Floating Phantoms
a/l/l 001

Saying that the members of The B.I.M.P. Quartet created an electrifying performance on this CD recorded at 1999’s Total Music Meeting in Berlin is as amusing as it is accurate. That’s because the four represent two generations of British improvisers who wholeheartedly embrace the different textures available from arching kilowatts, and have long been bending machines to do their bidding.

Leader and figurehead is percussionist Tony Oxley, who with guitarist Derek Bailey was one of the seminal figures in BritImprov as long ago as the mid-1960s. But, like his contemporary — and on-again-off-again-playing partner — pianist Cecil Taylor, he keeps adding new torque to his initial non-linear conception. Oxley, who now lives in Viersen, Germany, has played so-called electronic drums since the 1970s.

The other graybeard — literally — is Ugandan-born violinist Phil Wachsmann, who has been part of Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble and the London Improvisers Orchestra. Someone who came to pure improv from experimental serious music, he now manipulates electronics with the same finesse he brings to conventional string traction.

Pianist/keyboardist Pat Thomas moves back and forth between more popular and improvised music, he has played at Bailey’s Company Week, improvised with saxophonist Evan Parker and brings his varied instruments to the co-op band Lunge. Younger still — although he and Thomas recorded with Oxley and Bailey as long ago as 1992, Matt Wand is also a member of the Stockhausen and Walkman duo, and has written scripts for short films. Electronic usage is second nature to these two.

Tour de force in this set of five instant compositions is the almost 25-minute “Steam Line”. Constantly moving from the background to the foreground and vice versa, the drummer is always a presence, with a series of carefully shaded crashes and bangs from ride cymbals and hi-hat, not to mention the sounding of his gigantic cow bell. Someone who encourages complimentary but different sounds, electronics allow Oxley to subtly sustain and change pitch as it amplifies quieter parts of the kit.

At points he has to resort to some hard-edged drumming, since at times he’s up against outer space tones, electronic buzzes, tape loops and samples of voices and pre-recorded music. A quasi-disco era line at points and a Merrie Melodie soundtrack at others, the tune seems to encompass video game whooshes and sizzles as well as machine gun fire and the sound of the waves rushing towards the shore.

Appearing to chronicle what would have happened if Sun Ra, synth and electric piano in either hand, had climbed into Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine, the snatches of taped dialogue appear to be in Martin or some other outer space lingua franca. In opposition to the sampling, which sometimes is played backwards and forward in such a way that it takes on a velocity of its own, are the tones of conventional instruments.

Wachsmann interrupts his electronic manipulation at points to ooze string sections that deal with the material at hand as prudently as he would in an Anton von Webern composition. Practically at the tune’s end, he turns what starts off resembling a fire drill alarm into an unselfconsciously impressionistic double stopping echo.

Earlier Thomas moves from producing keyboard tunelets to practically abusing the piano. Soon as he leans his whole body into the keys, the ricocheting chords expertly meet Oxley’s constant cowbell bops and bass drum accents. In the background an intermittent — Ward or Wachsmann produced — hum moves up and up the vocal scale sounding at time like a chorus of chanting castrati. If any phantoms are floating, it’s probably because of the weightlessness caused by visiting distant planets with different, more buoyant atmospheres.

Other tunes include the sounds of the scratch of drumstick on a cymbal, the sizzle and crunch of electronics, and what could be tape tearing, a mouth making a raspberry, and radio signals exercising an extraterrestrial canine before the generators catapult a rocket ship into the solar system. At one point, in fact, a cow appears to be mooing. Maybe it was the cow that jumped over the moon.

On “Line Out”, as Wachsmann abstrusely accents different part of his fiddle you can hear the hums and haws of electronics in the background. It could be a perfectly straight violin concerto if those kinds of recitals took place in the atmosphere of Mars’s surface. Meanwhile, on the final number, Thomas treats (sic) his keyboard is such a manner that he morphs it from a percussive to a string instrument and back again in front of our ears.

A first-rate example of a new strain of contemporary BritImprov, the only question that remains is what exactly B.I.M.P. represents. Is it B(ad) Imp(s) or perhaps Boys Improvise Mit Percussion? How ‘bout Barmy Improvisers Must Play or British Imperialists Make Progress? Maybe a less enigmatic group name would be Tony Oxley’s Exemplary Quartet.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Line In 2. Line Out 3. On Line 4. Stream Line 5. Beam Line

Personnel: Phil Wachsmann (violin, electronics); Pat Thomas (piano, keyboards, electronics); Tony Oxley (percussion); Matt Wand (sampling)