Thomas Lehn/Gerry Hemingway  -  Tom and Gerry
erstwhile 004
Keith Rowe/Günter Müller/Taku Sugimoto  -  The World Turned Upside Down
erstwhile 005
Kevin Drumm/Martin Tétreault  -  Particles and Smears
erstwhile 006

Time Out New York
Sasha Frere-Jones
4/27/00

Electroacoustic improvisation is what it says it is; improvised sound made by electric and acoustic instruments. But the name also generally guarantees a set of tendencies, as does drum 'n' bass: Whether using guitar or laptop, electroacoustic folks rarely play scalar notes, repeated rhuthms or unison anything. Their concerns are, more or less, sound, movement, relationships of scale and velocity. They also make sounds that will make your partner say, "I thought you fixed the stereo."

Over the past year, New Yorker Jon Abbey has established the identity of his Erstwhile label with a series of electroacoustic improv records driven not by suspiciously available second-stringers but by the real macks themselves. Guitarist Keith Rowe is as close to a heavy as electroacoustic gets. In 1965, he cofounded the legendary English improvising collective AMM with drummer Eddie Prevost and saxophonist Lou Gare. Günter Müller is a live electronics improviser whose own label For 4 Ears could be a model for Erstwhile, releasing consistently fine improvised music from the edges of sound. For The World Turned Upside Down, Müller and Rowe face off with Japanese guitarist Taku Sugimoto, the straight man to their mystery methods. Lonesome cowboy Sugimoto picks slow and not very happy melodies (think Loren Mazzacane Connors) around Rowe and Müller's drones and radio waves. This session would be the perfect soundtrack for a bummed out, European postwar novel by Peter Handke or Günter Grass.

Thomas Lehn plays analog synthesizer, and Gerry Hemingway, as anyone who has been to the Knitting Factory more than once knows, plays drums. Their improvised double-disc album, Tom & Gerry, (the yuks do not extend to the music but the title's a welcome gesture), would make their mothers restless, but handmade music doesn't get much more ambitious. Lehn sounds simultaneously free and sequenced, Hemingway responsive and gloriously selfish. I regret that improvising buddies see their performances as so sacrosanct, often pointing out that albums were "recorded live with no overdubs or editing at wherever." Why not edit the best bits together? Tom & Gerry could be a stormer for all ages at half the length.

Guitarist Kevin Drumm and turntable player Martin Tétreault win the "What is that sound?" award, hands down. Drumm plays nothing that sounds like it has anything to do with a stringed instrument and I can only guess Tétreault is abusing his stylus to get those puffy thumps. Their duet, Particles and Smears, sounds like five or six (no, eight) glass ants marching over an amplified tin floor carrying crinkly plastic Barnes and Noble bags full of dry leaves. (You know what I mean.) Particles and Smears is the winner here, bearing no resemblance to what 99 percent of folks would call music and yet bursting with sound, ideas, juice, life and something like fun. Though they'd never use that word.