AMPLIFY 2003: elemental
Michael Rosenstein, Signal To Noise

Some of the most important music of the moment is being created by like-minded musicians from Japan, Europe, and a handful of U.S. outposts. They are forging strategies for improvisation at the transitory intersection of sound and silence; utilizing a sound palette drawn from electronics and reinvented techniques while operating in a dynamic range diving from the quietest flutter to palpable, bone-rattling rumbles. Jon Abbey, founder of Erstwhile Records, has been bringing together many of the top practitioners for recording projects which he described to The Wire as "seek[ing] the middle ground between improvisation and composition, acoustic and electronic, organization and abstraction." For the last few years, Abbey's AMPLIFY festival has proved to be a vital meeting ground for collaboration and exploration. The festival returned to NYC this last February for its third edition, which Abbey subtitled "elemental," providing a prescient thematic umbrella.

Thursday, 2/6:
The first night at Tonic began with a collaboration between nmperign (Greg Kelley and Bhob Rainey), Lê Quan Ninh and dancer Yukiko Nakamura. The four embodied the idea of elemental music, as their gestural abstractions gathered into hyperaware collective sound paintings. Ninh used a bass drum mounted sideways on a metal frame, rubbing and scraping brushes, sticks, pinecones, stones, cymbals and metal bowls across the head. Kelley added buzzing striations of squeezed microtones, grumbled smears, and jolting shreds of a metal plate scoured along the bell of his trumpet. Rainey's breathy shimmers, pops, and oscillating vibrato notes unfurled from his soprano sax, placing tracers ranging from microscopic vibration to searing overtones. Yukiko began curled on the floor in a fetal position, her lithe muscular body draped in a scarlet kimono. As the improvisation gathered density, she slowly dragged her body into the audience, physically channeling the dynamic energy of the music. The four traversed a fluid arc, ending with diminutive inflections ruffling the ambience of the room.

The potent arc of the opening set was picked up by the premiere of a duet by Keith Rowe and Günter Müller. These two have played such a formative role in pulling this scene together that it was hard to believe that they had never performed in a duet setting before. From the first moments, they engaged in an improvisation that pushed beyond process and technique into probing discovery. Rowe, with his battery of electronics, radios, wires, clips, hand-held fans, and tabletop guitar, he has spent the last three decades creating a new vocabulary for spontaneous collective invention. Müller has done the much the same since the early '80s, starting with a tom tom and cymbal and adding mini-disc players, contact mikes, and electronics to weave rich skeins. Their set began with quiet buzzes, clicks, and hissing static. Eschewing a sense of linear development, they shaped multihued timbres and densities with a constantly shifting sense of momentum resolving into slowly unwinding loops that dissolved into silence.

The third set of the night proved to be the only one of the festival that completely failed to gel. The looping, deconstructed trance-pulses and samples of I-Sound simply jarred against Tim Barnes's percussion and their improvisation wandered to an awkward ending.

The first evening ended with a duet between Rowe and Toshimaru Nakamura; one of the highlights of the festival. Their CD Weather Sky on Erstwhile is one of the defining documents of improvised music and so their duet was highly anticipated. As Rowe's billows of hums and harmonic shadows mixed with Nakamura's whiteout waves of hiss and crackles, the two melded completely for an enthralling collaboration. Nakamura uses no-input mixing board and delay pedals to shape and refract feedback and static into a minutely striated palette. Often flickering at the edges of perception, his soundscape hovered with low rumbles, clicks, and shaded high-frequency whines. Rowe coaxed out strata of hanging overtones, faint warm buzzes, and transitory vibrations from his guitar strings. Erasing gesture and propulsive momentum, their set moved outside of time as they floated subtly modulating whorls guided with poised deliberation.

Friday, 2/7:
The second night at Tonic kicked off with a first-time meeting with Rowe and Ninh. Ninh's virtuosic technique and more gestural approach to improvisation pushed the set in intriguing directions. The two prodded and pushed from a variety of angles as Rowe laid jagged textures around Ninh's more linear choreography. Momentum built to a hyper-kinetic volatility, launching Rowe into fiery forays as he let loose with blocks of slashed strings and ragged sheets of electronics and sampled radio snippets. The two gradually wound down, letting the bristling activity decay into silence. Though lacking the form and focus of Rowe's duets with Müller and Nakamura, the performance was imbued with a charged sense of earnest exploration.

