Tagged: Poland

Beyond Dodecaphonic


Boguslaw Schaeffer
POLAND BOLT RECORDS BR ES06 / DUX 0881/0882 2 x CD (2012)

Polish composer born 1929, Schaeffer’s compositions were dedicated to mixing tapes and instruments, somewhere between graphical scores and improvisation on tape. His work developed within the context of the Polish radio experimental studio. This double CD combines works from 1966 to 2011 and includes some electronics compositions such as ‘Assemblage’, classic concrete music in the spirit of Pierre Schaeffer and instrument manipulation, deconstructed from a violin instead of a piano in the spirit of Pierre Henry. ‘Electronic Symphony’ contains a more Stockhausen-esque German electronic music aesthetic, with synthesizer and electronic instruments as frequency generators. The first CD also includes pieces for tapes, harp (‘Heraklitiana’) and tuba (‘Project’). Schaeffer’s music has an upbeat tempo, movement, dynamics and space, and if there is referential part of dodecaphonic music, he tends to develop his own approach of sound without following any given school (Austrian, German, French…).

The second CD includes pieces for tapes and instruments such as cello and French horn, mixed with electronic music pieces and other interpretations of ‘Assemblage’; as well as a very remarkable new composition from 2011, “O.T.” played by Thomas Lehn, the musician from the improv scene playing a modular synth. The recordings sound more “real-time”, but the music itself has a sense of deconstruction as if proposed by Edgar Varèse, with fast electronic sound combinations using different pitches and applied filters, an abrupt abusing of fade in and fade out. These are very interesting compositions by Boguslaw Schaeffer who is probably not as well-known as the great masters of this genre, but he has an approach to music that’s more open, and less academic. It is also important to note that the effort taken by Boleslaw Blaszczyk, Michal Libera and Michal Mendyk to publish these composers from lesser-known research studios results in complexifying the historical understanding we have of this music.

Industrial Action


Zero Coma Zero

Of a more kinetic ambience than recent reviewees Howlround and Lethe, the ritual percussion duo Hati (Rafal Iwanski and Darek Wojtas) nonetheless establishes an equally eerie atmosphere in their psychogeographically remote recordings. Heaven (or Hell) knows where they performed these pieces, but they sound as dark and distant as certain of Coil’s or perhaps Paysage d’Hiver while he’s trapped in a blizzard. Like their longish-term collaborator, Z’EV, Iwanski and Wojtas build their own percussion instruments from salvaged and recycled metal, a process that lends itself both to a genuine intimacy with the means of production, and to an evocation of the cycle of death and rebirth, from which this collection conceives its title. The CD compiles a 250-copy, 2005 CDR release, Zero Coma Zero and a 121-copy, 2006 mini CD, Recycled Magick Emissions, the latter title denoting an initially disconcerting association with Thelema, though initial fears of encountering gaudy, lo-fi goth-pop were quickly subsumed by muted delight at the lengthy trancelike vibrations beamed through my speakers from an imagined/imaginary Tibet.

With sparing elegance, Hati command voices of primordial grandeur from their extensive, metallic battery and arsenal of skeletally sourced wind instruments. In ‘Animal’, a slow, thumping rhythm is yawned through by a backmasked, extra-dimensional ice-cat, suggesting a candle-lit darkness from which issues a clattering voodoo-esque rhythm that accompanies the lively arrival of dance troupe of Goetian demons. Though just shy of seven minutes it is rather brief for my liking, but actually one of the longer tracks on the album. Presumably the pair believes that welcomes are not to be outstayed. Still, they go on to stir up showers of shimmering cymbals, thundering peals of bonging gongs, howling woodwinds and disquieting clangs, all laced with metallic grey reverb that seems to conjure up one eyeball-sucking vortex after another. The nine tracks that form Zero Coma Zero are generally more jarring and dynamically varied than the more meditative drones of Emissions, but the EP forms a soothing coda or a banishing ritual of sorts. It’s a slow burner for sure, but burn it does.

Space, No Oddity


Tetuzi Akiyama / Jeff Gburek

Precision and restraint are the watchwords for this beguiling release, which teams Japanese guitar guru Tetuzi Akiyama with Polish-American improviser Jeff Gburek for a quartet of long, contemplative duets recorded in 2010 and inspired – perhaps counterintuitively, given the chilly cover art of the CD – by the empty deserts of New Mexico.

Both players are veterans of these types of meetings, and this experience is what makes the record so enjoyable. There’s no showing off or attempting to dominate. Instead collaboration and the exchange of ideas predominate.

