Philip Krumm: Formations

[18 May 2006]

By Daniel Spicer

As a document of late 20th century avant-garde activities, this release really couldn’t have a better pedigree.  Here we have a 20-minute piece by composer Philip Krumm—one-time associate of the legendary ONCE festivals of experimental music organised by Robert Ashley—realised here by his childhood friend, the maverick composer and pianist “Blue” Gene Tyranny using tapes of a January 1968 performance at the Everybody Wins festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan and a studio version from the same month, with both these recordings providing source material for a new computer rendition. As if these credentials weren’t enough, the piece was inspired by a visit Krumm made to the home of John Cage and, most specifically, Cage’s use of star maps as a compositional tool in his piece Atlas Eclipticalis. Here, too, Krumm’s score uses superimposed star maps, with nearness and distance indicating loudness and softness, and notes connected into dense, complicated clusters and constellations.

The music is performed by Tyranny predominately on piano, with some organ, but with both run through a primitive ring modulator. The effect is like Cage’s idea of the ‘prepared piano’ taken to a devilish extreme: the piano is rendered almost unrecognisable as such and takes on disorientating, alien tones. To further increase the otherworldliness, this central performance is overlaid with magnetic tape recordings of universal microwave background noise from the South Galactic Pole—essentially the sound of the universe sighing to itself when it thought no one was listening.

So much for the theory, but what does it actually sound like? The first thing one hears is the galactic whisper of the microwave recordings—a desolate, cold, pitiless rustle that runs throughout the piece, giving it a remote sense of distance. This uncaring serenity is soon smashed, though, by the grating immediacy of huge, metallic clangs—the sound of ring modulated piano. Juxtaposed with the galactic distances already hinted at, the very closeness of these ferrous crashes seems almost an intrusion, an act of violence. The industrial noise intensifies, taking on the characteristics of a space-craft graveyard—rusted, moon-sized hulls crashing together randomly in the solar winds. Within this basic template, other sounds can be heard: there is a terrible buzz and rumble, like some terrifying saw-mill of the gods and brain-scalding gouts of noise, some distant, some closer. Inevitably, of course, the complexity intensifies, devolving into some kind of insane computer chatter. Once this has exhausted itself, there is only the sound of the galactic sigh remaining, reminding us of the futility of all endeavour, and perhaps especially the futility of this very recording in trying to capture the ineffable.

This is the first time this piece has been released in any format and fans of the avant-garde can only rejoice at its uncovering. This is as essential an example of cosmic exploration as one is likely to hear for quite some time, slotting in very neatly alongside the more interstellar episodes of Sun Ra’s great musical quest, and even foreshadowing the work of current practitioners of all things astral such as the Italian duo My Cat Is an Alien. At just 20 minutes long, this CD may not perhaps be the best value for money one can find here on the material plane, but in terms of sheer ahead-of-its-time audacity and single-minded otherness, this glorious little revelation must be heard to be believed.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/philip-krumm-formations/