John Edwards and Okkyung Lee – White Cable Black Wires

As enjoyable as I’m sure they were, I was troubled by the way in which the recent Kraftwerk concerts in London, both in the choice of setting and mode of delivery, presented their music as a museum piece. Performing their music in that gallery space, in chronological order, with little deviation from the canonical versions, it was as if they wished their catalogue to be preserved forever in amber. Where once their music had forward momentum (whether through mechanical engine or pedal power), and a beating human heart, they now seem to have stalled, and are absenting themselves more and more from the creative process.

Such thoughts send me scurrying towards releases such as White Cables Black Wires (released on the still young Fataka label) by the improvising musicians John Edwards and Okkyung Lee, a duo unlikely to be melting the phonelines at Tate Modern any time soon. Here, I find that life, instrumentation, emotion, music, communication and creativity are all tangled up in a dense knot. Whereas that Kraftwerk show (and I’m picking on them a little, I could instead have mentioned new records by My Bloody Valentine or David Bowie) committed the crime of being exactly what you’d expect, no more and no less, this is, as life itself is, unpredictable and ever-changing. Even knowing the instruments they play – John Edwards the double bass, and Okkyung Lee the cello – can’t prepare you for what is to follow, as the two of them do much to extend the possibilities of those instruments beyond their classical roles.

After a brief clickety-clack morse code interchange, like a sort of analogue handshake, there follows a relentless stream of information, with ideas being exchanged, discussed, and built upon on the fly, and at great speed. Within the first few minutes, there are sounds that suggest John Edwards is jamming his bow under his strings, playing it like a schoolchild twanging a ruler on the edge of a desk, and is squeaking the body of his bass with a wet finger. Lee has sliced and crunched her strings, producing sounds that are by turns vocal and industrial. Blink, and they’ve swapped hats, with Edwards up among his highest notes, and Lee churning away at her lowest. By the end of that frenetic (and at times almost funky, in a fractured sort of way) first piece it sounds like there is a percussionist in the room with them, playing a snare with brushes, rapping the edge of a tom with a drumstick. Already, I’m forced to confront the fact that I’m not sure who is doing what, or how.

But never mind, who, what or how: why are they doing this? In White Cable Black Wires, the improvisational imperative feels so tightly bound to self-preservation, you might as well ask why we breathe. You can hear the vital signs of life in the second track, where Edwards’s bass pounds symbolically, like a heart in love: WHAMWHAM WHAMWHAM WHAMWHAM. The exchanges between Edwards and Lee at times seem heated and argumentative; elsewhere they are in accord, at ease, as one: indeed, the way in which pieces build in intensity and rhythms synchronise feels almost sexual. In those moments when Lee and Edwards’s strings become entwined, they swoop and sing in one voice like a flock of birds, or creak and crack like the interconnected branches of a tree in the wind. Evolving, living, breathing, fighting, fucking, creating: this is as far from petrification as it is possible to get.

Arve Henriksen – Solidification


As if the release of a new album by the esteemed Norwegian trumpeter, Supersilent member, and David Sylvian (to name one of many) collaborator Arve Henriksen didn’t have enough heft, Rune Grammofon have managed to create the weightiest of packages for it. Solidification is a beautiful, and very heavy, seven LP box set, which positions that new album, entitled Chron, alongside double LP sets of each of Henriksen’s three previous Rune Grammofon LPs, each with bonus tracks, along with high quality audio DVDs and a booklet. Anyone would think they were trying to make some sort of point.

Not just a point about how important they feel this music is (which they clearly do): the very title Solidification makes me think a bit more widely than the quality of the music, but instead of a gradual process, tectonic plates perhaps, about how all that has gone before has somehow led to this moment. It invites the listener to follow Arve on a journey, both temporal and geographical, to try to make sense of this particular catalogue (one which for these purposes excludes the 2008 ECM release Cartography), as a cohesive body of work.

