Three from November – Antimatter, Debut, Snow

Excellent modular synth record from Australian composer Ben Carey. His Antimattter (HOSPITAL HILL HHLP03190749) appears to be his debut release and contains three very assured pieces of work, housed in a nice abstract art cover and pressed at 45 RPM, thus delivering maximum precision and impact in the electronic sound.

Carey is based at the University of Sydney where he holds the post of academic fellow in Composition and Music Technology, plus he’s exhibited / performed at several international festivals and conferences over the years. To hear him talk about his work reveals a fellow who’s actively engaged in trying to master the complexities of the modular synth, and evolving / developing a compositional method in a very hands-on and pragmatic manner. He perceives “musical composition as an interactive process” and notes the way that traditional ways of thinking and working about music are cast into doubt by the modular synth. Improvisation, composition and sound design are all as one to him, when moving his jackplugs around in the boards. When it comes to describing the three pieces here, Carey’s language indicates that there’s a certain amount of chaos, instability, uncertainty and noise, factors which have to be tamed and mastered; I sense that he relishes the challenge.

Clearly Carey is far more skilled and technically proficient than a good percentage of modern electronica types or glitch-influenced laptoppers, but his work is not lifeless, academic, or clinical; rather, these wholly-abstract pieces teem and pulsate with ideas and information, often combining at least three layers of incident at the same time, pulling in multiple directions. Given that he himself uses the word “gestural” to describe one of these works, and that the hype sticker compares his music to Joan Miro, it may be appropriate to think of Ben Carey as a kind of painter in sound, using modular synths like paintbrushes. This may not be a strikingly original insight on my part, but you can really sense that the creator is sizing up the work in both hands in an almost physical manner. It’s refreshing to see electronic music approached in this non-cerebral way, and the results are just excellent. (01/11/2019)

Debut (90%WASSER WVINYL 025) is by the Belgian player Els Vandeweyer, and it’s a solo vibraphone LP. Els has studied both classical percussion and jazz vibes, and might be bringing both these disciplines to bear on today’s record. To begin with, one can sometimes hear more than just a vibraphone – additional percussion clatters and rattles appear to be present – and one wonders if he’s prepared the instrument in some way. There’s certainly a lot going on; he plays more notes per square inch than you might have expected, and sometimes one wishes for a minute or two of breathing space in this rather cluttered soundworld. He also regards himself as a composer, and it’s not clear to me if Debut is a showcase for his compositional or improvisational skills, or both; but I am left unsatisfied, mainly due to what I perceive as a serious lack of structure. No clear melodies, patterns, or other lines of development stand out, and each piece meanders around as Vandeweyer hunts and pecks, trying to find the root notes, unable to begin or end a coherent musical sentence.

This lack of rigour is most clearly demonstrated when he plays a version of Monk’s ‘Pannonica’, which in his hands flounders about like a wet jellyfish; the complete opposite of the clarity of intent, the rigour, the concision of execution that characterises the music and the playing of Thelonious Monk. Only ‘Exhibition’, the long piece on side two, comes close to emerging as a fully-formed statement on this LP of sketchiness, but even so I find my mind wandering as I try to trace the direction it might be taking among a welter of unnecessary notes. This LP is like hearing a chapter from the rich history of jazz being recounted by someone with a very short-term memory who hasn’t done their homework, and has to look up the answers on their smartphone every 15 seconds. (29/11/2019)

11min are a Korean duo, and their instrumental LP is called simply Snow (GRUENREKORDER GrD 31). Jiyeon Kim takes the name 11, and he plays the piano, composes, and does sound design; Sangyong Min is the drummer and engineer/producer. What we hear is very restrained, ultra-cool minimal pieces where every piano note resonates with an evocative echo, while the drummer produces a clipped and understated swing-rhythm with the precision of an electronic calculator. I felt the music is trying to be modern classical in some way, yet it is clearly informed by dance culture and electronica, despite being played all-acoustic.

Jiyeon Kim isn’t a greatly innovative composer, but at least he keeps things simple; ‘Gust’, for instance, is simply arpeggiated runs of the sort that Philip Glass would use as table napkins, but he does play them with a clinical perfection. ‘Lowdrum’ is like a form of cocktail-jazz easy listening muzak, rendered with stiff deliberation and in a minimal, elliptical manner; the drumming here is so emptied-out that it’s almost existential. With this tune and indeed most of the album I sensed a certain wistful sentimentality, as though our Korean friends were fond of staring out at snowy landscapes and dreaming of a vanished youth; try as they may to be skeletal and stark, this saccharine quality keeps seeping into the music.

While most of the tunes are short (3-5 mins on average), the B-side contains a 14-min remix track called ‘Snow Keeps Falling’, assembled by 11 presumably from cut-ups and stretch-mixing of his own music. This one is the most obviously inspired by dance culture. Here, the natural decay of each piano note is sharply cut off by the editing technique, which I found frustrating; a case where studio technique interferes with communication. This is their debut release; full marks for the simplicity, and I recognise the sincerity of their emotions, but it’s very unsatisfying on a musical level. (25/11/2019)