Vol. 29 Issue x Reviews

Tom Erbe, Chris Mann, Larry Polansky, douglas repetto, Christian Wolff: Trios

Compact disc, 2004, Pogus P21031-2; available from Pogus Productions, 50 Ayr Road, Chester, New York 10918, USA; electronic mail pogal@pogus.com; World Wide Web www.pogus.com/.

Reviewed by Steven M. Miller
New York, New York, USA

Trios CDFour musicians + one assembler/editor/recontextualizer = Trios. Improvisations recorded on two separate dates by two different trios (Larry Polansky, douglas repetto, Chris Mann, and Mr. Polansky, Mr. repetto, Christian Wolff, respectively), and reassembled, edited, and generally reworked at will at a later date (by Mr. Erbe), the music of Trios is a sonic stew of postmodern proportions. It is a music that invites and even revels in contradictions, oppositions, simultaneities, and de-/re-contextualizations.

In juxtaposing recordings of live improvisations within studio-tailored treatments of them, Trios neatly confronts a number of binary oppositions seemingly entrenched in traditional musical discourse: live/studio, real-time/non real-time, improvisation/composition, human-performed/computer-produced, acoustic/electronic, author/interpreter, technician/creator, etc. But these confrontations do not consist of detailed explication and reasoned argumentation in either musical or textual language. It is rather a case of problemetization-in-action. Musically, the package seems to present all of these issues all of the time, without specifically addressing any of them individually. The intensely minimal nature of the liner notes is itself a central agent in this confrontation. The liner notes list no individual titles (except Track One, Track Two, etc.), and do not delineate personnel on a per-track basis. Even the recording details outlined in the paragraph above were taken from the record company Web site rather than from the disc; the recording information and respective roles are not detailed on the disc itself beyond identifying individuals and their respective sonic/instrumental domains. In other words, as a package the disc and liner notes present the sonic results and the actors respectively, and seemingly not much else. But much more is implied, if only by omission. Especially since the pieces themselves are exercises in recontextualization, by intentionally not contextualizing them in the liner notes in familiar terms of authorship, linear process, artistic and technical production, power dynamics, artistic intention, etc., the creators throw open to question many of the prevailing notions of modernist musical thinking.

Musically, the six tracks form a remarkably coherent set of pieces totaling just under an hour. With individual track times ranging from under three minutes to over fifteen, none of the pieces is significantly different from the others in overall impression or in its particularities. Listening from beginning to end is a largely seamless experience. However, underneath what at first listening seemed to me to be a largely undifferentiated stream of sounds, the disc revealed itself, upon repeated listening and thinking/reflection, to be a deftly executed and skillfully produced musical experience. The sound world consists of various layers of voice (sometimes distinct and audible, often not), computer/electronics (sometimes processing/interacting with the voice, at times independent of it), electric guitar (feedback, warbling, and “notes”), piano (occasionally sounding “prepared”), with somewhat more sparse touches of bass, melodica, and percussion. Distortion, crackles, and buzzes abound. There are localized regions where musical interaction is clear, and vast stretches where it seems that independent simultaneity is the primary interest. Carving out space within the often-dense textures is deftly accomplished through spatial location and processing, highlighting a sense of aural perspective that is subtly manipulated, thereby avoiding what otherwise might have been a sonically monotonous and impenetrable mass. Dynamic interplay of individual elements fading and/or cutting in and out, recombining in various permutations, creates a sense of motion and timbral/textural rhythm without engendering the perception of linear development. None of the tracks follow any sort of obvious formal trajectory, but rather they seem to ebb and flow at various rates of change. What emerges over the course of the disc is a music full of detail and subtle variation that rewards repeated listening with a richness of timbre and texture.

The following characterizations are not meant to be detailed descriptions of the individual pieces, but instead highlight some of the more prominent features. Track One (10:54) starts with a more or less monaural set of voice, electric guitar, and computer/electronics and crossfades to a widely panned and spatially diffuse set of piano, electric guitar, and electronics. Soon, numerous individual elements are apparent in a variety of static and dynamic panning positions. Foreground to background perspective is manipulated via differing reverberation and equalization characteristics. Interjections from heavily processed voice snippets provide for a raucous focal point. Track Two (2:56) leads off with slide guitar gestures and snippets of processed voice over/in front of “live” voice. This piece has more dynamic contrasts, at times dropping to single repeated piano clusters. Its short length lends a more focused feel. Track Three (15:09) begins with sustained computer/electronic timbres, clouds of repeated guitar figurations and voice. It maintains this aggregate texture with only slight timbral modulations for considerably longer than most of the other pieces, in the neighborhood of four minutes, before introducing other timbral elements (in this case, a single piano figure). In doing so, it establishes a more relaxed feel that is static yet subtly changing. Aggressive treatments of the voice enter later, snippets of bass, piano, and short melodica phrases follow, building a more dynamic interplay of elements into the texture. Track Four (14:26) opens with guitar feedback. Bass thumps and scrapes, computer noises, and eventually voice enter slowly, thickening the texture and filling out the pitch and timbre spaces in a gradual manner. Eventually the texture thins out again, undergoing slow changes until the computer and guitar fade out at the end. Track Five (4:27) seems almost austere in comparison to the other tracks, with less overall textural density and less frenetic energy overall. Sporting a relatively succinct time length and with the familiar timbres of electric guitar and piano dominating, this one could very well be the “radio single” of the disc. Track Six (6:26) features frenetic rhythmic activity, sonic jump cuts, and aggressive timbres in the first few minutes, slowly giving way to piano and slide guitar interplay with faint computer/electronics background. Percussion and more insistent piano sounds, including scraped/rubbed strings, filter in and out of focus.

