Entries tagged with “Erstwhile Records”.
Did you find what you wanted?
Wed 1 Jan 2014
Having let go of my obsessive following of music I still found myself with more than enough great music to listen to this year. Being able to judiciously select what discs (or increasingly preferable, digital files) to buy I found that I liked almost all that I bought. Curiosity and what seems to be a decrease in criticism (R.I.P. Paris Transatlantic, Dusted (though semi-revived) &c) and perhaps the move to more gated preserves from the commentariat did lead to my purchasing a few duds, but I’m sure I missed more good stuff than bought bad. Having lost touch with those dusty corners of the nets where all music finds itself eventually (or even before it hits the virtual shelves) I can only express endless gratitude to Alastair Wilson’s excellent radio programme Admirable Restraint for providing lengthy tastes of music new and old. Alastair has put out a fine collection of new pieces from artists old and new for a good cause for which I can only recommend you dig deep: by gum it’s a compilation. The loss of my record player last year and the refusal to acquire a tape deck (I was buying music during the heyday of cassette and we pretty much despised it then as every playback degraded the tape) has led to a few things missed so let me just add a word of praise for those labels who put their boutique format releases up for digital downloads as well. I think I’ve listened to more solo piano this year than anything everything from Beethoven to Feldman to Jurg Frey to Cage &c &c. I’m happy to report it was a great year for the kind piano musics I like. You’ll see plenty of it represented in the selections below. Finally a hearty thanks to all the musicians, producers, labels, writers and listeners out there (also to all those who compiled their year-end lists early: got a lot of great stuff in just the last few weeks). There is plenty of great vital music being made and if I only listed here what touched me the most deeply out of the small fraction I heard it doesn’t really mean all that much.
David Tudor The Art of David Tudor (New World Records)
When this set was announced there was no doubt in my mind that this would be the release of the year, if not the decade. New World Records epic Music for Merce box set contains excerpts of the bulk of the pieces contained in this set and serves in a way as a sampler and impetus for this set. Throughout my lengthy five part review of Music for Merce I was continuously thrilled to hear these pieces but just as constantly lamented their excerpted nature. More than once I urged New World to release a box set of Tudor’s uncut performances. I doubt that I had any influence on this subsequent release but I can’t say how pleased I am it came about. New World really did yeoman’s work on this set with seven discs spanning the entirety of Tudor’s career from his electro-acoustic interpretation of Cage’s Variations II to Neural Network Plus with it’s complex combination of computer and live electronics.
This set deserves an equally lengthy discussion as Music for Merce but really delving into Tudor’s music demands an amount of research and work that basically hasn’t been undertaken. In my Music for Merce reviews I discuss each of the pieces that were excerpted, all of which are included on this set. Since I don’t do a minute by minute discussion of them they serve quite well regarding these pieces. Of course there are a few things on this set not included there: Tudor’s first major piece Bandonean !, two versions of Rainforest IV, another performance of Variations II that is a welcome edition to the other two available, the epic Cage/Tudor overlaid pieces Mesostics re: Merce Cunningham/Untitled and most notably the Anima Pepsi pieces from the 1970 Osaka World Fair. My preview post of this set upon it’s initial announcement discusses the significance of all of these pieces. Regarding the material shared between the two sets you can find my write up on the these pieces in the following links: Virtual Focus, Neural Network Plus, Phonemes Weatherings, Webwork and Christian Wolff’s For 1, 2 or 3 People.
In trying to analyze Tudor’s live electronic work James Pritchett found himself constructing his own circuits and began to work out how the music works from the ground up (I think this is from this interview: RWM SON[i]A #166). This is the equivalent of doing score analysis for conventionally notated pieces (though a far greater undertaking) and I think a necessary first step in understanding his process and methodology. From there a theory could be worked out (something like my (incomplete) Network Instrument Theory which starts from my electronic music making and builds up). Pritchett eventually gave up on this task which is a shame as it appears no-one else has undertaken it. A book covering the entirety of Tudor’s compositions, similar to Pritchett’s Music of John Cage is I think a needed resource. But for now the music itself will have to serve and this set, while alas still only a portion of Tudor’s work (though the major pieces I think it’s fair to say) does so admirably.
Dennis Johnson November [R. Andrew Lee, piano] (Irritable Hedgehog)
As a reader of Kyle Gann’s always informative and frequently amusing blog, Post Classic, I have been able to follow along with the rediscovery of Dennis Johnson’s November. Remembering November which Gann posted in later 2007 was the beginning of this odyssey and there are quite a few posts documenting his transcription of the piece from a hissy tape and a few notes, to the locating of Dennis Johnson himself (who had “given up on the 21st century in 2007” and thus disappeared from internet communication), to posting an mp3 of himself and Sarah Cahill performing the piece (currently unavailable AFAIK) to finally the release of R. Andrew Lee’s recording on the increasingly indispensable Irritable Hedgehog label. All this posts and many more can be found by searching for November on Gann’s blog.
