Vol. 43 Issue 4 Reviews
Thomas Dimuzio: SLEW TEW – A Compilation of Compilation Tracks 2003-2017

Digital download, 2020, available from Bandcamp, www.thomasdimuzio.bandcamp.com/. Limited run compact discs are forthcoming.

Reviewed by Ross Feller
Gambier, Ohio, USA

DimuzioIn certain circles, San Francisco-based composer, improviser, sound designer, and engineer, Thomas Dimuzio is a well-known pioneer in experimental electroacoustic techniques. Since the 1980s his work has demonstrated that he is no one trick pony when it comes to his tools. Dimuzio has employed modular synthesizers, modified bicycles, circuit bent toys, field recordings, resonating water pipes, loops, shortwave radios, and intercepted signal feeds from his collaborators, to create music in ambient, noise, and post-techno styles.  As a sound designer, he has worked with synthesizer and processor manufacturers including Kurzweil, Lexicon, and OSC to produce custom presets and sample libraries, and has played a key role in Avid’s Pro Tools HD recording system. He also owns and runs Gench Studios, where much of his music is created and mastered, as well as albums by Negativland, AMM, Doctor Nerve, GG Allin, Fred Frith, and Nels Cline. It is fair to say that Dimuzio represents the electroacoustic version of an auteur.

On March 26, 2020, in the thick of the global pandemic, Dimuzio released SLEW TEW on Bandcamp. There is also a forthcoming, limited edition, compact disc of the same material. All of the works in this collection were previously released on various labels, between 2003 and 2017. As such it serves as a kind of retrospective of Dimuzio’s work. Of the 14 pieces, half were recorded live. The other half were created and mixed in the composer’s studio. The 14 tracks range in length from two and a half minutes to a little over 13 minutes. True to form, the composer utilized a Buchla analog synthesizer, field recordings, bottle recycling machine, feedback, piano, and an electric guitar to create the work on SLEW TEW.

The first piece from this collection, Scanters, uses the highly processed sounds of a bottle recycling machine to create a texture teeming with repetitive, industrial, machinelike sounds, sounding like a newspaper pressroom. The texture sounds like repetitive simple amplitude modulation combined with extremely short loops. This runs unabated throughout much of the piece, conjuring up a distinct sense of place, albeit with a degree of ambiguity if you didn’t know what Dimuzio used for his sound source. During the last third of the piece the composer presents a long and effective fadeout. Overall, especially considering its short, three-minute duration, Scanters comes across as a torso extracted from a longer composition.

Arc of the Fallen Arch, the second piece from this collection, is a good example of a work whose title describes the formal plan for the piece, while at the same time serving poet function. To create this piece Dimuzio used crisp, distinctive, analog sounds from a Buchla synthesizer. Various layers of material collide, producing a complex, pulsating texture. These sounds, as a collection, gradually move up, and then back down in pitch, tracing an inverted U or arch-shaped trajectory. The highest point in this process comes exactly halfway through the piece.

The next piece, titled NG Cycles (If I Had A Stomach Pump), begins with a reversed sample followed by soft, menacing, dissonant resonance formed by a composite piano, pump, and nasogastric tube sound. The piano portion of this fused sound is used again and again during the piece as a formal marker. Each section features what can be described as aperiodic percussive sounds, resembling those found in a churning stomach. These are combined with subtle, squishy sounds likely produced from recycled noise. At about 3:55 another section begins, characterized by low frequency drum, or stretched skin, tones. Identifying whether the piece was taken from a live or studio performance is difficult to determine since it contains processing and spatial aspects of both. Gradually, the piece dissipates, followed by a long fadeout at the end.

Abject Light begins with a slowly evolving crescendo. As it becomes louder, more and more upper partials are added to the composite sound. This time-stretched texture sounds like it could have been produced by convolving voice with pitch materials. After about six and a half minutes we hear a muffled voice, along with the continuous drone materials. At the eight-minute mark we clearly hear someone say, “I can’t breathe,” revealing the context for the entire piece. We can think of the title as representing a full, glaring light that is shined onto an object or scene in order to show the desolation or unpleasant aspects of the subject. In this case the subject is timely – racist police violence. The voice we hear is that of Eric Garner, who was choked to death by members of the New York Police Department in the summer of 2014, on the suspicion of illegally selling cigarettes. Abject Light is a powerful piece after one figures out the context. It is ‘political’ in ways far beyond other, more obvious, works that rely upon more overt connections.

The fifth work is entitled, Elegy of Safety. To create this piece Dimuzio hung a microphone out of a window at the crossroad of Sixth and Market streets in San Francisco. The result contains compelling amplification of incidental and background noises, sounding at times like a large waterfall. The noise aspect is significant in this piece. The title itself is close to the name of the industrial noise band called The Illusion of Safety, founded by Dan Burke and members of the Chicago band Dot Dot Dot. Burke is a musician with whom Dimuzio has collaborated on live and recorded material, and had an impact on his own practice. Dimuzio told me that Burke was responsible for him diving “head first into modular synthesis.” They both share a predilection for noisy textures and using everything at their disposal to create their music.

