Thursday, December 27, 2018

Birgit Ulher/Christoph Schiller  - tulpe schict brille (Inexhaustible Editions)

My ongoing, absurd struggle to come to grips with the sound of the harpsichord in all its guises (including the spinet that's Schiller's instrument of choice) continues, but I'm slowly making ground. Here, Schiller (also utilizing electronics and objects) is joined by the fine trumpeter Birgit Ulher who herself adds radio, speaker and objects to her always imaginatively played and manipulated horn (it's their second recording together, I believe, after 2012's 'Kolk' on Another Timbre). The five improvised tracks are sober and investigative, sometimes--given the enhanced brass and the metallic sound of the spinet--evoking vague, mysterious mechanical operations, an imaginary steam-punk contraption. There's a fine feeling of intense focus here, no throwaway moments, as well as a very good balance between response and independence. Often, the listener has the initial impression of an answer to a sound posed by the other, but then the respondee goes off on his/her own tangent, unrelated enough to cause that listener to doubt their first thoughts. And yes, the basic spinet sound is subjugated more than enough to quell any visceral reactions I might have--sometimes the strings are plucked to an astringent guitar-like effect. Ulher's trumpet, as ever, is a fount of unusual sonorities, buzzing, clacking and dripping away but always with precision. Thoughtful, intelligent improvisation of a high order--recommended.

Inexhaustible Editions

Michael Foster/Katherine Young/Michael Zerang - Bind the hand)s) That Feed (Relative Pitch)

A strong, gutsy set of six improvs from Foster (tenor and soprano saxophones, microphones), Young (bassoon, electronics) and Zerang (drums, percussion) that sits on the edge of free jazz and less idiomatic approaches. It's an interesting contrast to the above-mentioned release. Here, I have the feeling (I could be wrong) that there's a far greater plunging in, an abandoning to the moment rather than careful consideration. Both approaches, and others, are of course entirely valid and if I tend to find the latter mode more generally rewarding these days, there are still plenty of treasures to be found in this strategy. Zerang, to be sure, is an old pro at this and acquits himself quite well. Young is fairly new to me, though I guess I've heard her in other contexts such as the Dropp Ensemble--she's also worked with Braxton. She's very engaging here, encompassing, as near as I can tell given its fine way of melding with adjacent sounds, a vast range on the bassoon, from airiness and delicate rubbing to furious, guttural growls. Foster, who I was fortunate enough to catch in performance a couple months back, has a similarly wide range of attacks, making excellent use of dynamics balanced with extended techniques; Michel Doneda came to mind more than once. The trio searches for a while, almost a given with this approach, but they find wonderfully rough and irregular grooves and concentrated eruptions often enough, areas where the enthusiasm merges with a great sense of drive, to make the journey more than worthwhile. A good, tough outing. 

Friday, December 21, 2018

Antoine Beuger - to the memory of (Inexhaustible Editions)

Beuger wrote this piece in 2016 for this ensemble, Conceptual Soundproductions, founded by Nikolaus Gerszewski in Budapest. The score, as described by Gerszewski in his detailed liner notes, simply consists of the terms "sounds", "words" and "silence". Any realization of the piece becomes, obviously, highly dependent on the choices made by the performers involved as well as the largely subjective evaluations of same made by the listener. I'm inevitably reminded of the wonder, if likely apocryphal, story of Morton Feldman who, when conducting a rehearsal of one of his graphic score works, brought things to an abrupt halt and stared angrily at a member of the ensemble (a violist, purportedly) who innocently pointed to the section in play, and said, "But it just says, 'Play three notes.'" To which Feldman replied, "Not those notes."

Here, the ensemble is nine members strong with Gerszewski (piano, objects), Lenke Kovács (vocals), Ferene Getto (vocals, objects), László Németh (trumpet), Dorottya Poór (violin), Nóra Lajkó (guitar), Julien Baillod (guitar, feedback), Andor Erazmus Illés (electronics) and Erik Benjámin Rafael (percussion, objects). In his notes, Gerszewski expresses surprise at finding no indications of "soft" or "very soft" as one might expect from Beuger and queried him about it, receiving the assurance that Beuger "simply did not want to exclude any sounds". Given that, it's up to the listener, should he or she so desire, to determine whether or not the particular realization somehow "succeeds" or not (leaving open the question, also partially broached by Gerszewski--something I've thought about a lot re: many of Manfred Werder's works--whether or not there needed to be a performance at all, much less a recording). To my ears there's something missing, or perhaps too much in play. The "silence" of the score, while of course present, is not on equal footing with the word and other sounds. Put simply, there's not enough of it for me. More to the point, there's too much regularity in the lengths and pacing of the silences. In fact, that's my main problem overall: a general level of uniformity in sequencing and dynamics that strikes me as overly bland, not so much like any carefully observed aspect of life (or a tiny slice of same), too much the sense of a "list". I'd also have to leave open the probability that I'm missing something from my failure to understand the words spoken in Hungarian.

Given this, Gerszewski reports that the composer, upon hearing the recording, said, "I am totally inspired". While I wouldn't go that far, I'm happy enough to have this addition to the ever-growing library of Beuger compositions/realization and if I prefer many of the others, some listeners may find this approach more to their liking. It's fine and, to be sure, evokes the score, just doesn't quite sync up with my own sensibilities.

Santiago Astaburuaga - la perpetuidad del esbozo #3 (Inexhaustible Editions)

'la perpetuidad del esbozo #3' (2016) is also based on a score that leaves open a wide range of possible realizations, but this one's on an entirely other level. Each of the three musicians here (Cristián Alvear, Makoto Oshiro and Hiroyuki Ura)--the work is written for between two and fourteen performers--wields three sound sources. One is an instrument--guitar, eletromagnetic relays and speakers, and snare drum and cymbals, respectively. The second is a selection of sine tones. The third is a combination of field recordings and archival sounds. For this last, Alvear chose field recordings from Japan and excerpts from Nick Hoffman's 'Bermuda' (which I've not heard), Oshiro opted for sounds from the Hamamatsu Kamoe Art Center and portions of Dawang Yingfan Huang's 'Tourette's Songbook' and Ura went with recordings from Gunma Prefecture and parts of Uchu Hakase's 'Drum Solo at'.

Ok. These are then deployed over various time sequences. For a recording of 40-minutes, like the one at hand, each musician "elaborates" on 4, 5 or 6 of each kind of sound. There's more but you, perhaps, get the picture. The result is a very unusual and, to say the least, unique mosaic of sound bearing jump-cut and collage characteristics but having, to these ears, an odd and unexpected kind of coherence despite the extremely disparate elements, partially due to the sine tones, I imagine, which while varied, provide something of a unifying factor. Certain sounds recur--there's an orchestral passage that rings a bell but one I can't pinpoint--a movie or TV theme, perhaps--that pokes its head up several times, on organ piece and a goofy-sounding guy (Huang?) who "sings"--seriously annoying in and of itself but as an element in the landscape, strangely appropriate. That can be said of the piece as a whole--I'ver no idea why it works (though, naturally, I suspect the judgment of the musicians involved), but it does. Everything I've heard so far from Astaburuaga has held some large degree of fascination and ungainly beauty; I'm greatly looking forward to hearing more.

