a column by
Stuart Broomer

Each of us lives in our own music house; some big, some small, none of them quite identical. I like to think I live in a big house, with a certain rococo excess, defended by canons, and yet with distinctive brutalist touches and a post-modern edge, a sudden unpredicted projectile shooting off at a rakish angle from a rocky promontory ... I like to think my big house sits on a coast.

However, when I look closer, it feels a little predictable, a little grandiose. My relationships with vast wings of the house are attenuated at best, even some areas where I once spent a lot of time. I’m pretty much focussed on improvisation and music extending from the free end of jazz history, though other things call out from the distance and sound like they should be in the main hall (rockabilly; mid 18th century Italian opera; environmental sound). I’m afraid I’m conscious of the scales of history and a certain history of ideas when I listen to music (neurotically so, perhaps, given current political and cultural drives). I prefer the company of iconic figures and works, if possible encyclopedic, say Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux or Cage and Hiller’s HPSCHD or Coltrane’s Meditations or the Parker-Guy-Lytton Trio’s Imaginary Values, and imagine each is an ideal available definition for value in music. Those or certain personal experiences in MRI machines.

There’s no better therapy for that condition – no matter what one’s backsliding aestheticism will later restore – than spending a few days around Byron Coley, whose energy, spontaneity and sheer affection for new music – minted that day, if possible – is infectious. My latest encounter was at this year’s FIMAV (itself a great occasion to have barriers broken down) where we seemed to run into each other more often than usual between concerts, getting to and from concerts, etc. Byron is best-known in the further reaches of rock and improvised music culture where the energies of post-punk bump up against the visions of free jazz – as poet, critic, manager, etc. I first encountered him in a blast on a Borbetomagus CD 20-odd years ago. He’s co-authored with Thurston Moore No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York. 1976-1980 (Abrams Image); there’s a book of his early criticism, C'est la guerre: Early Writings, 1978-1983 (L’oie de cravan); and collections of poetry.

Apart from all that, Byron is a “record guy,” someone who came of age in the golden age of the LP, who has worked for labels and distributors and created the label Ecstatic Yod. He joined Ted Lee in the Feeding Tube enterprise about eight years ago. As Byron describes it,

Thurston Moore and I were running The Yod Space as a performance space and sort-of record store for a few years when a young guy named Ted Lee started showing up regularly to videotape the shows. Ted was at university still when he started the Feeding Tube label to document the weird sounds he and his friends were generating. Around 2010 Ted was looking to start a retail space, and Thurston and I were thinking it might be good to do something more visible in that area as well.

We joined forces, and soon realized that Ted loved to put out records, so we started funneling our own projects through Feeding Tube. Thurston is based in the UK these days, but Ted and I soldier on, running the shop and jamming the universe with endless excellent LPs that no one else has the gumption to undertake. He deals with most of the production stuff, I deal with a lot of the A&R and promotion, but those roles are fluid. When there're only two of you, flexibility is required. Especially if we hope to fulfill the label's motto and remain "at the edge of obscurity." So far so good!

Today Byron works from his home base and Feeding Tube record store in rural Massachusetts (221 Pine St., Room 141, Florence, MA). The results are staggering, and I’ll confess to a certain sense of wonder – something that would take me back to the ‘60s – when Byron showed me a box of his latest productions, heavy vinyl records in heavy cardboard sleeves – and told me that he maintained a schedule of “releasing an LP a week.”

I can barely listen to a new record a week, but Byron is made of stronger stuff, a frequenter of anarchist micro venues in New England where the spirit of revolution – any revolution, from the war of Independence to the war on slavery to the psychedelic revolution – never went away and has coalesced into a world of militantly unknown rockers and jam bands and free improvisers and much so strange that I can’t imagine a name for it; yet some people have made up the perfect name for their slice of it. Take Feeding Tube artist Brent Fields of New Hampshire, whose work is variously instrumental, vocal, spoken word, collage, who must have heard Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, but thought it was too much like the Kingston Trio. Field’s band identity is Edith Bunker's Demonized Vomit Insurance (yes, I don’t know how he did it either) and Coley has put out two volumes of it.

That’s an extreme case and not typical of the label, because nothing could be typical of the label. Take this description of the Lee-led band No Sound’s Ted Lee’s 74: “74 one-minute cassettes. Each CD comes attached to an improbable piece of refuse.” Take that, Roger Waters’ The Wall: Special Edition.

