Various Artists
ErstLive001 / ErstLive002 / schnee_live / ErstLive004
2004 / 2005

erstwhile Records’ new ErstLive imprint is a continuing series of CDs documenting modern improv performances. So far the first four volumes have concentrated on music recorded at Erstwhile’s most recent AMPLIFY festival, which took place in Berlin and Cologne over 6 nights in May 2004.

The first installment in the series, a collaborative performance between legendary guitarist Keith Rowe and percussionist Burkhard Beins, was recorded on May 10, in a break between the two halves of the festival, and it’s an incredibly audacious way to kick it off. Rowe and Beins have actually recorded together before, on 2001’s Grain, but no amount of familiarity with either artist could prepare anyone for the brilliance of this set.

The disc begins subtly; after a few opening words and chatter from the musicians, the music fades in with the easily recognizable sizzle of Rowe’s shortwave radio, accompanied by scratches, scrapes, and chimes that could be coming either from Rowe’s arsenal of electronics and gadgets or Beins’ percussion. The radio picks up fragments of news reports about the war in Iraq, swirling the voices into the fuzz so that only a few key phrases stick out. The nature of improvising on a radio means that this topical capture must be primarily a coincidence, but Rowe clearly seizes upon this happenstance, staying with the radio announcer until the report is over. In the usually abstract landscape of Rowe’s music—and electro-acoustic improv in general—such intersections with reality and politics are rare, and all the more striking when they do occur.

This early political commentary sets the tone for the rest of the performance, which is decidedly stormy; characterized by shifts from uneasy quiet to explosive and seemingly unrestrained anger. Nowhere is this more apparent than when Rowe’s radio happens upon the Dusty Springfield classic “Son of a Preacher Man,” which Rowe presents in a rare moment of clarity. For a few odd and unsettling moments, the song hovers on its own, left virtually untouched except for the subtle fuzz of static in the background. It’s unquestionably a moment of contemplation, the musician presenting a piece of music for the audience to listen to intently. In that way, the gesture is perfectly attuned with a driving idea of much modern electro-acoustic music: a deep attention to every sound must be paid.

But, perhaps more importantly, this is also a political gesture, since in context the song seems implicitly directed towards the religiously motivated American president who started the war hinted at by this piece’s opening. In this sense, too, Rowe is directing the audience to listen, but it’s clear in this case that, for once, he wants us to listen to more than just the sounds, but the message underlying them. This is the ultimate gesture away from abstraction, towards an explicit political content of improv that is hard to imagine without such small concessions to the tangible as opposed to the abstract.

The moment established by Rowe’s “Preacher Man” capture is in short order enveloped by a particularly fierce intrusion from Beins, a visceral clatter of chains that in context can only summon images of destruction and anger, the pummeling of the pop song until it’s submerged under chaos. The rest of the piece continues this up-and-down battle, as though the musicians can hardly decide whether to be distraught or enraged—a confusion of emotions that perfectly captures the modern condition.

The second installment in the ErstLive series is a much more traditional improv outing, but for fans of the musicians involved it will likely prove very enjoyable. This quartet of Rowe, Toshimaru Nakamura (no-input mixing board), Thomas Lehn (analog synth), and Marcus Schmickler (digital synth and computer) seems like a rather unusual assembly, but it was designed in the spirit of “addition,” the theme of the 2004 AMPLIFY fest. In this case, to create a quartet, the existing duos of Rowe/Nakamura and Lehn/Schmickler were combined, with the added complication that Rowe has also recorded with the latter duo, for the frantic Rabbit Run. The tension here is ostensibly between the tranquil calm of Nakamura (as best captured on his Rowe collaboration Weather Sky) and the more unruly aesthetic of the two synth players. But anyone familiar with the broad range of Lehn and Shmickler’s work outside of their duo performances should find it unsurprising that they manage to incorporate themselves very gracefully into the surroundings.

Indeed, the trademark earthy rumble of Lehn’s synth works very nicely scraping across the surface of Nakamura’s ethereal high-pitched tones and lower feedback burps. Lehn and Nakamura are perhaps the most recognizable presences here, with the other two players filling in around them a variety of squiggles, scrapes, and noises that are difficult to attribute to anyone. Most of the disc, except a few short bursts, is squarely in territory where Nakamura is comfortable, albeit a lot denser than usual for the current Japanese improv scene. The piece is largely structured around a single high-pitched tone that seems to hover in the center of the mix, a ringing suspended sine around which swirl an ever-changing assortment of meaty synth expulsions, clanging guitar strings, small clicking noises, shortwave radio outbursts, and rhythmic segments. All this is given form by the steadying presence of Nakamura’s high warble.

