Thoughts: Jürg Frey’s Weites Land, Tiefe Zeit: Räume 1-8, or, The Difficulties of Listening to Lowercase Music on a College Campus

R-2846496-1326746393.jpegIn contrast to many traditional figures of classical music, Swiss composer Jürg Frey is not exactly known for loudness or grandiosity. And while many works by well-known composers aren’t exactly short, Frey’s pieces often dwarf them in scope – take, for example, last year’s archival release of L’âme est sans retenue I by Erstwhile Records; this composition stretches past the six hour mark. Weites Land, Tiefe Zeit: Räume 1-8 is shorter, but by no means brief. Originally created to accompany installations by the late artist Mauser from 2001 to 2002 (Olewnick), the album was released on 8xCD by b-boim in 2010. It consists of eight segments, each titled simply “Raum” plus the disc number, that were produced through heavily processed field recordings gathered by Frey himself. The processing results in the original sound sources becoming mostly unintelligible, instead blurring into ethereal, layered drones. If you haven’t heard the album, at this point it probably sounds like a pretty typical ambient construction. However, as is Frey’s tradition, the music is so quiet it is almost imperceptible at normal volume.

This use of low volume and occasionally complete silence to emphasize sound is a cornerstone of the philosophy of the Wandelweiser Group, of which Frey is a key member. The compositions created by Antoine Beuger, Radu Malfatti, Michael Pisaro, and others are often categorized as “lowercase,” a moniker that references their scaled down palette. Though I am no expert in many of these artists’ work, what I have heard has been both fascinating and gorgeous. However, the quiet and sparse nature of these recordings necessitates a very quiet listening environment, something not easily found on a bustling college campus. So Weites Land… has been, for lack of a better phrase, my “guinea pig album” for prospective listening environments, as I investigate various libraries and secluded areas around town to find the optimal space. And today I think I’ve found it; I was able to listen to “Raum 3” in the geology library’s almost complete silence, a favorable setting that allowed me to truly appreciate the subtle beauty that Frey has constructed. Music at such a quiet volume level requires a lot of focus, which causes a significantly increased perception of even the most minuscule dynamics and elements. In the future, if no one who works here objects to me spending hours upon hours at a time just sitting with headphones on, I’ll be able to experience a lot of cool stuff.

A Quick Summary of AMM

Note from Jack: This blog started off as a means for me to talk about all kinds of music that I enjoy, but, as I’m sure many of you have noticed, I have mainly focused on the avant-garde. This is not to say I enjoy this area of music more than any other, but instead that it is more enjoyable to write about in detail. I also think (correct me if I’m wrong) that my style of writing lends itself better to this type of stuff anyway. On that note, here’s a little thing I wrote about one of my favorite musical groups, who also happen to be one of the most influential creative forces of all time. I hope you enjoy.

Sheaff, Prévost, Rowe, and Cardew

To think of AMM as a band or single artistic unit is difficult; the mysterious initialism more accurately represents a unifying philosophy. The inconsistency of membership quickly makes this clear; the only truly defining element is the method in which AMM improvises. Their ideas about instrumental conversation, “meta-music”, and the importance of silence are fascinating but arcane; it would be pointless to try to explain here, entirely because even as a huge fan I’m convinced I don’t understand it either. Instead, I will detail the history of AMM, attempt to describe how each record sounds on its surface, and occasionally touch on relevant elements of their musical paradigm. I hope everyone who reads this can come to love their music as much as I do, or at the very least find their existence interesting.


Early Period (1965-1966)

AMM was founded in 1965, the lineup originally consisting of drummer Eddie Prévost, guitarist Keith Rowe, and saxophonist Lou Gare. Each musician had a background in jazz, but had become burnt out on playing it; in Rowe’s words, they were “inspired by what American musicians had done, but [found] the jazz form terribly limiting.” This dissatisfaction manifested differently among each artist. For Rowe, the breaking point came when working with Michael Westbrook did not allow for what he wanted to do; he left the band after, among other things, interpreting fruit pie packets instead of given scores and making a New Year’s resolution to stop tuning his guitar.

