Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Steve Jansen – “Locations” [That’s Cool Records, 2020]

Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Steve Jansen
[That’s Cool Records, 2020]

That’s Cool Records is an independent experimental record label founded in 2011 by Steve Jansen, a jack-of-all-sonic-trades from the southwestern corners of the United States who, after endless befuddled minutes of ham-fisted independent research, is confirmed to be not Steve Jansen of Japan, itself not a country. Locations is the 55th release in the TCR catalog, a collaboration between Jansen and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, “the man with the bass,” one of Norway’s most prolific and talented expatriates, who on this recording accompanies Jansen’s tape, guitar, and saxophone work with a combination of electric and acoustic basses.

Locations opens in medias res, almost as if Jansen’s manipulation of various frequencies and pseudo-percussive sound sources were readying a room for the duo’s work to reside in (the first of the many diverse moments the record seeks to make tangible the concept of space). Flaten’s bass is gently passive, like he was just playing to pass the time until a chair was offered. Recorded originally in 2012 as a winter norther was approaching a “wooded backyard studio” in Texas Hill County, once the album gets moving and a certain sense of wary intimacy is established, it’s hard not to picture the two crammed so tightly in a small drafty shed that Jansen has to aim his guitar’s neck skyward to physically fit into the recording.

This feeling of closeness, or perhaps more fittingly tightness, manifests a sonic expression early on as the sound of strings, Jansen’s metallic, birdlike, and atonal, Flaten’s more natural and wooden – jerk over and over one another like a slowly falling stack of wiggling iron rods seeking a parallel. It’s claustrophobic for sure, but clanging finally to a silent place on the floor, “Movement and Stasis,” the third track, brings the record to a more morose and dejected space of dark jazz and rudimentary electronic manipulations of sine and static. Here, the record seems to find another “location,” a space akin to the image gracing the cover of the record. Gray, unnerving, perhaps miserable but at the very least definitely considering it, Jansen and Flaten together, as all effective collaborations do, create a curious and engaging palate. Rather than complimenting each other with a sonic aesthetic that would easily blend into a smooth and easily traversable surface, here the players instead seek to challenge the assertion of the other’s technique with differing severities of textures and urgencies to establish a genuine relationship therein. These are not necessarily moments of absolute polarity, but there is a certain bridging that needs to be established in order for the two to compliment each other.

As the record continues, this complementary dichotomy is redefined again and again (the word “and” even going so far as to being an important thematic reoccurrence through the release’s track titling), like the early stages of a romantic partnership; constantly reaffirming the trajectory and tragedy that flows through this record like pale smoke. Musical conventions are less so diluted here than other experimental works of the same milieu. Instead of seeking to reject the personality of one’s instrument for the sake of experimentation, removing oneself from popular tropes and sounds and playing styles, it is always refreshing to hear adventurous guitar that still sounds like guitar. Jansen’s electric playing recalls the eeriness of doom metal deftly without committing either to long-form chord drone or deconstructed riffing. Instead, the free jazz tendencies at the core of this release drive feedback-saturated works like “Sound and Silence,” shifting across the fretboard as if the violent motion of the guitar’s playing were more important than the resonance of the note that was struck.

A shift in “location” is again perceived at about the middle of the record, as “Strength and Sanity (Dedicated to Booker Little)” creeps into view with a decidedly more classical tape music-esque motif repeatedly and solemnly bellowing behind delay-ridden electrical work. Dirge-like and deceptively beautiful, it is one of the stronger moments on the record where a piece feels less like an experimentation than a distillation of focused emotion.

The mournful modus operandi of Locations continues into the record’s second half, as a yawning maw of drones and string bends, vaguely like whale-song, introduces “Before and After,” another piece more concerned with dread and distortion than development, certainly at this point in the record at least. Like the souls of the dead were themselves visiting Texas Hill County, the track further emphasizes the interesting ability the album has to flirt heavily to the “horror-movie-music-in-the-forest didactics” of its sonic elements without committing entirely to an aesthetic or listening space similar to releases in the dark ambient or dungeon noise scenes. These sounds don’t need the somber breath of a midi pipe organ to sound mournful, they don’t need ghoulish samples to sound haunted, and they certainly don’t need reverb to sound atmospheric. This is homegrown horror.

