I miss live music so goddamn much. It’s not like it’s likely that I would have seen this Shanghai duo set by Chinese sound artists Sun Yizhou and Mai Mai even if there weren’t a global pandemic still persisting, but so many things about it remind me of what we have all been missing: the unique resonance, both acoustic and atmospheric, of particular venue spaces; the infectious serendipity that only seems to fully manifest in truly spontaneous improvisation; the feeling of bearing witness to something lost to time even as it occurs. Both Sun (who is—get this—even younger than I am!) and Mai are relatively new faces in the global scene, with only a small handful of releases between them prior to this performance, but despite the exploratory, almost primitive presence that their minimal electronics setup possesses, Shanghai Live feels like a meeting of two established musicians who fundamentally understand each other. Mai, usually a guitarist, relies solely on a basic pulse generator for his contributions, a rather plucky, somewhat naïve-sounding device whose restrictive artificiality favorably resembles Eric Laska’s oscillator assaults or Sachiko M’s empty samplers. The twiddling arpeggios and pure frequencies twist in and out of sublime harmony, both tonal and textural, with Sun’s mixer feedback, the two elements often melding in moments of indistinguishable unity. This piece exudes “liveness” through and through; it’s quiet and reticent but never timid in its ever-moving experimentation, and thus the familiar visual of performers hunched over arsenals of arcane soundmaking supplies is abstractly embedded in the music itself.
There’s not a single moment on 1 in which I’m able to shake the subtle but pervasive feeling that something is about to happen. Good, bad, catastrophic, inconsequential—I have no idea. But these skeletal compositions always seethe and brood with powerful portent as if immortalizations of the unassuming periods of time before a notable event occurs, captured and truncated to preserve that slippery, evocative atmosphere. Both field recordings and electronics are used throughout the six tracks (the former on the “1” segments, the latter on “2”), but even though their innate sonic differences aren’t obscured or erased the two approaches feel unusually unified in their passivity. Between stretches of uncanny reverbed darkness-scapes and clatter kept at an ominous distance, “2.1” and “2.2” seem less like performances and more like documents, perhaps simply observations with a much more magnified lens than their counterparts—with crackling hum, garbled radio artifacts, and an overall sense of inconsequence, they could just as easily be recordings of invisible wave phenomena or mysterious spectra as conscious “musical” actions. All in all, the enigmatic uœrhe’s debut release feels barely there at all, like tinges and tinctures and abstract semblances scraped from tangibility and stripped of context, leaving only raw, indefinable emotional signification. And because of this, it may be the case that whatever responses 1 elicits are more illustrative of the one doing the responding than the music itself.
The double bass was actually the first instrument I ever properly learned how to play. For me it was simply a stepping stone to the electric bass guitar, but I still hold a deep appreciation for those who devote their lives to taming these giant wooden beasts, stretching their physical, tonal, and timbral possibilities to new heights (and nadirs, depending on how you look at it). There are few contexts in which the double bass feels more fully actualized than on its own; stripped to the raw duality of performer and instrument, solo bass playing mines the true potential of the object on either end of the dynamic spectrum—both brutality and delicacy.
00:00. Joëlle Léandre – “Hein ! Quoi, Je T’entends Plus” from Sincerely (Plainisphare, 1985)
05:39. Luke Stewart – January 17, 2019 [excerpt] (Fire Over Heaven, 2021)
13:16. Peter Kowald – part 16 of Was Da Ist (FMP, 1995)
15:44. Kent Kessler – “Furthermore” from Bull Fiddle (Okka Disk, 2002)
17:11. Michael Formanek – “Crawlspace” from Am I Bothering You? (Screwgun, 1998)
21:31. Brandon Lopez – “The Full of Good Ideas” from The Church of Plenty Empty (No Rent, 2018)
31:13. Otto Willberg – first untitled track from short album (self-released, 2020)
35:01. Félicie Bazelaire – “the night” from Pyramids (self-released, 2020)
Belgrade musician Igor Stangliczky fortifies his debut solo improvisation document Empty My Sin Recycle Bin, which presents two successive takes of a piece entitled “Purgatory,” with every possible preparation for musical impact and longevity: virtuosic assimilation of several tools (no-input mixer, effects pedals, synthesizers) into a unified, gestural dynamism; engrossing overall progressions packed with hyperactive micro-events; moments of abrasive intensity and delicate flourish alike. I have no idea how Stangliczky achieved such detailed sound design by recording the two takes with a portable tape recorder (which often lack stereo functionality in addition to having subpar fidelity), and I doubt I’ll ever figure it out for certain, but for now I’m happy with the choice because it gives the release a fullness of presence that many digitally captured solo electronics recordings neglect. The sharp edges and volatile blasts consistently threaten a descent into complete harsh noise chaos, and Stangliczky is as much wrangler as he is controller, seemingly spending more time pushing and nudging sonic emissions where he wants them to go rather than pulling them into an exact, forced schematic. This innate turbulence only makes the final product more exhilarating to listen to; I’m especially obsessed with moments that somehow combine natural escalation and sudden materialization, such as about seven minutes into movement one when a swelling tendril of distortion, itself born from a temporary disintegration, shatters into a multifaceted mass of crystalline deconstruction. Don’t let the trivial (and yet somehow fitting?) cover fool you; this is one of the best improvised-electronics releases I’ve heard this year.
