Signal to Noise
Gil Gershman
July/August 2000

There's a storm brewing on Norfolk Street. The air crackles with rude electrical disturbances and smoldering motes. Charged reports issue through shifting atmospheric fronts. Outside, the sky stages a fearsome display of cloudburst pyrotechnics. Lightning rages; wind and thunder rattle the windows. But within New York City's Tonic club, a rapt audience sits in silence as guitarists Werner Dafeldecker, Dean Roberts, Burkhard Stangl and digital improviser Christof Kurzmann incite an electro-acoustic tempest, their intimate, improvised play inadvertently turned rainmaking ritual.

The script for such weather-workings can be found in no grimoire, and there's certainly no measure of premeditated meteorological meddling in evidence. Austrians Dafeldecker, Kurzmann, and Stangl and expatriate New Zealander Roberts have arranged this after-midnight May meeting as missionaries, united by their faith in a new and inspiring improvisational idiom.

"New" is not entirely accurate. Electro-acoustic music and improvisation each bring their own armfuls of historical baggage into play. John Cage introduced the former into performance space with the live, turntable cartridge-and-contact microphone antics of 1960's "Cartridge Music." The European Free Improv community followed suit, as AMM (1965) and various continental and Stateside incarnations of Musica Elettronica Viva (1968) integrated electronic devices such as transistor radios, electric guitars and organs, and synthesizers into more-or-less standard acoustic-improv instrumentation. A world away, and as early as 1960, Tokyo's Group Ongaku (featuring future Fluxus member Yasunao Tone and Taj Mahal Travellers lodestar Takehisa Kosugi) was engaging in collective improvisation involving instruments and tape players.

While these pioneers may have heralded the dawning of electro-acoustic improvisation as an avenue for further exploration, the present wave owes its impetus to a more contemporary invention. The advent of the portable computer, and specifically the introduction of Apple's powerful yet compact PowerBook G3 in mid-1998, placed an exciting tool in the hands of enterprising musicians.

Formerly a journalist and concert organizer, now a free-improvising free agent and the head of Vienna's Charhizma label, Kurzmann provides a profile of the G3's liberating potential. He explains the twisting path that led him onstage from backstage. "I got a saxophone when I was 17 and was into it for maybe a month. I thought, 'No, you're not going to be the next Eric Dolphy,' and I put it away.'"

Kurzmann credits Cassiber, Chris Cutler's post-Henry Cow "improvised-composition" circus, for reawakening his interest in performance. "Cassiber were more about what ideas you put into the music," he says, "and not how much of a virtuoso you are. I still think having ideas is the most important thing. It's great if someone is both technically skilled and creative. In the end, though, if your ideas can be put into music, you'll come out with something, somehow."

Before joining the players onstage, Kurzmann worked behind the scenes as the co-coordinator of PhonoTAKTIK '95. The festival-the largest electronica event of its type, to that date-brought together then-unknown Austrian musicians and internationally established acts. PhonoTAKTIK had a galvanizing effect on Vienna's burgeoning electronic-music scene. Kurzmann explains, "In Austria, there was never a tradition of musicians working with one another. Until electronica, it was more of a 'you're in that band; I'm in this band; we're not supposed to have contact' thing. You'd communicate about where to play, but not about playing together."

The attitudinal shift brought a number of promising Viennese talents to the world's attention, including digitally inclined guitar deconstructionist Christian Fennesz (formerly of the experimental jazz-rock unit Maische), the formidable post-techno posse clustered around Mego Records' Peter "Pita" Rehberg, and electronic-noise anarchists Farmers Manual. Lines started to blur, as Fennesz and Great American unifier Jim O'Rourke encouraged Rehberg to join them on the European free-jazz festival circuit. Fennesz, O'Rourke, and Rehberg now perform occasionally as the playful trio that recorded The Magical Sound of Fenno'berg (Mego).

Kurzmann began to reconsider the role electronics might play in performance once he was turned on to the anti-techno music of Aphex Twin and Austria's enigmatic SIL Electronics (Susanne Brokesch). "I wasn't into sequencing," he says, "and in the beginning it was all sequencing. But I became interested when people started to play along with others in improv situations." While he admits that he'd never have thought about playing with the musicians whose concerts he once organized ("I'd think, 'I could be their manager' or 'I could sell their records,' but never 'I could join them onstage.'), the PowerBook freed Kurzmann. He and Fennesz recruited local jazz, rock, and electronic players for the ambitious festival ensemble Orchester 33 1/3. With the G3-wielding duo at the helm, the Orchester broke down every imaginable wall between program music, free improv, electronica, rock & roll, pop, and meta-musical dialogue, incorporating memorable guest appearances by Peter Brötzmann, Max Nagl, and avant-garde vocalist Didi Bruckmayr along the way. Documented on the essential Orchester 33 1/3 (Plag Dich Nicht, 1998) and Maschine Brennt (Charhizma/Plag Dich Nicht, 1999), the Orchester's activities are among the most spirited and freewheeling feats of electro-acoustic interaction realized to date. The wide-open forum of Orchester 33 1/3 has even inspired Kurzmann to weigh in with an occasional saxophone blast.

If you've ever watched a digital improviser perform, all but inert and expressionless as the instrumentalist at arm's length sweats, squints, grimaces, and knits his brow, you've surely wondered what's happening behind the propped screen. The contrast was especially vivid at Tonic, as Stangl and Kurzmann engaged for a performance in support of their remarkable Schnee CD (Erstwhile). Polwechsel mainstay Stangl is every inch the improv heavyweight. His frame bends to the whims of his guitars, instrument and instrumentalist locked in intensely passionate union. As he plays, he's a figure straight out of a Picasso canvas, contorted in the ecstatic agony of the musical moment. Stangl switches at whim between odd tunings on both electric and acoustic instruments, bows skittering figures, coaxes filaments of sound from reticent strings with a delicately gripped e-bow, and darts through abrupt, abstract fretwork. His command is mesmerizing. At times the guitar bucks in his hands like a manic mustang, and his every muscle strains to regain control.

Kurzmann sits at the opposite end of the stage, separated by two vacant chairs. The picture of composure, he smiles blankly as his hidden hand clicks sounds into new shapes. Between the two, electro-acoustic definition dissolves.

While the G3's digitally edged signature would appear to be unmistakable, nothing is quite so absolute. Kurzmann's sifted snowdrift of pixel-fine powder merges invisibly with the tremulous timbres Stangl's studied gestures educe from the guitar. The one answers the other with inventive distractions. Stangl scrubs the strings at the bridge for a startling garbled-tape effect one would immediately ascribe to the sampling software. His curiously attenuated strums and swift detuning shifts confuse the distinction between guitar and G3. Kurzmann proves equally adept, skimming filmy harmonics from MAX-manipulated samples and fine-tuning the backdrop drone by sensitive degrees. On Schnee, sleight is piled upon sleight, and the duo presides over a seemingly infinite palette of shearing, shimmering, oscillating, insinuating, undulating, and even ululating sounds.

This is the magic of electro-acoustic improvisation. No longer restricted by the chromatic constraints of traditional instrumentation, improvisers are able to draw from a virtual rainbow of textures and colors that were once exclusively the province of academic electronic music. In turn, the lenient presentation of the electronic palette frees the acoustic musicians. The focus moves away from the relatively rigorous concerns of melodic and modal construction and toward the open, entirely unbounded spectra of pitch, tone, and timbre.

Electro-acoustic improvisers find their closest contemporaries in Radu Malfatti, Axel Dörner, nmperign, VHF, and other groups and individuals restlessly exploring the extremes of instrumental minimalism. The line can be extended in many directions, establishing direct ancestry within the 20th century pantheon of Cage, Feldman, Scelsi, Globokar, et al or intersecting with the electronic minimalism of post-techno saviors Ryoji Ikeda, Pan Sonic, and their myriad followers. Because electro-acoustic improvisation's coterie has come together from such diverse backgrounds, there are significant historical or ideological touchstones in virtually any musical bloodline one could name. It is, at once, an extraordinarily refined synthesis and an ongoing convergence of music's disparate disciplines.

Jon Abbey, a lifelong listener and observer based just outside of NYC, was one of the first non-musicians to take serious notice of electro-acoustic improvisation. He started Erstwhile Records in August of 1999, "to help document and contribute to the areas of music about which I care deeply." After releasing fine records by VHF, Loren MazzaCane Connors' rock-improv quartet Haunted House, and a rousing duo of saxophonist Earl Howard and "hyperpianist" Denman Maroney, Abbey relates that he became "specifically-and pretty much solely-enamored with electro-acoustic improv, Erstwhile's current focus. I find myself bored with most forms of acoustic improv that I hear these days, both in clubs and on record."

