A vintage year

January 2, 2009

From a personal, non-musical perspective 2008 was not a good year for me and I am very glad to see the back of it. The uncertainty brought by illness to those closest to you is more than enough to take one’s mind away from trivialities such as music. Add car accidents, a busy dayjob and the fact that its dangerously easy to try and do too many things at once in the first place and you’re likely to spend much of a year slumped in the corner asking why you bother in the first place. So, from that perspective 2008 can get lost as far as I’m concerned.

Musically though, wow what a year… but I need to deal with something first.

Over the past twelve months or so various people have written, either formally or otherwise about the impending demise of “EAI,” the term given to a very vague strand of experimental music. Their argument seems to be that the music has stopped being fresh and innovative and has congealed into a set of standard rules and structures the same as all of the other “genres” it once stood out from. I find this way of thinking impossible to comprehend to be honest. There was never any easily definable set of characteristics to “EAI” in the first place and no firm agreement on what belonged beneath such an imaginary umbrella anyway, so god knows how anyone can decide how it has changed at all.

“EAI” was only ever a term invented in online communities that was attributed to just about every strand of improvised music that didn’t sound like it could have been recorded in 1990. Yes there were many new impulses injected into improvised and other experimental forms of music around the turn of the millennium. Technology was a major one. The impact of computers and advanced, easily obtainable electronics, coupled with the internet’s shrinking of the world opened many new possibilities. Across the globe there was also a tendency for a more slower, quieter music to be made, with a post-AMM sense of laminal atmosphere becoming as common as the fast and furious shapes that improvised music had previously been more widely known for. Musicians in Europe found kinship in the music made in Japan, improvised music met with electronica, noise music and other musical forms, and the number of people involved in making music in this area blossomed dramatically just as the need for a participating musician to be a highly skilled instrumentalist dissipated as the different technologies took hold. Yes there were many exciting changes and developments taking place within improvised and experimental music but they took many different shapes and forms. The margins were always very blurred though, and only in the slightly removed world of cyberspace did anyone really feel the need to place musicians into convenient categories. Those of us observing from behind our computer screens felt the need to try and apply a label, create divisions with the past, claim this music as our own, when really it was all just part of a continuum that began decades ago and continues today. There are certainly some definable sub-divisions with the music today that we could, (should we for some reason ever feel the need) apply sub-genre names to, but “EAI” is not a genre and never has been. The term covers too much ground within an area of music we already had a name for. Its time we stopped using it.

This may all seem like pointless semantics. The term didn’t do any harm did it? Well having thought a lot about this of late I think yes it did. The pointless, imaginary division of improvised music into “EAI” or “EFI” (European Free Improvisation apparently, another ludicrously inaccurate term) suggested two irreconcilable styles of playing music, one was brave and forward thinking, the other stuck in the past. Clearly, if you speak to 90% of the musicians on either side of the imaginary line the division doesn’t really exist, but much internet writing on the subject (including some of my own) would lead you to believe it does. Sure, certain musicians have a tendency to play in certain ways with other certain musicians and there have been changes and progressions in the music that some have embraced whilst others have not. Nothing new there though. Its all still improvised music with a fair amount of composition thrown in for good measure. (A feature that is by no means a new development in itself either) Prejudices form easily though, and I’ve held a good few of them myself. For instance, for a long time I considered saxophones to be no longer capable of making interesting music. Why this might have been, I’m no longer certain. Also I didn’t attend certain concert series in London because I deemed the musicians playing to be too linked to music from the past. How pathetic.

I am not saying that we should all enjoy all types of music, that would be stupid. Clearly we all have preferences and individual interests and will focus our listening in certain areas. My point is that there are many different, small strands within improvised music that cross over in some places, don’t in others. There is no one big division down the middle, just dozens of smaller areas of focus, some pulling together, some flying off at tangents. The idea that “EAI” is a definable musical genre in itself, that perhaps began with the first Erstwhile Records releases and is now supposedly becoming stale and generic is ridiculous. Something can only become generic once it contains all of the established characteristics of its genre. In the case of “EAI” that is just about impossible.

