OFN Home

Erstwhile & 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 music.

Norbert 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 recording.

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.

The 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).

The 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.

Rowe 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).

The 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 "onkyo").

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.