Evan Parker has long maintained that the line between improvisational and compositional music is a “false dichotomy”. He has attempted to bridge this seemingly impossible gap by insisting that improvisation is in fact a form of composition. For those of us whose knowledge of the new music scene is limited, this might seem like mere semantics, but the answers to these questions lie at the very heart of the conflict that fuels Memory/Vision.
The music on Memory/Vision was conceived in anticipation of a commissioned performance at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and the Ultima Festival in Oslo, Norway. Unlike totally free improvisation, wherein group members spontaneously create with minimal or no direction from a conductor, Parker charted an outline for this piece in advance. Said outline provided the musicians with a bare sketch of the work’s “span and dramaturgy”, while also sculpting the form on which “specific electro-acoustic events and guided improvisations” would be placed (quoted phrases courtesy of ECM promotional materials).
The ensemble is composed of nine musicians, a full seven of whom are credited with electronic manipulation of some sort. All the processing, looping and warping occurred during the actual performance itself. Instead of a group of musicians playing together and feeding off each other in the context of standard improvisation, the real-time sound manipulation added an extra layer of complexity to the interaction. Noises and notes could be flipped around and returned to their source altered or looped, allowing the musicians to interact with previously performed notes and phrases.
The goal of Memory/Vision seems to have been to define a new Platonic ideal of electronic fusion. The problem with Squarepusher’s Ultravisitor was that while Tom Jenkinson was obviously trying to move towards a new idiom for the manipulation and recontextualization of acoustic sounds in an electronic format, the end result was labored and schizophrenic. The problem with Ultravisitor, as with most electronic musicians’ attempts at fusion to date, was the basic disconnect between the electronic music idiom and acoustic musicianship. There needed to be some way to bridge the gap in a more intuitive manner. Parker seems to have hit upon a way that encourages the spontaneity of real-time interaction on the parts of both the electronic and acoustic portions of the composition.
The disc is meant to be played as one long track, with delineations made only at the start of various “movements.” It begins with the sound of wet violins being plucked by tiny metal hooks, and escalates into an Einsturzende Neubauten-ish noise collage, reminiscent of sheet metal being played with a bow. Very early on it becomes obvious that the electronic and acoustic elements can be distinguished only with great difficulty. The ensemble has made the very conscious and deliberate choice to present the melding of styles and techniques in a manner as close to that of an undivided, whole organism as possible. Is the piano player touching on a small echo of the staccato melody at 8:30 of the first track, or is the processor playing a loop? Impossible to tell.
The abrasive first section gives way to the second, in which the violins re-enter. They begin by playing long and mournful notes, which are soon reprocessed and thrown back at them in mutated form. They react to this by playing with increased ferocity, until the music becomes an almost indistinguishable series of frenetic gestures and combative melodic lines. It seems as if this section was at least partially inspired by the type of disassociated free noise that has long been the staple of horror movie music—plucked violins and discordant tuning. (Of course, I’m certain the Hollywood composers themselves got it from somewhere else, but those are the unsettling associations.)
And so it goes for the remainder of the disc. Brief sections of more meditative silence give way to slowly rising levels of violent and abrasive sound. The intensity of the movement increases as more elements are added and the musicians begin to interact with their own playing, creating a purposeful feedback loop. The ferocity of the playing increases until, gradually, it begins to abate, and the music falls into another period of brief silence.
This is a disc that almost defies the practice of a quick review. It is obvious that there are a great many things of interest for the educated and discerning listener, if they only have the patience to explore the possibilities herein. This is not music designed to inspire a relaxed mood—this is aggressively intellectual music, intended for furious contemplation. This is the sound of barriers being scraped and prodded, the process of the questing spirit seeking to constantly redefine the new and unknown.