While I’m not sure some of these things really exist (and I’m reluctant to ask), there are plenty of things that do, and I’ve been happily exploring some of them. But don’t take my word for it: the site has samples of most of the LPs on-line and it makes for fascinating listening (feedingtuberecords.com). It’s a liberating experience where genre boundaries (and decades) slip away. The Weeping Bong Band (on their eponymous LP FTR313) play long, hypnotic, mostly acoustic, string jams. They can sound as if Country Joe and the Fish were playing a folk version of Terry Riley’s In C, a collectivist, diatonic, tuning-in.

I’ve enjoyed several titles from the catalogue. I’ll start with free jazz and improvised music, assuming that, if you’re here, that’s a primary expectation.


Free Jazz: The Barbaric Yawp

The range of Coley’s interests and enthusiasms is bracing, taking in as broad a swath of outside musics as one might conceive. He has a tremendous appreciation for free jazz and and a particularly strong bond with the anti-historic American wing sometimes called just “free music” (a distinction that might apply, for example, to Jack Wright and Borbetomagus). Beginning with his earlier Ecstatic Yod label, he’s particularly close to the work of saxophonist Paul Flaherty and drummer Chris Corsano, and it was a recent Flaherty/Corsano release that first caught my attention. The Hated Music was recorded by Coley in 2000 and released on CD. He’s reissued it now as a two-LP set with a download slip in an edition of 500 (FTR308) with new cover art by Gary Panter (somewhere between Hieronymous Bosch and R Crumb), giving the work a presence and heft that better suits the sheer mass of the music.

A key element in the Feeding Tube aesthetic is a certain mental energy, things that have taken time to develop but then explode. It connects a few of the titles I’ve listened to closely, though in different ways, and the Flaherty/Corsano duo is a strong example. There’s a kind of concentration here, an empathy, a kind of close listening in which partners echo and flatter and cajole one another into genuinely joint production. The close listening is already very strong on The Hated Music, when Corsano was quite young and more oriented to traditional jazz drumming than he is today. The psychic bond is even more apparent in the duo’s Low-Cost Space Flights (FTR152), recorded 13 years later (Side A is called “The Dog Paintings of George W. Bush”).

That musical bond also defines another duo, much more recent Norwegian saxophonist Mette Rasmussen and guitarist Tashi Dorji, the twisting lines and honks of the saxophone mated with the clanging guitar rhythms in a blast of energy on their eponymous debut, available as LP or cassette (FTR403).

One of the very best things about the Feeding Tube web-site is Coley’s own writing, which often extends from the on-line blurbs to liner notes. Here’s a slice of his on-line commentary for the Steve Baczkowski/Chris Corsano/ Paul Flaherty record The Dull Blade (FTR307) from 2017, which already has track titles like “Payments In Person Will No Longer Be Accepted Or Tolerated.” I can’t think of anyone who can write about music with this level of simultaneous energy, humor, appropriate erudition and insistent, self-declared freedom, let alone write this way in a company blurb on a weekly release schedule:

The line-up is a bit unorthodox – two saxes (one a goddamn baritone) and drums. You might almost be tempted to call the format European. But it’d be a canard to try and place this album in the Euro free music tradition. I mean, yeah, there is some massive outsider brawling here. Buckets of wind and clumps of tubs “all double twisted up,” as Fred Blassie used to say. But the fire never refrains from flaming as jazz-qua-jazz, which places it a lot more squarely in the American tradition than actual squares would have you believe. These three are clearly savages, which is a far cry from people impersonating savages, if you catch my drift.

Beyond that, there is an ineffably jazzoid heft to the music here. Both Steve and Paul are playing in a distinctly post-Ayler jet stream. The freedom of their runs maintains that strangely (perhaps even imaginary or projective) American connection to bar-walking R&B maniacs – something that seems to lie at the bottom of our country’s hornic subconscious. Which is not to say individual moments on this record couldn’t have come from the FMP catalog, but there’s a red-hot holism here that will brand most asses with the stars & stripes.