I downloaded a lossless version of November from Irritable Hedgehog’s Bandcamp page which allows for one to do seamless playback of the nearly five hour piece. It has been played over and over again since that time. It’s meandering spare piano lines becoming increasingly varied with moments of more density, or intensity or lyricism I find endlessly captivating. I’ve listened to it straight through but also have just put on one of the “discs” as I’ve gone to bed. Some nights I hear less than others but there have been those nights where I heard the whole thing. Beautiful music, but more than that as it weathers any degree of scrutiny.
Eliane Radigue Ψ 847 (Oral)
Along with November this album has probably had the most spins in my abode this year. Admittedly this again due to it being amenable to being put on as I attempt to sleep but as with all albums that meet that criteria that simply means that I’ve listened to it in the dark primarily focused on it as sleep remained at bay. This one has been a long time coming as it was recording in 1973 and it initially planned to be released by Halana Magazine years ago in an edited form which of course never materialized. Various reports of concerts featuring the piece mixed live from the original master tapes certainly wetted the appetites of those of us who love her electronic work. So when this was finally announced in a double CD form with a live and studio mix by Lionel Marchetti it was beyond welcome. The piece is another masterful Arp 2500 introspection utilizing spare tones carefully drifting and a bit of tape echo and some really stunning resonant filter ringing. Both versions are fascinating with the live one somehow even more stripped down than the studio. The applause at the end always comes as a shock. Things like this often don’t (or can’t) hold up to the legend and it is doubly rewarding when they do.
Jakob Ullmann fremde zeit addendum 4 · solo III für Orgel (Edition RZ)
The release from last year was Edition RZ’s three CD Jakob Ullmann box Fremde Zeiot Addendum which oddly enough contained a piece of cardboard inside it to prevent the contents from rattling about. It turned out that 2013 brought us a fourth disc that replaces that piece of cardboard and makes this vital set even more tremendous. A piece for solo organ that is heads and shoulders above any contemporary composition I’ve heard for the instrument since Messian. There have been a number of attempts to do highly minimal music on the church organ that to my ears have really fallen flat. This instrument, which I love so much, has really proven an insurmountable challenge to apply to this domain. Until now that is. Ulmann’s piece and the masterful playing of Hans-Peter Schulz beautifully recorded by Edition RZ finally reveals this unrealized potential of the instrument.
Michael Pisaro Closed Categories in Cartesian Worlds [Greg Stuart, perc] (Gravity Wave)
This one was one of those I got late in the year but I am sure glad I did. As a long time fan of pure tone music from the clinical precision of Alvin Lucier to the all encompassing intensity of Sachiko M, to the piercing interiority of Mitsuhiro Yoshimura (not to mention my own explorations) this has long been a domain I’m fascinated with. Hewing closer to the Lucier mode of operation (and indeed the piece is dedicated to him) with a very precise composition utilizing electronic sine tones of specific duration in concert with the inherent variability of bowed metal. Michael Pisaro put it this way on his blog:
The physics of the crotale are very interesting, since like all metal instruments, its actual motion is relatively chaotic. It is not the absolutely stable and regular sound that it appears to be, but has fluctuating character, perhaps a bit like the reflected glare of any shiny object.
The piece was composed at percussionist, and frequent Pisaro collaborator, Greg Stuart’s request and his performance here is nothing short of inspired. The combination of the bowed crotals and the uncompromising electronic tones is just a shear physicality. Those of us who already appreciate Sachiko or Lucier already know that sine tones of sufficient cycles beat in your ear and undermine your sense of balance as well as subtly varying and shifting as you move around and this album delivers these effects in spades. But it isn’t nearly as clinical as Lucier often comes across as though it is as precisely defined as his pieces. The crotales I think are the special sauce here and Stuarts virtuosity.
Antoine Beuger Sixteen Stanzas on Stillness And Music Unheard [Greg Stuart, perc] (l’innomable)
At the same time I received Closed Categories in Cartesian Worlds I also received this disc. Which like the aforementioned Pisaro composition this one also involved Greg Stuart bowing metal, this time the chimes on a vibraphone. The recording is very quiet and slowly increases in volume across it’s duration. Like the crotales of the previous entry the bowed vibraphone has a very pure almost electronic sound but with a bit of warmth of instability. The music here is far less physical – the lack of high register, relentless electronics means there is only the acoustic sounds – but it is achingly beautiful. Less demanding and intense it is an excellent companion piece and probably my favorite composition yet from Antoine Beuger.
