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CD Feature/ Hear: "5 Pieces"; Trio Sowari: "Shortcut"; The Epicureans: "A Riddle..."

img  Tobias

In a recent post on his thoroughly worthwhile „Watchful Ear“ blog, Richard Pinnell takes a trip back in time to explain why he has come to find the use of the word 'EAI' (Electro Acoustic Improvisation) problematic. „Those of us observing from behind our computer screens felt the need to try and apply a label, create divisions with the past, claim this music as our own, when really it was all just part of a continuum that began decades ago and continues today“, Pinnell writes, „There are certainly some definable sub-divisions with the music today that we could, (should we for some reason ever feel the need) apply sub-genre names to, but 'EAI' is not a genre and never has been. The term covers too much ground within an area of music we already had a name for.” His conclusion is clear: “It's time we stopped using it.“

What he means is this: Even though average audiences haven't even started using it and journalists, label owners, record stores and a handful of initiated fans (semi-jokingly estimated at about 150 worldwide in a related discussion at the 'I hate Music' board) may find it useful for marketing- and time-saving-purposes, the „EAI“ brand creates a supposed set of rules where there are none, sets expectations where there should be none and creates an unnecessary border line between scenes which, from a purely musical perspective, have a lot more in common than most may think. There is something extremely compelling about this argument. In its most fundamental form, after all, „EAI“ simply refers to the inclusion of live electronics in improvisation. Why should this alone constitute a new category, a break with tradition, a fresh beginning and a reason for division?

This line of reasoning is further supported by a couple of observations. The aesthetics of EAI – its alliance with abstract visual arts; its preference of colour, timbral exploration, frequential extremities and pure, unpitched sound over melody, harmony, harmonic progression and fixed forms – are all already contained within the overarching set of improvised music. So is its main goal: To extend the palette of expression towards higher precision and deeper penetration of a particular idea. In terms of ambition and scope, therefore, Pinnell's conclusions are correct. The real question, however, is whether the inbuilt possibilities of electronic tools allow for radically new forms of interaction. As three recent releases demonstrate, your answer depends on your point of view.

Hear: From Solo Bass to Rich Details
„5 Pieces“ by three-piece Hear is an especially rewarding contribution to the debate. It organically grew from a couple of solo Bass tracks by Hannes Strobl enriched by the sonic activities of versatile Drummer Tony Bucks into an expansive and detailed work, which many critics would all but automatically associate with EAI thanks to the inclusion of seemingly omnipresent Toshimaru Nakamura on No Input Mixing Board. The border line inside the continuum, which Pinnell mentions in his essay, is an integral part of the program here: While Strobl's pulsating Bass takes center stage on the four more concise tracks in the second half of the program, with his partners adding depth, texture or complementary themes, the 30-minute opening jam is a mantric field of finely nuanced bowing, glassy drones, momentous yet remote thunders, wooden percussive crackles, subsonic vibration and a recurring mono-tonal motive connecting scenes of varying length separated by well-balanced stretches of silence.

There is a clear demarcation between the two principal segments of the album, which feels almost like flipping over a Vinyl record from its minimal, weightlessly floating and coolly concentrated A-side to its more poignant, warm, loop-oriented and rhythmic counterpart. And yet, it never feels like changing buses or switching genres. On the shorter tracks, the group strives for a more dynamic approach, Strobl shifting the emphasis of movement away from free-floating ensemble tactics and towards slowly gyrating pieces hinged on his Bass and a subtle combination of repetition and variation. Regardless of these nuances, though, the outcome, a both reflective and immediate music of great intimacy, is the same. Nakamura's soft-needled high-frequency modulations (which often feel and sound like the delicately hushed decay of the tones produced by his partners) and sheets of gently grainy white noise don't appear to alter the essentials of interaction between the members of Hear. But it can hardly be denied that they add an element of discreet estrangement and associative abstraction to the blend.

