In the last roughly five years there’s been a loose scene forming of American experimental music that sits uncomfortably / comfortably between categories. Stuff that is noisy but not noise, improvised and composed, often at the same time; academic but also fiercely raw and independent. There are other both/and pairings I could come up with but I think those three sketch a clear enough picture. The commonalities can be hard to pin down beyond those vague kinds of statements. So in some ways, what’s most interesting about ErstAEU as a label devoted to this concept of AEU, which may or may not stand for American experimental underground depending on who you ask, is that it’s a collection of people who are not really a collection. Which isn’t to say Jon Abbey’s (owner of Erstwhile, ErstAEU’s parent label and one of the founders of this very journal) curation is haphazard at all. Because it’s absolutely not. But it is to say that what he’s done is set up an imprint devoted to people who are mostly uninterested in labels, and more profoundly, uninterested in solidifying dividing lines and the rigid demarcations fans and critics so enjoy. The more responses that rolled in to my questions to the six people responsible for these first three ErstAEU records the more clear it became that in this case, the ties that bind are more subtle than geography or style, and are in fact more about overlapping rejections. The ties have more to do with what they are not interested in. Which is all to say, there are questions to be asked about the AEU itself, and what it is and where it came from, but to me the more interesting project is to work at articulating the sympathetic links/resonances between those involved. The discs are tied together, not just by the abbreviation on the spines, and figuring out what that means strikes me as worthwhile given these first three records contain some of the strongest music from all six people involved, and they could not, in many ways, be further from each other sonically.
Dystonia Duos is 001. Sinter is 002. Touching is 003. There was no way to predict how the progression from 001 to 003 would end up, but happenstance is kind at times. Joe Panzner and Greg Stuart’s record is a writhing mass, impenetrable and imposing and delicate and beautiful all at once. Sinter is a shifting world of mysterious sounds, where time and environment and fore/background are constantly shifting, warping in on themselves, stretched to the breaking point. And Touching is a beast of an improv record, and improvisation in a pure sense. It’s raw and wild, teetering on the edge of instability. And it’s something we don’t hear as much of these days.
Listened to all in a row, the differences are most striking, but the more I listened the more I felt like I was grabbing hold of some connecting thread and it was worth whatever work it might take to try and articulate that thread.
Dystonia Duos starts with hiss. The sound fills the space immediately even while the volume is low. There is a presence, is the point, from the outset. You might be expecting things from this duo, percussion and electronics would make sense, and in a way you get exactly that. But to my ears the real triumph is that there are no clear boundaries. Listen closely. At some points you can hear hands and skin and the pressure of percussion as clear as day and at times you hear the rumble and scree of a computer destroying itself, but mostly what you hear is MASS, uneasy mass, where all parts are subsumed in the whole.
There is a shape to these tracks. Joe used the word contour. A shift and a sway throughout in volume and temperament, a development that is there but not. The details of the recording are blurred but interesting. The three tracks combine live recordings made separately, recordings from playing together in Brazil, and a constant back and forth, each tackling the material, discussing, tearing it apart and then rebuilding. There was no composition or score, but a set of overlapping interests and concerns, and discussion, lots of discussion, which was as vital as any particular recording or process.
What you hear is a beautiful struggle.
I think a lot of people know Greg as a percussionist, catalyst and collaborator with composer Michael Pisaro. And listening back to Michael’s work with Greg I hear a lot of similarities to the three tracks on Dystonia Duos. Not sonically, but conceptually. The sense of a carefully laid out structure of sorts, a contour that you want to trace, but you will inevitably fail at delineating. The structure is there but not. You want to grasp the bones of this music, but as soon as you reach for it the whole thing shifts.
And bones seems the most accurate way to talk about this, because there is a life, a physicality to Dystonia Duos, and that, paradoxically maybe, is what I most associate with Joe. The sounds Joe Panzner is known for are wild. Clearing, Polluted (the now out of print second full length cd by Joe Panzner released on Copy For Your Records, run by Richard Kamerman of Sinter. At some point we may need some sort of map for the connections.) is a monster, the sound of implosion and destruction but always edged with a fierce sort of beauty. There is a life to Joe’s music, a sense of internal struggle.