Furthermore, I really believe that 2008 may just about have been the best year for new music since the turn of the millennium. There have of course been many good years of late, but I’m not sure that there has been a year since maybe 1999 that I have struggled so hard to select just twenty or so releases that have defined the year for me from all of the possibilities. There has simply been an awful lot of really great music released this year and I just don’t understand the motivation of those that seem to suggest the opposite. However I am also not going to try and understand such an attitude, and instead here’s a long post listing some of my favourite music of 2008 in no particular order.

One thing I am not going to do this year is rank anything into a neatly ordered list. Even though I’ve always made it clear that similar lists I’ve made in the past have merely listed things in order of my “favourite” music rather than the “best” music I’m not sure that that is always how people read these things. Even worse, the last two years I was involved in compiling people’s “Best of the year” lists into one consolidated chart for the audition radio show, taking a small sub-section of the improvised music community (mainly those that communicate via somewhat enclosed internet communities) and applying a daft mathematical procedure to their contributions to suggest that overall one album is better than another. Well not this year. To be honest if you asked me what was my very favourite release of the year in 2008 I don’t think I could really separate any from six or seven releases. Depending on my mood and the day of the week I’d be just as likely to change my mind anyway. In truth we shouldn’t be trying to make such decisions, we should be just enjoying the music.

The year began with me listening a lot to a number of CDs that actually came out at the back end of 2007. Angharad Davies and Tisha Mukarji’s superb, refined Endspace, released on the Another Timbre label (about which more later) was very much the soundtrack to my New Year, coupled with Ipsi sibi somnia fingunt by Joe Foster and Kevin Parks, a beautifully recorded, consistently vibrant release and one of several discs I’ll mention here that were self-released by musicians. Another such CD was Mattin’s Broken Subject, on one hand a simple album of laptop generated music, on the other a rough and ready explosion of passionate expression. Easily the best thing I’d heard from Mattin for a good while.

I also spent quite a bit of time at the turn of the year catching up with the music of Martin Küchen, a musician I had criminally ignored on the strength of hearing one album I didn’t like very much several years ago. His solo Homo Sacer on the Sofa offshoot label Sillion is excellent and is the first of four very strong solo saxophone discs I heard in 2008, with the sax also featuring on at least half a dozen other great releases of the year. So much for that prejudice then. Another Küchen release from late 2007 I enjoyed a great deal was Beirut, his duo with his fellow Chip Shop Music group member Erik Carlsson, a largely ignored but really very good release on the Kning Disk label. Later in the year Carlsson was involved with two of the three launch releases on the Bombax bombax label. If I had to pick one of the three to recommend I think I would go for the Unforgettable H2O release Flatefjäll, another release likely to slip under the radar but amongst my favourite music of the year.

A further saxophone-related release from early in the year that I really enjoyed was MAP, the duo of Jean-Luc Guionnet and Toshimaru Nakamura. Guionnet played the sax straight on this passionate, aggressive release, mixing fiery, argumentative tonal lines with Nakamura’s deeply expressive feedback. Ignoring all of the “rules” about how one is meant to play with Toshi Nakamura, here Guionnet combines with him superbly to create a fascinating, engaging first few tracks before switching to a church organ for the final triumphant piece. For me Guionnet underlined his skill as an improvisor again later in the year with Le Bruit du Toit, another duo with a Japanese musician, this time the percussionist Seijiro Murayama on the Xing-Wu label, a completely different affair, this time quieter and restrained but very beautiful.

