Pop Playground
Live: Erstquake 2

hosted by the intimate Collective: Unconscious performance space in Tribeca, the second annual installment of the Erstquake festival was curated by Jon Abbey and Chris Wolf of Erstwhile Records and Tim Barnes of Quakebasket records. Expanding from its previous eight sets to a sprawling fifteen sets over the course of three nights, the festival represented one of the most exciting congregations of musicians in the field of electroacoustic improvisation to ever appear on American soil. Of particular note was the mixture of performers, ranging from veterans of the experimental music scene (Keith Rowe, Toshimaru Nakamura) to a younger generation of improvisers who at once follow in their predecessors footsteps and carve out new spaces of their own in this yet-unmapped terrain. In recent years, various publications and Internet message board communities have hammered away at determining how these different generations and local scenes relate to one another and where this constantly shifting corner of the musical universe is heading. While these discussions have been productive in their own ways, they seem to offer surprisingly little in comparison to the performances themselves, where new answers are consistently being worked out and new and still inchoate new directions are continuously emerging.

Day One
The majority of the first night’s five sets featured a handful of pre-tested pairings, most of whose participants provided novel glosses on their existing group dynamics. Leaving aside the amplified surfaces that characterized their superb duo outing, The Scotch of St. James, Tim Barnes and Mark Wastell turned their attention to a pair of opposed tam-tams and a small battery of tuned percussion for an intensely focused, almost ritualistic, exploration of isolated strikes and extended washes of liquescent, shimmering overtones. Barnes took an instigator’s stance throughout, raking his gongs with metal scraps or escalating into ferocious and sustained crescendos, while Wastell tended toward more nuanced counterpoint and interjections of pointed, suspenseful silence. The merging of their approaches yielded several stunning moments of contrast, as when Barnes sustained assault on his primary gong stretched to nearly inhuman lengths, only to be answered by the faintest tinkle of jingle bells by Wastell. Fashioning intriguingly lopsided forms, the duo managed to contract bundles of tension into nearly every metallic stroke and pregnant pause.

Joe Colley

Tabletop guitar and electronics manipulators Keith Rowe and the young Swissman Tomas Korber continued down the line of the preceding set in terms of formal invention but bypassed overt drama in favor of more slow-burning tactics. Rowe’s approach to the guitar has become so oblique that each deliberate moment of contact with the strings feels monumental, nestled as they are between infinitely varied shades of shortwave, buzz from handheld fan motors, and subtle tweaks from his recently acquired laptop. He spent much of the engagement churning up a low-hanging cloud of radio debris while Korber swung his pared-down guitar toward the speakers to generate thick tonal swells and sharpened various sampled crinkles with mixing-desk feedback. A shifting undercurrent of drones and hiss stirred the duo’s gradual accretion of busier noises until a gentle retreat at the twenty-minute mark left behind only a gently room-filling bass pulse. The gradually unfolding coda patiently garnished this alpha wave hum with low-level circuit chatter and spiky Bluetooth interference from Rowe’s laptop mouse, which he hovered over his pickups with the precision of a scientist checking for variations in his Geiger counter.

Ever committed to unsettling expectations, the duo of Dion Workman and Julien Ottavi delivered a surprisingly reserved set in comparison to their extremity-charting solo work and the massive arctic drift of their recent Erstwhile release Misenlian. Lurking just around the lower edge of audibility, they conjured foggy tones and the occasional digital pinpricks from the ether, and in the more audible moments their mixture of blurriness and clarity in their palette gave an impression not unlike watching a bright-but-distant halogen lamp appear through a thick fog. Regrettably, the more slight tones that spanned these episodes were swallowed beneath creaking chairs and the venue’s noisy neighbors, whose ill-timed thumps of protest to the noisier first sets exacted an unfortunate revenge. Workman and Ottavi handled the interruptions with good humor—save for Ottavi’s snippy laptop fold at the set’s close—but a general air of awkwardness hung over what might have been, under more ideal circumstances, a real gem of an experiment.

