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Wednesday 30th March

March 30, 2011

Ok, so no post tonight. I had actually intended to write, but today I tuned forty, and after a long day at work Julie and I went into Oxford for a very nice Thai meal and a bottle of wine. We went by train, so I could have a drink, but got home quite early as alas I have to up at 5AM again for work. Still, we had a lovely evening. I’m not a big fan of birthdays, and tried to keep this one in particular quite quiet, but I didn’t manage it, so thanks are due to everyone that sent me goodwill messages via various means, and than you Julie for a great evening.

Of course, I’m only one day older than I was yesterday, but the forty milestone feels like a big one. Part of me feels thoroughly miserable to have reached this age at all, but another side of me is able to step back and look at my life, my wonderful girlfriend, the relative comforts that surround me, the endless stream of music I have access to, and I tell myself that I am very very lucky. There are plenty of people out there that are much less fortunate than I am, and so I intend to spend the next forty years making the most of the privileges I have in life, and helping others wherever I can along the way.

Sorry if this reads a bit pathetic and worthy, but there are only so many days like this in your life and they are days to reflect as much as to celebrate. Besides, I’ve had a few glasses of wine….

Tomorrow night, assuming I am not so exhausted as to just fall asleep as soon as I finish work, I hope to get into London for this concert, curated by the excellent Entr’acte label and featuring some fine musicians, including the first appearance in the UK of my good friend, the exceptionally talented Adam Sonderberg, who will also visit Oxford in the following days. This should be a great gig, so don’t miss it if you are anywhere close.

Normal, marginally less self-centred service resumed tomorrow.

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CD Reviews

Tuesday 29th March

March 29, 2011

One of the pleasures of receiving quite a lot of CDs in the post is that every now and again you pick something out that you didn’t order, you don’t know much about, but after you hit play it really grabs you. I had one of those moments last night when I first picked out the CD I am going to write about tonight, a release on the Entr’acte label that apparently first appeared near the end of last year named Lauste, a collaboration between Ben Gwilliam and Michael Vorfeld.

Gwilliam is a musician that has been consistently performing in the North of England for many quite some time now, but has managed to escape my attention in recent years despite really enjoying his early collaborative albums with Lee Patterson. Having heard this new disc I will certainly attempt to pay more attention. His work with Vorfeld on this release consists of five tracks, all works for “light bulb and magnetic sounds”. What we hear is the hum of the bulb(s), generally quite softly, but pulsing and intensifying here and there as dimmer switches, faders and the like are used to adjust its intensity, and its sound picked up by microphones. The magnetic sounds are apparently often connected to tape recorders, and the sounds of mechanisms whirring, and even actual tape being recorded are caught using magnets and ‘pins’ (so the press release says, incredibly) and mixed into the recording. Exactly who of the duo created which sounds, and whether the music is the result of improvisation or post produced construction I am not certain either, but none of this matters.

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CD Reviews

Monday 28th March

March 28, 2011

Its hard to concentrate on music on days like this, and it can take a bit of effort to bring yourself to bear on it properly, but after a while this evening I have been able to really dig into tonight’s CD, which is a new release by John Grzinich’s open membership group Revenant, whose practice sees them visit specific sites, in which they record themselves making music with whatever materials they find. I wrote about an earlier Revenant release a couple of years ago here, On this occasion Grzinich is joined by Maksims Shentelevs, Eamonn Sprod, Kaspars Kalninsh and Felicity Mangan in an old disused Soviet nuclear weapons bunker in Zeltini, Latvia. The album takes its name from the town, and is a further new release on the Unfathomless label.

At least four of the musicians involved carried recording equipment, and recorded their activities in the bunker. These recordings have then later been assembled into the single hour-long piece of music included here. So for the most part these recordings sound pretty much how we might expect recordings of such a place on a cold dark evening might sound. The liner notes include a couple of paragraphs from Eamonn Sprod who talks of scrabbling about in the dark, staying close to the walls, trying not to fall over, scraping whatever was to hand against dusty cement surfaces. The recordings for the most part resemble this, all hollow, echoey shuffles and scrapes with occasional hollow crashes. The sounds do not feel incidental, its clear they are being deliberately made, but the majority of them don’t sound instrumental at all, they sound like the space they belong in, just the sound of human beings interacting with them.

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CD Reviews

Sunday 27th March

March 27, 2011

Coming home this evening after listening to several hours of recording today I probably wasn’t in the mood to listen more, but as I haven’t written about music here for a couple of days I thought I should spend some time with a CD. The one I chose is a disc I have come back to a few times over the month or two that I have had it here, a somewhat curious and devilishly hard to pin down CD by a musician I was previously unfamiliar with Eryck Abecassis. The disc is named (perhaps a little unfortunately) Resonant Doom and is released on the Real granular Reality label, which might be Abecassis’ own imprint though I am not sure.

Abecassis plays a double necked guitar, with one neck strung with bass strings and the other a standard guitar set, plus analogue electronics and laptop. The four pieces here each have a different character, but overall there is something quite refreshingly different about the pieces here, even though I am not a huge fan of all of them. Abecassis is French, and the album includes a thank-you to Christian Zanesi at GRM, which maybe points towards that school of electronic/concrete composition, but on the whole Resonant Doom pulls together an unusual batch of influences, ranging from the whole Max/MSP laptop patchery school of composition through to a strong heavy metal / noise leaning, but with the accent perhaps on the sound of the power guitar rather than any wall of harsh noise.

