Just in from the third night of ErstQuake 3, a four-night festival of electroacoustic improvisation mounted by two of the genre's most noteworthy labels, Erstwhile and Quakebasket, at Tonic. It's a sign of the changes in my professional life that I didn't clear the calendar in order to attend every night of this series, as I'd done for last year's festival. But perhaps it's also a function of a change that's crept over the event, a little bit last year and quite a lot this year: a slight merging of the EAI genre, which I've followed closely for some years now, with the Noise scene, to which I haven't devoted a great deal of attention. (That's not a critique, simply a fact.)
An irony, if you want to view it that way, arises when you dig a bit into the formative inspirations of the EAI and Noise scenes. Both can validly trace their roots to 20th-century developments in classical music. But EAI, seen largely as a European and Japanese innovation, is commonly linked to the early work of John Cage and David Tudor, Earle Brown and Morton Feldman, via avant-garde jazz and European free improvisation. On the other hand, Noise, a global phenomenon that has recently exploded in America, traces its roots to Italian futurist Luigi Russolo, handed down via Japanese artists such as Masami Akita (Merzbow) and England's Steven Stapleton (Nurse With Wound) as much as American figures such as Boyd Rice, Ron Caswell and, perhaps, Lou Reed. Naturally this calculus is a gross oversimplification, but it does point up the way in which influence mutates in its travels.
Far more ironic, it seems to me, is that tonight's opening set was neither EAI nor Noise. Decades ago, Austrian trombonist Radu Malfatti was a major figure in the European free-improvisation scene, and could be found blowing frenetically alongside the likes of Derek Bailey, Evan Parker and Misha Mengelberg. Lately, however, Malfatti has turned to a severe form of reductionism promulgated by the Wandelweiser Group, an international cabal of composers for whom Cage's 4'33'' is a manifesto demanding consideration of silence as a potent compositional tool. Seated in the middle of the audience, Malfatti performed with Basque laptop computer musician Mattin, who in other settings has proved to be a particularly wild and unpredictable improviser. (I once saw him drive a number of audience members out of the Issue Project Room with the excruciating volume and violence he brought to bear in a duo performance with Tim Barnes.)
On a music stand facing Malfatti was an electronic stopwatch and a sheet of paper covered with columns of numbers. The duo's performance began with two minutes of complete silence, after which the trombonist blew a single, muted bass tone of fixed duration, roughly 20 seconds. Mattin accompanied him with ambient noise sampled from the room. After a 30 second interval, the duo repeated the note. The intervals between notes gradually grew slightly shorter; after three-and-a-half minutes, the musicians fell silent for another two minutes. The pattern repeated with a lower trombone note, followed by two minutes of silence, then a still-lower note. A cell phone that rang during one of the silent intervals was repeated in Mattin's contribution during the next segment of active performance.
By this point, the audience had grown fidgety, less able to control its own sounds -- squeaking chairs, shuffling feet, the occasional departure. Malfatti reversed course with the next iteration, playing a slightly higher note; Mattin's computer reflected the noisier ambience immediately prior. The audience, perhaps mindful of its own contribution, was notably quieter during the following silent interval. Malfatti's pitch continued to climb by tiny increments; after slightly less than 36 minutes, the performance ended.
Up next was the duo of Austrian guitarist Burkhard Stangl and German woodwind player Kai Fagaschinski, who neatly demonstrated a key difference between EAI and the more familiar strain of European free improvisation: Where the latter genre often relies upon extremes of dexterity and virtuosity to make its impression, the goal here was to create extremes of unlocatable sound. Opening the set, Fagaschinski blew airy flutters and tiny, prickly warbles through his clarinet, while Stangl applied a violin bow to his amplified knee, eliciting the kinds of sounds a microphone might pick up on a windy beachfront.
Taking up his electric guitar, Stangl strummed deliberately while detuning the strings, eliciting a gravely flatulent rumble while Fagaschinski, his instrument lowered, blew microtones, overtones and puckered static via bare embouchure. He eventually added another sonic contour by rubbing his clarinet mouthpiece through the stubble on his cheek. Completing an eventful set in a deliberately provocative manner -- namely, understatement -- Stangl took up his acoustic guitar and plucked gentle arpeggios, while Fagaschinski blew long, plaintive notes as gentle and sexy as any Copland prairie ballad.
[EDIT: The rest of this report I'm filing on Sunday afternoon after some badly needed rest and recuperation from what feels like a mounting chest cold. The photographs here, by Yuko Zama, were supplied by Jon Abbey. Most of the images were shot during an afternoon rehearsal; the last two come from the evening's performance.]
The major draw on Saturday night, for me at least, was the U.S. debut of Japanese duo Cosmos. In a scene filled with artists who produce their music in all manner of extreme and unorthodox ways, the duo of vocalist Ami Yoshida and empty-sampler player Sachiko M is among the most unusual, both in their modes of performance and in the powerful concentration of their gestures. From her empty sampler, Sachiko produces pure sine tones that flutter at the upper edge of audibility; Yoshida draws upon a vocabulary made up of extraordinary sounds: squeals, peeps, tea-kettle whistles, breezy whispers and strangled screeches like nails on a chalkboard.
