The Wire

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The Wire 300: Dan Warburton on the sound sorcerors of EAI

February 2013

Previously unpublished essay commissioned to celebrate The Wire's 300th issue

For more than half a dozen years now, devotees of electroacoustic improvisation have been arguing among themselves as to what actually does or does not constitute ‘EAI’, and even whether the term should be used at all. Since nobody's come up with anything better yet I suggest we stick with it, but the jury's still out – and the inverted commas still in – at The Wire HQ. Contributor Brian Marley even recently described the genre (if genre it is) as "fading". If you consider EAI to be merely a subset of minimal/reductionist/lowercase improv (an issue I discussed a while ago here perhaps it is, but I'd argue instead it's not fading as much as crossfading into something else.

With the rapid development of information technology, it's getting easier day by day to access all kinds of music, old and new. The stylistic diversity of our increasingly cosmopolitan musical world is being celebrated and actively encouraged by publications like The Wire, and more and more musicians are choosing to work in not one but several areas of new music, building bridges between genres and spreading the word. John Zorn might have led the way when it came to supercolliding jazz, hardcore, lounge and klezmer, but it was one of Zorn's early signings to his Tzadik label, Jim O'Rourke, who led a generation of Industrial/indie post-rockers across the bridge into EAI.

Enthusiastic support from O'Rourke helped advance the careers of several EAI pioneers, including guitarist and fellow Chicagoan Kevin Drumm, analogue synthesizer virtuoso Thomas Lehn and laptopper Christian Fennesz, who teamed up with O'Rourke and Mego head honcho Peter ‘Pita’ Rehberg to form EAI's first all-star laptop power trio, Fenn O'Berg, in 1999. Another of EAI's most accomplished laptop performers, Christof Kurzmann, has similarly eclectic tastes, reflected in the roster of artists who've recorded for his Charhizma imprint (see The Wire 273). I once caught him sneaking out of an Improv gig at Paris’s Instants Chavirés club to hurry across town to see "my favourite group: Techno Animal!"

If the post-Techno/post-rock generation provided EAI with some of its most distinctive performers at the turn of the century – Kurzmann, Rehberg, Fennesz, Marcus Schmickler, Oren Ambarchi, Rafael Toral – the past couple of years have seen a new influx of talent from the world of noise. Lasse Marhaug and Aaron Dilloway both took part in 2006's Erstquake 3 festival in New York, co-curated by EAI's flagship label Erstwhile, and John Wiese toured the UK with Evan Parker a year later – and if you're a hardcore reductionist purist who balks at describing Parker's music as EAI, I defy you to come up with a better term to describe Lawrence Casserley, Joel Ryan and Walter Prati's live electronic transformations of his playing in Parker's Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. The name, after all, says it all.

Indeed, it's a mistake to think of EAI as little more than discreet hisses, pops and chirps set against a backdrop of low volume intermittent grainy drone. You only have to watch your turntable melt in the firestorm of Lehn and Schmickler's Kölner Kranz (A-Musik, 2008) or be pummeled by the elements in Rehberg and Schmickler's One (Snow Mud Rain) (Erstwhile, 2007) to realise how exciting and energetic EAI can be. Rehberg and Schmickler are virtuosos when it comes to handling state-of-the-art software, but the laptop can also be used to open a sound window onto the outside world – Philip Samartzis, Eric La Casa and Bernhard Gal incorporate field recordings into their live performances – and even as a sound source in its own right, with remarkably different results, from the claustrophobic minimalism of Haco's Stereo Bugscope 00 (IMJ, 2004) to the raw squeals of Mattin.

But EAI isn't just about po-faced laptoppers, sitting, swigging and clicking behind their Powerbooks. Its practitioners make music with a whole variety of electronic devices, many not originally designed for musical use, from Norbert Möslang's cracked everyday electronics to Atsuhiro Ito's Optron, a customized fluorescent light bulb. Gadgets originally created to reproduce music have been reappropriated as musical instruments in their own right: Otomo Yoshihide, Martin Tétreault, Ferran Fages and Hong Chulki do things to turntables those old school hiphop DJs never dreamt of; Choi Joonyong explores the innards of VCRs, CD and MP3 players, and Toshimaru Nakamura connects the input of his mixing board to the output and sculpts feedback – and if that sounds limited in scope, you should hear what the No-Input Mixing Board is capable of, not only in the hands of Nakamura, but of Goh Lee Kwang (Good Vibrations, Herbal, 2007), Jean-Philippe Gross (Monoface, Not On, 2007) and Greg Kelley (Religious Electronics, No Fun, 2008).

Empty samplers (Sachiko M), adapted effects pedals (Joe Foster and Bonnie Jones), open circuit boards (Vic Rawlings) and even a simple pair of stereo headphones (Mitsuhiro Yoshimura) can produce sounds of considerable beauty and complexity, and vintage analogue gear has been given a new lease of life too, from EMS synths (Thomas Lehn) to Revox reel-to-reel tape recorders (Jérôme Noetinger, Lionel Marchetti) and even the humble cassette Walkman (Aki Onda). The contact mic so beloved of late 60s experimental music has made a triumphant comeback in the work of musicians as diverse as Sachiko M, Adam Bohman and Mark Wastell, and even the common-or-garden loudspeaker, turned on its side and used to vibrate various objects placed upon it, becomes a musical instrument of sorts in the work of Taku Unami and Xavier Charles.

Meanwhile, the world of digital sound processing continues to evolve at dizzying speed. I've heard it said that most of the people currently working with Max/MSP are exploiting barely five per cent of the software's potential, so it's clear that in the world of EAI, as much as in any area of new music you care to mention, much remains to be heard.

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