At first blush, the cover of Beauson’s debut offering of “raw, non-binairy [sic, but I kind of like the typo here], unsequenced improvisation” and “uncategorizable, envoking [sic], electronic soul” could be an oversaturated photograph of that board game Mouse Trap or a screenshot of a devoted Roller Coaster Tycoon player’s crowning achievement, but when one looks more closely specific objects begin to reveal themselves amidst the visual cacophony: a hefty supply of keyboards, a Focusrite audio interface, samplers and wires and speakers, and… a toy model of a medieval castle stuffed with circuit boards? You’ll soon find that the image is equally ambiguous in its relationship or representativeness to the music of Reveries as it is on its own; that Markus Roemer and Roland Sauer make use of all sorts of electronics to produce their “luscious adventure-telling” soundscapes is clear, yet the actual process by which that occurs is anything but. Most likely assisted by the elevated compositional and improvisational opportunities offered by modern computer software, eclectic threads of looping sound events form structural bases that are neither rhythmic nor fully formless, instead maintaining a consistent forward momentum that helps the duo fulfill their promise of providing listeners with “living music” despite the deeply synthetic character of many of their contributions. It’s that delightful paradox that makes Reveries (and, to a slightly lesser extent, Floreana, a follow-up released on the same day) so unforgettable: whimsical tracks like “Poort” and “Beauford” reach toward the organic with interwoven plastic tendrils; plucky MIDI sequences make “Sobiat” and “Au Contraire” into peculiarly ominous toy-chest frolics; and “Nachtpanda,” in addition to having an amazing title, is one of the most intricately detailed things I’ve heard in a while, evoking the lush, complex interconnectedness of a vibrant rainforest with humble artificiality.
The second in a series of place-embracing improvisational sets from the Siberian Improvisation Company!, The Snow follows up last year’s Berlin-recorded Spreequell / Die Waffe des Proletariats from the drifts of Kemerovo, the collective’s home base. It sees founder and central member Alexander Markvart joined by Egor Miroshnik (for Spreequell / Waffe SIC! consisted of Markvart and Max Evstropov) for an evolving suite of “street improvisations and field recordings” captured in various places around the city, the music finding footing in anything from completely unaccompanied passerby noise and other natural ambience to stretches of mysterious radio grabs, rattling guitar, squealing tensile drones (presumably bowed—with considerable force—on Miroshnik’s “cross with strings,” whatever the hell that is), opportunistic episodes using surroundings such as chain-link fences and gravel; the works. I see so many other beloved favorites throughout the throes of these motley yet carefully considered pieces: Ruda Vera in the languid near-inaction of “Bridge I”; R.O.T.’s Klein Eiland in the evocative, cavernous physicality of “Dome”; Three Forks and their unforgettable “Drunken Traffic” in the distant highway hum and plunking folkisms of “Bridge II.” It’s difficult to discuss The Snow without at least mentioning the form its physical release takes, which is a small jar of melted “dirty snow” from the coal-streaked expanses of the Kuznetsk Basin whose lid sports a QR-code that links to the Bandcamp page. It’s interesting and novel and certainly speaks to the music’s undeniable indebtedness to the location in which it was created, but that indebtedness is so thoroughly implanted within the music itself that you won’t need to shell out for shipping costs to fully experience it.
Yet another contribution to the already heaping 2021 quality harsh pile, Temple of the Moth’s debut self-titled release is a superb study in sputtering abstract psychedelia. On both of the two sub-ten-minute tracks one immediately notices a conspicuous lack of low end, a characteristic that seems a detriment—before the ensuing evolutions occur, that is. Crunchy, lo-fi, and oddly fragile, Temple of the Moth’s slipshod brand of freeform noise sculpting doesn’t exactly swoop and swirl like C.C.C.C.’s or stagnate like Mo*Te’s; instead it seems to detach from both extremes on the frequency spectrum, hovering in shuddering pseudo-stasis like a toxic sludge cloud. The panning, however, is the exact opposite, and the absence of much, if any, center channel presence further adds to the queasy liminality. As the titles imply, these haphazard masses of crackling distortion and wailing electronics progress differently over the course of each track—radially in “Ring Pattern” and more sporadically on “Spiral Pattern” (for all the bizarre synesthetic connections I make to music, I really don’t know what an auditory spiral would sound like). Temple of the Moth is presented as a nice, clean digital release ripe for the downloading, but in all honesty it sounds more like something heard on an unmarked cassette pulled from a weathered manila folder caked with dust from countless years at the bottom of your noise box (you guys have one of those too… right?).