Nakamura had another purple year, seemingly playing constantly with just about everyone and rarely getting it wrong. Dance Music, his solo release on Bottrop-Boy was his most successful solo recording to date, but it was his collaborative music that again really shone. After MAP came One Day, a thoroughly engaging trio disc with English (Joe Foster and Bonnie Jones) on the Erstwhile label, and the quietly brooding SLW quartet release with Burkhard Beins, Rhodri Davies and Lucio Capece on Formed. The pick of the bunch though was actually recorded back in 2005, the duo recording Siyu alongside Annette Krebs that was released in 2008 by SoSEditions. Even though I had heard all of the material on this release before it was remastered here by Nakamura, and placed together on one disc it made a formidable case for being some of the most exciting, enthralling and inspirational music I had heard in quite a while.

MAP had been released on Potlatch, in my opinion probably the most consistent label of recent years. The only other release from the label in 2008 though was the second Trio Sowari album entitled Shortcut, another recording I knew very well before release and enjoyed a lot, this one dealing successfully with the dilemmas of relatively short pieces of music in a manner quite unusual for a modern improv release. More saxophone again in there, this time from Bertrand Denzler, alongside Burkhard Beins’ percussion and Phil Durrant’s laptop.

The Compost and Height net label turned to releasing a series of split 3″ CDRs in 2008, and four discs into the series they have all been of much interest, the Ben Owen / Michael Pisaro split being my favourite yet. However the hypothetical award for my favourite 3″ disc of the year definitely goes to Annette Krebs’ Untitled III Variation/Extract, a twenty minute contribution to the otherwise less than interesting Berlin Electronics four disc set on Absinth. Annette’s unique mixture of gritty abstract sound, disembodied voices and sudden stops and starts is perfectly captured on this piece, a kind of updated musique concrete meets improv collage. That description would also go some way to describe David Lacey and Paul Vogel’s masterpiece The British Isles, yet another strong contender for album of the year. Carefully put together over many months the album presents an array of grainy, murky images inspired in part by film. The music has a deliberately rough immediacy to it despite the way it was put together, combining field recordings with snippets of live improvisation and other tasty morsels in a wonderfully cinematic manner.

So the great discs kept coming as the year progressed. At the same time, over in Japan one of the many points at which composition and improvisation interconnect brought forth a number of interesting releases. Taku Sugimoto continued to interest me a great deal following improvised and composed performances in London at the end of 2007 and his Slub label was busy throughout 2008. The landmark release was probably the three disc set Chamber Music Concerts Vol.1 co-released by Taku Unami’s Hibari label and Masahiko Okura’s Load Factor imprint and featuring three discs of composed music written by the three men. With nearly four hours of stark, uncompromising music presented here this set was probably always going to be a mixed bag but a large percentage of it was not only very good indeed but also disproved many of the preconceptions people had formed of these composers’ work. It was certainly a release that stayed in my CD player for a long time. Masafumi Ezaki’s Othello / 3 Minutes release on Slub could easily have been a fourth disc in the set, but the most singularly rewarding release on the label in my opinion was the Young Person’s Guide to Antoine Beuger CD, a two track affair that presented the truly beautiful string octet composition Tanzaku alongside a Sugimoto-performed guitar version of Sekundenklange (some sounds, just seconds)

Beuger’s own Wandelweiser label had a quiet 2008 with just a couple of releases appearing. My favourite was Michael Pisaro’s An unrhymed chord, a set of two discs each featuring a different realisation of Pisaro’s work including a truly beautiful version for multitracked percussion put together by Greg Stuart. In a similar musical area Radu Malfatti’s B-boim label continued to present some of the most original and challenging music of our times. Of the handful of releases in 2008 Dusseldorf Vielfaches was the my favourite example to feature Malfatti’s music, a warm, floating construction performed by a fifteen strong ensemble. My favourite B-boim release of 2008 was actually not a Malfatti composition however. Jurg Frey’s stunning electronic composition L’ame est sans retenue III, composed and recorded way back between 1997 and 2000 but only released this year is a time-stoppingly beautiful work that has again gone largely unnoticed.

