Signal To Noise, Jason Bivins
The prolific Erstwhile label has been at the forefront of electroacoustic improvisation - or simply eai - for several years running. Live recordings have been a staple of Jon Abbey's brainchild since the beginning - as is often the case with improv music, which lives for those coalescences of intense moments - but recently the label has been documenting live music more intensely. Abbey has curated several festivals under the AMPLIFY moniker, one resulting in a box set and one yielding the first four releases of the Erstlive imprint. The Erstlives are semi-regular releases documenting concert recordings, released in a slimline case with a distinctive and consistent graphic style. These festivals like to mix things up, bringing together new configurations of players from the fast-moving scenes feeding into this music or throwing monkey wrenches into relatively settled lineups. On these first four recordings, we get to listen to both approaches, and the results are fantastic.

Each of these releases is a document of the May 2004 AMPLIFY: addition festival in Köln and Berlin, with co-curator Keith Rowe (guitar and electronics) featured on the first two releases. Rowe's duo with percussionist Burkhard Beins is their first release - and I believe their first performance as a duo - since 2001's wonderful duo Grain (on Zarek). As intense as was the predecessor, this 27-minute set is a genuine powerhouse, with Rowe contributing some of his densest, most harsh playing in years. Largely eschewing the laser-like intensity of his more recent pared down approach (heard on subtle entrancing records like Duos for Doris, Flypaper, and Weather Sky), Rowe blazes forth as if propelled by Beins' huge scrapings and reverberations. Together the two construct a huge slab of noise that is as detailed as it is forceful. At times the music sounds like a metal beast disemboweling itself; elsewhere it gives the impression of being a kind of mediated singularity, where a thousand thousand TV and radio broadcasts are imploding at a single point. Beginning with a fairly high level of activity, the piece encompasses jarring high tones, muffled voices (often radio captures selected by Rowe, ranging from Canadian radio broadcasts about Iraq to Dusty Springfield's "Son of a Preacher Man"), and massive metallic swirls generated by Beins. There is an inexorable quality to the development of this improvisation, one which - given the musicians' preoccupations with global politics - seems to capture some of our moment's dark inevitability, its relentless hostility. Though the power and menace of this music - Rowe's buzzsawing and Beins' slashing or thudding - grips you immediately, the density and layers yield up multiple details on subsequent listens. A raw, compelling, passionate document.

The second document puts the spotlight on a meeting between two duos who have recorded separately for Erstwhile. Thomas Lehn (analogue synth) and Marcus Schmickler (digital synth) recorded the raucous BART (followed later by Rabbit Run, adding Rowe), while Rowe and Toshimaru Nakamura (no-input mixing board) waxed the sublime Weather Sky. What's so surprising about this quartet is the way in which the quiet fire of the latter duo is able to blend with the rather explosive tendencies of the former. This isn't to say that the respective duo tendencies don't surface somewhat regularly; they do indeed, and that accounts in many ways for the performance's freshness and its ability to resist the gentle tug of familiar improvisation pathways or customary means of developing the music. When the synthesizers interject with a raucous bleat or when the gravity of Rowe and Nakamura pulls the sound back into itself, you'll certainly recognize the distinctiveness of the combinations in question (while elsewhere it's damned difficult to tell who's responsible for that odd sizzle, rustle, or whine, though the brief mangled fragment of "Happy Jack" is surely Rowe's doing). In other words, the four players don't empty themselves of personality or inclination in order to contribute to a safe formula; instead of a common denominator form, we get a compelling dialogue between two (or is it four) distinct parts. It's the communicative exchange and dialogue that is itself the character of this improvisation.

Schnee was the title of one of the earliest items in the Erstwhile catalogue, a beguiling duo by guitarist Stangl and G3 whiz Kurzmann. This brief 33-minute performance (the final set of the AMPLIFY 2004 festival) is miles away from the flickering candle-flame of that recording. And while the duo's personality - Stangl's melancholy shapes and Kurzmann's slowly billowing atmospherics - is recognizable, the actual formal elements are downright jarring. First of all, there are vocals - half-singing, half-recitations from Kurzmann (who laments the loss of "Tracy," and whose occasional refrains of "sometimes I feel so bad" inevitably recall the VU's "Pale Blue Eyes") and backup vocals by Margareth Kammerer and Adeline Rosenstein and by Stangl too. But there is also a clear segmentation of the piece itself, suggesting a lot of forethought about the structure. Kurzmann bookends his narrations with thick layers of insistent pulse, which buzz as if threatening to cave in on Stangl's resolute lyricism. There are moments where the form seems to break down, where the music seems more like din, but these are unexpectedly followed by strumming open chords and the like. Initially I was entirely uncertain what to make of these juxtapositions. While the Viennese improvising scene hasn't exactly been shy about multimedia or multi-genre projects or for that matter about drawing on idiomatic sources and references (just dig the weird, Weillian flourish at the end of this disc), it took me a while to get into this recording. But ultimately, once I put aside my preconceptions about what I thought Schnee should sound like, I found myself consistently moved by the sadness and the beauty of this performance. There's more than enough stripped-down spectral electroacoustics to satisfy, that much is sure (and, roughly 2/3 of the way through, Stangl actually reaches back to some of his fractured jazz playing for a nifty juxtaposition with Kurzmann's dark loops). But the moments of transition in and out of the textual passages are what compel: the spaces between, the silences and suspensions.