While exhibiting certain surface similarities to free improvisation, noise bands, “onkyo,” urban soundscape composition, and other such sonically adventurous musics, Trios successfully resists easy categorization. It prods the listener to think while it engages the ear. Musically as well as intellectually, it challenges much of the status quo. While many of these issues have been present to varying degrees in a wide range of musics, from musique concrète through hip-hop and electronica to World Beat and beyond, the degree to which Trios engages them all is still somewhat unusual.

Reviewed by Alan Shockley
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

Chris Mann’s manic, ever-unintelligible voice fills large expanses of this compact disc. Amidst the constantly moving and intricately variegated texture, familiar sounds recur: occasionally the friendly sound of Christian Wolff’s melodica peeks through the miasma, the flutter of tremolo-bar vibrated electric guitar, a slow plunking at a piano. 

Five musicians contributed to the music here. According to Pogus Productions’s Web site, the album “combines instrumental and electronic improvisation with non-real-time computer processing and editing.”  Composer/guitarist Larry Polansky, Chris Mann (narrator/poet/vocalist), and douglas repetto (computer musician/live electronics manipulator/recording engineer) recorded “several hours of live improvised material in one session” in January of 1998. Then, in April of that same year, composer/pianist/bassist/percussionist/melodica player Christian Wolff joined Mr. repetto and Mr. Polansky to record additional material. The products of both of these trio sessions were then (in the CD’s tertiary level of creation) offered over to Tom Erbe (credited with “recording, editing, processing” in the liner notes), who sifted through material from the two trio improvisations and shaped them into the six resultant CD tracks.

Overall I find the shorter tracks more successful than the longer ones.  As much as Mr. Mann’s chattering has to recommend it, the best track is the last one in which there’s no recognizable vocal part on the surface of the piece. 

Track Two, the shortest of the album, opens with glissando electric guitar, quickly joined by Mr. Mann’s pitch-prominent delivery. A brief silence, and then repeated notes on the (sometimes) prepared piano (sounding like a glass rod resting on the strings at times—with a metallic harpsichord-ish sonic result), then manic Mr. Mann is back, joined by blips of electric guitar (warmed by a little reverberation this time).  The harshness of the filtered voice gives this track a contemporary sheen, and the brevity really works for this assemblage of sounds.

Track Three has a thicker texture: slow dives of electric guitar (a much more distorted timbre here) or of electronic assemblages, Mr. Mann’s voice periodically lowered or made harsh and distorted, occasional white-noise spikes, clean guitar oscillations (various thirds), a meandering movement in Mr. Wolff’s bass. The encouraging bleat of the melodica peeks through about two-thirds of the way through the track, and then a little bluesy piano steps in, sometimes backed by sample and hold-like blipping, or by heavily distorted guitar—and then there’s Mr. Mann again.  But, for a couple of minutes the computer sounds (and computer altered ones) keep even his burbles at bay, with a full and rhythmic sound. Heavily processed and altered voice, and quasi-minimalist piano take us to the end of the track. Track Three is longest of the album, and perhaps its most representative. But, it just doesn’t keep the listener’s attention like the two short tracks of the CD.

Track Four:  electric guitar has the first word—long notes, distorted, faintly sinister percussive things punctuate the underbelly of the sound. Then, Mr. Mann’s babble enters and builds to his own Australian braying. The guitar dominates this time, though. With subtlety, long sounds take over:  electronics, more guitar, the voice’s presence recedes then eventually returns. In its absence the listener notices how much of the rhythmic activity of the track (and the album as a whole) is carried by this element. A delicate electronic whine (almost the shortwave of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Hymnen, but not quite) and grossly slowed voice (becoming a percussive and bassy thump) end the track.

Track Six opens with rattling prepared piano and percussion, high glisses on clean guitar, along with a much noisier, distorted guitar sound and a flittering of processed piano and electronics. Then, scrabblings (piano and otherwise) with perhaps the voice instrumentalized and pushed to the distant background. (Finally, Mr. Mann doesn’t dominant the texture—the voice is actually absent.) Following, a clockworks sound of high piano and high guitar notes repeating, repeating, repeating. Then, nothing. As much as Mr. Mann’s voice has to recommend it, this track is the most beautiful of the album, and a reason to give even the longer tracks another listen. 

Overall, trios succeeds. Despite the time and distance separating the various contributors and contributions to this CD, the result hangs together as a single work.  Though I find the voice-dominated texture a bit fatiguing after awhile, the beauty of the end of the last track—and the moments of melodica “sunlight” or of dinky piano peaking through—keeps me intrigued and engaged throughout. Recommended.