Sound as Environment: Ernie Althoff, Clinton Green

Sunday 6 June 2021

Ernie Althoff has been a mainstay of the Australian experimental music scene for decades: a situation that often ends up with one’s presence being taken for granted. It’s been good to hear what he’s gotten up to lately, particularly as the new work is so strong. Althoff builds kinetic music machines; partly or entirely self-playing instruments and other homemade devices from simple found materials. This post(?) Covid release consists of “two overly lengthy tracks” using a couple of these automated devices and Althoff playing and egg-slicer and elastic bands attached a cardboard box. HRWT extends over 50 minutes, Half As is, well, half as long. Despite the daunting dimensions, these two works are the most successful recordings of Althoff’s music I’ve heard. In shorter pieces, they can often sound like little more than demonstrations of a novel instrument, or documentation of a sound scultpure – a common drawback to this type of music-making. In long form, the small variations in sound from the machine instruments take on a life of their own, with incidents becoming part of a more organic process. This is enhanced by Althoff using digital manipulation of tempo and pitch, with manual instruments adding enhancements and subtle variety. The sleeve notes cannily draw a connection to his earlier work in field recordings: the complex but undemonstrative sounds in Althoff’s instruments emulate the interplay of small sounds in nature. As with field recordings, it’s easy to immerse yourself in this composition, responding to it as it evolves in its own way. Easier, in fact, as the surface indifference of sound is focused and guided by the musician’s responses to the material. Half As takes a different approach to form, with Althoff playing a slow ostinato on elastic bands throughout the piece, its simplistic melody and persistence paradoxically emphasising the work’s duration while exerting a mesemerising effect.

Kinetic instruments are also at work in Clinton Green’s Relativity​/​Only. A few months ago I reviewed his collaboration with Barnaby Oliver, The Interstices Of These Epidemics. The four pieces here focus solely on machine-driven percussion and again draw comparisons with field recordings with their haphzardly interacting objects. In this case, I found them less compelling than Interstices or Althoff’s long works and my old complaint about the limitations of recorded kinetic instruments came back to haunt me. The four pieces are arranged so that each is less densely textured than the last, which left me speculating on how the music could have been arranged more effectively to bring out the practice of hearing more in less. This is probably my problem, overthinking and backseat driving rather than hearing what is there to be heard.

Genuine improvised duets

Sunday 14 March 2021

At a time when just getting two people into a room to play together is a dimly-remembered luxury, it’s nice to hear again the strange interactions that happen during an improvised duet. The three recordings here all took place before 2020’s pandemic and the attendant lockdowns and general curtailment of simple pleasures. It’s also nice to remember that austere doesn’t have to be synonymous with meagre. The Interstices Of These Epidemics is the result of 18 months’ preparation by Clinton Green and Barnaby Oliver, in which the two of them worked with “a restricted palette of gestures and sound sources” until they created this mesmerising pair of improvisations. Green plays bowed metal bowls, producing distinctively complex, friable drones that teem with ambiguous harmonics. It’s a sound that can easily be overused but Green plays with steadfast restraint, letting inadvertent variations come of their own accord. In the first track, he’s joined by Oliver on violin, the two of them merging into what sounds like a prepared string quartet playing a blurred, nebulous chorale. For the second, Oliver switches to piano and Green’s drones become a backdrop for a plaintive series of ostinatos. The wistful sentimentality of the chords and halting rhythm is tempered by Oliver’s refusal to be led into anything beyond the most minute expressive gestures. This is released on Green’s Shame File Music, a long-running Melbourne label that mixes up new music with reissues of historic recordings of the Australian avant-garde.

This came out a while back and I didn’t pay close attention because it seemed like more lowkey improvisation which is all just swell but after a while you’ve heard too much of it. Turns out it’s way better than that. The two tracks on Iteration were improvisations at a live gig by Lucio Capece and Werner Dafeldecker, the former on reeds and battery-powered feedback, the latter on double bass. As with Green and Oliver, the two musicians do not play as one instrument but nevertheless play with a single mind in a shared, multicoloured voice. In the first track, Capece’s bass clarinet forms the focus, with Dafeldecker’s bass adding colouration and echoes, each instrument seeking out a common register. For the second, the string instrument’s more complex textures become figuration against higher, more pure tones traded between slide saxophone and feedback until the bass harmonics threaten to engulf them. Both works are unhurried, with a clean conception of form and pacing that slows down time while still feeling like a worked-out composition.

David Grubbs and Ryley Walker first played together as a duet on “a broiling night at a neighborhood bar” in New York in summer 2019. The gig is now released as Fight or Flight Simulator on Cafe Oto’s Takuroku download label. The two electric guitars intertwine around some gently paced but steady chords and picking patterns, then gradually lead each other into more fraught terrain. Even as there is some Sturm und Drang during the 25-minute piece, a regular pulse is heard or implied throughout, which both Grubbs and Walker use to pull back and foreground the subtle complexity found in the interplay of their instruments, rather than try to dazzle the punters with histrionics. It’s hard to be objective listening to this because I can’t but feel sad about it. It makes me wish I was in another place, or another time; somewhere it isn’t still winter, where there are bars and gigs, somewhere that isn’t London, or even Europe, somewhere that electric guitars still matter, a place where I’m not so old.