CD Reviews

Saturday 9th July

July 10, 2011

Its very late, so I will keep this evening’s review brief. In some ways that will be relatively easy as I don’t have a huge amount to say about tonight’s release (though what I have to say is generally good) but there is one very interesting thing to note about this CD.

The disc in question is one of a recent clutch of new releases on the Swedish guitarist Christian Munthe’s own For Sake label, a duo with the New Zealand based percussionist Lee Noyes called Onliners. Now, if I knew nothing about these musicians at all, I would probably be writing here how this is a very nice little disc of spiky, jittery acoustic guitar/minimal percussion improvisations that sit in the Bailey/Stevens lineage very well and are thoroughly enjoyable to listen to for their lightness, clarity and great conversational narrative. All of these things do apply, and I have enjoyed listening to this disc, but one thing hit me when I was halfway through my first listen. Munthe lives in Sweden, Noyes in New Zealand, and to the best of my knowledge neither visited each other’s country in 2009 when this was recorded. The liner notes in fact state that the pieces were “created and performed” by Munthe and Noyes and that they were recorded in both Gothenberg, Sweden, and Dunedin, New Zealand in the same year. So, these recordings, which sound like thoroughly fluid, sprightly little musical discussions were put together at a distance, as the title of the album suggests; online.

In recent years this kind of distance-based joint composition has increased considerably as complex file sharing has become so much quicker and easier, and Noyes in particular has been involved in a number of them, so perhaps it should be no surprise that this is the case here, but really these recordings do not sound like online collaborations. They sound very much in the moment, raw improvisations. I begin to question myself here though and my sense of listening- as most of the recordings made this way that I have heard have been computer/collage styled compositions, do I automatically cast aside the possibility of this being a disc made online simply because it is just acoustic instrumentation used here? Do I just assume this recording was made by two musicians together in a room because you don’t plug in any of the instrumentation?

Onliners is very cleverly made. It really does sound thoroughly natural and expressive. I can only assume that the pieces were made when one of the duo recorded solo and the other added their part playing live alongside the recording somehow, with Munthe and Noyes perhaps taking it in turns to take the lead part over the six tracks here. Listening carefully I have tried to figure out which of the musicians might have supplied the first recording across the album, but it really isn’t easy. The percussion definitely seems to be predominant on IN, the fourth track here, but overall its hard to tell, which can only serve as a compliment to the pair.

Onliners is good then, but made all the better when you see it in light of how I suspect it may have been made. I really wouldn’t have said a CD like this could have been convincingly possible made this way, so either I have got his very wrong, and this review is a complete waste of time, or what I thought couldn’t really be done has been done very impressively. I’m very interested to find out now how the CD was really made. In the meantime this is a nice album indeed. Think John Russell meets Roger Turner with both in an airy, if spiky mood.

Comments (17)

  • Wombatz

    July 10, 2011 at 8:40 am

    I usually more or less agree with most of what you say about the politics of listening, but here… I find a long distance simulation of real time improvisation about as interesting as, I don’t know, a Photoshop job that looks like a real snapshot. It can be done with lots of craft, application and cunning, but what for? Isn’t that like reproduction furniture for the transcontinental practice room? I’m sure the music is great, but I hope its point lies elsewhere…

  • Richard Pinnell

    July 10, 2011 at 9:23 am

    Lutz, I agree in some ways that replacing the unreplaceable connection between two musicians in a room improvising together, attempting to replicate that process at a distance isn’t an appealing thought. (Though I do think the days when people improvise live together over broadband lines are inevitably close) I am only guessing at how this CD was made though, and guessing even harder at the intentions of the musicians.

    My review though wasn’t so much designed to give credence to this way of working (though i can totally understand why people in far flung corners of the world may try hard to make something of value work from it) but rather a series of thoughts about the fact that the actual CD is completely convincing. What does it mean for me, as something of an experienced, if not necessarily very skilled, listener to improvised music if I genuinely couldn’t tell the difference between this CD and any other acoustic improvisation recorded in one room?

