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Monthly Archives: January 2003

Shock the Bear

Moscow-based composer Artemiy Artemiev, head of Electroshock Records, talks about coming of age underneath a piano and the watchful ear of the Soviet secret service.

In the west end of Moscow, Russia, in the Krylatskoye District, sits Electroshock, an eight-year-old record label with almost 40 releases to its credit. Former president Boris Yeltsin lives in the area, which is home to many government officials.

Electroshock is run by composer Artemiy Artemiev. Artemiy’s father is composer Edward Artemiev, who is perhaps best known in the West for his groundbreaking electroacoustic soundtracks to films directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, including Solaris.

The elder Artemiev also produced music in close proximity to politics, but that was in a different Russia, at a different time. In the former Soviet Union, the musical avant-garde was considered suspect by the KGB. Artemiy tells stories of his father’s inability to travel, of the close watch maintained by the secret service, and of coming of age during the waning years of the U.S.S.R.

Today, Electroshock flourishes where his father and his father’s peers worked in secrecy. Electroshock is not simply home to a record label. It is also home to a music-promotion company, to a recording studio, to an active website, and to the family of the man who runs all of those enterprises. Artemiy lives there with his wife, Tatiana, and their two young children, Artemiy Jr., 5, and Kate, 3.

“I have everything in one place,” he says, in the course of a recent email interview.

And by “everything,” he means quite a lot. A composer as well as the head of Electroshock, Artemiy writes for Music Box, a Russian magazine, where he is also a contributing editor; and he lectures and plays music on radio and on Moscow’s cable TV network. Father Edward lives with Artemiy’s mother about a quarter of an hour away by car.

The majority of this interview is a fresh exchange, via email, with Artemiy, though some of the autobiographical sketches are templated material that he inserts in answer to standard questions, such as his early introduction to his father’s music. The correspondence appears, lightly edited, below.

Marc Weidenbaum: You grew up surrounded by musicians, including your own father, Edward Artemiev, who is one of Russia’s premiere electronic composers. What are your early memories of growing up in that household.

Artemiy Artemiev: I got interested in my father’s music since my birth. In 1966, from the day when I was born, we lived in a small, one-bedroom apartment: my father, my mother, my grandmother, a concert Steinway grand piano and myself. As you know, my father is a composer and my mother — I think you don’t know this biographical fact — is a professional pianist. So, I was listening to the music all day long. I listen to my father’s music and classic music of various composers performed by my mommy.

My favorite place was under the Steinway. I made a playground there and liked to listen to the music under it. You know, music sounds rather mystical if you listen to it under the piano. Have you ever tried this? It’s like Alice in Wonderland. On the one hand, you are listening to the music, but on the other hand it’s not the music you are listening to — you are listening to the sounds of “under music.” And yes, maybe these sounds and timbres subconsciously appear in my compositions.

So, we lived in this apartment until 1973 and then moved to the new three-bedroom flat, leaving this apartment to my granny. She died there in 1982 and it was taken by the Soviet government, together with the Steinway grand piano. Where is this old Steinway now? Nobody knows.

You know, my childhood was a very interesting period of my life. Around the age of seven or eight, I started visiting the Moscow Experimental Studio of Electronic Music, the meeting place of very interesting composers, such as my father, Edward Artemiev, as well as Vladimir Martynov, Alexei Rybnikov, Edison Denisov, Alfred Schnittke, Stanislav Kreitchi, Sofia Gubaidulina, Schandor Kallosh, Alexander Nemtin; musicians, such as Tatiana Grindenko, Gidon Kremer, Alexei Lyubimov, brothers Sergei and Yuri Bogdanov; film directors, such as Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrei Konchalovsky, and, very young at the time, Nikita Mikhalkov; painters, such as Mikhail Romadin, Sergei Alimov, Vladimir Serebrovsky, Pavel Anosov and many other people who are well-known now in Russia and abroad. I was also lucky to meet there two famous men, Italian and American film directors: Michelangelo Antonioni and Francis Ford Coppola.

In that studio the world felt absolutely different. It was the period from 1973 to ’79, “the scent of Sovetic flowers,” and in there, in the dark of the small hemispheric room, amazing happenings went on.