Keith Rowe/Graham Lambkin Making A (Erstwhile Records)
2013 has seen the fewest releases from Keith Rowe in years with this collaboration with Graham Lambkin being one of the few. This duo was put together by Jon Abbey of Erstwhile records and interestingly the two musicians independently decided to primarily utilize contact microphones and drawing supplies. Keith has been placing contact mic’s on his table and drawing with charcoal on it for some time now (I think I first witnessed this in 2008 at the Amplify fest in Kid Ailack Hall) and the whispery scratches have become a feature of his sound world. With Lambkin utilizing similar technique as well as the brittle, mid-range nature of contact mics this is truly an album of layers. Another layer is that the second track, the titular Making A, is a Scratch era composition by Cornelius Cardew erstwhile Rowe comrade. I can’t say that much of Lambkin’s work has appealed to me and I was a bit skeptical by this collaboration (though always curious). But once again Abbey’s ear for duo’s has born fruit and this really is a remarkable recording, one that I’ve returned to again and again throughout the year.
John Cage Variations V (Mode Records)
It’s sort of surprising how much Cage is still unavailable especially from his electronic period. Only in the last couple of years was Variations VII made available and it took until this year for Variations V to be available outside of special order from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. A truly collaborative piece, it involved sound sources monitored by Cage, Tudor and Mumma trigged by the MCDC. The piece is the dance, is the live electronics is the composition. It of course inherently indeterminacy due to the live electronics, thee variability in the spaces performed and in the dancers not to mention the fragility of the electronics. This excellent DVD from Mode presents a German Television shows broadcast of an in studio performance those allow us to experience this truly multimedia piece with the dance and video by Nam June Paik and Stan VanDerBekk as well as (occasionally) see the musicians working their electronics. It also includes an audio only recording from a live performance earlier in the tour which I think helps to understand this continually variable piece. Two interviews with dancers Carolyn Brown and Sandra Neel with Gus Baker provide some context, add details and more than a few amusing anecdotes.
Haco/Toshiya Tsunoda TramVibration (skiti)
I am in agreement with many that Toshiya Tsunoda is one of very (very) few field recordists doing vital work but even he has as many duds as successes. It seems to be his more conceptual pieces that turn out to be more interesting in concept than in execution so I was naturally skeptical about this recording he made along with Haco of a moving tram (I also was confusing Haco with a vocalist and I couldn’t imagine how that would work). However I was willing to watch this video, The Tram Vibration Project, to get a sense of how this turned out. I pretty much immediately ordered this disc after watching it. Of all the releases I heard from 2013 this one seems the most sound focused. It is about finding the sounds of this tram as it moves along. It’s structured by the trams passage and the choices of where to place one’s microphones (and apparently massive editing by Tsunoda). And what a rich world of crackles, hums, shakes, rumblings and other indescribable and downright fascinating sounds are revealed here. Watch the video, it is much better than anything I (or anyone) could write on this one.
John Tilbury/Oren Ambarchi The Just Reproach (Black Truffle)
John Tilbury’s magnificent touch on the piano and his effortless shifting from the abstractions of the body and insides of the piano, to pure romantic lyricism are fully present and are indeed the core of this album. Oren Ambarchi though gives this music it’s spine with a deft touch and breathtaking subtlety. One can’t help but think of Tilbury’s collaborations with Keith Rowe but the only similarity here is perhaps those moments before Keith has really begun to play and the buzzing and hums of his setup provide a tapestry upon which the piano rests. Ambarchi barely adds more than that grounding but mines that background radiation for all that it’s worth. The few times he surfaces are in delicate counterpoint to Tilbury’s playing and it almost comes across as the piano resonating into alien space.
This alas was a vinyl only release but happily the kind folks at Beatport have made it available for lossless download which you can find here: The Just Reproach.
and the rest
Graham Stephenson/Aaron Zarzutzki Touching (Erstwhile Records)
John Cage Solo for Piano [Sabine Liebner, piano] (Wergo)
Eva Maria Houben Piano Music [R. Andrew Lee, piano] (Irritable Hedgehog)
Bryn Harrison Vessels [Philip Thomas., piano] (Another Timbre)
Stephen Cornford & Samuel Rodgers Boring Embroidery (Cathnor Recordings)
John Cage The Ten Thousand Things [I Ching Edition] (Microfest Records)
Toshiya Tsunoda O Kokos Tis Anixis (edition.t)
Meridian Hoquet (Accidie Records)
Eduard Artemiev Solaris Original Soundtrack (Superior Viaduct)
Sun 2 Jan 2011
Posted by hatta under eai
In March 2010 I went to Boston for a series of Christian Wolff residency concerts at NEC and to see a number of concerts involving Keith Rowe. This was the third month of the Eleven Clouds project and the distribution method for that months release (Vertical Landscapes I-V/aeolian electrics) was via in-person trade. Jon Abbey of Erstwhile Records made the best trade: a cd-r of the the forthcoming collaboration betwixt Annette Krebs and Taku Unami. Only having my iPhone for music listening that cd-r was going to sit unplayed for over a week and that immediately began to grate. So I bought a super cheap portable cd player and gave it a listen. My initial impression was threefold: pretty good, not really groundbreaking and damn these headphones that came with my portable cd player sucked and thus rendered both of the previous assessments pretty much invalid. I did listen to it maybe three more times in the next few days though and then on my last day in Boston during a free afternoon I stumbled upon Newbury Comics, which included a pretty decent record store where I was able to pick up a reasonable set of Sennheisers. Well these better headphones really opening up the music for me as did subsequent plays on my home stereo, upon which a month hasn’t passed this year where it didn’t get multiple spins. Since that time I’ve been trying to write about it nearly every month as well but it has always confounded my attempts. I felt this was okay, that an album like this resisted easy analysis, or a superficial explanation and that more listens would reveal an approach. But this never happened; I kept listening and becoming if anything increasingly intrigued and beguiled but never really knew what to say. Thus it never appeared in one of my monthly music posts which, while they only covered an aspect of my listening this year, did end up in the end containing a number of my favorites for the year. And it should have because it is by far the best bit of improvisation I’ve heard this year and along with Lost Daylight my favorite album of the year.
