet a terrifying beauty will emerge in time from these iron sounds.

Can’t get enough synth and drumming records…and some nice moments to savour on Astro Sonic’s Come Closer and I’ll Tell You (HUBRO MUSIC HUBROCD2530), a Norwegian trio of young men armed with vintage keyboards, percussion instruments, drum machines and a Fender Rhodes piano. They have their lively and playful moments in the middle of this album, with brief but energised tracks where exciting rock-beats joust with some insane and far-out electronic effects, which seem to evoke a spaceship landing in the ocean or some other space-travel event ending badly. Their other main mode is more contemplative, where sweet melodies and pleasant retro sounds noodle away harmlessly in a major key, such as on ‘Orbiter’ or ‘Shoal’. At such moments they might not reach Eno heights, but they come close to Galactic Explorers or one of those other Toby Robinson studio bands from the 1970s Pyramid label. From 07 October 2013.

I’m now a firm fan of Noteherder & McCloud, the English duo of Parfitt and Reader who do such naughty things with saxophone and electronics, often blamming it out in real time without any cissy stuff like retakes, overdubs or “processing”. All of that rawness can be thine on the exceedingly impolite South Coast Lines (EXOTIC PLYLON RECORDS EP14) mini-CD, the first thing we heard since their The Bottle Loose In The Drawer earlier this year. On this occasion it seems that traffic sound – specifically that of roaring cars and maybe even trains – is contributing to the overall din on record, and the duo have to work like demons to make themselves felt above the general clamour. As such the whole record breathes a city-dwelling urgency which appeals to me enormously. This is the way saxophone and electronics should be – dirty, inchoate, noisy. From October 2013.

Astonishing guitar work from Mike Cooper on Right (H)ear Side by Side (LINEAR OBSESSIONAL RECORDINGS LOR043), and we should expect no less from this English veteran prodigy of guitar manipulation who has played on a large number of records from the early 1970s onwards, not all of them “free improvisation” even, yet is rarely mentioned in same breath as Derek Bailey. He’s joined by Yan-Chiu Leung on the sheng and the music was recorded at a 2013 festival in Hong Kong. On ‘Hong Kong 1’ Cooper plays a variety of styles – atonal free improvisation into blues-based riffing and out again – before settling into an eerie textured drone with throbbing pulsations as if trying to recreate a slew of Tangerine Dream LPs with a single set-up, which includes a resophonic guitar, a sampler, a delay pedal, a fuzz box and something called the Kaos Pad. Further blues mannerisms surface on ‘Hong Kong 3’ along with a distressed harmonica, in a minimalist oriental-style portrait of bleakness where the bittersweet interplay with Leung’s sheng is enough to give a grown man a shivering fit. If that doesn’t satisfy you, the sheer inscrutable bizarreness of ‘Hong Kong 4’ will have you finishing your imported beer, asking the waiter to bring you your bill…and a straitjacket. What dissonant eruptions, what measured yet devastating manipulation of the strings into the X-dimension. An unassuming CDR which contains wild music fit to rank with any of Fred Frith’s 1980s noisier works. From 21 October 2013.

Raw Cello

SOMA012cvr

The exceptional cello work of Okkyung Lee is well represented on Ghil (IDEOLOGIC ORGAN SOMA012), an album of solo pieces recorded in Norway by Lasse Marhaug in 2012. Although we’ve had some of her earlier records pass this way before – for instance, her duet with Phil Minton Anicca (Dancing Wayang) and her contribution to the four-way improv-noise thing Cold/Burn – this particular release is the one that has really struck home with this listener. I feel we’re getting a raw dose of Okkyung Lee, her ideas and her performance as she would wish, beaming in with zero interference. She’s a well-respected collaborator with some of the Kings and Queens in the improvising world, but perhaps her skills are best appreciated in a solo setting, because she’s doing things on this record that few musicians could possibly keep up with. I don’t just mean the speed of her thinking and execution (although admittedly her fingers do work with the implacable precision of an industrial sewing machine on some tracks), but there’s something about the inventive, wild leaps of logic which her creative spirit has ordained. Down these strange paths a Korean must go, seems to be the motto driving her music, and without doubt she’s skilled enough to execute every command from her inner Colonel Kurtz, no matter how extreme or ludicrous. At one level, there’s just much to enjoy in her sound, which is completely unique – I can think of few acoustic players who have arrived at such a distinctive and out-there sound as Okkyung Lee, where she’s not afraid to stretch the instrument to the limits of possibilities and yet she still somehow remains true to the genuine voice of the cello. There used to be improvising guitarists who hated the guitar so much that they would set out in their playing to undermine the characteristics of what they regarded, in their ideological way, as a “loaded” instrument. Lee has no such agenda. The bold and wild sounds she’s reaching for are necessary, natural, and when heard can tend to show us new possibilities, and expand the mental horizons of the listener.

