Günter Müller/Lê Quan Ninh La Voyelle Liquide
Thomas Lehn/Marcus Schmickler Bart
Chris Atton, Fall 2001
I've said this before, but it remains true: Erstwhile has single-handedly breathed new life into improvised music. This wee American label devoted to the genre has in its short life assembled an impressive roster of small groups, some of whose members will be familiar to those of you who, like me, have been following the European improvised music scene for many years. My involvement (as listener, writer and performer) goes back to the eighties where I lived and breathed this music to the exclusion of all else for the best part of that ugly decade. For me, though, the nineties signalled 'too many CDs' as it appeared than any and every gig, session and 'summit' was recorded and pushed out to a perennially tiny audience. Where the market remains for so much product I still don't know -- neither am I convinced that so many releases are necessary in a field that has since its inception struggled with the status of the record (Is it a document? An art object? What does improvised music become when it is available to repeated listening? And all that jazz ...)
Erstwhile have squared that circle by presenting improvised music not as documentary snapshots but edited and presented as through composed -- resulting in a series of releases that both surprise in the immediacy of their creativity and repay hours of further listening. These aesthetic priorities extend to the careful and often strikingly beautiful packaging -- the sombre blue and black of VHF's moon/skinscape outer cover reveal an inner painting (that extends to the CD itself) redolent of a freshly-completed Hermann Nitsch blood painting. VHF are a drums, sax and bass trio (respectively, Simon Vincent, Graham Halliwell, and Simon H. Fell) who in seven 'extracts' (with an average of seven minutes per extract) redefine this stock trio lineup once and for all. Those expecting the post-Brštzmann roar of the remarkable Hession/Wilkinson/Fell will be quite surprised by what Derek Bailey once referred to as the sound of 'overgrown undergrowth', a sound that is swampy and dense yet ringing and bright. Parts recall a similarly passionate-yet-pastoral set by Balance, a long-deleted Incus recording featuring Ian Brighton, Radu Malfatti, Phil Wachsmann and the towering Frank Perry. Like Balance, Extracts is immaculate. If you buy one improvised music CD this year, make it this one. What is even more remarkable about VHF is that it was the first Erstwhile release - I guess it's been out for nearly two years. The label got it so right from the off.
Later releases have magnificently repeated this success. Günter Müller and Lê Quan Ninh produce a restless electronic percussionscape that shimmers, serrates and soars. This is an especially successful duo recording, full of reversed sounds, bell-like cascades and impressive, sub-bass rumbles from Ninh's 'surrounded bass drum.' Last issue you couldn't shut me up about synth player Thomas Lehn; here he is again, this time coupling his analogue equipment with the digital bits and pieces of fellow German Marcus Schmickler, a Mille Plateaux recording artiste, amongst other achievements. Here they appear to construct and then factory-test a galactic shortwave radio that at the same time as it picks up microhouse and clickhop from our own solar system goes further out, sampling from the kinds of extraterrestrial sea shanties and herding rhymes I always hoped Sun Ra would point out to us, but never did. I can't think of anything better than having these two play at my birthday party.