Laughter

the human race has one really effective weapon


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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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The Monthly List: July’s Top 8

visions_of_the_country-bashoBack after a brief spell of sickness.

Big news today in the form of a Robbie Basho re-issue from Gnome LifeVisions of the Country has been out of print for over thirty years, but is getting an LP and a CD reissue in the next couple of months. I’ve looked for a copy since I first downloaded it forever ago, but have only ever heard MP3 of FLAC copies. Searches on Discogs and eBay have always turned up empty. Record shop owners have stared at me dumbly, asking “isn’t that the Windham Hill record? Why would you want that?” Collectors never seem to have an extra laying around.

It was my most sought after record—and now I almost can’t believe I’ll get a copy, complete with liner notes and remastered sound. Were it not for the Bernard Parmegiani reissue from Recollection GRM, I’d go ahead and call Country the reissue of the year. De Natura Sonorum is every bit as good as I’d heard, and that double LP package looks and sounds top notch.

But Behind remains my most listened to record this month. You can read my review here. I’m behind on reviews but I hope to catch up in the next few weeks. Keep coming back as I want to ramp up the activity here going into September and the end of the year.

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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The Monthly List: June’s Top 9

jackson_pollock_blue_poles

Jackson Pollock’s “Blue Poles” – the cover for “Spiritual Jazz Vol. 4”

The techno fever continues this month with a killer debut from youAND:THEMACHINES, aka Martin Müller of youANDmeBehind was released in June by Ornaments Records in three formats: CD, 3LP, and hand-painted, special edition 3LP. It is only the fifth full length from Ornaments. Two of the other four were compilations put together by Luke Hess and youANDme, so this is a special occasion. Müller mixes house, dub, and various other strands of techno together.

According to this interview, he uses nothing but analog equipment to do it and prefers creating his own sounds to using samples. I can hear that in the album’s production and in the way Müller builds his songs. He emphasizes texture and density as much as club-worthy rhythms and he shies away from conspicuous melodic themes. He also matches vocal contributions to the tonal color of his instruments and tosses ambient stretches of noise between dance tracks. I like it enough to get past those goofy house vocals, which together constitute the weakest part of the album. Though I’ll admit one or two of those songs have grown on me.

I’m almost certain the hand-painted edition is already sold out (it was limited to just 333 copies) but the CD and LP can still be found online and at certain record shops around the US. So don’t puss out and download it from some blog. Go find a copy, or at least buy the MP3s.

I finally got my hands on some of the new Erstwhile titles last month too. I plan on getting reviews up as soon as possible, but my review writing has slowed down recently due to other writing projects.

About this time of year, certain records solidify as my favorites so far, but there’s been such a glut of great new records that nothing’s become concrete for me. Only a few records carried over from last month, and I can’t decide which record among the three or four I like most is “the best.” So I want bother with a mid-year list or best of.

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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The Monthly List: 2012 in Review, Part Two

satantango_owlPart two of December’s Monthly List features my favorite movie of the year, which wasn’t even released in 2012, plus a few thoughts about a couple of books I read, one or two of the live shows I saw, and a brief reflection on visiting the Museum of Modern Art for the first time.

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The Monthly List: November’s Top 14

image still from Roulette TV's Christian Wolff feature

image still from Roulette TV’s Christian Wolff feature

Numerous new discs on the list for November, with Keith Rowe and Christian Wolff’s ErstLive disc being the only title held over from October. When I think of the best albums from 2012, that one is the first that comes to mind. Then there’s Rowe’s September, which sounds great and is getting a lot of positive press too, but I haven’t spent as much time with it. The Rowe/Wolff disc just clicked and stuck with me.

I listened to more new music in November than I did last month, but gave the albums I heard fewer repeat listens. Looking at the top ten lists that are already published, or that are in the midst of being published, I find it hard to believe that anyone’s prepared to rank anything. Having a favorite album or two makes sense, but I’ll be listening to a lot of this music well into January and processing it for longer. Plus there’s still new music on the way this year. I’m only now getting around to the new Scott Walker and Jakob Ullmann releases and I still want to get my hands on the Wandelwesier 6CD box set from Another Timbre. How anyone makes up their mind before 2013 is a mystery.

As always, formats listed are the ones I own, but releases may be available in other formats. This month there are 14 titles. Seven of them were released in 2012, of which two are reissues:

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

shot from the ZBC studios


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The Monthly List: September’s Top 15

The Monthly List is just a list of my favorite records from the previous month, with links to audio, video, and reviews where possible. Titles may or may not be new releases and some records may or may not be repeated from month to month. This month there are 15 records on the list, next month there may be only eight or nine; the number isn’t fixed. If you’re interested in buying the music, you should check out the “Get Music” links at the bottom of the page; some of those sites also provide sound samples. Formats listed are the ones I own. Releases may be available in other formats.

So here are September’s 15, in no particular order: