Apple II Part II: George Lewis in 1984

George LewisRainbow Family (Carrier, 2020; recorded 1984)

Three years ago, I wrote about a 1984 experiment in computer-driven improvisation. George Lewis, then researching at France’s IRCAM, presented a concert of top-notch improvisers — Douglas Ewart, Joelle Leandre, Derek Bailey, and Steve Lacy — performing with three networked Apple II computers that controlled Yamaha synths.

The concert is now available as an album on France’s Carrier label. It’s a valuable document of this early moment in the history of computer music. You have to excuse the limitations of computer sound at the time (try not to think of Tom Baker-era Doctor Who) but the computer element does work. Or, maybe it’s that the high-caliber musicians — Joëlle Léandre, Douglas Ewart, Derek Bailey, and Steve Lacy — are able to make it work.

The three Apple IIs don’t just bleep randomly. Lewis programmed them to take the (analog) musicians’ choices as input and make digital decisions to create output, including an option to add some randomness (i.e., to play freely). The source code Lewis used is lost, unfortunately, but his recollections of the strategies provide some useful insight in the CD liner notes. The programs did have a way to create a chunk of music from scratch, without inputs, and Lewis infers that this is how some of the pieces start.

Whether real or perceived, the computers manage to create some sublime moments of communication. Léandre’s duet includes a nice stretch where she’s calmly following the computers’ cues, but when she takes control, the machines respond with an anthemic burst.

Lewis had conceived of the three computers developing distinct personalities. What he found, though, was that the human musicians kept thinking of their bandmates as “The” computer. Same here, I have to admit. (See how I just called Léandre’s piece a “duet.”) It’s an interesting test of human perception.

Of course, the humans’ personalities and choices lead to specific characteristics for some of the pieces. Ewart produces a piece that is both forceful and calm, drifting like a Calder mobile and creating some of the most neatly matched improvising of the album. Bailey’s low-key piece features a stretch of harmonics that tease out some pleasant tone-tinkering from the computers.

The album culminates with a group session — all four humans, all three computers. It starts at a cautious pace, with the humans avoiding the “spew” factor that a group of this size can create. As the activity builds up, the computers seem to know to sometimes stay out of the way. Here’s a particularly noisy section with the humans taking the lead; the Apple IIs slip into the mix with small chimes and shimmers that get more assertive as the humans back down. It feels organic. Whether that’s excellent foresight on the part of Lewis the coder or just a lucky happenstance, we’ll never know — but Lewis’ knowledge and experience certainly increased the probability of these kind of moments.

You can sample and purchase the album on Bandcamp. I’m especially partial to Douglas Ewart’s piece.

A Perceptive Trio from Finland

Olavi TrioOh, La Vie! (TUM, 2015)

olavi-tumThis trio set from Finland presents an unhurried mix of trombone, bass, and drums by three players who share the middle name of Olavi. It’s an improv session with a casual feel.

Even the track called “Hurry Up,” with its busy percussive clacking and nervous bass bowing, doesn’t overpower. It’s certainly fast and gets the blood flowing, but it preserves a sense of space.

See if you agree. This segment of “Hurry Up” is about as densely packed as the album gets:

Most of the time, Olavi weaves a loose fabric, which makes for an engaging session with a sense of fun. One reason for that, I think, is that the trombone has more “friction” than a saxophone or a trumpet. To my ears, anyway, it seems harder for the trombone to produce fluid streams of notes. (There might be dozens of Paul Rutherford albums that disprove this theory.)

But that’s not all that I mean by “space.” Even when drummer Niilo Olavi Louhivuori is filling space with all manner of percussion, bandmates Teppo Olavi Hauta-aho (bass) and Jari Olavi Hongisto (trombone) keep a calm demeanor.

“Kalle Killi,” for instance, is playful in a calm, loping way, with a rubbery bass rhythm fronted by improvising at a pace that doesn’t break the spell, even as Hongisto’s melody intensifies and Louhivuori’s percussion gets more active.

The band doesn’t shy away from occasional tonality, and that gives distinct personalities to a few tracks. “Chaplin” hides shades of vaudeville sadness in the trombone melody. “Forest Walk” is an apt title for a casual stroll of a piece — another slice of egalitarian improvising, sustaining a balance that keeps the group moving forward — and even winds down with a traditional ending and resolution.

