Laughter

the human race has one really effective weapon


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2014 Year in Review, Pt. 1 (Dusted in Exile)

Normally I’d post a lengthy year in review here, but this time around I’m just going to link to the Dusted and Brainwashed year-end lists I was a part of, then maybe cap it off with a list of last minute records I heard or ordered that I think deserve some attention.

So, here’s a snippet from my Dusted writeup. Much more after the link. And take some time to look at what the other writers had to say about their 2014 favorites. There is lots of good stuff from everyone involved:

This year was filled with great music from start to finish. There wasn’t a single month that didn’t see the release of something exciting. As winter approached, the continuous flood of exceptional recordings became increasingly hard to follow. By June, keeping up had become little more than a laughable daydream, never mind everything that came out between October and December. Lots of people probably feel this way every December, but 2014 was the year I was swept away. 

Looking back at the time line, it’s easy to see why. Tara Jane O’Neil and Damien Jurado released their records in January, Anne Guthrie’s Codiaeum Variegatum bowled me over in February, and the Toshiya Tsunoda/Manfred Werder collaboration landed in March. Politiken der Frequenz rolled out in April and Carl Hultgren’s first solo album won me over at the end of May. I married my wife in June and shortly thereafter started new work, where listening to new music every day wasn’t part of the job. Erstwhile had already put out the Jürg Frey and Radu Malfatti 2CD by that time, in July. Kevin Drumm and Jason Lescalleet’s The Abyss came out with it and a month later the new FKA Twigs was on the shelves. That one was less impressive than I had hoped, but it still spent a lot of time inside my head. 

And these are just the first albums that come to mind. Coppice, Florian Hecker, LCC, Machinefabriek, Poemss, Protomartyr, Sun Kil Moon, SunnO)))/Ulver, and Nicholas Szczepanik all issued new music in that same period, all worth hearing.

(Read More)

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Review: Jürg Frey/Radu Malfatti, “II” (Erstwhile)

One way to approach Jürg Frey and Radu Malfatti’s II is to concentrate on how they shape their music. The numerous small silences that dot the first disc are conspicuous. So is the album’s low volume and the sharp, maybe surprising, beauty with which Frey plays his clarinet and Malfatti his trombone, but form takes precedence over these. Form and the way sounds are formed. Much of what happens on these two discs is the product of the tension between silence and sound, the difference between expression and phenomenon, and the manner in which sounds beget forms all on their own. By subduing material and structure, Frey and Malfatti knock down the walls that sometimes bind music to a fixed path. What lies outside is a sparse and weightless field where music seemingly organizes—and destroys—itself.

II, as the title implies, splits the work of Jürg Frey and Radu Malfatti over two discs. The first, a Malfatti-credited piece titled “shoguu,” cuts a strong impression. Long, vibrating tones, stark harmonics, and frequent silences comprise nearly all of its material, though certain tones are so smooth and consistent they sometimes sound computer-generated. The likelihood that computers were used is probably pretty low, but the semblance of that analog hum adds a mysterious and blurry component to the performance.

The noise of a depressed valve, a few unexpected squeaks, and the odd bodily clank of brass or hardwood turns up as well, but for the better part of the five sections of  “shoguu,” a subdued, balloon-like spaciousness holds court. The combination of clarinet and trombone produces delicate music, as restrained as it is gorgeous. Without a discernible structure—and without the usual musical tools, like rhythms, chord changes, and other sonic continuities—the duo’s wavering tones come off as autonomous little events, cobweb-like and fleeting. Some of the melodies are so tenuous they seem almost illusory, like particles of dust that might disappear should the sunlight hit them a different way. Malfatti even hollows his trombone’s lower register out, making it feather-like and buoyant, it’s swelling whole tones like vents of warm rising air.

(Read More… at Brainwashed.com – includes samples)


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Three Concerts: Michael Pisaro, Kevin Drumm + Jason Lescalleet, Joe Panzner + Greg Stuart

Photos from three shows in Boston, Massachusetts: November 6th, 7th, and 11th (2014). Music by Michael Pisaro, Antoine Beuger, Eugene A. Kim, Teodora Stepančić, Assaf Gidron, Adi Snir, Kevin Drumm, Jason Lescalleet, Joe Panzner, and Greg Stuart. Photos include program details. Click for larger versions.


