AMPLIFY 2001: mainsine
107 Norfolk St., NYC
May 14-15, 2001
Monday, May 14
Filament (Sachiko M/Otomo Yoshihide)
M&M (Erik M/Sachiko M)
poire_z (Voice Crack, Günter Müller, Erik M) w/Otomo Yoshihide
Tuesday, May 15
Filament 2 (Sachiko M/Otomo Yoshihide/Günter Müller)
Voice Crack/Otomo Yoshihide
poire_z (Voice Crack, Günter Müller, Erik M) w/Christian Marclay
David Toop, The NY Times
MUSIC; A Style of No Style That Spurns All Constraints
Historically, improvisation in American music has been largely associated with jazz and blues. Great improvisers like Jimi Hendrix, B. B. King and Miles Davis are masters of the unexpected. Listening to recordings of live Hendrix performances from the late 1960's gives a sense of order emerging from turbulence, chaos held barely in check.
But a half century ago, the composer John Cage changed our thinking about improvisation. Sounds should be left alone to speak for themselves, he believed. In a famous 1954 speech he said, ''Whether I make them or not, there are always sounds to be heard and all of them are excellent.'' A small but significant number of free improvisers took this idea to heart, allowing sound mixes that were as much accident as design to emerge from group playing.
Cage's open attitude about the intrinsic qualities of sound proved to be a huge influence on a generation of composers and musicians who made their mark in the 1960's. The composer Cornelius Cardew, the electronic musician Richard Teitelbaum, the film composer Ennio Morricone and the dance-band guitarist Derek Bailey all turned to free improvisation, rejecting harmony, melody and regular rhythm. Largely based in Europe, the groups in which they played -- AMM, MEV, Nuova Consonanza, SME and Music Improvisation Company -- invented a new way of organizing sound in the moment, without preparation or written scores.
Too loose to be called a style, this method, distinct from the chance procedures of Cage, the structures of African-American jazz or the formality of 1960's academic electronic music, has become an established feature of the international musical landscape over the last 30 years. Today, mostly in Europe and Japan, an emerging group of improvisers is going even further in challenging and focusing the way we listen. The question of whether music could, or should, be distinguished from random, ambient sound or noise was one of the central issues of much 20th-century music. Such debates are ancient history for a generation that regards as legitimate source material the hum of air-conditioning systems, the crackle on a vinyl record, the tunes that accompany electronic games like Tetris, the noise of rain on a roof or long periods of silence.
These improvisers defy categorization. In fact, many seek to escape the usual categories of jazz, classical and even experimental or noise. The style is too amorphous and diverse to have a fixed name. For the moment, the descriptive term electro-acoustic improvisation is the only category in sight, perhaps because improvisation has moved away from the acoustic free jazz of the 60's and now incorporates everything from punk attitude to laptop computers. Several of the leading proponents will be featured at Amplify 2001: mainsine, a two-day festival that starts tomorrow at Tonic in Manhattan. The festival is named in homage to the pure pitches of electronic sine waves that form such an important part of Japanese underground improvisation.
This new approach has grown from the innovations of earlier players who usually served an apprenticeship in chord changes or virtuoso techniques. Younger musicians like Otomo Yoshihide are more likely to draw from the vast storehouse of information in their CD collections. This creative rootlessness not only sidesteps musical conventions but also confounds the old idea that music is linked to national character.
Like other social upheavals of the 1960's, the promise of early improvisation was freedom. Freedom, of course, proved to be elusive. Some players abandoned the practice, believing that if there were no instructions to lead musicians into the unknown, they would gravitate to familiar routines. Others learned to work with habits, technique and memory to fashion a highly developed personal language.
Now younger players are less burdened by the need to fight those old battles. During the 1990's, an explosion of musical genres followed in the wake of dance music. With the growth of digital sampling, collage become a basic element of pop music, and the experimentalism of techno, ambient electronica and left-field hip-hop let loose a whole generation of musicians who loved to play with sound. New musical tools seemed to be invented every week, and so it comes as no surprise in the 21st century to see Mr. Yoshihide's group, Cathode, featuring Ko Ishikawa playing the sho, an ancient Japanese mouth organ, alongside all the latest electronic devices.
Unlike the improvising pioneers whose starting point was Cage's theories and the recordings of Karlheinz Stockhausen or Ornette Coleman, these younger musicians discovered the 20th century avant-garde by degrees, as an extension of their own curiosity. They also grew up in a time of information overload. As a reaction to the bombardment of images, sound and movement that is typical of ultramodern cities like Tokyo, a powerful streak of minimalism runs through their work, characterized either by barely fluctuating purity or intensely restrained playing techniques. In extreme cases, you might wonder whether the music is still happening, though this placidity is a refreshing withdrawal from media excess and artistic overstatement.
