ANTASTEN

Excentriques
Loewenhertz 006

ANTASTEN
Echos an kegelrändern
Loewenhertz 007

RUDIS/CUSTDIO/DIAZ-INFANTE
Crashing The Russian Renaissance
Pax Recordings 90353

DONKEY
Big Sur
Accretions ALP028

Coming to terms with electronics, synthesizers and their offshoots has become one of the most meaningful obligations facing a certain group of far-sighted improvisers in the 21st century.

Neither novelties nor toys, these devices can produce absorbing timbres on their own or in concert with traditional instruments. Yet, on the evidence of discs like these and others, providing enough aural space to develop a unique sound field is just as important as rationalizing what it will add to a piece of music.

Already busy with two other jazz-improv combos completed by drums and bass or saxophone, Austrian pianist Hannes Löschel has so far also released two electroacoustic CDs with the Antasten trio. A glance at the track titles shows that the second is a live continuation of the first. The former features the pianist with Thomas Lehn’s analog synthesizer and Josef Novotny’s electronics, and the second adds two different fellow Viennese musicians — lap steel guitarist Martin Siewert and vocalist Didi Bruckmayr on selected tracks.

To be brutally frank, ECHOES is head and shoulders or perhaps a multitude of computer towers above EXCENTRIQUES in interest and enjoyment. Subdividing the sounds over 19 tracks, only seven of which are more than three minutes long, makes the first CD appear to be more of a laboratory exercise than a completed statement. Interestingly enough, as well, the pieces recorded live are in the main longer and more appealing than the mostly one- and two-minute procedures that make up the first 12 tracks of the first CD. There, the chief musical stimulation seems to lie in figuring from which instrument different sounds arise, and how well Löschel’s wood, wire and ivory fits with the impulses, kilowatts and dials of the other two performers.

Sometimes the admixture can be incongruous, as when full-fledged romantic piano chords meet buzzes and drones of various pitches, volumes and speeds, or when some right-handed keyboard glissandos meet exploding electronic whizzes, buzzes and slurps. More noteworthy moments appear when the pianist creates what could be harpsichord sounds, as Lehn’s synth comes up with harmonica or accordion-like tones. The synth-player is expert at tricks like this, having matched wits with the likes of experimental drummers Roger Turner and Gerry Hemingway and British reedist/guitarist Tim Hodgkinson. Fellow Viennese Novotny has recorded with improvisers such as British saxophonist Lol Coxhill and French guitarist Noël Akchoté in the past. However, the many silences here often make even the shortest musical slices seem overlong.

Things pick up considerably on the longer, live tracks on EXCENTRIQUES and the trio efforts on ECHOES. However there are still times that the proceedings remind you of a vaudeville act involved a pianist and his comic assistants. Löschel’s crystal-hard piano notes are individually delineated on the keyboard, pedals or internal strings, while the other players appear to be doing everything short of detonating stink bombs and donning ghost costumes to distract him.

Certainly the collection of sounds includes percussive clicks and clunks; outer space rocket ship whooshes; Friendly Giant whistling; echoing buzzes and rasps; door stopper reverberations; lip farts; what appears to be someone puffing into a plastic tube; and small children amusing themselves with noise makers. Children’s playtime seems to be even more evident on the two tracks featuring the vocals of Didi Bruckmayr, infamous frontman of the Austrian avant-garde rock band Fuckhead (sic).

In one nearly-16-minute performance, his noises include those produced by a colicky baby, a drunk retching, and a cartoon pirate cackling into a toilet bowl. Apparently a paid up members of the soundsingers club, which includes such profound cacophony-makers as Briton Phil Minton and Canadian Paul Dutton he also showcases ordinary gurgles, snorts and mumbles. Bruckmayr’s child-like persona also asserts itself at times when he begins nonsense dialoging with himself, verbalizing in tones that range from deepest bass to tiptop soprano. While all this is going on, Lehn creates thundering crescendos, Löschel’s keyboard tone ranges between the single-note repetition to that of an ersatz prepared piano, then Novotny’s Morse code emulation morph into what sounds like an explosion in the electronics factory.

