July 31, 2005

Dominique Lentin & Takumi Fukushima

lentin, fukushima.gifHardly anything on this disc fails to rouse my passions, but it's also a great example of how an album can become deeply cherished for only a small segment of music that the listener turns to again and again for a certain kind of musical fix. More than that, it's a great example of an album that attains a special status because of its opening moments. The first 32 seconds of the disc is a sequence of slow, deliberate, breathtakingly resonant drum hits that instantly invoke a feeling of solemnity and ritual. My attention beomces totally fixated; I forget about anything else I might be doing and fall under a familiar spell. Dominique Lentin's percussive timbres in this passage are lucid and timbrally satisfying enough to suck me into the music in themselves, but the immediate and profound effect I experience within the first five seconds or so is equally due to my knowledge of what comes after these 32 seconds of drum hits. From dozens of listens over the past five or so years, I know that a clear, bright, plain, even, simple, slow vocal part will enter with a pacing and phrasing that perfectly complements the ongoing drum procession. Takumi Fukushima's singing transparently derives from the organization of Japanese phonology around metrically consistent syllables of one or two morae. Her pitch boundaries are a strict subset of moraic boundaries, and the beautiful slowness of her singing comes from stretching out every last mora. The simple, concise lyrics, which convey a frozen image instead of a narrative, take on a poetic elegance with this style of delivery.

Less than three minutes long, this opening track, "H.S.", ends all too soon, but my mesmerization is sustained and intensified by the next piece, "Primo", such an addictively catchy and energizing three-minute instrumental for violin and drumkit that I've occasionally played it on repeat and plucked it for various special handmade compilations. There are two basic sections in the piece. In the first, razor-edged violin riffs interlock with Lentin's straightahead driving rock rhythms, and in the second section the violin and drumkit repeat more complex figures in rhythmic opposition. The two sections alternate for the piece's duration, with transitions coming at just the right time to relieve the tension built up in each section from a theme being directly repeated a few times with rhythmic counterbalancing from simple phrasal elongations. With its insistent repetition, vigorous rhythms, and vivid melody, it feels like a synthesis of rock music and some kind of central or eastern European folk music, of the catchiness and caliber of Daniel Denis' "Bulgarian Flying Spirit Dances" from Les Eaux Troubles, and Lentin definitely belongs in the same post-RIO drumkit pantheon as Denis, not to mention Guigou Chenevier, Pippin Barnett, and Pavel Fajt, but more on that below. What really blows my mind about this piece, though, is the subtle incorporation of a third instrument, Fukushima's voice, but in a totally different way than I've heard a voice used. It's not rare to hear a string player, especially doublebassists, vocalize in melodic unison with their plucks or bows as a background accompaniment, but in the more complex second section, Fukushima uses precisely accented unpitched breath sounds—something like a vigorous panting—as an independent riff that plays off the violin and drumkit. It's not even clear that it's a vocal sound or that it's Fukushima who's making it, but that's how it sounds to me. Whatever it is, it takes my breath away. "Primo" would be a smash hit in my world even without that part though.

"H.S." and "Primo" are distinctive, one-of-a-kind pieces forming a devastating one-two punch that has made this a "go to" album for me, the kind of album that never fails to work as mood medicine, but it's really a one-two-three punch, because I always let the next track spin too. "Diamine" is a perfect construction of shifting, interwoven themes for violin and drumkit, and it's the one song I'd pick to represent this duo's prototypical sound, which unfortunately doesn't include Fukushima's precious vocals because they only appear signficantly on three pieces. For the most part, Fukushima's role is violinist. Her lines are clean, precise, melodically simple, and rhythmically jagged. Exactly the same qualities characterize Lentin's drumkit playing. They play a totally non-improvisational, meticulously rehearsed music of infectious, naive, austere, and jagged loops that revels in the simple thrills of riffs, melodies, and shifting accent patterns. The compositional approach and specific timbral orientation of the duo aligns them with certain aesthetic currents in the European post-rock avant-garde of the 1980s, especially Etron Fou Leloublan, Nimal, and Univers Zero.

Some may balk at or even ridicule the following earnest attempt at folk musicology, but I really believe there is an underlying layer of musical phenomena at play here that also accounts for the profound, mind-blowing experiences so many people, myself included, have listening to Black Sabbath and other ostensibly naive riff-based rock music. For me, even as a listener happily immersed in the so-called avant-garde, a single classic Black Sabbath song has vastly more musical value than the entire life's work of Milton Babbitt, Brian Ferneyhough, and others of their ilk who distance themselves from folk traditions in any sense. I can easily imagine a segment of the avant-garde music community who would dismiss some of this music on the grounds of naivete and simplicity, but it's this very viewpoint that I'd call naive in its reductionistic attempts to divorce musical value from empirical listening experience. The virtue of a great riff is not simplicity, but clarity, which allows it to be a means to some other aesthetic end. In its emphasis on repetition and clarity, the Lentin/Fukushima duo and related music like Volapük can be understood as a post-rock parallel to post-academic acoustic loop music (Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Louis Andriessen, John Adams, Wim Mertens, Andrew Poppy, Chris Fitkin, etc).

For all the similarities with other instrumental loop music, what makes the work of Lentin and Chenevier so special is nothing other than the instrument they play, the drumkit, which is alien to the academic music tradition. To an extent, this also distinguishes some of Michael Gordon's brilliant works, like "Strange Quiet" and "Thou Shalt!/Thou Shalt Not!", which also share the off-kilter rock feeling of work by Lentin and Chenevier, though equally as much from the use of electric guitar as rock-related percussive ideas. As a specific composite of timbres, the drumkit co-evolved with rock and jazz music as a pivotal development in 20th century music (sadly dishonored by the objectionably standardized metonym "drums"), and even when it's used in unrelated idioms, the specific rhythms and coloration characteristic of a drumkit forge a strong link to rock and/or jazz music. Like the Bittová/Fajt duo, the Lentin/Fukushima duo recontextualize the musical feeling of certain European folk musics by using a drumkit, in which sense their work is analogous to klezmer and polka. Disanalogously, however, it sprouts from an avant-garde rock context and I think of both of these incredible duos as post-Beefheart, post-Glass acoustic Euro private folk music. "Private" reflects the individualistic nature of this music, echoing Iva Bittová's description of her work as "my own personal folk music".

Recordings of violin/percussion duos are simply quite rare in the first place as far as I know (message to musicians: please make more!), so it's worth dwelling on the simple fact of the timbres involved. I could talk till I'm blue in the face about all these jagged and angular rhythms and so on, but a huge part of my love affair with this disc is based on nothing other than sheer timbral preference for drumkit and string instruments. I tried to make this same point in my recent review of the Nakatani/Chen Duo disc Limn. I just really love these sounds! In fact, every violin/percussion duo album I can even casually think of off the top of my head is a massive favorite of mine (note I'm referring to violins in the general sense of bowed string instruments in the same family just like we refer to saxophones, etc). Besides the disc at hand, the two Bittová/Fajt albums (which I can't praise highly enough), and Limn, there is the delicious, incredible These Are Our Shoes by Peggy Lee and Dylan van der Schyff (and their trio with John Butcher is also mind-blowing!), and the groundbreaking Light Trigger by Mat Maneri and Randy Peterson (to give some idea of how I feel about this, of all the albums I've heard in my life, there are only two I'd rank higher than Light Trigger). All these albums are so different in style, but I think the simple power of timbral attraction is overlooked as a factor in people's musical experience because I'm just head over heels in love with these five albums I've mentioned; I could play each one a few times a week and never tire of them. Because I'm simply trying to report my experiences as a listener, I want to really emphasize this point. The matter of timbre is typically just taken for granted when we discuss common instruments, but it's incredibly non-trivial.

Recordings by either Dominique Lentin or Takumi Fukushima, who haven't worked together in any other publicly documented projects that I'm aware of, are sparse and difficult to come across. Likewise for information about either of them. As far as I know, there are very few English-language reviews of this duo album, and unfortunately I have virtually no biographical information to offer as context in this review, but there are some basic pertinent facts to mention. Fukushima has become a familiar name in avant-prog circles through her work with Volapük on their last two albums, Polyglot on Cuneiform and Where is Tamashii? on Orkhestra International. A trio of bass clarinettest Michel Mandel (who has also played other clarinets and taragot in the group), cellist Guillaume Saurel, and the legendary, inimitable drumkitter Guigou Chenevier, Volapük had already established a reputation as one of the most creative and astounding post-RIO units ever heard, even rivalling Chenevier's seminal, unspeakably brilliant Etron Fou Leloublan, with two studio albums on Cuneiform (Le Feu du Tigre and Slang) and a live album on Retort Media (Pükapök), but the addition of Fukushima's violin and voice (as a guest on Polyglot and a full member on Tamashii) elevated the ensemble into more personal and emotional realms. There are such pervasive similarities between this duo album and Volapük (even the pre-Fukushima albums), that I wouldn't hesitate to call it absolutely essential for any serious Volapük fan.

Of course, Dominique Lentin and Guigou Chenevier are different drumkitters, but the similarities are far more interesting to me as a devoted admirer of Chenevier—he'd easily make any drumkit top ten I'd construct. Lentin and Chenevier have an incredibly precise, even clinical, approach to the drumkit, imbuing off-kilter grooves with dizzying polyrhythms and polymeters.The two Frenchmen have clearly been intertwined for more than two decades and I'm guessing Chenevier's work in Etron Fou was a formative influence on Lentin, but I don't have any actual facts to support this and apparently Lentin was active contemporaneously with Etron. Lentin was the drumkitter in one of Etron Fou bass guitar genius Ferdinand Richard's most successful and prominent post-Etron projects, the guitar-oriented Les Philosophes, who took the Etron and Frith influences in a slightly more New Wavey and poppy direction, but still retained the jagged, abrupt rhythmicality that makes all this music so exciting for me. The only other work I've heard by Lentin is 1996's Bousillator by Zou, a quite good, but not great or essential, record in a familiar 80s Downtown avant-jazz/rock/funk style, more or less a second-rate example of the style because of a tendency towards limpidity and cliches, but with a few intense and thrilling moments that justify an investigation by connoisseurs of the genre.

As a member of Haco's After Dinner for its 1989 European tour—she also did session work on four tracks from Paradise of Replica— Takumi Fukushima was presumably a Japanese musician who came into contact with the avant-rock underground in Europe and went on to participate in a various projects that I sadly know little about, besides Volapük and this duo album. One of her primary projects has been Rale, a group led by Vladimír Václavek of the Czech Republic that has released three albums. I dearly hope to hear all these albums someday, but so far I've only acquired their 1994 self-titled debut, a really charming and emotionally engaging work of mellow, moody avant-folk dominated by acoustic guitar and Václavek's bassy, intimate vocals. Václavek's vocals are quite nice for what they are, but I sure wish they'd given way to Fukushima's precious singing for more than just one track, "Dare-mo Inakatta", but this track is a total gem of sprightly, sparse, catchy avant-pop driven by Fukushima's evenly metered, clear singing and her intoxicating repeating pizzicato melody on violin. It's the only track on the Rale album I actually listen to with any frequency. A very similar catchy pizzicato figure is used in "Has Been" on the Lentin/Fukushima album, but instead of being a quirky pop treasure with Fukushima singing, the pizzicato motif alternates with two overdubbed Glassian looping violin parts, and instead of contributing any percussion Lentin hums a bit and then recites a poem in French. It's a beautiful piece and a good example of the aesthetically conservative, yet diverse and creative nature of the album. As much as any other track, it also represents the pervasive mood of somber introspection.

Václavek has collaborated with Iva Bittová on several occasions and it's certainly obvious Fukushima has taken some inspiration from this wonderwoman of the Czech avant-garde, although it seems strictly limited to her violin playing and compositional approach because their vocal styles are nearly opposite. With its gradual whirling-dervish increase in intensity and shifts in tempo as drums and violin wrap around each other, "Secondo" is the Lentin/Fukushima track that comes closest to the legendary, timeless work of Bittová's duo with Pavel Fajt, but Lentin and Fukushima never come anywhere close to the ecstatic frenzy that the Czech duo could whip themselves into. Nor has anyone else! Even those who aren't familiar with their incendiary 1987 self-titled album or the 1987 live recordings of similar material on Svatba—two totally essential highlights of 20th century music for my tastes—will understand what I'm talking about when they recall the live footage of the duo captured on Step Across the Border. To create music for violin and drumkit that's even roughly similar to such miraculous music is enough of an achievement to make the Lentin/Fukushima disc a priceless treasure. In terms of precision, virtuosity, and a feeling of odd-metered tribal groove, there is indeed a great similarity between Lentin and Fajt's drumkit work, but Lentin rarely delivers the kind of spiralling climaxes that Fajt (and Lê Quan Ninh I might add) is known for.

Among the 15 tracks here, only 5 ("Primo", "Diamine", "Terzo", "Secondo", "Parapapa") could be classified as the duo's core acoustic violin/drumkit music based on jagged grooves and post-prog thematic juxtapositions. That leaves 10 tracks of fascinating divergences! It is truly a rich album that offers more than I usually digest in one listening session. As mentioned above, Fukushima's incredible and underutilized (here and in her other projects) singing appears alone with drums on "H.S.". A roughly similar vocal performance with Japanese lyrics is offered in "Lakc", but here it elevates an already fantastic composition for violin and drumkit, making it one of my four favorite tracks alongside the three leadoff tracks I discussed in the beginning of the review. The only other piece with Fukushima singing is "Ceremony", a truly anomalous track that finds her singing non-linguistically in a style that recalls Scandinavian or East European folk music, in sections that are radically juxtaposed with fierce, aggressive bursts of avant-prog using a sampler to add rhythmic punchiness akin to Univers Zero's Heatwave (and also Rhythmix and Implosion for that matter).

Lentin's sampler plays a prominent role in four other pieces, always augmenting the rich acoustic timbres of his drumkit and Fukushima's violin instead of displacing them. The electronically-assisted Univers Zero feeling comes through again in "Alfred" and "Tagalo"; Lentin seems to be sampling a digital synth. "Tagalo" is noteworthy for its sinister looping lope and middle passage with Fukushima delving into harsh, scribbling violin playing in total contrast to her usual measured, careful, conventional style. In fact, there's only one other brief passage on the disc where she explores the raw side of bowed strings, and it's in another sampler-based piece, the uncharacteristically rambunctious and playful "Transe de Guingois", which finds Lentin's drumkit and sampled bassy synth sounds in an outright hoedown that fondly reminds me of the wackier upbeat sections on the 1991 avant-prog/loop-rock/post-Downtown mega-classic Hybrid Beat from Austria's Kombinat M, whose young drumkit whiz, Lukas Ligeti, is another great example of someone with a similar aesthetic of off-kilter, precise, complex, loopy grooves like Lentin, Chenevier, Denis, Barnett, and Fajt mentioned above.

Closing out the disc, "Opera Udu" is an equally fascinating and surprising departure resulting from Lentin's sampler. Alongside some typically great violin and drumkit riffing is some very pastoral violin and drumkit accompaniment to Japanese spoken word by Fukushima and a dreamy, fragmented sampler-generated looping texture of female singing somewhat like Nobukazu Takemura's work.

More often than not, when I just want a quick fix I play the first three tracks of the disc, but as I've outlined above, the album is a treasure chest of unique music and I love every single track. I often cut the session short before the fourth track, "Feu Follet", because it doesn't function like a pop/folk song in the way most of the other tracks do; it requires a more patient mode of listening. It's a special experience that doesn't suit every listening occasion. The longest track at six minutes, Fukushima's violin appears alone for the first two minutes repeating a very slow and simple phrase before Lentin enters with some cymbals and drums in a contrastive and uncharacteristically loose, clustered style. As Fukushima unwaveringly continues with her dry, crawling violin loop, Lentin then switches to some kind of sustained background tone sounding like a gong or perhaps something sampled. There's virtually no thematic variation in Fukushima's violin fragment for the entire six minutes, drawing attention to subtle and beautiful variations in bowing pressure and unintentional variations in phrasing. For the last 90 seconds or so, Fukushima also introduces a faint background layer of vocal tones that combines with Lentin's subtle gongish layer to give just enough development and resolution to the piece.

This disc has been a special obscure treasure I've returned to regularly since buying it on a lark some years ago and I'm long overdue to pay tribute to it. Sadly I've never found anyone else express enthusiasm for it anywhere, either in-person or online. It strikes me as a criminally overlooked masterpiece that a lot of other people would fall in love with and I can only hope that these two unique musicians have similar treasures in the works.

~Michael Anton Parker

Released by SMI in 1999 and available from Wayside Music and Orkhestra International.

Posted by maparker at 5:26 PM | Comments (4)

Charlie Byrd - Byrd By the Sea (Fantasy)


Certainly a serious contender in any “Ugliest Album Cover” contest this concert recording by Charlie Byrd is also one of the guitar albums I reach for most. Byrd was one of those bonafide virtuosos who had the Zelig-like ability of being at the right place at the right time, repeatedly. A student of Segovia, a jam-partner of Django Reinhardt, a cornerstone of the bossa nova movement through his work on Stan Getz’s Jazz Samba, and a man with an inveterate sweet tooth for pop tunes from Tin Pan Alley to A.M. radio, he was a walking set of contradictions when gauged against the archetypal recital guitarist of the 60s and 70s. Despite his massive chops and near-regal pedigree he always remained an unapologetic populist at heart- the Jack Nicholson character in the film Five Easy Pieces, hold the anger and angst. This set, recorded at Redondo Beach, CA in 1974 as part of a Howard Rumsey concert series and expanded to twice its length for the cd reissue, features him in what was probably his favorite format, dipping into a conspicuously eclectic songbook in front of a responsive audience. Brother Joe girds his gilded chords on acoustic and electric basses and the “paint brushes on coffee cans and phonebooks” percussion of Bertell Knox completes the triangle. Byrd’s amplified Spanish guitar approaches the program as an equal opportunist, applying the same industry and brio to each tune regardless of its provenance. Whether it’s a mellow, but slinky rundown of Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song” where the Byrd has fun fooling the audience with a false ending and drawing out premature applause, or a pastoral reading of Vivaldi’s “Concerto in G” that evokes the ambience of a sun-dappled country courtyard in spring the results are always marvelously listenable. Also of special note on the scorecard, Jobim’s “Wave,” Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean Thing” and a gorgeous interpretation of “Norwegian Wood” that finds Byrd adding rippling syncopations to the familiar wistful theme. Conservatively speaking, I’ve probably listened to this disc a hundred times and the replay value has yet to atrophy. Calling Byrd the Bird of the guitar in terms of the reach of his artistry and worth doesn’t seem a stretch by my estimation.

Posted by derek at 3:40 PM | Comments (0)

July 27, 2005

Derek Bailey - Carpal Tunnel


Tzadik 7612

Most commentary on Carpal Tunnel Syndrome fails to mention guitarists among the commonly afflicted. It's an odd omission as their susceptibility to repetitive stress injuries makes sense, especially someone like Derek Bailey who’s made a career out of torquing and twisting his strings and ligaments in all manner of contortionist directions. Bailey finally fell prey to the debilitating condition in early ’05 and sought the counsel of various doctors who advised surgery as the best strategy to combat further damage. Incorrigible as ever, he opted against an invasive remedy and decided instead to devote his energies toward “trying to find a way around it.”

Adaptation is a bulwark of improvisation. On Carpal Tunnel Bailey sets about the task of retooling his celebrated tactics to the new circumstances with enthusiasm and wry humor. Certain of his fingers may be enfeebled, but the guitarist’s mental faculties are as sharp as ever. Feet intact, his facility with volume pedal remains undiminished too.

“Explanation and Thanks” is just that, a discursive monologue where he recounts his illness and peppers his matter-of-fact remarks with instructional punctuations of sparse, stippled guitar. These snippets are tottery in spots and reveal a reliance on thumb in plectrum’s stead as well as a preference for brevity over sustained strumming. But Bailey’s musings on both his condition and recent relocation to Barcelona are both enlightening and unexpectedly endearing in their candor.

The album’s other pieces carry titles corresponding to spans of time, presumably as correlates to the onset and advance of Bailey’s condition. A cluster of brittle banjo-like tones almost identical to those that open the album announces “After 3 Weeks.” “After 5 Weeks” feels almost slo-mo in its extemporaneous design. Bailey’s ornamentations are measured to the point of methodical in places, but the absence of linear velocity yields a palpable amount of nuance through sharp-witted use of space. Pedal shimmer coats bent notes and a lattice takes shape like a spider’s web revealed only by the dew droplets that cling to its gossamer girders.

Remaining tracks travel trajectories of disarming delicacy. Moments of dulcet lyricism are surprisingly many, such as the opalescent swells and quavering harmonics that arise on the otherwise angular “After 7 Weeks.” There's no Ruins-ready shredding to speak of, but Bailey’s relative reticence becomes an asset rather than an encumbrance. The recital winds up with a single sustained tone that strains the mic and dissolves into silence- an aural mirror to the tingling and numbing of limbs? Tzadik’s packaging and design are customarily first-class with medieval medical drawings and clever typefaces complementing the histological catharsis of the music.

Django made do with just eight functioning digits, fashioning one of the most influential fretting styles in improvised guitar music. Pat Martino was forced to completely relearn his chops after a brain aneurysm robbed them from his mind. Bailey’s found himself in a similar boat and the adage “whatever doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger” seems apropos. He may not be stronger physically, but the challenge presented by his ailment has opened fresh avenues of expression. Consequently, this album comes rich in captivating content.

~ Derek Taylor

Posted by derek at 4:57 PM | Comments (2)

July 26, 2005

Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker Quintet - Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945


Uptown 27.51

Even with nearly a century’s worth of recordings at their fingertips --a sum far beyond what any one person could reasonably consume in a lifetime-- jazz fans still pine for lost finds. The last couple years have been particularly kind in this regard with not one, but two, epochal archival discoveries: a live recording of Trane with Monk that purportedly eclipses its fidelity-impaired precursor on Blue Note in virtually every way, and this airshot from a June 22, 1945 Town Hall gig by the Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker Quintet. I haven’t yet heard the former trove and therefore can’t comment on its associative claims. But Town Hall more than earns all the brouhaha surrounding its emergence and release.

