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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Marcus Schmickler and Thomas Lehn – Neue Bilder (Mikroton, 2017) ****

I find it a challenge to write about the music of Marcus Schmickler and Thomas Lehn. A challenge because it is a rather abstract soundscape where one can move through or get lost in, and a challange because it is a new universe of sound and music production for me.

Marcus Schmickler is a Cologne-based composer and musican, producing his sounds via his computer. I saw him live on stage one or two years ago: a tall man standing behind his computer, concentrated and calm, though the sounds he produces are wild and often confusing and his music is rather abstract. Through a little internet research, I realized that his compositions are based on a rather complex theoretical background, which makes me question if I am the right person to write about his music. I mean, I don't know the programme he uses. I do not produce electronic music myself, and I lack the theoretical background Schmickler has built around his compositions. 

But continuing on ... where Schmickler uses the computer and digital sounds, Thomas Lehn works with an analog synthesizer (at least on his collaborations here). He also lives in Cologne and will celebrate his 60th birthday this year (Congratulations!!) Besides his duos with Schmickler he is a worldwide active musician with the piano (lesser in recent years) and the synthesizer. He performs composed works for electronic music and improvises live.

On their album  Neue Bilder (New Pictures), the duo presents two tracks of live performances, each title names the date of the event.

Track 1 '12022016' starts with some long whimping sounds, two, three, four of them. Clicking noises say hello, and as you might already know it is difficult to describe abstract improvised electronic music with words used for music in a more "classical" sense. After three minutes a plane lands somewhere and some kind of radiowave gets disrupted. Six minutes in, an electronic wind moves through some kind of desert, building an echo (I don't know how!) before someone tries to play an old vinyl that cracks and hisses. That cracking sound gets reproduced and amplified and a lot more is going on. In fact, it takes around 14 of the 17 minutes of track one till I hear sounds that evoke some associations with instrumental sounds.

Track 2 '9112013' (recorded more than two years earlier) continues the journey through a soundscape that is not mapped out - at least not with the usual instruments. (I have to say that Schmickler and Lehn are by far not the only ones moving in that area. There are a lot of musicans creating abstract electronic music: Merzbow, Microstoria, Mouse on Mars, Ikue Mori and others. But Schmickler and Lehn are rather radical in their approach. And the difficulty in putting words to this kind of music remains the same with almost all of them.) This one starts with more distortion, more clicks and cracks and the longer sounds follow only after the first minute.

Both tracks carry a tension with them as they move between intense and loud parts and almost absolute silence, and in both tracks there is that plane landing somewhere. For my ears it is difficult to recognize the different parts each artists plays. I actually don't know what sound is produced by Schmickler's computer and which comes from Lehn's synthesizer. And with this in mind, this is the closest to a classic 'duo' that you can get: the sounds heard on the album are the work of a good working partnership. It is a duo in which I do not hear not two separate 'nerds' with their 'toys'.
So, after all the challenge and doubt, just how does it feel to hear this album? Is it worth the effort?

I say yes, absolutely!

First this blog and the people writing for it (and probably reading it) are always in search for new and unheard experiences. This was one for me or rather is still one, even though I've heard Schmickler live already. Second in all the abstract noise and sound I can hear or feel the cooperation of two likeminded musicians going to places they think are worth going to. It is a duo in the best sense. Third if you listen to it more than once you'll find structures and sounds that reoccur and they make you feel at home in that soundscape. Finally, last (but not least!!) I was captured by the sounds, by the unfamiliarity of this album. I enjoyed the journey with these two guys. I felt curiosity, unease but also relaxation in certain moments and started to look for more music from Schmickler and / or Lehn.

PS: Both tracks did undergo some editing and producing in June 2017. On youtube (link below) you can find the second track as it was presented live. I think I can hear the difference...

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Christian Lillingers GRUND— COR (Plaist Music, 2018) *****

By Martin Schray

2017 was Christian Lillinger’s year. He was awarded the prestigious SWR jazz prize, he founded his own label Plaist Music, he released great (and successful) albums like We Know Not What We Do with his band Amok Amor and Dicht, his duo with Tobias Delius. Apart from his already existing projects like Grünen, qÖÖlp, KUU!, Schnell or Gropper/Graupe/Lillinger he also initiated a new one, Punkt.vrt.Plastik, with bassist Petter Eldh and pianist Kaja Draksler. However, his most exciting project is GRUND, a septet consisting of members with whom Lillinger has interacted and worked together in a wide range of combinations: with bassist Robert Landfermann and pianist Achim Kaufmann he’s the wonderful piano trio Grünen, with Tobias Delius (sax, clarinet) he plays in the above-mentioned duo, Pierre Borel (alto sax) is a part of Schnell, and with Christopher Dell (vibraphone) and Jonas Westergaard he forms another great trio.