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Jason Lescalleet and Kevin Drumm on the Road

As reported by Tiny Mix Tapes:

11.07.14 – Somerville, MA ­ – Hassle Fest VI (156 Highland Ave.) *
11.08.14 – Montréal, QC ­ – La Vitrola ­(4602 Boulevard Saint­Laurent) *
11.09.14 – Toronto, ON ­ – Double Double Land ­ (209 Augusta Ave.) *
11.10.14 – Detroit, MI ­ – Trinosophes ­(1464 Gratiot Ave.) *
11.11.14 – Lafayette, IN ­ – The Spot ­(409 S 4th St. Wednesday)
11.12.14 – Cleveland OH ­ – Now That’s Class ­ (11213 Detroit Ave.)
11.13.14 – Albany, NY ­ – Upstate Artist’s Guild ­ (247 Lark Street)
11.28.14 – Mexico City, Mexico – Festival del Bosque Germinal *

* Kevin Drumm & Jason Lescalleet

This Is What I Do Volume Two is currently available from Lescalleet’s Bandcamp site. It will be deleted upon completion of Volume Three, so get it while you can.


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Review: Graham Lambkin/Jason Lescalleet, “Photographs” (Erstwhile)

After amplifying their homes and magnifying the subconscious; after reshaping kitchenware into instruments and finding voices in the buzz of computer fans, distant traffic, and the crunch of dirt; after transforming the spaces around them and constructing a space-time of their own, Graham Lambkin and Jason Lescalleet finally turn the microphones on themselves. And not just on the noises they make, but on the places they grew up, on the people they’ve known, on the ideas that have driven their work, the sounds they love, and ultimately on the past and their memories. Don’t come to the show expecting self-portraits though. OnPhotographs Graham and Jason make enigmas of themselves. We get to see a shadow of them in these pictures, but everything they do and every event they capture points to a subject somewhere outside the frame.

Photographs work by suggestion. Take any photo off the Internet and start asking questions about it: Who is that in the picture? What is it that they’re standing in front of? When and where was it taken, and why from that angle? Who is behind the camera? What we see in them and what they show are inevitably unequal. The image presents the viewer with an apparent set of facts, but without context or witnesses or some personal experience bringing everything into focus, the subjects fail to take definite shape. Something is missing.

So it is with Graham Lambkin and Jason Lescalleet’s music. The apparition of familiarity presents itself to the listener by dint of the material employed: intelligible conversations, fixable locations and precise directions to them, a loop from Kiss’s “Great Expectations”—our acquaintance with sights and sounds such as these, plus the incredible artwork with family, friends, place names, and the images of Graham and Jason as children—it’s as if they’re opening a door into their personal lives, or pointing us to a keyhole through which we might spy a handful of their private thoughts. How could it be otherwise?

To answer that question it’s best to ask another one: what is it that we actually see and hear in these songs? Disc one in this two-disc set begins with “Loss,” in which a pair of anonymous voices explain what the word “loss” means to them. One of the respondents discusses the loss of their grandparents, the other describes a feeling of daily disorientation: he wakes up and is unsure of where he is despite a firm mind, familiarity with the local geography, and a copy of this year’s calendar. As he elaborates, the audio suddenly cuts out. We hear clicking, a compartment opening and shutting, as if the tape needed changing mid-sentence, and then the conversation continues.

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Review: Graham Lambkin/Jason Lescalleet, “Air Supply” (Erstwhile)

A strange spectacle murmurs unceremoniously just beneath the familiar hum of daily life. It’s filled with little dramas and peculiar collisions that sneak by unnoticed—in the empty spaces of the room, out of the corner of your eye—small bits of information slip through the senses’ fingers and fall into the subconscious where they become fodder for dreams. These unremembered fragments are a part of every environment and every observation, but would we recognize them if given a second chance? OnAir Supply, Graham Lambkin and Jason Lescalleet resurrect such mental refuse and put just such a question to the test. They may have pointed their microphones at computer vents or the back yard, but what they pulled from those sources is utterly bizarre, to the point of being completely alien.

