Saturday, June 20, 2009

Keepin' it Quiet with a Goat and a Donkey

Radu Malfatti has been described in The Wire magazine as a hardline Reductionist and one of the more challenging and significant figures in contemporary composed/improvised music (a biography of Malfatti can be found here). "Challenging" is certainly one way of describing Goat vs Donkey, a live collaboration with Taku Unami recorded in A Coruna, Spain, last year and available for download here (along with lots of reviews, nearly all of which are more complimentary than mine). This performance is constructed out of a very limited number of elements: long, low, individual trombone notes (Malfatti's axe of choice, apparently); whirring, sussurating electronic noises; the occasional metal clink (at times like someone closing the lid on a small tin teapot); distant scrapes, rustles, and bangs, some of which may be produced by the audience; and silence (or, to put it another way, the ambience of the hall). All of the above are very quietly spread out over 47 minutes, with only one or two moments when the lads ramp up the wattage (comparatively so; you could probably still hear a fly walk up a window pane in even the noisiest sections) so there's lots and lots of silence. One has to admire the uncompromising determination of the performers here (as well as the fortitude of the audience) and one could discuss for hours the validity of what is being done here and its antecedents (Cage's 4'33" being a reference point, I'd say, and I'm sure there are lots of others that aren't popping to my addled brain), as well as the point at which music stops being music and simply becomes unplanned sound. And, with music this quiet, listening at home means it becomes layered with extra sounds (as Bruce Russell, The Wire reviewer, pointed out in Issue 304); mine was augmented with the following: a noisy bird with occasional chirping; the hound with footsteps on a wooden floor and intermittent attempts to engage my attention by tossing a small rubber ball in the air; and myself on wheezing and the odd explosive sneeze (due to hayfever-induced congestion). But I'm sorry to say that, even approached in the right spirit as far as I was concerned (I wasn't expecting Wolf Eyes!) I found this to be one of the most excruciatingly boring pieces of music I've heard in donkey's years, and I only made it to the end out of a sense of duty rather than out of any expectation that, if I listened for long enough, suddenly the repetitive whirrs and drones and distant thuds would suddenly all make sense. I don't doubt the performers' abilities or vision, but I wonder if this piece would make more sense in a live setting (or on headphones in an utterly dark room) rather than heard in my sunroom. I'm glad that this piece exists, but I can't imagine listening to it again (except, of course, I probably will, just to see if my opinion changes: it has the feeling of being something significant). I think what turns me off this music is the whole reductionist thing: I find it somewhat puritanical to reduce the wide, rambunctious world of exciting sounds that exist all around us down to these ascetic and to my ear rather dull little noises. Not that I'm adverse to the idea, but maybe it's just that for me this music works better as concept than as a 47-minute lived experience. I find that the problem for me with reducing everything to such austere, minimal elements is that the performer must walk a precarious tightrope between removing enough to make his composition work while leaving in enough to actually make it worth listening to, especially over such length. I'm reminded of the old cartoon of a guy looking at a practically blank canvas and saying, "You know, sometimes less is just less..." For me (and I seem to be alone in this one) I'm not sure if they've pulled it off here, and even after reading the other reviews, written by people with more wisdom and seasoned ears than mine, I'm still not convinced...

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