COR is GRUND’s fourth album, after First Reason and Second Reason (both on Clean Feed) and Grund (Pirouet). To cut a long story short - it’s their best so far. As usual, GRUND’s music is partly notated and partly improvised. On the one hand, Lillinger experiments with sounds on this album, no matter where they come from, whether he finds them in new classical music, improv, electronica or jazz. Even if it’s a cliché: the journey’s the reward, he wants everything to be possible in his approach. On the other hand, the band creates different kinds of energy levels that increase and decrease constantly. In order to achieve this, the compositions are often about time, about different tensions, about density and expansion.

This becomes obvious in tracks like “Kubus“ and “Dralau“, for example. The first one begins with unison saxophone themes, in the course of the piece some become faster, some slower. The hyperactive playing of the whole ensemble intensifies the already tense atmosphere. The second one presents a hectic off-hand head, the saxophones act like MCs (drum’n’bass is another sound influence). Vibraphone and bass counter the head with melodies that are rhythmically different. The track seems to come apart at the seams, which is also the result of improvised high speed soloing.

All this is interesting and exciting and would guarantee a very good album, but the reason why it’s exceptional is the fact that there are absolute highlights: “Welt am Draht (Lnch)“ is a composition based on different layers, which open up different spaces with bowed cymbals, vibraphone, basses and the inside strings of the piano. Achim Kaufmann also plays the Fender Rhodes on this track, a new element Lillinger has introduced on this album. Although the band only uses acoustic instruments (with the exception of the Fender Rhodes, of course) the music sounds as if it was
completely electronic, shrill space sounds ricochet through the air. The title is inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 series of the same name and the films by David Lynch, whose name is only hinted at here (Lnch). Although the track is spooky, off-the-wall and psychedelic, it also deals with mere beauty in a bizarre soundscape. It reminds me of the music of György Ligeti.

The second outstanding piece is “Carotis“, which starts with a weird flowing pulse created by Robert Landfermann’s bass, from which a solo by Tobias Delius is culled out. Like in “Welt am Draht“ the Fender Rhodes, the piano and the vibraphone display a dense atmosphere consisting of actually isolated parts, echoes from Borel’s saxophone are heard. The result is a warped mesh, again the composition tends to total deconstruction, however, in the end the clear structure and the melodies are back and restore a certain order.

Each of the nine compositions on COR is a fascinating, complex cosmos, there’s a lot to discover. Christian Lillinger says that for him “this band is an organism that makes no compromises“. It’s his dream constellation of an ensemble. Finally, the album proves that Lillinger is not only a superb drummer (to me he’s the most interesti one at the moment) but also a great composer.

Although it’s only January I can’t imagine that there’ll be ten better albums this year. One of the best albums I’ve heard recently.

COR is available as a CD, a download and on vinyl (limited 180g edition).

You can buy it from

Listen to a snippet from “Welt am Draht“:

and watch “Pferdinant“, a track from Grund live:

Monday, January 29, 2018

Amok Amor - We Know Not What We Do (Intakt, 2017) ****

By Martin Schray

The quartet Amok Amor was founded upon the existing trio of Christian Lillinger (drums), Petter Eldh (bass) and Wanja Slavin (alto sax), who wanted to augment their band with another reedist in order to expand their sound spectrum. At a festival in Austria they teamed up with Peter Evans (trumpet) - it was a match made in heaven.

Of course such a line-up evokes memories of the legendary Ornette Coleman Quartet with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell however, this music is completely different. Amok Amor, rather, is interested in sound colors, apart from jazz their influences also include classical avant-garde, hiphop and beat music propelled by a punkish attitude. For most parts the music is a tour de force of call-and-response patterns, rhythmic diversions, complicated metric figures and deconstructed harmonic fragments.

"Pulsar", the opening track, continues the concept of their debut album (Boomslang Records, 2015). It’s an eight-and-a-half-minutes monster of permanent alert. Evans’ sharp trumpet lines are foiled by Slavin’s precise alto stabs, a row of signal-like short phrases is embedded in damaged beats. The track spills over with velocity and density literally assailing the listener, it’s on the verge of demanding too much (but it doesn’t cross this line). Evans and Slavin trade blows on a vast number of tonal and phrasal elements topped by Eldh and Lillinger delivering a crazy rhythmic hotbed. Especially Eldh’s bass constantly pumps new blood into the veins of the track. At the end there’s a single trumpet tone, carved in stone, accompanied by hi-hat barrage. That’s how it feels when you’re punched directly on the kisser.

The album contains similar tracks like “Trio Amok“ or “The New Portal“ but it is more than just a second brew of the debut. For example, there are two points of rest on We Know Not What We Do: the Peter Evans composition “Alan Shorter“, a homage to Wayne’s older brother, and Wanja Slavin’s “Jazzfriendship“. In the first Slavin’s alto sax sounds like a flute, seducing Evans’ trumpet to come up with phrases cool as a Miles Davis riff from Ascenseur Pour L'Échafaud. The latter presents a head which is close to easy listening, mirroring certain motives by playing them backwards.