Gorgeous and hypnotic, the four pieces have an arresting sense of space and stillness, emphasised by the way in which the two players’ contributions weave and mesh together together, resulting gauzy films of abstract sound. The six and a half minutes of “Respect 4” are a fine example, Akiyama’s broken chords hanging luminously in the air like wire wool as Gburek subtly brings in a whining, fuzzy drone of feedback that swoops around and then enfolds them, as if wrapping them in a warm blanket.

Akiyama focuses exclusively on acoustic guitar throughout, playing with a glacial stillness that demonstrates his expertise in improvising groups small and large. Since forging his improvisational chops in the Madhar group in the late 80’s, he ran a monthly improv session with no-input mixing board maestro Toshimaru Nakamura in the 90s, has played in a duo with Hervé Boghossian since 2006, all the while amassing a comprehensive discography of solo, duo and larger group recordings with all manner of players.

His finesse is demonstrated perfectly in “Respect 3”. On this piece – which, perhaps appropriately my CD player seems to think is the first track on the album – we get a full 30 seconds of silence before Akiyama starts, plucking pinched harmonics followed by a glisteningly melodic line that appears on the horizon, like an iceberg in a freezing sea.

Throughout this fine, meditative record, every note, chord or harmonic Akiyama plays is perfectly placed – not only in relation to the other notes he plays, but also to the space and silence surrounding him. Perhaps this is why the album’s release notes talk about its ‘post-Feldman’ quality…

Gburek, in comparison, brings everything but the kitchen sink, mobilising slide, acoustic and prepared guitar and a raft of unidentified electronics to play with. He’s a well-regarded musician and composer in his own right, who has worked with Keith Rowe, Tom Carter from Charalambides, Eddie Prevost and many other experimentalists.

He dips into his bag of tricks sparingly, though, offsetting his partner’s contributions to great effect. The insistent, Morse-code like tones at the start of “Respect 4” ,for example, anchor Akiyama’s frail guitar melodies perfectly. Midway through “Respect 2”, he plays a high, keening melody, possibly on prepared guitar, making a sound somewhere between a Theremin and pedal steel guitar that curls around the space in a peculiarly feline way. Elsewhere, low rumbles, creaks and chimes bring ghostly touches of colour and texture.

In fact, the more I listen to this album, the more I’m convinced that Gburek brings a fantastically unconventional structure to these pieces. His interventions often blindside the listener, reconfiguring a track in unexpected ways. One-and-half minutes into the pristine quietude of “Respect 2”, a burst of white noise erupts, shattering the calm, followed by a clamour of recorded voices, in French and Polish. It’s as if someone has walked into the recording studio and switched on the radio. It’s weird, but it works.

Then, in “Respect 4”, following a particularly limpid section of guitar and electronics, Gburek unexpectedly summons up a sinister, bruised wave of sound which obliterates everything else. It then dissipates as quickly as it appeared, leaving Akiyama to pluck enigmatic droplets of guitar that shine in the now-empty space.
It might be easy, given all of this stillness and restraint, to fall back on some hackneyed guff about the intrinsically calm and meditative nature of Japanese art. To be sure, this album does have a scent of the Onkyokei about it (although Akiyama is quite capable of playing loud and visceral too, as anyone who heard his playing on 2012’s Satanic Abandoned Rock & Roll Society record, Bloody Imagination will testify.

But more importantly this is a collaboration, not a solo record, one which takes its cue from the wide open, empty sky of the southwest USA, not the Off Site venue in Tokyo. Its distinctive character comes from the inspiration of this landscape, moulded and formed by both Akiyama’s Japanese and Gburek’s Polish-American sensibilities.

In fact this record actually recalls some of Manfred Eicher’s poised productions for ECM. Perhaps this is a more adventurous, abstract and dissonant ECM record than that label is accustomed to, true. And maybe the icy European landscape on the CD case recalls ECM’s distinctive aesthetic more than I should allow it to. But still, there’s a shared sense of the possibilities of space and the calm intimacy of the recording that unites the Munich-based label and this mesmeric album.

Bandcamp page


Eyes Without A Head

Blanc Et Rouge: Polish Radio Experimental Studio

Martial law was declared in Poland in December 1981 – an act that led to the ruthless suppression of political groups, journalists, teachers and anyone who could voice their opposition. While it was officially lifted in July 1983, legislative changes undertaken during that period ensured its effective endurance until the fall of Communism in 1989. That historical nucleus has left a gaping hole in the continuity established by the fourteen extended compositions that comprise this collection, when artistic expression in Poland was stifled. On either side though, it flourished in the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio, the activities of which (between 1962 and 1989) are presented herein. The significance of this dark period is anything but understated in the lengthy essay that accompanies this collection, to the point of tacitly characterising Polish creativity as a political protest. The French title reminds us that the Polish flag shares two of France’s national colours, while suggesting a common revolutionary impulse, and establishing a valourising note that is emphatically sustained throughout the same essay.