The back-story reads right out of an R. Crumb or Harvey Pekar comic. Record collector receives a mysterious call relating the availability of several Charlie Parker acetates for purchase. His encyclopedic knowledge of Bird’s discography pinpoints the bounty as an unreleased concert and he quickly acquires transfers of the platters. Professionally recorded and without gaps or major blemishes, the music completely surpasses his expectations. It’s the sort of divine providence that instantly becomes the province of jazz lore. The sad news for collectors is that the concert’s second half featuring Errol Garner’s band remains unreleased thanks to the unwillingness of the pianist’s estate to greenlight its circulation. But any grousing is a case of sour grapes when the available wine is this fine.

The gig is dominated by Dizzy’s tunes and times at an economical LP length of forty or so minutes. Unfortunately it also has the boorish Symphony Sid as loquacious emcee. Al Haig occupies the piano bench with Curley Russell handling bass and Max Roach at the drum kit. The band sounds marvelous, though there is a liminal stretch where the sound engineer fiddles a bit with the balance in the opening bars of “Bebop” to bring the horns in line with the rhythm section. Don Byas’ tenor joins the frontline on this number, initially as a stopgap for the perpetually tardy Parker. It’s only a tantalizing taste and he drops out before the return to the theme.

Parker’s alto exercises the agility of a jackrabbit, bounding through the changes of “A Night in Tunisia,” but it’s Gillepsie’s muted cadenza that elicits the rousing ovation. Even Russell’s strings are cleanly audible, a circumstance not present on the various contemporary recordings from the left coast issued on labels like Spotlite and Savoy. Haig is still a bit wet behind the ears when it comes to the harmonic rigors of bop, but he collects plenty of solo room and ramps things up on a riotous rendering of “Salt Peanuts.” That tune also features some ferocious Roach and arguably Parker’s most incandescent improvisations of the night. Sid Catlett sits in on the two closing tracks and his flamboyant stick play sustains the heat on a burning version of “Hot House.” The band signs the set off with Monk’s “Fifty Second Street Theme,” rendered in a terse 2:14.

In usual Uptown fashion the packaging and documentation is exemplary with essays by Ira Gitler and Bob Sunenblick (the lucky finder) as well as ancillary photos and clippings depicting Bird, Diz and sidemen (all looking svelte in their suits with youthful kissers) ready to unwittingly turn the jazz world on its collective ear. Any fan of bebop won’t need the push to pull the trigger, but casual listeners will find this set well worth the necessary green as well. With two gold strikes and counting, the next big bonanza can’t be that far behind.

~ Derek Taylor

Posted by derek at 7:46 PM | Comments (8)

Elucidations for the Eigen-Curious


Walt Horn has kept a relatively low presence on Bags since his self-imposed retirement from rekkid reviewing- a loss I’m still smarting from. But he hasn’t been resting on well-earned laurels either. Please allow me to direct your attention to page right and his illuminating interview with one of the MIT-matriculated masterminds behind the now lamentably defunct Eigenradio. It’s a damn fine read & one I’m still wrapping noggin around. Huzzah!

Posted by derek at 3:24 PM | Comments (0)

Brian Whitman - July 2005


Some time ago, Joe Milazzo did a little piece on Eigenradio, a MIT music broadcasting project to which Bagatellen has long provided a link. After reading Joe’s profile, I checked out the site and was hooked immediately, spacing out to its mysteriously concocted, gnarly mish-mashes at least weekly. So, I was naturally very sorry when Eigenradio went off line recently. Wanting to share my grief with the family, I hunted down Brian Whitman, the “music analyst/synthesist” responsible for both the theoretical science behind and the implementation of this computer-processed radio music. After condoling, I asked Brian a few questions, not only about that site, but about his researches in the area of the musical essences and preferences generally. (A number of his papers are available on line through his website.) Brian’s responses indicate the depth to which he has thought about matters that Bagatellen contributors like me are quite content to muse out loud about at length using as few brain cells to do so as is humanly possible. I here reproduce our e-confab:

When I listened to Eigenradio, I was struck by the enveloping Ivesian thing, you know, watching three marching bands approach from different directions, hearing nine practice rooms at once from the hall of a music building, that sort of thing. But I take it that while the Ivesian complexity is there, Eigenradio wasn't simply a matter of pouring fifteen broadcasts into one sonic soup tureen: there was some careful reduction of broth going on there. Can you describe this process for the layman? Was some computer literally sucking in a bunch of radio broadcasts and spewing out Eigenradio tunes 24-7? How long did the transformations take? Were commercials and/or news filtered out?

The webcast of Eigenradio did involve a computer (well, eight of them) sucking in a bunch of broadcasts and spewing back Eigenradio. In between the radio recording and synthesis a lot of stuff goes on: the stream is first segmented into songs (attempts to separate speech and music are made, but I never explicitly check), and then after a set of songs are recorded we queue them up into batches. Normally I try to take sixty minutes of music down to about three or four minutes.

The serious processing happens in this reduction. An example is when you don't know what a sparrow is--so you go to the library and you open a bird book and see three hundred sparrow pictures. You start noticing things they share and things that differentiate them from other birds and from trees, grass, buildings. Sparrows have certain types of feathers, their beaks angle a certain way. What you're doing is looking at a large set of perceptual input and distilling it down from hundreds of pictures to a small set of unary "distinctive properties." Once you find a small set of these properties, you can use it as a) a "classifier" in which you can tell if something is a sparrow or not, and also b) a "synthesizer" that, given some range of filled-in distinctive properties, can generate an approximation of a sparrow. You can synthesize sparrows endlessly as you know what makes a sparrow a sparrow and also how sparrows differ among themselves. Computers are pretty good at this, given constraints.

For music, same thing, different domain. Instead of pixels from pictures, the computer is looking at features derived from the audio signal. After listening to 60 minutes of audio the eigenanalysis starts: some dominant components are identified, and the computer resynthesizes a smaller piece by mixing these dominant components from different pieces to create a new whole. We had a bank of eight computers doing the work for us, and I'd guess that it took about ten minutes for every hour of Eigenradio to render the result. Not too intense, but again this is sixteen processors worth of work.

Fundamentally, and I mentioned this on the original website, if you took a bunch of music and asked it, "Music, what are you, really?" you'd hear Eigenradio singing back at you. It's the computer's idea of what music really is. Note that it's pretty different than what we would think, and the reason I think it was so successful was that it was a cheap way to hear music from a completely different perspective-- for example, we like periodicity and repetition in our music, a computer (eigenanalysis) hates it and 'optimizes it away'-- why would it want to store two copies of the same thing?

"A Singular Christmas" was very similar except a) we used only Christmas music for the input, not general radio streams, and b) instead of synthesizing the dominant components directly we found the closest matching acoustic ("real") sound from a large database of instrument samples. As a result the Christmas record is more 'listenable' but shares the same mathematical lineage as the radio stream. “A Singular Christmas” was far, far more successful than Eigenradio in terms of listenership and press / publicity. It was broadcast on BBC Radio on Christmas Eve. I counted roughly 600,000 listens in the space of two weeks, MIT ended up turning off access to the files for awhile.

I'm not surprised to hear you say that there was some difference in the manner of putting "A Singular Christmas" together: it seems like something that modern classical listeners might be more comfortable with than most randomly chosen Eigenradio broadcasts, which seem clearly "noisier." But I don't understand the methodological difference entirely. Is it that there weren't so many pitchless (or 'grungy'?) sounds in the database you pulled the instrument samples from as might be heard on a regular radio broadcast? How did the program decide which samples to pull from this database?

After you find the dominant components of a song (let's say they were tempo, periodicity, spectral entropy, mean power density in 80-90Hz etc.) and the dynamic ranges of each component that defines the "song space," your task is then to generate the songs with the widest range of characterization--the songs that should represent all other possible songs through some combination. The problem is that when you resynthesize you need to find a path in a random field that a) reflects the range of components your analysis chose and also b) considers the short time and long scale expectations of the human auditory system. If you compressed a song as a ZIP file, for example, the computer could 'listen' to the compressed version and make the same judgments about content as the original file. But if you tried listening to the zip file, it'd be garbage to you even though all the information is still there. Eigenradio made little to no allowances for this effect, it was fundamentally supposed to represent what computers found beautiful about music by finding what's known as the 'minimum description' of the perception. "A Singular Christmas" was the same as Eigenradio up to the point of resynthesis. We took a bunch of Christmas songs, did the Eigenradio "component finding" algorithm on them, and we were left with the components and characteristics. But instead of just quickly spinning through the possibilities at some fixed rate (the main culprit in Eigenradio's drill-in-a-tunnel acoustic aesthetic) after we determined the components we did a search through "real sounds" to find the ones that best matched the chosen component. This is a nice and easy arbitration between computer and human demands. The "real sounds" come from this database which I maintain for a bunch of projects: internally it's called "all Possible Sounds" and is comprised of about 200 gigabytes of audio samples consisting of instrument and effect sounds. It's all in a database with an acoustic similarity back end. So I can take the dominant component from a group of music and instead of synthesizing it rubber-bass style, I can ask the database to find the best N samples that match it in time, timbre and tone. Other things we can do with this database include resynthesizing a single song just by using the components of all (e.g.) banjo sounds, etc.

What if any connections do you see between your written research on musical tastes and Eigenradio-type extractions of what might be called "musical essences"? Can you imagine an Eigenradio II that extracts very different "essences," thereby producing wildly different music? Does something important follow from that? What could one (possibly) infer about a group which always preferred Eigen I to Eigen II or vice versa?

There is a direct link between Eigenradio and music retrieval work in that the analysis used to find the 'essence' of music is almost exactly the same up to the point of resynthesis. Before you try to get a machine to learn something you want to eliminate redundancy and find covariance among variables in the perceptual feature space. From a music retrieval scientist's standpoint, Eigenradio is what the computer hears when it tells you that the Kinks and Sugarplastic share some traits.

Doing preference studies on synthesized Eigenmusic is a level of indirection that I am not comfortable taking right now!!

In your research there seems to be a hunt for objective measures of taste similarity. I've occasionally opined that a simple ranking system (say of 1-4 stars) combined with a historical database of recording names followed by stars for each reviewer would be much preferable to the linguistic comparisons with various animals and food and the obligatory gushing that constitute ordinary music reviews. I mean, what use is it to me to know that Jones likes or hates recording X if I have no idea whether I generally like the same sort of stuff Jones likes? I suppose there is some entertainment value both to having pieces compared with various colors and in the one-upsmanship of the hunt for the most fervent rave or nasty pan ever, but from a consumer advice point of view, it would seem that a knowledge of reviewer preferences and a thumbs up or down would be more helpful. Is that the sort of thing you're discussing in your research on taste and "automatic reviews"?

Well first, let me disclaim that I am not looking for 'objective' measures of similarity but 'predictive:' given a community and a piece of audio, how will they respond? Objective would imply that there's only one answer.

The automatic record review project was a study to see if there was "learnable" language in record reviews. If a reviewer calls two records "slow and plodding" and there's something in the actual content of the records that matches, we can start to understand what 'slow and plodding' means. But of course that's hardly ever the case--how many adjectives can you name that are objectively informative? Review language is usually far removed from the signal it refers to. So for that project we took the chatty gorilla of pop writing—“Pitchfork”--and pitted it against the boring reliable standby, “All Music Guide.” Obviously AMG trounces “Pitchfork” in both correlation of words to audio (i.e. they use language that can easily describe music) and correlation of "star rating" to audio (there is some underlying feature of the music that contributes to the rating.)

But those things have little to do with how well the reviews help people find music. “Pitchfork” and others are helping consumers find music, plain and simple, no matter how inconsistent my algorithms say they are. So who's more worthless--the trend-reflecting wavering music criticism site that helps people find new music or the scientist that proves that the site is trend-reflecting and wavering?

The recommendation from review scheme you describe is collaborative filtering, my #1 enemy. Go to Amazon and you'll see an entire industry devoted to convincing you to buy something because some stranger you agree with also buys this something. You're clustering random consumers into rock critics, really, and I can't say I would trust self-selected music writers to lead the marketing statistics just yet. The fundamental problem of collaborative filtering approaches is the popularity effect: for something to get noticed people have to notice it first. Critics don't review every CDR and promo package that crosses their desk: selection is biased towards already popular or familiar music, so a feedback loop occurs which is more dangerous to this industry than Bittorrent and Soulseek put together.

The way to escape is to be smart about it: have something that has nothing better to do (a computer) do some first order predictions on preference based on content and contextual analysis. If all of a sudden ILM lights up with talk about a new artist, even if there's no audio yet available, we should pay attention. If the automatic listening systems light up with similarity matches, we should pay attention to it. Treat all of these new ways of discovering "hidden connections" as just another source of information to make filtering decisions with.

I’m not sure I understand why you believe your manner of predicting someone’s likelihood of enjoyment is more reliable or otherwise preferable to Amazon-type "A & B both like it" schemas--so long as the latter utilize sufficient data. Isn't there any hope that the Amazon model, instead of moving from a single joint purchase to a recommendation as it now does, could eventually make suggestions on the basis of huge preference correlations and start reaching excellent success levels?

Sure, if Amazon catalogued more than just sales, of course they'll do better. But I was responding to the underlying problem: you're predicting preferences by studying data that already exists. With that model, you can't predict a response to completely new data. That is public enemy #1 for niche/independent music to take a hold. Economies of scale dictate that the more sales or reviews of something, the more likely it'll be recommended and with higher accuracy. My hate on these systems is purely high-level; I am sure there are tons of things that can be done to aid CF to do better, like using text and finer grained preferences and so on. There are many startups attempting just that and I wish them luck. But going down that path will just make popular records get recommended with some higher amount of success. We don't need that; we have entire industries of marketing and radio assuring that will happen for all eternity. Why don't we take advantage of the technology to help level the playing field for new artists instead of just using it as a cheap advertising tool?

Consider the following hypothetical (based loosely on a recent argument between a Bagatellen reviewer and a saxophonist over whether a recording made by the latter sounds anything like Mats Gustaffson, and whether any such alleged similarity matters anyhow):

Suppose someone X reports that he finds a certain recording of Y's music "really bad." When Y asks him for his reasons for this judgment, X responds "No reason, really. I just found it boring. Uncompelling." Then Y responds by asking if X realized when listening that each tune on the disk is based on a Fibonacci series, that each spells "Bach" repeatedly in some language or other, that 100 hungry Chilean Indians are fed by the proceeds to his disc, and that, if listened to through specially filtered headphones the music therein will provide a cure to both insomnia and colon cancer. Finally Y wonders aloud whether X is sufficiently familiar with Anthony Braxton, Gregorian Chant, Nurse With Wound and Onkyo to comment authoritatively on his work.

What the hell is going on here? Is there any value at all to that sort of colloquy? Can/should it make anybody change his/her mind? Does it provide anything that a thumbs up/thumbs down list doesn't?

In the real world, does anyone ever hear music with absolutely no context? Even if you hear something on the radio by accident, you make an assumption about the artist simply because they have music on the radio. You also know the station and the time of day, maybe the song that came after it. The way I see it, there are two types of context here: the type the artist tried to enforce on you (their "story," their marketing/background, think M.I.A. here), and the type the listener applied to the music (girl trouble, general preference, mood). The annoying bit for people who want to help people find music is that it's very hard to predict either type of context with any accuracy. I build systems that read music blogs, monitor chat rooms, check music news sites every day, and we're getting there, but how do you really automatically detect that the song "Shipbuilding" is about the Falklands war? Or that Oval made a custom CD player, Jason Falkner left Jellyfish in the middle of "She Still Loves Him," and they kept his last solo on the tape, etc., etc. It goes on forever. This stuff is crucial, and yes, definitely, it affects people whether it should or not. Trends, hype, marketing, stories, bio, celebrity, relationships, collaborations are all just as important as the bits flying off the plastic. To some listeners it's more important.

No one can seriously say that they could like a song when devoid of all external forces. It wouldn't be music if they could.

Did MIT ever worry about the legal ramifications of Eigen-style analysis and re-synthesis when Eigenradio was being proposed? Was there always complete confidence that these re-broadcasts were within the "fair use" exceptions to copyright protections? From your own (non-lawyer) perspective, is Eigenradio-style re-parsing more like re-arranging molecules than measures--even if whole words or phrases may be sometimes decipherable?

We were given a free rein at the lab, there's somewhat of a 'don't ask don't tell' policy within reason. I was secretly hoping that I'd get in trouble-- I would have gladly put off my dissertation a semester just to sit in a courtroom playing Eigenradio samples at the jury with the RIAA across the table. Sadly, nothing bad at all happened. It is nice to think about legality and fair use when music experiments are involved, but in reality it's only something you can guess at until you get sued-- there's never a right answer in these things.

My favorite concordant example is the James Newton/Beastie Boys "Choir / Pass the Mic" case, where Newton sued Mario C et al for lifting not the sounds or signal of "Choir" (because they paid for and licensed that) but the meaning of the sound under it ("The four black women singing in a church in rural Arkansas..." according to the deposition) and his style of playing ("flute overblow harmonics.") Newton had a gorgeous unintentional non-sequitur in a letter relating to the case: "There is a spectrograph that moves wildly when my multiphonics are played" as if this singular spectrograph, alone in a field in Arkansas, carried the secret of new forms of musical expression. Newton wanted to own it.

The point is that you can rip apart music into sine waves at parameterized phase and magnitude using a process that most computers are intensively optimized for (the FFT) and then you can put those sine waves in a blender, wire them to a fluorescent light, quantize them at the rate of rainfall in your hometown etc and you could still be stealing the original piece: you always start somewhere. But what pisses off copyright holders is if you make something that bites on the "meaning" of the song: its intended effect and audience reaction. Obviously the most sought after form of meaning is popularity and sales and that's where the lawsuits come in. I love the Newton case because you could tell he was so angry that the Beastie Boys took his story and screwed into it a forgettable overdriven anthem for a Jeep Wrangler in the school parking lot... in Eigenradio's case, we completely remove the story and don't replace it or reappropriate it. We're safe.

I understand you're a performer as well as a research scientist. Tell me about the sort of music you enjoy making/listening to. Are there connections here between either your research on musical taste or Eigenradio or both?

I performed as "Blitter" under my brother Keith (Hrvatski)'s tutelage for a short period in 98-2001. I soon got sick of watching people (and myself) behind laptop screens doing not much of anything. So since 2002 or so I've been concentrating on this "process music" instead, which is great as it's impossible to play live. Besides Eigenradio + Singular Christmas I hope to have a full length soon on some vanity label documenting my experiments in this field. The problem is that every time I buckle down to record something I find a better sounding way to do it: "Never make it, it's changing out from under me..." The forever lost title of this record is "Sofia Safari" so when you see this on a shelf you know I've stopped trying to fix things.

You mentioned to me that you're no longer connected with MIT. What are you up to now? Is there any chance that Eigenradio will go back on the air?

I received my Ph.D. from MIT in May 2005 or so and have started a company (The Echo Nest Corporation) with fellow music analysis/synthesis scientist Tristan Jehan. Now that I have lawyers and investors I can't talk so loudly. Needless to say, the company is 'future music' oriented and it should be a very interesting next few months.

The processes and ideas behind Eigenradio are certainly continuing. Besides the aforementioned full length, there will absolutely be more Eigenradio-related projects in the near future. Stay tuned...

Walter Horn

Posted by derek at 2:59 PM | Comments (2)

July 25, 2005

Multiphonics en Memoriam


Sad news. Albert Mangelsdorff died in Frankfurt after battling a lengthy illness. His MPS albums (collected on two Verve box sets) and the dates with the Brötzmann/Bennink/Van Hove trio on FMP were semi-regular spins for me with much enjoyment gleaned. Definitely one of the doyens in the pantheon that includes: Ory, Teagarden, Rosolino, Johnson, Knepper, Rudd & a handful of others. May he rest in peace.

Posted by derek at 4:16 PM | Comments (3)

La Respiration des Saintes - Charlie Charlie

Charlie Charlie
La Respiration des Saintes

I don’t know who Charlie Charlie are. Two people, as near as I can ascertain, but googling revealed no more. That’s OK. It’s not too important and I’m sure Will or someone will clue me in. Worth knowing is this fine, dirty, scuffling 3” disc, all 13:45 of it. “La Respiration des Saintes” (lovely title) is an assemblage of tapes, radio transmissions, rude noises large and small, tied together in a blocky fashion that has a kind of slithery logic, though one all but impossible to explain or analyze. The voices, generally faint and difficult to understand, act as a kind of string on which everything else is glued; noise composition as rock candy.

It begins with one of those disembodied voices though that’s swiftly buried under an avalanche of toppled objects, beaten metal and tinny drones. Just as quickly, the cacophony is sucked up into silence, several of the transmissions left hovering, diaphanous, in its wake. More metal, now paired with static glitches, some noise that might have emanated from a guitar, all lurching forward, occasionally even hurtling (the metallic beating from the initial section poking its head up now and then, imparting a hint of rhythm), until it smacks up against the next roadblock. The ghost voices are still there, along with bowed metal, other detritus. There’s a kind of Beckettian plodding onward, stop and start, impelled forward in spurts, pausing for breath, back at it. Listened to closely, “La Respiration des Saintes” is bracingly exhausting, a mini-marathon through an eerie, desiccated territory, ending in a harsh place.

An excellent recording, highly recommended, especially for those who enjoyed Guthrie’s “Spear”.


Posted by Brian Olewnick at 8:17 AM | Comments (6)

July 24, 2005

Xenakiphilia, LA LEGENDE D’EER


axb.JPGSomewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen years ago, when I lived in Philadelphia, I saw a retrospective of the work of the painter, Francesco Clemente. Surveying his pieces, my eyes were drawn to a series of miniatures he had created in collaboration with some painters from Madras and Jaipur in India, where he spent a third out of every year living and working. The miniatures seemed completely out of time. They were made in gouache on book pages that were over 200 years old. The soluble ink had been washed off, leaving only the pentimenti, and the border of the text served as the frame for Clemente’s work, while the calligraphy of the original text was also preserved. Clemente’s “Pinxit,” as it was called, was my first tangible encounter with the concept of the palimpsest a term also closely aligned with the notion of pentimenti: a re-inscription over the “trace” of a remainder that had otherwise been erased. However, the concept of the pentimenti implies a change of mind that is otherwise absent from the concept of the palimpsest. In the case of Clemente’s miniatures, the new image always captures the attention of the viewer first of all, but the eyes are quickly drawn into the material that situates the recently created figure. One wishes to unveil that which has been erased and see the miniature in relation to it.