The music of Cosmos, then, is composed exclusively of what most listeners might consider detritus; the art is in the deliberate manner in which these two women combine their individual sounds into stark, severe tapestries, as well as the contrast between the qualities of their methods. Yoshida's contributions on Saturday night were parcelled out in fleeting segments of 30 seconds or less in duration, which Sachiko surrounded with extended whistles and peals. Those sine waves have a physical effect: at one point, a lower tone rattled my jawbone while a higher one seemed to scrape along the inside of my skullcap. Their set neither developed nor waxed and waned appreciably; it simply existed for a duration, then ceased. But what surprised me most in finally watching Yoshida perform, given the alien nature of the sounds she produces, was in discovering an utterly human dimension to her art, which lent a rich, mysterious tension to the duo's set.
With the two final acts of the evening, neither of which I was especially familiar with, the pendulum swung toward the Noise end of the spectrum. Seated at individual tables facing one another on the floor, hunched over in contemplation, Brian Eubanks and Leif Sundstrom might well have playing chess. Given the depth of their consideration and strategy, that's not an altogether inapt metaphor, except that the point here was collaboration rather than competition. The set began with a staticky buzz and a guttural, throbbing bass rumble. Pinpricks of squealing feedback hovered at the periphery of a larger mass of sound.
A series of pure oscillator tones climbed slowly; looped, they sounded like two climbers ascending just out of sync. (Brian Olewnick, at whose table I was seated, suggested that this resembled early electronic music by James Tenney.) Piercing frequencies met and clashed, rippling and shimmering at high volume -- no doubt affecting tinnitus sufferers as well as neighborhood dogs. This early area faded into silence, making space for the next phase, which opened with a rapid throb like a racing heartbeat. A deep, low vibration slowly climbed each vertebra from the base of my spine upward, then split and climbed again. The climax of the set was a series of such slow ascents, sounding much like an early analog synthesizer imitating an accelerating car as it shifts through its gears. By the end, it was as if a gang of synthetic Harleys was crawling up a quiet side street at 2 a.m., setting off car alarms and disturbing dogs in its wake.
Closing in on the midnight hour, the evening's final set was presented by Aaron Dilloway, formerly of the prominent Noise group Wolf Eyes. Seated at a long table drooping slightly in the middle under the weight of his electronic equipment, Dilloway kicked off a dull, throbbing bass pulse, checked his speakers, then sat down and put two microphones into his mouth; two more dangled near the floor under his chair. Grimacing and whipping his head from side to side, he vocalized over the din. Inappropriate as the image may be, what the mix of sounds put me in mind of was the kind of vomitous vocalizations Gene Simmons makes during his bass solos when it's time for him to spit blood during a Kiss show.
In some ways, Dilloway's spooky hollows also reminded me of some of the more extreme isolationist strands of underground black metal, making me wonder whether my perception of the set would be different had he been wearing corpsepaint and a bullet belt...but that was surely my exhaustion and oversaturation talking. (One interesting thing I noticed was a difference in body language among a segment of the audience members during the last two sets: despite the music's abstraction, a number of listeners swayed in place as if they were responding to a rock concert.) Dilloway's performance was not without interest -- far from it, in fact. But ultimately I conceded that this particular art-brut approach was rather too much at odds with the more ascetic music that I'd come to hear. I don't dispute its validity or effectiveness, but I'd had enough for one evening; at the end of Dilloway's first piece, I headed home.
If the above seems like a mixed report, I should clarify. Even if I admittedly didn't have as deep and immediate a connection with the sets by GOD and Dilloway, both were consistently inventive and yielded some powerful results. And I can't help but thinking that this effort at cross-pollination could result in some fascinating new territories for exploration.
Night four of ErstQuake 3 will be presented tonight at Tonic, with sets by Jeph Jerman, Tim Barnes and Sean Meehan; Ami Yoshida and Christof Kurzmann; Sachiko M and English (Joe Foster and Bonnie Jones); Phill Niblock and Jason Lescalleet; and Jazkamer (Lasse Marhaug and John Hegre). A new Erstwhile CD by Yoshida and Kurzmann, aso, is proving to be a worthwhile challenge -- not entirely removed from the music of Cosmos, but with an intriguing austerity all its own, Kurzmann's loops and clarinet providing a new landscape for Yoshida's voice to inhabit.
Gustav Holst - The Planets; Colin Matthews - Pluto, the Renewer; Kaija Saariaho - Asteroid 4179: Toutalis; Matthias Pintscher - towards Osiris; Mark-Anthony Turnage - Ceres; Brett Dean - Komarov's Fall - Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle (EMI Classics)
Keith Rowe and Toshimaru Nakamura - Between (Erstwhile)
Ami Yoshida and Christof Kurzmann - aso (Erstwhile)
AVVA (Toshimaru Nakamura and Billy Roisz) - Gdansk Queen (Erstwhile DVD)