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Label Profile : Erstwhile Records

Some 40 years ago, Ornette Coleman famously remarked that he wanted to play the music, not the background. But what happens when sounds that are generally dismissed as background—pops, clicks, wheezes, whines, drones, static, and so forth—are foregrounded, and become the opening onto new musical vistas and new modes of artistic expression?

Audiences for improvised music these days are, as ever, not especially large. Those that exist tend to come to the music with a bundle of expectations: the music, they demand, should be intense, cathartic, and emotionally expressive in fairly evident ways. Sadly, these expectations lead many listeners to ignore some of the most intense and involving improvisation being made these days.

Amongst a small but interlinked bunch of musicians from Europe, New Zealand, the United States, and elsewhere, the combination of "traditional" acoustic instruments with electronics (those of the "everyday" sort, the analogue variety, or those emerging recently in the age of Powerbooks and G3's) is producing improvised music that demands a rethinking of expectation and a recalibrating of listening habits. Lofty as this may sound, this music is as immediate and satisfying as any currently being made.

At the forefront of this music's documentation is the American label Erstwhile Records, founded in 1999 by Jon Abbey. After beginning with three releases from well-known places on the improvisational spectrum (the trio VHF, Loren Mazzacane Connors' Haunted House group, and the duet of Earl Howard and Denman Maroney), Abbey's efforts have focused exclusively on what he calls "the current phase of Erstwhile", devoted to documenting electro-acoustic improv. Abbey opines that there may not have been a tremendous amount of accomplished electro-acoustic improv prior to the late 1990s, so he didn't exactly sense the need to document a scene that hadn't yet sprung into existence. Once more of this music came to light, however, Abbey began to focus his label's efforts squarely on it.

This is a brand of improvisation for which the question "what is jazz?" is largely irrelevant, despite the fact that, in Abbey's words, "this mini-genre is the logical extension of free improv, with AMM as a prime antecedent." Indeed, AMM co-founder Keith Rowe told Abbey that "for the first time since the sixties, improvisers aren't working in a post-Coltrane aesthetic, but rather a post-Duchamp one." This may mean any number of things, depending on one's understanding of Duchamp, but I take it that Rowe is distinguishing between extensions of existing techniques or conventions and the wholesale questioning and problematization of such musical givens.

As the label's statement of intent declares, this music occupies a "middle ground between improvisation and composition, trained and self-taught, acoustic and electronic, organization and abstraction". For Abbey, this in-between space became apparent at an Austrian music festival curated by Otomo Yoshihide in late 1999. Of that festival, Otomo opines that "a new stream is emerging in music at the moment. In contrast to new kinds of music it will not be easily recognized at first sight. It is the hard work of radically reconsidering the very nature of music, of listening and performing. In contrast to new musical styles of the past it will probably neither have a certain form nor a name." The musical doors in this music are as open to electronica fans as to improv fans.

This is not to suggest that the use of electronics in contemporary music-making is anything radically new. It has been ubiquitous in popular music as well as in "classical" composition and performance since the 1960s. Composers like John Cage, Pierre Boulez, Morton Subotnick, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luc Ferrari, Milton Babbitt, and other leading lights were early champions of the use of electronics in their search for new textures and soundscapes. Staunch traditionalists have always whispered anathemas when theremins, synthesizers, or tone generators are hauled onstage, but the electronic presence has been a steady one despite conservative harumphing.

In the world of improvised music, however, the use of electronics has not been quite so widespread. The British improvising ensemble AMM (of which Erstwhile recording artist Keith Rowe is a founding member) has long experimented with the interaction between "traditional" instruments like saxophone or percussion and spontaneously manipulated electronics. Their important work opened up new territories in terms of texture and technique, but also raised important questions about how musical form should be constructed and perceived: is improvisation a soloist's art or a collective one? Should improvisations have a linear, narrative quality, or should they abjure these features? The collective Musica Electronica Viva was also experimenting with these instruments, processes, and questions in the 1960s and 1970s (early exemplars here included Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum, among others). Thereafter, these early examples began to inspire second-generation Europeans—represented in the ensembles Nachtluft and Voice Crack—to use electronics as a means of exploration, communication, and sound organization.

