Thoughts: No Sound Is Innocent by Eddie Prévost

The philosophy behind AMM’s music is usually somewhat controversial. Many people seem to be quite opposed to it, whether they object to the paradigm itself or to the fact that there is a paradigm at all. While I agree that music requires no intellectual backing or explanation, it is compelling that these musicians are so devoted to truly making their own unique form of music, and that they can justify it so thoroughly. This is what drove me to read AMM percussionist Eddie Prévost’s 1995 book No Sound Is Innocent, which collects several of the artist’s essays, articles, and musings about the group’s singular style of improvisation and the ideas behind it.

A main point of discussion across these various selections is Prévost’s concept of “meta-music,” a phrase that is often brought up when talking about AMM but is never really explicitly defined. As I see it, he essentially views every sound within a given performance to be important, even vital, to the overall impact of the performance. It follows from this that musicians who are participating in a collective improvisation should always be thinking about their sonic contribution, even if that contribution is extremely subtle or even just silence. In this way, the interactions between the musicians almost takes the form of a conversation of sorts, where no sound, including the absence of sound, is truly innocent. Also fascinating is the recognition of the audience’s impact on a performance, a view Prévost shares with guitarist Derek Bailey (whose book Musical Improvisation is also great). The people viewing an improvisation are just as crucial to its identity as the musicians or the sounds they produce. This identity is only partially maintained by making recordings of the event.

While Prévost’s prose is a bit arcane at times and he does tend to repeat himself, No Sound Is Innocent was incredibly interesting and provided very comprehensive insight regarding “AMMMusic.” He also comes across as much less arrogant than Rowe from what I’ve read (though they all have somewhat of a mystical attitude about them that occasionally elicits an eyeroll or two), and it was funny to hear him talk about their ideological clashes throughout the group’s career. A great book for sure, and I would recommend it to anyone who’s even slightly interested in the music of AMM or improvisational music in general.

Thoughts: Keith Rowe’s The Room Extended

Note: I promise it’s not going to become a rule that I only discuss abnormally long albums or songs on here. It’s just that a lot of times these works have a lot of content I want to examine. Maybe I’ll cover some abnormally short stuff next to make up for it (Yellow Trash Bazooka here I come).

British musician and painter Keith Rowe has recently become one of my favorite artists. I’ve loved pretty much everything by him that I’ve listened to so far, from his recordings with AMM to his various onkyo and free improvisation collaborations. But the records that have resonated with me the most are definitely his solo efforts, particularly The Room and its elder brother, about which this post is written. Rowe, commonly attributed to be the driving force behind the development of the genre of electroacoustic improvisation (EAI), works with an incredibly unique palette of sounds on these records. And when I say unique, I mean completely unique; there is really nothing else that sounds quite like it.

The Room Extended, like its predecessor, is an immensely intimate record for Rowe. The cover is a diagnostic scan of his brain, taken when it was thought he might have a tumor. Since then, Rowe has also been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. From this context, the personal significance of the album is certainly revealed, but not nearly as much as from the music itself.

Every sound within The Room Extended aches with loneliness and fatigue. It’s impossible to not consider silence to be an integral part of the music, as it occupies almost as much space on the record as the audible sounds do. Impossible collages and layers of unidentifiable frequencies, static, guitar, and objects breathe in and out of the quiet soundscape, rising to ear shattering climaxes before departing as quickly as they were introduced. Clocking in at over four hours, the record is quite long, but this dynamic structure makes it seem much shorter somehow – a phenomenon that puzzles me to no end. Then again, there are a lot of things that puzzle me about Rowe’s music, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

Even more difficult to describe than the sounds themselves are the emotions they elicit. I found myself brought to tears multiple times throughout my initial listen, and I couldn’t really tell you why. It might be because the feeling of isolation is so palpable; frequently the bursts of sound are framed by distant recordings of human voices, cars pulling out of driveways, classical music, that all somehow serve to exclude the listener. It also could be the sheer exhaustion of the sounds themselves; the conclusion of the third disc is a prime example, where a piercing tone rises out of complete silence, growing louder and louder until it starts to waver and falter, eventually collapsing into nothingness.

Once again, Rowe’s music completely defies verbal description, so I hope I did alright. All I can really assert with confidence is that listening to The Room Extended was one of the most intensely emotional experiences I’ve had with music in a long time, and I certainly enjoyed it immensely. I hope you can too. Thank you, Mr. Rowe.

Further reading: Brian Olewnick’s fabulous review (certainly better than mine)an interview with Rowe by Paris Transatlantic.

Thoughts: “Fast Car” by Jim O’Rourke

I’m of the opinion that Jim O’Rourke is one of the most talented and versatile musicians of our time. He’s played with and produced countless bands, including a lot of well-known acts like Sonic Youth, Wilco, Will Oldham, and Joanna Newsom. His releases range from pleasant jazz pop to noisy free improvisation to soothing folk to meditative glitch and progressive electronic, and he shows no sign of slowing down with his eclecticism or prolificity anytime soon.

The section of O’Rourke’s catalog that most appeals to me, however, is his work with drone, mainly the warm acoustic style pioneered by legends like Tony Conrad, La Monte Young, and other members of the Dream Syndicate. A prime example of this is 1997’s Happy Days, a 47-minute composition that blends O’Rourke’s penchant for minimalism-influenced guitar playing with calming, meditative violin drones. This was my favorite thing he had done – up until yesterday, that is, when I first heard the song “Fast Car.”