Additionally, the album provides another novelty compared to the first one: the use of electro-acoustic elements (strangely, it’s not mentioned in the liner notes who’s responsible for them). The finale of the album, “A Run Through the Neoliberalism“ starts like the opener. But then the electronics pick up the head of the reeds, slow it down and alienate it. Christian Lillinger said that the piece was meant to be a political statement, that there was more to it than just music, it was about the attitude behind it.

All in all, We Know Not What We Do combines effortlessness and complexity, a lust for improv and an absolute awareness of form and structure. It’s a great example of precise musicianship and inventiveness, a postmodern smorgasbord of exactitude and zigzagging playfulness.

Unfortunately, it seems that the project’s been put on ice in the meantime, there are no further plans for albums or tours in the near future. At least, there are two wonderful CDs that document the music of this superb group.

You can buy We Know Not What We Do from the label: or at

Listen to“Pulsar“ here:

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Chris Speed Trio – Platinum on Tap (Intakt, 2017) ***½

By Troy Dostert

There’s no questioning saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Speed’s value as a sideman: in the last few years alone, he’s made essential contributions in support of many of the leading lights in today’s creative jazz scene. Records like Matt Mitchell’s Vista Accumulation, Michael Formanek’s The Distance , or most recently, Craig Taborn’s Daylight Ghosts wouldn’t be the same without Speed’s distinctive combination of melodic subtlety and carefully-crafted precision. But Speed has made less of a mark when it comes to his own projects. That may be changing, though: starting with 2014’s Really Ok (on his own Skirl Records imprint), Speed seems to be putting more of an emphasis on realizing his own vision, and using a sax-bass-drums trio format to do it. This is a particularly demanding context for a horn player, of course, as the heavy lifting is invariably going to fall on the saxophonist’s shoulders, even when the other components of the trio are top-shelf.

And Speed’s colleagues here are indeed top-shelf, with bassist Chris Tordini and drummer Dave King not only his original bandmates on Really Ok but also folks he worked with on Taborn’s Daylight Ghosts (King) and Mitchell’s Vista Accumulation (Tordini). These are players who know each other exceptionally well, and they have every reason to be able to forge a synergy that will pay rich dividends. It also seems evident that Speed sees this as an opportunity to make a major statement, not only about his technical skills as a saxophonist but in relation to the jazz tradition as a whole: while most of the record’s ten tracks are Speed’s own compositions, the two covers (Albert Ayler’s “Spirits” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust”) seem strategically selected to draw our focus to the sweeping expanse of the history of this music, thereby allowing Speed to make a unique contribution to it. There are thus some pretty hefty expectations that accompany this music. Does it fulfill them?

Yes and no. There’s an undeniable chemistry between the three musicians, and when they bear down on a groove, as happens especially on hard-driving tracks like “Arrival High” or “Crossface Cradle,” the King-Tordini axis is perfect in catalyzing, sustaining and commenting upon Speed’s extensive skeins of notes, and the energy the three generate is addictive. Speed covers a lot of ground with a tenacious intensity on the freewheeling “Crooked Teeth,” and King too seems especially inspired here, with lots of fluidity and multiple directions he follows in conversation with the others. Even on a less ostentatious track like “Pretty Much,” Speed offers probing phrases that create interest through their imaginative tuneful and rhythmic explorations, while Tordini and King generate a steady swinging tempo that avoids becoming static or monotonous.

But it’s not a flawless record, something that becomes particularly apparent on the covers. On an old standard like “Stardust,” there’s nowhere to hide for a tenor saxophonist in this trio format, and Speed’s delivery and ideas are somewhat lackluster. It’s not a throwaway track, coming in at five and a half minutes, but there’s simply not enough melodic invention or passion there to make it work. The same can be said, perhaps more surprisingly, for Ayler’s “Spirits,” where despite the spark that the trio produces, Speed seems to be going through the motions. It doesn’t help that the track is the shortest on the record at under three minutes—not enough time for the three to dig in and inhabit it fully. It ends just as Speed seems to be starting to catch fire, actually.

Part of the problem may be due to the recording itself, which on some of the tracks places a kind of veil over Speed: he’s too far receded in the mix. Given that Speed’s tone tends to be on the arid side to begin with, he needed to be much more forward in the recording—especially given that it’s his date.

These quibbles aside, this remains a worthwhile addition to Speed’s catalog. In some respects, lofty expectations may themselves be partially to blame for the music’s occasional shortcomings, as the potential here was sky-high. Perhaps the third time around will truly be the charm for this group.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Quin Kirchner - The Other Side of Time (Astral Spirits, 2018) ****

By David Menestres

The Other Side of Time is the first album to be released by Chicago based percussionist Quin Kirchner. The album features a top notch band with Nick Broste on trombone, Nate Lepine on flute and tenor saxophone, Jason Stein on bass clarinet, and Matt Ulery on bass. The album is comprised of roughly half original tunes by Kirchner and half covers of music by Sun Ra, Charles Mingus, Andrew Hill, Arthur Verocai, Paul Motian, and Kelan Phil Cohran. The Other Side of Time is a long album, with fifteen tracks spread over almost ninety minutes.