The music of Herbert Eimert, Luciano Berio, Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream, the Who, UK, Isao Tomita, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Pierre Schaeffer, Gyorgi Ligeti, Edgar Varese, Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, Francis Dhomont, John Cage, Pierre Henry, Earle Brown, York Holler, Takehisa Kosugi, Steve Reich, Henri Pousseur was played in this studio.

And I must say that it was not just a simple matter of listening to concerts played on the tape recorder with son et lumiere, which was very “cool” and avant-garde in those days. It was a detailed discussion of every musical composition.

Performances of my father’s band, Boomerang, as well as underground electronic-music festivals and various informal art-rock events also took place inside the building of the first Moscow Experimental Studio of Electronic Music. A lot of people were coming. And those gatherings were more like a Bolsheviks meeting at one of the secret addresses that was just about to be busted by the Tzar’s secret service than a cultural “underground” arrangement. I was more than intrigued by the atmosphere of the place, people and music, and while listening to the music of the above-named composers and to the discussions after, naturally, I was inspired by it and started getting more seriously interested in genres of electronic, electroacoustic and serious rock music.

The Moscow Experimental Studio became my first school of music. I saw how my father worked with the ANS synthesizer, the Synthi-100, and I was amazed. For me it was more then magic. Different twinkling lamps, buttons, levers, indicators. My father, surrounded by huge apparatuses, two sound engineers always wearing black clothes and heaving beards and long hair, smoke that comes from their cigarettes, loud very strange music and the dark basement floor where all this happened — it frightened not only people who are used to this kind of music and atmosphere of the studios, but also local inhabitants and even policemen. There I first tried ANS and Synthi-100 and made my first steps in the field of experimental electronic music.

Weidenbaum: You liken the life of the avant-garde artist in the former Soviet Union to being “like a Bolsheviks meeting.” In 1981, when you turned 15, was this still the case? Can you recall a particular memory of a time when a performance or meeting was interrupted by police?

Artemiev: You know, maybe it sounds strange but performances and concerts were never interrupted by “miliciya,” the Russian variant of “police.” The KGB and police were looking for books and they thought that music wasn’t “a real weapon against Soviet ideology,” when a person or a small group of people privately listen to it. So, my father’s group, Boomerang, and all the people who came to the performances practically had no problems with Soviet secret service. Of course, they tried to be quiet and not to attract somebody’s attention. The KGB knew all the people who came to the studio and all these people were considered to be “aliens for Soviet regime” and they all have a black mark: they were not allowed to go abroad.

My father, in the middle of 1970s, wasn’t allowed to visit Cuba and Italy, where concerts of electronic and electroacoustic music were held. Instead, they sent a KGB person who had nothing to do with music, especially with electronic music. When he arrived they asked him, “Are you Edward Artemiev?”

“No,” he replied, “I’m replacing him in this meeting.”

“OK,” said the organizers, “are you a composer?”

“No,” he said, “but I can dance Russian dances and sing Russian folk songs.” He was never disturbed during all seven days of electroacoustic event.

Besides, the Soviet government tried to close all concerts of the Boomerang group as “music of this pro-Western rock group is against Soviet ideology and strictly prohibited for the masses.” They closed their eyes when artists, composers, film directors, actors and musicians listened to this music in the studio, but they struggled against any concert of this kind of music for the masses. So, my father and his group were sitting in the studio and composing and recording music. By the way, all Tarkovsky’s soundtracks were recorded in this studio.

Weidenbaum: In your experience, were privacy and secrecy simply necessary tactics of the avant-garde artists living and working within the avant-garde the Soviet Union?

Artemiev: Of course, otherwise they put you to the mental hospital, or sent you out of Moscow, or you would face a lot of problems in your life.

Weidenbaum: So much electronic music is quiet, or “ambient,” as we say. Much electronic music also deals with matters of surveillance, with recorded voices and manipulated tape, or musique concrete. Would you say that themes of quietude and silence, as well as the use of manipulated tape, were influenced by the experience of composers living in an intrusive political environment?

Artemiev: No, I can’t say that. Composers who experimented with sound in the 1960s through the 1990s in former Soviet Union were interested in “musique concrete” and they listened to compositions of Western composers and tried to make their own sound and present their own view on this genre of modern music, and believe me this had nothing to do with politics.

