Muharran 1392 LP (2011)

LP coverSagittarius A-Star is the follow up label to Qbico and has quickly unleashed a good number of LPs.  This particular gem was retrieved from the archives of Hartmut Geerken and finds him in a quintet recorded in the city of Heliopolis, Egypt during the month February of 1972, also known as the month Muharran in the Muslim year 1392.  Joining Geerken are Michael Ranta, Hubertus von Puttkamer, Omar el Hakim, and Salah Ragab.  Apparently this was a one off meeting of the minds as the group name seems to have only been applied now that this music is being published on vinyl 40 years later.  It is an interesting grouping and probably one whose members do not ring a lot of bells unless you read lots of little details on various records.  So a little background…

Hartmut Geerken is German born, but widely travelled and thoroughly educated.  Because of his great learning and mastery of languages he worked for the Goethe Institute in Cario (1966-72), Kabul (1972-1979), and Athens (1879-1983).  The years in Egypt seemed to be particularly musically significant as he brought Sun Ra there in 1971, and also co-founded the Cairo Jazz Band and Cairo Free Jazz Ensemble.  Over the decades he has also worked with Michael Ranta (on an extensive tour of eastern Asia), Embryo, a trio with John Tchicai and Famoudou Don Moye, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Sunny Murray, Don Cherry, Peter Kowald, Takehisa Kosugi, Toshi Ichiyanagi, and Sainkho Namtchilak.  His involvement with sound and visual poetry also has seen him collaborate with Robert Lax, Carlfriedrich Claus, and Valeri Scherstjanoi.  However, it has only been in the last decade or so that the floodgates have really opened up and allowed much of this work to be heard on record.

Michael Ranta is an American percussionist based in Germany who has worked with heavy weights Harry Partch, Mauricio Kagel, Helmut Lachenmann, Josef Anton Riedl, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Jean-Claude Eloy, Takehisa Kosugi, Toshi Ichiyanagi, and of course Hartmut Geerken.  He blew many heads as part of the group Wired whose sole release was the third LP in the Deutsche Grammophon box set “Free Improvisation” and which was produced by Krautrock legend Conny Plank.  His trio with Takehisa Kosugi and Toshi Ichiyanagi from 1975 was captured on a very obscure private LP that almost no one had even heard of until it was bootlegged in recent years.  Since that time people have gotten a little better about digging up his work including the overlooked “Mu V / Mu VI” LP that he self released in 1984.  In 2010, the Belgian label Metaphon rescued the earlier numbers of the Mu series of works performed by a line up similar to Wired.

Hubertus von Puttkamer remains a rather obscure figure although released the double CD “Weltmusik” in collaboration with Johannes Schmölling in 2004.  He apparently lived in Egypt around the period of the Muharran 1392 recordings and met the members of Agitation Free during this time and filmed them at the pyramids of Sakkara.  It was this band, as well as Sun Ra and Tangerine Dream that awoke in him the potential for the synthesizer which has used to create multitrack recordings over the ensuing years.  But music appears to just be his hobby as his professional proficiency is in laser measurement.

Omar el Hakim is an Egyptian architect and Tai Chi teacher.  According to Geerken, “he had crazy ideas, for example to construct half underground mud houses in the desert for cultivating fungi.”  He seems to have long since disappeared from the music scene and was last heard of teaching architecture in the United Arab Emirates.

Salah Ragab is considered one of the founders of Egyptian jazz. Among other things he was co-founder of the Cairo Jazz Band and Cairo Free Jazz Ensemble with Geerken, and was also in a quartet with Geerken and Puttkamer called The Cross which has apparently never released anything.  Ragab also had a connection with Sun Ra, but unlike the other characters mentioned above appears on a quite a few of Ra’s LPs.  As his music ventured out of the avant-garde, he’s had a number of other records out and like the others mentioned above, his work is slowly appearing on more releases these days.  Unfortunately, he passed away in 2008.

So now that the history lesson is over, what does the music sound like on Muharram 1392?  It is quite a free form affair that does not draw much from jazz, classical or Egyptian music.  The two sides constantly evolve overlapping textural sounds with a wide variety of instrumentation.  None is listed on the cover, but I think I hear piano, guitar, horns, maybe an electric organ or synthesizer and lots of different percussion.  It does seem to be a blend of European and Egyptian sources, but it could also be the approach to playing that lends certain things a little Arabic color.  Like I said, the playing is very open and languorous which makes me think of the very out moments of L.A.F.M.S. characters.  Panned heavy left and right it is possible to focus in on the individual elements of the ensemble as only a couple instruments will be heard in each channel with little bleed through.  As anarchic as the music is, it never veers into over the top aggression not lapses into ambient background.  There is always something going on and if you focus on one of the patterns for too long, you find that someone else has meanwhile changed instruments and varied the overall picture. The rather minimal musical material and lack of a specific direction makes for a beautiful hazy atmosphere which rewards close attention.