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Saturday 26th March

March 27, 2011

Home late tonight after an evening in Oxford in good company. I worked until about 7.30 this evening and then went straight from there to Brookes University, where I saw the first half of a somewhat eclectic set of performances that included some music, quite a bit of modern dance and some poetry/text readings. Some of this was quite intriguing. The main reason for going, apart from to meet up with musicians, was to hear Bruno Guastalla play cello, which he did alongside a somewhat intense, slightly frightening solo dance performance from a young man who at intervals through himself headfirst at the concrete floor. Much of the evening wasn’t our cup of tea though, so we left and headed for a restaurant in which we had a mediocre Indian meal. While the food was just OK it was good to see some good friends again, and in particular Kostis Kilymis, who I haven’t seen in a good long while and is visiting from Greece for a few days.

So anyway, this is all just another elaborate excuse that explains why I haven’t written a CD review again tonight. I haven’t listened to anything at all. I played a CD in the car on the way to work this morning but it proved impossible to listen to in that scenario. So if I don’t get the time to listen, I can’t really write about music. I could write about my dinner I suppose, which was an average saag paneer with a decent enough peshwari naan. Beyond a report on not that inspiring Indian food though, I have little to offer here tonight so will leave this post here and try and do better tomorrow. Above is a photo of one of my companions this evening, Patrick Farmer, after he fell off of a bench.

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Friday 25th March

March 25, 2011

A very nice evening tonight. I slept a while this afternoon, recuperating after a tough day at work that began at 5AM, then went for a walk with Julie, watched the sun go down and young red kites playing in the fields alongside our favourite disused railway line, and then came home alone to a quiet, empty house and a bottle of chilled pinot. So I intended to write a review tonight, of a CD I’ve heard a couple of times already, but as the house was so silent, and the wine relaxed me, I cooked dinner with one of the new Michael Pisaro albums on Gravity Wave playing in the background, intending to switch to the potential review album after I had finished in the kitchen and could concentrate on it properly.

The thing is, one glass of wine lead to a second, the beautiful music became enchanting, (completely, entrancingly enchanting) and I never got around to finding the CD in question. Instead I pressed play on the CD player again, opened a window as its a strangely warm evening here tonight, and sat beneath it with the last chapter of the first volume of Bertrand Russell’s autobiography, listening with one ear to the sounds from the garden outside, the other to the CD, smelt the distant smell of someone’s bonfire, tasted the sharpness of the wine and thought sod it, I’ve posted eight CD reviews here in the last nine days so I am due a night off, and I don’t often get evenings like this, so I scrapped the idea of a CD review tonight.

I have since moved on to some freshly ground coffee to rewaken the senses enough to type here, and have changed the CD to the superb 2CD set on Mode of Morton Feldman’s Trio, a recording that in recent days I have been rotating with the new Pisaro discs during a time of quite restful, poetic listening. So that’s it for tonight. Tomorrow I am back at work, and then in the evening hopefully meeting up with some musicians, so I will have a busy day. I’m sure this renewed adrenalin will see me write at length again here tomorrow, but for now a brief pause. The photo above, that I took from the kitchen window here yesterday seems to capture my feelings tonight perfectly- a beautiful pause, a moment to stop and reflect on beauty and simplicity before someone hits play again and the moment is lost in a flash. For now though it has been nice to enjoy that moment and reflect on its significance.

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CD Reviews

Thursday 24th March

March 24, 2011

This new CD on the Matchless label, the first duo recording of Eddie Prévost and Jennifer Allum, comes with extensive, and excellent sleevenotes written by Seymour Wright. (They can be read here) The notes not only capture the essence of the investigatory nature of the improvised music of this duo but also propose that the listener might use this documentation of the duo’s music to form a response of their own. The notes, which include extensive quotes from the musicians are written from a perspective very close to that of Prévost and Allum, and touch on similar subjects to the essay I recently posted here. The writing heavily underlines the value of improvisation as a tool for investigation and engagement, not only of the tools the musicians chose to use, but of the musical relationship between them. Allum is quoted in the text thus:

(it) “would be that I often find the process of something more interesting than, or equal to, the final product”

Prévost also states;

“the ‘investigative nature’ of the enterprise is its core aesthetic. It only becomes presentational (for an audience) after the fact. Out of this process can come a positive sonic offering that (embraces, embodies, and perhaps) transcends the immediate practice of investigation”

So, what is most important to the musicians here, what retains the vitality in their meeting is the act of improvisation itself. That a document of this investigative process has been considered worthy of sharing with a wider audience could perhaps be considered an added, almost coincidental bonus. How then, as a listener, given the thrust of the carefully chosen liner notes should one approach a review of this CD? If one agrees (as I do) that the the true value of the musicians’ work lies in the act of investigation rather than its outcome then what value can be placed upon my personal response to its end result? I guess that ultimately this remains a product to be evaluated, and my thoughts on it might interest or deter potential listeners via my descriptions of how it sounds, but ultimately that is all I can hope to offer.

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CD Reviews

Wednesday 23rd March

March 23, 2011

So the disc I picked is named Peep Holes and is a solo bass clarinet recording by Yoni Silver, an Israeli musician whose name I have often seen mentioned but I don’t believe I have heard anything by before (someone please feel free to correct me if I reviewed a CD by him last week!!) The disc consists of three studio recordings of just Silver and his clarinet, with, as far as I can tell, no additions, post production or overdubs. Many of the techniques used by Silver are techniques I have heard before, and the music here is not that dissimilar to other solo improvisation albums. So writing about an album like this, as thoroughly enjoyable as I found it, is a tough gig. The CD ticks a lot of familiar boxes, but is that a reason for dismissing it? I think not. It may be a reason for CD buyers to spend their limited funds elsewhere, as we all seek to obtain the remarkable over the merely everyday, but that doesn’t make this a bad album, just not one that stands out from the crowd.

