Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Book of Imaginary Beings

At first it’s unfamiliar,

Then it strikes a root.

~ Fernando Pessoa

I have been listening to Rafael Toral’s latest offering in his “space program”, Space Elements Volume 2, within the context of all four of his Taiga Record releases, and cannot shake the notion of a sonic bestiary and topography, a soundscape of forest floor creatures and fecund jungles, populated with sine tones and theremin waves. This impression points to one of several paradoxes I hear in Toral’s ambitious arc of works he calls the space program; the paradox of instruments bearing names like modified MS2 pocket amplifier feedback with light-controlled filter, delayed feedback empty circuit with joystick-controlled filter modulation and pure and filtered sawtooth oscillator pulses- you get the idea from this very partial listing of Toral’s working battery of sound sources- resulting in music being as acutely sensitive to the placement of silences and spaces as it is the strange pitches, pulses and interstices suggested by these names; and the paradox of Toral’s developing an improvised language, both gestural and vocal, sounding so organic and creaturely, far from the tonality suggested by random pulse width modulation oscillator.

Sure, there are occasions that evince sci-fi sound emissions and the chatter of hardware. But where Toral has realized his strongest work is in the book of imaginary beings he is writing through solo and ensemble improvisation. His sound world is both grounded, burrowed deep into the loam and silt, and filled with flights and flares of satellite sparks, calls from the deep in all directions. To these ears, taking in these four recordings together [they were actually released between 2006-2010], a language emerges, and it does not sound human.

Toral’s turning to language and overtly jazz-colored gestures, following a period of producing guitar-based drone works well received by fans of that area of music, is one of several risks taken. In a 2006 interview in The Wire, Toral stated he was embarking on “a projected set of six albums” exploring and articulating the space program, essentially a program of instant compositions for one or more instruments, Toral playing the aforementioned electronics. I use instant composition intentionally, to invoke the spirit of much of the jazz-based territory that is the most obvious antecedent for Toral’s work. And herein lies a risk taken- Toral has for many years been identified with both the drone, and the MIMEO ensemble, the latter a collective of a whole other nature, an entity meriting its own feature. Suffice it to say, neither drone nor the digital orchestration and electro-acoustic improvisations of MIMEO offer much overlap with the more discursive, dialogical area of the space program.

Look, I don’t find taxonomies useful in a substantive way when discussing music. Nonetheless, they exist as placeholders for trying to convey the elements of sound. My experience with the space program, coming to Toral’s work from MIMEO, is that [here’s that saw I grind whenever possible] more is revealed by repeated listening, more than reductive formulae like “the silences and super-consciously chosen sound placement of EAI meets the collective improvisation of EFI.” Happily, I have found Toral’s space program to be shot through with paradox, pleasurable tensions and stillness, as well as the feel of the most concentrated jazz conversations of, for example, the Jimmy Giuffre/Paul Bley/Steve Swallow trio; and, in the dimension of reinvention, Miles. Toral has reinvented his sound world, jettisoned the instrumentation and sonic palettes he was familiar with, and is stitching together elements not just of space, but of new sounds. Wrangling and arranging unstable pitches, shaping feedback and sine tones in real time.

So, the paradoxes in sum- a sensuality and organicity created by circuits and oscillators, the warp and woof of an explicitly language-based form of improvisation combined with elements of the post-onkyo approach to sound and silence, and Toral’s delightful menagerie of creature sounds, sometimes comic in effect. There is great range on this album, with a half dozen guests contributing to this installment of the space lexicon, as well several of Toral’s long-time collaborators; alto trombonist Fala Mariam, the gorgeous tone of the lyrical trumpeter Sei Miguel, and, always impressive, percussionist Cesar Burago.

On one track of Space Elements, Volume 2, guest guitarist Manual Mota works through jazz chord progressions reminiscent of the balladry of Kenny Burrell or Grant Green, while Toral skitters and spins around him, spewing and chattering like some unspecified mammalian critter. In a lovely duo with vibraphonist Stefano Tedesco, Toral offers the gravitas of deep tones and a nuanced framing of Tedesco’s brief melodic flight [Tedesco reminds me strongly of a vibes player I haven’t thought about in years, Tom van der Geld, who produced a beautiful album with Kent Carter over 30 years ago entitled Patience]. And on a septet setting for cello, pocket trumpet, Rhodes piano [!], percussion, trombone and noise bursts and sawtooth emissions, Toral explores a territory akin to In A Silent Way as imagined by Sun Ra.