Clemente’s palimpsest serves as an appropriate metaphor for the phenomenon of the remastered recording. The urgency of the remastering is signaled by a kind of pentimenti in relation to a previous recording. Someone has changed his mind, usually in light of technological developments. What came before is not in some way adequate anymore. A reconsideration and reexamination is in order, but the remastered recording will always be inscribed on the figure of the previous one that is elided from memory, all the while leaving its trace. The specter of comparisons always remains. Thus, the reception of the remastered recording can never separate entirely from the palimpsest that marks its production.

The recording industry is experiencing a wave of invention. The compact disc is gradually giving way to higher resolution formats. The super audio CD (SACD) and digital versatile disc audio (DVD-A) already appear to be passé as the industry moves toward blu-ray, high definition DVD and CD, and other formats.

CD was already being supplanted by DVD even before the new high-resolution formats were beginning to emerge. The capability of DVD to extend the frequency range to 24 bit/96 khz already rendered the rolled-off 16 bit/44.1 khz capacity of CD inadequate, at least until mastering into 24 bit/ 96 khz was enabled for CDs as well as DVDs and a new generation of 24/96 CD players started to emerge.

Mode Records, a label that records classical experimental composers like John Cage and Morton Feldman, has thrown its hat in with DVD and DVD-A. Multi-channel capability seems to be the principal reason, as well as the rendering of visual material (something that SACD cannot do) even though many would argue that SACD’s audio extension and single bit direct stream digital surpasses the sonic dividend of DVD-A. Mode has already released two of Morton Subotnick’s works on this combination of DVD and DVD-A, both mastered in high definition 24 bit/48 khz, in order to translate the composer’s work from four and eight channel tape to 5.1 surround. A pulse-coded modulation (PCM) stereo mix is also included in both recordings, and CD versions are also available.

The Subotnick releases have set the stage for Mode’s revelatory reworking of Iannis Xenakis’ La Legende d’Eer, cut in high-definition 24 bit/96 khz and released on DVD in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, DTS 5.1 surround, and, as the Mode case notes, an “uncompressed” 24/96 PCM stereo mix that also turns up on a separately released CD. The new mixes are mastered from the original 7-track analogue tapes by Xenakis’ associate at CCMIX, Gerard Pape. The surround mixes are presented with a film composed of 350 photographs from the original performance at the opening of the Centre Georges-Pompidou in Paris in 1978. Bruno Rastoin eloquently captures what must have been a devastating visual accompaniment comprised of 1680 lights, four lasers, and 400 mirrors interacting within the elliptical Diatope designed by Xenakis. Rastoin’s digital transfers are lush, saturated and satisfying, but it is unfortunate, though, that no video record of this event exists.

Two booklets accompany the DVD—one is the same as that included with the CD release, and a second DVD-size booklet contains some notes on the films and an essay by Rastoin. The front cover of this booklet is the actual poster of the original performance and the back cover has two photographs of the Diatope—the bottom one from the actual performance has the elliptical structure in a yellowish hue set against the rest of red-lit structure, while the top one has the skeleton of the ellipsis apparently after the performance with materials rolled up on the ground and the grayish adjoining buildings in the background during twilight. In between the two photographs is an injunction to “play loud” in English, French, and German, a request not difficult to accommodate. Finally, a 67-minute discussion between Xenakis and the musicologist Harry Halbreich, which runs the gamut between boring, compelling, and fatuous, is included on the DVD.

My first “encounter” with La Legende d’Eer came late—nearly four years ago and some 23 years after the performance in Paris—on the now out-of-print release on Montaigne. I had just received a box of recordings in early November from a distributor in Albuquerque and worked my way through all but the Xenakis by mid-December. Aware of his penchant for the grandiose gesture, for the utter sweep of his compositions, I was delaying my listening to the Xenakis. It had been a year in which an earlier acquisition of the Erstwhile release Do by Toshimaru Nakamura and Sachiko M had been all-consuming, an aesthetic experience of its own with few peers. Finally, I managed to listen to the Xenakis during an afternoon at home. Listening to this recording on that and future occasions was unique in relation to my other listening tendencies and habits: I turned on the CD player’s repeat button and then commenced to listen to La Legende d’Eer for four successive hours. This was to become my practice for the next few years whenever I played the piece. One time through was insufficient, and because of the opening and closing with the high pitched “shooting stars” sequence, my use of repeat produced a very natural loop of the recording, as if I were witnessing a kind of cosmic orbit. This is Xenakis’ effect on the listener. His mathematical precision in constructing his compositions seems to belie the emotive grandiosity produced by his works in his audience.

Though satisfied with the Montaigne release, I did not hesitate to order the Mode versions when they became available, despite my mild disappointment in their not being either an SACD or SACD-hybrid disc in the offing. The DVD version was reason enough and, if nothing else, could serve as a supplement to what I already owned. However, as I listened to both the DVD and CD versions, it was becoming apparent that the Mode releases were producing their own form of a palimpsest in relation to the Montaigne recording. My memories of the Montaigne were already fading, under a process of incomplete erasure by the Mode recordings, but there was an irony in my experience of these releases. While the Mode was eliding the Montaigne, the Montaigne was finally being “unveiled” by the Mode. La Legende d’Eer was opening up for the first time and revealing its workings below the sonic surface, starting with the edgy and abrasive treble of the “shooting stars” sequences, which now appear as if surrounded by a black hole creating greater delineation. The Montaigne version sounds muffled in comparison. There is a haze over the top of the recording that I had never noticed before. A comparison is in order.

La Legende d’Eer is divisible into six sections, the first of which runs 6:34 on the Montaigne recording and 6:46 on the Mode release. The difference between the two is dramatic. The “sonorous shooting stars” have much greater space and a much darker background on the Mode release. The sounds are also far more metallic in resonance, and the separate pitches are more apparent. When a friend and I listened to the recording a couple of weeks ago and tried to speak during the first section, we noticed our voices seemed to have changed, as if the shooting stars were attacking our respective Eustachian tubes, creating a phlegm-like overtone. The sonorous effect was more than evident.

What we get on the Mode reissues in comparison to the previous release on Montaigne are more details about the sources of Xenakis’ sounds. Three categories of sounds are in use: instrumental sounds, like the guimbardes, an African Jew’s harp, the Tzuzumis, hour-glass shaped Japanese drums, as well as the sonorous shooting stars; noises (special bricks struck together and rubbed cardboard, for example); and probability determinations from computer—Xenakis’ stochastic synthesis. The second section, running from 6:34 to 19:18 on the Montaigne release and to 19:30 on the Mode is where the clear differences in the recordings begin to emerge. The Mode release has clear and deep stage delineation. The different sounds are readily discernable, moving from logarithmic sounds appearing and disappearing, “eel” or water sounds, “cymbal” and then the African guimbarde, “tiles,” the bricks beaten together, and then electronic sounds leading to white noise.

The third section, running from 19:19 to 25:12 on the Mode release, is a slightly more restrained transitional section starting with the Tzuzumis and then leading into the more frenetic washes of the small wooden chimes. This section closes with the cardboard rubbing foregrounded. The other sounds continue in the background. As Makis Solomos notes in his commentary in the accompanying booklet, the fourth section, in contrast to the quiet “cosmogony” of the first section with the shooting stars, “attains the deafening phase of the cosmogony,” running until well after the 33 minute mark. Electronic sounds are the principal source material here along with what sounds like an electric guitar or double bass. Very early into this sequence, a kind of electronic hiccup emerges and leads toward an intense crescendo. Whereas the guitar/bass sounds are muffled and nearly indistinguishable on the Montaigne recording, they are clearly demarcated on the Mode release and even foregrounded, at times approaching the sound of feedback. Abrasive scraping sounds amplify from the right channel on the Mode CD. Intense, almost nightmarish cycles appear in this breathtaking section, which is dramatically opened up for the first time on the remastered recording with more clear separation of the varied revolving cycles and marked out in greater detail.

The fifth section has greater length on the Mode release. It runs from 32:55 to 40:16 on the Montaigne, and from around 33:14 to 40:56 on the Mode. Solomos states that this is another transitional moment, which begins with buzzing, midrange drones and metallic plucks and scrapes that sound like amplified water drops echoing out of a metal bowl. Bows grate over stringed instruments and cricket-like chirps become apparent at 36 minutes on the Montaigne recording but are more recessed on the Mode. A very deep contrabass drone surfaces at 37 minutes and more of the abrasive washes and seeming guitar feedback intervene until near the 38th minute, when a gradual descent starts and the right channel drops into deep bass sounds. While the sixth section begins at 40:16 on the Montaigne release with the gradual appearance of a different series of shooting stars, the contrabass drone continues on the Mode release, raising and dropping in pitch and sometimes becoming distorted until 40:56 when the shooting stars reappear. This drone slows and recedes by 41:15 on the Montaigne and 42:00 on the Mode. Then, the drone pans left, right, and then left again before dropping out altogether at 43:00 on the Montaigne; however, on the Mode recording, this deep bass drone does not pan but rather dwells in the left channel for the duration, changing projection and timbre until 44:06, when it stops. The shooting stars continue in isolation for two additional minutes on the Montaigne but three on the Mode, steadily withdrawing until 45 and 47 minutes respectively, with an additional 26 seconds of silence attached to the end of the piece in both recordings. The two additional minutes of music are not crucial here but the better separation of sounds and greater special dimensions and wider staging render the improvements in the Mode remastering essential listening.

What the Montaigne release has that the Mode release lacks are the longer excerpts from the texts that Xenakis quotes during the performance. For those lacking a copy of Plato, Montaigne supplies two pages from the end of The Republic on the legend of Er, whose afterlife experience of the heavens stands as an injunction for an ethics, just as he awakens from his apparent death right before what would have been his cremation on a funeral pyre. It is not hard to see Xenakis’ inspiration in this closing poetic moment of Plato’s text: the spindle of Necessity made from steel “on which all the revolutions turn”; a siren dwells on the top of each circle singing a single note; the Fates, daughters of Necessity, accompany the sirens with songs of the past, present, and future; and when the souls passed through Necessity to consume the waters of Unmindfulness, they shot up to the heavens like “shooting stars.” Additional texts by Hermes Trismegistus, Pascal, Jean-Paul’s Siebenkäs, and Robert P. Kirshner’s book on supernovas are also included to provide context for Xenakis’ quotations. It is unfortunate that the Mode CD and DVD do not contain these.

The filmed discussion between Halbreich and Xenakis is clearly an amateur work. The camcorder retains the date of the filming, March 6, 1995, in the lower right corner for the duration of 67 minutes. The lighting comes from the left side on Xenakis and washes out his face for most of the discussion. The tripod is overly tight, which leads to shaking of the camcorder. The focus is not well-maintained and the zoom is too quick and heavy. Early on, Xenakis advances the notion that composing has to be very free, but it is a concept that Halbreich does not seem to adequately comprehend as he continues to push the idea that constraints are necessary in determining freedom. In response, Xenakis states his definition of freedom: free “means rejecting older things, even older things you wrote.” This comes after his discussion of Schoenberg and Webern, whose music he finds too constraining. Xenakis also explains his influences from mathematics, probability, and theoretical logic, noting his concept of “formalized” or stochastic music owing a debt to Bertrand Russell’s formal logic. Finally, he states to Halbreich that in his music he does not wish to communicate anything specific. But instead the composer “must resolve for himself aesthetic problems and technical problems,” one of which is the problem of “old” and “new” music. Xenakis concludes: “I try to forget old music because then I would write old music. It doesn’t mean that the new music I write is really new, but I try to do that.” To those who wish to hang on to genres like old clothes, Xenakis provides a lesson to listeners as well—music has to move forward. Music isn’t the preservation of old forms but the invention of new ones.

Outside the obvious benefits of remastering, particularly when carried out by a Xenakis insider like Gerard Pape, the reader might wonder finally whether the use and purchase of high resolution formats, like 24/96 or SACD or DVD-A, are worth it when the human ear can only attend to frequencies up to 20 khz and when the average 16/44.1 CD is rolled off at 22 khz, just beyond the documented capacity of the human ear.¹ Some have argued that the hyped 24/96 upsampling capacity is really an oversampling that derives its benefits more from the use of better digital filters rather than an inherent improvement in frequency range. Nonetheless, Brian Dipert has noted that research in neurophysiology suggests “increased brain activity in response to high-resolution audio, even when listeners don't report any audible difference between that audio and more conventional music formats.”² More work is needed in understanding how humans can process sonic information beyond the frequency band of ostensible human capacity. In the meantime, since my ears do not need any scientific validation beyond what they can already sense, I’ll take an SACD version of La Legende d’Eer any day of the week.

~Bill Ashline

¹ See John Atkinson. “Upsampling or Oversampling.” Stereophile. (Dec. 2000) June 28, 2005 http://stereophile.com/asweseeit/344/; “Upsampling, Upconversion and Oversampling: A Marketing Synonym Game.” Simaudio Webpage. (June 18, 2005) June 28, 2005 http://www.simaudio.com/upsampling.htm. See also: http://www.progarchives.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=6962&get=last

² Brian Dipert. “Signal to Noise: Calculating the High-Resolution-Audio Reality-to-Hype Ratio.” EDN: Voice of the Electronics Engineer. (Feb. 20, 2003) June 28, 2005 http://www.edn.com/article/CA276213.html#ref

Posted by al at 2:54 PM | Comments (9)

Issa Bagayogo - Tassoumakan (Six Degrees)


My Afrobeat tastes run pretty catholic. Fela sits head and shoulders above any other contender and it’s his ample catalog I reach for when the urge for funk-inflected grooves from the Continent strikes. But Malian Issa Bagayogo’s vibrant and forward-reaching music has recently upset my carefully packed applecart. Over the past few years the n’goni-playing composer (an instrument family incidentally also favored by William Parker) has been steadily building an audience for his fusion of Wassoulou folk forms, Afro-dub breakbeats and Euro-trance electronica. His fourth album on Six Degrees, distributed domestically by Ryko, constitutes the most seamless and inviting blend of these elements yet. Fourteen tracks, nearly all in the four to five minute range present an instantly appealing diaspora of organically-combined ingredients. Wood flute dances with wah-wah guitar; the brittle strum of n’goni rides an undulating current of electronic bass; a choir of back-up singers responds to the rich tenor of Bagayogo’s voice and lateral visions of Fela’s charismatic orations slideshow through my mind. Tracks like the tensile funk of “Koroto” where acoustic and synthetic drums weave reverberating syncopations around an anchoring hip-shaking beat and “Kalan Nege” where keyboards and drum machines mimic balafon and djembe in the service of another slippery set of grooves establish the backbone of the album. Mellower tracks like “Djigui” and “Chauffer,” the latter imbued with some convincing blues guitar, convey the comfort of a dry desert sirocco with the leader’s own filament strings prominently featured, an exotic blend akin to the pungent fragrance of pit-roasted coffee beans. The lyrics, sung in Bagayogo’s native Bambaran tongue, might be unintelligible to most Western ears, but their emotional import crosses any linguistic lacuna. These are the sorts of sounds that subvert cultural borders, equally at home in a Koulikoran open air market or Parisian discotheque. As a sum they achieve a supple resonating depth beyond the reach of a lot of world beat, skillfully skirting the over-production and bombast that saddles so many efforts and yielding an album rich in replay value. Fela’s seat at the head of the table remains secure, but Bagayogo well-deserves a chair as a worthy apostle.

Posted by derek at 12:42 PM | Comments (3)

July 22, 2005

Prime Cut


Largely forgotten today, Prime Cut still stands as a classic of maverick action cinema. A recent DVD release on the comparatively obscure CBS Video imprint makes it readily available again for mass consumption. The title credits deliver scenes more darkly ironic & unsettling than most flicks of the era that I can recall. Syrupy, strings-heavy Mantovani-style music plays as the camera takes a roving tour of a slaughterhouse, fixating on various clues that cows aren’t the only animals being ground up into patties: bare ass cheeks here, an errant watch & shoe there. The foreman halts the hotdog assembly line to prep a special order, wrapping up the now link-sized human remains and shipping them off to a Chicago P.O. Box destination. Another bag man bites the dust.

The plot is a basic cat & mouse conflict much like the The Driver, but like all good crime yarns the roles are continually reversing. In this corner, Lee Marvin as an aging, but still badass bag man; a decent guy at the core whose chosen a dirty business. Adjacent, Gene Hackman as an AWOL capo who’s set up shop in Kansas City using his family’s butcher business as a front for various vice and criminal activities. Marvin’s sent to collect the $500K owed in back taxes by any means necessary, a small crew of goons in tow on the red eye drive down to the boonies.

Mirroring the emblematic and recurring cattle, everyone has a rubicund salubrity to their countenance. There’s Marvin’s Nick Devlin, with his pink pug-nosed Irish face and hanging Bogart jowls under a dome of tightly-cropped silvery-white hair. Hackman hams it up as Mary Ann, the bumpkin capo sociopath, a frizzy thinning mop combed back above penetrating blue eyes. Gregory Walcott plays his slaughterhouse foreman/sibling Weenie, a dim-witted brute of a guy with a weakness for sweat-stained wife beaters and a habit of munching on freshly-minted beef franks. Presaging Jodi Foster’s cue, Sissy Spacek makes her studio film debut as Poppy, a teenage sex slave. She’s beautiful in that willowy off-beat 70s actress kind of way, her limpid saucer eyes and finely-freckled skin reflecting a dewy innocence completely at odds with her surroundings. The flick’s themes of misogyny and chauvinism are unusually strong and she handles several scenes that would make most actresses cringe or blush with aplomb.

Ritchie pays attention to the little details to flesh things out in place of traditional plot devices. Early on there’s an altercation between a car-borne Dixieland combo and a gangster’s limo. Where the hoisted middle finger affront from the former party would normally result in an assault or killing, here it only registers a diffident honk in return. Evidence as strong as any that the gang’s Chicago clout has eroded and all is not well with the mob. Another scene centers on the filthiest of the scumbag hotels, the grime and moral decay so pervasive that it’s hard to believe it’s a set and that the occupants are actors. Marvin moves purposely through the environment, pausing to wrinkle his nose at the human feculence and take in the establishment’s sign listing services from the premium (30 cents = bed & hot bath), to the budget & penciled-in (15 cents = sit & lean).

The script is often (intentionally) hilarious in its thrice-boiled dialogue. A couple of choice bon mots:

“You eat guts.”
“Yeah, I like ‘em.”

“Too bad Weenie, that’s you’re hot dog hand. You tell Mary Ann that I’m here, and not to get any fancy ideas about turning me or my boys into hamburger. You got it?”

“Cowflesh, girlflesh, it’s all the same to me. What they’re buyin’, I’m sellin’.”

There’s no shortage of violence either. The script earns it’s “R” rating in a series of surreal scenes that play like parodies of other more serious gangster sagas. In one, Marvin and Spacek are chased through a picaresque wheat field by a steel teeth-gnashing thresher, a novel spin on the traditional hunter-prey pursuit. In another, a bloody shootout ensues against the otherwise placid backdrop of a sunflower crop. The music, by Lalo Schifrin, is well scored with each scene and cinematographer Gene Polito devises some memorably inventive long shots.

Transfers are less than ideal with some of the segments, especially night sequences, slightly washed out by print etiolation. But the visuals are never less than watchable and sound is more than decent. Not quite on par with peers like Charlie Varrick and Get Carter this flick still crams plenty of nihilistic fun into a taut, often loony 90-minutes.

Posted by derek at 8:19 PM | Comments (0)

The Beefalo Special


Largely forgotten today, Prime Cut still stands as a classic of maverick action cinema. A recent DVD release on the comparatively obscure CBS Video imprint makes it readily available again for mass consumption. The title credits deliver scenes more darkly ironic & unsettling than most flicks of the era that I can recall. Syrupy, strings-heavy Mantovani-style music plays as the camera takes a roving tour of a slaughterhouse, fixating on various clues that cows aren’t the only animals being ground up into patties: bare ass cheeks here, an errant watch & shoe there. The foreman halts the hotdog assembly line to prep a special order, wrapping up the now link-sized human remains and shipping them off to a Chicago P.O. Box destination. Another bag man bites the dust.

The plot is a basic cat & mouse conflict much like the The Driver, but like all good crime yarns the roles are continually reversing. In this corner, Lee Marvin as an aging, but still badass bag man; a decent guy at the core whose chosen a dirty business. Adjacent, Gene Hackman as an AWOL capo who’s set up shop in Kansas City using his family’s butcher business as a front for various vice and criminal activities. Marvin’s sent to collect the $500K owed in back taxes by any means necessary, a small crew of goons in tow on the red eye drive down to the boonies.

Mirroring the emblematic and recurring cattle, everyone has a rubicund salubrity to their countenance. There’s Marvin’s Nick Devlin, with his pink pug-nosed Irish face and hanging Bogart jowls under a dome of tightly-cropped silvery-white hair. Hackman hams it up as Mary Ann, the bumpkin capo sociopath, a frizzy thinning mop combed back above penetrating blue eyes. Gregory Walcott plays his slaughterhouse foreman/sibling Weenie, a dim-witted brute of a guy with a weakness for sweat-stained wife beaters and a habit of munching on freshly-minted beef franks. Presaging Jodi Foster’s cue, Sissy Spacek makes her studio film debut as Poppy, a teenage sex slave. She’s beautiful in that willowy off-beat 70s actress kind of way, her limpid saucer eyes and finely-freckled skin reflecting a dewy innocence completely at odds with her surroundings. The flick’s themes of misogyny and chauvinism are unusually strong and she handles several scenes that would make most actresses cringe or blush with aplomb.