Annette Krebs/Taku Unami Motubachii (Erstwhile Records)
Probably not since Keith Rowe’s The Room has there been an album that I think so defies a quick analysis. Like The Room, I enjoyed this immediately, but my snap judgement, as I related above, would have been superficial. Now with Keith I know how much thought is involved with each release, especially a solo album where it isn’t a documentation of a collaboration but is solely his own concerns. The Room perhaps especially so as he spent at least a coupe of years honing his ideas, his structure and performing the piece in his various solo concerts (one of which I saw in 2005). I never really did delve into that album that year; it resisted the easy analysis and I only ended up writing a paragraph about it in my 2007 wrap up. One I revisit frequently and which maybe someday I can find the words to delve into. Motubachii is in my mind a similar case, but even more difficult. With The Room one can at least find interviews with Keith, articles on his process, a long history of recording and of course I’ve had the great pleasure of quite a few conversation with him. This allows one to place it in context, to examine what he and others have said on it and so on. There are few interviews (in English anyway) with Unami or Krebs and they rarely seem to speak on their own music. But that of course doesn’t mean that all we have to go on is the sounds on this disc.
Annette Krebs at the Goethe-Institut Boston (photo by Danny Gromfin)
I’ve had the opportunity to meet Annette Krebs in Vancouver in 2007 and Taku Unami in Tokyo in 2008 and while I wasn’t afforded the opportunity for long chats I did get to see them perform. The performances and of course the recordings from these two do allow us to place this album in an historical context. Krebs in 2007 had come back from a seeming hiatus to begin a series of great releases both solo and in collaboration (Berlin Electronics, sgraffito, SIYU and so on) however by the time of this collaboration with Unami I’d began to feel that she had tapped out her newfound ideas. She plays tabletop (or laptop at least the times I’ve seen her) guitar with a variety of common objects and preparations: brillo pad, files etc as well as radio and laptop. She uses the laptop to play samples or simple synth like sounds and seems able to manipulate speed and length of the playback of these samples. Her approach has always seemed partly random, that is to say while her command of her materials is high she seems as surprised as anyone by what a particular gesture will invoke. The use of the software sampler was what made it seem like she had reworked her bag of tricks but hadn’t really tapped into an endless flow of ideas; the same sample, manipulated in similar ways began to appear on a number of releases. By the end of 2008 the freshness had seem to have evaporated and at least my interest began to wane. However if there was one collaboration that would mix things up, it would be with Taku Unami.
Taku Unami in the Book Cafe
Reportedly after I saw the Keith Rowe/Taku Unami duo in Tokyo in the fall of 2008 Unami claimed that was the end of his performance on the computer driven motors and manipulators and as far as I can tell that has been the case. In the years after that he began using handclaps, cardboard boxes, movement, and guitar. Unami has always defied expectations and has as far as I know never really explained himself. He seemed in a way to follow on from the ultra-minimal work of Taku Sugimoto but with a wicked sense of humor about it all. Perhaps more then anything else he is constantly challenging what performance is, what a recording is, fundamentally what music is. While he will play with people like Mattin and his disciples and follow them where they lead, he never really seems quite the agent provocateur that they are. Mattin et al always come across as ideologues, pushing their notions first and foremost as dogmatically as any Maoist. Unami reminds me the most of Bansky really – he’ll cleverly challenge just about anything but he pretty much leaves it up to the listener to figure it all out. And he’s really good at what he does, even when it ultimately isn’t compelling. Unami by early 2010 had really pushed well beyond what he’d been doing up to that point and a collaboration with Annette Krebs, who was beginning to repeat herself quite a bit was fraught with uncertainty – fruitful ground for Unami.
