a column by
Stuart Broomer

Sylvia Hallett                                                                                                        Courtesy of Sylvia Hallett

Even in its most incidental effects, the COVID-19 pandemic has, to one degree or another, changed everything, from adding items to our wardrobes – the mask, the rubber gloves, the omnipresent hand sanitizer – to moving jobs from offices to homes for those lucky enough to be employed. Clearly there’s no “business as usual” and there’s certainly no live music as usual, as even the marginal and micro venues of free jazz and improvised music are shut down. In a time when there are so many to mourn (Henry Grimes, Lee Konitz, Giuseppi Logan among multitudes), music – its practice, persistence, and mutability – may seem a petty thing to celebrate. But as something that is well over 50,000 years old, according to Stephen Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals ‒ much older than such standbys as agriculture and monotheism ‒ music insists.

We’ve all been through minor shocks in terms of how music is distributed, moving over the past decade from the monoculture of the CD to a host of online platforms and distribution systems. In the midst of that movement there has been the reappearance of analogue vinyl (often, ironically, with digital recording), complete with the medium’s hyper susceptibilities to scratches, glitches and warping, and its relatively brief playing times.

Such choices of media are trivial in the world of COVID, which has impacted travel, gathering and even the mail – increasingly slow, expensive and even under threat in some quarters. For the past 15 years, enthusiasts of marginal musics like free improvisation have remained the most loyal to physical media, both to sonic fidelity and to buying CDs, LPs and even cassettes at gigs. However, with musicians unable to travel and perform, the movement of music online has expanded in multiple ways, from scheduled concerts to archived performances and online compendia.

Thus, COVID has sped music’s movement to Facebook, YouTube, and Bandcamp, places where it was already widely shared, promoted and marketed. In the midst of those astonishing quantities of music, there’s also the rush of new music unlikely to ever appear in traditional formats, and it often possesses a renewed immediacy, driven by our current circumstances.

One example of adaptation to the new normal is the reinvention of Deep Tones for Peace, now on Facebook. First launched by Franco-Israeli musician Jean-Claude Jones, the piece sought to bridge time, space, and nations through an international connectivity of bassists. The original piece, “SLM” by Mark Dresser and Sarah Weaver (documented on Jones’ Kadima Collective label), was simultaneously played in Jerusalem and New York through a television hook-up in April of 2009. The group of 13 bassists included Jones and Dresser, Barre Phillips, William Parker, Bertram Turetzky, Trevor Dunn, Henry Grimes, Lindsey Horner, Irina-Kalina Goudeva, and Rufus Reid.

On Facebook, Deep Tones for Peace is a much looser formation, a site to which bassists like Lynn Seaton, Scott Colley, Michael Bisio, and Lisa Mezzacappa, among many, post meditative solo performances. COVID-19 performance emphasizes the creative energies of a soloist and the dream of community, a dynamic relationship between self and other and all the kinds of feedback that can develop. Mark Deutsch of Oakland has posted a 25-minute solo suite to the Deep Tones for Peace Facebook page in which he plays his 39-string bazantar, a five-string acoustic bass remodeled on Indian string instrument principles. It has 29 sympathetic strings and four drone strings and sounds like a universe in a box.

Another activist musician, John Russell, has effectively moved his regular public improvisation events online during the pandemic. His Mopomoso concert series is now MopomosoTV, a curated forum of improvised music in many of its most creative dimensions. Episode 3 is currently available online at Youtube, and It’s a varied collection of performances, some new, some old, including contributions from Charlotte Law, Steve Beresford, Fred Lonberg-Holm and the duo of Chris Burn and John Butcher, each affably introduced by Russell. MopomosoTV episode 4 is slated to premiere there on Sunday, September 20 at 7:00 PM ET.

Four for Bandcamp

As musicians sort through the perils of streaming and download services, there’s a widespread movement to the most musician-friendly of them, Bandcamp. Among the music that has caught my attention lately are several solo projects, the most intimate music imaginable, music of isolation and outreach. These recordings are linked by at least the idea of the guitar ‒ both a genuinely common instrument and one lending itself to multiple transformations ‒ though in the first recording the connection is limited to guitar pedals. Like Mark Deutsch’s bass solo, these works are also linked by ideas of inside and outside, self and other, some using technology to transform material and feed it back to the improviser.

