Ironically, free improvisation often turns out to be a visual affair. In a theoretical sense, the idea of improv is purely musical: artists interweave personal threads to yield a mutual fabric of sound. But in practice, the listener often gains substantial understanding and insight from actually observing
the musicians at work. Trading leads, reacting, and synergizing all happen in real time, making the concert experience that much richer for one's visual involvement.
The first disc of Acoustiphobia offers a prime example of the puzzle that arises in free improv where the visual sense is denied. (Agreed, that's not the point of CD documentation. So a record like this is a gift regardless, in the sense of preserving the moment for history.) On Acoustiphobia Christian Marclay, a veteran turntablist, joins forces with Ikue Mori's drum machine and electronics, as well as Elliott Sharp's guitarbass, saxophone, and electronics. The sounds that emerge from the mix often have a distorted, eerie character. Reverberant held tones waft off into pitch-shifted whirs and punchy thuds. One can make out Sharp's guitar in many passages simply on the basis of its heavy string overtones; likewise, his saxophone playing emerges clearly because of its reediness. But those instruments merge with the electronics and the turntables into a dynamic pastiche of sound whose original connection with its sources remains nebulous. Thank god for stereo recording, which greatly enriches the experience.
On the first Acoustiphobia disc, the trio moves from very quiet moments of reverberant sound (electronic, metallic, plastic, or stringy) through periods of explosive polyrhythmic noise. Certain threads run through the pieces in alternating cooperation and defiance. Mori's drum sounds, for example, may emerge in perfect synchrony with the other players, only to rapidly shift tempo into a galloping rush. Meanwhile the other two performers may join in, or instead persist through the burst. Perhaps the most colorful contributions on Acoustiphobia come from Sharp's guitarbass, which he uses to deliver overtones, microtones, and a multitude of processed noises.
Disc two of Acoustiphobia features experiments in sound from students of Boston's School of the Museum of Fine Arts (sMFA). As a strictly student presentation, these twenty pieces reflect a cleverness and naivete which is rare in recorded media. Found sounds, vocal passages, and heavily treated electronic tones trade off throughout these pieces. And with the rich diversity of approaches, the listener must shift gears every few minutes to adjust to a new style of composition.
Some of the highlights: David Weber's "Fuzzy Quadraphonic Headwear," which features pulsing distorted sounds emerging in well-resolved stereo (reduced from the four-way projection of its original format); Luke Walker's amazingly rich symphonic piece "Selma" performed in a stairway on the "Musical Saw"; Yuki Yoshida's "Dragging Chair & Popcorn Maker," a reorganized recording of the two above household items; David Matorin's "Clock Phase," a stereo recording of two alarm clocks in a bathroom (yes) with all the dynamic effects arising from changes in mike placement; and Seth Coiburn's "Live Feedback (2000)," a surreal improvised experiment with feedback.
Personnel: Disc One. Christian Marclay: turntables; Ikue Mori: drum machines, electronics; Elliott Sharp: guitarbass, soprano saxophone, powerbook, and electronics. Disc Two. Various artists from the sMFA's Sonic Arts Program.