“Because the Night” starts the show with an illusion. It’s cold outside. Someone is walking down a crunchy dirt road in heavy boots, the fabric of his thick winter coat audibly brushing against itself as he goes. He picks up an old shovel and begins digging a hole, or maybe shoveling snow. A chilly hum floats in the air, a substitute for the icy temperature outside. As he digs, a slow, warbling howl suddenly and shockingly pierces the scene. It moans, then fades, then retreats into the distance. The perspective shifts. Someone tinkers with a plastic box, presses a button, and the activity stops. There’s only that transparent blue tone in the air, and a few quiet noises beeping somewhere in the distance. Winter at the Lescalleet home in Berwick, Maine, where Air Supply was recorded, seems just a tad frightening.

Only the liner notes tells us that the album was recorded in late May of 2010. It’s unlikely there was any snow on the ground to shovel. The fabric noise could be coming from torn sheets of paper, the crunch of boots on gravel might actually be the sound of someone walking through piles of leaves, and who knows where the animal moan came from, but it doesn’t sound dubbed in. Whatever it was, it was right there, in range of the microphone.

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Review: Graham Lambkin/Jason Lescalleet, “The Breadwinner”

Imagine music resides everywhere that sound can travel. It flows from the faucet into the sink each morning, creaks out of the loose boards on the way up and down the stairs, and, incredibly, buzzes in your sweetheart’s mouth as he or she snores noisily at 3 AM on Monday morning. The difference between music and not-music then pivots on the attention and consideration different sounds receive. Record them to tape, amplify and manipulate them, or set them into new patterns and a surprising, sometimes beautiful music can emerge. That’s the music of The Breadwinner, the first album in Graham Lambkin and Jason Lescalleet’s recently completed trilogy on Erstwhile.

Recorded in 2006 and ’07 at Graham Lambkin’s home in Poughkeepsie, New York, The Breadwinner claims to be a collection of “musical settings for common environments and domestic situations.” As it turns out, the music itself was derived almost entirely from noise captured around the house. Everything from water glasses to July 4th fireworks and squeaky hinges made the cut, so the music reflects the spaces and occasions for which it is apparently intended (tongue-in-cheek or not).

But the album isn’t just the product of two guys wondering about the kitchen, living room, and bathroom with various microphones and some magnetic tape. Besides the keyboard and piano used on “Listen, the Snow is Falling” and “Lucy Song,” the duo utilize their recordings as sound sources, deriving unearthly tones and igneous rhythms from the speeding up and slowing down of the source material. If the recording process doesn’t make itself obvious in one way or another, the quality of the various sounds still point to it. On “E5150/Body Transport,” a droning, out-of-body experience slowly resolves into a steady snore, suggesting that whole piece is actually an appropriated nightly annoyance. “Two States” compares and contrasts events that must have taken place at separate times. The mix is too solid, the balance too spot on for it to have happened without some tinkering.

Graham and Jason transform every room and make every object in those rooms new, whether by manipulation or by the arrangement of contrasting noises and complimentary sounds. Solid objects like the bedroom radiator or the fire place lose their rigid form and become malleable. That in turn gives the duo the freedom to re-contextualize everything, from mumbled voices to everyday appliances.

Mundane sources such as these typically keep emotional or communicative content well in the background. What we’re supposed to do is listen to the sounds as sounds, not look for a message from the composers. After all, how could a refrigerator possibly speak to a sane person?

Perhaps unexpectedly, Lambkin and Lescalleet have left something personal in the mix, so maybe the fridge does just that: speak. First, there’s the titles, which Graham and Jason probably understand better than the audience. But there’s a Black Sabbath reference in there, and maybe one fromThe Hobbit too, and the aforementioned “Lucy Song” sticks to the ears with its bittersweet melody. The music moves through several moods, some ominous, others calming, and the reason for either isn’t always clear. But the point is that the moods are there. So where are they coming from? “Listen, the Snow is Falling” can’t help but communicate with its stunning sense of stillness and beauty, some of which is generated by the simple presence of a flickering fire. Even if the song were called “Track One,” it would convey memories, feelings, and ideas.