I’ve only seen one source mention an edition size and that was 200 copies, which kind of makes sense as just about all of the Sagittarius A-Star releases sell out immediately upon release.  Despite that tiny run, the LP does come in color jacket.  The labels are plain white (side A) and black (side B) with the A side marked by a rubberstamped letter.  I think it is mastered a bit low, but in the end that seems to suit the flavor of the music.  26 copies of this were also included in “The Geerken Box” which additional contains the LPs “Brasilia in Waitawhile” (with Famoudou Don Moye, Edison da Luz, Junior Cardoso, and Valmon Rodriguez da Silva) and “Stalllife” (with Russian sound poet Valeri Scherstjanoi) with some extra inserts, artwork and photographs.  Unfortunately I have not heard either of these other two LPs nor a lot of the other recent SAS releases, among which there seem to be a lot of winners.

Sagittarius A-Star – SAS #17

Hartmut Geerken/Michael Ranta “The Heliopolar Egg” 6 x LP box (2010)

box set coverA rather impressive set of archival recordings unearthed here.  Both Hartmut Geerken and Michael Ranta are known for a impressive list of collaborations with major characters stretching back many decades, yet they both have fairly small discographies.  To narrow it down a little, I would say that Geerken is probably best known for his associations with Sun Ra who he brought to Egypt and later documented in the highly desirable book “Omniverse”.  Michael Ranta likely rings bells in heads immersed in the psychedelic sounds of his group Wired and his one off collaboration LP with Takehisa Kosugi and Toshi Ichiyanagi titled “Improvisation Sep. 1975”.  Of course these mentions only scratch the surface of these men’s accomplishments and the point of my writing here is not to review their entire histories.  Instead I want to focus on the 11 sides of unheard material in this box set.  “The Heliopolar Egg” is made up of recordings from a tour to the far east in 1976 which saw the duo landing in Teheran, Calcutta, Dacca, Manila, Seoul, and Osaka (as well as a few cities not documented in this set such as Karachi and Kabul).  Getting a gig for outside music in any of these cities save Osaka in the modern day would be quite a feat, so it can only be imagined that this was even more of a bizarre musical exchange in that long ago year.  What is likewise very impressive is the list of instruments they were carting with them.  One can only hope that the venues provided some of the larger examples such as piano, xylophone and marimba. Nonetheless, the variety of bells, gongs, horns, electronics and sundry electronics must have been making the hopefrom country to country with the musicians.  Unfortunately one thing this box set lacks is recollections on what must have been an amazing adventure and apparently a multi-media spectacle from the bibliographic references listed on Geerkin’s web site.  We are presented only with this list of instrumentation, a septet of black and white photographs, a list of dates and places, and the music itself.  But this is of not great consequence as the music alone is enough to speak volumes.

Each LP represents another city on the tour beginning with Tehran, Iran and the set spans less than a month from the first recording to the last.  Some of the sides are actually rather short and arbitrarily end in the midst of performance to be continued on the flip side of the disc. Within these constraints, the duo expand massively into heavily psychedelic experimental territory.  Varying from disc to disc enough to keep away any sense of monotony, there is often the presence of very cosmic analog electronics pointing to what Ranta had to bring to the table in his work with Kosugi and Ichiyanagi, or at least gained from it, as it echoes the beauty of Kosugi’s “Catch Wave” LP released the previous year.  Along with this are acoustic instruments played with the abandon of The Taj-Mahal Travellers or the ecstasy of Limbus 4 and Angus MacLise.  It is music to divinely drift to on one side while another side offers a multitude of little instruments (Famoudou Don Moye from the Art Ensemble of Chicago was another of Geerkin’s frequent collaborators) in mind freeing jams that are so open you could fall into them.  One can only wonder what people in Bangladesh and The Philippines made of this music as it would have been, and still is, a mind bending experience in the west.  Of course it might have been these audiences which encouraged them to explore so far out.  As by the time the set ends in Osaka, Japan the duo are playing in what might be called the outer reaches of avant-garde classical music (one of Ranta’s students was Stomu Yamash’ta).  From long, unnamed, free form improvisations, we have come to named pieces associated with named composers, one of them being Toshi Ichiyanagi.  Despite this, the music loses none of the fire of the earlier discs and ends up in cosmic territory again with the closing track “Coda” featuring Ichiyanagi on guest synthesizer (apparently Kosugi was playing on this concert as well, but doesn’t appear on this recording).

This music comes highly recommended and hopefully will see a proper reissue on CD at some point.  This is desirable for a few reasons.  One is the above mentioned splitting of concerts into two sides.  The other is the fact that even with six LPs, this is not the complete document of the tour.  As I mentioned above, this set includes 11, not 12 sides, as the first LP is single sided.  This is made painfully obnoxious by the realization that there is a deluxe edition of this set which puts a concert from Delhi on that blank side.  In an ultimate move of collector scum exclusivity, this 12 sided variant appeared in an edition of only 26 copies.  On top of this, Qbico have since released a very limited 10 LP box set compilation that includes a full LP in Bangkok from the same tour in amongst a variety of other artist’s work.  Why couldn’t there be a seven LP box to include everything in the first place?

