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Psi Fi

by Tim Owen

January 28, 2010

Tim Owen looks at three highly distinctive releases on Evan Parker's Psi label

Sense (Psi)

Richard Barrett
Adrift (Psi)

Essex Foam Party (Psi)

Furt - Richard Barrett and Paul Obermayer, both credited simply with ?electronics? - have become a key presence among the Psi recordings roster. Sense is their fourth recording on the label since 2004; Obermayer guests on the Grutronic release also reviewed here, and Barrett is featured as a composer on the recent Adrift. Furt were expanded to an octet, fORCH, for the Spin Networks album in 2005, and were integrated into an ensemble closely related to Evan Parker?s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble for Psi boss Parker?s latest recording, Set. Barrett was enlisted in the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble proper in 2003.

Furts? electronics are simultaneously playful in an almost childlike sense and mind-fuckingly cerebral. These characteristics are dualities of both of the long pieces that make up Sense, but each piece tugs in an opposite direction. The twelve-part, 46-minute-long Uranus gets things under way gently with some vaguely aquatic atmospherics that are interrupted by a gentle clatter and a rude sequence of electronic pops, and suddenly we are traversing a disconcerting soundscape, a sonic mindfield of minor sound/glitch events and fractured voice samples. Each of Uranus twelve parts are subtitled Limen, so we are on notice from the start that we will ever be at the threshold, our psychological reflexes engaged to the max if we don?t choose simply to disengage. (For some listeners the alternative, geological sense of Limen as a muddy lagoon will perhaps seem more apposite.) Recognisable samples emerge occasionally to give the listener buoys to cling to, if necessary: Limen II features a brief violin melody, repeatedly surfacing from a glitch-scrape of, perhaps, its sampled self. But other pleasurable elements are more purely musical: The metallic scrapes of Limen III, for example, take on a tinnitus-testing tintinabulist quality. How serious are Furt? It?s not obvious. Limen IV features fragmentary samples of an electronically treated voice tangled by tabla and toy drum percussion sounds, eventually giving way to a disturbing sonic collision of nursery and abattoir. Limen V reminded me somewhat of those old BBC sound effects recordings. And so it goes on. At times I?ve found Sense utterly engrossing and immensely enjoyable, but on other occasions it?s just threatened me with a headache. You must listen for yourselves.

The other piece here, curtains, is 25 unbroken minutes of live performance dedicated to Karlheinz Stockhausen. It begins as a circling, oscillating drone but, after a couple of minutes, strings and other more fragmented samples are introduced to unsettle things and the piece takes on a creakily ethereal aspect. Thereafter everything sounds plinkily random, albeit in a pleasant, fluid way that?s nicely at odds with the relatively frenetic Uranus. curtains is characterized by restraint as much as anything: it is in no way chaotic. It’s organizing principles, however, remain opaque.

Adrift features three Barrett compositions: these are Codex IX in memory of Mauricio Kagel, performed by the Elision ensemble; Adrift in memory of Paul Rutherford, performed by Barrett himself and pianist Sara Nicolls; and Codex VII performed in collaboration with Dutch ensemble Camp d?Action. Many listeners will find Adrift more accessible than the rude charms of Sense, but I mention the album here mostly to direct the attention of the curious since, despite some terrific improvising from the Elision soloists and particularly Nicoll?s fine judgment, the album falls squarely in New Music?s ?New Complexity? arena, and therefore comfortably beyond the jazzmann?s remit.

Of these three recordings, Grutronic?s Essex Foam Party probably fits that (notional) remit most closely. It even features vibraphonist Orphy Robinson, whose name should be reassuringly familiar to jazz listeners. Here he is a guest, alongside Furt?s Paul Obermayer (sampler), on three of the album?s seven tracks. The core participants are all free improvisers “with a past/present as acoustic ensemble players?re-incarnated as electronic musicians, extending technique through the development of highly personalised systems of sound production and control”, namely: Stephen Grew (keyboard, processing), Richard Scott (electronics, analogue synthesizer, sampler, processing), Nick Grew (transduction, processing), and David Ross (his own wryly-named Drosscillator).

Grutronic?s music is superficially very similar to Furt?s, and particularly to the Limen of Uranus. It?s similarly hyperactive and kinetic, which can be similarly overwhelming, and the manipulations of some of the electronic sound-sources produce the same sort of woozily destabilizing effect. Sometimes Robinson?s sonorous vibes brings provide a skein of clarity, while at others they simply tip the whole into sonic overload. Without their guests in tow, as on the title track, Grutronic hove closer to the wilder shores of IDM and evoke a more Heath-Robinson take on the Autechre sound. Grutronics? music, while no doubt heavily theorised, has the qualities of lightness and spontaneity that are somehow lacking in Furt?s music, for all the latter?s apparent impulsiveness. Somehow Grutronic contrive to sound more artless, which makes them easier to warm to. Listeners with ears attuned to the musical responsiveness integral to Jazz will find this Foam Party curiously good fun. It helps, too, that the individual tracks each have distinct characteristics beyond those of their constituent parts. BallPool Blues, for exmple, has a woozy, skew-whiff quality that envelops as much as it unsettles; there are even, briefly, some regular beats. At other times, however, as on the brief Nose-Up, Grutronic are just as happy to revel in discord.

Before signing off it?s perhaps worth looking closer at Grutronic?s individual histories. Ross has been drummer for Kenny Process Team and currently plays in a critically lauded duo with Clive Bell. Scott specialises in motion-controlled electronics, specifically here the Buchla Lightning MIDI controller. Nick Grew specializes in music for theatre, deploying for Grutronic “toys and hand held instruments” alongside his processing. Stephen Grew?s principle instrument used to be piano, but a switch to electronic keyboards for live performances led to its use as a trigger for electronics; he has played with Keith Tippett and Howard Riley. If all that doesn?t make you curious, as it should, they?re probably not for you.

Here are some more ideas of what it all sounds like.

Limen IX -  Bird whistles and random treatments morph into a jungle of shrill chirruping
Limen X -  A relatively straightforward (sounding) electronic oscillation, punctuated by non-allusive samples
Limen XI -  Another bad, stifling, dreamscape
Limen XII -  Metallic parp of machine-distorted trombone, or perhaps sax, over grating, equally distorted and metallic whorls and booming percussives. Part 2 evokes ghost traces of a fairground.

+ Plonk ? Well titled. All primitive synth blips, Chinese or water-bowl percussion, carillon, vibraphone. Smooth. Rippling/washing
Title track ? A queasy variation on this theme, losing the smoothness in favour of an altogether more bleary and gelatinous feel
+ Concussion Vibes ? Reprise of Plonk; features sax soundalike and fluent marimba. Toward the end skeins of synth construct slippery rhythms out of sync, briefly reminiscent of Autechre, enhanced by OR?s vibraphone
Nose-up ?

Ball Pool Blues ? Closer to turntablism. Akin to Louis & Bebe Baron.
+ Madness and Civilization ? All rippling Hammond and distorted chimes, like being trapped in a Hitchcock psychosis dream sequence. A nice blend of acoustic and treated percussion near end.
1.42 Foam Sweet Foam -

Tim’s star ratings 3.5 each

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