That journey begins in Japan, in 2001, with the evocative Sakuteiki release. The album opens with Henriksen’s signature trumpet sound: soft, breathy, unprocessed smears of sound, owing something to Jon Hassell. The album and track titles disclose the fact that Henriksen is setting out to paint images of Japan, from temples to cherry blossom-laden trees, from tea houses to bamboo. He succeeds, partly by virtue of that trumpet sound, which resembles at times a shakuhachi, and elsewhere a hushed voice in prayer.

The more still and spacious compositions seem to draw from gagaku, that slow-paced and elegant Japanese court music, but elsewhere tracks edge out carefully into different, more experimental terrain. “White Gravel” is a beautiful recording of something – quite possibly gravel, quite possibly white in colour – being dropped onto a hard surface (for all its brevity, the crisp sounds in the piece reminded me of Francois Bayle’s INA-GRM piece Erosphere), while “Bonsai Ritual” has Arve banging delicately on a bit of metal. The huge, deep pedal point trumpet drones in bonus track “Samyaku” cast long dark shadows, and serve as an omen for what we’ll hear in future records, but the long overdue return to the places delineated in Sakuteiki is one of the bright spots in this collection.

2004’s Chiaroscuro feels much more escapist than Sakuteiki, as if Henriksen was seeking to depict a fantasy world, rather than anchoring his work in reality (I’m not sure how much I should read into the fact that the booklet mentions some unspecified trauma in his personal life at the time). You don’t get the sense of any particular place here, track titles give no clues, instruments such as hand drums appear, playing vaguely tribal if unrecognisable rhythms – and this, with the addition of some ambient electronics makes this feel like the closest satellite of Hassell’s Fourth World. But despite the lack of specific geographical fix, this still feels like a landscape, the electronics of Jan Bang and Erik Honore sketching out a a calm, breezy snowscape as viewed from above, with Arve’s trumpet lifting us up to that vantage point like a bird rising on thermals.

Despite this height, Chiaroscuro still manages to knock its knees on the coffee table at times. But there is much to appreciate here, in particular Henriksen’s debuting of his incredible singing voice on the record. When the whispering trumpet drops out of “Opening Image”, it is replaced, imperceptibly at first, by a soft voice, which from nowhere soars like that of a female soprano – I can still remember searching the credits the first time I heard this to work out who she was. Elsewhere, black shapes reappear to disrupt the ambience, with a couple of noir moments interrupting the snow-white flight: the static, vinyl crackle and drowned strings of “Scuro” bring to mind the output of Erik Skodvin’s Miasmah label.

After the airy detachment of Chiaroscuro, Arve’s decision to ground his 2007 release in his home town Strjon was perhaps to be welcomed.  Track titles reference the surrounding landscape, and parallel those on Sakuteiki: for “White Gravel” we have “Leaf and Rock”, for “Shrine” we have “Ancient and Accepted Rite”, for “Paths Around The Pond” we have “Green Lake”. But, specific location aside,  there is a key difference from Sakuteiki, which is apparent from the outset, in that that prior commitment to no processing, no effects, appears to be gone. And in doing so, perversely, Henriksen somehow manages to make more of an emotional connection than on previous releases, as if any too-smooth-to-feel surfaces have been sanded down, rendered more tactile and a little bit raw.

Much of this can be attributed to a change in collaborators: instead of Bang and Honore, Henriksen drafted in his Supersilent colleagues Helge Sten and Ståle Storløkken, not a twosome known for too much niceness. And so the keyboards in second track “Black Mountain” have darkness and dirt ground into them, while the pretty face of “Ascent” is cut into with some rough electronics. These aren’t the parts of town that tourists get to see. The tasteful quasi-tribal rhythms of Chiaroscuro are replaced by some angular prepared piano patterns, while Henriksen’s experimental sound collection extends to includes a muffled metallic clanging, like a ski lift swaying in off season. But it is the concluding black run from the title track to “Glacier Descent” which is probably the outstanding performance of Henriksen’s solo career so far; his voice weaving wordlessly over deep layers of trumpet, electronic and throat-singing drone.