Weidenbaum: Did you know your grandfather, your father’s father? Could you describe his, or your grandmother’s, understanding of music, and perhaps how they influenced your father’s creative upbringing?

Artemiev: Yes I knew my granddaddy and granny. Unfortunately they are dead now. My granddaddy was a director of the meat plant and after World War II he was sent to rebuild the Soviet economy in various parts of former Soviet Union. My father was sent to Moscow, where he studied in Moscow Sveshnikov’s choir school. After choir school he studied in Music College and after that he graduated from Moscow Conservatoire as a composer.

My granddaddy had a very good voice. I remember him singing arias from various operas on the banks of the river. He was singing for two hours without any stopping, and there were a lot of people who listened to his arias in silence. When he finished, there were ovations. I was deeply amazed with his voice and he was a lead singer at every party.

My granny was working in the library and she was a lovely granny for me. Unfortunately, my son and daughter were born after her death and they don’t know her. Granny was waiting for them but they were late.

Weidenbaum: If there were a single album from your Electroshock Records label you would recommend to new listeners, which would it be, and why?

Artemiev: You asked me rather complicated question. It’s difficult for me to speak about any special CD from our catalogue, as practically all our releases belong to the category of very special and very interesting music. Here are some:

Stanislav Kreitchi composing music on the ANS synthesizer — a unique instrument of which there is only one copy, and is considered to be the first Russian synthesizer. It was built between 1958 to 1960. Anatoly Pereslegin uses very interesting combination of electronic, symphonic and experimental music. Very complicated material but a very interesting one. Antanas Jasenka’s music based on noises, melody, electronic and acoustic sounds. Very experimental stuff. Oophoi builds fantastic ambient sound structures. Journey to the unknown parts of your mind. Roman Stolyar uses jazz, rock and electroacoustic techniques. Mixture of fantasy and reality.

Valery Siver and Kyrill Trepakov present strange, ambient-like electronic tunes with a beautiful guitar sound. Drama, joy, sadness, love and experimentation. Victor Cerullo’s music shows us brilliant soundtrack material for future films of Andrei Tarkovsky that will never be shot. That album turns a new page in music history of this Italian composer, and this page differs greatly from what he did before.

Richard Bone proves once again that he’s one of the main composers in the genre of electronic music who can also experiment with other forms of electronic and electroacoustic music. Very interesting material.

All of the releases of Edward Artemiev, considered to be the classic of electronic and soundtrack music. Each CD shows us various sides of maestro’s talent. You’ll never take out Edward’s CD from your CD player if you ever hear his music.

Our compilation-CD series, Electroshock Presents: Electroacoustic Music, presents music of unknown and well-known composers experimenting in the genres of electroacoustic, electronic, experimental and avant-garde music. Very fresh ideas, mixture of styles inside the genre. Always interesting.

My collaboration works with Philip B. Klingler, Peter Frohmader, Christopher DeLaurenti and the British group Karda Estra. My solo works make you feel beyond the bounds of the reality.

Weidenbaum: OK, I understand it’s difficult to choose between your children. How about if you could recommend one specific CD to a new listener from the Electroshock Presents series? Imagine a college student with limited funds. Which collection would it be, and why?

Artemiev: I’ll recommend Vol. IV and Vol. VII. Volume IV, because here you can find the music of very famous Russian composers: Edward Artemiev, Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina, Edison Denisov, Stanislav Kreitchi, Schandor Kallosh, Oleg Buloshkin and Alexander Nemtin, recorded and performed on the first Russian synthesizer, the ANS, between 1964 and 1971. This is the history of electronic music, its archive.

Vol. VII, because it’s a double CD and here you can find a lot of very interesting compositions of Claire Laronde, Vidna Obmana, Robin Julian Heifetz, Jorge Antunes, Geert Verbeke, Roderik De Man, Rodrigo Sigal, Jose Mataloni, Oophoi, Arie Shapira, Mirjam Tally, Eternal Wanderers, Lukazs Szalankiewicz and Michal Bukowski.

Weidenbaum: Your father wrote the soundtrack for several Tarkovsky movies, inlcluding Solaris. Did the new film version of Solaris, directed by Steven Soderbergh, draw any additional attention to the collection of Edward’s film-score music that you released?

