AMN Reviews: Catching Up With If, Bwana

Throughout 2018, If, Bwana—the experimental electroacoustic music project of Al Margolis—has been quietly releasing a series of works based on the often-subtle electronic manipulation of acoustic instruments. Margolis has long specialized in creating textural works of assemblage from sound samples or full recordings of instruments played by others—for example, bassoon, flute, cello and saxophone. On these recent recordings, though, things take an interesting turn in that Margolis plays the instruments himself. His approach is unorthodox—he describes it as “extended or remedial technique” or “figuring out the right way to play the [instrument] wrong.” Right or wrong, his instrumental performances form an effective foundation for the pieces he builds over them. (Full disclosure here: I’ve had the pleasure of contributing recorded double bass performances as source material for previous If, Bwana projects.)

On December’s Panique, Margolis multitracks recordings of himself on alto saxophone. The piece is structured as a slow crescendo, starting out with air notes and gradually building bits of pitched phrases into an echoing polyphony. Also from December is QA, two pieces—one double-tracked and one triple-tracked–for ARP synthesizer played quietly. The basic material here consists of long, high-pitched tones that sound like glockenspiel keys played with a bow, separated by silences. Margolis works this material into pieces that seem to turn audio space into an uncluttered, three-dimensional environment. OK…Now Go Away, from November, is what Margolis ironically describes as If, Bwana’s “hit single”: a three-minute track for electronically-manipulated bassoon. Margolis has always had a real affinity for the instrument—as played by others—so it seems natural that he should take it up himself, as he does here. What he does with it is create a sparse, chirping piece that, in a more just world, would indeed be at the top of the charts with a bullet. In July, Margolis released Japanese by Spring, three tracks based on recordings of studio improvisations for flute, ARP synthesizer, and detuned accordion. On these tracks the layering process—along with, presumably, the tuning of the accordion–results in beats and other microtonal effects.

Finally, March’s WTF 10: Trumpet, Amplified, which contains three tracks based on a studio improvisation for trumpet fed through two amplifiers, is interesting for the way that it presents the sequence of steps Margolis used to get from the basic material to (a) final result. In effect, it’s a thumbnail illustration of his working process. The first track is the amplified trumpet improvisation by itself—the starting point for what happens next. What that is, is Margolis creating a second piece by taking the track and layering it while changing pitches and durations, and then editing that piece to create a third piece that replicates the duration of the original improvisation. In its own way, it’s a kind of cyclical suite that sums up one dimension of If, Bwana’s multivalent and ongoing body of work.

Daniel Barbiero