So, to convey in elemental terms the trajectory of Toral’s work from the bliss realm of the guitar-based sheets of sound of a decade ago, to the present garden of unearthly sounds, I’d say he has moved from the oceanic to land- but a strange land of slightly unfamiliar fauna, and creatures that bring to mind Borges’ description of a child's first experience when visiting the zoo- “How can we explain this everyday and yet mysterious event?”, Borges asks. “Of course we are fully aware […] that this does not exhaust the sum total of imaginary animals.”

You may very well hear Toral’s space program differently- as a capitulation to jazz’ exhausted approach to improvisation, as an interesting catalog of space age sounds interacting with traditional instruments, absent the bracing, sometimes exhilarating effects of the paradoxes I referenced. What I hear is the development of a new language in a sometimes exalted, sometimes serene sound world, rooted always in both the ether and the earth. And the spontaneous whoops, cries and trills of imaginary beings, familiar and utterly strange.

Once more, the poet Pessoa:

I sang the song of the infinite

In a poultry house.


Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Jorge Luis Borges, The Book of Imaginary Beings

Collage by Joao Paulo Feliciano, whose art can be seen on the covers of two Taiga releases by Toral, Space Elements, Volumes 1 & 2

Monday, April 26, 2010

It Is All That Is Made

Lute player Josef van Wissem stopped in Minneapolis April 20 for a couple of sets at Art of This, a small gallery space hosting an improvised music series on alternate Tuesday nights. Though van Wissem bore an unnerving resemblance to Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men, my conversation with him was warm and humorous. We talked primarily about his collaborations with a favorite guitarist of mine, Tetuzi Akiyama, and a very funny anecdote about lute player Eugene Dombois [who, along with Julian Bream, served as my portal during my college days into the world of the Baroque lute].

van Wissem offered a sweet solo set, beginning with a piece apparently still in process, as the sheet music lay at his feet. There were several extraordinary rests in the piece [ perhaps 20-30 seconds?], in which I initially thought he had stopped playing in response to the ubiquitous audience noise. In fact, the silences rested between iterations of evocative melodies sounding at once very old and intimately familiar. Nice. He concluded his solo set with a piece played while standing close to the listeners, assuming a wide, Neil Young-like shredding stance, rocking back and forth. Somehow this seemed unaffected and oddly touching, the swan neck lute essaying simple, stately melodies the while.

The closing set was a trio improvisation with van Wissem and his touring associates [ the trio's moniker is Heresy of the Free Spirit, sort of Incredible String Band-ish] from Brooklyn, Che Chen and Robbie Lee, the latter two moving through a battery of wind, string and reed instruments. A nice closer, with moments of water-treading, but a cogent concluding drone work.

The photos are courtesy Jesse Peterson, a Minneapolis-based guitarist you can check out here.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Women Without Men

In 2002 I was fortunate to view, on two occasions, the photographs and video works of Iranian exile Shirin Neshat. I was stunned by her artistry and the mystery and clarity of her images. I have thought about these works many times the past eight years, and stayed alert to her activities.

Last week her first feature film, Women Without Men, screened at the Walker Art Center, followed by a discussion with Ms. Neshat, as well as a brief Q & A with the audience. I generally head for the exits when the Q & A starts, ever since enduring an insufferably precious affair with John Cage and pianist Margaret Leng Tan many years ago. But I was again totally enthralled with and shaken by Neshat's vision, so I stayed for the post-film chat.

Vanity compels me to point out that my comments to Ms. Neshat, edited down to a few seconds on the use of sound and silence in the film, can be viewed at the 40:45 mark in the video of this event [click on the title atop this entry to link to the video]. Ms. Neshat, and her artistic collaborator Shoja Azari, offered excellent observations about diaspora, magical realism and the existential sense of home and homeless.

Note: The two images here are stills from the film, depicting the character Zarin in two radically different spiritual conditions.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


If that bald head gets you closer to Buddha
try chemotherapy. Your hair drops casually to the
eyes widen and the skull aches, the heart beats like
Thumper's foot. Heaven's near at every second.
Now you've become the lamb you refused to eat.