With the release of Erstwhile 004, Abbey provided the first substantial (and accessible) recording of analog-synth player Thomas Lehn. Tom & Gerry, a phenomenal pairing of the widely regarded but rarely recorded Lehn with premier percussionist Gerry Hemingway, is an indispensable document. Lehn, a key player in Keith Rowe's all-star Music in Movement Electronic Orchestra (MIMEO) and an important figure among electro-acoustic improvisers, differs from many of his contemporaries in that he often uses the synth as a discrete instrument. Whereas other improvisers tend to intertwine electronics and acoustics, Lehn's instrumental voice stands apart in its disciplined yet exceptionally expressive articulation.

But Erstwhile's true electro-acoustic improv phase begins with Particles and Smears, an unlikely and quietly revolutionary encounter between turntablist Martin Tétreault and unorthodox guitarist Kevin Drumm. On Abbey's suggestion, the duo convened in a Chicago studio. The result is an astonishing CD, quite unlike anything heard before or since. Particles and Smears defines what Abbey refers to as a "dangerous improv" encounter. He elaborates, "It's an attempt to replace the clunky term 'electro-acoustic improv' with something more specific and a bit catchier. These musicians are devising instrumental vocabularies as they play, often with little basis in historical tradition and even less common background. When such improvisers meet, there's no safety net of standard phrases and gestures to rely on if they temporarily run out of ideas."

Indeed. Tétreault's exacting technique has nothing to do with the wheels-of-steel connotation turntablism generally embraces. He employs the device's mechanics as a low-tech sampler, using multiple decks to grind microscopic bits of sound from records. TÄtreault's ingenuity and humor insure a steady supply of indescribable-but-pleasant squeaks, crackles, scratches, tweaked samples, and unpretentious little noises in any project. Drumm is often classified as a "table-top guitarist," linking him inexorably to the model of AMM's Keith Rowe. But the Chicagoan brings a down-to-earth, endlessly inventive, and admirably casual attitude to improvisation. In his hands, the guitar is a potentially limitless sound source-capable of numberless shades of drone, hum, stutter, and rumble.

Drumm relates that his interest came about naturally, and he credits boredom and a preference for engaging the guitar toward noisemaking ends as chief motivations. He respectfully dismisses the Rowe comparisons that have dogged him. "Before I heard AMM, I was doing this stuff," he says. "I think Rowe's great. There are a lot of table-top guitarists out there, though. It depends on what your info is. Rowe's sound is very recognizable. And I always want to hear what he is up to, because he seems to be taking it further out these days."

Like the best improvisers, Drumm is unpredictable and truly versatile. Among his recordings are two discs of guitar play and intriguing knob twiddling (on Perdition Plastics); sensitive duets with impressionistic guitarist Taku Sugimoto; the organ improv workout of Comedy (Moikai); a full-on Nickelsdorf guitar brawl with some of the preeminent digital and electro-acoustic improvisers (Dafeldecker Kurzmann Fennesz O'Rourke Drumm Siewert, Charhizma); and an exercise in potent, gibbering digitalia (on the Or Some Computer Music CD-journal). Future projects find him working with Dörner (Erstwhile, later this year) and with personal hero Ralf Wehowsky.

Though he's one of the few American musicians contributing enthusiastically to electro-acoustic improvisation, Drumm is reluctant to be held up as a representative for the cause. Like many of the individuals most active in this circle, he's uncomfortable with the notion of a separate and codified "electro-acoustic improv" dynamic. Drumm humbly regards his musical activity as "stuff;" interestingly, Tétreault politely refused to be even categorized as a musician for the purposes of this piece.

Drumm is foremost a musician, and he's happiest just doing what he does. Expectations and explication are essentially irrelevant. He continues, "I prefer improvising with no special intention, and with no special regard for form. I guess there is a certain style in which I prefer to play. But less and less do I have any interest in playing anything remotely like free improv. It doesn't really do anything for me."

