Derek Bailey - Aida
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Imagine a music free of the constraints of time. Locked in the endless present, it has no recollection of its past or premonitions of its future. With no allegiance to the weight of history, the sounds freeze and fold on themselves in a ceaseless exploration of the instant. Freedom from the future renders the music unwaveringly bold and separate from the fear of consequence. The need to establish artificial structures or carve narrative from acoustic phenomena crumbles under the calculation of the moment’s countless fluctuations. Sound becomes both fearless and fragile, as strident and organic as it is fleeting and impermanent.
For more than thirty years, Derek Bailey and his guitar have pursued a new language that would realize the possibilities of such a liberated music. His efforts to erase the boundaries of musical history have resulted in an alien sound completely unlike his predecessors and wholly his own – a tapestry of shattered glass harmonics, string snaps, feedback whistle, and crab-like arpeggiations. In a group context, Bailey’s splinters and abrasions serve to disrupt any tendency for repetition or stasis and to act as a catalyst for true spontaneity. When left to his own devices as a soloist, Bailey revels in the liberties suggested by his idealized vision of music. These solo performances trace tangents unbounded by the will of the group and face no limitations but Bailey’s seemingly endless imagination and invention. Recorded in 1980 and reissued by Dexter’s Cigar in 1996, Aida represents some of the finest solo performances in the Derek Bailey catalog and in free improvisation in general. Its sound-world is as uncompromising, confrontational, and consistently beautiful as the principles on which it was founded.
To describe the tracks in a narrative sense is futile and doomed by the music’s very definitions. Instead, the listener is flooded with a stream of impressions and half-memories. Opening track “Paris” pits leaping motives against dissonant harmonic flourishes and scratched chords. The acoustic guitar becomes an orchestra of disconnected instruments fluttering through every imaginable pitch range with a paradoxical mix of effortless technique and reckless abandon. Complex rhythmic stutters coalesce into a logic all their own, forming a delicate balance of gentle and jarring interactions atop a shifting foundation of micro-pulses. At times, the music is sparse and almost unbearably tense, as if it could disintegrate at the slightest touch or dissolve into the thinnest air. At others, it is a scramble of impossibly high scratches and thudding percussive rumbles as dense and impenetrable as the softer moments are transparent. No reason but the non-reason of spontaneity dictates the inclusion of the gentle or the harsh; every sound hangs in the air as its own entity, unhindered by time and untouched by pressures of context and development.
At once delicate and sturdy as the thinnest silver wire, “Niigata Snow” stretches seven minutes into a still eternity. A cloud of harmonics breaks the opening silence to evoke the snow suggested by the title – only each tiny snowflake is graced with razor-sharp metal edges. A counterpoint of stratospheric bell tones and the koto-like ring of prepared strings threatens to unravel at any instant, only to save itself from dissolution at the last possible instant every time. The improvisation is punctuated with the aching silences that follow each decaying note and heighten the listener’s attention for even the slightest vibrations in each space. “An Echo in Another’s Mind” takes the language of “Niigata Snow” and dirties it with harsh string scrapes and pulsing half-step harmonies to create a more active landscape. Bristling with visceral impact and an internal restlessness, “An Echo” shivers beneath icy scratching before exploding into a frenzy of rapid-fire strum and loose-string buzzes. The temporal manipulations here are created through sheer nervous tension, through the constant unknowing of the next gesture and in the almost-tangible anxiety of the unpredictable. Whereas “Niigata Snow” stretches to a chasm the space between notes, “An Echo in Another’s Mind” crowds the air with active gestures and silences of surprise instead of stillness.
So what can be made of this music, a music crystallized in the very moment of its creation? The distortions of time found in such music are difficult to capture in words, but invariably captivating to hear in the fractured language of Bailey’s music. Seconds stretch to eternities and eternities compress into the minutest details. A complete suspension of time becomes rule over all and presses the music into a permanent foreground of infinite detail. Or as Bailey himself, always with the greatest of wit and wisdom, once said of his music: “The ticks turn into tocks and the tocks turn into ticks.”
By: Joe Panzner
Published on: 2003-09-01