September 10, 2001
PETER WARREN & MATT SAMOLIS
Bowed Metal Music
Sedimental SED CD 30
Sometimes, when people talk about really exceptional improvised sounds, they suggest that what has been created has gone beyond melody, technique, harmony and instruments and often beyond music. Definitions of what constitutes music vary and change over the years, but most different sound devotees would certainly agree that these CDs contain what can be defined as music. However, more conventional types should be cautioned that in a couple of instances here, the performers have gone past what many think of as instruments.
Case in point is Matt Samolis and Peter Warren's BOWED METAL MUSIC. Every sound on this fascinating, nearly-65 minute recital is created on modified steel cellos. That definition alone, though, isn't quite descriptive enough. The cellos are actually large pieces of tempered metal, mounted on drum stand legs and surmounted by a set of various sized cymbals and tuned steel rods. Both Boston-area musicians vibrate their self-created instruments by scraping what look like the bow part of an archer's kit upon different parts of the metal surfaces. The end result is both mesmerizing and soothing, a continuous, droning soundtrack of languidly suspended sighs, screeches and subtle tumbrel shifts.
Here, the two go British soundscape pioneers AMM one better. That band prides itself on creating continuous, otherworldly tones that can't be linked to any particular sound source. But with piano, guitar and percussion, the members are still playing conventional instruments.
Although Warren has played bass and cello in bands led by the likes of Jack DeJohnette and Ken Vandermark, and Samolis was a flautist in another Warren-organized group, these meditative sounds scarcely relate to more conventional compositions or even free improvisations. The historically minded might see links to musique concrète or composer Harry Partch's invented microtonal instruments. But with the duo's background in collective improvisation and jazz, the results are altogether singular.
Metallic and other unexpected overtones make their appearance with the ensemble on ZUIHITSU, directed by James Coleman, another Boston-based improviser. However, centre of attention is the sometimes human-like cries and often-inexplicable tonal colors he can wrench from the theremin. A product of the 20th century, the theremin is a contraption that resembles a lectern, while the instrument's five octave textures appear as the player moves his hands like a combination conductor and conjurer.
Furthermore, Coleman, who has performed in improv bands with other sonic explorers like reedman David Gross and trumpeter Greg Kelly, is able to create an entire universe of ever-shifting textures on these 15 short pieces. With only one in the five-minute range and the others far shorter, the thereminist and his co-conspirators are able to make immediate impressions. Working in different combinations, the tunes resonate since the theremin isn't forced into spooky horror movie reverberations, but integrated as one unexpected resonance among many.
Trumpeter Kelley and soprano saxophonist Bhob Rainey, who also work as the nmperign duo, long ago abandoned standard horn patterns, and prefer throat soundings, air tunnels or flutter tongue-created multiphonics to anything associated with conventional techniques. Yet these innovations blend perfectly with Lev Termin's 1920 invention without suggesting the sort of discord standard playing would create. Vocalist Liz Tonne, who is part of undr, an improv quartet with Coleman, may occasionally brush up against a tune, but is more concerned with pure mouth, lip, tongue, and throat warbles. In fact, it's probably a compliment to note that oftentimes the listener has to check the CD booklet to find out whether a certain inflected note comes from a human throat or Coleman's instrument.
Also featured are Vic Rawlings, who creates a sliding metal tone with his aluminum cello, and percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani, a perspicacious sound amplifier. The two would never be confused with a conventional rhythm section however. Most notably, Nakatani's incursions are so restrained that a single movement of his implements compliments another of the musicians' work as effectively a protracted kit exploration.
Most traditional of this bunch of CDs — if your tradition encompasses free and collective improvisation — is the Chicago group Pillow. That's because the quartet creates this atmospheric, almost 43 minute chamber sonata using more-or-less conventional instruments.
The more-or-less qualifier refers to the dry ice and tubes reedman Michael Colligan employs along with his woodwinds here. A committed improviser, he has played with everyone from minimalist composer Phil Niblock to noisy jazz rockers The Flying Luttenbachers. Other Pillows are Fred Lonberg-Holm, probably the busiest non-classical cellist in the United States — if not the world— who lends his talents to improv, jazz, rock, chamber and other aggregations with partners as different as postrock computer manipulator Jim O'Rourke and Free Jazz sax master Peter Brötzmann. Guitarist Ben Vida and bassist Liz Payne also ply their trade with Town and Country, a so-called minimalist chamber group.
Many of the members' influences come to the fore on this disc, though the single composition featured has more in common with AMM's ambient free improv and 20th century minimalism than so-called postrock or Brötzmannian energy music.
Overall, the sound unrolls at its own leisurely pace, with definite guitar notes, bass plucks, cello scratches and clarinet licks peeking through the mist. Only occasionally does a high pitched ostinato — perhaps melting out of the dry ice — appear; a dark plucked bass and arco cello face off; or the long, intense, foghorn tones of a saxophone make themselves heard. Yet even these rare solo forays soon blend back into the mix.
Somehow a sort of arcane America is suggested by the performance, with its frequent guitar licks and the occasional hint of a harmonica. Is this what the Band would have sounded like if the combo had made an instrumental album without a drummer?
Here are three different ways to approach new, non-song-form collective improvisation. Each is valid and appealing in its own way. Perhaps one or all three will be the metastasis you've been seeking.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. Bowed Metal Music
Personnel: Matt Samolis, Peter Warren (modified steel cellos)
Track Listing: 1.The Castle Keeps Me@ 2. Burial of the Combs^ 3. Katydid+ 4. Muddy Kemaris*@ 5. Lady of the Combs@# 6. Flying Water Shrine@ 7. Each Spire An Animal*^# 8. Events at the Laurel Pond@ 9. Zwittering Maschine+ 10. Tsunekos' Dream@# 11. The Singing Sword*@ 12. Sticks & Stones I@ 13. 12. Sticks & Stones II@ 14. Kokin Mystery Birds*@ 15. Released to the Stars*^#
Personnel: James Coleman (theremin); Greg Kelley (trumpet)*; Bhob Rainey (soprano saxophone)+; Vic Rawlings (amplified cello, aluminum cello, sarangi)^; Tatsuya Nakatani (drums, percussion, bowed percussion)@; Liz Tonne (voice)#
Track Listing: 1. Three Henries 1 2. Three Henries 3. Three Henries 3 4. Three Henries 4 5. Three Henries 5 6. Three Henries 6 7. Three Henries 7 8. Three Henries
Personnel: Michael Colligan (alto saxophone, clarinet, tubes, dry ice); Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello, nyckelharpa); Liz Payne (bass); Ben Vida (guitar, accordion)