And memory seems to be part of what Graham and Jason are up to with these songs. They make the lowly spoon and water glass speak to sensations usually provoked by rock ‘n’ roll songs, familiar melodies, conventional rhythms, and good books. The whole microcosm of Lambkin’s house is laid bare for those curious enough to check it out. But, what about the experience of finding those noises, or the people who were around when they were made? There are obviously human noises on the record, but the figures themselves are conspicuously missing, or at least hidden. Which brings up a good question: is the breadwinner of the title the two musicians who made the record, or is it the house itself? Could it be the world at large, or is it maybe an unnameable something else?  That blank spot there between the lines, where the music echoes out from invisibly?

The Breadwinner is available on Erstwhile Records.
Sound samples available at Brainwashed.com


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The Monthly List: November’s Top 11

Here we go with the November list. Most magazines and digital publications are already publishing their favorite records of the year, or are at least setting the stage for their “best-of” list.

My year end review won’t show up until after the new year, as there are numerous releases from 2013 that I’d still like to hear, plus I’m not terribly inclined to rank things , so I’ve been doing very little calculation about what I’ve liked better. You can always look over my lists from the past months to get a sense of where my ears have been lately.

As for the records below, links to my favorite sites for reviews and information are found at the bottom of the page. You can always find good info at Brainwashed.comJust Outside, and All Music Guide, and samples are available virtually everywhere. Forced Exposure and Boomkat places are good places to go looking for the more obscure stuff.

Formats posted are the ones I own; others may be available. If you like any of the samples I link to, please buy the album. You can find numerous retailers carrying these titles at the bottom of this page.

  • Graham Labmkin/Jason Lescalleet, Photographs on ERSTWHILE (2CD)
  • Graham Labmkin/Jason Lescalleet, Air Supply on ERSTWHILE (CD)
  • Graham Labmkin/Jason Lescalleet, The Breadwinner on ERSTWHILE (CD)
  • Jason Lescalleet, This Is What I Do Vol. 1 on GLISTENING EXAMPLES (CD)
  • Kevin Drumm, Earrach on SELF-RELEASED (2CD)
  • Songs: Ohia, The Magnolia Electric Co. (10th Anniversary Deluxe Edition) on SECRETLY CANADIAN (2CD)
  • Songs: Ohia, Didn’t It Rain on SECRETLY CANADIAN (CD)
  • Magnolia Electric Co., Trials & Errors on SECRETLY CANADIAN (2LP)
  • Loren Connors, Hell’s Kitchen Park on ENABLING WORKS (LP)
  • Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home on COLUMBIA (CD)
  • The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland on REPRISE (CD+DVD)

 

 


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Review: Kevin Drumm, “Earrach”

Kevin Drumm’s incredible run of handmade CD-Rs continues this year despite the termination of his Recreational Panick blog. At the end of August, Drumm simultaneously announced the availability of his last few homemade discs and the existence of a new Bandcamp page, which he promptly filled with several digital reissues of limited cassette and CD-R editions from 2011 and 2012. Three new albums followed shortly thereafter, of which the tape-based two-disc Earrach—that’s Gaelic for “spring”—is one. Appropriately, Drumm has filled it with fleshy, muddy, physical music. It’s sloppy, weird, and suggestive; and an absolutely killer recording that squirms and jumps with warped alien life.

The list of equipment used to record Earrach is short and simple: tapes, a Tascasm 414, a Kenwood 1080 receiver, and two handheld cassette recorders. Drumm includes just two other lines of information on the back of the album’s green paper sleeve. The second reads “cassette tape music.” The first, “caisead fusillade,” which marries the Gaelic word for “cassette” to a term associated with firearms and bombardments.

Read the rest of the review on Brainwashed.com
Earrach is available through Kevin Drumm’s Bandcamp page, and physically through Erstwhile Distribution.


