AMN Reviews: Clara de Asís – Nununu [PyR 141] & Caroline Park – Less than Human [PyR 142]

Two new offerings from the Pan y Rosas netlabel present different perspectives on making electronic music. One involves intuitive, moment-to-moment decision making, while the other draws inspiration from a systems-based aesthetic of autonomous processes.

NUNUNU_artwork_ANununu is Marseille-based experimental guitarist Clara de Asís’s twenty-four minute, unedited single-take improvisation for prepared electric guitar. A continuously evolving soundscape, the piece begins with a low-key electronic hum or murmur that at times sounds like the rush of wind through telephone wires or the throbbing of airplane propellers high overhead. From there de Asís builds reverberant sound blocks into a thickness of layered echoes which eventually converge into a buzz and an unsettling, suspended chord punctuated by the metallic chiming of struck strings.

CP_LTH_cover-artCaroline Park, whose 2013 release Rim explored the sonic products of generative compositional processes, here presents five pieces that begin with minimal musical materials which accumulate into larger structures through repetition, superimposition and variation. In Being States Park creates changing harmonic patterns by layering a handful of brief motifs of a few notes each; the larger melodic aggregates that result take on unpredictable shapes by virtue of the differing lengths and cycles of the constituent motifs. Plantlife and A Moth Is Born are made up of somewhat harsher sounds, the former sending its elongated tones riding out on a wave of static and the latter consisting of siren-like, dissonant glissandi. Fractured Barnacles is constructed around a pulsing sequence of changeable speed, while Gldufgsld closes the collection with a floating, consonant chord.

AMN Reviews: Biota – Funnel to a Thread (2014; ReR Megacorp)

New Biota CoverEvery three years or so, the collective known as Biota releases a new album of unclassifiable music. These releases, woefully missed or ignored by many, are events of singular importance in my basement office. While Biota has been in existence since the mid 80’s, the group originally was an offshoot of the Colorado-based audio / visual unit Mnemonists, which began in the late 70’s. So, not a new outfit, they have had ample time to develop their own distinct sound, though one that is difficult to grapple with or recount verbally. Weird Americana, dark folk, acoustic progressive rock, avant-garde electroacoustic…all of these labels help illustrate the generally-quiet, deliberate approach of Biota, yet none of them are particularly representative of the resulting music.

The current lineup includes Mark Piersel, Tom Katsimpalis, Bill Sharp, Larry Wilson, Gordon Whitlow, Randy Miotke, Dave Zekman, Randy Yeates, James Gardner, Kristianne Gale, and Charles O’Meara (a.k.a. C.W. Vrtacek of Forever Einstein). Sharp appears to be Biota’s de facto leader, or at least a focal point. Funnel to a Thread consists of 21 tracks, each in the one to five minute range. But these individual pieces run together in a seamless fashion, producing an album-length suite.

Instrumentally, the emphasis is on acoustic and electric guitar, piano, organ, violin, accordion, effects, and found objects, any of which may be electronically processed. Acoustic guitar is the most dominant of these, appearing on all tracks. Percussion is notably absent or downplayed, though tracks featuring a drum set, such as Winder and Choosehow, are some of the most compelling. Overtracked female vocals are featured on several tracks, and these pieces are high points as well. But there are no low points on Funnel to a Thread (or any other Biota recording).

There is a beauty to this music. Dark, yearning, and primeval, yet employing technology to evoke an otherworldly feel. The recording and production are top notch as well, with a clarity that allows the many haunting layers of Biota to be appreciated.  The word “unique” can be used here without hyperbole – no one else sounds like Biota.

AMN Reviews: Matthew Shaw – Equinox (Self-Released)

R-4966151-1382622046-2949.jpegMatthew Shaw´s Equinox, recorded during the vernal celestial intersection in Christchurch, Dorset, is an earnest, microcosmic event. An alchemist at marrying the field recording and drone worlds, Shaw turns the base metal of domestic, avian cackle into ambient gold. Craning gradually backward from ground level upon the cello swell of E-bow guitar, the treetops are disturbed, stirring a cacophony of crows, thrushes and wood pigeons. A deep, throaty Moog synthesizer, dusting off seventies memories of the likes of Tomita electrifying Holst´s “Planets”, surges ever upward until it finds – a voice. Singing so gently it sounds more like hearing the thoughts going through his head, Shaw urges us to embrace the bigness and remember that we are stardust.

Shaw´s instrumental expressivity and philosophical sincerity is a refreshing tonic. Equinox is but one, small bright spot in an altogether empyrean discography.

Stephen Fruitman

AMN Reviews: Microtub – Star System [SOFALP544]

sofa544This is the second release from Microtub, the trio of Robin Hayward, Kristoffer Lo and Martin Taxt playing works in just intonation for their microtonal tubas. For Star System the group interpret two compositions notated as three-dimensional, color-coded graphic scores meant to provide spatial representations of the microtonal tuba’s compass and harmonic capabilities.

The title track—the score to which is reproduced as an image on the CD’s cover—consists of long tones laid out as unisons, octaves, and simple harmonies built on or implying a major triad. As the three tubas’ lines double each other and overlap, higher overtones emerge to enrich the sound and fill out the harmonies. Square Dance, like Star System a slowly unfolding piece of about twenty minutes’ duration, sets up a chord progression over pedal points, its suspended chords taking on a hymn-like quality at times, the tubas somehow mimicking the sound of an organ.

Microtub is minimal music sui generis—a sonically rich aggregate built up of deceptively simple elements.