But surprisingly, this record tends to hold off from devolving fully into sonic realms frequented by fans of harsh noise and power electronics that might enjoy this brooding release. Even as moments of distortion and intense feedback are utilized, they are done so in such a well-mannered way that it never comes off as violent, nor even aggressive really, which is all the more sinister. The methods by which Jansen and Flaten seek to dismay and disarm you are instead through the alien quality of their instrumentation and playing styles. Uncertainty abounds as the tangible texture of the plethora of drones peppered throughout the album seemingly attempt to induce a sense of familiarity or precedent, but the foreground, which is more often made up of string-based free improvisation, gives a certain uncanny quality to an otherwise more-on-the-nose dark ambient release.  

“Life and Death” marks a welcome return of Flaten’s acoustic bass, an element that I do wish was much more prevalent on the bulk of the recording. Truth be told, I wonder if my ears are failing me (though I suppose collaborations such as this one might revel in the fact that I’m about to say this), but I can’t quite tell the difference between the qualities of Jansen’s electric guitar and Flaten’s electric bass. To me, it felt like the recording slowly drifted away from the set piece established in the instrumentation of its early moments. Maybe it’s fitting then, that this welcomed revisiting feels like a penultimate and referential “location” for the final act of record. As if Locations operates on a circular track, the exploration and improvisation that makes up the bulk of its runtime feels like a long arch (“spiraling around and into abstract slugs”) back to the free jazz at its bookends. It’s a welcome return, and the idea of “and” once again feels significant.

Here too is some bowed work, from Flaten presumably, a fantastic juxtaposition to the angularity of the fingerplay that makes up the bulk of his contributions, itself at the forefront of the record’s final pieces. Fluttering and moody stringwork is countered by Jansen’s almost strawlike improvisation, an aquatic friction which once again facilitates a wonderful give and take between the two very contrasting aesthetics of the artists.

Finally, we are given the most truly “free jazz” moment of Locations with its final piece, “Witches and Devils,” which is fittingly dedicated to Albert Ayler. A frenzied and panicked finish to an otherwise arguably relaxed record, it almost feels like a perplexing afterthought, but due to the experimental nature of the release, it doesn’t feel too off the cuff. Ultimately, “decisions” like these make Locations feel like more of a shared sketchbook than a singular collaboration, but the unpretentious and slightly hesitant quality of Jansen and Flaten’s playing makes it an engaging albeit chaotic listen. Locations feels apt, as these pieces most successfully exist as differing windows into an otherwise pervading central feeling – one of bloodshot eyes and empty coffee cups, final straws and last words, dead trees and dying worlds.

As the record fades out, I can’t help but think of the approaching winter storm that was mere hours away from pummeling the southern branch of Texas this collaboration was recorded in. A Texas norther is a terrifyingly sudden cold front which is characterized by strong northernly winds and often, a black sky that punishes otherwise unsuspecting southernly placed locales like a frozen hammer. As the music fades out, intention or not, composition or not, what remains here is this black sky – the long blanket of anxiety that courses through the experimentation – the cold, cold wind. For a record concerned with “location,” this representation of its surroundings is its greatest artistic achievement.

Akiyama / Nakamura / Sugimoto / Wastell – “Foldings” [Confront Recordings, 2020]

Akiyama / Nakamura / Sugimoto / Wastell
[Confront Recordings, 2020]

Foldings, released last month on London’s fearless Confront Recordings (est. 1996), is the final product of a now nearly two decade old collaboration between four of experimental music’s most devoted vanguards of musical silence and lowercase sound art. Tetuzi Akiyama, Toshimaru Nakamura, Taku Sugimoto, each master practitioners from unique corners of Japan’s experimental onkyo scene, here join English multi-instrumentalist Mark Wastell in this hour-long journey into the depths of reductionism and ultra-quiet electroacoustics. 

On this two-part opus, Akiyama, more normally a guitarist, is equipped instead with an air duster and placed promptly behind a turntable. Nakamura, the grandmaster of the no-input mixing board, graces this recording with it in flawless form. Sugimoto, one of my personal favorites, gives a masterclass in instrumental deconstruction and sonic chameleon. Finally, Wastell, equipped with a violoncello, amplifier, and contact microphones, time and time again throughout this release ties the proverbial string around an ocean of sonic whispers, brushings, glances, and glides with the at times forceful physical nature of his contributions. Akiyama and Nakamura provide sharp porcelain sine waves and refractments of static and buzz, beautiful and barely there, sculpting the longevity of silence and flying dizzyingly overhead to accompany the earthly pursuits of Sugimoto and Wastell’s hands-on acoustic manipulations and tactile contact-based improvisations. The two are never at odds with one another however, as each mysterious mirror adds a unique shade of gray to this most overcast oeuvre.

