Future Shock

a column by
Kevin Patton

Richard Barrett + Paul Obermayer
Richard Barrett + Paul Obermayer                                                        Courtesy of FURT

You have to be engaged to listen to complex music. Otherwise, you may be prone to think about it in terms of deconstruction or literary analysis, instead of listening to it. Part of the difficulty stems from the one time, real time nature of music performance. Music is experienced: it is sensual; it touches you; and it is fast – 1125 feet per second fast. That speed can work against the kind detailed engagement required to pull a piece of music apart, if we are indeed we are even meant to do that. Dense, difficult music begs the question of whether or not it is possible to fully hear the music as it happens. That is also a challenge for the performer(s) as well.

Few electroacoustic improvising ensembles have met this challenge like FURT, the duo of Paul Obermayer and Richard Barrett. There is a structurally reinforcing aspect to every sound they produce. This intrinsically compositional impulse is unsurprising given that Barrett has stand-alone cred in contemporary music. Barrett was already pursuing composition when FURT was formed in 1986 – Obermayer was finishing university. Barrett is now renowned as part of the so-called “New Complexity School,” where dense, extremely difficult compositions for acoustic instruments that use unconventional playing methods challenge performers to the point of impossibility. (Brian Ferneyhough also considered a “New Complexity” composer has tempo indications such as “faster than possible.”) But, applied to FURT, “New Complexity” seems vacuous. 

Gestural and kaleidoscopic are more on point, sometimes with an air of suspense. The music can reconcile cold, distance and energy, creating atmospheres that are pensive or anxious. Restless intellect is present in each of their recordings; on this count, it is difficult it is to pull the FURT identity apart, and assign individual sounds to either Barrett and Obermayer even if one is familiar with Obermayer's other ongoing project – BARK! with Rex Casswell on electric guitar and Phillip Marks on percussion. BARK! reveals Obermayer’s percussive tendencies more than FURT, while emphasizing the textural blend of electronics and the more conventional properties of the guitar and percussion.

FURT also works in larger improvised groups like fORCH, with the always remarkable John Butcher on soprano and tenor saxophones, Rhodri Davies on Celtic and concert harps, Paul Lovens on percussion, Phil Minton on voice, Wolfgang Mitterer on prepared piano and electronics and the irrepressible Ute Wassermann on vocals. In Evan Parker’s ever-expanding Electro Acoustic Ensemble, Barrett says he and Obermayer “seem to fit in somewhere between the acoustic instruments and the live processors, having some of the characteristics of both, and both there and in fORCH we tend to function as a single 'organ' within the larger organism." FURT's recording FURTplus equals (PSI 08.02) showcases FURT with members of fORCH individually, and this is fascinating. Especially remarkable are how Butcher and FURT seem to flip roles from acoustic to electric and vice versa and how Wassermann seems to not blend. 

The 20 year history and power of FURT is in full effect on their latest release, Sense (PSI 09.08). This recording cannot be easily broken into its constituent parts, Sense only makes sense listened to in its entirety. Things are moving so quick as to twist around a beautifully created silence in a matter of milliseconds. "For us,” Barrett explained, “some of the most exciting moments are when the music does stop without ending, coming to a total standstill which 'could' be an ending but which then lasts only a fraction of a second. But once you get down to that level of detail the music might be seen as being perforated by thousands of tiny silences, any of which could be the last."

Consider silence. Silence has been one of the ways in which composers and improvisers have insisted on active listening. John Cage’s omnipresent “4'33” has inspired generations of composers and improvisers to use ideas of silence to challenge listeners.  And there is discipline that is required of listeners when approaching music that is made largely of silence. Morton Feldman's music, for instance, requires it for extreme durations. And there is a world of delight in listening to these quiet meditations that empowers the listener to configure that silence themselves.  

But FURT is the opposite of silence. Well ... not quite the opposite. FURT emerges from a din of constant data streams, one in which silence becomes more like a pivot because there is no dialectic of silence and music at play here. FURT is about energy, about movement. Silences become a part of a gesture, not the opposite of 'music', creating a listening experience where conceptions of melody or harmony are simply beside the point. It is difficult, complex music, where the discipline required of the listener is not simply the power to be creative in a long silence. Rather it requires the listener to engage the energies of the gesture in the moment, and follow, even ride, that energy –not unlike the way noted French philosopher Gilles Deleuze describes surfing and hang gliding "the key thing is how to get taken up in the motion of a big wave, a column of rising air, to 'get into something' instead of being the origin of an effort.” (Negotiations; 1995). It is a kind of maximal sound-world that only seems to reflect our collective attention deficit disorder.

"Anyway,” Barrett elaborated, “such syntactic elements [cadences] then serve to create a background, perhaps an illogical one, FURT's "logic", which we can then work in counterpoint against. Structural turning points or cadences often follow each other very rapidly in FURT rather than just signaling beginnings and endings." Rather than a reflection of our cultural ADD, it is a challenge to it. Listening to Sense the whole way through in one sitting is daunting, but the engaged listener will ride the intense energy flows FURT takes pride in the challenge it poses to listeners. And, Obermayer and Barrett take pride in removing the music of FURT beyond commodity, even if only in the short term. “Think of Beethoven,” suggested Barrett. “His was an extremely radical project at the time, and yet in the centuries since his death his music has been appropriated in support both of totalitarian oppression and market capitalism. The struggle must continue beyond art too, or things are going to get even worse."

Kevin Patton©2009

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