starting through erstwhile

I am seven years into the Erstwhile catalog, owning, at this date, 40 of its titles.
I intend to listen through the catalog numbers I own in chronological order.

July 11, 2011
A song is not what it seems.
Archie Shepp, Fire Music

I started tonight with Erst 003, the duo of Denman Maroney and Earl Howard, Fire Song. Recorded in 1999, it holds up well enough as an exploration of their respective instruments [piano and alto saxophone and synthesizer], combining extended and conventional techniques and, on the final track, a sax solo by Howard that approaches fire music. It is called Fire Song, but owns a rigorous regard for structure and logic that distinguishes it from many freely improvised sax flights.

The foci of the Erstwhile catalog has traveled a great distance in the ensuing 12 years; I haven't reflected on what precisely I had my ears on in 1999 that might serve as an approximate frame for how Fire Song might have sounded to me then. I am confident, however, that the shock of the new would come much more forcefully had I encountered The World Turned Upside Down, the next Erst in my queue [005], also from 1999. This is music that could justify its title in 1999, and remains a favorite from the catalog.

Erstwhile 003 Maroney/Howard  Fire Song

July 12,2011
And the years lament...
17th century protest song

Tonight my return to Erst005, The World Turned Upside Down, which I have surely heard as many times as anything in the catalog. A seminal work in several regards, I think; personally, my first Erst, so, mind-blowing. But viewed from a macro perspective on the ensuing decade of EAI, a few things to note - the Sugimoto of Opposite is heard here, [Opposite being a solo guitar release of 20 tracks averaging 2.5 minutes duration, potent, condensed and melodic improvisations with a warm, round tone reminiscent of Jim Hall], a garrulous Sugimoto on the cusp of a new sparsity and the beginning of his privileging composed material over this sort of approach ["what a beautiful corpse!", he would say in 2002 about his involvement in EAI].
Sugimoto's expansive contributions on the first track are folded into the clatter and rasp of Rowe and Mueller, sustained whole notes hung in the air amid radio captures and Mueller's lithe percussion. His single-pointed focus and sustain of dark and agile tones, juxtaposed against the slight menace and brooding flavor Rowe and Mueller raise, is stunning.

Rowe, obviously unbeknownest to Erst's nascent audience, would become the heart and core of the label, so I find his balancing act with Sugimoto and Mueller the more bracing. Seldom working/recording outside of AMM at this stage, Rowe forges new relationships, and not merely with regard to playing partners. Here are the seeds of how Rowe will limn and lace many subsequent meetings with individuals from the onkyo scene.

Mueller sits [look at photos from the concert at Instants Chavires from which TWTUD is taken] between the two guitarists who, in my opinion, would shape and shade this area of music most influentially for the decade to come. His playing is so subtle you might actually hear its potency in the heightened playing of his compatriots, as much as issuing from him. Mueller had a way of leaching into his playing partners like that, in a metallurgical sense, altering and informing their sound as much as his own.

Finally, consider what we now take for granted as a characteristic of these playing situations - the international nature of the trio, performing at a venue established in a fourth country, released on an imprint based in New Jersey [that's in the U.S.A.].

The World Turned Upside Down is one of the earliest statements of an approach to improvisation I once called low-volume/high-intensity, to distinguish it from the high-volume/high-intensity heard in the EFI developing at the same moment in time. Restrained, without a beginning or end [much to the distress of many listeners segueing to this area from other forms of improvisation], and of a gestalt that isn't really dialogical, nor aleatory, but something else.

The title is taken from a protest song from 1643, with this stanza:
Yet let's be content/and the times lament/you see the world turned upside down.

Listening now, it sounds right on time.

Erst005 Günter Müller/Keith Rowe/Taku Sugimoto The World Turned Upside Down

July 13, 2011
 The patterns delineated here have not yet been classified...words that come to mind to name them are knots, tangles, fankles, impasses, disjunctions, whirligogs, binds.I hope they are not so schematized that one may not refer back to...the final formal elegance in these webs of maya.
~ R.D. Laing, Knots, 1970

Tonight, Erst007, the second document released by the duo of John Butcher & Phil Durrant, Requests & Antisongs. Also recorded in 1999, this one has received relatively scant listens, partly due to it being a recent acquisition, partly due to my Reeds Fatigue Syndrome [if you saw my 70s/80s collection of FMP alone, you'd understand].