Even in peace time – it is related – compositions abounded in Warsaw that ‘alluded to the current events but also pointed to the broader historical and humanistic context’ all of which were made possible under the aegis of the Warsaw Polish Radio Experimental Studio; a facility, we are informed, established by Radio Committee president Wlodzimierz Sokorski to assuage his ‘undeniable guilt’, having served as Minister of Culture and Art during Poland’s stint with Stalinism. A simultaneous striving for cultural, political and even spiritual renewal informs this work, often to the extent of historical disconnection; engendered on one hand by repeated political ‘decapitation’ (witnessed as recently as 2010, when an air force plane carrying Poland’s political elite crashed in Russia) and by an apparent desire to utilise new technology to stay one step ahead of the watchful eye of authority. In many instances the music serves as a satirical protest against political groups also pursuing renewal (indeed, the same political bodies that stumped up the cash to facilitate musical such experimentation).

The resulting relationship between opposing tendencies is a subject explored most explicitly in the work of Krzystof Knittel, who likened art to ‘litmus paper rather than a propaganda brochure’. However, one revealing test of the music’s present-day political potency resides in its apparent status as a cultural artifact, and possibly even propaganda: the collection has the full support of the Polish Ministry of Culture and the Warsaw Municipal Office. I wonder then, whether this newly unveiled work – a sincere attempt to establish a historical and cohesive (if overly selective) set of names and works likely unknown to many – will have the historical appeal or impact of its Western European analogues.

Unacquainted as I am with the majority of those featured, my first port of call is Krzystof Penderecki’s ‘Death Brigade’, which offers at least a vague reminder of his well-known work, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, with swells of screeching strings that occasionally pierce the brick-thick sub-bass rumble; while snatches of biblical text offer fleeting redemption against a flat but brisk monologue that commands an air of wartime paranoia. As it happens, the narrator reads entries from the diary of Leon Weliczker, a member of the Sonderkommando 1005: a concentration camp contingent of mostly Jewish prisoners, charged with the abetting and subsequent concealment of Nazi war crimes. The moral ambiguity of the material led to Penderecki’s wide condemnation. However, while the mood is convincing enough, much of the piece’s 31 minutes are given over to the voice, where excerpt format might instead have sufficed. It is a trend that is maintained far too liberally over the first and third discs, and constitutes the major shortcoming with this collection.

To my ears anyway, Polish lacks even the linguistic footholds an English speaker might find in tongues such as French or German, and while sleeve note synopsis (for all works) is provided, it scarcely compensates for the experience of having to endure so gruelling a listening experience (and I don’t wimp-out easily). This points to an artistic own-goal: if the collection’s raison d’etre is to raise the international profile of a putatively subversive music, then greater selectivity would have paid off in speaking/sound ratio terms, for the audience’s sake. Granted, humanistic sentiments can be gleaned from titles such as ‘Elegy for the Victims of War’ and ‘Guillotine DG’, but as an Anglophone (and not an entirely monoglot one) I find myself excluded by all this chit-chat; a sense compounded by the conspiratorial tone adopted to relate the ‘concealed in plain view’ modus operandi of the composers invisibly biting the hands that fed. To my mind it casts the unwitting listener in the same, ridiculed role of the government, while revalidating the sense of political victimisation that once provided conditions for the music’s genesis.

Mercifully, speech is subdued in the second disc, and sound-wise, compositions tend towards the stark and the sparse: dark, foggy horizons peppered with theatrical suggestions of manual labour, vernacular folk forms, and – perhaps more potently – actual recordings of bombs, fights and gunfire; sprinkled and splurged with tinkling tape-edit sounds and all manner of electronic processing. The atmospheric density scarcely surprises when the collection frequently nominates (or alludes to) ‘death’, in a commemorative manner albeit. Spearheading this approach is composer Eugeniusz Rudnik – a veteran sound engineer of Polish Radio (having enlisted in 1955) – whose own work takes up a third of the total running time, and whose career cross-section illustrates a subtle yet diverse development of style, from (seemingly) narcotic radio drama (‘Lesson II’) to something uncannily approximating the minimal techno pioneered by Basic Channel (‘Guillotine DG’ (1989)), just a few years later, in one of the set’s few demonstrations of musical prescience. However, what it may be said to lack in surprise, it at least compensates for in durability.

