Young Improvisers at the Far Reaches of Jazz
The New York Times
Ben Ratliff
5/7/00

In art, one ought to be skeptical of the idea of newness as a guarantor of importance. But the upswell of young musicians playing a new kind of electronic improvisation in the last few years has begun to feel important -- and what they're doing is still so new that they will be entirely absent from this summer's Vision and Bell Atlantic Jazz Festivals, the two major New York events of improvisation's outer limits.

Electro-acoustic improv, as some of it is called, involves one musician playing a noncomputerized instrument (guitar, saxophone, drums, whatever) improvising alongside another "playing" a computer or a sampler. There's also plain old electronic improvisation, with a similar search for personal, abstract improvisatory languages. It's not entirely new: electronics and jazz-based improvisers like Steve Lacy were ad-libbing together on stage in the early 1970's projects of Musica Electronica Viva; in the English group AMM, founded in 1965, the guitarist Keith Rowe folded short-wave radio sound into his improvisations. And Iannis Xenakis used acoustic sounds in his composed tape manipulations.

So if it's already been done, why is this new phase of electro-acoustic improv spreading so rapidly? Because computer technology has radically changed what computers can do in real-time situations: with digital signal processing, someone controlling a laptop can take what someone else is playing, alter it and feed it back with all sorts of modifications in real time. Getting music out of computers involves a process of writing and compiling codes, and people are doing that on stage; it's a new form of improvisation. Needless to say, the range of sounds one can get is wider, and this has made the new music more fluid, less dry, less dorky. But also, real-time signal processing gets someone working a laptop much closer to the condition of being a musician -- one who can immediately act or react and do so with an individual sound.

And whereas one previously needed a university post to access the latest computer-music technology, since the mid-80's that technology has become increasingly cheap and sophisticated.

The music has got more varied, because musicians from different backgrounds are coming to it. Jim O'Rourke and Christof Kurzmann have rock, among other things, in their backgrounds. Turntablists -- Otomo Yoshihide, Martin Tetreault and others -- are getting involved: their language, noises from records and from the stylus itself, is as infinitely wide as that of the laptop-wielders. The guitarist Burkhard Stangl was involved in contemporary classical music; Kevin Drumm, a guitarist from Chicago, was a floor reporter at the Chicago Board of Trade before he started experimenting with the guitar as an instrument of pure sound in the early 90's. Since many of the musicians are using sampling and electronic percussion, hip-hop is often there as a subliminal influence. But so are lots of other kinds of music: these musicians are not yet invested in advancing and protecting theories of what their music should accomplish.

Günter Müller, based in Itingen, Switzerland, is both a musician and a producer; his record label, For 4 Ears, is an imprimatur of the new music. He works with a small drum-set -- a snare, floor-tom and cymbal -- as well as synthesizers and prerecorded samples. Recently he explained how this music departed from jazz. "As I understand jazz, the soloist is very important," he said. "And very often the soloist has to be a virtuoso, playing very complicatedly and very fast. I understand music more as a sound-field, where playing around silence can also be important. Perhaps you can imagine improvisation as I'm doing it as an open discussion with full risk, where you have to decide at each moment if you want to support what's going on, contradict, play beside, put some other material on top of it or underneath, break things, imitate, etc."

Or envelop it, pan it across the acoustic field, snip it off, turn it into a sonic monolith. Here, eventually, we have to stop talking about "music" -- melody, harmony, rhythm, song-structure -- and start talking about sound. One goal of the music is that you really can't tell who's playing what. This is the case on a new record featuring Mr. Mčller and the guitarists Keith Rowe and Taku Sugimoto, "The World Turned Upside Down." A similar melding of sound, but more immaculate, less aggressive and with a minute sense of quiet, is heard on "Polwechsel 2," by the Viennese group Polwechsel: it's the type of art that the British magazine Wire has started to call "microvising."

One of the most extreme examples of this real-time intertwining is a self-titled disc by the Japanese trio I.S.O. -- a circumscribed range of electronic scratches, sine waves and turntable sounds which has an eerie sense of control and focus. And, to contradict Mr. Mčller, there is a place for virtuosity in this music: the saxophonist Evan Parker, a virtuoso of his own wavy, delirious idiom, has created an important body of electro-acoustic work in the last decade, recently culminating in "Drawn Inward."

The closer it sounds to "sound research" -- with its academic overtones of the early 60's experiments at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center -- the more it fails; two CD's in particular, "The Magic Sound of Fenno'berg" by Christian Fennesz, Jim O'Rourke and Peter Rehberg, and the, uh, cleverly titled "Dafeldecker/Kurzmann/Fennesz/O'Rourke/Drumm/ Siewert," are as stimulating, funny, aggressive and euphoric as anything I've heard lately in rock 'n' roll. (All these discs are available from sources like Forced Exposure, at www.fe.org, or Downtown Music Gallery, at dtmgallery.com.)

I can't say I like it all: glitchy data-transfer tones are deadly dull unless you really know what you want to do with them. I know I don't like it all the time: headphones are nearly essential, unless you live by yourself and create an environment to hear all the panning and layering of sound properly. But I find myself continually going back to it, listening to it with all senses open as if walking in the darkness, looking for the language of each work, and usually, with delight, finding it.