Tagged: performed

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

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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.

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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.

No Love Lost

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Murmurists
I Cannot Tell You Where I Am Until I Love You
FRANCE ALREALON MUSIQUE ALRN049 CD (2013)

“I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine.” Thus spake the narrator of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and a similar sentiment informs this patchwork of dreamy drones and disquieting interactions between monologue mentalist Bryan Lewis-Saunders and others. The story – to refer to it thus – is dissociative in nature: five narrators cut off from the bigger picture, delivering pseudo-psychoanalytical monologues to empty space; monotone responses to truncated messages; while language constitutes the chiefest obstacle between event and emotional experience. We recognise this in the separation of call and response by expanses of grey noise, snail-slow samples and by the meaningless verbosity of the discourse itself, which at best resembles robotic academics gainsaying each other with the emptiest of collocations.

The process of compiling and assembling the ingredients took Murmurists mainman Anthony Donovan some two years, suggesting a measured, on-off relationship with the project, which the long passages between speeches reflect as clearly as an internal monologue. The methodology employed might correspond on paper to that of musique concrète, though at risk of implying a hidden purpose it might be better to split hairs and call this a collage in which – as Donovan himself reminds us – ‘all signs fail to signify’ (to this listener, certainly). The emotional anti-drama of total alienation – from self and others – washes over the listener in bleak and unyielding drones and echoing industrial emptiness, with distorted snatches of warehouse electronics; remote, purgatorial choirs and martial rhythms underlining the dormant frustration of those unable to articulate emotion. Such sounds he extrapolates from several solo improvisations informed by presumably gnomic mandates.

For sure, the ‘love’ looks unlikely to happen for as long as these sexless, wordy correspondents continue to draw breath. In spite of this, the overall composition, though relentlessly bleak, is never less than hypnotising: its lack of drama a reassuring certainty for those able to surrender to ennui. If you thought Chris Morris’ JAM sketches were too rich in humour and direction, then these forty-five minutes should assuage that dissatisfaction.

A Brushcodile’s Scales

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Two more delightful lovely records from Kayaka, the Japanese creatrice who is Kaya Kamija and sent these along from her Berlin address in October 2013, both modest in presentation yet quite profound and inventive in their musical scope. It so happens they are both released on Ostroga Records, a micro-label based in Russia, one of whose packaging strategies apparently include fastening the sleeves together with staples or sellotape. Silvestre (OSTROGA OTR-025) was made in Galicia during 2012, and may reflect something of Kayaka’s experiences travelling / dwelling in that part of Spain, not that you would know as the odd music we hear is not especially “Spanish” in tone and more resembles a psychedelic version of gamelan crossed with other exotic world music, what with its quarter-tones, irregular rhythms, and assorted non-Western idioms. A one-woman production, I expect it’s been realised with her intuitive and mysterious approaches to playing her electronic devices, creating percussion loops out of unlikely sources, and blowing her clarinet – which she does with the colour-sense of a Henri Matisse cut-out and the free brushstrokes of a Franz Kline. What a unique sound she wrings from that woodwind stick – if only she’d lived at a time when Rudy Van Gelder could’ve captured that sound at Englewood Cliffs along with a crisp rhythm section. But there may be some field recordings and found music too; it’s hard to be sure, due to the hazy mix and dreamy tone of the album. Yes, it’s a pleasant dream too. Each track stands alone as a piece in its own right, creating a unique mood or tone-poem, evoking beautiful landscapes and nature-visions, quite often populated with colourful beasts such as the “brushcodile”, the “salamandra del portal”, or the charmingly eccentric “cows on a river”. If those cows aren’t standing on the surface of said river of their own volition, I’d be deeply disappointed. Gentle, understated, but Silvestre is daringly innovative in places and emerges as uniquely her own work. For more of her bass clarinet work, may we recommend Bass Clarinet Songs if you can find a copy.

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Estol Voice / Untitled Mix (OSTROGA OTR-022) is a split album where Kayaka turns in six unusual cuts on her half, Estol Voice, apparently layering field recordings of childrens’ songs, chants, dialogues and clapping games on top of her self-made sounds to build elliptical, unpredictable compositions. These clonkoid rhythms she lets loose like crippled turtles in a marsh leave enormous gaps, meander down unexpected pathways, and are characterised by a slightly abrasive and peculiar “grindy” sound arising from her primitive electronics and more of those wonderfully idiosyncratic clarinet blarts. I like the rough-hewn “thrown-together” qualities of these tape assemblages, even if they are a tad less satisfying than the mysterious dream worlds of Silvestre; there is an unfinished quality which adds charm, as much as the lo-fi recording quality and the generally surreal atmosphere she concocts so elegantly. Unlike Silvestre, Estol Voice is much of a piece and effectively uses the same basic approach spread across six songs, with the exception of one cut which features a ploinky electric piano backdrop which, in this context, is about as unexpected as a purple spider dropping down the chimney on a single strand of platinum web. Vitaly Malakov‘s half of the split, Untitled Mix, is a rather uncertain journey which may combine low-key field recordings with odd static and rumbly white noise; I do like the multiple layers and the ever-shifting textures on offer from Malakov’s barbecue pit, but the captain of this airliner doesn’t appear to know where he’s flying next, apart from his preference for steering into bad weather and braving electrical storms. Still we must acknowledge that Malakov, also a member of Kromeshna and Light Collapse, is the label boss of Ostroga, so on evidence of above he’s clearly doing something right.