Whereas Elzbieta Sikora’s ‘Rhapsody For The Death Of The Republic’ (1979) exhibits a more exciting mastery of Rudnik’s dynamic extremes with its juxtaposition of wartime whistling and zoetropic flicker upon a murky background. It is one of the collection’s highlights. However, while working on a commission of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales, entitled ‘The Head of Orpheus II’, news of the imposition of martial law reached Sikora and the piece was conceptually decapitated. Retitled ‘Janek Wisniewski-December-Poland’ (1982-83), it builds on and offers an even more kinetic approach to ‘classic’ electro-acoustic sounds than ‘Rhapsody’: stereo-panning, electronic flourishes and ascending/descending tones, such as can be readily found in the contemporary works of composer (and Rudnik collaborator) Andrzej Dobrowolski; one who has been mysteriously omitted from this collection. And while I‘m on the topic of unfortunate omissions, I for one would have appreciated hearing Rudnik’s 1971 composition, ‘Divertimento’ (1971): apparently a Schimpfluch-esque compilation of burps, coughs and other sounds edited from official party speeches.

At times the music requires a more nostalgic ear; one comfortable with the impressive output of the Creel Pone label, perhaps. Given the now-historical provenance of this music, some sounds a little dated to my ears: harking back to a time when a composition’s interest resided more in the novelty value of its contents than on its overall structure. At times, there’s a disappointing paucity of dynamic transitions between events musical and vocal on display, which might have ameliorated the perpetual gloom. And in spite of some surrealistic happenings, later entries differ too little from those preceding: the seven parts of Krzystof Knittel’s ‘Dorikos’, for example. A suite for string quartet, tape and voice samples; in sum, the piece returns us to the more lunar environs of the first few tracks, while boasting, at least, vastly superior recording quality, sounding out nicely the acoustic dimensions of the string section’s performance space. The feat is repeated in the 36-minute epic closer, ‘Glückspavillon For Cathy’ (1978), which adds more prominent (i.e. tiresome) speaking sections and electronic sounds, but at the cost of variety. Lacking appropriate visual representation, the listener must be informed that ‘Dorikos’ features recordings of the composer wrestling (with artist Jerzy Kalina) on a piano lid, while commentary issues from a man installed in a loudspeaker. A companion DVD would have helped!

Overall, there’s plenty to be enjoyed here, but digested as a whole, it’s like sitting through a couple of Rainer Fassbinder box sets (I speak from experience): a long struggle with odd moments of engagement, a grim satisfaction upon completion, and an aversion to immediately repeating the experience. My feeling is that compilers would have done a lot better to focus on the kind of electroacoustic composition that would at least have permitted comparison to equivalent work from Western Europe (Poland’s was one of just four such studios in Europe at the time, after all), i.e. more music, less speech. That said, it’s an impressive, if well-meaning introduction to an otherwise overlooked period in recent musical history.

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.

Key Acoustics

The plaintive cry of Loren Connors and Suzanne Langille is I Wish I Didn’t Dream (NORTHERN SPY RECORDS NSCD 031), on a highly opaque CD of intense experimental guitar murk and equally plangent vocalising. These short, clipped poem-songs are exemplary manifestations of the Emily Dickinson approach taken to its post-modern extreme – broken images, unfamiliar emotions, and nascent ideas stumbling into the world scarce half made-up. Who better to delve into these uncharted seas than the two talented Americans in this duo, who singly or collectively have been producing musical puzzles for over thirty years, producing a large body of work that’s proving impossible to decode – and the problem only increases when you have obtuse, distanced and frown-inducing releases such as this one. We last heard from them as two-thirds of Haunted House, a group producing the wonderful Blue Ghost Blues for this same label in 2011, whose hard-rocking and lengthy guitar noodlings may well have struck a chord with all good lovers of avant axe-excess, but this particular sleep-talking mystery bucket of murmurations and unfinished utterances is quite another brisket of bones. The guitar meanders and squeaks, producing icy cold tones from a meat locker situated thirty miles from the studio. The vocalist is closer to hand, her urgent whispers magnified in a small echo chamber, but her cryptical half-sung sketches – fleeting portraits etched on a frozen window pane with a dusty twig – will have you straining to catch the implications behind each intimate gasp. This is blanked-out, impenetrable minimalist art music of the highest water, a more austere version of Annette Peacock and Joni Mitchell running across the snow with the distorted and attenuated guitars of Japanese ghosts in pursuit of their threatened souls. It also comes with a booklet of stark abstract paintings by M P Landis, completing a package that’s guaranteed to confirm everything you ever suspected about the emptiness and futility of life. Gradely! (01/11/2012)