    I wasn’t going to mention this out of politeness, but in his review Brian doesn’t mention the possibility of the music being recorded on different sides of the world. He also mentions an “efi conversational aspect”. Did Brian realise how the CD might have been made?

    So my thoughts in the review above were, as is often the case directed back at myself as a listener. Have I the right to be able to put “genuine” improvisations on a higher level than online collaborations, perhaps for political reasons, if, listening to them, I cannot tell the difference? I would argue that yes I have, but only for political reasons. I think any arguments about certain nuances in the music that couldn’t be replicated go out of the window when you really can’t tell the difference any more. As I have written here before, the benefits of improvisation extend far beyond what is left burnt onto a CD. The social, political and personal implications of two people just sitting down to create something in the moment are irreplaceable. I don’t think this CD undermines the ethics of improvisation in any way though- this CD to me just represents two people, geographically removed creating something in the best way they can together given the restrictions placed upon them. It would be great to hear from the musicians involved to understand what they personally took from this project (If indeed it was recorded int he way I suspect) All I can personally do though, with only a 5″ diameter silver disc to go by, is ask myself the questions I have about my abilities as a listener to be able to hear what I really think I hear in a piece of music.

  • Wombatz

    July 10, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    Ha! that makes me more of an ideologue than you are, because yes, I think such method undermines the ethics of improvisation. Not this single record, of course, even if your guess should turn out right, only if we imagine the practice were to become standard in order to find easy ways around certain restrictions differing from project to project. Though hopefully, when the musicians take the long-distance process seriously as a medium, they will after some time come up with a different kind of music, and not stay with an improv simulacrum. I’d suspect with Sight you have yourself released sort of the Black Square of improvised long-distance collaborations, so it’s your own fault if there’s no way back to an innocent practice now :-) If Sight poses the question, “How would I listen to this if I didn’t know what way it was produced” (haven’t heard the record, btw, but I’ll assume for now that, like Cage said of 4’33’’, it’s enough to know that it exists), the answer for me doesn’t lie in the behearer questioning their listening/judging capacities, but in acknowledging the fact that information about production methods and the artists’ intentions are just as much valid and inseparable part of the work as in any other art (and as political as a jazz lick on an eai record).

  • jon abbey

    July 10, 2011 at 10:26 pm

    I don’t think Sight qualifies as long-distance free improv because each musician was limited to only five minutes of material over the course of the hour, which is a pretty big compositional restraint. the Soba to Bara duo I put out is a better example, two musicians who never played together before, didn’t discuss their intentions beforehand, recorded separately and then overdubbed the results without editing and before listening.

    I’ll leave the other questions alone, except to say that I personally used to be much more of an improv purist/ideologue than I am now. I do think the underlying philosophy is still valid and even important (and my own taste will probably be always be for improv over composition), but it almost never produces results that I find interesting anymore (on record anyway).

  • Richard Pinnell

    July 10, 2011 at 11:59 pm

    Lutz- I think that already a new form of music has appeared that is most commonly created through long distance collaboration, and it is somewhat removed from improvisation, and makes no attempt to mimic it, though frequently I see improvising musicians beginning to work in this way alongside improv projects. If a recurring style could be found in these projects it possibly falls closer to musique concrete as much as anything else. There are few discs that actually try and recreate the style and sound of improvisation via long distance processes. If indeed the release above was recorded at a distance then it is something of a rarity in that it sounds so close to how a live improv session might sound. I don’t think the new possibilities of technology have really impacted on the essence of improvisation at all yet. The online activities sit alongside as something new . The changes may come once it becomes possible for live meetings of musicians to be held over the internet more easily, but even then I suspect this kind of activity will exist only as a second choice when real face to face meetings are impossible.

  • Jesse

    July 11, 2011 at 3:35 am

    jon, as well as i think i know you at times, clarify for me- are you saying you seldom find improvisation on records interesting any more?

