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In the hands of machines Part II

img  Tobias Fischer

Radical transformations
While its seven-year-tenure lasted, Secret Measures were part of one of the most fascinating developments on the music scene: The gradual infiltration of all genres by electronic production tools and the new techniques and approaches resulting from their use. Improvisation was not the only realm where its impact could be felt, but it was certainly one, which was transformed most radically. The more it absorbed these novel external influences, the more it came to develop a voice of its own, which could no longer be subsumed under any specialist sub-label of electronica. Certainly someone like Peter Rehberg, despite the respect from the improvised community towards his endeavours and his own involvement in improv-related projects, didn't feel their activities were of particular interest to him: "I was of course aware of the improvisation scene, but never had anything to do with it until the first MIMEO shows in 1997. And to be brutally honest my only connection with that scene is when MIMEO plays, which, due to its size, happens very rarely. I feel improvised music is something to experience in the room in real time, and not at home. Not that I have anything against it or anything, it's just not my cup of tea. I find jazz to be even more tedious than rock music, so this is all outside my field of interest."

Requests and Antisongs had only been the seventh entry in the Erstwhile catalogue, but the label would rapidly emerge as the leading force for EAI, its releases being discussed by underground and bigger alternative publications alike. In Vienna, Berlin (Reductionism) and Tokyo (Onkyō), similar-minded movements started to emerge, which were associated with a different, more sensitive approach to playing and an expansion of the dynamic range into quieter regions. In 1997, John Butcher joined seminal ensemble Polwechsel, replacing Radu Malfatti, and the group's  tightrope act at the border between the acoustic and the electronic turned out to be remarkably popular, especially when, as on the classic Wrapped Islands, they teamed up with drone-musician Christian Fennesz. Fennesz was still a guitarist by name, but his preference for the instrument was more one for a tool which allowed him to get good results most quickly, while, in the background, software and physical modelling programs frequently took its familiar sounds far beyond recognition. More and more performers started switching from 'traditional' instruments to electronic ones and each 'defection' made the switchover easier for their peers. In 1997, Toshimaru Nakamura, after the recording session to the first Repeat-album with Jason Kahn, put down his guitar and henceforth worked exclusively with the no-input mixing board. In sync with him, Kahn himself began seeing percussive instruments as sound sources rather than pure rhythm generators, picking up the colors of his drum set and feeding them into samplers.

It wouldn't take long and Christof Kurzmann joined them. For Kurzmann, it was only the logical next step, after having traded in the saxophone for the clarinet, specifically because its overtone scale allowed him to interact with electronic instruments more easily. After being introduced to lloopp, a modular software developed by Klaus Filip, he took to the electronic medium altogether. And yet, his philosophy of improvisation remained firmly intact. To him, lloopp didn't constitute a paradigm shift, but rather a more suitable tool to realise his ideas. Kurzmann very much thought of the software as an instrument, which he consciously didn't feed with myriads of samples, but with a carefully compiled selection of sounds, each requiring a set of unique performance techniques. According to Jacques Oger of French label Potlatch, it was an approach which substantially differed from Durrant's, despite their similar set-ups. To him, while Durrant was interested in slowly scanning and deconstructing his co-musician's frequencies, Kurzmann's approach was more 'conventional' in that it was based on a 'dialogue', on sounds, rhythms and loops. Precisely for these reasons, however, he was able to react to subtle changes in the acoustic situation around him with astounding immediacy. For Oger, the resulting music was "very evocative" and rich in timbre, something which "can fit very well with a saxophonist like John Butcher who knows how to coax highly complex sounds from his instruments."

Aging favourably: The Big Misunderstanding Between Hertz and MegaHertz
Kurzmann had been following John Butcher's work closely, seeing him perform at the Nickelsdorf Festival, among others. It would take until the year 2000, however, before they actually met. At the time, Polwechsel had been invited to Chicago to perform at the Renaissance Society. These Renaissance Society nights, as Butcher points out, essentially constituted public displays of Austrian culture and on that respective night, Burkhard Stangl's opera "Venusmond", a work in progress for many years, was to be performed. With Butcher being at hand, Stangl wrote a part specifically for him into the work. Afterwards, at the Hot House, a cultural hotspot for non-commercial art, Polwechsel did another gig, performing a commission by avantgarde vocalist and composer Gisburg. A solo by Kurzmann was the second item on the program that night and it was here that Butcher first got into contact with his music. A talk after the performance revealed shared interests and from now on, they'd meet from time to time, whenever Butcher was in Vienna to play with Polwechsel, sometimes even giving gigs together.

