Fire Works
Umbrella 028

Zarek 05

Zarek 02

For 4 Ears CD 1242

Electro-acoustic instruments have massively modified the improv world over the past half-decade. While some musicians have stayed clear of synthesizers, turntables, PowerBooks and other sorts of electronic manipulation, others — especially in Europe — have adopted these gizmos wholeheartedly. We’re now at a point where with what and how an individual creates is becoming less important than the end result.

Much more fascinating is that finally — like there are with acoustic instruments — different styles and techniques have been developed to create with electronics. The four discs here, for instance, all have an electronic component. But like comparing the tenor saxophone playing of Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, it would be difficult to confuse the electronic-acoustic imagination of any one of these musicians with any other.

One-half of Tom & Gerry, with American drummer Gerry Hemingway, Cologne, Germany-based synthesizer player Thomas Lehn was originally an improvising pianist and he brings that keyboard touch and sense of dynamics to this duo, which has been together since 1997. Lehn, who is also involved with a circuit board full of other combos, including Konk Pack with British master percussionist Roger Turner, certainly knows how to interact with a drummer. In this duo situation he simply takes the role of all the other instruments and lets Hemingway supply the percussive undertones.

Most impressive when they have the space and momentum to create, the two turn “Titanium Salute” into a virtual-reality-big-band salute for the 21st century. With Hemingway coming across like a Space Age Chick Webb in his intro, Lehn uses his instrument to riff like a horn section in response then resonates pseudo guitar and bass string sonics. Ray gun and rocket ship fire out of his synth, melding with the drummer’s laser beam rhythms, reifying the link between Sun Ra’s electronics and Webb’s orchestral precision.

More outwardly electric, “Girandola”, a 13½-minute sound exploitation, moves from a hushed snare and floor tom concoction to a high-pitched ballet of electronic beats and drum echoes. The tune twists, turns and wriggles, with outer space-like whooshes, quasi-sax squalls, prolonged buzzes, and what could be someone’s footsteps vying for supremacy with the subtle click of crossed drum sticks, snare palm spanks and a discharge of sharp sounds from Hemingway. Later surf music suggestions bubble up from Lehn’s fingers as the drummer hammers out a steady tattoo.

Quicker tempos allow the two to expand the palate even further as the synthesizer player produces sounds that could be a Martian ray gun, the circularly breathed notes of a saxophone, stretched rubber bands and falsetto hunting horn quivers. Lehn can even morph into Keith Emerson circa 1971, firing portable synthesizer bullets into an arena crowd. Meantime movement and excitement is intensified as Hemingway does everything from softly sounding a triangle to sprinting sticks along the shells, rims and skins of his kit, or slowly scraping the cymbal tops. Near-soundless hisses characterize slower tunes like “Walking into Sky”, the final number, which attempt to decelerate the duo’s sounds and fade into nullity, only be halted by a final synth buzz.

That ultimate sound pinpoints the difference between Tom & Gerry’s excitable hullabaloo and the collaboration between German synthesizer player Ignaz Schick and inside-piano stylist Andrea Neumann. An electronics fundamentalist, Schick works in other electro-acoustic configurations like Perlonex, as well in Phosphor with Newman, a former classical pianist, who excels on prepared and electronically treated piano. This duo CD appears to be an attempt to create as near soundless an aural field as possible.

Suggesting tones rather than playing them, Neumann often appears to be performing a near-noiseless autopsy on the guts of the piano. Only rarely can you discern her sounding a couple of keys, running her hand over the strings, or plucking one. Similarly, Schick seems to prefer an aural concept that resembles sine wave flatlining. Rumbles, static, whooshes, whines, plinks and clicks are also prominent, or at least as prominent as anything designed to be noiseless can appear.

Seemingly operating on top of a sonic groundcover continuously decorated with electronic whooshes, repeated keyboard notes and what sounds like a toy xylophone being hit or the air being let out of a balloon occasionally surface.

