A quartet of releases from Mikroton and one from an affiliated label, Laminal.
NG4 Quartet - A Quartet for Guitars (Mikroton)
There are times when one has too much information and at least part of me would have liked to have had less with regard to this release, even if that would have led, in all likelihood, to some embarrassing evaluations. But as it happens, Rowe had talked about this quartet (himself, Anthony Taillard, Emmanuel Leduc and Julien Ottavi, all on guitars and electronics) for much of the last year and a half. At first, he only let on that it was a guitar quartet and that the musicians were meeting, when possible, once a week to rehearse it and that by "rehearse" he meant not only playing but talking quite a bit and examining preconceptions. He stressed how difficult but rewarding the process had been. Then, in June, he discussed the premises behind the work (which you can read about on the Mikroton site, linked to below) quite openly, a nurturing of, among other things, his long held notion of the value of failure but also, I think, of the lack of rigor to which current improvisatory/experimental music is held, by musicians and critics alike (something I'm surely guilty of myself). He wanted the work to be something that was impossible to describe with adjectives like "gorgeous", "strong", etc., anything positive, really, as paradoxical as that aim might be in the sense of the impossibility of jettisoning prior knowledge, of trying to play badly. I kept thinking of an able, adult visual artist attempting to draw like an eight-year old; can't be done, imho. This information doubtless saved me from coming at this project from an entirely erroneous direction but, I have to say, I would have liked to have been able to do so, whatever the subsequent chagrin.
The piece is loosely based, as you can read, on the third movement of Haydn's String Quartet Op. 20, No. 1, at least so far as the five track lengths which follow the one-minute, silent "Affectuoso e sostenuto" (tender and sustained, here referring to the expression on the face of the first violinist of the Lyndsey Quartet, Peter Cropper, as he performed the work), all of them about nine minutes long. They bear the titles, "Ineptitude", "Awkward", "Gaucheness", "Underwhelm" and "Failing". These pejorative qualities don't have anything to do, as near as I can determine, with either amateurishness or the overly slick aspect of some musicians; it's not like they engage in Al DiMeola impressions here. More, I think it has to do with what Rowe perceives as failures on the part of improvising musicians to do so with, for lack of a better word, aptness. This, depending on the situation, can range from graceful delicacy to brutal heedlessness, though I imagine Rowe would have that range of qualities inherent somewhere in the created sounds. This is a very personal distinction on his part, one encountered by anyone who has spent some time with him and listened to his criticism of a given performance; sometimes I can understand what he hears, often the degree of discernment is lost on me. Here, he uses a simple time cell structure based on nine one minute segments for each track, the number of events for each player occurring within a given minute ranging from zero to nine, progressively, the specific events and, I think, the minute sequences, shuffled randomly (perhaps a gentle nudge at the Cage and post-Cage Wandelweiser habit of using similar structures). The sounds are roughly the sort one encounters routinely in free improv contexts (there's a bit of rockish fuzz thrown in now and then as well) but more heard by me as a catalog rather than any purposeful or probative series; I would think of that as one of the work's "failures", not sure if it was on Rowe's mind. The final result is, indeed, underwhelming if one looks at it that way, less so, naturally, if standing back and considering Rowe's premise. It's hard to fail that badly when you know so much. Unless, by blatantly failing, you've managed to lurch into new, potentially fertile territory. Maybe so.
Keith Rowe/Alfredo Costa Monteiro/Ilia Belarukov/Kurt Liedwart - Contour (Mikroton)
No need for much procedural analysis of this one, just an hour's worth of your plain, old-fashioned improv gathering with Rowe (guitar, electronics), Costa Monteiro (accordeon, objects), Belarukov (alto saxophone, objects, ipod, mini-subwoofer, mini-speaker) and Liedwart (objects, electronics). IT's all very subdued and all quite good really, Belarukov once again impressive in his reticence while still often using pure tones, no mean feat. Though I may be mixing him up here with Costa Monteiro if the latter is occasionally summoning similarly pure tones from his squeezebox. No matter, ore to the point that each of the two tracks breathes freely, stretches out quite ably. One notices, after dealing with the guitar quartet release that that one dealt pretty much in short phrases while this is about long-held sounds, much to its benefit. One wonders about similarly "awkward" playing using this formation, if it's more difficult to "underwhelm" in a more stasis-prone environment. Whatever, it's an excellent set, focussed and considered, working up to a subtly exciting rumble towards its conclusion. Well worth hearing.
Kazuhisa Uchihashi/Noid/Tamara Wilhelm - I Hope It Doesn't Work (Mikroton)
A set of live recordings from 2013 by the trio of Uchihashi (guitar, daxophone), Noid (cello) and Wilhelm (DIY electronics).
Mostly at a medium-low dynamic level with medium a medium amount of activity, Noid's cello providing some grain, and longish lines, Wilhelm's electronics flitting back and forth between cracked electronics sounds (nothing too harsh, though) and smoother glides and blips, Uchihashi contributing unobtrusively to the flow, adding color and accents. All pretty enjoyable if not so distinguishable from other ventures in a similar field. Nothing particularly to latch onto; the music slides into the foreground, occupies the territory with some grace and invention, glides away. That could be a good thing, but it sounds like the type of event, were I in attendance, where I might have situated at some remove, allowing the music to blend in with other surrounding sounds. And there's value in that. Otherwise, hard for me to say much about it. Andrew Choate, in his review of one of the live sets (which you can see on the Mikroton site), writes, "...it was clear that this band had no identity, and was therefore actively constructing it in front of us." That might be it.
Angélica Castelló/Billy Roisz/Burkhard Stangl/Dieb 13 - Scuba (Mikroton)
A work written by Dieb 13 and performed by Castelló (amplified subcontrabass paetzold recorder, electronics), Roisz (electronics), Stangl (electric guitar) and the composer (turntables, klopfer--unless that's a German soft drink, I'm confused; but image google paetzold recorders for some cool pictures).
I haven't been a huge fan of much of what I've heard from Dieb 13 in recent years, so I approached this release with some degree of caution, but I'm happy to report that it won me over completely. A piece composed along a timeline which also gives the players room for improvisation, the overall sound does indeed evoke the underwater world, particularly via the enormous recorder wielded by Castelló, Stangl's lovely if limited guitar chimes acting as glints seen up on the surface. The whole piece is very understated, various elements, including voices (some reciting numbers as in old East German coded radio transmissions) floating slowly through, glimpsed and then reabsorbed by the sea. There's even a fairly visceral depiction of air intake through a breathing tube, augmented by a hiss (other apparatus) and the odd ping (passing fauna). It's all quite coherent and deftly executed; whatever the parameters were, excellent choices seem to have been made by composer and performers alike, always leaving a thread, never overburdening it. It possesses that wonderful quality of staying in one place yet being endlessly, subtly different. A happy surprise for me, thoroughly absorbing, and one I highly recommend checking out.
Triac - In a Room (Laminal)
Triac being Augusto Tatone (electric bass), Marco Seracini (piano, synth) and Rossano Polidoro (laptop). Soft soundscapes, inescapably Enoesque, but bearing enough grain to maintain interest. The four tracks drift by pleasantly, no complaints really just impossible to single out particulars from the clouds and hard to think of much here that wasn't accomplished on "On Land", for example.