Durrant, at this time, was honing the synth/sampler saw in MIMEO, and, in a remarkable juxtaposition to his duo and MIMEO work, his violin, in the contemporaneous, ultra-spare trio captured on dach [Erst014]. With Butcher he developed a way of working in a continuous feedback loop that draws an inevitable comparison to Evan Parker's parallel experiments in his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble [in which Parker, et al were processed and looped by Prati and Vecchi]. Butcher and Durrant achieve what I was looking for in the better known Parker ensemble [I heard the latter in 1998, upon their Toward The Margins release]; rawer, riskier, they smear and smudge the air with bolder strokes. Durrant owns and instantly implements more gripping and distinct ideas, throwing Butcher's precision and impeccable technique back at him, tweaked and twisted. Butcher and Durrant make the Parker Ensemble sound tentative and tame, by contrast.

The duo reach mind-meld states that are clearly the result of a long collaboration, an intuitive braiding of their saxophones and electronics.The auspicious opener, Sheet Bend, all incremental and sneaky, accelerates to a baby-shaking frenzy before its last gasp; Prusik Loop, the only track that mines the granular waves associated with this area, is dark, restrained and pensive, a tsunami-in-a-tea-kettle.
By my lights, the coolest recurring symbiosis in effect is when Durrant chips and chisels partials from Butcher's notes, allowing some of the tones to sound unimpeded, others being selected, shaped and sculpted; the resulting effect is Cubism.

All of the titles for the pieces are classifications of knots.

Erst007  John Butcher/Phil Durrant   Requests & Antisongs

July 14, 2011
You're safe in a wonderful place.
~ Robert Walser, Sister Tanner

If by chance you've referenced the Erst catalog as we walk through these earliest releases,you may have noticed label owner/producer Jon Abbey's predilection for duo projects, as 10 of the initial 15 are just that. Tonight I sit with another one from my first batch of Ersts, Schnee, the first domestic release by a pair of Austrians, Burkhard Stangl and Christof Kurzmann.

I came to Schnee pretty familiar with Stangl's guitar work-outs in the ensemble Ton Art, so his approach on Schnee was startling - completely inviting, but far afield from the tightly constructed jazz-deconstructions of Ton Art. I knew nothing of Kurzmann.

On Schnee you hear [this is conjecture] what must be among the earliest collaborations in which a musician improvises solely using the PowerBook/g3 software [Kurzmann], and what a varied sound palette is discovered here. To be transparent, I recall well my position at the time that one could expect neither fully realized improvised music from a computer, nor regard software as a bona fide instrument suitable for real time improvisation. I recall as vividly Schnee being among the works that erased that bit of idiocy; happily I was disillusioned by a music of superb malleability, dynamics and human feeling.

Four tracks, 15-20 minutes each, some languidly paced, some teeming , all involving Stangl caressing, slapping, pulling and flaying guitar notes, while Kuzmann creates base tracks that hum, burble and, briefly [on the Fassbinder homage In Einem Jahr Mit 13 Mondem, among my favorite films by Fassbinder], percolate like island dance music. Lest this sound busier than intended, rest assured [or be forewarned] herein lie stretches of quietude and serenity equal to any found elsewhere in the catalog. Stangl ranges easily between the fairly violent hammering/dampening sounded amidst a steadily rising buzz-drone from Kurzmann [on Passion], to the fragility and mindfulness of his acoustic guitar on Nordrand.

Somehow the effect in toto is human as hell, fully embodied and felt music made with software, electricity and digitalia [as well as acoustic guitar]. I'll mention the four pieces bear dedicatory titles, nods to four favorite film-makers of the musicians.

More salient for me is the selection of a few lines of verse by the Swiss prose poet Robert Walser, found in the liner notes. Walser wrote a million words across a long career about the winter season, and specifically, tirelessly, about schnee, snow. He was the Giorgio Morandi of snow, and this speaks elequently to this Minnesotan.

