Various Artists – Bridges

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Bridges have shaped our history for centuries. Where rivers were forded, settlements were built, and trading routes were formed, and those have remained in place to this date. Even where a bridge outlives its useful life, crumbling and derelict, we rebuild them, or supplement them with bigger, parallel crossings. Innovation is in form, far more than location (consider the example of London, where Tower Bridge has remained the most easterly crossing for over 100 years). The rivers between the worlds of field recordings, noise, jazz and electronic music have long since been forded, but there is still space for the forward thinking sonic architect to construct something in a new form. One such person is the Dutch artist Machinefabriek, who has himself straddled these divides via his burgeoning discography in recent years.

Machinefabriek, aka Rutger Zuyderfelt, has co-curated this bridge-themed compilation with visual artist Gerco Hiddink, bringing together eight musicians (four pairings of two) across its four lavishly decorated sides, lovely spinning zoetropes all. Each pairing were given recordings made on location at four different bridges in the Netherlands to which they were to react independently, and the results were then mixed together. They were, if you like, building the same bridge, but from opposite ends, only able to guess at what was going on at the other side, and hoping they would meet in the middle. And with a little luck, some sound creative instinct, and a bit of help in the mixing, they have pulled it off: the constructions are not just stable enough to bear weight, but enjoyable to cross. The musicians recruited into this project have reacted in interesting, different and complementary ways to the source materials.

Not that the recordings always make it easy. It wasn’t quite so tough for Jim Denley (who has played with the likes of John Butcher and Ikue Mori) and Esper Reinerstsen (Keith Rowe, Toshimaru Nakamura), their extended saxophone techniques mingling airily with birdsong under the Bergerslagbrook. Likewise for Steven Hess and Erik Carlsson (bass drum and crotales), and Mats Gustafsson and Nate Wooley (saxophone and trumpet), who interact well with the rumbling of cars passing overhead on the Waal and Rhine respectively. However, the bridge does little more than cast shadows across the contributions of percussionists Burkhard Beins and Jon Mueller, it is felt more as a resonance, with cymbals and bells ringing out into the space. Strangely, it is on this track that the bridge’s presence is most keenly felt, as if the musicians themselves (and us, the listeners) are in a dark, echoing chamber under a drawbridge which crosses the Netterden Channel.

Bridges is available from Machinefabriek via Bandcamp.

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Tim Catlin and Machinefabriek – Patina

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So many words associated with the process of patination have such negative connotations: the act is a tarnishing, a corrosion, a corruption. Yet in certain circumstances, the formation of a patina is welcomed, sought after, even encouraged. Just down the road from where I sit right now, there are some new houses which have been there barely a couple of years, but their roofs are a bright green, copper having been used with the clear intention that it would oxidise this quickly. Likewise, new timber structures are designed to change in appearance prematurely, to silver, or to attract moss; as well as providing additional layers of protection, or even insulation, there is an implied message that the buildings are working with, as opposed to usurping, nature. But more than anything it is the age, or the desire to set the young in the context of the aged that is prized. Indeed, inside those homes, brand new furniture will have been made from reclaimed, pre-patinised, or even, to use another word which doesn’t sound like it should be a good thing, distressed materials.

And so it is with music too. The patina of vinyl crackle, and the repurposing of music’s past, have been the calling cards of the hauntological genre, a canon of records which very much put the geist back into the zeitgeist. Patina, the second release from the pairing of the Netherlands’ Rutger Zuyderfelt, aka Machinefabriek, and Tim Catlin from Australia, isn’t necessarily one that always feels like it belongs in that spectral body of work, but there is that same deliberate temporal disconnect, the joins between the new and the old being visible, the patina being welcomed, encouraged and facilitated. From the materials that were provided to him by Catlin, Zuyderfelt has produced something that is at once novel and ancient: a modern piece which has that much sought-after sense of provenance.

You may have gathered that this is not one of Zuyderfelt’s improvised collaborations, such as the particularly productive one with clarinetist Gareth Davis (which has just yielded some more fruit in the Grower CD), but rather something approached from the perspective of architect or engineer. Catlin specified the materials, a collection of electric guitar and sitar recordings, which Zuyderfelt has patiently spliced together, adding historical features, and then aging the end result. Though it is released by Low Point on (pretty white) vinyl only, much of the crackle that you will hear is the product of the design, rather than of the reproduction. The first side in fact begins with a looped section of hissing surface texture noise, into which creeps the slowly evolving drones of the source material.