The covers mostly work very well, capturing the spirit of the originals through solid arrangements and burning solos. Stein’s bass clarinet solo on Sun Ra’s “Brainville” is on point. “Mumbo Jumbo” functions as a lovely tribute to the late Paul Motian. The final cut is a beautiful reading of the Charles Mingus classic “Self-Portrait in Three Colors” which, like the original, is basically just a straight reading of the melody. “Karina” is a fascinating cover of Brazilian composer Arthur Verocai’s original and provides a nice counterpoint to the mostly bebop fair on the rest of the album. Cohran’s “Armageddon” is the most free tune on the album, as one would probably expect.

The only cover that doesn’t work for me is the mashup of Andrew Hill’s “Limbo” with “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers” by Charles Mingus. The arrangement of “Limbo” is on point, the solos from Broste and Lepine are excellent, but the Mingus theme feels tacked on and is not developed past a slow statement of the melody that builds beautifully but then ends rather abruptly. The relationship between the two themes isn’t explored in anyway which seems to be a lost opportunity.

Kirchner’s originals fit in very well with the covers. The opener “Ritual” is a nice invocation to set up the album. “Resounder” is a fierce three minutes of solo explorations from Kirchner. “Drums & Tines Parts 1 & 2” and “Ripple” are also all solo Kirchner tracks. “Flutter” is a gorgeous duet for percussion and bass clarinet. “Wondrous Eyes” is a lovely slow sizzle of a tune. “Together We Can Explore the Furthest Beyond” is a nice ballad where the band is joined by Ben Boye on piano.

The album is basically straight ahead modern bebop and works quite well. The arrangements are tight and well performed. The solos are consistently interesting. If you’re a fan of a hot band playing modern bebop, and I imagine many of the readers of this blog are, The Other Side of Time is worth a listen. A solid first album from Kirchner, I look forward to hearing what he does as a leader in the future.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Francisco López - Untitled #352 (Nowhere Worldwide, 2017) ****½

Untitled #352 was created from original environmental sound matter recorded at the Régie de Chauffage Urbain / RCU (urban boiler plant facility) in Fontenay-sous Bois, near Paris. The album has two independent sections: the MANTRAcks and the soundtrack to the audio-only installation-performance project Exposure by Anne Collod. First, I will discuss the MANTRAcks.

There are 10 MANTRAcks, and each runs for exactly half an hour. They are all long drones, constructed from the earlier mentioned boiler plant recordings, layered and mutated. The tracks all have 2-minute fade-ins, 3-minute fade-outs, and no other progression. Simply put, these are 10 of the most meticulously and masterfully built electronic drones I've ever heard. Since the music never moves, it takes on the qualities of a wall of sound, or rather, a painting. It becomes the listener's duty to focus on the individual layers, textures and sounds, which is not at all dissimilar to a viewer attempting to take in a painting. The liner notes highly recommend dedicated listening with headphones, and this reviewer strongly agrees – there are so many intricacies and nuances happening all along the tracks' dynamic ranges that half of the album's appeal may be lost under poor listening conditions. It's no coincidence that the album was released exclusively as a USB with lossless files, as it makes listening under different conditions more difficult.

I mentioned the dynamic ranges of the MANTRAcks, and they're likely the most perplexing thing about these pieces. The different tracks all experiment with frequencies, including several layers of extremely limited frequencies. Taking a peak at the spectrograms is truly an odd experience for this album. Where the first track looks relatively full, with a thick cluster in the high and very low areas, the last track has nothing more than a soft cluster in the very high end and a thick cluster in the very low. I earlier compared these tracks to paintings – perhaps these bizarre spectrograms are what he is painting? There is a sense of progression when one scrolls through the ten spectrograms: clusters move up and down, empty sections appear and expand, patterns emerge. The patterns are potentially coincidental, due to the tracks following similar ideas and experiments, but occurrences such as how the top of MANTRAck 10's spectrogram nearly perfectly match the bottom of MANTRAck 09 feel too good to be coincidental, adding a level of conceptuality to the pieces.

Even free of the conceptuality and technical jargon, the MANTRAcks work wonderfully on an emotional level, recalling why they're called MANTRAcks (López calls them extensive electric mantras, actually) in the first place. At their hearts, the MANTRAcks are really just a series of related long-form mood pieces. It can be interesting to investigate the layers and mixing of the pieces, but I believe that the true purpose of the pieces is to have the listeners lay back with their headphones on, close their eyes and fade out – turning off the body, and letting the brain roam free. Much like the words of a mantra, the sounds of a MANTRAck mean nothing – there is no poetic or emotional core, no concept or allegory which demands thought. The tracks are just raw, stagnant sound, in its most personal state, allowing listeners to simply interact with the sound without bothering with the complexities of the music. A mantra is bound to resonate with different people differently, creating different mental and emotional responses, but I've found all 10 pieces to be effective in slightly different ways. When looking at the tracks in this way, 10 30-minute tracks no longer seems so crazy – it's just 10 separate possibilities for aural meditation.