  • jon abbey

    July 11, 2011 at 6:57 am

    yes, pretty much. I don’t want to clog Richard’s blog with a detailed sidetrack on my perspective and I feel like I’ve elaborated on this at length in a few places, at least one long IHM thread, and also there is a brief one in the Keith/Radu interview I did here:

    in the part where I start with “Sure. I guess the point that I’m driving at”.

  • jon abbey

    July 11, 2011 at 7:09 am

    this thread has a bunch of posts from me where I explain my current/recent perspective on this at great length:

  • Richard Pinnell

    July 11, 2011 at 8:56 am


    If I was to apply the same criteria for measuring the value of improvisation to the music as Jon does (and crucially, I don’t) then I would agree with him that it is stagnant and uninteresting. I would add though that, using this criteria I would also have said the same thing ten years ago. If you apply Jon’s criteria for musical vitality and importance then I’d say there has been little evidence of innovation at a genre-affecting level for at least a decade, possibly longer.

    I would certainly suggest that Jon’s recent declarations merely reflect the fact that he has become bored with something that others got bored of three, five, seven, nine years ago, others got bored of last week and others will lose interest in next year. I have heard endless people making the same statements for many years, and if the key measure you have for the value of any musical genre is how innovative the end, marketable product is then of course he/anyone will get bored with it. Its inevitable. The same thing could probably be said about breakfast cereals.

    Experimental musicians within our vague orbit have been working at expanding their music away from the purely improvised for decades, and clearly the advances of technology over recent ears have opened up all kinds of new possibilities that have produced some of the most interesting and inspiring music for many years. Just because more is easily possible now does not mean that the boundaries haven’t been constantly pushed, at a parallel alongside the existence of pure improvisation for many many years. There is actually little that is genuinely “new”. Sight was an old idea, as was Soba to Bara. Their existence merely reflects the current interests of particular musicians/label owners and the removal of technical barriers by advancements in technology. As with all art, what really matters is not how innovative something is, but just how much creative energy, imagination, emotion and sheer power something holds. Often indeed these elements are amplified by innovation and a discarding of old ways of working, but certainly not necessarily so. Maybe the most powerful, personally affecting live show I have seen this year was the recent solo Keith Rowe performance at the LRB Bookshop- a partly composed, partly improvised, but ultimately entirely unoriginal, hour of music. My intense connection with the performance was lead by my understanding of the musician involved, my connection to his history and development, and ironically in Keith’s case my understanding of how he holds music and art from generations ago at a higher level than very much created today. Innovation at a genre-changing level had nothing to do with it. Personal innovation and change was crucial. The same could be said for how I have closely followed other musicians in recent years, my interests in whom have often, out of necessity been geographically driven. If I lived somewhere else, clearly I would probably be directly impacted and moved by other sets of performers. Whether old methods of making music or new are used is ultimately irrelevant if we can connect directly to the messages, the inspirations that drive those that create it.

    This isn’t to devalue innovation, which I think is vital if we are to keep generating new music as well as great music. The next two Cathnor CDs will both be items that I think at least attempt some degree of innovation, and interestingly one of them is entirely improvised. My interests have long extended way past pure improvisation and I’m not sure I know anyone whose interests do not. As I have written at length before though, innovation at a genre-changing level is not the most important aspect of improvisation, and is arguably not important at all. Neither is the creation of marketable end products, be they CDs or concerts. Measuring the real values of musicians getting together to improvise by their publicly available output is like measuring the true values of education through exam results. The true gains comes from the life lessons, the experiences, the building of social and interpersonal skills. This journey will be repeated over and over by many generations. Maybe the exam results will be good as well, but they are essentially superfluous to the learning of the individual.

  • jon abbey

    July 11, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    “Sight was an old idea, as was Soba to Bara. ”

    curious to hear what you mean by this, can you elaborate on predecessors for those projects? thanks.