Inexhaustible Editions

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

A while ago, I received a message from the illustrious Kurt Liedwart noting that he hadn't sent me any Mikrotons in a while and wanted to remedy that fact. In due course, a package arrived from Russia bearing....23 CDs. Five of them had already been sent my way from the musicians involved and had been duly reviewed, but still, eighteen was way more than I'll ever get around to writing about (some were released a year or two ago). So, I'm just going to offer brief summaries of a few of these that made a special impression and merely list the others. Sorry, time!! Thanks, Kurt.

Kurt Liedvart, Julien Ottavi, Keith Rowe - L'Or (Mikroton)

An improv performance from August, 2017 while all three musicians were attending the wonderful Sanitorium of Sound Festival in Sokołowsko, Poland. Both Liedwart (here on modular synth and "cracked everyday and homemade electronics) and Ottavi (computer) are know for tending toward the rough 'n' noisy sector of improv while Rowe, often enough in recent years, has grown increasingly reticent. Not that it's ever going to be easy deciphering who's doing what during an event like this, one can pick out Rowe, now and again, when the heavy and generally delicious glaze set down by the two younger musicians lifts momentarily--there he'll be, rubbing something quietly, scratching with delicacy at some piece of metal, etc. There are some especially juicy moments otherwise, such as the sliding, loopy electronics that occupy much of the last half of the first of two tracks, 'Aurum' and the general spectrum of drips, hums and oscillations that make up 'Золото". Fine work from Liedwart and Ottavi and good to hear Rowe negotiating these territories.

Kurt Liedwart/Andrey Popovskiy/Martin Taxt - hjem (Mikroton)

An exceptionally satisfying (if brief, at 28 minutes) improv session from Liedwart (ppooll), Popovskiy (viola, electronics, objects) and Taxt (tuba). Nothing so unusual, just the trio staying in fairly rough drone territory with some outside sounds intruding, but handled so well, with a fine combination of confidence and restraint. Various elements are introduced over the piece's span, nothing quite as one expects, everything working to up the complexity level without overwhelming the listener with extraneous effects. For instance, the dryly squeaking viola that emerges about halfway through works perfectly with the deep tuba drones and hasher breaths as well as the ringing electronics from Liedwart. There are always more level sin play than is immediately apparent. A wonderfully full and realized performance and, as it turns out, one of perfect length.

The Elks - This Is Not the Ant (Mikroton)

A number of the releases listed below involve musicians like Günter Müller, Norbert Möslang, Jérôme Noetinger, label-owner Liedwart himself and others who ply the more noisy/electronic area of improv. They do this quite ably and listeners interested in that sector would do well to check them out, but my own tastes often desire some acoustic element. The Elks straddle that line quite nicely, offering a set as satisfying and imaginative as "hjem" but spiced with different flavors, including those of a plugged-in nature. Liz Albee (trumpet, preparations) and Kai Fagaschinski (clarinet) tend to the analog while Billy Roisz (electronics, e-bass) and Marta Zapparelli (tapes, reel-to-reel machine, devices) engage the nether side. The balance is fine, the improvs adventurous, fluttering through waves of winds and swirls of e-effluvia. Among other choice moves, the quartet closes with the aptly titled, 'Scuba Diving Elephants', an investigation of depth and slowness that feels sometimes threatening, other times humorous. An excellent ensemble, hope to hear more from them.

Thomas Lehn/Marcus Schmickler - Neue Bilder (Mikroton)

I was fortunate to see Lehn and Schmickler at Instants Chavirés a few years ago, a long while since I'd seen and heard them prior. I was very pleased to hear that they'd by no means stood pat (I don't know why I feared that might be the case) but had moved along from the rapid-fire, hyper-noisy approach I was more familiar with, producing a very intense though very quiet set. Here, the focus on the first of two cuts, recorded in 2016, is more along a kind of INA GRM line of plasticity and depth but far more engaging than I tend to find music from that school. Jam-packed and explosive but with a commanding sense of presence, of material realness. Great track. The second piece, from 2016, is a bit loopier, even playful, but all the more endearing for that, merrily bleeping, blooping and buzzing its way along.

The Pitch & Splitter Orchester - Frozen Orchestra (Splitter) (Mikroton)

The Pitch (Koen Nutters, double bass; Boris Baltschun, electric pump organ; Morten J. Olsen, vibraphone, percussion; Michael Thieke, clarinet) released a disc on Sofa in 2015 title 'Frozen Orchestra (Amsterdam)' which seems to have the same concept as presented here, that is the quartet with various other musicians navigating a drone-y landscape. I wasn't too crazy about that one but here, with the 19-strong Splitter Orchester (which I had the pleasure to see a few time in Paris and Huddersfield) the approach is more or less the same and, to my ears, it works just fine. It's one big thing, the constant swirling drone, with hundreds of small things emerging and receding, poking their heads up, making a single-note comment, quieting for a while, The larger mass mutates as well over the hour of the disc, softening, melting a bit, acquiring a whistling texture offset by deep rumbling. The piano a bass and some chimes (glockenspiel?) become clearer toward the finish, very beautifully establishing their own weight vis à vis the drone. Excellent.

Chesterfield - Consuelo (Mikroton)

Chesterfield is Angélica Castelló (paetzold, recorders, tapes, electronics, cello, viola) and Burkhard Stangl (guitars, piano). This is a gem, my favorite of the bunch. As implied by the title, the pair cast a Spanish tinge over the proceedings, seven tracks that meld tapes, allusions to song forms, field recordings, flutes, guitars and much else with a great combination of delicacy and precision. That balance between song and soundscape incorporates a certain amount of nostalgic referents but they never feel forced or placed as an easy handhold for the listener; they always ring true. You hear the instrumental contributions of both Castelló and Stangl, but they're so perfectly integrated into the overall sound that it's only in retrospect you realize they were there. The pair also make any number of surprising and rewarding decisions along the way, like the deep, brooding, subtly romantic 'Recaliente'. 'Consuelo' is a real joy--I hope this duo continues on, looking very much forward.

Also received:

The Holy Quintet (Johnny Chang, Jamie Drouin, Dominic Lash, Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga, David Ryan) - Borough

Kurt Liedwart - Tonen

Cilantro (Angélica Castelló/Billy Roisz) - Borderland

Ease (Klaus Filip/Noid) - no no no, no

MKM (Günter Müller/Jason Kahn/Norbert Möslang) - instants//paris

MKM (Günter Müller/Jason Kahn/Norbert Möslang) - teplo_dom

Angélica Castelló/Jérôme Noetinger - Disturbio

Yui Onodera/Stephen Vitiello - Quiver

Norbert Möslang/Kurt Liedvart/Günter Müller -  Ground

Kurt Liedwart/Petr Vrba - Punkt

Jérôme Noetinger & SEC - La cave des Étenards


Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Patrick Shiroishi - the sparrow's tongue (Fort Evil Fruit)

A very rich and enjoyable family  affair, though with dark edges, constructed by Shiroishi (alto, tenor and soprano saxophones, field recordings, snare drum), using the voice of his mother, Uzuko, to recite poems (tankas) written by his grandfather, Seiji Inoue.

