Rick Reed/Keith Rowe/Bill Thompson

Shifting Currents
Mikroton CD 17/18

An installation as well as a performance of improvised electronic music, Shifting Currents preserves musicians’ differing sonic responses to real-time remixes of field recordings issuing from audio speakers which surround the players. Although there are several instances of protracted electromagnetic noodling that may fascinate software designers more than listeners, the melding of sound manipulations from four-sources plus real-time instruments intrigues when all elements lock into place. Acceptance of the concept’s parameters increases satisfaction with this two-CD set.

Chief sound architect here is Texas-based Bill Thompson, whose laptop program includes hundreds of files sourced then reprocessed with a genetic algorithm to create random sound patches. As this ready-made material is heard, Rick Reed, another Texan who plays synthesizer and Briton Keith Rowe, who utilizes tabletop guitar and electronics, improvise alongside them. As a long-time, former member of AMM, Rowe has been involved with similar electro-acoustic experiments for decades. But although he plays the only “real” instrument here, his contributions are no more prominent than the others’ sound movements.

In truth the shorter –almost 30½-minute –second disc from Le Weekend Music Festival in Stirling lacks definition even in these circumstance. It’s seemingly an exercise in heightening and lowering a block of sound. Continual flanges and buzzes squished together resemble synthesized tones pushed through an endless washing machine-like cycle.

Much more notable is the CD recorded at the UK’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. It has more scope, since its more than 54-minute length allows for development which puts into starker relief the performance parameters. Plus snatches of human dialogue, inferences of an Arabic tone near the beginning and what could be merry-go-round music in the middle section add a humanness that’s lacking on the other disc. Throughout processes that could be a door opening slowly, jackhammer pressure on asphalt and Alpine whistles make their presence felt then vanish into the unceasing drone. There’s even the suggestion of heavy objects being moved from one spot to another, even though we know the motion is sonic not physical. Overall though these blurry grinds and flanging whooshes complement rather than upset the installation/performance. Accepting that the envelopes of sound are mostly committed to rough drones is made easier with these brief interjections. Additionally variations in the buzzing tones make more partials and granular differences come to the fore. Once these differentiated drones finally pan from one side of the mix to the other and fade away, a bond has been forged with the listener.

Not an easy sound, and perhaps at two CDs, a bit too much of it, Shifting Currents is still a session that should be investigated by the adventurous.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. (54:19) 2. (30:28)

Personnel: Keith Rowe (guitar and electronics); Rick Reed (EMS synthesizer) and Bill Thompson (live electronics)