And so to the new album, Chron. If the title of album and box set lead you to think that this might something of a chronological retrospective exercise, you’d be surprised by the fact that Chron appears to look forward more than it does back.  There is a noticeable lack of trumpet and singing voice in this; instead, it is the colours from around the perimeter of his previous pallete which he is playing with on Chron, resulting in his most experimental album to date.  While this can result in awe-inspiring wall to ceiling drones, as on the title track, and in tangled splashes of rhythmic concrète, as on the impressive opening piece “Proto-Earth”, elsewhere they feel frustratingly incomplete, like mere sketches for possible future works.

Chron’s liner notes reveal that it was recorded across a number of sessions – and in a number of geographical locations. Perhaps even more so than the intrinsic quality of the pieces themselves, it is that lack of connection, to time and to place (real or imaginary), that makes this feel fragmented. While I was expecting some sort of Solidification, the constituent parts of Chron feel like separate islands, rather than a contiguous piece of land. The direction of travel is very intriguing though, and with a bit more momentum, what comes next may yet be seismic.

Tetras – Pareidolia


The Dark Magus casts a long shadow. The work of Miles Davis between 1969 and 1975 is a crucial subset of musical history. The respective genres of rock, jazz, soul and classical had all made some huge strides forward in the 1960s, from the studio experimentation of psychedelia to the glorious headrush of free jazz, from the social awareness of funk to the minimalism of Reich and Riley. But it was in the combination of these forms that the black magic happened. From Miles’s cauldron was scooped the spectral ambience of Eno favourite “He Loved Him Madly”, the deep dark throb of the Jack Johnson sessions, the spooked textures of Live Evil, and the tectonic eruptions of Agharta/Pangaea. There was an urbanity to the music, it was a walk through the melting pot of a multicultural city, with all its clashing noises and politics. But what set Miles apart from many of the alchemists who were creating new forms at the time (from Can to Coleman), was this air of malevolence which permeated so much of his music. If this was an urban vision, it felt uniquely dystopian.

Davis’s ideas took him so far beyond what jazz was understood to be that it is perhaps unsurprising that they only took root there in a limited sense. Much of the subsequent jazz fusion explosion, while heavily influenced by Miles’s work, ignored so many of its inconvenient subtleties. Elements such as the radical consciousness, or the minimalism, at odds with jazz’s more traditional values, were too often jettisoned in any future developments. But Miles’s live evil was running in parallel to the nascent emergence of forms such as heavy metal, with all its occult references, and the image of Miles playing keyboard on stage with the back of his hand was punk rock before punk rock existed (“You ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” indeed). Places with strong, extreme rock scenes were probably more receptive territories for this music.

The result has been these sporadic, musically and geographically isolated pockets of this Miles-influenced mutant malevolent minimalism. It didn’t land in Britain during punk, but it certainly did during post-punk, in the urbanised loops and clatter of This Heat and 23 Skidoo. Post-rock too, with its subversion of traditional instrumental roles, and foregrounding of texture. Scandinavia’s dark skies seem to have provided suitable cover: some of the forbidding structures around the Rune Grammofon label, in particular the Supersilent canon, could have been constructed with Miles as architect. Sunn O)))’s recent work overtly draws upon the jazz of the era, but it is Stephen O’Malley’s Aethenor project, which found room for keyboard drone and improv percussion, which really danced with this particular devil. Japan, probably the only place where Agharta and Pangaea have never been out of print, is another locus, with the likes of Acid Mothers Temple (who wear their influences, from Miles to Black Sabbath to Terry Riley, somewhat heavily) and Keiji Haino who, along with his Miles-like penchant for oversized sunglasses on stage, seems to play the Sonny Sharrock role in whichever ensemble he crops up. A little further south, the ghostly guitar explorations of Australia’s Oren Ambarchi are black dust blown from a similar mine; Ambarchi also crops up in collaborations with the Rune Grammofon mob (a new Fire! with Oren Ambarchi record is due soon) and with the pairing of Stephen O’Malley and Keiji Haino – a collision which surely (re)creates the Pangaea of this particular musical world.

