$18 per night, $65 for a festival pass (plus one drink minimum per night). Doors open at 7:30 each night
---------------- co-curated by Erstwhile, Quakebasket and Little Enjoyer Special thanks for the support of Chris Letcher, Yuko Zama, Will Benton/Formed, the Austrian Cultural Forum and the Music Information Centre of Norway
Just in from the third night of ErstQuake 3, a four-night festival of electroacoustic improvisation mounted by two of the genre's most noteworthy labels, Erstwhile and Quakebasket, at Tonic. It's a sign of the changes in my professional life that I didn't clear the calendar in order to attend every night of this series, as I'd done for last year's festival. But perhaps it's also a function of a change that's crept over the event, a little bit last year and quite a lot this year: a slight merging of the EAI genre, which I've followed closely for some years now, with the Noise scene, to which I haven't devoted a great deal of attention. (That's not a critique, simply a fact.)
An irony, if you want to view it that way, arises when you dig a bit into the formative inspirations of the EAI and Noise scenes. Both can validly trace their roots to 20th-century developments in classical music. But EAI, seen largely as a European and Japanese innovation, is commonly linked to the early work of John Cage and David Tudor, Earle Brown and Morton Feldman, via avant-garde jazz and European free improvisation. On the other hand, Noise, a global phenomenon that has recently exploded in America, traces its roots to Italian futurist Luigi Russolo, handed down via Japanese artists such as Masami Akita (Merzbow) and England's Steven Stapleton (Nurse With Wound) as much as American figures such as Boyd Rice, Ron Caswell and, perhaps, Lou Reed. Naturally this calculus is a gross oversimplification, but it does point up the way in which influence mutates in its travels.
Malfatti_mattinFar more ironic, it seems to me, is that tonight's opening set was neither EAI nor Noise. Decades ago, Austrian trombonist Radu Malfatti was a major figure in the European free-improvisation scene, and could be found blowing frenetically alongside the likes of Derek Bailey, Evan Parker and Misha Mengelberg. Lately, however, Malfatti has turned to a severe form of reductionism promulgated by the Wandelweiser Group, an international cabal of composers for whom Cage's 4'33'' is a manifesto demanding consideration of silence as a potent compositional tool. Seated in the middle of the audience, Malfatti performed with Basque laptop computer musician Mattin, who in other settings has proved to be a particularly wild and unpredictable improviser. (I once saw him drive a number of audience members out of the Issue Project Room with the excruciating volume and violence he brought to bear in a duo performance with Tim Barnes.)
On a music stand facing Malfatti was an electronic stopwatch and a sheet of paper covered with columns of numbers. The duo's performance began with two minutes of complete silence, after which the trombonist blew a single, muted bass tone of fixed duration, roughly 20 seconds. Mattin accompanied him with ambient noise sampled from the room. After a 30 second interval, the duo repeated the note. The intervals between notes gradually grew slightly shorter; after three-and-a-half minutes, the musicians fell silent for another two minutes. The pattern repeated with a lower trombone note, followed by two minutes of silence, then a still-lower note. A cell phone that rang during one of the silent intervals was repeated in Mattin's contribution during the next segment of active performance.
By this point, the audience had grown fidgety, less able to control its own sounds -- squeaking chairs, shuffling feet, the occasional departure. Malfatti reversed course with the next iteration, playing a slightly higher note; Mattin's computer reflected the noisier ambience immediately prior. The audience, perhaps mindful of its own contribution, was notably quieter during the following silent interval. Malfatti's pitch continued to climb by tiny increments; after slightly less than 36 minutes, the performance ended.
Fagaschinski_stanglUp next was the duo of Austrian guitarist Burkhard Stangl and German woodwind player Kai Fagaschinski, who neatly demonstrated a key difference between EAI and the more familiar strain of European free improvisation: Where the latter genre often relies upon extremes of dexterity and virtuosity to make its impression, the goal here was to create extremes of unlocatable sound. Opening the set, Fagaschinski blew airy flutters and tiny, prickly warbles through his clarinet, while Stangl applied a violin bow to his amplified knee, eliciting the kinds of sounds a microphone might pick up on a windy beachfront.
Taking up his electric guitar, Stangl strummed deliberately while detuning the strings, eliciting a gravely flatulent rumble while Fagaschinski, his instrument lowered, blew microtones, overtones and puckered static via bare embouchure. He eventually added another sonic contour by rubbing his clarinet mouthpiece through the stubble on his cheek. Completing an eventful set in a deliberately provocative manner -- namely, understatement -- Stangl took up his acoustic guitar and plucked gentle arpeggios, while Fagaschinski blew long, plaintive notes as gentle and sexy as any Copland prairie ballad.
