no furniture


Boris Baltschun /sampler, Axel Dörner /computer,trumpet, Kai Fagaschinski /clarinet.

Total Time 45:35 © 2003. Recorded, mixed and mastered between November 2002 and October 2003 in Berlin. Cover design by artwork signorinah.net

They sure don’t make revolutions like they used to. Forty-something years ago, knee-jerk hand wringers were tut-tutting about whatever would be left of music after John Cage. Cage’s deep questions, taken in the context of any era, are indeed radical: Is expression necessary if one is to have art? What about authorship? What if all sounds—and silences—had equal worth in a piece of music?

It’s taken more than a generation, but today, improvisors such as the three young Berliners on «No Furniture» take Cage as a natural point of departure. Forgetting nearly all music before Cage, their approach may represent the next great leap into the unknown. That leap is about the only thing approaching heroism you’ll find in the anti-expressive “lowercase” movement (or “electro-acoustic improv” or “reductionist”; hereafter referred to as l/c) that has taken hold in Europe, not to mention Japan.

Cage and his ideas placidly beat time in the l/c heart. (I’m looking right now at Improvised Music from Japan EXTRA. In it, is a description of a composition employing hand-held electric gizmos, by Otomo Yoshihide: “The performance consisted entirely of their switching the devices on and off according to Otomo’s instructions… ‘Don’t react to other people’s sounds; avoid musical vocabulary (rhythm, melody, etc.) as much as possible; do your best to express nothing but sound.'” If that isn’t John Cage reincarnated, I’m a shiitake mushroom.) Like much “new” culture, l/c is largely a cloaked visitation upon the past, and is only a breakthrough in that, due to the digital revolution, it’s managed to cultivate for itself a tiny but tenacious worldwide community, in line with Cage’s 60s-era predictions for the future of culture.

Cage is not the only touchstone for this rarefied sonic art. European improvising musicians of Axel Dörner’s generation have pitched their aesthetic tent as a counter-festival to the FMP big top that’s held sway over Europe, Germany especially, since the early seventies. Down with the Sturm und Drang, down with expression, down with continuity, solos, and climaxes. Long live glitch! Up with discontinuity! Forward—space! To quote the press release for Dörner’s trumpet solo record, titled trumpet (a bruit secret), “What distances him from other jazz trumpet players is the disappearance of the phrase, until it reaches the core of the musical note which he then erases by working on a regular blowing, putting together abstract noises, miniatures of blowing. This abstraction recalls the new electronic aesthetics, a kind of sound that seems to lose its own particular acoustical quality as if generated by an electronic device to create a beautiful ambiguity of sound.”

Focus your microscope on that verbiage: Between the lines of careful, lightly crackpot description lurks the sort of “end to history” manifesto mongering that’s in the bones of postmodernist irony. In our revolution, we erase revolutionism!

Luckily, there are some musicians identified with l/c who have studied their instruments, even if they hardly ever play them. Axel Dörner shouldn’t have to prove his chops to anybody. He’s left a wide recorded trail of collaborations that include Sam Rivers, John Butcher, Kevin Drumm, Sven-Ake Johanssen, Butch Morris, the King Übü Orchestrü, Fred van Hove, etc, etc. His fluency in whatever regional dialect of music he traverses is always brightly evident; sometimes, it’s startling. Dörner’s compatriots Boris Baltschun and Kai Fagaschinski are less well known outside of Berlin, but their work on no furniture is no less seasoned than the trumpeter’s, and the aesthetic stance they share engenders an intense focus and discipline, resulting in dense burst zones of burned-circuit clamor, each one a perversely detailed volte-face from the last, interrupted by abrupt silences taking up as much room as the sounds.

Further inspired by the revolution in personal computing—or “the new electronic aesthetics”, if you please—no furniture locates its activities in a microscopic ecosystem. There’s a lot going on, but it’s happening at a power of 10(-100). Think of the labyrinthine kinks and parallel folds of the circuits on a microchip: Looks like a dot, to the unaided eye. Under intense magnification, one sees a whirring city, with billions of interactions happening every minute. What’s compelling, if not exactly dramatic, is the question of whether activity at this scale can be called gestures, let alone musical statements (as we’ve come to define them after 450 years of Western music).

Do these exchanges have the power to move human hearts and minds, even when amplified? Or do they exist only as non-sentient ones and zeroes, chattering away mindlessly? Honestly, it’s kind of creepy, this aesthetic. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with these nanotropic sounds doing things in my ears that I can’t keep track of. But that feeling may be just what many l/c artists are after: The creeping unease that accompanies those moments of true apprehension, when we see the myriad scintillating skeins of little green numbers that underlie “reality”. (Woah!—how did this turn into a review of The Matrix???)

Listen to the third untitled cut on «No Furniture» for the way the ensemble comes together in an utterly coincidental way; sounds appear with no apparent relation to each other—that’s up to us warm-bloodeds to construct and analyze—then stop abruptly, either singly, or, toward the middle of a thick passage, everything stops together. No, wait, there’s a fine static still clinging to the ears, like beads of dew on a spider web. The sound just goes on as if it had not in fact emerged unblinking from the metal jungle of noise that birthed it. Nothing happened before, apparently. Memory is being erased here, too, not to mention causality.

At the very end of the cut, in pop a few seconds of unprocessed clarinet and muted trumpet: Surely not a coda or sign-off, is it? That would be a meta-surprise: An old fashioned “ending” ending. Or is it the simulation of a tape-splice or punch-in? (as in, “the new electronic aesthetics…”) Perhaps we detect lapses in the revolutionary front, yes? About five minutes into the second cut, Dörner permits himself the all-too-human indulgence of instantaneously creating a trumpet analogue of a low, droning sound from Baltschun’s sampler. Soon after, there’s a total dropout and then another “musical” moment when Dörner pitch-matches the dominant frequency of an electronic whine. (Well, who knows? Maybe he didn’t mean to do it… D’you suppose the l/c union would dock a fella for that?)

The level of instrumental control Fagaschinski, Dörner, and Baltschun bring to the enterprise also seems just beyond the human realm. The wind players, in their quest to mask their entries and exits and tonal qualities, bring enormous forces of control to bear on their embouchures and lungs to sustain these glacial drones. Baltschun’s electronic work is concerned with glitches, not pitches, and is often forwarded in the mix, providing ample cover (Dörner is listed on “computer” as well as trumpet, making it often impossible to tell who’s responsible for a given sound—giving us another page for our musico-revolutionary loose-leaf: Erasure of ascription).

Fagaschinski is the best hidden of the three—clarinet is a most cunning chameleon among the woodwinds. Listen with your ear-o-scope, and you’ll hear him ever so lightly fluttering a breathy subtone, there, just under the surface of the sampled rice krispies. Moments like these are enough to transcend all the labored silliness of the “aesthetic revolution” and reward us with pure listening pleasure; the pleasure not just of discovering hidden secrets but pleasure in appreciation of the obsessive care that’s put into this music. Somehow, amid the furious negation of expression, beauty rears its ugly head.

As a recorded artifact of a revolution that’s erasing itself, «No Furniture» takes no aesthetic prisoners—but there’s a king’s ransom to engage and provoke. Bring headphones and a quiet room, or you’ll miss it. Tom Djll