Tetras are another transcontinental and transgenre trio, with roots in the LA and Dutch punk scenes, via percussionist Jason Kahn (formerly on SST) and keyboard player Jerome Viesser (who has accompanied The Ex on their trips to Ethiopia), while bassist Christian Weber has both played conservatory classical and in groups with the likes of Japan’s Otomo Yoshihide. When I first heard their new double LP Pareidolia, I thought they sounded a lot like the Australian minimalist improvising trio the Necks. Like the Necks, they deal in lengthy pieces which transform themselves slowly, with plenty of hypnotic repetition, and with the precise role of the instruments undefined (responsibility for melody, or rhythm, or texture, is pleasingly fluid). But Pareidolia is heavier and grittier than the Necks’ darkest, rawest moments, and the more I listened to it, the more I began to hear traces of many of the other sorcerers I’ve mentioned.

The opening organ drones of ‘Pareidolia i’ remind me of the queasy varispeed fluctuations of early This Heat, but when they later blow through like cold winds they bring the creeping menace of solo Deathprod. The use of percussion in ‘Pareidolia iii’ – melodic gamelan and brushes – in this context brings to mind Steve Noble’s work in Aethenor, steering a ship through the squall of white noise. When the drone becomes anchored to a relentlessly repetitive drum beat, building to a tribal pummel, it is of one with Oren Ambarchi’s epic ‘Knots’ from his recent Audience Of One record. That isn’t to say that any of these individuals have in any way influenced Tetras, but more that they are all drawing from the same river. Somehow, if you stare into these watery ripples, you can glimpse the face of Miles Davis like the pareidolia of the album’s title. He is there in those one note bass ostinatos, the back of the hand keyboard discordance, that dark ambience, and the bleak, dystopian feel. That mutant malevolent minimalism which sprang from Miles in the 1970s continues to flow through music, its strong undercurrent occasionally dragging some treasure up to the surface.

Icarus – Fake Fish Distribution


55 years have passed since John Cage spoke about the freedoms afforded to the composer thanks to technological advances – in his case, the invention of high fidelity magnetic tape. Yet even as we passed into the increasingly sophisticated era of laptops and audio software, these freedoms did not always manifest themselves in the live setting. The sight and sound of the artist standing behind their laptop, doing very little to very little effect, barely attempting to disguise the pre-ordained nature of their construction was all too common. Much in the way that a certain number of restrictions can, paradoxically, encourage invention, here was an example of freedom leading almost to paralysis, as if the work had become so complex that it could not be recreated, nor even reinterpreted – merely replayed.

Of course, this stasis was by no means universal. In the 15 years since they launched Icarus into the experimental end of the UK’s drum n bass scene with their Kamikaze album, Sam Britton and Ollie Bown have done more thinking than most about the flexibilities they have as composers within Cage’s sound space. In particular, they have concerned themselves with precisely where to draw the boundary between what they do and do not control, and the implications of this for the predictability or repeatability of their work.

Their Not Applicable label has afforded them the opportunity to engage fully with improvising musicians, while their creative tools have extended to take in Cageian ideas of chance and indeterminacy, as well as those of generative music. These concurrent developments progressed so far that by 2010, they were able to absent themselves physically from live performances entirely: a “quartet” performance with the trumpeter Tom Arthurs and clarinettist Lothar Ohlmeier occurred in which Britton and Bown were represented by a computer programme which was able to make musical decisions within set parameters on their behalf (as Long Division, it is now available as a free download from the Not Applicable website).

Given the increasing levels of variation which has resulted from these ways of working, not for nothing was the last Icarus album entitled All Is For The Best In All Possible Worlds: there was a real sense that they were thinking about new dimensions. Their latest release Fake Fish Distribution is a step further in that direction. Created after an extensive period of research and development at STEIM in the Netherlands, Fake Fish Distribution intrigues by virtue of the fact that all 1,000 copies are different: that is they each contain a unique variant of all 8 tracks. This, clearly, is not an album in the conventionally understood sense. Which presents some difficulties in the context of an album review.

