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CD Feature/ Ernie Althoff: "Dark by Six"

img  Tobias

It's always great when you discover something out of left field. Oddly enough, my first learning of  the work of Ernie Althoff came through a review of his recent CD "Dark by 6" that referenced my own work. Of course, I had to know more - and in the end was completely humbled by the comparison.
Althoff has been working in Melbourne since the early 1970's as a "composer/performer/instrument builder/artist". He has been building music machines since 1980, and working with installations since 1986. Dark by 6 is a recent CD documenting five of Althoff's installations from 2000 - 2003. There's basic text and images in the cd booklet, and some beautiful recordings on the CD.
The sound installations are mainly percussive, but much more in a gamelan kind of way than a drum kit. There's lots of bamboo, sticks, bowls, rocks, etc., and most of the motion comes from using turntables and oscillating fans - an aesthetic that comes from Althoff's "low budget ethic", with motion coming from "readily recognized devices". I recently visited the wonderful Tinguely museum in Basel and spent a lot of time recording the sculptures as they moved around clanging against each other. The one thing I kept wishing was that Tinguely was more interested in the sound possibilities of the works. Althoff's works have the same kind of magic as Tinguely's - mainly because of the familiarity with all the poor materials but the magic of their dance - but in Althoff's case you are also inspired by their song.
There's a playful aspect to some of the work; but the real power for someone experiencing these works as audio on a cd is that they also sound beautiful, particularly the epic "emergence of mammals", which sounds like church bells, percussive stick clicks, and swinging wood somethings. There's an organic quality to the structure - sure it feels composed, but the repetition is not mechanical as much as it reminds me of those bamboo water spouts in japanese zen gardens that fill up with water then make a beautiful percussive "clunk" as they tip and empty the water out.  "Song of the Centipede" brings up another connection relevant to Althoff's works and that is Harry Partch. As Centipede's pendulum drags across two small zither's, i keep thinking Partch's voice is going to start speaking. Again the strums are repetitive, but because everything is so jerry-rigged it feels organic. Each strum is not the same as the previous strum, the machine constantly shifting in it's motion so that the exact strings that make up the strum are consistently slightly shifting. This piece is a bit more aggressive than Mammals, but no less beautiful.
The CD continues with eucalyptus pods moving in turntable spun tin dishes, bamboo tripods with hanging bells and clappers, marbles, etc. The last track, "Dummy Run", is more of a fluxus or Cagean work, where audience members performed on relevant "instruments", instructions from a score card they were given upon entering the space. the recording is actually two overlaid sections of the day long event and sounds a bit more like a happening.
There is another CD by Althoff available from a few years ago documenting his Heliosonics - 26 beautiful handmade instruments, powered by sunlight. Kind of a combination of richard tuttle's visual aesthetics mixed with the baschet brothers percussion devices, The CD is a beautiful document of  the instruments playing in small groups and the sound is absolutely incredible - delicate percussive tender clicks and bells - as with the installations in Dark by 6, there is a wonderful organic feel to these machines, and it never becomes repetitive or boring. In fact it's much more like a field recording - like listening to cow's with cowbells on. At first it all sounds kind of similar and then one begins to hear the subtleties and differences, the motion and silences... these delicate "songs" played by little sun run machines are somewhat humble as well as gently stunning. these two CDs are great works by a wonderful artist who definitely needs to be known by a larger audience of experimental music and sound art. If you are at all interested in people like Harry Partch, Joe Jones, Jean Tinguely, Akio Suzuki, John Cage, etc. you will love this.

by Steve Roden

Homepage: Antboy Music

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