Another track I liked was “Evening Song,” a showcase for Hauta-aho’s bass. It’s built around an improvised trombone melody by Hongisto, but the fill-ins from Hauta-aho add up to a robust bass solo, full of rubbery plucked notes.

TUM is a Finnish label that’s been releasing works by American artists such as Billy Bang, Barry Altschul, and Wadada Leo Smith — so it’s about time I listened to some players from TUM’s native land. It’s yet another example of a European label taking up the task of documenting the American art form (Clean Feed, NoBusiness, Not Two, and countless others are in this group as well).

Larry Ochs’ Fictive Five

Larry OchsThe Fictive Five (Tzadik, 2015)

Larry Ochs -- The Fictive Five (Tzadik, 2015)The track “Similitude” opens with a blast from the two horns in Larry Ochs‘ latest group, the Fictive Five, and the steady blare continues for a good nine minutes. Nate Wooley blares out a trumpet solo made of crisp color and passionate growls, propelled by the rhythm section of drummer Harris Eisenstadt and two basses: Ken Filiano and Pascal Niggenkemper.

That track is the opener to another well-crafted improv album by Ochs, playing with a cast of veterans. But there’s another facet to The Fictive Five: The three major pieces that make up the album are dedicated to filmmakers — Wim Wenders, Kelly Reichardt, and installation artist William Kentridge.

As Ochs explains in his own liner notes (posted on his website and not available with the CD), the dedications reflect his feeling that there’s a visual aspect to the music, a movie of the mind. “I’m inspired to create musical landscapes that the listener when closing her eyes can then imagine her own visual images into, inspired by my music,” he writes. Like a choreographer working without music, Ochs is playing the role of soundtrack composer without a film.

While it’s common for an improvised piece to develop a particular character, what follows in The Fictive Five are well sculpted pieces that do indeed feel like narratives. Ochs is good at this; he’s frequently convened improv groups that work from compositions or skeletal structures that guide the impulses of the moment toward a common goal.

“Similitude” is forceful and bold, evoking a bright energy even as the piece moves to a slower phase in its second half — a bigger-picture view, like a camera panning back, but with plenty of action still playing out.

“By Any Other Name” opens with the groans of arco basses and dark, solemn horn statements. The mood brightens as the group works short passages of small subsets — and eventually, a kind of round-robin forms, with players hopping in and out to form duets and trios of intriguing small sounds. Trumpet and drums take a turn, then there’s a basses-and-drums moment with one bass bowed, the other plucked. It’s a musical game whose pieces fit into a macroscopic novel of music. A fiery group passage lands the piece back in the dark underworld where it began, a satisfying bit of symmetry.

“Translucent,” the Reichardt dedication, has a personality that stands out the most. It starts out choppy and high-strung, with tension surrounded by white space. Ochs abbreviates his sax phrases, a start-stop patter that plays well against Eisenstadt’s forceful snippets of drums. The sound softens as the basses and trumpet come in, building a brisk flow that’s not overwhelming. The final third of the 15-minute piece is a lingering denoument that patiently comes in for a landing.

Be sure to check out Ochs’ website for those detailed notes (again, not available elsewhere) about why he chose the song dedications.

Here’s part of the opening to “Similitude,” dedicated to Wim Wenders, incorporating some two-horn phrasing that seems to be composed:

Double Dose of Frith

Fred Frith and Barry GuyBackscatter Bright Blue (Intakt, 2015)
Lotte Anker and Fred FrithEdge of the Light (Intakt, 2015)


Listening to these sets of duo improvisation, I was struck by how often Fred Frith plays the role of background instigator, putting colors and scrim behind his partner. This makes sense — Frith, in both cases, is the one with the rhythm instrument and the electronic gizmos. He’s got more options for painting the scenery.

Of course, I’m generalizing; Frith often takes a front-line role too. And in general, duo sessions such as these are meant to be meetings of equals.