For having heard ten versions of the album, they do indeed vary. At certain points, a certain musical event may or may not occur, a rhythm may choose to follow a different path at a junction, and a given section may last for a seemingly random duration (indeed the overall album length can vary by around ten per cent between versions). So I could tell you about the way ‘Two Mbiras’ gradually builds to its percussive centre, but I have no confidence that the one you hear will do so. Similarly, that evil swarm of noise that ‘Colour Field’ dissolves into may be entirely absent on version 893. And what point is there in me mentioning the intricate rhythmic section eleven minutes into ‘Old D’ when your version of the track is less than ten minutes long?

However that is not to say that your version of ‘Old D’ would be unrecognisable as still being, in a sense, ‘Old D’: decisions on timbre, volume and so on are still being made within parameters set by Britton and Bown, so the end results are only being given a certain amount of freedom to diverge. One way of thinking about the way that the percussive patterns on ‘MD Skillz’ vary between versions would be to consider that they had asked a drummer to improvise a complex solo on an extended kit. And then asked him to repeat it (of course they couldn’t ask him to repeat it 999 times, as it would ultimately tend towards some near singularity. It feels more like they have captured 999 of those second attempts, as impossible as that would be in practice).

Some of the sounds within those tracks, or sets of tracks with the same name, however we want to define them, are also recognisable as being things which belong to the grouping of Icarus sounds too. Over the course of their career, they have developed a strong sonic identity thanks to the way they process instrumental sounds – particularly strings and percussion, playing with their speed, reversing them, slicing them unforgivingly. On Fake Fish Distribution, with this digital enhancement it more than ever sounds like they are trying to add emphasis to the voice of this other active participant: the computer. To this catalogue they have added a number of new sounds, such as samples, including some snatched seemingly from the airwaves, Scanner-like and sinister. To a newcomer to their work (or possibly also someone who hadn’t heard anything since Kamikaze), their sound world would sound quite unfamiliar, and rather disconcerting.

Cornelius Cardew, famous for his groundbreaking graphical approach to the musical score, which gave considerable interpretative freedom to the performer, said he composed “systems”. Perhaps we should think of Fake Fish Distribution in a similar way, as a system, rather than just a set of compositions or as an album. It is clearly a larger subset of Cage’s sound space than the traditional album, being a system of parameters which can produce a family of 1,000 versions, each of which is unique but unmistakeably related. But why stop at 1,000? Why not 1,000,000? Indeed, why not an infinite number?

Icarus have pointedly imposed this numerical restriction on themselves, in order to accord with certain current conventions: the need for there to be a saleable physical product (and a saleable quantity of it), and the need for there to be something compatible with common current playback software (although it should be pointed out that they diverge from standard practice by giving purchasers some of the rights to their individual musical work, rather than retaining all the rights for all 1,000 themselves. In fact, the unique version is deleted from their servers when it is downloaded). It is entirely possible to imagine a future release of theirs being a piece of software complex enough to be able to generate far more than 1,000 copies of a work, on demand, and in precise forms that the human composers themselves could only have begun to have imagined. That is for tomorrow, perhaps. From where I stand today, I don’t see many who challenge our expectations of the role of the electronic music composer in the way Icarus do.

10-20 – Magnet Marsh


I may have needed less convincing than most, but Broken60 (an offshoot of Ruairidh Law aka The Village Orchestra’s Broken20 label) have published a manifesto of sorts which outlines the reasons why they feel they feel the need, in 2012, to start a cassette label. Dave Donnelly aka Production Unit, who runs the tape wing, rightly focuses not on the purely physical aspects of the object itself, even if a reference to licking the cassette’s cover borders on the fetishistic, but on the interrelationship between the object, the sound that is produced, and the emotions that are evoked. The format demands that we take the time to think more broadly about how we experience music, as being more than just the waves of sound which emerge from speakers/headphones, crashing repeatedly into the crevices of our cranium. The first release on Broken60, Magnet Marsh by 10-20 feels like it was purposefully designed to permit an exploration of this.

