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Saturday, August 14, 2021

A Double Helping of Evan Parker's Electro-Acoustic Ensemble

"We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us."
Marshall McLuhan

It's been close to a decade since there's been an official release by Evan Parker's Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, the last being Hasselt which was released on Parker's own psi imprint back in 2012, their first album post-ECM. Now on the heels of releases from the Parker/Lytton/Guy Trio in 2019 and the Parker/Lytton Duo in 2020, we have two new releases from Parker's EAE, an expansion of the Parker/Guy/Lytton trio for the exploration of live signal processing within the context of free improvisation. Parker has made incorporating electronics a part of his practice since his late 60's collaborations with Hugh Davies and in fact on the first album of their trio with Guy, 1983's Tracks, both bassist and drummer "use amplification and live electronics to extend the sound of their instruments." It's subtle, but practically sec compared with the brut of their later releases. In 1985 the trio made the excellent, electro-acoustic set Hook, Drift, & Shuffle with legend George Lewis, who also joined Parker on his tremendously engaging 2015 Electro-Acoustic Septet release (also released by Victo, a different group of musicians entirely with the exception of Parker).

The EAE formed in 1992, adding Phil Wachsmann (violins, electronics, and sound processing), Walter Prati (electronics and sound processing), and Marco Vecchi (electronics and sound processing) to complete the sextet, but the group didn't release a record until their excellent 1997 release Toward the Margins on ECM. The group added Lawrence Casserly on electronics and processing for 1999's Drawn Inward, which along with their debut was recorded in the studio. All of the EAEs subsequent releases have been recorded live, in concert.

The year 2002 saw the Ensemble expand to nine when they were joined by Agustí Fernández (piano) and Joel Ryan (computer and live processing) in Oslo, which was documented on 2003's Memory/Vision. On their 2005 release The Eleventh Hour, FURT (Paul Obermayer and Richard Barrett) joined the project (sampling keyboards) in addition to Adam Linson (double bass) for a 2004 date at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow. The group's cumulative expansion continued on 2009's The Moments Energy with the addition of Ned Rothenberg (clarinets), Ko Ishikawa (Sho), and Peter Evans (trumpets) for a show that was commissioned by the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

Finally, the aforementioned Hasselt documents concerts over a two day span, which to quote Parker were "...the culmination of a tour that defied the laws of cultural funding." The group swelled to 14 members with the addition of Peter van Bergen (clarinets), who filled in for Phil Wachsmann and Marco Vecchi (sound processing and sound projection) on their most ambitious release to date. So, that's a brief rundown of the whos-and-whats through the last couple of decades or so to help give some context for the significance of these two new releases. One that captures a live performance of the group during May 1996, the same month that they recorded Toward the Margins, and another at the 2019 Ad Libitum festival in Warzawa with what's essentially a re-tooled EAE, Lytton and Parker being the only original members (the original members, going back to their work as a duo).

That sets up quite a contrast and the recordings discussed herein do not disappoint. On the contrary, I would venture to say that these are two of their strongest thus far. Our colleague Stuart Boomer wrote the liner notes for both releases, and I must admit that I got the lion's share of my information about these recordings from said (excellent) notes as well as his insight filled essay on the EAE for his column in Point of Departure, Ezz-thetics . Finally, I realize the McLuhan quote is out of context (though context doesn't seem to stop anyone these days) but it also fits the EAEs M.O. so well I couldn't help myself. I hope our philosophy buff readers will forgive the slight transgression.

Fixing the Fluctuating Ideas (Victo, 2021) ****½

On Fixing the Fluctuating Ideas the original EAE is joined on the first piece by the Tuvan vocalist Sainko Namtchylak in a concert that offers a much appreciated window into their early live sound (they were a group for 6 years prior, touring the UK and performing in Berlin). Sainko and Parker performed earlier on May 15th at Toronto's Music Gallery as documented on the 1997 Victo release Mars Song en route to the Festival International de Musique Actually de Victoriaville (FIMAV) on May 19th of 1996 where this set was recorded. You'll probably either love Sainko's contributions or hate them (I'm solidly in the former category), as that seems to be the nature of 'free' vocals.