Elsewhere, instrumental associate Martin Siewert on guitar, lap steel guitar and devices introduces some finger wiggles and thumb exercises on his axe, along with tones that sound as if they could arise from touching a wet glass. When someone shrills a police whistle, this contraption meshes with the drone and whirrs of both electoacoustic implements and the keyboard tickles and arpeggios from the acoustic one. Siewert has participated in similar Austria-located sessions with the likes of bass guitarist/electronic whiz Werner Dafeldecker and guitarist/device master Burkhard Stangl.

Taking the sounds that could be radio signal buzzes, rush hour traffic inserts and fireplace crackles showcased on the rest of the disc, ECHOES may serve as a perfect summation of how musicians in the Old World deal with electronics. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in California, two electroacoustic combos from nearly opposite sides of the state have come up with their own solutions to deal with the electronic/acoustic mixture.

Bay area musicians, Lx Rudis on Matrix 12, André Custodio on percussion and Line 6 [green pod] and Ernesto Diaz-Infante on stringed instruments has gone Antasten many times better — or worse. Their disc has 30 (!) tracks ranging in length from three seconds to almost six minutes. Most appear to run into one another to such an extent that the timing mechanism of your CD player may be fooled.

Meanwhile, in San Diego, the inelegantly-named, 10-year-old, Donkey duo — Hans Fjellestad on analog and digital synthesizers, sampler, electronics, and Damon Holzborn on guitar, sampler, electronics — have produced three drawn-out tracks, only one of which was recorded in a studio.

Making a joke of their experimental status, the three Bay area types begin CRASHING with three so-called “college-radio edits”. These, of course, are nothing of the sort, but merely self-contained variations on the larger sound picture, that are as likely to find heavy rotation on college radio as extended Charles Gayle solo saxophone performances will.

The trio has enough experience with the curious mixture of art and commerce that makes up electronica, however. Rudis is a media artist and video game creator, who has been involved in interactive computer entertainment since 1988. Custodio has done solo electronic/computer projects and collaborated with local instrumentalists such as The Splatter Trio and saxophonists Dan Plonsey and Rent Romus. Co-founder of experimental festivals in Big Sur and San Francisco, Diaz-Infante has also composed chamber music and traded licks with other committed improvisers like Boulder, Colo.-saxophonist Jack Wright and New York-based pianist Dan DeChellis.

On this uniquely titled disc, the three avoid some of the drawbacks of Antasten and Donkey, minimizing the pauses between tracks and making sure that the improvisations proceed at a rapid clip. Helping this idea along are the tones that are added to the mix from the so-called real instruments — Diaz-Infante’s guitar and Custodio’s tom toms and darbuka, a horizontally held, goblet-shaped African drum.

Not that there are instrumental passages per se, but, for instance, the quick slashes on his guitar’s strings, frets and bridge that Diaz-Infante brings to the session help distinguish these improvisations from other drone-based expositions. With a style that sounds midway between that of Derek Bailey and Eugene Chadbourne, he can also add buzzing feedback, banjo-like picking and sections when it appears that that he’s attacking his strings with a drumstick. General utility contributor, the guitarist also saws away on violin at one point and adds his voice to the proceedings, though it’s often altered or sampled, a favorite trick of the Donkey duo as well.

Custodio’s hand percussion isn’t that prominent, either, except in a couple of sections when he produces beats that could come from a conga drum. However, the snap, crackle and pop of electronics are everywhere. Often used as a background drone, other suggested sounds as those of a slinky being wiggled; static crackling; dice rolling in a thunderstorm; dinner plates being moved; a door being forced open; and a jet engine taking off within an echo chamber.