In January, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, one of London's most prestigious venues, was sold out for the Japanorama tour, a showcase of Japan's flourishing musical avant-garde. Organized by Mr. Yoshihide, a veteran of this scene who plays guitar, turntables and home-made electronics, Japanorama exposed British audiences to the arcane talents of the guitarist Taku Sugimoto and the vocalist Haco, along with the less easily described Toshimaru Nakamura and Sachiko M.
Mr. Sugimoto exemplifies the ways in which this music builds on history yet adds the unexpected. Playing with the classic jazz guitar tone of Jim Hall, performed at a pace that recalls the spacious timing of Morton Feldman's most tranquil compositions, he gives as much weight to silence as to his delicate, fragmented melodies.
Sachiko M is even more radical in her approach. A member of the group Filament with Mr. Yoshihide, she manipulates pure sine tones in her digital sampler. As for Toshimaru Nakamura, he creates electronic feedback by connecting the input and output of a mixing desk, then transforming the signal with effects. Both of them produce uncompromisingly intense, high-pitched sounds that seem closer to those of ultrasonic bat calls or malfunctioning light fixtures than conventional music.
Sachiko M's Amoebic label, along with Günter Müller's Swiss-based For 4 Ears and Jon Abbey's United States-based Erstwhile, are record companies that currently represent the outposts of the new music. Musicians from these three labels, including Sachiko M, Mr. Yoshihide, Mr. Müller, the French turntablist Erik M and the Swiss electronics duo Voice Crack, will come together for AMPLIFY 2001: mainsine.
The festival promises to demonstrate the state of the art, but will this music have a significant impact in America? In one sense, its 1960's ancestry grew out of a search for specifically European ways to improvise, a strong need for a musical identity that could separate itself from the overwhelming influence of jazz and other American forms. Now, in the age of the Internet, many musicians seem less troubled by questions of identity. Place is a state of mind. If the music can travel freely across boundaries, the audience can follow.
Bill Meyer, Magnet
The commingling of electronic and acoustic music is hardly a new frontier. In the '50's, European composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis painstakingly edited together tape-realized and orchestral sounds; it was dubbed electro-acoustic music. Around the same time in Chicago, jazz men Sun Ra and Stuff Smith recorded a version of "Deep Purple" that paired blues violin with a proto-synthesizer called a Solovox. In the past few years, a legion of younger musicians have joined highly regarded veteran free improvisers to explore spontaneous interaction between electronics and acoustics under a new banner: electro-acoustic improvisation. It's an imperfect-yet-inclusive term; after all, "electronics" could signify anything from low-tech sound conductors like contact mics to high-end gear like laptop computers. But it fills a taxonomical need.
"I do think a word is needed for non-instrumental improvisation that is not DJing," says multi-instrumentalist Bruce Russell, who runs the Corpus Hermeticum label from an old vicarage in Lyttelton, New Zealand. "And there is a lot of it about, care of the PowerBook. It's noteworthy that Frenchmen like Jérôme Noetinger have been doing the same thing for quite some time, in a largely analog framework. They have inspired me--along with good old Cabaret Voltaire--to do the live instrumental improv and tape thing I've been working on." Things go exhilaratingly awry on Russell's last album, Painting The Passports Brown (Corpus Hermeticum). He thatches coarse feedback patterns over tape loops of sullen drones and chiming thumb piano. On one track, the latter loop, accidentally played backward, spurs him to some especially inspired guitar mangling that sounds like a robot gargling bolts.
Corpus Hermeticum has also issued an excellent record by Russell's Gallic inspirations, Lionel Marchetti, Jérôme Noetinger and Mathieu Werchowski. The first two men play unidentified electro-acoustic devices whose hair-raising crackles, short-wave whistles and raygun bloops are remarkably attuned to Werchowski's classical violin gestures.
Voice Crack extracts sounds from "cracked everyday electronics"; I once saw the Swiss duo play two tables full of disassembled household gadgets with photoelectric cells and garage-door openers. Their latest album, Bits, Bots, And Signs (Erstwhile) documents a summit with Otomo Yoshihide who once thrashed electric guitars and turntables with the rock band Ground Zero. Here, he weaves electronically generated sine waves into Voice Crack's futurist symphonies; paradoxically, the outcome often sounds like the warm buzz of amorous nocturnal insects.
Erstwhile Records proprietor Jon Abbey has dedicated his young label to the new music. "Electro-acoustic improv is where the bulk of the exciting music today is happening," he says. Most of Erstwhile's releases are, like Bits, two-party encounters. Abbey believes "duos are challenging to performers because they force them to the forefront more than in a larger ensemble, while at the same time not letting them settle into a solo performance, which often tends toward self-indulgence."