Already “The Heliopolar Egg” box set itself was very limited.  I’ve never seen a number given, but very few were around and only with a small number of distributors.  And while an expensive item even in the regular edition, the set is rather plainly packaged.  The box itself is decorated with a black and white pasted on graphic on the top and bottom.  Inside are three single sided, black and white, A4 inserts while the LPs themselves only sport blank white labels.  The box itself seems to exist in a few variants.  Mine is plain brown, but I have seen others that have a crosshatched black and white pattern on them.

In many ways, the limitation does make sense however.  How many copies of a multi-LP set by two rather obscure characters could you realistically expect to sell, especially in these days of all too frequent uploading and downloading?  It is a giant financial risk to pour the funds into putting this music out into the world.  So can we really blame Emanuele Pinotti for making just the number he expected to sell?  In the end I am thankful to be not only alerted to the fact that this music was made and recorded, but also be able to hear it repeatedly.  Given the quality of the performances, I do hope that some other daring soul does republish this in the future as I’m  sure when the word slowly gets out, there certainly will be more adventurous souls want to explore these concert recordings in depth.  And geez, Geerken is a published author, some liner notes please!

Qbico – qbico 101

Robert Haigh “Strange and Secret Things” CD (2011)

CD coverRobert Haigh should be a name familiar to more intrepid record buyers of the 1980’s.  I discovered his EPs on L.A.Y.L.A.H. Anti-Records in the bins of Tower Records, where the label name associated his music with purveyors of sonic perversity such as Nurse With Wound, Organum, Current 93, Coil, and The Hafler Trio.  In fact it was in their company that I first heard his music tucked between those very artists on “The Fight Is On” compilation, oddly enough with a solo piano piece.  It seemed out of place to say the least, but the EPs “Juliet of the Spirits” and “Music from the Ante Chamber” made more sense with their further fleshing out of the sombre aesthetic with additional instrumentation.  They were not dark and challenging like his associates, I was later to find out that he had worked out those desires when working under the name Sema on a series of privately released LP for his Le Rey label.  After those early releases, there was one final LP for United Dairies called “A Valentine Out of Season” – a solo piano record on Nurse With Wound’s label.  Steve later told me that he did it as Robert had promised to give him a great experimental record if he would only release this piano LP.  Of course the experimental record never did surface, and all United Dairies did to follow was to release the rather misleadingly titled cassette “The Best of Robert Haigh” which was largely taken up by Robert’s early rock based band Fote.  Robert’s music was really not reaching the right audience through such an experimental outlet.  Its final appearance in the 1980’s was the CD “A Waltz in Plain C” on the only very briefly restarted and then shuttered Le Rey.  There was such a lack of audience for this follow up that the distributor I was buying from told me they imported only 9 copies of this disc into the states.  I don’t think I saw anyone else carry it either.  After that Robert disappeared with occasional rumors of him resurfacing as a techno artist, which did end up to be true.  This was confirmed by die hard fan John Podeszwa of the Seal Pool label who released Haigh’s 2007 “comeback” album “From the Air”.  Since then Haigh has released one solo album of soft music per year on various labels including the defunct Crouton who once mentioned an unfinished collaboration with The Hafler Trio from the L.A.Y.L.A.H. days, but it seems that remains an unfinished project.

This latest installment comes from Siren Records in Japan, who also released the last two discs, and for me is the strongest of his discs since his return to his earlier style.  The focus is on piano sounds throughout but also tastefully introduces synthesized sounds as accents.  The music is melodically simple and will no doubt evoke French composer Erik Satie for many.  Perhaps Satie’s idea of “furniture music” might apply to “Strange and Secret Things” as it could be heard in the manner of an aural environment which would not intrude on other activities.  And in this way, we could continue to draw a line to Brian Eno’s first ambient music, which is after all quite active and musical compared to many things given that appellation these days.  However, that would be to overlook the sombre introspection at the heart of this disc.  Haigh’s music seems to me to be more polished and refined on this disc than some of the previous few.  The left hand plays a simple bass pattern over which the right hand delicately plays in between in a very light and free flowing manner.  There is just the right amount of embellishment in the lines.  To make them more complex would take away from the atmosphere.  This perhaps keeps these 17 miniatures from the realm of most classical listeners, but would fit well in the catalogs of Brian Eno’s Obscure and Ambient series or the Cold Blue label.  To complete the thought forming above, I would say that “Strange and Secret Things” belongs with the L.A.Y.L.A.H. EPs as the best of Haigh’s solo work.  For those that have not explored Haigh’s most recent releases, I would recommend this one as this disc to start with.  Of course the Sema LPs are also highly recommended, but have been devilishly difficult to locate since the 1980’s.  On top of this, the Le Rey LPs were poor pressings, a fact even more noticeable with such delicate music.  Thankfully, “Strange and Secret Things” has been mastered by Denis Blackham, so the sound is astoundingly clear and never harsh.

