Reviews

Disc 2 contains the real gems. The collection of 26 extremely rare recordings includes songs by groups so esoteric that even the folks at AIP have no idea of the artists' names! The Shays nail "Brainwashed," an MC5-style political anthem complete with rollicking piano, bitterly soul-spiked vocals, and distorted guitars. Sound Apparatus emit jagged drums and cute wannabe-English accents on the three-minute epic "Travel Agent Man" -- a song epitomizing the hunger for metaphors to describe the psychedelic drug experience. The Hustlers' somber "Sky Is Black" sets a mood of obscurity as crackles (the studio tapes long lost, the actual single was used in mastering) interrupt the often out-of-tune vocals and distant piano. An unknown artist offers furious jabs of frenzied punk on "I Just Don't Know" with inspired throat-searing vocals and flailing rhythms.

Essential Pebbles, a sort of Dead Sea Scrolls for the punk archaeologist, is best heard collectively. Collective, as in with a group of friends and as a constant shuffle of unfamiliar voices and unknown bands that inappropriately scratch themselves in public and kick out the kind of jams that make us call in sick the next day.

-- Dave Clifford

Tom Nunn
Wisdom of the Impulse: On the Nature of Musical Free Improvisation
(self-published)

Edgewalker Experimental
Instruments Consort
Peering Over
(Ramp)

Veteran improviser and experimental-instrument builder Tom Nunn's meticulously analytical book Wisdom of the Impulse demystifies the oft misconstrued concept of free improvisation. Without dissing thoroughly notated compositions, Nunn argues that free improv, "an art that is entirely generated spontaneously," is not only a valid approach to music-making but a vital one because its "responsive impulse" directly reflects the human condition and espouses "the value of diversity and equality." He believes that the music brings "all sorts of styles together to a neutral place where all can coexist. It is a celebration of differences and an affirmation of similarities."

Though its roots in the West date back almost 500 years to the improvised passages of liturgical chants, the practice of totally free improv didn't begin to take shape until the late 1950s and early '60s when the consciousness-shaking inventions of classical pioneers like Charles Ives, Harry Partch, and John Cage met the innovations of free-jazz progenitors Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. Groups like New Music Ensemble, Scratch Orchestra, and AMM took these ideas one step further by breaking away from stylistic forms and relying only on what AMM drummer Eddie Provost calls "the power of intuition but with a rational perspective."

Successful free improvisation requires what Nunn calls "active" or "creative listening," not only by the musicians but by the audience as well. Since this kind of music is self-generative (meaning its compositional content derives solely out of the moment-to-moment interactions and relational shifts between the players), you won't hear hummable verse-chorus-verse song structures. Rather, various elements of the music transmute subtly and/or dramatically, often at lightning speed, and sometimes in multiple directions at once.

In an attempt to make sense of this mind-boggling complexity, Nunn has drawn charts to illustrate "the influences and processes" of a few musical examples. He identifies and elucidates notions of transition, meta-style, gestural continuity, and other formal aspects, but not unlike Anthony Braxton's erudite Composition Notes, these dense chapters will most likely be lost on all but the musicologist. Simply put, an uninitiated audience can get the most meaning out of improvised music by listening with an open mind. Albums like Peering Over, the debut recording by the 15-member Edgewalker Experimental Instruments Consort, are ideal ear-opening vehicles since, as Nunn explains, "listener expectations are all but nullified because the instruments are unfamiliar."

The Edgewalker Consort performs semidirected and completely free improvisations on Tom Nunn's specially designed electro-acoustic percussion boards, space plates, and balloon/slap drums. Constructed out of ordinary materials like plywood or stainless steel sheets, bronze rods, strings, balloons, and PVC pipes, the instruments evoke sounds both strange (otherworldly vibes, underwater gurgles, ghostly drones) and startling (metallic crashes, industrial machinations). Everything from violin bows to knitting needles is used to effect a rainbow of timbral colors. Deep percussive layers and variable microtonal pitches create a full, yet somewhat bent group sound reminiscent at times of Harry Partch and Balinese gamelan. The ensemble cast comes to the music from a variety of disciplines -- e.g., Garth Powell (jazz), William Winant (20th-century classical), Lisa Moskow (Indian) -- yet in a genuine egalitarian display, each player yields to the collective imagination. That's what free improvisation is all about.

Tom Nunn performs at a book/CD release party at Venue 9 (252 Ninth St.) on Wednesday, April 1, at 8 p.m.

-- Sam Prestianni

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