    “Maybe the most powerful, personally affecting live show I have seen this year was the recent solo Keith Rowe performance at the LRB Bookshop- a partly composed, partly improvised, but ultimately entirely unoriginal, hour of music. ”

    this also points to a major problem in our music in a way: almost no one else is working anywhere near the level that Keith is. I’m glad (genuinely) that you (Richard) can be so moved by Patrick Farmer’s work and recent solo recording (as an example), but it’s hard for me to listen to that same record and hear anywhere near what you hear in it (and I like it). maybe if I’d seen him repeatedly live, I’d feel differently, but I don’t think so.

    anyway, I disagree that my position can be reduced to my growing “bored with something that others got bored of three, five, seven, nine years ago, others got bored of last week and others will lose interest in next year.”, but I’ve elaborated on this at length in other places already.

  • Massimo Magee

    July 11, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    well, the idea of layering recordings by improvisers who have never met over each other (a la Soba to Bara) is not a new idea, that’s for sure. I’m sure plenty would put their hands up to say they’ve tried it at least once or twice, whether the results were released or not. Whether the exact specifics of the ‘Sight’ idea had been used before I’m not sure, but even that I would say is also an extension (I use that word for want of a better one, disregard any notions of progression) of established practice.

  • Richard Pinnell

    July 11, 2011 at 8:50 pm

    Well as Massimo says, the general idea of layering blind recordings has been done many times, so my point was that the likes of Sight and Soba to Bara aren’t new ideas. I can’t remember the specifics but right after the release of Sight I was pointed to a couple of other similar projects. it might have been in an IHM thread, I can’t remember. I actually intended to do something very similar to Soba to Bara as a regular slot on audition, the radio show I used to co=present. We played an early CD release by Barry Chabala with a guitarist from Liverpool whose name I am ashamed to say I forget, the idea being that each of the musicians provided a disc each, recorded without hearing the other’s contribution and they should be played together. After we had fun playing it on the show I had the idea of asking a list of musicians to provide ten minutes of music each, in pairings they were aware of, that could be played together live on the show for the first time. I got as far asking a few people to consider contributing when something happened to stop it, I suspect Alastair announcing he was emigrating, but I’m not sure.

    Jon you said that you don’t find improvisation on records interesting any more. If something doesn’t interest you, it must bore you. That isn’t the case for me yet, but I should make clear that I don’t lose interest in something because it doesn’t seem to innovate much. In a new Wire review, published today I wrote that few improvised records provide genuine surprises these days. Again though, I don’t necessarily need surprise to enjoy something, and while maybe predictable, generic music might have to work harder to catch my ear it still can do very easily.

  • jon abbey

    July 11, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    to me there are huge differences between having a very general idea, actually executing that idea and letting other people hear it, and having that idea (especially this specific one) be successful. Earl Howard always used to tell me when we were mastering Ersts that he had done all of this decades before, to which my response was generally along the lines of “well, since you didn’t leave any trace of that for the rest of us, I’m going to go ahead and put this out.”

    also, for the sake of clarity, it’s not that I never find improvisation on records interesting anymore, there are always exceptions. I just wish there were more exceptions, it would make my job easier and my listening more enjoyable.

  • Massimo Magee

    July 12, 2011 at 4:56 am

    Yes Richard, the project with the Liverpool connection was one of the ones I was thinking of (though not the only one – you actually have a copy of a little project where Barry and I tried the same thing, this time with two guitars), and it features Barry with one of the veterans of online collab, Phil Hargreaves. It was released, too, here – and you can even listen online. And I don’t really see the contention that having it be ‘successful’ is any kind of yardstick at all. One person’s success is another’s failure, after all, and being beholden to some notion of ‘success’ especially as defined by releases is a very dangerous thing indeed.