The disc comes appropriately packaged in a handmade miniature LP sleeve with inset artwork which was produced by Andrew Chalk’s Faraway Press in England.  Even these details are not given on the spare cover which only provides track titles.  Given the contents, it seems most appropriate this way.  A small end strip does translate the barest of information into Japanese.

I don’t know if there will be further installments of Haigh’s work on Siren Records as I have gathered that sales have so far been lackluster.  On another front, the Sema recordings will soon get a long awaited deluxe reissue in the form of a 4 LP box set to be released by Vinyl-On-Demand this year.  Hopefully that will pique interest in all of Haigh’s work.  Right now it seems to be province of only a small number, but those Haigh fans I know are quite devoted and enthusiastic.

Siren Records – SIREN 020

Ferial Confine “Meiosis” C60 (1985)

cassette coverThe only release by Ferial Confine to come out in the 1980’s that could be considered to have been available would be this chunk of heavy noise and electronics.  Sounding perhaps indebted to The New Blockaders and Vortex Campaign, people would later look back for this cassette because of TNB’s heavy borrowing of Ferial Confine materials for releases in the 1990’s.  Although it was far from obvious at the time because of the lack of any detail on the cover, and neither Broken Flag nor Ferial Confine including contact details on any releases, Ferial Confine was actually a solo project of Andrew Chalk.  By the time I discovered that these two were the same, I had heard Andrew’s solo track “Thack” on Broken Flag’s “Never Say When” compilation LP which was quite the opposite of this cassette.  As alluded to above, the high pitched noise featured here inhabits a similar territory to early recordings by The New Blockaders which for me was marked by an almost slow motion mass of moving sounds.  Not a harsh wall of noise like so many other Broken Flag releases of the time, there is an almost psychedelic aspect to the sounds of Ferial Confine.  The only thing punishing here really is the extreme frequencies.  The sounds themselves are not on attacking or brutal.  Ferial Confine can almost be seen as a compliment to The New Blockaders, which is perhaps why Richard Rupenus though to combine the materials of both starting with releases such as “The Final Recordings” released on Dom Bartwuchs in 1991 as well as many subsequent releases.  Andrew himself was not particularly satisfied with the results however and asked Gary Mundy to delete “Meiosis” not long after its release.  Being an established label, a number of copies had already reached distribution channels, but it remained one of the more obscure Broken Flag releases.  Not doubt this was also in part due to this project not having released anything else that was easily available, something shared by some of the other artists being released on cassette in those last few years of the first run of Broken Flag – a few years previous to collectors looking back and wanting to amass and discover the label’s entire output.  Because of the above mentioned associations, it did become very sought after later and what copies that were circulated now change hands for good money and are no doubt mixed in with a number of  pirate copies as the Broken Flag cassettes are rather easy to counterfeit (I remember NEds in particular was trading heavily in these in the 1990’s).  In some ways I can see why Andrew would not be as happy with this as it is not quite as solid as the more obscure cassette “The Full Use of Nothing” (an edition of only 50 which was thankfully given a proper LP edition by Fusetron in 1999) or even the archival “First, Second and Third Drop” published on CD by Siren Records in 2008.  There seems to be less unity among the pieces on “Meiosis” contrasting the opening symphony of noises on side A with short pieces of analog electronics or outdoor recordings of a more pastoral nature on the B side in the midst of which was a noisier piece.  Some of this sound simpler, more primitive and less complete.  As a whole the cassette is of its time and stands out for some very strong tracks.  The rest hold their ground as decent and worth listening to in part because of their contrast to what else was de rigueur at the time.  At the time, Ferial Confine stood out for me, at first for the untitled track on the “New Babel” cassette compilation (one of the above mentioned releases with no contact information included) which lead me to seek out this cassette.  Part of this probably was because the pure noise aesthetics of Ramleh, et al were digging into wasn’t appealing to me (that said Ramleh did an amazing about turn right around this time and produced a few godhead releases).  I guess part of this might be what kept Ferial Confine to be a short lived project as Andrew Chalk explored very different directions in very delicate and quiet music which he continues to this day.  Ferial Confine only existed around 1985 and 1986 with Andrew playing around with some other names as well, some of which he no longer remembers.  In retrospect, perhaps it was a cage he was trying to escape or perhaps use to confine some of the more beastly aspects of noise music.  Going through a similar evolution in my listening at the time probably helps explain why I still hang onto this cassette and enjoy listening to it occasionally.  As for the actual real artifact, the j-card is low density (as in some of the black are not all that dense) photocopy onto blue card which is hand cut a little unevenly. The cassette itself is an unlabeled TDK AD 60 – cassettes from Broken Flag came on a few different kinds of blanks but never had labels.  This homemade aesthetic is what made it so easy to pass off pirate copies later on, especially as most people had not seen the original cassettes to compare with.  The cover art itself seems to be of yee olde Constructivist fashion, nothing I recognized as I still haven’t delved very deeply into that movements history.  The only other details on the cassette are the title and catalog number on the spine and the label name and year on the inside.  No titles or anything else.  But that was the BF aesthetic.