Marcel Duchamp Ã‰tant donnés at the Philiaphia Museum of Art
The cover artwork for Motubachii is among my very favorites from the Erstwhile catalog and it always makes me think of Marcel Duchamp’s Ã‰tant donnés, the piece he worked on in secret for decades after he “quit art” for chess. A scenic tableau with a meticulously modeled female nude holding a gas lamp, the viewer looks through peepholes at this scene and the splayed out figure therein. Replacing Duchamp’s carefully rendered idyllic scene with the very real German (I assume) countryside and removing any trace of a figure it may just seem to be a nod, or perhaps even just the long reverberations of the piece in the zeitgeist. But to me it displays the humor that was the hallmark of Duchamp and that I think one can also find in Unami. Self referential in a similar fashion as Ã‰tant donnés is (the mannequin is a cast of a longtime lover, the waterfall and gaslamp reference a note on The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even and so on; see this comprehensive book for more on this piece) one can read a lot into that empty countryside and it is I think almost uniquely fitting for the music contained within.
I tend to avoid others reviews when I intend to write on something myself but since I spent the bulk of 2010 attempting to write on this album I did stumble across various impressions and takes on the album. The overriding impressions seemed to be one of confusion (though a joyful confusion for the most part) as though the music was a riddle that the listeners had to work out. The question in collaborations of who has made what sound, or what the source of a given sound is, or if a sound is a sample a natural occurrence or somehow created in situ is an oft raised one. Is this the result of our minds that are constantly seeing patterns, constantly trying to categorize things to reductively break things down to their constituent parts? It is not an unfamiliar exercise to myself , in fact I’d say its a definite trope amongst those who write about music myself included. You see someone like Krebs rub the strings on her guitar with a brillo pad and then later you can say on listening to an unrelated album “and a skritchy sound of a brillo pad rubbed on strings”. If one is attempting to describe the music – always a challenge! – then in many ways this is the easiest path, as it relies on the experiences of the listener to fill in the gaps. With this album we only have the prior performances of Krebs and Unami, and not even of them playing together, to utilize and thus it seems natural to try to puzzle out what is making the sounds, who is doing what and how the album was put together.
Talu Unami/Annette Krebs at Kid Ailack Hall. Photo by Yuko Zama
It is the sounds that tend to bring people into the current vein of experimental musics. Turn the focus away from melody, harmony, rhythm and sound becomes the natural element to focus on. The early experimentalists (Cage, Feldman et al) constantly talked of letting the sounds be themselves, of focusing on sound and so on. But the sounds have been left to themselves for quite some time now, even if most people aren’t paying attention. The experiements with contact mics in particular in 50s, 60s and beyond (Cartridge Music most famously but 60s AMM and many others as well) were all about bringing sounds to the forefront and using virtually every means to produce them. Sounds have remained the focus of recent endeavors, but what I’d really say has been the innovation has been the structure. This I think is particularly the case with Unami who I think began (at least on record) radically de-emphasizing sound with Malignitat where he allowed the samples to be played at specific times to be pulled randomly from a banal sound effects cd. The structure is what was important there and I think that it is the structure that has seen the most innovation in the last decade. Unami continued to downplay sound, with his handclaps, table pounding and cardboard boxes.
Robert Rauschenberg Nabisco Shredded Wheat Cardboard
I can’t help but think of Robert Rauschenberg’s cardboard box art when I hear of Unami’s usage of them as a sound source. It seems to me almost the exact same reason in that they are ubiquitous, cheap, disposable and as far from art as you can get. Rauschenberg transformed the detritus of our consumer culture into art and Unami utilized the same detritus to devalue the notion sound from his pieces. He also reportedly did performances where he used light to cast shadows with the boxes which he then moved around, removing sound completely from its pedestal. Interestingly enough after reading about the shows where he did this I found a Fluxus text score that is in essence “use a cardboard box to cast shadows on the wall. Move it around.” (I alas don’t have a copy of this score and will have to look around to get the full score and citation). I can’t help but think that there isn’t quite a bit of Fluxus in what Unami does: the subversion of accepted notions of performance and music making, the humor, the stripping down to essentials, the working with very simple scores and the theatricality of his works.
Taku Unami at instal 2009
I’ve listened to motubachii four times through as I’ve written this and even with all the other times I’ve listened to it this year it still intrigues. It is the combination of all that I’ve been going on about here: Krebs’ startled jabs on her instruments and Unami’s subversion of, well, everything. Unami on this recording sounds like he just wandered around the room doing various things as Krebs’ engages in a quite spare performance. There are handclaps, table slaps, dropped boxes, the sound of moving around the room, the rare note on a guitar, brillo pads and files on guitar strings, Krebs’ use of vocal samples distorted, slowed down and sped up, a few plucks of a resonant instrument like a banjo or steel guitar and so on. It could have been them playing a piece in a room, or it could be individual recordings put together or it could be parts from various recordings randomly selected ala Malignitat to either a defined or random structure. One thing that is known is that it is five recorded in five different locations and track one and five are the same. More playfulness from Unami and Krebs. It also lends some creedence to the notion that it is an assembled piece, in whole or in part, but really as I said earlier that doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that it all works; it has a flow, a beguiling structure to itself that could be the result of any number of processes. The sounds, a mix of Krebs who I’d say is still focused on sound and Unami’s seemingly devil-may-care though clearly thought out everyday sounds, create this structure, nurture it and give the listener plenty to hang on to.