Günter Müller is less restrained in his enthusiasm. The veteran Swiss percussionist (and For 4 Ears label proprietor) sees electro-acoustic improv as a natural and necessary extension of his activity within established improv forms. Constant touring forced Mčller to scale down his elaborately customized electronic and acoustic kits. "For electronics," he says, "I now just use two headphones as microphones-they lie better in my hands and I can put them on the head of the drums-along with two volume pedals, two delays, and two equalizers. And I recently added two MiniDisc players to my set."

Müller was quick to embrace the computer as a supplementary instrument. "I prepare short loops of computer-generated sounds, of self-sampled sounds that I have manipulated, and of material that I find on CDs, and I use these my electronic equipment to modulate and remodulate these loops." He notes a precursor to such activity in Nachtluft, his mid-'80s trio with Andres Bosshard (tape players) and Jacques Widmer (acoustic drums). "We improvised in all-over room installations in various places of acoustic and architectural interest. Andres used 12 cassette recorders to play his field recordings through specially situated bi-directional loudspeakers to play field recordings. Sometimes we played with material instantly recorded at another site of the performance place. In fact, this was my first contact with a kind of improvised musique concrète."

Recorded with a diversity of turntablists, instrumentalists, digital improvisers, and fellow percussionists, Müller's electro-acoustic improv projects indeed bear the audio-veritÄ mark of classic tape and acousmatic-research musics. That Mčller is able to accomplish this feat within performance real-time, without the years of perfectionist tape-splicing scrutiny that inform traditional musique concrète, is all that much more remarkable. Consider Mčller and Christian Marclay's blistering Live Improvisations (For 4 Ears, 1994). The percussionist and the turntablist fling sounds at one another with the giddy gusto of overstimulated chimpanzees. Creating such a recording could take 20 years in concrĆte terms, and it would doubtless be devoid of Mčller and Marclay's astonishing energy.

The freedom of electro-acoustic improv provides Müller with an ideal forum. "I'm definitely more interested in the continual research of sounds than I am in figuring out complicated rhythmic patterns. In this research, I've always found playing an electro-acoustic instrument in an electro-acoustic improv context to be very tempting-and very successful. Using electronic devices on an acoustic instrument opens a second layer. You suddenly hear through a magnifier, and you can change the original quality of the instrument. [Electro-acoustic improv] attracts a type of musician who is interested in developing new possibilities of playing, and who considers sound the main quality of music."

Müller brings an inimitable dynamic to his improvisational encounters. On The World Turned Upside Down (Erstwhile, 2000), recorded live at Paris' Les Instants Chavirés space, he blends beautifully into the environment sculpted by Taku Sugimoto and Keith Rowe. Sugimoto's artful acoustic-guitar figuring, Rowe's immaculately modulated and variegated guitar-and-electronics colorings, and Mčller's responsive chatter coalesce in an exhibition of pure improvisational mastery. Abbey promises that Mčller's upcoming Erstwhile duet with percussionist LÉ Quan Ninh will capture Mčller as he's rarely heard on record. For those accustomed to Mčller's deferent, almost demure background presence on numerous recordings, the opportunity to hear the brilliant improviser in a more assertive role should make for a memorable revelation.

Some of Müller's most attuned and intriguing work has been in the company of Switzerland's Voice Crack and Tokyo's Otomo Yoshihide. These musicians represent a curious lineage, their true natures elusive and sometimes teasingly tangential to the main arena of electro-acoustic improv. Voice Crack's Andy Guhl and Norbert Möslang are fringe characters whose activities, dating back to 1977's timeless Deep Voices album (FMP 0510, later reissued on CD by Urthona) and several grudge matches with Borbetomagus, have presented their unique "cracked everyday electronics" in unconventional contexts. The duo's array of odd, often invented noisemaking instruments belies the duo's conviction. Voice Crack take improvisation seriously, albeit with an informal flair, and their chosen discipline finds its ultimate appropriation in the anything-goes directive of the electro-acoustic idiom.