Artemiev: My answer will be rather short: No. Sales of our CD, Solaris. The Mirror. Stalker, are very stable and they’re the same as they were before or after the “re-mix” version of the film. Besides, in Russia and mostly in Europe, people prefer to watch the original masterpiece of Tarkovsky’s movie.

Weidenbaum: Does being a musician help you or hinder you in running a record company — does it give you, perhaps, more empathy when dealing with other musicians? Or does it make it more complicated for you when you need to comment on someone else’s musical creation?

Artemiev: Of course being a composer helps me in contact with other musicians. I can speak the same language with all musicians and always can find solutions for this or that “musical” situation. I would say that I try not to comment on other people’s music at the record label, as I believe that every musical style can find its listener and there’s no bad music or good music. Music is an international language that depicts various moods of people’s mind, soul and heart and you’re listening to this or that music because it depicts your mood in the certain moment of life.

Electroshock has become a rather well-known label now, and practically all musicians who send me their music for possible release on our label know what particular music we’re publishing. Rock’n’roll, folk, pop or easy-listening — “chill-out” — musicians will never come to us with their tapes.

Weidenbaum: Do you oversee most of Electroshock’s CDs productions throughout the process — from conception to recording to distribution — or are some of them projects completed by the musicians and then submitted to Electroshock for possible release?

Artemiev: You know, it depends. I collect, edit and make masters of all compositions that appear on our compilation CD series, Electroshock Presents, and of course I’m choosing the repertoire for the label, but composers provide us with completed variant of their projects and we make only final mastering at our studio.

Weidenbaum: When you first started the Electroshock, who were your role models, in terms of other small, independent record labels?

Artemiev: You know, I didn’t have any role models when I started Electroshock. I wanted to release CDs of electronic, electroacoustic, experimental and avant-garde music and the only thing I knew was that I must go in a different way from the Russian music industry with my own conception, with my own philosophy and with my own view on modern music.

Weidenbaum: Given the name of your record label, do you feel that your records must all have an “electric” element?

Artemiev: Not at all but up to now all our releases have an “electronic” element.

Weidenbaum: What is the business structure of Electroshock? It sounds sizeable. Are there many employees? Do you run the whole show?

Artemiev: I’m running the whole show, and five more people help me in that.

Weidenbaum: How does the Russian music industry today differ from how it was when you first started the label?

Artemiev: Electroshock was organized in 1996, so we’re eight years old. Now, “the Russian music industry” is a very specific topic. It lives by its own laws and it differs greatly from the music industry of the Western world. First of all, we have our own pop singers who are — and who will be — very popular only in Russia, and nowhere else, because they sing very simple words in the Russian language only, and because their music is very primitive. As far as I know, our label is the only recording label in this country that publishes serious electronic, electroacoustic, experimental and avant-garde music. We’re interested in propagandizing these genres of music. We release CDs of well-known and absolutely unknown composers working in the above-mentioned genres of modern music, and we’re standing apart from so-called Russian music industry.

Weidenbaum: You mention restrictions on travel in the past. Have you traveled much around the world? Do you have plans to travel abroad in 2003?

Artemiev: Those bad times are over now. Today you can do whatever you want, and of course I have an opportunity to travel abroad. I was in Germany in October of last year, 2002, where I had a meeting with Edgar and Jerome Froese [of Tangerine Dream], Manuel Gottsching [of Ash Ra Tempel] and Mario Schonwalder. I’m planning to visit Germany, Italy and Great Britain in 2003.

Weidenbaum: One of my favorite Electroshock records is, in fact, one of yours: Mysticism of Sound. Given your anecdote about listening to a piano from below as a child, I perhaps have a better understanding of why so few of the sounds on this record are recognizable as specific instruments — even the bells sound filtered through an effect of some sort. What I particularly like about one of the tracks, “Cataclysms of the XX Century,” is the reverberation that continues through the piece. It sets a pace that I find warm and enticing. What is it about reverberation that attracts you as a significant compositional element?

Artemiev: Very good question, as nobody asked me about the reverberation. But first of all I want to say that I’m very happy to hear that you liked Mysticism of Sound. I also like it and consider it the most important music project in my activity as composer. And besides, it appears to be one of our best-selling CDs.