Catlin is a guitarist (much like his countryman Oren Ambarchi or, indeed, like Zuyderfelt himself) who is less interested with the conventional applications of his instrument than with its sonic possibilities. What the embellishments do is make you think of an alternative history for the guitar, one in which the more experimental urges of the pioneering likes of Les Paul were the ones that took root; you find yourself imagining what might have happened if, for example, Hendrix hadn’t died before getting his hands on an e-bow. This desire to connect to (or rather, to show a disconnect from) music’s linear history asserts itself most strongly when a ghostly choir emerges from amidst the static, a classical music LP being mined for its nostalgic mood much as Philip Jeck would do, before it is supplanted once more by more contemporary-sounding ebbing and flowing tones.

The warm and natural sounding drones of the second side, in which the pulsations of Catlin’s guitar take on the character of a field of crickets on a balmy evening, are increasingly sand-blasted, the surface becoming pock-marked, the underlying detail indistinct. After a section of echoing, panning rhythm (the uncanniest of all dub revivals, in a sense), it closes with a hazy fragment of improvisatory guitar, spinning and fading like the last dying notes of a mechanical music box, or like a distantly-remembered tune evaporating from memory. And that last layer, the one that is formed in the mind of the listener, is perhaps the most important patina of all. It is those positive connotations of that word you’ll be left with, of that sense of reinforcement, and of just how powerful those juxtapositions of past and present can be.

Machinefabriek – a year-end round-up

Have I actually written about any Machinefabriek releases this year? He is having a relatively quiet year, I guess. According to Discogs he has only had 14 releases this year, including CDs, mp3s, a DVD, cassettes, and the format he has done most to single-handedly keep alive, the 3″ CD. To put that figure into context, there were 21 in 2007. As ever, some are only fleetingly available, and I’ve probably missed out on a reasonable number of good ones as a result (such things are inevitable with the Machinefabriek catalogue), but there are a few I’ve managed to get my hands on towards the end of this year which I’m actually very keen on, which show Rutger Zuyderfelt in a variety of different settings, with a number of excellent collaborators.

There are a fine pair of pairings. The pairing with English clarinetist Gareth Davis is one that I know works, having seen them perform together at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam earlier in the year. It works because Davis is such a fine improviser, such a good exponent of the instrument’s quieter possibilities as well as its more conventional ones (and can therefore meet Zuyderfelt head-on across the full dynamic range), and because he gives Zuyderfelt such a wide array of sounds to work with. The four tracks were spontaneously composed, with Zuyderfelt on a guitar and electronics set-up. For the most part on Drape they are operating at a quiet level, sometimes barely perceptible even. They are unafraid to play nothing, content to listen and contribute only where they can add something; there is an audible tension. It begins with just the sound of breath, Davis blowing through his instrument, while ebows are gently held to strings, while on Part 2, a dark and shifting assortment of sine waves and deep tones is met with occasional growl and whine. Only on the last track does an ominously vibrating string cause Drape to actually begin to rise above a forceful whisper. Drape is out now on Home Normal.

A similar hushed intensity can be perceived on his pairing with Ithaca Trio. Oliver Thurley from Leeds is all three members of the Ithaca Trio, and he, or should I say they, wrote a nice letter suggesting they collaborate on a split CD, which emerged a few months ago on Experimedia. I sometimes feel like doing similar myself; asking Zuyderfelt just to follow me around, and provide some sort of ambient electronic soundtrack, perhaps. Or to remix my life. Again, this may be some very quiet music, but there is a lot going on. The Ithaca Trio tracks manage to combine droning and glitchy electronics with live instrumentation (double bass, piano, sax, percussion) and field recordings (bird song, barely-there chatter), leading to something at times quite dense, and always atmospheric. The ever-shifting nature, combined with a background of echo and unidentifiable small sounds, make this music that blurs the boundaries between the real world and the recorded. Perhaps the unintended is in fact one of the other members of the Trio. Machinefabriek’s side opens in more expansive fashion, before the gently pulsing atmospherics of “The Desolate Delay” lead into the harsh “The Harmed Harp”. In the latter I can only assume that Zuyderfelt is actually subjecting a harp to a number of practices which may contravene the Geneva Convention as unsettling scraping, splintering, cracking, and creaking noises puncture the deep rumbling drone and oscillations. I’ve never been a fan of the split CD format, as unlike the split LP, the transition between artists can jar. But here the Ithaca Trio side just bleeds into the Machinefabriek side, as the album highlight “For Ailing Health” almost sounds like one of his slow-building pieces (I’m sure he, or, they, would take that as a compliment) as it collects breath, cymbal, skronk, and lots of coughing as it winds its way up to the plateau.