These public shows, of which merely a single, two-minute short extract has been published so far, served as a testing ground for the work at Christoph Amann's studio in the Austrian capital, where the music for what would, four years later, turn into The Big Misunderstanding Between Hertz and MegaHertz was conceptualised and recorded. In sync with this, the duo also set up camp at the Westwerk studios in Hamburg, where they worked with Tobias Levin, who had already produced big German and international acts like To Rococo Rot, Kante and Tocotronic. The contrast with the rough live recording of the Secret Measures debut‎ could hardly have been bigger: "They had plenty of time to record it under excellent conditions and they could choose the "best" pieces", according to Oger, who is still convinced that the album remains underrated. He may be right. As so often, nothing was planned at their sessions at the Amann Studios. And yet, the luxury of experimenting freely and then being able to see what worked and what didn't paid off. To this day, it remains one of the most perfect examples of a truly organic fusion of electronic and acoustic means.

Of course, it has helped that, in terms of sonic aesthetics, The Big Misunderstanding Between Hertz and MegaHertz has aged quite favourably compared to a lot of similar releases of its era. Listening to its today, some of the cuts sound remarkably like lost gems from the Autechre-vaults, like previously unreleased ambient remixes of Drum n Bass tracks or even, as on the subfrequency-heavy "Seer", as precursors to the current bass-movement in the UK. But most of its appeal stems not from these surprises and the record's freshness-factor, but from the quality of the interaction between the musicians. After having listened to it for a few times, for example, it seemed perfectly clear to me that Kurzmann was, similar to Durrant, working with samples from Butcher's sax lines, chopping them up to construct dense textures, hypnotic loops and hyper-real instrumental performances. So did Dan Warburton, reviewing the record for Paris Transatlantic: "It's not easy to spot when and how Kurzmann incorporates real time transformation of the saxophone - even Butcher isn't always sure." As Butcher points out, our mistaken assumption is the result of a very good pairs of ears on the part of his Austrian colleague: "You know - I don't think Christof even processes or samples me - his part is autonomous. No wonder Dan couldn't hear it ... I think the thing is, that Christof has very good knowledge of his instrument, to not just work with the pitch of my material but also its timbre/colour." Listening back to the album with this in mind makes pieces like "Aume", on which Kurzmann is replicating Butcher's breathing sounds, or the aptly titled "Bee Space", which sees him working with materials astoundingly similar to the opening and closing of the keys, all the more remarkable. It also turned Butcher, who was challenged anyway because of Kurzmann's tendency on the sessions to play very quietly, on to even more daring and explorative performances. A "veritable ecstasy of the senses", as Gérard Rouy wrote for Jazz Magazine or, as Jason Bivins summed it up in Dusted, simply "a great record."

A lack of edge: Dusted Machinery
By the time The Big Misunderstanding Between Hertz and MegaHertz was released, working with electronic musicians had already become slightly less prominent for Butcher. This had less to do with  a wearing off of the novelty of some of the sounds and concepts which had seemed so fascinating at first – although Kurzmann would, in an interview conducted in 2010, express his distaste for Mego's increasing preference for "bourgeois parameters like volume and speed". Rather, it appeared to reflect a general sentiment in the community that the sheer 'limitness' of electronic means was not always desirable. When I spoke to saxophonist and analogue synth improviser Thomas Ankersmit, for example, he seemed put off by how easy it was to create sustained textures with an all-electronic process and how this easiness translated into a far less powerful experience, both for the musician and the listener: "The performances that I thought were the most intense were the ones that were played on acoustic instruments, such as Charlemagne Palestine on the piano, Tony Conrad on the violin or La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela singing. Somehow, to play a sustained note on the saxophone to me feels physically more gratifying than switching on the oscillator and then sitting back. For me, when playing the saxophone with circular breathing, everything  becomes this repeated action over and over again, it just becomes a cycle and you don't have to pay attention to it anymore. But it becomes physically very intense nonetheless, it really takes over your body, if that is what your body is focused on at the moment." Speaking to Rhodri Davies for an article about various facets of his work, Butcher seemed to share these sentiments, when he said: "With electronics there isn't the physical element of difficulty in producing sounds. Things get very smoothed out. I miss that edge in pure electronics."

