ROMEN/SCHNEIDER

Disordered Systems
Durian 018-2

POCKET
Pocket
2:13 CD 013

ALEX DE GRASSI/G.E. STINSON
Shortwave Postcard
Auditorium 80 30037 00601 2

Guitars, guitars, guitars: can’t live with them and can’t live without them. With the six-string variety now more ubiquitous than the piano ever was in the late 19th Century, inventive guitarists have to figure out how to find their own identities.

As cerebral rock, so-called folk, contemporary classical and jazz musics have grown closer, extended techniques, unusual tunings and preparing the guitar with attachments have fascinated players in all genres. Many have turned to a form of improv. These CDs show how musicians from three different countries have attempted to meet the challenge. Each features two guitarists, with Pocket adding a bass guitarist and drummer to the mix.

Like other Viennese musicians such as the members of Polwechsel, who thrive on the dichotomy between sound and silences, and operate on the border between improvisation and composition, Barbara Romen and Gunter Schneider have adapted those ideas to dual guitars. On this disc, not only do they perform an important through- composed duo, Helmut Lachenann’s “Salt für Caldwell”, but using 13, so-called prepared guitar instruments show what can be done with fixed implements between guitar strings in real time on the nearly 32-minute title track.

Teachers as well as instrumentalists, both have enough technique and experience to glide through genres. Romen, for instance, has worked with the Tiroler Ensemble für Neue Musik and Ensemble ENIF, while Schneider has played with Ensemble Modern Frankfurt, Klangforum Wien and Polwechsel member guitarist Burkhard Stangl’s Maxixe. The duo, which have been professional collaborators since 1990, have also performed work written specifically for them by contemporary sound explorers like Stangl and trombonist Radu Malfatti.

The 533 bars of the “Salute,” spread over four tracks consist of a variety of usually hushed, but sometimes highly rhythmic passages. Among the barely-there sounds highlighted are the squeak of plectrums on the strings, the plink of strings in different formations, fretboard scratches, the repetition of child-like nonsense syllables by first one then the other guitarist, and what appears to be sandpaper rubbed on the strings.

In contrast, “Disordered Systems” modulates from the nearly inaudible to the almost loud. Created by fixing metal bars and knitting needles between the guitar strings so that they quiver, vibrate and oscillate with changing overtones and echoes, the piece sounds distant in some spots and in-your-face in others. Although at times it appears as if parts were electronically sampled, they weren’t, although the interaction between the instruments and the devices creates more than standard string sounds.

At times a constant, freight train-like beat creates a certain rhythm, while bright passages reference pealing bells. Sometimes the piece will open up for a sudden explosion of flat-picking strums, then fade away. Later a child-like melody will appear then disappear into a miasma of vibrations and string pulls. Most notably, a few memorable sounds are actually mere echoes on notes that have been played once, then because of the oscillations, bounced back like yodels unleashed in a Swiss mountain range. Subdued or resounding, the piece is continually changing.

Turning from the hushed to the lively, the 12 tunes on Pocket’s less-than-36-minute CD seem pretty off-kilter in a serious improv context. They certainly don’t appear to have that much in common with other work by British guitarist/composer John Bisset — or BritImprov in general. Main organizer of an annual musical relay of randomly determined improv combinations, who in concert and on disc usually offers unique string plucks plus scraped and bowed metal tones, here Bisset and associates have created an album of instrumental pop music.

Initially attracted by the British New Wave in the late 1970s, Bisset was a pop guitarist and songwriter before becoming associated with more experimental music. In a way, POCKET could be seen as a return to his roots. But except for the breezy melodies of Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford, who wrote lyrics as well, Pocket’s sound may even have been anachronistic 25 years ago. If anything the tunes Bisset wrote for this CD seem to relate most to those instrumental combos that went out of fashion with the arrival of the Beatles. Uncomplicated pop bands like the Ventures, the Astronauts and Duane Eddy’s various combs in the U.S. and the Tornados and The Shadows in Britain appear to be role models. But why turn to simple melodies now?

After all, Pocket’s bassist Christopher Evans is another member of what has been described as “the experimental dadaist” London Electric Guitar Orchestra with Bisset; and the other guitarist, Alex Ward has worked with such certified free players as Simon H. Fell and Derek Bailey. Yet the CD material includes ringing Beatlesque guitar runs, a Western swing-type waltz, a Spanish-tinged heavy rocker, drummer Oliv J. Picard playing a drum break that sounds like the one on “Wipe Out” and a weepy last-dance-style ballad.