Chamber Music?

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Uli Rennert
Project S
AUSTRIA PAN TAU-X RECORDS pt-x 106 CD (2012)

Working alongside a small unit of regular collaborators, on Project S Uli Rennert applies his traditional compositional skill to a broad range of styles and instrumentation. The work is framed by the history of chamber music and small ensemble composition. Yet, Peter Kunsek’s exquisite clarinet and Peter Herbert’s bass are disrupted by Rennert’s restless instrumental leaps from synthesizer to live electronics, or lap steel guitar. The final product is a sharp pan-modernism where all forms and styles are engaged and all techniques given equal weighting. Found sound drones combine with lyrical viola harmonies and spoken word, which gives way to dense and jarring synthesizer pulses. Avant-garde tonalities recalling Igor Stravinsky and Bernard Hermann are interspersed with atonal electronic sections. Everything from counterpoint to digital sampling is available to access and deftly incorporated by an ensemble with an extensive and close history together.

The pieces are agile and difficult to conceptualise. It eludes general description and sometimes progressed in ways I found awkward or abrupt. But it seems a fundamental misunderstanding to isolate these sections. When everything is emphasised and brought to the surface there will surely be forms which individually frustrate, but are necessary inclusions in the project. This is modern classical music divorced from previous social, societal and historical rhetoric and so with that separation there may be elements which seem out of place. Criticising these sections seems a petty misconception of the bold aims of the music.

The interesting balance between solo sections and ensemble playing often seems more reminiscent of a jazz quartet then a chamber ensemble. Clusters of sound thin out and separate into sudden improvisation. Threads and themes within the music spin and coalesce before fading. Despite Rennert’s lead each member brings something distinct. Previous entries in Rennert’s Project series have used jazz standards as a starting point for composition and even as Rennert deviates from such techniques the model for performance remains.

An accusation often leveled at post-modernism within music is that with access to all forms, without guiding principles or history, the emphasis of everything is the emphasis of nothing; the equality of formal attributes leads to a flattening of all those constituents. Yet on Project S the juggling of these diverse elements is an indication of the skill and imagination of all involved and Rennert’s role as composer and collaborative node. The work is a fascinating response to the dilemma of what orchestrated chamber music is and what it can offer for this generation of musicians.

Collapsing

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Many aspects there be to Things Fall Apart (HERBAL INTERNATIONAL CONCRETE DISC 1302), a record by Jason Kahn documenting his live activities at a performance space in Zurich from April 2013. The first records I heard from Kahn showcased his brittle and crisp percussion work in various performing and collaborative improvisation contexts, but he’s since widened his ambitions and become a sound artist and composer. Here, there’s plenty of percussion work for sure, and also electronic sounds (quite primitive ones, perhaps generated by his magnetic coil and speaker setup), amplified and non-amplified vocalising experiments, noisy buzzes produced by a short-wave radio set, and non-musical sounds produced by non-musical objects, such as plastic bags which rustle about in a compellingly mysterious manner.

These approaches are offered up as stand-alone episodes in the suite. But the record also documents his use of the room, which from his description appears to be the ideal space guaranteed to delight the heart of any electro-acoustic performer – the floors and ceiling of the Kunstraum Walcheturm are made of wood, it’s a large space, and “the floor creaks tremendously when one walks over it”. In short the acoustics are very warm and wet. Without doubt Kahn is “playing” the room throughout, and no more so than on track two simply called ‘Im Raum’ where he appears to be dragging tables or chairs across the floor, thereby staging a two-minute impromptu recreation of La Monte Young’s ‘Poem for Chairs, Tables, Benches, etc’.

Kahn’s exasperated sleeve notes document his misadventures trying to stage the performance in the first place, where the whole evening was almost ruined by a litany of unfortunate mishaps and sonic intrusions, and to some degree the piece represents his triumph as he snatches victory from the jaws of defeat, where The Enemy are represented by wedding parties, horses and carriages, and disco music. The title refers to a personal philosophy he’s carried around with him since his studies at SOAS in 1981, inspired by reading a novel of this title by Chinua Achebe. From 15 October 2013.

