AMPLIFY 2003: elemental
Nirav Soni, Squid's Ear
Why it has taken so long for me to write this review:
The very first problem for the sort of music that was played at the AMPLIFY festival, is what to call it. Many have proposed names to encompass the range of approaches that musicians as diverse as Toshimaru Nakamura, Jason Lescalleet and Tim Barnes take to their instruments, but as of now, none really satisfy me. The one that I hear most often is "Electro-Acoustic Improv"; it is likely the most commonly used because of the discussion list http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Electroacoustic/ of the same name. Jon Abbey, founder of Erstwhile Records at one time called what he releases "dangerous improv." He now prefers to use "balanced improv" to describe his curatorial decisions. Electroacoustic-improv doesn't apply to everything that it covers; during this festival the first set was entirely acoustic, with the musicians forgoing all electronics, even amplification. The acronym "EAI" also refers to the organization Electronic Arts Intermix, who are a group of people devoted to preserving the legacy of video and multimedia art. I'm tired of confusing the two. "Balanced improv" makes a little more sense to me about the means of producing of this music, and more about what happens to the space.
Maybe one could call this "room improv." In his essay, "Towards an Ethic of Improvisation" (found in Treatise Handbook, London: Edition Peters, 1971) Cornelius Cardew says, "it is impossible to record with any fidelity a kind of music that is actually derived in some sense from the room in which it is taking place- it's shape, acoustical properties, even the view from the windows... The natural context provides a score which the players are unconsciously interpreting in their playing."
When I read this quote, I understood why it seemed to me like the set that Greg Kelley and Bhob Rainey (collectively comprising the band nmperign) played with Lê Quan Ninh sounded like it could have been composed. The form that I heard was not that of individuals performing a pre-determined score, but a conforming, an adaptation of personal style to circumstance, in this case the venue Tonic, on a frosty winter evening, with a very respectful audience. That one could detect this form within the music speaks volumes about the maturity of the players, and their immense discipline, focus and concentration.
On the Tuesday before the festival, Keith Rowe gave a talk/held a discussion at the Computer Music Center of Columbia University. Rowe introduced the talk with an excerpt from a work by Jean Cassanea de Mondonville, a French composer from the baroque period. After playing the cd on a small stereo that betrayed the size of the music, he asked the question of whether or not electronic music can approach the level of profundity that the piece by Mondonville did. During the discussion, I was the only person that mentioned religion (I, being non-musician, have a tendency to talk about other things in the way of my talking about music). It seemed to me that profundity is not a quality that music (or for that matter, anything, really) can possess, one instead has a relationship that is profound, with a piece of music, a painting, a cat, or a dish that only mom cooks just so.
Rowe mentioned Mark Rothko during the discussion, which got me to thinking about the relationship of the abstract and the profound. What strikes me upon reflection on all of the artwork I've come across by Rowe, is how so little of it is entirely abstract. His paintings certainly aren't, and one can easily look at his use of the radio as a way of distancing the listener from the sensual surface of the music. Rowe's radio always serves to bring the music towards the exterior, towards the social, but always in a tangential, distant, often fleeting way. He always seems to be, both in his words, and in his music to be alluding to the ethical, to the engaged.
The Keith Rowe/Lê Quan Ninh performance on the 8th was one that I was eagerly awaiting after seeing such intense performances by both of them the night before. Upon reflection, it makes sense that the collaboration was less than harmonious. Where Rowe's sound-image recalls for me the moral and the conscientious, Ninh's style is very different. His performances were more about the erotics of the "surrounded bass drum". His playing is supremely graceful, precise, delicate, and most of all extraordinarily sensual. One cannot help but to reference the libidinal when you watch him rubbing his thumb across the skin of the drum.
It is entirely appropriate that it was Ninh who was touring with butoh dancer Yukiko Nakamura. Nakamura performed onstage during the first and last sets of the Tonic nights. I would comment about her role during the first show, Ninh/Kelley/Rainey, but she spent the vast majority very low to the stage, and thus obscured to me by a friend's head. I do recall that somewhere around a third of the way into the set, she dramatically rolled onto the floor, whereupon I completely lost sight of her. During the Müller/Ninh performance, she was completely visible. She went through a series of very, very slow movements, which made it seem like she was crumpling to the ground in slow motion. It was, however, bristling with tension and intensity, entirely in key with the tenor of the music.
I am generally very critical of visual accompaniments to music, and, possibly because of that, my favorite person to watch play during the festival was Tim Barnes. Barnes is the perfect foil to Ninh. Where the latter is classical grace and fluidity, eminently measured and controlled, the former's gestures are more intently muscular, more about the grain of the kit; coarseness. Watching him slowly scrape the cymbals across his kit was pure pleasure, it had the same visual rhythm as a turnstile.
I do not understand how this man is completely capable of making almost every situation I've heard him play in work. I've been worrying about how to write about what he does for weeks, and I give up now.
Instead of attempting to describe the music played, I ask you to accept this list of adjectives that I will append to the bottom of this review, in correspondence with the performance they apply to.
I spent a little while compiling these adjectives after the concerts, but no matter what I tried, they wouldn't find their way into the review. It's one of the great difficulties with this sort of thing, mostly because I can't remember any melodies, motifs, or themes that ran throughout the concerts. Some gestures have stuck with me, but only visually, divorced from their context within the improvisatory flow. I recall associating the bow in Ninh's hand with a shot of Michel passing a stolen wallet in Robert Bresson's film "Pickpocket." But, those hardly matter. One of the best after-effects of having so much music become such a part of your life for a short period of time is how it will creep into your day to day living; sometimes, when I hear the 6 train pulling into Union Square, I'll think of Greg Kelley scraping sheet metal across this trumpet at Engine 27, or when my roommate turns on the TV when I'm listening to music, I'll think of Keith Rowe.
Lê Quan Ninh/Greg Kelley/Bhob Rainey - open
Günter Müller/Keith Rowe - earthy
Tim Barnes/I-Sound - split
Keith Rowe/Toshimaru Nakamura - still
Keith Rowe/ Lê Quan Ninh - discordant
Günter Müller/Greg Kelley/Bhob Rainey - near
Toshimaru Nakamura/Tim Barnes/Tetuzi Akiyama - spare
Günter Müller/Lê Quan Ninh - thick
Günter Müller /Tetuzi Akiyama- long
Greg Kelley/Bhob Rainey/Jason Lescalleet- wide
Keith Rowe/Toshimaru Nakamura- deep