2011: Brian Olewnick
2011: Brian Olewnick
Among countless others, two matters I returned to many times in 2011 are aspects of the contemporary music world that are perhaps only related in the most tenuous manner. One is the growing prominence and appreciation within the EAI community of the music that has been created by the set of composers stemming from Antoine Beuger’s Wandelweiser label. Awareness of this group has been building for several years now but really blossomed over the past one or two. In the US, Michael Pisaro’s music has been quite widely performed and recorded (notably, in my experience, with the fine collaboration of Greg Stuart and Barry Chabala, among others), including the inception of his own label, Gravity Wave. As well, the music of Jürg Frey, Beuger, Manfred Werder, Eva-Maria Houben and others has found many admirers among listeners whose main focus of attention (generally speaking) has been post-AMM improvisation. While one can discern areas of overlap (speaking strictly of sonics), I’ve found it to be a happy situation that music which has, as a premise (again, speaking generally) a tendency toward non-improvisation, even as it often allows performers substantial latitude in interpretation, has been so readily taken up, though not without misgivings on the part of some.
While I saw several very fine concerts involving work by those listed above, perhaps the most salient, not to say thorniest and most rewarding, event was the Erstwhile release, documenting a late 2010 session with Radu Malfatti, another musician closely associated with the Wandelweiser aesthetic, and Keith Rowe. Both had originally come up via jazz, Malfatti having gone on to free jazz improvisation before more or less abandoning that tack around 1990, Rowe never having even really dealt with that area, forging the AMM aesthetic some 25 years before. Each, while quite open to numerous musics and collaborators, can be fairly called intransigent in their approach — that is, adaptable to the extent that they’re not betraying, in their minds, certain deeply held convictions. Malfatti especially will inevitably sound like Malfatti, all very quiet, exquisitely controlled tones and taps, though varying infinitely (and gorgeously) within that. For the recording session, both were asked to bring a composition by themselves as well as one by another composer. Malfatti’s choice of Frey’s “Exact Dimension Without Insistence” brought things to a head for Rowe, requiring as it does one instrumentalist to play a precise note eleven times over the course of 20 or so minutes. This caused quite a problem for someone who hadn’t tuned his guitar or worried about clean picking a note for some 45 years. It took him a day to record! In one respect, that episode seemed to represent, in microcosm, the pendulum swing between the two forms, from severe free improvisation to a notated music that, often, arrives at a similar point from a different direction. “Similar”, though, is a loaded word and I remain curious on the further differentiation/integration that arises as these two worlds continue to commingle.
Tangentially related at best, if only because of his past collaborations with both Malfatti and Rowe (among many others), is the continued presence of EAI’s home-grown provocateur and critical agent, Mattin, along with several like-minded individuals including Diego Chamy and Miguel Prado. Mattin has long come in for withering criticism from the EAI faithful, some of it justified but some, in my opinion, defensive and overreacting. Mattin and Chamy (the latter in recent performances that include the direct questioning of audience members with regard to the art-form they enjoy) often engender severe discomfort from those in attendance by their refusal to conform to the standard listener/musician construct. When on the receiving end of such a strategy, all too often I find that people have a knee-jerk reaction, one of irritation and derision. Again, sometimes this is, it seems to me, the proper response; but not always. Their approach may be scattershot but they do, on occasion, raise intriguing and disquieting questions. So Mattin will arrive for a duo with Rowe and, unbeknownst to the latter, decide to sit and do nothing for an hour while his companion, uncomfortably, seeks an avenue out of the situation. When Rowe ceases activity, Mattin plays back a tape of the preceding hour which it turns out he’s been recording. So there’s the initial set, replete with nervousness and pissed-offedness on the part of both audience and at least one of the musicians, then recapitulated — with differing responses? If so, why? Has it been reframed in an interesting way? Does Chamy ask pertinent questions of the audience, or are they silly questions that nonetheless reveal something?
On the other hand, there have been a few sets where, as a performance, the purported participants simply fail to show up (and many other tactics in a similar vein), an action which seems trite and puerile. But just as we’ve long since come to realize, even anticipate, that a given performance may well fail as the musicians routinely take risks that have little guarantee of success, so, it seems to me, one shouldn’t decry a more conceptual effort that also falls short. It’s enough that there are those out there still willing to kick at the pedestals, to question things that most take as givens; that’s a valuable service. When Taku Unami spent most of his stage time at the AMPLIFY:stones festival constructing and toppling edifices formed from cardboard boxes, string and tape measures, it sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. But it, at least, was someone attempting to stretch parameters in an unexpected manner, even if it, in fact, echoed Fluxus-style events from decades past. We may still have more to learn from them, as it turns out. Sneering, “We’ve seen that before” strikes me, more often than not, as avoiding some prickly issues. We can still, after all, learn something from a performance of "4’33", 55+ years after the initial event.