~ Jim Harrison, After Ikkyu and Other Poems

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Black Petal

Since about 2005 I have attempted, gradually and without many pointers, to gain a decent overview of what has been happening in the Australian-based improvised music scene. As I indicated, this has been largely an autodidactic search, the catalyst being my discovery of Will Guthrie’s music in 2004. Few music writers readily accessible to U.S. readers, outside of Brian Olewnick and, especially, Jon Dale, have consistently reported on the fecund and fertile scope of activities there.
I’ve become convinced there is an ethos bred in the Aussie bone that suffers no fealty to genre nor ideology, as many of the musicians I enjoy from Oz have been engaged for years with organizing and performing in festivals and venues, in groupings and configurations, that create the occasion for the collision of noise, psychedelic, contemporary classical, field recording-based and freely improvised music. This obtains in discussions I’ve had with erstwhile Australian musicians, now scattered to Nantes and Tokyo and beyond, a refreshing rejection of any area of music’s primacy, a genuine communitarian approach.

Anthony Guerra is such an itinerant, moving from Sydney to London to Tokyo over the last decade or so, developing his approach to prepared and conventional guitars, an impressive crew of playing partners, his own imprint for documenting whatever grabs his interest, and not a few monikers for these various working projects; my sample of Guerra-related projects released solely on his Black Petal imprint necessitated my sorting out Paper Wings, Green Blossoms and Geodesic Domes On The Horizon. Guerra additionally performs as Broken Hands [his duo with Michael Rodgers], overall creating an array of what Portuguese poet Pessoa called heteronyms, authorial personae. As with Pessoa’s various poetic noms, published under the names Caeiro, Reis and de Campos, the character of the work issued under the names Guerra uses varies significantly, while retaining a distinct center.

Guerra has played guitar since a teen. In 1999, he began to explore, initially via the forum of drummer Eddie Prevost’s workshops, the ripening field of London-based improvisation. Guerra collaborated with many players over the ensuing several years, formed the Two Thousand And imprint with Michael Rodgers, and documented some fantastic music on the Impermanent and Pseudoarcana labels, among others. Apropos of this blog, his duo with Antony Milton, Paper Wings, had an extended track on a compilation entitled Crows of the World.

Guerra launched Black Petal in 2005 upon settling in Tokyo, and the catalog is currently at 31 releases [some out of print]. Black Petal #1 is entitled Empty Kingdoms, a solo guitar offering from Guerra as desolate and spare as the title suggests. A self-described “loner blues”, with laconic guitar lines at times reminiscent of Loren Connors, lattices of mournful guitar melodies, and singing that is equal parts moan and murmur [the vocals are both wordless and lyric-based, and are mixed as if wailed from an adjoining room in a bleak motel], Empty Kingdoms clearly was occasioned by a period of tough sledding in Guerra’s life. With this uncompromising, lovely downer anchoring the catalog, the ensuing five years include releases of coarse, ear-abrading feedback squalls, squeezing every possible striation of noise from a single, held tone [Peter Blamey, a.k.a Geodesic Domes On The Horizon’s Feather of a Bee], another melancholic, hermetic solo guitar release, this one from simpatico partner Michael Rodgers [Curtained Moon], and two of Guerra’s duo projects, one with Antony Milton [Paper Wing’s Ash Field], the other with Mark Sadgrove, entitled Iron Sand.

So what is this center I suggest is present throughout Guerra’s varying projects? His playing is pretty consistently tonal, melodic, sparse and darkly hued, whether in tandem or solo. This, of course, describes the most obvious antecedent to Guerra’s sound world, guitarist Loren Connors. Guerra, however, has a couple of distinct qualities that seem equally pervasive, perhaps signature. It is difficult to articulate one aspect of his playing I hear almost recklessly loosed in Empty Kingdoms, and laced throughout the collaborative works as well- it is a sort of intentional tangential quality, a wandering, drifting feeling, superficially sounding a little like slack jamming, but upon repeated listens, is heard as a focused and deliberate allowance for tangent and drift. I am full aware how this conveys an oxymoron, when in fact it is the paradoxical nature of Guerra’s best work. Wisps and billows of guitar clouds within which Guerra places spare notes shaped with a touch that brings to mind the very old east Indian ideal for string and sound quality- “not too slack, not too tight.” Haino comes to mind at times, but more than any other referents, I realized Guerra’s approach on the quieter works is reminiscent for me of an American guitarist probably on few of the radars for this area of music, David Lindley- specifically the Lindley of the soundtrack work of The Indian Runner and, especially, Paris, Texas. The same sort of loose, sometimes plangent, pawn shop filigree roots music. Guerra is strikingly without pretension and artifice, even in beautifully complex, detailed work like his duo with Joel Stern, Outside Bowers [search this one out]. This absence of affectation manifests in his materials, sound choices, and partnerships.

