RADU MALFATTI / KEITH ROWE – Φ

Erstwhile

The common dosage among the habitual reviewers of works belonging to what was once called “reductionism” reads more or less “1/4 of circumstances and origins of the project and synthetic bio notes, 3/4 of literary/artistic references” (aka “as sounds diminish, erudite gossip expands”). Desperately disinclined to test myself in any of those departments, nevertheless let me exercise the privilege of expressing a few ideas – as usual, strictly related to purely acoustic issues – in reaction to a triple CD that was obviously saluted as an event in the appropriate circles. Two revered masters from different schools of musical thought in front of each other, performing versions of their and other composers’ music plus an improvisation. Before listening, take a look at this interview conducted by Erstwhile’s boss Jon Abbey, in which Malfatti and Rowe hint to the inadequacy of a definition, ultimately affirming the worthlessness of “genres”. They play (or don’t); we do the futile talking, verbally fighting on acts that not always justify such behaviours.

First and foremost, the playback volume must stay consistent to let the sporadic junctions of waves merge and rebound (thus rendering the waiting more gripping). However, Jürg Frey’s “Exact Dimension Without Insistence” is as a quintessential damp squib for an opening as you might fear to find in a highly anticipated statement. As soon as it started to unfold its “three lame Fs against one half-baked plonking G” trombone-to-guitar-and-viceversa swaps amidst the expected silences, I couldn’t help thinking that many people who secretly cried scandal for the participation of Rowe and other top improvisers in David Sylvian’s Manafon – an outstanding album mainly regarded as an ugly duckling – coerce themselves to extract deep implications from such an inconsequential thing; reportedly, and justifiably, the illustrious disassembler had some difficulty in recording this embryo of a score. An expert reader can easily detect a “how can I get round this dud elegantly?” aroma emerging from certain well-mannered writeups.

It gets much better with Cornelius Cardew’s “Solo With Accompaniment”, the quality of the combined textures – sporadically disturbed by crispy interferences and bizarre electronic appearances – warranting a stable diet of positively affecting vibration; and, especially, with Malfatti’s “Nariyamu”, as we’re finally treated to what this couple should do until the end of life: generating deceptively quiet hums and buzzes surging from stillness to meet at some point in the upper air, finding the perfect resonance spot somewhere between the third eye and the back of the skull in Alvin Lucier-like combinations of partials. Escorted by the gentle summer airstream of a splendid late-August afternoon, parts of this jewel sounded like mind’s heaven sometimes; come minute 27, a fleeting murmur of slide-and-grumble low frequencies told me that yes, we were on the path, despite the decrease in the drone percentage after the half-hour mark (personal taste, never mind). Exactly at that juncture, a yapping dog made himself heard in a nice coincidence, the local church’s bells becoming a transitory factor of the equation shortly thereafter, reinforcing the theory according to which the success of this kind of interaction depends on how sympathetically the surroundings behave in a definite moment. In rather stark contrast, Rowe’s “Pollock ‘82” forces us to perk up the ears for the individuation of a satisfying balance between acute shrills, hissing fluxes of humid breath, electrically enhanced micro-meddling (supposedly coming from “the” table for the large part) and occasional paucity of immediately discernible signals. Efficient stuff, needing no surplus of words.

The improvisation does not add particularly striking details to the general temperament. Malfatti’s muted pitches and wavering moans – very rare as ever – provide a “relief” of sorts to Rowe’s active tampering around the edges, the pickups and the strings of his horizontal tool (a solitary radio morsel appears here, should you need assurance). The stereotyped comparison of these emanations with the work of elite visual artists is the preferred option in these cases, a virus proliferating due to KR’s parallel painting activity. It is also a strategy to circumvent the uncomfortable truth of instrumental dialogues comprising gestures and incidents that we still accept as interesting just because they are generated from esteemed names. Had this type of material been published by an unknown Slovakian duo on a minor label, handsome men in black who pontificate about the impending demise of EAI would have issued new encyclical admonitions. Faraway roosters are cock-a-doodle-dooing in the neighbouring farmland at 6:30 AM as I’m writing these lines, nothing worthy of a reporting narrative emitted by the speakers since several minutes as we approach the conclusion of the whole.

Logically, this is a release that requires hours of utmost concentration – and, needless to say, closed headphones if contiguous intrusions tend to prevail. Even in almost complete environmental tranquillity there are sections in which accurately identifying the pair’s course of action is next to impossible, whereas selected spurts of unembellished bliss reward the listener’s patience in the truly enlightened frames. Apart from the initial faux pas, most of the time that you will spend with this set is going to be repaid. But yesterday, while I was reading the above linked article on my way home, my player shuffled a sharpshooting succession of Stephen Scott, King Crimson, XTC and Zappa’s ferocious solo on “Fire And Chains” (from 1991’s Make A Jazz Noise Here – what do “Mothers-only” zealots know?). What the interviewees were saying suddenly clicked, and I felt a little happier right then and there. Revolutions are always swallowed by some sort of establishment sooner or later and, besides the “98% of garbage” correctly pointed out by Rowe, there’s always 2% of excellent music to listen to. At least half of Φ deserves to be there.

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