  • christianmunthe

    August 2, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    Very nice to see this discussion coming out of mine and Lee’s little effort – and, I suppose to a greater extent, your nice take on writing about our CD, Richard. Thanks for that. I don’t really have that much to add to what’s been said, but thought that I would tell the story about Onliners. A good start may be to quote what I wrote about it at the *for*sake recordings site:

    “One way of putting it is this: One speaks and another takes it in, making it his own and thereafter speaks. Another speaks and one takes it in, making it his own and thereafter speaks. The onliners thereby commencing are fragments of a conversation that never, as it were, took place. The onliners participating in this nonexisting interaction liked each other’s approaches from a distance while realising the impossibility of a union. They never spoke together and never created a voice. Yet, here it is and what it speaks are onliners. Jointly edited and partly reactive improvisations by New Zealand percussionist Noyes and Munthe. Each player created solo improvisations, shared online and then edited, mixed and added to by the other. Drums and acoustic guitar in a conversation of sorts – or is it a word?”

    So, Richard’s guess about the history behind Onliners is more or less adequate. I might add that there’s been quite a bit of editing both of our own respective contributions and of each others’. Mix work as well, of course. Some of this was jointly done, as was the selection of tracks. This leaves the thoughts about the actual sound of the record reminding very much of a live improvisation. I can only speak for myself here, but I suspect my own reading of this is close to Lee’s – not least since none of us found the subject relevant to bring up. From my point of view, this illustrates the attitude that the history of a piece of music doesn’t really matter when judging its quality as a piece of sound. For me personally, I simple listen and make my assessment (and when creating it myself, make the appropriate adjustments). So, this is what I did at least – not much different from live improvising, really, except for the time-factor and the higher degree of immediate interactivity with another human being. I suppose that the explanation for why the sound on the CD possesses a lot of qualities that one may associate with a live recorded improvisation is that there’s is no difference in aesthetic standards being applied. I improvise as I do because I like how it sounds, this liking (or disliking) is no different when approaching a project like this one.

  • Richard Pinnell

    August 3, 2011 at 12:18 am

    Thanks for that Christian

    “the history of a piece of music doesn’t really matter when judging its quality as a piece of sound”

    This is really interesting. Certainly i agree that it doesn’t matter when judging “quality”, though I would obviously say that one listener’s quality may well be another’s complete disinterest. I do think though that the background, the history to a piece of music can impact on your understanding of it, help you to hear more in it, figure out the complexities etc… While these issues may not alter your opinion of the work at all they do add additional colour and, as in the case of this CD may well provide the impetus for others to work in a way they had not considered.

    Its also interesting from a reviewer’s perspective here to think about our responses to music- can we spot the difference between “in the room” improvisations and online collaborations? This isn’t to place one way of working above another, but these questions, whilst not impacting on the end product playing on the stereo are of interest to me at least.

  • christianmunthe

    August 3, 2011 at 11:37 am

    Yeah, for sure the reviewer and listener perspective and a related interest in understanding the music in its wider context makes the history of creation a piece of art relevant. Also, the more intellectual issue of classifying music in such terms is interesting for sure – but to me mostly because I have come to the opinion of finding such classifications fundamentally irrelevant to anything I care about aesthetically. Now, technically, such information may be very informative and enriching for a musician (“wow” was that done on an accordion??!!”). Also, as an artist, one may (as many do and I have done to a bit over the years) play around with the preconceptions of listeners created by holding out a piece of music as being improvised, electronic, done on a guitar, et cetera. So, there’s a definite tool aspect here. At the same time, as some pointed out earlier in the thread, such effects have only a limited life-time, as yesterday’s surprise soon becomes tomorrow’s preconception. You can as an artist, of course, choose to work with these things as your main tool (having an avant garde perspective as your main artistic goal), and consequently being forced to change approaches as new listener habits develop. That’s never been my own central aim, however, although as most improvisers I feel the need from time to time to challenge my old ways – hopefully adding new layers of expressions to the arsenal I use when creating music.

    So, I think that I would actually come out here as a aesthetic history nihilist or instrumentalist when it comes to art – at least as long as the artistic object is not itself a historical process.

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