Broken Flag – BF48

Slowscan 2: Le Forte Four / Fat & Fucked Up C90 (1985?)

cassette coverA kind of oddball release that saw very limited release of two Los Angeles area groups on a Dutch label.  This was kind of the swan song of Le Forte Four – the final recordings heard from them before they dropped off the map never to reappear until their recent reunion concert in London.  This cassette came after their 1981 LP “Spin ‘N Grin” which was a bit of a disaster for them at the time selling very little despite being a wonderful record.  Itself probably an inspiration to wind up L.A.F.M.S.  Given that previous reception, it really should be no surprise that this tape came out in an edition of only 100 and remained available at least through the early 1990’s.  I guess this was a little before people were going ga-ga pouring over the NWW list or knew what to make of their mention on the cover of The Fall’s “Dragnet” LP.  Probably adding to the confusion of whether to invest in this odd item at the time was the inclusion of the downright obscure Fat & Fucked Up on the flipside.  This eye catchingly named ensemble otherwise only had a few appearances on beautifully produced Trance Port Tapes compilations leaving them pretty well unknown to the general record (and cassette) buying public.  However, Fat & Fucked UP did however play live often and I do remember seeing them at Beyond Baroque and X=Art way back in the day.  At least one, if not both, of those bills was shared with What Makes Donna Twirl? and in particular I remember Brad Laner’s amazing guest appearance on drums at the Beyond Baroque gig.  Their side of the cassette was recorded at LACE in May of 1985 – a gig I don’t remember being at, but that was a long time ago now.

Anyhow, as for the music itself  L44 offer up six otherwise unheard tracks (not even included in the “Lowest Form of Music” 10 CD box) recorded in in December of 1984 with the full line up of Potts brothers Rick, Joe and Tom with husband-and-wife pair Chip and Susan Chapman.  These pieces are more electronics heavy and actually rather sparse suggesting that the whole line up didn’t play on every track.  They are playful and experimental, but never get quite as goofy as earlier releases, for better or worse.  Perhaps a touchstone can be taken from the fact that Rick Potts and Joseph Hammer, operating at that time as a duo under the name Dinosaurs With Horns, are credited as engineers, as it is seems the sound is a little closer to the Dinosaurs sound.  However it never quite takes off with the solid pack that the previous year’s self-titled Dinosaurs With Horns cassette delivers.  Overall I still haven’t found these tracks to be quite as essential listening as earlier Le Forte Four recordings.

Fat & Fucked Up provide a suite of pieces under the title “Underscore: Sonic Interactions” which clocks in just under 23 minutes.  Looking back I would say that the cassette lacks some of the oddity of seeing the group perform, as a remember them being being rather visual players, but that could just be vagaries of memories playing tricks on me.   Their grouping is essentially that of a small chamber ensemble with aspects of playing that strike me as freely improvised.  Founders Michael Intriere and Josie Roth play cello and viola respectively with Josie also contributing the group’s striking vocal forays which play a smaller part on this cassette.  Joining them are Jon Huck on double bass and William Huck on tuba.  The tuba in particular is a nice counterpoint to the strings.

Overall it is a nice document of the artier side of what was going on in Los Angeles in the mid-1980’s besides punk and waves of visiting new wave bands from England.  Looking back it seems like there was a lot of that which remains fairly undocumented.  There are certainly plenty of things probably best forgotten, and a few which were briefly captured on a single long out of print release.  But a lot of worthy stuff really slipped between the cracks which is easy to happen in a place like Los Angeles where are there are thousands upon thousands of local and visiting artists vying for attention.

Although dubbed on a chrome C90 cassette, the program is actually short enough to fit on one side of the tape and unfortunately recorded a bit low but never lacks for fidelity.  Packaged rather simply, the black and white j-card actually does look offset printed – kind of a stand out in the cassette culture at that time.  My copy (pictured above) has a few somewhat random rubber stamps applied to the cover (“This is not Art” – anyone remember Art Strike?) which doesn’t seem to be the case with other copies that I have seen pictured online.  Then again my copy is also number 100 of 100.  So maybe it was the end of the line and someone felt like sprucing up the last few.

