Rick Reed / Keith Rowe / Bill Thompson
MIKROTON CD 17 | 18 | 2013
Edition of 300.
PHYSICAL | 2 x CD
Rick Reed EMS synthesizer
Keith Rowe guitar, electronics
Bill Thompson live electronics
The recordings for the piece were gathered over the course of a year from Huddersfield, Stirling, Aberdeen (United Kingdom), and s’Hertogenbosch (The Netherlands). These were used to create an installation consisting of over 100 tracks that were remixed in real time during each performance. The set up varied from show to show, sometimes playing through 6 speakers and 3 subs, and at other times, through 12 speakers etc. The performers were positioned at the centre of the audience, who in turn, were surrounded by the speakers from the installation. The performers’ only instruction was to improvise sensitively to the sounds of the installation and each other.
Magnetic yields: Shifting Currents
Commissioned in partnership with Le Weekend festival in Stirling and Aberdeen’s sound festival, Shifting Currents features electromagnetic recordings of distinctive and atmospheric places from each of the three locations, alongside improvised responses from Thompson, Keith Rowe and Rick Reed.
Shifting Currents explores the unstable, unpredictable realm of electricity as a metaphor for the way in which music flows and changes around us. In keeping with the found sound aesthetic of his previous work, Aberdeen-based Thompson has used a stick-on telephone microphone to capture electromagnetic signals and interference, transforming the inaudible waveforms into delicate and harsh sonic textures. He recorded in Stirling’s historic Church of the Holy Rude, where the infant James VI was crowned, and in Fraserburgh Lighthouse on the windswept Aberdeenshire coast. In Huddersfield he found inspiration in the university’s engineering department.
Shifting Currents receives its premiere on 30 May at Le Weekend before visiting HCMF and sound in November. The former wool blending shed at Bates Mill will play host to a constantly evolving multi-channel installation of Thompson’s recordings, with Thompson, Rowe and Reed weaving the sounds into their own musical performances on guitar and electronics.
Keith Rowe has been a key figure in British improvisation since the mid-1960s, when a new year’s resolution to stop tuning his guitar set him on a journey away from the jazz he was playing with Mike Westbrook and towards free music. As well as several decades as part of the group AMM, Rowe’s career includes the founding of M.I.M.E.O. (who performed at HCMF 2007), and numerous solo and collaborative recordings. The one-time art student’s break with traditional playing techniques parallels the innovation of Jackson Pollock’s floor canvases: laying his guitar flat upon a table, he incorporates found objects, electronics, contact mics and radio transmissions into his music-making.
Rick Reed shares an artistic background with Rowe, and a home state, Texas, with Thompson. After college he moved to Austin and became involved in the city’s experimental music scene, making music with synthesisers and tape machines, alongside video art and sound installations. Shifting Currents will also pay a visit to the November Music festival in the Netherlands, transmitting the intangible qualities and hidden music of Huddersfield, Stirling and Aberdeen to a new location.
Bill Thompson on Shifting Currents
“A few years ago I heard a story online of somebody’s friend who had just got a cochlear implant, and who was having some trouble because of interference from all these different electromagnetic fields,” Bill Thompson recalls. “I remember thinking it was amazing that here was someone struggling with hearing loss who was hearing a world that people with ‘normal’ hearing can’t. It had opened up another dimension of sound.”
As with the genesis of many of the Texan-born sound artist and musician’s other projects, what Thompson read stuck in his mind and buzzed around for some time. Eventually it found a route to the outside world in the form of a commission to create the work which would become Shifting Currents.
Armed not with a cochlear implant but with a humble stick-on microphone of the kind that can be used to record telephone conversations, he set about exploring the world of electromagnetism-turned-sound. Like fellow sound artist Christina Kubisch, whose Electrical Walks featured at hcmf 2007, Thompson found that the previously inaudible fields emitted by everyday computers, wiring, shop signs and street furniture were anything but silent, instead emitting a range of sinister hums, intriguing clicks and startling squeals.