The specific Walser lines in the Schnee liners link snow to sound. The line atop this post was written by Walser in an early iteration of his many snow passages, offered reassuringly to a young man upon his discovery of a frozen body found on the lad's walk. Walser was found dead some years later, face down in the snow, on Christmas Day, 1956.It was as if Huysmans had devised his manner of dying.

If you expect from the title, or from the Walser lines within, a wintery music, you may be surprised by the heat the duo generate at times. There is no question, melancholia and sober-mindedness are in the mix. If not the mind of winter, maybe a crystalline quality, and the way things sound when the world is under a blanket.

Erst008  Christof Kurzmann/Burkhard Stangl  Schnee

July 15, 2011
He who would do good to another must do it in minute particulars…for art and science cannot exist but in minutely organized particulars.
~ William Blake

There are minute particulars aplenty to discover in the next Erst duo in my queue, the 2000 recording La Voyelle Liquide [Erst010]; I know, I’ve been unpacking this one for years.

I had spent some time with Ninh’s 2003 solo release on Meniscus [ a label based in my hometown, owned by a friend of a friend], Le Ventre Negatif, before coming to this duo. I knew from that fairly austere work about Ninh’s surrounded bass drum approach, in which Ninh places various objects on the big drum’s skin as he strokes, rubs and otherwise excites its surface. Being a solo work, hearing Ninh with Günter Müller , who brought with his drum kit electronics and mini-discs , was a revelation. The listener can jettison any hope of clinging with any degree of certainty to whom is doing what, or notions about what sounds are sourced from electronics and what from acoustic instrumentation. In 2011 you’ll be forgiven for showing a “so what?” where these attributes obtain, so accustomed are we now to the steady acoustamatic erasure of such distinctions. But this was then, we were not jaded where such new sounds were being rapidly developed, and these fellows inarguably place extended techniques at the service of illimitable ideas and fluid interaction.

 I will say the same thing about the Ninh sound, as I began to hear shortly following this time period many improvising percussionists integrate into their tool boxes the rubbing of drum heads, the blowing through small cymbals into the drum skin, the placement of pine cones and bric-a-brac on the surfaces of kits, the vibrations setting into motion the percussive clatter of wind-up toys skating across the skins- what hath Ninh wrought! It is akin to the pervasive cymbal-bowing Eddie Prevost and a few others loosed on percussionists the world over.

 All these techniques persist to this day, but technique, however virtuosic, is not the heart of the matter where La Voyelle Liquide is concerned. It is not what’s in the arsenal, it’s where these two take it – across seven discrete tracks [the recording is 75 minutes boiled down from a 240 minute recording session] the duo take their encounter in the 10 directions. They churn, percolate, spar and spiral, great cataracts of clatter and clank shooting through the air like Big Sid Catlett or Baby Dodds turned loose on Cage's Construction pieces [a more reined in Ninh in fact has recorded numerous Cage percussion works].

Müller had been releasing amazing stuff on his imprint for4ears well before Erstwhile was born, so his appearance two years into Erst’s existence must have been a kick in the head. This was a period in which  Müller’s integration of the mini-discs, filtered through his drum sensibilities, was exciting as fuck – essentially looping pre-recorded sonic snippets ranging from seconds to several minutes in length , along with his live percussion , through pedals and equalizers, Müller improvised pitch-shifts and instant collages on the fly. The abiding elements I hear in much of his work of that decade were two-fold: as I said in my take on The World Turned Upside Down, Müller seemed to infiltrate his playing partners with his quicksilver, liquid sound, like an elite athlete raising their game. The second salient aspect of the Müller sound is, apropos to this release, the liquidity that conveys his ideas – while he has collaborated with players who sound, by contrast, sere and bone-brittle, Müller’s landscapes [his term] are generally borne of the water element. His work within the Amplify 2002 box set [Erst033-40, a document that, should I choose to write about it, will necessitate I retreat from this world in order to focus on its seven-plus hours of performances], appearing on four of its seven CDs, as well as in a riveting throw-down with Otomo Yoshihide in the accompanying DVD, is breath-taking. On the studio CD from that event, tint, a duo with Toshimaru Nakamura, Müller can be heard at his very best.