[EDIT: The rest of this report I'm filing on Sunday afternoon after some badly needed rest and recuperation from what feels like a mounting chest cold. The photographs here, by Yuko Zama, were supplied by Jon Abbey. Most of the images were shot during an afternoon rehearsal; the last two come from the evening's performance.]
Cosmos_2The major draw on Saturday night, for me at least, was the U.S. debut of Japanese duo Cosmos. In a scene filled with artists who produce their music in all manner of extreme and unorthodox ways, the duo of vocalist Ami Yoshida and empty-sampler player Sachiko M is among the most unusual, both in their modes of performance and in the powerful concentration of their gestures. From her empty sampler, Sachiko produces pure sine tones that flutter at the upper edge of audibility; Yoshida draws upon a vocabulary made up of extraordinary sounds: squeals, peeps, tea-kettle whistles, breezy whispers and strangled screeches like nails on a chalkboard.
The music of Cosmos, then, is composed exclusively of what most listeners might consider detritus; the art is in the deliberate manner in which these two women combine their individual sounds into stark, severe tapestries, as well as the contrast between the qualities of their methods. Yoshida's contributions on Saturday night were parcelled out in fleeting segments of 30 seconds or less in duration, which Sachiko surrounded with extended whistles and peals. Those sine waves have a physical effect: at one point, a lower tone rattled my jawbone while a higher one seemed to scrape along the inside of my skullcap. Their set neither developed nor waxed and waned appreciably; it simply existed for a duration, then ceased. But what surprised me most in finally watching Yoshida perform, given the alien nature of the sounds she produces, was in discovering an utterly human dimension to her art, which lent a rich, mysterious tension to the duo's set.
GodWith the two final acts of the evening, neither of which I was especially familiar with, the pendulum swung toward the Noise end of the spectrum. Seated at individual tables facing one another on the floor, hunched over in contemplation, Brian Eubanks and Leif Sundstrom might well have playing chess. Given the depth of their consideration and strategy, that's not an altogether inapt metaphor, except that the point here was collaboration rather than competition. The set began with a staticky buzz and a guttural, throbbing bass rumble. Pinpricks of squealing feedback hovered at the periphery of a larger mass of sound.
A series of pure oscillator tones climbed slowly; looped, they sounded like two climbers ascending just out of sync. (Brian Olewnick, at whose table I was seated, suggested that this resembled early electronic music by James Tenney.) Piercing frequencies met and clashed, rippling and shimmering at high volume -- no doubt affecting tinnitus sufferers as well as neighborhood dogs. This early area faded into silence, making space for the next phase, which opened with a rapid throb like a racing heartbeat. A deep, low vibration slowly climbed each vertebra from the base of my spine upward, then split and climbed again. The climax of the set was a series of such slow ascents, sounding much like an early analog synthesizer imitating an accelerating car as it shifts through its gears. By the end, it was as if a gang of synthetic Harleys was crawling up a quiet side street at 2 a.m., setting off car alarms and disturbing dogs in its wake.
Aaron_dillowayClosing in on the midnight hour, the evening's final set was presented by Aaron Dilloway, formerly of the prominent Noise group Wolf Eyes. Seated at a long table drooping slightly in the middle under the weight of his electronic equipment, Dilloway kicked off a dull, throbbing bass pulse, checked his speakers, then sat down and put two microphones into his mouth; two more dangled near the floor under his chair. Grimacing and whipping his head from side to side, he vocalized over the din. Inappropriate as the image may be, what the mix of sounds put me in mind of was the kind of vomitous vocalizations Gene Simmons makes during his bass solos when it's time for him to spit blood during a Kiss show.
In some ways, Dilloway's spooky hollows also reminded me of some of the more extreme isolationist strands of underground black metal, making me wonder whether my perception of the set would be different had he been wearing corpsepaint and a bullet belt...but that was surely my exhaustion and oversaturation talking. (One interesting thing I noticed was a difference in body language among a segment of the audience members during the last two sets: despite the music's abstraction, a number of listeners swayed in place as if they were responding to a rock concert.) Dilloway's performance was not without interest -- far from it, in fact. But ultimately I conceded that this particular art-brut approach was rather too much at odds with the more ascetic music that I'd come to hear. I don't dispute its validity or effectiveness, but I'd had enough for one evening; at the end of Dilloway's first piece, I headed home.
If the above seems like a mixed report, I should clarify. Even if I admittedly didn't have as deep and immediate a connection with the sets by GOD and Dilloway, both were consistently inventive and yielded some powerful results. And I can't help but thinking that this effort at cross-pollination could result in some fascinating new territories for exploration.
Night four of ErstQuake 3 will be presented tonight at Tonic, with sets by Jeph Jerman, Tim Barnes and Sean Meehan; Ami Yoshida and Christof Kurzmann; Sachiko M and English (Joe Foster and Bonnie Jones); Phill Niblock and Jason Lescalleet; and Jazkamer (Lasse Marhaug and John Hegre). A new Erstwhile CD by Yoshida and Kurzmann, aso, is proving to be a worthwhile challenge -- not entirely removed from the music of Cosmos, but with an intriguing austerity all its own, Kurzmann's loops and clarinet providing a new landscape for Yoshida's voice to inhabit.
