The Belgian Artist Known as Brume
[November 1999. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:2.]
The Belgian artist known as Brume (in the field of “noise/collage/texture” music nearly everyone uses noms-de-brût) first came to my attention over a dozen years ago in that wonderful way music has of finding its proper audience, someone else’s give-away pile. It was a cassette on the Old Europa Cafe label, and I was delighted. It was probably my first exposure to this type of music, other than the composed electronic type like Subotnick’s Golden Apples of the Moon, or Yoko and John’s literally experimental (for them) earliest ramblings in the studio, released as Two Virgins. and the Life With the Lions series. Brume’s Krieg is on Howard Stelzer’s Intransitive label out of Boston (INT006, 60:11). It begins with textures of low thumps which are manipulated as dexterously as Bobby Previte’s drums. Even the sparse use of voices and random radio are used with skill; these two usually my peeves in this genre. Depending on your temperament, you can be frustrated or delighted to wonder whether that sound, too high-pitched to be a cow lowing, was a bagpipe or a gagaku ensemble, glass chimes or cymbals. Everything is manipulated, much evokes something else, and each of the five tracks is an excellent soundscape. How do you know if this type of piece is “good”? Dump your preconceptions and see if you listen with interest or smile. Or grimace. Brume’s work varies in texture and style. With some artists I like, such as Masonna, you know you’ll always have loud piercing voice-based streams of screech. Aube, though now sometimes using beats in collaborations, can be depended on for fascinating slowly-changing sheets of textures, each piece derived from only one sound source, such as a brainwave, or incandescent lamp. Brume’s discs are varied, and he often collaborates with others.
The next disc was supposed to be in letter “M” of the “Records which Changed My Life” column. David Borden’s early synthesizer group Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company was mind-expanding when I first heard them live at WBAI’s lamented Free Music Store series. I still have a copy of that performance on a raggedy cassette and it gives me great pleasure. I bought their first LP there and then, on Earthquack Records 001. When I discovered the release of their second disc Like A Duck To Water (Earthquack LP EQ002) a year or so later, I was ecstatic. Thanks to the good graces of Cuneiform Records, who have been steadily releasing Borden’s Continuing Story of Counterpoint from the LP era until now, we now have the original Mother Mallard silvered. Titled Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Co. 1970-73, (Cuneiform Rune 109, 56:60.), Steve Drews and Linda Fisher join Borden in all of the first LP (“Ceres,” “Easter,” and “Train”) plus “Cloudscape for Peggy,” and Music” from the second. The LPs still sound good, but the CD has tightened up the bass and retained the wonderful sonorities of these analog synthesizers, mostly Moogs and miniMoogs. “Ceres Motion” begins with a striking repetitive figure, and the other synths join in, one with a bass line that makes you strut, another playing off the first one. This was minimalism before it became mechanical or intellectual; soaring flights of fancy within a loosely-held structure. Pieces like “Cloudscape for Peggy” or “Train” are tone poems; these are precursors of what later became the scourge of “ambient” (read: “new age” for those who daren’t call it that) music. Slowly developing and evolving, these retain the human touch unlike so much done by the robotic sequencers we’ve inflicted on ourselves. I must admit, I’m not a major fan of what little I’ve heard of Borden’s later work, but Mother Mallard is a must-get for anyone interested in any genre of music. Excellent photos throughout the booklet, despite the cover illustration. If your tastes tend toward electronic, drone, trance, free jazz, even to composers of such disparate sonorities as Olivier Messiaen and Arvo Pärt, you must buy this disc. You must. That’s all.
This season Carnegie Hall seems to have finally taken some Incredible Risks and won, with a season rife with Varèse, Schoenberg, Ives, Boulez and even some Nono, Sessions and Ferneyhough. Pianist Maurizio Pollini’s first concert in his series “Perspectives,” showed mastery of programming. He began with Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces, op. 11, which he gave a more romantic, Lisztian sound than does Yuji Takahashi in his more pointillistic Denon recording. It was different, but it worked and was interesting, if not illuminating. Pollini had a ball with Ludwig van’s Hammerklavier Sonata. I didn’t time it, but it seemed way shorter than the usual thirty to forty minutes. The opening was fleet, almost, hurried, and not inappropriate. He made the most of the dynamic range available to the hammerklavier (that’s piano, folks, as contrasted with the earlier harpsichord). The music hovered above the individual notes rushing past, like a rainbow, and the slow movements were lush and passionate. Some of the piano cascades in this pieces recalled similar cascades in the just-heard second Schoenberg piece. This is what makes excellent program-building. This was not a performance I’d want on a recording, but that’s not what live music is about. I had totally expected a large portion of the well-appointed, sold-out audience to walk out during intermission, eschewing the sole remaining piece, Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke X. Pollini used the score this time, the others having been played from memory. It was the most moving, nuanced, yes lyrical performance of Klavierstücke X I’ve ever heard, and I don’t think I’d ever chanced on it live. The long line, the elegance, the short phrases, the sustained notes held long into silence took my breath. The elbow slams of some of the massive chords shocked some of my seatmates, more so visually than musically. I wonder how they’d fare at a Cecil Taylor concert. The pudding: Nary a soul left during or before the Stockhausen, and though some left quickly after, the majority stayed and Pollini received a deserved ovation and five curtain calls, after which he treated us to a pair of Beethoven bagatelles. Given Deutsche Grammophone’s excellent new 20/21 series, I suggest a write-in campaign to ask Pollini to do the completeKlavierstücke for disc, a worthy compliment to their wonderful complete Berio Sequenzas, which I will discuss next issue with rest of the 20/21 series.