It’s not the first time that Thompson has unveiled new aspects of sonic perception. Originally trained as a jazz guitarist – a pathway blocked when he developed tendonitis –he went on to teach electronic music and composition at Texas State University, performed and promoted new electroacoustic music and, for the past five years, has combined PhD study in Aberdeen with teaching, improvisatory performances and creating sound works. These include Of Aberdeen (2005), a field recording of an eight-hour walk around the city (“My feet were bleeding by the end”, he says) and resonare/in absentia (2005), the microscopic sounds captured inside display cases of precious artefacts in Aberdeen’s Marischal Museum.
He sees Shifting Currents as a step forward from his previous multi-channel sound experiments. “I’ve developed a certain way of using sound with multiple players so that the sounds are able to blend with each other. I treat the sounds in really specific but super-minimal ways that you wouldn’t be able to hear, but so that when a sound plays with another track, a certain effect will come out. But I’ve never played against that; this is the first time I’ve tried to bridge the gap between me as a solo performer and me as an installation artist,” he explains.
Commissioned by a partnership of hcmf, Stirling’s Le Weekend and Aberdeen’s sound festival, Shifting Currents offered Thompson the opportunity to explore the varying electromagnetic landscapes of each festival’s location. In Huddersfield, he found the university to be a rich source of material.
“The elevators in Huddersfield University are absolutely stunning to record,” he says. “In the engineering department they were quite accommodating. They let me crawl behind a lot of machines.” As might be expected from the nerve centre of a leading contemporary music festival, hcmf’s own office didn’t disappoint: “There’s a printer there which is incredible. I think the staff were pretty impressed that there was so much weird sound going on next to them. Or maybe they were just smiling to humour me.”
In Aberdeen, Thompson recorded electromagnetism in both the university and around the city centre. “Sometimes I would just carry the mic and go for a walk and not even listen, just capture all the fields as I was walking up and down the street.”
Stirling’s historic Church of the Holy Rude received the Thompson investigation, as did the Tolbooth arts centre. “I explored the Tolbooth from top to bottom, everything from flashlights to the sprinkler system, computer screens…”
“They have a room which has all the breakers and circuits for the whole building, which was absolutely stunning. The thing about the mics is that where you position your hand and how it shifts as you’re breathing in totally affects the sound. As you turn it you get higher frequencies; if you get close you tend to get the darker, lower frequencies.”
He adds, “There was one sound I found that I just want to release as a field recording track. It’s just six minutes of this red box fire alarm which is just lovely by itself. It evolves naturally and has its own structure and is just really beautiful to listen to.” He later paid an additional recording visit to the Dutch city of ’s-Hertogenbosch, home to the November Music festival, where Shifting Currents is also being performed.
The recordings are only half the story, however. As a performance, Shifting Currents is a collaboration between the captured sound material on one hand and Thompson and celebrated improvising musicians Keith Rowe and Rick Reed on the other. “I really like those guys and it’s a pleasure to work with them,” says Thompson. “We could have just done an improv gig, and that would have been fine, but with this installation moving around us it’s almost like a fourth player that has its own will.”
Randomly selected extracts from the recordings will play through six loudspeakers that are shared by the musicians. “Rick won’t know if it’s the installation playing, or Keith, or me. It’s not so much about responding to another player, as working with these delicate sounds, reacting to the space and the sound and not a gesture-based jazz approach.”
Reed and Rowe are longstanding friends of Thompson and he believes they have the required approach. “They’re so tasteful, that’s the thing. When you have a lot of electronics, you don’t often find people who will play less, rather than more. They’re so restrained and delicate: they know when to put on the gas and they know when to pull back.”
With around 100 tracks available, the recorded component can have an entirely different character for each performance: “The one at Le Weekend was a really minimal set because the players threw up lots of quiet tracks. Huddersfield might pull out a much more dominant soundworld. You would never browbeat another musician by telling them they’re playing too loudly, and you definitely can’t do that with the installation.”