Tuesday, October 03, 2006 Brian Olewnick, Just Outside So, ErstQuake 3, 2006. Four nights, five performances each evening. I had to miss Night 2 due to a small matrimonial commitment (27th wedding anniversary), but the other three days presented much to chew on.
Wandered down to Tonic Thursday evening, meeting a gaggle of known personages hovering around outside--always good to see these fellows (unfortunately, yes, all fellows) at least once a year. Secured my preferred Tonic seat, the foremost stool on the right hand wall with the round table for elbow resting.
The opening set is always somewhat invocational in aspect and this year's, with Jeph Jerman and Greg Davis, was no exception. The two stood behind tables littered with natural-ish detritus including stones, sticks (bundled and individual), feathers, shells, bells, a bull-roarer, seeds, etc.They tended toward the very quiet, for instance holding a handful of pebbles under a mic, gently rolling them inside their palm. Pretty effective overall, though I couldn't help but register a couple of reservations. One, no fault of Mssrs. Jerman and Davis, is that the "mystery" aspect of this sort of music tends to be lost in live performance, at least if you're choosing to keep your eyes open. That is, heard on CD (please check out their excellent recent disc, "Ku", my review of which here) even if you have a rough idea what's occurring, there are plenty of sounds whose origin is impenetrable, lending an extra layer of enjoyment. Actually seeing it produced strips away this veil. On the other hand, maybe that "veil" isn't really a desirable function, that the reality of what's being done is more important and meaningful and that not knowing allows a certain fantasy element into the proceedings that you' d be better served not "enjoying". Hmmmm....The second issue harks back to my early free jazz days when, not atypically, the percussionist in a given ensemble would have dozens of "little instruments" arrayed on rugs around his basic set-up and, when it was time for his "feature", he'd go through a rote series of gestures, making sure each instrument was heard. ie, ten seconds of guiro, 15 of the handful of shells, 10 of the dried carob, 10 of the triangle, etc., etc. Really, really boring. With Jerman and Davis, things didn't reach anywhere close to this level of routineness, but I would've much rather they stayed with some sounds for longer periods rather than often switching around; it became a bit too episodic for me. The bundle of dry sticks that each manipulated, for instance, I could gladly have listened to for at least several minutes rather than a few seconds. Jerman's "Lithiary" disc on fargone, where he "simply" places multiple rocks on a couple of shaker tables and records the quavering results, is a fine example of what I'm talking about. Still, quibbles aside, an enjoyable opening set.
Los Glissandinos were up next, a duo (most of the festival coonsisted of duets) with Kai Fagaschinski on clarinet and Klaus Filip on computer, playing his lloopp program. I'd been fortunate enough to meet Kai the day before, an extremely wonderful guy, so I may have been a bit predisposed to like this performance, but like it I did. As with his duo a couple days later with Burkhard Stangl, Kai has no fears about injecting a strong dose of melodic content into his work. They created two improvs this evening, both brooding and melancholy, Kai devoting equal time to extended technique and "traditional" playing. The first 2/3 of the second piece got tonal enough to be verging on Gavin Bryars territory, maybe a little bit too much for the musicians as they abruptly broke off that pathway, wandering around a bit disjointedly for the concluding five or so minutes.
I've seen Barry Weisblatt perform many times and my reaction has varied widely. He's charting very difficult waters, using an electronics set-up dependent in part on light-activated devices (piezo-electronic? Is that the propoer term?) and often eschewing through-going drones which tends to shift the burden to sound-placement, a touchy area where the listener's internal sense of poetics often determines how one reacts. Here he was teamed with Bryan Eubanks, whose work, what little I'd previously heard, I wasn't so taken with. In addition to small fluorescent tubes (?), Weisblat used a steady flame, whose slightest fluctuations in the internal Tonic breezes, such as they were, caused massively turbulent eruptions from the sound systems. That was very cool, as was the smoke effect when he later blew it out) but the general interaction between the two struck me as awkward and blocky---and not in an interesting way. Eubanks at one point initiated a series of rising pure tones, the timbre of which was a little off-putting as was the general obviousness of their structure; he kept at it for far too long. I can easily imagine, however, listeners with a slightly different take on it reveling in the music. Didn't work for me, though.