Trio Sowari: Quiet Dynamics
If „5 Pieces“ still tilted slightly towards the acoustic faction, Trio Sowari's „Shortcut“ establishes a more equitable balance with the „E“ in „EAI“: Small electrics, software samples and treatments thereof (provided by Phil Durrant and Burkhard Beins) intertwine with Bertrand Denzier's Tenor Sax as well as the use of Percussion and various, unspecified “objects”. It is, for most of its duration, an album operating with quiet dynamics and discreet maneuvers, even though the occasional circuit bending sets off bright sparks of sizzling roasting-sounds. Five short „piercings“ at the beginning of the record serve the triple purpose of cleansing the audience's ears with uktra-high frequencies, drilling for depth in short forms and introducing stem cells from which the ensuing music will bud and grow: Close-captioned drum brushes, minute surface scanning, the use of air as an essential textural and thematic component and the creation of fluent sequences of precisely delineated noises connected  by seemingly improbable chains of cause and reaction.

Because the group makes form an essential part of its pieces, surprise is a constant element on the album, with some tracks exploring the particulars of a given set of sounds from beginning to end and others constantly changing their direction or engaging in a free stream of consciousness devoid of any obvious structural episodes. Instead of trying to compete, Durrant, Denzler and Beins effectively eradicate their egos as well as the specifics of their instruments in the process of performing: Not only is it becoming increasingly hard to distinguish who is playing what (with the odd exception of an Oxygen-rich Sax breath or a naive Glockenspiel note sounding in the distance), but also which sources are electric and which are not. The result of these alluring and positively sensual investigations is a dense and coherent sound composed of a myriad of building blocks, which allows both for macro- and micro-listening.

The Epicureans: Raw Tools
On their second album „A Riddle Within a Conundrum Within a Game“, meanwhile, Boston-based threepiece The Epicureans cull an equally diverse sound from a purely acoustic line-up of Bass, Drums and Saxophone. Effectively, each instrument is stripped of its stereotypical connotations and considered a raw tool for producing sound. The microphone turns into a fourth band member, as equally subtle and complex airstreams and the tiniest tactile operations involving strings, metal and membranes are inflated to epic proportions. This in turn allows the members of the ensemble to create effects which are, at least occasionally, astoundingly similar to the electronic manipulations of their aforementioned colleagues.

In comparison to the serpentining arrangements of its eponymous predecessor, the album is slightly more linear and, relatively speaking of course, more accessible. There always appears to be a concrete and constant motive pushing the action forward, making each track highly recognisable. There are exceptions, of course. The two-minute tensile test „Blade of Fury“, for example. Or the ten minute closer „H.B.“, which seems all but finished at the five minute mark but then grinds to a halt in slowmotion on silence and sourdined momentum. You can virtually see the musicians looking at each other, uncertain about whether to go on and then deciding to add a few precisely placed notes before leaving for a beer at the pub around the corner. Overall, the courageous combination of upfront, concretely palpable Noise and almost tender exchanges underneath a protective dome of glass has remained firmly intact. Compared to the rich variety in colours of Hear and Trio Sowari, however, they sound reduced and raw, with the way a tone is played and produced becoming the centre of attention.

As the Epicureans demonstrate, electronics in themselves do not change the process of interaction between different improvisers, because the result of their musical communication is not directly related to them. To someone like Nakamura, for example, who used to play the Guitar before readjusting his focus, the Mixing Board is not so much a technical device but an instrument in its own right. As such, his responses and queues in a group context will depend, in a very traditional way, on his personal and creative relationship with the other performers, the audience and the performance space – a notion fortified, for example, by his clearly differentiated work in the context of alternative line-ups, such as his early Repeat project with Jason Kahn. And yet, even a layman will be able to distinguish fundamental differences between „Shortcut“ and „5 Pieces“ on the one hand and „A Riddle“ on the other. Strangely, therefore, the term “EAI” seems more justified, the less you think about it. Even insiders, after all, have found it hard to arrive at fully satisfying definitions of what the supposed genre is about. .

For all the bickering and friendly infighting, one thing's for sure, however: It may be a good thing to occasionally get excited about academic questions like this one. At the end of the day however, what really counts is that all these three discs – as similar or different as they may be – are stimulating and enjoyable food for thought.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Hannes Strobl
Homepage: Toshimaru Nakamura
Homepage: Room40 Records
Homepage: Bertrand Denzler
Homepage: Burkhard Beins
Homepage: Potlatch Records
Homepage: The Epicureans
Homepage: Eh? Recordings

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