The Formanex Box, part 5: Almost Nothing and Early Works

Herewith, disc seven of the Formanex box set (MIKROTON CD 82). Once again the players swarm lovingly around Keith Rowe like Tibetan acolytes at a prayer wheel. A single work at 45 mins is entitled ‘Three Lines To Achieve Almost Nothing’, from which it seems like it might be a prose / text composition, but by this point we’ve said all we can about this subject and how it’s important to the Formanex group. This one is about the most strikingly beautiful pieces of music heard so far in the box…perhaps because of its simplicity. I think it might have been performed with just guitars and radio sets; we hear strings, feedback, amplifier hum, crackle and buzz, and foreign unexpected sounds drifting in and drifting away.

One can sense the sheer concentration of the musicians, so much that it almost emerges as a kind of focused meditation. Simple, for sure; and there is a clarity of intent and execution, almost nothing hidden in the playing, and yet somehow the piece emerges as mysterious and opaque. Abstract music applied to a purpose, to try and say something about the inexpressible. Yes, it’s as slow and quiet as you might expect, but not cold or alienating; far from being a cerebral experiment, we seem to have something borne of genuine emotion, emerging from real pain. No simple, fixed, user-friendly drone here; instead the textures come to us in segments, leaving it up to us to form the connections, to discern if these nameless grey fields have any meaning. The more one can engage with this, the deeper the mystery seems to become. Feeling genuinely touched by this one…a forlorn and lonely piece of music, of intense and fragile beauty. I feel now we’re way beyond making any point about improvisation, composition, EAI, minimalism, modernism, or any other points of discussion; it’s just about beautiful music.

Formanex box set, disc eight (MIKROTON CD 83). A collection of four “early works” by the French combo include ‘Soulevement’, ‘Le Langage Du Thé’ and ‘Chercher Le 2eme Oeil’, and the puzzling short throwaway ‘S/T’. Plenty of electronics, occasional frantic drumming, unhinged actions, much dense content, and a very “full” sound – this must be the early days before the influence of minimalism, the restraint of AMM, and the discipline of graphical scores, and dare one say they aren’t too far apart from being an avant-garde rock group. If any of that’s true, I like it just fine.

‘Soulevement’ has a messiness and sprawling quality that’s hard to resist, and it lurches along like a crew of broken robots marching (or flying with jetpacks) towards some uncertain destination. A lot of the American wildies like Fuzzhead or Sunburned Hand of the Man probably wished they could get near this level of possessed near-frenzied state. With ‘Le Langage Du Thé’, the group take things at a slower tilt, pick up some guitars as well as exotic desert background hum, and somehow summon up a vision of the Sahara desert where it’s mysteriously both daytime (a sweltering sun and shimmering mirages) and night (the cries of strange birds in the distance). This is just me projecting, of course, but this stage of their development perhaps meant they wouldn’t refuse imagistic associations for the music, unlike the later more severe abstractions. There’s a beguiling druggy haze to this piece as well, with the whole hallucinatory vision growing more outrageous as the work progresses, so it’s something a bit stronger than tea in that samovar whence pour these libations. As an improvisatory exploit, the fields of interplay on this one are very strong, almost pulling at the entire body like magnetic forces, and we’re sucked into a bizarre vortex by these insistent thrumming repetitions.

Lastly we savour the delights of ‘Chercher Le 2eme Oeil’, a title which I take as a mystery novel featuring a metaphysical detective (probably named M. Marvell of the Sûreté) and which unfolds as a crime drama more potent than anything from the typewriter of Georges Simenon. Eerie distorted drones, vaguely menacing rattles, and inexplicable rise-and-fall movements in the music all contribute to this magical-charged atmosphere.

The range of this box set is quite amazing; no two discs the same. For me, this one stands out for the energy and imagination of these (relatively) primitive and crude explorations, showing the band’s state before later refinements began to be discovered; more noise was allowed in the mix, the music ended up very free and limitless, and there was already a strong rapport in place among the players. Just great! Released in October 2019.

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