I was greatly looking forward to Scenic Railroads, having enjoyed Joe Panzner's writing in the past as well as liking him personally. And the first five or so minutes of their performance (Mike Shiflet being the other half of the RR) won me over completely. But then....I dunno, on the one hand it seemed to lose focus for me, the occasional dollop of fasciantion burbling to the surface only to be swiftly subsumed into the general drone. Later in the set, I got to thinking that it had more to do with the actual quality of sound they were generating from their laptops, something that struck me as fundametally thin or at least less substantial than I wanted to hear. Like styrofoam instead of glass. It's notoriously difficult to create consistently rich work from computers, especially when you're shooting for richness and depth; Fennesz does it, not so many others. It was too easily graspable, like you could see to the bottom of the bowl instead of getting lost in the liquid. If that makes any sense. A frustrating set, for me, one that I really wanted to enjoy more than I did.
Ah, but then came Mattin and Tim Barnes. Probably the most polarizing set of the festival in terms of audience reaction and not just from one diametric. I'd heard a goodly amount from Mattin over the past couple of years and, more and more I'd found myself really enthusiastic about his his work, including even the goofiest projects like his "Songbook". Much as one finds certain jazz musicians to be inherently musical (re: the old comment on Monk, "He even walks musical."), that most anything they come up with just sounds good no matter how absurd the premise (Don Cherry might be an example), I found I'd been getting that sense from Mattin. Had someone verbally described what was to take place this evening, I very likely would've demurred. Happily, no one so informed me. Tim was on stage, sitting at an oversize sock cymbal set-up which was hooked up to some electronics (he was in awesome form throughout, if visually and psychologically overshadowed). Mattin began the set by pacing in a wide circle at the rear of the room, his computer held open to his right ear like a large clamshell as it emitted an intense whine. This went on for several minutes. He then began marching up and down the center aisle. Near the stage was positioned a guitar amp on a wobbly circular table; as the computer drew close, feedback ensued. And Mattin began shouting. What he was shouting was a matter of some debate over the next few days (not sure if it was resolved). It seemed to be in English--"fucking" was certainly one word--but it was so grotesquely strangulated that the rest became guesswork despite its being iterated umpteen dozen times over the course of the set. "Computers are fucking with you!" was my stab. "Consumers are fucking consuming." was someone else's. This was often yelled directly into the computer's mic hole, causing even greater levels of distortion. All this while plunging the device toward the amp, itself teetering on the frail table endangering the welfare of the first row denizens. I had a vision of Mattin smashing the laptop somewhere, preferably the amp and not Richard Pinnell's head. The sound was immense, brutal and almost unbearable. I thought it was great. Partially just as a change from what had preceded (including opening up the performance space, thus making you realize how slightly hermetic things had been earlier), partly the commitment to the drama by Mattin, partly the sheer, fascinating noise. Whatever, it worked for me, though others had vastly different opinions. Some had problems not with the chaotic noise as such (after all, we're a hardy crew) but with its presumed derivativeness from bands like Whitehouse or its similarity to previous Mattin/Barnes shows (which I've not seen, perhaps luckily!). Some resented the political nature of the slogans, a position I have great sympathy for, normally. Except that in this case, it simply worked for me.
This is getting rather long. Think I'll do the other two days in their own installments.
November 2006 Richard Pinnell
Erstquake 3 Tonic, New York City 26th September – 2nd October 2006
For the third successive year the Erstquake Festival in New York was curated by Erstwhile's Jon Abbey and Chris Wolf, and Tim Barnes, head honcho of the Quakebasket label. The programme, spread over twenty sets and four nights, clearly reflected the diverging tastes of the three curators, and the audience found much to discuss and argue about. Each night began with a very quiet set, the plan being for the volume to rise throughout the evening with the closing sets showcasing the festival's cautious embrace of the currently in-vogue noise scene. I found this element of the festival refreshing and invigorating, and worked hard to leave any preconceptions I may have had about any of the music behind with the over-exuberant Heathrow airport security officials.
Either side of the festival I was able to catch an outside show featuring some of the performers in town for the main event. Shortly after arriving, in a lack-of-sleep-induced haze, I found myself sitting amongst a small throng of people in a tiny patch of Brooklyn parkland, surrounded by the incessant noise of the city, listening to the trio of Greg Davis, Albert Casais and Jeph Jerman in two acoustic sets using almost entirely natural objects (stones, leaves, shells, twigs..). Their intensely focused, intimate scrapes, whispers and crackles blended into the city sound (and often disappeared altogether), creating a little bubble of serenity in such a wildly active environment. The small audience clearly appreciated the opportunity to really open their ears.
In the bright light of New York's Tonic the following day, some of the magic I have always associated with Davis and Jerman's music seemed strangely absent, but their performance was well up to standard. They began in a similar vein to the night before, with tiny sounds made by rubbing and stroking sticks and stones (and at one point the beautiful sound of conch shells half full of water), but this time amplified to room-filling levels. The image of the musicians conjuring sounds from such unlikely sources was possibly a little too diverting, and I found myself closing my eyes to take in the musical conversation hidden behind the visual spectacle. If I had to find fault in what was a very beautiful start to the festival, it would be that both musicians seemed to feel the need to use everything on the table, instead of choosing fewer sounds and allowing them to develop over time. It gave the music a slightly restless feel that it could probably have done without.
