electro acoustic improv : Reflections On The New New Thing
The hype has been remarkable, the praise unstinting and nearly unanimous,
and the conversation among so many fans of improvisational music has
been feverish and intense. And this has been going on now for about
5 years, this hullabaloo over the phenomenon known as electro acoustic
improv (eai), though the music itself, to varying degrees, has been
around since the 60s.
The records are sold by jazz shops on-line and off, written about
by jazz magazines both on-line and off, and commentary about them
has dominated the discourse of quite a few of the jazz-themed digital
Oddly, though, the music, by any definition, is not jazz, and after
listening to about three dozen of these records, it's difficult
to see much, if any, relation to jazz. In fact it seems to be loved
for what it is mostly lacking, which are some of the very basic elements
of jazz in all its traditions—melody, grooves, swing, and rhythm.
To my ears (and quite a lot of this music must be listened to with
headphones in order to be heard), it is music with no soul, no heart,
and certainly no hips.
And while it has always been difficult to write clearly and concretely
about abstract music, there has been no shortage of vague, ponderous
prose when it comes to eai, no shortage of effusive nonsense and cryptic
description, and few if any missed opportunities for pontificating
poseurs to congratulate themselves on being so hip and ahead of the
Jazz of today seems to have let many of these people down, and rather
than listening again to Hot Fives and Sevens or Live at
the Plugged Nickel they break out their special limited edition
Amplify 2002 because it's cutting edge and current.
This is what happens, I can only surmise, when enough highly intelligent
men with enough disposable income have reached their middle years
and need to find some way to feel cool again, and so they sit in rooms
or cars with high-end audio systems, and cock their ears to listen
to the dramatic uses of spatialty, the correspondence of textures
and silence, the metaphoric suggestiveness of barely audible sonic
If one is to spend time and money listening to hours upon hours of
sine waves, lap-top plops and fizzes, scrapes of disembodied guitar,
string-plings from the inside of a piano, and abrasions of drum skins,
one has to invent and embrace a highfalutin justification, and veil
it in obscurity until it tends towards dogma. (Pretentiously they
love to use the verb 'document' for recording, and their
festivals are 'curated'.)
But what eai enthusiasts won't tell you, but most fans of jazz
will discover for themselves if they dare, is how fucking tedious
this music actually is. I've read a lot of talk about its sublime
structure, but have yet to see a thorough or specific discussion of
the criteria involved in such claims.
Take for instance one of last year's most acclaimed releases,
Duos For Doris (Erstwhile) by Keith Rowe and John Tilbury,
who make up two thirds of AMM, considered by many to be the godfathers
of eai. No ink was spared blathering on about the emotional quality
in pianist Tilbury's note placement, a conclusion I dare say
would have been hard to reach were it not for the helpful liner note
informing us that Tilbury's mother had passed only two days
before the recording was made. Among other aspects of this recording
I've seen praised are its ambivalence, its lack of ideas, and
its mysterious air of restraint. And so, to eai fans, absence has
become the new presence, and indeterminacy and tenuousness have become
the latest refinements of improvisation.
Then there is Improvised Music from Japan, a record label and now
a bilingual journal too. Listening to the CD accompanying the journal's
launch issue, one might be excused for initially thinking the disc
was defective. Over the course of its seven tracks, we are treated
to little more than buzzing drones, hissing tones, some fluttering
scatches and squawks, all of course punctuated by long stretches of
Listening to the thirty-one minute excerpt (!) of the piece by Radu
Malfatti and Taku Sugimoto, I found myself continually looking up
at the time counter on my disc player, convinced that this inert music
had somehow squashed even the flow of energy in my electrical sockets.
When the full-length release of this music was later reviewed in magazines,
it was hard not to admire the contortions some writers put themselves
through trying to characterize this 'document' of torpor.
Perhaps the only thoughtful discussion (and criticism) of this music,
has ironically come from Eddie Prevost, percussionist of AMM. And,
doubly ironic, this appeared in The Wire, which has exercised
its king-making power in the world of new music by lauding nearly
every eai (or reductionist as it's more fashionably called in
Berlin) release that's come its way.
Lamenting the lack of expressiveness in the music, Prevost said, "The
primary characteristics of this music are its determined equalization
of tone, timbre, activity, dynamics, and it's [lack of] volume.
All 'reductionist' instrumentalists seem bent on producing
similar sonic effects—no matter what the source material. What
is produced seems too often dull in its lack of differentiation (The
You might think that such controversial remarks would engender an
interesting, provocative discussion of the music in succeeding issues
of the magazine, but alas, it didn't. The emperor's new
music remained aloof to such analysis.
And so the glorification of this opaque, haphazard music continues
on, and critics like me are dismissed as philistines. It seems particularly
ripe now for a sort of Sokal hoax. Perhaps a mischievous (but well-known)
musician will fill a seventy-seven minute disc documenting the hum
and surge of a refrigerator and the sound of ass-scratching, send
it in to IMJ or Erstwhile, and soon after experience the rapture of
critical praise for its reverberant beauty and austere references
to man vs. machine struggles and all its attendant colors and textures.
Or you could just turn on a tape machine, get out a dog whistle, and
blow, blow, blow, while the yammering mutts encircle you, wagging
their tails, and cocking their ears.