As soon as I first squeezed the play button on my Walkman, it was obvious that 10-20 had approached this work in a different way from previous albums, like his self-titled release on the late Highpoint Lowlife label. In comparison, Magnet Marsh is a significantly dequantised piece of work. It opens with sonic events scattered like iron filings, before this sound dust pulls itself together into bigger, heavier shapes. But even when this first beat appears, it is off-grid, a snare and one-two bass pulse which seems to decelerate throughout each bar, a heartbeat constantly returning to rest, ever heading towards sleep. The percussion which later emerges can’t be nailed down with any sort of precision, patterns dissolve when you examine then, much as text evaporates in a dream when you try to read it.

Such an approach to rhythm is by no means new to electronic music. Burial famously operates in an entirely dequantised manner, and some of Magnet Marsh is reminiscent of his more abstract moments; dark, wonky and woozy sections sharing something of the same late night, mood-altered atmosphere. Parts of this music too may be best listened to at 4am, sheltering from rain in a bus shelter, dappled in the fragments of neon light from a smashed 24 hour off-license window; fittingly the text in the cover refers to Magnet Marsh as “a place behind the enterprise zone retail park”.

However, it also places it “adjacent to the ancient city of teotihuacan”. 10-20 draws from a wider palette of instrumental sounds than Burial, disorientatingly so at times: while there are pianos and female voices, there are also middle eastern and African instruments in the mix, birdsong too, samples from who knows where or when. But it isn’t just the difference in sources which cause you to lose your bearings, the way they are processed is more extreme, resulting in far more unrecognisable sounds, as if recalled over a great length of time, or in that confusing re-emergence from deep sleep.

And the tape itself is a big fact in all of these sensations. Not just because it adds its own dislocating sense of it being from another era, right from the moment your first pop it open and lick the cover. And not just because of the dense static drizzle which ultimately soaks everything, either. The most important factor is that 10-20’s music is clearly designed with the format’s capabilities and limitations in mind. That granularity and haziness persists in an accentuated manner throughout, and sounds can be muffled, varispeeded, or otherwise distended. The pitch seems to shift and melt, images are smeared into bands of colour to create a sense of illucidity, much in the manner you might associate with Boards Of Canada. At times it is like listening to a physically damaged or demagnetised tape, with dropout being used creatively as part of the track’s shifting rhythmic framework, or with the distortion becoming almost as overpowering as a Ben Frost piece.

Ultimately, the fact that this is a cassette release can lead you to think in a more dequantised manner. There are technically 21 tracks on Magnet Marsh, but as my Walkman doesn’t permit me to skip easily or quickly between them, or tell me what they are called as I’m listening, I don’t think of the album in such discrete chunks, but rather as two side-long continuums of sound. Broken60 acknowledge this by also supplying buyers of the tape with a hissy mp3 download ripped from the cassette in precisely this two-piece form, as if to try to preserve as much of the intended experience as the mp3 format permits. And that is ultimately a further recognition of what Magnet Marsh is: not just something you listen to, but something you experience. Something you hear, see, feel and, if that is your thing, taste.

Stephan Mathieu and David Maranha – Strings


On 17 July 2011, the minimalist musicians Stephan Mathieu and David Maranha performed an acoustic concert in the tennis court at the Fundação Serralves park in Porto. Stephan Mathieu played his virginals harpsichord with electromagnets, while David Maranha used violin and shruti box. The performance lasted 29 minutes and 20 seconds. The performance centred around a drone in the key of A. In February 2012 a recording of that performance is being issued on a single-sided LP by Cronica and Serralves under the name Strings.

Of course, a musical work is more than the sum of such prosaic details, and that thirty minutes does not represent the entirety of the artistic process. Why virginals and violin? Why play in the park? Why the key of A? Clearly some thought went into such decisions, they did not happen to be in the same place in the same key by chance. There was a creative dialogue which extended back over days or weeks or months before this piece was performed; as is typical with any duo performance, by the time it came to be performed, a certain number of the parameters had actually been fixed.