The musicians began to develop the unique style of improvisation that would frame future endeavors. An emphasis was placed on reservation and silence, as well as responding to what the other musicians were doing; though the actions of each player in an AMM performance are much more rigid than in most other free improvisational groups, they were always listening to their fellow performers. The setting of these early sessions was described as more of a laboratory than a stage, as the group explored new sounds and found their footing. However, spectators were welcome, as long as they did not interfere with the performance. Paul McCartney attended a few times, and legendary jazz musician Ornette Coleman was once asked to leave because he was talking too much.

AMMMusic & The Crypt (1966-1970)

In 1966, cellist Lawrence Sheaff and experimental composer Cornelius Cardew joined the group, and more of its defining idiosyncrasies were developed. In recordings of performances from this era, especially 1967’s AMMMusic, it is very difficult to tell which individual or instrument is making each sound due both to the poor recording quality and the unconventional methods of playing that were utilized. Rowe’s tabletop guitar setup included everyday objects such as screwdrivers and pieces of metal, which contribute harsh, clattering noises; some of the others would use contact mics around the stage to magnify usually inaudible sounds, and Prévost often bowed his cymbals instead of striking them. The result is a cacophony, but one that moves and breathes with surprisingly fluid dynamics, as the musicians listen and react to their colleagues. It also highlights Rowe’s uncanny skill with his radio; the essentially random interjections somehow falling into place perfectly, with even an instance where a chance commentator fittingly states, “We cannot preserve the normal music.”

Sheaff ended his stint with AMM and, allegedly, music in general soon after. The lineup was rounded off with the joining of Christopher Hobbs, who provided additional percussion. This quintet recorded perhaps AMM’s most praised and most infamous performance on June 12, 1968, released as The Crypt in 1981. In my opinion, it is one of the most impenetrable musical releases of all time, and sees the group at their most uncompromising. The abstract sonic paintings range from unfathomably chaotic, mechanical clouds of noise to sparse periods of silence juxtaposed with bursts of sound. It’s also an incredible example of unparalleled unity among the musicians, revealing each seemingly unintelligible construction to contain careful layers. In “Like a Hanging Cloud in the Sky?”, Rowe’s monstrous guitar sounds finally retreat to expose subtle cello and percussion, and in “Coffin nor Shelf” amazing harmonies are achieved when each musician plays with lingering feedback.

Transitional Period (1971-1980)

In the early 1970’s, membership became less concrete. Hobbs left in ‘71, Rowe in ‘72, and Cardew in ‘73. Prévost and Gare played sparsely as a duo, yielding At the Roundhouse, recorded and released in ‘72, and To Hear and Back Again, recorded in ‘74 and released in ‘78. Both recordings sound very different to both AMMMusic and The Crypt, the more limited palette of drums and sax abandoning the noisiness and shuffling drones of those releases. Both Prévost and Gare play (relatively) more conventionally, their sporadic flurries bearing slight resemblances to many free jazz recordings with similar instrumentation.

Rowe and Gare then switched places, the former rejoining in ‘75 and the latter departing in ‘76, again restricting AMM to a duo. Rowe and Prévost went on to record It Had Been an Ordinary Enough Day in Pueblo, Colorado, which even further approached a sound similar to free jazz; for the most part, both musicians utilize conventional techniques, and as such it is probably their most accessible record. Whether or not these duo recordings should be released under the name ‘AMM’ is somewhat controversial among the members. According to Rowe, the group is only AMM proper if it contains three or more participants, which is why It Had Been…was credited to AMM III. Prévost seems to have a different view, however, as all of the duo records without Rowe (At the RoundhouseTo Hear and Back Again, and the yet to come Norwich) have all been released as AMM.

Trio Era (1980-1999)

In 1980, the joining of pianist John Tilbury marked one of the most enduring changes in the group’s history. He would go on to become AMM’s most consistent member aside from Prévost, and rounded out the trio lineup that would last until 2004. Tilbury’s uniquely sparse playing style, which often involved prepared pianos, helped bring about a noticeable stylistic change in the group’s output. The trio’s first record, Generative Themes, already displays uncanny improvisational harmony. Prévost’s drumming is busy yet reserved, the arrhythmic rolls and cymbal touches painting amazing textures amidst Tilbury’s almost equally percussive prepared piano and Rowe’s objects. As a whole, there’s a lot going on in Generative Themes, but it also points toward the quieter, more nuanced style of improvisation that the trio would explore later. This is certainly apparent on 1987’s subtly tense The Inexhaustible Document with guest cellist Rohan de Saram.