And Dystonia Duos is clearly the product of these two men. “dissection puzzle” is king, a triumph. Raucous and wild on the surface, yet still controlled. That said, my favorite moments are actually some of the first. The leading track, “organ b/w timpani solo“ starts with fractured recordings of percussion swinging wildly from channel to channel, the digital appearing and receding, the two feeding off each other, transforming into something new over the course of the track. The track, and thus the record starts off tense and slow, but there is constant transformation. It sets the stage perfectly for what will follow, the edges bleeding into each other until you are left with something new.
Woven & Obscure
Which leads us to Sinter, the middle child of three. A duo of Anne Guthrie and Richard Kamerman.
Even more so than with Dystonia Duos, everything about Sinter feels just out of grasp, just out of reach. Throughout the five tracks there are few constants, and what may seem like a constant inevitably disappears and reappears in some altered form. Background and foreground are unfixed throughout, blurred and reversed at various times. Field recordings bleed into room tone and it’s never quite clear which is which, or where they’ve come from. Is the door to the recording space open or are these all from elsewhere? And more importantly, does it matter? There are percussive elements occasionally, an insistent pounding at one point, a constant chittering of what I assume to be broken machines, but even after repeated listens I’m never quite clear if I should trust my ears. It’s an oddly restless music in a way, even when the sounds are mostly placid.
And the humanity is always obscured, rarely are the voices unaffected, or allowed to take center stage.
In reality Sinter is an endless series of moments like those voices. Focusing on the differences is to discount the whole, and focusing on the whole is perhaps to discount the differences. Because these are five different pieces, made in different ways, in different places, but they are also so alike in texture and feel. I kept coming back to this image of watching the shuttle move back and forth in a loom, the thread weaving in and out, discrete horizontal planes tied together tightly, separate but a unity.
And like some of Taku Unami’s recent work, there’s an inclination to talk about this record as a puzzle, but that doesn’t feel quite right. Records are not puzzles, even when puzzling. Because records can’t be solved. I talked with Richard for an hour or so in the process of writing this, and learned the details of each piece, at least in part. Listening to Sinter after the fact I was struck by how unaffected my reaction was even with this knowledge.
My favorite example is that image under the cd tray. What looks like an impossibly complicated series of rooms and hallways were turned into acoustic models by Anne Guthrie. For the second track, Porcellino, Richard made recordings with four microphones, a contact microphone (think of a clip on guitar tuner style mic), a PZM and two small omindirectional microphones. Walking, sitting, humming, etc. Anne then ran the four channels through the acoustic models, two channels modeling the interior of those spaces, the other two modeled as though they were filtering in through the windows. And on the one hand, this in part explains the shifting of fore and backgrounds in Porcellino, but that explanation doesn’t really help us make sense of the piece. There’s a gap between the knowledge of the creation and what is created.
I was reminded of a strain of philosophy in vogue in some circles, object-oriented philosophy, where the talk is of objects, and relations between objects, which includes humans, animals, plants, rocks, ideas, every thing that exists. Graham Harman talks about the impossibility of complete knowledge of an object. That to know something is to know it proximally and in part, there is an ever present, impossible to bridge gap between the thing itself and what we can know of it. It’s not an exact match, but there’s something important in that sense of a gap. Sinter is a record of gaps. Knowing the details is interesting, and helps fill in the picture in a sense, but it doesn’t help you understand the record because in part I’m not sure there’s something to understand in any obvious sense.
Of the three Sinter is the most confounding. Five tracks, each beguiling in its own way, and each a necessary part of a whole that you will never fully know. But it’s also the most beautiful of the three, and the most human in a very specific way, as it’s the most prone to deception.
And then Touching, the last of the three, by Graham Stephenson and Aaron Zarzutzki. It’s a very different record, in nearly every way you can think of. Where Sinter and Dystonia Duos are the outcome of complicated back and forths over time and distance and multiple locations, Touching is a record of two people in one place. There is a simplicity to the approach that seems brave these days, and a simplicity to the approach that is somehow confounded and exploded because the end result doesn’t feel simple.
The danger of electricity, the wildness and unpredictability of a musician wrestling with his instrument. A music of risk and reward.
It’s much easier to pull apart the component pieces of the whole with Touching compared to the others, yet being able to point out, in general, who is making what sound didn’t make my job here any easier. The clarity of the recording makes it no easier to define the arc of these five tracks, and it makes it no easier to understand, that word again, what is going on.
The more I listened the more I thought about Robert Ryman. Ryman’s work often plays with the framing of a work of art. Pieces attached directly to the wall via tape or screws, or the paint applied directly to a wall. There is a beautiful mix of precision and messiness inherent to his stuff that feels of a piece with Touching.