Slowscan – 2 [note it doesn’t say “Volume 2” anywhere on this]

Jeph Jerman “For Henry F. Farny 1904 34° 48′ N / 111° 54′ W 3308/4708” CD (2011)

CD coverDead metal music from the wilds of Arizona.  Abandoned like so much else in the deserts of this world, obsolete telephone wires once stood at this location and made sounds regardless of the lack of human ears.  It again signals Jeph as exceptional among the growing legions of field recorders, or “phonographers”, as he searches out the unheard and special.  In this case, what is vanishing sooner than later rather than the banality that will only slowly evolve and become nostalgic in decades to come.  There is a poetry in in Jerman’s listening, similar to the poetry that John Cage had in his questioning.  It is a sign of true listening if one can start recording the world around without any intervention and have it mirror your style.

This recording is simple presentation of a location in time and space which was a product of causes and conditions manifested only at that juncture.  In what little notes accompany this disc, it is observed that, “in the years since these recordings were made, the wire has either fallen or been torn down.”  No one continues to string singing telephone wire in the desert and finding it in the desert at this point of decay, before the end, and away from the sonic intrusions of a highway is a rare moment.  Like Bernie Krause, Douglas Quin, and Chris Watson, Jeph has captured a sound most of us will not hear and perserved some of its beauty for those of us who weren’t there.  Unlike those others, Jeph’s disc is an extended meditation on a lonely point, a fact conveyed more emotional perhaps by the blowing wind that only gathers in very open places.  Catching this simple beauty of course serves to calm and focus one’s listening to hopefully better appreciate the sounds always around us which are in their own ways constantly changing and disappearing, although less obviously so.

Traitmediaworks – tmw031

William S. Burroughs “Real English Tea Made Here” 3 x CD (2007)

CD coverThe idea of a three disc set of Burroughs’ cut-up experiments may sound more task then enjoyment but I have found this archival dig to a be a treasure.   This is a bit different the what is known on “Nothing Here Now but the Recordings” – the only previous collection of his cut-up recordings.  Whereas that 1981 LP focused on shorter pieces with more quick edits, “Real English Tea” features longer pieces, up to 44 minutes in length, that show a more casual approach to juxtaposing material.  Many alternate between radio news broadcasts and Burroughs’ own reading of newspapers or original material leaving large passages of each to present an idea.  These more large scale collages work more often with complete sentences and rather than looking to break through between the words.  It is more about atmosphere in these experiments.  Long sections of music figure into several; more so than the familiar shortwave noises used in the “Towers Open Fire” soundtrack.  Where the later most prominently return here is in an alternate version of that piece which shows curious variations and in “The Piper Pulled Down the Sky”, seemingly recorded at about the same time.  What strikes me about all of these is that they are closer to his readings.  The cuts here are only the more obvious signs of what was otherwise seamlessly put into his writing and read in one voice, not then revealing its sources so quickly.  Of course most extreme and best known examples of this is the trilology of cut-up novels “The Soft Machine”, “The Ticket That Exploded” and “Nova Express” but forever after it remained a signature of his writing style which kept his narrative from a straight and narrow line.   Dates of the recordings are hard to pinpoint at this removed vantage point but estimates in the accompanying essay suggest around 1964 and 1965, and mostly in New York despite any suggestion from the title.  These dates come with an air of authority as they are put forward by c0-curator of this anthology Barry Miles, a name that should be familiar to Burroughs scholars.  His involvement might explain the more literary nature of the recordings here in comparison with the more sound based ones by selected by members of Throbbing Gristle for the above mentioned earlier LP release.  He is also a prime position to clue us into what some the texts may come from or refer to.  Of course nothing in great detail, as that would take away from the subjective impact of hearing the recordings.  It does enough to place these recording in the perspective of Burroughs’ timeline specifying which writings point to and benefit from these experiments, as well as to point out that Burroughs is actually commenting on things that immediately precede his interjections.  Too much analysis would detract from the open associations which would seem to be the envisioned advantage of this method — the ability to discover previously unseen connections.  These recording now include an unavoidable patina of nostalgia as well for the world documented in them as well as most listeners earlier experience reading Burroughs’ words.

For me, age seems to have brought a better understanding of, and there appreciation of, Burroughs’ cut-up works.  Reading sections of the cut-up trilogy and similar works now I find can follow the thread of imagery which was impossible to convey otherwise and impenetrable to my younger mind.  Perhaps it is a greater disordering of my senses over the decades, or maybe in a better light it is a greater attention to the other possibilities inherent in the limited symbols which we have at our disponsal to rearrange in an effort to hopelessly convey all of human experience (Joseph Campbell to the contrary seemed happy to acknowledge, and even celebrate, how much of experience was ineffable).  William S. Burroughs came together as a writer in the time that James Joyce introduced the world to the stream of thought in writing and obviously saw that there were further regions left unmapped on the printed page beyond this.  This set of CDs gives a view into how he pushed this envelope and better observed the multiple lines of thought in his head as they mixed with the sights and sounds of the world around him that grabbed his attention.  He was after all to later point out that walking down the street was in itself an internal cut-up because of the number of different stimuli and thoughts colliding in one’s head as different events appeared and unfolded. So for me at this point of my depth of engagement with the man’s work, I can appreciate and gain from multiple listenings of his set and I am sure that there are others like me.  I applaud Colin Fallows for making this set available as well as co-steering this project with Barry Miles, whose scholarly attention to Burroughs over the decades I have alluded an appreciation of to above.

