AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Kalbata & Mixmonster – Congo Beat the Drum (Freestyle Recordings)

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R-5710332-1400575221-9356.jpeg.jpgAs we know, roots reggae is imbued with the spiritual message of Rastafarianism, the Jamaican repatriative faith that adopted some of its theology from Ethiopian Christianity and a plethora of metaphors from Judaism, although the Torah (as well as the New Testament) is seen by believers as partly corrupted. In Rastafarian parlance, Zion is a Utopian vision of freedom and justice located in the land once and forever ruled by Haile Selassie. Still, common cultural reference points engendered an unsurprising affinity between Jewish and Jamaican musicians – a kind of Judeo-Rasta subgenre flourishes in the work of King Django, David Solid Gould and Matisyahu, among others.

Meanwhile, back in that other Zion, Tel Avivian producers Kalbata (Ariel Tagar) and Mixmonster (Uri Wertheim) spent a year sculpting instrumental tracks inspired by King Tubby and early dancehall. Traveling to Kingston, they invited an all-star cast of venerable singers and toasters, all of who came to prominence in the seventies and eighties, to flesh out their bare bones. Congo Beat the Drum is the intriguing result of this new-meets-old, red-green-gold Star of David session.

Following the sweet lover stylings of Puddy Roots and Little John, the leonine nyabinghi of the title track, chanted by digital dancehall star Major Mackerel, is absolutely ferocious. Now that we have your attention, dub poet Mutabaruka calls out the political and clerical elite on “Same Thing Every Day” before ceding the mic to Trinity and Jah Thomas, who are having “Trouble in the Dance”, despite the exemplary, minimalist backing propelling their call-and-response. On “Aim”, Tullo T shakes the pixie dust amiably and ambiently scattered by Kalbata and Mixmonster with a huge smile spreading wider and wider on his face. Finally, Echo Minott and the late Prince Jazzbo get down to brass tacks, the former plaintively pleading the case of the poor man on “Out a Road” and the latter pointing accusing fingers on the trickily titled “Voice Make a Joyful Noise”.

The thirty-seven minute album breezes by far too quickly, crying out for full-scale, extended dub versioning. The closing, lounge-y “CRB Version” of “Prisoner in Love” is a great start.

Stephen Fruitman

AMN Reviews: David First / The World Casio Quartet – The Complete Gramavision Session (1989) [Pogus P21084-2]

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R-8768693-1468364146-4968.jpegA saxophone quartet, yes. A string quartet, most certainly. But a Casio quartet? But of course! In the late 1980s, composer David First acquired a Casio CZ-1000 to create microtonal drones with the assistance of a Tascam Portastudio. An overdubbed demo piece called Four Casios—a wry, quasi-parodic homage to Steve Reich’s Four Organs credited to the technically non-existent World Casio Quartet—led to performance requests and the consequent formation of a real World Casio Quartet. The four members—First, Esther Sandrof and Brian Charles on Casio CZ-1000 and Kevin Sparke on Casio CS-101—went into the studio in 1989 and recorded the four pieces that appear on this CD.

Rather than creating conventional harmonies with melodies superimposed, the group forged its distinctive collective sound by detuning their instruments and stacking the resulting microtones into thick clusters. The two middle tracks on the release—one of which is appropriately titled Plate Mass—consist of heavy, droning masses of densely layered plates of sound rising and falling against and with each other in slow glissandi. Strange Over and Collapsing ‘Round Midnight both are rapid pulse pieces whose inner and outer voices build complex, motile chords—the latter an oblique, microtonal allusion to the Monk classic ‘Round Midnight.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Daniel Rosenboom – Book of Storms (2016; Orenda Records)

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Maybe there is something in the water or the air in Southern California. Always home to an active experimental music scene (though not as extensive as, say, New York or Chicago), the last few years have seen artists in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas produce a remarkable run of high-quality efforts. And among the emerging leaders are trumpeter / composer Daniel Rosenboom and his Orenda Records label.

