Live electronic improvisation lends itself particularly well to collaboration. Where more traditional forms of music have a tendency to emphasize the sheer amount of ideas and personalities present on any given stage at any given moment, composers working the more experimental vein of electronic composition are just as likely to gently poke and prod their collaborators towards lengths previously untapped, slowly massaging the individual strengths of each member until the resultant piece locates the appropriate median between the players. In most cases, this process has a tendency to take quite a bit of time to realize, resulting in some expansive forays that many casual listeners just do not have the interest in pursuing. And that’s fine: improv by nature is an intuitive operation, and more patient audiences with acute listening habits have been quietly supporting similar practices in art for decades. Two new live improv albums featuring trios led by avant figureheads Jim O’Rourke and Christian Fennesz further these methods in an intriguing manner.
No stranger to left-field alliances, scene veteran O’Rourke—a resident and avid supporter of the Japanese underground—gathered a team consisting of drone guitarist Oren Ambarchi and noise iconoclast Keiji Haino for a performance at the Playhouse in Kitakyushu, Japan in January of 2009. What resulted is Tima Formosa, a three piece, hour long set composed for piano, guitar, electronics, percussion and various other organic elements, most of which are manipulated within an inch of their life. This is not easy listening. The record is bookended by two mammoth compositions—the first escalating on a single fraying drone for just over 20 minutes and featuring some freakishly ambiguous vocal incantations; the second a thirty minute dirge with serious drone metal undertones—separated by a brief but very beautiful display of O’Rourke’s atonal piano clusters and something approaching an actual vocal melody from Haino.
It’s difficult to complain when the high points are so ingratiating, but occasionally the near motionless build of these two outlying pieces feels a little like foreplay. Whenever the trio seem to be dosing off or losing their way, however, they regroup and attack with an impressive force. After a number of minutes of barely perceptible mutterings and a low frequency drone, “Tima Formosa 3” gives way to highly pitched flutes, creaking floorboards and unidentifiable percussive drops. When the actual live drumming enters around the 13 minute mark, it feels like the piece is set to implode, but the trio instead extend the display for a good nine minutes, adding layers of horror-show synth, screeching edits of metal-like vox, and punctuating moments of crash cymbal to an already anxiety riddled composition. The mayhem eventually is overturned by swarming bouts of buzzing industrial drone and a single piano phrase which O’Rourke peacefully reiterates as the piece topples out at just over 31 minutes in length.
Unlike Tima Formosa, exhaustion is not an issue with Knoxville, a surprisingly concise and inspired multi-movement piece from experimental electronic guru Fennesz, guitarist David Daniell, and drummer Tony Buck. While the latter two names may not be as familiar as the former—or anywhere near as intimidating as the Tima Formosa trio—this four-part, 30-minute composition is even more absorbing. With nary a break between each successive movement, Knoxville evidences three unique minds in near perfect synchronicity. Each moment feels calibrated for not only technical consideration but also emotional impact. Opener “Unüberwindbare Wände”, with its cinematic guitar chords and expansive white-static drone, takes on many characteristics of post-rock, building to an enveloping climax without telegraphing its structural arc. “Heat From Light” follows with a warmly oscillating synth figure and slowly mounted, rumbling drums. These two pieces alone are dramatic enough to warrant emancipation from the side project ghetto, and are of comparable quality to even the best moments on Fennesz’s last proper solo album, 2008s chilling Black Sea (a record we here at InRO have had no problem extolling the virtues of over the years).
While those first two movements feature dramatic and frequently intense interplay, the following piece, “Antonia”, is much more serene, with peaceful, dawn-breaking guitar and synth ambiance the only accompaniment for Buck’s lightly splashed horizon of meditative percussive. “Diamond Mind” closes this brief but highly rewarding collaboration, sliding malfunctioning sputters of mechanical drone underneath an intensely deployed chimera of sky-scraping guitar and mid-range shrapnel. The best and most memorable moments in improv tend to occur at spontaneous intervals. Tima Formosa highlights a number of these lightning snaring convergences but by nature tends to skew more towards the cerebral. Knoxville, by contrast, forgoes the transition between prelude and pinnacle, consistently swimming in blissful accordance. The rewards are there regardless, and together these two records rearticulate the magic that can result from reflexive inspiration. [72/100] [79/100] [Published: 09.01.10]