& For4Ears New Release Roundup
Listening audiences have come a good way from wondering what the hell
this "eai" stuff is all about to wondering how possibly
to keep up with the deluge of releases under the general rubric that
has been adopted. Regardless of the relative insufficiency of the
names given to this broad patch of improvised music, it is now a permanent
feature of the landscape. This spring there appeared, on this website,
a controversial opinion piece damning the "genre" from
a number of perspectives. Below I offer not so much a response or
refutation (on my reading the piece established little other than
that one author failed to connect with a smattering of records, taken
as representative of the "genre"; that listeners have
different aesthetic reactions to different kinds of music is hardly
shocking, and says little about the music in question), but a survey
of six recent releases from two of electroacoustic improvisation's
premiere labels, Erstwhile and For4Ears. Across these releases an
interested listener can get a good sense of the key players, strategies,
instruments, and aesthetic dispositions found in this very rich, burgeoning
Möslang is best known as half of the groundbreaking electronics
duo Voice Crack (along with Andy Guhl). On lat_nc (For4Ears
1549), Möslang's first-ever solo disc, he shows that he
possesses his own voice on "cracked everyday electronics".
Over the last decade or so of the duo's existence, their sound
became fairly refined, consisting of meticulously detailed improvisations
often rooted in a hypnotic (though often quite flexible) pulse track.
Möslang's solo work doesn't entirely leave that method
behind (many typical features, such as the clicks and pulses, are
present here), but there is an additional spaciousness and texturalism,
almost like an affinity for expansive landscaping, that comes through
on this disc.
It's a pleasantly succinct statement, all the more impressive
considering that its six pieces extend Möslang's vocabulary
a bit further than expected. He tries his hand at the kind of tone-layering
one hears often on Günter Müller's own records (juxtaposing
lines and drones of different tonality or density), and he also experiments
a bit with prerecorded or found sounds. This partly embodies a change
in methodology: Möslang has engaged in considerable post-production
on these studio improvisations. None of the pieces get very raucous,
but the somewhat reflective mood not only works but is engaging in
terms of listening experience: Slow developmental arcs, subtle structural
changes, and deftly introduced electronic details all insinuate themselves
somewhat imperceptibly (whether the dominant idiom is drifting ambient
noise, flinty metallic statements, or old-school bleep-bloop interruptions).
While some will no doubt long for the huge sonic constructions of
Voice Crack, I actually appreciate the aesthetic shifts on this solo
For some years
now, poire_z has been one of the finest electroacoustic ensembles
in Europe. Comprised of the aforementioned Voice Crack, percussionist/electronician
Günter Müller, and turntablist eRikm, their previous recordings
have each been rewarding. Yet for this disc q (For4Ears 1551),
a document of what turns out to have been their very last performance,
the group is joined—wholly unpexpectedly—by British improv
vocalist Phil Minton. The challenge is necessarily twofold here: Can
Minton fit into the improvising language of a well-established group,
and can his well-honed style mesh with the non-idiomatic demands of
electroacoustic music? I wasn't as daunted in my approach to
this concert recording (from 2002's Musique Action festival
in France) as I might have been otherwise, since some trusted friends
who were in attendance gave surprised but glowing reports of this
performance. But it was still rewarding to hear how well integrated
the musical parts are, with Minton relinquishing his occasionally
grating tendency to rely on mallard calls for a more subtle use of
his amazing instrument. He hisses, gurgles at length, extends his
vocal overtones, and even summons some full-throated drones, all of
which contribute to the larger expanse of sound. Here Voice Crack's
cracked everyday electronics are in overdrive, clicking and whirring
away, while Müller and m patiently generate and discard detail
upon detail, idea after idea: Metallic noise, slithering shortwave
whines, muffled percussive gestures, and so forth. Though there is
a good deal of density, and the sonic exploration is pretty relentless,
the subtlety of the interaction and the frequent delicacy of the musical
shifts are captured well on the recording.
best For4Ears release of the lot is Brackwater (For4Ears 1550),
featuring guitarist/electronician Tomas Korber along with eRikm, no-input
mixing board master Toshimaru Nakamura and the ever resourceful Otomo
Yoshihide (the musicians actually don't list instrumental credits
on this release, perhaps a gesture towards the oft-remarked "egoless"
quality of this music?). The music begins with very high steam-release
sounds and rustling paper set amidst slowly reverberating bell tolls.
