Thursday, August 10, 2006

A couple of years ago, I received a package of discs from the Ground Fault and Auscultare labels out of California. They represented aspects of a scene I'd been vaguely aware of for a while, one which manifests around NYC each year at the No Fun Festival, held in the warehouse district of Red Hook, Brooklyn.

This particular musical seam can probably be traced back quite a ways, stemming from the more orgasmically noisy ends of both free jazz and out-rock, but I tend to give the credit or blame to Borbetomagus. The Borbs surfaced in the late 70s, if I'm not mistaken, two saxophonists (Jim Sauter and Don Dietrich) and a guitarist, Donald Miller. The latter was a regular hanger-out in the loft jazz scene and, in all honesty, a seriously annoying one. Something insufferably effete about his manners, as far as I was concerned although I should say when I've seen him in recent years, that tendency appears to have been weathered. In any case, your typical Borbs performance (I think I saw them once back then and heard them on KCR a number of times) was balls to the wall screaming and metallic distortion. It's as if they took Brotzmann's "Machine Gun" and "Metal Machine Music" as starting points and upped the ante from there. I wasn't fond of it then and I'm still not. Not because of the loudness, chaos, etc. but (at least I think in retrospect) for the absence of thought, something not the case with Brotzmann, Reed and others. At its core, there was an adolescent rock sensibility, a "look at me" kind of petulance and egotism that I found off-putting.

Well, the Borbs soldiered on over the decades, others misread the lessons of groups like AMM (anything goes! well, not really.....) and a bit of a movement developed that approached noise from this rock performance-like angle. The discs I received varied widely in quality to my ears, from the puerilely unlistenable to the intriguingly excellent (Joe Colley, for instance). But for every rich, interesting sound-world, there were several guys (these are largely males in their 20s as near as I could tell) making vomiting noises, flushing toilets, screaming imprecations, arbitrarily creating electronic niose that seemed designed to aggravate their parents more than anything else. I thought, "This is what I'd expect from a rebellious and precocious 13-year old". I wrote as much when I reviewed them at Bagatellen but this didn't deter the label from sending more stuff, again varying enormously in listenability.

A few months later, the No Fun Fest was occurring and I thought, to be fair, I should witness the music in its proper context so I trundled over to Red Hook for an evening. I saw Greg Kelley inside (I hadn't realized he was playing with one of the 7-8 bands on display that night) and he opined that I might have been a bit harsh in my judgment of some of these guys. "Could be", I said, "we'll see". The main room was pretty good-sized, maybe 75-feet square and there was a bank of bleachers at the rear so I plopped my relatively elderly butt there as masses of unwashed male youth began to flow in. It was pretty stinky. And crowded. The first act was a duo (I forget the name now--Para-something), playing homemade electronics and vocalizing. I quickly picked up on a de riguer aspect of this scene--all vocals must be done with microphone shoved inside of mouth as deeply as possible. Ok then. They pranced, played and sang, creating a rough, noisy racket which, as abstract as they might have liked to think they were being, never escaped rock-style posturing. At a certain point it appeared from my vantage that one of the gentleman was, in fact, vomiting on his mic, an assumption proven correct as an unmistakable odor wafted back my way. "Well", I thought, "I guess I have to give them credit for not merely evoking the sounds of egestion, but actually doing it." The next guy, solo, didn't vomit as nearly as I could tell, but similarly gesticulated and orgasmed through an utterly boring run of noise. Seriously, these fellows need to be locked in a room with AMM records for a long while.

The third performance was someone I'd reviewed unfavorably (I swear I'm forgetting his name at the moment) and who Greg had made special note of as to his musical worth. I respect Greg and enjoy his own music greatly, so I hoped for the best. I'd gotten out of my seat and wandered around between sets, venturing downstairs only to encounter a hairy, bare-chested (and, shockingly, really smelly) gent growling through the crowd, lending an even more pungent olfactory air to the environs. When I returned, there was standing room only, the crowd having mushroomed to several hundred, and I was backed against the rear wall. The show started, the solo performer at a keyboard of some sort. It turns out he's, I believe, a PETA activist and chose to accompany his set with video of many, many animals being killed, scientifically tortured, etc. I think the point, such as it was, was impressed in the mind of the stupidest person present in about four seconds, but the videos went on for 30-40 minutes, whatever the length of the set. The music itself was actually better than its predecessors, but....Midway through, Greg sidled up to me and shouted into my left ear, "You may have been right."

I chose to leave after that set, forgoing several others that, I came to understand, included the swinging of chairs among the crowd and other niceties. *sigh*, kids....

However, scene is so monolithic, even one that seems to have monolithicism (?) as one of its core values. A few weeks back, Ed Howard was kind enough to send me a box of about 15 discs on his Fargone label and the related Quodlibet imprint. Some of the same musicians are involved but, listening to it at home and from a safe distance odiferously speaking, you can begin to discern more variation in approach. There's also less apparent posturing and schoolboy obnoxiousness present. That isn't to say I'm loving a lot of it, but it's rather interesting to try and adopt a listening posture that's less confrontational to the music's surface aspect and somewhat more accepting of its mannerisms, allowing oneself as much as possible to sink into it on its own terms. You begin to identify items of value among the seeming thoughtlessness, at least in some of the work. I'm still wading through it and I doubt any of it will end up among music I return to again and again, but for the first time I'm seeing seeds of something that could, maybe, develop into a fairly strong branch of improv.

It's not really in the same ballpark as the music described above, but I'd make special mention of the Russian duo going by the novel moniker, Momeht Ybaxenhr, whose extremely limited edition disc (like, 30) "Five Moments of Silence for the Many Dead of Chechnya", consisting entirely of very restrained field recording deployment, is outstanding.


Anonymous said...

Ah Brian-you just don't know how to have fun. LOL

Brian Olewnick said...

Hey Mark!

Sorry, been meaning to write but things have been busy...

Yeah, Environ kinda spoiled me as far as performance spaces go. Don't recall Muhal vomiting as part of his act either, the old fuddy-duddy.

Anonymous said...

No sweat. Haven't been listening to much jazz lately so it's interesting to see who you're writing about. Muhal is one classy old school gentleman and a gentle and spiritual man.

I wonder if a lot of the former young turks have mellowed with age.

Brian Olewnick said...

Oh yeah, almost all have mellowed out, which is to say (imho) the music they've been producing lacks a good deal of spark. Even those who maintain a fairly high evergy level (Cecil, Mitchell) tend to rehash old ground. Braxton still pushes things a bit once in a while, but....I've seen shows at the Vision Fest that are downright embarrassing re: resting on one's laurels and just treading water.

But it's a truism that most great work is done while musicians are in their 20s and 30s. The human condition--not much you can do about it. There are always happy exceptions but--they're exceptions.

Anonymous said...

Ahh-the youth is wasted on the young adage's proverbial chickens are coming home to roost.

In fairness it's difficult to maintain long-term supply of good ideas/freshness.

Like you said-that old human condition thing.