This work is lovingly presented as three discs in card sleeves contained in a slipcase with a 16-page booklet.  While Miles’ essay takes up a portion of the booklet, it also features many rare and unpublished black & white photographs of Burroughs from Paris, London and Tangier taken by Brion Gysin, Barry Miles and Ian Sommerville respectively.  It is Ian’s photo on a back cover of the booklet which appears to given the set its title.  Much to my pleasure it is a compact package and fits among jewel cased discs perfectly.

Audio Research Edition – ARECD301

File Under Pop “Heathrow” 7” (1979)

7" coverIn between releases by Swell Maps, Stiff Little Fingers, Kleenex, The Raincoats and The Monochrome Set, Rough Trade unleashed this delightfully misleadingly named one off.  Although the B side does feature a short song about child murderer Mary Bell (in advance of Monte Cazazza’s tribute to the same), most of the two sides are taken up by live recordings at Heathrow Airport made with an analog synth.  The non-musical blats here sound more akin to something the Sonic Art Union might have subjected audiences to than the more musically structured Industrial Musik coming out of England at the time.  It is a beautiful little slice of primitive electronics and random voices, and a lot of copies probably languish unplayed in the collections of people wanting to have all the Rough Trade singles.  After this Simon Leonard went on to record under the names AK Process and AK-47 and by 1984 formed the quirky synth pop duo I Start Counting who were signed to Mute Records alongside Depeche Mode, Mark Stewart, Erasure and Fad Gadget.

Rough Trade [1979] RT 0011

John Duncan “First Recordings 1978-1985” 3 x LP + DVD box (2006)

box set coverI have to admit that the concept of this box set had me very excited.  There are several horribly rare early cassettes by John Duncan that I have been wanting to hear for decades.  Sadly this set doesn’t include a lot of those things.  One side of “No” is here, which is exciting to hear finally (coincidentally that piece has just been published online at part of the Close Radio archives).  But there is no sign of “Two Solos” or the unreleased soundtracks for “Hurts So Good” and “Uberfall”, nor the early unreleased C.V Massage recordings.  With that in mind I was disappointed that the first disc of this box is taken up by “Dark Market Broadcast”, a later cassette which has already been reissued on CD by Staalplaat some years ago.  And the second disc is taken up by BDR Ensemble’s “Station Event”, which is one of the few early cassettes that I do own, and which was also reissued in the artist edition of the “Lowest Form of Music” CD box set.  But it is hard to begrudge that, as this wonderful recording still remains little heard until this box.  The big draw for me was side 5 with “No” and “Probe”, two tracks which I had never heard before.  Side 6 meanwhile is one of side of the “Gain” cassette released by AQM in Japan, a scarce cassette, but also one I have and much easier to track down than the other above mentioned early tapes.  The bonus DVD includes less than 30 minutes of material with “Prayer” and “Phantom”, both sold on videos by RRRecords in the States back in the 1980’s, and unfortunately has no sign of the early tapes “Right”, “Free”, “Out” or “Human Choir”, let alone the films “Hurts So Good” or “Move Forward”.  So some of my disappointment comes trying to actually track down a lot of Duncan’s early material over the decades.  It wasn’t the box I had in mind, especially as the last LP is more bits and pieces than reissuing complete releases.

That said, I have made my peace with the set as being a good collection of music.  “Dark Market Broadcast” certainly is a good slice of the sound that most people with associate with John Duncan – a mixture of beautiful shortwave noises and voices which Duncan seems to have a magic touch for.  I have spent time exploring the other bands of the radio outside AM and FM and never found such wonderful sounds, and find that Duncan seems to be better at utilizing them than most out there.  With him there are waves of undulating static noise ranging from harsh to subtle as well as distinctly pulsing sound.  Recorded in 1985 this first LP actually represents the latter end of the chronological spectrum represented in this set.