The audience will be sat in the round between the speakers, leading to a subtly different experience for every listener. “A lot of the sounds make use of standing waves. These set up narrow beams, so that if you turn your head one way you’ll hear it, and if you shift position you won’t hear that frequency. There can be some quite unique spaces in it. I’m going to be nerdy here, but it’s bringing people’s attention to their own subjectivity.”
To Rowe’s kit of pared-down guitar and tabletop electronics and Reed’s synthesiser and effects pedals, Thompson brings his laptop “with a year’s worth of sound files” and what he describes as “some weird, eccentric synthesisers. One is called a Dave Smith Evolver, it has a genetic algorithm in there that can produce completely random patches that sound like broken electronics. I’ll often generate 120 of those before a gig and pick a few to use.” A dab hand at circuit bending – creating customised instruments out of scrap electronics and old toys – he also has a further method for finding new sounds: “I built a device that’s an old keyboard with just one big red button, and every time you press it, you get a new sound. You can never predict it and you can never recreate it.”
Thompson’s view of such an untameable instrument as more opportunity than annoyance echoes his infectious enthusiasm for the intangible, every-changing realms of the electromagnetic. “What I love about it is that you wouldn’t hear all those sounds without this little device, the telephone mic, but then a whole universe of sounds opens up,” he reflects. “We’re surrounded by this stuff, all the time. The world has changed. You can’t find these sounds in a forest or the desert. It’s just a sign of what we’re become. I like that.”
The Sound Projector, Thomas Shrubsole:
It took me a while to find the right time for this double disc – disc one, an unindexed 54 minutes and a supplementary half an hour on the other disc. After an initial aural foray a month or two back whilst engaged in various degrees of household pottering it thereafter remained lurking on the ‘to review’ pile, all pale blue, square, flat and accusatory. I think listening to all that Phill Niblock the other week primed me for some more long form drone action, though. So, this weekend, having scouted out the general lie of the land previous-like as mentioned I sofa-d up and listened to it. And, despite a move from sofa to floor halfway through, I did a full and thorough listen. Herein I reveal the results of that fateful afternoon’s listening and the strange thoughts thus engendered…Read on, I implore you…
The contents of the two discs are in fact ‘as is’ documents of two different live performances involving a loose working set-up where the trio improvised over a multi-channel installation of various formats. Example configurations: ‘sometimes playing through 6 speakers and 3 subs, and at other times, through 12 speakers etc.’ So says the liner notes, and who are we to doubt them? The CD is presented in two channels only, through yer bog-standard stereo speakers, in this case. There is an element of immersion in the live set up which is replaced by one of projection with this form of documentation; apparently in concert the performers sat in the middle of the room with the audience around them and then the loudspeakers in turn surrounding all of them, but what is lost in that respect does not thankfully adversely affect the music when formatted for stereo.
Shifting Currents proves to be an apt title with multiple meanings in this scenario. Not only do we get ebbs and flows of layered sound through the large time-canvases, the palette is one of domestic appliances and industrial installations, step-down transformers, sub-stations, extension cables, the national grid: electrical flow.
Creating these long-formidable shifting sounds are: Rowe – guitar and electronics (including his trusty shortwave, it sounds like). Bill Thompson is responsible, therefore he has been assigned responsibility for Live Electronics which involves, in this case, reprocessing masses of instrumental snippets extracted painlessly from the other participants (over a period of a year so they didn’t feel a thing) and then piping and smoothing them into a suitable sonic back drop. Rockin’ Rick Reed brandishes the iconic EMS synthi, synonymous with your favourite and mine Conny S and also famously used in Pink Floyd’s ‘On The Run’.
In the Phill Niblock review I recently wrote I scribbled feverishly on about negative space (my god, it’s full of speakers.) In the sounds of Shifting Currents there is an implied negative space carved out from electric projections, a hollowness and scale that traces the room where it was recorded by people in front of people in which thin fizzes and crackles are knitted into streams like copper filaments in electric cables snaking out over a floor. In this room the electronics are filtered (like you have to in order to get rid of an earth hum); high pass, band bass, holiday inn – all that is left are grains and particles, electro-acoustic grit, a palette of loose connections, cryptic tones and traces of labour saving machinery.
