Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Unedited version of my Afternoon Tea review

Keith Rowe/Pimmon/Peter Rehberg/Oren Ambarchi/Christian Fennesz

Afternoon Tea

Black Truffle

Nearly a decade has passed between the limited edition release of Afternoon Tea on vinyl in 2000, and the CD reissue on Oren Ambarchi’s Black Truffle imprint. This spans, more or less, the time line of a developing area of improvisation generally referred to, when a placeholder is needed [as in reviews such as this one] as EAI. It is easy to forget, if you’ve immersed yourself in this music and been caught up by the twin streams of hyper-accelerated changes in the music itself, and the profligacy of releases, that not terribly long ago a quintet comprised of two electric guitars and three laptops was regarded by most fans of improvised music with, at best, skepticism, and, at worst, dismissal and mockery. And that’s just the resistance to what instrumentation ought to be allowed into the canon, never mind the jazz/free improv fans reeling at the intersection of digital sound and EAI’s reexamination of the basic tenets of free improvisation.

This serves to make listening to this quintet’s performance an opportunity to assess what, if anything, is seminal here, what has been developed in the ensuing years by these musicians, where have their paths diverged, dissipated, or recombined and reinvigorated the music. The interface of electronics and guitars has, as much as any configuration of electric and acoustic instrumentation, served as the foundation for EAI’s “chamber music” [as well as, on infrequent occasions, it’s orchestral manifestations, e.g., MIMEO, an ensemble formed in 1997, comprising between 10-12 players of analog synths, computers and other electronics].

There is, additionally, the historical overlap and meeting of musicians from the Mego area of laptop works [Rehberg, Fennesz, Pimmon]; the emerging, influential sonic territory of more tonal, melodic and ambient work [Ambarchi, well documented on the Touch imprint, as well as his own label of early, archived material, Black Truffle]; and Keith Rowe, who would, following this session, enjoy a remarkable decade of radical and pervasive changes in his ideas, his instrumentation and his collaborative partners [the best of this documented on Jon Abbey’s Erstwhile label, where Rowe appears on 18 releases in the Erstwhile catalog]. The music of Afternoon Tea, with or without framing it with these considerations, clearly contains elements of each musicians’ subsequent work; but, most surprisingly to this writer, given the date and the presence of three laptop musicians who can produce maximalist walls of sound at will, there is remarkable restraint, probity and acute listening throughout, improvisational approaches distilled and honed [as well as codified and stereotyped] in EAI’s ensuing decade.

In 2000, Afternoon Tea was released on the German label Ritornell, consisting of the first two studio tracks found on the reissue. The quintet met and improvised these two tracks in the same studio Ambarchi used for his early solo works on the Touch label, as well as the fantastic meeting between Ambarchi , the duo Voice Crack, and Gunter Mueller, released as Oystered. The reissue is remastered and adds three tracks: a very brief, trippy and atypical slice of psychedelia from a compilation entitled Maschinelle Strategeme; and two live sets from the What Is Music? Festival in 2000. It is valid, of course, to be skeptical of the current trend of reissuing “lost” sessions, the superfluous and flaccid frequently found among the ancillary material. The live sets Ambarchi has added here have similar strengths to the studio sections, with enough variation and further exploration to merit inclusion.

Overall, both the studio and the concert performances are marked by restraint and quiet, simmering and stewing for considerable stretches, out of which occasionally arises wisps of the chromatic, fuzzed-out, pop- glitch familiar to fans of Fennesz and Pimmon. At times the ensemble explores areas that clearly presage the music found on a couple of Erstwhile releases, 2004’s ErstLive 004 [which included Fennesz and Rehberg], and more explicitly and directly, the atmospheres of cloud [also 2004, with 2/3 of the Afternoon Tea ensemble, Ambarchi, Rowe and Fennesz, performing live]. Other times, Philip Jeck comes to mind.

As in his approach on many recordings to follow, Rowe can be heard contributing the crunch and rasp of the steel pad to his strings, grit and sand within the billows and drones provided by the laptops. He has a section of apposite radio captures as well, a soprano’s vocals fading in and out of the collective clouds of Powerbook whoops and whistles. The second track in particular evolves into a lush, melancholic precursor to Fennesz’ Endless Summer, which followed this session by a few months. To my ears, Rowe is the hidden presence, with characteristically recondite contributions that are revealed only with acute listening. He’s in there, amid the pooled chromaticism and improbably detailed, interlaced sonic detritus, a subtler but no less definitive thread in the fabric. If you look at the respective discographies of these five, it seems to me that Rehberg’s immediately subsequent work might be the most divergent from the individual contributions on Afternoon Tea. As a template, it augurs the sounds of the Mego/Touch part of the continuum much more than Rowe and Ambarchi’s work on Erstwhile.

What is great about this document is that it captures a few performances that stand on their own merits, but also, considered in retrospect, contain the seeds of so much good music to come. Disregard the distraction of this crew reading like an EAI super-group, and enjoy the results of an early meeting of superb musicians, setting out with new approaches to improvisation, replete with a new instrumentation.


1] EAI= electro-acoustic improvisation. The limitations of this place-holder have been hashed and rehashed, in taxonomy discussions/arguments about this area of music; e.g., a fair share of the music under discussion might have no acoustic elements [or no electric ones], or not be wholly improvised, including considerable post-production work, etc, etc. EAI serves, as I said, as a place-holder, not as a perfectly accurate referent.

2] Connections:

For the geeky reader/listener interested in such things; Ambarchi told me in a recent email exchange that the occasion for the Afternoon Tea session was a 2000 mini-tour of Australia by the AT line-up.

Ambarchi co-curated the 2000 What Is Music? Festival, held since 1994 in Sydney and Melbourne, with Robbie Avenaim. The week prior to the recording, the AT quintet had performed in Melbourne. Ambarchi had also played a few weeks before the AT session, in a different context, with Keith Rowe. Additionally, Ambarchi had performed several times with Pimmon. So the AT sessions are not first encounters for all the players.

The other recollection Ambarchi shared was a synaesthetic one- “The sun was streaming into the recording room, it was a beautiful day, which definitely gave the session an informal, relaxed vibe.”

Warm thanks to Oren for his prompt and informative responses about an event that occurred a decade ago.

3] Someone is going to be irked by my using “chamber music” in reference to this stuff, finding it precious or simply a misnomer. I think there is a legitimate application to some of the music on Afternoon Tea, and much of what can be heard in EAI in the ensuing decade of development. Consider a few inarguable elements of the chamber configuration- a small number of players, generally in a small room [historically, the salon, fast forward to the onkyo scene, or any venue for this music], a strong sense of intimacy, balance and gestalt, [i.e., little or no soloing], timbre often fore-grounded, etc.

Debussy said, “The age of the aeroplane needs its own music.” Clearly the age of the Powerbook and, subsequently, of cracked electronics, bent circuits and prepared/fucked up acoustic instruments, necessitates its own music. Some of the archetypes, however, prevail. Rowe has said, for instance, that he regarded the configuration found on the Four Gentlemen of the Guitar release, cloud, [electronics, no-input mixing board, and electric guitars] as a “string quartet.”


William said...

Very nice review, Jesse. I've liked this one for a number of years and am sorry about the demise of Mille Plateaux. The first track in particular was very compelling for me in my early forays into this difficult area of music.


jesse said...

Thanks Bill, happy you visited.
Whatever lies in store for Celadon, I'm ready to give it a sounding here.