Ritchie pays attention to the little details to flesh things out in place of traditional plot devices. Early on there’s an altercation between a car-borne Dixieland combo and a gangster’s limo. Where the hoisted middle finger affront from the former party would normally result in an assault or killing, here it only registers a diffident honk in return. Evidence as strong as any that the gang’s Chicago clout has eroded and all is not well with the mob. Another scene centers on the filthiest of the scumbag hotels, the grime and moral decay so pervasive that it’s hard to believe it’s a set and that the occupants are actors. Marvin moves purposely through the environment, pausing to wrinkle his nose at the human feculence and take in the establishment’s sign listing services from the premium (30 cents = bed & hot bath), to the budget & penciled-in (15 cents = sit & lean).

The script is often (intentionally) hilarious in its thrice-boiled dialogue. A couple of choice bon mots:

“You eat guts.”
“Yeah, I like ‘em.”

“Too bad Weenie, that’s you’re hot dog hand. You tell Mary Ann that I’m here, and not to get any fancy ideas about turning me or my boys into hamburger. You got it?”

“Cowflesh, girlflesh, it’s all the same to me. What they’re buyin’, I’m sellin’.”

There’s no shortage of violence either. The script earns it’s “R” rating in a series of surreal scenes that play like parodies of other more serious gangster sagas. In one, Marvin and Spacek are chased through a picaresque wheat field by a steel teeth-gnashing thresher, a novel spin on the traditional hunter-prey pursuit. In another, a bloody shootout ensues against the otherwise placid backdrop of a sunflower crop. The music, by Lalo Schifrin, is well scored with each scene and cinematographer Gene Polito devises some memorably inventive long shots.

Transfers are less than ideal with some of the segments, especially night sequences, slightly washed out by print etiolation. But the visuals are never less than watchable and sound is more than decent. Not quite on par with peers like Charlie Varrick and Get Carter this flick still crams plenty of nihilistic fun into a taut, often loony 90-minutes.

Posted by derek at 3:40 PM | Comments (7)

July 20, 2005

Return of the Label

remembranceCharles Gayle is afraid of flying. Or so was the case when, in October of 2001, he notified bassist Mike Bisio of his intent to cancel their scheduled -- and highly anticipated -- set during Seattle's Earshot festival. Apprehension toward airplanes was quite common following the horrors of the previous month, so it wasn't as if anyone would have held Gayle at fault. The challenge for Bisio then was to retain his slot at the festival with either a solo or collaborative gig.

As luck would have it, Bisio's pal Joe McPhee would be wrapping up a midwest tour with French guitarist Raymond Boni on a date coinciding with Earshot's first days. McPhee and Boni -- longtime collaborators and kindred spirits -- were touring partly in celebration of a 25 year musical partnership.

Their joining Bisio for the Earshot gig was an easy sell; Bisio and McPhee have been close for years and are members of a close-knit communal family in Seattle, namely with retired local artist and producer, Craig Johnson -- the same Craig Johnson of CJR Records, and the friend who helped launch McPhee's career some 33 years earlier with a string of four records. Those records -- Underground Railroad, Nation Time, Trinity, and Pieces of Light -- signify the birth and infancy of the label, but also a terminus. Around this time Werner Uehlinger's Hat Hut label went into first gear with a backstory of its own, and with McPhee and Johnson in that genesis. CJR ceased production.

The performance was one of the finest I'd attended that year. It was an evening set booked at the University of Washington's Brechemin Auditorium, with a decent turnout of around 100. McPhee had armed the room with a biderectional microphone and a portable DAT recorder. This was a set of music as intimate and passionate as I've ever experienced, one of those performances that leaves soft tones and the images of communicating musicians lingering in your head for days.

That concert is now documented on compact disc as Remembrance, released last month on the revived CJR -- Craig Johnson Records, not Cadence Jazz. The release marks a long overdue return to music production for Johnson, who retired from the business many years ago. It's equally special in that it's a beautiful recording, bred from a strong circle of friends.

Joining the trio of Bisio, McPhee, and Boni that evening was Seattle poet Paul Harding, who accompanied Boni in an unrehearsed duet. The two had never met. While "This Is Where I Live" did not translate as well to DAT as the rest of the music, it's arguably the strongest bit from the set. Harding's soulful verse was one of the very few instances where poetry has reached me in a jazz setting. I normally shy quickly away from that brand of improv, but Paul has a face, voice, and demeanor that makes it work for me. His poem further benefitted by accompaniment from Boni, one of the most intuitive improvisers around.

For fans of Boni, the recording rushes over with equal doses of his unique delayed flamenco style and arepeggios in sequences of mysterious scales. Boni and Bisio's inimitable arco playing are a stringed marriage. Bisio's bow creates the first sounds on the disc, soon joined by McPhee on soprano saxophone. Their performance moves strongly with the musicians' will to never linger too long during a solo and in natural dynamics rather than showmanship.

I'm a huge fan of McPhee's music on tenor, and was saddened at first to see that horn absent from the workbench that night. The soprano sax and pocket trumpet were only fitting considering the instrumentation, and McPhee is not the type to want to simply exploit the upper register. His finesse is exemplified during the last third of "Remembrance (closing) for Steve Lacy", in a six minute solo soprano improvisation that closes the performance. It's evident that McPhee is way overdue for a recording of solo soprano saxophone; the occasional six minutes of his way with improv on that instrument just aren't enough. "Remembrance (closing)..." is the most colorful of the trio pieces, and the solo closure is a nice balance to the energy.

Boni's appearance in the US that year was a coup for those who were lucky enough to hear him perform. The guitarist stays quite active abroad and his performance here was a true rarity. The concert itself happened almost by accident. It resulted in the re-emergence of CJR, a record label that last produced McPhee's Pieces of Light (CJR-4, soon to be reissued on Atavistic's Unheard Music series) in 1974. CJR-5 is modernized perhaps only by the techniques of its recording, and the evolution of its players. The label's sixth release is in the works to resume the tradition.

~Alan Jones

Posted by al at 1:31 AM | Comments (15)

July 18, 2005

Two By Finn

James Finn Trio
The Last Matador
Ginko Leaf 001
James Finn Trio
Into the Afterworld
Ginko Leaf 002


Even with fledgling labels continuing to bloom like barnacles on a blue whale’s back, the urge for musicians to take personal responsibility for the circulation of their work is difficult to assuage. Saxophonist James Finn sought to combat the widening gap between formal release dates and his growing surplus of recorded music firsthand. The solution to the disparity- Ginko Leaf Records, his own CDR imprint with a continuing string of titles produced, recorded and packaged in-house.

Since the label’s formation, Finn has more than doubled his discography, building on a strong, critically-lauded trio of releases for Cadence Jazz, CIMP and Clean Feed. Clean Feed released Plaza de Toros, an album that drew in part on the Spanish bullfight tradition as its allegorical impetus. The initial two releases in the Ginko Leaf catalog work as companion pieces to that project to complete a trilogy of sorts. But The Last Matador and Into the Afterworld also possess important deviations from their predecessor in setting and instrumentation. Both were recorded live at a gallery space roughly four months apart and feature the dual drum contingent of Warren Smith and Klaus Kugel on stereo-parsed kits as equal interest counterpart to Finn. The discs also allow for the import of fresh (at least on record) entries in the Finn instrument arsenal, among them soprano saxophone and flute. Most importantly they feature Finn in completely extemporaneous settings, without the luxury or impediment of rehearsals, creating with his colleagues purely in the now.

Misconstrued in meaning by a number of reviewers, myself included, Plaza de Toros followed a youthful, headstrong matador into his pivotal confrontation with an archetypal noble bull and the ensuing awareness of the wrong-headedness of his vocation. These sequels trace the toreador’s silver-haired years as he’s visited by visions, atones for his sins and eventually jettisons his corporeal form for a new existence in the after world. Along the way are deferential references to both Catholic and Tibetan faiths and the same sense of vibrant drama that suffused the first volume.

Divided into four segments of varying lengths, The Last Matador revs to a roof-raising clip right from the start. Sturdy press rolls capped with cymbal patter cleave a path for Finn’s animated tenor, which bucks and blusters, quickening to a dervish-like intensity. Massive breakers crash and explode as Finn jockeys the altissimo, suddenly swooping into his tenor’s bottom register with flotilla of pealing honks, before aiming skyward again. All this over the span of a mere five minutes. Smith and Kugel may technically be sequestered into stereo channels, but their vigorous stick work more often bleeds across such boundaries creating a pliant pull and push that becomes the ideal dynamo complement to Finn’s robust exclamations and contemplations.

Even at their most aggressive the trio sustains a marvelous three-pronged coherence. Finn’s improvisations cover an alluring array textures and moods, from righteous catharsis to ruminative restraint and a spectrum of colors between. Track titles convey the depth of thought and focus unfolding in real-time without a safety catch. Also impressive are the various points where he sits out, leaving the drummers to their collusive devices. In the opening seconds of “Adagio, March, and Talking Birds” an atmospheric backdrop of gongs and bells sets the mood before the entrance of brooding tenor. Out of the sparse, processional-like prelude Finn eventually toys with a fluttering motif, the drummers responding with mallet-born accents and shimmering cymbal hues. The piece’s center section offers generous minutes for the drummers to do their thing. After the roiling drum break, rife with more rolling mallets and peripheral percussive effects comes the agile twitter of Finn’s flute. Emphatic tenor returns for the frothing denouement, sluicing through another eddying cross-current of surging drums and straining upward toward ever more ardent heights.

“Constellations in Blood” also starts out deceptively pastoral but is swiftly scored by a fulminating edge. Smoldering drum clatter and the burrish vibrato hum of Finn’s tenor soon build from the fringes to a full mistral force. Culmination comes with nearly 19-minute “Acts of Contrition and the Final Rose.” Kugel’s bowed cymbals dance with the cantering patter of Smith’s brushes to shape another solemn backdrop for Finn’s inquisitive tenor. This time the leader favors a lithe, lucent tone over the flinty serrations of before, engaging in a self-contained call and response of contrasting registers. More democratic drum space gives way to the final ensemble conclusion where Finn fixates on a beauteous Trane-like progression and the drums part and converge in rolling deference. There’s even time enough for one more surprise before the time runs out. The stage stands primed for the third and crowning installment.

With just three tracks, Into the Afterworld clocks a quarter of an hour shorter than its predecessor. A postscript by Finn explains that cd constraints necessitated the omission of the concert’s remainder. The edited end product makes for a leaner, perceptibly more concentrated listening experience in a tighter LP-sized package. “Last Rites” starts elegiac with Finn’s tenor languorous and somber, his intonation gorgeously-girthed and nuanced. Kugel and Smith respond in kind, creating a canvas of textured rhythmic color. Acceleration is inevitable and the leader is soon shedding the decorous designs of the prelude for the pleasures of more fervid blowing. Structure and stability sustain through the transition.

Another tipping point in the disc’s favor is the presence of Finn’s fish horn. Flanked by the resourceful and powerful commentary of the drummers, both of whom once again achieve a startling congruity in their contributions, Finn evinces a welcome fluency and stamina on the title piece. He brings clarity and energy comparable to that of his work on tenor, largely downplaying the famous pinched and nasalized sonorities of the soprano for a fleet and fulsomely fluid approach that is also packed with incendiary heat. “Other Realms” takes the story of the Matador about as far as it can go, moving an incantatory initial section for tandem percussion and flute into a grand forum for tsunami drums and regal oratory tenor that once again leaves the listener drenched by a deluge of exhilarating activity. A processional close for malleted drums and Bedouin-tinged soprano arrives as the ideal coda.

While Afterworld earns an ever so slight advantage thanks to its diversity and economy, both of these discs are nigh essential acquisitions. Each indicates with indelible certainty Finn’s plenary talent and resolve at working within traditions while boldly dismantling borders. The seemingly spartan set-up of tandem drums and horn has rarely, if ever, sounded so elemental and consummate. With Ginko Leaf as a steady feed source for forthcoming works, fans of focused and impassioned free jazz have much reason to rejoice.

~ Derek Taylor

Posted by derek at 4:01 PM | Comments (2)

July 17, 2005

Los Glissandinos - Stand Clear (Creative Sources)


Los Glissandinos – Stand Clear (CS029)

Since Kai Fagaschinski and Klaus Filip issued a download-only set of recordings at Klingt.org last year, I have waited impatiently for the release of this excellent album.

For me the most interesting recent development in music has been the (often reluctant) acceptance of the laptop as a tool for making music in an improvised environment. As the laptop flies through its infancy at breakneck speed, its use alongside acoustic instrumentation has raised a lot of interesting questions.

Stand Clear is the best example I have heard yet of digital and acoustic technologies coming together to form one organic whole. This is music that simultaneously renders the tension between man and CPU both immediately apparent and completely irrelevant in the same moment.

Filip uses laptop generated sine tones, restricting himself to a very basic refined palette, very rarely contributing more than one sound at a time. He is mainly focused here on clean, smooth lines of sound (nothing granular on this disc!), but he is also totally involved in a conversation with Fagaschinski’s clarinet rather than taking the distant stance often taken by Sachiko M, perhaps the most obvious musical comparison.

Fagaschinski is one of a clutch of interesting reeds players to emerge in recent years and to my ears he brings something fresh to the scene. Unlike many of his contemporaries he is not afraid to actually play a note on his instrument. Much of his early work with Filip seemed to revolve around intertwined tones from both musicians merging together to the point it became difficult to sort them apart. These elements are still very much in evidence on Stand Clear, but he also pours breathy hisses and deep rushes of gurgling air into Filip’s subtle sonorities to create a minimal (but never silent) structure of stunning beauty.

There are three pieces here. Two shorter works book-end the remarkable ‘History of the animals’, a twenty-five minute tightly interwoven journey that stands as one of the best passages of improvised duet I have heard in ages. The track winds its way very slowly through several movements, beginning with gentle, fluttering passages from Fagaschinski folded into Filip’s envelopes of low bass tones before dropping into near silence and understated tension. Eventually a high pitched sine from Filip grows out of the quiet, pulling Fagaschinski with it until a fierce scribbling mass of high-register sound emerges, easily the harshest moments of the recording before things fall again into finely detailed and restrained interplay. Right at the end of the piece, just when you think the full dynamic gamut has been run Fagaschinski suddenly slips into a few moments of beautiful mournful melody before it is all suddenly cut short by the end of the track.

This release captures the work of two excellent musicians that have developed their sound closely together over a period of time to reach the refined state of intimacy present here on Stand Clear.

For anyone that still has doubts about the laptop’s validity within improvised music I recommend you listen to this release. This is man and machine very much in harmony yet still pushing and pulling at each other enough to create music that is very hard to describe and is unlike anything else you are likely to hear this year.

So yet another release from the absurdly prolific Creative Sources label. But to my ears this is their finest moment yet. Wonderful stuff.

~Richard Pinnell

Posted by RPinnell at 3:41 PM | Comments (17)

Magali Babin

chemin de fer.jpg

The first time I heard the music of Magali Babin was in an evening that included, among other rather distinctive ploys for my attention, two men shoving a few dozen sticks of butter into their mouths and letting it dribble down their chins and onto an amplified table, beneath which John Berndt was crouched on four limbs stark naked uttering animal sounds. It was the touring Québécois performance trio of Babin, André-Éric Létourneau, and Alexandre Saint-Onge. In total contrast to the perplexing conceptual extremes of their two pieces and the utterly disgusting, abominable, shameful attempt at music-making by the trio of Donald Miller, Jack Rose, and Ian Nagoski that began the non-festivities that evening, Babin performed a solo set that gave me an unequivocally sublime experience I still fondly recall some five years later. Instead of indulging a sado-masochistic obsession with loud volume like Miller, et al, she presented an impeccably focused improvisation on a sound vocabulary of her own creation at a medium volume that was ideal to draw the listener into careful and comfortable attention to the nuances of each passing moment without the slightest hint of pretension or bombast.

Babin used a modest array of small metallic objects with pickups and guitar pedals, gently amplifying the hidden world of complex sound as metallic objects touch each other in sundry ways. Her methods are simple, but her music is exquisitely rich in detail and variation. A year or two after that memorable performance I saw in Philadelphia, her solo masterpiece Chemin de Fer was released by the Canadian label No Type, and if you listen to the very first track, "Triturations", you'll have a pretty good idea of the delicate electro-acoustic sound sculpture I heard that evening. As the album artwork suggests, however, Babin's array of equipment is quite a bit more extensive than what she'd brought on that tour. In her native recording environment she explores the microscopic idiosyncracies of a much wider array of metallic objects, especially pots, pans, and kitchen utensils. The notes accompanying the disc report that Babin created this music by improvising, a simple fact that becomes meaningful when I recall the live performances I've enjoyed from her.

"Triturations" is nine minutes of electroacoustic micro-timbral heaven. Some layers of the piece sound like heavy breathing muted and compressed into a detached, nonreferential, yet still vaguely biological texture. With its evenness of texture and density amidst the cornucopia of crackling, rustling, and rubbing details, it feels like a warm cloud of gentle, unpatronising sound that envelops and comforts me.

When Steve Roden coined the phrase "lowercase sound" in the mid-90s he was expressing an incredibly elegant and timeless concept that both echos and splits away from the Cage/Oliveros paradigm. The sounds sought were simply the ones usually hidden or masked, the details that don't call attention to themselves. The phrase went on to be widely misunderstood as having specific implications about volume, velocity, and density, but all of this is extrinsic to that jewel of aesthetic crystillization Roden proffered. "Triturations" and so much other work by Magali Babin stands as an eminent prototype for lowercase music in my mind. It's worth noting that there's nothing especially quiet, nor loud, about it. In fact, it's rather medium-volume, medium-velocity, and medium-density music as a whole. It's at just the right volume so you can hear everything clearly, which seems like the point to me. It's simply the sonic microscopy of moving metal, sounds heretofore unknown and otherwise inaudible. I happen to find most of them sublime and intoxicating.

The second track, "Petit Jardin", is methodologically continuous with "Triturations" but the soundworld is fresh. Two sounds complement each other: a beautiful, softly resonant gong-like sound (probably obtained via a pot or pan) and the tinkling of small metal objects (perhaps something like paperclips?) being dropped against a metallic surface. It's the hidden world of an ad hoc metallic idiophone. "Monsieur et Madame Watt" is another track based on lucid juxtaposition, this time between some faint Erstwhilian amplifier hum and some indistinct rubbing (suggesting to me the sound of a microphone's metal grating moving against another metallic object). I found something ecstatic in these humble sounds, though my feeling dissipated later in the piece as the hum began modulating and assuming greater prominence in the mix; it became mundane.

For more years than I can recall I've had this perversely cherished Kevin Drumm CD listing neither a title nor release date, but it has a solid green cover and says it was recorded to tape in 1996; the label is Perdition Plastics and it's catalog number per007. I don't know much about Drumm's discography and have only lightly sampled his other work because I really hated this CD. In fact, I probably never made it all the way through. But it's always persisted in my thoughts because it's so rare I have a such a strongly negative reaction to any music. It symbolizes something for me, the very extremes of harsh and difficult music. I have no problem with conventional harsh noise; heck, it's just a twist on new-age music in a way, but this Drumm disc is mostly silence sporadically and irregularly interrupted by loud, screeching, painful sounds made by fucking with an electric guitar and amplifier. It was just too much for me and the thought of playing it still scares me. The reason I mention it is that some of Babin's music sounds like the precise opposite—gentle and smooth—yet draws from the same dangerous sound vocabulary of conductive surfaces and amplifiers operating at the threshhold of functionality. It's a fascinating contrast.

This disc is studded with jewels, but it's time to report on the rarest, "Jogging dans la maison hantée", which was "crafted in joyous collaboration with Alain Chénier and Mario Gauthier". Its seven minutes are filled with some fairly generic electronic interjections, but they comprise fairly neutral background to one of life's greatest pleasures: extremely clipped squeaks. A major piece of background information is required here. If there's one piece of music I've played most often in my life, probably upwards of 2000 times by a rough estimate, including a six-month stretch where I played it at least once per day and typically a good handful of times, it's "Bluebird" by Judy Dunaway and Yasunao Tone, from Dunaway's seminal Balloon Music. A piece that should stand in the public consciousness of the current era as an analog to Duke's "Take the A train" or the like, it is in fact unknown to virtually every person I've broached it to among the relevant demographic. Without attempting to account for its unyielding grip on my aesthetic relationship to sound, I'll describe it here for you. It's a seven-minute excerpt of a recording made by Tone applying his standard technique to a CD of solo tenor balloon improvisations by Dunaway. In other words, it's glitching balloon sounds. So to account for my experience of Babin's "Jogging dans la maison hantée" I need to make it clear that there is a thrilling resemblance in these clipped and irregular squeaky sounds that flit across the piece's uncluttered canvas (mingling marveously with the many birds outside my open windows this lovely hot summer afternoon I might add). Further, I don't want to mince any words here: "Bluebird" is by far my single favorite musical composition among all I've heard in my 28 years so far. It's the pinnacle.

A non-squeaky moment in this piece demands special mention. Among self-contained musical events I've heard of roughly one to two moments in duration, [6:22-6:27] is exceptionally exciting, a kind of split-second burst of somewhat ordinary electronic sound that merges with a sine-wavish tone that evenly decays across four seconds. It's not that there's anything special about these two sounds, just like the greatest moments of violin music are made with essentially the same notes that appear in countless other contexts, but the timing and the dynamic contours combine these two gestures into a single unified event that functions as a higher order version of the note, where I'm referring to the familiar category of sound events prototypically represented by a short episode of relatively constant pitch and timbre. It's as if an impossible decay pattern suddenly occurred for an unruly burst of noise. This is a kind of sound event I often fantasize about, but rarely encounter in the external world. It is part of my objection (with respect to individual aesthetic desiderata, aka taste) to the typical high levels of density found in so-called noise music that these kinds of momentary shapes are masked. In the brave new sound world of the technologically-facilitated explosion in timbral possibilities for music in recent decades, I perceive a bifurcation in the way new aesthetics are derived from the new sounds. In one direction, exemplified by the sound event being discussed presently, the new shapes and internal structures of the sounds justify a topology of gesture. In the other direction, the sounds are maximally and continuously generated to create texture and immersion in their brute timbres. I'd argue that because the latter aesthetic can often be achieved with such a lack of technical refinement or effort that it has become undeservedly ubiquitous, regrettably displacing the former aesthetic.