In the wider world of contemporary composition where there is a little more money available and releases come in runs of more than a thousand copies at a time very little caught my ear compared to previous years, but those discs I enjoyed, I enjoyed a lot. Jakob Ullmann’s Voice, books, FIRE 3 on Editions RZ is a typically beautiful work for dry instrumentation and voice performed and recorded impeccably well. Likewise, Klaus Lang’s Book of Serenity on the Kairos label built upon on his own highly evolved take on modern meditative music. Kairos were also responsible for the release of the Arditti Quartet’s stunning renditions of Helmut Lachenmann’s assorted string quartets, fantastic music I’ve come to know well played here by probably the greatest interpreters of modern chamber composition. One other disc I came to enjoy a great deal was Stirrings Still a set of pieces on the Wergo label by Rebecca Saunders, a British composer working in Germany that I was previously unaware of. Saunders’ music on this disc sounds unlike much else I’ve heard before and has a focus on the quality of sounds used, often placed into wide spaces. Hard music to describe in a few words and something of an unlikely discovery for me, for which I have to thank a recommendation by Simon Reynell.

Talking of Mr Reynell, his Another Timbre label certainly takes the non-existent award for label of the year. Throughout 2008 he released disc after disc of generally good to great music. Three that really stood out for me were the aforementioned Davies/Mukarji disc, (actually released very late in 2007) the Frederic Blondy / Thomas Lehn album Obdo (a great stormy expressionistic piano/synth workout) and Blasen, the really wonderful release by the London duo of pianist Sebastian Lexer and saxophonist Seymour Wright. The interplay between the musicians on Blasen is stunning, a superb example of great timing linked to exceptional choices and placement of sounds. Several of my favourite releases of 2008 are just damned good examples of excellent improvised music and Blasen is right up there amongst them.

Seymour Wright had of course jumped into the attention of the music’s online guardians with his singularly focussed, perfectly executed solo release Seymour Wright of Derby. Originally issued as 100 handmade copies given away for free to anyone interested, SW of D captures the musical voice of this impressive musician. The tracks on this album sing out with a wonderful internal rhythm and a sense of composition throughout, although they are certainly all improvised pieces. Probably the most engaging music I’ve ever heard played on a saxophone and probably the one album I’ve played more than any other in 2008.

A couple of other solo sax discs caught my ears alongside the Wright and Küchen releases. Stephane Rives’ second solo offering, the brilliantly titled Much remains to be heard which slipped out on the Lebanese Al Maslakh label reminds me of Sean Meehan’s work, a fine, gradually evolving portrait of a musician making a very personal, focussed music. The exceptionally well captured recordings of John Butcher’s Resonant Spaces tour of unusual sites in Scotland are another superb example of one man very much in tune with his instrument, this time working in tandem with the specific sites chosen for the recordings to create a CD of music that slips between statements of grandeur and tiny intimacies from track to track.

Right at the end of the year Butcher was to feature again on a late contender for my favourite disc of the year, but not before yet another had arrived in October from the impressive Korean/Japanese quartet of Choi Joonyong, Hong Chulki, Otomo Yoshihide and Sachiko M. Sweet cuts, distant curves was one of two strong statements made by members of the small but impressive Korean improv scene. While the quartet disc calmly stacked up simple blocks of improvised tension that were occasionally allowed to tumble into beautiful, brief chaos, the last of the 5 Modules series of releases, a set of three compositions, one each by Choi Joonyong, Ryu Hankil and Hong Chulki took a different approach altogether, using simple processes and instructions to arrange very pleasing musical structures.

