The Tradition of Innovation
By Paolo Casertano and Martin Schray
We will try for once to discard the monolithic cohesion of our peaceful blog. We don’t like Eve Risser's "En Corps" (Bang!). Or better, we don’t think it is that much of an album. Pleasurable, laden with tension and well played, but what else? Its presence could even be accepted in the "2012 Best Album List" because, as ancient Romans loved to say, “de gustibus non est disputandum” (and we totally disagree with this). But its position in the 2012 most innovative albums list (and actually winning the contest)?
According to Joe Morris’s essay “Perpetual Frontier” and in a modest attempt to infer some basic thoughts from it (the book is so full of important and powerful concepts about free music that any effort to summarize it, is inconceivable), innovation can be achieved using totally new material- and this is really difficult to do but always worth trying - or altering pre-existing stuff. Or let’s use Evan Parker’s words again: “It’s a question of finding a new path in an essentially known landscape (…). We sort of know the territory and when we get to the edges of the territory, what happens then? Can we see something we didn’t see? We go to that corner of the territory but instead of looking back to the things we know, for once we take the chance to look out.”
What do we have in “En Corps”? There’s for sure an interesting use of the contrabass, nervously and perpetually bowed, matching to a precise, crescent presence of the drums; the idea of this anxious, recursive and never interrupted piano pattern on the low register - especially in the first long track - and then sudden, meaningful short inlays on the high register. Basically the three musicians are really inspired and they focus pretty well on a coherent and tight-knit development of the musical structure, both in its saturation moments and in the deflation of its peaks to introduce new variations. Should we really find an Achilles’ heel, probably exactly this systematic up & down (crescendo and diminuendo) is even too repeated in “Trans”, the first 35 minutes long piece of the record. And despite our being lovers of encores, that’s exactly what the second track sounds like. Last but not least the album is masterfully recorded and mastered. In general, we only have lots of words of appreciation for this work. This is definitely free music in its approach (so far Parker’s definition fits) and this aspect is well enhanced by the fact that you can repeatedly listen to it without developing a feeling of tiring familiarization. But still we can’t see the miracle, the masterpiece. Is this reductionist approach such an innovation?
Although we find that the album creates an interesting atmosphere, it looks as if it has been overrated. If it has to be a piano trio why “En Corps” and not “Cousin It” by Maya Dunietz? Or Niggenkemper/Nabatov/Cleaver’s “Upcoming Hurricane”? Or Levity’s “Afternoon Delights”? Or Matthew Shipp’s trio? Where is the magical moment on this album? Sometimes it sounds like driving with the emergency brake on. Isn’t Stian Westerhus more innovative improvising with unconventional techniques and including the natural feedback of the venue where he’s playing in the composition? What about Eli Keszler and his self-built mechanical devices coexisting with players? Or why don’t we appreciate the groundbreaking experiments with phonemes that Nate Wooley faces in “ Syllables”?
Well, you could argue that it's impossible to quantify the innovative level of an album, and hence compare musicians. And usually really innovative musicians are the ones at ease both with adventurous paths and with traditional knowledge. Wooley is again a good example, but let us remind you that almost forty years ago Lou Reed released “Metal Machine Music ” just few years after “Transformer”. But still, if we have the privilege to express our opinions on music, we must find some common elements to allow for comparison and communication. Otherwise sharing thoughts about it is pointless. It can’t be just about personal tastes.
On the other hand 150 people and the clear majority of our fellow reviewers (only Paul, Ananth, and the two of us don’t have it in our Top Ten) can’t be wrong. Can they?
Looking forward to hear your copious and discordant voices.
The Innovation of Tradition
First, let me thank Paolo and Martin for opening this debate because I think it's one worth having. Second, their reaction also demonstrates that this blog does not favour special styles or subgenres or schools of thought. We have no "editiorial line" as this is usually called. We favour freedom of thought and expression and the collision of ideas just as we also enjoy the collision of sounds in music, as the basis of a richer outcome.