Up next is Soundtrack 'Exposure', a massive departure from the MANTRAcks. Although placed at the end of the album, this was actually the first creation to come from the boiler plant recordings. As earlier stated, the piece is the "audio-only installation-performance soundtrack" of the choreographic project Exposure by Anne Collod. It was premiered for blindfolded audiences at the boiler plant facility in 2017. It is also stated that this version of the track is actually a stereo mixdown of the original 46-channel piece. I couldn't find any English resources on the project so I don't completely understand it, sadly, but that's hardly important for enjoying the piece – and the piece is incredibly enjoyable.

The recordings are actually considerably less modified and mutated than they are on the MANTRAcks, although the music itself is far more complex. But as with many of López's pieces, the magic comes from the track's unorthodox and subtle progression. The track starts off quite a bit busier than Francisco López fans are likely used to – with the sounds of processes switching on and off. It is likely the sounds of pistons or pressure being released, but it sounds like little more than penetrating jabs of white noise. It builds and builds, layers add and amplify, until we're at what's essentially a constant white noise drone. It continues to grow and feels absolutely massive – like an all-encompassing sound mass which perfectly covers the entire frequency range. After 6 minutes it stops building, even dropping a prominent low-end layer to focus on the stunning high-end buzzes, but the dB level continues to grow until the 8-minute park – nearly half of the piece is complete. This first half, in my opinion, is incredible. López has written many pieces with long building drones which leads to sudden cuts, but this is different. It starts out innocuous and simple, even rhythmic. But, that sense of rhythm begins to fade away and it builds into something bizarre and terrifying. It becomes hard to imagine how much further it can go, but it just keeps on building. The climax of this build is some of the most affective music López has ever constructed.

After the cut, the piece makes a sharp term towards nuanced simplicity. A single quiet layer (what sounds to be a single layer, that is) of snaps, crackles and pops persists for several minutes, before transferring into some low-end bubbling which maintains the soft and momentary nature of the previous sound. Several annoying and high-pitched buzzes gradually join the mix and begin to harmonize, one after another, and before the listener knows it they're back in López's aural maelstrom which is more confusing and off-putting than before. Perhaps this moment's frustrating ambiguous nature is meant to directly conflict with the emotional simplicity and easy effectiveness of the drone which opened the piece. Soon enough, no individual layers can be heard and the piece is once again little more than a massive white noise. In the last three minutes of the piece, López begins to pick off the low-end layers, turning the noise into a high-pitch harmony which itself fades into nothingness, bringing the piece to an end.

It's wonderful. It's slow, nuanced and provocative. It's uncompromising in its avant-garde nature, but it works to elicit a direct emotional response from the listener (which of course is quite ambiguous). Even though it's only 20 minutes long, it feels just as large in scope as his hour-long pieces. It's said that the piece was debuted with 46 channels to a blindfolded audience – what an amazing experience that must have been! I am often critical of soundtracks, but I think that due to the different nature of the soundtrack (being to an audio-only installation-performance) it makes for perfectly fine at-home listening, over speakers or headphones (although López strongly recommends headphone listening for the MANTRAcks, he says nothing about the soundtrack).

Untitled #352 comes in two sections, and they are both massive successes. Although one section is 15x larger than the other, they each exist independently and are absolutely essential. The pieces all work well on their own, and can constitute as 11 separate listening experiences (as the artist likely intended), but they work quite well in sequence as well – the MANTRAcks create different emotional atmospheres which can be felt like drifting moods when heard in sequence, also allowing the listener to pay attention to the conceptual nature of the filtered sounds, and the soundtrack works as a wonderful grand finale to the evening. López's ideas and compositions are great here, but to add to it, he's picked fantastic source materials as well. The boiler plant is full of mechanical life; there are so many isolated and nuanced sounds, all finely tuned for non-musical purposes. Every sound is full of purpose, stemming from meticulously engineered machines, when in nature and performance one would likely mistake them for accidental. When wonderful source material meets wonderful ideas and masterful sound editing, something special occurs – and something special has occurred on Untitled #352.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Christian Wolff/ Eddie Prévost - Uncertain Outcomes: Two Concerts of Experimental Improvisation (Matchless Recordings, 2017) *****

By Stuart Broomer

All music challenges the relevance of written response (whether by its simultaneity of effects or its heartless invitation to a certain in-built will to verbal description, a kind of failed translation worse than Google), but few musics challenge articulate response with quite the same perfection achieved by drummer Eddie Prévost and much of the work with which he’s associated and which appears with some regularity on Matchless Recordings.