Three of the pieces on the disc—"La Corde", "L'entonnoir", and "Pluie de Homards"—don't go much beyond pleasant for me. "L'entonnoir" is instructive in its contrast with the main thrust of Babin's work. It feels a bit ugly and overbearing, with a sound palette and approach close to conventional textural electronic noise music. The key word here is "electronic". The distinction between electro-acoustic sounds and electronic sounds is fascinating and truly central to contemporary music, a topic I find myself returning to again and again, always winding up in a theoretical quandary. Concretely experienced distinctions like that provided by "L'entonnoir" are surely the key to sorting this out. In the pieces I've praised from Chemin de Fer there is a resonance and spatiality I associate with acoustically derived sounds. There's also a wealth of odd non-repeating details. These are qualities that I'd cite to account for enjoying Mikrophonie vastly more than any other work by Karlheinz Stockhausen, most of which suits me well. Thinking about the metal objects Babin patiently manipulates, I'm driven to speculate that perhaps the true musicological antonym of "electronic" is not "acoustic", but rather "mechanical". In fact, it's the similarities I feel between Babin's work and Howard Stelzer's (arguably prototypically electroacoustic) abstract hissing and crackling cassette vocabulary that inspired me to revisit this disc recently after being immersed in Stelzer's art . Surely it's not trivial that the monumental Stelzer-curated Intransitive Twenty-Three features "Thermidor", a work by Babin that I would cite among her best.

warm coursing blood.jpgThe placement of "Pluie de Homards" as the final track here was wise. An album of moderation concludes with some annihilatory extremes. Babin created the piece with Mario Gauthier's assistance by mixing some of her characteristic sounds with "Rain" by Ian Nagoski, a track from Ian's drone classic Warm Coursing Blood, a 1998 recording released by Colorful Clouds for Acoustics. As Ian recounted to me recently in a chance encounter that allowed me to broach my recent revisitation of Chemin de Fer (recorded in 2000 and released in 2001), he created the piece by recording the water from a shower striking a huge metal pot designed for cooking lobsters and subsequently layering the recording on top of itself more than a few times. When Babin learned of this kindred metallophonic endeavor, she enthusiastically sought to adapt it to her world. "Rain" was already an extremely thick and static slab of sound; with Babin's additions it's that and a lot more sound. I took this review as an opportunity to revisit Warm Coursing Blood, a truly brilliant album in a style of music I have only a nominal attraction towards. One of my listening sessions was a breakthrough for me. One day I somehow found myself in the mood to lay down for a bit and see if I could enjoy being enveloped by Ian's music played at room-filling (but not biologically irresponsible) volume, something I'd not actually tried before. Ian's textures opened up for me and I was mesmerized for two long pieces, "Feather" and "Rain". It was a smashing success. Comparing this to my experiences of "Pluie de Homards", I've concluded that Babin's augmented version of "Rain" is a pleasant and novel whole, but her distinct vocabulary actually subtracts from the eminently cohesive power of the original, which relies on the shading revealed by an extremely narrow and focused range of sound.

~Michael Anton Parker

Posted by maparker at 2:06 PM | Comments (1)

Toke on This


Whoa, what’s with all the unbridled on-site animus of late? The really wonky thing being that Bags authors are doing the bulk of the brawling. Emory’s gonna have a helluva time putting a positive PR spin on all the penny-ante bickering & pie-throwing. So please remember: we’re all on the same team, even if we’re coming from opposite ends of the ideational continuum. Play hard, but ultimately, play nice.

~ Mother Henn

Posted by derek at 8:28 AM | Comments (3)

July 15, 2005

Haino Sez: Turn It Up!


So I bought the July issue of The Wire, because they don’t provide contributors’ copies (at least, they don’t ship ‘em to America), and one of the pieces within was an Invisible Jukebox featuring everyone’s favorite man in black, conducted (unsurprisingly) by his translator/Boswell, Alan Cummings. One quote in particular seemed to demand to be posted here.

HAINO: Recently I’ve noticed in soundchecks that everyone tries to adjust the sound so it can accommodate the quietest sounds. The moment you try to do that the music dies. You need to go the other way, to accommodate the loudest sounds. Of course volume has an effect on the mind and on the ears. Playing something too loud is like an accident, but music needs to encompass the accidental and by trying to protect or reduce the accidental to the minimum you just kill the music. I’m always saying this about improvisation, but if a musician lets the audience perceive a misplayed note as a mistake then they’re dead. Lost. If you mess up the rhythm or whatever, then you’ve got to create something new from it. If you call yourself an improvisor, that has always got to be your basic stance. I never turn the amp down when I play loudly by mistake. Everyone needs to adjust to that kind of accident, to play louder themselves. If you worry about the effect volume has on rhythm or harmony then you shouldn’t be improvising to begin with. There are so many musician who only want to improvise at tiny volumes, where every note can be heard clearly. They should all just go off to some desert island and do whatever they want. By playing music you are projecting out sounds, sounds which then interact with objects and cause them to vibrate. That’s what music is, so surely you want to project your sounds as far as possible, to have them interact with as many objects as possible. If you insist on playing at low volumes, then you need to carry that idea in mind. That’s enough provocation for now [laughs].

Posted by phil at 12:49 PM | Comments (48)

July 14, 2005

New Rituals for Voice, Cello, and Percussion

Audrey Chen performing at H&H in Baltimore on July 8, 2005. Photo: Stewart Mostofsky.

Much text will unfold about two human beings who put their indelible stamp on these three instruments, but my mock-clinical title above is not meant lightly. When it comes to accounting for my tremendous enjoyment of Tatsuya Nakatani and Audrey Chen's duo music, the equations just won't come close to adding up if I don't outright acknowledge my overriding attraction to the acoustic timbres inhering in a human voice, bowed strings, drums, and metallophones. In an era where non-electrically-dependent sounds are largely passe to the avant-garde, such especially common instruments hardly seem to merit any special attention. Yet these timbres in combination are surely much rarer than most electrically-dependent timbres. The point is so simple that it's difficult to truly register its significance.

I take the view that all music derives from two basic sources: the voice and the strike. I wish there was a more elegant word for it, but "strike" simply refers to the class of arm rotations exemplified by hitting a drum and its resulting class of sounds with rapid onsets and short durations. Of course these sound categories have been blurred for millenia, but when I hear sustained tones from frictional instruments and wind instruments I like to remind myself they are mere variations on the ultimate source of sonority, the human voice, which can never be matched in its flexibility and integration with the human physiological experience. And when we step back from the stylizations of pitch and timbre that have been fruitfully imposed on basic sound categories like singing and striking, we can imagine the basic possibilities for sound-mediated experience that humans have accessed across time and culture.

I like to imagine that some relatively direct communion with sound infused by drama and ritual was a mainstay in earlier human eras. The Nakatani-Chen Duo sometimes exemplifies a prototype of current free improv that seems to bypass the aesthetic preoccupations of intervening years. I'm struggling to understand the connections between a lot of music that has been moving me deeply these days, recent improv like Trockeneis (debut recording in the works), the Doneda/Wright/Nakatani trio (From Between), James Coleman's Zuihitsu, the BSC, etc, older notational music like Iancu Dumitrescu, Ana-Marie Avram, Giacinto Scelsi, and Luigi Nono, and traditional music from places like Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Middle East. I tend to think there's been a movement in some quarters of free improv towards a specific concept of form that's engendered a new category of experience and filled a certain aesthetic gap in the postmodern era of unrestricted sound combination. I'd argue that free improv typically assumes either moment form, narrative form, or drone form. I'd like to add ritual form to the list, but it's hardly been typical in my experience.

Tatsuya Nakatani's signature style is derived from three basic categories of percussion: metallophones like gongs, cymbals, and Tibetan singing bowls, all of which are both bowed and struck, a palette of rubbing, buzzing, and scraping sounds, and lastly and least distinctively, drums. His Green Report solo percussion albums play like studies in reconciliation between Buddhist rituals and the post-Oxley avant-garde. But unlike the metallophone-and-drum-based music practiced in a symbolically-mediated cultural context, contemporary music is usually presented as an end in itself, not the soundtrack to drama in some other experiential medium. Human drama is easy to find though; it's always been a staple stratum in free improv as a performer navigates a typically under-constrained set of possibilities for sound-action from moment to moment. What I perceive in Audrey Chen's improvisation is something like a tangible relationship between sound-action and psycho-drama, a aesthetic in which the private experience of the performer is magnified, not masked in service of an abstract expressive medium. It's this same distinction that accounts for the gap separating post-Butoh dance and the more clinical and schooled branches of abstract dance in my experience.

limn.jpgOn Friday in Baltimore I had the pleasure of partaking in a much more prosaic sort of ritual, the celebration of a record release and, more importantly, the formal entry of Audrey Chen into the market of public music documentation. The occasion was arguably overdue, as Audrey has for several years been a prolific and consistent improvisor in the Baltimore scene with a distinctive and refined vocabulary synthesizing voice, cello, and extra-auditory performance concepts. The Nakatani-Chen Duo performed two sets of music and offered Limn for sale, a release on Tatsuya's own label, H&H Production. Tatusya is familiar to most improv listeners through his work on about 40 releases from about 15 labels, including a handful of exceptionally consequential recordings, but Audrey has remained something of a secret treasure of the Baltimore improv scene, though recent forays to Poland, Russia, China, Japan, Australia, NYC, and Texas have uniformly found enthusiastic audiences. As a regular attendee of Baltimore's legendary Red Room, the musical test tube in which Audrey first brewed her art, I must admit I'm guilty of taking her talents for granted over the past few years. A passionate, intense, gripping performance from Audrey Chen in combination with all sorts of other improvisors has become something of a reliable occurrence I've rarely felt compelled to comment on, but if I'm to be completely honest, I can barely think of a few sets that have been anything less than deeply impressive. By now I've built up a backlog of enthusiasm I'm pleased to address on this splendid occasion of Friday's performance and my serious engagement with the unfalteringly brilliant work documented on Limn.

You'll have to pardon any journalistic excess in my remarks here, but I think the foremost priority for anyone who steps forward to offer public commentary on music is to depict the community and activity they know intimately as a participant. Ideally, every city around the world would have its own handful of local enthusiasts willing to share the news of creative culture they experience first-hand, neutralizing the unfortunate tendency for discourse on art to parlay disproportionate canonizing attention to the people and places that happen to represent the ordinary intimate experiences of the small group of commentators who happen to dominate discourse. You won't find me trying to do justice to the great figures of the London, Vienna, or Tokyo scenes; by and large I don't know those people and the task should fall to the locals who do. And I won't put my energies into giving the scoop on the Coltranes, Sun Ras, and Schlippenbachs of the world. It would be a tragedy if documentation and discourse kept scraping the same barrel when every time and place can readily supply its own great art worthy of equal celebration. It's a matter of sheer pleasure and pride when something from my little corner of the world inspires me enough to report it to the international community, so let me fill you on the great work of Tatsuya Nakatani and Audrey Chen, whose restless creative paths are thoroughly tangled up my with my own restless path as a listener.

Tatsuya Nakatani performing at Fusion Arts Museum, Manhattan, on June 12, 2004. Photo: Michael Anton Parker.Tatsuya spent the first 25 years of his life in Japan, Osaka to be specific, where he enjoyed mentorship from Yasuhiro Yoshigaki (the great drumkitter of Altered States, Shibusashirazu Orchestra, Betsuni Nanmo Klezmer, ROVO, and innumerable Yoshihide Otomo projects like Ground Zero and ONJQ). A misfit in Japanese society, the last ten years of his life have been spent in the US and probably the rest will be as well. In his first phase of American residency he found a niche in the nascent lowercase improv scene in Boston, and contributed to some of the key documents of that scene like the first two Nmperign albums on Twisted Village, James Coleman's Zuihitsu on Sedimental, and Michael Bullock's magnificent free jazz anomaly There the Eye Goes Not on Tautology. After a musically inactive period living in Philadelphia for about a year because of his then-wife's job, he started a new life in New York City around 2001 or so, throwing himself into as many new musical situations he could find, consciously trying to establish an identity as a jazz drummer for the first time in his life, assiduously developing his bowed metal vocabulary with a regular schedule of solitary subway busking, playing weekly above-ground free jazz duos with Assif Tsahar at the heavily trafficked Astor plaza subway stop in the NYU neighborhood of Manhattan, gigging regularly with a bossanova guitar trio, and otherwise generally carrying on the tradition of open-ended improvisational encounters he'd fallen into while a Bostonian. After establishing a studio in the Bronx, H&H Production, he enjoyed a productive phase of recording and immersion in a self-created circle of activity mingling music and dance. Never pausing for a second, in between his local activities in the city he squeezed all manner of tours, solo and otherwise (even including a curious stint as the drummer for noise-psych group The Psychic Paramount on a European tour supporting Acid Mothers Temple and other earplug spectacles). After realizing he was throwing money away paying rent in the Bronx while spending so much time on tour, he purchased a home in Easton, PA and moved there a few weeks ago, following the lead of his colleagues Dan DeChellis and Jack Wright who had also been attracted to this charming town at the PA/NJ border because of the reasonable hour-and-a-half drive into the big city and the town's heavily NYC-artist-oriented demographic. With this development, the storied Nakatani/Wright collaboration is sure to deliver some weighty new chapters.

I vividly recall the first time I heard Tatusya. I'd reckon it was about five years ago and he played a high-energy blowout with none other than Jack Wright at a tiny and fabulously funky coffee shop in West Philly where as many as five people would gather to hear the latest sounds in free improv during the shop's short-lived run. After digging his somewhat unfocused but intriguing percussive palette and enjoying a memorably animated and comical conversation, I knew we'd cross paths plenty often, which is precisely what happened. By now I've got a surplus of evidence that he's a die-hard inclusivist, from watching him go apeshit and send his sundry small objects flying across his drumkit dueling Peter Brötzmann to beholding him slowly select one gorgeous, quiet sound at a time in trio with James Coleman and Liz Tonne (possibly the most transcendentally beautiful live music I've experienced), to hearing him get solemn in duo with Kenta Nagai's slivers of guitar feedback while seeing post-Butoh dancer Zach Fuller blow my mind. But for all his multi-directionality, Tatsuya has really settled into a style I consider his comfort zone, and it's well represented by Limn and the two fabulous recent releases on Rossbin and Public Eyesore by Blue Collar, an enigmatic and amorphous trio with trumpeter Nate Wooley and trombonist Steve Swell.

I don't remember the first time I saw Audrey. She suddenly became a regular presence in the Baltimore improv scene about three years ago and had a number of collaborations that would pop up on bills at the Red Room and elsewhere. Until some of her extraordinary recent accomplishments, especially with Trockeneis, my favorite performance was a trio with fellow Baltimore heavyweights Tom Boram on analog synth and Catherine Pancake on drumkit at the Red Room at least two years ago. It was pointillistic, rapid-fire, stop-on-a-dime free improv begging a favorable comparison to the UK's devastating Konk Pack (Lehn/Hodgkinson/Turner) that brought out the best in all three players. The basic scoop on this young and decidedly uninhibited vocalist/cellist was that she'd done the whole conservatory thing, discovered free improv and had a rapid conversion.

One of the little-known secrets to the incredibly fruitful Baltimore experimental improv scene is a long-running monthly institution called The Crapshoot, basically an improv workshop open to anybody who brings an instrument, where players gather to listen and experiment with each other in a focused setting, and improv newbies get a chance to rub elbows with scene architects and veterans like John Berndt, Neil Feather, Catherine Pancake, and Bob Wagner. This simple and sustained tradition has constantly renewed the pool of passionate and idiosyncratic experimentalists that make the scene so endlessly fresh and fascinating, and it was an incubator for Audrey as a recent Peabody grad who'd never been exposed to improv before and suddenly fell in with this motley crowd of non-careerist sound pranksters. One of her early collaborators was Baltimore percussionist Wes Mattheu and she recounts one of the turning points in her tentative foray into this parallel musical universe:

I had a very cathartic experience and started to consider changing over completely to free-improvised music. The first gig that really did that for me was my first Red Room gig with Wes Mattheu. I ran the Baltimore marathon (my first marathon) that morning and was completely ruined. Huge physical and emotional experience. That night I was barely able to get there. And sat on stage from about 7:30 when I got there until I started because I was too sore to get up. Playing that night felt phenomenal to me. Some deep places never before accessed.

Thinking back to some of her early performances is an object lesson in improv musicology. The simple truth is that she intuitively knew the music right out of the gate and could set aside her chops and habits to have spontaneous sound exchanges driven by nothing more than immersion in the moment. Some people just have that spirit and don't need guidance or practice or exposure to the existing body of work in improvised music. That's not to say she hasn't refined her playing, gaining much more precise control over extended techniques and shaking off a few stubborn residues of her formal training, but there's something universal and ahistorical about free improv and I think Audrey is proof.

Audrey Chen at H&H in Baltimore on July 8, 2005. Photo: Michael Anton Parker.In all fairness, I do have my biases. Free improv vocal music is a primary musical interest for me; I do tend to favor the higher pitch range of female voices; and I heavily favor the kinds of edgy acoustic timbres she usually generates on cello, lots of scraping, scratching, and rubbing sounds. I'm very easy to please when it comes to these sorts of sounds. This is the point I tried to emphasize from the get-go above: all this bowing, scraping, rubbing, vocalizing, etc is just my cup of tea. I like to call it "harsh acoustic music". I'm more than happy to be pigeonholed and I won't pretend this stuff is for eveyone.

On the other hand, Audrey has the dexterity, intonational savvy, and performance confidence on both her instruments that doesn't automatically accompany a gourmet sound vocabulary. At 28 years of age, she's been playing cello for 20 years and started voice lessons about 15 years ago. Born near Chicago, she moved a lot as a kid and settled in New Hampshire around 8 years old, making the hike over to the New England Conservatory every weekend for their prep program as a teenager and moving to NYC to attend The Manhattan School of Music after high school. After getting kicked out, she did a stint at Columbia University studying art and eventually wound up back on the music track when she moved to Baltimore to study with Phyllis Bryn-Julson at Peabody. It's hard for Peabody students not to be aware of and receptive to the thriving avant-garde music scene in Baltimore, yet they do an awfully good job at it; Audrey's one of the very few successful crossovers. (The Baltimore scene as we know it today didn't actually exist back when Greg Kelley did his woodshedding years at the insular conservatory.)

As many musicians like to emphasize, craft and chops count for a lot in free improvisation, and as other folks like to emphasize, they're often best ignored. Audrey tends to run the gamut from virtuosity to anti-virtuosity, with a definite tendency towards the latter. She's fully in tune with the kind of collective, non-idiomatic improv aesthetic in which instrumental virtuosity is much less significant than compositional virtuosity, choosing good sounds at good times. She rarely does anything flashy or superficially virtuosic. Nevertheless, especially with her voice, there are occasional moments when she fully exploits the resources of her instrumental craft to the point of stunning soloistic peaks. A great example is a passage from "Trilling" on Limn, about twenty seconds of high-pitched corruscations like Evan Parker tying notes into dense ribbons with his soprano sax. Even better, Audrey weaves her cello into the passage to create an ecstatic swirl of sound. This movement runs out of steam in the most beautiful way, the high-energy swirls suddenly giving way to a moment of delicate circular cello whimpers. It's tiny magical moments like this that really excite me listening to free improv, the little ruptures in the fabric of music where (quasi-pure) sound and (quasi-pure) being come into ephemeral contact.

Another example of Audrey flat-out tearing the shit up is the bubbling babbling on "Liplash"—the kind of sounds that would be comedic if they weren't delivered with such rapid-fire, precise, ululating, dizzying virtuosity. The entire 4-minutes of this piece are in classic narrative form, basically a continuous solo with one explosive voice lick after another, Tatsuya simply offering some mid-tempo rolling tom accompaniment. It's hot stuff. But this kind of narrative virtuosity is not Audrey's primary aesthetic mode; she's more inclined to put subtle, faint gestures on center stage, like those delicate cello notes in "Trilling" or the pinched labial fricatives in "Bulk Flow" that beautifully blend into Tatsuya's wire-thin quiet rubbed or bowed tones between 2:37 and 2:51. One of the highlights on Friday was a duo-as-trio section where Audrey's meditative soft circular caresses of cello with bow slowed time; her indistinct whispers nearly froze time, and Tatsuya's isolated soft slivers of bowed Tibetan singing bowls pushed time to its vanishing point. It's when moments like these are nursed that I feel a truly new improv aesthetic is being developed and the musical invitation of James Coleman's Zuihitsu is finally being accepted. The most focused context for Audrey's increasing skill as a lowercase ritualist is Trockeneis, but the Nakatani-Chen Duo accomodates this aesthetic as comfortably as it leaves no obstacles to old-school improv action. As Jason Willett pointed out to me in discussion of the performance, their soft, sparse passages tend to come not from any predetermined aesthetic agenda (a norm in lowercase improv), but rather from the natural ebb and flow of human action, a simple feeling of intense exhalation and a respite from exertion. They play a music of steep and moderately frequent arches. Thankfully when they arrive at valleys they are comfortable enough with the scenery to linger, and they can readily convey an equal depth of gripping tension across the full spectrum of volume and density.

Tatsuya Nakatani and Audrey Chen performing at H&H in Baltimore on July 8, 2005. Photo: Stewart Mostofsky.

I see a ton of improv gigs and it's pretty obvious when a musician is in their comfort zone and when they're struggling to make sense of an awkward context. Being my first experience of the duo, Friday night confirmed what I predicted when I'd first heard the news of Audrey and Tatsuya's collaboration: ideal compatability, two improvisors working totally in their comfort zone, playing the music they really want to play, the music that just oozes from their bodies as if they've rehearsed every note. It's one of those pairings that cannot possibly go wrong. Sure, I saw them tread water for a minute or two on Friday, but there's not a single misfire on Limn, which is 15 tracks compiled from studio sessions in 2004 and 2005 and live recordings from three different gigs during their April 2005 Southern US tour, uniformly excellent sound quality throughout.

