Grooves, Joe Panzner
While unflinchingly modest in its sonic dimensions, Open represents nothing less than a daredevil escape from the snares of London's haggard free improvisation scene as orchestrated by three of its sharpest, most restless participants. For years, Mark Wastell's oblique cello explorations have staved off tedious retro-isms with a tiny barrage of tactical purrs and scrapes that shun reference to the instrument's physical form. For Open, Wastell turns to the even more abstracted realm of "amplified textures," extracting a wealth of whoosh and crunch from well-rustled contact mics. Kindred spirit Matt Davis coaxes disembodied rasps from an amplified trumpet, electronics, and tweaked field recordings, while Phil Durrant forsakes the stratospheric violin harmonics that marked his previous Erstwhile Dach release for gritty software synths. Together, they've created the ideal antidote to London's grim conventions - while their peers content themselves with busy and boorish, this trio strives toward a more distilled, intense musical presence.
Contrary to the prevalent coupling of "quiet" and "sparse," Open bristles with continuous, tightly focused movement. Both of its lengthy tracks crackle, hiss, and thump like field recordings from microphones buried on some other planet, capturing the dry crunches of ricocheting debris and the reverberant murmurs of deep seismic grumbling. Appropriately, narrative gestures are eschewed in favor of geological models - the pieces develop through subtle changes in density and texture as events gather into sharp ridges and erode into echoing chasms. Wastell's contact mics conjure a remarkable array of aural illusions ranging from searing winds to gurgling springs, while Davis clips field recordings of their literal counterparts into unfamiliar shapes. Durrant coaxes coarse sputters and mutated gongs from the guts of his laptop, and his inputs blend so seamlessly with Davis' electronic and trumpet scuttles and Wastell's crinkles that ascertaining individual contributions is, more often than not, a matter of pure speculation. Their music's particulate matter coalesces into a tee ming network of interconnected activity, a tiny theater of organic action that requires equal absorption on the part of performer and listener. Quietly unsettling and always intriguing, Open celebrates a universe of concentration apart from the numbing slapdash scene of hidebound "traditionalist" improvisation.
Bagatellen, Jason Bivins
Mark Wastell and Phil Durrant have played together frequently in ensembles like Assumed Possibilities, the Chris Burn Ensemble, and Quatuor Accorde, while Wastell and Matt Davis met and played in one of Eddie Prévost's workshops. When these three players first met, it was in an all-acoustic configuration as part of the All Angels concert series in London. But the new recording is grounded in electronics - Wastell and Durrant have forsaken their stringed instruments entirely here. A mere 42 minutes long, Open is comprised of two tracks recorded at LMC in London, in March and May of 2003. The sparseness and near-hermeticism of the sound-world make this an extremely challenging recording, but after several listens its treasures become apparent. Much of the music seems to be about the exploration of juxtaposition or proximity. At times, the foreground is occupied by a very dry-sounding crackle and rustle (which produces an almost physiological response, as if something in the room behind you is shifting); elsewhere, though, you hear the layering of more distant, wetter sounds (most likely produced by Davis' trumpet, which works in roughly the same area as Dörner, Hautzinger, and Kelley) with the sound of heavy metallic objects being dragged or a chorus of alien insects.
For the most part this recording explores extremes of dynamics that, even in the Erstwhile catalog, have really only been featured on Dach (and elsewhere on some Wastell recordings like Foldings), though here with a more electronically refracted palette. Davis is credited in part with field recordings, and that gets at the sense of travel and movement here. And Wastell's amplification of the surface textures of objects gets at the kind of sonic alchemy heard on these two bewitching improvisations, which slowly construct a sonic landscape of suddenness. As noted above, the three seem to delight in creating interruptions and jarring shifts, making this the music's substance rather than its epiphenomena. How interesting: even within this fast-moving and unpredictable field of improvisation, this trio has developed something close to a truly self-referential, or self-contained language. You'll not find a decoder, but enjoy listening to its unfamiliarity.
Dusted, Matt Wellins
To start with, a brief recap of high school acoustics: Sound travels in waves, vibrating particles in the air, these vibrating particles eventually reach the eardrum, causing slight vibrations that are translated into noise and pitch by the cochlea, or more specifically, the basilar membrane. Sound physically imprints itself upon you. Where the idea of music being something that contains a number of "textures" has become something of an easy cliché, the term is profoundly applicable to Open, the new release by Matt Davis, Phil Durrant, and Mark Wastell.
Before a single note is heard, the listener can see the cover ornamented with various overlapping surfaces: A bathroom tile; topographical map-like red lines; a washed out blue stain on the photograph. Even, the compact disc itself is coated with a ridged enamel surface, completely designed for physical touch. And to make things perfectly clear, on the back cover, Mark Wastell's instrument of choice is listed as "amplified textures."
Perhaps "amplified textures" comes off as slightly ambiguous alongside of more common nomenclature like Matt Davis' trumpet or Phil Durrant's software synthesizers, but a preliminary listening easily clears up any ambiguity about Wastell's approach, while engulfing and concealing the preconceived notions about Davis and Durrant's instruments of choice. What comes across is a powerful example of purely visceral sound, something deeply physical that seems to resonate throughout the whole of the body, a sound that triggers a nerve response, rubbing sandpaper along your teeth or listening with a cup partially covering your ear.
In fact, as a completely ridiculous experiment, why not try right now? Pick up a close object and run it alongside of your ear. Get two objects and do the same. Crumple paper; pop bubble wrap; put your head against the computer monitor; click scissors; use your fingers; etc., etc. By amplifying various surfaces, Wastell comes close to wiring the speaker directly to your ear, as the object resonances are specifically attuned to the eardrum.
To lavish all of the praise on Wastell would be an oversight, though. Considering that, like a good portion of electro-acoustic improv, the three improvisers are specifically using their instruments in ambiguous ways; it's difficult to attribute any given sound to one member. In fact, Davis' use of field recordings give perfect foil to Wastell's psychoacoustics. In theory, Davis gives context and atmosphere to Wastell's sonic implants, while Durrant seems to inhabit the middle ground. Durrant's synthesizers seem to buzz and shriek, diverting and conducting the listener's attention to the improvisers on either side of him. Yet, all of the sounds are difficult and perhaps unnecessary to assign to an author.
The preoccupations of the 40-minute album are clear-cut from the first moments, yet to experience sounds unraveling as naturally as they seem to unravel on Erstwhile's releases is always a pleasure. It seems like each Erstwhile album seems to approach listening and music from a different and vital angle, questioning hi-pitched frequencies, sounds near complete inaudibility, the way distinct personalities translate into musical equations, perceptions of time, and any other number of possible readings. The Wastell / Davis / Durrant trio is another crucial element in the catalog, an exploration of sound's manifestation in surfaces, its ability to crystallize and ripple along the ear.