Sylvia Hallett

Sylvia Hallett is a significant figure in English improvised music, a multi-instrumentalist of tremendous originality. Playing with groups as diverse as British Summer Time Ends and London Improvisers Orchestra, her discography spans more that thirty years, and includes performances, for starters, on violin, hurdy-gurdy, sarangi, Hardanger fiddle (the one with resonating strings), and bowed bicycle wheels.

On the album Tree Time, Hallett presents music literally drawn from the earth then echoed, transformed, and realized in circuitry. Hallett’s description of her inspiration and process defies paraphrase:

Tree Time is a reflection on the derelict Tottenham garden, now a forest, next door to me, full of sycamores, holly, walnut, horse chestnut, hazel, elder, jasmine, and ivy where the birds nest and the bees go for nectar, and the squirrels chase and chatter along their aerial runways. Underground in the root system a family of foxes dig out their tunnels and palaces.

During this time of pandemic lockdown, I have been fortunate to have time to listen to the wind soughing in the trees, and get drawn into a different time dimension ‒ the trees speak slowly and ponderously, over centuries, rooting down to the memories that are stored in their fibrous trunks. There is a huge canopy of Russian Vine at one end, and every year it advances further into my garden until I deal with it.

I used some of this vine along with other small branches ‒ beech, ash, and sycamore, to make sound, using a violin bow to bring out their resonant qualities. They behave like something between a string and a tongue of wood, then in real time I processed the sounds using simple guitar pedals ‒ delay, pitch-shift, and looper. The tracks are all improvised and edited, but no overdubbing.

The combinatory use of those guitar pedals is transformative, with Hallett creating a phantom orchestra that magnifies and transforms her sounds into voices and organs, machines and echoes. “Song of Boughs” is full of dense, sustained sounds, sometimes moving like glaciers, sometimes suggestive of subterranean echoes, foghorns or distant voices poised between the industrial turbine and the human cry; multiple sounds form strange concordances and distant harmonies, eventually becoming slowly wandering siren glissandi. “The Trees Have No Tongues” is quieter, a wandering, quavering line accompanied by human voices or their stand-ins, while “Thicket History” suggests a duet between a cathedral organ and a construction site. The concluding “I Sing of Bees” is the longest of these, pressing home the point that these works have compound effects: they are at once mysterious and tranquil, active and still, strange eyes-shut journeys that only become more dream-like upon repeated listening, music that feels like a mobius strip, a single continuous plane, bending in space and carrying us with it.

If you seek visual solace from the press of the quotidian while you’re listening, you might want to peruse a couple of books by Beth Moon, who has travelled the world seeking trees a thousand years old or more. Ancient Trees: Portraits of Time presents the trees in black and white in daylight; Ancient Skies, Ancient Trees presents them in color under nighttime skies, far from electric light saturation and with extraordinary washes of stars, though you might want to preserve those stars for the next recording.

N.O. Moore

Guitarist N.O. Moore has been a long-time member of Eddie Prévost’s improvisation workshops. Last year he appeared on Darkened, yet shone (Matchless), a very fine trio CD with Prévost and bassist John Edwards. He has just released a solo album called Dreamt Across Tangled Electron recorded over three days in August with proceeds going to the London performance space Iklectik. The Bandcamp label is Breaking Up in the Atmosphere, and it has also released a duo album of Moore and Prévost, and a solo album of Henry Kaiser, mention of which might give some idea of the level of technology that Moore employs. It’s very high, a kind of overgrown garden of circuitry, but Moore exercises extraordinary discipline, finding new sounds and fresh approaches that can sometimes give the impression that one is listening to a bank of oscillators generating mazes of pointillist single tones. There is a number of sounds and durations here, but if Moore’s playing has identifying marks they might be characterized as glass or grain, the former in his transparency and clarity, the latter in a sense of textural detail.

