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Bruce Russell - Gilded Splinters

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Artist: Bruce Russell

Album: Gilded Splinters

Label: Spirit Of Orr

Review date: Aug. 27, 2007

I like to imagine that Bruce Russell heard a bit of himself in the source material of “For Laurie Penney,” one of five pieces that comprise his first full-length excursion into the medium of tape composition. The piece is based on a 1947 acetate recording of a New Zealand serviceman cheerily suggesting that the folks back home put some cotton wool in their ears and close the doors; then he (rather sweetly) sings a Japanese folk song, quite obviously undeterred by the certainty that no one back home would want to hear it.

For 20 years, on his own and as part of the total improvisation unit A Handful of Dust and free rockers (sort of) The Dead C, Russell has also happily and unapologetically gone about the business of making sounds to near-unanimous bafflement and occasional hostility in his homeland. Russell’s early influences to work with tape came from the far side of the world; during the late ’70s, the Fall and Cabaret Voltaire used cassette recordings to enrich the thick and meaty flavors of their respective stews. The pieces on Gilded Splinters show more empathy with the rigorously experimental work of other Europeans, particularly Ralph Wehoswky and Jerome Noetinger. But Russell’s skill at turning his gear’s primitiveness to his advantage and his affinity for locally generated material – whether it be the concert performers that he folds into “For Laurie Penney” or the sounds of confounded radio reception realized with the assistance of a traffic tunnel that exits a few blocks from his house – connects his practice with that of New Zealand’s first electronic composer Douglas Lilburn.

Tape’s peculiar qualities of transformation via degradation are key to these pieces, even when he departs from tape to use other media at some point in the process; it might actually be more accurate to call this ‘process music’ than tape music. It would probably be impossible to figure out how he did it from how the music sounds, so he obligingly has described the process used to obtain each piece. “Poison + Lie$=Mony+Death [Version]” revisits an old single that Russell improvised in a Laundromat. The original material was slowed down, then re-recorded with a digital video camera inside an armoire, then further manipulated on a computer. The result is a marvelous exploration of buzzing, textured sonorities that would probably sound quite familiar to anyone who lived near an airstrip in the days of internal combustion-driven air travel. “Canterbury Vignettes #2” is more complexly textured, but of similar origin; he reversed a tape of a live performance for electric guitar and toothbrush so that multiple generations of the performance going in both directions could be heard at the same time, then played over them with some oscillators. The effect is a bit like a Sun Ra minimoog solo from 1971 dialoging with some construction site noises in an echo chamber. It should come as no surprise to anyone who has tracked Russell’s work over the years that there is an overriding harshness throughout, but this isn’t just thoughtlessly applied noise. Rather, it is strategically and thoughtfully deployed sound, at once of this world and a portal onto other ones.

By Bill Meyer

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