But let’s return to your question. I like to work with delays, pitch tones, halls, echoes, and with other forms of reverberation in one composition. I used up to 18 variants of reverberation in “Cataclysms” and I made all these forms not to interfere with each other. The mixture of various sound processors made a special atmosphere of the composition. Music on Mysticism is rather complicated. I used up to 45 MIDI and audio tracks on my Cubase sequencer and I spent nearly three months mixing all this stuff.

Weidenbaum: To what extent was a piece like “Mysticism of Sound” composed in advance of recording, and to what extent was it “improvised” in the studio?

Artemiev: There were no improvisations in “Mysticism.” Everything was calculated and based on mathematical scales. I composed, recorded and mixed the CD variant of the “Mysticism of Sound” project over the course of two years, but I didn’t finish it. Right now I can only say that I’ve just finished it — you’re the first to know. The thing is that the last track, “Mysticism of Sound. Part II,” wasn’t finished. I composed 41 minutes but recorded only 17 and faded out the track. I finished with Part II only on the 10th of January 2003. It was rather complicated work but now it’s over. I don’t know whether I’ll publish it on my new solo music project that I’m going to release in July or August of this year, but who knows? Weidenbaum: Were there specific paintings you had in mind, in regard to the title “Pictures of I. Bosch and P. Bruegel,” another piece on that album?

Artemiev: No, I thought of composing it after I visited two different exhibitions in one day — one with Bosch paintings, the other one with Bruegel’s paintings. I was deeply amazed with their works and I visited these two exhibitions eight times during five days and composed, recorded and mixed this track during two months.

Weidenbaum: One of the instruments listed on that record is “IBM PC – Pentium 233/64 MB.” Only three years later, computers today have many times the processing dimension, and gigabytes of memory at their disposal. Do you think you’ll go back, decades from now, and use early Pentiums to make music the way we might look back at the Theremin, or at the classic ANS synthesizer?

Artemiev: Never. We’re going ahead but we must also think about the past. Because there’re a lot of ideas in the music of the past years. Especially in the music of Gordon Mumma, Milton Babbitt, Morton Feldman, Steve Reich, Herbert Eimert, Luciano Berio, Luigi Nono, Edgar Varese, Piere Henry, Francesco Evangelisti, Pierre Boulez, Mauricio Kagel and others. You must only learn how to find the idea, dig it, feel it, mix it in your head with your thoughts, add craziness and combine everything with modern technology.

Right now I’m using Pentium 600/128 MB. It’s OK for me. I don’t know, maybe I’ll change everything and upgrade my computer during 2003 but right now it suits my needs.

Weidenbaum: Do you have time for other activities — writing, reading, sports, etc. — what with the responsibilities at Electroshock, and having a family?

Artemiev: Very complicated question. I love my family and they help me and support me in everything. I get up at 9 AM and go to bed at 4 AM. For me it’s OK, as I have a lot of things to do — composing music, organizing work of the label, recording music, writing articles, reviews, preparing material for various programs, organizing concerts, making video clips, etc. Of course, it’s difficult for me to find spare time for reading and for sports activities, but I’m trying.

Related links: The Electroshock Records website. Another interview with Artemiy Artemiev, on eurock.com. Another interview with Artemiy Artemiev, on mkmk.com.

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Wide-Ranging Denmark Debut

There is a moment on NO/1, the solo debut album by Sofus Forsberg on the Denmark-based Jenka Music label, as fine as anything released this year. Well into track three, which is titled “Autotune Track,” a little buzz shuffles its way from background into the foreground. Up until that moment the track has consisted of squiggly noises and playful beats, very much like something Aphex Twin might put his name on. That little buzz is just static, additional texture, noise. It may raise the tension a little, but it’s not so much in tune or out of tune as it is apart from the tune, like something passing by, like a fleck of dust in the eye. As soon as your ear accepts it as such, though, that noise turns into a melody very much like the melody with which the tune opened; that strange little noise warps into a strange little riff, bringing to mind nothing so much as the magical anthropomorphizing utensils in Walt Disney animated films. NO/1 is rich with such detail. There’s the deep hum on “So Alone” that can feel like a scalp massage if you’re listening on a proper pair of headphones. There’s the bouncy stereoscopic play at the start of “Venice Beach,” in which reverberating tones bound from left ear to right in a delightful syncopation. Forsberg has produced 11 fine tracks, which share an attention to memorable moments but otherwise vary widely, from heavy percussive polyrhythm to spacious drone to quiet song. When he uses acoustic instruments, like the piano at the end of “Convertible Love” or what sounds like guitar at the start of “Det Ser Vi Pa,” the sounds are lightly treated — clipped or looped — in a way that blends them perfectly into his electro-acoustic palette. He recorded most of the music himself, but there are a few guests — there’s the occasional vocal by Henriette Sennenvaldt, who has Bjork’s majestic remoteness, and there’s the occasional saxophone part by Niels Bottcher, the rare untreated analog instrument in this sea of digital sounds, and just about the only thing to suggest the record was recorded on Earth.