A notable recent reissue, Free Mammals (FTR287LP), offers a window on the free improvisation scene, San Francisco edition, circa 1979. The record documents two now-obscure figures, drummer (and player of the home-made saxophone) Charles K. Noyes and guitarist Owen Maercks in a series of short pieces that combine some of the abstraction of Derek Bailey with a different, edgy energy from the avant-rock world of the day to which Maercks would return. The two have great, impulsive cohesion, and it gets even better on the long opening track, “The Girl Mad About Honey (After Levi-Strauss),” with the addition of guitarist Henry Kaiser and pianist Greg Goodman.

Of much more recent vintage (recorded 2012, recently released) is Joshua Abrams’ solo bass work Excavations 1 (FTR337). Solo bass recordings are often characterized by a certain delicacy, in evidence here (the relatively subtle “Scratching on It”), but much of this largely arco recording makes me not want to use the word arco or even bowed to describe the practice. Sawed, in this case, is more apt. Abrams sounds like he might bow with heavy-duty sandpaper, put iron filings in his rosin or string his bass with barbed wire, resulting in solo bass that suggests a grinding tool, robot cicadas or maybe Charles Tyler playing baritone. When he plays pizzicato briefly on “Branches,” Abrams’ bass sounds very much like the guimbri he plays with Natural Information Society.


Great Guitars

The sheer commonness of the guitar as an instrument has meant numbers of players in genres from folk and rock to country and free music, many pressing the boundaries of their initial orientation, techniques crossing over in the process. One of the great treasure troves of the Feeding Tube label is its creative guitarists, sometimes merging impulses from the “American Primitive” school of John Fahey and Robbie Basho with those from free improvisers like Derek Bailey and John Russell. I’m not going into detail, but if you have an interest in serious, solo, largely improvised guitar music, you should check these out:

The English guitarist Jon Collin’s Water and Rock Music Volume 1 (FTR399) is strongly reminiscent of Basho’s more Eastward flights. Recorded beside Lake Mälaren, Bromma, Sweden, it has light sounds of water and wildlife that seem in perfect accord with its moods. The meditative quality draws one further and further into its harmonics and its subtle pitch shifts, and his slide playing sounds, I suspect, as much like a veena as any guitar is going to without resonating strings, with a bluesy quality reminiscent of S. Balachander.

Julia Reidy is a brilliant young Australian guitarist who resides in Berlin. Her solo LP has a side of acoustic 12-string (one string is evidently missing) and a side of electric. She works at the creative edges of music on a regular basis (as a member of the Splitter Orchester, along with Burkhard Beins, Axel Dörner, Robin Hayward, Magda Mayas and 19 other people, that recently released Creative Construction Set with George Lewis), but her solo music on All Is Ablaze (FTR338) has unimaginable qualities, confounding finger picking and string-scratching and suggesting that the 11 strings aren’t paired, that the guitar might have two necks, and that she’s adept at working simultaneously in multiple pitch systems on what feels like a natural, evolved intuitive level rather than an intellectual, contrived one. That spirit continues in another world on the electric side, layers of sound piling up on one another, only to break into hard-edged melody.


Further Adventures

One of my favorites from the label is a drone record called Cold/Burn (FTR069) by the quartet of Anla Courtis (guitar and electronics), C.Spencer Yeh (violin and voice), Jon Wesseltoft (harmonium, shruti box and organ) and Okkyung Lee (cello), recorded in Oslo by multi-dimensional Norwegian sound artist  Lasse Marhaug. Currently out of print, the 2011 record’s first side, “Celestial Ancestry,” initially suggests a bee hive inside a bagpipe, a quality that returns toward the conclusion after long periods in which a cellist and a violinist seem to have entered the bladder. The second side, “On Mercator’s Projection,” achieves the same quality of sound with more melodic movement, albeit still minimal, initially with series of rising pitches and then some wonderful string wobblings until some deep bass gong-like resonance (no gong included in the instrumentation and it does glissandi) develops near the conclusion along with some weird gulping vocalizations. Watch out for it in more exotic used record stores.

David Fair is the co-creator of the band Half Japanese and he has a remarkably elastic sense of composition. His Ballets (Dance Like This) (FTR336) is a 3-LP set of a series of loops that he recorded “at the end of the ‘70s or the beginning of the ‘80s,” one per side, and the results are mysterious and absolutely beautiful, the way things can be when first exploring a new strategy. Here’s his description of the method, from an interview with Coley on the Feeding Tube site:

The sounds were made by recording a short passage of sound on a loop of tape and then adding reverb and echo effects. The track would be played just like that on one track. The next track would be the same loop but at a slower speed. More tape was added to the loop and the tape was sent down a long hallway and into another room. That long tape at regular speed was track three, and a slowed down version was track four.

