Thomas Lehn: Backchats and Somethingtobesaid

Clifford Allen By

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Speak Easy
Creative Sources

John Butcher
Weight of Wax

Electronic instruments have been part of improvised music for over 40 years and the availability of digital tools as part of the sound palette is something that can clearly be beneficial. Electronic improvisation and sound art generally refer, at this stage, to forms produced with ones and zeroes rather than the mutable and cranky nature of analog signals. But there are a number of electronic musicians who employ the glitchy circuits of yore, including German synthesizer artist Thomas Lehn, who mostly plays the EMS Synthi-A portable synthesizer (first produced in 1971). Two new discs from the cooperative Speak Easy and John Butcher's octet showcase Lehn's work in a variable slice of electro-acoustic ensemble playing.

Speak Easy is a quartet consisting of Lehn, percussionist Martin Blume and voice improvisers Ute Wassermann and Phil Minton. Backchats is the group's first disc, though a 2008 Cologne performance was issued on the DVD Speak Easy: The Loft Concert (Pavel Borodin). The curious thing about electronic music in the '50s-60s was its ability to mimic and expand upon the sonic vocabularies associated with instruments and, in some cases, the human voice. In the sounds produced by Wasserman and Minton, this lineage is extended into the realm of free improvisation—trombone or trumpet multiphonics, guttural arco bass scrabble and the like are lent the skewed immediacy of vocal whims. Wasserman's split-tone throatiness and wide interval leaps recall Albert Mangelsdorff or Axel Dörner, also becoming at times inseparable from Lehn's sputtering fuzz and ricocheted patter. Spikes and curves could be attributable to Wasserman's ear-splitting whistles or the knobs and circuits of an archaic synth. Blume and Minton provide a constantly shifting, lower-toned rattle and give the music pan-rhythmic force and bat-out-of-hell drive. Speak Easy are an incredible quartet, especially when given over to the whole and ignoring the particulars.

Somethingtobesaid, Butcher's large ensemble work, is an ambitious project from a saxophonist whose art tends to isolate the small sound and expand its area. The nine-part title suite represented on this disc was commissioned by the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and is intercontinental in scope—American percussionist Gino Robair and bassist Adam Linson and Australian harpist Clare Cooper complete the ensemble, which otherwise represents the UK, Germany and Austria. Somethingtobesaid weighs heavily on electronic and (importantly) electronic-like sound, employing turntables (courtesy of Viennese artist dieb13), Robair's sometimes motorized, sometimes blown "energized surfaces" and the digital electronics Linson uses to augment his string work. Butcher adds pre-recorded electronic sounds and voice fragments from an answering machine to act as signposts and orchestrate the ensemble. Compared (perhaps boldly) to a record like Backchats, Butcher's suite has a clear compositional sway behind it—the fluff of exhalation acting like a pedal point, which leads into gestural crashes on piano strings and gongs before petering into bowed and plucked skitter. Somethingtobesaid feels cyclical, though exact intervals aren't really the point. Returning voice patterns and areas of mass are springboards to lightness and detail that, on the surface, might not amount to much 'compositionally,' but in literal practice center a range of diverse and complementary actions.

Tracks and Personnel


Tracks: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5.

Personnel: Thomas Lehn: analogue synthesizer; Martin Blume: percussion; Ute Wassermann: voice and whistles; Phil Minton: voice.


Tracks: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5; Part 6; Part 7; Part 8; Part 9.

Personnel: John Butcher: tenor and soprano saxophones, pre-recorded sounds; Chris Burn: piano; Clare Cooper: harp and guzheng; Thomas Lehn: analogue synthesizer; dieb13: turntables; Adam Linson: bass and electronics; John Edwards: bass; Gino Robair: percussion and energized surfaces.

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