the title stems from two original words from Stanislaw Lem’s The Star Diaries, and the process is amusingly analogous to how the record was put together (which I’m not explaining, before anyone asks).
originally this was Unami’s idea, he suggested the word ‘pinckenbahii’, which he defined as a “gravity vortex which causes strange time phenomena, several times within a time at the same time” and he thought that was a good fit for the record. Annette was also a fan of Lem and The Star Diaries in particular, but didn’t like the way this word sounded in German, so she found a second word (‘uabamotu’) from the book and combined the two into ‘motubahii’. I then researched these and found that Unami had made a mistake with the initial word, which should have been ‘pinckenbachii’, hence ‘motubachii’. – Jon Abbey in the Motubachii post on ihm
I also love Stanislaw Lem and while I never would have worked out the reference (having read the The Star Diaries quite some time ago to begin with) that explanation from how this combined word came together does seem to encapsulate the record well. Perhaps Jon is hinting that the album is an assemblage; it certainly does have that feel. But Unami’s original word defined as “gravity vortex which causes strange time phenomena, several times within a time at the same time” now that captures the essence of the record. I doubt that the strange phenomena in this one will ever become overly familiar, or tiresome or that I’ll ever make it out of the vortex.
Sat 16 Oct 2010
Amplify 2008: Keith & Toshi @ Kid Ailack Hall, Tokyo Sept. 2008
I was in the mood for something a bit more harsh today so I put on Erstlive 008: Keith Rowe/Toshimaru Nakamura and played it loud. If you have a system capable of serious bass reproduction, which I do, and you play it a sufficient volume to properly propel the bass, which I did, this album throbs with sub-sonics. There are sections of it that are like the sea: an unstoppable, unimaginably powerful force rolling over you again and again. And floating in that sea are cutting blades that slice into you from the completely opposite end of the dynamic range. While there are moments of near stasis it is a restless piece, using continuity of sound like a killing floor that bounces the detritus of the machine age upon it. It feels like the end of something, something more than end of Amplify 2008 which it was. Particularly interesting to me is that for such a roiling, harsh piece it ends with a whimper, not faded out, nor utilizing long stretches of silence, but simply increasingly delicate sounds, punctuated with bursts of tearing feedback for a time, and then tones, whispers, shrill whines of tortured electronics. In this piece the world ends with a bang — and a whimper.
I was in Tokyo for Amplify 2008: Light and was of course in the audience for this show. This was the second time I’d seen Keith and Toshi perform as a duo and this cd is the fourth of theirs released on Erstwhile Records. Their two studio albums on Erstwhile Records, Weather Sky and Between, were each landmarks in the Erstwhile catalog and in my personal musical listening. Weather Sky seems to take ideas that Keith had worked through in AMM and look at them from another another angle. The laminal aspect is there but its much fuzzier, not so intentional with none of the exhaustion of the final AMM performances. Weather Sky gives you much less to settle into and its restlessness, which is a hallmark in my mind of the Keith/Toshi collaborations, undermines any surface stasis. Between is a completely different beast that over its two discs runs the gamut of concerns of this music. While the decision to make this album was a deliberate move it is immediately clear that retreading old ground would not be acceptable. This is not the recording of musicians who are spinning their wheels; their restlessness, pervasive questioning and unwillingness to compromise cut through any notions of a rehash. The improvised music that they participated in hadn’t sat still since the release of Weather Sky, in large part due to their work, but it was already becoming difficult to express what was becoming familiar notions with what was becoming codified gestures. It is a testament to these two musicians that they found so much to explore.
ErstQuake 2: Keith & Toshi @ Collective Unconscious Sept. 2005
Keith Rowe played four shows at Amplify ’08 and rose to this heroic task with aplomb (you can read my reviews of these shows here). His duo’s with Sachiko M and Taku Unami (released as Contact and Erstlive 006) seemed like breakthroughs and a new direction in contemporary improv while his solo show was a tour de force exploration of his concerns, influences and the ideas that motivate him (all thoroughly explained here) . This duo was of course well established with the two aforementioned studio albums plus a live document from the last time Keith was in Japan contained in the Amplify 2002: Balance box set. I’d seen them the first time at the ErstQuake 2 festival in New York City, a festival prior to which I’d seen very few shows in the burgeoning “eai” subgenre. That aspect of course colors things but at the time I felt that this show was similar to that contained in the Amplify 2002 set: an engaging and solid piece of music if not ground breaking. Keith had recently constructed his Cubist Guitar and was still working through it, perhaps explaining the greater relience on radio during this festival. Back in 2005 I wrote this about this set:
No set at this festival was more anticipated by me and it did not disappoint. Nakamura seemed more active and upfront while Rowe explored a wider space and allowed a dominating role for the radio.
