FURT and electronics on Psi
The four latest releases on saxophonist Evan Parker's Psi label tell an interesting story about the past decade as well as about Psi and Parker. Each of the four releases features electronics and includes one or both members of the improvising electronics duo FURTRichard Barrett and Paul Obermayer.
After Psi debuted in late 2001, its early releases focused on "good old-fashioned improv" including several re-releases from the 1970s and 1980s. Since 2003, the label has steadily evolved, increasing recordings that feature electronics; six of its 10 releases in 2009 did so, and here, for the first time, four consecutive releases do. That shift has coincided with Furt's time at the label, since their Psi debut, Dead or Alive, in 2004.
Elsewhere, the past decade has seen a similar increase in the use of electronics in improvisation; many musicians routinely employ them. Since Hall of Mirrors (MM&T, 1990) a duo with Walter Prati, Evan Parker has embraced such developments, most notably with his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. Without using electronics himself, Parker has increasingly worked with such specialists as Prati, Lawrence Casserley, Joel Ryan, Marco Vecchi and Furt.
Essex Foam Party
Grutronic is a quartet that brings together four experienced acoustic free improvisers who have re-invented themselves as electronic musicians. They display a sense of humour and fun as they explore the possibilities afforded to them by the use of electronics. Many of the electronic sounds the group produce are reminiscent of those that peppered the soundtracks of low budget sci-fi films several decades ago, or the kind that the BBC Radiophonic Workshop cooked up for early episodes of Dr Who. There are plenty of electronic twitterings and farting sounds.
However, the four musicians get way beyond the novelty value of the electronics and reveal their history as improvisers. They allow each other space so that the resulting music never becomes cluttered or over-busy. They respond to each other's playing with contrasting or complementary sounds, thus building up a complex but satisfying sound, impressive as most of the music here was performed live in concert or the studio. Orphy Robinson, on vibes, and Paul Obermayer, on sampler, guest on three tracks and are easily assimilated into the overall group ethos and sound of Grutronic; they never sound like guest stars who have been gratuitously grafted on.
This is as entertaining as electronic improvisation gets, and it stands up well to repeated listening.
Listening to Sense alongside Essex Foam Party, it would be difficult to tell which was made by the duo and which the quartet. For two people, Furt produce a soundscape that is surprisingly full, busy and rapidly changing, particularly on the episodic 12-part studio composition "Uranus." The overall effect is like watching a rotating kaleidoscope; there is too much to assimilate and no second chances. Ultimately, immersion, surrender and enjoyment are the only realistic options. Compared to the fun and games of Grutronic, Furt sound very serious. But they do have their lighter side, occasionally throwing in samples guaranteed to raise a smile or an eyebrow.
The album's other track, "Curtains," in memory of Karlheinz Stockhausen, contrasts with "Uranus," in that it evolves more slowly and is less crowded; as a result it makes easier and more satisfying listening. To attempt homage to Stockhausen was a brave move by the duo. To their credit, it is faithful to its dedicatee and very successful, containing passages that could have been lifted directly from Stockhausen's own work. Just as impressive is that the 26-minute piece was recorded live in concert.
Sense is a worthy addition to Furt's steadily growing discography.
This album's title refers to the SET (Serial Endosymbiosis Theory), work done by evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis; it serves as a reminder that Evan Parker himself was an undergraduate of biology at Birmingham University before his passion for saxophone occupied him full time.
Having several players in common, including Parker's long-established trio with bassist Barry Guy and percussionist/electronicist Paul Lytton, this grouping is Parker's Electro-Acoustic Ensemble in all but name (maybe for contractual reasons, as that ensemble only records for ECM.) The methodology here mirrors that of the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble in that the music of the trio is used as the raw material for manipulation by the electronics players. In addition, Parker asked Furt to collect samples from existing and specially recorded playing by the trio, so that they could "build an emulation of this long-standing trio."