Silver is clearly a very adept, skilled musician that knows his instrument well. The three pieces here though manage to step beyond mere shows of technique and feel thoroughly passionate and, in some way searching. Besides a few points where rasping tones are allowed to suddenly extend and burn harsh lines into the music, the playing is generally very hushed and restrained. There are few silences, and the playing is very expressive and bristling with feeling, there is plenty of aggression in there, but rarely does Silver translate this into anything loud or obviously cathartic. This is an album that actually doesn’t demand much work of the listener. If you are able to just put it on and spend a little time with it, the music speaks clearly for itself, twisting, turning, shifting from breathy hisses punctuated with the familiar percussive clicks of keys to deep growling textures, but talking to you in simple, expressive, and actually quite charming language. Melody doesn’t ever appear, and the hiss and flutter end of things tends to take precedent over the tonal, but this music, rarely for this kind of an album, doesn’t feel like it is about the instrument in any way, rather it feels like a musician expressing something, talking, communicating with the listener.

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CD Reviews

Tuesday 22nd March

March 22, 2011

I have this afternoon/evening been able to spend some time with a curious CD on Taku Sugimoto’s Slub label though- a disc called Kantoku Collection by a name previously unknown to me, Manabu Suzuki. This one is a bit of a sidestep for the Slub label in that it features seven pieces of music created using various homemade electronic systems that, in general investigate sounds created partly through chance systems, but within carefully constructed parameters.

So the opening piece here consists of a series of electronic pops and squelches, which sound somewhere vaguely between close-miked, maybe even contact-miked field recordings and freeform rough electronic improvisation. In fact though it is the result of a recording made of the electronic signal created by the electrolysis of water (in one channel) and a sine wave signal modulated by the same recording simultaneously presented in the other channel. So, in a similar way as to how Lee Patterson sets up situations that create natural phenomena, such as his recordings of liver salts dissolving in water etc… Suzuki on these seven pieces does similar things, but with more electronic sounding end results. He creates systems that generate ultrasonic soundwaves that create beating patterns, which are then recorded and presented, a photosensor placed in front of a TV monitor is used to generate sound through an oscillator. Like Patterson, Suzuki seems to be a curator of sound, cultivating it, ringfencing it capturing it, but always allowing the already naturally present systems to actually generate the exact shape and form of the sound.

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CD Reviews

Monday 21st March

March 21, 2011

I have managed to do some listening since I got home from work, my first really focussed concentration on music in almost a week, and well, to be honest I wish I could have picked a better CD to have returned to, but once I put this disc in the player I stuck with it. The CD is a release on Gruenrekorder named Collection 5, credited to Slavek Kwi – Artificial Memory Trace.

The notes accompanying this release read as follows; “All particles of reality rcorded and created by Slavek Kwi in various dimensions of time-like space – No additional information is available with this edition – Perception. No Cognition. Listen.” Now, forgive me if I’m speaking out of line here, but as liner notes go, they are pretty terrible. I’m not sure what time-like space is, but it seems that Kwi has collected a number of field recordings that he has processed quite heavily and compiled into thirty-two very brief tracks, and he would like us to approach the music without considering its origins or content and instead just listen to it. OK, fair enough, but for me the most interesting aspect of this music is trying to work out what the original sound sources were. Otherwise its really not that great. Or at least that’s my perception.

First of all (and to be fair I am making a complaint here that could be applied to quite a few CDs, but since I’m in a critical mood…) this is one long, flowing piece of music, so why has it been divided up into four sections, with the second and fourth sections apparently only containing one track each (tracks 19 and 32) while the first apparently contains tracks 01-18 and the third tracks 20-31. Maybe there is an important point to this apparent over-complication of matters, but when the music all forms one long work did it need dividing up into tiny parts?

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Sunday 20th March

March 20, 2011

Home again tonight. We had a really great few days in Wales. The weather was really kind to us, and so we made the most of it and walked a lot along the Pembrokeshire coastal trails, where as you might expect the views were stunning. The break did me a lot of good. This time around I didn’t answer a single email, didn’t really write anything for these pages, and as we couldn’t get much of a phone signal remained pretty much out of touch. I also didn’t listen to any new music. While I played the majority of The Lindsay’s box set of Haydn string quartets this was only really as the occasional background music while we read. What’s more, I didn’t miss the daily urge to keep pressing play on the CD player. It was really good to switch off completely from it all, and enjoy the amazing stillness and silence that our old stone cottage provided us. There was an occasional hum from the storage heater in the place, but otherwise there wasn’t a sound. Any noise outside could be easily heard, every drop of rain, gust of wind. In fact late last night when the weather did turn a little inhospitable for the first time, we were convinced there was an owl close by outside as there were occasional hoots. Our excited close listening was spoilt however when suddenly the hoots got louder and longer and we realised it was just the wind whistling around the old building in dramatic fashion. So although there was little music played, I found a lot to listen to over the past few days, be it the silence in the cottage, the sea breaking on the shores, the gulls crying continually…

It took us about five hours to drive home today as we took a somewhat forgettable excursion off route to visit the seaside town of Tenby, so I am very tired as I write this, and having learned that I have to be up for work in the morning at 4AM I will leave tonight’s post brief and say goodnight. Back to the music tomorrow.

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CD Reviews

Saturday 19th March

March 19, 2011

Another release from Entr’acte then (three more await my ears here still, does this label ever rest?). This time a new solo disc by one of the label’s regulars, the Dutch composer/sound artist/whatever we call her Esther Venrooy. The disc is named Vessel, a title that alludes to the sound sources used in the creation of the single piece of music here; recordings Venrooy made of cargo ships passing up and down the river Waal in the Netherlands. The piece was originally conceived and presented as an installation at the Diapason Galley in New York as a multi-channel work, and while the sounds are presented here as a single thirty-one minute long work I suspect I can sense where different projections of sounds in the space may have been joined together to make a single piece of music.