As I write this I’m listening to the Keith and Toshi track on disc 5 of the Amplify 2002 box set and it does reaffirm these recollections, though there is a long section of rhythmic feedback from Toshi that so often cropped up in his solo albums from this time, a feature of his playing that rarely cropped up in the studio recordings. [As an aside it has been quite a while since I’ve pulled the Amplify 2002: Balance box set off the shelf and I have to say that among a catalog of handsome releases this box set is simply stunning.] There also is a bootleg of Keith and Toshi floating around from around this time of them playing in Texas that is in a similar vein, what I’d call typically great: the communication between these two is solid enough that whenever they play it is a great set. But what is I think is really quite impressive is that on occasion they transcend that familiar greatness and produce something transformative. Established groups rarely do this as part of the familiarity of frequently playing together is a toning down of risk: you anticipate too much and perhaps you settle into a subset of your own behavior, settling for what you know works. With this duo though it seems much more like they are working through something and it might take a while, so they have these clear “periods” but then they begin to struggle through something else. It is a working relationship akin to AMM come to think of it.
Two years ago in Tokyo after seeing three impressive sets from Keith, and two very solid sets with Toshi one settled into ones seat for this duo with some expectations. After the twin breakthroughs of Weather Sky and Between and a series of always engaging concerts one would be not be remiss to expect another typically great set. Which was certainly delivered and at the time it seemed like a rousing end to an amazing festival. Even at the show I was impressed with how they had seemed to have picked up where Between left off and by perhaps by channeling the energy of the festival, or the sprawling urbanism of Tokyo or perhaps a looming sense of endings everywhere. But since then this set has come to seem increasingly powerful, that sense of uneasy doom increasing; a breakthrough of synthesis. It seems to take the pieces of Between, orient them orthogonally and reassemble them against the overwhelming sense of spareness of Kid Ailack Hall into a singular musical document. It is irrevocably colored by the experience of having been there for me, of course, but this is music whose relevance grows, music that doesn’t have that flush of fresh novelty to it but the deepness of intimacy which, from musicians who are always struggling with those ideas that are never tapped out, results in music that constantly unfolds and reveals more.
"The music doesn't happen without you"
Sat 3 Jan 2009
Keith Rowe/Taku Unami ErstLive 006 (Erstwhile Records)
Almost my final musical acquisitions for the year were two live concerts from Erstwhile Records AMPLIFY 2008: Light festival held in Tokyo, Japan. I was in attendance of these shows and have previously documented these sets to the best of my ability(2,3). These two sets, along with Sachiko M and Keith Rowe’s duo were my favorite of the festival (followed right after by Mitsuhiro’s Yoshimura’s solo and Keith Rowe’s duo with Toshimaru Nakamura) and it truly is a rare pleasure to be able to revisit these sets so quickly. It is interesting to see how my memory (and notes) compare when being able to hear something more then once. Of course set and setting are an inescapable elements of a concert review, much more so then listening to a recording where these elements even out over repeated exposure. A recording should never really change one’s impression about a live event, it is a different experience after all. But (assuming the recording was well done) it can add a lot to one’s understanding of the music and compliment ones experience.
Upon the conclusion of the festival it was the duo with Keith Rowe and Taku Unami that was my favorite. It was sonically rewarding, fraught with tension and unexpected delights and it was fascinating to watch. Listening to it again there is a lot there: Unami’s odd juxtapositions, Keith rising to the challenges and tossing out some of his own, the tentativeness of a first meeting combined with the surety of individuals very secure in their own processes. I wrote at the conclusion of my review of the concert:
This set was unexpected, slippery in that its structure and elements are hard to hold in ones mind and absolutely brilliant. This was the most interesting bit of music I’ve witnessed in a long time, a collision of two of the most interesting musicians around pushing each other outside of any sort of routines and boundaries. The set is so difficult to recall in detail as it was filled with constant left turns, change ups and dense amounts of detail.(3)
Being able to listen to this one again certainly confirms this. As I detailed in my report on the duo there were so many little events and unexpected elements that one just couldn’t retain it all. A review of a live set shouldn’t try to be a moment by moment detailing of it anyway, but should try to capture the essential nature of it, which in this case is it’s uncatchability.