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The Monthly List: August’s Top 10

radio_towers

New music from Keith Rowe and Graham Lambkin, Rephlex, and Bruce Gilbert dominated my August listening habits, along with Recollection GRM’s excellent 2LP release of Luc Ferrari’s Presque Rien. 

I managed to write a review of Making A and both of the Electric Dance Music compilations, plus I have reviews of Helm’s Silencer 12″, COH’s Retro-2038, Kevin Drumm’s Earrach, and a series of Mystery Sea discs on the way. Two of those will  show up at Dusted Magazine if all goes as planned, my first two for that publication. I’ll keep publishing at Brainwashed.com as well, and I hope to get a series of short reviews under way, which will be exclusive to this site.

Last but not least, I’m going to return to WZBC this month with a twice monthly show of electro-acoustic, improvised, and generally experimental music. I’ll be on the air every other Sunday for two hours, starting at 6 o’clock Eastern. You can listen in Boston by tuning into 90.3 FM; or you can listen online at WZBC’s website. Just click the large red play button on the left.

Shows will be archived and available for replay for two weeks after the broadcast, at which time they will disappear forever. No permanent download links. That starts this week, Sunday the 15th. I hope you’ll tune in.

As always, formats posted are the ones I own. Others may be available. If you like any of the samples I link to, please buy the album. You can find numerous retailers carrying these titles at the bottom of this page.


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Review: Keith Rowe/Graham Lambkin, “Making A”

If Keith Rowe and Graham Lambkin haven’t produced one of the most mind-bending records of 2013, they’re at least high in the running. Making A shares its name with one of Cornelius Cardew’s Schooltime Compositions. Written in 1967, these pieces were designed to help musicians and non-musicians develop their own methods of interpretation and music-making. Continue reading


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Rowe/Lambkin/Cardew: Notes on “Making A”

detail from Treatise, page 75

detail from Treatise, page 75

I’ve listened to Keith Rowe and Graham Lambkin’s Making A a lot in the past week. The first two or three times I was unable to pay close attention to the music, so I had only a general idea about what Rowe and Lambkin were doing. That Rowe did not perform on his table-top guitar stood out among a few other thoughts: that the album was recorded shortly after a live collaboration in New York City, that Rowe and Lambkin were both aware of each other’s work prior to their performance, and that the tools used to make the album point quite strongly to Rowe’s painterly background. Besides that, I was quite sure that the album was totally improvised.

After just a couple of closer listeners I’ve changed my mind; I think there must be some hidden instruction or idea moving the music along. Certain sequences on the record repeat themselves in conspicuous ways. The editing of sounds, the cross fades, the accumulation of intensity and its subsequent release all point to an invisible but sensible order, and the track titles suggest that order. A, then B, then C, but rearranged for reasons unknown. And as Brian Olewnick points out in his review, the track times are suspicious. Two improvised pieces in a row that run exactly 15 minutes and 15 seconds? Something must be up.

cardew_making_A

Then I found the image to the left, posted to the I Hate Music boards by Erstwhile founder Jon Abbey. You can click it to get a bigger image.

“Making A” happens to be the title of a piece from Cornelius Cardew’s Schooltime CompositionsThe inspiration for Rowe and Lambkin’s track titles are right there:

“Place WET B in glass bamer.”

“Draw off two full measure of hot boiling C and pour them over the dry A in the B.”

When Keith Rowe last played in Boston, he brought with him a copy of Nature Study Notes, a collection of instructions and “rites” written by members of the Scratch Orchestra and cataloged by Cardew. Along with musicians from around the area, Rowe performed a small number of these rites, illustrating how they might be interpreted and performed by a group. Someone had made enough copies of the notes to give to everyone in the audience. The performers picked an instruction to follow secretly, the audience got to guess what they were up to. Given the number of instructions available, it was nearly impossible to guess right, but the music was great, and the reveals were entertaining and funny. One of my favorite rites reads:

Take a stupid book. A reader reads aloud from it while the rest improvise. The role of reader may wander, a) through the reader presenting the stupid book to someone else, and b) by someone wresting the stupid book from the reader. A reader may attempt to terminate proceedings by ceasing to read aloud from the stupid book.