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Two Guitars, One Thick Tone

Keith Rowe and Oren Ambarchi play a mix of guitar and electronics on Flypaper (Staubgold), an exhilaratingly stark album, if such a thing is possible. Their tandem playing has the randomness of field recordings, the spaciousness of great soundscapes and the give-and-take of substantive free improvisation. Flypaper is a pan-generational affair, teaming old-school avant-guitarist Rowe (b. 1952) with a guitarist of a younger generation, Ambarchi (b. 1969), who besides a rich resume of free/noise music has experience in today’s experimental pop-electronic realm, largely as a result of his association with the Touch label (which is home to, among others, Fennesz, who has done his part to make the electric guitar at home in the modern realm of the laptop-computer studio). Over the course of four tracks, “Flypaper I” through “Flypaper IV,” Rowe and Ambarchi tread rarified territory, eking out granular layers of dread and texture, and keeping to stoic rhythms that tend toward the ritual. Rowe can be a tough guitarist to love, because the sounds he himself loves are generally abrasive, and he seems bored by playing the same thing twice. That said, he’s more than happy to play the same thing — a shuddering low tone, a buzzy rasp — for minutes at a time, and to let that thing resolve on its own accord. Only a diehard fan could begin to imagine where he lets off and where Ambarchi comes in, so intimate is their deeply sensitive sense of ensemble and their weighty patience.

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Nortec Collective Sequel

The soundtrack to Frontier Life (Accretions Records), a documentary about Tijuana directed by Hans Fjellestad, is an unofficial sequel to the Nortec Collective‘s 2001 album, Tijuana Sessions, Vol. 1. The Sessions collection made many folk’s top-10 lists that year with its assortment of the city’s digital-dance acts, including Fussible, Terrestre and Hiperboreal. Frontier Life crosses the border by mixing Nortec acts with those of San Diego’s Trummerflora Collective. In many ways, it’s a better record than Tijuana Sessions: darker, deeper, never remotely frivolous. The act Panoptica, which was downright house-y on Sessions, is decisively downbeat — make that downtrodden — here, on a song titled “Aguasnegras en Dub.” To say the track is stripped down understates how much was left behind. The track is hard and slow, a heavy downbeat that leaves behind an opening trill in favor of concerted, sullen, punch-in-the-gut beats. By the end the music has splintered into a lonely echo chamber. And the Panoptica track’s length, at close to seven minutes, gives the act (a pseudonym for Roberto Mendoza) a lot of space in which to make those musical transitions.

Discar’s “Iofobia,” the album’s opening song, fulfills the desire for spaghetti-Western drama. And “Com Com,” by Las Cajas del Ritmo, brings a border-party feel to the kind of ascetic pointillism we’ve come to expect from Japanese aesthetes like Ryoji Ikeda and minimal-house stars like Plastikman. Director Fjellestad provides some beautiful ambient background music with his “Phone Damage,” a tenuously held together array of found sounds and held tones. The same could be said of “Ensemble Circuits,” a slightly more invasive bit of minimalism credited to Point Loma. Not that you can’t dance to all of Frontier Life, but even the most rhythmically straightforward tracks, like Clorofila’s “El Animal,” have a sense of purpose that keeps them from becoming lounge fodder.

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Toil and Trouble

Mephista is three women improvisers on the verge: Ikue Mori on laptop, Suzi Ibarra on drums, Sylvie Courvoisier on piano. They performed on Monday, January 27, 2003, at the Contemporary Art Center in New Orleans, LA.