Over the course of several minutes the sound field thickens and achieves
a palpable fullness (or, to switch spatial imagery, it reaches a plateau),
after which there lets loose a barrage of feedback, crackles, and
(I think) the sounds of input jacks being mangled (Korber's
guitar?). The quartet plays with pulse a bit, building it up and cutting
it off, using it to catalyze new movement within the improvisation
but also to choke off gestures that become too settled. A massive
shift occurs, however, halfway through the title track: The accumulated
sound simply disperses, revealing a siren-like pitch shift in the
middle of things and a substratum of subtly morphing hisses and whistles.
The second of the two tracks—"And a Slice of Bread"—builds
more quickly to a low, noisy, clangor that eschews the multi-directional
approach of the first track for a rich singularity. Though it maintains
its density, details emerge in a fascinating way, as if to reveal
the features of the performance space itself (a former state prison,
in case you're interested): Distant echoes bounce towards you,
as if from the far corner of some vast metallic chamber; unsettling
chirrups and clicks smother the floor; muffled voices can be discerned
within the warm drone (think Kevin Drumm in a way, but there is also
little mistaking the very guitaristic feedback that Korber unleashes).
latest batch from Erstwhile—three releases, rather than the
customary two—is particularly challenging, issuing forth from
a period of intense activity by the musicians responsible and signaling
some possible changes in direction from at least a couple of those
involved. The first release features the perhaps unexpected meeting
of tabletop guitarist and electronician Keith Rowe with trumpet abstractionists
Axel Dörner and Franz Hautzinger. A View from the Window
(Erstwhile 041) is, like so much of Rowe's work, somewhat obviously
preoccupied with space: The title gives an indication that the immediacy
of circumstance will inevitably impact the process of music-making,
just as will the actual space of the recording venue, and even more
abstractly, the historical or ideological space of one's moment
(something Rowe thinks deeply about).
The range of sounds coaxed from brass, breath, and strings is pretty
stunning. Anyone who has heard Hautzinger's geologically slow
Dachte Musik or Dörner's work with Kevin Drumm or
Andrea Neumann (among others) will be familiar with the subtle splatters,
unfurlings, and creaking noises, the gently oscillating breath and
buzzing metal. It's not simply the case that these guys avoid
the familiar gestures of free jazz; they also go a country mile beyond
the restructuralism of, say, Bill Dixon (in the same way that Rowe's
approach to the guitar is far removed from Bailey's). The trumpeters
make for perfect partners for Rowe's arsenal of rattles, clangs,
and radio snippets. The three voices blend together, sometimes giving
the impression of a single alien organism speaking and elsewhere coming
across like three-way satellite transmissions from some far galaxy.
The two long pieces—almost an hour of music—don't
move along conventionally linear pathways but instead play with a
constantly morphing surface, in much the same way as one might play
with a sand painting with a stick. This is rich, heady stuff, which
is both provocative and accessible.
has also recently found himself making music with unlikely critical
darling Christian Fennesz. Live at the LU (Erstwhile 043) captures
their very first duo show together (their only prior work together
has been in the large ensemble MIMEO), and it contains music of serious
tension (not just in its construction and elaboration, but between
the very different improvisational styles of the two musicians). The
two have recently played a handful of live shows in the US, including
a wonderfully hypnotic (almost psychedelic) show at New York's
Tonic. This disc was recorded two years ago, in May 2002 in Nantes.
It is certainly the densest, most heavily layered of these three recordings.
It's an intriguing and—if all you know of Fennesz is some
of his more poppy or melodic work—improbable pairing but it
works quite well. Fennesz avoids his quite familiar laptop fantasy;
he doesn't even mangle up his favored melodies, but exchanges
them for an array of rough textures: Wet dragging things, scraping
metal, high whistles and whines, or jarring clusters of explosive
pops and cracks. The feel of the performance is akin to what I imagine
it would be like to dive into deep waters, discovering there a wholly
unfamiliar but captivating lifeworld. Rowe, one of the world's
most responsive and sensitive improvisers, adapts easily to what Fennesz
does: He uses his fans to create whisper-soft drones, and employs
a bevy of items to coax gurgles or creaks from his beat-up strings.
