AMN Reviews: Gareth Davis & Merzbow – Broken Landscapes (2020; Moving Furniture Records)

On Broken Landscapes, Gareth Davis and Merzbow team up for a second collaboration of sculpted noise. Clocking in around 36 minutes, the album is mostly what you would expect – harsh static, walls, wails, and intermittent chirps and squeaks – but somehow manages to tell a compelling story with a beginning, middle, and end.

Over an oscillating bed of shaped distortion, Davis and Merzbow each grind out statements of howling feedback, processed pink noise, and droning atmospherics. The sequences of these sounds, along with warped acoustic samples of nature recordings and machinery, are not random nor arbitrary. They are not exactly melodic either, but there is just enough pattern and structure on these tracks that they represent a twisted thematic progression. These themes may relate to humanity and/or the environment experiencing and responding to stress, collapse, or some other hellish scenario.

Regardless, Broken Landscapes is an unrelenting assault cogently exploring a sonic territory that is both unpleasant and worthwhile. Highly recommended. The release date is January 10, 2020.

AMN Reviews: Various Artists – Anthology of Persian Experimental Music [Unexplained Sounds Group]

Three or so years ago the Unexplained Sounds Group issued a digital collection of experimental and electronic music from Iran. It was the first of USG’s fascinating set of surveys of experimental music from places whose musical communities are often overlooked or obscured, sometimes for extra-musical reasons. As was the case here: in order to avoid having the Iran collection banned from certain platforms, USG had to label the release as “Persian” rather than “Iranian.” In a way, though, the name is rather fitting, since it serves to imply the continuity of musical culture in what is now called—censors be damned—Iran.

USG has reissued the original digital album as a limited edition CD supplemented with digital bonus tracks. What the collection demonstrates is that Iran’s musical underground doesn’t appear to be working in complete isolation; the sounds here compare well to electronic work being made elsewhere in the world. The predominant tendency is toward heavy electronics in a dark ambient mode, but there are some tracks that summon the rhythms of dance music, others that feature cosmic choirs of voices sounding through layers of electronic fuzz and grit, and yet others centered on undulating drones and synthesized arpeggios. And as with USG’s other surveys of experimental music outside of the Western world, this one is worth hearing.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Zosha Di Castri – Tachitipo [New Focus Recordings FCR227]

Tachitipo, a set of five works composed between 2010 and 2017, is the first monograph recording from composer Zosha Di Castri. Originally from Calgary, Alberta in Canada and now resident in New York, where she is on the faculty of Columbia University, Di Castri began composing through the Edmonton, Alberta Symphony Orchestra’s Young Composers program and went onto double major in composition and performance. Di Castri is a pianist as well as a composer, and sometimes will use improvisation as a way of forming compositional ideas.

The pieces on Tachitipo demonstrate Di Castri’s versatility in composing for different instrumental groupings; included are works for chamber ensembles and small orchestra, a string quartet, a solo piano work and a piece for voice and electronics. The pieces for orchestra and mixed chamber ensembles show Di Castri’s aptitude for handling contrasts and similarities of instrumental compass and color. In a recent interview, she named Debussy as an early influence; the importance of timbral relationships in her music would seem to bear out the continuing importance of his example.

Cortège, composed in 2010 for the Acanthes Festival in Metz, France, is scored for thirteen piece orchestra. The piece, played here by the Talea Ensemble, is study of contrasts: dark and bright, light and heavy, as muffled drums are played off against the voices of flute and clarinet, and the mood alternates between a compressed, nervous energy and a melancholy languor. Forma dello spazio, also from 2010, is a quintet for flute, clarinet, piano, violin, and cello, commissioned by the Banff Center and realized here by members of the fine International Contemporary Ensemble. The piece was inspired by mobile sculptures and does seem to capture something of their motion: skittering violin and piano and rising and falling undulations on clarinet provide movement over the undertow, sometimes explicit and sometimes implicit, of suspended tones. The writing features nice timbral fusions of violin, clarinet, and piano in the upper registers.

Di Castri’s String Quartet No. 1, composed in 2016, was first played by the ten finalists in the Banff Centre’s International String Quartet Competition for that year. The piece, energetically played on this recording by the JACK Quartet, opens with a discordant flourish and rides a series of surges and retreats—of dynamics, of swift and slow glissandi, of unsettling harmonics. A subtle rhythmic coherence runs throughout and binds together this otherwise episodic work.

Other pieces included on Tachitipo are the mechanical typewriter-inspired, long title track of 2016 for two pianos and two percussionists, played by the incomparable Yarn/Wire; 2017’s Dux, a solo piano piece performed by Julia Den Boer; and the vocal and electronics work The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named (2013), a commission from the Canada Council for the Arts performed here by Ekmeles.

AMN Reviews: Forrest Fang – Ancient Machines (2019; Projekt Records)

Forrest Fang’s music exists in a singular space between the traditionalists (if there is such a thing) of electro-ambient music and a combination of Western and non-Western acoustically-based classical. As such, Ancient Machines – his latest in a run of 18 albums – incorporates the influences of minimalists such as Glass, Riley, and Reich, who were themselves influenced by music from multiple hemispheres.

The album is based on floating synth washes and drones that include gamelan-infected stringed passages and/or percussion in polyrhythmic patterns and interlocking motifs. Fang also offers gentle piano-led pieces that combine with his atmospherics. A sense of optimism and hope exudes from these efforts, emotions that are perhaps more needed now that ever before in Fang’s four-decade-long career.

Indeed, Fang’s work is very much in contrast to the dark-ambient works often discussed on these pages that have grown to evoke the menacing sounds of age-old technology and industry. His title appears not to refer to mechanical devices, but instead to the building blocks of life – DNA, RNA, proteins, and organs – that have carried out their repetitive functions for millions of years. And like those biological mechanisms, these countless iterations over time give rise to newly-evolved forms and structures.

