Dusted Features

A Season of Sizzle: an eai roundup

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Features

While it's impossible to keep up with all the developments in electroacoustic improvisation and related sub-genres, Jason Bivins surveys some of the more notable releases from the past several months.

A Season of Sizzle: an eai roundup

New releases often fall through the cracks during the months surrounding any new year, and it’s often easy – in the thick of list-making frenzies – to lose sight of some strong recordings. Over the last few months, there’s been a real slew of fascinating releases that can be grouped roughly under the rubric of electroacoustic music.

First up is a real dilly from Potlatch, a duet recording from John Butcher and Christof Kurzmann entitled The Big Misunderstanding Between Hertz and Megahertz. John Butcher is perhaps the perfect duo partner for an improvisational setting. As distinctive and personal as his post-Evan Parker approach to tenor and soprano saxophone may be, he is not one of those improvisers who adhere doggedly to dogma regardless of the music’s demands. Regardless of setting, he is both amazingly adaptive and always himself. As enjoyable as it is to hear him in acoustic free improvisational contexts, the path in electroacoustic music he’s been charting since his late ’90s duos with Phil Durrant is a truly exciting one. Here he employs feedback saxophone only on “Redwood Second,” but his incredible technical range – subsisting not just of key-clacking and the like, but incorporating a myriad of effects rooted in Butcher’s incredible control of breath and embouchure – suggests all manner of alien or processed instrumentation. Kurzmann here uses only a pick-up and his own software, which he calls “lloopp.” Of course he occasionally records, doubles, and processes Butcher in real-time (on the brief “Bee Space,” where the saxophone’s keypads sound like lapping hounds). But he also devises somewhat unpredictable sound environments, as on the rapidly moving “Klafter” – it begins with steam vents, moves into slowly snapping wood, and then dissolves into cosmic loops. The combined approaches yield some fascinating results: the rough, cranky grumbling ceding to spectral moans on “Redwood Session”; the out-of-body experience of a Radigue composition on “Schilling”; or the powerful “Seer,” whose slurring madman nastiness is set against a thrumming tapestry of pulse, windup-toys, and an electrified aviary. A great record.

Kurzmann also teams up with Japanese vocalist Ami Yoshida on the powerful A S O (Erstwhile). Yoshida doesn’t release much music but – aside from a flat encounter with percussionist Fredy Studer – she usually performs at the highest level (see Astro Twin or Cosmos with Sachiko M). Her incredible range and imagination is exceeded only by the sheer startling capacity she has to sound like lowercase electronics. The faintest of tones, the most sinuous hiss, the most subtly tweaked electric hiccup – these could just as easily be coming from Yoshida as from her partners. The disc opens much like you might expect in this vein: flames lick as the music invokes Butcher or Bhob Rainey one minute, Günter Müller or Sachiko M the next. Yet from here it proceeds in unexpected directions. The second track becomes ominous, with a faintly whooshing bullroarer and a distant metallic clatter that almost suggest that one is listening to some obscure basement activity through an overly active steam vent. There’s a moaning pulse, a cavernous thud in the distance, a slowly-turned crank right in your earhole. The more I listen to this album, the more unsettling I find it, filled with moments as jarring as the meat-puncher on The Drift. The final track starts with ominous thudding but transforms slowly, painfully, almost hideously into something wet and organic – it sounds during one stretch like something being tortured and eviscerated, but ends up like a garbled data transmission being emulated through a broken ventilator. It’s this iconoclastic attitude to surfaces and structures that I really appreciate about this release (and kudos to Kurzmann for constructing strange quasi-industrial environments that sound so distinct). But ultimately it’s the very humanity of Yoshida’s coos and soft whines that sound the most alien.