Mention must be made of Michael Rodgers’ Curtained Moon, a release that shares with much of Guerra’s stuff that sense of a very relaxed and ventilated improvisation- this one literally recorded with windows tossed open, through which you may hear wind, chimes, street murmur and other framing ambient sounds that perfectly underscore how indelibly lonesome Curtained Moon sounds. It is like an audio journal of a very specific moment and mood [and malaise], Rodgers worrying guitar lines and skeins that frequently splinter and flare, fitfully stop and start, gain steam and as abruptly halt. It is almost unnervingly intimate, warts and flaws intact, and by its conclusion, beautifully enveloping. I needed multiple listens to get past the uncharacteristic raw spontaneity, the seemingly flubbed lines and abandoned ideas Rodgers seems to skitter through, as if, like this listener, he was distracted and derailed, but determined to make his guitar sing.

Lastly, a word about Green Blossoms, Guerra’s duo with vocalist and ukulele player Aiko Koga. Their release, Whiskey Leaves, is on the Digitalis label, the only one in this batch not on Black Petal. It is goofily bright, happy folk-pop, with simple, braided guitar, ukulele and percussion supporting Koga’s tuneful vocals. It sounds like something I could hear a few times and be done with, a pleasant confection for an occasional mood. Alas, I was hooked from the get, and have played Whiskey Leaves over and over, cheered especially by its presence in a clutch of releases that can dose you into a state of tener duende sufficient to paste you to your chair for a spell. I love this record and hope Guerra and Koga see fit to release another.

The attention and acute eye Guerra brings to the Black Petal packaging is lovely, if a bit vexing. Each one is constructed of high quality paper stock, apposite graphics, and a design style akin to wabi sabi. The vexing aspect is getting the damn discs out of the beautiful packages. I sense Guerra may actually enjoy a bit the extraordinary attention the listener must bring to retrieving the disc for play.

It is a considerable haul from the desolation of Empty Kingdoms to the sprightly tunes of Whiskey Leaves, a trajectory that limns nicely Guerra’s musical sensibility and sound. He is consistently idiosyncratic, engagingly imprecise, and apparently allergic to flash and artifice. I suggest you dip into his sobering and dolorous sound world, holding Whiskey Leaves at the ready, medicine for whatever else troubles you.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Work out of your work

Work out of your work.
Don't work out of anybody else's work.

~ Richard Serra

I just saw this photo of Serra on a music site and it's enough to launch a post. What a rigor he conveys. Serra is near Cape Breton, or used to be, an unsparing enviornment, perhaps the landscape form of Serra.

He has a few good pieces here, one in the Walker Art Center sculpture garden bearing the scarring of our seasons. Nothing as immersive as those improbably huge works in New York and elsewhere.

Really cool cat- performed alongside Tenney in '69 [Reich's Pendulum Piece], now with his work gracing album covers [Sunn O)))'s latest joint], appearances on Charlie Rose!

Doesn't fuck around. Says about rigging, you can become a master rigger, but there's no book on rigging.

Works out of his own work. Fantastic zen scowl, his physiognomy completely congruent with his steel plates, poles and whorled metal.

no more zen

anybody can enter Buddha's world
so few can step into the Devil's.

~Ikkyu/Crazy Cloud

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Vanishing Point

Jason Kahn’s 2009 solo work, Vanishing Point, has received some very positive notices, some stating it is his finest work to date. I am glad to revisit, nearly a year after its release, music that generated a significant amount of commentary for its occasion, as well as for its sonics, shape and specific musical qualities.
Its occasion is articulated by Kahn in the June 2009 press release found on the 23Five imprint web site; Kahn’s two year old daughter Louise died in 2007, just prior to his beginning the work on Vanishing Point.

At first I thought of the title in reference to Louise’s passing, that point where she vanished from our lives, but on further reflection I came to see the composition as dealing with other vanishing points.”

The explicit reference in the title to a personal, unimaginable tragedy naturally generated comments about the impact such information had on those reviewing the work. I join those who were candid in saying Kahn’s personal loss cannot be detached from the listening experience, once that loss is known. How could it be otherwise with sentient beings? Equally I understand the point made by a few that Vanishing Point is an abstract work, without intrinsic reference to any specific narratives, and listeners who hear affective elements such as grief or loss are engaging in Rorschach projections - are, in other words, essentially self-deluded. Coming from a background in clinical psychology, I have to remind the latter group that Rorschach inkings are intentionally ambiguous [abstract], and that the viewers responses are not correct or deluded, but a potent measure of the thinking and feeling life of the respondent. Granted, the Rorschach elicits such information about the respondent precisely because they are offered without a framing “story” [at least theoretically]. I elaborate on this point because I am always nearly as interested in what the listener brings to a work as I am the technical and formal aspects of the work itself [the latter, to be honest, generally pales in juiciness to the former].