In fact, had this been a laptop duo performance, many more of the parameters would have been fixed. Unlike with software, when using acoustic instruments (especially ones as old as the virginals and violin), there are clearly certain variables relating to the instrument or the instrumentalist which can’t be controlled precisely – for example on a violin, exactly how hard or fast you bow on the strings, or whether you happen to catch another string as you do so. So at times in the recording of this performance you can hear Maranha’s strings creaking and groaning, squeaking and sliding over the surface of Mathieu’s ebowed virginals, these unexpected inflections appearing like disruptions on the calm surface of a lake, as if a pebble had been tossed in from the shore.

By playing outside in a public space, as opposed to in the more tightly constrained environment of an indoor concert venue, yet more uncontrollable variables appear. After just one minute of Mathieu’s shimmering sonic heat haze, there is the unmistakeable sound of wind blowing into an unprotected microphone, a fairly typical summer sea breeze rumbling in from the Atlantic Ocean. A few minutes later, an airplane roars overhead, probably carrying tourists on their way to visit the sights of Porto’s old town, with its modern buildings rubbing up against baroque architecture. Such details could probably have been prevented from being captured in the first place, or even excised later. So why weren’t they?

There is a sense that Mathieu and Maranha are reaching back to some sort of root. The call of that A drone is as magnetic as the pull of the past, and the pull of nature. By using acoustic instruments in an outdoor setting, it is as if they are aligning themselves with the inherent unpredictability of the natural world, as opposed to the more controllable digital world; any glowing apples here are the result of sunlight dancing through orchards. The choice of the baroque virginals and violin, and the way they deploy them, takes us back from that thirty minute performance. It takes us back through the creative decisions that led up to them, and beyond. Ultimately, their strings lead us back through around 500 years of musical history, towards something timeless: the creative dialogue between man and nature.

Peter Evans – Beyond Civilized And Primitive


“Primitive people see time as a circle. Civilized people see it as a line. We are about to see it as an open plain where we can wander at will. History is broken. Go!”
Ran Prieur

At a recent concert at London’s Vortex jazz club, Evan Parker described his co-performer for the evening, the trumpeter Peter Evans, as “a genius”, and as “the future”. Having heard him play several times now, including a dizzying solo set at 2010’s Freedom Of The City festival, I let the first description slide without question. The second was more thought-provoking. The future of what, precisely? The future of jazz? Improvisation? Noise? His live performances make notions of genre seem inadequate, while attempting to locate his approach on a temporal scale is equally problematic. His new record for the Dancing Wayang label, Beyond Civilized And Primitive, seems to celebrate this.

By taking his album title from an essay by the sociological thinker Ran Prieur, Peter Evans is, I think, not just drawing attention to Prieur’s thoughts on how society is (or could be) structured, but making a more specific point about how we think about and categorise music. Much in the same way as dividing society into the “primitive” and the “civilised”, it is too easy to view the history of improvised music as a continuum of increasing complexity, from West African call-and-response through the big band era to free jazz, and from there out towards noise. Is that earlier African music not, in its own way, highly complex, and perhaps even more innovative than subsequent developments? So does that simplistic view lead us from the primitive to the civilised, or the civilised to the primitive? And given that we only have the relatively short period of recorded music as evidence, do we even have sufficient material to construct an argument in these terms?

While it is a term more commonly associated with visual art, the term “primitivism” in relation to music has some relevance, as a (pretty condescending) way of describing the way that a “civilised” individual such as Stravinsky would reach back to “primitive” African music to provide the inspiration for his music. So, at one point we saw fit to ascribe a “genre” to the act of taking from one older musical form and using elements of it in another. But is this not just what musicians do? There is so much looking back in the restless construction of the new (as Prieur might put it, music has never been a location, always a journey) that to draw attention to it now seems almost quaint.

Perhaps the only relevance of such a notion as “civilisation” is that with the passing of time our tools have indeed become more complex. A corollary of this is that the advance of technology has meant that it is now so much easier for us to access recorded music from any point of the last hundred years, and music from any location. Far from stifling innovation, as some would argue (indeed a recent Critical Beats seminar hosted by the Wire magazine spent a considerable time debating whether electronic music had in fact completely stagnated), this technology has encouraged it. One one level, you have young people who didn’t live through the boom times of Chicago house borrowing some of its structures to make something as undeniably fresh as juke/footwork. Then you have an act like Part Wild Horse Mane On Both Sides, who take a step further back, seemingly reaching back through the entire period of recorded sound, mixing field recordings with jazz, ethnic instrumentation with noise, adding a layer of modern technology to forge a whole new world of sound from temporally and geographically disparate sources.

