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February 22, 2002

++ The Operative Word Is 'Experimental'

++ A veritable slew of fantastic new "experimental" releases is upon us, either out now or soon to come. Here's a sampling of some of early 2002's most exciting electronic releases.

++ The title of Andreas Berthling's Tiny Little White Ones (Like Handfuls of Salt) (Mitek) is a pretty darned accurate description of the sound contained within, a high-pitched flutter and crackle like the underwater sound of sand tumbling across the seafloor. Working at the level of the bit, Sweden's Berthling scrapes together microsecond-long ticks and pings into quietly powerful shapes and rhythms. It's not all music for microscopes; the maddeningly short "Silverlake" threads its flickering pinholes with a gossamer hum, recalling Fennesz' or Pita's tenderer moments. Berthling gets extra points for knowing when to quit: none of the 11 tracks here are over four and a half minutes long, a rare demonstration of restraint. Double extra points for using track titles that don't resemble filenames (e.g. names like "Small Things Colliding" and "Silvertone" instead of, say, ".brxxygg" and "t_kkx"). And super-duper triple extra points for the oddly-but-undoubtedly-meaningfully-titled "Philip's Bumper Sticker." (If only I had a car, I'd know what he was talking about.) A fantastic release that deserves to be heard above the hum of all things micro.

++ When most people think of the Theremin — if they think of it at all — they think Sci-Fi kitsch or Beach Boys camp. Given its monophonic whistle and its lack of expression, the Theremin generally sounds like the most artificial of instruments. But James Coleman has managed to use the Theremin to create a musical tribute to Zuihitsu, or, as translated from the Japanese, the calligraphic art of the "running brush." Granted, if this were Clara Rockmore's Theremin orchestra playing "Flight of the Bumblebee," he'd have little chance of succeeding. But by folding the wireless instrument into an ensemble of bowed percussion, amplified cello, aluminum, soprano saxophone, trumpet and voice, Coleman manages to draw out the breath you never knew the Theremin had. In this cyborg assemblage, the Theremin's electronic whines and whoops and tweets are echoed by the acoustic instruments, and vice versa, so that the radio tubes' squawks begin to sound like an animal's first attempts at speech. Despite the Zen thematics, though, there's nothing New Age about Zuihitsu (Sedimental). Indeed, the attention to the grain of breath and the hiss of strings serves to remind us that microsound may not have to be digital after all.

++ Robert Hampson is no stranger to a drone: as the founder of Main (and also the guitar band Loop) he's probed deep into the corners of ambient music termed "Isolationism." Comae is the collaborative project between Hampson and Janek Schaefer, a mastermind behind experimental vinyl formats like the Tri-phonic (three-armed) turntable. Their debut for the Viennese label Rhiz presents heaving, tidal drones scuffed with vinyl noise and footprints of static. At times receding into nothing, Comae's music echoes that of Bernhard Günter, Francisco Lopez or Richard Chartier in demanding total aural attention. There's nothing easy about this stuff, a compositional melange of improv, electroacoustic and concrete techniques, but with a quiet room and a good set of headphones (the MUNI light-rail train passing outside my window is drowning out the album as I write), Comae's self-titled album makes for fascinating and immersive listening — not quite as "organic" as Andrew Chalk or Mirror, nor as inkily oppressive as Thomas Köner. Instead, spinning a blur out of bells, surface noise and seismic growl, it seems to generate its own momentum, unrelated to the laws of music or physics.

++ Neo Ouija, run by Lee Norris (known for his funky IDM as Metamatics, and his slinky microhouse as Norken), presents the debut longplayer from Infant (Andrew Fearn), who remixed Geiom on the "Cut and Pressed" EP for Neo Ouija and contributed to the label's Cottage Industries compilation. Growing Up offers eight tracks of ruminative electronica in the post-Funkstörung vein, pairing whimsical, tinkling keys with those skittering beats we've all come to know and... well, know really well. Fans of Funkstörung and Bola will lap this up; listeners feeling burned out on the dizzy-tizzy-meets-mopey-lopey template may want to pass. Fearn's at his best on tracks like the closing "You Are a Long Way From Home," which fuses a genuinely mournful, spooky falsetto to a scuffling digi-break.

++ Cycling '74, the makers of Max/MSP, music software of choice for the geek elite (Kit Clayton and Matthew "Safety Scissor" Curry even work for the company), recently launched c74, an in-house label dedicated to showcasing artists who use the company's tools. The label's fifth release (after CDs from Interface, the Freight Elevator Quartet, Annon Wolman and Kim Cascone) presents a collaboration between San Francisco's longtime digital innovator Tetsu Inoue and electro-acoustic and computer-music veteran Carl Stone. Pict.soul is, along with Kim Cascone's album, the most purely digital music to appear on the label (despite Max's popularity with the laptop techno set, it's actually a wildly versatile environment adaptable to many kinds of instrumentation and genre — hence its adoption by hybrid-instrumentalists Interface and the Freight Elevator Quartet). The duo's chattering drones recall traditional ambient recordings (indeed, Inoue has a long history with seminal ambient label Fax), but they're structured with a complexity that raises them above the wallpaper status of simple "chillout" music. Lush organ tones bestow an unexpected romanticism on the project before a subtle violence splits apart the ones and zeros, opening a dizzying chasm in the heart of the sound. Into the breach!

++ Sicily's Massimo (Massimiliano Sapienza) combines microsound's commitment to the bit and the glitch with the techno squelch of Christian Vogel or Si Begg. His 3-inch CD Minimo (Staaplaat), in contrast to its title, throbs with gooey bass and shivers under the high-end chirps of Pan Sonic. This guy's gotta be something live, because he works the full spectrum from gut-jellying low-end to flea-repellent squeal. Massimo's work reportedly deals with the post-Cagean concepts of games, play, and generative and randomized processes, which might explain the whimsical funk behind this CD. Beneath the stuttering static and grit, Massimo's unleashed a host of post-rave basslines and mean syncopations. It's nowhere near as obscene as the cover of his recent Hey Babe, Let Me See Your USB and I'll Show You My FireWire(Mego), but it's sexy all the same.

++ I've gotta get me to Norway. Between Rune Grammofon and Smalltown Supersound, the country's exploding with some of the best digital music out there. And if you thought pixel tunes only spoke grayscale, Kim Hiorthoy's brilliant and color-soaked cover designs for both labels should be proof enough that long winters do not a dull aesthetic make. Alexander Rishaug's Panorama (Smalltown Supersound) springs from the same thawed tundra where Oval's mossy-green shoots were first spotted, with flashes of tone and hard-disk sparks galore, but it's a question of environment, not anxiety of influence. Panorama thrums with hesitant bursts of melody, like stems shaking free from frost. Everything goes green, loops clenched like fiddleheads unfurl into brilliant sunlight. Stunted repetitions rub against each other, the sound of crystal goblets rubbed with grass. Rishaug's constructions are like readymades waiting to be plucked from the ground, deadweight solids with a come-hither glint.


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