It’s taken from an unofficial recording of a live set in Japan in 2002, during which O’Rourke was touring in support of his 2001 record Insignificance. The first five songs of this performance are great, mainly consisting of solo guitar and vocal renditions of tracks from Insignificance and Halfway to a Threeway, an EP from ’99. But nothing can prepare for the sheer beauty and happiness that permeates the closing track, “Fast Car.” Opening with a looping sample of Tracy Chapman’s iconic guitar motif from her song of the same name, it features O’Rourke’s own version of the lyrics as more instruments build behind the repeating sample. Subtly, to the point where I barely realized it was happening, the lively acoustic melodies are overtaken by impossibly lush layers of comforting drones. Nowhere else has music so perfectly captured the feeling of a warm blanket and a cup of hot chocolate after a long day in the cold (it could just be that it was freezing cold yesterday; I’d imagine this song would also be applicable during a sunny summer day). Towards the end of the piece, the melodies return, with O’Rourke beautifully tagging the chorus of Chapman’s classic before bringing everything to a close with soft guitar meanderings. It’s a perfect marriage of his folk pop sensibilities and his more abstract inclinations, and in the process it creates probably the most uplifting sounds I have ever heard. Highly recommended (click the picture next to this paragraph to go to a youtube upload of the track).

News: Northside Record Fair!


The event this Saturday the 11th celebrates the fifth anniversary of the Northside Record Fair, one of the largest (and best) record fairs in the Midwest. Organized biannually by Jon Lorenz, the fair brings together local brick-and-mortar stores, independent vendors, and collectors to the North Church in Cincinnati, OH. It’s a music head’s dream, with foldout tables stuffed end to end with boxes upon boxes of records, tapes, CDs, and other trinkets and oddities. There’s something for everyone here; the wide variety of sellers means that anyone can find what they’re looking for. I’ve seen countless quantities of oldies, country, pop, hip-hop, experimental, rock, alternative, folk, and pretty much anything else you can think of. If you’re in town and have the time (and the funds) definitely stop by, help support a fantastic event, and pick up some new wax. (Click the above picture to see the Facebook event page.)

Review: Arto Lindsay w/ Beauty Pill @ The Wexner Center

Thursday’s presentation of Arto Lindsay with Beauty Pill was, among other things, a monument to the marriage of experimentation and conventionality. Both acts combined the strange with the familiar, the uncomfortable with the expected, to great effect. It was a night of wonderful juxtaposition.

Beauty Pill started off the show with a bang. The Washington D. C. quartet have been active since 2001, though their discography is sadly limited to two EPs and two full lengths. 2015’s *Describes Things As They Are* provided the bulk of the songs played, its more sample-heavy and adventurous style dictating the performance. Vocalist Jean Cook and guitarist Drew Doucette both added electronic flavors to the band’s standard palette, using MIDI controlled samples and pedal effects to create surprisingly dense sound collages. As I said to Cook after the set, the effective inclusion of this sort of technology in a live performance is very difficult; the occasional recorded snippet or odd feedback manipulation for novelty’s sake is relatively simple, but actually integrating and conversing with these elements musically is much less so. But there’s no doubt that Beauty Pill did this incredibly well; it never seemed like the effects weren’t important parts of the songs. With the thudding, rhythmic grooves of bassist Basla Andolsun and drummer Chad Molter, everything seemed to be in its place.

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Photo courtesy of Matt Condon

While Beauty Pill was one of the best opening acts I’ve seen in recent memory, my excitement for what was coming next was only heightened. Full disclosure: I am a massive fan of Arto Lindsay, and I hold the staunch belief that pretty much all of his work, from DNA to Ambitious Lovers to his eponymously released records, is nothing short of amazing.

It seems that any time an article is written about Lindsay these days, DNA, the influential no wave band formed by Lindsay and Ikue Mori in 1977, is brought up at one point or another. Any information about his more recent work is often prefaced by a brief overview of his work with the band, or even an introduction based on his membership. This seems odd, as DNA’s activity only spans five years, a mere blip amidst Lindsay’s lengthy career. And though the importance of their work to the experimental music climate can’t be overstated, Lindsay’s solo material is just as adventurous, arguably even more so. Having never aligned himself or DNA with the angrily nihilistic mentality often associated with the no wave movement, it seems that Lindsay is simply continuing what he started all those years ago.

But all those pseudo-academic musings leave my mind completely as Lindsay (after cheerfully complimenting my DNA sweatshirt) and his band – bassist Melvin Gibbs, keyboardist Paul Wilson, drummer Mike King, and a percussionist whose name I didn’t catch – take the stage. The unique amalgam of Brazilian samba, tropicalia, art pop, and funk soon fills the room, punctuated by Lindsay’s absolutely vicious guitar work. For those who have never seen him play, it is simultaneously breathtaking and horrifying to behold. “Play” doesn’t even seem like the right word; it’s more like he’s attacking the instrument, beating out an incredibly wide range of frequencies and harsh skronking that surprisingly complement the lush instrumentals of his band very well. My jaw just about hit the floor when Lindsay’s band members departed the stage, leaving him to perform a brief song by himself. There are really no words to describe it; the textures he created with only his guitar were simply otherworldly, layering angular loops and distorted noise blasts to back his soulful vocals. As Lindsay himself puts it, “scary Arto” and “sexy Arto” were both in full display. It was the crown jewel of an amazing night. Thanks Arto.