“Music is a vagrant; it has no fixed abode. It’s a menace to society. It needs cleaning up. The impossibility of abolishing music. It’s omnipresence. It’s uncatchability. Perhaps after all we have to step down and let music pursue its own course.” – Cornelius Cardew(1, p.142)
There is in my mind few musicians who let music pursue it’s own course like these two. They are dramatically different yet they share many qualities. A disruptive nature is one. I think of the times that Keith would throw up some totally incompatible radio grab and force AMM to work with it, incorporate it. Compare that with Unami’s use of software to randomly pick samples from a sound effects cd to make up the elements of a piece. The orientation is different I think, Unami, though far less forthcoming in his motivations, seems much more intersted in subverting recieved notions of music and disrupting expectations. Rowe on the other hand is questioning his own notions of music and what it is for: “I [On Harsh] wanted to make something that was not very liked, something that was not obviously a well-rounded performance, something which wasn’t aesthetic, something which wasn’t that satisfying…”(4). The goals, the process and the tools are all different as are the approach and maybe even the degree of seriousness but there is I think a shared core.
In rehearsal Feldman would help his performers by describing the sounds as ‘sourceless’; he wanted them to take on that precious quality of transience, of uncatchabilty (Cardew’s word), to be free but not arbitrary, elusive but compelling — a perception which evokes and old Taoist dictum: ‘The greatest music has the most tenuous notes.’(1, p.141)
This quote I feel captures this performance very well. The uncatchability that I mentioned previously, the transient nature, the unexpected but not arbitrary. This duo pushes all of the boundaries, it is right on the edge, the arbitrariness constantly threatening but it stays together, no matter how tenuous. I’m reminded of Cardew’s view on structure: “arbitrariness is characteristic of the ‘feeling of structure’.”(1, p.96). Cardew celebrated ‘nowness’ and felt that the ‘feeling of structure’ dissipated that. This is the music of the now if there ever was any.
Keith Rowe ErstLive 007 (Erstwhile Records)
In contrast to his duo with Unami the structure of Keith’s solo set was easier to grasp, after all it was a single mind following a loosely pre-planned route and my memory of it seemed pretty accurate. In my conclusion to my review of the live set I wrote:
An amazingly powerful piece, once again somehow transcending the previous amazing solo sets I’ve witnessed from Mr. Rowe. While his collab with Unami was probably my favorite piece of music from the weekend this I think one could argue was the most powerful, the most important and well executed. He is working with ideas here that I think are of a greater depth then most people in the field and this piece in particular was very carefully thought out in its intentions. (2)
Having had a chance to listen to these many times I’d say that my impression of this piece remains. I also think that it translates a bit better to disc and as a recording is the stronger piece. While the duo was the music of disruption, of tenuousness flirting with the arbitrary this is music in all of its power to work through ideas. Rowe set out with this set to explore some specific ideas and he was I think quite successful in this. Issues of beauty in music, of differences in cultures (he was the only western musician in this festival), of the place of electronic music in the western tradition and even more pragmatic notions such has having to playing four sets in three days were all a part of the construction of this piece.
I found it [playing with Taku Sugimoto] very easy. It goes back to AMM, I think, and an understanding of economy. Reflection, philosophy. It isn’t necessarily a question of what you do. As Michelangelo would say, “Drawing is making a line around your thoughts.” Your thoughts have to be very clear. My thoughts are very clear; Taku’s thoughts are very clear.(4)
This clarity of thought permeates this piece, which flows with an internal logic, but still retains that uncatchability that has been a hallmark of Rowe’s career. While everything may be questioned, explored worked through, there is a surety at hand, an understanding that it can be done through music if one’s thoughts are clear. This piece has a depth to it that is rare in improvised music. Sound orientated music is by it’s nature working with certain ideas and each musician brings to it their own notions as well. But there is, I think, a bare few who are trying to work through ideas in the music itself. There is a strong undercurrent of music being solely for musics sake in this time and a genuine unwillingness to even try to connect it to the greater world. How many other musicians try to work with “difficult knowledge”:
We live in a world where we know there are lots of difficulties. Lots of things we know to be difficult: child abuse, for example. How do we deal with that as artists? Do we ignore it, or do we try to work in some way towards that?(4)
The most enduring music deals with ideas, it engages with the world. There is a beauty and an attraction to all sounds and I would not disparage sound orientated musics in any way. But it is in this realm that novelty is especially prized: there are always new sounds and new juxtapositions of sounds to be had and in this context newness is a feature. The music that lasts is one where novelty is a component that (if present at all) will wear over repeated listens but it is not what keeps bringing you back. No it is that from which the music springs that makes it rich, and constantly rewarding. The hard questions, the deepest feelings, the big problems, these are things that have no easy answers. Filtering these through music doesn’t give us pat answers, it gives us nourishment, inspiration and contemplation. This is why they last.
“The musician’s pursuit is to recognize the musical composition of the world” – Cornelius Cardew(1, p.490)
1) John Tilbury, Cornelius Cardew A Life Unfinished (Copula 2008)
2) Robert j Kirkpatrick, Amplify 2008: day 1
3) Robert j Kirkpatrick, Amplify 2008: day 2
4) Keith Rowe, interviewed by Dan Warburton