Sacramento sound artist Joe Colley and Boston-based tape manipulator Jason Lescalleet teamed up for a mammoth set of raucous and rust-encrusted noise that delivered on the duo’s inbuilt potential for volatility. Lescalleet’s unassuming look—part lumberjack, part CPA, all Dad—masks a ferociously intense stage presence. Watching him prowl back and forth, stretching tape loops across the reel-to-reel recorders scattered on the floor was like seeing someone bury land mines in your backyard, and the resulting torrents of world-exploding noise that issued forth did little to dispel this notion. Colley was every bit as theatrical, doubling his lanky form over a table littered with microcassette recorders, while he dragged microphones across the floor and convulsed in time with their cavernous thuds and squeals. Shot through with real rock n’ roll energy, their combined squall was every bit as hot and visceral as the preceding was cool and distant. The din shook loose dust and chunks of ceiling, rattled guts, and promoted the festival’s most touching/hilarious moment of male bonding when Colley, amidst an ear-shredding roar, leaned over and gave Lescalleet the kind of hair-tousling usually reserved for nephews and drunken bar buddies. The cataclysm was brought to a suitably massive halt when the latter kicked his chair across the mic-strewn floor—the resultant crack (and the rapturous applause that followed) still seems like the only punctuation fit for such an event.

Keith Rowe and Toshimaru Nakamura

Keith Rowe and no-input mixing desk wizard Toshimaru Nakamura closed the evening in style, refining and reshaping the taut-but-patient drones of their Weather Sky album. After overcoming an initial hiccup—Rowe’s voltage transformer fizzled out in the middle of the set’s opening gestures—the duo regrouped and spun out subtle variations on sferic whistles and magnetic interference that accumulated layers of depth beneath the hissy surface. Most impressive was the manner in which Nakamura’s stratospheric feedback tones seem to stir the very air in the room, as if there were high-energy particles fidgeting just below the ceiling. Rowe’s participation felt slightly more aggressive than in the pair’s previous encounters, lending the slightest undercurrent of danger to the proceedings, which often resembled the sounds of a glitch-prone particle accelerator whose attendants had left for the evening. A final flourish of looped, prickly rhythms put a very Raster-Noton-esque shuffle in the air before a gradual recession into a silence. Reports from Nakamura and Rowe’s latest recording sessions in Vienna suggest that they are exploring more pointillist frontiers, which means that this lovely (if a bit unsurprising) set could very well among the last in this now well-honed style.

Day Two
The second day of ErstQuake events began with an informal afternoon question-and-answer session between a handful of festival attendees and the trio of Keith Rowe, Dion Workman, and Julien Ottavi. For much of the hour-and-a-half session the spotlight belonged to Rowe, who offered consistently engaging and patient explications of his work and its relations to the more classical strains of painting and musical composition. Chief amongst his artistic concerns was the notion of what he called “oblique” relationships between materials in his work—particularly the tension between the presumed abstraction in his musical endeavors and the comparative clarity of his Pop-Art paintings. With a reserved coolness that periodically gave way to lighthearted self-effacement, he traced the connections between the heavily coded symbolism of his cover illustrations for AMM and Erstwhile releases and his need for art to grapple with what he’d previously deemed “difficult knowledge” of harshness in an uneasy world while avoiding the cheapness of quick interpretation and consequent commoditization.

Equally well spoken and considered, Ottavi and Workman displayed some discomfort with Rowe’s coded references and their implicit tendency to create disparities of knowledge between an enlightened group of appreciators and a less-informed “underclass.” Workman in particular expressed an aesthetic geared toward the physically affective, where the sensations associated with the listening experience ultimately short circuit any sort of programmatic overcoding—or, as his frequent collaborator Barry Weisblat later explained, a music more concerned with thyroid response than philosophical resonance. Displaying his typical mixture of buoyancy and confrontation, Ottavi relayed a series of telling anecdotes about his art school experience, where his working class background was trumpeted by the image- and status-obsessed art community as his golden ticket to the social elite. It was here that the conversation hit its stride, as the younger artists and their respected senior shared a common distaste for the domesticated “white box” art world and its reduction of all practice to exchange value (“painting bank notes,” in Rowe’s words). Fittingly, the conversation closed with a common call for a new type of profundity in electronic music, whether in Rowe’s camouflaged depths or the unmediated visceral experiences proffered by his younger cohorts. This shared resolution dispelled the few hints of generational disparities that hovered over the discussion. One left with the impression that Ottavi and Workman embodied a spirit that Rowe himself displayed in younger days, an edginess not so much dulled in the older master as tempered by ample doses of experience and adversity.