The group continued to perform consistently throughout the 90’s, releasing six live albums and a compilation, Laminal, that collects multiple recordings from varying eras. AMM’s output during this decade ranges from the emotional and sublime Newfoundland to the almost infuriatingly subtle Combines + Laminates to the fantastically organic Before Driving to the Chapel We Took Coffee With Rick and Jennifer Reed, each record equally displaying the versatility of the musicians and their incredible interactions. Every member is reliably great; Tilbury always letting his achingly fragile chords to have the space they need to fade and decay, Prévost seamlessly transitioning between quiet droner to virtuoso, and Rowe coaxing jaw-dropping sounds out of his guitar that seem to breathe and sigh in your ears.

Now (2001-present)

The beginning of the 2000’s saw two more live releases, the gloriously textural Fine and Tunes Without Measure or End. These, especially Fine, are among my favorite AMM records, with beautiful, exotic timbres rising and falling back into silence. Rowe’s contributions are especially fascinating, his increased focus on electronics and frequencies foreshadowing his work after his departure from the group in 2004. Tilbury and Prévost remained, performing as a duo, and recorded surprisingly some of the group’s best material. Records like 2005’s Norwich and 2010’s Uncovered Correspondence make no attempt to fill the absence of Rowe’s noisy interjections, and are the quietest and sparsest throughout AMM’s discography. The two continue to perform as AMM today, collaborating with various improvisers such as John Butcher and Evan Parker.

Some Notes

Despite the fact that AMM’s catalog is massive on its own, the group also provides a gateway into the wonderful world of modern improvised music. Labels like Editions Mego, Improvised Music from Japan, and Erstwhile regularly release innovative recordings and work to create a global community of like-minded creatives. There is so much great stuff out there in this vein, and it’s a tragedy that it is enjoyed by so few people. To help, I will include both a list of great AMM albums I did not talk about in my summary, as well as various related projects that may provide entry points into other experimental music. Ideally, one who desired to get into AMM’s music would either just go through chronologically or listen to Laminal, which collects live performances from different eras of the group, and go from there. But these records are also long, exhausting, and difficult. So I would personally recommend starting with either AMMMusicGenerative Themes, or Live in Allentown, and then work backwards or forwards based on what you did or didn’t like. It Had Been… is also probably the group’s most accessible album, and could also serve as a good starting point.

Additional/Related Albums

  • MEV / AMM – Live Electronic Music Improvised (1970) I really enjoy AMM’s contribution to this split. MEV’s, not so much.
  • Organum / Eddie Prévost – Crux / Flayed (1987)
  • AMM – The Nameless Uncarved Block (1991)
  • AMM – Live in Allentown (1996)
  • Evan Parker & Eddie Prévost – Most Materiall (1997)
  • MIMEO & John Tilbury – The Hands of Caravaggio (2002)
  • Keith Rowe & John Tilbury – Duos for Doris (2003)
  • Keith Rowe – The Room (2007)

All pictures can be found at The Wire’s AMM Gallery.

Top 50 Albums of 2017

Hey. It’s been a while. I would say I was really busy over winter break, but that would be a lie. I was just lazy. Anyway, here are my fifty favorite albums for 2017. The top ten were previously published on the AROUSE site, and the top 31 on my Cymbal account (@jckmd), but the others have never before been seen! I hope you guys enjoy.

1. Jun Konagaya – Memento Mori (Steinklang, Jun 9)

Experimental musician Jun Konagaya has been steadily releasing music for nearly 35 years, and yet compared to many other beloved figures of the Japanese underground he remains largely unknown and unappreciated in the United States. This is a tragedy, considering Konagaya’s endless devotion to his craft and the amazing amount of emotion he presents with his music; two elements that are incredibly evident on his newest release, Memento Mori. The record sees Konagaya further exploring the ambient post-industrialism of 2014’s Travel and the wistful organ-driven folk of its predecessor Organ, and is an amazingly cohesive work that serves as both an acknowledgement of past styles and a step in a new direction. While Konagaya’s albums are always incredibly personal, Memento Mori is a different beast: we hear him at his most aggressive and his most vulnerable, his vocals ranging from ragged animalistic rapping to desperate croons. This album filled a very special place for me this year, and is without a doubt the best thing I heard in all of 2017.

