Has music always been about making something from nothing? Before the invention of instruments, birds sang and nature kept time. Jimi reminded us, "and the wind cried Mary." Before notes on a page, there was just blank paper, after notes, came improvisation and things got interesting. Class dismissed.
I'm betting the quartet While We Still Have Bodies follows the lesson above, applying the concept of devolution. Not the classical definition of transfer of rights, powers, property to another, but the adoption of the seminal alternative band DEVO's definition of devolution as the act of reverse evolution. From sound to music, to composition, back to music and sound.
This concept is evidenced by the quartet's hour-plus performance recorded at the New Museum to accompany an exhibition by the video artist Cheng Ran. Without the benefit of the visual, listeners can construct their own storyline to accompany the sounds. Stripped of traditional song form, the quartet approaches sound as topography. Trombonist Ben Gerstein (Ingrid Laubrock, Dan Weiss, Tony Malaby), bassist Sean Ali (Pascal Niggenkemper, SWQ, Carlo Costa), saxophonist Michael Foster (Lydia Lunch, The Ghost, Weasel Walter Large Ensemble), and percussionist Flin Van Hemmen (Eivind Opsvik, Carlo Costa) eschew the traditional approach to their instruments in favor of distortion, augmented amplification, and deconstruction. Besides that, each takes on (now) primitive lo-fi electronic devices like cassette players, cell phones, mp3 players, and found objects to add textures to their soundscape.
Behind the industrial din heard here are subtler, more refined moments. Metal sticks and cymbal scrapes, fluttered brass, and upper register bass notes replace the natural sounds of wind, rain, thunder, and insects. Early man certainly would recognize the music, and so, too, can listeners with open ears.
Ben Gerstein: trombone, radio, cell phone; Sean Ali: double bass, cassette player; Michael Foster; tenor
saxophone, soprano saxophone, cassette player; Flin Van Hemmen,: percussion, mp3 player.