Now if from the description above you are picturing a soundscape of lapping water, chugging engines and billowing sirens then you may be slightly disappointed, though these sounds, and other vaguely industrial and distantly nautical traces do poke their heads through regularly. For the most part though they act as the detail that punctuates swathes of digitally processed watercolours that drift and swipe their way from background hums to grand chiming gestures. The sensation is often of bowed metal, rich glowing sounds that are some distance away from whatever field recordings they originally emerged from. The opening part of the disc, which I suspect was one of the original installation channels by itself includes a lot of sounds that whip past like the sounds of struck cymbals reversed, growing slowly but disappearing in a flash. These sounds sit over a background of harbour-like bangs and crashes, and die away to leave a passage of nice lapping water recordings that sits alone until a heavy, cloying tone envelopes everything.

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CD Reviews

Friday 18th March

March 18, 2011

Tonight’s CD is yet another on the Engraved Glass label, a solo CDr by the Brighton based electronics/objects etc musician Paul Khimasia Morgan named, nicely and quite fittingly Empty Frame. If this isn’t Paul’s first solo disc then I missed any earlier ones, but its probably the most assured and confident work yet. I should probably mention that Paul has added a thank-you to me amongst a good few others on the disc’s liners, but I think this caveat can be ignored given that I have no idea what I have ever done to deserve the mention, not that I don’t appreciate it.

So Empty Frame is quiet. Across all three tracks there is a sense of hushed restraint. The curiously titled opening track Snowed in; more plaster remains somewhat minimal across its fifteen minutes as well as something that resembles a gentle motor purrs away, occasionally changing gear. The CD liners mention that “dental recordings” were used in the ‘pre-production’ process, and one wonders for a minute if some horrible drilling practice might be underway, but I don’t think so. At least not in this tack. The sensation listening to this piece though is not at all unlike sitting on a quiet Sunday afternoon mid-summer while someone a few doors down cuts their hedge. The title and recording date of the piece suggest quite the reverse however, as I suspect Khimasia-Morgan recording the piece during one of the heavy snow outbreaks we saw in the UK last year. So throughout the piece we hear the soft whirring of whatever it is, and occasional close-up pops and scratches at the microphone. As the tracks enters its last minutes the whirr drops to a hum and then the faintest of distant colouring against the silence. That’s about it. While perhaps not quite managing to fully capture the attention all of the way through this track, the ending is beautiful. This is a brave recording, and when placed at the start of an album it makes a bold statement about what may or may not constitute enough material to be called music.

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CD Reviews

Thursday 17th March

March 17, 2011

Today’s CD is another solo release from Alfredo Costa Monteiro then, this one called NYX, a new release on the seemingly relentless London label Entr’acte. As I wrote quote recently when reviewing Costa Monteiro’s disappointing (for me at least) Aura disc, he covers quite some range of music and instrumentation. This particular piece, which I enjoyed a lot more, is a live recording of a work for turntable and environmental recordings. Here, Costa Monteiro blends pre-recorded turntable sounds with live manipulations of the same tool, and adds the carefully selected field recordings, which are mostly of the abstract, unidentifiable variety in a manner that for reasons I just can’t fathom makes me think of a chef blending the ingredients to a favourite meal.

According tot he Entr’acte notes on the disc, the music “attempts to convey the telluric forces
present in darkness.” OK so I had to look up telluric in the dictionary, but was pleased to find that it meant “of the soil” as the music here does have a very dense, earthy feel to it. NYX is a tense, nervous affair that often breaks out into really very violent moments of sharp, abrasive noise. For the most part the sounds we hear are subtle, gentle lulls and rumbling, growling textures, but these stop and start in slabs, which feel almost randomly placed like a small child’s building blocks. Every so often though a brittle, barbed crackle might rip across the textures, or a sudden hit of white noise will appear, often cutting dead as sharply as it began, leaving deep hollows in the music in the spaces they vacate.

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CD Reviews

Wednesday 16th March

March 16, 2011

April 14th of 2009, they hung out in Zhujiajiao, Dhanghai. Some of them made sounds in an abandon oil can, some not:

Otomo Yoshihide, Ryu Hankil, Yuen Cheewai, Yan Jun, Sachiko M, Yang Ge, Xiao Qiang, Hong Qile, Gogo J, Olivier Heux, Tao Yi and Junyuan.

Now this big can is gone.

So read the liner notes of Big Can, a new CD by the musicians listed above released on the Chinese label Kwanyin Records, though the name Subjam also appears, so its possibly a joint release of some kind. On the actual sleeve, besides recording and design credits there are no further notes. On the paper strip that wraps around the packaging though, the following is printed:

Their own make sounds, no discussion and it is not performance. They use sound to fill a huge can, left and then still empty

Coupled with the sleeve photos of an old, upright cylindrical industrial tower, maybe 100ft in diameter and perhaps twice that in height, these few words paint quite a picture of the brief twenty or so minutes of sound found on this disc, even before you put it in the CD player. I use the word ‘sound’ rather than ‘music’ because it isn’t clear how we should refer to the sounds recorded here. The liner notes suggest that maybe the events inside the big oil can were informal, recorded on a whim, and certainly the second of the two tracks here, a brief recording made as the musicians left the can has all the hallmarks of an incidental, possibly even accidental recording. The first track though, for all its playfulness and informality is very beautiful and for me at least, impossible to separate from music.

