Review: Chow Mwng – Dis-Ordnance (Recordiau Dukes, Nov 18)

Most questions along the lines of “what’s the best ______ ever?” are pretty damn difficult to answer. But when someone asks me who I think is the best guitarist of all time, my response is an absolute no-brainer: Derek Bailey. No other practitioner of that classic instrument has seamlessly combined sublimity, technical skill, and uncompromising originality with such aplomb in a staggering variety of contexts. Across enrapturing solo performances (Aida, Standards), unconventional experiments (String Theory, Music and Dance), mind-blowing collaborations (live album with Han BenninkMirakle with Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Calvin Weston), and even more conventional ventures like Arcana’s Arc of the Testimony, Bailey created an impossibly idiomatic musical language, the impact and legacy of which reverberate long past the musician’s death in 2005. On Dis-Ordnance, Welsh artist Ash Cooke (also known as Chow Mwng) pays homage to every avant-garde guitarist’s hero with a style he calls “Gwrth-gitâr,” which translates to “anti-guitar” in Cooke’s native language. For Cooke, “Gwrth-gitâr is free playing in the sense that anything goes. It does not explicitly reject standard Western tuning, melody or harmony, but it does reject the need for such things. It seeks to explore new ways of using a traditional and universally familiar object to paint an alternative view of the world. It is unrehearsed and leaves as much to chance as it does to the ability of the operator. It has no interest in being reproducible.” In the case of Dis-Ordnance, Cooke seeks to paint more than just an alternative view of the world; he grounds the five elusive improvisations that comprise the album in specific locations around the mountains of North Wales, using found objects to coax unfamiliar timbres from his acoustic guitar and fragments of more traditional playing to retain an element of conventional harmony amidst the abstract explorations. The recordings are focused on the assaulting sounds of the guitar, but snatches of the surrounding environment often sneak in, and can be viewed as either auxiliary elements of the improvisations or as their sources of inspiration. Dis-Ordnance is simultaneously familiar and alien, personal and primordial, intimate and grandiose—a series of paradoxes made possible by the all-encompassing ideology of Gwrth-gitâr.

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