Chemtrails (3 Different Ones), harnesses and manipulates feedback within a three-part structural form. Taken from a live recording made in Oakland, it presents slowly evolving, contiguous textures. At times the overall level threatens to distort but somehow never does. Chemtrails is an appropriate name for this piece since it largely uses raw sound and pitchless materials to achieve its effect, which is one in which the composer manages to weave feedback sources into a coherent whole. The term chemtrails has also been used by conspiracy theorists to draw attention to the possibly harmful effects of contrails, what jet airplanes leave in their wake.

Producing skywriting contrails is one of the things the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels is known for. Following Chemtrails (3 Different Ones) is a piece called Blown Angels Blew Angels, a clear pun of the Blue Angels. By the time the listener reaches this work (if listening in album order) they will be quite familiar with Dimuzio’s go-to compositional and processing techniques. Blown Angels Blew Angels, using field recordings as sources, manages to conjure up similar textures to some of the other previously heard works, such as a continuous, slowly evolving pitchless noise. But in this case, the noises sound like they were created from wind and large engine sounds. Metronomic, pulse-like sounds appear at the end of the piece, resembling a heartbeat monitor.

Shoil presents a variegated approach to feedback processing. At the beginning of the piece it sounds as if the composer used granular synthesis techniques. Following this we encounter another pitchless noise texture, but this one contains the subtle presence of pitched materials in the background, which contribute to an eerie, unsettling sense. The foreground involves a drone that sounds as if it could have been taken from alarm samples. Shoil ends at 4’53”, leaving one with the impression that it could have been extended without losing interest.

The ninth piece, Fog Rolls, is one of many pieces that comprise the $100 Guitar Project, an idea brought into existence by guitarist-composers Nick Didkovsky and Chuck O’Meara. After they initially purchased a $100 guitar, they passed it on to many other guitarists, who subsequently recorded their contributions on a double album release on Bridge Records, Inc. (Bridge 9381A/B). Fifty percent of the album’s proceeds went to CARE, an organization that combats poverty. Fog Rolls employs the guitar in question to create a piece featuring pitched drones that sound like the strings were activated with an Ebow. At times the results resemble the early collaborative work done by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno as found on their albums Evening Star and No Pussyfooting. Perhaps the short duration (2:32) was a requirement of the $100 Guitar Project, but one wishes that Dimuzio had released a longer, more developed version. The intriguing timbres would seem to call for further treatment.

The introduction to Tire Damage (Car Crash) is captivating. We hear extremely high and low frequencies, simultaneously faded in, providing a sense of otherworldliness – distant sounds from another galaxy captured as radio signals. The low frequencies gradually move higher and begin to become unsteady, like a wobbly tire. Perhaps I was overly influenced by the explicit title, but I thought I heard screeching brakes, the voices of the drivers, and maybe even the first responders arriving on the scene. On the other hand I wouldn’t be at all surprised if all of the sounds came from an analog, modular synthesizer. Like other acousmatic music there is an unresolved ambiguity regarding source identification.
The eleventh piece in this collection, Phyllocephala (Victor French Mix), contains one of the most diverse arrays of sound. Named after a prolific, spiky Chinese plant, this piece conjures up subterranean, mechanical, and tubular sounds, as well as the sound of flapping wings. The latter resembles what you get when you close mic a large woodwind instrument, performing rapid key clicks. We also hear vocal and birdsong ‘chattering’ timbres in the vein of Paul Lansky’s Smalltalk. Phyllocephala (Victor French Mix) offers us many separate layers sounding at once. It was simultaneously reminiscent of urban and jungle environments.

Optisonic Debris, the only previously unreleased work from this collection, uses photographs, translated into sound, for its source material. Judging from the strict, periodic rhythmic layers, the photographs could have contained geometric figures, lines, or grids. The word ‘debris’ in the title suggests several scenarios. Perhaps, only parts of each photograph were selected for translation, or the process of translation itself produced sonic debris, which then became the piece as it were. Whatever the process of X/Y axis assignment was it certainly produced a richly endowed and varied composition. This is also true with respect to sonic references. For example, around two minutes into the piece an arrhythmic, deep, percussive clicking sound is superimposed over the other layers, creating a subtle reference to avant-garde progressive rock music. Unlike many of the other pieces in this collection, the end of this piece fades out quickly, leaving the listener with the impression that it abruptly stops what was a much longer work.

The penultimate piece, Fog Music (excerpt), is an actual torso somewhat in the vein of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1968 work Kurzwellen. The radio source material contains raw waveforms that move up and down in pitch and space. The sounds of voices are distorted or granularized as if we are listening to a radio through a sonic fog. At the end of the piece we hear a 60-hertz hum that fades out, which is a suggestive sound given the radio as source.

At thirteen minutes in length, the last piece, Song of the Humpbacks, is the longest piece on this collection. Humpback whales were recorded at San Francisco’s explOratorium. Many composers have employed recordings of humpback whales but Dimuzio’s piece manages to underscore connections between whale sounds and brass instruments resembling everything from pedal tones to high-pitched squeals. For much of the piece we also hear a very soft layer of resonance that builds up as more and more whale sounds become present, and is also the last thing we hear. As the piece progresses it becomes clear that the whales are communicating with a varied palette of evocative sounds. The large number of wails and glissandi suggests to me that this piece can be heard as a lament, perhaps about habitat destruction.

This retrospective collection by an important electroacoustic pioneer contains some of his most important work. It will appeal to those who appreciate sound art, noise, and drones, or anyone who appreciates the ingenuous application of a potpourri of devices and tools to create convincing electroacoustic music.