But alongside Lotte Anker (sax) on Edge of the Light, Frith often does feel like the one focusing on the shading and toning to craft the mood behind Anker’s aggressive, choppy style. It’s easy for a listener’s ear to gravitate toward Anker’s sax as the “lead” line, as on the short “Non-Precision Approach Procedure,” where she carves crooked trails accompanied by Frith in noisemaker mode, rattling and bashing.

She and Frith seem more balanced on “Run Don’t Hide,” where Anker and Frith combine to create a sustained buzzing tension. “Anchor Point” even has Frith doing some traditional strumming, albeit to an irregular rhythm, coaxing Anker’s solo forward into faster and buoyant territory.

The Ankur album ends with “Hallucinating Angels,” a high-stress shimmer where Frith is laying down ghostly waves against Anker’s slow, jagged tones on sax. It’s an unsettling faux peacefulness that builds into a slowly maddening chatter.

As you’d expect, Backscatter Bright Blue has a different sound, a strings-on-strings tussle where the “nearness” of the instruments — the fact that they’re close relatives — makes for a more equitable pairing. As with Edge of the Light, the sound aims for cragged improvisation, with Guy’s bass often voicing a percussive crunch or high-strung bowed tones. I still sometimes feel as if Guy is doing the “main” solo with Frith adding the depth and color, but their sounds intertwine substantially.

The combination of effects, guitar loops, and extended playing sometimes make it hard to tell who’s doing what. Here’s a patch of “Moments of Many Lives” where Frith takes a lead voice, but overall, you can hear the roles blending into one another.

“Moments” is one of two epic, roughly 20-minute constructions on Backscatter Bright Blue. Later on, it includes a passage where Fright and Guy combine in a manic, minimalist babble. The piece culminates in stacks of chattering guitar loops with Guy’s fierce bowing and Frith’s guitar hammering soaring overhead.

“Where the Cities Gleam in Darkness” is a fascinating study in, well, darkness: Guy goes into attack mode with thumping, clattering bass made more abrasive by Frith’s guitar treatments. Later, Guy uses the bow for a slower but equally dark passage backed by crunching, desolate guitar effects.

Finally, there’s a special place in my heart of “The Circus Is a Song of Praise,” which enters as a mutually destructive jackhammering but ends with this faux-music-box chiming and an eerie aftertaste.

back frith x2 2

Fred Frith Warms Up a New Trio

Glenn, Frith, and Hoopes. Source:

Fred Frith‘s new trio will be touring around Europe late in February. As a prelude, they’ve played a couple of shows here in the Bay Area, including one at Slim’s that I got to see recently.

It’s a long-form improvising trio — you could certainly call it a power trio — with Jason Hoopes on bass and Jordan Glenn on drums. Electronics and loops help the bass and guitar build a screen of lingering sound, often dark and heavy. Listening to Hoopes in the band Eat the Sun was good preparation, actually.

In front of that curtain of sound, each player adds virtuosity to color the piece. The first of three long pieces they played started with a blast zone created by Frith and especially Hoopes, who was sawing away at one high note on the bass. That put Glenn in the spotlight quickly, with fluid drum rolls and high-precision hammering.

Hoopes stayed in a supporting role for a long while before finally taking a lead voice with a thick, bubbling stew of bass soloing. Hoopes is terrific on electric bass, and it’s always a treat to hear him really cut loose. This trio offers him a lot of space to do that, although you get the sense that he directs more energy toward shaping the overall sound.

Hoopes, Glenn, Frith

Of course, Frith contributed too, with many of his usual tools, such as bows and other implements against the guitar strings. Recently, I was reading a critic raving about Frith’s detuning of the guitar during solos — about how he was able to make that “wrong” sound fit just right. I hadn’t thought about that too much, but as Frith untuned his low E string during one span, it struck me that it really was just right and in “tune” with the logic of what he was doing. Frith added a lot of conventional playing as well — crisp and chirpy sounds harkening back to his prog days.

It was a terrific set, although I have to admit I lost the thread at times. The drone or roar of the guitar and bass sometimes overwhelmed the sound for me; there was always something going on underneath it, but sometimes my mind had trouble penetrating that roar. That’s not always a bad thing (“drone” is a legitimate musical form, and this was certainly not a sleepy drone) but I could have used some more dividers in the music. It’s possible I was just too worn out on a Thursday night.