The trio of Kelley, Rainey, and Müller reprised a previous meeting and provided a quieting resolve to the opening set. The slowly coalescing details of this trio stood in contrast to the dramatic arc of their meeting with Ninh and Yukiko. Quiet skipping pops from Müller fused with Rainey's choked reed overtones and breathy fillips and Kelley's muted half-stops and grated scumbles. The three eased into an improvisation that started with slowed duration and hushed dynamics. They shaped it with an unhurried, elastic arrangement of sound in space and the results were electrifying.

The third set brought together a trio of guitarist Tetuzi Akiyama, Toshimaru Nakamura, and Tim Barnes for an unsettling improvisation. Nakamura's needle-sharp feedback and glitched static had more of an aggressive edge and often steered the improvisation, invoking stretched loops and hinted pulse. Akiyama broke off dry, brittle, steel string guitar shards, leaving pregnant spaces throughout while Barnes nudged and poked with spare rubbed drum heads and scratched textures. Though their set had sections that crystallized, the process had only conditional results.

The final performance of the night brought Müller and Ninh together for the first time since they recorded their Erstwhile release La Voyelle Liquide. The two were joined by Yukiko Nakamura for a set of visceral dynamism. They began with Ninh's bowed gong and Müller's tiny sonic scribbles gaining resonance while Yukiko stood frozen between them; her gaunt naked body a stark, haunting presence. Ninh seemed in constant motion as he used spinning cymbals, bowed metal bowls, and his battery of accouterments to build surges of reverberating timbres. Müller responded with rumbling pulses and looping patterns that gathered in swirling, complex fields. As their improvisation built force, Yukiko's glacial movement provided a polarizing force. Things built to a crest, and then slowly ebbed as Ninh de-tuned his drum, rubbing the head to create ghostly throbbing vibrations against Müller's wafting shadows.

Saturday, 2/8:
While not formally part of the festival, the weekend came to a spectacular close Saturday night with a performance at Engine 27, a converted firehouse in Tribeca. The space has been developed as a venue for sound/music installations and performances with a state-of-the-art 16-speaker/48 channel sound system. The performers were placed in various parts of the long room with the audience snaked through the center. First up were Akiyama and Müller, who highlighted the potential of the space, as well as some of the inherent challenges. With a live sound mix by Michael Schumacher, Müller's pulsing layers and Akiyama's shredded splinters were panned around the room creating an engulfing experience. The sound had crystal clarity and precision, revealing every nuance. But the music seemed disembodied and the two musicians seemed a bit thrown off, working to react to the live mix as their sounds were fragmented by the volatile mix.

Kelley, Rainey, Jason Lescalleet took a different tack with the room. Microphones were set up in front of Kelley and Rainey, projecting the different spectrums of their instruments to different speakers. The low, gritty, rumbles of Lescalleet's tape loops and low-tech electronics provided a palpable cushion. Starting from a velvety silence, they thoughtfully carved through the space, gradually building to a visceral roar, which broke into a protracted silence as the audience sat, breathless. They used this to launch off again, building a crescendo as Lescalleet wove a looping pulse shot thro ugh with Kelley's rasping trumpet and Rainey's semaphored overtones. Their improvisation built and finally resolved into harmonized drones which slowly faded to silence.

After Rowe and Nakamura's resplendent set from the first night of the festival, it was hard to imagine how this performance could measure up. The two utilized more sagacious panning than Akiyama and Müller and their improvisation unfolded with a depth of detail that slowly shifted around the room. The layers emerged like the gradual rolling of a summer thunderstorm heard in the distance. The pristine sound system and hyper-attentive silence of the audience revealed the subtlest of shadings. The two painted the sound-space with static, overtones, stabs of hushed whines, and crisp crackles, which hung in the room and then slowly decayed into exhilarating extended silence.

With this third edition, Jon Abbey has cemented his AMPLIFY festival as one of the most significant meeting grounds for advanced improvisation. Abbey continues to show a remarkable ability to nurture the cross-fertilization of musicians from around the globe. The "elemental" theme for the three days was particularly provocative. With nary a laptop in sight, the ten participants explored the very elements of the collaborative construction of sound and silence. Having the opportunity to hear each the musicians in a variety of settings was revelatory. Not all the results were unqualified successes, but the cumulative effect was one of the most memorable festivals in recent memory.