Keith Rowe/Thomas Lehn/Marcus Schmickler Rabbit Run
Jérôme Noetinger/ErikM What a Wonderful World
Günter Müller/Otomo Yoshihide Time Travel
Keith Rowe/John Tilbury Duos for Doris
by Dan Warburton
In a review of Burkhard Stangl and dieb13's "eh", for The Wire, a remark I made comparing Erstwhile label manager Jon Abbey to ECM's Manfred Eicher was removed from the text. The editors of that fine organ probably thought the comparison was somewhat flippant, though it was certainly not intended to be. Whether or not one is a diehard fan of the label and its recent flirtation with crossover classical box office (Garbarek meets Hilliard Ensemble, or the dour neo-tonal stuff that's been drifting down south from the Baltic like a rain cloud), ECM's track record cannot be argued with. Not only has the imprint overseen the release of numerous landmark recordings of a wide range of jazz - not exclusively European jazz either - it has left an indelible impression on the consciousness of a whole generation of record buyers. Everybody knows what you mean when you talk about "the ECM sound" - "jazz for people who don't like jazz", one wag once described it - or the "ECM album cover": clouds scudding across a Northern sky, with maybe some brightly coloured washing fluttering in the breeze.
In exactly the same way, Jon Abbey's Erstwhile imprint, with its distinctive (often textless) Friederike Paetzold cover art has, in a relatively short space of time, established itself as the reference label for electroacoustic improvised music, specifically of the subgenre described once by Phil Durrant as "laminal", i.e. a music consisting of relatively slow moving sound strata that consciously or not seeks to avoid the trappings of individual virtuosity in the interest of creating a unified ensemble sound. The clear precursor of this aesthetic is AMM, and Jon Abbey would be the first to admit as much. AMM's legendary "The Crypt" is effectively an Erstwhile album thirty years ahead of its time. That Abbey is a huge AMM fan is well known - no less than five albums on his label feature AMM's Keith Rowe - indeed, the welcome return of guitarist Rowe to the forefront of improvised music after far too long in the wilderness (in his interview for this site he recalled how until relatively recently AMM only managed to play in public once a year) is due in no small part to Abbey's persuasive mixture of enthusiasm and aggressive marketing. Unless my memory serves me incorrectly, all but one of his releases - the atypical (for Erstwhile) "Fire Song" featuring Earl Howard and Denman Maroney, Erstwhile 003 - have been reviewed in The Wire, the reference magazine for hundreds of smaller publications around the world. Abbey maintains a whole network of contacts with promoters and journalists (I'm quite happy to be part of it), and spends inordinate amounts of time surfing around internet newsgroups and chatrooms spreading the word. Hard work pays off, too. While some other labels - who Abbey jokingly used to refer to as "the competition" - such as Grob and Potlatch have released the occasional damp squib, Abbey won't put anything out he's not 100% satisfied with, hence his decision to hand-pick projects and often finance the recording itself. For "Duos for Doris" he flew to France to oversee the recording sessions at the CCAM studios in Vandoeuvre-les-Nancy in person. Such concern for branding certainly guarantees coherence with regard to image and sound, but at the expense perhaps of a certain sense of surprise. Of these four new Erstwhile releases the freshest - but not the most impressive nor moving - is "What A Wonderful World", arguably because the two musicians, Marseille-based erikm and Metamkine's Jérôme Noetinger, had not worked together before Abbey instigated the project, though they were of course familiar with each other's work.
Erstwhile 012, "Bart", back in 2000, was a rambunctious analogue vs. digital tussle between Thomas Lehn's trusty old synth and Marcus Schmickler's laptop, and Abbey's original plan was to release its sequel as Erstwhile 024, adding a musician - Keith Rowe - according to a numerological scheme of his own devising (presumably Erst 036 would also feature Rowe, Lehn and Schmicker plus someone else, and so on). Unfortunately, the vagaries of the release schedule are such that "Rabbit Run" is actually Erstwhile 027. Apart from the elegant box and cover art (Rowe's trademark pop art reconfigured by Cologne designer Heike Sperling), the album is notable for its "two-in-one" concept: listeners are invited either to play the 41-minute piece in its entirety or use the random shuffle button. Schmickler has subdivided the work into 42 shorter tracks, with the result that there are literally billions of billions of possible orderings of the material. The placement of the track indexes is far from arbitrary; the cunning use of hidden markers in fact results in a random shuffle version of the piece that is twenty minutes shorter than the "normal" 1 - 42 version. The concept of a work (that hackneyed term "work in progress" might be more apt) whose constituent elements may be ordered differently at each performance isn't exactly new - Stockhausen's "Klavierstücke XI" explored the idea back in 1956 - but it makes a welcome change from the somewhat dogmatic purity of much recent improv. The music reflects this fragmented nature of the concept, advancing in fits and starts even in normal play mode, a bewilderingly complex assemblage of sounds that will likely as not be just as unfathomable after 100 listenings as it is after two or three. I've tried it seven times and I'm still pleasantly surprised.