Frith’s choice of bandmates is significant. Like Art Blakey, he’s teaming up with younger musicians to infuse fresh ideas into his music. Glenn and Hoopes are part of a wave of accomplished artists he’s inspired while teaching at Mills College, where he was a mentor not only for improvisers but for songwriters pursuing thoughtful, complex pop/prog ideas — Jack o’ the Clock, the local band I’ve been raving about, being a prime example. (They opened the Slim’s show, but I didn’t make it to the city in time for their set, alas.)

The Frith Trio is going to spend a lot of time in Central/Eastern Europe (Germany, Austria, Hungary) with stops in Belgium and the Netherlands. It’s a good chance to see Frith, of course, but also to check out some of the strong talent the Bay Area has been nurturing. Here’s the tour schedule, as found on Hoopes‘ and Frith‘s web sites:

Feb. 19Zagreb, Croatia
Feb. 20Göppingen, Germany
Feb. 21Vienna, Austria
Feb. 22Budapest, Hungary
Feb. 23Bolzano, Italy
Feb. 24Middelburg, Netherlands
Feb. 25Brussels, Belgium
Feb. 26Konstanz, Germany
Feb. 27Berlin, Germany
Feb. 28Dortmund, Germany
March 1Wels, Austria

Live at Total Meeting

Carlos Alves “Zingaro”, Jean Luc Cappozzo, Jerome Bourdellon, Nicolas LelievreLive at Total Meeting (NoBusiness, 2012)

zingaro-borderI love not only the sounds, but the pacing on the three long improvisations presented here. It’s a live performance from France’s Total Meeting Festival in 2010, and the quartet draws a rich variety of  ideas from their acoustic instruments.

Most of the music doesn’t appear to move blazingly fast, and yet there’s a building sense of energy and tension that’s rather captivating. The players manage to sculpt narrative arcs that draw you in. On top of that, the album ends with a sudden and mildly surprising flourish that leaves you feeling pretty good about everything you’ve just heard. (I won’t give it away — it’s not that unusual an ending, just very sudden. I got a smile out of it.)

The first and last tracks (“Total 1” and “Total 3”) feature Jerome Bourdellon’s flute taking command of the setting.  “Total 1,” has him playing in a sparkling, energetic mode, reflecting off of Zingaro’s violin and making you wonder why flute doesn’t come up more often in free improv. He’s takes the lead voice during some softer phases, where the flute takes on that calming voice, especially in the lower registers, but he can also dance and dart to play against Zingaro’s madman violin sounds and Jean Luc Cappozzo’s trumpet. Listen to him hold down the low registers here, gradually stepping into the background:

My ears kept gravitating toward the trumpet and the flute (or bass clarinet), but there’s plenty of drums and violin as well. Plenty of Zingaro, in particular: sawing, plucking, and romantically swooning. As often happens with improv, no one voice takes the lead for any long stretch. This is a thoughtful group effort.

Peter Brötzmann & Paal Nilssen-Love at CNM

Brötzmann and Nilssen-Love play Thursday, Nov. 14, at Kuumbwa Jazz and Friday, Nov. 15, at Duende.

View from the back row.
View from the back row.
What can I say? It was a hoot — and a howl, a mighty one that overwhelmed the Center for New Music‘s acoustics and turned Paal Nilssen-Love’s snare drum and cymbals into a fountain of white noise. Peter Brötzmann’s saxes came through loud and clear, though, and the sellout crowd that had come Wednesday night to hear his lung-busting improvising wasn’t disappointed.

There was no warm-up phase. Brötzmann opened the concert with a screeching blast of sax, and Nilssen-Love jumped in with full thunder — and off they went.

Brötzmann's weapons of choise.
Brötzmann’s weapons of choise.

As usual, long stretches of the sound consisted of motifs, little screamed phrases that Brötzmann would repeat a few times over Nilssen-Love’s tumult before shifting to the next phrase. Some of the best parts, though, came when things quieted down and Brötzmann’s playing got more emotional.

One quieter phase had his sax turning almost romantic, but with the volume still turned up to at least 7 and with a ragged, buzzing sound, like a lament sung by a burly king who doesn’t realize his robes are in tatters. Later, there was a more properly soft phase, with Brötzmann playing solo, featured some hardier melody and a sensitive air, until he started ramping the volume back up, encouraging Nilssen-Love to pound his way back in.

