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Odd preoccupations

img  Tobias Fischer

After thirty years, you'd expect there to be some sort of consensus about the work of an artist. In the case of If, Bwana, the brainchild of New York based Al Margolis, meanwhile, neither critics, record labels nor listeners have even come close to defining a common ground or Leitmotif. True, central to Margolis's explorations have been a profound love for sound and its manipulation, for prickly timbres and sandpaper-like drones, for surprising juxtapositions and unexpected beauty. And yet, the concrete manifestations of this love have defied typical genre classifications as much as the delineation of an easily pinpointable style. Emerging from the buoyant tape scene of the 80s as part of his own Sound of Pig label's artist roster, Margolis would effortlessly jump from noise to ambient, oscillate between sample-heavy collages and contemporary composition, reconcile the profound with the entertaining, the serious with the humorous. This tendency to defy expectations has remained a constant, as much as If, Bwana has gradually been recognised in new music circles as a potent force for inspiring post-everything installations and scores which would not seem out of place in a program of Webern, Boulez or Stockhausen at your local concert hall. To assist us in our quest for meaning, Al kindly agreed to talk us through some of the key moments of his discography to try and decode the mystery behind his albums – and to offer anyone interested in the work of one of the most wilful and passionate sound artists some directions. Not every riddle will get solved here. Perhaps we'll simply need another thirty years for that. Or perhaps, this inability to come up with clear definitions is a sign of quality for an oeuvre which has always prioritised music over vanity and experience over explanation.

Prelude: New Years Eve 1984
That would be the last evening on Earth that If, Bwana did not exist. The next day – New Years Day, January 1, 1984, was when the very first If, Bwana track – "Slave Ant Raid" – was recorded. And as they say, the rest is history. Beyond that I off hand cannot recall why that day was when I first recorded what became the first If, bwana piece … was I bored, was it snowy … I probably had been thinking about it for awhile?

The technical conditions were all in place – Fostex X-15 4-track cassette recorder, Moog Rogue, violin, bass etc … but why that day? What led to "Slave Ant Raid" (1984), a creeping, creepy crawly piece? The title was taken from one of the sections in a book on insects that I had from childhood. (and also became the title of the very first Sound of Pig release – a compilation tape). I apparently had chosen that title beforehand, as that is what is repeated as the text – sung/spoken over the repeating bass line while the violin and Moog add ominous color to it all.

Freudian Slip (1984) (this can be listened to here)
This was the first full If, Bwana cassette release. Pretty raw – in sound and probably in the actual creation of it. It was only natural to continue on this path. I was also playing more song-oriented material in a band or two at this time … but needed to work in this vein as it was what I probably heard – if not quite in my head, somewhere... It was less an intellectual process at this time … basically I had sounds I wanted to spew forth – though I did not really realize that either. I mean that I could not tell you why I was hearing or needing to specifically make the sounds / songs I was. A deep-seated psychological need? Nah … Probably just to make non-music (sound art? Nope, this stuff probably does not fit the definition. Is it noise ... well maybe, it's noisy but not driven by the need to be screaming loud – perhaps part of it was the need to make abrasive, non-commercial, non-manipulative, experimental music … maybe the best definition – at least early on - of what I was trying to do/create.) In listening to it as I write this, I realize that this tape probably has the most vocal work that I personally ever did on my recordings … very odd ...

They Call Me "Bwana" (1987) (now reissued on CD)
This tape became, on its release, my best work up to that time (in my opinion). Once again, a release shaped by a change in technology. I had just gotten an 8 track Otari reel-to-reel and so this was used for this tape. My favorite story when I put this out was a comment from someone who basically said – "Since you have an 8 track, why are you making this kind of music?" – very chuckleworthy … As if one could go back from what was driving one … sound quality probably a lot better owing to it being on ½ inch reel-to-reel tape – I was at this point also using the Akai S-612 sampler which was pretty good quality and gave a good sound. As it also was an 8 voice sampler, it extended the range of sounds and sampled sounds and loops I was able to use at this time. One of the key lessons I learned at this time as well and which I carry forward to this day was that even if you have 8 tracks (or 16 or 132) – you do not have to use them all ...

33 Birds Went (1995) (Available here)
Doing an interview this way is kind of strange – well not strange but – forces one to go back and relisten to the past … which is also kind of interesting. Was listening to this CD – which was my first – and found it still quite good … it is different than I remembered (if that makes sense). It is the first set of works that makes use of female vocals (Ellen Christi) – something that now has been fairly consistently used throughout my work. A fair amount of sampling and live in the studio mixing of playbacks to create the final versions. Also some nice electroacoustic textures and also use of synthesizers … I need to sit down with it again soon I think … and still lots of copies available for those who might actually want a CD ...

An Innocent, Abroad (2007) (Available here)
This became a Pogus release by "accident" – I mean of course with Pogus being my label it is not surprising that in the end I released it … I was commissioned by WDR Koln to do a akustische kunst work for the radio and when the finished work (An Innocent, Abroad) was submitted to them it did not quite meet the requirements of having enough musique concrete etc sounds … in the end, I did another piece for them that was broadcast … So this came back to me – it's a long piece for mutiple flutes and voices – text  mostly improvised by Lisa B. Kelley (from some sound poetry books … she just kind of saw some texts and winged it) – with flutes by Jackie Martelle and Jane Rigler – and then electronics and assemblage etc by me … so it becomes this multilayered work … which I quite like, I have often thought of making some kind of an installation from it – and may do a live "radio installation" version at some point that combines the voices with the percussive sounds from its alternate (WDR) piece – I have also considered using it as a starting point for a poor man's "co-located-which would be dis-located piece/"opera" – which may – with all the smart phone/ipod/pad etc work with what I had been pondering … so who knows – maybe a renewed life or revised or a whole new piece!!!