A shifting bed of drones, atonal, textural; controlled feedback, fuzzing, flowing and receding; manipulation of objects. Shuffling about occurs (I think I count a cough on each CD, a great British tradition in concert going) as does shifting – of currents, of bums in chairs and of those classic objects on those equally timeless tables. Keith’s radio dial pops in to say hi alongside electronics that uncannily echo the clatter of a teacup, conspiring between them to evoke the ambiance of an imagined avant-garde tea-room, between the click of a second hand, bathed in an unearthly blue stasis… station… static…
On disc one it takes twenty minutes or so, but eventually there is a gradual accretion of volume, foreground events and agitation of gestural elements. In other words, it takes a while for much to happen besides the stalking of a background by itself and a ground being established.
Snatches of short-wave hiss and pop, clunked guitar strings, the proceedings of the fifth-dimensional table-top jumble sale, not seen, but heard, fill the performance space like the improvisational equivalent of a wi-fi signal. Small and unusual characteristics, obtuse corners and angles, re-contextualise familiar sound sources and scales. Even the EMS’ normally more outgoing characteristics are involuted to the point of disappearing back up its own power cable to hide in the mains supply.
The strings above the bridge of a guitar are plucked; a disturbed dulcimer player loses his train of thought before clacking down another dominos whilst the donut-shaped, fly-killing light I remember seeing in the back of the supermarket bakery whilst being taken shopping as a child buzzes menacingly.
Over the course of the CDs we are treated to slowly shifting and modulating complex and atonal harmonics that share something of the elementality of the electricity that animates them whilst all the while we are aware that there is a meshwork frame containing proceedings, the echo of a space, a room without walls, a Faraday cage in stereo, diffused sound propelled mechanically, as from the fan an ioniser, a machine that zaps dust; snap, and an event materialises and disappears instantaneously in ozone and a controlled blue spark, absence remains, tangible and physical, present, transparent, a wooden table-top overlaid with a mesh synth signal…
In a similar manner to the Taj Mahal Travellers (or indeed AMM), this album involves unusually focussed (which can of course be read two ways) drifting agglomerations of electro-acoustic sustain which over the course of extended drifts gradually coalesce to reveal unexpected forms and perspectives. Which, needless to say, can be rather tasty, when all is said and done. Swell!
Vital Weekly, Frans de Waard:
Now here’s quite a pack of recordings from Russia’s Mikroton label. Two double CDs and a single one. The first double one clocks in just 85 minutes, so perhaps you think: why not some more editing and let it all fit on a single CD? We are dealing here with two live recordings made with sounds from an installation by Bill Thompson, which was recorded in Huddersfield, Stirling, Aberdeen and ‘s-Hertogenbosch – the latter being in The Netherlands. Recordings from the first two are to be found on this double CD. The sound is being distributed over 6 speakers and 3 sub woofers or 12 speakers, and 6 subs etc. The performers, and I assume Thompson is part of that (and gets credit for live recordings) are in the centre of the audience and have instruction to ‘improvise sensitively to the sounds of the installation and each other’. Rick Reed plays EMS synthesizer and Keith Rowe plays guitar and electronics. It’s funny (?) to read that about sensitivity, as what is pressed on these two discs, one concert of fifty-four minutes and one of thirty minutes, is not exactly always very sensitive. These men know how to hit their instruments – metaphorically speaking – and it comes in like a mighty blow. I guess it’s not always to say what exactly someone does in here, wether it’s the EMS, the guitar or the installation sounds, which I guess is a good thing. It all blends together nicely in these recordings, which were picked up using microphones, which added to spatial quality of the music. Quite dense at times, certainly in the Stirling recording, which seems to have less space for a longer introspective moment, which is something that we can find in the Huddersfield recording.