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Tuesday 15th March

March 15, 2011

OK, so a brief post tonight, but then I have been far from idle in relation to this blog today as I have written four lengthy review posts today having spent the last three days listening a lot to a number of CDs. the posts are all backed up where you can’t see them yet, and I will make one live each day from Wales, where Julie and I are heading early tomorrow morning. We are off to the far West coast, to a cottage in a tiny village a few yards from the cliff tops that look out to the Irish sea. As with our trip to a different part of Wales last year, the plan is for me to escape music for five days, and also steer clear of the internet (and TV as there isn’t one in the cottage) for the same amount of time. Apart from checking in here once a day to set the posts live, I will be out of email and phone contact, hopefully walking around the Pembrokeshire coast a lot, but with nose buried in books and games of Scrabble if the weather is bad. (Oh yes I know how to show a woman a good time!!)

Here are a couple of links to some good looking concerts in London while I am away-

On Wednesday and Thursday, the veteran saxophonist Lou Gare pays a rare visit to the capital to play a two day residency at Café Oto with some fine collaborators. Gare played a vital part in some of the most important records in our music’s history, and it would be good to see this celebration of his playing well attended. I’m sorry I can’t be there. Details here. Likewise, I also can’t be in London to see Bonnie Jones interact with some of the city’s most vibrant improvisers either. She visits on Saturday and plays a couple of exciting looking sets. Details for that one are here. The image above, because I couldn’t resist it, is taken from the flyer for Saturday’s gig, which was designed by Grundik Kasyansky’s daughter Liza. In an ideal world, all flyer pics would look as good as this.

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CD Reviews

Monday 14th March

March 14, 2011

Anyway tonight I listened to a CD that I only played for the first time yesterday but I feel I have spent enough time with it after four spins to be able to set my thoughts down. The disc is a release named Lignes d’erre & randoms by a French (I think) composer/sound artist I wasn’t aware of previously named Kassel Jaeger. The release is the fourth in the Daniel Crokaert’s visually appealing label Unfathomless’ catalogue. I’ve had this one a good while I’m afraid, and was nudged to play it when a further disc from the label arrived, which I’ll try and write about soon.

Now the Unfathomless label, which is linked to Crokaert’s other imprint Mystery Sea, is probably familiar to people now, and should then point towards the kind of music featured here- layered, collaged, possibly treated field recordings. I’ve made it no secret that music in this area has begun to try my patience a little bit over recent months. Its not the actual concept that has got to me a little, far from it. It has been the way that so much of this kind of music, which really does seem to be in abundance right now, sounds so much like the rest of it, using similar sounds in similar, predictable ways. The composers that really shine in this corner of the experimental music world, the likes of Eric LaCasa, Seth Nehil, Vanessa Rossetto etc seem to really stand head shoulders and most of the torso above the rest, and even after a good number of listens it is maybe only the work of a handful of these musicians that I would be able to recognise again in a blind test. So where does Kassel Jaegar’s album fall?

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Sunday 13th March

March 13, 2011

To begin with, a statement of the obvious. Improvisation is not a musical genre, its a way of approaching things, one of several approaches to creating art across many media or issues of life in general. By its simple nature, improvisation itself cannot become stagnant because it has no content. Improvised Music however, has become a genre, though very often the term is used to describe music that is only partly improvised. In recent years attempts have been successfully made in some areas to divide improvised music into two further more easily marketed or dismissed sub-genres. Of the two ‘halves’ either side of the not very neat bisection, one named EFI has been popularly dismissed as old and stagnant, the other, named EAI has been considered vibrant and innovative. Now, the proposition has been made that EAI, along with improvised music as a whole, is becoming stagnant, losing its ability to innovate.

For me, as someone who is enjoying more and more experimental music CDs, and (vitally importantly) an even greater percentage of live experimental music concerts each year, these questions, many of them loaded with the personal interests of those on either side of the equations are tiresome and a distraction from my focus on so much great music there is to hear right now. However, as I have been asked several times over recent weeks for my opinion on these matters I have written a few thoughts down.

If the argument then, is that music that is formed through ‘pure’ improvisation- i.e with no conscious composition or post-production involved is stagnating simply because it is no longer making any dramatic, genre-changing structural or conceptual steps forward then I’d quite happily agree. The problem is, I’d have also agreed with this a decade or even longer ago. I can’t think of a purely improvised CD or concert from the last ten years that broke the mould significantly enough to be able to say that it was truly innovative when considered against the rest of the genre. The last real breakthroughs may have been the widespread consideration of electronics, silence/space and vertical, textural listening as opposed to a focus on momentum. However it wouldn’t even be accurate to say that these elements were first used a decade ago, as AMM and one or two other groups used them widely and continually for decades before. The last ten to fifteen years then have been a period of consolidation and refinement, but then I would also argue that this has always been the case since the early seventies, and to some degree I would also argue that the best music (If we take “best” here to mean “my favourite”) comes from these refinements rather than direct innovation. If you consider my two favourite albums of purely improvised music from the last decade, Duos for Doris and Buoy, then I don’t think anyone could find much in these albums that didn’t already widely exist for years before they were recorded. Doesn’t stop them being great albums however. The same could be said for my favourite improvised music concerts.

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CD Reviews

Saturday 12th March

March 12, 2011

Tonight though I have been listening to a CD that I was very late to, and on fact only went and bought after I read no end of great reviews of it over a period of time. The CD in question is a disc by Julia Eckhardt, the German born, Brussels based viola player (violist??) who also runs the excellent q.O2 operation in the same city, and M.Holterbach, who is Manu Holterbach, a French sound artist and field recordist. The CD is named Do-undo (in G Maze) on the Helen Scarsdale label. The music in this disc has been created as part of the Do-undo project that Eckhardt has been working on for a number of years with Ludo Engels. Engels has recorded Eckhardt many times creating long viola sounds in the key of G. Having collected a lot of these recordings, many of them rich in overtones and distortion, they are then handed to musicians attending residencies at q.O2 to utilise however they wish.