Paolo and Martin, as you say from the start : it is difficult to argue about taste, yet you conclude that there must be some common traits otherwise communication in words about it is impossible.
I am not a music theorist, nor do I aspire to be one. My reference is the personal listening experience, that's where it starts - and possibly ends. I can try to rationalise that experience and explain why I like the music, but that will always be a meager reflection of my feelings when listening to it.
If I compare my listening experience from Eve Risser's "En Corps" with the other albums you mention, I can only say the following. I have rarely listened to an album that manages to restrict its use of notes to a minimum, while at the same time creating a huge boiling mass of acoustic sound that engulfes you from the very beginning, carries you along and drops you off exhausted at the end. I think it is this unavoidable physicality of it that makes "En Corps" unique. I have no words for this. Its vision is singular, relentless and without compromise throughout. Both Risser and Duboc limit their number of notes to a minimum, and you could say they borrow from the minimalist school. What they add to this, is this incredible exuberance of pulse and hypnotic repetition, with Perraud doing a great job here, which takes it completely out of minimalism, but rather in the area of "maximalism" if that term exists. If minimalsim is usually intimate, this album is as expansive as it gets, or almost. As you rightly point out, it's this effect of "driving with the brakes on" that creates the required tension between restraint and abandon, between holding in and letting go. The innovation lies exactly here, in the mix of the two, in this minimalist expansiveness, something I have not heard before, a paradox that I have not yet experienced musically before. That's where the music gets its incredible tension from. And that makes it innovative.
You can argue about the level of complexity, about pushing the boundaries of each of the artist's technical toolkit, of playing with timbre, arranging instruments, of use of phrases and melody and sound and rhythm. Yes, experimentation is necessary, but at the end of the day it's about the music itself, they way it is presented and perceived by the listener. The complexities of innovation as such should not necessarily be understood by the listener, they should be experienced (rational choice by the artist versus emotional reception by the listener). Experimentation is a technical thing (or formal or structural if you wish). Innovation a musical thing. The "how they do it", is always at the service of the "what it does to me". You can use "known" elements, and create a new universe with it. You can also use unknown elements, and create no universe at all. I can cite numerous albums by artists who try stuff that "doesn't work" (at least to me) ... and actually I have piles of them here. It's exactly in the interaction between artist and listener that the innovative nature of the music becomes evident. The musician needs the listener to understand whether the formal, technical trial somehow touched an emotional chord that makes you want to listen again (starting with themselves, of course). Without an audience, there is no innovation.
We created the HAPPY NEW EARS AWARD to allow both reviewers and visitors to the blog to select what they thought was their most innovative listening experience, clearly emphasising the listener's viewpoint, not the artist's use of novel ingredients. I also had albums on my list that did not make it to the final list that was voted for, because we asked which albums should figure on the list and we tried to integrate this input. Some of the albums you mention are on the shortlist. I hope that they will receive more attention because of this competition, which of course has its drawbacks and limitations. We all know that. It's just a fun way of giving innovation some more dedicated attention.
There are no criteria for innovation, because that would be a contradiction. We can only add subjective experiences of individuals who find something innovative, as compared to their previous music experience.
On a side note: I do not think Lou Reed's "Transformer" (1972) was innovative, nor do I think that his "Metal Machine Music" (1975) was innovative either, but his "Berlin" (1973) for sure was, in its intimate dark degenerate sadness, and coherent at that, music like a deep open wound. Like lots of so-called innovation, "Metal Machine Music" was a musical statement - like John Cage's "4'33""or even a political statement, like lots of political avant-garde art that is made to shock, and these acts have their place too, also in jazz. But it's not because it's extreme that it's innovative, in my opinion. Even Lou Reed admitted he never listened to "Metal Machine Music" in its entirety. The innovation is only when you make it relevant to an audience that appreciates it, when you turn experiment it into Art, into something meaningful. But that is really an opinion based on personal taste. I hope there are no fixed criteria for this.
Other opinions are more than welcome!