Then of course there’s her multiple techniques; it would be instructive, I’m sure, to see her playing in the room; conventional classical cellists would faint dead away at the sight, and conductors would be eating their own batons with cream cheese. What is Okkyung Lee doing with her fingers and hands to produce these crazy “tearing” sounds, as though the strings of her cello were like elasticated tendons embedded in the calves of a cadaver, and she’s the surgeon trying to extract them…how does she generate those gorgeous harmonics that vibrate in sympathy and provide subtle drone effects to accompany her intense sawing actions…how does she arrive at this unique twilight area between music and noise, as though she’s a spirit able to exist in the air and the water at the same time..? 1 It’s mightily impressive, but nowhere do I get the sense she’s showing off her advanced techniques for their own sake, and it’s all in the service of beautiful music, somewhat melancholy, complex to the point of neurosis and also utterly simple, blessed with poetic titles such as ‘The Space Beneath my Grey Heart’ or ‘Hollow Water’, alluding to mysterious states of mind and wonders of nature. It remains to mention the sound of the recording on this release, which is simultaneously intimate and vivid yet also slightly limited and with the occasional dying fall, as though the aural perspective were being flattened out. This is deliberate; Marhaug used a 1976 cassette recorder for the sessions, experimented with less-than-conventional microphone placement, and did it in a range of locations around Norway (including some outdoor sites). He explicitly states that he wished to record Okkyung Lee’s music “in an expressionistic way” and likens his decision to using black-and-white photography. Fellow NYC-dweller C. Spencer Yeh provided the cover photograph, and Stephen O’Malley overprinted this image with one of his characteristic grids printed in clear ink. A beautiful LP. Now I need to investigate her 2008 solo LP for Ecstatic Peace…

  1. This takes the cake for the most laboured sentence I’ve ever constructed. Sorry about that.

Tales of the Riverbank

Another very good fine art record from the German Corvo Records label. Corvo may not flood the market with dozens of releases in the style of the all-conquering Editions Mego, but everything touched by the hands of Wendelin Büchler is always immaculately presented and a well-considered and curated item, so that the listener is guaranteed a condensed slice of high-octane art (both music and visuals) in the manner of a good slice of roast beef. In the case of waterkil (CORE 004), a record concocted by the duo of Axel Dörner and Jassem Hindi, said roast beef may at first appear so transparent and wispy such that you wonder how the chef ever managed to carve the meat so thinly, but just the same it’s packed with solid nutriments. Yes, it’s another “quiet” record, the product of a situation where one of the performers Axel Dörner has spent many years refining and reducing his trumpet playing method in pursuit of an ever-more minimalist goal. It seems to me like only yesterday I was being floored by the audacity of Durch Und Durch, a single 40-minute improvisation of breathy and abstracted trumpet tones he recorded with Tony Buck – but that was ten years ago. On this record, which was recorded half at EMS at Stockholm and half in an art gallery in Berlin, we see Axel Dörner V2.0 at work – he’s now equipped his instrument with small microphones, a mixing desk, and a special interface designed according to his wishes and desires. With this very electro-acoustic mode of setup, he’s able to bring in feedback and live sampling of his own trumpet playing – which is to say nothing of his ultra-refined playing technique, which allows him to wring uncanny snake-like tones and hisses from the bell of his trumpet. With the exception of some recognisably trumpet-like parps I can remember hearing, his playing on waterkil is mostly about extremely abstracted and minimalist sound art; I can tell you’re already shocked by the rigour of his stern, unforgiving approach.

However Jassem Hindi leavens the equation somewhat, adding a requisite dose of who-knows-what to these recordings…I don’t say this lightly folks, as this Saudi-born fellow who studied at the Sorbonne has made a studied attempt on his own behalf to make sure he falls between the cracks of the pigeon-holes. He may have worked with samples of other music, he may have created installations in art galleries, and he may have worked with experimental dance troupes…all this is admitted…but he states, quite insistently, that he is not a musician, visual artist, or a dancer. On his performing table we may see contact mics, tapes, assorted broken objects, and machines that are being diverted for the purposes of sound art. He also carries non-artistic field recordings around in his pockets, by which we understand that they are not “aesthetic” field recordings inviting us to savour the joys of a waterfall or a night-scene in Africa, but are instead badly recorded and distorted views of incredibly banal domestic scenes, like families closing the kitchen door, or something. This approach I like; it’s already starting to make Chris Watson and his imitators look like old-fashioned landscape painters. Hindi steers all of these diverse sound sources through the ever-present mixing desk, and when these gobbly nubbets of his are performed together with whatever Axel Dörner is doing, the results have made it onto these two sides of clear-pressed vinyl in an unedited suite of perplexing art music. They’ve been working as a duo since 2008, even if they don’t have many published recordings to show for it. This may even end up as their definitive statement.