The finished songs would have elements that would go in and out of sync with each other. Most of them were gentle soft pieces that made me think of ballerinas, so soon I realized that I was making ballets. The instruments were whatever was in the room that would make a small yet pretty musical phrase. I used a marimba, a snare drum, a spinning quarter, rolling marbles, torn paper and a guitar.

The first side sounds like a conga drum playing a phrase that suddenly becomes sped up and multiple, repeating endlessly. By the time you get to the final number 6 in Fair’s epic, the sound resembles the flapping of an aluminum sheet, but with echo added and all the high frequencies rolled off, all the things that would make it aluminum, leaving a kind of absolute sonic mystery. The work is a highpoint in home-made minimalism, creating hypnotic states with limited means and a clarity that are at once distinctive.

What I said earlier about the sheer mental energy of Feeding Tube recordings can take many forms. While one would never think that way about a cover band, Coley has found one and released tapes that are nearly 40 years old. It’s an LP of the band Men & Volts from 1979-80 when the Boston progressive punk band was Men & Volts in name only and hadn’t begun to develop their original material. A Giraffe Is Listening to the Radio (FTR306/NG#20) is taken from the band’s earliest identity, when David Greenberger et al were a Captain Beefheart cover band, undoubtedly one of the more challenging endeavors for anyone operating on the edge of rock. Beefheart’s music wasn’t just strange (and brilliant), it was also the result of epic and cult-like rehearsal sessions in which young musicians were inducted into Don van Vliet’s musical visions individual part by part, until they could lock together the strange formal assemblage of the songs – uneven bars, perfectly timed collisions and deliberately skewed pitches – and drive it forward. Men & Volts manage as near a match as one might produce of the Magic Band’s weird propulsion. Perhaps it was the challenge – like a Jackson Pollock jigsaw puzzle (or maybe a 3-D printing of R Mutt’s urinal) – but Men & Volts produced remarkably accurate renditions of Beefheart classics like “Electricity,” “Doctor Dark,” “Grow Fins” and “Lick My Decals Off, Baby.”

I’d consider the band Dial pretty close to the “harsh noise” or “extreme noise” genres, but for some reason their LP Noise Opera (FTR373/CEDE05LP) is described online as a tribute to Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz. I’d probably bend that a little, suggesting it sounds more like a tribute to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, with a similarly detailed list of instrumentation extending to pedal models. Even then, it would be its own noise opera. Form is initially indistinct, but as one is immersed in it, it reveals its own patterns of development, its own internal strategies, oddly constant, strangely calming. It’s a compound roar of sounds that at some moments develops its own strange lyricism from the repetition of elemental phrases. In so doing, it has a distant attachment to Free Jazz in the way it cultivates a particular kind of close, even structuring, listening.


Curiouser and curiouser ...

chik white (no caps, it’s a pseudonym for writer Darcy Spidle) may be the most “Canadian” artist I’ve ever encountered and I say that as a Canadian (among my favorite Canadian films are two documentaries: Tyler’s Barrel covers the legal and other problems of a confused young man who wants to ride a barrel over Niagara Falls; the other, Air Guitar in Oulu, follows a young Nova Scotia man’s struggles to fund his trip to Finland to compete in the World Air Guitar Championships. Horatio Alger is different here, but then, with these strange reveries of water and air, Gaston Bachelard would love the place).

white’s 2017 Feeding Tube release is called stranger calls to land: cassette selections 2010-2017 (FTR363LP). It collects new tracks and others from white’s cassette and vinyl releases as he finds different locales for his extended jaw harp improvisations. Often water forms a background—some tracks were recorded on a raft in the North Atlantic – and one is left with a certain sense of wonder at how far white has taken what would seem like a limited form of expression. At various times he “prepares” a jaw harp, adding wire and magnets and other foreign matter; sometimes he uses a throat microphone to alter the relation of harp to vocalization; at other times, the voice component becomes partner and foil to the twanging instrument. Even knowing what it is, it’s often surprising and never without interest.

Stuart Broomer © 2018

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