Piiptsjilling is the quartet of Machinefabriek with Jan and Romke Kleefstra, and Mariska Baars. Like his collaborations with Baars’s Soccer Committee, this is a Machinefabriek album with words. Albeit words in (West) Frisian, a language spoken only in the north of the Netherlands, by around half a million people. The law of probability suggests you aren’t one of them. In fact, Jan Kleefstra contributes poetry to Wurdskrieme, while the others add mainly processed guitar. Like the Machinefabriek/Davis record, this was recorded pretty spontaneously over a couple of days, and it has a very pleasing ebb and flow to it. Sections of near-song, with semi-diaphonous vocals from Baars, drift into wordless drone, then into spoken word, and into extended periods of improvised guitar (the outro to “Tsjustere Leaten” actually reminds me of one of the darker sections from Fahey’s Red Cross). For something recorded so quickly it sounds remarkable cohesive, and never less than compelling; possibly even my favourite Machinefabriek of the year. There is a whole other album culled from the same sessions (of course there was), released on Spekk, but I haven’t heard it. Law of probability suggests it is likely to be very good.

Another release explodes this collaboration apart, as both Machinefabriek and the two Kleefstras also feature, on separate tracks on a limited edition White Box CD called That It Stays Winter Forever, along with White Box’s Liondialer. It gets increasingly less opaque as it goes along, the sound of instruments, primarily guitars, appearing out of the haze. The Machinefabriek comes in at around twenty minutes (or, in Machinefabriek measures, three inches), twenty lovely minutes of shimmering tones, deep bass notes, and popping electronics, a combination which reminds me of that other student of the guitar’s extended sonic potential, Oren Ambarchi. The Kleefstras combine with Anne Chris Bakker to chop out some sparse echoing guitar into an increasingly biting wind of static and hiss. I’ve no idea what Jan is muttering about, but here he sounds as portentous as a Dutch David Tibet. The contribution of Liondialer (the duo of White Box boss Danny Saul with Greg Haines) begins with unadorned, unprocessed guitar, the first time I’ve heard such a thing in many hours now. Such a state can’t last, obviously, and it all gets sucked down into a deep echoing chasm, before being eroded to nothing in an abrasive second half.

And so there ends another Machinefabriek year. Given that the quality of his solo work seemed to be peaking in 2009 with Dauw, it is commendable that he has continued to push himself by continuing to seek new situations and new approaches – in particular, I’m impressed by the quality of his improvisation in collaborative settings. The fact that everything (it seems) is released means that there is nowhere for him to hide anything substandard; the fact that there appears to be nothing substandard, is truly remarkable.

*Postscript: I’ve just received an email from Machinefabriek which suggests that “early 2011″ will include 4 CDs, one 12″ piece of vinyl, one 10″ piece of vinyl, one 5″ piece of vinyl, a cassette and, of course, a 3” CD-R*

Photo by Scott McMillan

North Sea Jazz Festival 2010, Ahoy Rotterdam (Part 1)

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Just look at some of the headliners at this year’s North Sea Jazz Festival: Norah Jones. Earth, Wind & Fire. Macy Gray. Diana Krall. Jools Holland and His Sodding Rhythm & Blues Orchestra. You’re probably already wondering what on earth possessed me to get the bus, train, tube, train, ferry, train and Metro from London to the city of Rotterdam for the festival. But if you looked beyond the unashamedly populist fare that was being peddled on some of the main stages of the huge Ahoy complex (13 stages, over 20,000 visitors each day; the scale of the festival was mind-blowing) you’d see some innovative and risky programming which meant that both meteorologically and musically this was to be one of the hottest weekends of the year. Continue reading