O.K., text resumed.

Once you embark on a number of close listens to Vanishing Point, whether you hear grief’s powerfully emotional motivic force at work in its 47 minutes of boiling down and incremental subtraction of elements or not, what may become of equal interest is what Kahn is referring to when he says the composition is “dealing with other vanishing points.” Besides the overarching, inexorable pull toward a horizon of total self-erasure, that is.

Vanishing Point is a mighty cloud at its onset, thickening and layering skeins of agitated cymbals, synth hiss, vaguely aeronautic droneage and a full color spectrum of noises, the principal hues to these ears being white and pink. Drawing this storm down with great patience and nuanced decay, it is startling what occurs with one’s sense of time. My analogous experience, at least the chief one musically, would be the suspension of time experienced in Eliane Radigue’s best works. Similar to the sound world of Radigue, there is the illusion of little development for vast stretches of time, a sense that the music is without momentum, advancement or event. This is quickly dispelled with a few repeat listens, by which you realize how unbelievably detailed and eventful Vanishing Point is, how subtly the acoustic and electronic elements are braided and entwined, and how the piece requires every minute of its duration to as subtly advance towards its own subtraction.

I have been listening to Kahn’s work, solo and collaborative, for six years. Reflecting on Vanishing Point’s reverse osmosis, and how skillfully Kahn always conveys, for me, a sense of the transitory nature of all stuff, I revisited a review I wrote of Zirkadia for Paris Transtlantic in November 2005. While Zirkadia is a trio date, with Kahn joined by Tomas Korber and dieb13, I nonetheless heard a similar quality of transience.

I wrote,

"...overall, Zirkadia subscribes to the wabi-sabi aesthetic: nothing lasts/nothing is finished/nothing is perfect. The spirit is captivated by the sound of decay, the fleeting, the transitory... Zirkadia is made to fade, and it is lovely."

I hear that same spirit in Vanishing Point, and believe I would even without the disclosure of Kahn's terrible loss. I heard it as well in his under-rated solo release from 2005, Sihl, a series of shorter pieces inspired by Kahn's walks along the Sihl river in Zurich, near a studio he was working in at the time. Kahn said he was struck by the laminal pace of the muddy river, and one walk brought this thought;

"At some points during the summer, the Sihl even seems on the verge of drying up! [...] Each day on my way to the studio I walked over a bridge crossing the Sihl. I often stopped for several minutes and observed the Sihl's condition. Over time I began to feel an affinity with what I was trying to do with sound, and the presence of the Sihl."

It is a great pleasure to follow over the years an artist's reckoning with the most ordinary facets of nature; when it is the transitory and fragile facets of nature reckoned with, a slippery slope lies ahead- treacle, pretension, sentimentality, literalness. Kahn avoids these traps, composing with sufficient abstraction and ambiguity, without sacrificing the felt world, to leave space for the listener to inhabit and respond. This makes Vanishing Point a tour de force, a beautiful example of what zen teacher Katagiri Roshi called " a letter from emptiness."

Monday, April 12, 2010


Another old friend, writing centuries before Ikkyu, lived by his own code, paid the price of the ticket fully & without complaint. Were such a man my neighbor.

But this year I'll try once more,
a blind man who shoots for a sparrow's eye
just might score a hit.

~ Han Shan, poem #113

Sunday, April 11, 2010

another myself

What is it now with me
And is it as I have become?
Is there no state free from the boundary lines
Of before and after? The window is open today

And the air pours in with piano notes
In its skirts, as though to say, "Look, John,
I've brought these and these" - that is,
A few Beethovens, some Brahamses,

A few choice Poulenc notes... Yes,
It is being free again, the air, it has to keep coming back
Because that's all it's good for.
I want to stay with it out of fear

That keeps me from walking up certain steps,
Knocking on certain doors, fear of growing old
Alone, and of finding no one at the evening end
Of the path except another myself

Nodding a curt greeting: "Well, you've been awhile
But now we're back together, which is what counts."
Air in my path, you could shorten this,
But the breeze has dropped, and silence is the last word.

~ John Ashbery, Fear of Death