The first three minutes of 'Fixing' are hers alone, and she puts on a hell of a performance. Even detractors can't argue that she doesn't hold your complete attention with her coos, operatics, growls, screeches, squeals, snarls, shrieks, and other vehicles for futile descriptors. Then the sampling/live processing begins and Sainko whispers a melody, very softly, beneath processed samples of her vocals that have been twisted into monster forms. What follows is a haunted dialogue between the vocalist and sound processors that she balances out with a bit of sweetness, preceding the emergence of the acoustic instruments. Sainko integrates easily with the group, filling in open gaps with various techniques without it ever feeling forced or overwhelming. The DSP seemingly takes a hammer to the glass sculptures the band constructs, sending shards of the performance swirling about the soundfield. 'Fixing' develops in segments, first the vocals, then the acoustic instruments, then the DSP, then the acoustic instruments without vocals, etc, which keeps the long track fresh. The duration is also unique in that the early EAE albums are composed of shorter tracks, sketches and ideas, whereas here they stretch out at length, ideas bleeding into each other, the group probing and coalescing in ways not heard on their first two albums.

'Fluctuating' starts with a dialogue between the fiddles, which Guy and Wachsmann use to converse in a woody push-pull of shriek and grunt. Lytton and Parker add sparse elements which, rolled through the signal processing, manifest as flickers at the edges of the soundfield. There's a gradual shift to stasis just before the strange spectres return to harass Lytton's extended collection of traps. At times it becomes difficult to discern whether a particular sound is acoustic or electric. Object or reflection. An aural sleight-of-hand that's one of my favorite aspects of the EAEs music. Parker's soprano emerges from the din as a plume of swirling lyrical fractals that is pulled apart like string cheese then granularly redispersed by the signal processing. The quartet of acoustic instruments continue their dialogue as the DSP crew rapidly snatch notes and textures, making them reappear as mutated silhouettes and bizarre sonic artifacts. Guy winds the track down with a show of brute force to affix punctuation to an impossibly good performance. The album isn't available digitally but is sold by all of the usual suspects, it's well worth the small amount of extra effort.

Warzawa 2019 (Fundacja Słuchaj, 2021) ****½

This highly anticipated release from the EAE was recorded in March of 2019 at the Ad Libitum Festival and as mentioned previously, features some new players as well as some old ones. FURT (Barrett and Obermayer) return to contribute their sound processing expertise, while Peter van Bergen is back on clarinets, and Adam Linson, who played on The Eleventh Hour, returns on double bass. Long-time Parker collaborator Matthew Wright joins the fold on laptop and turntables, as does Sten Sandell on piano, Mark Nauseef on percussion, and Percy Pursglove on trumpet. And as I've already mentioned (ad nauseam at this point), the duo of Parker and Lytton round out this updated EAE.

'Part A' winds up in a slow rustling manner. A Goliath awakening. Stretching out the mighty limbs. Shaking off cobwebs. The hypnagogic din is pierced by Pursglove's first few assertive notes, which excites a charge of tiny, flickering sounds that emerge from their electronic ant hill. Pursglove repeats variations of the phrase, like an invocation, stretching long notes across sparse piano soundings and ringing whispers of metallic percussion. Some of the electronic noises are like grotesques, leering and retching at the ensemble as they find their sea legs. Lytton interacts heavily with the samples using small percussion and traps to both imitate and contradict his reflection. The sounds come more frequently, stacking, obscuring, muddying. As the DSP builds in intensity, the acoustic instruments dim, issuing only light accents under a shadow canopy of swirling electronics. Parker plays fluidly over the rustling percussion and skittering electronics, with Sandell thumping out a sturdy accompaniment. Linson's guttural bass scrapings provide a steady drone for Pursglove's abrasive yelps as well as textural detritus for the samplers. As the piece winds down with the general clatter and spit valve sounds, Sandell abruptly closes out with a brief flurry of heavy notes, leading right into the next half of the album...

