By Dan Sorrells
Dragging philosophy and theory into album reviews can be the ultimate obscurist tactic, a way to side-step the difficulties of discussing the actual substance of music. But there can be occasions for pondering theory, especially when it deeply informs the way a musician approaches their work.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to consider Eddie Prévost an “academic” musician, and he often keeps like-minded company. He’s a lucid thinker when it comes to experimental music, and participants in his workshops over the years have also developed an interest in the broader philosophical implications of their music. One of these, pianist Sebastian Lexer, keeps returning to political philosopher Giorgio Agamben in a journal article on improvisation: “the greatness of human potentiality is measured in the abyss of human impotentiality.” Or, what separates us from the beasts is our ability to not do, to be free not to actualize any given potential, to choose the path that isn’t inevitable.
Improvisation is a super-concentrated series of potentialities, and choosing to act or not to act on different possible responses is the improviser’s most basic preoccupation. (Really, the human being’s most basic preoccupation!) As visceral as improvisation often seems, it’s a considered process, not mere instinctual reaction. These decisions are shaped by many factors, some musicians aren’t even conscious of. But potentials are artificially limited in a lot of music. As Prévost hints at in the liner notes of Impossibility in its Purest Form, a musician’s range of choices can be dramatically collapsed by the notes on a page or the demands of a chord progression. If it seems like I’m rambling, bear with me—this is all important when faced with the music on Impossibility. Prévost makes his point plainly: this is not music about what should happen next, it’s music about what could happen next. It’s a small bit of semantics that opens up the incredible gulf between what you find in popular music and the almost alien-sounding investigations of Impossibility.
So am I being a bit of a hypocrite, avoiding the music by talking about the theory? Not purposely. Impossibility is an album that’s focused on pitch relationships, resonance (both inside of instruments and the performance space), and the fractured harmonics of feedback. Prévost sticks to bowed cymbals, while saxophonist Seymour Wright summons both grating, granulated noise and tones that are inhumanly pure, like sine waves. As abstract as these two can sound, the real odd-man-out is Lexer, with his mind-bending piano+ system. Lexer has utterly reinvented the piano as an improvising instrument, outfitting it with a variety of strategically-placed microphones and using various elements of its acoustic sound—pitch, volume, sound density, etc.—as triggers in a sensitive, responsive computer program that he wrote himself. The results are neither piano nor electronics, a very mysterious, organic soundworld that’s intimately tied to the physical act of playing piano, even though the source material is often hopelessly obscured. There’s really little else like it on the scene.
The album seamlessly morphs through all of the duo combinations before arriving at a lengthy conclusion with all three players. As the music progresses, these improvisers seem acutely aware of the philosophies they discuss in their writings. Not that they’re making a concerted effort to sound like the actualization of some theory, or that they’re trying not to sound like a particular style of music—only that they all have internalized a certain stance towards music that works very much against the grain of what is familiar. It’s music that masks reference, gesture, instrumentation. It sounds alien not because it’s mechanical and inhuman, but precisely because it embodies the very human ability to shed the forces and influences that point back to humanity itself. There’s no paradox here; we can both select and reject our own potential paths.
Impossibility in its Purest Form is a battle against knee-jerk reaction, against cliché, against rote repetition and imitation. In his article, Lexer points out that there’s a certain integrity that goes along with the evaluative process of free improvisation. Moment to moment, there’s a responsibility to at least consider what’s novel or unfamiliar.
Is Impossibility tough to listen to at times? There’s no doubt about that. There are no quick payoffs here. Instead, there are many layers to puzzle over, and lots of questions raised by different improvisational decisions. Our potentials are often rushed, guided, even forced into easy channels by cultural and social conventions. What happens if we try to stave off some of this process, to give a split-second’s thought to “what’s next” and whether it’s somewhere we’ve already been before?
Impossibility in its Purest Form makes an honest attempt at tackling such questions. It’s not as ponderous as it seems. Really, it’s searching, exciting stuff.
Read Lexer’s article on piano+ here. Eddie Prevost’s liner notes can also be found on the Matchless website.