The following set from Los Glissandinos, the clarinet / laptop duo of Kai Fagaschinski and Klaus Filip, was eagerly anticipated after my immense enjoyment of their 2005 Creative Sources album Stand Clear. Fagaschinski is an exceptionally accomplished clarinettist who can produce a remarkable array of sounds, and Filip's stark, simple sinetones complement them perfectly. The familiar contemplative austerity of the Los Glissandinos sound was beautifully realised live, with Filip providing a translucent base through which Fagaschinski threaded his soft tones, occasional piercing attacks and warm flutterings. The opening piece induced an oddly appealing claustrophobia, as the sounds hung heavy in the air around us, a Rothko-like sense of weight and depth that was one of the highlights of the festival.
Bryan Eubanks and Barry Weisblat (photo, left) played two short pieces, the first more interesting than the second. Weisblat miked up a naked flame to create an unpredictable crackling undercurrent which was amplified and mixed with the static interference of small fluorescent light tubes interacting with a radio and Eubanks' open circuits and tone generators. It managed to steer clear of the inevitable drone, forming patterns of occasionally cyclical stabbing, disruptive abstraction. The refusal to fall back on long drawn-out sounds was commendable, but not always successful; the set seemed to suffer from a lack of familiarity between the musicians. The flow was disrupted and from time to time the music seemed to lose its way. In the second piece Eubanks introduced a pattern of short rising tones that further muddied the focus and interfered with the communication. It all eventually settled into an uninteresting ten-minute drone.
The set by Scenic Railroads – Joe Panzner on laptop and Mike Shiflet on laptop and electronics – was a lot less interesting than their work on CD. Relatively obvious digital scribblings and crackles met sustained bass tones and other sonic leftovers in an unfortunately predictable tinnitus-inducing crescendo, which (to the musicians' credit) eventually dropped away to a more restrained dynamic plateau. But after this the pair seemed to lose direction, and the set petered out instead of going anywhere interesting.
One man renowned for cooking up a storm is Basque laptopper Mattin, who began his appearance with electronics/percussionist Tim Barnes by placing a huge guitar amp somewhat precariously on a wobbly table in front of the stage, causing myself and others to scatter to the rear of the hall to what appeared to be relative safety. Barnes began to build a beautiful stream of cold metallic sound by rubbing a cymbal slowly (photo, right) and passing the sound through simple effects, and Mattin started prowling around the back of the room, circling those of us that had sought safety there with his laptop held at head height, a high pitched screech stretching the computer's internal speaker. As Barnes' playing grew in intensity, Mattin began (as he does) shouting anti-consumerist expletives as he prowled around the room. Fighting the temptation to either laugh or trip him up, I watched as he approached the amp, stabbing the output lead in and out of the laptop, filling the room with tearing bursts of white noise and feedback interspersed with his barely comprehensible screams. The set ended with a jolt soon after. Mattin has always sought to provoke a reaction (instead of worrying about making good music), and his antics became the talk of the festival. For those of us that had seen him do similar things before though, it amounted to little more than mildly diverting, yet boringly predictable theatre, albeit with a rather good backing track.
The second night began with a set from Sachiko M and Sean Meehan. No two musicians in this area could be better suited to one another, and the music they produced was intensely powerful, working with extremes of space and dynamics to produce tension. Sachiko's sole means of amplification was a pair of headphones placed on the table in front of her, resulting in an exceptionally quiet music that fought with external noises throughout. She played just two sinewaves during the course of the set, bisected by a short burst of twittering chatter halfway through. Meehan chose his moments to insert sustained tones into this most simple of sound pools, rubbing dowel rods against cymbals placed on an upturned snare drum. The resulting music was spellbinding, balancing tightly wound tension and frozen austerity. I enjoyed it immensely, but wonder if it could have ever failed. With such simple basic elements involved, what would a bad Sachiko/Meehan set sound like anyway?
Michael R. Bernstein's work in the Double Leopards was completely unknown to me prior to the festival, so his duo with Mike Shiflet was a discovery. Shiflet played laptop again, alongside what appeared to be Bernstein's analogue synth. It began promisingly enough, with bursts of electronic chatter and bass-heavy throbs giving way to gritty, abrasive sounds, which held the attention for a few minutes before the music was overtaken by an annoying reliance on rhythmic loops. Some of the basic elements were interesting, but there was little real invention in terms of overall structure.