The same creative energy isn’t necessarily all being focused in just one direction, meaning that developments can at times be less obvious, and far briefer in their existence. Rather than being propelled forward in a fast but predictable arc, sometimes genres collide, throwing off microscopic spirals which burn brightly for an infinitesimally short period of time – as the musicologist and critic Adam Harper asks in an excellent post on Night Slugs, whatever happened to wonky? Harper’s argument that defining music by label of release rather than by genre (or style, as he prefers) has distinct advantages, and has relevance to this particular case: Dancing Wayang don’t release as many records as Night Slugs, but they do seem to be attracting a certain type of musician. Like other artists who have recorded for the label – for example the saxophonist Mats Gustafsson or the drummer Chris Corsano – Peter Evans is an experimental young artist who transcends simplistic notions of genre, who can sit in with musicians from a wide variety of backgrounds, from the International Contemporary Ensemble to Fred Frith, from Evan Parker to Kevin Shea.

Peter Evans, by Scott McMillan
Peter Evans, by Scott McMillan

Returning to the record in question, the trumpet is the only instrument you’ll hear on it (well, the trumpet and the piccolo trumpet, to be precise), but that does little to curtail its scope. Thanks to the way that Evans plays it, he achieves a sense of temporal dislocation, referencing points from the instrument’s life from its original construction, through its use in classical and then improvised jazz, to noise and the new. At one point during that recent Vortex performance I mentioned, I saw Evans removing the valves from his instrument in order to just blow through it, and you can hear something similar on the second side of Beyond Civilized And Primitive. This is sound for sound’s own sake, unable to be coerced into rhythm or melody, at once extended technique and a sort of opposite: a purposeful limitation of technique, a voluntary simplicity. As such, it seems to call into question what we even mean by “extended” technique, about what is natural, and what is an enhancement – and so we find ourselves back to the primitive/civilised debate once more.

Evans doesn’t attempt to hide his technique on Beyond Civilized And Primitive: the sound is close-miked, you can hear him clicking at keys, and almost even see him circular breathing his way through “History Is Broken”, gasping in air, taking it in as deeply as he has done music from over the ages (worth pointing out, perhaps, that Evans is a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music). That vivid and irregular breathy pulse aside, that track is one long, superbly controlled line of sound, rattling along at pace like Dizzy Gillespie playing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight Of The Bumblebee. Some overdubs and loops are the only overt reference to technological progress on the album: the track whose title begins “We Like Hot Baths And Sailing Ships And Recorded Music And The Internet” (the full thing runs to 59 words and I’m well over word count already) has him duetting with a recording of himself and, one obvious issue of timbre aside, it sounds almost like Don and Albert Ayler locking together to play the theme from “Truth Is Marching In”. And so the album alternates between modes which could be considered “classical” and “contemporary”, Evans’s distinct voice managing to make them feel like dialects of the same language.

The closing track is most impressive in the way it draws from and juxtaposes seemingly different styles. It opens with a solo trumpet fanfare before suddenly switching to a section of layered dissonant drone: as if he is leaping directly from Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra to György Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna, jumpcutting from the “primitive” to the “civilised” in what feels like a reference to Kubricks’s film version of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Much in the manner of the Kubrick film, Evans isn’t offering up any easy answers to the questions he has posed thus far, but he does at least provides a neat conceptual conclusion to what is a truly stellar record.

Ultimately, the history of recorded music is not a one dimensional line or a two dimensional circle. It is a three, even four dimensional space, in which individuals like Peter Evans can wander at will, making the connections in any direction they choose. This music exists outside of genre and temporal constraints: far beyond the civilised and primitive. History is broken, but the future may well be in safe hands.