Another American who, I suspect, is no stranger to staring the Gods of futility in the eye is our good friend Nick Hoffman, the sullen and stern genius who utters little while issuing great but perplexing music on his Pilgrim Talk label. One such batch arrived in November 2012. Cockroach Boy (PILGRIM TALK PT22) is a teamup with Satoshi Kanda, one of his many connections in the steaming continent of the East, and they also made a split cassette for this label in 2010. Kanda has been improvising since 2003 using nothing but an electric bass and some empty milk bottles. Well, he certainly delivers the cream on this recording! It’s one of Hoffman’s “play it and guess” recordings where absolutely nothing is explained and it’s up to the listener to decide when the duo have started or ended performing, and whether or not what they are creating can even be called “music”. Ultra-minimal, confusing, yet it’s full of the unbearable tension that these dangerous situations can often create. Soon you too will be drawn into contemplating these strange tones and lengthy silences, and wishing you were nailed inside a coffin at the cemetery in Fukuoka, where this was recorded. The lengthy title to this 40-minute work, if indeed it is a title, compacts references to demons, corpses and Gods and also retains the air of a schlocky horror movie, in keeping with the grotesque Insect-Fear cover art by Hoffman. I love the way this music consistently refuses easy digestion, and all these Pilgrim Talk releases are recommended. (09/11/2012)

The Polish trio Sonda recorded Sonda (AUDIO TONG AT26.2012) in Sopot, a little town abutting the Baltic Sea, performing in an attic space in 2006. Now released on Audio Tong, it’s an engaging set of music played by the drummer Krzysztof Topolski and the guitarist Marcin Dymiter, with vocalist Tomasz Pawlak “Czaszka” joining them with his husky yawps for three tracks. In their endearingly untidy music, the group make a point of confusing musical genres, aiming to indulge their love of “rock, blues, metal, drone, punk, electronics and improvisation”. Two of the seven tracks are a species of obnoxious guitar grindcore racket that should grease the wheels of die-hard Napalm Death fans, while two other tracks are meandery improvisation of the rattle-and-creak variety, with much emphasis on the metallic resonances produced by cymbals and metal-wound strings. Other pieces are just plain impossible to categorise, although the 12-minute ‘Wszystko Dobre, Co Sie Dobrze Konczy’ has a definite vibe of Can threaded into the sinews of its drumming and electronic drone, making snake-like movements across the carpet with the help of the violinist Marek Dybusc. Competent enough performances, but the trio ultimately lack force and conviction, no matter which style they adopt. Lovely deep sea cover art. (02/11/2012)

Strange furry thing from Jüppala Kääpiö, the duo who brought us Spring Promenade in 2010. Despite their Finnish name this band is actually two Japanese musicians Hitoshi and Carole Kojo who live in Belgium. Rewound Grooves (OMNIMOMENTO OM 07) may be a concept record telling the story of the Krampus, a vicious and hairy beast drawn from Alpine mythology who is associated with Winter and may be the enemy of St Nicholas – a sort of early manifestation of the Grinch. The music by Jüppala Kääpiö is however anything but beastly, and comprises four lengthy and limpid drones of ambient swirlery, all created from numerous layers of gentle electronic tones, breathy vocals and endlessly spinning tape loops (probably enhanced by digital means). The album strikes a thoughtful and contemplative pose, and is generally soothing and positive, with only the third track ‘From Veins To Nebulae’ introducing an element of drama or danger. Somewhat diffuse and static music, but there is much craft in the Kojos’ sound-generation technique, and they rarely commit a careless or half-baked statement to tape. Besides the fake fur wrapper, there is also a screenprinted band of card which can be worn like a mask. (29/11/2012)

If you’d prefer drone music with more darkness lurking in the corners, then as ever Sum Of R will satisfy your thirst for all that’s lugubrious and sombre. The sounds on Ride Out The Waves (STORM AS HE WALKS SAHWLP001) are produced mostly by Reto Mäder working in the studio overdubbing his keyboards, bass, electronics and percussion, although Julia Wolf (what a brilliant name for a supernatural horror combo like this one) adds poignant stabs from her fatal guitar at chosen stages on the forest pathway. I tend to remember Sum Of R records as an unbroken feast of thick occluded dark ambience, but Ride Out The Waves has a lot more variety and incident than their usual output, each track quite unlike the last, until the LP becomes the soundtrack to a very disjointed and episodic horror film. Said film, if it exists, is characterised by much bloodshed, sabres, and men on horseback cutting down villagers with a pitiless scowl of contempt. Aye, there is still plenty of the characteristic bubbling black tar music which induces fear and misery, but the heavy metal guitar swipes add a very welcome element of tension, plus the spare percussion will appeal to all you hard-boned stoner freaks – just check out the slowed-down battering effects on ‘Alarming’, the truly apocalyptic nightmare that brings the album crashing down into ruins. I’ve always said Reto Mäder should have made a Black Metal LP, but I feel that genre may sadly be in decline now. Even so, Mader should join forces with MZ.412 some day, and the results would be truly monstrous – they could produce the ultimate “atmospheric dread and cold death” album. The photo shows a promo CD, but the release is vinyl.