The briefest of all these live recordings - the first-time meeting between electronicians Christian Fennesz, Sachiko M, Otomo Yoshihide, and Peter "Pita" Rehberg - is in some ways the most intense. Beginning with a cluster of hints - a squeak, a guttural scraping, a crackle - one can almost sense the musicians quickly getting a feel for each other. But thankfully, any tentativeness is soon subsumed in the music's gathering intensity - things quickly evolve into two axes of contrast being explored, one of pitch (very intense and eruptive blasts of low end mixing it up with sine tones) and one of proximity (in your eardrum, crackles seem to shoot forth from distant sounds of metal being dragged on concrete). There is a sudden, head-clearing blast of feedback 1/3 through that is impossible to ignore; it almost leaves you dizzy as the music thickens palpably over the next few minutes, not so much leave behind the axes of contrast as sharpening or intensifying them. There is a great pressure release, though, as midway the music shifts and seems to carom between a vast cavernous rumble and persistent fade-ins of gnarly feedback. As the piece nears its end, the music slowly thins out until only a lone muffle is heard irregularly, like a death rattle.

Taken as a collective document of this festival or as single pieces, these four discs are each of a very high quality and provide a vivid portrait of artists working hard to create music that is both immediate and which challenges expectations. Next up in the Erstlive series is a final document from AMPLIFY 2004, a triple-disc set featuring Rowe, M, Nakamura, and Otomo. If these four are anything to go by, that one should also be a must-hear.

Jason Bivins

Stylus, Ed Howard
ErstLive001 / ErstLive002 / schnee_live / ErstLive004
2004 / 2005

