[2 August 2009]
In Paul F. Tompkins’ hilarious “Jazz”, the comedian anthropomorphizes a pompous jazz record as it speaks to a confused listener: “What’s the matter, man? Don’t you like our smart people’s music? … It’s the notes we’re not playing.” On The Specialist, loosely defined as an experimental guitar album, solo artist Tim Olive cannot be bothered with notes at all. Nor is he interested in rhythm or adept at creating unique textures. There are no song titles. The Specialist is essentially a null set. As Tompkins says of that impenetrable jazz record, this is music that defies you to like it.
The primary instrument on the album is a machine that functions as a bass and an electric guitar. The press release describes the machine as “a piece of wood with two magnetic pickups, a bass string or two, and occasionally an unwound guitar string”. A custom instrument of this sort could create some exciting music. But to focus on the sounds of metal objects applied to the pickups, in a solo performance during which no other instruments or performers are present to interact, leaves too many opportunities for the energy to drain completely. And drain it does.
Track two sounds as if someone is repeatedly picking up an electric guitar by its neck in order to begin a performance: A hand haphazardly presses the strings against the fretboard and incidental noises ensue. Two minutes later, the track concludes with a first strum. This is certainly an exercise in the reduction and deconstruction of a traditional electric guitar song’s structure, but it is also totally unimaginative. The fourth track is mostly scraping, scratching and squelching, with a couple of ephemeral tonal passages that recall moments from Dan Deacon’s Goose on the Loose signal generator experiments (which are uniformly more worthwhile than anything on The Specialist). To his credit, Olive does manage to make his guitar machine mimic sounds created through other electronic or electroacoustic means. Also, he uses the low end and percussive possibilities of his instrument (and method) to occasionally establish crude patterns, as in tracks six and ten. However, these isolated standout qualities lack a creative framework and therefore fail to contribute much of a redeeming formal purpose.
The sonic unification of the odd-numbered tracks, which are basically all Merzbow-lite, suggests some forethought or design. Yet Olive insists that his work is not programmatic, so we are to assume this is a coincidence. Track 11 utilizes a noise that sounds like a lawnmower, which at one point nicely merges with feedback. But Olive’s use of even his most compelling sounds is casual rather than causal, and that is the album’s fatal flaw. For the sake of comparison, a group like Matmos would likely record an actual lawnmower—probably a specific lawnmower that connects to the metanarrative of the album. That approach might intellectualize the material to an exaggerated degree, but at least Matmos uses its hyper-construction in the service of concrete songs.
Whereas Olive relies too much on the listener’s willingness to pick up scattered pieces and make musical sense of them. It’s not that the compositions are simply too intelligent or transgressive, but rather that the supposed transgressions are too simple. Nor does a “minimalist” defense suffice with this material, because Olive chooses to accentuate and repeat the least interesting (and certainly not essential) aspects of his instrument, impeding any significant development that might lend the individual songs cohesion.
That The Specialist is largely a void is frustrating, because Olive has in the past successfully collaborated with noteworthy experimental artists and possesses the knowledge and techniques to surpass such mediocrity. For example, his live audiounit 1 improvisation/performance with Nishikawa Bunsho, Kera Nagel and André Aspelmeier from 2004 resulted in dynamic noise recordings using contrasting timbres and frequencies, in which Olive’s contributions creatively punctuated underlying oscillations and ambient foundations. So Olive is capable of that challenging, creditable function of experimental music—to exit the speakers and become a quasi-tactile object. The failure of The Specialist is that Olive gives the listener so little to hold onto.