For years I’ve been seeing Billy Roisz’s name pop up on Vienna-based electroacoustic recordings. Credited with “video mixing board,” Roisz has been an integral part of collectives like Efzeg and others. AVVA (Audio Visual Visual Audio), the duo of Roisz and no-input mixing board wizard Toshimaru Nakamura, get together for Erstwhile’s second DVD release, Gdansk Queen (there was a DVD released as part of the Amplify box a few years ago). A/V combinations seem to be proliferating in this music, with not only this release but a recent Michael Renkel project as well as the subtle Filament release Dark Room Filled with Light (Uplink). There must be an awfully big temptation for Roisz to come up with a simple visual accompaniment to Nakamura’s sounds, mere garlands that serve as a continuo to Nakamura’s. In places, she masterfully avoids the temptation, yet elsewhere seems to succumb. This seems to hamper the opening “Huitzilopochtli,” where a steady pop-pulse to blue screen flicker heats up in a frenzy like an early ‘70s tubescreen gone crazy. The bottom drops out for a sine wave of pure intensity, almost like the amplified sound of sun on metal (with quick-switch vertical to horizontal greens and yellows). I felt that the visuals were of a limited range, unlike the audio. One of the most provocative features of electroacoustic music is, for me, the way it eludes ostensive reference and challenges the imagination to produce allusions and images. So when I hear disturbing, skittering noises that resolve into sine tones which are then constricted till they become drill bits boring into your skull, I am disappointed to see blocky visuals, a bit too static, to capture the subtlety I hear in the sound. Thankfully, though, this general impression isn’t comprehensive and Roisz triumphs elsewhere. As “Lino” develops, Nakamura plays with sudden wells of sound, broken static that suggests mechanical collapse, and Roisz adroitly responds with great pools and slashes of darkness, going deep into the machines. “Twist” rises in intensity, a shriek, a blaring claxon, a stuttering well from below, as the screen fragments and eventually disappears in a spiral of endlessly rearranged tiles. “Couchette” is a huge throbbing bass drone with one bright yellow sash cutting across and slowly cycling through the spectrum. Nakamura shifts the piece into a lonely sonar ping, Roisz responds with an inverted blue-and-yellow grid. “Maici” is the most radio-static sounding piece, like N:Q on meth. The diffuse elements fly together like metal flakes to a magnet, coiling together in an intense stream that’ll leave your head buzzing. A real head-fuck and a nice way to close the disc.

Signal to Noise Vol. 1 (For4Ears) has nothing to do with the magazine but rather, naturally, with output ratios, amplitude, and the like. Fittingly, this quintet (Jason Kahn on analog synthesizer, Norbert Möslang on cracked everyday-electronics, Keiichiro Shibuya on keyboard, Maria on laptop, and Günter Müller on iPod and electronics) is interested in the mechanics of instrumentation and in the elemental processes of sound generation. The disc, apparently the first of five volumes, contains five relatively concise tracks taken from a March 2006 concert at Tokyo University. What’s satisfying about this music is the way in which the somewhat familiar relationships and working strategies of Kahn, Möslang, and Müller are tested by the other two musicians, and things don’t settle into customary patterns as much as they otherwise might. The introductory track is refreshingly busy (whereas many sessions like these waffle tentatively for a while before finding their ground), with thrum and pulse constantly buffeted by squeaks and whizzes and electro-storms. But while I appreciate the confidence with which the musicians begin, the music does sound just a touch formulaic as it goes on. Most of the pieces lay down a thick aural bed, slowly tweak the dynamics, and steadily introduce electronic chatter to chip away at the margins. There’s enough good stuff here to keep your interest: the spooky third track sounds like a cold lake stirred by wind underneath a metal dome, and I dig the way the fourth track moves from sizzling hot sine waves into a massive sound like phone books being torn. But this one isn’t especially memorable.

The latest from electronics composer Brendan Murray is Wonders Never Cease (Intransitive). While I’ve enjoyed Mr. Murray’s recent releases (including last year’s Resting Places and his recent, limited-run Ocean of Dirt, Mountain of Steam), this five-part suite is his strongest statement yet. Its opener “Hymn One” is a beautifully rendered drone, like the hurdy-gurdy fantasies of Oren Ambarchi & Johann Berthling rendered by Eliane Radigue. Subtly shifting tonal centers move cautiously beneath the thick shag, twisting and pitch-bending before releasing some truly head-cleaning scrapes and excoriations. (A lovely reprise closes the record, by the way.) “Seize” seems to shift back and forth, a cantilever at its center, almost like a fixed interval that rocks on top of waves of rumbling electronics. (Somehow, this music always suggests nautical imagery to me.) “Hymn Two” is entirely different, breaking through with a huge multi-layered squall, until something like a post-produced harmonica slices through with high lonesome intensity to begin “Seas.” Harmonica tones are stacked and morphed creating the effect of some odd fusion of Harry Partch and Scelsi, with tape machines buckling and clicking along the way until they resolve into a huge shimmering mass garlanded with rain. A superb and oddly emotional record.

