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Live Review: John Wiese @ A Church, 10/12/09

December 27, 2009

John Wiese w/ Adam Willetts + LA Lakers, Oxford Terrace Baptist Church, 10/12/09

With my living room resonating with Sunn O)))’s White2 I was reminded that I still didn’t write a review of this performance. John Wiese has played with a ton of different people, from sui generis free jazz saxophonist Evan Parker to noise torturer Merzbow. Even though I’d never heard of him before these collaborations meant that the gig would no doubt be worth the time.

Electronics occupy a large space in the music scene. Live semi-improvised electronics can be a part of free-jazzish improvisation, there are your techno etc. DJs who could just be playing a set off iTunes if they were lazy. There’s the electronics as garnish or atmospheric background that eg. Merzbow does on the Boris/Merzbow live album.

But this show was all about the lonely guy with an array of mysterious switches, boxes, wires, knobs and perhaps even a laptop (it’s always a MacBook in my experience) who is playing music that is more ‘symphonic’, in the sense of large-scale pieces that are intended to be listened to rather than danced to.

And there’s the rub: as skilled as someone like John Wiese is at manipulating sounds electronically, a single 30+ minute long piece requires some large-scale structure to remain interesting (unless you’re John Cage). Nearly all electronic musicians rely on the structure invented by Terry Riley for “In C” (1964): many fragments that can be played repetitively with each other enter the mix, remain for a while, then fade away, in an order chosen so that the overall piece has tension and release and some sort of evolution from beginning to end.

First up, LA Lakers aka the mysterious Shannon built up various sounds including loops of his processed live singing until they reached some sort of breaking point before cutting them down abruptly and starting something new with a few of the remaining parts. This had a very improvisational feel and a fair bit of tension generated by the concern that it could all fall apart any minute. The feel ranged from simple chords to harsh noise and aggression. There wasn’t a great deal of deep substance but it was a good workout.

Adam Willetts was almost the opposite in organization: he started with a background that sounded like a bubbling mud pond and slowly introduced simple, consonant harmonies and tunes over the top. These built up to a nice rounded whole and then subsided back into ambiance. There were maybe three or four sections like this that all flowed together. It was very smooth and clean, almost like a lullaby at times. He generated a nice happy atmosphere and my only criticism would be that the final section perhaps went on a little too long.

Finally the big name took the stage. His set was much more of an assault than Willetts’ was, but was structured in a similar way. Instead of building to nice tunes though he created uncomfortable mixtures of noises that sometimes resembled the soundtrack to a strange haunted house. I couldn’t really detect much large-scale structure to the set, and I thought it came across as an intriguing and slightly nerve-wracking set of sounds that shifted fairly randomly. I thought it was missing a certain something though, and at the end I felt unsatisfied. Maybe the music just stayed too far from both the all-out harsh noise assault style that keeps you on edge and the more smooth predictable style that is a bit more satisfying emotionally. I mean, there wasn’t anything obviously wrong with the set, indeed at any given moment all sorts of intriguing things were going on. But a whole lot of cool moments don’t necessarily make a truly great performance.

I think this will always be a problem for electronic musicians, since the performer is stuck with either pre-composing a satisfying structure or improvising one that makes sense over a long time period, something that very few people have ever managed on any instrument. The additional constraint of using lots of tape loops repetitively adds to this difficulty, since classical structures like sonata form or theme and variations don’t work when your themes are ten second long pre-recorded sounds.

So the point of all this is that it seems that electronic music has reached a point similar to what happened to jazz in the late 60s – established forms are still going strong, and there’s a lot of good, original music being made within those forms, while more adventurous live musicians are coming up against the limits of what a single person can improvise while remaining interesting. Assuming a guy like Wiese has as much expressive control over his ‘instrument’ as someone like Keith Jarrett, it still takes a vast amount of improvisational theory and experience to just sit down and play for half an hour and have the whole thing work out to a cohesive piece, and it’s an even worse problem when the instrument makes noises rather than pitches that can be fit into a harmonic structure.

John Wiese’s site

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