Matt Earle / Adam Sussmann / Jason Kahn - "cw07 (excerpt)" (Draught)
On the surface, Draught has all of what you expect from a record of improvised, experimental music. More familiar instruments are traded in for what the sleeve tells us are simply “electronics.” There’s a lack of readily identifiable structure, and gritty, hissing textures take over for other musical identifiers. There’s none of the catharsis or gradually building arcs we associate with the Improv that took shape in the 1960s and ’70s. It settles in to a gradual, more measured pace, patient but not slow, nor particularly quiet. The two untitled sets were recorded live at a small experimental arts space in Australia during the trio’s tour.
The secret of this recording’s success is not in its ostensible experimental nature. It’s in how traditional it is. What engages us is the simple act of listening to the interplay these three experienced performers bring. We hear them play with each other and against each other. They overlap long phrases of sibilant, mid-range static, and drizzles of needle crackle with whining high frequencies and wobbly, modulated low end. Shorter, more jagged phrases are interjected then quickly removed. The effect is jarring, snapping your senses to attention. It’s not reaction we’re listening to; it’s interaction.
What makes this interaction so engaging is that we are hearing three musicians working within the limits of their chosen systems. Kahn is on synthesizer, Earle uses a turntable, tape deck, sampler and mixer, and Sussmann explores his own simple electronic devices and modified guitar. These are not boundless sound-making devices. They present only certain options, selected frequencies and textures, most of them hard-edged and austere. To make them interesting, the trio must choose wisely, intuitively contrasting and comparing and attenuating the dynamics so that these fundamentally incompatible sounds all get space.
But because the three have chosen such limited instruments, it gives their more traditional interaction a new twist. The end result is sonically similar to one of John Cage’s Number pieces, albeit in a slightly more agitated form. In Cage’s pieces, the whole point is to set moving boundaries for the performer to work within, the idea being that bounded material is more interesting than boundless material. The performers’ ideas overlap but don’t necessarily merge, so interest shifts to the tension and levels that emerge. Earle, Sussmann and Kahn have embraced that kind of tension. It’s almost as if their instruments are their score: closed systems that present an ever-shifting scope of specific possibilities.