This type of exploration, at the fringes of an already marginal music, has been hugely abetted by the advent of widespread, powerful, and relatively accessible computer-based sound technology. New devices like the Macintosh G3/4 or PowerBook possess the speed and the memory necessary to interact with non-computerized instruments in real time, thus eliminating some of the hindrances typically faced by electronics practitioners in the past.

These developments have been widely noted. But, aside from the electronics experiments of well-known players like Evan Parker or Phil Wachsmann, this new music is only now beginning to receive proper attention. Enter Jon Abbey, a longtime fan of this music who has taken it upon himself to document much of this scene and its most important creators. One of the problems seemingly facing record labels and listeners is that this music seems to resist easy classification. Not only do its practitioners come from diverse backgrounds like rock (Jim O'Rourke, Otomo Yoshihide or Fennesz), "classical" new music (Burkhard Stangl), or free improvisation (Gunter Muller, John Butcher, or Keith Rowe), but the music itself does not have a name yet. It has been called (rather generically) electro-acoustic improvisation, microvisation, dangerous improv, and more.

Having now digested much of Erstwhile's catalogue, I believe that this is a music perfectly suited to the blurring and even collapse of musical boundaries seen in improvisation for some time now. To me, this is a sign of overall health in the music. "Free improvisation" is now so often riddled with cliches (saxophonists absently filling spaces by clicking on pads, or pianists diving quickly for the strings inside) and it has generated a species of defenders whose zeal for Ayler-era blowing is as intense as that of the Marsalisites for New Orleans music. But there is tremendous creativity and energy amongst improvisors, much of it not limited to jazz-based communities. And this is where the importance of documentation comes in.

One of the joys of listening to Erstwhile's releases is in digging deeper into the work of seldom-documented artists like German analogue synthesizer player Thomas Lehn. He is part of the important scene in Cologne, but his work has not been recorded much. Rarely, if ever, has there been a more visceral synth player (as anyone who's seen Lehn live can attest). This energy suffuses one of Erstwhile's early gems, Lehn's summit meeting with omni-percussionist Gerry Hemingway on Tom & Gerry. Hemingway has long incorporated electronics in his solo performance and is well calibrated to the range of sounds that can emerge from those situations. On their June 1997 duo tour, the two went at it night after night, resulting in a hugely involving two discs of music.

As a musician and improvisor, Lehn is peerless across these duets. He is able to marshal the vast sonic resources of his instrument, making split-second decisions, reactions, and creations that both challenge and respond to Hemingway. Despite its associations, the synthesizer isn't unwieldy or excessively abstract here. In Lehn's hands, it becomes quite elegant, even as he makes it spit, bubble, fart, and moan. The range of his imagination and the intelligence of his playing are very impressive; I can't fathom how quickly he follows Hemingway's woodblock and boxy sounds on "B1.1", which Lehn helps to turn into a sort of clacking symphony. Hemingway is as masterful as ever, playing here in a less obviously pulse-driven way than many are accustomed to from him (listen to his amazing solo at the beginning of "W7"). Bowed cymbals, delicately stroked drum heads, or fierce crashes are used to flesh out the shapes thrown at him by Lehn. "W2" is a phenomenal accretion of sound, building slowly from scrapes and hisses to a fantastic barrage. Hemingway leads things splendidly at times, as he does on "W3," exemplifying this equal exchange of sound, texture, pleasure. "W5.2" is very solemn, almost like a processional. Fierce stuff, an essential duo.

Even more out is the synth showdown on BART, where Lehn matches his electronic prowess with digital synthesizer and computer maestro Marcus Schmickler. Schmickler's improvisational background is not as extensive as Lehn's, the former having honed his skills primarily in studio production. But the two met in Keith Rowe's Music in Movement Electronic Orchestra and began collaborating frequently on improvisations.

On this first recorded meeting, the listener is drawn into a world of alien tonality, sine waves, eruptions of static and noise, and washes of almost elemental sound. There is a huge amount of energy both in the production of the sounds themselves and in the interaction; for anyone who thought that electronics were not visceral or powerful, BART is your corrective. But one of the things that makes this recording so compelling is the post-production brought to it, where the performances are edited and (more frequently) the details highlighted and the sound-field embellished to put all the detail in relief (often resulting in tremendous headphone effects like you'd get listening to a David Slusser recording).