Tatsuya is fond of soft, rapid pitter-patters on his bass drum, keeping the pedalled mallet close to the drum to get a delicate, nervous, irregular pulse. In one passage during Friday's performance Audrey very nearly doubled that phrasing with some bilabial bass trills, their unison forward motion launching them into a speed drama of thrlling momentum and vocal acrobatics. There's a another kind of unison sputtering between Audrey's voice and Tatsuya's drums in [2:30-2:43] from "Owl Monkey".

Tatsuya Nakatani bowing a gong at H&H in Baltimore on July 8, 2005. Photo: Michael Anton Parker.Unison textures are also a staple for the duo, with some magical moments on Friday when Tatsuya's impossibly rich bowed gong soundfield enveloped Audrey's bowed cello. Inside, she shifted to a memorable passage of microtonal oscillations bowing just the first string and sliding up and down the string like an erhu. The thick, imperturbably sustained sounds Tatsuya gets from this simple technique fill the room with enough static energy to make drone-sters drool. That's one serious slab of bronze he lugs around, and a whole different ballgame than the bowed cymbal sounds that usually make me cringe in their anemic timbres and sloppy timing. I'm sure we've all sat through more embarassing episodes of rosin-failure than we'd care to recount. Tatsuya is one of the rare percussionists who's got a good handle on all manner of bowed metal, including cymbals, logging countless hours in refinement. He released a great 3" CD a few years ago called Bowed Metal Orchestra, a solo percussion epic that delivers on its title and served as something of a research report at the height of his bowed metal subway busking phase. In an especially revealing moment during this particular bowed gong passage on Friday, Tatsuya made a careful adjustment to his hand positions and instantly dropped the pitch much lower without falling off the sound plateau he'd established. His precise control over this technique is nearly as remarkable as the sound itself. After this gorgeous pitch drop, Audrey shifted into a squalling vocal attack and created a sublime high/low pitch contrast, neither layer devolving into distracting modulations.

Tatsuya often deals with a conventional sense of tension and climax, stacking layers of sound until he reaches aggressive levels of energy and density. The combination of the bass drum accelerations and the gong bowings is especially powerful, becoming a minimally modulated sonic torrent that sustains the intensity of a single phrase to rare durations. During one of these moments on Friday, Audrey picked up on precisely this feeling of stretched or held tension and unleashed an aggressive but static vocalization that further swelled the sound mass.

Tatsuya Nakatani blowing on a cymbal and snare drum at H&H in Baltimore on July 8, 2005. Photo: Michael Anton Parker.Tatsuya Nakatani blowing on a cymbal and small drum at H&H in Baltimore on July 8, 2005. Photo: Michael Anton Parker.

While I can't pinpoint any specific examples of this on Limn, Tatsuya did use one of his most extraordinary techniques on Friday, a way of blowing into a cymbal atop a drum to create astonishing reed-like timbres. The first time I heard it was during his solo performance last June in Manhattan (in an evening that also included solos by Mat and Joe Maneri and an historic trio performance marking Tatsuya's first-ever session with Joe that fulfilled a dream he'd had since his Boston days as one of many improvisors deeply inspired by the elder Maneri). The sound is so full-bodied, sonorous, and complex that it nearly defies belief even when he's generating it right before one's eyes, using nothing more than an ordinary small cymbal and a snare drum. I believe he discovered the technique during his December 2003 tour of Japan with Assif Tsahar and that it did not exist at the time of either From Between recording session, but it featured prominently in the Doneda/Wright/Nakatani tours of France and America earlier this year. I can recall moments in their Easton gig where it truly sounded like three saxophonists at once. As far as I know, he's the only person to ever use this technique, but hopefully it'll catch on soon with other percussionists. It's one of those miracle techniques that deserves to become standard, like Sean Meehan's blissful rubbed dowel tones. I learned on Friday that he's also succeeded in adapting the technique to one of his tiny accent drums, achieving something like a sopranino version of the altoish snare drum tones. This newer development is pictured on the right. On Friday there was a passage where Tatsuya was playing blown cymbal-snare and when Audrey added some oral flutters it truly had the feeling of a thrilling vocal duet!

Perhaps there's something so primally expressive and stylistically unbiased about Audrey's improvisation that it's especially well-matched with a percussionist who can summon the other half of music's genetic code as I construed it above, but one way or another the fact is she's found rewarding relationships with a veritable who's who of percussionists in her milieu, and I wouldn't make the case that Tatsuya has any more musical compatibility than some of the others. Surely the most important percussionist she's worked with, though not specifically in a duo context, is fellow Baltimorean secret treasure Paul Neidhardt. The two of them found their niche in the improv scene around the same time and have played together in various contexts, culminating in the formation of Trockeneis last year as a supergroup quintet of intimate improv partners and scene stalwarts (the others being Catherine Pancake on dry ice, Andy Hayleck on bowed metal, and Dan Breen on bowed metal). If I had to pick a single favorite Baltimore musician, it would have to be Paul. Quite inconspicuously and through a path of independent research and discovery, this modest lad just pushing into his fourth decade has arrived at a devastating synthesis of the techniques and sensibilities of Tatsuya Nakatani, Sean Meehan, and Lê Quan Ninh. In fact, the only other musicians I can cite in my own current improv percussion pantheon are Michael Zerang and Toshi Makihara. With the exception of Sean (the only one who's arguably transcended the tag "percussionist" anyway), Audrey has veritably made the rounds among these six heavyweights.

Aside from her earliest collaborations with Wes Mattheu, a percussionist I simply lack adequate familiarity with to characterize but who's left no hint of significant work in the handful of sets I've seen, her primary artistic collaborations with percussionists have been Paul, Toshi, and Tatsuya in that sequence, each providing a truly balanced and fruitful partnership. The work with Toshi was perhaps the most experimental and intense, foisting her into a serious consideration of the role of body language and movement in her art, as Toshi is often as much as a dancer as a percussionist when he performs, and he collaborates intensively with movement artists. What Audrey shares with Toshi—and also Barre Phillips, Lê Quan Ninh, Howard Stelzer, Michael Johnsen, Twig Harper, Thomas Lehn, Tom Boram, and other rarer than rare birds—is a whole separate layer of structurally significant performance semantics rooted in body language and movement aside from sound production. This is something different than the ordinary, though certainly not mundane, expressions of passion and immersion that accompany a great many musicians' instrumental actions, yet I don't wish to pretend the distinction is hard and fast.

One distinction that is rather more forthcoming is the simple concept of an abstract, underlying theatricality to most any musical performance in which a rich mapping can be registered between a performer's motor activities and sound vocabulary, allowing the audience experiencer to vicariously engage the drama of instrumentalism. This distinction has only become interesting in recent times with the sudden proliferation of instrumental paradigms (e.g. laptops) for which such mappings fail to obtain in the observer's perception. From a very general and empirical anthropological perspective, these sorts of extra-auditory subtexts displace engagement with sound logic in the informational content of audience experience to a much greater extent than is generally acknowledged, largely accounting for the continued popularity of live music in its transformed realizations that entail musical vacuity. Without pursuing this concept much further, let me simply articulate the hypothesis that it's a specific foregrounding and extrapolation of this humdrum performer-as-actor theatricality that accounts for certain of the above rare cases like Audrey and possibly could also be a source of general insight on ritual form. (Related thoughts on this topic appear in the recent Bagatellen discussion of dance in the From Between thread.)

With the critical role of visual components, Audrey's duo project with Toshi was simply not a good candidate to represent her to a wider audience through conventional audio documentation. With that rich and valuable project running its natural course, this new project with Tatsuya has a more straightforward musical character that has lent itself splendidly to an album experience and I think the two of them are in a similar stage of musical development—a subtle matter I'm not prepared to elaborate on—that makes the duo just the right thing for both of them at this moment in time. As far as Audrey's work with Paul, well, Trockeneis is frankly the most exciting development in any area of music in the past year in my opinon and will soon become a prominent topic in the improv world as they gear for an album release and international touring sooner or later (a tricky matter because Paul has been largely out of commission with a serious repetitive stress injury).

As far as other percussionists, last Fall during High Zero I witnessed first-hand the extraordinary fruits that came from Audrey and Ninh crossing paths. While a mere one-off collaboration, there is an unmistakable multi-modal rapport that will surely be further explored when opportunities arise. In my view, Ninh's artistry is leaps and bounds beyond any other percussionist and I could see Audrey was completely energized by the new challenges and possibilities he presented. I don't have any first-hand knowledge to share about Audrey's one-off collaborations with Michael Zerang, who's maintained an occasional interface with the Baltimore improv scene for many years, but as I understand it there was a solid mutual attraction to the sense of timbral adventure and split-second interactivity they both exemplify. As yet more evidence that Audrey has a knack for percussive collaboration, Audrey reported that her encounter with the ubiquitous Tony Buck in an Australian festival was marked by a strong musical rapport.

Limn is a showcase for diverse strategies from both Audrey and Tatsuya. The only longish cut at nine minutes, "Eating a Volcano", in itself is a pretty comprehensive document of Audrey's vocal work, highlights including the breathtakingly pure, otherworldly thread of sonority in [4:50-5:46], the small burst of Namtchylakian terror a few moment later, and the kinetic white-noisy breath-sound abstractions so familiar in recent improvised music at the end of the piece.

As a cellist, "Thumb and Heel" is an especially focused piece for her. For my tastes the greatest cello music ever recorded is Frances-Marie Uitti's 1978 interpretation of Giacinto Scelsi's Trilogia (originally issued in 1982 by Fore and reissued in 1992 by Etcetera—the classic session also featuring Ko-Tha, another stunner of a wholly different character), so I tend to use that as a reference point whenever I hear someone scour the essence of mid-range conventional cello tones like Audrey does in [1:00-3:01], which is not especially common. It doesn't have that trapped intensity and menacing slowness of the Uitti work, not to mention the perfect tone, and Audrey does lapse into some rhythmic cliches between 1:47 and 2:02, but it's a fabulous passage bookended on both sides by about a minute of equally rewarding cello in contrastive styles. Tatsuya's hovering layer of soft, resonant strikes on drums and singing bowls at the beginning of this piece captures him at his distinctive best. Another cello highlight comes in "Finch", where Audrey's high-pitched bow whistling over Tatsuya's characteristic bowed metal and bass drum tapping is almost daxophonic in its quivering spectral splendor worthy of Horatiu Radulescu's String Quartet no. 4.

"Kestral Beating" is a perfect two-minute miniature. For 22 seconds we're treated to dozens of Robair-worthy variations on rubbing and scraping—some of them could be either Tatsuya or Audrey for all I know—following which Audrey plays a vibrant, woozy melody with conventional cello tone. It would've been dreadful if she repeated it but instead is a warm, contrastive highlight in a rapid flow of ideas, her cello immediately nosediving into fractured scrabbling that winnows itself into static pulsing of rapid bowing oozing with frictional grease, Tatsuya preserving its velocity with a Lyttonesque flurry of strikes on small objects. Kinetic, linear-momentum-based improv with complex timbres. It's fast, exciting, and rich with sonic detail; it makes me very happy. "Sprawl" is another barnstormer with the sorts of wild and crazy freakouts that are stock-in-trade for the older generation of improvisors on female voice (Hirsch, Newton, Nichols, Schürch, etc), a good thing I certainly can't get enough of!

With all this talk of action-packed narrative, frantic scrabbling, and other familiar improv tendencies, where's that elusive ritual form? I'll offer "From the Ends" as a great example of its more obvious, straightforward realization, with a lush, microtonal cello melody mingling with booming and ringing punctuation from drums and Tibetan singing bowls. The ending is premature here, though (and it's the only slightly awkward moment of editing on the disc I might add); the music really needed to be sustained well past three minutes to fulfill its transportative mood of contemplative serenity.

As nice as that is, though, it's "Dragon's Den" that truly documents the ritualistic profundity I'm trying to chase down in these remarks. As my favorite piece on the disc, I want to extend a special thanks to none other than regular Bagatellen commentator Rob Cambre for making the recording in New Orleans (in the venue from whence the title derives) that made it possible for Tatsuya and Audrey to share this piece with folks like me who relish the opportunity to experience through our stereos these sorts of one-time-only creations that would simply not otherwise exist for us. "Dragon's Den" is the real magic, a Trockeneisian, slow, lingering drama of quiet sounds that are both edgy and gentle, sustaining its focus for six minutes before shifting into frantic mode for the last minute. There are dozens of special moments I'd like to talk about, but let me suffice to zoom in on one that totally blew my mind, [0:54-0:56]. This little miracle has two basic parts. The first is an accelerating dull trill I believe to have been created by scraping a cymbal across a drum head (it sounds exactly like a passage I recall from From Between), and the much shorter second part is a whistling sound retaining a slightly trilled character, suggesting it was part of the same physical gesture. In this brief two-second space there is careening curve of pitch and velocity that gives the episode a thrilling feeling of boomerangy call-and-response. On top of that, an independent short rubbed sound (possibly Audrey using a rubber mallet on the body of her cello or Tatsuya activating a different surface himself) appears in the middle of the first part, creating a second layer of motion that provides rubbery resistance to the motion from the first part of this section but dovetails with the slithering wisp of the second part. The kinetic complexity continues at a fever pitch for the next six seconds with a mysterious sequence of clipped rubs, but the metrical expansion and contraction of that brief episode don't resurface.

Though her falters are far from frequent, Audrey's achilles heel is a reliance on cliched patterns of post-European expressivity, and [4:12-4:19] in "Dragon's Den" is an example of it, a tiny deviation from the aesthetic she otherwise achieves magnificently in this piece. This is a criticism I've heard from a handful of people familiar with her work, but noticing something so brief and insignificant can really be taken as praise for her all other moments of impeccable creativity. And to be frank, how many free impov vocalists are there in the world who don't rely heavily on the affected modulations of post- bel canto singing? (Audrey does have some advantage having specialized in that humorous category of European music they call "early music" as a student, and had the good taste to perform Bach, Messiaen, and Crumb more than other stuff in the latter phase of her academic activities.) My two favorite improvisors on female voice are Liz Tonne and Carol Genetti, both with a small but momentous body of recorded work. Besides Audrey and Ami Yoshida, they're the only female vocalists I know of who have really taken the instrument into the new aesthetic developments of the current musical era. Of course Yoshida has gone the furthest, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but of course that's okay too because soap scum can also be beautiful. One of my favorite topics of conversation when I encounter improvisors visiting from remote places is whether their local scene boasts any good lowercase vocalists. I've had a lot of these sorts of conversations and typically I'll hear of a vocalist or two who's really fabulous, but upon further inquiry it always appears they work in more traditional aesthetic territory. It surprises me that there are so many reedists and brassers (I mean, by now the list is getting happily unmanageable!) who doggedly emphasize extended techniques and reject earlier aesthetic models, yet so few vocalists have followed this path. It is especially odd considering how many recent wind instrumentalists have drastically shifted their vocabularies towards the wind and away from the instrument. (One of the great things about Bagatellen is that the gaps in a writer's knowledge can be elegantly filled in by the Comentellen and any misleading generalizations can be gratefully disputed, so I eagerly await news of the world's obscure lowercase vocalists.)

Susan Alcorn performing in High Zero 2004, Baltimore. Photo: Stewart Mostofsky.

In gloriously classic icing-on-the-cake format, this stunning disc not only has an extraordinary guest on two extraordinary tracks, but the tracks were wisely placed at the beginning and end to set the duo work in effective relief. Susan Alcorn is the kind of musician who could win over folks otherwise staunchly deaf to experimental music. Her rich, sustained tones on pedal steel guitar are sheer ear candy, but she finds the nuances and extensions of this instrument that possibly noone else has before. Her playing was a smash hit at last year's High Zero festival, where many of us, myself included, heard her for their first time and wondered why she hasn't been on the cover of every music magazine and the roster of every improv label. She's been on her pedal steel path for over 30 years, but her work is sadly underdocumented. Hopefully that'll change soon, and her six-gig East Coast tour with Tatsuya and Audrey starting next week is sure to yield a surplus of music well worth releasing. In the meantime, Limn offers a truly substantial ten-minutes of delicate magic from the trio. The opening track is a floating, beautiful work that finds Audrey in a rare but appropriate state of romantic, lush cello playing for a stretch, but the main thrust of the six-minute invocation is slow, textural blends between the three, with Tatsuya's rich bowed metal palette never crossing the line into excessive harshness. The sense of ritual and solemnity really registers when I tune into the bell-like attack segments of Susan's long notes. A whole album of this sort of thing would be a bit wearisome, but it's a stunning and ideal way to set the mood for the harsh acoustica to follow. The final track shows all three digging into the less comfortable and accessible territory that feels like a seamless endcap to a truly experimental album.

Tatsuya's H&H Production label deserves to recognized for presenting such great music with comparably great packaging, not exactly something we can take for granted these days unfortunately. Limn is presented in an elegant, beautiful gatefold sleeve that respects the physicality of the CD and pleases the eye with graphic design by Toshio Kajiwara and some stellar abstract cover art by none other than Audrey's own four-year-old son Iven! The entire production is flawless.

Having wrapped up my thoughts on Limn, I'd be remiss not to do the same for Friday's festivities, which had some commendable "packaging" of their own in the form of Audrey's carefully-constructed stage setup and lighting, evident in the photos above. The room was both spacious and intimate, one part of an expansive loft floor that houses Audrey's apartment and serves as an occasional gallery and performance space, as do other floors in the downtown building familiar to anyone in the Baltimore underground. By incredible coincidence the building is called "H&H", the same name given to Tatsuya's Bronx studio years before there was any connection between the two scenes! The concert was well-attended, about 40-50 people according to my quick head-count. While for many of the regulars on the scene a gig like this may have been fairly routine, a handful of folks were tasting the Baltimore avant-garde for the first time, lured to the event by a rare flurry of media coverage lavished upon Audrey that week, including a lengthy interview segment broadcast twice earlier in the day by a local NPR-affiliate radio station and a generous, lengthy feature article in the Baltimore City Paper (also published online). It was attention well-deserved.

As with select other happy occasions at this private loft, the yet far larger room adjoining the performance space hosted a gloriously complementary event afterwards, a sweaty, intense ritual of go-for-broke dancing conducted by DJ Jason Willett, a legendary figure in the Baltimore music scene whose connoisseurship of rare 60s and 70s groove, often of a fabulously fuzzed-out psychedelic nature, has nearly eclipsed his storied activities as a musician and impresario. Among all the mind-blowing obscurities that I couldn't begin to identify in my aerobic excesses, I can always count on staple classics like "Oh, How to Do Now" by The Monks and "Popcorn" by Hot Butter to give me a second-wind, and a Fela Kuti wind-down is another mandatory service the good DJ provides. Great improv and then great grooves—life should be like that all the time. It's nights like this when I can really endorse the slogan printed on public benches all over the city: "Baltimore, the greatest city on earth"!

~Michael Anton Parker

Special thanks to Stewart Mostofsky of The Red Room Collective for sharing some incredible photos: the lead photo of Audrey Chen, the duo photo, and the photo of Susan Alcorn.

Posted by maparker at 6:44 PM | Comments (22)

July 12, 2005

Urs Leimgruber / Jacques Demierre / Barre Phillips - LDP -- Cologne


Psi 05.03

LDP – Cologne is the followup to this trio’s debut disc, Wing Vane (Victo, 2001), one of my favourite improv discs of recent years. The new one is in many ways just as strong, though it’s certainly a tenser and less user-friendly affair on the whole. This is music where sound and silence cut into each other rather than peacefully co-exist: even small, quiet gestures here have the uncomfortable accuracy of pinpricks. It is not – with a few exceptions – a very loud disc, but these players have a disconcerting ability to lunge towards a moment of violence and almost simultaneously withdraw from it. Add in a laconic sense of humour (a particular speciality of bassist Barre Phillips), and you’ve got a soundworld which for all its stringencies is often extraordinarily rich. Like much of the best improvised music it can seem at once virtuosic and almost naïve in its intentness on the physicality of music-making: the gutbucket slaps and singsong melodies of Barre Phillips’ bass; Urs Leimgruber’s disconsolate chirrups and whimpers; Jacques Demierre’s glancing blows and jabs at the piano. Demierre, the least-celebrated of these improvisers, is especially impressive here: as I discovered at a concert two years ago, he makes use of every possible point of contact with the piano (finger, fist, side and back of hand, wrist, full arm). He generally keeps things light and pointillist, but also can blow the lid off: on “The Rugged Cross” he unleashes a sustained roar that will set your speakers and ears throbbing. All three musicians have been somewhat scarce on disc in the past few years, making LDP – Cologne a genuinely timely release.

Posted by nate at 3:11 PM | Comments (2)

July 11, 2005

Four from Cryptogramophone

crypto.jpgI’m going to stop simply asserting that West Coast improv is overlooked, in the perhaps naïve hope that by now listeners have realized this and begun purchasing releases on Nine Winds, Pfmentum, Balance Point Acoustics, and other labels. Of course one of the first places to listen in on what’s happening out West is the excellent Cryptogramophone label. With a growing roster centering around label head Jeff Gauthier (a fine violinist and composer), Steuart Liebig, and others, Crypto has already dropped a quartet of rich recordings this year.