For the two tracks on this release Holterbach has blended Eckhardt’s viola sounds with his own recordings, either field recordings or specifically chosen droning sounds that match the constant G tone created by Eckhardt. The opening piece is named Julia’s ecstatic spring phenomenon and is put together using recordings of a gong, wire netting, crickets, a gust of wind and an oak tree alongside the viola recordings. It begins quietly, a repeated soft gong strike is matched by murky, scratchy, shuffling field recordings of something unidentifiable. The viola drones begin to emerge slowly from the background and build into the dominant element of the disc, constantly wavering and fizzing with overtones throughout while the field recordings remain present, though they disappear soon after and the G tones begin to layer and build in intensity, bringing a really vibrant, almost ecstatic feel to the music. About half of the way through this twenty-eight minute piece more clattering, random sounding elements appear, I think probably the wire netting, and as I listened closely the first play-through to try and identify what this was I spotted the gust of wind flowing through the drones, though how long it had been there is anyone’s guess. As I tried and separate this from the viola sounds the crickets suddenly became apparent, and I began to wonder if these sounds had been there all along, but the tendency to let a drone just wash over me may have made me not pay attention. On further listens it became clear that this wasn’t the case, but I do like it when a piece of music makes me question my ability to listen.

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Friday 11th March

March 11, 2011

No post of value tonight I’m afraid. I worked a twelve hour shift today and am pretty exhausted tonight with a bit of a headache, and fell asleep soon after I got in, so I’ll take tonight off if you don’t mind. I feel like I’ve written an awful lot this past week, and as I am going away for a few days next week for a break from music I am going to try and write two posts a day for the next four days so I have some in hand to go up while I am away. One plug then, for a concert tomorrow night that I unfortunately cannot attend as I’ll be at work, but I’d go along if I could. The gig sees Jean-Luc Guionnet in London again, this time playing a duo with the highly talented and little recognised Ross Lambert, along with a couple of other nice looking sets that have just had Phil Minton added to them. Details here, courtesy of the ever creative Small but perfectly formed organisation.

Tonight my thoughts are with the people of Japan, and I hope that the few regular readers of these pages that log in from Tokyo are all safe, well, and not affected too badly by the earthquake today.

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CD Reviews

Thursday 10th March

March 11, 2011

I got in a little before midnight tonight after spending the evening with Julie. Before coming upstairs to restart a CD I have been listening to for the past few days I stopped off at the kitchen, filled the kettle, stood and waited for it to boil, listening to the slightly misfiring fluorescent strip light above my head tick and hum. I made a mug of genmaicha green tea using a tea bag. I often would make the same drink using loose tea and a tea pot, but at this time of night the teabags come in handy.

Upstairs I sat in my favourite listening chair, pressed play on the CD player and let Stefan Thut, Jürg Frey and Taku Unami’s recent recording of Manfred Werder’s mammoth piece Stück 1998 begin to colour the room, that was otherwise very quiet. I put the mug on the corner of my nearby desk, having grabbed a placemat first as it was very hot. As the music began I sat and watched the steam twisting from the top of the mug. I could follow the wisps for about three or four inches above the top of the mug before they blended into the background. I found myself shifting my position slightly to try and keep sight of the steam longer against a more plain backdrop, but this didn’t make any difference.

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CD Reviews

Wednesday 9th March

March 9, 2011

A few years back now, there was a 3″ release on Cathnor called After Hours by Mark Wastell. The disc consisted purely of the sound of a tubular bell being struck, but with the initial attack digitally removed so that only the swell of slowly decaying was left to be heard. What I liked so much about that recording was its simplicity and singularity, a very simple sound repeated a few times that created a very particular mood for anyone caught in its aural headlights.

I have been listening the last few days to a newish release by Alfredo Costa Monteiro on the Etude label named Aura, that uses a very similar technique to create the sounds that make up the composition. Although the album is credited on its spine just to Alfredo, it seems that all of the percussive sounds used on the disc were played by Pilar Subira, whose output was recorded by Costa Monteiro, who then smoothed off the initial attacks from each sound and composed this fifty-one minute long work from them.

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Concert Reviews

Tuesday 8th March

March 9, 2011

Day two of the As alike as trees festival was thankfully a little warmer, and the audience numbers were far higher for the afternoon session, which promised some real treats and didn’t fail to deliver. The day began with a more difficult performance however, a quartet by Walter Cardew, (Electric guitar) Jerry Wigens, (clarinet) Romauld Wadych (electric guitar) and David Papapostolou (cello). This one seemed to meander a bit for me, staying in a kind of middle ground as far as density and speed were concerned, and not really ever sparking off in any real direction to take the music above the average. The dual electric guitars were a bit of a problem for me as well, as they tended to dominate proceedings a little, though in the second half of the performance when Wadych switched to more abstract, less ‘guitary’ sounds by using tin foil (or something similar) against his pick ups this was a little less of a problem. The cello and clarinet worked very nicely together, but at times it felt that, on this occasion at least, that the group would have worked better as two duos, as the combination of acoustic and amplified sounds didn’t really fuse together, to my ears at least.

There then followed the set that I had looked forward to the most at this festival, and it turned out to be great. The duo of Seymour Wright (saxophone) and Klaus Filip (laptop sinewaves) had not played together before, but seemed to me, even before they sat down to perform, to be a great pairing. The set turned out to be very fine indeed, a nice blending of the musical characteristics of each musician without being in any way predictable. Seymour Wright is in himself somewhat unpredictable, and throughout this performance he worked across quite a range of dynamics and volume, from searing blasts to the quietest tiny clicks and pops. He took his sax apart and put it back together several times during the set, using assorted parts to create his varied sounds. Filip remained a picture of unflustered poise, and responded at speed and with some fine choices, his skill and musicianship masked behind his motionless posture, grand gestures made with the tiniest shift of his stylus across the trackpad he uses to shape his sounds.