...which is labeled 'Part B.' Here the decay swells into a hissing, hiccuping drone that's picked at and processed by the electronics something like birds darting after worms. The acoustic instruments offer just enough to keep the particle field of noises fresh, the pantry well stocked. A stuttering effect becomes unexpectedly prominent and marks the beginning of an intense, building rush of sound. The instruments (electronic and not) build into a chimeric multitude that doesn't just color outside the lines but seems oblivious to the desire for any such restriction. There is a discernible peak somewhere before the 12 minute mark and shortly after the piece breaks up into incandescent pieces of shrapnel that creak and groan as they cool. Of course all of this is captured and turned inside out by the processors making everything woozy and surreal, like navigating a house of mirrors on a dyslexic mule while looking through a pair of kaleidoscopes. The piece drifts into stiff piano stabs and inside-the-box noises that sound like they're being delivered at the edge of the void. The album blooms a final time, led by Parker's torrents of exhaust rippling their turbulence over a hazy shimmer of gong (I think) and mulched samples. If you aren't sold by now then I'm afraid I can't help you. The album is a very welcome return from one of Parker's most important groups (IMO) and for me was a lot to absorb in a single listen. Just know that it's even better the second and third time around (and on and on).

I think that despite all the history that's occurred between these two albums the best way to approach them is with a fresh ear (easier said than done now, sorry about that). I've enjoyed them the most when I was able to prevent myself from listening through the lense of my music collection. When I was able to wipe my mind of all the bits and pieces of music writing I've read and information I've accumulated regarding the EAE and simply allow myself to be entertained, amused, even surprised. This is all said much more concisely (and elegantly) in a sentence from Paul Haines in his liner notes for 2000's Dark Rags , Parker's duet with Keith Rowe, "There is no need to listen here as though monitoring; provisions have been made for you to listen creatively, free of clinging past listening, free of the onerous chores of accumulation."

Listening to Warzawa during my commute earlier this summer I noticed that some of the sounds I was hearing were coming from outside of my car. This June marked the emergence of the Brood X cicadas here in the Midwest US. A curious bug, they spend 17 years underground before emerging enmasse to climb the trunks of trees, shed their nymph exoskeletons, and emerge as winged adults for a four-to-six week frenzy of singing, mating, and egg laying. After that they die and their larvae crawl back into the ground to restart the cycle. Their song can reach up to 100 decibels, obviously loud enough for me to hear in my closed, moving car with music playing.

And so it was that I had the unique opportunity to take in a superposition of transformations (and of course I had a little fun with the power windows, 'listening creatively' and whatnot). One transformation represented by the song of these peculiar insects that days/weeks earlier were happily nibbling on tree sap for their 17th consecutive year but whose slow, awkward bodies were now splattering en masse across my windshield and easily being picked off by birds in mid-flight, all to fulfill their obligation and keep things moving forward for the species. The second is represented by the music of the EAE, a group transformed by time and circumstance into something that looks quite different but that has the same DNA, the same nucleus. A revamped vehicle filled with sympathetic ears and chops to match to continue the work at hand and (fingers crossed) the work ahead. Parker and Company continue to mine the rewards and possibilities of Electro-Acoustic improvisation on their singular and ever-evolving endeavors toward the margins.


Captain Hate said...

Excellent review including the Ezz-thetics link. The Victo recording was unavailable when I tried ordering previously so thanks for the reminder. A complaint from someone who's heard the EAE multiple times is that previous ECM recordings didn't capture the feeling of being immersed in the soundscape as effectively as being there. I wonder if he finds the [i]Warzawa 2019[/i] to be an improvement.

Nick Metzger said...

Thanks Captain, I will say that I found both of these recordings to have a bit more sharpness than say, Hasselt, but I agree with you. I've not had the pleasure to see them live but the stereo renderings certainly lack detail. A surround sound mix would be most warmly received.