Gian Paolo Galasi, completecoummunion.blogspot.com
I must admit it, this album comes in the right moment in my shelves. A few times ago I bought for my collection a double CD titled “Electronic Music – It Started Here ...” published by the label Not Now, devoted to the reissue of old material in every field of contemporary music, from the 1920s blues to jazz to contemporary music, and this double CD was very interesting for me because it comprised two different ideas of dealing with electronic sound.
On one hand you had people devoted to abstractness, or with experimenting with new structures if you want, as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Schaeffer, on the other hand you had composers like Ray Cathode who used electronic sounds to surround piano melodies and Dick Jackobs who loved to reproduce the melody of the famous italian song Volare.
This almost schizoid abyss and difference between these two kinds of idea of contemporary music helped me in understanding how insidious it is for a musician to write or execute electronic music. This style of music can be the most volatile, the most abstract, and while a composer as John Cage argued that musicians could help human beings in having a new familiarity with everyday noise of a city life, it is true that electronic and experimental music need some anchor points in order to not fear the abstractness, or newness, they carry with themselves.
That’s why I truly believe Qi Gong, an interesting way people from the Far East tried to discipline the body of men, was a real inspiration form for J. A. “Dino” Deane, one of those figures you feel a profound interest for when you meet their work. J. A. Deane was devoted to electronic music and sound manipulation until his recent death in 2021, long before this album was completed by his collaborator Jason Kao Hwang. But let’s start from the beginning.
Jason Kao Hwang is an important figure in the field of improvised music. His art speaks loud outside of the barriers we put on art forms because we feel we can understand them better that way. In an old review for a reissue on double CD of old and complete recordings by one of his first bands, Commitment, featuring a young William Parker, I wrote in my language that that music was “indispensable, vital music, an expression of the human at its best like few others”.
Mr Hwang, a first-generation descendant of Chinese immigrants, has been raised near Chicago and participated very actively at the first season of the New York loft scene held by Sam Rivers. His music was a bridge between the AACM school and the New York sound, fusing them together in his playing both violin and viola. In a way, he continued experimenting in the tradition of other great players of string instruments like the late Leroy Jenkins.
Very active in the field of improvised music since the 1980s, with this last output Uncharted Faith he poses his idea and practice of music at the high peaks of creativeness thanks also to his collaboration with J. A. Deane. After Deane lost her wife Colleen Mulvihill in 2019, he left Denver to live in rural Cortez, Colorado. There he finished a book titled “Becoming Music, Conduction and Improvisation as forms of Qi Gong”.
Deane sent one copy of his book to Hwang in 2020. Hwang answered sending Deane copies of his music, and the two decided to collaborate despite the pandemics. Hwang in this album plays a Tucker Barrett solid-body violin, while Deane, who died before the album was ended, contributes electronics such as Sensei Morph touch controller, Spacecraft granular synthesizer software and Akai MPC Live Digital Audio Workstation.
Just to go back at the beginning of this review, the album is in the tradition of great experimentation with sound, but in a way, it is also concrete. In fact, Hwang violin is filtered or played, I cannot tell precisely but this is the impression, through a wah wah pedal like that of Hendrix or Miles Davis during the 1970s, plus echo effects (but it can be also Deane post-production). I cited Miles Davis not by chance because the first thing I thought listening to Parallel Universe, the CD first track, was that of listening to an abstract rendition of On The Corner.
Miles Davis during the 1970 was not only exploring with timbres and colors from rock amplification, but he also tried to change the structure of music, asking for help to his collaborator Paul Buckmaster who suggested him to use modular, i.e. repetitive, structures taken from Karlheinz Stockhausen and Indian music. Davis did it his own way, taking bass figures from funk after listening to Sly Stone music in particular but taking it all to a more abstract level.
Not dissimilarly here, we have on the first track of the album a distorted violin surrounded by small electronic sounds the same way Davis played his muted and distorted trumpet surrounded by bass, three drums and electric guitars. Hwang is not playing a direct melody and is not mimicking Jenkins’ trills and vibratos, but he’s finding his own way to communicate in a more abstract, but also very concrete, world of electronic sounds: he tries to win the battle against abstractness, and possibly he and Deane has won this battle.
On Singularity, the collateral electronic sounds are not following or preceding the violin, but kind of dancing around it. There are moments in which you hear the violin alone, as a moment in which you recollect your ideas, then you are pushed again in the flux of music where some small sounds are used as percussions in order to give a more vivid rendition to the violin’s ‘quasi-melodies’.
Crossing the Horizon is one of those pieces of music in which you cannot tell what the analogic source for music is and what is the electronic one, and this is his charm: the music has a great variety not only as far as sound used, but also as far as volumes and colors. Sometimes this piece of music reminds me of Laurie Anderson when she was playing a violin without strings and with a tape recorded at their place, but no voice emerges from Hwang, only abstract shapes.
In Shamans of Light you can almost feel a strange organ depicting a liturgic atmosphere, while the violin, here a little bit more material than in the other tracks, at a certain point explodes and leaves you with the sensation of a transfiguration. Speaking in Tongues is a title that makes me think of texts I was reading about Albert Ayler many years ago, that idea of many horns playing different things together at once, but what we have here are different layers of sound, from a small melodic background to the violin, effected as in the first track.
Finally, the long, almost 20 minutes of Uncharted Faith start with small electronic and violin sounds developing into almost musique concrète and what in pop music is called a wall of sound, with the violin expressing a mysterious chant and the electronics answering with what can seem a ‘fire of sound’, with small percussions in the AACM tradition and after them a strange organ or piano, pushing the music on more concrete territories without losing that aerial and abstract quality.
A record that grows undoubtedly one listening after the other, Uncharted Faith is a great attempt to push the boundaries of improvised and electronic music forward, in territories that in other hands could result more tricky, but that in Deane and Hwang practice are for sure thrilling and demanding. If you decide to commit, they will leave you satisfied and wanting for more.