It should be noted that as the year came to a close I had not yet heard the two new Keith Rowe related live recordings released in December by Erstwhile, both likely to make quite an impact. So the last really great CD I heard in 2008, and possibly the best of them all (but oh how many times have I said that now?!) arrived just days ago and came as something of a surprise. (Though when I really think about it with a clear head free of stupid prejudices it really should not be a shock at all) Trinity, by the duo version of AMM (Eddie Prevost and John Tilbury) together with John Butcher is a wonderful CD. Since the departure of Keith Rowe from the group, AMM have seemed to struggle to find a way back to anything like the creative energy they had once blown away this listener with. Trinity is the closest they have come yet, and its a very beautiful album indeed. Butcher does not try and fill Rowe’s shoes in any way, but does restrict his playing to a style that fits perfectly between the other two musicians, working primarily though not exclusively with soft tones, some played traditionally, some the result of feedback. Tilbury is masterful here as well, maybe the best I have heard from him in an improvisational setting since Duos for Doris. The music is slow and solemn, divided into four tracks but not ever rushing to a conclusion with Tilbury often taking the lead with meandering piano lines. Prevost works with a limited palette, mainly working with those bowed metal sounds but using them in such a manner that they do not overpower, with Butcher regularly intertwining his sax through the metallic scrapes. Structurally I am often reminded of the Such recording from 1999 but with the distinctive sound of the shakuhachi replaced by Butcher’s sax. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing John Butcher play several times in 2008 and if I stop and think about it he is as perfect a foil for Prevost and Tilbury as anyone else right now. The ability and poise that comes with experience provides just the right tools here to create a music that isn’t AMM Music as I knew and loved it but is about as close as it comes. A masterful CD.

Of course I’ve forgotten a whole load of discs in this already stupidly long post, but I apologise to all of those musicians right now… there were also many CDs in 2008 that came as real discoveries for me, perhaps not fully formed into perfect CD releases yet, but showing enough to suggest they will very soon. 7, the disc by the Norwegian group LEMUR is one I keep coming back to. The music of Daniel Jones and David Papapsotolou has flourished in live settings this year and is presented well on their Leaving Room release. Esther Venrooy and Heleen van Haegenborgh’s Mock Interiors snuck up on me and ended up getting played a great deal, the music of Tim Blechmann has shown itself to be able to charm me easily. The Encadre group of Japanese musicians continue to make music that I find confusingly very interesting if musically pretty unsatisfying. The list could go on. Musically I think 2008 was a very good year, one we will look back upon favourably in years to come and a year that shows great promise for the music moving forward. Happy New Year.

Comments (12)

  • Massimo Magee

    January 2, 2009 at 9:43 am

    Happy New Year Richard!

  • simon reynell

    January 2, 2009 at 9:53 am

    Thanks, Richard, for an extremely interesting post. I’ve started a thread on I Hate Music in the hope that your comments on the usefulness or otherwise of the category ‘eai’ might generate an interesting debate. I certainly agree with your perspective on this one, and feel too that the crude polarisation of the multiplicity of practices that constitute improvised music into a matter of EFI vs.eai has led to blindspots and prejudices in all of us.
    Your review of 2008’s releases usefully reminds me of several discs which I haven’t picked up yet. I’ll have to have a spending splurge to catch up. Of course your review didn’t mention ‘Poor Trade’, but I’ve enjoyed that one a lot, and objectively speaking it deserves to be up there.

  • Richard Pinnell

    January 2, 2009 at 10:59 am

    Thanks Simon.

    It was always my intention to return to IHM in the new year, (though now you’ve started that thread I might have reason to steer clear for a while longer!) The last thing I want is to be seen to be sniping from the sidelines somehow, but to be honest I just haven’t had the energy to participate over recent weeks.

  • jon abbey

    January 2, 2009 at 11:25 am

    I posted a few times on Simon’s thread, but I’m curious about this statement:

    “Tilbury is masterful here as well, maybe the best I have heard from him in an improvisational setting since Tunes without measure or end. ”

    Tunes Without Measure or End is from 2000, are you not counting the release you named your label after (2003)?

  • Richard Pinnell

    January 2, 2009 at 11:29 am

    Ha! Oops I forgot that one! I think thats a serious enough cock-up to go back and edit… Thanks :)

    I need to go to work shortly but will chime in on Simon’s thread tonight Jon.