AMN Reviews: Earth Tongues – Atem (2019; Neither / Nor Records)

On Atem, experimentalists Joe Moffett on trumpet, Dan Peck on tuba, and Carlo Costa on percussion come together for a 33-minute free improvisation that stretches the definitions of what we might categorize as music. The emphasis here is on texture, layers, and density, rather than melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic progression. The piece was developed and recorded during a 2017 residency at Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works.

Costa’s vocabulary goes well beyond the drum kit, incorporating what sounds like bells, bowls, rattles, as well as found objects. He rarely plays clear notes and instead rubs, scrapes, and scratches these items. Vague patterns of subtle beats emerge from time to time, but are not the emphasis. Moffett and Peck make use of extended techniques to breath odd forms of life into their horns, offering warbling and squeaks along with a few long-held notes that approach a semblance of a drone.

In combination, Earth Tongues produces a shifting, rough-edged soundscape flush with details and character. Their use of space is intriguing – they fill it, but do so with quiet and distorted passages that never quite leap out at you.  Instead, Atem consists of a rich set of structures that slowly evolve throughout the course of the piece. Well done.

AMN Reviews: Satoko Fujii and Tatsuya Yoshida – Baikamo (2019; Libra Records)

It has been hard to keep track of Satoko Fujii’s output over the last 3 years or so, with releases coming every month or so.  But this effort, a duet with manic drummer Tatsuya Yoshida, is a standout in the crowded field. The two have dubbed themselves Toh-Kichi, and this is their third release and first in 15 years. Yoshida has also recorded several albums in Fujii’s quartet.

Fujii is a consummately flexible pianist, with her output encompassing a wide expanse of rock, jazz, and classically oriented works. Yoshida, best know as half of the bass/drum duo Ruins, has performed with Koenjihyakkei, Korekyojinn, John Zorn, Fred Frith, Derek Bailey, Richard Pinhas, and Samla Mammas Manna, among many others. He is notorious for being able to generate unusual percussive patterns at a fever pitch from his drum kit. Yoshida brings Fujii into his avant-prog /free-jazz world on Baikamo, with the latter providing angular chords and rapid disjointed rhythms to match the former’s over-caffeinated excursions.

Throughout 16 short tracks – all between 1 and 6 minutes – Toh-Kichi challenges the listener with roles that shift almost as frequently as the time signatures. Fujii can be a percussive pianist, while Yoshida is unafraid to establish a melody (albeit a driving and unconventional melody). Both experiment with lead and backing capacities, as well as the occasional set of extended techniques. Thus, Baikamo cranks up the tension and rarely lets it go. In other hands, this would be a formula for an exhausting listen.  But with Fujii and Yoshida at the helm, the result is pure exhilaration.

Indeed, the most compelling pieces are when Yoshida sets forth a convoluted pattern of beats over which Fujii layers rolling chords and notes. Nonetheless, half of the pieces are unstructured improvisations that somehow end up exhibiting an intentionality that can only come from musicians of this caliber. Highly recommended.

AMN Reviews: The Balderin Sali Variations – Boreal Delights At the Soundscape & Soundportraits Festival – 2018 [Leo Records CD LR 870/871]; Harri Sjöström & Guilherme Rodrigues – The Treasures Are [Creative Sources Records cs605]

The Balderin Sali Variations aren’t a series of related pieces derived from a beginning motif but rather an ad hoc orchestra of eleven comprising three generations of improvisers from Finland, Germany, Italy, England, Austria, Poland, Norway and Mexico. The orchestra was put together on the occasion of the 2018 Soundscapes and Soundportraits Festival, which took place in September in Helsinki. The festival’s founder and the ensemble’s organizer is Harri Sjöström, a soprano saxophonist originally from Finland but now residing in Berlin. Sjöström, one of the representatives of European free improvisation’s second generation, is joined here by saxophonist Evan Parker, violinist/electronics artist Philipp Wachsmann, drummer Paul Lovens and bassist Teppo Hauta-aho of the founding/first generation, as well as six other musicians drawn from the second and third generations. A reunion of an extended family of sorts, and one in which the family demonstrates a strikingly intuitive sense of communication.

The most striking thing about the music on this two-CD set is its intelligent handling of space and color—striking, but not surprising, as that is one of the hallmarks of European free improvisation. The ensemble accomplishes this by setting up relationships that naturally vary the densities and timbres that come into play. The thirteen tracks are bookended by improvisations for the full ensemble; in between are improvisations for sub-groupings in sizes ranging from duos to quintets. Some of these subgroupings make for inspired instrumental combinations: soprano saxophone and violin; drums, trombone, and piano; soprano saxophone and quarter-tone accordion.

Another inspired, multi-generational combination of musicians is to be found on The Treasures Are, a duo recording from Sjöström and the younger cellist Guilherme Rodrigues. All of the music on the recording presumably was improvised, but the quality of the interplay is such that parts sound as if they had been composed prior to the performance. Much of the credit for this goes to Rodrigues, who seems largely to be responding to Sjöström’s inventive leads throughout much of the recording. Rodrigues has an almost telepathic ability to complete Sjöström’s phrases, create lucid, coherent harmonies from Sjöström’s melodies, and spin Sjöström’s lines into impromptu canons. Both Sjöström and Rodrigues take the music to many places–from abstract expressionist squeals and squeaks, through freely atonal lyricism, to quasi-conventional harmony—without losing a sense of continuity or stalling for time. In sum, a quite beautiful performance of contemporary European improvised music from two highly attuned players.