t’s rather promising when the first release on a brand-new label—in this case, the Malaysian imprint Xing-Wu—is a double-CD compilation with a line-up that reads like a virtual who’s who of low-key avant-garde music. And with such a line-up, this compilation virtually couldn’t fail to contain at least a handful of good cuts, but Xing-Wu in fact reaches a far higher standard. Not only are there numerous great tracks here (in fact, nearly every piece deserves some accolade), but the compilation also hangs together well as a coherent statement of purpose, perhaps because the selection of artists and performances sticks to a fairly small, but very fertile corner of avant-garde sound.
Most of the pieces here—Argentinian trio Reynols’ howling Krautrock jam aside—might be classified under some version of minimalism, lowercase, onkyo, field recordings (both processed and not), drones, and quiet electronics. But even within such a seemingly limited range, variety is the key to the compilation’s success, with musicians from all over the world in various fields blending with each other here.
The Japanese improv community is well-represented by a trio of its biggest names. There’s Toshimaru Nakamura, whose “Preset #4 (nimb#28)” hovers in the higher range, starting with chunks of rolling feedback loops, then slowly paring it down to just a bare high-frequency hum with charges of electrical energy running through it. Tetuzi Akiyama mines similar territory, though his tool here is the dobro guitar. These sliding high-frequency drones and skittering electronic sounds are similar to his brilliant Resophonie album, both harsh and oddly soothing, coaxing alien sounds from a familiar instrument. Finally, Taku Sugimoto appears on the second disc with “Bells 2,” which unsurprisingly explores his current fascination with silence, pitting a sparse handful of clean guitar notes against a six-minute blank canvas; the remaining space is filled with whatever you have handy, and in this summer weather it’s likely to be the hum of air-conditioning motors. This is quite possibly Sugimoto’s most disappointing venture into silence yet, with each recurring note being essentially the same and the spaces in between somehow lacking—because of the timing and the lackluster quality of Sugimoto’s few sounds—in the subtle tension that made his similarly taciturn Guitar Quartet album at least bearable.
The electro-acoustic improv community elsewhere in the world is represented by an even wider variety. Axel Dorner turns in “Marchlai,” a trumpet piece in which, true to his past technique, no notes are blown; instead, the amplified rush of air through the instrument’s body is turned into an explosive and fascinating microscopic world. The sounds start out slow and languid, but the piece quickly builds speed, until tiny chunks of rushing air are crashing up against each other in a frenzied patchwork of breath intakes and saliva-filled spurts. Andrea Neumann’s “Innenklavier,” as the name suggests, is also a close examination of her signature style, in this case drawing out runs of electronic sputter and earthy drones from the extracted innards of a piano. The piece is almost completely detached from the piano’s sound, further abstracting the instrument by processing the sounds through a mixing deck. And Australian guitarist Oren Ambarchi contributes a thick and watery multilayered drone that’s completely in line with his own previous work. But perhaps the finest improvised piece comes from the less well-known trio of Eric La Casa, Jean-Luc Guionnet (two-thirds of the field recording outfit Afflux), and Paris Transatlantic editor Dan Warburton. Their “Music Station” is a wonderfully tense recording; the subtle buzz of La Casa’s microphones (which pick up the sounds of rumbling and movement from the nearby train station) interact beautifully with the eerie hollow-sounding sax and violin drones of Guionnet and Warburton, respectively.
There are also plenty of eccentric surprises here, enough to keep the compilation’s trajectory moving in unexpected directions without ever becoming scattered. Disc Two starts off with a pair of gorgeous processed field recordings from two of that esoteric genre’s most talented practitioners. Jeph Jerman’s “Grackles” turns a swarm of cheeping birds into a rattling, cackling electronic symphony, the avian cries tweaked and layered, encased in a dark-hued drone that nicely counterparts their bright chirpiness. And the Jewelled Antler Collective’s Loren Chasse contributes “Script Lichen,” a quiet drone-scape filled with obscure clicks, clatters, and whirs, all the sounds divorced from their origins and infused with a profound sense of mystery. Carl Stone’s “Swad” is another standout, as the inventive electronic composer turns a vaguely Oriental-sounding melody into churning blasts of noise and high-pitched droning sounds, fading in and out with tidal elegance. It’s the rare piece that, like much of Stone’s work, manages to give abstract electronic music a real sense of the spiritual, the emotional, and the organic.
There’s a lot more fantastic stuff here, and only one or two weaker tracks that hardly disrupt the flow of the album. Indeed, it’s rare that a compilation can hold together so well, and yet present such a broad array of styles and approaches to sonic experimentation. There’s so much great stuff here that I’d feel remiss without mentioning Malay improviser Tham Kar Mun’s minimal “object” improv, using pencils, glass, and paper, or Yannick Dauby’s delicate field recording, or the odd spoken-word-and-jaunty-tune of Matt Shoemaker’s “Pantai Ayu.” A fine assemblage of some of the avant-garde’s leading lights, along with some talented unknowns, adds up to a very impressive double-disc set.
Reviewed by: Ed Howard
Reviewed on: 2004-06-18