Consisting of two tracks, this 37-minute release features, in addition to Rosenboom, Vinny Golia on bass clarinet and gongs, Jake Vossler on electric guitar, Tim Lefebvre on electric bass, and Matt Mayhall on drums. While rooted in jazz (and a comparison to the Electric Miles era would not be inappropriate), Rosenboom and all are more focused on a newer and more original combination of Wadada-influenced creative music and improv-inflected metal.

Envisioned as a pair of “ritual dances for the Shinto demon-gods of wind and thunder, Fujin and Raijin,” Book of Storms is largely focused on the interplay of guitar and trumpet, with the low-end instruments filling in the gaps at times, taking the lead at others. While the pieces appear to be composed, at least in outline form, they provide plenty of room for the players to stretch out into improvisation with varying degrees of freedom. Everyone contributes to the more open-ended sections. Throughout all of this, Mayhall’s capable and idiosyncratic drumming provides not only rhythms, but active interplay with the lead instruments.

The second track, Dance for Rajin, is of particular note. It begins with subtle atmospherics then morphs into doom-metal riffing with Rosenboom and Golia providing harsh blowing on top. Rosenboom leads the group with a solo for a few minutes with Vossler, Lefebvre, and Golia poking non-linearly around the edges, until Golia has an opportunity to say his piece. After a quiet interlude, the group focuses on extended techniques before launching into a guitar-laden rock-oriented break that, in turn, eventually slows into a climax with all players providing walls of sounds.

Recorded live over a year ago, Book of Storms is an example of Rosenboom’s strength as a bandleader. When viewing him as a whole – performer, composer, record label head – it is becoming clear that he is a prime voice in the aforementioned scene. We’ll be keeping our eyes and ears pointed to the southwest.

AMN Reviews: The Claudia Quintet – Super Petite (2016; Cuneiform Records)

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A presence in the creative jazz scene for over 15 years, John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet is back with their eighth release, Super Petite. Their lineup has remained unusually static over time. The group currently features, in addition to Hollenbeck on drums, Red Wierenga on accordion, Matt Moran on vibes, Drew Gress on bass, and Chris Speed on clarinet and sax. It is hard, if not impossible, to pigeonhole their sound but for now let’s call it highly-composed chamber jazz with world music influences.

The album consists of ten short to medium length tracks, each one comprising Hollenbeck’s knotty writing, adeptly played by all. As an example, the opener, Nightbreak, features a soft, slow-moving contrapunctal theme of clarinet, vibes, and bass, with accordion and drums on backing roles. But Super Petite really gets moving with the third track, A-List, which starts with a wandering bass line, while the other instruments slow build up tension that breaks into a rather catchy and complex theme. Hollenbeck writes that this piece is a “theme song for an imaginary video featuring The Claudia Quintet strutting down the red carpet. Think ‘Entourage’ meets the ‘Geek Squad.'”

Several of the tracks are based on or influenced by works of the greats – Charlie Parker, Philly Joe Jones, and Doudou N’Diaye Rose – and one (If You Seek a Fox) is even a jab at his “least favorite TV news network.” (The track is quite good regardless of your feelings about Fox News.)

Under Hollenbeck’s leadership there is little showmanship or superfluous flourishes. Each musician plays his part – and plays it well – but is more focused on being part of the collective rather than a soloist. As a consequence, this is a recording that might not jump out at you on first listen. It is subtle, exhibiting a rare depth that may take some time to appreciate. But the investment will be well worth it. Highly recommended.

AMN Reviews: Nathan Hubbard / Skeleton Key Orchestra – Furiously Dreaming (2016; Orenda Records)

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Big-band avant-jazz is having a moment these days, such as the works of Anthony Braxton, Darcy James Argue, Fred Ho (RIP), John Korsrud, Kamasi Washington, and Dan Weiss, among others.  Add to that list drummer Nathan Hubbard.

Recorded over a three-year period from 2007-2010, the double-CD Furiously Dreaming features 49 performers, notables including Jason Robinson, Kris Tiner, Jeff Kaiser, and Michael Dessen, as well as a chorus.  Tracking in at over 130 minutes, there is a lot to absorb here, but not just because of its length.  The album also presents some rather knotty compositions across its eight tracks.