AMN Reviews: Park / Sikora / Didkovsky / Sinton – Anomic Aphasia (2015; SLAM Productions)

slamcd559-480x475This recording involves a variable supergroup of sorts.  Guitarist Han-Earl Park has been improvising throughout the U.S. and Europe, working with a who’s who of creative music. Reedist Catherine Sikora recently relocated from Ireland to New York, and is playing in various free improv ensembles.  Guitarist Nick Didkovsky, appearing on two tracks, is best known as the mastermind behind Doctor Nerve, and more recently has been playing extreme metal.  Josh Sinton, appearing on the three tracks not featuring Didkovsky, specializes in playing the baritone saxophone and bass clarinet, and has teamed up with notable figures of the Chicago and New York creative music scenes.

A pair of trios rather than a true quartet, putting this unlikely lineup together was almost as brilliant as the recording they have produced. The Didkovsky-Park-Sikora tracks were recorded in June of 2013 at Brooklyn’s Douglass Street Music Collective, while the Park-Sikora-Sinton tracks came from an October 2013 date at New York’s Harvestworks.

As a two-guitar, one-reed or a one-guitar, two-reed attack, it is often impossible to determine who is responsible for the sounds found herein. Park and Didkovsky lay down high-speed harmonics, loose chording, and rattle their fretwork, while Sikora and Sinton provide both background drones and foreground voices. “Free” is a barely sufficient to describe this approach, as the trios explore various angular constructs and effects. The vocabulary of sounds here is as broad as it is unconventional. Park and/or Didkovsky might strum or pick a string or two, then spend time rubbing it with their fingertips. Sikora and/or Sinton might blast percussively between more discernable notes.  While an occasional interlocking harmony might emerge from all of this innovation, it is quickly shattered by unexpected Möbius twists.

Anomic aphasia is a disorder in which a patient exhibits difficulty recalling words, names, and numbers. It is accordingly ironic that it is difficult finding the expressive language to describe this recording.  An exercise in texture as much as it is in melody, Park, Sikora, Didkovsky, and Sinton don’t just break molds here – they disintegrate anything that resembles the ordinary with authority and prejudice.

AMN Reviews: The Quatuor BRAC – Hall des Chars [Blumlein Records CD-A026]

quatuorbrac3Traditionally, the string quartet is an ensemble optimized for contrapuntal music. But whereas the more conventional string quartet trades in a counterpoint of melodic line, the Quatuor BRAC trades in a counterpoint of timbre.

The Quatuor BRAC is a multinational group made up of violinist Tiziana Bertoncini (Vienna); violist Vincent Royer (Cologne); cellist Martine Altenburger (St. Silvain-sous-Toulx); and double bassist Benoit Cancoin (Trévoux). Hall des Chars, recorded 13 May 2014 in Strasbourg, is their second release. Like their first recording, this one consists of a single improvised live performance of substantial length.

The quartet’s vocabulary is that of contemporary art music for strings—chromatic lines, wide leaps of register, microtones, harmonics and drones, informed by a fluent grasp of extended technique in all of its nuances. The collective sound that emerges consists in an always-changing texture that reflects the group’s intuitive sense of balancing and contrasting densities and dynamics. Thick chords contributed to by all four members at once may give way to a silence barely broken by sotto voce harmonics and the swoop of the bow on dampened bass strings; pressured circular bowing on muted strings may overlap with the sound of strings tapped quietly with the tip of the bow. Underlying it all is a finely-accomplished timbral counterpoint wherein traditional note-against-note polyphony is largely supplanted by the placing of sounds selected for their color properties rather than their pitches. Central to the success of this approach is the ability of each player to create a continuity of line in tandem with or in contrast to the others; even during the most highly saturated passages the unique grain of each voice is maintained, no matter how modified it may be by unorthodox modes of sound production.

A fine excursion into twenty-first century counterpoint.

AMN Reviews: William Ryan Fritch – Leave Me Like You Found Me (Lost Tribe Sound)

a1482751079_2A contemporary horse opera combined with reconstructed rock, played and arranged with timeless emotional depth and with the heft of great, big American prose (anywhere from Melville to Jonathan Franzen), Leave Me Like You Found Me is a fanfare for the common man, or perhaps common relationship, by a very uncommon man. William Ryan Fritch, playing everything, seems to be using instruments he found hidden away in a barn since the end of the Civil War (electric guitar included). The score to Adele Romanski´s eponymous feature film about failed relationship playing out in the great outdoors, he has composed, arranged and performed a blockbuster that takes on an utterly independent life off the silver screen.

“A Still Turning Point in this World” is a sleepy, abandoned miner´s town knuckling under to a thunderhead of yearning pipes, crashing drums and soaring guitar. This opens up a muscular, wide-screen epic of John Fordian proportions, Fritch introducing the storyline with his yearning, wordless vocals on “Sun on Cold Skin,” shifting his focus as he pans over wide-open spaces on “With the Winds Against Us,” a thankless trek, counting time like footsteps in the sand. A ramshackle piano having all the sweetness left in it urged out on “Coursing Through Veins” is enswirled by a reprise of the same set-up as the opening track.

“Half-Awake in Slow Motion” is dreamtime as a raggedy waltz, the dancers turning “Weightless” for the record´s gentlest moment, his electric guitar soliloquizing until the violin offers a brief rejoinder before the guitar just takes flight, and you´ll never catch it once it reaches beyond the clouds of “Empty Upon Impact”. But Fritch doesn´t leave you utterly aghast, he gathers you in and closes with a warm, safe inside the cabin title track.

Beautifully packaged with artwork by João Ruas on quality stock paper, complemented with a download code for twenty-eight minutes of extended enjoyment on a companion mini-album, Leave Me Like You Found Me is in fact the centrepiece in a series of eleven albums worth of work dubbed the “Leave Me Sessions” by Lost Tribe Sound.

Stephen Fruitman