The Haunted Drawing Room


The name of pianist John Tilbury should be familiar to anyone who has ever dipped a toe or two into the waters of the British avant garde. An impressive c.v. unravels before us….a member of AMM for thirty-three years, the ne plus ultraman of Morton Feldman interpretations, a one-time member of Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra and the M.I.M.E.O. collective with Keith Rowe, and others.

Poland’s principal minimalist composer in orchestral/chamber/tape/solo fields, Tomasz Sikorski (1933-88) was a friend and associate of John’s during his tenure at Warsaw Conservatory and John’s latest CD For Tomasz Sikorski (BOLT RECORDS BR 1014 / BOCIAN RECORDS BC JT) consists of three interpretations of his works and adds on an improvisatory tribute to this criminally undervalued figure, who, sadly, only merits a small bundle of entries on internet sites.

A series of well measured repetitive figures form the backbone of the opening “Autograph” and the slightly similar (and deceptively titled) “Rondo”. Haunted drawing room flourishes clash with the occasional heavier right hand punctuation, whilst the latter piece tends to occupy the higher end of the keyboard. Its jittery movements promise and deliver a less linear audio experience, made even more so at times, by dramatic usage of the pregnant pause option. “Zertstreutes Hinausschauen” reveals itself to be the most forceful and brooding of the trio, where knitted brows and basilisk glares are de rigeur in, no doubt, a listening or playing capacity. “Improvisation for Tomasz Sikorski” comes under heavy Cageian manners with the aid of a slew of unspecified foreign bodies placed in the piano’s underbelly. This added vocabulary squeezes out (in no particular order), some ersatz far eastern harmonics, a recurring spectral bass gongtone and the tiny mechanical clack of victorian automata. Funnily enough, John’s solo debut LP on Decca from 1975 was a certain Mr Cage’s Prepared Piano. So…deference from a master to a grandmaster’s methods lasts a long, long time.

A joint release between Bocian Records and Bolt Records. Crisply recorded at Warsaw Museum of Sculpture, where every last micro-second of decaying note is captured for posterity.

From solo piano to one man and his six-string…


After 2011′s Neil Young v Rhys Chatham jam-heavy Paranoid Cat CD (Family Vineyard), Chris Forsyth, ex of freeform splatterjazz combo Peeesseye returns to the fray with Kenzo Deluxe (NORTHERN SPY 025). A solo electric guitar showcase (sans overdubs) that trains its telescope towards the realms of kozmik Americana, where the Fahey Spiral and Basho Centauri can still be glimpsed.

It’s a collection of conflicting moods, where the track sequencing does tend to run towards the occasional zig-zagging ride. “The First 10 Minutes Of Cocksucker Blues” is a heavy lidded abstract blooze in long form, where a chugging undertow is topped off with a strange form of lyrical picking that sounds, for all the world, as if it were recorded underwater. If Harvey Mandel (Canned Heat/solo) ever ventured into repetitive musics – then it just might resemble this. The gently meandering “Downs & Ups” is, to these ears, the most successful track, in which images of Felt’s great lost guitar wizard Maurice Deebank emerge, caught boning up on Takoma sheet music. However, themes of mellow fruitfulness evaporate as if they were but strange dreams. “Boston St. Lullaby No. 2″ appears to hark back to Chris’s more noisome past endeavours. This fug-laden reverb ‘n’ drone exercise inches towards Ben Chasny territory and possibly even Bardo Pond solo ventures and, in no way, can be viewed as a complimentary ticket to the Land of Nod. Acting as a brief and delicately played buffer, “East Kensington Run Down” gives way to “Boston St. Lullaby no 1″, a charming slice of back porch introspection that luxuriates on a bed of the finest woven reverb. Like I said, sequencing that moves in mysterious ways its wonders to perform.

