While We Still Have Bodies

While We Still Have Bodies
Neither/nor Records n/n 009

Created as a spatial soundtrack that was integrated into artist Cheng Ran’s audio/video Diary of a Madman during its four-month museum exhibit, this nearly 67-minute improvisation can stand on its own. Even without visual though, appreciation for the program that the four New York-based musicians created is predicated on accepting the aleatory sonic collage as an immutable found object. While forged by melding and distending the timbres of acoustic instruments and small everyday electronics, in essence While We Still Have Bodies alludes only to itself.

Not that the quartet members haven’t been involved in other musical contexts. Michael Foster, who plays tenor and soprano saxophones and cassette player here, has worked with Andrew Barker and Lydia Lunch. Ben Gerstein, whose sounds come from trombone, radio and cell phone, has played with Mat Maneri and Dan Peck. Bassist and cassette player manipulator Sean Ali works with the likes of Carlo Costa and Pascal Niggenkemper; while Nijmegen-born Flin van Hemmen who uses an mp3 player as well as playing percussion has worked with Tony Malaby, Ali and Costa.

Initially reductionist, the beginning of the piece contrasts pure air leaking through the horns’ outlets, low-pitched string reverberations, percussion affiliations which encompass bells as well as unidentifiable squeaked and rubbed metallic tones with pre-recorded and altered human voices whose mumbles are distant enough to be aurally out of focus. Shuffle- drumming, widely spaced brass plunger tones and slide whistle-like peeps mix with logy and watery wave forms for further sound elaborations that are as indurate as a studio floor. The piece shifts markedly at the one-third mark as more vigorous drum beats, near-human vocalizing and mouthpiece osculation from the horns sets up a full-fledged Energy Music augmentation with plunger and door-opening-like burrs from Gerstein; slurping squeaks and whiny split tones from Foster; ping-pong-ball-like reverberations from Ali; and crashing rivulets of percussion from van Hemmen. All the while, backwards running tape flanges produced from cassette and MP3 players create water-lapping-like oscillations that produce a continuum, while commenting on the pure acoustic tones. Although trombone blasts, gong-like smacks and reed bites stick out from the collective rolling polyphony that characterize the piece’s last few minutes, they too are soon integrated into fluid miasma that conclude the interface. Rushed rubs and brittle horn blasts again vanish within the spreading cacophony with the ending signaled only by a single and faint drum ruff.

With its abstract textures and subtle shifts in pitch and tempo, While We Still Have Bodies makes fascinating listening if you accept the phlegmatic alongside the peppy. Taken on its own terms the disc becomes more than a soundtrack but without being assertive enough to demand total limelight. Your reaction to this concept will influence your response to the quartet’s achievement here.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. (106.25)

Personnel: Ben Gerstein (trombone, radio and cell phone); Michael Foster (tenor and soprano saxophones and cassette player); Sean Ali (bass and cassette player ) and Flin van Hemmen (percussion and mp3 player)