AMPLIFY 2003: elemental
Steve Smith, The Wire

Tiny red Christmas lights and a teeming swarm of drones and ape calls conjured by soundscaper Toshio Kajiwara greeted the audience at Tonic on the first night of AMPLIFY, Erstwhile Records founder Jon Abbey's roaming annual festival of electroacoustic improvisation, which took place during two nights in February at Tonic with related events held elsewhere both before and after. Onstage, a bass drum stood alone, surrounded by a motley collection of cymbals, dog toys, pinecones and marbles. Their careful arrangement suggested a setting for an arcane ritual, which ultimately wasn't far from the truth.

Lê Quan Ninh, owner of that "surrounded bass drum," trumpeter Greg Kelley and saxophonist Bhob Rainey (better known as Boston-based microsound explorers nmperign), joined by dancer Yukiko Nakamura, clad in a loose red silk kimono. Ninh hovered and swayed in a deep bow over his drum, tapping, brushing and breathing gently on skin and metal as if to release music latent within them. Eyes closed tightly, Kelley and Rainey responded with a rarefied vocabulary of hisses, rasps and scrapes. Like a cat rudely awakened by unwelcome noise, Nakamura slowly stretched, shrugged off her kimono and lurched off stage, crawling down the aisle and plaintively crying out after she had disappeared into the crowd.

In contrast, Keith Rowe and Günter Müller maintained a gentle, conversational tone during their subsequent set, Rowe's analogue jolts and interjections meshing with Müller's soft, aqueous digital burbles. Müller's loose-limbed agility underscored his origin as a percussionist, as he manipulated contact microphones, percussive implements and foot pedals with all four limbs. As Rowe fanned his guitar strings and Müller bowed a sonorous prayer bowl, faint, ghostly voices seemed to hover in the stillness.

Percussionist Tim Barnes also openly courted ritual. He opened his duo set with laptop manipulator I-Sound by whacking a bass drum at the back of the club and scraping a cymbal along the floor during his procession to the stage, while I-Sound called forth sepulchral clangs and hissing drones. As Barnes took a seat at his mongrel kit, a cell phone shattered the mood he had so carefully evoked. "I don't fuckin' believe it!" he spat, lashing out at a drum with a tiny chain. Instantly, the music assumed a denser, more menacing tone. Despite moments of inspiration, the disruption took its toll. The set felt labored and joyless, and I-Sound wasn't the only one sneaking furtive glances at the clock.

Heads bowed and lights lowered, Rowe and Toshimaru Nakamura (no relation to the dancer) sculpted swirling electrons and plangent sine waves into a thrillingly intimate music irreducible to its constituent elements, dually plotting a sonic map of a single nervous system. With the deliberation of a chess master, Nakamura carefully pondered the implications of any potential movement and decision for long moments. The music demanded and received intense concentration from the audience; high-heeled footsteps in the back of the club near the end of the set rang out like thunderclaps.

The divergent musical approaches evidenced during the first night - one dramatic, the other ascetic - finally clashed during the opening set of the second evening, which paired Ninh with Rowe. As the percussionist laid into his battery with a fusillade of fingers, palms, a bell and a pinecone, Rowe countered with the same delicacy that marked his earlier sets. The counterpoint proved untenable: Rowe ultimately entered into a heated exchange with the voluble Ninh, repeatedly dropping snippets of American television's talking horse Mr. Ed and the Electric Light Orchestra into the shattering din. The set was tremendously exciting, at the expense of any deeper connection.

Kelley, Rainey and Müller proved far more compatible, as the digital texturalist underpinned the horn players' atomized utterances with a stream of tactile crumples, gently coruscating waves and the barest hint of a pulse. Together, their icy abstractions rarely rose above the level of a hushed library conversation. A trio of Barnes, Nakamura and guitarist Tetuzi Akiyama proved more garrulous, Barnes taking a back seat to Nakamura's more assertive stance, which at one point incorporated the kind of trance-inducing pulse usually reserved for his solo discs. The more theatrical Akiyama jammed a shuriken between the strings of his guitar and raked it with a vicious hunting knife. Despite the dizzying array of sounds produced, only during the final stretch did the three finally settle into a communal tongue - which nonetheless was worth the wait.

Closing the festival, Ninh and Müller established a ghostly wail with bowed prayer bowl and cymbal, while Yukiko Namakura stood between them, nude once more and staring fixedly into the distance. Müller met Ninh's jackhammer intensity with glowering helicopter swoops. Nakamura's interpretation was elemental, to say the least: During the first half of the set, her motion consisted solely of a tear slowly rolling down one cheek and a strand of spittle dangling from her chin. The density of the music waned as the dancer buckled to the floor in achingly slow motion, then mounted once more as she reversed the process and reached skyward. As the set continued, Ninh seemed more intent on pacing Nakamura's choreography than in maintaining any meaningful conversation with Müller, who gamely adapted a supportive stance for the duration. That's entertainment.