Bisset, who was born in 1960 —and wasn’t old enough to experience those instrumental pop bands first hand — has said that he wants to further explore song-based material. But does getting in touch with his inner Hank Marvin mean that he’s become a musical neo-con? Can’t melody be explored in a less poppy fashion? Surely Pocket isn’t aiming for Sonic Youth-style kudos and fame.

Free improv fans will probably be scratching their heads about this disc for quite a while. But if you know someone who has never really felt the same about music since “Telstar” and “Rebel Rouser” was on the top of the charts, here’s a disc for him.

If Pocket’s music is reminiscent of pop-rock, then the disc featuring G.E. Stinson and Alex de Grassi shows what happens when disillusioned popularizers seek different sonic frontiers.

With a background in formal composition and Chicago blues, Stinson co-founded the popular fusion/world music group, Shadowfax in 1972, and since then has also contributed to several movie soundtracks. Yet since the late 1980s he has collaborated with experimental musicians in Los Angles, including multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia, guitarist Nels Cline and violinist Jeff Gauthier. Around that time, de Grassi, influenced by progressive folk music, country blues and pianist Keith Jarrett’s solo work, began creating his own version of ethnic and jazz-inflected sounds.

Combined, de Grassi and Stinson’s influence have lead them to produce 17 short improvisations here that end up sounding in the main like wonky New Age work. Although there are enough clucks and plinks here to suggest an entire barn yard full of baby chicks, the end product seems to be more cinematic — as in movie soundtrack — then fully picturesque.

On “Map of the Night”, for instance, the amp buzzes and use of devices resembles that of a scary movie soundtrack, with the music regularly coming in and out of focus. Slurred fingering makes its appearance on “False Bottom”, with one man working on the highest part of the strings and the other picking out a lilting air. Imagine Doc and Merle Watson transformed to a 21st Century Gerde’s Folk City. “Bottled Up” has enough primitive, proto-heavy metal feedback noise in the background to be a Link Wray outtake, while de Grassi plays some gentle folkie fills in the front. And on “Tin Can Necklace”, the percussive melody appears to be coming from steel drum rather than a bunch of strings.

Elsewhere vocalized wah-wah tones and what could be ProgRock keyboard washes vie with Old Timey hard flailing. When Stinson on the title track uses his instruments to produce the sort of space voices that wouldn’t have been out a place on one of the weaker Sun Ra sessions, de Grassi seems to be fully into a gentle Mississippi John Hurt finger picking mode.

Taken together, all these guitarists have certainly come up with individual solutions as to how to experiment with their instruments. All of the discs will probably interest six string fanatics, although it would appear that Romen and Schneider have the most to offer every listener.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Disordered: Salut Für Caudwell 1. Bars 1 - 178.2. Bars 179 - 360.3. Bars 361 - 434.4. Bars 435 - 533 5. Disordered Systems

Personnel: Disordered: Barbara Romen and Gunter Schneider (acoustic guitars, voices [tracks1-4], prepared guitars instruments [track 5])

Track Listing: Pocket: 1. Pink 2. Stretch Marks 3. Liverpool 4. Wellingtons 5. Horatio 6. WC68 7. Catch (hit and run) 8. Wily coyote 9. Evens 10. Snap 11. Tumba 12. Lost

Personnel: Pocket: Alex Ward and John Bisset (guitars); Christopher Evans (bass); Oliv J. Picard (drums)

Track Listing: 1. Always Falling 2. Small Talk s 3. Map of the Night 4. False Bottom 5. Heavy Lifting 6. While You Were Sleeping 7. Subway Incident 8. Shortwave Postcard 9. Behind the Sun 10. Robot Shiva 11. Demon Crossing 12. Signal Drift 13. Slanted Morning 14. Tin Can Necklace 15. Exposed 16. Bottled Up 17. Some Have Departed :24

Personnel: G.E. Stinson (electric 6 and 12-string, baritone and bass guitars plus implements); Alex de Grassi (acoustic 6 and 12-string, baritone and high-strung guitars plus paint brush)