Certainly this process-oriented improvisation is not linear or conventionally expressivist. But don't be fooled by the bleeps and whirrs and sproings—this music contains a wealth of the basic elements that improv fans love: responsiveness, attention to detail, pushing the envelope, and a pioneering of new instrumental techniques. The role of chance governs things just as surely as on, say, an Evan Parker record; but here the instrumentation enables the creation of sonic environments that challenge the musicians to respond with new gestures, new vocabularies, and new strategies. The massive flatulence that begins "Ziege" may sound like an army of computers crashing at the same time, but make no mistake—human intentionality, communication, and decision-making went into this stuff live and in the moment. It's a cyclone of sound, as intoxicating as any improvisation being made. And "OS" is a gentle tonic of wave forms and drones before the exhausting and very rich journey of "Du Funktion". This is total music, which challenges trite notions of virtuosity and instrumental individualism. Instead, the music on BART is realized in a different manner. The relationship between sound and silence is paramount, and musical gestures are measured according to how they affect the overall sound environment (as would a ripple on a pond).

In addition to documenting Lehn, another strength of the Erstwhile catalogue is its attention to guitarists at the vanguard of contemporary music. Six-stringers who generally fall outside the post-Coltrane lineage of expressionism are more than likely influenced by AMM member Keith Rowe. On one of the strongest releases, Rowe himself joins Swiss percussionist/electronics manipulator Gunter Muller and fellow guitarist Taku Sugimoto on The World Turned Upside Down. Over the course of two long and quite spacious improvisations, this trio creates a sonic dreamworld of subtle timbral and textural variations, slight oscillations, and floating waves of electricity. Amazingly, Muller and Rowe are able to coax from the simplest sonic elements (the hum of a static, the contact between wires, feedback) a momentum and form that, while unconventional, is strangely inviting. Instead of focusing on brief linear expressions, the music centers around subtle and often very rapid shifts in color and shading. The distinction between foreground and background becomes blurred, even as Sugimoto strums and arpeggiates gently amidst the burble.

Documented live at the Paris club Les Instants Chavires, this first-time meeting of the trio is a hypnotic hour-long fantasy. The aural effect is similar to that of having woken from a very affecting dream, the specifics of which you cannot remember. No distinct events or episodes stand out, yet the experience shifts your perception of things nonetheless. At times, this trio music may sound like the electric equivalent of a babbling brook or rustling leaves, so elemental are its charms; but essentially, it defies language's ability to fix and capture it. A triumph.

Kevin Drumm certainly operates at the fringes of guitar technique like Rowe. But Drumm, like his duo partner Martin Tetreault, is an altogether crankier presence. Fussing and bothering his tabletop instrument with devices and preparations, Drumm does not work in terms of any recognizable process or flow; rather he constructs what might be heard as an elaborate series of interruptions: crackles, warbles, buzzes, and pops. But what are they interrupting? Certainly Tetreault's use of turntables (already anathema to many free jazz purists) is not of the obvious sort; there is no scratching or mixing, only the raw sound of an instrument being manipulated. Other writers have compared Particles and Smears to a Schwitters collage or a Cage exercise—these comparisons aren't altogether off-base, as they call attention to Drumm's and Tetreault's incorporation of chance into their creations.

You can almost hear them focus on each lone sound rising from their ghostly landscape—a tendril of electricity snakes out, a hiss wafts through the speaker, a glint of metal surfaces at the edges. "8", for example, sounds like rustling paper and short-wave radio, interrupted by sounds of worried strings and occasional snippets of dialogue or noise from the turntable. And "10" is a dizzying avalanche of sound which begins almost imperceptibly and soon comes to surround you. It is almost as if, out of this apparently random succession of noise, Drumm and Tetreault elaborate their own musical code, which conveys to the listener its most alien qualities. But each (non-)event is carefully allowed to develop, considered for its impact, then abandoned. Its significance is registered, but ultimately lost in the sounds or silences which follow.