  • Alastair

    January 2, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    “applying a daft mathematical procedure to their contributions to suggest that overall one album is better than another”

    Surely “a statistically sound mathematical procedure that provided empirical proof that overall one album is better than another”? :)

    But seriously, it was a good way to fill up a couple of shows and end the year nicely before moving on to other stuff. It was also a very useful way of getting listener feedback, which until we stopped (hmm) could be quite hard to get. Lists have their uses, and the ones which said mathematical procedure came up with, using listener’s raw data, gave a good overview of what was worth listening to from that year of “audition-related” music.

    I haven’t heard anything new in this area since September save the latest three Compost & Height 3″ers, all of which I like, but I must second your recommendations of “Seymour Wright of Derby”, “Endspace”, “Obdo”, “Siyu” the Krebs 3″, and mention a great 3″ that Daniel Jones self-released of his concert at Seeds and Bridges on 18/10/07 which I seem to remember you saying you enjoyed (over a pint at some point).

    The “Brave New Wales” comp had a greater hit-to-miss ratio than could ever have been expected of a 4CD various artists compilation from Wales that didn’t have any Charlotte Church on it and put me onto my favourite new CD of the year, actually released in August 07, Ian Watson and Mark Joliffe’s self-titled 3″ on Phantomhead Recordings. 12’17” of perfection.

  • Brian Olewnick

    January 2, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    Excellent post, Richard, good thoughts.

    I’ve just listened to the AMM disc this week and while I like it more than I expected and agree that Tilbury’s playing is fantastic throughout, I wasn’t as convinced by Butcher’s integration, at least as far as what I think of “AMM-ness” goes. It’s unfair, of course, but had I no knowledge of AMM I’d certainly enjoy it more but inevitably one brings in one’s own history…Plus, I was hearing it in opposition, if you will, to Butcher’s solo recording which I like a whole lot, especially the opening track, one of the finest individual pieces I’ve heard this year. I would somehow like to have heard that Butcher with AMM!

    Hope 2009 works out better for you on a personal level.

  • Jacques Oger

    January 2, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    Happy new year, Richard !

  • Seth Tisue

    January 2, 2009 at 10:58 pm

    I look forward to reading more of your writing about music in 2009.

  • Richard Pinnell

    January 3, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    Al, looking back now my only problem with the audition annual report is that it pointlessly ranked music into a “best of the year”chart. Can we really say that something ranked No.7 is better than something ranked No.9 just because a couple more people liked it? Of course at the time it seemed a great idea but on reflection maybe not, though its not that important now.

    The Daniel Jones 3” is indeed very nice. Was it ever a “proper” release? I definitely think that Dan’s best music is all ahead of him yet though, a lot of promise there. (Christ I sound like an aging football manager)

    Brian, the AMM disc sounds the most natural I have heard them post-Rowe. I agree that there is still a lot of AMM-ness missing as we know and love it, but that is why I made the vague comparison to the Such disc rather than anything else. Robert said something somewhere recently about listening to each recording as a piece in its own right and paying less attention to the history… I’m not sure that you could find any other album out there harder to do this with than this one but I did try!

  • Richard Pinnell

    January 3, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    And thanks to all of the well wishers both here and in private emails.

  • al jones

    January 8, 2009 at 2:15 am

    I’ve been anxious for another post and it was worth the wait, Richard. Now I see the earlier Takemitsu post and realize I have my own catching up to do. This one made for a great read with a couple of cup of coffee tonight. I’ve heard maybe half of those discs mentioned here; frustrating because I thought I’d spent all my 2008 bread. But yes, what a nice way to discuss your favorites of the year while avoiding the drabness of a list. Interesting thoughts, too, about genre-setting and labeling (which I find to be incredibly necessary and maddening all the same). My immediate response is that small doses of online participation is far more satisfying than being embedded, yet staying out of the fold makes for difficulty in following the progressions of music that is so empowered of late by the web.

    Agreed, re: Küchen, on all counts. A terribly diverse musician who seems at home anywhere.

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