Tuesday, October 03, 2006

So, ErstQuake 3, 2006. Four nights, five performances each evening. I had to miss Night 2 due to a small matrimonial commitment (27th wedding anniversary), but the other three days presented much to chew on.

Wandered down to Tonic Thursday evening, meeting a gaggle of known personages hovering around outside--always good to see these fellows (unfortunately, yes, all fellows) at least once a year. Secured my preferred Tonic seat, the foremost stool on the right hand wall with the round table for elbow resting.

The opening set is always somewhat invocational in aspect and this year's, with Jeph Jerman and Greg Davis, was no exception. The two stood behind tables littered with natural-ish detritus including stones, sticks (bundled and individual), feathers, shells, bells, a bull-roarer, seeds, etc.They tended toward the very quiet, for instance holding a handful of pebbles under a mic, gently rolling them inside their palm. Pretty effective overall, though I couldn't help but register a couple of reservations. One, no fault of Mssrs. Jerman and Davis, is that the "mystery" aspect of this sort of music tends to be lost in live performance, at least if you're choosing to keep your eyes open. That is, heard on CD (please check out their excellent recent disc, "Ku", my review of which here) even if you have a rough idea what's occurring, there are plenty of sounds whose origin is impenetrable, lending an extra layer of enjoyment. Actually seeing it produced strips away this veil. On the other hand, maybe that "veil" isn't really a desirable function, that the reality of what's being done is more important and meaningful and that not knowing allows a certain fantasy element into the proceedings that you' d be better served not "enjoying". Hmmmm....The second issue harks back to my early free jazz days when, not atypically, the percussionist in a given ensemble would have dozens of "little instruments" arrayed on rugs around his basic set-up and, when it was time for his "feature", he'd go through a rote series of gestures, making sure each instrument was heard. ie, ten seconds of guiro, 15 of the handful of shells, 10 of the dried carob, 10 of the triangle, etc., etc. Really, really boring. With Jerman and Davis, things didn't reach anywhere close to this level of routineness, but I would've much rather they stayed with some sounds for longer periods rather than often switching around; it became a bit too episodic for me. The bundle of dry sticks that each manipulated, for instance, I could gladly have listened to for at least several minutes rather than a few seconds. Jerman's "Lithiary" disc on fargone, where he "simply" places multiple rocks on a couple of shaker tables and records the quavering results, is a fine example of what I'm talking about. Still, quibbles aside, an enjoyable opening set.

Los Glissandinos were up next, a duo (most of the festival coonsisted of duets) with Kai Fagaschinski on clarinet and Klaus Filip on computer, playing his lloopp program. I'd been fortunate enough to meet Kai the day before, an extremely wonderful guy, so I may have been a bit predisposed to like this performance, but like it I did. As with his duo a couple days later with Burkhard Stangl, Kai has no fears about injecting a strong dose of melodic content into his work. They created two improvs this evening, both brooding and melancholy, Kai devoting equal time to extended technique and "traditional" playing. The first 2/3 of the second piece got tonal enough to be verging on Gavin Bryars territory, maybe a little bit too much for the musicians as they abruptly broke off that pathway, wandering around a bit disjointedly for the concluding five or so minutes.

I've seen Barry Weisblatt perform many times and my reaction has varied widely. He's charting very difficult waters, using an electronics set-up dependent in part on light-activated devices (piezo-electronic? Is that the propoer term?) and often eschewing through-going drones which tends to shift the burden to sound-placement, a touchy area where the listener's internal sense of poetics often determines how one reacts. Here he was teamed with Bryan Eubanks, whose work, what little I'd previously heard, I wasn't so taken with. In addition to small fluorescent tubes (?), Weisblat used a steady flame, whose slightest fluctuations in the internal Tonic breezes, such as they were, caused massively turbulent eruptions from the sound systems. That was very cool, as was the smoke effect when he later blew it out) but the general interaction between the two struck me as awkward and blocky---and not in an interesting way. Eubanks at one point initiated a series of rising pure tones, the timbre of which was a little off-putting as was the general obviousness of their structure; he kept at it for far too long. I can easily imagine, however, listeners with a slightly different take on it reveling in the music. Didn't work for me, though.

I was greatly looking forward to Scenic Railroads, having enjoyed Joe Panzner's writing in the past as well as liking him personally. And the first five or so minutes of their performance (Mike Shiflet being the other half of the RR) won me over completely. But then....I dunno, on the one hand it seemed to lose focus for me, the occasional dollop of fasciantion burbling to the surface only to be swiftly subsumed into the general drone. Later in the set, I got to thinking that it had more to do with the actual quality of sound they were generating from their laptops, something that struck me as fundametally thin or at least less substantial than I wanted to hear. Like styrofoam instead of glass. It's notoriously difficult to create consistently rich work from computers, especially when you're shooting for richness and depth; Fennesz does it, not so many others. It was too easily graspable, like you could see to the bottom of the bowl instead of getting lost in the liquid. If that makes any sense. A frustrating set, for me, one that I really wanted to enjoy more than I did.

Ah, but then came Mattin and Tim Barnes. Probably the most polarizing set of the festival in terms of audience reaction and not just from one diametric. I'd heard a goodly amount from Mattin over the past couple of years and, more and more I'd found myself really enthusiastic about his his work, including even the goofiest projects like his "Songbook". Much as one finds certain jazz musicians to be inherently musical (re: the old comment on Monk, "He even walks musical."), that most anything they come up with just sounds good no matter how absurd the premise (Don Cherry might be an example), I found I'd been getting that sense from Mattin. Had someone verbally described what was to take place this evening, I very likely would've demurred. Happily, no one so informed me. Tim was on stage, sitting at an oversize sock cymbal set-up which was hooked up to some electronics (he was in awesome form throughout, if visually and psychologically overshadowed). Mattin began the set by pacing in a wide circle at the rear of the room, his computer held open to his right ear like a large clamshell as it emitted an intense whine. This went on for several minutes. He then began marching up and down the center aisle. Near the stage was positioned a guitar amp on a wobbly circular table; as the computer drew close, feedback ensued. And Mattin began shouting. What he was shouting was a matter of some debate over the next few days (not sure if it was resolved). It seemed to be in English--"fucking" was certainly one word--but it was so grotesquely strangulated that the rest became guesswork despite its being iterated umpteen dozen times over the course of the set. "Computers are fucking with you!" was my stab. "Consumers are fucking consuming." was someone else's. This was often yelled directly into the computer's mic hole, causing even greater levels of distortion. All this while plunging the device toward the amp, itself teetering on the frail table endangering the welfare of the first row denizens. I had a vision of Mattin smashing the laptop somewhere, preferably the amp and not Richard Pinnell's head. The sound was immense, brutal and almost unbearable. I thought it was great. Partially just as a change from what had preceded (including opening up the performance space, thus making you realize how slightly hermetic things had been earlier), partly the commitment to the drama by Mattin, partly the sheer, fascinating noise. Whatever, it worked for me, though others had vastly different opinions. Some had problems not with the chaotic noise as such (after all, we're a hardy crew) but with its presumed derivativeness from bands like Whitehouse or its similarity to previous Mattin/Barnes shows (which I've not seen, perhaps luckily!). Some resented the political nature of the slogans, a position I have great sympathy for, normally. Except that in this case, it simply worked for me.

This is getting rather long. Think I'll do the other two days in their own installments.

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