I really enjoyed Nilssen-Love’s playing, and I hope it wasn’t lost on the crowd. His solos tended toward the loud side — one solo oversaturating the snare and cymbals to intentionally create that white-noise effect, another featuring incredibly fast, rumbling toms. (The snare and cymbals are his, and the rest of the drum kit was borrowed.)

For an encore, Brötzmann turned to a melodic motif, one with an Ayler-like marching-band flair. It’s a well-played tool from his bag of tricks and seemed appropriate for a quick finale number.

The aftermath.
The aftermath.

Grosse Abfahrt, 2013 Version

grosabf-shirtThe Facebook page for improv group Grosse Abfahrt is a hoot. It’s full of fun and frivolous stuff, lots of dirigible/zeppelin-related news (because…. yeah, I have no idea), and updates related to Tuesday’s upcoming concert: June 25, with guests Alfred 23 Harth and Torsten Muller (sax and bass, respectively) at the Center for New Music in San Francisco.

Taking advantage of YouTube, they’ve inserted some videos showing what those two guys can do.  Rather than re-embed those here, I’ll just add some audio at the bottom of the post.

grosI haven’t written about Grosse Abfahrt in a couple of years. The name translates to “great departure,” and one reader told me it can be interpreted as “great difficulty” (as in a double-black-diamond ski slope). It’s a core group of five musicians that adds guests, often two from outside North America in most cases, to produce one big improvising collective. (Harth lives in South Korea and Muller in Vancouver, and they’re both German-born.)

The aesthetic is one of “lower-case” sound spaces: lots of curled, crinkly sounds and a careful respect for silences. Usually. Being an improv group, they can go in any direction they want.

Here’s the lineup for Tuesday:

Side note: If you’re in L.A., Harth and Muller will be down there July 1, performing at the Blue Whale in a trio with drummer Ted Byrnes.

Now, regarding things-these-guys-can-do…

Source: LA Art Stream; click to go there… Here’s Muller in duet with Ronit Kirchman (violin) in Los Angeles. They also have a duo album out: An Idea to Farewell (Wild River, 2013). Click this link or the image to the right.

… Here’s Harth in an improv-jazz setting, a trio with Wilbur Morris (bass) and Kevin Norton (drums/vibes), taken from the album Waxwingweb@ebroadway (Clean Feed, 2001).  First, from the piece “Interstice,” a quieter burble that’s more in the Grosse Abfahrt style:

… And, just for fun, Harth in that same piece, going for big sound and an Ayler-like crescendo:

… Finally, here’s a sample of a then-unreleased 2009 Grosse Abfahrt session provided to KZSU by Tom Djll. I posted another snippet from that session previously, but this one’s better; it streteches for a few minutes to demonstrate the ebb and flow of the music. Guests include Frank Gratkowski on clarinet. Oh, and don’t turn the volume up too much; it does get louder.

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:

Another Tim Berne Permutation

It’s called Sun of Goldfinger, and it’s actually David Torn‘s band, not Tim Berne‘s. They apparently played in Denver on Sept. 15.

It’s a trio of Torn, Berne, and drummer Ches Smith. That’s 50% of Torn’s band, Prezens, plus 50% of Berne’s band, Snakeoil.

As Torn explains in Westword Music, it’s like Prezens without the keyboard, with the guitar as the lone chordal instrument (to the extent that you can discern chords in the sound).

The result is a lot like Prezens. Torn blasts his new-age-gone-evil guitar sounds: aluminum soundwalls and squeals, sci-fi sonic blasts. Berne careens and screeches in a way that blends into the mix — although he does take a jazzy turn occasionally; see around the 15:00 mark in the video below, after which they even get into a near-Calypso groove. Smith’s drumming is the element that keeps the whole assembly tied to earth, grounding it in aggressive fills and improvising.

Not-quite-related: I’ve been remiss in not mentioning the massive Tim Berne Q&A published by The Village Voice. It’s part of a series of Q&As that’s been fantastic; I especially liked the Ches Smith edition.

h/t: @screwgunrecords.