As a whole, Furiously Dreaming, is full of complex, angular lines. While some of it is tightly composed, other tracks offer extended horn solos and improvisations. Elements of both free improv and atmospheric drones are present. All of this is the foreground of an orchestral jazz band backdrop. The addition of the chorus on certain tracks adds to the atmosphere, making this recording even more difficult to categorize. In addition to its musical appeal, Furiously Dreaming includes spoken-word voice overs, that are downright creepy at times. For instance, narration on the third track, sleepdreamsilence, seems as if it is right out of a psychological horror movie.

High points? There are many.  The sheer magnitude of this release makes it difficult to call out any in particular. Perhaps a good starting point is the first track, Crows on the Roof. A jazz orchestra is accompanied by distorted electric guitar and a driving beat through a discordant intro.  The guitar duels with a sax for a while, together and then over a multi-percussive break. A jagged horn theme soon emerges, which evolves into a horn soloing over a brooding, multi-layered orchestral atmosphere, with disjointed percussion. Another haunting spoken word interlude follows, before a staccato variation on the horn theme returns.  Foreground piano then rolls over dual percussion and walls of horns.  The piano is replaced by chants from the chorus, which slows fade over the final three minutes of the track.

In sum, Hubbard et al. have released a brilliantly compelling album of dense, uncategorizable music.

AMN Reviews: Gordon Mumma – Cybersonic Arts: Adventures in New American Music [University of Illinois Press, 2016]

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MummaF15Quite often, technological revolutions engender revolutions in aesthetics. Such was the case in the 1960s, when the widespread adoption of transistors facilitated the creation and diffusion of smaller, more affordable and more versatile electronic devices for recording, amplifying and modifying sound. One of those who saw and exploited the new technology’s potential applications to music was Gordon Mumma, a new collection of whose writings from 1960-2013 provides a contemporary history of a particularly fertile and disruptive time in the advanced arts.


The 1960s revolution in electronic technologies gave rise to a new way of conceiving of the arts and their relations not only to the technologies, but to creators and audiences as well. As art critic Jack Burnham observed in an important article in 1968, much of the period’s avant-garde art appeared to embody an aesthetic based on the emulation or representation of systems. Or their embodiment: It was during this same period Mumma that described his exploratory work with real-time sound processing as “cybersonics.” A variety of a systems approach to sound, cybersonics applied cybernetics, a concept introduced by mathematician Norbert Wiener in the 1940s, to music. Based on probability theory, cybernetics looked at closed systems and the changes within them produced by feedback mechanisms; hence, as Mumma succinctly defined it in his note to the release Electronic Music for Theater and Public Activity, cybersonics “is a situation in which the electronic processing of sound activities is determined (or influenced) by the interactions of the sounds with themselves.”

As the book documents in detail, Mumma’s interest in sonic feedback systems led him to develop his own innovative performance practices and sound manipulating devices. These technologies of practice and equipment informed a series of works that he created for himself on French horn, with and without other voices, and electronics. Two of these—Horn (1965) and Hornpipe (1967)—were characteristic pieces that he performed widely and recorded. Both took acoustic sounds and fed them into what Mumma called “cybersonic consoles”—analogue signal processing devices that he designed and built—which then modified the input through ring modulation or feedback loops, and sent the results out to stereo speakers. Although off-the-shelf digital devices have largely supplanted the kinds of hand-built, analogue systems that Mumma devised for these and other early pieces, the general pattern the two works set and the possibilities they opened up continue to be influential in contemporary electroacoustic music.


Horn was written during a period when Mumma was living and working in Ann Arbor, often on the periphery of the University of Michigan, which he withdrew from in 1954 after having studied there for two years. While in Ann Arbor he helped organize the ONCE Festivals of new music, six of which were held between 1960 and 1965. His account of how it all happened is a highlight of the book and offers insights into the organizational mechanics of staging a regularly occurring, interdisciplinary event outside of a major institution.

ONCE began as a way to stage performances of works by Ann Arbor’s more experimental composers. Although their initial focus was on music, the programs became increasingly varied, including not only electroacoustic music experiments but also film, dance, lectures, theater, and fluxus-like performance pieces. Despite, or because of, the exploratory and provocative nature of the programs, the festivals attracted growing audiences; the inevitable controversy surrounding the nature and quality of the performances certainly helped to generate interest.

