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Structured Spontaneity: ErstLive Series 1-4

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Dusted's Marc Medwin takes a look at a new series of Erstwhile live releases.

Structured Spontaneity: ErstLive Series 1-4

001: Keith Rowe and Burkhard Beins
002: Keith Rowe, Toshimaru Nakamura, Thomas Lehn and Marcus Schmickler
003: Burkhard Stangl and Christof Kurzmann Schnee Live
004: Christian Fennesz, Sachiko M, Otomo Yoshihide and Peter Rehberg

Erstwhile Records continues its crucially prolific documentation of the fertile “EAI” (electro-acoustic improvisation) scene with a new series called ErstLive. The first four installments all come from the fourth AMPLIFY Festival (addition), a two-week event that took place in Berlin and Cologne during May, 2004. While AMPLIFY 2002: balance was commemorated with an elaborate box set containing extensive visual documentation and liner notes (see Matt Wellins’ excellent feature on this site), Erstwhile frontman Jon Abbey chose a much sparser approach for ErstLive. The music is meant to speak for itself, and there is minimal sleeve info and no liners; each release is packaged in a slimline jewel case and is pressed in an edition of 800 copies. The music housed within shows even more variety than does the balance box, the two quartets each being first-time assemblages of two duos that had collaborated previously and the duo sets presenting radically different music than on previous recordings.

Each disc contains one continuous track representing a concert set, and repeated listening shows how often structure plays a role in supposedly “free” music. The Rowe/Beins duo (recorded on May 10th, not the 13th as the disc says) is a beautiful soft/loud/soft-again arch with aberrations in the form of animalistic growls. From the outset, a raw energy threatens to overpower even the quietest moments. Beins’ fluidly powerful percussion work increases in intensity as Rowe’s guitar treatments, reminiscent of late 60’s AMM, thrum and writhe over his trademark radio interruptions. As the sound builds toward climax, a Dusty Springfield “Preacherman” moment provides transcendental humor amidst the intermittent groans, presumably courtesy of Rowe, of some electronic beast.

The first of the two quartet releases, 002, is a much more abstract affair where structure is concerned. Nothing so much as a series of sudden gestures bearing a slight resemblance to traditional character pieces, the only ebb and flow in the set seems to be from Nakamura’s no-input mixing board. The other three members contribute short bursts, hollow pops, the occasionally delicately “oriental” string figure. Rowe’s aesthetic here is the more subdued transparency of late 80’s or 90’s AMM, beautifully complemented by Thomas Lehn’s synth stylings. His sound is unmistakably “analog”, consisting of melodic and rhythmic aphorisms, and his counterpoint here supports Jim O’Rourke’s assessment of him as “the best synthesizer player in the world.”

Kurzmann and Stangl’s set boggles the mind. It is the most unique of the series, and, I would venture, the most unexpected Erstwhile release to date. After bidding the club audience politely but insistently to be quiet, Kurzmann enters into a mixture of anti-war recitation and song with traditionally chordal guitar accompaniment. Functioning as a kind of melancholy dirge, the texted sections—in both English and German—are interspersed with undulating lines of feedback and serpentine rhythmic labyrinths that invoke the post-rock drone worlds of San Agustin and Double Leopards. By turns complex, delicate and finally humorous—the concluding German text has the participants dying with their laptops on!—this set is a riveting and powerful experience.

It could not be more different from its namesake, the duo’s 2000 Erstwhile release also called Schnee.

The second quartet set uses extremely few sonic building blocks to the maximum effect, making it the most focused of the four discs so far released. Like any well-crafted piece of “contemporary” music, many of the textures heard throughout are present at the beginning. Drones, soft scrapings and rumbles emerge from an uneasy silence to expand, bloom, pulse and fragment. At times, a drone might resemble a ghostly voice or adopt sine-wave purity due to Sachiko M’s presence, the scraping might take on the melodic tint of familiar Fennesz circa Endless Summer, but unlike 002, any one reference is momentary, and individual voices are largely blurred to stunningly unified effect. Formally mirroring 001, the wash of sound peaks quickly and slowly fades, leaving only silence occasionally broken by sudden low-frequency bursts similar to those at the set’s commencement. Such concentrated listening renders the long periods of silence revelatory, anticipation giving each “normal” environmental sound new depth and clarity after the experience.

Like the six Bartok string quartets, these four discs work in succession as a cycle, the two arch structures serving as bookends to more abstract and diverse music. Upon listening to the four concerts in one go, I perceived a loose but definite palindrome, as satisfying and complete an experience as any one disc on its own. If a choice is necessary, 003 seems the most amenable to mass appeal and the most revealing on repeated listening, but such a decision is difficult with so much fascinating music on offer.

By Marc Medwin

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