Favorite Encores (2008) (Available here)
I had been a fan of Noah Creshevsky’s work for a long time and then when we released his Hyperrealism CD on Mutable (where I was working) we became friends. At one point I was listening to something of Noah’s and my wife suggested – oh, you should do a CD of his – probably this was after his first Tzadik release. It sounded like a great idea and I approached Noah with this … and he suggested we do a shared release (which for some very odd reason gets listed in the digital realm as Various Artists – making actual sales (if there were any) even more difficult to attain). It was from mutual appreciation of each other's work. The three pieces on the CD that are my contribution to it – while all stand alone works – are also part of a continuum. "Shredded Scafide" uses a processed version of the piano part that Tony Scafide recorded for "3 Out of 4 Ain’t Bad" on the Tripping India CD. Some of the material on "Xyloxings" was later used on the prerecorded part for "Gilmore’s Girls". And "Cicada #4: Version Barnard" is another in the Cicada series I have been working on. So there has been a continuation through the work (maybe goes back – or forward) to my thoughts of an ecological (green) composer – who recycles their bits and bytes (so as not to run out of them). Or maybe it's just some odd preoccupation.

I Am Sitting In Phil Niblock's Kitchen (2011) (Available here)
In some ways you could almost consider this release an accident. In preparing for a collaborative performance that Dan Warburton and I were going to do in Gent, Belgium, Dan had prepared a 45 minute backing tape that used all the If, Bwana recordings he had in his collection. To prepare this I believe he did a lot of either stretching or compressing of the material (the exact details are lost to the mists of time in both his and my mind … or maybe to all the alcohol under the bridge). The idea for the performance was we would use the prepared material, Dan would play violin and I would play clarinet and laptop. Unfortunately on this tour, my laptop crapped out, and unsure if I would be able to rustle another one up in time, I tried to figure out what else I could do. I was staying at Phill’s place and sitting in the kitchen – with the trams going by and people walking and talking etc … I thought I would play the backing material back into the room and record it on my digital recorder, accepting any and all random sounds from inside and outside as well as any sonic degradation that would come from just recording it through the air. For the actual performance (in which I did manage to use someone’s laptop), we played both versions of the backing material – not quite in sync, plus violin, clarinet and computer. It was quite a good performance (but sadly it was not recorded at the time).

Upon my return from the tour, I ended up taking the two versions of the backing material (all bwana all the time) and laid them down next to each other – again not synced up, and to extract revenge – well actually to sort of turn Dan’s method around - used  a recording of a one minute piano piece of Warburton’s and stretched that to 45 minutes. And so that was the 3rd element. It would likely not have happened if not for the faulty laptop!!!!

E (And Sometimes Why) (2012) (Available here)
For me this recording was different in two ways. First, there is that this was pretty much the first time I worked on a number of pieces for a specific ensemble - the Amsterdam based Trio Scordatura. And to be able to do this, I went to Amsterdam and recorded most of the material with them in a studio, as opposed to my usually recording at my space or gathering material for use. I then returned home with a fair amount of recorded material that I was able to use on the pieces that we had planned as well as creating some new unplanned work from the extra material. And this double CD project took me a long time to finish.

Red One (2013) (Available at the Free Music Archive)
In thinking about this CD, it seems to be a continuation of - and also a distillation of - the previous (E and Sometimes ...) work. These pieces were almost all created with a specific player in mind – and also to be performed live with or without these players. One aspect of my work has been to create a piece and then see how I can possibly back that out into a live performable work. The distillation process is in the fact that most of the works only use one sound source – voice or bassoon or toy trumpet … which are then multi-tracked and slightly processed. Or perhaps a better explanation is that they all proceed from a limited sound source and hopefully use that source to develop something of interest. Much of that same procedure can be found on the works on Thirty as well.

Thirty (2014)
This 3 CDr set celebrates (?) 30 years of If, Bwana (thus the title). It became a CDr release after I had done a short run of 3 cassettes – the following note gives the genesis/reasoning behind the tape (and CDr) releases.

"This series of tapes - Blue Two (c60), Green Three (c60), Yellow Four (c90) - follow almost immediately upon the release of the CD Red One (Pogus 21068-2).  With the "CD business" basically in the toilet, I realized that the works recorded here might not be coming out for quite some time – or ever – if I waited for a CD or LP release. So these cassettes can be considered unofficial – or demos – or just tapes for sale at gigs - I am not even sure. They will likely be very limited editions. The music on all of them are finished works, but should be considered rough mixes. They have not been mixed and mastered "professionally" – that might happen down the line."

I was very pleased by inyrdisk’s interest and their releasing these works. As I continue to work away at new pieces, it is nice to have gotten much of this material out in the world for everyone to ignore ... It feels strange going back to a bit more of a diy situation for my own work and releases – this year will also see a 3 cassette set and a live tape from my recent late 2013 European tour. I have to admit it is a bit hard facing the fact that for the forseeable future, I will not release any of my own work myself (maybe that is a good thing?) – too expensive in reality – and so it feels strange not to have something easily on hand to give away. I have gotten used to being able to just hand a CD to someone ...

Oh well …

Homepage: Al Margolis / Pogus Productions

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