A release from Northern Spy Records (39 Hawthorne St., Brooklyn, NY11225, U.S.A.) that has also been issued in vinyl form, now long gone no doubt…


Szalonek’s Medusa

Some men there are love not a gaping pig…and those who dislike the high-pitched tones of the flute and piccolo probably won’t get too far with the austere work of avant-garde composer Witold Szalonek. There’s three pieces on Medusa (BOLT RECORDS BR 1010), their titles all themed on episodes in the life of that Greek mythical being what with the snakes in the hair and the gaze that turns men to stone, and all. To render the music the flautists Natalie Becker, Johanna Daske and Olaf Futyma (known collectively as the Trio Soli Sono) create a delirious chorus of peeps, overblown screams and dream-like drones, generating an almost syrupy sound together, imbuing the harsh and strange music with warmth, depth and the complexities of humanity you’d never have thought the Medusa would embody in any way. This may just be a side effect of the music, but to me it feels like the most compassionate portrait of a mythical “monster” released on record this side of Akira Ifukube’s music for Godzilla. You may start out hating the Medusa, but spin this CD and 30 minutes later you’ll be asking for her phone number and seeing if she’s busy next Saturday.

Szalonek was a pioneer of an obscure branch of 20th-century musical study called “sonorism”, which is to do with integrating “pure sound” into a formal, organised structure. He wrote and published on the subject, and may have been its primary (or only) exponent. Not unrelated to this aim, I suppose, would be his preoccupation with “combined sounds” and their effects, particularly in relation to wind instruments; he catalogued the combinations he found in meticulous manner, and explored the techniques of musical instruments in general. I know post-1960 improvisers have all been working on extending their techniques like billy-ho, but how many composers have taken the trouble to make any use of that? Very few I expect, and many will tend to settle for conventional dynamics (and conventional notation) to express their ideas, trusting on the skills of the players in the orchestra. Monika Pasiecznik details these aspects in her sleeve notes to this release, the text printed in English and Polish, and she gives short shrift to the more “famous” Polish composers Górecki and Penderecki, who she seems to be implying were about “oversimplification” and a sentimental return to past romantic forms, as licensed by the prevailing anything-goes tenets of post-modernism. That’s fighting talk, especially to listeners like myself who have built private shrines to Penderecki in their listening parlour, but the point is well-meant; the implied question being, why isn’t Szalonek’s work better known?

Pasiecznik’s notes also confirm a story-telling dimension to these three Medusa episodes, and there is certainly a lot of compacted musical “information” carved into every intense and precise stave of woodwind-shriekery here. So for me, a picture is beginning to emerge of Szalonek as a unique composer dedicated to total originality in modernism, but also one who wasn’t about to neglect the hard graft of compositional effort, yet also wanted to find a way to ensure he didn’t alienate listeners. If you’ve read this far two weeks ago and are now spinning this disc which you purchased using internet methods, you may be scratching your head as to why this subtle, understated and near-static music isn’t passing on the hoped-for life-changing moments which you perceive I might be promising. Ahh, give it time, gentle listener, and you’ll be as entranced as I know you are by the later piano and violin suites of Morton Feldman. Szalonek almost seems to inhabit a similar, vaguely parallel soundworld to good old cheeseburger-loving Morty. It’s got the same qualities of hermeticism, of repeated (vaguely) patterns, and of the sort of exquisite compression reminiscent of a detailed tapestry. This is another terrific item on the Bôlt label, of which we noted three items on the Populista series here. This one seems to be part of an informal series called Polish Oldschool.

Automatic / Detours

Beuys Keep Swinging

A very fine avant electro-pop oddity from Poland’s Audio Tong label. Go-Go Beuys Band (AUDIO TONG ATCD17.2011) rescues 1985 studio recordings put together by the composers Krzysztof Knittel and Marek Choloniewski, working with their guitars, synths and beatboxes at the Electroacoustic Music Studio in Krakow. That’s odd enough already for me – 1980s pop music being produced at an experimental studio by modernist composers. They were joined by the saxophonist Marek Nedzinski and the singer Olga Szwajgier, plus Janusz Dziubak (a 1980s free improviser who made the LP Tytul Plyty in 1984) contributing the texts for a couple of tracks. By this collaborative effort, they arrived at their own twisted brand of synth-pop music with weird vocals, solid drum machine rhythms and stark melodies picked out on Roland and Yamaha synths, coming close to the same sort of sweetly-rendered dementia as Ptôse, The Residents, or Cabaret Voltaire (although other writers also make comparisons with Throbbing Gristle, Faust and Kraftwerk).