Columbia University’s Miller Theater has a quietly blazing new music series. The first of the season had Ensemble Sospeso present works by British composer Harrison Birtwhistle, whose work I hated on first audition of his opera Punch and Judy back on Decca Headline. More recently, I’ve heard two of his series of Collins discs which moved me greatly and so I looked forward to this concert, as all the pieces were new to me. Now, lest you think only improvisers take Incredible Risks, so do musicians playing difficult composed music. The first piece was immediately striking: La Plage: Eight Arias of Remembrance. It began with three clarinets creating a pulse, droning, quivering, and fadeout as the piano continues the tonality. The vibraphone also created micropulses. Soprano Hale Abgari sang a beautiful solfège with piano before each line of text from this simple, Imagist poem by Robbe-Grillet. The overlapping musical lines were like waves on the beach. The Ensemble created a breath-taking suspense of time, ghostly when the three clarinets, with slightly different pitches, were wavering. The soprano was aloof; was it due to the text? Despite some misplaced vocal entries, Ensemble Sospeso kept the right pulse throughout, using the long line, in a very effective performance.
Tragoedi began with a piercing pipe, sour and sweet, with a bass and tuba slam, as the harp plinked in. The piece was witty and charming, not at all what I’d expected from my earlier Birtwhistle experiences. Each of the eight sections has its title projected onto the stage, though I hadn’t realized it until midway. Birtwhistle’s notes seem a bit ingenuous, claiming this was pure, non-programmatic music. How can you title a pierce “Tragedy,” end with an “Exodus,” and not have it programmatic, even if the music is formal rather than narrative? The tiny Précis for piano was a forgettable piece. During intermission, I asked one of Sospeso’s directors about the final piece, Silbury Air. He got a twinkle in his eye and would only say, “Just wait.” The piece teases, as the opening promises it to be a repetitive minimalist clone, but then other rhythms and dropouts of rhythm come in and out,as well as sly quotes and references to Rite of Spring and Sensemaya.. It’s a very weird piece, and though I’m still not sure how I feel about it, that is a wonderful thing. I want to hear it again. I’m grateful to Ensemble Sospeso for the chance to hear it live at all, and done so well.
I had the pleasure to hear the U.S. premiere of the eighth string quartet of Danish composer Per Nørgård, one of my favorite living composers, at the second Miller Theater concert. Intending to do a brief interview while I had him in my clutches, instead I spent twenty pre-concert minutes as the patient gentleman coached me, at my request, in the proper way to pronounce his name. Something like “Naw-ngkah.” Glottal, no “guard.” The interview will be forthcoming, with detailed discussion of the quartet, but while I practice saying his name, you go get the CD of his first six string quartets on Kontrapunkt 32015. Even the earliest is powerfully substantive. Nørgård says he hopes to have a double-CD with #7-9 shortly. Quartet 9 will be premiered at next year’s Santa Fe festival. I asked what it was going to be like, and he laughed, saying he just got the commission the previous day. The Vertovo Quartet played an all- Scandinavian program opening with a 1981 quartet, “brains and dancin’” by Mikael Edlund. It’s similar to Gisburg’s quartet in that it starts with a nearly minimalist motif that soon disappears and creates its own soundworld. I hope the Vertovo Quartet records this, as they were excellent in every piece. Although the fifteen-year-old version by the Berwald Quartet on Phono Suecia PSCD 20 is a fine one, the Vertova now have them beat in both subtlety and passion. After intermission came Nørgård’s piece, which was in several short movements and, literally, took away our collective breath. It was not long, but it was deep and moving. I wish they had chosen to repeat it as an encore. The are now recording the complete Bartóks, and this bodes well for record-collectors. Their Simax disc of two Brahms quartets join, but don’t beat, my two favorites, the Tokyo and the Ruso-Americano, in pieces that in other hands I find boring.