How that translates into a performance—or a recording—is completely up in the air. The same goes for “Making A.” How would I decide what “A” is supposed to be? If “A” fits in an “A-gauge glass bamer” then why do I have a “pack of A” sitting around too? Does “B” come wet, or should I prepare that? What is a bamer anyway?

More to the point, to what extent did Keith Rowe and Graham Lambkin use this score to record their own music? At first I assumed that the recording of Making A was an extension of the Boston performance—Keith seemed to have been thinking about Cardew there, so maybe he was continuing his line of thought in New York, with Lambkin.

Now I’m doubting that. Unless Ben Ratliff of the New York Times failed to mention it (which I doubt), Rowe and company didn’t distribute any of Cardew’s work before, during, or after their January performance in New York City. Without a way to line the score and the album up, the only link I have is either historical or superficial.

I figured I could start answering at least one or two of my others questions by looking a bit more closely at how and why Cardew wrote these pieces in the first place, and how other people have performed his music. To that end, I found a few great resources I’d like to share:

The indication here is already of his moving away from music as object towards music as process, and of a concern for the problems of the performers. Cardew was one of the first Europeans to grasp not just the musical but also the social implications of the new American aesthetic.

… what [Cardew] admired was Cage’s rejection of the commodity fetishism that had invaded musical composition, for which the super-objectivity of serialism and its corollary, the preoccupation with the perfection of the ideal object, was largely to blame. What also impressed him was Cage’s liberation of the performer from the constraints of oppressive notational complexities… With him ‘indeterminacy’ was not simply another compositional technique, displacing a previously discredited one, it was a logical musical expression of his humanism: humanism is the vital thread that runs through all his musical activities, making for a continuity that overrides even the most radical stylistic changes in his work. His rejection of total serialism freed him as a composer; with his espousal of indeterminacy, creative freedom was also extended to the performer.

  • A Young Person’s Guide to Treatise. A massive resource hosted by Spiral Cage. Contains both the links I provided above, plus tons of information on Cardew’s most famous piece, links to recordings, references, and other of Cardew’s writings. Not directly related to Making A, but some of the information there regards the process of interpretation, plus it links to this animated analysis of the Treatise , which among other things combines performance history with a introductory taxonomy of the printed symbols and forms.

Of course, none of this gets me any further inside Keith’s or Graham’s head. It’s possible that Cardew’s “Making A” was just an inspiration and not a manual for the album. But still those hints of structure in the music hound me: the manipulation of field recordings, the emphasis on gesture and place, the sense that some formula is being followed, if only loosely. Am I imagining it? Would an answer change the way I think about or react to the music?

It’s a mystery beyond my ability to solve alone. But the album itself is superb, whether or not I know precisely how it is shaped.


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Review: Michael Pisaro/Toshiya Tsunoda, “Crosshatches”

Performed, composed, and recorded over a period of 14 months, Crosshatches is a massive and exquisitely constructed 85 minute piece stretched across two compact discs. On it, Pisaro and Tsunoda sketch and blend non-musical sounds into musical ones, erasing the seemingly natural distinction between them as they go. The vehicle for that transformation is crosshatching, which the duo elegantly transforms into a musical mode.

Hatching is a technique used in the visual arts that consists in placing roughly discrete parallel lines next to each other at various distances. Cross-hatching is a similar technique. By varying the angle, closeness, thickness, and lengths of their lines, artists such as Albrecht Dürer used it to create the illusion of volume, texture, and contrast in his drawings, woodcuts, and engravings. I keep thinking about these qualities when listening to Michael Pisaro and Toshiya Tsunoda’s Crosshatches on Erstwhile. Beside the pleasure of hearing the album, which is subtle, sometimes delicate, and quite beautiful, I’ve enjoyed thinking about the ways Pisaro and Tsunoda translate this visual technique into a musical one.