Mike Shiflet’s Ichinomiya 5.3.6 comes courtesy of the good folks at Tronik and Little Enjoyer. Apparently named for a village whose distinct mental habitus Shiflet has tried to replicate through sound, this record consists of a single 47-minute piece that begins as a fulsome Fenneszian drone. Shiflet just sits on the damn thing, and after a time introduces some pitch-shifting and some crackle underneath. Billowing, it adds to itself and gathers threads into its body by the halfway point: there are sine tones, some heavy subscalar crumbling, and sonic plate shifts. While there are enough textural shifts and dynamic changes to prevent this from being meditative or soppy, this is most assuredly an exercise in focus and restraint over the long term. Impressive, but not essential.

From Creative Sources, we have Undecided (A Family Affair), a mostly acoustic release which shares idiomatic and aesthetic sensibilities with the others grouped together here. Appropriately for a disc with this title, this is music created by two families, each represented here by two members: Ernesto Rodrigues on viola and Guilherme Rodrigues on cello and pocket trumpet; and alto saxophonist Christine Sehnaoui and electric guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui. I’ve long dug the kind of guttural metallic textures this fine guitarist can summon, and to me he might be the most compelling voice here, seeming to draw the oscillating breaths and brushstrokes to him, a kind of menacing centrifugal force (most notably on the clatter and twang of “Over turn”). But the real surprise for me here is how compelling Rodrigues’ burbling work on pocket trumpet has become. It’s these two instruments I concentrate on, even though the overall textural palette tends to blend all voices together. Some heat here and there (especially on “Sitting on a fence”) but otherwise a fine simmering session.

From the same label is Intersecting a Cone with a Plane, featuring a fascinating trio comprised of Ricardo Arias (bass-balloon kit), Günter Müller (selected percussion, mini-discs, iPod, electronics, processing), and Hans Tammen (endangered guitar). It’s a subtle record, with two long improvisations bookending a shorter one. Müller continues to become ever more exacting in his creation of templates and frames, though this way of thinking inaccurately consigns him to background gestures. With very little fat or excess, he can set the tone for groups in ways that are both recognizable and elusive: an abstracted percussive rumble or the most distant sine sizzle. Tammen plays with near self-abnegation here, a crackle, a detuned E-string, a rough bludgeoning every so often. And who really knows which sounds Arias produces – likely the wet squiggles and sawing. Together they come up with some very stimulating stuff: an insect colony plugged into a massive generator in your backyard, a ringing loop like a snippet of Rosy Parlane or Fennesz blared out from a passing car, a resonating metal braid coming undone, or a black electric cloud courtesy of Tammen’s lovely glinting bow work and the delicate, woody chorus from Arias. Another good one.

Finally, one of the scariest discs in some time is Achbal al Atlas (Little Enjoyer), a duo between percussionist Tim Barnes and the unpredictable laptop assassin Mattin. It swaggers forth with an ominous tattoo and metallic scrape soundtrack worthy of early Swans. It’s a huge, unrelenting noise that’s broken up by rests and pauses, returning each time with a different, increasingly tortured texture. Ultimately the pulse is obliterated, a floor removed to reveal a yawning, howling chasm of noise below (in places it’s unclear what Barnes’ contribution is when the noise gets so huge – presumably he’s mic’d his drum heads?). Not everything is quite so hideous. A see-saw of chimes and hiss opens the second untitled track. The overall sound here is like listening to your neighbor’s music through the wall, which starts to melt as the track goes on, revealing Barnes’ cymbals – stroked, struck, and bowed. There’s another shift on the third track, as the music moves into a pervasive, subtly morphed single coil pitch, one of those beauties that, if you move your head around, seems to tilt back and forth on a minor second. While Barnes tries gamely to introduce some subtlety with mellow muffled chimes, the disc ends with a speaker-pulverizing mash-up. At times exhilarating, at times a bit self-indulgent, this one is still worth checking out.

By Jason Bivins

Read More

View all articles by Jason Bivins

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.