The first track, the brief, 'The Footsteps of Crows' sets the mood with a chorale-like nest of saxophones serving as the bed for a short, calmly read text (all the tests are in Japanese). 'Grasshopper Tactics' expands the sound field with soft chimes and distant sounds of children's voices and, eventual chanting mixing with hoarser though still gentle saxophonics and, maybe, some bowed or otherwise rubbed snares. The saxophone gradually coalesces into a lovely sequence that recalls, for me, some of Marion Brown's more lyrical playing. 'The Crocodile's Dilemma' is more abstract still, with fluttering, breathy reed work and an increased portion of electronics (? field recordings? snare?), with the serene voice of Uzuko Shiroishi serving as a fine, steady center. The anxiety level increases with 'Be a Lion, I Will Still Be Water', a sinuous, near-repeating saxophone line creating a tense atmosphere, threaded through dark, brooding electronics, the voice peeking through, receding. Finally, in 'When the Dog Got His Cate Eyes', airy  multiple saxophones quietly observe among the birds, playing half-melodies, lovingly, then fading before a few closing words. A thoughtful very charming set.

Shiroishi's bandcamp page

Danketsu 9 - Thahraas (Never Anything)

Shiroishi also appears, on tenor sax, with Danketsu 9, in the company of Amandeep Brar (accordion), Ang Wilson (flute), Jason Adams (cello), Kelly Coats (flute), Ken Moore (double bass), Mallory Soto (voice), Noah Guevara (guitar) and Pauline Lay (violin). This releases is comprised of a single, 24-minute piece, performed live, that's basically an improvised drone, with some general elaborations offered as possibilities by Shiroishi. The players begin with a smooth, tonal near-unison, very pastoral, various instruments moving slightly off-chord to create an engaging line, like a multi-plaited rope. At several points, I was reminded of a couple of historic drone-like constructs: George Lewis' 'Homage to Charles Parker' and portions of Centipede's 'Septober Energy (!), especially with regard to the voice contributions. The music fluctuates, shudders, sends off tendrils this way and that while maintaining the central stem. About midway through, more liberties are taken, lead by Shiroishi's tenor; the drone never entirely disappears but becomes increasingly difficult to discern beneath the flurries of guitar, voice, flute and tenor especially as things grow increasingly agitated. Soon, things settle back down, the overall tone similar to, though maybe a bit deeper than, the one that began the work, deeply idyllic.

Danketsu 9 @bandcamp

Friday, December 07, 2018

Donald McPherson/Tetuzi Akiyama - The  Kitchen Tapes Vol. 1 (God in the Music)

I don't believe I've heard McPherson's work before but I've long since learned to approach anything new from Akiyama with no expectations whatsoever--they're inevitably foiled. [I see they'd released a previous recording, 'Vinegar and Rum', in 2006] What we have here is a set of guitar duets (recorded live in 2010) that teeter on the edge of familiarity--echoes of Fahey and  flamenco--while veering off into all sorts of quasi-related areas. It sounds like there's an agreed to idea in place but the playing of both is refreshingly loose and feels very unconfined, a fine combination of meandering while retaining a general sense of direction. There's also a palpable sense on intimacy and confidence in each other's choice, very well intertwined. All three tracks (they pause at moments during each) are taken at relaxed tempi, the second perhaps the most so, though with probing stabs at points of interest encountered along the way. The "language" isn't unusual at all and will, in addition to the above cited, evoke any number of other musical referents, including that of Akiyama's native country or even Derek bailey at his most fluid and languorous. The last, a rolling, sitar-ish number, is especially charming, pastoral but prickly at once, a lovely way to end a fine, very satisfying set.

god in the music @bandcamp

Tom Arthurs/Alberto Novello - cahier de petits coquillages vol. iv/v (Setola di Maiale)

I'd heard a release from Novello a few years back and had written about it , a video/music interaction. Lo and behold, in 2017 he was one of the musicians invited to the annual Art Omi music residency which takes place right down the road from us. So was trumpeter Tom Arthurs, whose music I didn't know but saw that he had worked with a number of improvisers on the London and Berlin scenes, including Eddie Prévost. They were quite an enjoyable couple of fellows and presented some fine music. Turns out they also did some recording while in town and here it is. Arthurs possesses a wonderful tone, very smooth and creamy. On this recording, he flits and writhes between glitchy electronic patterns set up by Novello, often of a repetitive nature but with much ancillary fuzziness and thorny extrusions. Arthurs' often muted horn charts a relatively sober  course through Novello's electronics which tend towards a giddy, loopy and humorous aspect  (here and there, I'm reminded of Dr. Patrick Gleeson, circa 'Sextant'), creating a very enjoyable contrast, sometimes light-hearted, other times poignant.

Setola di Maiale

Dustin Carlson - Air Ceremony  (Out of Your Head)

Not my standard fare by any means, but I could easily see a number of readers here digging this. Take late 80s Tim Berne circa 'Fulton St. Maul', combine with the propulsive machines from 'Red'-era King Crimson and leaven with a substantial dose of good old-fashioned free jazz, a pinch of Threadgill and a dash  of thrash and you are in the ballpark. A septet with Carlson (guitar), Nathaniel Morgan (alto saxophone), Eric Trudel (baritone saxophone), Danny Gouker (trumpet), the redoubtable Matt Mitchell (Prophet 6), Adam Hopkins (bass) and Kate Gentile (drums), have a jolly time with the leader's compositions, six pieces that lurch, glide and hurtle through varying time signatures and moods within the space of scant minutes. The guitar solo, 'Watherton', is enjoyably clear and lucid, kind of the 'Peon' of the album (yes, I pick up a little Beefheart, too) but there's a general heaviness of tread that others will enjoy more than I. The band is tight, Carlson's able guitar work tending to lead the way through the juicy throb. This will right up the alley of many.

Out of Your Head's bandcamp page

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Asher Tuil - Tolerances/Affordances/Initializations (self-released)

Tuil, sometimes known as simply Asher, earlier in his career as Asher Thal-nir, has been releasing very fine collections of electronic work for over a decade now, both on his own and in collaboration with artists such as Richard Garet, Jason Kahn and others. While tending toward what might be described as "ambient", they almost always contain laters of depth, perception and grainy activity that often transcend the category. At hand are three new releases, available as downloadable files.

'Tolerances' contains six tracks of swooping, fuzz-laden sounds, as though documenting the starting up and cooling down of immense engines. The tones shift from cooler and more machine-like to an emergent kind of warmth that hints at (slow) melody. As the collection progresses, it settles into deep, fuzzy, organ-like tones within a rainy environment with airy, piping voices and even, maybe, train whistles heard in the distance, like a huge creature nestling down into a cold swamp. Very evocative.