Art and science thrive in the liquid vowels this duo form and re-form in every conceivable shape and color. When you hear such minute particulars across six years of revisiting a work, you know you are hearing something extraordinary. It appears to be out of stock if sought directly from Erst. Do some seeking elsewhere, then – this one is indispensable. Better yet, get after Jon Abbey to re-release it for a new audience.

Erst010  Lê Quan Ninh/Günter Müller  La Voyelle Liquide

July 16, 2011
This is not indifference, it’s detachment.
~ Anatole France

I have come to an Erst release I have respect and admiration for that, at the same time, I seldom play. This is the 2000 session that brought Otomo Yoshihide and the duo Voice Crack [Norbert Möslang and Andy Guhl] together , a high impact , high-spirited collision the trio crafted from cracked electronics and brio.

This is not the context in which I will carry on about my regard for Otomo’s work – that will be articulated soon enough, as his contributions documented on the Amplify 2002 box set, and his appearances on two of the live performances culled from Amplify 2004 [for my project here, I am limiting my appreciation solely to Otomo’s Erst releases-I haven’t heard Erst029, his duo with Mueller] merit the strongest praise. The Ground Zero and Filament stuff is, in this small corner of the musical cosmos, deservedly regarded as Bohor or La légende d’Eer are amongst the stochastic process crowd.

 Just a year prior to B, B & S, Voice Crack released Poire_Z, their collaboration with eRik M and Guenter Mueller, which I encourage anyone reading this to score a copy of. The Swiss duo had been together 28 years, off and on, at the occasion of their Erst date, documenting much  of their work – they sought or received frequent collaborators,  inclusive across taxonomical lines, enjoying balls-out jams with free improv skull-rattlers Borbetomagus, as well as dates with Keith Rowe and Phil Minton.

So what gives with the infrequent revisits to this one? As much as some friends say they dig well articulated and argued  analyses of how things fail to engage them, I fall short here;  I spun it twice tonight as I considered writing this entry, and two things occur to me; first, this is a solid enough date, the trio blow the roof off the sucker, and there is no shortage of ideas, energy or interaction here; and I remain unmoved, my attention drifting often enough to affirm all of those elements can be present and accounted for, and this listener can be meh; the second follows organically and, for anyone looking for reasons, disappointingly – the elements that bring me back to any work in any media are both essential and ineffable , and I am at ease with that. I don’t think it is laziness that accounts for my disinclination to closely examine why I don’t feel most music [don’t understand me too quickly, not feel as in basic emotions alone]; that exercise simply lacks sufficient merit to compel my spending my time sifting and sussing out the elements of the luke-warm and mediocre.

I would suggest that anyone drawn to the sound of industrial wastelands awakening like sleeping giants to swarm, hiss and roar, or the sonics of satellites fucking, may well feel this one, and come back for more. Sci-fi allusions, I think, are inescapable while listening to the holy hell raised by the cracked electronics here. It might be how a symphony would sound in one of Samuel Delaney’s worlds, or the teem of an electronic forest in one of Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo films. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if that’s your cuppa.

Erst011  Otomo Yoshihide/Voice Crack    Bits, Bots & Signs

July 17, 2011
You cannot describe it or draw it.
You cannot praise it enough or perceive it.
~ Mumon, The Gateless Gate, 13th century

When I played the guitar, “I” had to play the guitar…the no-input mixing board gives me this equal relationship between the music, the space, the instrument, and me.
~ Toshimaru Nakamura, 2003 interview

I think that it is not easy to play with me.
~ Sachiko M, 2009 interview

We’ve pretty quickly reached the Erst release that throws de gustibus non (est) disputandum under the bus, do [Erst013]; perhaps, judging by the shit-storm of polarized responses to the work of Nakamura and Sachiko M I first observed in 2004 on various fora, something like de gustibus elegantibus non est disputendum, sed de malis [there is no dispute about good taste, but about bad taste, well…] became the rallying cry of the duo’s detractors. In other words, even hardcore, inarguably open-minded listeners of experimental music have reached the edges of their catholicity with do [and the release that followed three years later that added Otomo Yoshihide to the distillery, Good Morning Good Night]. I myself live in a house divided, as my partner cannot abide the effects of Sachiko’s sinusoidal waves, a completely valid response as it is predicated as much on how painful the experience is, as any aesthetic judgment. I have heard other migraine and tinnitus sufferers report Sachiko’s music is pure torture; I am confident she is aiming for only half of that characterization with her precise, perforating tones. I am sympathetic more than usual with those who cannot tolerate this area of music, when it is due to the physical challenges imposed.