One of the most exciting groups I've heard on disc this year is English, the duo of Bonnie Jones and Joe Foster, so I had great expectations for their appearance. My hopes were not in vain as their half-hour set, filled with strong arresting gestures, false starts and tense silences, held the audience in suspense. While both musicians used similar set-ups of broken circuits, digital delay pedals and other electronic ephemera, Foster's trumpet brought an acoustic immediacy to the music (although at no stage did he come close to producing a trumpet-like sound). English's music is hard to describe; on a basic level they work with similar sounds and instrumentation to many of the other artists on the bill, yet their intensity comes from the shapes and spaces within the music, the frequent gaps of silence and contrasting sounds that play with raw power and nameless emotion in a bright, edgy manner. Great stuff. In a masterstroke of festival curation, English were followed by the duo of Burkhard Stangl and Christof Kurzmann, who set about changing the mood of the evening completely with a reprise of their Schnee project, which has already produced two CDs for the Erstwhile label. Schnee explores the boundaries between pop and the more abstract music catered for by this kind of festival. Stangl switched between guitars and piano, and Kurzmann alternated laptop and clarinet, and ran through an improvised comedy routine with a squeaky microphone stand. A short and brilliantly executed Derek Bailey tribute from Stangl was a nice moment that reflected Jon Abbey's opening night dedication of the festival to the great man. When Kurzmann broke into an awkward rendition of Neil Diamond's "Song Sung Blue" and joined Stangl in a short jazzy duet you had to chuckle at the cabaret. It all came as welcome relief from the seriousness of the rest of the festival.
While earlier sets had touched on the noisier end of the current music scene, the final set of the second day was the first to truly embrace the noise aesthetic. The duo of longstanding noisemonger Lasse Marhaug and former Wolf Eyes member Aaron Dilloway (photo, left) looked pretty menacing – two foreboding figures behind a table of electronics that looked destined to be abused – yet when they began I was surprised at how much detail could be heard in the music, albeit it of the ugly, looping variety that had plagued the Bernstein/Shiflet set earlier. A queasy, off-kilter loop occupied much of the foreground early on, above steadily growing organ-like sounds, and for a while there was something to listen to. About fifteen minutes in, though, the pair seemed to tire of this and began to build that familiar featureless wall of noise so popular these days. Trying to make out any detail then became a painful waste of time. Dilloway and Marhaug began to bounce about behind their tables, throwing gestural arms at control knobs and slamming fists down dramatically on whatever was below them. Dilloway by now had a microphone rammed halfway down his throat and was probably adding roaring vocals into the maelstrom, but they were impossible to make out. Apart from a few halfhearted swaying bodies rocking in their chairs, the audience sat pretty motionless, which seemed to defeat the purpose of listening to such physically arresting music. If there's nothing to sink your ears into then at least get up and move. As things were, the set failed to grip me in any manner other than as a testosterone-fuelled pantomime. Someone later told me I didn't "get it" because I was "just too old." Maybe so, but get it I didn't, though not for want of trying.
Saturday opened with what was for me the set of the festival. The last time I saw trombonist Radu Malfatti live was with Polwechsel in 1994. Mattin, of course, I'd seen much more recently, but this partially composed set sounded like neither of those events. Sitting opposite his collaborator in the centre of the room, Malfatti followed a score that cued the beginning and ending of his long, dry low notes, a small clock at his side timing the lengthy silences between them. Mattin sat silently for the first few minutes, appearing to do nothing, though he was in fact recording the noise of the room, complete with shuffling chairs, the creaking wood of the Tonic bar (and the occasional guilty cough). He then set about playing the recording back into the room via the PA system, sometimes alone, sometimes following Malfatti's cue. The combination of the trombone lines and the Mattin's eerie sounds created an intense atmosphere as the audience sat, unsure of what exactly it was they were listening to. It struck a perfect balance between musicianship and listener input. As Malfatti's trombone was also recorded by Mattin, there were occasions when it could be heard though he wasn't playing, adding a playfulness to the set probably only noticed by half of the room. This was music of immense beauty performed with admirable precision.
Burkhard Stangl and Kai Fagaschinski (photo) followed, in a set of intertwining tones, picked guitar notes and angular interactions that continually threatened to break into melody but just kept itself in check. Stangl again moved through guitars and techniques, beginning by bowing a contact mic resting on his thigh as Fagaschinski wove warm tones in and around the resulting texture. Stangl went on to bow and strum the guitar, extracting precise sounds with ridiculous ease, to be met by an equally assured response from the clarinet. Having stayed just on the abstract side of the dividing line for the majority of this involving set, towards the end the duo gave way to the melodic urge. As Stangl picked out a gentle chord Fagaschinski played a mournful tune the pair had written together (years earlier) to bring things to a close. I enjoyed this set a great deal, and found the subtle manner with which it addressed the influence of pop far more palatable than the annoyingly self-conscious irony of the Schnee performance the day before.