Foldings is best contextualized as a success when we first establish “silence” to be the tangible ground zero of sound. That sounds easy when you read it quickly, but in reality, each of these artists, myself included, could probably debate for hours on what constitutes absence and what instead could be characterized as emphasis. In a human way rather than a musical way however, I’d like to establish silence as an important threshold through which we pass in any space or span of time, regardless of it being unwillfully part of a recording or listening experience. Even in the chaotic din of a city, even as I clack and click to type these words, when my fingers finally stop, there is no skip between the sound and the silence. There is no buffering, no turning wheel. It was there waiting for me. It was always there, I was just obscuring it; and when I hit play on this record’s first track, titled “First Fold”, I am not interrupting silence, I am joining it. I am “folding” the record into silence, into a world that transcends tracks and turntables, a world that has reached far before our lives, and moves far beyond this hour of playtime. Foldings exists somewhere within this immense and immortal wingspan.

This fascination with silence, with the “in-between;” this celebration of the minute, the rejection of ego and the embracing of cosmic storytelling; this “tuning in” with the world around you — these are not just the sonic qualities that make up this record and countless others made by outsiders, visionaries, and academics in the experimental world for the last near century. They are important emotional and intellectual considerations to be made by the listener, appropriate and essential to understanding or even, god help you, enjoying music from schools of discipline such as lowercase, reductionism, and onkyo. Foldings is such a success because we are given four artists who, through years of practice and work (and in this writer’s opinion, something like blistering fate), are deeply attuned with these empathetic qualities that make experimental expressions such as these successful. Expressions that are begrudgingly humanistic in their explorative qualities, and enjoyable because they recognize our place within larger notions like silence and absence, in the quiet, and through the aspects of their musicianship they will for us to dimly perceive they bring us closer to the threshold of something eternal and perhaps genuinely pure.

A record of pure silence, however, would not be much to write about, would it? Thankfully, throughout Foldings’ 57 odd minutes, our four guides are not dedicating themselves to silence, but are instead dedicated to compromising said purity of it. Often, sounds are indistinguishable as being electronically or acoustically sourced. Often however, the best of which are: Nakamura’s work in the first half is incredibly affecting and sparse, and Wastrell’s wiedling of the piezo in the second is diverse and dynamic. In between much of that, there is the rustling of coat sleeves, creaking chairs, and a quiet so intense that I can cherish the sound of Sugimoto’s fingers moving across the fretboard. I nod as he again commits to no note at all. 

Sounds that seem to be human-made are found to be unreliable, as the sound of sweeping along a table slowly recedes into the uncanny; machine-like motion, dusty washes of static gentle feedback further obfuscate the truth. Each player mimes a marking on the whiteboard and the following sound is negated or negotiated by the group as a whole. There is a gentle flow between sounds sent for the air, which tend to have a more electronic or synthesized character, and sounds left for the ground which wonderfully plant the performance’s feet in the physical space (Offsite, Yoyogi, Tokyo, on January 19th, 2002) and reminds the listener how astounding it is that this is a recording of a live improvisation and not a carefully orchestrated piece. Company is exchanged for closed eyes, as I picture the movements of the artists in the room, walking to and fro as the sound of a case being opened, the sound of a switch being flipped, the sound of a speaker going quiet, breath itself, folds into the silence around me and reminds me where I’m not. 

Foldings reminds me, as I think all good quiet music does, of how little of the world I have seen, how little I will see, and how important it is to interact with the small part of the world you do experience in as genuine and open a way as you can; to fold into your world. While Foldings is disciplined listening, it is not without its rewards, and a reserved sense of calmness and beauty is perhaps thanks to the sympatico mined from four masters meshing to form something cosmic and organic and spiritually significant. While it is at times prodding, searching, and sometimes brooding, Foldings is ultimately celebratory, a collage of the final remnants of sounds left over from the universe, not swept up and carelessly tossed away, but placed in our pockets, joined like a rosary for us to crease, knead, and fold forever.

Cristián Alvear and d’incise – “Bow down thine ear, I bring you glad tidings ” [mappa, 2020]

Cristián Alvear & d’incise
Bow down thine ear, I bring you glad tidings
[mappa, 2020]

mappa is a small imprint based out of Lucenec, Slovakia that began in 2016 which operates “various approaches to sound derived from phenomenologies of listening… on a thin border between something and nothing.” Their latest release to an already stellar catalog of modern experimental composition is a collaboration between Chilean guitarist Cristián Alvear and Swiss reductionist/sound artist d’incise (Laurent Peter), who also mixed and edited this collection of sounds, Bow down thine ear, I bring you glad tidings.

