Frank Rosaly Little Hell Volume 1 - Apathy of a Cow Contraphonic
When looked at in its entirety, Chicago record label Contraphonic's Little Hell project can be seen in multiple lights: social activism, historical record, artist collective, creative electroacoustic improvisation, and/or dislocated sound art installation. Multi-instrumentalist Frank Rosaly's contribution, Apathy Of A Cow, represents the sound aspects and is the first of a series. For decades Chicago has had one of the most wildly diverse, free-thinking and restlessly creative music scenes on the planet. Rosaly's challenging contribution here, as well as his increasingly large amount of documented work behind the drum kit, comes from that same forward looking spirit.
The Little Hell being referred to is a Chicago neighborhood. Since the late 1800s it's been an area plagued by poverty and violence linked to government and gang related crime. The title of Rosaly's piece, Apathy Of A Cow, comes from the opening of an article in the December 21st, 1916 Chicago Daily Tribune: "Chicago has the apathy of a cow." The article's subject was two murders which occurred in Little Hell. The apathy referred to was the city's lack of motivation to improve this neighborhood. It's twice been torn down and rebuilt by Chicago's Housing Authority in hopes of creating stability, but the cycles of violence remain deeply embedded.
Rosaly's Apathy was not initially intended as a programmatic work. But once suggested it's easy to hear as representative of urban violence, political corruption, and the endlessly cruel and complex conflicts that spiral out of poverty. It emits a visceral sense of hierarchical strata with different levels becoming dominant; then others being subsumedor as Rosaly puts it, "This piece is full of destruction, resurrection, destruction. It's all in there."
The first thing to be aware of in Apathy is that a butter knife is the closest you'll come to a traditional instrument. Rosaly is one of the finest drummers in Chicago having performed or recorded with guitarist Jeff Parker, trumpeter Rob Mazurek, and saxophonist Von Freeman among too many others to mention. But like many contemporaries in the world of creative improvised music, Rosaly is increasingly drawn to the possibilities of electronics sound art. Not just using electronics to manipulate traditional instruments (as in trumpeter Miles Davis' wah-wah trumpet), but isolating and manipulating the electronics themselves as the main sound source. A shortlist of his sources include a homemade oscillator made from a buzzer, contact microphones, pitched utensils, a manipulated circular saw blade, photo sensors and potentiometers, custom made touch sensors made nickels and dimes, etc. Building many of these instruments and electronics himself gives the impression of a Harry Partch for the electroacoustic improvisational age.
Apathy begins with a rapid metallic pinging. It sounds an alarm and could be mistaken for a city worker busting up a street with a jackhammer. Underneath the pinging lies a low, amorphous industrial hum. There's a clear separation between the pinging and the hum: pitch, attack, volume, etc. They're clearly two sonic worlds. These are the strata. Their position and character remain relatively static at the outset. But as time moves they begin to dance and wrestle, shifting character, coming in and out of phase with one another. They jockey for position.
A quarter way into the piece a sudden schism occurs: the manipulated circular saw blade is struck very hard and obliterates all that has come before. The general tone of the piece becomes louder, more distorted, and blurred. You can hear the distant jackhammer still pinging, struggling to survive underneath the onslaught. The new soundscape is like a recording of a truck's grinding gears being run through multiple distortion pedals and amplified through blown out speakers. Compared to this the sound of the pinging jackhammer was a lullaby. These gears eventually flatten out into a more streamlined sound and we get an interlude with a pulse, repeated pitches, and dissonant intervals.
This interlude gradually sputters to a halt like a dying engine. The sounds of Rosaly's set of pitched utensils (mostly butter knives) that are suspended on a Styrofoam box bring the piece home. They ring out with rich harmonic overtones like Tibetan singing bowls with an added, ever-so-slight buzz; as if a wafer thin Playskool xylophone slat were laid over its circumference. These tones are like spirits leaving this realm. They're luminous and Rosaly gives them just enough space. After being put through the ringer of such density, the ringing dissipation of these tones stands in bold relief against the heightened chasm of silence they're falling into. It's an ecstatic release.
Apathy has more in common with the "classical’" avant-garde (John Cage, Max Neuhaus, Karl Stockhausen, etc) than any style that would normally come to mind from the phrase "free jazz." It sounds more like an alternate sound score for David Lynch's horrifying Inland Empire. Yet Rosaly brings both his keen sense of being in the moment and leaving room for interpretation within the written form: both approaches honed from his immersion in jazz and "freer jazz" over the last couple of decades.
Picasso wrote on art: "We must wake people up. Upset their way of identifying things. It is necessary to create unacceptable images. Make people foam at the mouth. Force them to understand that they live in a mad world. A disquieting world, not reassuring. A world which is not as they see it."
While not necessarily revolutionary, Apathy contains elements of revolution. Rosaly is doing his part to wake people up. He and the people at Contraphonic are anything but apathetic.
Tracks: Apathy Of A Cow.
Personnel: Frank Rosaly: multiple electronics, pitched utensils, circular saw blade, all other instruments.