On Home Recordings, Wataru Okumura’s first release, the Japanese sound artist is entirely unconcerned with concealing the humble origins (improvisational sound experiments and studies) and instrumental palette (guitar, bass, and sampler) of his minimal music, and yet it nonetheless reaches heights of emotion and intimacy that even much more technically complex works fail to grasp. Whether Okumura is percussively plucking strings or tinkering with various snippets bound to trigger pads, his creations shudder and shake into existence with organic flexibility like some dazed, emaciated figure waking after years of deep sleep. Especially in the case of “Domestic Improvisation 1,” which makes use of more conventionally tonal components than the following two tracks, these brief sonic sketches somehow feel unshakably personal and handcrafted, probably because of their innate “inwardness”—that is to say, despite however many additional materials Okumura adds to his soundscapes, everything seems to sprout from a single center point, a singularity in the dense household silence out of which countless minuscule fragments of fragile anti-silence are coaxed. The final moments of “Domestic Music Concrete Study 2” are a perfect example of this ostensibly contradictory simultaneous structure: tangible scrapes and shuffles twirl in tenuous orbit around a hypnotic air-current drone that emanates from everywhere and nowhere at once… before it’s all extinguished in a sudden but surprisingly natural cessation.
The sprawling TELLEMENT PAS ZEN is a lengthy offering of more formless electronic music scoured from dusty cable drawers, obsolete warehouse stock piled precariously on sagging shelves, and barely functioning thrift store junk. Though the well-established duo project of Yannick Chayer and Alain Lefebvre recorded their individual contributions remotely during the winter months of the pandemic, the music still has a very present, exploratory feel to it, as if the two musicians weren’t aware of each other as they obliviously experimented on opposite sides of the same room. There’s plenty of palpable seams from what at least sounds like careful post-production stitching and assemblage—the somehow pleasingly tacked-on ending of “Ami.e.So ix10, (P)(r)ickles”; the abrupt, artificial cuts and contortions of the higher frequencies in “n”; the mesmerizing stereo spread of “gHO5T5 in Y.C.” and “Clouds, Dice, Flowers”—but the fluid, layered physicality that forms the backbone of most of the album keeps the engaging and endearing element of manual, real-time improvisation palpable. In terms of duration, scope, eclecticism, weirdness, you name it, TELLEMENT PAS ZEN is a release that strives not to do it all, but at least a solid chunk—and it succeeds. You’ll find yourself often more compelled by the chaotic, psychedelic instrumental accompaniments than the bizarre accounts of paranormal interactions in the pair of “Strange Encounter” pieces, be gradually won over by the ridiculous and yet undeniably pleasing sitar antics throughout “PAAN STAIN RAG,” and get lost in the mesmerizing narrative soundscape that comprises “bIGFOOT sOUR bLUES,” none of which feel amiss on this masterwork of outlandish diversity.
Some of you may be noticing a pattern among my 2021 reviews: I’ve been especially concerned with releases of the harsh variety. This may be because the offerings at this particular time happen to be exceptionally excellent, or because I haven’t been to a noise show in over a year and miss them so goddamn much, or both, or neither—maybe I’m just broken. Beaten, defeated, laid out across the ground, we sink into the soft loam of the cemetery and past the subterranean network of interconnected crypts, from which emanates the sounds captured on A Hermetic Plot. There must have been a delicate process for exhuming this auditory gunk and preparing it for (living) human ears because that mezzanine murk still permeates every second of the two ten-minute slabs. Each lumbers with the rotting, earthy immobility of death while being shaken and ripped through by currents of life and pain as the armies of decomposers start in on their projects. The dense bricolages of rumbling gloom-choked distortion, contact mic intrusions like massive salivating jaws swinging blood-speckled jowls to and fro, and sporadic shrieks of feedback are at once punishing and alluring; many of you are probably familiar with the “appreciative grimace” response, but this is different—more like a capitulating look of faint horror and disgust. This is truly bleak, filthy stuff, bolstered by both its bloated stasis and its volatile disintegrations. “PLAY LOUD FOR ALL TO BE REVEALED.”