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Monthly Archives: September 2003

Proto-Downstream / Scanner

There was for a short time a section of Disquiet.com called the 4D, which quickly transformed into the site’s long-running Downstream section. This is the 4D entry for September 30, 2003 — the last 4D entry before the Downstream debuted:

Scanner (aka Robin Rimbaud) takes interview segments with late art-world mogul Andy Warhol and spins them into an electronic internal monologue on Warhol’s Surfaces (Intermedium). It’s either loving or antagonistic, depending on your taste, but it’s undeniably fascinating.

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Improvising Trio Blends in Laptop

For the three free-improvising women of Mephista everything is in play, from instrumentation to the listener’s perceptions. An illusion persists throughout Black Narcissus (Tzadik) that more than three people are performing, thanks to the members’s broad range of techniques. Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier is as likely to pluck strings prepared with tape as she is to sound downright romantic, in the classical sense of the word. Susie Ibarra can lay on the drums with out-jazz soul, coming down hard with cantilevered rhythms, but she’s also prone to lose herself in her bag of percussive tricks, which is full of resounding bells and other rudimentary music-making objects. And then there’s Ikue Mori, whose choice of instrument — a laptop computer, with electronic accessories — firmly distinguishes the group amid free-improv’s largely analog international community. Technology also lends Mephista’s music a digital-age patina. Despite an earlier career as a drummer, Mori expresses more interest here in textural than propulsive elements; she employs synthesized haze and microscopic sonic particles, as well as the occasional goofy sci-fi effect. Her influence is often, for lack of a less clinical term, “contextual”: when her contribution resembles a misfiring hard drive, it’s dizzyingly uncertain to the audience what is being performed live, and what was ripped from a pre-existing recording. This is especially so with the traditional aspects of Courvoisier’s playing; when Mori cues the static, the piano can easily be mistaken for a sample. Overall, Mephista’s music will be familiar to fans of free improv and, therefore, disorienting to newcomers: the trio’s notes and noises forge associations that may make sense only on the third, or tenth, listen. Song form, furthermore, is summarily passed over for dream-state logic — the album’s cover art, tellingly, is a classic image from an earlier surrealist, the painter Salvador Dali.

This album review appeared, in slightly different form, in the spring 2003 issue of e/i magazine.

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Full-Length Debut for Electronica’s Arranger

In the liner notes for Memoryhouse (Late Junction), composer Max Richter explains the name of one piece, “Last Days,” as follows: “The title refers to the concept that our culture is living beyond the end of history.” It’s evident from the record’s outset that when Richter says “culture” he means “Western classical music,” for which Memoryhouse is a requiem — or, better yet, a much-needed kick in the pants disguised as a requiem. Richter is no throwback. His orchestrations graced the drum’n’bass of Roni Size’s In the MØde, and he handled various old-world musical duties for Future Sound of London’s psychedelic album, The Isness. His brand of composed music is “post-rock” in the purely chronological sense. John Cage is dead, his wizened recorded voice heard here in a scintillating setting, on “Garden (1973).” The minimalism of Philip Glass is not an idiosyncratic style but a rich form ripe for adoption, whether in a piano duet (“The Twins [Prague]”), or full orchestral grandeur (“Last Days”). And baroque music, as Richter notes, will more likely remind listeners of the Beatles’s Abbey Road than of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. He seems obsessed, to our benefit, with how the past is a matter of perception. On one track, “Quartet (1908),” he plays his music through a valve amp to simulate a 78-rpm record; on another, “Untitled (figures),” he pumps out modern digital pulses to accompany a celesta, thus making that antique sound utterly contemporary. Richter has the ability to reconcile a conservatory-trained composer’s attention to melody and counterpoint with a sound designer’s attention to timbre and production, a rare combination of pursuits and skills. He challenges us to listen through raindrops on “November” in order to focus on his light, sustained string arrangements, and we follow him through the haze, in a splendid trance.

This album review appeared, in slightly different form, in the spring 2003 issue of e|i magazine.

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Music for 8 Blessedly Servile Guitarists

On 8 Guitars (Quecksilber), the music chugs along like a minimalist locomotive. It builds steam within minutes, and then maintains its pace intently. Fans of the monastic repetitions of Steve Reich and Terry Riley, not to mention of Philip Glass and Gavin Bryars, are sure to recognize here a pop-music analog to those composers’ late-period classical inventions. As in their work, 8 Guitars functions as a Western gloss on Eastern conceptions of space and sound — a realm in which melodies and tunes and linear development are given over entirely to timelessness. But instead of Glass’ opera orchestrations and Bryars’ chamber arrangements, we have the iconic tool of rock’n’roll: the electric guitar. And we have it in large amounts. The name on the album sleeve is that of Scott Horscroft, though he doesn’t play any of the guitars. (Horscroft is probably the guy pictured on the record cover seated at a mixing board.) The eight guitarists — among them Oren Ambarchi and Brendan Walls — play with such selfless devotion to the mantra rhythms assigned them by Horscroft, that their interlaced patterns often suggest as many as a dozen more guitars. The sounds chime and shimmer, they huff and whir, so many strings working individually and collectively — not according to the organized flight pattern of an orchestra’s string section, but with the tightly controlled mayhem of a hive mind in action.

Now, the guitar symphony, for that is what this is, is nothing new. Glen Branca organized them as early as 1979, and groups as distinct as the Allman Brothers, with their Southern-rock jams, Judas Priest, with its hard-rock twin leads, and Sonic Youth, which inherited Branca’s New York art-world torch, have done much to promote the sound of guitars working in unison. Horscroft owes these folks a debt of gratitude, and not just for their having suggested such an experiment; there’s a naturalness to the sound on 8 Guitars that has to do with it simply having come long after these other musicians had broken new ground, and then let the ground settle. It goes without saying that the electric guitar served rock well, but it can be refreshing to hear it in a different context. And the difference between Horscroft’s intent and that of, say, AC/DC guitarist Angus Young is clear. In the traditional classic-rock song, the peak moment is a uniform and consensual resolution, a single instance primed by a standardized sequence of alternating verses and choruses, shared by all listeners at the height of a given riff. On 8 Guitars, an epiphany may occur at any moment — and, if the listener’s ear and mood are so attuned, for an extended moment.

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tangents / Crossfade, Linkin, Mieville

Quick Bits: (1) Though an exhibition of French sound experimentation has since closed, it continues to be available online. The Crossfade website (crossfade.walkerart.org) is hosting “33 RPM: Ten Hours of Sound from France,” curated by Laurent Dailleau and exhibited at the SFMOMA in San Francisco earlier this year. The online exhibit breaks the music down into 10 hours of sound (“03 Computer Music, Then Laptop”; “04 Some Bands”; “07 Rhythm Today”) and features work by dozens of musicians and groups, including Pierre Schaeffer, Luc Ferrari and Art Zoyd. … (2) A fantasy novel drenched in the sounds and images of London’s drum’n’bass club culture has been licensed by the DJ from the hard-rock group Linkin Park. The DJ, Joseph Hahn, intends to make a full-length film of the book, King Rat by author China Mieville, it was reported today by MTV News (mtv.com).

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