Shining Pillars of Anti-Beauty

Got a couple of cassette tapes from the Vermont label Notice Recordings, which landed here 08 March 2012. Waterwheel•Windmill (NTR022) by Windmill•Waterwheel came out in 2011, but the recordings by Kirk Marrison and Charlie Nash were made in 1997 and intended for release on the Alley Sweeper Records label. Nash is the guitar player from New York who consents to have his instrument’s sounds reworked by the hands of Marrison, and some very pleasing texture-heavy abstract experiments are the result. Michigan-based Marrison (ex Fibreforms) was evidently very good at keeping the elements separated out, instead of allowing a barrel of frequencies to coalesce and melt like comestible goodies on the gigantic pizza oven that is his mixing desk. Drones, noise, shifting layers, harsh tones and prepared guitar mangling and steel-string scraping actions are all set into spinning motion across these imaginary aural planes, sometimes set to minimalistic semi-industrial beats. 56K‘s Generations Lost (NTR021) is the synth music of Josh Burke; several varied approaches, including ambient murkiness, sprightly melodic tunes and filtered drones. Not especially innovative music on the evidence of this outing, but Burke’s approach does at least indicate that craft and time has been spent on the construction of his music. He’s made about 3 dozen releases under his own name, and many more under at least 10 aliases; expect to see one of his limited edition cassettes resurface via Spectrum Spools any day now.

Another bracing dose of difficult avant-garde classical composition courtesy of the excellent Carrier Records label. Californian composer Alexander Sigman has achieved numerous scores at an array of international festivals and venues with his live performances and electro-acoustic installation pieces, besides finding time to win awards, work as a composer in residence, co-edit an academic new music journal, and co-found a music academy in San Francisco. Nominal / Noumenal (CARRIER 014) is seven pieces which can be heard individually or as part of an interlocking cycle of work. The music is operating on a level that’s about seven miles above my head, but I suppose it’s fair to say he favours a percussion-heavy approach; even those works not scored for percussion have a very percussive flavour, particularly in the way the strings have been ordained to play with a very angry scraping attack on the third piece, and the solo cello work on track four is characterised by frequent plucks which erupt with as much sonic violence as this genre of music will tolerate. I have the sense it’s not all that common for a classical avant composer to get down and personal with the techniques of the players who perform the music, and perhaps Sigman is actively taking an interest in this area. Not that we would know; the grandiose themes of Nominal / Noumenal are apparently of far more interest, and have been inspired by surrealist poetry, the typography of Eric Gill, the behaviour of biological neurons, and visits to “industrial wastelands”. Further degrees of complexity are evinced in his track titles; the use of rounded and square brackets implies intertextuality and compressed meanings within meanings. Sigman’s polymath capabilities are clearly beyond cavil. To realise his unique visions and austere musical craft, he engages the services of three heavy-duty playing ensembles (among them, Les Percussions de Strasbourg), the countertenor singer Daniel Gloger, and the cymbalom player Françoise Rivalland. But the instrumentation is sparse to the point of severity, generally allowing only an average of three to five players per piece. Plus, it’s almost all acoustic; electronics appear on ‘Detritus I’, but the remainder of this brittle and stark music of ambiguous, post-modern conundrums is realised through percussion, woodwind and strings alone. The dynamics of Sigman’s scores also indicate the channels of thought of his teeming brain, and the paths of musical information zig-zag and circuit in highly unexpected fashion. Very tough listen, but I like the compactness of this music, even if I understand none of it.

For another approach to the pleasing aural combinations of woodwinds and strings, try Screw and Straw (VETO-RECORDS EXCHANGE 004), an improv record where the American cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm meets up for a musical conflab with Christoph Erb, the Swiss tenor player. Ten tracks were recorded in a single day at a Chicago studio. Where Sigman’s compositional approach yields a very dry recorded sound, these two free improvisers are full of juice and hot gravy in which to dip their respective biscuits, and a very warm and friendly record results. A large range of extended techniques are used to keep the dialogues fresh and eccentric, and the duo are clamped together in a happy exchange of atonal gibberish inflected with long tones, insatiably itchy sawing motions, skittery plucks, animalistic barks, low growls, and crazy freewheeling rhythms that are discarded and abandoned almost as soon as invented. It’s a fascinating conversation between two enlightened enthusiasts, and one you’ll be glad to overhear, if not actually participate in. Beautiful rich and loud presence to the music, meaning not a single nuance of sonic invention is missed. The playful titles are another nifty feature. They are like fractured chapter headings from the story of imaginary outlaw characters Screw and Straw and their picaresque adventures; we can’t help reading the tale of these two freebooters as one of violence, blood, lust, and fatal adventure, with a dash of occult mystery thrown in.