Quite a contrast is the second disc with the 1978 recording of BDR Ensemble on Close Radio.  Here the music is by Michael LeDonne-Bhennet and Tom Recchion on woodwinds and percussion respectively and reflects the sound of the Los Angeles Free Music Society which Recchion was a very active member of at the that time.  Through Duncan’s career there has been a strong presence of the ‘event’ which the music is often a part.  “Dark Market Broadcast” was in addition to be a piece of music specifically composed for airing on pirate radio.  “Station Event” reaches back earlier into John’s involvement with radio when he was a regular host of KPFK’s Close Radio with Paul McCarthy.  With Close Radio, John was often a conduit for presenting other’s work, but on this night became more directly involved.  “Station Event” was an exploration of both separation and connection.  The three performers were separated from each other in separate studios, the two musicians not even being able to hear each other.  Despite this, LeDonne-Bhennet and Recchion create startlingly beautiful, haunting, quiet sounds which flow beautifully.  In the control room John Duncan took calls on the air which range from mundane comments to poetry, dream recollection, and impressions on the music and the thoughts it inspired as well as spontaneous sounds.  Surprisingly the only disapproving call coming in disparaged the Ensemble as commie homos, but one wonders whether the caller was even serious in that.  Most of the callers were anonymous, though some were obviously from friends such as Juan (probably Gomez) and Pat who asks John to convey a message to Michael.  One of the very nice moments in this is a dream recalled by a woman who sounds a little like Amy DeWolfe a.k.a. Amazon Bambi (though I wonder if she hadn’t already moved to Portland with Smegma by this time), which John responds to by describing one of his own dreams.  The calls and music play off each wonderfully, which is impressive for an unedited spontaneous performance.  This LP does only contain about half of the original performance as included on the original cassette release, but is probably the best section.

“No” is from the same year [however I have seen it referred to earlier as having been done in 1977] and also recorded on Close Radio with the assistance of Michael LeDonne-Bhennet and Tom Recchion.  However, instead of playing music, this time Mike and Tom were blocking the entrance to the performance area while Duncan performed solo.  The central sound here is heavy breathing – a Reichian Event as John calls it.  Wilhelm Reich was a pioneer of psychology who dealt with the depths of sexual energy in such books as “The Function of the Orgasm” (1942).  Here John reaches deeply into this tradition while interjecting short prerecorded sentences.  Again this is an event that connects with the performance aspect not heard on Duncan’s recent recordings and is more directly confrontational in its subject matter as it cannot easily be dismissed as simply sound.  Following “No” on this side with the later shortwave solo “Probe” makes the latter seem less intense, though no less an enjoyable piece.  “Probe” was originally released on the cassette compilation “Assemblée Générale No°5” by Ptôse Production in a unique package which emulated a shrinkwrapped cut of meat as one might find in a supermarket.  A further extended exploration of the shortwave musical aesthetic can be found on the final side which is taken up by “Gain”, recorded in collaboration with Australian Paul Hurst, a member of Produktion.  Both contribute shortwave recordings supplemented by Paul Hurst’s field recordings of prostitutes.  Speaking about the collaboration with Hurst some years ago, Duncan recalled that he was at first excited by the connection with Hurst, but later disappointed to find him a shallow personality with the typical mass murderer fetish of Industrial musicians of the mid-1980’s.

The DVD is less exciting for me, and honestly contains works that I didn’t hang onto the first time around.  “Prayer” is a collaboration with a porn actors group and explores extreme bondage with some video effects.  Though rarely seen in 1982, this type of material has gained a lot of more exposure in the west since then, and I guess most importantly never did much of anything for me.  “Phantom” was originally included on one of RRRecords’ “Testament” videos along some nice Smegma footage, a Stan Brakhage film, and several other things which are quite honestly forgettable.  I seemed to remember “Phantom” standing out on the video, but I think now that had a lot to do with the context, as on its own it seems a rough and unfinished in the wrong way combining porn and NASA footage in a collage.  Given the other contents of the box, I think it would have been better to include “Tribe” or portions of the “TVC1” anthology, both of which deal with pirate broadcasts in Tokyo.  Those these two are not entirely the work of Duncan alone, it would seem to fit the themes presented on the vinyl and the collaborations presented there.

All is all, this is a great set of music and does present a wealth of otherwise difficult to obtain sounds.  There still remains a good deal of John Duncan’s early material which can be reissued.  To fully cover the years 1978-1984 could probably fill a ten LP box, and Vinyl on Demand has just provided the second five LP box documenting this period of his work.  Amazingly that still leaves some gaps but does include a lot of very rare material which might well be better than those things which remain uncollected.  But I am still left wondering about “Two Solos”, the second side of the “No” cassette, “Actual Echo, Natural Echo”, and a handful of never released recordings mentioned in the booklet with “Pleasure-Escape”.  Quite possibly John thinks they are crap.

Vinyl on Demand  VOD33

Arc “The Pursuit of Happiness” CD (2009)

CD coverWhile on a veteran free improvisation label and consisting of free improvisations on violin, cello, and double bass (with occasional electronic processing and voice), this music escapes the common “free improv” style and explores playing methods more often associated with classical music. Indeed the album sounds as though it could be the work of a “contemporary composer”, but is spontaneously generated. The eleven sections balance between the tension of a classical string trio but explore areas of occasional dissonance and freedom belying their true origin. Given the varied musical histories of Sylvia Hallett, Danny Kingshill and Gus Garside, it seems obvious that the trio intentional decided to focus their attentions on one particular area. It is an interesting area and one touched on by other Enanem releases. As much as I enjoy the classic “free improv” style, it is very nice to see improvisors being given the space to explore territory which bleeds over into other areas.

Emanem 5005