His improvisations are also real improvisations, driven by the play of mind more than by the mining of particular techniques. The work is always liable to transformation, as Moore seems to split his output through multiple devices that he controls contrapuntally. The opening track, with the fine title “Here in the Distance,” begin in the kind of star map alluded to above, but by its conclusion it’s rooted in Earthly terrain, evoking a late-night reverie in a village square in Morocco. Other pieces seem to deny a connection between content and title, though the latter may be literal. In its overlay of burbles and blips, “Wah-Wah Pedal” is more apt to suggest the digestive processes of Vaucanson’s automata, whether duck or flute player, than the pedal in common use. Similarly, the feedback explosions that open “Heart Sings” don’t simply fade; they’re cut up into rapid notes and controlled. Though thus far he has released little, Moore is doing as much as anyone to expand the guitar’s expressive range.

Arthur Bull

Arthur Bull is a Canadian guitarist who has been playing improvised music since the 1980s. There’s a YouTube video of him in a guitar trio with John Russell and Pascal Marzan from a 2014 Mopomoso performance at the Vortex that immediately establishes his credibility. Bull’s work is a continuous bridge spanning folk idioms, including early blues, and free improvisation. Among recent projects, he has a band called the Surruralistes with Éric Normand (the bassist/ bandleader who has made Rimouski, Quebec a global centre of improvised music) that emphasizes folk roots, and he is also a member of the cooperative trio Monicker with trombonist Scott Thomson and drummer Roger Turner. Bull’s recent solo album, Guitar Improvisations, already appearing on Bandcamp and slated for later CD release, is all acoustic. Bull describes the circumstances of its making as “very much done during the lockdown, although living in remote rural Nova Scotia, self-isolation might be something of a moot point.”

Bull’s music is the only music here without amplification or electronic modification, but its breadth is tremendous. The guitar is occasionally prepared with alligator clips and paper clips, bringing a distinct character to the sound and expanding the general percussiveness of his approach. Brief pieces like “Guitar Improvisation No. 4” and “No. 8” suggest the influence of kora and mbira as well as the school of Derek Bailey. “No.6,” at 17 minutes the longest track here, expands a use of repeating motifs, one pattern after another growing insistent, then transmuting into another, rhythms piling up in memory, muffled notes and abrasive picking becoming parts of the patterns. When the playing seems to break free into sputtering single-note lines, all the prior patterns are implicit in memory, until the line surrenders to other patterns which in turn give way to Bull’s most sustained improvisation.

Jesse Goin

Jesse Goin is one of the more insightful writers on the subject of improvised music and he has also been one of its most active programmers, making Minneapolis–Saint Paul, Minnesota a place where on an especially good day you might find Keith Rowe, Toshimaru Nakamura or the duo of Isabelle Duthoit and Franz Hautzinger playing music. The work, taste and vision that inform Goin’s writing and programming are immediately evident in his music, presented as this is the new age, in person. Goin recounts the process by which he came to make this music: “In the summer of 2019 a musician friend gave me an electric guitar, a tube amp, and a couple of pedals to play with; I have played acoustic guitar for many years, but had never handled an electric guitar. For a good long time I have wanted to make drone music ... first thought / best thought.”

The music goes beyond the modesty of Goin’s description, its virtue embodied in his patience, a mature willingness to let sounds come to inhabit the fullness of their meaning. It's wonderfully slow, reverent and resonant music, music of inspired focus, created during chaotic times. A recognizable guitar arpeggio does not occur until about 75 minutes into the long program, while his particular use of pedals blurs the original sonic profile of the guitar, the sound often closer to an organ, with a sense of scale that can suggest a cathedral of the imagination, transported to a natural environment, a shore, a canyon.

The music is consistently meditative, even revelatory, achieving a oneness with sound and space that’s specifically connected to a Buddhist vision in two of the five pieces. “How wonderful it would be,” the second of five tracks, is an initial deviation, adding the spoken voice of Sarah Dresher chanting “the four immeasurables of Mahayana Buddhism.” The sound here is expanded. There are singing bowls, sounding like gongs, sustained tones that appear with piano-like evenness of tone and “drones” listed as a separate component, sounding here like an Indian harmonium. “Wave 2”, one in a series of three expansive meditations, employs a recording of Shunryu Suzuki, speaking at the San Francisco Zen Center sometime in the 1960s, his brief utterance becoming one with the droning sounds that seem to embrace his words.




Sylvia Hallett, Tree Time:



N.O.Moore, Dreamt Across Tangled Electron:



Arthur Bull, Guitar Improvisations:



Jesse Goin, this is the new age, in person:



© 2020 Stuart Broomer

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