The fourteen tracks on 'Affordances' are both more pulsing and brooding though again, the basic source has that fuzz-aura. The first couple of cuts have the gentle, breathing flow that recalls some of Fripp and Eno's 'Evening Star'. Things soon veer toward darker areas: low, long throbs, deep and rich, with higher scintillations emanating out. Towards the middle tracks, the music becomes somewhat gentler, more overtly tonal, even dreamy, though with a harsh edge. It more or less maintains this groove until the very end, when the rusty static that's been lurking begins to eat noticeably around the edges and then some.

'Initializations' is bleaker still, the grains enhanced, the ambient sounds including echoes of voice and car engines and horns, the whole bathed in a sooty rain. The four tracks are airy but the air is filled with sandy particles, eroding the humming turbines, pitting their surfaces. There's not much left at the end but dry wind whistling through the streets empty of all but faint vestiges of traffic and human activity. Very strong.

Tuil remains one of my favorite exemplars of this area of multilayered sound washes, concentrated, well-considered, well thought out. Give a listen to these and other releases at:

Asher Tuil's bandcamp page

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Howard Stelzer - Across the Blazer (Marginal Frequency)

It has been about ten years since I last heard Stelzer's work ('Bond Inlets', Intransitive, 2008) so I have no idea if the music heard on this recording has been part of an ongoing progression, but I was a little surprised at certain qualities, mostly its steady, unbroken stream. Whatever the case, it's fantastic, utterly immersive and contains depths upon depths. I think I first heard/saw Stelzer in the Boston-based BSC around 2000; he was manipulating cassettes then and still does. On the first track, 'Selective Memory (You Never Know Absolutely Quite Where You Are', there's a consistent, kind of woolly rumble throughout, as though from countless recordings blurred via repeated copying, but it's a rumble that's very airy, a vast, distant volume that somehow connotes stories within--very interesting. The ground on the title track has a vaguely tonal thread running through it but even more noise is piled atop--one has the impression of driving, at speed, through an extremely long, very resonant tunnel, the combined engines forming a rough quasi-musical tone. It hurtles forward for some 27 minutes before wheeling away into the darkness. A very enjoyable ride indeed.

Marginal Frequency

Sarah Hennies - Sisters (Mappa Editions)

A wonderful and deceptively simple work for solo vibraphone, performed by Lenka Novosedlíková, recorded in a 13th century Gothic church in Kyjarice, Slovakia. Hennies sets up shifting patterns, generally  of rapidly played tremolo patterns, that are augmented--sometimes gradually, sometimes abruptly--while also taking full advantage of the overtones provided by the church's interior. The process is explained in detail by Jennie Gottschalk in her wonderfully incisive and clear liner notes to the LP. Side One both evokes earlier music (Reich's 'Drumming' and some of Rzewski's more minimalist offerings, like parts of 'Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues' came to mind) and extends them into rich, fascinating areas. The second side (apparently part one of the piece, 'Sisters') is cooler and initially quieter, the overtones really coming to the fore midway through. Perhaps bot the writing and Novosedlíkova's naturalness of playing caused me to often hear the sounds as emanating from some "object", some stationary but vibrating thing that generated quasi-regular patterns in confluence with its environment, including the faintly heard barking dogs outside--very beautiful. It closes with a "simple" three against four pattern that I could have listened to for a long time. Wish I'd been in the room.

Mappa Editions

Tender Buttons - Forbidden Symmetries (Rastascan)

Said Buttons consisting of Tania Chen (piano), Tom Djll (electronics) and Gino Robair (electronics) and the album in question being a 12" 45rpm on clear vinyl which produces very groovy moiré patterns whilst spinning. Chen tends to be forwarded here, with Djll and Robair providing a subtle bed of squiggles, pops and bumps, kind of an oddball obbligato. Both tracks are spacious and uncluttered. Side A ('A Red Hat. A Blue Coat. A Piano') is perhaps slightly more aggressive with Chen unfurling compact nuggets, allowing them to hang briefly then flicker out, the electronics active but at a distance, circling, eventually constructing their own atmosphere that seems to force or entice Chen into acknowledgment about midway through--a very fine entanglement. The second side, 'Go red, go red, laugh white' is a bit more subdued, the piano playing tilting toward Feldman, the electronics more "conversational", interjecting quietly humorous pings and bleeps. It's an enjoyable, slightly spooky amble, immersive and imaginative, with just enough implied structure to guide one through. A good job all around.

Tender Buttons @ bandcamp

David Dominque - Mask (Orenda Records)

I wrote up Dominique's 'Ritual' a few years ago and, looking back, much of what I wrote then pretty well goes for his recent effort, 'Mask'. It's a strong, extremely tight eight piece band with Dominique (flugabone, voices), Brian Walsh (tenor sax, clarinet), Joe Santa Maria (alto sax, flute), Sam Robles (alto and baritone sax), Lauren Baba (viola), Alex Noice (guitar, electroncs), Michael Alvidrez (basses) and Andrew Lessman (drums, drumkat). 'The Wee if Us' is a kind of template for his music: a collage-like collection of themes, rapid shifts in melody and rhythm, repetitions, stretchings, leavened with some humor and jam-packed into 3 1/2 minutes. 'Grief', the second track, stands out a bit (in a good way), with a catchy, plangent melodic line that, the first time I heard it, was thinking, "This cries out to be sung" and, sure enough, a few minutes in the band (maybe Dominique himself, multi-tracked) does just that, moaning and keening for all he's worth--both funny and oddly moving. As before, I can pick up referents galore, from Breuker's Kollektief to the Microscopic Septet (the punchiness of both), with nods to Zappa and Braxton along the way. Refreshingly, there are few real solos to be encountered on the way, allowing the compositions center stage. An enjoyable romp.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Philip Corner - Extreemizms (Unseen Worlds)

A fine selections of works from Corner stemming from the extremes of his career--four from 1958, five from 2015-2016--performed by Silvia Tarozzi (violin) and Deborah Walker (cello), with appearances by Corner (piano) on two pieces and Rhodri Davies (harp) on one.

There are three little amuses bouches from 2016 scattered throughout, grouped under the term, "wHoly Trinitye", tasty little numbers with creamy violin overtones and a rich cello base, ending with a zing. The title cut, from 2015, lives up to its name, spending the first 11 or so of its 14 1/2 minutes in a delicate, drone-like pattern, both instruments beginning mid to high and gradually separating, the violin going higher, the cello lower. After eleven or so minutes of this quiet, very lovely music, the world explodes into a raging arco attack, replete with yells and shouts, that closes out the last few minutes in a frenzy, the players gasping for breath (audibly) afterwards. This is followed by three fascinating pieces from 1958, the Two-part Monologues Nos. 1-3. Their proto-minimalism alone would be interesting enough, but their combination of steady-state underpinnings by the cello and almost Romantic, strong, piercing violin in the first, the pruned Satie-esque piano minimalism and dual string interpolations of the second and the quavering lines alternating from wavy to extreme graininess of the third--all excellent. 'FINALE' (1958), again with piano, is a delicate balance of soft violin sighs, gentle single notes from the piano and deep continuo from the cello, while a longer wHoly Trinitye ('for a "free-togethering"'), including harp, meshes together many of the approaches we've been hearing, offsetting longer high and low tones with abrupt flurries from the harp and possessing a generally more jagged character, closing with wonderfully urgent playing from all three.

