Sandy Ewen: A Noise from Houston

Sandy Ewen, Damon Smith, Weasel Walter — Untitled (ugExplode, 2012)

It’s the joyous clatter you’d expect from Weasel Walter and the sound-based, extended-technique improvising you’d expect from Damon Smith. And while I’m not familiar with Sandy Ewen, it seems she fits right into the aesthetic.

Ewen is part of the experimental music/art scene in Houston, which has been bassist Damon Smith’s habitat for a couple of years now.

Her instrument is prepared guitar — that is, horizontally placed guitar played with a variety of objects: metal, chalk, kitchen utensils. Keith Rowe is a good point of comparison. What results is an abstract sculpture of non-musical sounds: a thick electronic crunch, like the sound of something big and heavy being pushed forward a little bit at a time, or the springy, metallic sound of impact-on-strings.

Variations of these themes build up a collage of activity that could become just a wall of noise. But the trio knows how to hold back and let the music develop thoughtfully. Track 8 (they’re all untitled) is certainly the loudest, with blasts of guitar and vicious drum fills, but it’s also filled with pauses, chances to absorb the events.

Track 2 is a slower-moving beast. It sounds like Smith is pressing the bow hard against the strings, creating a slow-motion roar that becomes the “rhythm.” It’s only at the end that the piece begins to fracture into a noisier, chaotic form.

Smith couples Ewen’s sound with electronically enhanced bass, sometimes coming across rather crunchy and fuzzy himself. (He contributes some laptop noise as well.) In tiny spots, it’s easy to mistake the bass for Ewen’s guitar — you have to listen for the difference between Smith’s bowing and Ewen’s dropping/scraping sounds.

Combined, they create a spiky forest. The opening of the 17-minute track 6, with Ewen making rubbery, sing-songy guitar noises and Weasel doing a woodpecker-on-speed act, really feels like a walk through some alien jungle.

Weasel Walter’s pinpoint drumming runs throughout the album. Sometimes it’s boisterous and ecstatic, but more often, it’s a rapid patter, sometimes quiet — an electric coil adding charge to the space.

It’s an album of well orchestrated improv and an interesting study in guitar noise.

For more about Ewen, you can read this piece from Free Press Houston.

And, from a Houston-based TV program called Binarium, here are Ewen and Smith playing some music and offering some explanation: