are Taiwanese New Yorker James Fei and former Londoner David Novak,
who have both played reeds with Anthony Braxton. Saxophones and
bassoon feature on the second disc of Precision Electro-Acoustics,
but the character of the duo is established through their dedication
to low-grade electronics. Fei studied with Alvin Lucier, Novak
has performed with Otomo Yoshihide, so an interest in the microstructure
of sound is no surprise. It's pursued with assistance from toys
and a telephone amplifier, disc pickups attached to the throats
of the chatting musicians, and a cassette four track mixer generating
feedback loops. The compressed 3" format, here presented
in a neat gatefold sleeve, suits their grainy, agitated music.
There's a Cagean spirit in their creative misuse of technology,
complete with a sense of humour: those feedback loops are initially
put in the service of a human beatbox; a reed organ added completes
the backdrop to the Maestros singing like Suicide wannabes.
Here is how
the world breaks down. Two guys living in Brooklyn, the other
side of the swirling river from Manhattan. One has already demonstrated
that he has a huge technical understanding of saxophones, clarinets
and reeds. James Fei has the potential to be profound. I really
believe that. The other member of Maestros, David Novak, is working
in that undercover world of avant garde rock, a genre that ebbs
and flows in my consciousness like a dark tidal river. On these
two neatly packaged mini-CD disks, Maestros have recorded the
sound manipulation of saxophone, bassoon, guitar, conversation,
telephone amplifier, and re-routed cassette mixer. They achieved
their sound sculptures by using contact microphones in various
loop systems; each track has its own basic device and source mechanism.
It is all low-tech electronics and deliberately so. Only one overdub
throughout the whole session. Mr Fei and Mr Novak are very careful
to insist that this is not the stuff of mega-studio sound transference.
They are dealing in instant change, from one state of being to
another by the shortest route. Abstraction is tangible. Listen
to a different world, and what do I hear? Rhythm, noise, body
talk beauty and ugliness, little tiny surges of power which feed
into a temporary music of moments that cannot be taken as read.
Yes, of course this can be music if you want it to be, and yes
of course it is beautiful, like Picasso's "Massacre en Coree".
Years ago John Cage caught something similar to Maestros. Particularly
in his later work with computers. Mr Cage passed his process through
I-Ching, here such notional structure is dispensed with. That
is until you get to "Holy Land".
This is a
song. A conventional three minute song (sic), sung inside a sound
canvas of feedback loop oscillations and a weedy reed organ. The
subject matter is love, I guess, but right now anything called
"Holy Land" could be more than we all bargained for.
Like the feedback itself, this Holy place is in one breath easy;
it could almost be Nico for a New Age, except I have already decided
that David Novak and James Fei are not kidding. If that is the
case then, I am hearing the end of something rather than the beginning.
Nothing is shocking anymore, everything can hurt us and heal us.
There is no choice, you get both. I was tempted to say this is
the saddest song I have ever heard, on reflection Billie Holiday's
"Strange Fruit" got there first.
to these two on the edge CD's a long way from my home. Too far,
much too far. Right now I do not know where these instant sound
abstractions leave us, a long way from home I suspect. Steve
lo-fi innovations are accessible both musically and aesthetically,
revealing an all-too-rare sense of humor as well as a genuine
experimental approach. The title and the deadly serious photo
of Fei and Novak standing arms folded in front of a forbidding
bank of switches and gadgetry are to be taken somewhat tongue-in-cheek;
"Maestro" refers as much to the Maestro Rhythm'N'Sound
guitar effects box as it does to Fei and Novak. Most of the sounds
here are deliciously primitive and delightfully home-made; in
addition to the effects box, Fei and Novak customize a Marantz
4-track, a telephone amp and a kids' toy, exploiting their noise
potential à la David Tudor by turning them into feedback
loop machines. In "Fireside Chat" they attach Piezo
pick-ups to their throats (again, shades of Cage who caused quite
a stir when he did this forty or so years ago) and record what
sounds like a conversation - it's clear that the sounding result
has its origin in speech, its pitch and inflections, but somewhere
along the line the lo-fi recording process transforms it into
something more abstract, even sinister. There are lots of fun
moments to be found amongst the 14 tracks, my favorite being "Electricity
and its Double" which sets Novak's bassoon against the modified
toy with intriguing results. The screwed-up doo-wop of Novak's
"Holy Land" and the 30-second romp of "Early Music"
(for bassoon and sax without mouthpiece) are evidence of something
rare these days in New Music: a sense of humor - I haven't had
so much fun since Steve Beresford's "The Bath of Surprise".
And the gatefold double 3" CD is a collector's treasure.
Dan Warburton Signal to Noise
Fei and David Novak, together known as Maestros, have pretty highbrow
musical pedigrees: they've each played saxophone with Anthony
Braxton, and Fei has studied with contemporary composers like
Alvin Lucier, Steve Mackey, and Paul Lansky. But these New Yorkers
happily deflate the pretensions that often go hand in glove with
such a background. On the recent double three-inch CD Precision
Electro-Acoustics (Organized Sound Recordings) they make a
virtue of their ad hoc technical setups, low-tech gear, blunt
humor, and messy sound: the duo's bio-cum-manifesto delcares,
"Maestro Music is all recorded live with no overdubbing,
fancy laptop acrobatics, or studio bullshit. No devices are used
in the manner intended by their manufacturers." Such chest
beating would ring hollow if Maestros couldn't deliver the goods,
but the 14 succinct tracks on their new release are consistently
fascinating, not just as music but as documents of the band's
processes. On "Human Beat Box and Mixer with Feedback,"
a four-track mixer combines two feedback loops with a reed organ
and some decidedly amateurish mouth percussion; vaguely rhythmic
low-end smears, a spacey, hiccuping squeal, and a blur of high-end
static all jostle unpredictably for space. "Holy Land"
uses the same setup, but ehre the voice and organ deliver a doo-wop-style
tune that emerges from the mixer as an otherworldly hymn. For
"Fireside Chat" Fei and Novak attach contact mikes to
their throats, creating rising and falling speechlike cadences
that mimic the roller-coaster rhythms of ocnversation, but wihout
any discernible words; for "Electricity and Its Double"
they rewire an electronic musical toy and pair it with a bassoon.
But Maestros balance this kind of goofiness with a sober sense
of purpose and a solid feel for the difference between entertaining
an audience and just entertaining themselves: on Precision
Electro-Acoustics they also play a series of unprocessed saxophone
duets, and even with nothing but their horns and their wits to
rely on, they manage to push a few musical envelopes. Peter
Margasak Chicago Reader (29 III 2002)