Erstwhile's roster covers a lot of sonic and geographic territory. At one extreme is Schnee, a set of pristine, glacial sound sculptures carved by Austrians Burkhard Stangl (guitar) and Christof Kurzmann (Macintosh G3). At the other end is Thomas Lehn and Marcus Schmickler's withering Bart. The two Germans don't so much bridge the analog/digital divide (Lehn plays an old patch-cord synth, Schmickler a computer) as obliterate it with an ear-piercing hail of blips, whines and static rips. Parts of Requests and Antisongs sound equally aggressive; Phil Durrant's signal processors squeeze and crumple John Butcher's unusual saxophone vocabulary of squeaks, clicks and multiphonics into neon-hued shreds, but their music never sounds merely odd for oddness's sake.
Toshimaru Nakamura turned to electronics to resolve a creative crisis. "I started thinking that it didn't make any sense for me to express my emotions in music," says the Tokyo resident, who plays with American-born percussionist Jason Kahn in the duo Repeat. "Some musicians can change music without changing their instrument, but in my case, I had to change my medium, I found that a no-input mixing board is more suitable for my new direction." Nakamura plugs the board's output into its input and manipulates the resulting swells of icy feedback by tweaking the unit's knobs. Repeat revels in the austere beauty of pure sound on Select Dialect (Cut), a series of improvisations made from hypnotic loops and sustained, bell-like tones.
German-born drummer Günter Müller says he found his own voice in the course of experimenting with electronics: "This research of new sounds and new possbilities forced me to develop my own way of playin -- before, I always had my heroes I wanted to play like -- and finally to play my own music." Now his kit has shrunk to a single frame drum and a couple sheets of metal, which he plays using headphones cupped in his hands instead of drumsticks. The headphones record sounds Müller distorts and rearranges with delay units and equalizers, which he then mixes with pre-recorded material. His encounter with French percussionist Lê Quan Ninh, La Voyelle Liquide (Erstwhile), surges with elusive activity. On I Am Happy If You Are Happy, released on Müller's For 4 ears label, his echoing beats and metallic abrasions blow through Taku Sugimoto's sparse, suspended guitar chords like a fickle wind. Paired with Chicagoan Kevin Drumm on Den (Sonoris), Sugimoto steps into even more abstract territory. He strums subtly dissonant chords and muted, decaying notes that flicker in the asymmetrical matrix of twitters, scrapes and whistles that Drumm extracts from his table-top guitar, modular synth and computers.
Keith Rowe has played with AMM, which pioneered the concept of improvisation as a non-virtuosic collective endeavor instead of an opportunity to play heroic solos, for 35 years. "I guess I've always been an 'electro-acoustic' improviser," says Rowe, "though those terms have changed or the concept did not exist when [AMM] started out. My understanding is that in the mid-'60s, 'electro-acoustic' meant an electrically amped acoustic instrument, and 'an evening of electro-acoustic music' might be a concert with just tape recorders. Now, it seems to mean the combining of electronic and acoustic elements." Rowe plays seated at a table littered with guitars, radios and various electronic devices; to see how that works, check out the cartoon illustrations he drew for his solo album Harsh (Grob). Although the title is meant to acknowledge the conditions under which much of humanity still lives, it's an apt description of the record's contents. Harsh's three pieces build from utter silence to dense, uneasy hums torn by astonishingly violent detonations. By contrast, Dark Rags (Potlatch), his duo with tenor saxophonist Evan Parker, is as gorgeous as St. Elmo's Fire dancing around a radar mast. Rowe generates an ultra-detailed, multi-layered sound field that rises and recedes around Parker's voluptuous, twisting shapes like shortwave-radio static from a distant radio's signal.
Jason Bivins, One Final Note
Label Profile: Erstwhile Records
Some 40 years ago, Ornette Coleman famously remarked that he wanted to play the music, not the background. But what happens when sounds that are generally dismissed as background-pops, clicks, wheezes, whines, drones, static, and so forth-are foregrounded, and become the opening onto new musical vistas and new modes of artistic expression?
Audiences for improvised music these days are, as ever, not especially large. Those that exist tend to come to the music with a bundle of expectations: the music, they demand, should be intense, cathartic, and emotionally expressive in fairly evident ways. Sadly, these expectations lead many listeners to ignore some of the most intense and involving improvisation being made these days.
Amongst a small but interlinked bunch of musicians from Europe, New Zealand, the United States, and elsewhere, the combination of "traditional" acoustic instruments with electronics (those of the "everyday" sort, the analogue variety, or those emerging recently in the age of Powerbooks and G3's) is producing improvised music that demands a rethinking of expectation and a recalibrating of listening habits. Lofty as this may sound, this music is as immediate and satisfying as any currently being made.