The relationship of the festival to the University of Michigan’s School of Music was predictably contentious. ONCE was conceived at least in part as a counterbalance to what many felt was UMI’s general neglect of modern and new music. Although the faculty seem largely to have been unsupportive, some of the performers were students at UMI’s music school. This seems only to have increased tensions, since the students’ participation had what Mumma describes as an alienating effect vis-à-vis their regular studies and the faculty.

In addition to succeeding as a means for under-exposed music and performance art to reach an audience, ONCE showed how necessarily DIY operations could, through commitment and substantive offerings, establish themselves as effective rivals to more established and better-funded institutions. In this respect, ONCE has continuing relevance as a potential template for contemporary new and experimental music festivals and curatorial endeavors. Despite consistently operating at a loss, over the course of its lifetime ONCE grew in scope and reach and consequently moved into ever bigger, if still unconventional, performance spaces. By the time of the final festival, 1965’s ONCE AGAIN, ONCE had expanded from its origin as a more-or-less one-off platform for a small group of artists’ self-presented works to a counter-institution of its own, eventually offering a series of year-round performances of new music and providing the impetus behind the formation of a touring new music ensemble.


The group effort that was the ONCE Festivals illustrate an important side of Mumma’s engagement with music—the collaborative side. Consequently, much of the book is given over to his contemporary accounts, reminiscences and portraits of the various artists and groups he worked and toured with over the years. Mumma’s long account of his time with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, aptly titled “From Where the Circus Went,” is a detailed narrative of the years he spent touring with the Cunningham group as the third of three musical collaborators–John Cage and David Tudor were the other two—providing discrete compositions or elastic soundscapes for the dancers. Mumma gives a good sense of the daily realities of transporting, setting up and working with sometimes balky technologies whose output could puzzle and at times annoy audiences, not to mention the dancers themselves. The music the Cunningham group used could be wildly controversial; a work like Canfield (1969), its score by Pauline Oliveros, could win a prestigious award in one country while provoking riots in another. Mumma relates all of it in a detail-attentive, dispassionate voice.

Cage was, of course, the most famous—or notorious, depending on whose judgment was concerned—of the Cunningham group’s sound collaborators. Mumma, who knew Cage for decades and last saw him only three months before Cage’s death, devotes a set of three pieces to a consideration of Cage as a performer, particularly of electronic music. While lacking the intimacy of, say, Carolyn Brown’s portrait of Cage in her Chance and Circumstance, Mumma’s anecdotes and impressions provide a discerning picture of a side of Cage that has often been eclipsed by his reputation as a composer and disseminator of ideas.

Mumma tells a revealing story about Cage’s performance on Mumma’s Swarmer, a duet for concertina and saw presented at a concert hastily arranged at Cornell University during a 1968 tour by the Cunningham group. The work consisted in an unnotated, orally-transmitted set of instructions for playing one- or two-pitched, semi-improvised events. Mumma was to play saw and Cage the concertina; not knowing the instrument, Cage had to learn it during the one and only rehearsal the day of the concert. Despite some mistakes during rehearsal, Cage gave a flawless and sophisticated performance that Mumma offers as evidence that despite Cage’s frequent claims to the contrary, he did have an ear for pitch and harmony as well as a high level of confidence and comfort as a performer generally.


The electroacoustic works Mumma developed and performed embodied an aesthetic based on a systems concept. But the system was never more than an outgrowth of a sensibility. And that sensibility is one open to the vicissitudes and contingencies of the performing situation as they influence the performance, sometimes pulling it in unpredictable directions. Pieces like Horn or Swarmer, with their semi-improvised features and embrace of in-the-moment risk, were premised on such openness. As composer Roger Reynolds noted of him, Mumma possessed an “extraordinarily responsive pragmatism” that, through close observation, could take the measure of the external and accidental factors at play in a performance—what might be called the facticity of the situation—and turn them from more or less obstinate roadblocks into the occasion for free action.