Humanity Won’t Be Happy Until…

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Socialism is still alive and well and thriving in Italy, if this release from Sparkle In Grey is anything to go by – and so is Progressive Rock and (to some degree) an interest in Italian library music for TV and movies…their Thursday Evening (GREY SPARKLE GSCD007 / LIZARD LIZCD 0093/ OLD BICYCLE RECORDS OBR010 / SHOW ME YOUR WOUNDS PRODUCTIONS LESION # 0012) is a convincing set of highly melodic tunes played with conviction by the four-piece of Carozzi, Lupo, Krostopovic and Uggeri, who use a lot of guitars and old-style buzzy synths, and their work is helped by four guest musicians. They are fond of string arrangements and the warm violins and cellos add a poignant melancholic touch to many tunes, sustaining the overall mood of world-weary sadness and heartbreak. What they’re heartbroken about is most likely the state of the world today…they start off by discussing the stress of their working week, and it seems that Thursday Evening has special meaning to the band as it’s the only time they can all rehearse together. Then the discussion somehow widens into talk about ethics and resistance and change, at which point you see the cartoony coloured figures on the front cover are actually an angry mob hungry for reform.

That’s about as far as it goes for the Sparkle In Grey call for insurrection, as they emphasise they don’t like to use slogans any more, so there are no politicised lyrics on the album, and instead just a few samples of vox pops which bring home their points of view. One of them occurs at the start of track two, a heartfelt ecological plea attempting to reverse the trend of monopoly capitalism for the sake of Mother Earth. The subtler strategy has been to release the album with a free pebble (I didn’t get one, because it’s just a promo copy); the purchaser is invited to email the band with suggestions for what to do with the pebble, and you then get sent a free track in return. If you buy the “Riot Edition”, the pebble is hand-painted. I have no doubt that this latterday proggy band are familiar with ‘Take A Pebble’, the 1970 ballad by Emerson Lake & Palmer, but they probably want us to use the pebble as an instrument for effecting change in some way. By way of example, the central character on the cover holds his yellow pebble aloft in a defiant pose. Jointly released by four labels (two in Italy, two in Switzerland). Arrived 11 October 2013.

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From Saint Petersburg comes the latest instalment in Wozzeck‘s grand design, simply called Act 5 (INTONEMA int008); the idea has been that each release would be carefully numbered and planned in advance to emerge as significantly different from all the others in the series, so that where Act I was “aggressive free improvised noise”, Act 4 turned into an avant-garde doom metal project of great ferocity and power. Act 5 is a single piece and it lasts for precisely 40 minutes, although the sleeve notes indicate it’s actually in five separate parts. The five parts each last 40 minutes and have been layered together into a single concentrated composition. It reflects the band’s growing interest in “ordered and compositional music, but at the same time more conceptual and weird”…their current thinking has somehow allowed them to embrace the music of Evan Parker and Radu Malfatti and the texts of Samuel Beckett, so you know you’re in for something very extreme and very bleak. Ilia Belorukov, Mikhail Ershov and Alexey Zabelin are the composers and players, and it’s executed with synthesizers, laptops, the iPod touch, lots of percussion instruments (both real and virtual, I would expect), guitars, and multiple effects pedals. The work is built around percussion and electronics, played with an inhuman precision and near-brutal force; as the piece works through its layers, it’s like hearing large numbers of drum machines and sequencers battering us into submission. The march of the robots, all armed with hammers and industrial staple guns.

The work is through-composed to a manic degree, and the small amount of information I’ve gleaned from the thick booklet of notes, charts, staves and explanatory diagrams has been terrifying; it’s taking the idea of mathematical construction and serial composition about as far as it can go. The performance is manic, too; I started off thinking it was played by electric typewriters, and I ended up with images of shipworkers driving steel rivets into the hull of a ship, possessed by the sort of focus and intensity that only old Papa Joe could’ve inspired. I can tell you it’s music that starts out shocking, and grows gradually more berserk as it progresses, with additional layers of even more extreme and indigestible noise, sampled voices, and rhythms attempting to escape from the prison of the regimented grid, only to be dragged back into the frame again. The cover artworks restate this theme, the monochrome photos clearly showing how the tyranny of the grid operates in modern cities, through town planning, signs, railway stations, civic spaces, and even your living room; and the graphic design, cropping and framing these images with white borders, restates the grid motif yet again. In all, a most claustrophobic and overloaded listen, but like Sparkle In Grey above I expect that Belorukov and his team are urging us to take action against the lamentable condition of modern society. Will we win? When records like this exist, we stand a chance! From 7th October 2013.