Interaction finally foregrounds on “Petit VI”, the final track, with radio tuning static giving way to musically-oriented up and down movements, which accelerates from slow near soundlessness to speedy white noise characterized by crackles, buzzes and electronic rumbles.

Recording TABIT on his own six months previously, Schick sounds livelier. Cautioning in a sleeve note against “prolonged or repeated listening” due to “extreme frequencies”, this seemed to mean that he’s added sampled radio broadcasts and a more constant sound field to his explorations.

Again moving between buzzes, rumbles, squishes, static and loops, the high frequencies means that the sounds are at times earsplitting, but altogether more audible than what came out of his duet with Neumann. With the crinkle of electronic static a constant leitmotif, he produces what could be likened to a jackhammer in steady use, a car driving off, rocket ship exploration of the cosmos and even a dentist’s drill. Radio programming can also be perceived, but it’s sometimes so indistinct that you may be tempted to try to fine-tune the station.

Like Hemingway, a percussionist open to many musical situations, Swiss drummer Fredy Studer is probably best known for the so-called Hardcore Chamber Music he plays with the long-running Koch, Schütz and Studer trio. The three recorded with two American turntablists — one of whom was DJ M. Singe — for a middling session a couple of years ago, and this CD can be heard as a continuation of that experiment.

A more palatable disc than the former, since Singe — real name Beth Coleman — shows up with electronics as well as her turntable and Studer uses a larger collection of percussion implements, it will still probably appeal more to specialists.

Again the weakness appears to be in its sameness, simplicity and standardization, with the almost 51 minutes of the CD appearing to be much, much longer. Based on constant electronic loops and buzzes, it’s rare that the drummer manages to create anything more than standard beats. For instance the simple rock music-like press rolls linked to a French chanson sample on “Duo 15” don’t seem to do much more than decorate that record as it’s manipulated backwards and forward by the DJ.

In even more extended form, as on “Duo 19”, the electronic effects merely appear to reflect clean-up day at the computer lab. Soon the odd clinks and electronic hums are interrupted by a cheesy recording of a string section, as if the cleaner had suddenly bumped into a revolving turntable upsetting an already playing LP. When the addition of what seems to be the sound of the mixing board being pulled across the floor is succeeded by drum beats and vibes intonations, the tiny recorded voices are massaged back and forth so they accelerate and start to resemble barking dogs. As sped up and slowed down percussion interruptions to the buzzing electronic loops sometimes vie with pre-recorded dialogue or singing, the end product really never really makes it past pastiche.

These sessions prove without a doubt that adapting electro-acoustics to improvisation brings with it a variety of sometimes insurmountable challenges, especially if when trying to deal with traditional instruments.

—- Ken Waxman

Fire: Track Listing: 1.Pot’s a feu 2. Coconut Pistil 3. Floating Leaves 4. Dragon Eggs 5. Girandola 6. Fishes & Whistles 7. Ripple to Red Wave 8. Titanium Salute 9. Walking into Sky

Fire: Personnel: Thomas Lehn (analog synthesizer); Gerry Hemingway (drums, percussion, voice)

Petit: Track Listing: 1. Petit I 2. Petit II 3. Petit III 4. Petit IV 5. Petit V 6. Petit VI

Petit: Personnel: Ignaz Schick (live electronics); Andrea Neumann (inside-piano)

Tabit: Track Listing: 1. Radox 2. Tabit 3. Rem 4. Astat

Tabit: Personnel: Ignaz Schick (live electronics)

Duo: Track Listing: 1. Duo 14 2. Duo 15 3. Duo 16 4. Duo 17 5. Duo 18 6. Duo 19 7. Remix Native Land (death mix) 8. Remix Native Land (electro) 9. Remix crash 10. Duo 20

Duo: Personnel: Fredy Studer (drums, percussion, gongs, metal, water); DJ M. Singe (turntables, electronics)