Fragmentation is also the name of the game on "What A Wonderful World", which after an initial squall of noise settles into a patient exploration of the two musicians' veritable arsenal of electronic equipment. erikm is billed as playing "3-k pad, 8 system (whatever that is), MiniDiscs and turntables", while Noetinger adds his customary mixing desk, radio and contact mics to create a fascinating profusion of sounds, sometimes recognisable (voices, passing traffic, snatches of cheesy FM radio), sometimes transformed beyond all recognition. Though both musicians are talented and experienced live performers, they share a concern for detail in montage deeply rooted in musique concr¸te. Culled from two recording sessions in Marseille, the nine tracks on offer here were patiently reorganised and crafted into music that Noetinger describes - rightly - as "based on improvisation, but not 'improvised music'". The track titles are taken from the lyrics of the (in)famous George Weiss / Bob Thiele song "What A Wonderful World", which became the album title after the earlier suggestion "Revox Chili Peppers" was rejected (shame, that). Whether or not the musicians intend the work to be some sort of ironic comment on the times we live in (as was Michael Moore's use of the song in his film "Bowling for Columbine") isn't made explicit. In fact, the album's multidirectional chaos is playful rather than terrifying - Cage's electronic mixes from the 1950s often spring to mind - and it's an extremely accessible, often amusing piece of work.
Swiss percussionist and electronician (does this word exist? if not it does now) Günter Müller and Japan's Otomo Yoshihide (electric guitar, turntables and electronics) turn in their latest Erstwhile outing with "Time Travel". Both appeared on last year's "Poire_z+" (Erstwhile 022) prior to which Müller had collaborated with Lê Quan Ninh on "La Voyelle Liquide" (Erstwhile 010), and with Taku Sugimoto and Keith Rowe on "The World Turned Upside Down" (Erstwhile 005), while Otomo had teamed up with Voice Crack on "Bits Bots and Signs" (Erstwhile 011). Despite having met on several occasions (hence the track titles of this album, which I had mistakenly assumed to be the dates of the recordings themselves), Otomo and Müller had, surprisingly enough, never played as a duo until their meeting at last year's AMPLIFY Festival in Tokyo. On this new outing, recorded just prior to that encounter, the two musicians use the means available to them to the full to create soundscapes of considerable richness, with their respective instruments of origin - guitar and percussion - at times showing through, but soon enveloped in a thick cloud of hums, hisses and crackles. Time is distorted in the music as cunningly as the international time zones distort the world map, as represented in Paetzold's cover artwork.
However commendable and accomplished pieces of work the above may be, the real pick of the bunch this time round from Erstwhile is the extraordinary "Duos for Doris", a double CD consisting of three extended duos by Rowe and pianist John Tilbury. Rowe's admiration for Mahler surfaced in our 2001 interview, and the seventy-minute "Cathnor" that occupies disc one is certainly Mahlerian in scale. Of course, it doesn't present the same panoply of tortured emotions (if ever somebody sets up in practice as a Freudian analyst of music, you can bet Mahler's scores will be sitting on the couch at opening time), but the shattering climax it builds to at the forty-five minute mark is surely something Mahler would understand. It's all the more cataclysmic given that Rowe and Tilbury are past masters of understatement. Tilbury in particular often sounds almost detached from the delicate groups of notes he inserts into the musical fabric, as if he were stepping back from an unfinished canvas before returning to add tiny dabs of light and colour. Similarly, Rowe, who can be downright abrasive at times, rarely allows his trademark blankets of sound to rise to such a peak of violence. "Duos for Doris" is dedicated to the memory of Tilbury's mother, who died aged 96 just two days before the music was recorded, and it is tempting to imagine that Tilbury's forlorn, elegiac playing is in some way a kind of requiem. The fact that the album liner notes (rare for Erstwhile) mention the fact would seem to imply that the musicians themselves have no specific objection to such an interpretation, but were the album titled differently, or not at all, this extraordinary music would not fail to move the attentive listener. It's Rowe's finest work since his solo "Harsh" (Grob) and the duo with Toshimaru Nakamura ("Weather Sky", also on Erstwhile), and arguably the finest release to date on Jon Abbey's label.