Mumma’s pragmatism may be the proof of the robustness of his systems aesthetic.  For it may be that it’s at the limits of the system—that boundary territory where it breaks down and becomes permeable to external pressures and the influences of something other—that, through assimilation and conversion, the system evolves and moves forward. Which is one way to describe the feedback loop of an open system, which the performance situation of a piece like Horn or Swarmer would inevitably seem to be. As Mumma himself puts it, “systems can provide a flexible sort of discipline.”  Mumma’s book bears articulate witness to how this flexible discipline played itself out in concrete situations over the decades.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Michael Nicolas – Transitions [Sono Luminus DSL-92202]; Mari Kimura – Harmonic Constellations [New World Records 80776-2]

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When joined to electronics, the solo acoustic instrument enters into a potentially complex and pointed relationship with itself. The instrument becomes its own double, its voice both converging on and diverging from self-identity as it undergoes modification, metamorphosis, multiplication and whatever other types of manipulation or accompaniment electronics afford. The effects can be modest or dramatic, depending on the degree and kind of interaction in question, but in all cases the translation of the solo acoustic instrument’s voice from its native language into an electronically-enhanced  dialect creates a dialogue between self and other in which the self is other, and vice versa. Two new releases, one of solo cello and electronics and one of solo violin and electronics, show the diverse forms this dialogue can take.

michael-nicolasTransitions features cellist Michael Nicolas in a variety of electronic settings that demonstrate the different kinds of partnerships acoustic and electronic elements can form. Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms No. 3 for Cello and Electronic Sounds is a duet that draws on an extended modernist vocabulary for cello and matches it to splashes of electronic sound. The acoustic nature of the cello is thrown into high relief as it confronts itself against the artifice of uncompromisingly electronic timbres. In David Fulmer’s Speak of the Spring the electronic component intervenes to modify the sound of the cello, its processing opening up a gap between the cello and itself; from this self-alienation an intriguing soundscape emerges. Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s austere Transitions, written in the contemporary language of fragmentary melody and microtonal harmonies, is the one track that dispenses with electronics. Because of its use of an expansive timbral palette, though, it doesn’t at all feel out of place. In contrast to the works made of discontinuous sound events, Steve Reich’s Cello Counterpoint, which transforms a multitracked Nicolas into a cello section in perpetual motion, and Annie Gosfield’s Four Roses for cello and synthesizer, are constructed around a more conventional rhythmic continuity. The album closes with Jaime E. Oliver La Rosa’s flexura, a tour de force duet for hypermodern cello and MANO. (The latter is a touchpad controller that generates and modifies sounds.) The piece draws on a thick repertoire of extended techniques, including pressure bowing, multiple harmonic effects and sound clusters, all of which weave in and out of the electronic tapestry with ease and a profound sense of belonging.

mari-kimura-harmonic-constellationsThe sonic center for all of the works on violinist Mari Kimura’s Harmonic Constellations is to be found in Kimura’s warm, singing tone, no matter what the larger context. Often, this latter takes the form of a pre-recorded backdrop, as for example in Eric Moe’s Obey Your Thirst. There, Kimura plays a frantic, irregularly accented pulse against simulated metallic and liquid sounds before falling back onto long, slow tones and double stops. Eric Chasalow’s Scuffle and Snap sets out an electronic background of popping, pizzicato-like sounds to complement Kimura’s actual pizzicato playing or to contrast with her smoothly bowed lines. Kimura’s own composition Sarahal, an exciting piece for two violins and live processing, represents the most forceful intervention of electronics into the violin’s natural sound world. An uncanny multiplication of sonic images, the performance consists of Kimura’s virtual duet with herself within an otherworldly thicket of pitch shifting, flanging and delay. The CD’s center of gravity lies in Michael Harrison’s seven part Harmonic Constellations, a microtonal piece for overdubbed violin and sine tones. As its title suggests, the piece is made up of harmonies arising from knots of coincident tones. A study in undulating, incremental harmonic movement, much of its sound derives from the choric effect of juxtaposed, nearly-identical pitches which beat against each other. The violin is woven directly into the shimmering drone to such an extent that it seems to be just another electronic tone—a submergence of identity that isn’t a loss of identity so much as the inspired creation of a new hybrid.

Daniel Barbiero