An engrossing recording, expertly performed, from a fascinating composer.

Unseen Worlds

David Vélez - The things that objects can tell us about ourselves (Flaming Pines)

Vélez draws on his work teaching Foley sound production (the adding of sound effects to film in post-production) to construct a dense, rich world with various objects of metallic and other natures. The single track, almost 50 minutes, begins in woolly atmospherics only to be abruptly shattered by a huge bang, as if an enormous, heavy but fragile object has been dropped from height into the room, exploding on impact. From there, we traverse a number of "episodes", all pretty densely packed (though the dynamic range is wide, there's little in the way of silence here), all conveying a wealth of sonic information. Often, there are pulses or other subtle iterative elements that provide some forward thrust--a steady, echoing pounding here, a thin, bell-like tone, as from a distant train-crossing signal, there. The traditions are entirely natural sounding, like walking from room to room, always with a sense of the same "air", just varying activity taking place. While, active, it's never busy, conveying a sense intent and urgency but with an almost non-human aspect--very enjoyable. Items are dropped, blown into, rolled, stepped on--everything works, all em
bedded within a convincing world, one that occasionally allows the outside to seep in. Good work.

Flaming Pines

Jessica L. Wilkinson/Simon Charles - Marionette: A Biography of Miss Marion Davies (self-released)

I kinda knew something unusual was up after taking a gander at the title of this work and Matthew Revert's cover. And it is. Jessica L. Wilkinson wrote a kind of poetic biography of Davies (William Randolph Hearst's mistress and a generally tragic figure in 2012. She reads from that text here and has her words accompanied and transformed by Simon Charles' electronics and editing. The editing often involves clipping the speech at the beginning or end or individual words, which is a little unsettling. [As is not uncommonly the case, I've been informed that I was mistaken as to the source of these "editings". Simon Charles pointed out that the effects were in fact generated by the rather extraordinary vocal capabilities of Jenny Barnes. As for the the instrumental portions, Charles elaborated: "all of the sounds heard on the disc were produced by the instrumental quartet (except for Jessica’s voice, obviously). These were actually recorded in several stages; the trio of percussion-viola-piano/harmonium performing together, and the vocal parts recorded separately. In both stages materials were recorded digitally and onto tape, which was then further manipulated and collaged.
It’s important to mention this, as one of the concepts driving the overall construction of the work was the idea of a stratification of materials, which applies not only to the techniques mentioned, but also the sonic ‘profile’ of each instrumental role, as well as the fragmented telling of Davies’ story (which itself seems to exist only as fragments and broken narratives). There is a compositional strategy to the work that seeks extrapolate the text across various strata, which then sit in relation to each other to produce various kinds of tension.] Williams does "acoustic" versions of this herself at times and also imitates the stuttering iterations that Charles achieves in the studio. It's an odd effect, not really overused but appearing regularly throughout amidst passages of "straight" text. There are also occasional contributions by a quartet of Jenny Barnes (voice), Andrew Butler (piano, harmonium), Phoebe Green (viola, viola d'amore) and Michael McNab (percussion). I can't say this kind  of approach is particularly my cuppa and don't have any special interest in Davies' story, but the enterprise is solidly done and well-sustained over its course. Listeners who, for example, enjoy Alessandro Bossetti's investigations into voice and text may well like this one. 

Shame File Music

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Dogmatics - Chop Off the Tops (self-released)

An LP release with four entrancing pieces, all improvisations, from the duo of Kai Fagaschinski (clarinet) and Chris Abrahams (piano), recorded in 2013.  It opens with the contemplative (deep breath), 'It Never Yielded Results Which They Had Failed to Discover by Other Means', Abrahams casting slow, tonal arpeggios, accented by occasional deep, soft, single notes, Fagaschinski blowing airily, softly atop and through, with the odd subtly sour overtone creeping in. 'I Am Now Wearing Surgical Gloves' (the titles are nothing if not entertaining) is darker, hollower, the piano tones suspended and uncertain, the clarinet quavering and searching, though both remain quiet--a sense of feeling one's way in the dark. The third track, 'Nobody Knew Their Reasons' is darker still, with heavy strikes at the body of the piano and balloon-like squeals and sputter from Fagaschinski. Finally, the lengthiest cut, 'Death Is Now Your Friend', which is also the most extreme musically. Abrahams restlessly probes the piano strings, banging into adjacent points unconcernedly before retreating to the keyboard, constructing a gorgeous series of hanging notes, mid-range--Feldmanesque, yes, but with a unique sense of wonder. Fagaschinski, meanwhile, has been rasping, then subtly gurgling, just tingeing the atmosphere. About midway through, he begins yelping plaintively, very high-pitched and with a painful aspect. Disquieting and impressive, as is the whole album


Julian Abraham 'Togar' - Acoustic Analog Digitally Composed (Hasana Editions)

An intriguing offering from the Indonesian Hasana Editions label. On Side One, Abraham uses acoustic percussion to fashion rhythms that clearly owe a debt to traditional music from the area, but the sounds are more concise and clipped, seeming almost to have been carved out from their source and reconfigured. There's an odd sense of being somewhere between an exotic typewriter and Cage's early works for prepared piano (the Dances, specifically). Sometimes simpler, sometimes quite complex, always intricate and enjoyable. On Side Two, he more or less attempts to duplicate the music electronically, using magnetic solenoids. There's perhaps more of a roundedness, a sonically "cleaner" effect, but it's pretty close and every bit as engaging.

Nursalim Yadi Anugerah - Selected Pieces from HNNUNG (Hasana Editions)

These are selections from a "chamber opera" by Anugerah based on tales from Kayaan culture, a people from Borneo. There's a mix of both approach and instrumentation (including voices) between Western and Southeast Asian traditions. I found it to be an odd mixture. At times recalling Western art music of the 50s, sometimes (in a kind of odd, reverse inference) Harry Partch coming to mind, as well as embedded traditional musics featured in a way that reminded me of the filipino composer, Jose Maceda. That said, the music stands on its own quite well--some tracks, like the slow 'Ha' Liling Mataando' are quite beautiful--and I'm sure I'm missing a vital component insofar as not seeing the stagecraft. Interesting work, well wroth checking out.

Hasana Editions

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Stefan Thut  - about (elsewhere)

A piece realized and recorded live in Huddersfield by a sextet consisting of Ryoko Akama (electronics), Stephen Chase (guitar), Eleanor Cully (piano), Patrick Farmer (metal percussion), lo wie (tingsha--small Tibetan cymbals) and Thut (cello).

In his notes printed on the inner sleeve, Thut writes, "while being together they enjoyed leaving time and space for each other". I haven't seen the score, but I'm guessing there may have been text instructions to that effect, or at least including that kind of consideration as a means of operating. The sounds throughout the work, which lasts almost an hour, tend toward the soft and percussive, beginning with a clear, crystalline bell strike (the tingsha, perhaps) and continuing with single plucks of the cello and guitar, strikings of piano keys (fairly high in the register) and discreet electronics. More often than not, they don't overlap each other, leaving plenty of space, although the silences, while common, don't last much more than 10-15 seconds. One of the intriguing things about the music is how relatively evenly spread the sounds are--thin but always within range, as though small items had wafted down from some height but managed to arrange themselves with only the barest of overlaying, something landing in all areas but leaving much ground uncovered. Some delicate clatter emerges, now and then a woman's quiet voice, here and there, a man's.  The basic character is maintained throughout, "steady-state" in a sense, very much like observing a natural phenomenon--leaves falling comes to mind. Oddly meditative.