Prévost emerged over fifty years ago as a member of AMM with the composer Cornelius Cardew, the guitarist Keith Rowe and the recently deceased saxophonist Lou Gare, an original and unfortunately underknown musician. Since then Prévost has been both the singular constant in AMM (though Rowe and pianist John Tilbury have each been members for decades, some overlapping) and the keeper of Matchless, both AMM’s outlet and that of its closely allied developments—other bands, workshops, a certain set of approaches to improvisation--in which Prévost has been deeply involved. He would have done a valuable service to improvised music if he were responsible only for recording the French band Hubbub and the brilliant English saxophonist Seymour Wright, but he has done far more. He represents a major and demanding wing of improvised music.

This music is relatively easy to listen to, but description is challenging: it’s always the same and yet always different; it’s frequently refined, spare and extended, to the extent that a certain compulsively structural listening and a critical verbalization disappear as the music slowly unfolds, leaving in their place a serene experience of spontaneously evolving music, the materiality of sound and exchange, that is diminished by the self-consciousness of verbal response. When it is briefly perceivable as hasty and harsh, its messages are just as rich and profound. All of this is only heightened by the quality and depth of Prévost’s own commentary on the music and its social and philosophical resonances, beginning with his book No Sound Is Innocent: AMM and the Practice of Self-Invention: Meta-musical Narratives (Copula, 1995) and continuing to the “musician’s note” that accompanies Uncertain Outcomes, an essay that explores “experimental improvisation” from the early work of John Cage and AMM’s work with Cardew, the specific entry points respectively of Christian Wolff, who plays piano here, and Prévost himself.

The set documents two concerts. CD1, recorded at Iklectik in London in September 2015, is in two parts, 37 and 18 minutes in length; CD2, recorded at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, in July 2016 is a singular 50-minute piece. Each musician restricts himself to a relative narrow palate. Prévost uses a bass drum as both drum and resonator and explores bowing and scraping cymbals for sustained metallic sounds, with very rare eruptions of multiple sounds. Wolff plays piano with even greater delicacy, from isolated sustained tones, alternated intervals, subtle use of plucked strings and minimal preparation and an occasional brief melodic figure. A keyboard wind instrument, perhaps a melodica, arises brieflyin both concerts.

In the longer first segment of the concert at Iklectic, the resonant musings of one musician summon and enfold the response of the other. There’s a kind of microscopic grandeur at work here, little sonic events assuming a scale based on the attention they demand. Fairly modest bursts of activity (a gong, a splashed cluster, an ascending series of dissonant intervals), however, are sufficiently foregrounded to take on a mysterious drama. The second, relatively brief piece is initially more animated, with Prévost generating a greater range of sounds; midway through, it sounds like the instruments are being played by a strong breeze. These are fleeting impressions. The work’s on-going shape is a diagram of flux. Nothing is predictable, yet everything is sustained.

The Dartmouth performance has a greater resemblance to dialogue, with each individual gesture triggering a distinct reaction from the other musician, gradually evolving responsorial patterns. A brief prepared piano utterance gives rise to the sustained sound of bowed metal; a scraped cymbal suddenly gives direct rise to a piano chord. Our ability to describe it is brutally simplistic. The music is not. Every sound, every second, every silence is nuanced, subtle, telling, resonant with something like consciousness. 

The upshot of listening and reflecting on Uncertain Outcomes is that I emerge feeling better for the listening and with less to say than I began, something oddly akin to reaching the end of David Markson’s The Last Novel, but cheerful rather than despairing, liberated from language rather than buried by it.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Magda Mayas & Jim Denley - Tempe Jetz (Relative Pitch, 2017) ****

Berlin based pianist Madga Mayas takes the concept of prepared piano seriously. I have seen her in concert a few times and I cannot recall her sitting at the keyboard and playing, rather there have been implements and attachments applied to it and she is pulling sound from them. Jim Denley, whom I have not seen play, is an Australia based saxophonist, flautist, and composer. Together on Tempe Jetz, they combine their energies to create a haunting ephemeral work.

Though the title refers to an artists space within an abandoned sports club in Sydney, it is located next to an airport, and the track titles seem to reference a journey, and what I would assume is an international flight ('A Departure', 'Customs Declaration', 'In Transit', and 'Arrival'). For me, when I fly, my goal is to will myself into a state of suspended animation. The thought of being fully awake through TSA lines, waiting at gates, and shoehorning oneself into a tiny seat on a stuffed plane is just too much. The parallel that I draw is that the music on Tempe Jetz is a perfect soundtrack for shutting the outside off and listening closely to an inner world.