CRASHING’s achievement lies in constantly keeping the listener off balance to such an extent that he or she will marvel at extended falsetto cries turning into Donald Duck-style dialogue, or concentrate as the rattle and clink of chains morphs into mechanical buzzes, rumbles and whirrs.

Donkey tries for the same effect, but there are times the improvisations seem to go on far too long, especially “Crick”, the studio number that lasts almost a half-hour. Recorded live in studio to multi-track, without any overdubs or linear edits, it begins with watery whooshes and sampler wiggles that seem to suggest amphibious creatures gathering around a marimba player. Soon, though, creating its own rhythm and momentum, all sorts of other sounds are introduced, including high-pitched echoes and synthesizer-created thunderstorms. These then give way to a catalogue of sound surprises: the whistle of plastic toys, the wiggle of radio transmissions from space, tinny mini-piano keyboard jiggles and what appears to be a buzz saw cutting through tough metal. Early on a disembodied voice repeating the word “police” appears, only to be sped up and transformed into tone modulations intermingled with the onomatopoeia of tapes ending and unraveling.

Throughout that track and the more than 23 minute “Fog” recorded live at the 2001 Big Sur Experimental Music Festival, you begin to yearn for something more. While unidentifiable, these machine-like drones, whirring top sounds and roaring electronic farts are becoming too familiar, as expected in their way as the 12-bar structure is in the blues. With some sections of the track slow moving and the textures continuing for minutes on end, you start to wonder if you’ve wandered into the experimental equivalent of an endless Grateful Dead jam.

Perhaps neither man hears how “conventionally avant-garde” Donkey’s music seems to be, which is odd considering both studied improvisation with one of the masters of both jazz and electroacoustics, trombonist George Lewis, while Holzborn also studied composition with Frederic Rzewski. Both longtime members of the San Diego-based Trummerflora collective, they’ve played with a variety of local and international musicians, and Fjellestad has composed for film, video, theater, and dance.

Obviously with such credentials, singly or together, they’ll probably produce much better work in the future. But as it stands now, it appears that only Antasten with guests and Rudis, Custodio and Diaz-Infante possess the originality to bend electronics to their own means and impress listeners at the same time.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Excentriques: 1. S1 2. S2 3.S3 4.S4 5. S5 6. S6 7. S7 8. S8 9 S9 10. S10 11. S11 12. S12 13. L1 14. L2 15. L3 16. L4 17. L5 18. L6 19. L7

Personnel: Excentriques: Hannes Löschel (piano); Thomas Lehn (analog synthesizer); Josef Novotny (electronics)

Track Listing: Echos: 1. L8 2. L9* 3. L10 4. L11+ 5. L12 6. L13 7. L14*

Personnel: Echos: Hannes Löschel (piano); Thomas Lehn (analog synthesizer); Josef Novotny (electronics) plus Martin Siewert (guitar, lapsteel, devices)+; Didi Bruckmayr (vocals)*

Track Listing: Crashing: Three College Radio-Ready Edits: 1. 4:40 2. 3:55 3. 5:14 Overthruster: 4. 4:05 5 5:59 6. 0:34 7. 3:17 8. 0:52 9. 2:20 10. 0:56 11. 2:51 12. 1:43 13. 1:42 14. 2:00 15. 0:41 16. 0:41 17. 0:41 18. 1:03 19. 1:20 20. 0:35 21. 1:08 22. 0:29 23. 3:01 24. 1:57 25. 0:23 26. 0:26 27. 1:55 28. 0:03 29. 0:03 30. 3:03

Personnel: Crashing: Lx Rudis (Matrix 12); André Custodio (darbuka, tom-tom, Line 6 [green pod]; Ernesto Diaz-Infante (guitar, violin, voice)

Track Listing: Donkey: 1. Crick 2. Wood 3. Fog

Personnel: Donkey: Hans Fjellestad (analog and digital synthesizers, sampler, electronics); Damon Holzborn (guitar, sampler, electronics)