But he also disturbs and challenges his colleague to leave behind
the familiar soundworld in which he often buries himself. The tone
field is sometimes starkly bright, and elsewhere darkly muffled. The
long restive passage in the middle—after the dense assault of
the first portion of the disc—is filled with far more suspense
than it might otherwise be (say, if it preceded the onslaught).
toughest music of all comes courtesy of Sachiko M, Toshimaru Nakamura,
and Otomo Yoshihide on their two-disc epic Good Morning, Good Night
(Erstwhile 042). This release has befuddled even committed fans of
this music. Far removed from the density of the Rowe/Fennesz pairing
or the abstracted language of View from the Window, these three
improvisers have fashioned an idiom that is highly distinct, one that
constitutes a different kind of commitment to non-idiomatic improvisation.
Much of this has to do with instrumentation: M plays an "empty"
sampler with contact mics, generating pure sine waves; Nakamura uses
a no-input mixing board in similar fashion; and Otomo has recently
moved away from the sonic density he once courted to a more minimalist
electronics approach. But it also has to do with the incredible restraint
that characterizes this mode of improvisation (which was once called
Much has been said about the sparseness—the near total silence,
according to some—of the music herein. While it takes a good
deal of time, focus, and general reorientation of listening habits
to get into this trio music, make no mistake that it is quite active.
The four tracks—"Good Morning" and "Good Afternoon"
on disc one, "Good Evening" and "Good Night"
on the second disc—form an arc of density, generally growing
in the degree to which they assert themselves or, perhaps, establish
themselves on a more conventional listening plane. The promotional
materials indicate that the musicians see this as a "vertical"
music (in other words, one that is resistant to conventional forms
of linearity). And it's true that, on the 30-minute "Good
Morning" for example, the hypnotic sine waves and micro hums
do not establish anything as prosaic as a narrative; the occasional
snaps of sound or blurts of feedback, even the groans and whistles
which blend in, are points of relief on an altogether different landscape.
True, things get increasingly active as the recording goes on, but
each performance seduces and draws you in precisely to the extent
that it forces you out of your listening habits.
There is a relentlessness to this music, a refusal to "develop"
sound in any familiar sense; but if you lose an attachment to that
expectation, and let these players' slow, knowing transformation
of the sonic particulars (a cracked cry, a morphing whine—perhaps
some of these sudden barks come courtesy of Otomo's turntable)
wash over you, the results and the rewards are tremendous. While a
lot of listeners feel that, despite general sympathy for this kind
of music, M's and Nakamura's music is too severe, I have
been drawn to it. It took me a good deal of time to feel this one,
but I do now.
If this rich assortment of releases illustrates anything about electroacoustic
improvisation, I would say that (1) it's in many ways misleading
to refer to electronic improvisation as a genre (the general field
is far too new, in far too obvious a state of flux to make such pronouncements—never
a bad thing), and (2) there is the problem of naming this music, since
both of these commonly-used appellations refer not to an idiom or
a process but basically just to instrumentation (hey, should we start
calling Evan Parker records acoustic improvisation?). Indeed, there
is a real sense that the only way to approach much of this music is
through the via negativa; that is, it is far easier to say
what "eai" is not than to say firmly, convincingly, finally
what it is. Even more so than the outest European free improv, this
stuff challenges our ability to describe. We can only trade metaphors,
to a certain degree. It is not expressionist, it is not linear, it
is not idiomatic, and so forth.
But it provides immediate, visceral pleasures: One may not always
know how the sounds are being put together, but you can hear them
meld in ways that please all fans of improv music; you may not always
be familiar with the types of beauty produced, but there is so much
beauty in this music. The laser precision of a sine wave, the muffled
burblings of a laptop, or the arcane preparations and treatments given
even to conventional instruments may not be everyone's idea
of the sublime. But the fact that this music is both aesthetically
compelling and intellectually provocative is something to be celebrated.