There's not too much more to say. 'about' is entrancing, lovingly performed. I've listened to it a number of times and will be drawn back again--a perceptive, human work.


Monday, November 12, 2018

Clara de Asís - Without (elsewhere)

Prior to this release, I'd known de Asís as a guitarist but here she's in the role of composer. Violinist Erik Carlson and percussionist Greg Stuart offer a reading of her 'Without', a piece that strikes me as more complex and, to me, more difficult than I would have guessed at first blush.

'Without' is made up of a number of sections which, I think one could say, generally move from grainier and more abrasive to less so, though not in an obvious path and by no means always. It leaps right in with the violin offering high, needle-like harmonics with what sounds like numerous objects being roughly rubbed and tossed on a bass drum. Four minutes in, this abruptly shifts to a low vibraphone pulse; there's some other, obscure activity, probably ancillary sounds made by Stuart. Carlson enters, again pitched high but somewhat cleaner, a kind of Tony Conrad line weaving through the vibraphone cloud. This is followed by solo violin, a single note, held for about eight seconds, repeated by itself until joined by a clear, high bell, the pair heard in an irregular series with a decent amount of silence. I have the impression of an object with two main aspects being viewed from various angles, in differing light conditions. There's relatedness but a certain amount of apartness. This, for me, creates something of a challenge in hearing the piece as a whole, but it's a very enjoyable challenge, surely more an issue for these ears than anything amiss on the part of de Asís. Some 32 minutes in, there's an especially lovely sequence with vibes and lower, though still sandpapery, violin that serves as a kind of oasis after a demanding journey. This merges into isolated, low plucks on the violin, soon accompanied by clear wood block strikes, a pattern similar to that of the violin/bell sequence heard earlier. The blocks accompany a sustained violin tone very similar to that which began the work, closing it out.

Rigorous, spare, only occasionally luxuriant, 'Without' is a fine, demanding recording.


Saturday, November 10, 2018

Jürg Frey - 120 Pieces of Sound (elsewhere)

One of those recordings, an exceedingly thoughtful and beautiful one, where describing the elements isn't difficult but getting across the effect on the listener seems next to impossible.

There are two works presented here, structural cousins of each other, perhaps. The first, '60 Pieces of Sound' (2009), is performed by the ensemble Ordinary Affects (Laura Cetilla, cello; Morgan Evans-Weiler, violin; J.P.A. Falzone, keyboard; Luke Martin, electric guitar) joined by the composer on clarinet. I was fortunate enough to hear this group play this very piece in Boston about a year ago; I believe this recording was done just a few days afterward. There are indeed sixty sound elements: thirty tones played by the ensemble, each lasting about twenty seconds and thirty stretches of silence, each lasting about ten seconds, played alternately. That's it. But there's so much more. I gather, from having watched the fine, short documentary you can see about Frey (Part 1, Part 2) that the harmonies chosen were arrived at intuitively, in other words, what would sound appropriate after the one just played (and the silence). But the choices seem so right, so necessary. They inhabit a relatively narrow spectrum, but Frey discovers such a bounty of tones, relationships, subtle dynamic shifts, etc., that I simply sit in wonder. The unisons are tight but not overly so, like the ragged edge of good watercolor paper; the silences are full, often ending with indrawn breaths. I find myself constructing brief little shards of narrative between any two sound segments: a darker turn here, some hope there, a complication arising, etc. but any such turn very, very subtle. A truly living music.
For 'L'âme est sans retinu II' (1997-2000), Frey once again uses periods of sound and silence, though their durations (over the course of forty minutes) vary. The sounds are field recordings made by Frey (as well as, per the credits, some bass clarinet, though I admit to having difficulty picking it up for certain; there are points where I think I hear it, if it's pitched fairly high), the silences are complete. There's an overall fine woolliness to the sounds. Sometimes, it seems as though the source is exterior, sometimes inside, here with a super-deep, rumbling bass spine, there with wispier elements, now and then with ghostly vestiges of what might be human voices. As with the previous work, the sounds occupt a territory that's roughly consistent--one gets the sense they could be excerpts from a single evening's work (they do connote nighttime to this listener), the recordist quietly ambling from location to location. Again, the shifts are discreet: a mild lessening or increase of dynamics, a slightly different timbre, slight in envelope but infinitely large in detail. Perhaps it's from the title ('The soul is without restraint') but there is, in fact, a sense of exposure, of opening oneself up to the world, pausing to consider what's been heard/seen (the silence), opening up again. So human.

A wonderful recording, yet another in the seemingly (happily!) unending stream of such from Frey.


Friday, November 09, 2018

Sarah Hennies/Greg Stuart - Rundle (Notice Recordings)

This is a very nice surprise. Most of the music I've heard from Hennies in recent years (doubtless missing much) has been comprised of stripped down, careful explorations of very subtle sonic phenomena and rhythms, sometimes akin to some of Alvin Lucier's work. And apart from Stuart's collaboration with Joe Panzner (Dystonia Duos, ErstAEU, 2013), I'm almost entirely familiar with him via his work on the pieces of Michael Pisaro and other related composers. On this cassette, I think everything is improvised (though perhaps with some "signposts"?), the results much rougher and freer than I would have expected. On Side 1, 'Tunnel', they do a fine job alternating between free portions, with quiet rustling on various small percussion, and quasi-structured portions with piano and vibraphone, lovely swathes of slow pulse augmented with rapid flurries. These approaches are also as in a lovely section about 13 minutes in with sustained, ethereal piano and delicate scrabbling that almost sounds like dry leaves or twigs rubbed on a hard surface. 'Basin' is rougher still, with less in the way of footholds, irregular clangs of metal (perhaps thrown or dropped) amidst skitters, pops, rubbings and more. Like 'Tunnel', the track is expertly paced, with the slightest inclusion of brief, regular taps on wood blocks providing the most gossamer of structures within the fine clatter for most of its duration. A cloudy vibes figure ushers in the final section, providing a bed for abstract, lightly metallic and wooden activity, intricate and abstract. Excellent work.

