Electronic Noise Shootout, Spring 2024

Monday 6 May 2024

It’s great that art doesn’t have to come from or go to any specific place, much as we’d sometimes like to forget that when we try to put our enthusiasm for it into words. Two months ago I saw John Wall and Michael Speers playing a live electronic duet at Cafe Oto, using a mixture of pre-recorded and real-time generated sounds in a way where you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. Under the old rules, it would be classed as “absolute” music, a purity of self-reliance on form, structure and material that all relate to each other, even as all three attributes were constructed on the fly. If it referenced any tradition, it was to the relentless pursuit of the new. There was a similar, searching purity in the opening set by Lee Fraser, with a hyperfocus on dynamic and timbre. In contrast, Eye Measure’s curious work with “live coding and algorithmic composition” (partly in visible evidence during the set) referenced genres of popular music, taking loops associated with the clubs and then sublimating them into abstraction. The cross-cultural context implies the presence of a wider meaning to be drawn from the work, at least as a commentary on craft or at most as the basis of a disquisition of socioeconomic demographics. Of course we have the capability to do this for any medium but need to remain mindful that any pattern we determine will likely have been shaped by whatever analytical tool fell most readily to hand.

Seán Clancy: Four Sections of Music Unequally Divided (Birmingham Record Company). I dunno what any of the above has to do with Seán Clancy’s piece, except that its system of organisation draws inspiration from the past, utilising an open form of the type made famous by In C and adopting other American characteristics of the period. Bright pianos and warm synthesisers with added gamelan-type instruments start with what promises to be a rhythmic free-for-all before transitioning to the larger sections that form the substance of the work, with extended passages of dense alternating tremolos reminiscent of Charlemagne Palestine. Clancy’s liner notes reference Sol Le Witt and James Tenney. The latter may be inferred from his (checks note) “sheer joy of the plasticity of sound” but also, more pertinently, through his thinking on musical form and cognitive analysis of structure which is applied here to make a piece more complex than a simple tribute to minimalism.

Devid Ciampalini: Eterna (Dissipatio). Speaking of retro, Ciampalini is harking back to the past more self-consciously retro here, evoking earlier models of electronic music both in their surface and their style. Affectionate parody is the prevailing mood, beginning with a lo-fi imitation of the THX Deep Note before presenting ten ‘chapters’ which swing on a spectrum between electronic library music from the 1970s and crunchier DIY synthesis; at times achieving both at once. Ciampalini’s nostalgia is omnivorous: one track sounds like it was made in Coagula, so it’s not all analogue-adjacent, even while attempting to capture the look and feel.

Tewksbury: Floes: Volumes I​-​IV (self-released). Douglas Tewksbury’s four volumes of electronic drones consists of sixteen pieces of roughly equal length for a total of about three hours of music. I hate making such a glib and unoriginal comment but this really does sound like it could be edited down. Up until the latter half of Volume II everything is safely diatonic and simple, making for little more than inoffensive ambience. Things get a more interesting when some, but not all, of the pieces introduce more complex and ambiguous harmonic progressions, but then this makes the remaining pieces superfluous and you wonder if a selection would sound more compelling than the whole.

Technical Reserve: Cheap Heat (Party Perfect!!!). I guess this is retro because it immediately reminded me in a good way of those old Jon Rose LPs where he pits his 19-string cello against whatever was the latest in digital sampling and processing technology. TJ Borden’s cello is supposedly normal, but the improvisations with Hunter Brown and Dominic Coles and their computers as just as explosively anarchic. There’s a lot here: 19 tracks seventy-something minutes but it stays fresh because nobody ever seems to really know what they’re doing. This is harder than it sounds in free improv, supposedly reliant on technique yet really in need of desperation as the spur to invention. Technical Reserve takes us back to a simpler time when the gear doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, albeit now captured with pornographic clarity. It’s rude and it’s noisy but, to pursue the wrestling analogies that crop up in the sleeve notes, for this audience that’s a cheap pop.

Hunter Brown + Eric Wong: Si Distributions (Party Perfect!!!). Brown again, gigging in Wong’s bedroom. You wouldn’t know it was a bedroom recording even as the room shapes what you hear (this is also how you don’t realise how much science has improved your life). The two of them cook up a pair of severe, spatialised noise studies that keep turning aggressive, but the harshness is tamed and sculpted by responding to the acoustic dynamics of the apartment, using the placement of their bluetooth monitors as EQ to exert stern but fair authority over brittle electronic sounds. Side one takes static and white noise, introducing some low sounds later for contrast. Side two is all about rumbling low frequencies to set the speakers juddering about the room until the distortion creates its own white noise, taking us part of the way back to where we started but still ending up somewhere else.

Quick takes, mostly warm

Monday 17 April 2023

Seán Clancy: Ireland England. It’s been ages since I’ve listened to any 70s German synth-rock, so listening to this reminded me of hearing analogue synth space-grooves for the first time. A free-flying piece that maintains focus even as pulsating arpeggios and airy drones fade in and out for longer than most Krautrockers could manage, anchored by a seriousness of intent. This is a single take recorded drecitly to a handheld device, also on video with text projections for the piece’s insipration.

Fabrizio Modonese Palumbo: ELP. Listened to this blind and thought it was some wide-ranging noise improv by a bunch of precocious adolescents with a lot of energy, complete with a quaint sample to kickstart the whole shebang. Turns out Palumbo has a long and distinguished CV and this is a solo affair made as part of a project relating choreographed movement to sound. I’m glad that sophistication doesn’t come through, lest it dull down the flawed but lively tangle heard here, but disappointed the title isn’t a reference to Tarkus.

Henning Christiansen: Op. 1984 (160C) Goodday Mr. Orwell, Green-Ear-Year. Having been overwhelmed by the five-hour montage of Op. 176 Penthesilea I did not expect this. Christiansen and his local guitar hero son play a gig together and holy shit invent the Boredoms a year early, right there on stage. The punters are not pleased; neither is the tortured ghost of B.A. Zimmermann when they summon his presence.

Ed Williams: Decomposition Study. Two organists (Christoph Schiller and Anna-Kaisa Meklin) play counterpoint on an organ of 16th Century design, tuned in sixth-tones. Microtonality nerds hoping to geek out to nuances of intonation will find themselves frustrated as Williams adds another compositional premise, with himself and three other assistants – well, obstructionists, really – systematically messing with the wind supply; basically like a John Cage organ piece only somebody hired Stan Freberg, Mark E. Smith and Eric Morecambe to man the pipes. Timbre, tone and dynamics break up in non-intuitive ways that seemed understated on first listen, overstated on the second.