Crosshatches is made up primarily of sine tones and field recordings. The field recordings come both raw and in a manipulated state, whether they’re chopped, looped, distorted, or otherwise. Guitars are used briefly in a few passages on the first disc, and a piano shows up near the end of the second. I assume that Michael plays both and that Toshiya provides the field recordings, but there are no credits to confirm that suspicion and no other information online. Static, interference, and possibly other sources are also used.

Initially, the music sounds one-dimensional. Michael and Toshiya’s contributions bleed into one another, forming a hard, smooth surface. It’s the musical equivalent of seeing a polished marble block or rolling a glass bead around in your hand. With time, variations and contrasts emerge. Instruments rise above the surface and draw shapes in the air, and tiny imperfections, little details previously unnoticed, come into focus. I hear people laughing in the distance, insects, and maybe the shuffling of equipment in a studio. The music branches out, diversifies, and confuses simultaneously. There’s a beautiful crescendo on the first track of the first disc that culminates in little bursts of guitar and a heavily plucked bass. Buzzing tones continue underneath, but I can no longer distinguish which of them are recorded and which are performed, and I can’t even be sure that the guitars themselves aren’t a kind of modified field recording—maybe just the sound of someone warming up.

One of my favorite sections is on the second track of the second disc. It is, as far as I can tell, a mostly untouched recording of a storm. The recording captures the sound of rain, wind, and the whipping of tree limbs; I can close my eyes and half imagine the bushes outside my window bending and dancing in the downpour. Only after listening to the album a couple of times did I notice the sine waves shimmering at the edges of the storm. They were there when the recording started, but I thought they had disappeared. Were they invisibly present the whole time? Or deftly re-inserted into the mix? It isn’t easy to tell and since the wind and waves pair so well I can’t be sure what would happen if any of the elements of the recording were taken away. I also can’t be sure there aren’t more invisible elements swimming quietly in the background.

There’s a corresponding section in “1.1” where Toshiya and Pisaro combine apparently random static with more obvious field recordings. Listening to the static closely, it sounds like a heavily modified version of the storm recording; the rhythmic character of the water is at least intact. There’s some fun in trying to guess which sounds come from which sources and I enjoy the way the music draws connections between cricket sounds and the crack of water on the ground, or between plucked guitar strings and the sound of far off voices. But that says only a little about why the album is beautiful. The way the sounds are combined and folded into each other is pleasing in its own right, as are the moments of near silence and melody that dot the album under different guises.

As with any piece that uses crosshatching, the music on Crosshatches is spun out of elements that are invisible from a distance but discernible with attention. I think of Albrecht Dürer’s engravings and notice that his lines rarely call attention to themselves. I notice the subjects in his work first: the people and the shading, the scene and the illusion of depth. Only later do the lines come to the fore and only if I choose to look. Nearly the same thing happens on Crosshatches, except Pisaro and Tsunoda also work with duration, so elements of their work pop in and out of focus over time. Translating a visual technique into an musical one forgoes the unveiling of a completed work. Unlike Dürer, Michael and Toshiya don’t build up familiar images with their lines. What we get instead are illusory scenes that converge and fall apart; the coming and going of sounds produced, recorded, rent apart, and blended together again.

Crosshatches is available on Erstwhile
Audio samples available at Brainwashed.com

erstlive 010 cover


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Review: Christian Wolff/Keith Rowe, ErstLive 010

Keith Rowe and Christian Wolff have been playing together since 1968, when Wolff first performed with AMM in the UK. Their history together goes back further, a part of the turbulent musical and political eddies set in motion by the New York School and Cornelius Cardew in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. But this performance, recorded live at NYC’s The Stone as part of Jon Abbey’s AMPLIFY 2011 festival, marks their first recorded appearance as a duo. It’s an inspired pairing. Together they produce quiet, sharp, and surprisingly gorgeous music that exemplifies the still radical ideas they started exploring over 40 years ago.