Erstwhile Records' new ErstLive imprint is a continuing series of CDs documenting modern improv performances. So far the first four volumes have concentrated on music recorded at Erstwhile's most recent AMPLIFY festival, which took place in Berlin and Cologne over 6 nights in May 2004. The first installment in the series, a collaborative performance between legendary guitarist Keith Rowe and percussionist Burkhard Beins, was recorded on May 10, in a break between the two halves of the festival, and it's an incredibly audacious way to kick it off. Rowe and Beins have actually recorded together before, on 2001's Grain, but no amount of familiarity with either artist could prepare anyone for the brilliance of this set. The disc begins subtly; after a few opening words and chatter from the musicians, the music fades in with the easily recognizable sizzle of Rowe's shortwave radio, accompanied by scratches, scrapes, and chimes that could be coming either from Rowe's arsenal of electronics and gadgets or Beins' percussion. The radio picks up fragments of news reports about the war in Iraq, swirling the voices into the fuzz so that only a few key phrases stick out. The nature of improvising on a radio means that this topical capture must be primarily a coincidence, but Rowe clearly seizes upon this happenstance, staying with the radio announcer until the report is over. In the usually abstract landscape of Rowe's music - and electro-acoustic improv in general - such intersections with reality and politics are rare, and all the more striking when they do occur.
This early political commentary sets the tone for the rest of the performance, which is decidedly stormy; characterized by shifts from uneasy quiet to explosive and seemingly unrestrained anger. Nowhere is this more apparent than when Rowe's radio happens upon the Dusty Springfield classic "Son of a Preacher Man," which Rowe presents in a rare moment of clarity. For a few odd and unsettling moments, the song hovers on its own, left virtually untouched except for the subtle fuzz of static in the background. It's unquestionably a moment of contemplation, the musician presenting a piece of music for the audience to listen to intently. In that way, the gesture is perfectly attuned with a driving idea of much modern electro-acoustic music: a deep attention to every sound must be paid.
But, perhaps more importantly, this is also a political gesture, since in context the song seems implicitly directed towards the religiously motivated American president who started the war hinted at by this piece's opening. In this sense, too, Rowe is directing the audience to listen, but it's clear in this case that, for once, he wants us to listen to more than just the sounds, but the message underlying them. This is the ultimate gesture away from abstraction, towards an explicit political content of improv that is hard to imagine without such small concessions to the tangible as opposed to the abstract.
The moment established by Rowe's "Preacher Man" capture is in short order enveloped by a particularly fierce intrusion from Beins, a visceral clatter of chains that in context can only summon images of destruction and anger, the pummeling of the pop song until it's submerged under chaos. The rest of the piece continues this up-and-down battle, as though the musicians can hardly decide whether to be distraught or enraged - a confusion of emotions that perfectly captures the modern condition. The second installment in the ErstLive series is a much more traditional improv outing, but for fans of the musicians involved it will likely prove very enjoyable. This quartet of Rowe, Toshimaru Nakamura (no-input mixing board), Thomas Lehn (analog synth), and Marcus Schmickler (digital synth and computer) seems like a rather unusual assembly, but it was designed in the spirit of "addition," the theme of the 2004 AMPLIFY fest. In this case, to create a quartet, the existing duos of Rowe/Nakamura and Lehn/Schmickler were combined, with the added complication that Rowe has also recorded with the latter duo, for the frantic Rabbit Run. The tension here is ostensibly between the tranquil calm of Nakamura (as best captured on his Rowe collaboration Weather Sky) and the more unruly aesthetic of the two synth players. But anyone familiar with the broad range of Lehn and Shmickler's work outside of their duo performances should find it unsurprising that they manage to incorporate themselves very gracefully into the surroundings.
Indeed, the trademark earthy rumble of Lehn's synth works very nicely scraping across the surface of Nakamura's ethereal high-pitched tones and lower feedback burps. Lehn and Nakamura are perhaps the most recognizable presences here, with the other two players filling in around them a variety of squiggles, scrapes, and noises that are difficult to attribute to anyone. Most of the disc, except a few short bursts, is squarely in territory where Nakamura is comfortable, albeit a lot denser than usual for the current Japanese improv scene. The piece is largely structured around a single high-pitched tone that seems to hover in the center of the mix, a ringing suspended sine around which swirl an ever-changing assortment of meaty synth expulsions, clanging guitar strings, small clicking noises, shortwave radio outbursts, and rhythmic segments. All this is given form by the steadying presence of Nakamura's high warble. When that tone disappears 20 minutes in, it leaves an odd, expectant, rumbling silence that sucks in all sound. And indeed, the piece seems a bit more hesitant from this point on, existing in a hazy subsonic blur of bassy tones and exceptionally subtle ambience. All in all, an interesting if occasionally tentative set, which is to be expected since this was the first time all four musicians played together.