Arrival By Degree

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Huntsville
Past Increasing Future Receding
NORWAY HUBRO MUSIC HUBROCD2521 (2013)

Gentle, pensive post rock circumambulations with a penchant for sharp turns into imposing territory, an inky infusion of low-register doom/gloom motifs and the odd smattering of remorseless machine drumming, which raise tension in what could so easily blend into the wallpaper as just another genre workout. The lack of scope one finds in the field of long-form gloom-rock pieces is ultimately the elephant in the room, though it’s probably as enticing a selling point as it is an epitaph. To be clear, there’s really nothing devastatingly ‘new’ about this recording – nor many of its ilk: those days are long gone my friends. Even the last Godspeed album – one I have much time for – found redemption merely in a fresh lick of paint. That said, as an exercise in collective expression, Past Increasing Future Receding holds up well. The trickling guitar lines and now-standard echo-blurred cymbal swirls are at once trite and hypnotic, while somehow suggestive (at times) of some imagined orient.

The musicians adjusted themselves to a mutual crawl over the course of three days as their presences resonated in the capacious blackness of Emanuel Vigeland’s barrel-vaulted Mausoleum in Oslo, their lack of hurry a suitable inhabiting spirit for those available dimensions. So clearly are the acoustics rendered on record that the room is said to have constituted a de-facto fourth member (I don’t suppose this has been said before, has it?). Of those hours, these thirty-four minutes are the revealed portion, and there is beauty in this brevity: one anomalous in a genre that checks its watch so infrequently. Of the three pieces, ‘The Flow of Sand’ captures the elements in their finest form: the dull, telltale throb of a buried siren and a stray banjo strumming vaguely middle-eastern modes. If you like this sort of music, then I imagine you will enjoy this recording as well!

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Niski Szum
Siedem Piesni Miejskich
POLAND MATHKA NO NUMBER (2013)

At times a spindlier, more mournful proposition than Huntsville, Niski Szum (aka Marcin Dymiter) favours long stretches of the same monologue-spliced, slowly ascending chord progressions as many post-rock heroes of our constellation, driving plangent pins into listeners’ hearts upon a tidal wave of resignation. Yet in spite of the audible familiarity it still manages to sound pleasant and virtually epic at times. Virtually, as in ‘not-quite’, that is. Still, Dymiter sustains the drama the way slow period dramas can do, and ameliorates the impatient with an ear for variety (by degree): eschewing excessive theme-and-variation laziness and escorting us through climes of differing murkiness: a Penderecki-esque purgatory of strings on one journey; elsewhere a vision of hell across an unforgiving Midwestern landscape with windblown shards of guitar clang and a brittle violin lament. Surely as worthy of a place on the Hubro label as Huntsville, but perhaps these two labels are one and the same?

Raw Cello

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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.

It’s a thin line…

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Devin DiSanto
Tracing A Boundary
TASK RECORDS TR001 CD (2013)

This is an odd one. At first, this sounds like a fairly standard airy slab field recording. Someone, presumably DiSanto, is going about his business. We can hear the sounds of people and traffic in the background, and what sounds like DiSanto rummaging around. Occasionally there are more dissonant sounds, a loud hissing, for example, which suggests some other activity. There’s the odd twang of a guitar and ukulele at around the 35 minutes mark. Not exactly the most dynamic thing I’ve ever heard, but actually quite engaging. There’s looseness to it, a lack of focus that renders it pretty engaging, not engaging the deep listening way that you might listen to a more intense nature recording, but the kind of pleasure you get on those afternoons when you can hear the neighbours bustling around in their backyard and you can’t help but eavesdrop.

Yet there are several things that hint this might not be as lackadaisical a recording as you might expect on first listen. The first thing is the number of musicians credited on the back of the CD. Trumpet, trombone, two guitarists and a ukulele – not to mention a bass clarinet credited to DiSanto himself. Then there’s the fact that, as well as these musicians, a group of different people are credited as ‘performers’. Finally, there are the periodic vocal interventions from Desanto, mainly announcing lengths of time. So, for example, at around the 13-minute mark, he says ‘Eight minutes’.

What is going on? If I’m honest, I have no idea. But I like it. It’s as if Disanto has assembled his musicians for a Wandelweiser-style quiet performance, but one where the process of setting up and preparing to play is as important as the playing itself. By doing this, it unpicks the conventions of this kind of performance. It seems to conflate the bustling, workaday nature of preparation with the intense focus of the playing – an act which itself combines as it does the physical acts of plucking or bowing with the intellectual activity of listening and responding to other musicians – into a single plane of action.

Or it might be something completely different. There’s no talking, for one thing – apart from the aforementioned vocal interjections – which undermines my thesis that we’re eavesdropping on preparations for a performance. It’s all very mysterious. But it is a playful mystery, like Tom Waits’ ‘What’s He Building?’ as performed by the cast of The Good life. It’s something that invites us as listeners to join the dots that DiSanto has left for us, pushing us to bring our own view of what we think this piece should be. An enigmatic, beguiling and yet strangely satisfying work.