Spotlight Reviews

Local albums you may have missed. This week: computer-music master Chris Brown's Talking Drum.

Electronic music is often a chilly affair, a cerebral-techie exercise that tends to be more fun for the composer/performer, who thrills to the schematics of his latest software inventions, than for the listener, longing to connect on a human level. Chris Brown, one of the nation's foremost computer-music gurus and co-director of the distinguished Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, closes this gap with Talking Drum(Pogus), an audio travelogue that uses up-to-the-minute technology to bring the sounds of far-flung places into the comfort of your own living room.

The album is a seamless hour-plus collage that culls a decade's worth of field, concert, and studio recordings from the artist's sojourns in the Philippines, Indonesia, Turkey, Cuba, the Netherlands, Canada, and the United States. What's remarkable is how the multiplicity of sound sources flows together as one. Everything from the raucous gamelan of a Balinese cremation ceremony to the street noise of a Manila market to the cries of vultures in Istanbul to the spiky contortions of a networked computer performance in New York comes across as blood-related.

"There was always this bridge between the ethnographic -- urban and natural -- recordings and the performance/installations," Brown writes in an e-mail from his tour in Europe, "but I never intended while I was doing them that they would end up interleaved with each other as a single recording. I was just documenting each of them individually. The connections between geographic, cultural, and physical spaces through sound was something that the recordings themselves suggested to me when I listened back."

This project is clearly a testament to Brown's wide-open way of hearing the music of planet Earth, which in the broadest sense can be found everywhere and at all times. An attentive improviser with a broad palette -- he notably stirred up pianistic firestorms in the late Glenn Spearman's renowned energy-jazz group Double Trio -- Brown knows the value of "the creative anarchy of the non-Western world." On Thousand Oaks(482 Music), the latest CD by the improv-rich Natto Quartet, he adds spare yet powerful melodic-rhythmic fragments on piano to the Bay Area band's rare East-West instrumental mix of shakuhachi (Phil Gelb), koto (Shoko Hikage), and electronics (Tim Perkis). On Rogue Wave(Tzadik) -- a startling new compilation of some of Brown's major works of the past 20 years for computers, piano, percussion, turntables, live processing, and studio-based electronics -- his soundtracks seem alien, of an unknown, almost unknowable time and place. This is intentional. He believes, "Our sonic environment is as programmed and regulated as our politics." And his goal is to subvert stale musical paradigms while still connecting with listeners.

On Talking Drum, arguably the most accessible album in his recent batch of releases, a riot of aural information comes together despite the expected obstacles. So how does he pull this off? "First of all," Brown suggests, "it's about space. With only one exception, these are all binaural recordings" -- made by wearing two peanut-size omni mike elements clipped to sunglasses, one near each ear -- "which emphasize spatial hearing. Polyrhythm is the other theme. An abiding compositional interest for me has been to make music in which many people are continuously participating, but there is still room to hear all of them, which allows listeners to choose their own focus of attention in the fabric and to follow it themselves, rather than being directed by a composer."

Thus, Brown presents adventurous music fans with the opportunity for a dynamic, interactive experience. And by taking a back seat as producer/director -- allowing the various musics to communicate naturally among themselves -- he manages to give the typically icy genre of electronic composition a spirited tropical makeover.

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