It’s suggested that we listen to waterkil as a series of “audible snapshots of a river course”; even a particular river, the Moldau, is proposed for such an exercise. We’re aided in this idea by the superb cover artworks, heavy pencil drawings by the artist Matthias Reinhold. The sleeve itself is triple-gatefold, beautifully printed on both sides of white card, has a die-cut hole in one panel, and given the size of the LP edition the sleeve has every right to be regarded as an art print. I like the interior side with its idiosyncratic little shapes placed judiciously on a white field (it comes close to illustrating the music we hear). But note how the front cover represents a river, possibly, lurking behind a thick growth of brambles and reeds. I like this river-course notion, but waterkil is a largely static piece of music; or to put it another way, its forward movement is very halting and constantly interrupted. No sooner has the river voyage started than Dörner and Hindi decide they’ve found a leak in the canoe, and we have to pause for ten minutes while they think what to do about it. Or they simply pause with no explanation given, and go and stand on the riverbank looking profound and lost. There are a few aural moments of real drama on the record, where the combination of sounds makes for highly effective listening, but for some reason the duo don’t care to sustain that mood, and abruptly break off into mysterious silence (a silence punctuated by odd hisses and creaks). However, we’ve got to admire the boldness of this statement, one which shows how Dörner is pushing his work away from the confines of the “improvised” and into a more thrilling zone of collaborative, electro-acoustic / experimental sound art. Hindi, meanwhile, continues to fall through the cracks. Received in 2012.

A Letter to Krohn

Krohn Jestram Lippok
Dear Mister Singing Club
GERMANY DISTILLERY STILL 22 CD (2013)

F.S. Blumm
Up Up And Astray
GERMANY PINGIPUNG 39 CD (2013)

Dan Melchior
The Backward Path
USA NORTHERN SPY RECORDS NSCD028 (2012)

Christian Meaas Svendsen / Christian Winther
W/W
NORWAY VA FONGOOL VAFCD006 2 x CD (2013)

Dear Mister Singing Club,

I don’t know what to do with another singer-songwriter proclaiming over acoustic guitar and muffled, boomy percussion. I mean, I like John Martyn and Nick Drake when I am in the mood, but that was the 70s, and I’m not sure we need any more confession and angst, especially with echoing backing vocals and tricksy sound effects in the mix. I almost laughed when the tuba and glockenspiel – or synthesized versions of them? I don’t know – arrived. The nearest comparison I could come up with was Peter Blegvad or Slapp Happy, but only on a really bad day. Your CD doesn’t come close.

I could recommend you listen to Dan Melchior’s CD, who has the grace to put some quirky and at times moving instrumentals, each titled as a numbered ‘S.P.’, around his songs, but I’d be kidding myself and you. Whilst he thankfully stays away from tubas and glockenspiels, those jokey musical arrangements you seem to like, when he gets to the actual songs, his doom-laden intonation and heavy-handed guitar chords are dull and lifeless. “I have known the emptiness and have tried to love it” he says. I’m sorry for him, but can only hope he learns to stay away from the attempted profundity and focus on the short, intriguing instrumentals.

If I knew where you lived, I might actually send you F.S. Blumm’s CD to listen to. It reminds me of Animals That Swim (without the vocals), or perhaps Tindersticks, both bands who use arrangement and composition to exquisite effect. I mentioned Slapp Happy earlier, and there are touches of them, as well as other European Rock in Opposition bands here. This is sunny, happy contemporary chamber music, which gently subverts itself with odd dynamics, instrumental combinations and careful use of sound and dynamics. I like it a lot.

You might also like W / M, a double CD by the two Christians, one of whom plays double bass, one guitar. I take the music to be improvised pieces, and although the sometimes noisy double bass explorations on M are intriguing, it is the exquisite guitar album W that deserves your attention. Winther moves from fingerpicked etudes to finger-thrumming abstraction to ruminative introversion, occasionally with Svendsen guesting on double bass. (He returns the favour on some of Svendsen’s tracks.)

I’d like to hear you forget about emoting and expressing yourself, and paying this kind of attention to your music, but then I guess you’d have to call your CD Dear Mister Guitar Club, which isn’t quite the same.

Best wishes

Rupert Loydell