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Merzbow and Charles Cohen at the International House

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Merzbow and Charles Cohen
Ars Nova Workshop at the International House
Philadelphia, PA
September 27, 2010
At a table on the floor in front of the large, darkened room of the International House's Ibrahim Theater sat Charles Cohen. A single light dimly shone down upon Cohen, and his desk light illuminated the finer points of his signature Buchla Music Easel, an extremely rare analog synthesizer in a blue box. Cohen twisted knobs, plugged and unplugged cables, and created sounds and textures that are truly unique to himself and his instrument. Charles Cohen is one of the legends of Philadelphia's improvised music scene and his singular voice is one of the most enduring and unique. His solo performances are rare and his recorded output is limited to a few small releases, though he does collaborate with a number of local musicians and can be found playing anywhere from a basement to an art gallery to a large concert such as this one on September 27.
Cohen's set consisted of a single, long-form improvisation that could be used as the soundtrack for the greatest outer-space drama that has never been created. The piece was constructed from a series of intricate vignettes, each with an exclusive array of tones and textures. Some of these miniatures had a coherent pulse and others were arrhythmic ambient passages; some were based in tonality and others were based upon noisy sounds. All of the transitions flowed fluidly and gradually, floating steadily forward through a soundscape that was detailed and surreal. A percussive minimalist type pattern that began the set served as the recurring theme, presented in a unique fashion each time it returned, sometimes unaccompanied, other times with a low pulse or buzzing sounds. This theme ended the set, and as the final beat faded, Cohen lowered his desk light and humbly accepted his applause in near darkness.
After a short intermission, Merzbow took the stage, with Masami Akita at the center wearing all black and dark glasses under a reddish spotlight. He began the set seated at a large table with two laptops and a mixing board, and was joined by drummer Balázs Pándi at stage left. It was immediately apparent from the first moment of the set that the complimentary earplugs were essential to surviving this set unscathed.

Their set was a single 39-minute piece of large, dramatic movements. If Cohen's set sounded like a soundtrack to a sci-fi film, Merzbow's sounded like the soundtrack to the apocalypse. From his laptop, Akita issued harsh noise textures that covered various frequency groups, with Pándi's continuous mallet-blasts creating their own layer. After the first few minutes, Akita stood holding an unknown device by a strap around his neck, and commenced a strumming-like motion that forced out a high frequency band of noise that he processed with foot pedals. This first movement consisted of a streaming onslaught of textural noise that did not let up even when Pándi took a five-minute break.

After a five-minute unaccompanied drum solo, Akita returned, seated at his laptop, with more detailed textures of sound. This movement was less claustrophobic than the first, with bigger beats and more space. Once Akita stood back up, the duo powered up and returned to their initial intensity for the final attack, equally loud and abrasive. This served as a short coda to the piece, and after a group of mutilated noises dissolved into silence, the two men casually left the stage.

Following continued applause, stomping feet, and shouts for more, Akita and Pándi returned to the stage to play an approximately three and a half minute piece that was possibly the loudest part of the night. Akita processed Pándi's drums and they ripped through streams of noise, over which Akita alternately played his device through a wah pedal and allowed it to feedback. After a final long feedback tone, they stopped and left the stage again, only to return for a final encore of similar makeup that lasted approximately four minutes. They once again left the stage without any recognition of the audience's presence.

For this concert, Ars Nova Workshop successfully paired two musicians at opposite ends of a genre. While both Cohen and Merzbow played improvised full-set pieces on electronic instruments, the similarities stop there. Cohen is a well-kept secret in Philadelphia, contrasting Merzbow's prolific output and international renown. Cohen's dynamic set was intricate and thoughtful, carefully constructed by the small man in the hoodie in front of the stage, while Merzbow's set was extremely loud and intense, full of long movements of musical grandeur by the man in the dark glasses with the long black hair and his heavy metal drummer. This contrast made the concert an impressively well-programmed show, displaying the extremes of possibility with sheer force.

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