After the necessary adjournments for sound checks and dinners, the second night proper began with a solo set from Joe Colley, who spent a solid twenty minutes beforehand deflating his “way intense” artistic persona by bobbing almost giddily to the Fela Kuti record on the house PA. Starting slumped on a too-small chair, Colley drew strained whines from a pair of small circuits hidden in his pockets before depositing them in a trio of glass jars at the fore of the stage. Gradually the signal from the noisemakers stabilized into a fluctuating squeal which Colley processed while doubled over a small pile of Dictaphones and contact microphones, occasionally twitching as new waves of shudders and jolts jumped between stereo channels. As the roar grew to a rooming-fill roar, he crawled out past the stage area to activate some mystery devices hidden beneath the audience risers, which began to vibrate sympathetically with the sickly out-of-tune chord projected from below. The lurching sound expansions coupled with an alternately elated and nervy stage presence suggested an act of personal alchemy that threatened to come derailed at any moment—and impression that was confirmed when a pair of reluctant wires refused to unplug gracefully, bringing the set to a suitably existential close that seemed to disappoint Colley far more than his audience. Like Lescalleet, his heavily spatialized performance feels less like a conventional musical action than the construction of an installation, though Colley’s methods feel more personal and deliberately expressive—his constructions amount to large-scale aural shadowboxes. One of the highest of the weekend’s highlights, on par with the preceding night’s explosive duo.

Tomas Korber and Tim Barnes

The trio of Toshimaru Nakamura, percussionist Sean Meehan, and multi-instrumentalist Taku Unami provided stark contrast to Joe Colley’s theatricality, and the apparent flatness of their very “Off-Site” set suffered for its proximity to more vivid fare. The sticking point proved to be Unami’s intriguing performance rig, a computer-controlled assemblage of speaker cones and other vibrating devices (fans, electric motors) that tweaked bits of glass and metal into rickety patterns and isolated tinkles. Volume control emerged as the inevitable hurdle, as Unami seemed unable to retreat to the level of his collaborators, leaving his rattled tidbits uncomfortably exposed alongside the warm feedback-like tones extracted from Meehan’s cymbal and snare drum and Nakamura’s velum-thin hiss. A few gorgeous moments would arise when Nakamura would volunteer a particular strain of grainy, dusty vinyl hiss from his mixing desk, thus providing Unami with some textural common ground on which to stretch out. But such moments were too few to sustain a half-hour of music, and little of the surrounding grasping could span the gaps between Unami and his partners.

The duo of Tomas Korber and Tim Barnes, on the other hand, served as a prime example of two players finding a common language in decidedly unexpected territory. Foregoing the gong battery from the night prior, Barnes turned his attention to a drumhead littered with contact mics and filtered through a small nest of electronics. In a manner akin to his friend and frequent collaborator Mattin, Barnes led his sparring partner through a steeplechase of dynamic shifts, tearing into unexpected lurches of feedback and uncompromising torrents of white noise that would hang just past the point of expectation before sucking back into amp hum and magnified pickup scratching. Korber responded with volleys of high-pitched squeals and depth-charge bass pulses while maintaining the stoic concentration that would be his trademark through the weekend. Each gasping stop and unexpected boom seemed to reaffirm “the lurch” as a valid compositional device. Barnes and Korber provided a much-appreciated antipode to more conventional crescendo-decrescendo structures—masters of unexpected, asymmetrical constructions, they seem to possess a ruthless aversion to formal cliché. Testing ears without testing patience, it was a refreshing set that makes the case for a paradigm-shift toward music that actively embraces breakneck jolts and high-contrast intensity.