Matt Hannafin/John Cage - Four Realizations for Solo Percussion (Notice Recordings)

Matt Hannafin has put together an extremely engaging and, dare I say, accessible collection of actualizations of Cage pieces. While I've heard each of the works in a number of different contexts/instrumentations, I don't know them well enough (much less the scores) to offer any comparisons, so will only treat them as...found objects. 'c¢omposed Improvisation for One-Sided Drums With or Without Jangles' finds Hannafin beginning by making loose, airy but percussive sounds (he seems to have included the jangly bits), moving on to deeper tones but everything relaxed and allowed to breathe in the room, tumbling gently, with a very natural, irregular cadence. 'Variations III' is approached with tuned wood blocks and toms (I think), Hannafin again developing very unforced quasi-rhythms--reminds me of a calmer Xenakis sometimes--, the strikes rolling and falling with the unassumedness of raindrops. Oddly, there are certain pulses and sonorities that recall parts of the great 'Dialogue of the Drums' by Andrew Cyrille and Milford Graves. The aural space is once again finely navigated in 'Variations II', with much ringing metal, breaths, jangles, heavy drum smites and more, all with a wonderful sense of air between the sounds. 'One4', a late number piece by Cage, closes things out, with resonant bowed metal spiraling out into the silence-- succinct, no more than necessary, just perfect. Really one of the finer recordings of Cage percussion works I've heard in quite a while.

Notice Recordings

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Morton Feldman - For John Cage (all that dust)

Matthew Shlomowitz - Avant Muzak  (all that dust)

Séverine Ballon - Inconnaissance (all that dust)

all that dust is a new label, run by Newton Armstrong, Juliet Fraser and Mark Knoop, dedicated to contemporary music. Its initial run consists of the above-listed CDs plus two releases available as FLAC downloads: Milton Babbitt's 'Philomel' and Luigi Nono's 'La Fabbrica Illuminata'.

The Feldman is the only work I was previously familiar with, having heard the Ter Haar/Snijders version on hat ART and the Zukofsky/Schroeder recording on CP². Additionally, I've both heard the  Sabat/Clarke duo recording and seen them perform it live. Suffice it to say, it's a big favorite of mine. I haven't done any direct comparison--I don't know how one would begin to do that with a 75-minute piece like this, anyway--but my general impression is that this recoding fits in just fine, is as accomplished as any I've heard. Orazbayeva (violin)  and Knoop (piano) are considerate and sensitive, investing their playing with just the right tinge of (necessary, in my view) emotional content, beautifully evoking the plaintive, even melancholy aspect I get from late Feldman. There are moments, for example around the 43-minute mark, where they take things at a brisker clip than I think I recall from other performances but, surprisingly, given my general preference for languidness, I find this works perfectly with no sense of fussiness or forced propulsion. It's an excellent reading, a fine recording and highly recommended.

I'd never heard Matthew Shlomowitz' work before but I admit that the title, 'Avant Muzak' put me off a bit. It sounded like the kind approach popular in NYC in the 80s, a certain snarkiness that seemed cool for a while but, in retrospect, is somewhat embarrassing. The three pieces, each with four or five parts, are performed by the Norwegian ensemble, asamisimasa (Ellen Ugelvik, keyboard; Kristine Tjøgersen, clarinet; Tanja Orning, cello; Håkon Stene, percussion; Anders Førisdal, guitar), who did fine work on Lawrence Crane's 'Sound of Horse' (Hubro, 2016). The first track, 'International Transport Chimes Reggae' is something of a mash-up of the two referenced sources, with additional Japanese recorded text, accompanied by a whimsical clarinet/guitar-led theme, with the kind of quirkiness one might have heard from Fred Frith circa 1985; ok, but slight. 'Jazz in the Park' intersperses found dialog with a nightclub-jazzy slow crawl. Here, as elsewhere, there's a sense of some kind of synthetic envelope around the sound, nods to the drum machine, sampler-obsessed music of 30-35 years ago, as well as an uncomfortable evocation of Scott Johnson; perhaps its time has come around again, but this listener isn't quite ready for the reappearance of those stiff rhythms and globular tones. There's often some nice intricacy in the writing, as in 'Muzak in the Shopping Mall', here summoning the spirit of Daniel Lentz, but--do we care? On it goes, almost always leading your hapless reviewer to recall other music--Fenn O'Berg's reworking of movie themes, Zorn circa 'The Big Gundown', etc. Well handled, yes; sonically colorful, very much so. But it feels empty. Shlomowitz' intentionality is clear enough, I just don't find it a very worthwhile target. 

'Inconnaissance' presents eight solo cello works by Séverine Ballon. They range from around six to twelve minutes and seem to straddle composition and improvisation. To these ears, it sounds like a general idea was in place for each, within which Ballon freely elaborates, though I could be wrong. In any event, the results are striking, evincing a deep concern with dark, bowed textures, rich overtones and layer upon layer of grain. Ballon demonstrates harshness, an extremely strong and riveting attack and a balanced, complex sense of form, allowing herself ventures both into frenzied storms and soft, if agitated, pools of quiet. Pulse is often implied, on rare occasions overtly stated, generally, as in 'cloches fendues 2', well mixed with interests in pitch and scales. 'Tunnel' contains fantastic, sandy growls, moans rising from beneath, slowly swirling into the depths; very impressive. Each piece has its own character, each maintains interest (at the very least) throughout, each explores the cello in a serious and fascinating manner. What more could you want?

I admit to not being the biggest fan of Milton Babbitt, but label co-owner Juliet Fraser does a very fine job with his 'Philomel' (1964) for voice and tape, her soprano liquid and bright, trickling in very lively fashion through the delicate web of iridescent, burbling electronics which also includes vocal permutations. I have no real point of comparison, but I can only imagine that Fraser's reading more than holds its own with others. Luigi Nono's 'La Fabbrica Illuminata' was written in the same year as the Babbitt and is also for voice and tape, but that's where the similarity ends. The voice (here, Loré Lixenberg) wafts in and out of a bleak, warlike series of sounds, harsh and grating--winds howling through bombed-out cities, angry mobs, downed wires sizzling. She appears, is subsumed by the tumult, resurfaces minutes later, worse for wear but persevering. Gripping, harrowing, stirringly performed, a fine piece.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Various - Sound and Stone (composer-built)

Sound stones are sonic sculptures created by the father-son team of Klaus and Hannes Fessmann (you can learn more about them via this You Tube video.  This recording, I believe the first on the composer-built imprint, collects interactions between the stones and nine musicians. The stones themselves, wetted and played by rubbing with one's fingers and hands (possibly bowed and/or struck as well?), produce a range of ringing tones, sometimes with a pleasing roughness to them, other times more pure--depending on the instrument used, the tones, their pitch range, etc. varies. But generally speaking, we're in drone territory, sometimes augmented by electronics. Depending on how they're handled, they can lend themselves to music that's a bit too close to Eno-esque New Age for my taste (Farwarmth) or wonderfully dark and ominous (Machinefabriek, aka Rutger Zuydervelt). I'd also single out Monty Adkins' contribution for special praise. Most of the the others fall somwehere between these poles, always enjoyable and compact (playing times in the five minute range) with greater or lesser graininess, not too distant from what listeners may have experienced via labels like Unfathomless. You can hear for yourself at the bandcamp link below.

composer-built @ bandcamp

Carlo Costa - Oblio (Neither/Nor)

A solo percussion effort from Costa, two long pieces and expertly handled. 'I' is expansive, flowing and very well-paced, keeping on the quiet side of things while patiently exploring a vast array of instruments large and small. Costa constructs a convincing landscape, entirely without pyrotechnics, maintaining interest with both delicacy and urgency. 'II' employs wood blocks, high-pitched bells and some swirling, metallic based attacks, more structured (though loosely enough), recalling to some extent the late Jerome Cooper's brilliants solo concerts. It "decomposes" into a section of harsher rubbing, somehow melancholy, drifting into plaintive moans. Very good work, well worth a listen when it releases on November 6.

