Here's an activity for you. Search the Internet for music that purports to be extreme. If you type the words "extreme music" on the Google search engine, your search yields approximately 779,000 results. The first dozen or so are exclusively metal-inflected musics -- death metal, speed metal, extreme metal, etc. -- but that's only the beginning of it. Perhaps it's no surprise that "extreme" is one of the more pedestrian, more banal ways of advertising music.
What's extreme about recorded music? If it's extremely loud, turn it down. If it's extremely quiet, turn it up. You've undoubtedly encountered rock or rap or metal or industrial recordings that come with instructions to "PLAY LOUD"; at the other extreme, the Hat Hut recording of Morton Feldman's Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello contains the proviso "A lower volume setting will produce a more realistic sound level."
But by God if I wasn't shocked after several years of listening to recordings of Feldman's music at relatively standard volume levels to finally hear solo piano pieces of his in a concert setting. The occasion was a tribute to his teacher Stefan Wolpe, and Feldman's pieces were the only distinctively quiet ones in the program. With the Feldman piano pieces, the sound seemed to be coming from a considerable distance, even if the piano stayed in the same place all evening. The sounds were literally dying from the exertion of travelling all that way to reach the audience . . . and to think that I had been so blithe about notching up the volume so as not to miss anything when puttering around in the next room.
As for the reverse, has any Borbetomagus record ever hurt as much as one of their performances? If you were to listen today to the yearning, four-tracky, folk-rockish first Dinosaur album, you would have no way of knowing that their live shows were delivered at Motorhead volume. And I will forever associate Tony Conrad, whose recordings produce a pleasant-enough drone when played at a low volume, with the memory of a well-known Canadian composer haranguing the manager of a Toronto performance space: "The Music Gallery should ban music like this! Tony Conrad is a smart man who must know that he's damaging people's hearing!"
At this very moment, my ears are fried from listening to Toshimaru Nakamura and Sachiko M's do at a moderate-to-loud volume. The Tony Conrad anecdote must have come to mind from remembering a similar quality of ear-burn. Nakamura, one of the organizers of the Tokyo free-improvisation series Meeting at Off Site, plays what he terms the "no-input mixing board," creating and manipulating feedback loops exclusively with an audio mixer. Sachiko M, who formerly played in the visceral sampler-based rock band Ground Zero, deserves the Ripeness of Metaphor award for her "sampler with sine wave"; the instrument is basically a sampler used without any memory -- isn't there an undiscovered Philip K. Dick short story about this? -- relying instead on the instrument's sine-wave test tones and whatever incidental noise comes into play. Do is distinguished by piercing high-frequency feedback that doesn't abate until twenty-four minutes into the first track. Listened to at low volume, do could pass for a distant relative of your computer's constant, high-frequency whine. You're going to have to crank it up to a decent volume -- this is where your ears get fried -- to catch the subtle interplay of these two improvisers, notably a rhythmic tattoo suggesting the hollowest, loneliest beatbox that never was and the delicate beating patterns of crossing, very high-pitched glissandi.
There aren't too many records that sound like this.
While not the radical listening experience of first hearing, for example, AMM or Bernhard Günter's Un peu de neige salie, there are grounds for comparison to the extent that do suggests an idiom unto itself. My only gripe is that the suggestive strangeness of the way in which this music was made is undercut by the literalness of saddling it with artwork representing a visual analogue, namely the product of a no-input video synthesizer. Why not a car or sunset or loaf of bread?
The abovementioned discrepancy between Morton Feldman's music in performance and in recorded form is most likely true of dach, a live recording of the improvising trio of Phil Durrant (violin), Thomas Lehn (synthesizer), and Radu Malfatti (trombone). Judging by the ambient noise that the label's promotional text identifies as rain upon a roof -- bringing to mind one of Derek Bailey's great recordings, the trio of him, Butoh dancer Min Tanaka, and, voilą, rain on a glass roof -- I'm assuming that in performance this was extraordinarily quiet, intimate music. Where it's not unheard-of for improvisers to incorporate field recordings in performance -- let's call them "kitchen sink improvisers," an entity utterly apart from the strictness and stillness of this trio -- dach, itself very "field recording," renders the ambience of the performance space in striking detail. This is one of the most engrossing aspects of this engaging, atypical recording.
As a whole, dach is reminiscent of first encountering recordings of free improvised music of the late '60s -- AMM, Music Improvisation Company, Spontaneous Music Ensemble -- and never being sure I was hearing the same record twice. I found myself warming to it immediately.