2. Endon – Through the Mirror (Daymare/Hydra Head, Mar 8)

Upon first listen, Through the Mirror elicited one of the most immediate reactions of any of the albums on this list. It’s a cruel trick they play on you: the trance inducing pound of “Nerve Rain” gives way without warning to the unbridled insanity of “Your Ghost is Dead.” The whole record is absolutely teeming with similar surprises, all of them equally as awesome. From the invigorating primal shrieks and growls on “Born in Limbo” to the abrasively cathartic beauty of “Torch Your House,” Through the Mirror doesn’t let you catch your breath for a second. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

3. Oxbow – Thin Black Duke (Hydra Head, May 5)

It’s rare, at least in my experience that a band comes back after ten years with a great record. It’s even rarer that a band returns after all that time with their best album yet, but this wouldn’t be the first time Oxbow has surpassed expectations. Thin Black Duke is probably the experimental rock quartet’s most conventional effort yet, moving away from the sludge and noise of their early releases in favor of sultry, bluesy chamber rock. The string arrangements oddly sound right at home amidst the distorted guitars and Eugene Robinson’s trademark wails, pushing the band toward a completely new sound – for which I couldn’t be more excited.

4. Faust – Fresh Air (Bureau B, May 5)

It’s no secret that Faust is one of my favorite bands ever, so I just want to iterate that there’s no bias here; Fresh Air is just a really fantastic record. I wasn’t exactly optimistic, considering how underwhelming both jUSt and Something Dirty were, but I was very happy to be proven wrong. Fresh Air represents so much of what I love about Faust, offering surreal arrangements, quirky spoken word, and ear-shattering climaxes, while still presenting new elements I didn’t even know I wanted in their sound.

5. The Ruins of Beverast – Exuvia (Ván, May 5)

There’s something special about records that are enjoyable even though they conjure up images of things you never want to see or experience. Exuvia is one of those to a T, its dark tribal atmosphere always pushing feelings of unease and fear through you. It’s the soundtrack to a demented ritual of horrific implications, and it’s so incredibly vivid that it’s hard to believe it all came from one man. Von Meilenwald is a stellar musician, and will hopefully continue to add to his incredibly consistent catalog.

6. Lorde – Melodrama (Lava, Jun 16)

Lorde returns with the pop album I never asked for but that I couldn’t be happier I got. It’s an improvement upon her debut in virtually every way. The incredibly lush production is such a step up from the infuriating minimalism of Pure Heroine, the songwriting is more mature, and I felt like it’s much more cohesive overall. It couldn’t have come out at a better time, too; Lorde’s ironic depictions of the titular melodrama that dominates modern romance are poignant and fascinating. Plus it’s catchy as all hell.

7. Ikue Mori – Obelisk (Tzadik, Jul 28)

Despite the undeniable strangeness of Ikue Mori’s music, she somehow sounds just as good while playing with other musicians as she does on her own (if you don’t believe me, just listen to Electric Masada’s At the Mountains of Madness). On Obelisk, with three talented improvisers supplementing her usual electronics, the effect is otherworldly. Drummer Jim Black, pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, and Okkyung Lee form an amazing quartet, and the unspoken improvisational conversations are wonderfully apparent. This is a new favorite of mine from Mori, and while I adore her solo works I am in love with this sound.

8. Dao De Noize & Hiroshi Hasegawa – Saturnus Cursus (Bludhoney, Oct 6)

Best known as a founding member of legendary noise act C.C.C.C., Hiroshi Hasegawa is one of my favorite figures of the Japanese noise scene. His visceral approach to his music is on full display on this collaborative cassette with Ukrainian artist Dao De Noize. The two twenty minute pieces are harsh but psychedelic, constantly assaulting your ears with lush collages of atmospheric noise. They’re somehow stagnant and dynamic at the same time, building and contracting but never letting up. Amazing project from these two musicians.

9. lojii & Swarvy – Due Rent (Fresh Selects, Mar 31)

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the best year for my personal hip-hop listening. I pretty much just stuck to my usual favorites and didn’t really like anything new that came out. Except Due Rent, which I would honestly say is one of the most refreshingly great records I have heard in a long time. Both artists show immense talent, with Swarvy’s jazzy lo-fi beats perfectly complementing lojii’s deadpan delivery and earnest lyrics. I haven’t been able to put this one down, and I’m glad for a glimmer of hope amidst a bleak period for the genre (for me at least).

