Musical Strategies
recent listening - March 2003

I was intrigued to read David Toop in the last issue of The Wire, where he says: 'In a lot of ways I've come to dislike music. I love sound, I love silence, but music as a whole I don't like anymore. I don't like the idea of background music, I don't like listening to it on the radio, seeing music on television, I don't like having it on in the house. So that love of music as a generalised experience, I've come to the end of that.'

Blimey, I thought first time round, how strange. But a few weeks and re-reads down the line, I've been thinking about how my own relationship with music has changed. I might not be as far down the road as Toop, and I'm not as interested as he is in field recordings [which is partly the context of the quote I've excerpted, which itself is part of an 'Invisible Jukebox' feature], but I certainly don't wallow in music like I used to. There was a time when music was on from the moment I awoke to the time I went to bed; now, however, I think I either deliberately select background or ambient music, to allow or provoke room for other activities, or try to make time to specifically listen.

When I'm feeling lazy - and I have been recently - that specific listening has been nostalgic, I've been listening to music I know through and through, music I know every word and note of by heart; music I grew up with and is part of me. So that it feels there is little left to discover, little work to be done. It's both reassuring and relaxing. But it doesn't make great copy for Tangents.

Most of my recent listening apart from my bout of nostalgia has been in the background music department. I do often work [painting or writing] in silence, more and more in fact, but I also find that replaying music whilst I work is a great way to actually hear music; it's a different type of listening, yes, but just as good. And one hears and notices different things, the music unfolds and makes its own space rather than being presented with a listening space I oblige it to fill.

Supersilent have released six CDs of music, although the first three came out as a triple item I've never been able to track down. Supersilent 4 and Supersilent 5 would never have made it to the background music department, the music there was insistent and attention-demanding, energetic improvisation which engaged with noise and electronics as much as jazz. The recent Supersilent 6 [Rune Grammofon] however is a different thing altogether; I've really struggled to find a way into its slow ebbs and fades of sound. Only in the last couple of days have I enjoyed the apparent disengagement, the simplistic repetition and seasick motion of the untitled tracks. But there is still too much doodling and uncontrolled stasis for my liking, it doesn't seem as careful or exploratory as I'd like.

They might listen to the new Main CD Transiency [Tigerbeat], an ep of new Robert Hampson music. It's minimal, spacious exploration of sound is quietly and consistently astonishing. So is the AF-M collaboration with Antenna-Farm on Brombron. I know nothing about Antenna Farm or the record label, the packaging is minimal, the tracks untitled, although the music was apparently recorded live back in 2000. This is more - as you might expect - a conversation than a monologue. There is a tension underpinning the music, a sense of interference and dialogue, which makes for electrifying music. It's great to have Main back after a few years gap, and I look forward to the promised full-length Tigerbeat CD.

I foolishly started to try to not listen to the new Chas Smith CD, An Hour Out of Desert Center [Cold Blue], assuming it would simply be more music made with [by?] his riveting [and riveted] homemade instruments, but a few minutes in I knew I needed to listen properly; and later on I did. On this new CD Smith focuses on his pedal steel guitar playing, with the few homemades present relegated to an accompanying or support role. The overwhelming effect of the music is space, with an underlying despair or misery suggested by the title of the second long track, 'Absence of Redemption'. This is music which makes space for an unearthly beauty - one found in scrub and sand and dirt and distant horizon lines - rather than trying to create it. It invokes rather than declaims, intimates rather than preaches, and I for one find it obsessive listening.

As I do Dave Douglas' Freak In on Bluebird. Douglas plays Miles-influenced trumpet and leads and plays in a whole bundle of bands. He's particularly interesting when he introduces some of the New York improvisers into his band, where they have to fight to find a place within his closely-controlled compositions. I saw most of the band on this new release playing live a year ago - Douglas acts as a strict conductor with his bands, directing and encouraging them to play with and around his tunes, arms and eyes sending sharp signals and gestures to individuals throughout the set. Particularly interesting within the band are the keyboards of Jamie Saft [who has a great solo CD out on Tzadik] and the electronic percussion of Ikue Mori; Marc Ribot and Joey Baron are of course, superb throughout. This is intriguing contemporary jazz as informed by electronics, improvisation and the New York downtown scene as it is by bop, post-bop and contemporary classical and soundtrack music. I hear Mingus in there with Miles too. It's disquieting and innovative, yet accessible stuff. Douglas is playing in the UK too, I'd urge you to catch him live as well as buy this.

Elsewhere King Crimson continue their obsession with nu-metal and blustering busy rock on The Power To Believe [Sanctuary]. I find it hard to believe that they believe in this stuff at all - all the jazz and gamelan influences of years gone by, the careful textures, soundscapes and quirkiness seem to have been replaced by bluster and guitar histrionics. Most of the members of an earlier version of Crimson is now touring as the 21st Schizoid Band, and one of the session guys playing on that tour is Steve Lawson, whose website [] suggested that he and I share a huge number of musical likes and influences [though I was aghast to see Level 42 mentioned]. Whilst moments of his duo CD with Jez Carr on piano, Conversations [Pillow Mountain Records] are enjoyable and texturally interesting, I'm afraid his CD of solo bass & loops - Not Dancing for Chicken - leaves me cold, despite many listens. Oh, it's clever and amazing stuff, but I've never seen musical prowess or technique as a prequisite for making interesting music [remember punk?], and for me this noodling needs something else with it. I'm sure Lawson is great in a band situation, but not on his own; this CD reminds me more of practice and exercise than new music.

Michael Byron's awakening at the inn of birds [Cold Blue] should definitely be filed under 'new music'. Within a field of composition shared with Takemitsu, Feldman and many other composers, Byron again explores carefully organised clusters and groups of sound, for the first two tracks quietly placed against shimmering fields of held drones. Like waves crashing on a beach the music hypnotises and mesmerises with its internal complexity and never-ending variation - the second track is even called 'Tidal'. But it isn't all quiet: 'Evaporated Pleasure' is a more discordant and energetic duet piece, with complex and busy piano lines chasing themselves and each other for over a quarter of an hour; whilst the title track finds a string quartet relentlessly pursuing repetition in a minimalist rush towards itself. Then the quiet returns: 'as she sleeps' is a beautiful lullaby for sustained piano. Byron is a composer of exquisite and challenging music, Cold Blue a focused and energetic record company.

© 2003 Rupert Loydell