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Concert Reviews

Monday 7th March

March 8, 2011

The festival took place in a new space called The Rag Factory, which is basically an old textiles factory made up of several rooms, all in varying states of disrepair, but gradually being pulled together into a community arts/music/rehearsal space. The downside of the venue was the temperature, which was absolutely freezing, particularly on the Saturday, but the upsides including the proximity to Brick Lane and its multitude of good places to eat, and the venue cats, one of which, named Sparkle made quite an impression on the festival.

Similar to the Freedom of the City Festival, from which this event took a number of cues, there were four sessions of three sets each, two sessions a day, beginning afternoon and evening. All of the performances were introduced, in typically charming and amusing fashion by Eddie Prevost. First up were the duo of David O’Connor (baritone sax) and Matthew Olczak (acoustic guitar) the pair played a kind of tetchy, fidgety improv that held stayed mostly quite quiet, if relatively constant and fluid. O’Connor kept his massive sax down to mostly airy blasts of dry air and small stabbing sounds while Olczak flurried around with bits of rattling, abrasive agitation. the two worked well as a duo, clearly listening well and responding nicely to one another. Personally I’d have liked to have heard a little more space in the music to allow the bottled up tension room to breathe, as it felt a little claustrophobic and frantic, particularly as the set was quite long, but overall an enjoyable performance and a nice start to the festival.

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Sunday 6th March

March 7, 2011

I am writing this on the train back from London, somewhat content following a very lovely collection of music at the second and final day of the As alike as trees Festival. A full report is going to have to wait until tomorrow evening, but for now a few thoughts on the event from a social, community perspective. The festival took place this weekend in a spirit of warmth, friendship and the mutual exploration of sound as a means of expanding, and expanding upon that friendship and sense of community. The festival received no direct public funding at all. (Klaus Filip received some funds to be able to journey to the UK for a different concert, which allowed him to also join the bill in London, but no funds were directly made available to the As alike as trees coffers) The musicians were not paid fees or expenses, even though a good number of them traveled from abroad to perform. A piano was hired and paid for, a venue obtained, all of the usual overheads covered. All of this happened though via a mutual interest in getting together to explore and investigate musical relationships, some new, some established, and present them to an attendant audience.

As alike as trees is far from unique in these aspects. Improvised music festivals happen all over the world through similar processes, and generally speaking, divorced from the need to keep those holding the purse strings happy through no end of bureaucratic hoop-jumping they are often creatively, if not always financially profitable affairs. Where this last weekend’s festival stood out to me as being different however, was in the sheer number of people, almost all of them musicians, working together with a big smile on their faces so as to support one another and ensure the event took place. As it happens there was a lot of good music performed at the festival, and even some exceptionally fine music, but even if, from an audience perspective, the music had been lacking, the event would still have been a great success, simply because it fulfilled its goal of creating a space for the music to happen.

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Saturday 5th March

March 6, 2011

So I am writing this from my minuscule but clean and comfortable hotel room in London having got back from the first of two days at the As alike as trees festival. A good time was had by all, my pathetically poor attempt at selling CDs was offset by six sets of music that ranged from the curious to the sublime and a really nice, friendly and mutually supportive atmosphere. I’m not going to attempt a full review of the day here now, that’s going to have to wait until Monday I suspect, but the highlight of today was Hubbub, the French quintet made up of some stunning musicians, who produced a wonderful, laminal maelstrom of gorgeous music. One to just shut the eyes and soak up.

This evening’s three sets were quite well attended, but the afternoon’s performances saw quite a low turnout, which was a little disappointing to see. The music on display here is great, and the atmosphere is thoroughly welcoming, so if you are nearby and at a loose-end come along tomorrow, which promises sets by the likes of Lexer/Schiller, Wright/Filip and AMM, beetroot pancakes, cask brewed ales, CD stalls, an exhibition of Jean-Luc Guionnet’s drawings and a film by Paul Abbott shown at every interval. How can you not come? One thing though- its a bit cold in The Rag Factory, so wrap up warm, and if you are able to, bring along a flask of something warming. See you there.

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CD Reviews

Friday 4th March

March 5, 2011

Tonight I have been busy getting myself sorted for tomorrow, but have also been playing a CD several times over while I did this. The disc in question is one that came out last year, but somehow escaped my attention back then and only fell into my hands a couple of weeks ago. The CD is a solo by the veteran London guitarist John Russell, a release on Evan Parker’s Psi label named Hyste.

Now, this is a difficult CD to review. It is, in my opinion a really great CD, but writing about it sees the reviewer fall into one of a few obvious traps. Clearly Russell has been influenced heavily by Derek Bailey, as, and it must be said I guess, his playing is very similar to Bailey’s, almost to the point where I might struggle to tell them apart. Its inevitable that any review that knows anything of the history of improv will draw this comparison though. Not that this makes it any less valid a statement to make, but I suspect it misses the point here. Originality or “newness” is not a concern of this set of three recordings. The music here then, all nicely recorded acoustic guitar improvisations is, very simply, just a musician working with the simplest of tools to make music that is beautiful, finely crafted and highly creative and then setting the results to a disc for others to enjoy. There are no gimmicks, no extended techniques, no extremes of silence or noise, no real references to jazz or established melody, just an acoustic guitar being picked, strummed and caressed to create a delicate, and yet very confident sounding music.