At the forefront of this music's documentation is the American label Erstwhile Records, founded in 1999 by Jon Abbey. After beginning with three releases from well-known places on the improvisational spectrum (the trio VHF, Loren Mazzacane Connors' Haunted House group, and the duet of Earl Howard and Denman Maroney), Abbey's efforts have focused exclusively on what he calls "the current phase of Erstwhile," devoted to documenting electro-acoustic improv. Abbey opines that there may not have been a tremendous amount of accomplished electro-acoustic improv prior to the late 1990s, so he didn't exactly sense the need to document a scene that hadn't yet sprung into existence. Once more of this music came to light, however, Abbey began to focus his label's efforts squarely on it.
This is a brand of improvisation for which the question "what is jazz?" is largely irrelevant, despite the fact that, in Abbey's words, "this mini-genre is the logical extension of free improv, with AMM as a prime antecedent." Indeed, AMM co-founder Keith Rowe told Abbey that "for the first time since the sixties, improvisers aren't working in a post-Coltrane aesthetic, but rather a post-Duchamp one." This may mean any number of things, depending on one's understanding of Duchamp, but I take it that Rowe is distinguishing between extensions of existing techniques or conventions and the wholesale questioning and problematization of such musical givens.
As the label's statement of intent declares, this music occupies a "middle ground between improvisation and composition, trained and self-taught, acoustic and electronic, organization and abstraction." For Abbey, this in-between space became apparent at an Austrian music festival curated by Otomo Yoshihide in late 1999. Of that festival, Otomo opines that "a new stream is emerging in music at the moment. In contrast to new kinds of music it will not be easily recognized at first sight. It is the hard work of radically reconsidering the very nature of music, of listening and performing. In contrast to new musical styles of the past it will probably neither have a certain form nor a name." The musical doors in this music are as open to electronica fans as to improv fans.
This is not to suggest that the use of electronics in contemporary music-making is anything radically new. It has been ubiquitous in popular music as well as in "classical"composition and performance since the 1960s. Composers like John Cage, Pierre Boulez, Morton Subotnick, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luc Ferrari, Milton Babbitt, and other leading lights were early champions of the use of electronics in their search for new textures and soundscapes. Staunch traditionalists have always whispered anathemas when theremins, synthesizers, or tone generators are hauled onstage, but the electronic presence has been a steady one despite conservative harumphing.
In the world of improvised music, however, the use of electronics has not been quite so widespread. The British improvising ensemble AMM (of which Erstwhile recording artist Keith Rowe is a founding member) has long experimented with the interaction between "traditional" instruments like saxophone or percussion and spontaneously manipulated electronics. Their important work opened up new territories in terms of texture and technique, but also raised important questions about how musical form should be constructed and perceived: is improvisation a soloist's art or a collective one? Should improvisations have a linear, narrative quality, or should they abjure these features? The collective Musica Electronica Viva was also experimenting with these instruments, processes, and questions in the 1960s and 1970s (early exemplars here included Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum, among others). Thereafter, these early examples began to inspire second-generation Europeans - represented in the ensembles Nachtluft and Voice Crack - to use electronics as a means of exploration, communication, and sound organization.
This type of exploration, at the fringes of an already marginal music, has been hugely abetted by the advent of widespread, powerful, and relatively accessible computer-based sound technology. New devices like the Macintosh G3/4 or PowerBook possess the speed and the memory necessary to interact with non-computerized instruments in real time, thus eliminating some of the hindrances typically faced by electronics practitioners in the past.
These developments have been widely noted. But, aside from the electronics experiments of well-known players like Evan Parker or Phil Wachsmann, this new music is only now beginning to receive proper attention. Enter Jon Abbey, a longtime fan of this music who has taken it upon himself to document much of this scene and its most important creators. One of the problems seemingly facing record labels and listeners is that this music seems to resist easy classification. Not only do its practitioners come from diverse backgrounds like rock (Jim O'Rourke, Otomo Yoshihide or Fennesz), "classical" new music (Burkhard Stangl), or free improvisation (Gunter Muller, John Butcher, or Keith Rowe), but the music itself does not have a name yet. It has been called (rather generically) electro-acoustic improvisation, microvisation, dangerous improv, and more.
Having now digested much of Erstwhile's catalogue, I believe that this is a music perfectly suited to the blurring and even collapse of musical boundaries seen in improvisation for some time now. To me, this is a sign of overall health in the music. "Free improvisation" is now so often riddled with cliches (saxophonists absently filling spaces by clicking on pads, or pianists diving quickly for the strings inside) and it has generated a species of defenders whose zeal for Ayler-era blowing is as intense as that of the Marsalisites for New Orleans music. But there is tremendous creativity and energy amongst improvisors, much of it not limited to jazz-based communities. And this is where the importance of documentation comes in.