Squid's Ear, Darren Bergstein:
A summit meeting of sorts, a hivemind of aural haute cuisine, a triptych of tone, as it were, between this collective gathering of pre-eminent electroacousticians. Keith Rowe’s pedigree and historical rendering is beyond reproach at this point; he’s practically sui generis amongst the avantist jazz/avant garde/laminal noise set, a guitarist who’s spent the better part of four decades recontextualizing the syntax of his chosen tool. Reed has marked out a rigorous, if smaller, territory amongst the peripheral experimental music scene found scattered along the tumbleweed connections of Austin, Texas, having released a number of arch, angular, and able recordings on that state’s estimable Elevator Bath label. Thompson’s the least known member of the three, his work no less integral to the proceedings here, his background splayed across a handful of CDRs and numerous international sound/art installations. His ability to morph a broad system of electronic devices and the resultant effluvia live and in the moment seems to have led him on an intersecting path with his cohorts; each of the two lengthy pieces found on both discs of this set testify to each individual’s delicate yet vibrant touch within a very broad context of sound.
Shifting Currents actively works the crowd, the room ambience, and the surrounding environment, all of which are necessary components just as key to the overall sonic fabric under development. Improvisation, what that entails, masks, and reveals, divvies up the environment in an ever-widening process of wow and flutter. Who does what is made mostly irrelevant ó clinking glasses, shuffling feet, clearing throats, errant chatter, and random happenstance all assist the trio in realizing a multitude of febrile events.
Reed’s EMS synthesizer provides differing, gesticulating, occasionally irruptive glances, forward movements, hushes, and sighs; whether stroking the dials for a series of corrosive purrs or bending it wildly out of shape, his exploits make for nary a dull moment or briefest respite. Rowe’s well-wrought mutilation of his string-driven thing is legion amongst both novices and aficionados; here he often commands the spotlight, abusing his frets, assaulting the wood-bridge, sending cascading electrical sparks across the strings in sudden, short-circuited bursts. All the while, Thompson’s caught in flux, stuck between these warring entities, but he’s no slouch; whatever push-and-pull he exerts throughout is tough to discern solely from the recordings, but it’s reasonable to assume that his hand isn’t sleight or his reach ineffective. Taking various cues from Reed and Rowe, Thompson seems to delight in orchestrating the entire, thorny enterprise.
Tense and terrific, evolving and alienating, the title of this set couldn’t be more apt ó Shifting Currents turns the ear on itself, wakes you up to your surroundings, pivots your sensibilities, and lifts you out of your stupor. Witnessing this trio in action couldn’t have been anything less stimulating.
Just Outside, Brian Olewnick:
So, as I understand it, the initial idea here was for Bill Thompson to compile a catalog consisting of over 100 tracks culled from other performances of Reed and Rowe and then, with the pair improvising amidst a multitude of speakers, do a real-time mix of same during the performance. Here, on two discs, are recordings from Huddersfield and Stirling, both in 2009. If the discs contain Thompson’s contributions as well as the duo, I have to say that the former are very subtle indeed; had I not been given a hint otherwise, I could easily have thought it was only the pair, given the multiplicity of sounds they’re quite able to generate of their own accord.
The music itself is, unsurprisingly, not dissimilar to that produced (in my experience) by the Voltage Spooks trio (Reed and Rowe with Michael Haleta) which is to say more on the steady-state end of things than Rowe is otherwise likely to produce these days (or then). There’s a certain amount of scrabbling about which I’m tempted to attribute to Rowe, but the roughness and abruptness of much of his recent work is ameliorated by a consistent thrum or buzz. I’m guessing that’s largely Reed’s doing, though perhaps it’s Thompson as well. Or both or neither. The Huddersfield set is interesting; one’s initial response is work that’s easily digestible but not very forceful, but little by little, you settle into its flow and begin to appreciate the gentle fluctuations and odd sonic appearances, like the quasi-arabic squiggle that occurs some 15 minutes in, the various small knocks, shudders and clinks, the introduction of taped room sounds including blurred conversation. It intensifies midway through its 54-minute span, ripsaw sounds breaking through, clanging that recalls the strumming of toy piano rods, radio captures–its a large welter but a curiously gentle one.