This CD consists of two separate suites, Automatic Pilot and Go-Go Beuys Band, both of them excellent and bizarrely entertaining warped pop music, although Automatic Pilot scores slightly higher for me with its adherence to brevity, its crisp three-minute pop tunes and winning off-kilter melodies. Then again the second set has more prog-like variety in its instrumentals, there are more and lengthier saxophone solos, and the vocals are slightly more declamatory and sonorous, as if reciting an Eastern European morality tale or political diatribe rather than spewing the usual pop-song fare. The singing voices throughout are one of the oddest elements; where the keyboards are relatively familiar, the unusual vocal intonations of Knittel, Choloniewski and their friends take us directly into Eastern European art-rock territory. Don’t be misled by the apparently conventional song titles like ‘China Wedding’, ‘Heavy-Love’ or ‘Rock-Body’; this is 1980s pop music rethought as a surreal pastiche of elements, including both high-art modernism and moments of supreme kitsch. How many other bands would have the sheer audacity to conflate the work of severe conceptualist Joseph Beuys with disposable pop music in their name?

The operation seems to have a semi-temporary studio affair for the most part, although we are informed the two main protagonists did perform some concerts in Poland, Austria and Germany in 1986; and they may or may not have been responsible for other lost, unknown, untraceable and non-existent band projects called Island Of Love and Non-Existed Monastery Group in 1987. On this matter, the elliptical sleeve notes remain obscure, and maybe even the enclosed photographs are part of a conspiracy of misinformation. Nonetheless, the music here is excellent – melodic, oddball, parodic, slightly dark, and beautifully realised. Just imagine what would have happened if this team had been chosen to produce a single for Tears For Fears, Wham or Madonna. The results might not have been world-wide smash hit records, but they would have been distinctive and intellectually satisfying, pop history would have taken a different turn, and we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today. Available in an outsize card cover about the size of a seven-inch single, or can be downloaded in a digital manner for 7 Euros.


Speaking of avant-garde composers producing pop music, when I heard the 2007 CD issue of Out Of The Blue by “Blue” Gene Tyranny, I waxed lyrical about what might have happened if this lovely US composer had gotten the chance to produce Joni Mitchell or Steely Dan in the 1970s. When you hear the immaculate songs on that CD, you’ll understand what I was blathering about. Now here comes Detours (UNSEEN WORLDS UW07) from the same label, released January this year. No songs this time, it’s all solo piano music by this Mills College maestro, and apparently the first time he’s released an album of new piano works since 2003. However, it is likewise immaculate music which you should all welcome into your homes. There’s the 12-minute suite ’13 Detours’, short compositions that feel like an update on Mussorgsky’s ‘Promenade’ as Tyranny ups the ante and leads us into philosophical diversions of thought, using a form of mental gymnastics learned from the San Francisco composer and film-maker Phil Perkins. It’s music for taking a walk outside your own mind. This turns out to be an underpinning theme for the album, proposing strategies for forms of mental liberation. Even the front cover depicts a “helping hand”.

On the long piece ‘George Fox Searches’, Tyranny uses the sleeve notes to tell the remarkable history of the 17th-century Quaker George Fox, who fled religious intolerance in England to settle in America where his enlightened visions about tolerance, peace and compassion found a more receptive audience. A self-declared agnostic, Tyranny has nonetheless attended Quaker meetings in his time and drawn inspiration from the silence of their prayer meetings, and the spontaneous utterances which might occasionally reveal deep truths; these experiences he effectively recreates in real time on this gorgeous 20-minute piano work, and with characteristic understated genius he also manages to layer in subtle references to the life of Fox, creating music that matches well with Fox’s psychological condition as he undertook his spiritual journey with uncertain steps. Warmth, sympathy, honesty; all good things I associate with this musician.

‘She Wore Red Shoes’ was composed in 2004 as a dance piece for Stefa Zawerucha. In that symbolic work, she enacts a dilemma about life choices no less crucial than those faced by George Fox; the dilemma is represented by a large mandala drawn on the dance floor, sliced into portions that represent past and present influences on her existence. Tyranny’s sprightly music here, a sort of syncopated foxtrot, suggests the protagonist faces her dilemma with calm unwavering dignity, and at the end she “abandons her former life” without regret.

The five-minute ‘Intuition’ piece, though the shortest on the album, is much harder to sum up. In six minutes the uncertain and ambiguous piano and tape music seems to drift freely across an abstract realm of thought where almost anything is possible. This seems appropriate for a work where the composer is trying to digest and sum up various conflicting “cosmological views” of existence, in the end shrugging his shoulders and admitting “I haven’t got a clue”. But he goes on to state he intends to “re-imagine the nature and role of music”, an ambitious undertaking which is performed in a quiet and modest fashion, and like the ’13 Detours’ piece it passes on something useful about the process of thinking intuitively. A very satisfying and approachable record of modern music, rich with ideas and humanity and refreshingly free from any form of arrogance, pretentiousness or impenetrable mysticism. Also available as a limited edition LP.