The music works at nearly a subliminal level, and it seems that playing a barely functional clavinet is nearly dreamlike in its own right as Mayas turns this intentional instrument choice into an impressive array of sounds. Luxuriating in these textures, pulses, and reverberations, she presents to Denley a open palette for his own textural, pulsating, and breathy sounds. Mixed in are field recordings as well, adding a little extra color to the tones being reciprocated between Mayas and Denley.

For an album referencing travel, there is actually very little in grand movements, rather the sounds are small, quiet, and plentiful. Towards the end of the third track, 'In Transit', fittingly, tempo and volume increase, but soon dissipate. However, the effect is to draw you in closer, make you hear the key clicks, string scrapes, and eventually end up on a very different type of journey. Quite lovely in an unexpected way.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Møster/Parker/Abrams/Herndon – Ran Do (Clean Feed, 2017) ****

By Chris Haines

You’ve really got to hand it to Clean Feed, at a time when many other record labels are on the verge of existence or are cutting back on the amount of yearly releases, Clean Feed (and a few others like them) are still continuing to not only put out a great amount of music each year, but are also ensuring the quality and interest of the music that they decide to release.

Having been a Tortoise fan in my earlier years I was interested to see that two members (Jeff Parker, guitar, and John Herndon, drums) of that old post-rock group were together in the line-up of this recent Clean Feed release, alongside the saxophonist Kjetil Møster, with Joshua Abrams on bass rounding out the quartet. On first listen it was refreshing to note that there were no nods to their past or inappropriate post-rockisms being forced into the improvisational context, and the music came across as being fresh and in the moment. This is not to say that the music doesn’t sit comfortably within a free improvisational/jazz aesthetic, as the structures and sounds used are clearly of that ilk, but it has been done without a rehashing of old forms that offer nothing but a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

As group interaction goes this particular recording offers the listener a collective experience, with the musicians at times resisting archetypal predispositions and musical roles, instead preferring to mine the seam of equality, which produces a rich tapestry of sounds and textures without any one sound dominating for more than necessary within the musical flow. ‘Anicca’, the longest track on the album, illustrates this beautifully, where the flux of sounds change over time from a European sounding improv opening to a bass and drum groove, to a balladesque form for sax and guitar, which builds slightly into a more agitated setting before an arrhythmic, subtle, and ethereal ending. It’s not surprising to find that it’s garnished with a fitting title - Anicca being the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence. ‘Dig Me Out’ also provides us with an egalitarian form in a freely improvised setting, as does the shortest track ‘Island Life’ with its reflective bowed double bass melodies.

The album is book-ended by ‘Orko’ and ‘Pajama Jazz’ where the bass and drums, provide a more traditional role in that of the rhythm section, particularly in the latter, with Parker on the guitar also providing a harmonic backing whilst Møster’s sax doodles and sketches out an array of subtle and understated shapes.

Ran Do is a refreshing album that sits well within the historical canon of improvised music, it provides us with a music that is made up of coalescing sounds which overall create a resonant wholeness.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Meet The Experimental Vocalists #2

Six vocal artists, each explore this unique artistry in his own, highly creative and personal way, and all remind us how much the voice itself - naked, manipulated and processed - is still one of the most powerful means of musical expression.  

Beam Splitter - Rough Tongue (Corvo Records, 2017) ****½

Beam Splitter is the duo of Chinese-American vocalist Audrey Chen, who also plays the cello and electronics in other projects, and Norwegian trombonist Henrik Munkeby Nørstebø. The duo began working in 2015 and has toured extensively since then on both sides of the Atlantic, often collaborating with other improvisers as vocal artist Phil Minton, electronics pioneer Bob Ostertag and trumpeter Lionel Kaplan. Tough Tongue, Beam Splitter’s debut album, was recorded live at the Viennese Rhiz club, at Caffeine Asperto in Ljubljana and in Berlin’s Weincafé, all during 2016. It is released in a limited-edition of 300 red vinyls plus download option.

Chen and Munkeby Nørstebø explores the spectrum between expressive, abstract vocals and the trombone as an instrument that channels pure bubbles of air and streams of breathes, intertwined in dense dialogues. Despite the abstract nature of Beam Splitter's aesthetics, Chen offers highly emotional and suggestive territories with her urgent, wordless lingo while Munkeby Nørstebø embraces gently her vocal forays with raw, tactile breathes, and serene drones. Both move organically, keeping a highly intimate, conversational mode, with their own senses of pulse and narrative development. The last, longest piece, “Sweet Nothings”, captured in Berlin’s Weincafé, introduces  rough elements of conflict and confrontation to Chen and Munkeby Nørstebø dialogues. These elements add a deeper, vulnerable dimension to Beam Splitter's intimate mode of sonic relationship. This 22-minutes piece concludes with newer, sweeter and compassionate understanding between these unique individuals.  

Redox - Orbitals (Creative Sources, 2017) ***½

Redox is the trio of Austrian, Graz-based vocal artist and electronics player Annette Giesriegl, pianist Katharina Klement and Croatian, and Brussels-based marimba player Kaja Farszky. All are performers of contemporary music as well as bold improvisers. Redox was formed in 2014 and Orbitals is its debut album,  recorded live in the Austrian town of Kumberg and in Croatia’s capital Zagreb in 2015 and 2016.