Greg Kelley, Bhob Rainey, and Jason Lescalleet

nmperign’s Greg Kelley and Bhob Rainey abandoned their respective trumpet and soprano sax in favor of analog and software synths for this particular meeting with Jason Lescalleet, who operated a foursome of rickety sampling keyboards. Kelley opened with a brief invocation, a “Messiaen on downers” chorale that settled on single slow-phasing pitch, while Lescalleet dramatically tore strips of duct tape to hold down keys on his arsenal, which produced a groaning refraction of the hazy synth fog above. Perhaps farther from rapid-fire, person-to-person interplay than any performance this weekend, the churning wash was more akin to the mystical dronescapes of Leif Ellgren or Hive Mind’s squelchy strands than anything derived from the “traditional” improv field. Deliberately restrained to the point of near-composition (an impression reinforced by Greg’s opening), the Radigue-like sprawl seemed to disappoint a crowd prepped by the vigorous seesaw action that preceded it—an unfortunate response, as the trio’s offering had a simultaneously earthy and ethereal appeal all its own.

The headlining duo of Julien Ottavi and Keith Rowe emerged as the most controversial of the weekend. Armed with a pair of shortwave radios each, the young buck and the veteran tapped into a common lineage by performing what sounded like an informal version of John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 4 —one that directly ignores the composer’s request to avoid news broadcasts in times of national distress. An undercurrent of hurricane updates and Iraq updates filtered through amidst blasts of pop and idle commercial chatter, effectively puncturing the insularity of the festival setting and with the sort of material reality Rowe alluded to in the afternoon’s discussion. Ottavi’s violent swells in volume and forays into distortion tended to dominate Rowe’s subtler shadings, and the visual contrast between Rowe’s collected stance and Ottavi’s visible struggles with the airwaves’ contents was nothing if not striking—all of which made the set’s beautiful, startling conclusion nothing short of breathtaking. While grappling with a failing output jack on his shortwave, a clearly perturbed Ottavi struck upon a bit of syrupy-sweet classical that flickered in between washes of static. At Rowe’s instruction, he placed the radio, now unplugged and unamplified, on his table and the duo departed the stage, leaving the most fragile signal unearthed during their investigations to play out on its own as the audience sat in silence. Eventually an uneasy round of applause broke through—uneasy for some because of the rawness of the performance, uneasy for all because of an unwillingness to bring a close to that delicate final gesture. A poignant close to a difficult set, one that continues to improve in hindsight.

Day Three
The third night of the festival struck a comfortable balance between the reliability of the first night and the experimentalism of the second, yielding a night of consistently enjoyable music with plenty of challenges interspersed. The trio of Greg Kelley, laptopper David Daniell, and Sean Meehan represented the only returning grouping from last year’s festival, where they delivered a stirring, if slightly unpolished, collection of ebbing drones and quiet rustles. This year’s performance felt completely unhurried and spacious, eliding the “finding common ground” stage and delving straight into subtle and flexible group interaction. Kelley’s careful extraction of whispery gurgles, sputters, and buzzing metal drones from his trumpet is an arresting display as well as a treat for the ear, as is Sean Meehan’s capacity to trace out different degrees of purring and groans from his snare drum head. Daniell’s treated environmental sounds and sine wave pulsations provided a fluid backdrop for his counterparts, occasionally guiding them by osmosis towards warm, organ-like sonorities that would evaporate as easily as they appeared. Together, their quiet and durable sounds were woven into a seamless organic whole that didn’t so much resist the occasional intrusion from the police sirens outside the doors as it did enfold them.

Sean Meehan

The world premiere of the Keith Rowe and Mark Wastell duo was a decidedly more assertive affair. Focusing on “amplified textures”—a setup of contact microphones abraded by various materials, such as steel wool—Wastell fired off volleys of crackles and close-up scuffs, twisting the dials on his mixing desk with the flair of concert pianist. More prone to active string agitation and fluctuations in the density of his grayscale drifts, Rowe’s canvassing approach was at its most assertive in response to his partner’s obvious enthusiasm. As the squall began to peak, Wastell fed his various scratches though feedback loops to pull out sustained whistling filaments, cutting them off with dramatically erratic timing to allow Rowe’s busy underpinnings to shine through. Filled with almost more intricacy than could fully be grasped in the heat of the moment, theirs was an impressively dense and detailed offering, the kind that would certainly encourage future meetings between this pairing.