The third ErstLive disc, by Burkhard Stangl and Christof Kurzmann, is an entirely different proposition. As the only disc in the series by a grouping that has previously released an album on Erstwhile (the label's "first pairing" preference usually precludes such return engagements), and with a title, schnee_live, that explicitly refers to that previous offering, there are certain expectations going in. Stangl and Kurzmann totally subvert all those expectations.
Schnee_live is perhaps the most unique and unexpected recording to come out of the usually very abstract Erstwhile, but it is not quite as surprising in the context of the recent aesthetics of the Viennese scene from which both players hail. The Vienna improv scene has been steadily moving towards more and more accessible forms of expression, whether through the melodic computer music of Fennesz, the rhythmically driven improv of Trapist, Radian, and Kapital Band 1, or the pure guitar tones of Stangl and Martin Siewert. But never have any of those records been as deft as this one at balancing abstraction with accessibility.
The disc starts with what seems to be a short introduction by Kurzmann, but he soon begins speaking, in very evenly enunciated English, about the death of a friend as Stangl joins him with some surprisingly melodic and straightforward guitar. It takes a few moments to process - entirely because of the context - but this is a genuine song, and Kurzmann drives the point home when he begins singing, in a wavering and emotional voice, what can only be called the chorus. From there, the music builds into more expected territory, a blur of electronic tones with Stangl's deft and pure guitar notes winding through it. The entire album is based on transitions - usually so smooth they're hardly even noticed - between the continuing song and more abstract sections of electro-acoustic improv. It's a great tribute to this duo that they're able to create such a seamless performance from these disjunctions, and even while listening it's hard to tell exactly how they do it. At the end of each "song" section, the vocals seem to peter out into a somber silence that's easily filled by Kurzmann's digital drones or the fiddling clicks of Stangl's less traditional guitar playing. And likewise, each section of instrumental improv fades into a space where Kurzmann's deadpan vocals can carry a subtle and disarming emotional heft.
Indeed, this piece works so well because the two disparate parts inform each other so completely. The emotion of the lyrics is matched in the music, and the droning, ethereal sounds create a very unsettling atmosphere that carries over into Kurzmann's lyrical sections. But there's humor here too, and a self-awareness that shows through in the piece's final section, when Kurzmann delivers some lyrics in German (translated to English in the liner notes). "When I die, die, die," he intones, accompanied by sighing female backup singers, "the laptops must play / Chirping like crickets / Cause that's what I love, love, love / When a computer plays."
The final ErstLive so far is another quartet set from the festival proper, recorded in Cologne and featuring Christian Fennesz, Sachiko M, Otomo Yoshihide, and Peter Rehberg (better known as Mego electronics whiz Pita). This is certainly the oddest out of any of these groupings, since anybody who's heard the subtle, minimal work of Sachiko and Otomo as Filament could scarcely imagine that pair finding room to breath within Pita's monolithic noise bursts or Fennesz's equally dense melodic guitar drones. So it's a pleasant surprise to find that Rehberg and the usually floor-rumbling Fennesz both restrain themselves throughout this set, allowing their sounds to fit into the much sparser aesthetic of the Tokyo musicians.
Both laptoppers contribute a rich mix of low-level drones, thumping rhythms, and digital glitches to fill out the sparse landscape of Sachiko's chirping sampler and Otomo's turntable work (though Otomo, by contrast, is often nearly invisible here). The disc floats through some very minimal territory, with Sachiko's ear-tickling sine waves filling a similar role to Nakamura's high tones on the other quartet disc. At times, the near-silence recalls Sachiko and Otomo's recent trio with Nakamura on Erstwhile, Good Morning Good Night, although nothing here is quite as dazzlingly effective as that disc. But it is a solid set nevertheless. The opening minutes, in particular, have a tense and hushed mood that seems to hint at some explosion that never comes. Rumbling bass, the periodic repetition of Otomo's turntable spinning, and the squeaks of Sachiko's sampler, all perfectly paced and balanced so that close listening quickly becomes a very involving and even exciting experience. Certainly the kind of recording that could too easily drift into the background, but careful attention is very rewarding in this case.
With a body of music like this, it's tempting to come to some kind of sweeping conclusion regarding the state of modern improv, and there certainly are some threads and ideas running through these discs that suggest rich possible futures for this music. But at heart this is so far a very diverse and satisfying series that documents a relatively brief time and space. Like all the best and truest improv, it is entirely contemporary and of-the-moment, a glimpse into a performance and the performers involved.