In poire_z (For 4 Ears, 1999), Müller and Voice Crack team up with renegade Parisian turntablist Erik M. This ensemble strikes the rarest balance between caprice and direction, combining Müller's impromptu concrĆte quality with Guhl/Möslang's refined ruckus and Erik M.'s mercurial maneuvers for a genuinely jubilant and interactive presentation. "2 years before starting poire_z," Müller says, "Voice Crack and I had been playing together in a quartet with Jim O'Rourke for concerts and one record (Table, Chair, and Hat Stand, For 4 Ears). We liked the quartet formula, but it was difficult to arrange for Jim to come to Europe to play. I was performing in Nantes on the same night in a duo with Erik M. and in trio with Voice Crack, and it somehow seemed obvious to play another set as a quartet. This worked so well that we decided to continue with Erik, we did a record, and also some very successful concerts." Müller has since expanded poire_z into a touring project, with Ninh and Austrian G3-improviser Florian Hecker scheduled to sit in separately at upcoming European festival concerts.

Müller joins Yoshihide and Sachiko M. on Filament 2: Secret Recordings (For 4 Ears, 1999) and the forthcoming Filament 3 (Amoebic, 2000). "Filament" is the general title Yoshihide and Sachiko M. have given to their post-Ground Zero projects, signifying that "We still don't know what Filament is, but it is something from us." Yoshihide gently elaborates, "I am sure all my works are connected in my brain, but I don't know how." Müller adds, "I got involved with Filament by accident. My wife was spending 3 months in Japan, and I planned to visit her there with our two children so we could do a little travelling as a family. I sent an email to Locus Solus (For 4 Ears' Japanese distributor) to arrange a meeting after all these years of working together, and I was surprised to receive an invitation from sax player Masahiko Okura to do some recording. Within two days in the studio, Okura, Yoshihide, Sugimoto, and I recorded Metal Taste Like Orange (Amoebic, 1999) as a quartet, the Filament 2 album, and yet-unreleased recordings with I.S.O."

Filament is as mutable an entity as Yoshihide, Sachiko M., and Ichiraku Yoshimitsu's superb I.S.O., complementary projects that work a rigorous, circumscribed aesthetic of microscopic improvisation. Sachiko M. has mastered the unlikeliest of instruments, a sampler emptied of all information and used only in its capacity as a sinewave generator. In either ensemble, Yoshimitsu and Müller contribute distinctively granular electronic treatments (Mčller also supplies "selected drums" on Filament 2), while Yoshihide performs mystifying operations with CD and record players.

Yoshihide's chimerical approach to improvisation merits books, not paragraphs. An inexhaustible engine of creativity, with a mile-long discography encompassing every imaginable mode of expression, Yoshihide has been playing with composed and improvised electro-acoustic music since his teenage years. His sampling innovations in such projects as Ground Zero have defined the form, but Yoshihide doesn't consider himself an avatar of electro-acoustic improv. If anything, he distances himself from the digital inclination of present-day players. "I'm not of the digital age," he explains. "I was born in 1959, and I learned about analog electronics from my father (a radio engineer). So, as far as hardware is concerned, I only know about analog equipment. Digital is a completely black box to me."

"I'm always using tools that are easy to get," he says. "Turntables, radios, tapes, small effects, computers, samplers, guitars -- I don't care if they're analog or digital, electronic or acoustic. The important thing is that they're cheap, small, and just 'right.'" He adds, "And I always try to use them without [reading the] manuals." In his attitude toward equipment, Yoshihide mirrors Voice Crack's resourceful approach. (Unsurprisingly, the poles have ultimately met -- at Abbey's suggestion. He reports that Yoshihide, Guhl, and Möslang are extremely enthusiastic about the trio encounter they've recorded for release on Erstwhile in the Fall of 2000.)

But Yoshihide is troubled by the name game the new improv style has prompted. In Japan, the term "onkyo" contains all non-jazz, non-rock, and non-academic electronic music. While it's preferable to anything English has yet devised, Yoshihide still frowns upon the phrase. Like Drumm, he'd prefer to see categories done away with entirely. "Why do people need to make names for something people love? Sometimes names just make fences. I thought I understood 'improvisation,' and that I could do it very well. But now I don't understand what it is, and I feel no need to. I only know that I'm trying to do something I love, and I do love to make music."

Yoshihide and Müller both appreciate Abbey's coinage of "dangerous improv." But they're with Drumm in offering an irrefutable alternative. Mčller says, "I honestly don't care if you call it electro-acoustic improvisation, new music, electronica, or something else. All that's important is for the players to know what they're doing. The thing for me is to improvise, to be open to new ways and new media, to spread the vocabulary, and to drop things that I no longer find interesting." Yoshihide's modest eloquence provides the last word. "I like to try to keep it as 'un-name music.'"