Percussionist Gino Robair's Rastascan label, based in the Bay Area, has long been a sort of outpost for non-idiomatic improvisation in the US, recording groups like the Evan Parker/Barry Guy/Paul Lytton Trio, German reedman Wolfgang Fuchs, saxophonist John Butcher and guitarist Derek Bailey. Robair studied with AMM percussionist Eddie Prevost in England, as well as composition with Anthony Braxton and Lou Harrison in the United States. In his approach to "selected and unselected" drums (to quote drummer Paul Lovens), cymbals and objects blurs timbral lines into unexpected areas (what he calls "energized surfaces")long resonant tones from rubbed skins and high-pitched metallic gurgle.
The New Black, Robair's quartet with analog synthesizer artist David Rothbaum and guitarists John Shiruba and Jeremy Drake, in many ways drifts along the outskirts of historical, non-idiomatic improvisation. On the surface, such an aesthetic is akin to AMM, but without the political inclinations of unlearning how to play. Rather, The New Black just is.
Released in a small edition of 200, The White Album is a double-vinyl set that comes in blank black sleeves with blank labels, and no titles are given to the three sidelong improvisations and the locked grooves that fill up the fourth side. The first piece begins with grungy, seasick tones in ascending and descending waves of mostly indeterminate origin. Fuzz and feedback, normally associated with guitar, likewise glitches and crackles from Rothbaum's synthesizer. Robair's contributions are more difficult to place, perhaps contact miked e-bow on a drum head or the dissociated bounce of motorized objects, a loose cymbal pace giving the illusion of time and motion minutes later.
The second improvisation begins with furious skittering that soon settles into a yaw of bows, feedback, low drum scrape and organ grind, ever sparser as the moments tick by. Rather than conversational in the traditional sense, sounds occur in relation to one another, occasionally seeming commentary but mostly parallel shadings on the nooks and foreground of acoustic space.
Though the architecture of these improvisations hinges on post-industrial murk and a blended acoustic topography, The White Album is far from tooth-rattling and unholy racket. Rather, the quartet has created environmental improvisations that ebb and flow like tides and seasons. Events and actions occur, but without crescendos or the demarcations of time's passage, and a few moments into a side, there's the feeling that The New Black has always been there. Indeed, not too many improvising groups can lay claim to changing or affecting the experience of a listening environment with their playing.
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