Neither/Nor Records

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Tyshawn  Sorey - Pillars (Firehouse 12)

I need to write a brief aside about my listening experience over the past few decades. Many regular readers know it, more or less, but as I anticipate that to the extent this review is shared among those not familiar with my history and shifts in taste over the years, it might be a good idea to clarify.

Essentially, since 17, I grew up with an abiding love of jazz, particularly what one might refer to as post-Coltrane jazz; my first jazz album purchase was Ornette's 'Science Fiction' in the spring of 1972. While entirely immersed in this for some 15 years, by the late 80s, I was beginning to sense a lack of new, innovative work. I loved the music of the previous 60-70 years as intensely as ever but, even among musicians who I greatly admired (for example, Roscoe Mitchell, Cecil Taylor, etc.) I increasingly got the feeling that they had done their great work and were now just elaborating on themes they'd developed as relatively young men. This was all well and good--few people have even one great idea in their lives and these folk had a number of them. If they settled into comfortable middle age, I've no reason to complain. But I found myself devoting more of my listening time to music in the post-AMM improvising tradition, the post-Cage "classical" tradition, various music from around the world and more, at the expense of keeping up with developments in jazz (definitional issues with the term aside). I'd dip in now and then, go to the occasional gig. Sometimes, I'd be pleasantly surprised. I recall duo performances at the Vision Festival--Fred Anderson/Harrison Bankhead, Bill Dixon/George Lewis, Barre Phillips/Joe Morris--that were spectacular and hugely moving, but more often, much more often, I'd have the sense of musicians more or less going through the motions. They were good--usually very good instrumentalists, had a huge command of their chops, but the new ideas were few and far between, at least to the extent I could discern. Needless to say, I doubtless missed many a counterexample but one only has so much time and I chose to dwell in areas where my "success" rate was much higher.

All the above to explain my background with regard to Tyshawn Sorey's extraordinary release, 'Pillars', a single composition spread over three CDs, clocking in at ten minutes shy of four hours. I  only knew Sorey as a name, associating him with Mitchell and Anthony Braxton, but had never heard any of his music; my loss, no doubt. I was, in fact, surprised to find this release in my mailbox but I'm very happy it turned up.

Sometimes there are manifestations of ideas that occur, burn brightly but evanesce without incurring any follow-up investigations. Michael Mantler's 'Communications' from 1968 always struck me as a prime example. Barry Guy, with his London Jazz Composers Orchestra, attempted to pick up the banner and move it forward, with some arguable success but, in my mind, it remains fertile, untilled territory. Another area was explored by Bill Dixon, particularly in his 'Vade Mecum' sets. My first overriding impression from 'Pillars' was, "Ah, at last! someone's extending Dixon's idea." I think that's part of what in play here and it's no small thing.

Sorey's conception is immense, not simply in terms of length but in spreading a general idea across that span, music that has its composed or preset portions but moves seamlessly enough between those and the (I suspect) longer improvisatory sections that the listener quickly loses much in the way of "episodes" and goes along with the flow in a manner similar to an AMM performance (although the music sounds much different). The notable exception are the three "signposts" that conclude  each disc, ultra-low, long tones played by Sorey on the dungchen, a long, Tibetan ceremonial horn. The ensemble deployed, arrived at after several years of work on the piece, has a great deal to do with the overall sound of 'Pillars', deep, dark and rumbling: an octet consisting of Stephen Haynes (trumpet, flugelhorn, cornet, alto horn, small percussion), Ben Gerstein (trombone, electronics), Todd Neufeld (electric and acoustic guitars),  Joe Morris (electric guitar, double bass), Carl Testa (double bass, electronics), Mark Helias (double bass), Zach Rowden (double bass), Sorey (conductor, drum set, dungchen, percussion, trombone). The consistency of the group sound, its elasticity and molding of form, is one of the true marvels of this release.

Describing it in detail is a fool's errand. It's so much "of a piece" that any detailed description necessarily misses the point. A few moments: It begins with a pure snare drumroll that lasts several minutes, an opening incantation perhaps and an element that doesn't reappear. We then plunge into an amorphous zone, a cloudy, darkly rambling area with Sorey's deep percussion undergirding an intriguingly clangy guitar. As is, it's attractive if not too unusual--some of Dixon's atmosphere, the guitar maybe recalling the way it's been used in Threadgill's music. But that episode is broken off much more quickly than I'd have expected and the music shifts, smoothly, without awkwardness, to an adjacent territory, darker still. I'll pause to note the wonderful timbral differences in the percussion--the range is enormous but never seems forced or extravagant, always enhancing the general sound. There are dynamic surges and they too seem natural--none of the automatic vaulting into high energy so common among many groups, everything paced and well considered while retaining elements of roughness and surprise. And this is all before the massed appearance of the basses and trombones. From here--and we're only some 18 minuted into Disc One--we begin to approach the real meat of the matter. Throughout, the basses, arco and pizzicato, are used brilliantly, from huge swarms of buzzing to elaborately intricate plucked interweaving, often played off the deep brass (even Hayne's trumpets, etc. tend to be pitched low). Sorey writes in the accompanying notes, "Low frequencies seem under-explored in improvised music. But I wanted to go there, trying to achieve a physical depth of tone and hypnotic drone". That "drone" isn't what many listeners have come to think of; this isn't Radigue. It fluctuates far too much for that, but retains an underlying sense of flow. Not explicit pulse, but underground river flow, disappearing from overt view on occasion but leaving traces that it's still there, below the surface.

Other referents are tough to come by. There are times when I'm reminded of early Art Ensemble explorations, maybe something like 'How Strange/Ole Jed'; Haynes evokes Bowie more than once and, as mentioned, the spirit of Bill Dixon certainly hovers over the proceedings. There are also points, few and far between, when something of the typical over-busyness of many a free jazz improviser surfaces, but those episodes flicker briefly and are soon quelled. Electronics, sometimes dense and active, more often subtle, are integrated very well, growing out of the acoustic ensemble, never feeling added on or used for superficial effect. Again, trying to think of comparisons, perhaps a pointless endeavor, I come up with...Simon Fell? Maybe? But Sorey's work really stands apart.

His ability to maintain not just interest, but fascination over such long duration is amazing. Even if I had the odd quibble about a given patch of music, my interest never came close to flagging. I've listened through three times now, have found new details and relationships on each listen and expect to for a good while. I imagine 'Pillars' will provide rough sledding for listeners more attuned to music in stricter lineage with contemporary experimental jazz--there are few easy footholds. But I'm more interested in getting those listeners in the post-AMM, even Wandelweiser tradition to give this one a try. The music isn't like those, but offers possibilities, beautifully realized here, for parallel investigations that may prove every bit as rewarding.

Highly recommended.

Firehouse 12