Fittingly, his encounter with Toshimaru Nakamura, began quite inconspicuously. Both had been invited to perform at the Super Delux club in Tokyo and when Nakamura arrived at the venue, "John was quietly reading a book in one corner of the venue before our set. I said hi to him. He raised his eyes from his book and said hi back to me, and went back to his book, carried on reading." The performance would later be captured on Cavern with Nightlife, but the two would not record together again until Dusted Machinery a few years later. Both had been invited to London for David Sylvian's "When we return you won't recognise us" project. The sessions were not as anyone involved expected, with Sylvian being remarkably subtle in suggesting what to play, very slowly guiding the musicians towards the performance he wanted without forcing things too much. Nakamura had arrived earlier, staying at Butcher's house for a few days. It was through the time spent talking and getting to know each other better that the interaction turned from being a coincidental encounter to a more stable form, towards a duo with a future.

Many shades of grey
Dusted Machinery didn't steal itself into the hearts of the community straight away – it may still constitute a somewhat underappreciated entry in Butcher's catalogue. He himself credits this with the fact that many felt he was holding back too much, working with harsher sounds  and with the result not being easily pigeonholed. Certainly, already opener "Leaven" is typical for said approach: For minutes, the protagonists lay down a space filled with nothing but pristine high-frequency tones, fragile crackle and hiss, until, at the four-and-a-half-minute mark, Nakamura disrupts the equilibrium with a loud ink blot of noise – only for the music to quickly return to its former state of careful treading, discretely propelled by a new sense of nervousness. A lot of the musical action consists of sheets of sound rubbing against each other, which adds to the somewhat static feel of the album, the impression of entering a space rather than observing a linearly unfolding process. In terms of timbre, too, instead of making full use of the palette, Dusted Machinery offers a spectrum of many different shades of grey, which, like in a nocturnal kaleidoscope, keep shifting against each other. It takes time to appreciate the nuances of this process, to savour the resonance of each new brushstroke.

And yet, it can be assumed that the real reason why so many felt uncomfortable listening to it, is that Dusted Machinery blurs the line between the human and the machinal to a degree that makes them all but indistinguishable from each other. Both Nakamura and Butcher are clearly discernible in the mix, and yet, their instruments are shifting towards the other in a way that is just close enough to home to remain recognisable, yet far enough to make one feel uneasy. What makes this even more haunting is the fact that the effect is not a sideproduct of a spontaneous improvisation session but quite clearly a conscious move and one which both actors clearly delight in. Although they would usually prefer the live situation, they entered the studio to work with Dave Hunt, which allowed them to spend time experimenting with different microphone positions since, as Butcher explains, "it's hard to combine electronics and acoustic instruments in a way that sounds like they're in the same physical space - unless you add loads of artificial reverb, which I never do." The material that got cut out was discarded not because of a lack of artistic merit, but because it made them feel "too separate". Which points to an intriguing paradox at the heart of Butcher's explorations into the world of electronics. While his first forays with Phil Durrant, thanks to the relative transparency of the underlying processes, had a clear human feeling to them, his most recent work, which could easily have been produced to sound 'natural' or 'organic'' may be his most 'cool' and 'machinal' yet.

Again, this points to the notion that considerations are not so much influenced by what is technically possible, but creatively aspiring. And besides, as Butcher emphasises, all of these considerations are meaningless anyway in his choice of collaborator: "As always - the thing for me is the player, not the instrument. If someone does something I like, electronics or not, I'll try to play with them. Certain schools of electronics have led acoustic players to find new ways of playing and interacting. Simplistically the fast/cut-up school - or the quiet/slowly-evolving school, but both areas seem pretty clichéd now. Of course - as always, if it's going to be any good - it depends who is making the music more than the "type" of music. I'm continually interested in how the saxophone makes it possible to draw on so many shades of melody/texture/abstraction/directness - whereas, almost counter-intuitively, electronics can lead to less ambiguity. But again, not in the right hands." The dividing line between a horrible howl of feedback or nothing at all - it has remained as exciting and fruitful as ever.

By Tobias Fischer

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Part 1 of this feature can be found here.

Homepage: John Butcher
Homepage: Christof Kurzmann
Homepage: Toshimaru Nakamura
Homepage: Potlatch Records
Homepage: Monotype Recordings