Bassist Margarida Garcia met with Taku Unami for one of the weekend’s odder sets, though not without its own rewards. Garcia’s approach to her amplified contrabass splits the difference between Euro free-improv scratch and squeal and electroacoustic improv’s gritty frontiers, though her compositional sensibility seems more keenly aligned with the languid pacing of the latter. Much of the set was given to her shaping of smudged, amorphous groans and the occasional white noise scrape, while Unami sat motionless, staring intently into his laptop screen while his array of speakers and tweakers sat motionless. Periodically, he would set off a metronomic ticking that would sometimes be joined by his more aleatoric devices but would most often just be allowed to click with mechanistic precision in the silences between Garcia’s creaks. Initially disconcerting, this interplay took on increased significance with each repetition. Eventually, Unami’s poltergeist ensemble emerged as the punctuation in the séance-groans of his collaborator, and the entire set took on a ritualistic intensity/anxiety as the drama of difference unfolded. Though a bit uneasy for much of its execution, the pair’s experiment felt like a bold gesture. While most performers of this music attempt to find a midpoint in their techniques, to reduce individual difference to communal sameness, Unami and Garcia seemed to celebrate the tensions of unresolved disparity—a particularly affirmative notion in light of Unami’s struggles in the previous night.

Margarida Garcia

Julien Ottavi returned to the role of provocateur in his duo with Tomas Korber—if such a one-sided exchange could properly be called a “duo” for much of its duration. In a surefire indicator that something extreme was about to go down, Ottavi issued a disclaimer prior to the eardrum-crunching firestorm, encouraging those who felt “oppressed” by the extreme volumes to walk out without shame or fear of hurting the feelings of the performers. When Korber floated the first full tone from his guitar, most of the audience appeared relatively unconvinced. Without warning, Ottavi lashed out with a truly fearsome karate chop to his keys to trigger a thunderclap of Hecker-esque noise that launched half of the audience from their seats and sent the more squeamish (sensible?) among them heading for the door. For the remaining twenty-minute span the world was naught but noise, and Ottavi’s truly exhilarating recklessness swallowed everything in its path—including the contributions of his collaborator, whose usual look of concentration seemed to have passed into the realm of suppressed irritation. Though it may have failed as a democratic action, it more than succeeded in the visceral thrills department, and Ottavi’s enthusiastic key slapping and unabashed enjoyment of the tissue-saturating sound mass was more than affective in its own right. Clearly, one of the house PA speakers sided with Korber and opted to self-destruct rather than abide the onslaught, though the spectacle of the heat flash that mangled its woofer seemed a fit visual complement to Ottavi’s barrage.

The weekend closed on a quiet note, as the trio of Toshimaru Nakamura, Mark Wastell, and Tim Barnes played through an improvised “mini-PA” cobbled together in the wake of Hurricane Julien. Confident and probing at new terrain, this collaboration seemed to be an apt knot at the weekend’s various intertwined threads, one that mediated some of the more extreme tendencies and their more subtle inclinations—the stillness of the Tokyo aesthetic, the focused rumbles and scrapes of the European camps, with subsumed hints of the noisier communities in American and abroad. Nakamura’s crisp fissures and taut squeals felt particularly dry and uncompromising alongside the more muted rustlings from Barnes and Wastell, but the contrast was far from jarring. Instead, the pull between Nakamura’s weightlessness and his counterparts’ comparatively grounded stance was a firm, productive tension that held their sounds in balance. At times the music would ease off into charged silences where the music felt as if it could completely unwind or immediately reconfigure in subtly varied shapes, and with unwavering precision the group selected the appropriate option, rendering their final cadence all the more affecting in its utter rightness—a reflective, resolute finale for a weekend devoted to the courageous following of this new music’s rich and varied lines.

All photos courtesy of Robert J. Kirkpatrick.

By: Joe Panzner
Published on: 2005-10-07
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