I happened across this newest offering on release day by pure happenstance, despite my being a casual fan of the label already. I was browsing Bandcamp looking for some hot action when the eerie, vaguely rudimentary psychedelic storybook aesthetic provided for the release by Pilgrim Talk’s label-head Nick Hoffman immediately caught my eye. Still shaking with joy after reading Andy Douglas Day’s magnificent graphic novel Boston Corbett earlier this year, Hoffman’s art direction was a perfect dessert for my otherwise understandably acquired aesthetic taste. Imagine my surprise to glance down at the liner notes to see I had arrived precisely at the ribbon cutting!

Unlike myself, Cristián Alvear is no newcomer. His intensely disciplined guitar work is highly regarded in the international classical scene, with years of wonderful releases and often near-silent compositions inhabiting realms of pure intonation study, environmental field explorations, and, among much else, singular EAI collaborations with other contemporary artists such as the one released here by mappa

Alvear’s often seemingly understated guitar playing, a compositional aesthetic shared by onkyo and musique concrete contemporaries such as Taku Sugimoto and Michael Pisaro (themselves collaborators with d’incise), has much more bite here thanks to Peter’s sonic direction and the deft assimilation of various unspecified idiophones within the landscape. On Side A (“Let the night perish…”), Alvear’s obsessive repetition of esoteric harmonic phrases plods along like some improvised war drum for a global conflict of circus insects, illuminated at the end of passages by the sharp juxtaposed dissonance of d’incise’s glasslike percussive and drone contributions. This side, which arguably begins from a place of warm acoustic familiarity, eventually descends into a sickly and distorted horizon where even the heavily repeated motif begins to translate into more and more alien contexts thanks to Peter’s unique method of synthesis. It’s as if Peter took Alvear’s strings themselves and began to unwind them throughout the movement’s near twenty minutes, turning six tight and taut sound sources into a sort of witches broom by which to sweep the space “Let the night perish…” resides in. It’s an engrossing listen, but it does understandably feel a little less pleasing to the ear as some of Alvear’s more reserved acoustic work. As I often am, I was listening to this release for the first time while fiddling with work, and throughout Side A, it was hard to escape a creeping sense of dread. Mappa had this to say of the recording:

“The static structure of the pieces allows the music to function as a sound sculpture – breaking time constraints in favour of continuous duration and acting in a multi-perspective way. This material does not promise any solution, but strictly accompanies the listener and tries to close itself in the continuous present.”

The very nature of the present is shifted then with Side B, “Who can from joy refrain?”, a softer piece which seems less concerned with adhering to the rigidity of Alvear’s composition and his guitar’s timbre on Side A and more comfortably leans into an almost passive ambient headspace which begins to relieve this prevailing sense dread. Peter’s idiophones still tie the track together with the breathy mirage of vibrations coating the air around Alvear’s pseudo-melodic pluckings. By the end, all evidence of acoustic instrumentation is lost to d’incise’s refraction-obsessed sonic direction. The tape fades out, d’incise’s final contributions oscillate like a drinking bird in water, forever transforming/or transformed by Alvear.

Bow down thine ear, I bring you good tidings is heavily-influenced by the work of Baroque composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695); the tape’s title and the tracklist are pulled directly from pieces of his own writing. In detranslating Purcell’s work, both sonically and textually, Alvear and Peter perhaps seek to create a new method of detachment from the historical and sometimes linear nature of composition. The duo create a space that is entirely dependent on the existence of a form and technique, yet completely removed from the confines of narrative. While these pieces are a distillation of a history, they only truly feel agency by the conscious or unconscious dilution of what has preceded their meeting. That is to say, Bow down…is ultimately dependent on d’incise being dependent on Alvear who were both dependent on Purcell. And how does dependence still then translate to a listener who is attempting to live independently from the sounds themselves, in “the continuous present” as mappa puts it? A curious standoff, indeed.

Ultimately, these are questions for the ages, not for the moment. In this moment, Alvear and Peter offer us two wonderfully strange and sonically unique additions to both of their storied discographies, and mappa continues to be a gold standard for atypical experimental composition. I continue to look forward to work from both artists, within and without mappa.