The political side of Rowe and Wolff’s music isn’t always apparent, but it’s there, hidden in plain sight. Looking for it can be enlightening, but is unnecessary. The music they make together on ErstLive 010 stands all on its own. It is by turns gossamer thin and concrete, whisper quiet and abrasive, lucid and impenetrable. Keith’s contributions consist of physical noises drawn and scratched into the strings of his table-top guitar, along with live radio broadcasts and the buzz of electrical signals emanating from various electronic devices. Christian’s contributions are on the piano and guitar. He hammers on the piano’s keys, pulls and mutes the strings, and drums on its body, preferring to play around the piano rather than directly on it—the way pianos are typically played. At the guitar he makes small sounds; plucks a solitary note here, draws a bow across the strings there, and then sits quietly back waiting for the next move.

Both musicians punctuate their performances with these (near) silences. Their pauses break the performance up and keep it from coalescing, which means all the focus is on the discrete cells of sound they produce. Ideas are ventured and tweaked, and then left behind. Seconds pass and only the tiniest sounds are made. Keith sketches out an idea, and Christian climbs over it with the occasional crescendo. It all sounds very deliberate in retrospect, but as it’s happening, anything seems possible. Wolff the composer and Rowe the improviser make the line between their methods difficult to spot.

The quiet and deliberate pace of the music also calls attention to the performance space. September 4th was a hot night at The Stone, but the air conditioning and fans in the room were turned off while Keith and Christian played. With those noises out of the way, I wonder what other sounds were audible in that room. The recording itself, helped by Joe Panzner’s excellent mastering job, is clear and close to the musicians; many of the tiniest sounds they make are audible, but I’ve yet to catch a noise from the audience, or from outside.

And that strikes me as odd, because each time I have listened to ErstLive 010, some environmental sound has crept covertly into the music: the sound of clothes tumbling in the dryer downstairs, wind and rain pressing against the windows outside, the low hum of traffic in the distance. Even with headphones on, I’ve mistaken sounds coming from the neighbors upstairs for something in the mix. Without Rowe and Wolff physically present to contextualize the music, my neighbors and environment unwittingly participate in it, and I think that must have been true at The Stone that night, too.

After I noticed this the first time, the music transformed for me. It bled into the walls and out into the neighborhood. In his April 1998 interview withPerfect Sound Forever, Christian Wolff remarks that he has “a strong anti-rhetorical feeling – I don’t think that music should be manipulative. It should be there and people should be able to do with it what they can and what they want… So there’s that kind of attitude about a musical work. It should just be itself and relatively free from manipulation and calculation to the extent that it’s possible.” ErstLive 010 exemplifies this. At the right volume, in the right circumstances, it can hide in book shelves, seep into the wood floors, and camouflage itself in sounds as small as a breath. Rowe and Wolff’s receptiveness to these tiny sounds, maybe even to subconscious and unintended ones, makes this effect possible. And the more open the music is, the deeper and more remarkable I perceive it to be, and the easier it is for me to spy the political and social ideas that have, at times, influenced their writing and performing.

The album ends unexpectedly, to the tune of humming amplifiers. I failed to notice it ending the first time. And the second. And even the third. In fact, I always fail to notice when the album ends unless I pay attention to the track time. Eventually the performance stops, but the sounds continue. They just happen, the way that many environmental sounds seem to. It’s as if Rowe and Wolff are disappearing into the music as they go, using it to get past or away from themselves. By the end, it’s as if they’re not there at all.

note: Joe Panzner’s name was initially misspelled “Panzer.” Sorry about that. Jon Abbey also writes that this was Wolff and Rowe’s first full-length performance together, not just their first full-length album. They’d played together once before, during the 2010 Christian Wolff festival in Boston, but that was only a short set. 

ErstLive 010 is available on Erstwhile
Audio samples available at Brainwashed.com

Depeche Mode in no good garb


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It’s no good

The new Jason Lescalleet 2CD on Erstwhile Records is one of my favorite albums this year.  If you want to know more about it or all the Big Black references, you can check out reviews here, here, and here.

Disc two ends with a funny, slowed-down sample from Depeche Mode’s “It’s No Good,” which is now stuck in my head. Thanks, Jason. I’ll be humming this all day.