On Schnee, Viennese heavies Burkhard Stangl (known for his collaborations with Polwechsel and Franz Koglmann, among others) and Christof Kurzmann (collaborator with Jim O'Rourke, Christian Fennesz, Kevin Drumm, and others) unite in the creation of the sparsest, most delicate release in the Erstwhile catalogue. It is also perhaps the most beguiling. With his G3, Kurzmann creates soundscapes of both stillness and motion, their subtle fluctuations operating on both the conscious and subconscious levels. There is no attempt to "play"; rather, the two focus their four creations on evocation. It is as if Kurzmann were providing the paper and Stangl the brush, careful to choose only as many strokes as needed to produce a work of simplicity and power. A single note from an acoustic guitar rings out against a hazy tableau, or a lone liquid chord shapes the inchoate language pouring out of Kurzmann's instrument. Prepare yourself for beauty, for lonely sounds at home in a sonic landscape both remote and inviting. Acoustic and electric music mesh together perfectly here in a minimalist dialogue that grows in significance with each listen.

On the fourth guitar-oriented release, the two long tracks are somewhat improbably entitled "Rock and Roll, parts 4 & 5". What is it that we love about rock and roll? Volume? Histrionics? Or the power of minimalism? New Zealander Dean Roberts, longtime investigator of drone-based music, teams up with multi-instrumentalist Werner Dafeldecker (of Polwechsel, among others). Though from slightly different musical backgrounds, as with many Erstwhile collaborators, the two find common ground in a devotion to long-form process. Out of a very long studio session, their collaboration resulted in Aluminium, a tour de force for guitar and electronics.

On these two long pieces, there is considerable tension generated from the most basic musical materials. Sine waves and liquid coils of feedback float ominously across the sound spectrum, suggesting a gathering storm of some sort. Certainly the atmospherics are dense, but there is also considerable light emerging from the clouds as well. With a diverse array of resources at their disposal—drones, shape-shifting feedback masses, scrapes, whines, and pitch-shifts—the two guitarists explore a hidden world of contrasts and contours. There are great clangorous noises throughout, sounding like chains being dragged across a metal surface, but also barely audible hissing. Out of it all comes a carefully constructed sound environment, using subtle fluctuations of dynamics and timbre to negotiate space. Rock and roll? More like metallurgy.

Two recent entries in the Erstwhile catalogue come from real veteran practitioners of the electronic arts. Both Günter Müller and Lê Quan Ninh are trained as percussionists but have steadily developed their approaches to music in conjunction with electronics. Muller's For 4 Ears label has assiduously documented his own progress as an improvisor as well as projects undertaken by like-minded musicians (including those who join together on Bits, Bots & Signs). These are two musicians who truly understand the languages and possibilities in percussion—not just as rhythmic generators but as sound devices. Think Xenakis and Cage, and you begin to get the idea. Of all the Erstwhile releases, La Voyelle Liquide sounds the most "natural", the most "organic", though these very categories become problematic the deeper I engage this music.

The combination of Ninh's surrounded bass drum, with its huge reverberation, and the electronics produce an aural effect of great mass and magnitude. The groaning and heaving noises suggest some unknown acts of nature, while the slashing sounds they generate sound like rain sheets or warping metal. Amidst all this, however, there is delicacy as well: trinkling bell noises, soft blowing winds, and tiny rustles command the attention outside of the larger gestures. These two percussionists are unfailingly compelling just as musicians; they use their resources and instruments in the most daring of ways, conjuring up a wide array of colors and feelings in the open territory they inhabit. I felt that I was hearing the flow of my own subconscious.

Listening to Bits, Bots & Signs, it seemed to me as if Otomo Yoshihide is incapable of making a less than absorbing recording. Many listeners know his work from the joyous bombast of Ground Zero. But of late, Otomo has turned his attention to a more minimalist idiom (listen to Filament or I.S.O.), often using the sine waves associated with frequent collaborator Sachiko M. As on the classic "Consume Red", Otomo has become interested in the slow and subtle manipulation of a basic and continuous element of sound. Instead of working with song forms, Otomo's method is akin to the construction of musical space itself, the fashioning of a sonic environment which dictates its own norms and conventions. It's natural, then, that he should eventually collaborate with the Swiss duo Voice Crack (also known as Norbert Moslang and Andy Guhl), whose use of "cracked everyday-electronics" has taken them into similar territories since the early 1980s.