Though I'd only seen Cosmos (Ami Yoshida - photo, right - and Sachiko M.) live once before, I had an idea of what to expect. It was intriguing to hear Yoshida's alien vocalisations, focussed in a tightly defined area of high pitched guttural yelps and placed at regular intervals over some of the most interesting sounds I've heard Sachiko produce for a while. Small splurts of digital shrapnel mixed with the more familiar long tones created the perfect landscape for Yoshida to build upon, but she resisted the urge to move outside her narrow sonic range, seemingly rooted in a way of improvising that hasn't evolved much in recent years. It was a great set, though, if hampered by my wishful thinking.
After Cosmos, GOD (Bryan Eubanks and Leif Sundstrom). As I seem to be one of the few people that didn't get much out of the their 2005 album Anti Sex, Anti Wiretapping, I was ready to discover what it was that everyone else could hear. As it happens they set about doing something quite different with their array of electronics, mixer and miked-up cymbal. The grainy roughness of the album was less evident as Sundstom began with a deep bass-heavy roar. This formed a foundation for shifting layers of static until Eubanks added precisely the same rising tone pattern he'd used in his set with Weisblat two days earlier. To use this sound again was odd, and it didn't work any better this time round. For a while Sundstrom met Eubanks' persistent tones with notes that created a beating pattern as the pitches crossed, but it quickly became boring. Overall I remained unmoved, but I have greatly enjoyed a new GOD CD I picked up at the festival. There's hope for this atheist yet, perhaps.
The prospect of a solo Aaron Dilloway set after an evening of intense listening was not appetising, but I dutifully took my place at the bar at the back of the room with open ears, and was pleasantly surprised at least to hear the first completely unpredictable set of the festival. The intense volume of his duo with Marhaug never fully materialised, but what remained only really confirmed my suspicion that, deprived of the sheer physicality of full-on noise assault, there is very little of interest. An ugly churning, nauseous sound very similar to one he had used in the Marhaug duo became a key element in the set, blending into sheets of shapeless noise and a ridiculous routine that involved Dilloway placing handfuls of mikes into his mouth before chanting in a dreadful "voice of God" manner. It all floundered to a halt without the seemingly inevitable rise in volume that most of us had expected. Even after he was called back for an encore, Dilloway refused to allow the volume to run away again (to his credit), but unfortunately the uninspiring featureless sludge we were left with barely made it above the embarrassing.
The final night opened with the only entirely acoustic set of the festival: the percussion trio of Jeph Jerman, Tim Barnes and Sean Meehan. Three highly sensitive percussionists working in very different ways to create a finely constructed improvisation of immense poise and sophistication. Jerman dropped his natural objects for a small drum that he set about caressing with remarkable dexterity using his hand and a small vibrating motor; Barnes focussed on tiny metallic sounds, often based around a tiny bell-like object, and Meehan filled in the gaps with his subtle dowel tones. What really made this set was the level of sensitivity and egoless interplay. It was one of the few performances of the festival that was solid from start to finish and did not overstay its welcome. I'd very much like to see it appear as a CD release.
Outside of Cosmos I have never been fully impressed by Ami Yoshida as an effective group improviser, but her performance with Christof Kurzmann was the most convincing I have heard yet. She proved to be far more versatile than she was in the Cosmos set the day before, swooping and gurgling her way through the doodles and squiggles blurting their way from Kurzmann's lloopp software. My problem was that I just didn't enjoy Kurzmann's sounds. His input had a cheesy feel to it, a Carl Stalling-like playfulness that broke with expected traditions. It obviously involved a great deal of skill, but I found it hard to enjoy. At one point a series of loud bass drum thuds seemed to herald the end of the set as Ami ground to a halt, but things picked up again until an odd finale, where Yoshida stood in a motionless trance for several minutes after a bemused Kurzmann had finished playing. A brew full of strong moments, but not really my cup of tea.
The combination of Sachiko M and the epileptic electronics of English was one of Erstquake's most intriguing matches. Questions about how it would work were partially answered by Joe Foster's decision to play acoustic, focussing on blowing through the trumpet mouthpiece onto a single drumset (photo, left) to create a hovering vibration which he altered by shifting position or by switching from the drum to a small bowl wrapped in a taut balloon. The delicacy of his sounds complemented a restrained Bonnie Jones, whose fractured blasts of noise punctuated Sachiko's pure tones, leaving space in the sound for the trumpet work to shine through. This set showed great promise from the start and English drew Sachiko slowly towards them, until around halfway through when a sudden eruption of clicks and pops from her empty sampler were met with a rough edged hiss from Jones and rasping harshness from Foster, in one of the festival's most vivid moments. If the set could be faulted it would be for its overly long closing sequence; an earlier break in the music could have been used to bring things to a halt. But this is a minor niggle in what was overall a powerful set.
