Stretching the Necks Out

"Just what the hell is the experimental tradition?" Morton Feldman asked colleagues Fred Orton and Gavin Bryars during a 1976 interview first published in Studio International. The question arose in the midst of an ad hoc critique of Steve Reich, La Monte Young, et al., right after the composer suggested that minimalism was too accessible to qualify for full-blown "experimental" status. By no means was Feldman playing lone curmudgeon; snobs and spuds alike agree that adventurousness and listenability are mutually exclusive.

Neither camp is anything but full of shit. Exhibit A: the Necks. Like John Cage's old pal, the Sydney-based trio make music that hinges largely on the cumulative effects of countless delicate gestures. Difference is, they let the Zen take care of itself and build the bits and spaces into deep rolling grooves and drones that mutate in increments so infinitesimal, pinning down any individual change—say, one of the 3/4-to-4/4 transitions in 2001's captivating, hourlong Drive By—is next to impossible.

In solo and session work, the individual Necks are mutable entities. The new Thrown (Room40) finds Necks pianist Chris Abrahams alone for the fifth time, skewing well to the left of the band's ambient/jazz/minimalist gestalt for an extended sojourn in the realm of post- traditional experimentalism. Sliding rapidly from a thick organ drone into flutey atavistics, opener "Bellicose" would work beautifully in a Clan of the Cave Bear sequel in which a disheveled Daryl Hannah look-alike ducks behind trees and boulders in the hope of evading poorly groomed cannibals until the tribe that just invented writing and metallurgy comes to the rescue. Initially, "Can of Faces" showcases the composer's proficiency with "prepared" piano, a strategy first employed extensively by John Cage that involves attaching various kinds of stuff— nuts, bolts, paper clips—to the instrument's innards in the service of altering its sound.

Unlike Cage (and like the eminently accessible Arvo Pärt, who used preparations extensively in his Tabula Rasa), Abrahams puts music in his music; the track's first section suggests hordes of methed-up chipmunks tap-dancing artfully on well-tuned ukuleles. Part two of "Can of Faces" features dueling prepared pianos, rodents going toe to toe with a badly hung-over Ravi Shankar. After a brief series of low rumbles, the pianist returns with an unprepared soundboard, generating elegant cascades over something that resembles distant tin cans in a rush to catch up with their wedding vehicle. Thrown neither seduces as effectively as any of the Necks' 11 albums nor repels with the force that some elitists require. Granted, you probably wouldn't use it to liven up a party, but in a soundtrack setting, most open-minded folk would find the disc intriguing—much like three other newish releases on Australia's Room40 label.

In fact, Erik Griswold's Altona Sketches first saw life as real-time backing tracks—for a juggler. The U.S. transplant, now based in Brisbane, explores prepared piano in far greater depth than Abrahams, splitting the difference between Harry Partch and Harry Connick Jr. with mysterious incursions into exotic domains that you don't need a slide rule or a thorough knowledge of Indonesian metaphysics to enjoy. But he does coax some very gamelanlike sounds from his soundboard on "Wednesday"—to the extent that the selection sounds more like a Balinese adaptation of West Side Story than circus music.

Melbourne composer and instrument maker Rod Cooper hews even closer to Partch, who designed more than 30 unique sound-making implements that looked magnificent and sounded OK. Unfortunately, Room40's minimalist packaging aesthetic allows no place for photos, so we're forced to guess what was actually played on Friction. It's not hard; Cooper favors metal, sometimes banged, but more often bowed. On "Stratum," he does both, underscoring long, breathily Shakuhachi-like tones with profound plonks. Given his predilection for letting the instrument's intrinsic nature determine the composition's outcome, he just might out-Cage John Cage himself, who often resorted to chance as an organizing device to avoid being burdened with ideas, which he scorned as "deliberate."

But Cooper is far easier on the ear than Cage, as is M. Rosner. Despite Rosner's status as Room40's resident pastoralist, Allivial's fusion of processed field recordings with pure digitalia often rides along the borders of more commercially oriented electronic music, as on "Decay." Granted, the track's percussion is a bit, well, decorative. But the only thing that distinguishes its gently pulsating grooves from IDM is that someone could probably dance to it if they wanted.

Still, it's nowhere near as alluring as the Necks—unlike Harold Budd and Eraldo Bernocchi's Music for Fragments From the Inside (Sub Rosa). Recorded live in the courtyard of an old Italian palace, the collaboration evinces the influence of the Australian trio nearly as much as everything they've done bears the mark of 69-year-old Budd, whose 1978 Pavillion of Dreams marked the first confluence of minimalism, jazz, and the then-newfangled ambient genre. Granted, Bernocchi's beats lack the temporal fluidity of Necks drummer Tony Bucks and bassist Lloyd Swanton's sleight-of-sound attack. But the Italian composer and producer compensates nicely with synth flourishes that complement Budd's expansive command of pianistic space the way wine does weed. Is the album experimental? Hell yes: nothing even vaguely resembling verses and choruses, a preponderance of noises, drones, and unusual sonic configurations, extended compositions (all titled "Part I," "Part 2," etc.). Music is also listenable as Timbaland. You'd certainly never guess that Cage and Feldman were Budd's idols in the '60s.

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