The music consists of an extended concert recording sandwiched between two shorter studio recordings. Although the style of the studio recordings contrasts with the live music, the three work well together. All of the elementslive playing, live manipulation and samples contribute to a complex montage that provides a rich and varied portrait of the trio.
Music employing electronics covers a wide spectrum. With this release directed by electronicist Richard Barrett, we are now very far away from Grutronic. Three Barrett compositions on which he collaborates with three different sets of players create a varied and engaging album. In his sleeve notes, Barrett argues that "composition" denotes any process of musical creation, and "improvisation" one of the (many) ways in which composition may be donesentiments which are very close to Evan Parker's own on the subject.
Of the three pieces here, Barrett says that they "represent three different and complementary attempts to interweave spontaneous activity and prearranged frameworks." In that, the attempts succeed well. All three have a sense of structure and discipline that is offset by the edge of unpredictability provided by improvisation. The opening and closing tracks both feature large ensembles and are members of Barrett's ongoing "codex" series of pieces. It is a tribute to Barrett's skills as a director that the large ensembles (with ten and sixteen members, respectively) sound coherent and uncluttered, no mean feat.
But it is the track between the two "codex" pieces that steals the album: "Adrift," subtitled "in memory of Paul Rutherford," is a duet between Sarah Nicholls on piano and Barrett on electronics. As such, it is as perfect a meeting between acoustic and electronic players as we'll hear. The two mesh perfectly, finding common ground that suits each of them well. By turns, the resulting music is beautiful, dramatic, sinister and eerie. Just lovely.
On this showing, the future looks bright for Psi, Parker, Furt and electronics.
Tracks and Personnel
Essex Foam Party
Tracks: Plonk; Essex Foam Party; Concussion Vibes; Nose-Up; Ball Pool Bles; Madness and Civilisation; Foam Sweet Foam.
Personnel: Stephen Grew: keyboard, processing; Richard Scott: buchla lightning, analogue synthesizer, sampler, processing; Nick Grew: transduction, processing; David Ross: drossilator; Orphy Robinson: vibraphone (1, 3, 6); Paul Obermayer: sampler (1, 3, 6).
Tracks: Uranus:- Limen I; Limen II; Limen III; Limen IV; Limen V; Limen VI; Limen VII; Limen VIII; Limen IX; Limen X; Limen XI; Limen XII; Curtains.
Personnel: Richard Barrett: electronics; Paul Obermayer: electronics.
Tracks: SET part 1 intro (studio); SET part 2 (concert); SET part 3 (studio).
Personnel: Evan Parker: saxophones; Barry Guy: bass; Paul Lytton: tympani, percussion & live electronics; Furt: Richard Barrett and Paul Obermayer: electronics; Lawrence Casserley: signal processing instrument; Walter Prati: live processing; Marco Vecchi: sound projection.
Tracks: Codex IX; Adrift; Codex VII
Personnel: Codex IX: ELISION (Peter Veale: oboes; Richard Haynes: clarinets; Tristram Williams: trumpets; Benjamin Marks: trombone; Peter Neville: percussion, melodica; Erkki Veltheim: viola; Daryl Buckley: electric guitar, electronics; Michael Hewes: sound projection; Richard Barrett: electronics, direction.) Adrift: Sarah Nicholls: piano; Richard Barrett: electronics; Codex VII: Champ d'Action (and students of the Antwerp and Gent Conservatoria): Rom-Alice Bois: flute; Aoyama Terumichi: clarinets; Vlad Weverbergh: clarinets; Wim Van der Aa: trombone; Thomas Moore: trombone; Tom Verschoore: trombone; Juan Carlos Bonifaz: percussion; Fedor Teunisse: percussion; Fabian Coomans de Brachene: piano; Yutaka Oya: piano; Stefan Prins: piano; Kobe Van Cauwenberghe: electric guitar; Matthias Koole: electric guitar; Tom Pauwels: electric guitar; Marieke Berendsen: violin; Arne Deforce: cello; Richard Barrett: electronics, direction.