First up is the Scott Amendola Band’s Believe (Cryptogramophone 123). Percussionist Amendola has been a fixture on the Bay Area improv scene for some time now, but he’s still probably best known for his tenure in the Nels Cline Singers. A shame, then, that his own records have probably been mostly overlooked. On their third full-length (and second for Crypto), the band has expanded to include not just Amendola (here on drums, percussion, loops, live electronics, treatments, electric mbira, and melodica), violinist Jenny Scheinman, and guitarist Nels Cline (who brought along his six-string, 12-string, and lap steel), but new bassist John Shifflett (stepping in for his predecessor Todd Sickafoose) and second guitarist Jeff Parker. Like previous albums, this entry from Amendola’s Band covers an often baffling range of genres and improvisational approaches, from fully arranged to completely free, from Afro-groove to gnarled post-bop. That will surely leave some listeners scratching their heads (indeed, the quasi-country of “Buffalo Bird Woman” – apparently a tribute to Crazy Horse – is a bit undercooked to me, no matter how many times Amendola and Cline have played Red Headed Stranger). And there will also be those who find the frequently lush textures and sunny disposition (particularly on tracks like “If Only Once,” which recall 1970s sessions by, say, Ralph Towner or John Abercrombie) not to their liking. But those folks will miss out on a recording that’s fun and pleasant in addition to its other virtues. For example, the title track is all about textures being drawn to an elusive groove, hinted at, toyed with, ignored, but finally embraced. It’s loose and establishes all voices before the band races into the Fela-like “Olapido,” where Parker and Cline bubble together before the former lets loose with a wonderful wah-tweaked solo. In many places, Scheinman’s comparably light presence contrasts with the dense, burrowing styles of the guitarists (who themselves play quite distinctively, with Parker’s arch, bop-inflected style sitting comfortably next Cline’s electro-wizardry). The disparate parts come together best on the most openly pulse-based materials, from the quirky bop-influenced “Smarty Pants” to the brooding funk of “Resistance.” All in all there’s little here that’s ground-breaking but it sure is pleasant enough.

Percussionist Alex Cline’s own records can be spotty affairs, despite his ridiculous talents. Some of his early releases (like his ECM recording) tended towards a New Age insubstantiality, concentrating on atmospherics and a baffling wide array of percussive effects. Yet in the right ensemble he can be a knockout. Cloud Plate (Cryptogramophone 121) places him in the company of Kaoru (vocals, percussion, sound toys, and effects), Miya Masaoka (koto and effects), and G. E. Stinson (guitar and implements). The closest I’ve come to hearing this grouping was on guitarist Stinson’s Vapor (a collection of assorted recording by various lineups, one of which included Kaoru). With Masaoka on board, there are more possibilities for contrast between the electric and the acoustic; without her at times obstinately idiomatic presence, Cloud Plate might dissolve into airy drift. In fact, these four had never played together prior to this recording session – so there are equal parts tentativeness and electricity in the air. “Robot Mudra” is built around a nice contrast between some kind of child’s toy noise and Masaoka before Stinson summons up floating clouds to waft through Cline’s maze of cymbals. An expertly processed voice adds a touch of menace, as does Cline’s vast bass drum thud (one almost gets the impression of witnessing some dark ritual). At times the shimmer and flutter go on a bit too long – and some of this stuff, like the drifting “Mountain,” wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a Lord of the Rings movie (the swooping choral sounds and whispering voices conjure up a Lothlorien of the mind) – but in general the feel is fairly transfixing. “Naming” is the most knotty of the pieces – with slashing work from Stinson, Cline, and Masaoka as Kaoru recites Japanese lyrics rather than focusing on sounds as she usually does – but the most powerful effect is reserved for the 13-minute “Assisted Collapse,” which builds into a large brooding monolith of sound, squalling furiously to conclusion before the disc’s gentle coda, “Face.” There are times when the soft focus and treacle that has marred some of Cline’s other records creeps in. But it has the occasional drawback and maudlin moment, this platter is a rich feast of contrasts: between the gravely ritualistic and the mischievous, electric and acoustic, idiomatic and free, clattering and airy.

Time Changes (Cryptogramophone 124) focuses on a quite different style of improvisation. Bassist Mark Dresser and hyperpiano specialist Denman Maroney have been working together for a very long time, exploring a fairly unique blend of timbral experimentation and rhythmic diversity. In the collective Tambastics (with Gerry Hemingway and Robert Dick) and on their own recordings (notably Dresser’s Force Green, with vocals by Theo Bleckmann being a possible antecedent of this release), they’ve slowly developed their joint language. Along with drummer/percussionist Michael Sarin and, on several tracks, vocalist Alexandra Montano, the co-leaders explore material quite different from that heard on their previous Crypto release Aquifer. There’s a much stronger emphasis on rhythm here, both in the way their composed lines are structured and in the sense of providing pulse tracks. Montano has a rich, colorful soprano and her doubled lines with Maroney are delightful. And somehow the knotty, constantly permutating rhythms make sense, like Eddie Palmieri tunes from Saturn (one of the finest examples of which is the favorite “Aperitivo”). There are plenty of moments of Dresser magic, thankfully, and if you’ve never heard Maroney’s work you’ll be delighted to listen to the otherworldly sounds he generates (just check out the extremely abstract “Harkemony”). He can, of course, also play straight-laced piano trio as he does on “One Plate.” It’s really the blend of extended techniques with slightly abstracted idiomatic materials that makes the sound of this one so distinct. It’s the best disc of this batch.

Alan Pasqua made his name as a keyboardist for many prominent rock artists but, over the last ten years or so, has carved out a niche as a thoughtful, subtle improviser. After a pair of well-received discs on the sadly defunct Postcards label, and a couple follow-ups for quite obscure labels, Pasqua returns to prominence with My New Old Friend (Cryptogramophone 122). He sticks to piano here and is joined by his friends referred to in the disc’s title, bassist Darek Oles (whose own Crypto release is fine) and the estimable Peter Erskine on drums. It’s certainly understated stuff, squarely in the post-Bill Evans continuum, with great care and attention paid to voicings, colors, and three-part extensions of the tunes’ basic materials. This doesn’t mean, however, that the disc is muted or passionless. Indeed, Pasqua plays in a manner seemingly impervious to second-guessing, as he just gushes mainstream romanticism (though his intros to the standards can occasionally be quite arch and unpredictable). They swing and reharmonize standards like “You Must Believe in Spring” and “All the Things You Are” – which to me are the best places to study Erskine’s nimble playing and Oles’ robust counterpoints (the bassist also solos gorgeously throughout, especially on “Highway 14,” the title track, and “Barcelona”) – and they are effusive on Pasqua’s slightly more populist compositions (i.e. they’re far more straightforward in their lyricism, as on his own twist on the Spanish tinge, “Barcelona”). The surprise tunes are “Wichita Lineman” and Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.” The result is an unassuming and unpretentious piano trio record, one worth spending some with.

~Jason Bivins

Posted by bivins at 3:07 PM | Comments (11)

July 10, 2005

Whit Dickey - In a Heartbeat


Clean Feed 152

Free jazz has long aligned with the liberal Left. The allegiance only makes sense given the idiom’s marginalized status and origins as a revisionist response to the larger art form’s status quo. Few musicians on the scene are also card-carrying conservatives.

Consequently, Whit Dickey’s political leanings and his inclination to voice them through music aren’t much of a surprise. The final three tracks on his new album leave little doubt to his ideological stance, particularly the sardonic “Dubya’s Flying Lesson,” a ferociously dense militaristic march that draws a damning portrait of its subject with a poison-tipped musical pen. With arts & humanities funding repeatedly on the economic excising block it seems more than fair to fire a few pointed missives back over the regime’s cash-clogged bow.

A like-minded ensemble joins Dickey on soapbox, one that constitutes an All-Star squad of New York and Boston-based stalwarts. The presence of Chris Lightcap on bass allows Joe Morris the latitude to hoist his more venerable axe and its great to hear him again with plectrum poised against strings. Well-accustomed to each other’s eccentricities, the frontline of Roy Campbell, Jr. and Rob Brown delivers as they have so many times in the past. Carla Bley’s “Calls,” the only cover of the set, kick-starts the band. After an ensemble theme, Campbell takes the lead joined by Dickey and Lightcap with Morris periodically stitching in coruscating bent notes. The baton passes to Brown and then Morris, both of whom ride out frothy support and come up with cogent statements in their customary dialects. Lightcap brings up the rear, his digits tugging out pulsing improvisation that relies heavily on the resounding elastic snaps of his strings.

The cardiac pulse continues into the title track, a bustling free-form foray lined with sharp harmonic barbs and rhythmic trap-doors. Brown is at his most Lyons-like here, an acrid nasalized, intonation energizing his pouncing intervallic cries. Campbell answers in kind with his own flood of flush-faced brassy streams that eventually taper into a pinched duet with Morris’ tatting plucks. It’s this sort of boisterous, briskly paced freebop at which he so frequently excels. Dickey offers near constant rhythmic commentary on the action, switching from flurried stickplay to textured, barely perceptible patter and back again, continually keeping the ensemble on the move toward a crescendoing cloud burst of a close.

“Peace Overture” scales the band’s ardor back to more a more ruminative perch. Brown and Campbell shape lush harmonies from the frontline gilded once again by Morris’ shimmering single notes. The leader colors the cracks with cottony brushes while Lightcap traffics in his usual wide-girthed throb. Dickey’s style of drumming has undergone a string of changes since he first hit the scene in late 80s. Self-mandated sabbaticals and various false starts behind him, he’s arguably at the peak of his powers these days. With longtime colleagues in tow the results of this effort make good on the promise and yield one of the stronger statements of his career.

~ Derek Taylor

Posted by derek at 2:06 PM | Comments (17)

John Fahey - God, Time and Causality (Shanachie)


Near as I can figure Shanachie pioneered the practice of including detailed guitar tablatures with Pre-War blues reissues. Their two-volume Charley Patton set (now made obsolete several times over by a succession of superior releases on other labels) is a prime example. The liner author (who’s name escapes me since I’ve long since anted up for the aforementioned upgrades) goes to great (some might say exorbitant) lengths in ascribing each string stroke and fret slide by the Masked Marvel with the proper terminology. For the layperson all that lingo quickly wears out its welcome. My pet theory posits Fahey, and albums like this one, as the culprits for this practice. With Fahey and apostles like Peter Lang, John Renbourn and Stephen Grossman came a fascination and occasional preoccupation with the technical side of acoustic guitar lore. But to his credit & like fellow iconoclast Robbie Basho, Fahey never lost sight of the mystical, primordial side of his art in a way that peers like Leo Kottke did. In his callused hands the guitar becomes vessel for ingress into the limitless sound cosmos that Folkways swami Mose Asch believed the principle pipeline of cultural information.

This disc is among Fahey’s most nakedly virtuosic. It’s a master class recital in steel-string technique, employing a familiar cache of Fahey themes as fodder for some truly staggering displays of fret dexterity. In his own words: “I practiced a lot to save on studio time. I don’t think there’s one edit on the whole record.” A plurality of sources serve as launching pads: blues, old timey, classical, flamenco, bossa nova, raga forms and Tin Pan Alley, to name a few. Another advantage is the limpid studio fidelity, scrubbed clean of the fine-grain Sligo silt that dusted so many Takoma platters. Annotations take the place of strict tablatures in the notes with each tune and medley placed in proper context. Fahey’s playing is near flawless. The glissing slides that punctuate so much of his playing on previous records are largely absent here, but the results are hardly antiseptic or stolid. Dark locomotive runs dominate “The Red Pony.” Fahey undercuts the staccato main line with a shimmering bass string drone that targets the shadowy side of the psyche- a murder ballad without words. A bottleneck medley of “Snowflakes/ Steamboat ‘Gwine Around the Bend/ Death of the Clayton Peacock/ How Green Was My Valley” exhibits startling lap steel skill as Fahey adroitly massages Dobro bar against frets to create a dew-dappled web of harmonics. There’s a wealth of great Fahey out there, but this is one I reach for when attempting to persuade neophytes of his lionized worth as both visionary guitarist and tongue-in-cheek thaumaturgist.

Posted by derek at 1:06 PM | Comments (0)

July 9, 2005

The Underdog


Adam Hill, our man on the Left Coast, returns with another dispatch from his desk at Cal Poly:

Ali was champ again and they wanted to give him a safe fight. It was March 1975. Five months earlier, he had demolished George Foreman in Zaire. Foreman had been thought to be invincible, a monster. Joe Frazier and Ken Norton had both been knocked out in the second round by Foreman. But Ali rope-a-doped big George, letting him punch himself out. Near the close of the eighth round Ali attacked. Foreman crumpled. He sprawled on the canvas as if shot. The fighter he had been, the one that had entered the ring, would never be seen again. And all doubts about Ali had been erased.

Chuck Wepner had been scheduled to fight Foreman next, but when Foreman lost, the match was made with Ali. Nobody expected much. Wepner, who was once known as the Bayonne Brawler, was now known as the Bayonne Bleeder. “A cutting glance can make that guy bleed,” it was said. Wepner was a catcher. He blocked punches with his face. He was a plodding, unskilled fighter. But he rarely went down. Even hemorrhaging he kept coming. It was like watching a zombie movie.

I was not yet nine at the time of this fight. My father called boxing prize-fighting. He had all these boozy stories, and occasionally would take me into the city to see welterweights at the Felt Forum. Heavyweight championships had by then begun to be shown only on closed circuit, so we went to a local hockey rink to watch it. They covered the ice with wooden planking, put down rows of metal folding chairs, and hung a large projection screen. Admission was four dollars a head. They sold popcorn, hotdogs, and cans of Schaefer beer. This was in Jersey, so we were supposed to root for Wepner, the home-state hope. But we didn’t. We couldn’t. Ali was a god.

Ali was beautiful to see. Everyone knows this. The most charismatic athlete in our history. Funny, mean, handsome, a devout Muslim who was also a womanizer. Even though he was 32, and eleven years had passed since the night he knocked out Sonny Liston, no one expected Wepner to last beyond the middle rounds. No way he was going the distance.

Wepner was 30, but he looked about 50. Balding with a bad mustache and a face lumpy with scar tissue, he was a pug. When he wasn’t boxing, he worked as a security guard and liquor salesman. Yet he had managed to climb the ranks. And though his fight with Ali would inspire the movie “Rocky,” Wepner was not plucked from obscurity. He was known, if not admired. He was tough, but not very good. In almost every fight, he got mashed up bad.

In the early rounds, Ali danced, rope-a-doped, and complained to the ref about Wepner’s constant rabbit-punching. At times furious, Ali would hold Wepner’s head down with one arm and deliver a series of blows to the top of Wepner’s head. The champ yelled at the ref while he did this. It was funny and brutal; Wepner was a punching bag.

By the middle of the fight, Wepner’s brow had swelled from the beating. By the end of the fight his head would look like one of those models of Neanderthal man we see in natural history museums. But he kept coming. In the hockey rink where I watched, everyone stood the whole fight, shouting in full voices. We couldn’t hear the commentators, which included Redd Foxx and James Brown. But every now and then you could glimpse Steve McQueen sitting ringside in a red windbreaker, smoking a cigarette.

At the opening of round nine, Ali connected with a series of sharp blows to the face, and Wepner’s blood splattered. A drop of it got on the camera lens, and for the rest of that round, you saw that drop of Wepner’s blood on the lens and you had to think it a bad omen for him. But half-way through that round, Wepner landed a right to Ali’s chin, and the champ went down, falling into the ropes. He got up fast, and outraged, went on the attack, an attack that would last another 6 rounds.

In those final rounds, Wepner was beyond sluggish. He looked like he was doing imitation of a lurching drunk. Surely he’d have to fall over. And when he did he might not be able to get up again. But he didn’t fall until there were only 19 seconds left in the fight, when a combination from Ali sent him reeling and down and done. When the ref waved his arms that it was over; it was an act of belated mercy.

Wepner, of course would never get another shot. Nobody with a ranking wanted to fight a guy you had to brain to beat. A couple of years later, the studio financing Stallone’s film gave him a choice: a flat fee of $70,000 or 1 percent of the gross profits. He took the sure money, a decision that to date has cost him more than 8 million dollars.

Posted by derek at 4:43 PM | Comments (13)

July 7, 2005

Season of the Witch


Stadium pop rock shows are relics of my youth. The last one I can vaguely remember attending was a gig by The Cult back in ’89 with Lenny Kravitz opening. The yawning chasm between then and now was a chief reason why I jumped at the chance to catch Stevie Nicks play The Target Center (Minneapolis’ principal stadium-sized venue) last night. That, a clutch of gratis tix, and the burning desire to prove that no music lies outside the realm of Bagatellen’s reach were all the impetus I needed.

I’ve long been a casual Nicks fan, from her work on classic Fleetwood Mac platters like Rumors up through the 80s apex of her solo career, but I lost touch with her output sometime in the early 90s, the only album of hers extant in my collection being a battered cassette copy of Timespace her greatest hits package. Making a pit stop at a nearby Thai restaurant for a handful of cocktails & beers we arrived just in time to catch the tail end of the opening act, a Norah Jones clone trading in treacle-wrought mono-melodic piano pop. Dwarfed by the massive stage, but magnified on the pair of stage-mounted video screens she chatted politely with the masses between songs and dutifully made her exit. It was an ideal time to scan the crowd and tabulate demographics. Just who exactly shells out the $45-$65 to see a Stevie Nicks concert circa summer 2005?

There were the legions of predictably white, suburban-looking forty & fifty-somethings, but also a surprising number of kids and teens. Nearly everyone seemed jazzed for Stevie’s entrance and as the lights went low only to explode into a rocking rundown of “Stop Dragging My Heart Around.” A video screen the size of a small apartment building flashed familiar Celtic iconography and painted tapestries depicting maidens and gothic castles that have been her talismanic trappings lo these many years. Nicks cycled through a lavish succession of her signature shawls, dressed in a tight-fitting black gown that amply accentuated a generous bosom. Heavy cosmetic strata probably had something to do with it, but she didn’t look all that bad for someone nearing sexagenarian status. The backing ten-piece band (two keyboardists, two guitarists, bassist, drummer, conguero & two back-up singers) was tight and well-stocked with skilled soloists.

Best among them was Waddy Wachtel, a long-time Nicks’ hired hand whose added guitar punch on the singer’s Bella Donna had a major hand in moving over 5 million units. Here he was a near perfect picture of the quondam rocker, still sporting the leather pants and sleeve-less skin-tight spandex shirt, hot-ironed ‘fro, Coke-bottle glasses and a raging penchant for precision plectrum-driven pyrotechnics. The numerous video screen close-ups of his blazing metal-influenced fretwork were priceless and only added to the camp. His solos on “Stand Back,” which retained its vintage stinging synth line and the epic finale rendering of “Edge of Seventeen” with its seminal wocka-wocka riff amplified to chest-reverberating volume had large portions of the audience screaming and on their feet. Also impressive were the drummer, whose rat’s nest ‘fro easily eclipsed Wachtel’s, and Japanese conguero who locked in extended percussion duels as prefaces to two tunes. I was genuinely dumbstruck by how hard much of it rocked.

Stevie thumbed through a plentiful songbook of hits: “Rhiannon,” “Gold Dust Woman,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Landslide,” the last curiously dedicated to her husband of three months, her raspy pipes still largely intact. Each received an epic reading replete with kaleidoscopic light shows and melodramatic cinematic accompaniment. She even paused at one point to plug One.org, advising us to pledge monetary support to the campaign in its bid to influence the G8 summit and to “love each other” as the URL sat emblazoned on the center screen in story-high letters. An encore of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock & Roll” afforded another opportunity for Wachtel to pull the stops and pay homage to an obvious influence in Jimmy Page. All the pomp and spectacle was enough to topple the walls of my skepticism and I was soon hooting and hollering with everyone else, singing the sentiment-heavy lyrics, clapping along & having the best time I’ve had at a concert of any kind in quite awhile.

Posted by derek at 5:20 PM | Comments (3)

July 6, 2005

Sacha Perry - Eretik


Smalls 0009

Pianist Sacha Perry received some exposure on Made in New York, an earlier Smalls release by the quintet Across 7 Street; Eretik, a trio date with bassist Ari Roland and drummer Phil Stewart, is his first release under his own name. As with Made in New York the disc has a curious old-but-new feeling, as if it issued from an alternate world where 1950s hard bop stayed strange and “underground” rather than entering the jazz mainstream. Perry is young, but he plays real bebop – dark, dissonant, weird and whimsical, anything but the sleek codification of it that passes for bebop piano nowadays. He’s also a remarkable composer, closest in spirit to Herbie Nichols in his taste for a sort of dark jauntiness, his ability to give a seemingly ordinary phrase a sharp but completely appropriate last-minute harmonic twist, and his ability to pack a world of storytelling into a head. Sometimes Perry literally seems to be speaking to the listener: it’s hard not to hear the “heigh-ho” shrug in “Another Day,” or the murmured farewell in “Goodnight, Goodnight.”

The close-packed density of the heads contrasts sharply with the single-note loopdeloops of Perry’s solos. His lines are extremely long and unbroken, crawling over the keyboard like ivy, and he favours sprightly, slightly jerky swing eighths even on uptempo pieces where most pianists would shift to straight eighths. Such an approach would be awkward if it weren’t for Perry’s sheer poise: he pulls it off without misfingering even on the furious “Whirligig.” At times he overuses stock gestures in order to join up ideas: there are in fact two or three pet patterns that turn up in virtually every phrase. But at its best (“Let’s Get With It,” for instance) this is music in the grand tradition of unstaunchable bebop line-spinning, a worthy heir to Bud Powell, Elmo Hope and Perry’s mentor Barry Harris.

Posted by nate at 7:13 PM | Comments (0)

July 4, 2005

Cheval de Frise — Fresques sur les parois secrètes du crâne

fresques 150.gif

There's something about a clean, pointillistic guitar sound that has always been a magnet to my ears, phrases demarcated by infinitesimal points of sound, each like a motion vector pointing in a new direction. When it comes to representing shapes, a line drawing trumps a smear. Some large chunk of my musical pleasure seems to be about sound shapes in motion. Perhaps that's vacuous, but whatever texture is, something must be its negation. I like to think of it as phrasal clarity. A Wes Montgomery solo is like a rollercoaster ride, every few notes careening around a new corner; the thrill is in the lapses of kinesthetic stability. Just like there's little room for error in where you place the steel guides and bolts that keep the rollercoaster cabs on course, its musical equivalent requires each note to have definite and precise space-time coordinates. Some music is about the individual notes and the way they wiggle and slide, but what I'm talking about here is the syntax of velocity and I wish to celebrate its most extraordinary concretization in the music of Cheval de Frise, a duo of drumkit and amplified acoustic guitar from Bordeaux, France.