Phill Niblock isn't known for his collaborative improvisations, so it was no real surprise that his approach to performing with Jason Lescalleet was less of a duo, more of a conceptual partnership. Niblock began alone, sitting offstage playing a series of pre-recorded drone based pieces through a simple mixer and at high volume. A rich, warm flood of sound made up the main element of the music, a typically opaque Niblock wash that was then blended (somewhat clumsily to my ears) into a series of running water sounds, other field recordings and more abstract sources. After twenty minutes or so Lescalleet got up from his chair and set about his arsenal of instrumentation strewn across the stage. A laptop, several old Casio sampling keyboards and a mountain of ageing reel-to-reel tape decks provided a myriad of possibilities, and it was soon difficult to ascertain what sound came from where. Initially he recorded or sampled Niblock's output, extracts of which reappeared throughout the performance, before delving deep into the droning morass to add a thick, growling resonance to Niblock's cleaner lines. Lescalleet works as a constructivist, taking simple blocks of sound and building them up into a towering structure, and this was especially evident tonight. Watching him go about his work was inspirational. By the time Niblock had stopped playing about ten minutes later his absence was barely noticed, as Lescalleet crawled about his audio playground in a heaving mass of noise. On a very basic level this harsh mass wasn't that different from what Dilloway and Marhaug created two days earlier, but its detailed approach and careful construction were considerably more satisfying. The set ended with Lescalleet manually disrupting one of the tape reels to bring proceedings to a crashing halt while the original, now slightly degraded, water sounds trickled away in the background. Great stuff.
That's where the festival should have ended. The final duo by Jazkamer (Lasse Marhaug and John Hegre) produced a set lacking in any focus or direction, an aimless, energy fuelled heap of wildly twisted dials and runaway power electronics. It was loud enough to clear half of the exhausted room to the lobby, but the volume was not the problem. I have no idea how much control Marhaug and Hegre had over the resulting music – they barely looked at their equipment as they wrenched it about – but it suffered from a complete lack of depth and substance, consisting of little more than a scrambled screeching mess of sound. As it came to an end my escape from the hall was rapid.
As most of the audience headed back home to their particular corners of the world I made my weary way back to Brooklyn the following evening for a final show. Houndstooth, the venue, turned out to be a charming little menswear shop in which merchandise was pushed to the sides to create a space big enough for maybe thirty people. Once Kai Fagaschinski (photo, right) could be prised away from trying on trilby hats his Kommando Raumschiff Zitrone duo with Christof Kurzmann set about playing a set to launch their CD First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, recently released on the Quincunx label. In the intimate proximity of the room the slow, dreamy abstractions the duo produced wafted out into the noisy city. Some of the swaying decentred sounds from First Time reappeared, eliciting new responses from Kai ranging from dry fluttery whispers to icy high register blasts. Near the end of the piece a barely recognisable piano snippet evolved into a recording of Elvis Costello's version of the Charles Aznavour ballad "She" which slowly built in volume until it was all that remained, blasting out in orchestral majesty as the musicians departed the stage area. It was a relaxing, lighthearted and highly enjoyable paean to the pop song that proved a perfect partner to the CD in question. There was one more performance, and it was quite simply stunning. Radu Malfatti played a rare completely improvised set with Klaus Filip made up of only the bare essentials. Malfatti sat relaxed in an old 50s-style armchair, conjuring extended tones from his trombone that often just escaped into audibility, each separated by lengthy gaps into which Filip placed equally careful and well chosen laptop tones. The noise seeping into the tiny venue played a big part in the music. It seemed to annoy Malfatti from time to time, but also created the perfect backdrop for the softly developing music. Malfatti tapped his finger slowly on the edge of his bell in an almost metronomic manner, making a sound so quiet it may have been out of the reach of those at the back of the room. This was sublime, wonderfully thoughtful music in a superb setting. I only wish that it had come earlier in my trip as my ability to listen with the necessary focus was limited at this point, but I enjoyed this as much as anything else at Erstquake. Riding the subway home that night it occurred to me that it was fitting that after a festival curated so that each night ended with music of extreme volume, the last music I saw in New York should be something exceptionally quiet.
My overall feelings about the festival are that it was a huge success, even if very few of the musicians strayed beyond their safety zones, and this year's focus on more established groups made a certain level of predictability inevitable. I attended with open ears and an open mind. I may not have connected with all of the performances, but the aim of the festival was never to appeal to all. One of the most invigorating and enjoyable elements of Erstquake is the social interaction between fans of this music, and discussions before during and after the festival. While I struggled to hear much of merit in some of the noisier sets, others found them inspirational for completely different reasons. It's precisely this mix of tastes, reactions and values that makes for a good festival. Whether or not Erstquake will happen again next year has yet to be confirmed, but as a model for how an intriguing and exciting festival should be put together, this 2006 edition provided the perfect blueprint.–RP