The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) holds a series of concerts at the Ethical Culture Society of New York. The concert on October 30th featured the Muhal Richard Abrams Experimental Orchestra, and began with Prelude, an electroacoustic work playing throughout the hall that was interesting but slid into background as all the musicians and music-lovers in the audience greeted each other. Abrams, Henry Threadgill, Leroy Jenkins and Wadada Leo Smith each conducted one piece they had composed. The excitable emcee hadn’t gotten over her cheerleading days, and from where I sat in the left aisle, the engineer set the Electro-Voice loudspeakers so loud they distorted and overwhelmed the balance of some of the delicate pieces. In the first piece, Make The Cut by Henry Threadgill, Leroy Jenkins’ violin kept coming from the loudspeaker instead of to the right of the stage where I saw him; I felt as if I were hallucinating. Enough kvetching; on to the music. The piece started with murmuring percussion and although the piece was short, my attention flagged quickly. Meanwhile, I’ll just keep playing my recent Threadgill Columbia (!) discs Makin’ A Move, Where’s Your Cup? and Carry the Day, where the wonderfully orchestrated ensembles includes accordion and electric guitar and all three discs just make their move and swing like an Astor Piazzola ensemble. The second piece was Cards, by Roscoe Mitchell, who conducted holding a yellow pencil as a baton. It was pointillistic, with lots of silence and sonorities randomly interspersed throughout the orchestra. It came off dry, and I suspect might be better if the musicians had time to find the flow.
After intermission, Leroy Jenkins was a joy to watch as he conducted his Corners, with solos built into the structure. Joseph Jarman’s alto clarinet resounded clear and strong, as did solos by trumpeter Frank Gordon. I recalled a concert Gordon did at the 53rd Street Y which impressed me, as does his Clarion Echoes (Soul Note SN 1096). The rhythm changes, the immediately bluesy sound, waves of horns, woodblocks against piano, Threadgill’s reeds against Amina Claudine Myers’ (overmiked) piano; all these reminded me of Jenkins’ strengths both as a composer and an improviser. His orchestral writing was as masterful as his solo set at this year’s Vision Festival. I strongly recommend two of his discs in particular: Themes and Improvisations on the Blues (CRI CD 663) and Lifelong Ambitions (Black Saint BSR 120033-2), which features Abrams. The final piece was Sustain Melody by Wadada Leo Smith, whose self-produced 70s LPs with his group New Dalta Akhri (these need silvering quickly!) move me greatly, and newer ones can sometimes are too smooth for my taste. This piece was exciting and used the orchestra resourcefully.
We interrupt this column to bring a newsflash: Despite a decade of lame records and remixes, George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic are still the greatest jazz, rock and funk band in the world live or dead, period. Tonight, their half-hour set on PBS’ Sessions series took me back to a gig they did at the Apollo ten years ago where we were all standing and screaming and dancing throughout the five-hour nonstop set. Their official, non-bootleg live recordings are pale reflections of what this band really gives live; multi-layered post-modern everlasting music vaudeville. Gyrating dancers. Mind-expanding placards. An anti-“drug-war” poem that would put Baraka to shame. Clinton even made his tired “Atomic Dog” roll over and lift its leg during a solid fifteen-minute jam of so many textures and fills of vocals and horns and bass… oh my god, I didn’t have a blank videotape! He even had the horns do a brief but complicated riff from Sly’s Luv’n’Haight.” Goodnight everyone, I’m off with the Mothership.
Ben Allison: BandK@aol.com
Broun Fellinis: www.broun.com
Carnegie Hall: Practice.
Downtown Music Gallery: www.DTMGallery.com
Enja: distributed by Koch International
Full Metal Revolutionary Jazz Ensemble: www.gis.net/~fmrje
Michael Ginsburg/ Zlatne Uste: www.cnct.com/~ginburch/zu/
High heels News: HighHeelsN@aol.com
Intransitive Recordings: www.visionload.com/intransitive
Jazz Composers Collective: wwwjazzcollective.com
Jazzheads Records: www.jazzheads.com
Knitting Factory Records: www.knittingfactory.com
Steve Lacy: www.imaginet.fr/~senators
Newsonic: distributed by North Country
On-Cue Records: www.xxl.ch/on-cue-records
Scott Robinson: firstname.lastname@example.org
Rumba Club: www.rumbaclub.com
Sachimay: distributed by North Country
Simax: distributed by Qualiton www.qualiton.com
Thirsty Ear: www.thirstyear.com
Tzadik: 61 East 8th Street, NYC 10003
Chris Washburne: BandK@aol.com