Bill Meyer
April/May 2001

The commingling of electronic and acoustic music is hardly a new frontier. In the '50's, European composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis painstakingly edited together tape-realized and orchestral sounds; it was dubbed electro-acoustic music. Around the same time in Chicago, jazz men Sun Ra and Stuff Smith recorded a version of "Deep Purple" that paired blues violin with a proto-synthesizer called a Solovox. In the past few years, a legion of younger musicians have joined highly regarded veteran free improvisers to explore spontaneous interaction between electronics and acoustics under a new banner: electro-acoustic improvisation. It's an imperfect-yet-inclusive term; after all, "electronics" could signify anything from low-tech sound conductors like contact mics to high-end gear like laptop computers. But it fills a taxonomical need.

"I do think a word is needed for non-instrumental improvisation that is not DJing," says multi-instrumentalist Bruce Russell, who runs the Corpus Hermeticum label from an old vicarage in Lyttelton, New Zealand. "And there is a lot of it about, care of the PowerBook. It's noteworthy that Frenchmen like Jérôme Noetinger have been doing the same thing for quite some time, in a largely analog framework. They have inspired me--along with good old Cabaret Voltaire--to do the live instrumental improv and tape thing I've been working on." Things go exhilaratingly awry on Russell's last album, Painting The Passports Brown (Corpus Hermeticum). He thatches coarse feedback patterns over tape loops of sullen drones and chiming thumb piano. On one track, the latter loop, accidentally played backward, spurs him to some especially inspired guitar mangling that sounds like a robot gargling bolts.

Corpus Hermeticum has also issued an excellent record by Russell's Gallic inspirations, Lionel Marchetti, Jérôme Noetinger and Mathieu Werchowski. The first two men play unidentified electro-acoustic devices whose hair-raising crackles, short-wave whistles and raygun bloops are remarkably attuned to Werchowski's classical violin gestures.

Voice Crack extracts sounds from "cracked everyday electronics"; I once saw the Swiss duo play two tables full of disassembled household gadgets with photoelectric cells and garage-door openers. Their latest album, Bits, Bots, And Signs (Erstwhile) documents a summit with Otomo Yoshihide who once thrashed electric guitars and turntables with the rock band Ground Zero. Here, he weaves electronically generated sine waves into Voice Crack's futurist symphonies; paradoxically, the outcome often sounds like the warm buzz of amorous nocturnal insects.

Erstwhile Records proprietor Jon Abbey has dedicated his young label to the new music. "Electro-acoustic improv is where the bulk of the exciting music today is happening," he says. Most of Erstwhile's releases are, like Bits, two-party encounters. Abbey believes "duos are challenging to performers because they force them to the forefront more than in a larger ensemble, while at the same time not letting them settle into a solo performance, which often tends toward self-indulgence."

Erstwhile's roster covers a lot of sonic and geographic territory. At one extreme is Schnee, a set of pristine, glacial sound sculptures carved by Austrians Burkhard Stangl (guitar) and Christof Kurzmann (Macintosh G3). At the other end is Thomas Lehn and Marcus Schmickler's withering Bart. The two Germans don't so much bridge the analog/digital divide (Lehn plays an old patch-cord synth, Schmickler a computer) as obliterate it with an ear-piercing hail of blips, whines and static rips. Parts of Requests and Antisongs sound equally aggressive; Phil Durrant's signal processors squeeze and crumple John Butcher's unusual saxophone vocabulary of squeaks, clicks and multiphonics into neon-hued shreds, but their music never sounds merely odd for oddness's sake.

Toshimaru Nakamura turned to electronics to resolve a creative crisis. "I started thinking that it didn't make any sense for me to express my emotions in music," says the Tokyo resident, who plays with American-born percussionist Jason Kahn in the duo Repeat. "Some musicians can change music without changing their instrument, but in my case, I had to change my medium, I found that a no-input mixing board is more suitable for my new direction." Nakamura plugs the board's output into its input and manipulates the resulting swells of icy feedback by tweaking the unit's knobs. Repeat revels in the austere beauty of pure sound on Select Dialect (Cut), a series of improvisations made from hypnotic loops and sustained, bell-like tones.

German-born drummer Günter Müller says he found his own voice in the course of experimenting with electronics: "This research of new sounds and new possbilities forced me to develop my own way of playin -- before, I always had my heroes I wanted to play like -- and finally to play my own music." Now his kit has shrunk to a single frame drum and a couple sheets of metal, which he plays using headphones cupped in his hands instead of drumsticks. The headphones record sounds Müller distorts and rearranges with delay units and equalizers, which he then mixes with pre-recorded material. His encounter with French percussionist Lê Quan Ninh, La Voyelle Liquide (Erstwhile), surges with elusive activity. On I Am Happy If You Are Happy, released on Müller's For 4 ears label, his echoing beats and metallic abrasions blow through Taku Sugimoto's sparse, suspended guitar chords like a fickle wind. Paired with Chicagoan Kevin Drumm on Den (Sonoris), Sugimoto steps into even more abstract territory. He strums subtly dissonant chords and muted, decaying notes that flicker in the asymmetrical matrix of twitters, scrapes and whistles that Drumm extracts from his table-top guitar, modular synth and computers.

Keith Rowe has played with AMM, which pioneered the concept of improvisation as a non-virtuosic collective endeavor instead of an opportunity to play heroic solos, for 35 years. "I guess I've always been an 'electro-acoustic' improviser," says Rowe, "though those terms have changed or the concept did not exist when [AMM] started out. My understanding is that in the mid-'60s, 'electro-acoustic' meant an electrically amped acoustic instrument, and 'an evening of electro-acoustic music' might be a concert with just tape recorders. Now, it seems to mean the combining of electronic and acoustic elements." Rowe plays seated at a table littered with guitars, radios and various electronic devices; to see how that works, check out the cartoon illustrations he drew for his solo album Harsh (Grob). Although the title is meant to acknowledge the conditions under which much of humanity still lives, it's an apt description of the record's contents. Harsh's three pieces build from utter silence to dense, uneasy hums torn by astonishingly violent detonations. By contrast, Dark Rags (Potlatch), his duo with tenor saxophonist Evan Parker, is as gorgeous as St. Elmo's Fire dancing around a radar mast. Rowe generates an ultra-detailed, multi-layered sound field that rises and recedes around Parker's voluptuous, twisting shapes like shortwave-radio static from a distant radio's signal.