When that tone disappears 20 minutes in, it leaves an odd, expectant, rumbling silence that sucks in all sound. And indeed, the piece seems a bit more hesitant from this point on, existing in a hazy subsonic blur of bassy tones and exceptionally subtle ambience. All in all, an interesting if occasionally tentative set, which is to be expected since this was the first time all four musicians played together.

The third ErstLive disc, by Burkhard Stangl and Christof Kurzmann, is an entirely different proposition. As the only disc in the series by a grouping that has previously released an album on Erstwhile (the label’s “first pairing” preference usually precludes such return engagements), and with a title, schnee_live, that explicitly refers to that previous offering, there are certain expectations going in. Stangl and Kurzmann totally subvert all those expectations.

Schnee_live is perhaps the most unique and unexpected recording to come out of the usually very abstract Erstwhile, but it is not quite as surprising in the context of the recent aesthetics of the Viennese scene from which both players hail. The Vienna improv scene has been steadily moving towards more and more accessible forms of expression, whether through the melodic computer music of Fennesz, the rhythmically driven improv of Trapist, Radian, and Kapital Band 1, or the pure guitar tones of Stangl and Martin Siewert. But never have any of those records been as deft as this one at balancing abstraction with accessibility.

The disc starts with what seems to be a short introduction by Kurzmann, but he soon begins speaking, in very evenly enunciated English, about the death of a friend as Stangl joins him with some surprisingly melodic and straightforward guitar. It takes a few moments to process—entirely because of the context—but this is a genuine song, and Kurzmann drives the point home when he begins singing, in a wavering and emotional voice, what can only be called the chorus.

From there, the music builds into more expected territory, a blur of electronic tones with Stangl’s deft and pure guitar notes winding through it. The entire album is based on transitions—usually so smooth they’re hardly even noticed—between the continuing song and more abstract sections of electro-acoustic improv. It’s a great tribute to this duo that they’re able to create such a seamless performance from these disjunctions, and even while listening it’s hard to tell exactly how they do it. At the end of each “song” section, the vocals seem to peter out into a somber silence that’s easily filled by Kurzmann’s digital drones or the fiddling clicks of Stangl’s less traditional guitar playing. And likewise, each section of instrumental improv fades into a space where Kurzmann’s deadpan vocals can carry a subtle and disarming emotional heft.

Indeed, this piece works so well because the two disparate parts inform each other so completely. The emotion of the lyrics is matched in the music, and the droning, ethereal sounds create a very unsettling atmosphere that carries over into Kurzmann’s lyrical sections. But there’s humor here too, and a self-awareness that shows through in the piece’s final section, when Kurzmann delivers some lyrics in German (translated to English in the liner notes). “When I die, die, die,” he intones, accompanied by sighing female backup singers, “the laptops must play / Chirping like crickets / Cause that’s what I love, love, love / When a computer plays.”

The final ErstLive so far is another quartet set from the festival proper, recorded in Cologne and featuring Christian Fennesz, Sachiko M, Otomo Yoshihide, and Peter Rehberg (better known as Mego electronics whiz Pita). This is certainly the oddest out of any of these groupings, since anybody who’s heard the subtle, minimal work of Sachiko and Otomo as Filament could scarcely imagine that pair finding room to breath within Pita’s monolithic noise bursts or Fennesz’s equally dense melodic guitar drones. So it’s a pleasant surprise to find that Rehberg and the usually floor-rumbling Fennesz both restrain themselves throughout this set, allowing their sounds to fit into the much sparser aesthetic of the Tokyo musicians.

Both laptoppers contribute a rich mix of low-level drones, thumping rhythms, and digital glitches to fill out the sparse landscape of Sachiko’s chirping sampler and Otomo’s turntable work (though Otomo, by contrast, is often nearly invisible here). The disc floats through some very minimal territory, with Sachiko’s ear-tickling sine waves filling a similar role to Nakamura’s high tones on the other quartet disc. At times, the near-silence recalls Sachiko and Otomo’s recent trio with Nakamura on Erstwhile, Good Morning Good Night, although nothing here is quite as dazzlingly effective as that disc. But it is a solid set nevertheless. The opening minutes, in particular, have a tense and hushed mood that seems to hint at some explosion that never comes. Rumbling bass, the periodic repetition of Otomo’s turntable spinning, and the squeaks of Sachiko’s sampler, all perfectly paced and balanced so that close listening quickly becomes a very involving and even exciting experience. Certainly the kind of recording that could too easily drift into the background, but careful attention is very rewarding in this case.

With a body of music like this, it’s tempting to come to some kind of sweeping conclusion regarding the state of modern improv, and there certainly are some threads and ideas running through these discs that suggest rich possible futures for this music. But at heart this is so far a very diverse and satisfying series that documents a relatively brief time and space. Like all the best and truest improv, it is entirely contemporary and of-the-moment, a glimpse into a performance and the performers involved.

Reviewed by: Ed Howard
Reviewed on: 2005-02-25
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