They’re on the verge of making a name for their group, where they’ve made names for themselves individually previously (a debut album, titled Black Narcissus, is out on Tzadik, the record label run by John Zorn). They’re on the verge of bringing fresh sounds and musicianship to the musical community that goes by the name of “free improv.” And, of particular interest to listeners with a digital orientation: they’re on the verge of fully implementing electronic equipment in what has long been a largely analog-only scene.

Those listeners will focus on Mori, because with her laptop she is the official digital emissary. She is also both the most experienced and the most quiet of Mephista’s members. Mori has been known as a musician since the mid-’70s, when she arrived in New York (from Japan), playing in the group DNA alongside guitarist Arto Lindsay; DNA’s music was documented on the No New York album, produced by Brian Eno. Both Ibarra and Courvoisier were in the single-digit age bracket when Mori was first playing in NYC. Ibarra has been playing for years with a host of free-improv musicians and with other adventurous contemporaries whose work gets filed in record stores under jazz or “new music,” when record stores know to pick up a few copies in the few place; she has played with, among others, Evan Parker, David S. Ware, William Parker, Pauline Oliveros, Eugene Chadbourne and Derek Bailey; she has also played with the brainy art-rock acts Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo. Courvoisier, who is Swiss, has played with, among others, Fred Frith, Mark Feldman and Dave Douglas.

Often in electro-acoustic music, which involves the blending of digital and analog instrumentation, it is difficult to tell what and when the “electro” musicians are playing. This is the case with Mephista, in part because Mori favors textural elements, and in part because her two fellow musicians, Ibarra and Courvoisier, are fond of making their instruments make sounds beyond what is expected.

Ibarra has a small bag of tricks, including bells that sound like landing UFOs, and she’s as likely to stroke her drum as one might a cat as she is to pull out her brushes or padded mallets.

Courvoisier is as likely to play her piano traditionally, which is to say, seated, as she is to play it in a manner that tends to be called “prepared,” in which one messes with the piano’s intestines. When she plays seated she generally brings to mind the airiness of French impressionism (Ravel, Debussy). When she stands, she plucks the strings from deep inside the piano, or mutes them with her palm or with strips of tape. She often lays down duct tape atop the strings, which doesn’t mute them so much as near-deaden them, so when she hits the piano keys they sound like an African thumb piano, Japanese shamisen or Vietnamese dan nguyet — or like an uptight harp. After employing this technique for some time, she will pull the tape loose, unleashing a duct-tape glissando. With her long brown hair, she looks at times at risk of being sucked into the infernal, black-lacquered machine.

Mephista performed for well over an hour: two long pieces, of 20 to 25 minutes, three short ones, each less than 10 minutes in length, and a brief encore. The concert was part of the CAC’s Awake-Nu Series of Jazz & Improvised Music, which is programmed by New Orleans musician and concert promoter Rob Cambre. The three women of Mephista played with compelling concentration, emphasizing a circular, harmonious motion in which sounds produced by one musician were picked up by the next and rotated around, less like a hot potato than a nascent musical theme, tended by three parents. Musical emphathy made them gracious partners, but it was amplification that made the three women of Mephista equals. Look away from the stage for a moment, and you’d notice that Ibarra’s drum set was miked in such a way that lent emphasis to ingredients (the traps for example) that would have sounded considerably quieter in a pure, unamplified jazz setting. Likewise, Mori’s laptop held its own against the grand piano.

Throughout, Mori sat center stage with her Apple laptop, summoning up rhythms to match Ibarra’s drums or Courvoisier’s woodpecker-like flourishes, or laying down a rich textural underlay. One thing that became apparent, and helpful to inquisitive listeners: Mori’s laptop was plugged into a separate box that, due to its having a small but evident green-lit volume meter, allowed the audience to know when, exactly, she was emitting sounds. When the little box was black, she was silent, but when the green lights sparkled, she was emitting something.

Likewise, you knew when to applaud at the end of a Mephista piece because, a second or two into an extended silence, the forceful concentration on Ibarra’s face would give way to a full smile.

Related links: Susie Ibarra's website. Sylvie Courvoisier's website. Ikue Mori's website. Tzadik Records's website. Contemporary Arts Center's website.

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