Paris Transatlantic, Dan Warburton
Keith Rowe / Burkhard Beins
ErstLive 001
Keith Rowe / Toshimaru Nakamura / Thomas Lehn / Marcus Schmickler
ErstLive 002
Burkhard Stangl / Christof Kurzmann: schnee_live
ErstLive 003
Christian Fennesz / Sachiko M / Otomo Yoshihide / Peter Rehberg
ErstLive 004

Taking advantage of the availability of a top-notch recording engineer in the form of Vienna's Christoph Amann, Erstwhile top gun Jon Abbey was able to return home after the two European legs of his 2004 AMPLIFY festival (in Cologne and Berlin respectively) with a bag full of superb recordings, the first batch of which is now out in the form of these four elegant limited edition slimline jewel box releases. Mean spirited souls could moan and groan at Abbey's decision to release as four separate albums music that could quite easily have been brought out as one double CD (the Rowe / Beins set lasts 28'18", the Rowe / Nakamura / Lehn / Schmickler 38'47", the Stangl / Kurzmann 33'03" and the Fennesz quartet a mere 23'44"), but the quality of these performances and their occasional (welcome) deviations from what was beginning to seem like a rather inflexible Erstwhile norm makes Abbey's decision to release them separately more than justified.
Guitarist Keith Rowe and Berlin-based percussionist Burkhard Beins have appeared on disc together before, on the album Grain on Ignaz Schick's Zarek imprint (Zarek 06, 2001). On paper, Beins's exquisitely-paced friction (check out his work with the groups Perlonex, with Schick and Jörg Maria Zeger, and The Sealed Knot with Mark Wastell and Rhodri Davies) along with the slowmotion grit associated with Rowe's Erstwhile and Grob back catalogue might lead punters to expect an austere Weather Sky-like affair, but this set, recorded on May 10th 2004 in Berlin (not May 13th, as the booklet states, in a rare mistake for Erstwhile) is exhilaratingly combative. Rowe's radio, which has never been all that prominent on his previous Erstwhile releases, is in full effect here, picking up Radio Canada dispatches on the Iraq war (a timely reminder that while punters sat in reverential silence in the clubs of Berlin, dirty deeds were afoot in faraway lands) and, at the 15 minute mark, a chunk of Dusty Springfield's "Son Of A Preacher Man" long enough to have Tarantino fans reaching for their Bibles in awe before Rowe and Beins blast it to shit. The torrential downpour of crippled pop and vicious noise that follows should be required daily listening for any stick-up-the-ass snob who complains about this music's supposed sterility, lack of energy and, most importantly, lack of humour. I'm normally no fan of live recordings that explode into enthusiastic cheering for minutes after the music has ended, but for once the decision to let the tapes roll long enough to catch the whoops and hollers of the delighted audience and the joyful, surprised laughter of Keith Rowe himself is to be applauded.
The quartet line-up featuring Rowe with Toshi Nakamura (on inputless mixing board), Thomas Lehn (analogue synth) and Marcus Schmickler (laptop) is, in contrast, a fine example of quintessentially Erstwhile electro-acoustic improv. While Lehn and Schmickler alone are remarkably good at exploding into apocalyptic noise - their duo outing Bart remains Erstwhile's noisiest release to date - Rowe and Nakamura are perfectly content to watch the clouds drift across the (weather) sky like giant cream buns. Combining the two duos to form a quartet is nothing less than a masterstroke, resulting in music of nail biting intensity and volatility that nevertheless proceeds towards its goal with implacable logic at a stately pace. Anyone who dares doubt that this music has come of age should sit down and listen closely to this one - it's one of those rare occasions where everything makes perfect sense, from the demented snippets of drum'n'bass Rowe manages to pick up to the huffs and puffs of Lehn's big bad wolf synthesizer, from the dangerous squiggles of Schmickler's laptop to Nakamura's chilly loops.
ErstLive 003 is billed as "schnee_live", a reference to the earlier outing on the label featuring guitarist Burkhard Stangl and laptopper / Charhizma head honcho Christof Kurzmann, but the 33-minute set they played as part of one of the AMPLIFY fringe events in Berlin's Ausland on May 19th was far removed from the Schnee project's austere and dense video montage of films by Albert, Fassbinder, Godard and Marker. Once Kurzmann has persuaded the locals to quieten down, he launches into a reading of nothing less than the lyrics of Prince's "Sometimes It Snows In April" (from the 1986 Parade album), using the sung chorus as a springboard into an extended variation. After ten minutes of patient exploration, the second verse appears, the chorus duly leading the musicians back out into the no man's land of experimentation before the Prince song returns again, with Kurzmann joined by Charhizma house divas Margareth Kammerer and Adeline Rosenstein on backing vocals. What's most surprising - and most touching - about this release is its sheer coherence: one might think that the incorporation of an existing song - by Prince, nonetheless - into a context of austere eai experimentation is guaranteed to drag the music down into a swamp of postmodernism bordering on the kitsch (like Heiner Goebbels' pilfering of "Joy In Repetition" in Die Wiederholung), but nothing could be further from the truth. Gentle diatonic harmony was a feature of Stangl's guitar playing long before he teamed up with three fellow post-Connors fingerpickers on SSSD, and Kurzmann's own tastes in music are catholic enough to embrace musicians as diverse as Fleischmann and Fennesz on his label. And even when Stangl drifts off into nostalgic Jim Hall comping, Kurzmann's oppressive loops drag him back into focus. But the best is yet to come, with the incorporation of the Viennese chestnut "Wenn ich einmal sterbe", with lyrics specially adapted to incorporate a reference to "laptops chirping like crickets". Köstlich.
The second quartet release of these four (one can't help but admire Abbey's almost Greenaway-like fondness for symmetry) also looks, on paper, like a double duo affair, a Tokyo vs. Vienna tag wrestling bout pitting Otomo Yoshihide and Sachiko M against Mego heavyweights Peter "Pita" Rehberg and Christian Fennesz. Though the two Europeans are, when given half a chance, awfully good at taking off on their own flights of fancy - Rehberg into his own supercharged spincycle of fractured glitch punk, Fennesz into a pinky blue pastel landscape that would make even JMW Turner reach for his Ray-Bans - their Japanese playing partners suck them into a veritable black hole. It might last only 23 minutes but believe me it's enough. Fennesz has rarely sounded so tight and tense on disc - his two earlier appearances on Erstwhile (on Wrapped Islands with Polwechsel and Live At The LU with Keith Rowe) sound rather timid in comparison. As for Otomo and Sachiko, like Abbey and Erstwhile they've accumulated so many superlatives by now it's hardly worth adding any more to the list. Just listen instead.