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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 discussion groups.

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 curve.

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 events.

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 silence.

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 Wire 231)."

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.