Every now and again when I review something by somebody I wasn’t already familiar with I receive nice emails from them and offers to send further examples of their work. This happened recently after I wrote a review of Michael Johnsen’s duo cassette release with Pascal Battus. Johnsen got in touch, provided me with some further clarification about the music on that release and then sent me a couple of 3″ CDrs of his solo work, one dating all the way back to 2007 and the other from a couple of years later. Its not usual for me to write about music that has been released for so long, but given that Michael was nice enough to send the discs, and given that I haven’t read very much about his music elsewhere it seems OK to write a little on each disc here now. I don’t know if these releases are still commercially available from Michael or anywhere else. If interested drop me a line and I’ll put you in touch with him.
The first disc then seems to be untitled, but includes the following description on the sleeve:
Live electronic sound made by the tuning & spatial manipulation of two closely spaced portable AM radios having loopstick antennae, the resulting signal undergoing mild output processing, primarily filtering and gating
So what we hear is the sound of two radios spluttering and belching little fragments of static, tuning scribbles, fragments of radio stations and other bleeps and splatter all quite quickly, in little fragments rather than a constant stream but still with little room to breathe. If, as the liner notes suggest, the sound from the radios is treated slightly here its not obvious that this is the case. if anything the sounds feel bright and sharp, but no dramatic transformation of the sounds seems to be involved. Johnsen appears to be something of an elusive, underground character. Trying to read up very much about his work isn’t easy, but in the articles I have found reference often seems to be made to David Tudor’s electronic works. I can certainly hear the resemblance between this piece and some of Tudor’s busier work such as Neural Synthesis, but probably only because of the sounds used. This little CDr is nice, and quite unlike much else I have heard at any point over the last four years since its release, but what seems to be missing to me is a compositional sense. The sounds flit past the ear one after another, seemingly in a hurry, and there is quite a variety of sounds to be heard, as the range leaps about all over the place, but as with some of Tudor’s electronic work, I feel that so much emphasis has been placed upon the sounds themselves, and how they have been created, that less has gone into the structure of the music itself. I suspect, given the tools used here, that Johnsen only had limited control over the sounds he produced, and this so leads to reduced control over the shape and balance of the music. So, while the sounds really do sound great, (and this is probably the most original post-Rowe use of radios I’ve heard for a while) it all just feels a little predictable after the first few minutes. I’d have liked to have heard more space in the music, more room for the sounds to settle and breathe.
The second CDr again seems to lack a proper title but is an unedited twenty-two minute live recording made in New York in early 2009. The instrumentation isn’t listed here, but it seems some kind of home-made Tudoresque electronics are being used. The actual music isn’t actually all that dissimilar to the first CDr however, streams of small electronic squelches and splatter with maybe a little more space to be found here and there. I am actually reminded often here of an Evan Parker sax solo in some ways as Johnsen’s sounds come think and fast, all within the relatively narrow range that his chosen type of electronics allows, but then flying about and covering all angles within that range in a short space of time.
Michael Johnsen’s music here sounds quite unlike much else I’ve heard, at least in recent years. His music has a definite retrospective feel to it, harking back to the days of early synths and the home made electronics of people like Tudor. His sound is raw, but unlike many other modern musicians working with electronics, feedback, open circuits and the like, his music is quite full-on, made up of constant streams of sound rather than the more restrained, spacious music we perhaps hear more of. Consequently, I find myself enjoying the textures and timbres in the work more than I do the music’s structure. I also suspect that those with an interest in the kind of raw, fractured electronics involved here will be over this one like a rash.