If pointillism and clarity is the goal, an acoustic guitar is certainly a logical choice over an electric. The past 40 years of music history has been dramatically dominated by countless attempts to harness the timbral and textural potential of the electric guitar, from Hendrix to Holdsworth to Haino. Its humble acoustic progenitor has by and large been relegated to strum-and-sing music and post-Bach museum music (aka the dead white European male tradition). But wait, what about Derek Bailey and flamenco? What if they were combined? What if it was augmented with post-punk riffing and slashing? Now we're getting a bit closer to what Thomas Bonvalet does with his amplified acoustic guitar in convulsive tandem with Vincent Beysselance's drumkit.

Bonvalet's clean, spiky notes transcend the permutations of pitch, timing, and accent that drive Wes Montgomery, Larry Coryell, Forever Einstein, Ahleuchatistas, Robert Fripp's League of whoever, Philharmonie and other eminent examples of guitar pointillism. The clarity is there; the precision is there, but it's subjected to the most extreme fits of asymmetric lurching I've ever heard in rock music, or perhaps any music for that matter. Cheval de Frise's compositions stand alongside The Stick Men, Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band, Hella, Rich Woodson's Ellipsis, Yowie, and Fred Frith's Massacre (Killing Time) as a pinnacle of a musical phenomenon I like to call herky-jerkiness, a barrage of contrary motions and metrical implosions that play like a soundtrack for an epileptic seizure. For me personally, herky-jerkiness is the holy grail; it's what I live for as a listener and everything else is a supplementary diversion.

Bonvalet's shards and splays of sick picking come in sudden fits and starts, with wide dynamic leaps and split-second accelerations and decelerations. He's perpetually setting up little themes just for the sake of deconstructing or outright obliterating them. The music is clearly heavily rehearsed, permeated with impossible rhythmic unisons and counterpoint. I've simply never heard this level of detail and complexity in non-improvised music before, and sometimes an entire musical thought is conveyed with a single sound, a kind of minimalistically wrought maximalism where multiple phrases are suggested in a split-second, but none are completed. The very first time I listened to Cheval de Frise it was like a dream come true; this is truly music I've fantasized about, as if these two Frenchmen have the same twitches and glitches in their nervous system as me, the barely noticeable muscle spasms beneath the surface of a biological organism's roughly even flow of overlapping cycles in cellular activity.

Repetition plays a major role here; the formula is disorder via order. Beysselance's drumming is clearly rooted in an aggressive math rock style, but he brilliantly achieves the balance of groove and unpredictable accents and sidepaths that characterizes Jim Black and Tom Rainey, and sometimes it's like Bonvalet took a fragment of a Derek Bailey solo and starting riffing on it, trying to make it groove, but preserving the slowness and sparseness. Other times the pair rocks out with loud, high-energy slow riffing in a fairly generic 90s post-punk or math rock style. Perhaps Shellac would be a good point of reference here, but the heaviness is tempered by the simple fact an acoustic guitar is being used with very little in the way of processing. These passages are very brief and serve as powerful foils to the duo's default mode of microscopic, pointillistic, jagged twitching.

Fresques sur les parois secrètes du crâne is the group's second release, a slightly more introspective album than its eponymous predecessor released in 2000. Released originally in France on RuminanCe in 2002, it was also given a US release by San Francisco's Frenetic Records. The title work is a noteworthy anomaly in their oeuvre. Despite being a very busy, active, mid-tempo piece, it foregoes the standard lurching juxtapositions and proceeds with a calm, even, meditative feeling that reaches a poignant conclusion with a delicate, sustained, thin tone for the last minute or so that wouldn't sound out of place in the electroacoustic improv of the current era, Günter Müller or the like. "Phosphorescence de l'arbre mort" is another example of the group expanding their aesthetic into extraordinary new territory, with some tantalizing vocal timbres I'm assuming Bonvalet somehow conjured with his humble instrumentation, a mysterious and elusive composition that defies much of my above attempts to characterize the group.

Because it both equals its predecessor at its best and introduces a wider compositional range, I'd recommend this second album to anyone wishing to consider a role for Cheval de Frise in their life, but to be honest, the first album will also convey their essential aesthetic equally well and my own listening is split fairly evenly between the two. Since discovering this body of work almost one year ago, I've played these discs dozens of times in a state of peaceful rapture—the herky-jerkiness is so subtle and intricate that I'm not compelled to find expression through bodily movement—and like Trout Mask Replica or Yowie's Cryptooology, I'm sure they will be a constant presence in my life till the end, always kept within convenient reach.

~Michael Anton Parker

Posted by maparker at 4:22 PM | Comments (16)

Return of the Prodigal Bob


The State Fair circuit is often deemed the death knell for a band’s career, the place where aging, balding rockers go to relive their glory days in front of aging, balding fans. But Bob Mould used his slot on this year’s Taste of Minnesota schedule as a springboard for an opposite aim- a chance to promulgate a revitalizing return to form. It’s been three years since his last record, the lamentable Modulate that fused his budding affection for dance floor electronica with the bedrock of post-punk guitar rock he helped spearhead & cement in Hüsker Dü. Much of that time was spent fine-tuning the follow-up Body of Song, an album that according to advance reports signals a return to the skull-crunching guitar-fueled pop of old with a band backing the fireworks and keyboards prominent in the blend.

I’ve not heard the disc yet, but the generous set under Saint Paul’s Harriett Island stage shell included a handful of songs from the record that left appetites substantially whetted. Taking the stage with sky blue strat slung low over shoulder and dressed in what has become the signature duds of tight black t-shirt and jeans a white-bearded Mould wasted no time in testing the stamina of the towers of amps hung on either side of the stage. The first few numbers including “Wishing Well” and “Hoover Dam” were a bit wobbly with a few flubbed chords and off-mic vocals, but he quickly hit stride, noting that he’d left his acoustic at home for good reason and fully intended to blow the fuses. A generous cross-section of tunes dating from Hüsker days thru his last solo record rolled off in steady succession: “I Apologize,” “Lonely Afternoon,” See a Little Light,” “The Act We Act,” “Needle Hits E” and so on, all rendered with cascades of biting distortion and at volume levels that harkened back to Sugar’s legendary cochlea-damaging gigs of the early 90s.

Puzzled by the absence of a band and aggrieved by the punishing volume, my girlfriend and a handful of friends retreated to a safe distance along the waterfront to wait out the set. I found myself fixed to spot thirty feet from the stage, smiling and mouthing the lyrics to songs that have been part of my listening diet for the better part of two decades. Bob has disappointed & confounded on occasion with detours into club DJ-ing and professional wrestling scripting, but I always end up coming back.

Between the tendrils of noise where stops for good-natured banter about the recent Minnesota state government shut-down, digs at SST who, ESP-style, still owes him back pay for units sold, and news as to his impending plans for brief European and American tours. Then came what probably the funniest bit of the afternoon. After asking the audience about their favorite food finds at the fair, the usual Minnesota ‘delicacies’ of pork chop-on-a-stick and fried candy bar-on-a-stick sailed back as replies. Someone yelled out “hot dish-on-a-stick” (available at concessions for a mere $4- ugh!) and Bob countered, “What? Where is he? Send him up here,” noting dryly after a mixed response: “Well, I guess that tells me how many fags are in the audience.”

The set rounded out with the spate of new tunes, including the hard-rocking “Paralyzed” that taps the flanging, sheets-of-guitar dirge energy of Black Sheets of Rain and a clutch of Hüsker favorites, among them an stretched-out recasting of “Chartered Trips.” I kept waiting for the obvious song choice and Bob didn’t disappoint, capping the show with a ripping invocation of “Celebrated Summer” ideally suited to the scintillating amplification of his strat and humidity-heavy setting. It’s testament to their indelible song craft how well most of these tunes translate to solo guitar renderings, the catchy melodic hooks surviving unscathed amidst the tumult and thunder.

Summary judgment laid waste to the vow Mould made six years ago when decided to cease his band-touring indefinitely citing the desire not follow the path of Neil Young and other geriatric rockers into potential self-parody, rocking out on rickety knees and stiffening backs. Fit and focused he seems poised to reclaim a justly-deserved spot near the top of the college radio charts. His slated to return on 9/28, playing a gig at First Avenue with a band in tow that boasts Brendan Canty of Fugazi manning the drum seat. I’ve got the night clearly marked on my calendar with a big red “X.”

Posted by derek at 1:14 PM | Comments (2)

Trio Sowari - Three Dances

trio sowari

Trio Sowari
Three dances

Trio Sowari is Phil Durrant (eschewing violin, packing electronics), tenor saxophonist Bertrand Denzler and ubiquitous percussion-meister Burkhard Beins. The three dances, archly titled “Rondo”, “Bolero” and “Tumble”, are rough ‘n’ ready improvs, each with its own strengths, picking up steam over the course of the disc. If recorded evidence is anything to go by, Beins has been getting more and more rambunctious in the last couple of years and he throws a great deal of (very fine) grit in the gears here, keeping the music swirling and skidding, veering toward the raucous with some regularity. Denzler’s contributions, to his credit, only become apparent when you actually listen for them; otherwise, his tenor work, generally on the breathy/bubbly/valve-popping end of things, is entirely unobtrusive, caulking the seams left by Beins and Durrant. As for Durrant, well, as usual, deciphering his offerings is a fool’s errand; one can only assume that whatever he’s doing, it works.

Three tracks, each long enough to allow the musicians to say what needs to be said without getting long-winded about it. There might be some comparison to what the Iberian crew has been up to lately insofar as the rough-edgedness (I’m trying not to use the term, “granular”!) and willingness to get loud while still managing to avoid the overly demonstrative or flamboyant. “Bolero” remains rather quiet, however, and is a very effective exploration of low rumble, soft super-high sine tones and gurgling breaths sandwiched between. “Tumble”, at 25 minutes, is the knockout piece here—wide ranging, beautifully paced, non-stop discovery of inherently lovely sound combinations, fine decision making. Its growth from the delicate, quiet middle section into the fire-breathing, roiling conclusion is startlingly dramatic. Not much else one can say. “Three Dances” is a strong outing, an excellent recording and a disc that, if you’re into this music at all, should be a no-brainer. Recommended.

Posted by Brian Olewnick at 10:30 AM | Comments (73)

Loren Chasse - the air in the sand


Loren Chasse
the air in the sand

Chasse is a San Francisco-based sound artist, a teacher in the school system there and a member of the groups Thula and idBattery. Naturestrip’s previous release was Toshiya Tsunoda’s superb “Scenery of Decalcomania”, another venture into processed field recordings, making “the air in the sand” an interesting point of comparison. While Tsunoda tends to funnel his captured sounds through or between devices of his own making, as near as I can tell Chasse seems to record the sounds “as is”, manipulating, layering and otherwise messing with them later on in the studio. Perhaps peculiar to this recording (I believe I’ve only previously heard Chasse in idBattery), the results have something of a muted character, a wind-buffeted aspect which, after all, is entirely in keeping with the disc’s title. If, given my druthers, I lean towards Tsunoda’s crispness, even harshness, Chasse’s work still has plenty of rewards on its own.

On the opening, title track, Chasse, as elsewhere, conjures up vaguely melodic motifs from his sourced sounds, sculpting tones created by moving air into modulating notes that recall those achieved by blowing across the open tops of bottles. There’s only a limited sense of a specific place—these don’t strike me as narrative pieces in a geographical way despite the occasional crickets or bird calls, though a “story-line” is sometimes suggested—more of a layered evocation of a given phenomena, richer and more complex than you might hear in situ. It’s as if Chasse is depicting the myriad ways one might perceive air coursing through a given location if only one sat and listened for a few months—compressed into 17 minutes. The moment-to-moment detail might get sacrificed to a generalized view of the scene but then this wide-angle approach offers delicacies for your ears that may not have been otherwise audible. An interesting kind of choice to have to make. Experienced purely on a sensual level (and why not?), the music is a wonderful place in which to wallow. “the tree on the sky” contrasts rumbles of an almost watery nature with wooden clicks and sand-blown hisses with eerie effectiveness, imparting an urgent, rushing feel to the music that has one “looking” ahead, avoiding being aurally dashed against upcoming flotsam and jetsam. As advertised, the bulk of “the air inside the rain” appears to have been constructed with dozens of overlaid rainfalls, a hyper-dense sheet through which the odd bird attempts to maneuver. The piece mutates slowly, dull thuds just on the verge of hearing (passing traffic outside?) emerge, high-pitched tones from far away glimmer in and out, an airplane’s engine suddenly intrudes; all the while, the rainfall is constant, a deluge. The musical tones that coalesce briefly on this track have something of a guitar-like quality—for just a moment, it sounded like a snippet from a Godspeed You Black Emperor! performance. Chasse saves the best for last, though, and “the air against the ground” closes out the disc brilliantly. Fairly steady-state, he pares things down to a fascinating core of air and overtones, a drone that’s constrained but still dirty enough to leave a mark, the atmosphere sufficiently sooty and blemished, that you simply “buy” it as a natural phenomenon. Very good stuff.

Btw, in case anyone’s keeping count, that makes naturestrip’s line score a solid four for four so far.

Posted by Brian Olewnick at 7:28 AM | Comments (9)

July 1, 2005

The Driver


I’m a sucker for 70s crime flicks. Especially the sort of stripped down mano y mano pulps that boil away the fat and flash and pit seriously flawed anti-heroes against each other in contests of wills and personal philosophies, not to mention fists & bullets. Walter Hill’s The Driver is just such an exercise & a damn fine one at that. Released on DVD a couple weeks ago, I picked up a copy based on a brief blurb in the NY Times. An AMG reviewer summarized the film as an excuse for a string of dazzling car chases, but there’s actually a lot going on between the pivotal and bracing action sequences.

The set-up is simple and centers on two adversarial archetypes played by Ryan O’Neal and Bruce Dern, criminal and police detective respectively. A small crew of decent characters actors that includes Ronee Blakley and Rudy Ramos rounds out the cast and gives the film even grittier flavor. Sets and locations go a long way in this regard too, roping in various dive bars and blighted urban streets to embellish ennui reflected in the leads’ empty, single-minded lives. The soundtrack is great too, mixing minimalist John Carpenter-style synths and percussion, with snatches of electric Milesian trumpet, twangy guitar, and moody swells by strings. Lastly there’s the grainy 70s film stock and a series of inventively-vantaged long shots that puts the finishing stamp of nouveau noir on the project.

Hill excises whole chunks of extraneous exposition. Footage of busts and robbery planning are either casualties of the cutting room floor or weren’t outlined in the script to begin with. Their absence leaves a lean, pragmatic narrative that wastes little and is reminiscent of the best hardboiled prose. The shaven ballast also gives the film a streak of unpredictability so sorely lacking in at many of today’s multiplexes. It’s a basic point A to point B story with an outcome that appears inexorable. But it still manages to twist and detour into unexpected territory to the degree that I found myself hooting & hollering in approval on several occasions.

None of the characters have names; they don’t need them. Ambiguous motives aren’t an obstacle either; the whys behind what’s happening rarely matter in light of the craft Hill brings to the story. He’s always been a believer in the adage that the devil’s in the details and consequently packs them in sparingly with a keen eye toward allegory and nuance, not to mention respect for audience intelligence.

O’Neal’s affect alternates between deadpan and hang-dog playing the getaway man who’s become so good at his game that the thrills and loot are no-longer satisfying. His driver is a hollow shell filled only with the vapors of an opaque emotional substance. A functional, no-frills suit with low-buttoned collar exposes a tanned neck and ample chest hair. Exhibiting Malibu Ken features weathered and sun-cracked with puffy bags weighing at his eyes he suggests a one time pretty boy fallen from grace onto the rocks of anomie and criminality. Never cracking a smile, he’s the perpetual bastion of grim resolve. The type of guy deserving of that world famous wallet in Pulp Fiction, but one who would never deign to display such a garish badge of cool.

At one point he checks into a fleabag flop-house carrying a crumpled paper sack containing only the essentials: a block of ice, a six-pack of Coors, a bottle of Jack Daniels and a cheap transistor radio tuned to an AM Country station. In another scene, my favorite of the flick, he gives a potential employer an instructive demonstration of his skills behind the wheel, the vacant expression on his face barely flickering as he cuts tire-squealing turns at impossibly high speeds and proceeds to dismantle the car surgically, piece by piece by careening off walls and steam pipes. The editing here is amazing as kinetic outside shots jump-cut to interior ones registering the passengers’ panicked reactions to the vehicular carnage.

Dern’s cop embodies the opposite side of the same loner archetype and he plays it masterfully with his usual seething, understated skill. A macho blowhard who’s come to believe his own self-perpetuated hype as a survival tactic, he routinely bullies his partners and his perps and espouses a highly malleable morality along the way. He’s the natural progenitor to William Peterson’s Secret Service agent in To Live and Die in L.A. - a loose canon whose ruthless, egomaniacal streak outdistances that of his prey. Dern’s detective is one who flippantly talks the talk, but it’s O’Neal’s driver who truly walks the walk.

The film’s first half is surprisingly light on violence, but when the body count starts climbing in the second Hill’s nascent brutality comes out and stretches the PG rating. Some of the dialogue lists on stilted contrivances and a subplot involving a female gambler who abets O’Neal’s escape from the cops deflates thanks to Isabelle Adjani’s dearth of acting chops. But the whole holds up exceedingly well and marks an unabashed win for both Hill and his cast. I’d stack it up confidently beside Bullitt and Vanishing Point as a classic of car-centric cinema and heartily recommend it with two thumbs hoisted, especially for the bargain $6.99 asking price at Best Buy. The dvd package presents widescreen and letterboxed versions of the film, but extras are nominal. An alternate beginning that adds a bit of needless exposition stands as the sole special feature.

Posted by derek at 8:24 PM | Comments (1)

A Wheelman's Reckoning


I’m a sucker for 70s crime flicks. Especially the sort of stripped down mano y mano pulps that boil away the fat and flash and pit seriously flawed anti-heroes against each other in contests of wills and personal philosophies, not to mention fists & bullets. Walter Hill’s The Driver is just such an exercise & a damn fine one at that. Released on DVD a couple weeks ago, I picked up a copy based on a brief blurb in the NY Times. An AMG reviewer summarized the film as an excuse for a string of dazzling car chases, but there’s actually a lot going on between the pivotal and bracing action sequences.

The set-up is simple and centers on two adversarial archetypes played by Ryan O’Neal and Bruce Dern, criminal and police detective respectively. A small crew of decent characters actors that includes Ronee Blakley and Rudy Ramos rounds out the cast and gives the film even grittier flavor. Sets and locations go a long way in this regard too, roping in various dive bars and blighted urban streets to embellish ennui reflected in the leads’ empty, single-minded lives. The soundtrack is great too, mixing minimalist John Carpenter-style synths and percussion, with snatches of electric Milesian trumpet, twangy guitar, and moody swells by strings. Lastly there’s the grainy 70s film stock and a series of inventively-vantaged long shots that puts the finishing stamp of nouveau noir on the project.

Hill excises whole chunks of extraneous exposition. Footage of busts and robbery planning are either casualties of the cutting room floor or weren’t outlined in the script to begin with. Their absence leaves a lean, pragmatic narrative that wastes little and is reminiscent of the best hardboiled prose. The shaven ballast also gives the film a streak of unpredictability so sorely lacking in at many of today’s multiplexes. It’s a basic point A to point B story with an outcome that appears inexorable. But it still manages to twist and detour into unexpected territory to the degree that I found myself hooting & hollering in approval on several occasions.

None of the characters have names; they don’t need them. Ambiguous motives aren’t an obstacle either; the whys behind what’s happening rarely matter in light of the craft Hill brings to the story. He’s always been a believer in the adage that the devil’s in the details and consequently packs them in sparingly with a keen eye toward allegory and nuance, not to mention respect for audience intelligence.

O’Neal’s affect alternates between deadpan and hang-dog playing the getaway man who’s become so good at his game that the thrills and loot are no-longer satisfying. His driver is a hollow shell filled only with the vapors of an opaque emotional substance. A functional, no-frills suit with low-buttoned collar exposes a tanned neck and ample chest hair. Exhibiting Malibu Ken features weathered and sun-cracked with puffy bags weighing at his eyes he suggests a one time pretty boy fallen from grace onto the rocks of anomie and criminality. Never cracking a smile, he’s the perpetual bastion of grim resolve. The type of guy deserving of that world famous wallet in Pulp Fiction, but one who would never deign to display such a garish badge of cool.

At one point he checks into a fleabag flop-house carrying a crumpled paper sack containing only the essentials: a block of ice, a six-pack of Coors, a bottle of Jack Daniels and a cheap transistor radio tuned to an AM Country station. In another scene, my favorite of the flick, he gives a potential employer an instructive demonstration of his skills behind the wheel, the vacant expression on his face barely flickering as he cuts tire-squealing turns at impossibly high speeds and proceeds to dismantle the car surgically, piece by piece by careening off walls and steam pipes. The editing here is amazing as kinetic outside shots jump-cut to interior ones registering the passengers’ panicked reactions to the vehicular carnage.

Dern’s cop embodies the opposite side of the same loner archetype and he plays it masterfully with his usual seething, understated skill. A macho blowhard who’s come to believe his own self-perpetuated hype as a survival tactic, he routinely bullies his partners and his perps and espouses a highly malleable morality along the way. He’s the natural progenitor to William Peterson’s Secret Service agent in To Live and Die in L.A. - a loose canon whose ruthless, egomaniacal streak outdistances that of his prey. Dern’s detective is one who flippantly talks the talk, but it’s O’Neal’s driver who truly walks the walk.

The film’s first half is surprisingly light on violence, but when the body count starts climbing in the second Hill’s nascent brutality comes out and stretches the PG rating. Some of the dialogue lists on stilted contrivances and a subplot involving a female gambler who abets O’Neal’s escape from the cops deflates thanks to Isabelle Adjani’s dearth of acting chops. But the whole holds up exceedingly well and marks an unabashed win for both Hill and his cast. I’d stack it up confidently beside Bullitt and Vanishing Point as a classic of car-centric cinema and heartily recommend it with two thumbs hoisted, especially for the bargain $6.99 asking price at Best Buy. The dvd package presents widescreen and letterboxed versions of the film, but extras are nominal. An alternate beginning that adds a bit of needless exposition stands as the sole special feature.

Posted by derek at 2:27 PM | Comments (4)