Keith Rowe/Günter Müller/Taku Sugimoto  -  The World Turned Upside Down
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Kevin Drumm/Martin Tétreault  -  Particles and Smears
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Art Lange
November/December 2000

Electroacoustic music: simply put, music that combines acoustic instruments and an electronic component, either synthesized or taped: has been a viable vehicle for contemporary 'classical' composers since the 1950s; everyone from Boulez to Stockhausen has dabbled at it, though Mario Davidovsky, Milton Babbitt, Luigi Nono, and Luc Ferrari have been among its most persistent practitioners. Recently, improvisers, especially those on the free jazz/New Music cusp, have been increasingly exploring ways in which 'real time' (that is, not pre-programmed) electronics can interact with acoustic instruments and not only expand the available palette of timbres and textures, but also affect the process of spontaneous composition itself. Here are two differing examples.

Keith Rowe has been a member of the improvising ensemble AMM for over 30 years, primarily playing electric guitar and short wave radio. Günter Müller is a percussionist and electronician who has worked as part of the trio Nachtluft as well as in many ad hoc situations. Taku Sugimoto is known for sparse, understated solo guitar improvisations. Together, they take the concept of klangfarbenmelodie (or melody that arises from the changing tone colors of various instruments) used by Schšnberg and Webern to extremes: replacing pitch intervals with electronically-derived sonorities as their music's primary focus, using gradually shifting textures and dynamics rather than phrase-oriented material as structural reference points. To borrow Stockhausen's term, they construct a musical edifice in 'moment form,' one sound event or gesture succeeding another and developing a malleable form free of conventional constraints of time or design. Their vocabulary of tonal resources includes plucked strings, scrapes, scratches, hums, and harmonics: mostly resonating at very low volume and proceeding very slowly for an extended stretch ('Phase Two' continues for over thirty-four minutes, 'Phase One,' which creates a kind of drifting, amorphous sound mass, clocks in at just over twenty-two).

Whereas the trio of Rowe, Müller, and Sugimoto maintain a palpable sense of close-knit ensemble and develop a recognizable, if unorthodox, musical logic, the duo of Chicago guitarist/electronician Kevin Drumm and Montreal turntablist Martin Tétreault seem on the surface to be working with noise and accidents that can barely be characterized as music. The first half of their disc contains sounds that are almost inaudible, and the vague murmurs and rumbles that appear are secretive, irregular, illogical. The spartan sounds are dry and muted, as if emanating from the random friction of cardboard, fabric, and paper on a Schwitters or Beuys collage. (The title of their CD, Particles and Smears, covers their tonal spectrum pretty well.) When a noticeable rattle or buzz erupts, it becomes a matter of gravity: like the emphasis on a b chord in a Beethoven symphony. Eventually things heat up, and the percussive pops and sandpaper drones grow louder, more present, and familiar sounds (coming from the records Tétreault spins on his turntables) occasionally emerge, all of which suggest not an edifice but an environment that can be identified only by the variety of sounds that inhabit it.

Listening to the Drumm/Tétreault duo raises questions about the nature of music and musical perception. What they do is not without precedent; using the record turntable as a musical instrument, while commonplace now in hip-hop and dance music circles, dates at least back to John Cage's Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939) and possibly earlier. Similarly, when Tétreault eschews LPs and uses the amplified phono cartridge alone as a sound source, he is referencing and expanding upon Cage's 1960 Cartridge Music. In fact, the duo's practice redefines music in a most philosophically Cagean way: simply as the audible result of sonorous attention and activity. Eventually, in listening as the duo 'forages' (as one writer perceptively put it) for sounds, one may discover intricate maneuvers and relationships, perhaps in the way which Virgil Thomson described the relationship of sounds, pitched and non-pitched, in Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano as 'a ping, qualified by a thud.' Or perhaps not, as the case may be. Both groups use the electroacoustic instrumentation as conceptual impetus for a texturally-based, spontaneous soundscape that frustrates preconceived musical expectations, but rewards those open to a new experience. How you respond to the music is how you respond to the music (as Gertrude Stein might have said).