And throughout Touching the literal and figurative frame is gone. Unbounded. Where Sinter was all obfuscation and obscuring of source and sound, Stephenson and Zarzutzki hide nothing. There are these pieces left on the ends, the endings fading into beginnings, laughs and coughs and sighs throughout. That fluidity again, five tracks individual yet of a piece, with the tape rolling throughout, glimpses outside the frame we expect in this music.
Where I hear Sinter and Dystonia Duos as being in part about this blurring of performer and process into a unified whole, with Touching there’s a blurring of the line between process and result. You can hear the work that goes into the piece as the piece is happening. Touching is the sound of itself, an incredibly honest whole.
American Experimental Underground, then. What of it?
Like I said at the outset, there’s words to be written about the concept of AEU and about the label, but the more I listened to these records the more I wanted to understand why they made sense together, this trio. And more than that, wanted to articulate what those connections may be. It turns out it’s not an easy thing to articulate negations, rejections. So I turned to the musicians, asking about the recording, their approaches, why they play this music, etc. Responses ranged, obviously, but there was this underlying unity, even in the differences.
About Touching, Graham said, “As far as playing with Aaron or anyone else, it is a concern of balancing volume, texture, tone, pitch, and variability of sound — and not necessarily a 50/50 balance, but being aware of what the overall balance and dynamic develop into, allowing interactions, usually unintentional, to play out and possibly lead into something else.”
None of us are moment to moment people, really.
And that shift from call and response, that moment to moment reaction was echoed in this quote from Claire Colebrook Greg Stuart sent. “The process is truly one of becoming. Vision was the outcome of a series of changes and responses that were possible only because life bears a virtual creativity that allows it to respond to life not mechanically but as a problem. This means that the outcome of these creative responses will also create new problems.” And almost immediately after, Joe wrote about the title, Dystonia Duos. From the art and the title it’d be easy to assume that it is a record about something, about focal dystonia, say. But another common thread in the answers was that these are not records about anything. Looking for meaning will inevitably lead you astray. That said, focal dystonia did play a role for both Greg and Joe, both in this record and in terms of their overall approach. “… dystonia went from being a problem in the sense of something that is impeding my will to being a problem in that Deleuzian sense that Claire Colebrook is describing: a tension or constraint that allows for a *creative,* non-reactive response.”
Whether or not any of the other musicians have read Deleuze, this way of thinking through creation, problems, constraints, etc. kept coming up. It’d be easy to read this as a simple shift in perspective, but it’s stronger than that, and more importantly it’s deeper than that. In the case of Joe and Greg, this very real physical reality led them to approach music in entirely new ways and in their case led them to explore ways of creating music that didn’t rely on virtuosity. But notice what I’m not saying. This is not the story of overcoming anything, of conquering an impedance to continue on the trajectory they started on. It’s a story of seeing a problem, a tension or constraint as something productive, as something to work with, not as an obstacle. Problem begets problem begets problem, and all of them allow for something new. And the appropriate response is creation, a creative response, as Joe put it, not merely a reaction.
It’s that distinction, between a moment to moment reaction and the creation of a whole, that ties them together. Graham used different language, as did Richard, and Joe and Greg, but the sentiment seems the same. The process of making Dystonia Duos, Sinter and Touching was at least in part about seeing those ‘problems’ in that Deleuzian sense, and to then embrace them, and work with them. Whether that means you let them play out, or disrupt, you don’t just react. So more than a specific approach or technique, what’s shared is this sense of exploration and experimentation, two things I’d argue aren’t as common as one might want in this world of music. Because while I think that creative response vs reaction is key, even more importantly, there’s a fierce willingness to bend the rules and to at times just ignore them entirely. A cliche, sure, but an apt way of thinking of this music. The commonality in the AEU’s work is a willingness to explore and to allow for and at times even cultivate those ‘problems’ because there is a deep understanding that to truly create you need them. If this music is about anything, it’s about reveling in the potential. ■
|Joe Panzner/Greg Stuart – Dystonia Duos||2013||ErstAEU|
|Anne Guthrie/Richard Kamerman – Sinter||2013||ErstAEU|
|Graham Stephenson/Aaron Zarzutzki – Touching||2013||ErstAEU|
About the Author
BW Diederich lives and worries in Oakland, CA. He occasionally writes about this sort of music here and drinks a lot of Manhattans.