I am less tolerant of arguments that do fails due to its radical reductionism, or [yes, there yet exist, always have, always will, punters who lay claim to a music’s invalidity due to its instrumentation] those who mock the sine wave and the no-input mixing board as sound-generators, in contrast with, say, the saxophone or piano.  Do is extraordinary precisely due to the choices the duo make in their instrumentation, their process, and the resultant work produced; I own sufficient honesty to say do has steadily climbed up my inventory of important music the past several years as I think it genuinely appeared a few years ahead of my ears and ideas about the possibilities of improvisation. I don’t know how I might praise its sui generis awesomeness more.

Do consists of three sections taken from three concert performances, ranging from three to 37 minutes. It is the longer section that stops the mind, clarifying brilliantly how the two musicians construct their work on principles like emptiness, the smallest perturbations of stasis, the fragility inherent in a music that risks so much, and a sort of EAI-form of Occam’s Razor – the smallest sounds derived from the least materials make the strongest music .
The fragility and risk business is no joke, however precious that last reads – the slightest movements from Nakamura send the internal feedback he is wrangling into whorls and whooshs barely controllable, to cite only one practical risk.
 Sachiko’s quote above embodies part of the risk she has taken since 1997 or so, when she dumped out the samplers she wielded to great effect in Ground Zero, and staked her ensuing 13 years of work on test tones and, more recently, the smallest gestures possible with contact mics. She has said the difficulty for her playing partner is her stubborn, steadfast focus on playing what she plays, whatever the occasion, whomever she plays with, bringing to mind an otherwise improbable link to Derek Bailey. Her ability to do so and “fit” lies in your ears. What is inarguable about Sachiko’s process is her bravery.
Nakamura has said part of his motivation in setting aside the guitar and picking up the NIMB was to play with Sachiko. Good hunch -  Sachiko is a severe playing partner who has found an unforced complmentarity with Nakamura.

So, do  cleaves new music audiences, and well it should. It is actually so radical I feel emboldened to revivify that hackneyed term. My single encouragement to you, if you have not heard do, is to trust that whatever you think it sounds like, it doesn't. My description has probably added to this state of things, as words like severe, stasis and sinusoidal understandably convey, minimally, no fun. No affect. No soul.
No way – the long track teems with life, permutations and a surprising degree of rhythm. The beauty is in the details, and the meeting itself – Sachiko M and Nakamura are perfectly paired, and must have enjoyed some measure of joy to find each other on this ground.

In some combination of alertness to genuinely new directions in music, good luck, and developing connections with the Tokyo-based onkyo scene, Jon Abbey was there precisely as both Nakamura and Sachiko were transitioning from playing, respectively, the  guitar and sampler, and playing together. This predilection is a rather obvious pattern the alert observer, given a little objectivity on their part, can see across Erstwhile’s first 11 years – Abbey’s radar for emerging artists, possible playing combinations, and, back story be told, his saying no to a lot, in order to say yes to meetings like do, Duos For Doris, as well as facilitating Rowe’s relieved sense of homecoming when he joined forces with the onkyo set. The music speaks to this, so fuck all that is extraneous to this, principles before personalities enables one to note the importance of Abbey’s timing and match-making.

I chose Mumon’s lines from a cherished collection of zen koans, as I am always amused to read reports of audience members who have encountered the onkyo crew’s music and supposed they are, by dint of their on-stage stillness, incredible focus, the aforementioned emptiness that obtains in much of the music, and being Japanese, into zen.  Years ago Taku Sugimoto replied to an e-mail I sent him asking about the zen thing, saying he had read D.T. Suzuki and thought the venerable scholar merited further attention. As D.T. Suzuki was actually the first zen author I read as a teenager, precipitating my 40 years of engagement with zen, I found his understatement perfect. Anyway, Mumon’s pointer to the nature of things is an apposite one for do, despite my many words here – you can neither describe it, nor praise it enough.

Erst013  Toshimaru Nakamura/Sachiko M   do

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