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CD Reviews

Thursday 3rd March

March 4, 2011

I have been listening today, and on and off for a couple of weeks, to a new cassette only release on the windsmeasure label from New York. Now, as regular readers will know, I haven’t owned a cassette deck for many years and am not the biggest fan of that particular medium, but I am reviewing this one for three reasons. Firstly, the music on it is mostly very pleasing. Secondly, the tape is (as with all windsmeasure releases, maybe the best looking label in existence right now) beautifully packaged in white card with Ben Owen’s masterful letterpress work, and thirdly, well Ben included a CDr of the music when he sent me the tape! So, considering that I am not really listening to this music in the way it was intended, as a tape playback, I guess my thoughts on the music should be considered with this in mind, and a probable entire element to the listening experience, the added fuzz of cassettes is missing as I listen. So while I am just happy to be able to hear the music, I am a little aware that I may not be doing it full justice.

Anyway, the cassette is a compilation by various artists named, a little obscurely, v-p v-f is v-n. I have no idea what the title might refer to, but the music here all has one thing in common- the tracks are all roughly a minute long, many of them clocking in at exactly sixty seconds, some a little more or less, with the shortest track here lasting thirty-sic seconds and the longest one minute, twenty-four. So the cassette contains, as you might expect, a lot of tracks that come and go faster than you can keep track of them. Another reason for being very pleased to own a CDr version is because its easier to look at the CD player’s readout to work out which piece is currently playing. Perhaps though, the intention could be for this to not really matter, and for everything here to blur into one.

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Wednesday 2nd March

March 3, 2011

Pretty tired tonight after a long but thoroughly enjoyable drive today, so excuse the lack of any review, I will try and get a couple done tomorrow, quite a lot of things waiting in the pipeline here. Today, in the very agreeable company of Patrick Farmer and Sarah Hughes I drove across to the Welsh border to the small town (village?) of Hay-on-Wye, a beautiful place lit by a bright Spirng sun, surrounded by some lovely countryside, and straddling the river. If all of these things don’t sound enough to warrant driving for six hours (three hours each way) then its worth adding in that Hay also contains a ridiculous number of bookshops, probably more per square metre than anywhere else in Europe? According to goggle there are currently thirty-six, which for a small village is a crazy number. So you can guess why we went, and unsurprisingly we bought books, three or four each, to go with the half dozen or so this short holiday has also seen me pick up elsewhere.

The trip was great though, nothing better than wandering around second-hand bookshops all day, taking breaks just to drink coffee in teashops or walk alongside the river. This might be my favourite set of pastimes under any circumstances, but to do it with nice friends like these was particularly good. A fun day then, but yawning lots and fading quickly tonight so I will disappear to bed and try and get up early to write tomorrow. Until then.

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Concert Reviews

John Butcher plus Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room, Southampton 28.02.11

March 2, 2011

An extra post then to write up last night’s concert that I drove down to Southampton to watch. Now, generally speaking, Southampton is less of a hive of avant-garde musical activity and more a seemingly endless array of grotesque shopping malls by the sea, but it was really great last night to drive down and find not only a healthy audience of maybe seventy or so people, but some really admirable people who had worked hard to put the concert together, jumping through all kinds of hoops to be able to gain access to the space, which was a twelfth century medieval vault hidden below the ruins of the city’s castle. Having been at a gig in central London a couple of days before that attracted about one tenth of the same number of audience members it was really inspiring to see the hard work of a few dedicated people determined to do something in their locality supported so well.

The concert was billed as an extension of Butcher’s work in resonant spaces, following on from a series of concerts he has done in caves and old disused buildings around the British Isles. It turned out however, that despite this old stone vault’s remarkable appearance it wasn’t actually all that resonant. Don’t get me wrong, it sounded an awful lot better than Café Oto would have done on a Monday night, but the sound in the room wasn’t quite so full of echo and vibration. i’m not sure why… the room is just about big enough, is built in an arch shape and is made of old stone, so it seemed like everything was in place, but in the end, as Butcher put it to me himself, the concert would be a one held in a special, atmospheric space rather than a particularly resonant one.

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Concert Reviews

Tuesday 1st March

March 1, 2011

Anyway, catching up a bit after a few hectic days concert-going, Sunday night I was back in London to attend at least some of Dominic Lash’s ‘leaving concert’ a gig put on with the dual aims of giving Dom a send-off before he heads to New York for about a year and raising money for Medical Aid for Palestinians. It succeeded in both of these aims with great success. Musically, it was, as you might expect if you know Dom’s music at all, extremely varied, and while I probably wasn’t in the best frame of mind to focus on the music and so therefore write about it, there was much to be admired about Sunday night that extends beyond the quality of the music.

I heard two and a half of the four performances. The evening opened with a quartet realisation of Antoine Beuger’s 1996 score touw (voor joop) a lovely piece for up to eight musicians. The score utilises eight sounds, chosen by the musicians that are then arranged in a grid like structure, so giving the music a loosely rhythmic form, albeit a very quiet, very slow one. The score consists of thirteen parts, any number of which can be played. For Sunday night’s set the quartet of Lash, (playing clarinet…. yes, I know….) Sarah Hughes, (autoharp) David Stent (guitar) and Patrick Farmer (acoustic turntable) played three of the parts while sat quietly and apparently studiously around a circular table set up in a corner of a very very busy Café Oto.

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Monday 28th February

March 1, 2011

I had hoped to get a post written today about last night’s concert to mark Dom Lash’s departure from the UK, but after two nights bouncing in and out of London I was late out of bed today and then late afternoon I headed off to Southampton to catch a concert in a 12th century vault built under the site of the old castle that featured a realisation of Lucier’s I am sitting in a room and a solo performance by John Butcher. I enjoyed both gigs for different reasons, but now at half past midnight and after a bit of a long drive I just want to collapse for a bit with a coffee and some biscuits I bought from a surly looking man that I woke up in a service station on the A34. Tomorrow I have no such concert-going plans and hope to rest and relax a bit, so will catch up writing about the last two nights’ gigs. The picture above was taken in Southampton tonight, an image I can’t quite explain but I rather like it. Told you I was tired. A couple of posts tomorrow then.

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