The Stirling set is bleaker, with hollower tones and softly iterating, echoey percussive elements, very dark and dystopic though again with a thoroughgoing presence, more drone-oriented than the prior performance. Again, much of the enjoyment is to be found in the details that merge along the way, the bits that poke their head through the morass. Generally, both pieces are more reminiscent of the work Rowe was doing int he mid-oughts, which is no bad thing. While not as deeply stirring as his more recent music, it’s remains a fine listen and offers a really nice opportunity to hear more of Reed, who’s underrepresented on disc. Clearly, one is curious to have heard this in a room, with the Thompson elaborations flitting about but, as is, it’s a good, solid listen.
Le Son Du Grisli, Guillaume Belhomme:
Plus tôt, Mikroton publia les rencontres en 2009 (en deux endroits) de Keith Rowe, Rick Reed (synthétiseur) et Bill Thompson (électronique) : Shifting Currents. C’est là un disque-double qui expose une installation de Thompson (basée sur la modification en temps réel d’une collection d’une centaine de pièces sonores) réarrangée par la suite, qui joue de silences et craque sous la juxtaposition de rumeurs et de field recordings, puis une électronique sur laquelle les basses tremblent et les effets abondent – les tensions, mal contenues peut-être, pourront avoir raison des présences, au point qu’on y perdra parfois le guitariste. Heureusement, le premier disque est le plus long des deux.
Jazzword, Ken Waxman:
An installation as well as a performance of improvised electronic music, Shifting Currents preserves musicians’ differing sonic responses to real-time remixes of field recordings issuing from audio speakers which surround the players. Although there are several instances of protracted electromagnetic noodling that may fascinate software designers more than listeners, the melding of sound manipulations from four-sources plus real-time instruments intrigues when all elements lock into place. Acceptance of the concept’s parameters increases satisfaction with this two-CD set.
Chief sound architect here is Texas-based Bill Thompson, whose laptop program includes hundreds of files sourced then reprocessed with a genetic algorithm to create random sound patches. As this ready-made material is heard, Rick Reed, another Texan who plays synthesizer and Briton Keith Rowe, who utilizes tabletop guitar and electronics, improvise alongside them. As a long-time, former member of AMM, Rowe has been involved with similar electro-acoustic experiments for decades. But although he plays the only “real” instrument here, his contributions are no more prominent than the others’ sound movements.
In truth the shorter –almost 30½-minute –second disc from Le Weekend Music Festival in Stirling lacks definition even in these circumstance. It’s seemingly an exercise in heightening and lowering a block of sound. Continual flanges and buzzes squished together resemble synthesized tones pushed through an endless washing machine-like cycle.
Much more notable is the CD recorded at the UK’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. It has more scope, since its more than 54-minute length allows for development which puts into starker relief the performance parameters. Plus snatches of human dialogue, inferences of an Arabic tone near the beginning and what could be merry-go-round music in the middle section add a humanness that’s lacking on the other disc. Throughout processes that could be a door opening slowly, jackhammer pressure on asphalt and Alpine whistles make their presence felt then vanish into the unceasing drone. There’s even the suggestion of heavy objects being moved from one spot to another, even though we know the motion is sonic not physical. Overall though these blurry grinds and flanging whooshes complement rather than upset the installation/performance. Accepting that the envelopes of sound are mostly committed to rough drones is made easier with these brief interjections. Additionally variations in the buzzing tones make more partials and granular differences come to the fore. Once these differentiated drones finally pan from one side of the mix to the other and fade away, a bond has been forged with the listener.
Not an easy sound, and perhaps at two CDs, a bit too much of it, Shifting Currents is still a session that should be investigated by the adventurous.