10. Will Guthrie – People Pleaser (Black Truffle, Mar 10)

On People Pleaser we get the best aspects of Guthrie’s style all in one album, his spastic drumming providing a frenetic backbone for obscure samples, frequency manipulation, and crackling electronics. In contrast to many of the other records on which he’s played, the tracks are short and immediate, yet still incredibly well developed. It’s consistently intense, disorienting, overwhelming, colorful, and utterly amazing. Definitely looking forward to where he goes next.

11. Vanessa Rosetto – Rocinante (self-released, May 4)

12. Sunn Trio – Sunn Trio (self-released, Jun 23)

13. Stefan Christensen – Shake Off the Village (C/Site, Sep 1)

14. Jon Irabagon, John Hegre & Nils Are Drønen – Axis (Rune Grammofon)

15. Ulver – The Assassination of Julius Caesar (House of Mythology, Apr 7)

16. Snapped Ankles – Come Play the Trees (Leaf, Sep 29)

17. Converge – The Dusk in Us (Deathwish, Nov 3)

18. The Doomed Bird of Providence – Burrowed Into the Soft Sky (Front & Follow, Sep 1)

19. White Suns – Psychic Drift (The Flenser, Jun 16)

20. Jason Lescalleet – Almost Is Almost Good Enough (Glistening Examples, Jul 20)

21. James Holden & The Animal Spirits – The Animal Spirits (Border Community, Nov 3)

22. Raising Holy Sparks – Search for the Vanished Heaven (Eiderdown, Jul 27)

23. Sutcliffe Jügend – Shame (Hagshadow, Feb 3)

24. Ostraca – Last (Skeletal Lightning, May 24)

25. Sissy Spacek – Slow Move (Troniks, Jun 23)

26. Alex Cameron – Forced Witness (Secretly Canadian, Sep 8)

27. Taiwan Housing Project – Veblen Death Mask (Kill Rock Stars, May 5)

28. Tchornobog – Tchornobog (self-released, Jul 21)

29. The Inward Circles – And Right Lines Limit and Close All Bodies (self-released, Mar 12)

30. Avec le Soleil Sortant de sa Bouche – Pas Pire Pop [I ♡ You So Much] (Constellation, Jan 20)

31. Bain Wolfkind – Hand of Death (Tesco Germany, Jan 24)

32. Razen – The Xvoto Reels (Three:Four, Sep 15)

33. Mary Lattimore – Collected Pieces (Ghostly International, Apr 14)

34. Yadayn – Adem (Navalorama, Jun 26)

35. Arto Lindsay – Cuidado Madame (P-Vine, Jan 6)

36. Black Cilice – Banished from Time (Iron Bonehead, Mar 10)

37. Taku Unami / Graham Lambkin – The Whistler (Erstwhile, May 31)

38. Cheval Rétréci, Junko & Will Guthrie – Cheval Rétréci (IKD, Jun 8)

39. Ninos du Brasil – Vida Eterna (Hospital, Sep 13)

40. Heaven in Her Arms – 白暈 (Daymare, March 22)

41. Keith Rowe / Michael Pisaro – 13 Thirteen (Erstwhile, Jun 14)

42. Sugai Ken – UkabazUmorezU (Rvng, Oct 20)

43. Coutoux – Hellicoprion (Kill All Music, Mar 31)

44. You’ll Never Get to Heaven – Images (Mar 24, Mystic Roses)

45. Mchy i Porosty – Hypnagogic Polish Music for Teenage Mutants (Recognition, Jan 9)

46. Tyshawn Sorey – Verisimilitude (Pi, Aug 4)

47. KYO – I Musik (Posh Isolation, Mar 23)

48. Bordreuil / Rowden – Hollow (No Rent, May 30)

49. Hell – Hell (Sentient Ruin, Aug 11)

50. Širom – I Can Be a Clay Snapper (Glitterbeat, Sep 8)


Note: Jürg Frey’s monolithic tape work L’ame est sans retenue I would most likely have made it onto this list had I had time to listen to it last year; but seeing as how finding six hours to sit alone in complete silence is not the easiest thing in the world…