These five improvisations conjure up a world made of metal and electricity, where huge tectonic plates shift mightily ("@@@4") beneath a sky filled with comets and humming with energy. If you listen, you'll find traces of sounds familiar to you: factory noises cranking out their repetitive tattoo, car engines sputtering on a cold morning, cicadas whining, or coffee grinders whirring away. But there are also less familiar noises: the long, mesmerizing tones being subtly transformed over several minutes, or the sounds I imagine I might hear inside a shipwreck on the ocean floor. Fundamentally, these soundscapes beggar the language; this music is sui generis. But what a joy to have so many new images—both troubling and pleasing—brought to life through improvisations. For those who think they've heard it all before, listen to this.

Finally, there are two projects involving "traditional" improvising instruments (notably the saxophone) and featuring improvisors well known to listeners from contexts other than electro-acoustic improv. In the spacious and occasionally haunting work of VHF (Graham Halliwell, Simon H. Fell, and Simon Vincent), the process-oriented, "laminal" approach of AMM is a fairly good touchstone. Though this trio incorporates the smallest amount of electronics of any other release, it is similar in method to other projects. Rather than concentrating on "events" or "expressions", the trio instead focus on particular musical resources (such as attack or dynamics) or specific instrumental properties as bases for their collective creations. For example, Fell is able to wring the most liquid of drones from his contrabass (he gets an impossibly low rumble on "Ra"), and Halliwell the grainiest multiphonics from his saxophone, spreading them slowly across the tone-field like ink on paper. Cymbals swell, creating tension and release while single notes are held. The quiet bustle of the drum kit creates an aural environment on "Tr", "Ct" and "Ac", all of which hum with quiet vitality, shaped by the subtle gestures of breath through reed or stroke of strings. The dynamics are intense, and the music on Extracts is very advanced.

Requests and Antisongs is an extraordinary recording by any standard. Duo partners Butcher and Durrant are longtime collaborators, familiar to most fans of improvised music for their work together in SME as well as their long-standing trio with guitarist John Russell. In the last few years, however, Durrant's growing devotion to electronics has resulted in the formation of one of the most challenging duos in the music (already documented on a fine Wobbly Rail release). Here Durrant lays down his violin and uses electronics and feedback to manipulate Butcher's sax playing in real-time. Occasionally, the electronics are triggered by Butcher's playing (such as on miniatures like "Jansik"). Elsewhere, one can hear Durrant shaping and reshaping the saxophonist's lines: the howling data storm of "Sheet Bend", the extreme squealing and squelching of "Kreuzklem" (Durrant's most incredible performance, to me), or the cloudy "Prusik Loop".

What makes this so wild is that Butcher's saxophone playing is itself so compellingly strange, so alien (even relative to a tradition which values radical experimentation). The buzzing and fluttering sounds he produces from his tenor and soprano already sound like ghost versions of a saxophone; so when Durrant begins spitting back shadow sounds that hover close to Butcher's own, the effects are doubly (or triply?) eerie. Just listen to the riot of multiphonics on "Sliding Chinese Crown" or the chorus of chirps on "Flemish Eye". And a piece like "Bimini", which sounds so tranquil on its surface, reveals ever deeper layers of disquiet on repeated listenings. This fabulous duo goes from strength to strength on this recording, which should be dug promptly by anyone interested in where contemporary improv is going.

By the time this article sees print, Erstwhile will have continued its own voyages with a pair of great looking new releases: do (013) featuring Toshimaru Nakamura and Sachiko M, and dach (014) with Durrant, Lehn, and Radu Malfatti. Upcoming in early spring are a duo with Axel Dörner and Kevin Drumm (015) and We Are Everyone In the Room (016) with Stilluppsteypa and TV Pow.

Needless to say, I enthusiastically recommend all the above releases. It's been my genuine pleasure to live with this music for a while, to let it sink into my pores, to have it accompany me in my daily routines. Certainly, the pleasures of the releases are immediate—there is great improvisation, pure and simple, and the sounds are compelling in their own right. But deeper still, this is music that has transformed my listening habits more broadly, that has slowly but perceptibly shifted the categories I generally use when evaluating music. Jon Abbey confesses that he no longer quite knows what to call the music he documents with his label. I certainly am hesitant to put forth a candidate (though I returned again and again to the title of an AMM album, The Nameless Uncarved Block). Perhaps this resistance to naming is important to the music, though. Its lasting pleasures are many, but none richer for me than its persistent elusiveness in the face of my descriptions. The music is alive, protean, and wonderfully multiple.