Radiation Therapy

New York composer Bob Bellerue here with his Radioactive Desire (ELEVATOR BATH eeaoa058), realised with the help of a number of compadres…Bellerue has been at it for over 30 years and challenges convention with his rather “extreme” projects, involving electronics, feedback, and amplified pieces of junk. Plus he happily crosses media boundaries into art installations, theatre, film and video, performance, and dance. He also finds time to organise the Ende Tymes Festival of Noise and Experimental Liberation, and act as audio engineer for a number of important free-noise and avant-experimental musicians.

Today’s item Radioactive Desire has been released as a two-disc set to capture its sprawling magnificence…subtitled “Free Chamber Music in Feedback Environments”, it took place over two days in summer 2020 in a building owned by the First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn, which happens to be a mid-19th century gothic sanctuary replete with stained glass windows and mosaics. We don’t know what exactly drew Bellerue to this neighbourhood venue, although the faithful do claim to offer their own take on “universality” and engage in a “liberal spiritual philosophy”, which may tie in to the composer’s enthusiasm about working with friends and fellow musicians to make this project happen, delighting in the “fellow travellers” who turned up unexpectedly and exulting in the “holy racket” that was generated. Those in the church were Jessica Pavone on the pipe organ, plus Brandon Lopez, Luke Stewart, Gabby Fluke-Mogul and Ed Bear, playing strings or woodwinds, while Bellerue himself contributed metal, percussion, electronic sounds, feedback, and the suling gambuh (a Balinese member of the flute family).

On CD one we have two group pieces – ‘The Longest Year’ and ‘Bass Feedback’, followed by a duet of Pavone’s organ and Bob’s feedback, then a solo set called ‘Empty Feedback’. For all the claims about noise and holy racket, and the sense of joyous chaos on the tiled floor which the notes describe, the first two pieces are surprisingly restrained droners – but both very rich in sonorities and clashing harmonics, compelling us to pay attention at every moment to their subtle changes, as though the sound itself were melting gradually in the heat (it was recorded on the hottest days of the year) like so much vanilla ice cream. ‘Bass Feedback’ in particular manages to sustain this enjoyable tension for a powerful 22 mins of suspended continuum. I like ‘Organ Feedback’ for its low-end tones and powerful blasts, and one has to assume Jessica’s pipe work here is interacting with amplified feedback in some way to produce this vaguely muffled and alien effect. Rarely have the long pipes of the venerable church organ managed to resonate so mightily. When left to his own devices on ‘Empty Feedback’, Bellerue points to his “unattended instruments” which are now caught in the wash of feedback flow, as if a minor flood had left everyone ankle-deep in water, and we seem to have a situation where these instruments are pretty much playing themselves and acting independently for 20:52 mins. This piece does achieve a lot more in the departments of high-frequency shriekers and lower-register shakers. But it’s still a controlled form of chaos, and none of the tiny monsters in this private menagerie wander too far outside the boundaries of good taste. While the noise-ogre inside all of us may wish for a more forceful or overwhelming torrent of bone-rattling volumes, Bob Bellerue is operating in quite a different sphere, his ears finely attuned to the potentials and capabilities afforded by feedback.

On CD 2, the title track is another group piece for 16:43 mins, two lurching double basses, plus violin, viola and baritone sax all pitched together with Bob’s flute and electronics. This piece seems to me more playing, less process; of the tracks heard so far it’s the one that most resembles conventional improvised music. The composer praises his collaborators, their “relaxed and precise skills” which they brought to the picnic, and celebrates the way they made “new forms of music in real-time”. They would work to “handwritten list poems” – i.e. very loose musical scores – that, I assume, provided just the right amount of instruction for them to execute their tasks, and it’s here that Bob Bellerue shows his skills for realising conducted improvisation. With certain echo effects (or just the natural acoustics of the church) the sound grows fairly unearthly at certain points; and there are solo segments, including one where a violin or viola goes completely bonkers. I enjoy these extreme dynamics in the music, and the chance to hear an instrument’s voice, but when the gang play as an ensemble there’s nothing to match this closely-layered powerful drone which they manage, all voices wafered together in a thick wodge.

The album ends with ‘Metal Gambuh’, a lengthy 39:45 solo set by Bellerue, knocking around his pieces of junk and cymbals, playing his flute, and generating feedback from the piano. He singles out the “overdriven room sound” which should give you some idea of how attuned he was to the environment and its acoustics. Along with the impassioned metal-bashing and agonised metal-screeching on this set, there’s another celestial moment which sounds like a bad-tempered choir of angels descending from the ceiling rafters; this might be the “howling” in the credit list, and may have been generated with a very extreme echo effect applied to the human voice. Like a lot of the spontaneous outbursts on this two-disc set, it’s quite unexpected and slightly disconcerting. This tracks also allows us to savour the uninhibited and unaccompanied feedback shivers that resonate dangerously through the interior space, suggesting they could move the pews out of place by several inches or cause cracks to appear in the walls. These segments reminded me most of the 1960s experiments of Max Neuhaus with his feedback drums (often working to John Cage compositions), but those were a bit more formal and academic. It’s on ‘Metal Gambuh’ that the album truly lets rip and those with a thirst for grandiose, soaring, unkempt noise are advised to check in here immediately.

“Radioactive Desire” as a title sounds to me like something Andre Breton or Paul Eluard would have conceived if the Surrealists had been operating in the Atomic Age instead of 1930s Paris; through his grand designs, and a certain amount of control to discipline his spontaneity and automatism, Bob Bellerue might have come close to approximating a Max Ernst painting in sound. From July 2021.