AMN Reviews: WEB [Modulisme 067]; Ernie Morgan [Modulisme 060]

Performing in the early 1970s as WEB, an acronym made from the initials of their first names, Warren Burt, Ernie Morgan, and Bruce Rittenbach were among the first artists to give live collaborative concerts using the analogue electronic instruments of the day. Given the ungainliness and frequent unreliability of the analogue synthesizers then available it was a challenging proposition to be sure, but one often justified by the unconventional beauty of the new sonic worlds that opened up. Modulisme’s release of a performance the three gave in autumn of 1972 is a fascinating document of one group’s creative response to the state-of-the-art technologies of fifty years ago.

WEB’s performance consisted of a long composition, the first thirty and final fifteen minutes of which were captured on tape and are presented here as parts one and three, respectively. (A recording glitch resulted in the loss of the piece’s middle section.) The instrumentation consisted of a tape-delay enhanced four-box Buchla 100 synthesizer divided into three systems, which allowed Burt, Morgan, and Rittenbach to play independent parts. Given that setup, the three were able to structure their compositions as a series of field/figure variations in which one could take the lead voice while the others provided background, or all three could play equally at once. This architecture comes through transparently in the sound, which unfolds as an unhurriedly developing texture of denser and sparser passages in which individual voices come through with a distinct clarity.

Included in the album are two tracks representing individual mixes Morgan and Burt made from the performance’s delay tapes. Burt’s Spider Soup is a higher-density, polyphonic piece of superimposed sounds, while Morgan’s mix, titled First Time Out, is a low-density affair made up of discrete events.

Morgan, who died in 2016, is also represented on a solo release of several pieces made on Buchla synthesizers between 1971 and 1974. The pieces were recorded while Morgan was in the PhD program at UCSD (and, seemingly incongruously, also playing in the pop group The Strawberry Alarm Clock); when he dropped out in 1974 he put the tapes in a box and abandoned electronic music to become an elementary school teacher. Burt, who acquired the tapes from Morgan’s widow, had the reel-to-reel tapes digitized and prepared for release. They’re a good find. There are two shorter pieces of ca. 16 minutes as well as a long composition originally of approximately 80 minutes and here broken into two parts. Morgan’s compositional approach, as documented here, consisted in layering themes based on brief gestures, which he repeated and varied with changes of dynamics and speed, in the process creating soundscapes shot through with a jaggedly developing, nervous urgency.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Santi Costanzo – Autocracy of Deception Vol. 1 [Setola di Maiale SM3780]; Alan Courtis – Buchla Gtr [Firework Editions FER1122]

Two albums by guitarists Santi Costanzo and Alan Courtis show some of the many facets of sound obtainable from this versatile instrument, either alone or augmented by objects and/or electronics.

Autocracy of Deception Vol. 1 is the first solo release from Santi Costanzo, a guitarist from Catania, Sicily. In group environments as well as solo settings, Costanzo has pursued a personal path of experimentation that has encompassed the heterogeneous musical languages of jazz, rock, free improvisation, and even serial composition. He’s been able to assimilate and transfigure these influences by projecting his own musical ideas forward, all the while maintaining an understanding and appreciation of these different forms of music, but without having any of them unduly limit his own field of possibilities. This sense of independence within assimilation comes out over the course of his album, which shows a fluency in tonal and atonal music within a fundamental, improvisational openness to following a line wherever it leads, as well as a broad-based technical mastery. The recording’s collection of four improvisation and seven “abstractions” find him pivoting between clearly articulated, complex chords in a classical fingerpicking style; heavily distorted rock freakouts; and looped, reversed, and other processed sounds. On some pieces, Costanzo further extends the guitar’s range of timbres by preparing it with foreign objects. But once all these modifications and transformations are stripped away, Costanzo’s default sound reveals itself to be an especially rich, crystalline, reverb-inflected tone.

In contrast to the natural guitar sounds that undergird Autocracy of Deception, Buchla Gtr by the prolific Buenos Aires guitarist Alan Courtis takes the guitar’s native voice and transposes it almost entirely into the electronic dialects of the Buchla 200 synthesizer. For these recordings, which were made on the Buchla in EMS Stockholm’s studio, Courtis ran the guitar directly through the synthesizer and supplemented it with some pedals. The result is a double LP each side of which contains one long, sonically-textured piece. The guitar is for the most part unrecognizable as a guitar; rather, it serves as the engine driving an evolution of sounds that take on the guises of a shortwave radio tuned in between stations; a power drill emitting a high-frequency whine; a reverb unit being bumped and jostled; and intermittent drones of various timbres.

Daniel Barbiero