The term Redox - reduction-oxidation - refers to the process of transfer of electrons between two bodies, and redox reactions are used to power smartphones, laptops etc. Orbitals is the mathematical description of the wave-like behavior of electrons in atom. These elaborate, scientific terms do capture the essence of this trio. Redox operates in a busy, very vivid process of sharing, sculpting and charging voices and sounds with shifting elements of expressiveness, energy and momentum. The trio employs a wide arsenal of sounds - acoustic ones, extended ones with different vocal and breathing techniques as well as assorted piano and marimba preparations, and subtle electronics. Giesriegl, Klement and Farszky exchange roles constantly, each one intensifying the tension, the fragile pulse and narrative in her own distinct, eccentric manner. The nuanced and mysterious textures are developed in a methodical manner, insisting on an uncompromising investigation and experimentation with timbres and dynamics, with almost no attempt to suggest emotional release.    

And on Soundcloud.

Not On The Guest List - Free! Spirit! Chant! (Gaffer, 2017) ***1/2

Not On The Guest List consists of the Norwegian, Copenhagen-based drummer-percussionist Ole Mofjell and vocalist Natalie Sandtorv, a couple also in real life. Sandtorv is also an accomplished singer-songwriter who released recently the acclaimed album Freedom Nation (Øra Fonogram, 2017) and Mofjell is in-demand drummer who has collaborated with pianist Jacob Anderskov and sax players Tobias Delius, Anna Högberg and Aram Shelton.

Sandtorv uses her voice as an ecstatic, even hysterical instrument, sometimes dueling, often dancing passionately with the propulsive, schizophrenic drumming of Mofjell. Their deep, immediate understanding and almost telepathic connection allows Not On The Guest List to move instantly, back and forth, between highly intense and powerful free-improvised outbursts to delicate and soft stream of improvised lyrics, while holding their tight and focused interplay. Obviously, and quite often, Sandtorv and Mofjell improvisations sound as restless emotional conversations of two opinionated soul-mates, but both manage to keep the tension and surprise with their urgent and colorful spectrum of sonic references.

And on Soundcloud.

Tomomi Adachi & Jaap Blonk - Asemic Dialogues + Jaap Blonk - Irrelevant Comments (Kontrans, 2017) ****½ / ***½

Dutch vocal artist-sound poet-electronics player Jaap Blonk needs no introduction. Here he performs with lost twin, Japanese vocal artist Tomomi Adachi, who like Blonk, has performed contemporary works, collaborated with numerous improvisers, among them Akira Sakata, Otomo Yoshihide and Jon Rose, and adds electronics to his unique palette of vocal sounds. Blonk and Adachi performed together few times in the past but Asemic Dialogues is the first document of their work, capturing their live performances at Berlin’s Lettrétage on July 2017.

The title of this album says it all. No words or semantics are needed, but tons of verbal-emotional information is exchanged. These eccentric, restless twins dive immediately, head-on into noisy conversations that sound as secret, fragmented transmissions of two out-of-tune-aliens with extremely short spans of attention. These terrestrial creatures are clearly deeply in love, demonstrating great affinity for Dadaist vocal games and primitive techno beats. The second dialogue is even wilder than the first one and it seems that the beloved and adventurous vocal explorers were lost somewhere in deep, noisy space. These irresponsible anarchists show no sign of interest in return to mother Earth.  

The ones who are still novice in the art of Blonk may want to check his Irrelevant Comments, a sort of overview of all the things that Blonk can do: Musique concrète, beats, sound poetry, minimalist techno, horrific soundscapes and even weirder stuff. 16 pieces, dating from 1996 to 2016, recorded at Blonk’s home at Arnhem, Netherlands.

Native Instrument - Camo (Shelter Press, 2017) ***½

If Blonk toyed with "minimalist techno", Native Instrument explorers "insect techno." This Berlin-based duo of Norwegian abstract, minimalist vocalist Stine Janvin Motland, known from her past collaborations with drummer Ståle Liavik Solberg, and Australian field-recorder and sound-artist Felicity Mangan uses vocal and electronic adaptations of wildlife audio recordings originating mainly from the Australian and North European fauna. Native Instrument mixes the rhythms of the animal calls, add digital effects, radio recordings, and vocal imitations until the distinction between rural nature, electronics, and the human voice becomes ambiguous.

Camo is the debut EP release of Native Instrument. The four fascinating pieces entwine organically the natural voices with precise and subtle vocals and electronics layers. It doesn't take long before you begin to visualize the dances of frogs on acid, sweating in some steamy tropical ambience, jumping recklessly along some bug beats or experiencing the amphibian trance. Highly intoxicating stuff.

And on Soundcloud