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CD Feature/ Al Margolis/If, Bwana: "An Innocent, Abroad"

img  Tobias
Initial opposition is not necessarily something extraordinary for a piece of contemporary composition. In the case of “An Innocent, Abroad”, however, the first signs were indeed ominous: First reviews were sceptical, the piece quickly turned up at a playlist called “Difficult Listening” and in the end, German broadcaster WDR, who commissioned the work, decided not to broadcast it. So why, then, does it deserve a second chance?

The most important answer to that is probably that these first impressions were formed on the basis of wrong patterns of expectation. Reviewers tended to find this four-part, fourtytwo minute piece too monochromatic and static – even though Margolis had included the basically unnecessary remark that the music has a strong installation character in the press release. And the WDR decision was prompted by a formulistic conception of what “new music” should comprise or sound like (something, by the way, Germany has always particularly excelled in).

After a first listen, I found both criticisms to be unfounded. For starters, “An Innocent, Abroad” is an incredibly vivid track, a constantly changing space for voice, flutes and electronic effects. Lisa Barnard’s lips are forming simple, cooly delivered sentences, random vowls and bewildering howls. They express amazement or unclassifiable emotions and even lend wings to playful melodies, while her two companions Jaqueline Martelle and Jane Rigler imitate owl- and birdsounds, overblow their instruments, while lifting off on fluent thematic lines. Combined with the staggering metallic drones, created by Margolis from the vocal track, the result is a surreal, open, slightly irritating but just as much warm and empathetic piece.

The whole concept of the album also ridicules the “too new musicy” remark. “An Innocent, Abroad” consists of nothing but improvisational contributions, its energies flowing effortlessly and without accademic constraints. Margolis has seemingly left most of the original tapes intact, with the conceptual work mainly taking place before the track was realised. That might put him in line with Cage, but that’s it as far as categories are concerned.

Maybe the work was a victim of its own success in a way. Even though it remains open to many interpretations, “An Innocent, Abroad” seems to deal with determinacy and indeterminacy as well as with concentrated listening as opposed to subconscious hearing to a certain degree. The more one directs one’s attention to it, the more demanding it gets and the more the at first unconnected motives start to interact at various levels. At a background volume, however, this is distorting Ambient music, warping the environment with a bizarre sense of spatiality and lending itself perfectly to other activities such as reading Burroughs or following various trains of thought.

In the end, things did turn out well nonetheless. More recent reviews have found coherency in the chaos and the WDR simply opted for a different work (“It never rains in Mexico”). Has “An Innocent, Abroad” convinced its critics? Probably not. At its heart, it will remain “diificult listening” to a lot of people. On the other hand, it does go to show once again that first impression is not always accurate – just as much with contemporary composition as with anything else.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Pogus Records

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