Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The song isn't the same at all

Recently I've been drawn more than occasionally to a genre blend of electro-acoustic improvisation (EAI) and song forms, a no man's land represented in my recent listening by two groups: Autistic Daughters, and The Magic I.D. The former is a trio led by New Zealand guitarist Dean Roberts, along with bassist Werner Dafeldecker and drummer Martin Brandlmayr, both from Austria. The Magic I.D. combines the talents of Christof Kurzmann on laptop, Margereth Kammerer on guitar, and clarinetists Kai Fagaschinski and Michael Thieke. There is a lot of history for these seminal performers, who have been at the forefront of possibilities opened up by technology and music for the last decade.   Dafeldecker was a charter member of the lowercase (as it was called at the time, the mid 1990s) improv group Polwechsel and has played with nearly everybody even remotely associated with the scene.  Kurzmann has a background in journalism and broadcasting and was one of the earliest laptop improvisers.  In 1999 he launched the Charizma label, still active and home to several releases whose myriad influences cross the entire spectrum of western music, composed and improvised.

Although both groups present themselves as pop music, it's easier to pare away more commercial song elements that are missing from Autistic Daughters' release Uneasy Flowers. Sometimes the music seems unrelated to the lyrics, as if the group set up some kind of improvisational background and Roberts tosses a little sprechstimme into the mix. Since I got the album from emusic, and neither Kranky (US release) nor Staubgold (EU release) release cover art on the web, I think I'm missing a lot from the lyrics. Other reviews and interviews have indicated that this album is a chapter of a continuing story that started with Roberts' solo albums, but Roberts' voice is often so buried in the mix that I can only pick out phrases, and not enough to get any particular meaning. Most often there isn't a melody to speak of, more like a recitation. The group often sets up drone-like atmospheres that serve as interludes between the songs, overdriven guitar chords in shifting harmonies with hissing cymbals and laptop noise, repeating in a loop. When a melody hook does appear, or a song-like structure that one can recognize, it's a memorable event.

If Autistic Daughters' perversion of the power trio aligns the group obliquely to a rock tradition, the absence of a rhythm section and the inclusion of two clarinets in The Magic I.D.'s album Till My Breath Gives Out almost recalls the classical lieder tradition. The album cover provides much more information about the music than I could find for Autistic Daughters, so I can safely report that the extra-musical references are literary and widely scattered, from revolutionary Assata Skahur to Argentine poet José Hernández and American poet Douglas Crase. The music is considerably gentler than A.D., with Kurzmann deploying the laptop both as background and looped rhythms, and the clarinets providing soft, sustained harmonies, sometimes merging to seem like a single instrument. Where Uneasy Flowers integrates the performers into a single complex and noisy sound, the guitar, clarinets and electronics on Till My Breath Gives Out remain delicately distinct.

EAI differs from jazz improvisational forms by subsuming the performers into a collective sonic texture, whereas most forms of jazz provide the performers with opportunities to step out as individuals. In pop music, many lyricists tend to see the music simply as accompaniment, with instrumental interludes serving as a break between verses when they are present at all. Autistic Daughters and The Magic I.D. find unique solutions on both sides, improvising a collective instrumental element while interweaving a more poetic lyric. With straight EAI, especially on recordings, my mind wanders (as it does during most instrumental music), and it's difficult to distinguish structural and ornamental events.  But on these releases, the song elements provide the direct access to the musical framework, bringing the arrangement into a sharp focus, so that repeated listening can more easily bring out musical details and provide a moment for lyrical reflection.

Both albums are available from better record stores and the usual suspects, and The Magic I.D. is also available directly from Erstwhile Records.

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