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Chris Brown - Talking Drum (Paris Transatlantic)::

Chris Brown - Talking DrumA student of Gordon Mumma, William Brooks and David Rosenboom, Chicagoan Chris Brown is an active electronic composer and improviser, and an important figure in installations and computer music networking. This particular project, released on Al Margolis' Pogus imprint, one of the most uncompromising new music labels, reflects all the basic aspects of his work. Taking sounds from several locations (Bali, Philippines, Cuba, Holland, Hawaii and several American cities) recorded through binaural microphones attached to his sunglasses to obtain a spatialization more or less impossible to reproduce in a studio, Brown organized his field recordings on a system of four laptops interacting with live musicians, including Wadada Leo Smith, William Winant and David Gibson. The laptop network reproduces these recordings in different ways according to the performance of the "acoustic" musicians, the process splintering the music into a series of interchangeable cells, a "free-regulation-far-from-chaos" kind of result that elicits dense conversation and textural architecture. It's what could really be called "world music", in which Balinese processions, Cuban dance rhythms and the chatter of Filipino markets mix with seabirds and instruments in a cavalcade of connections and clashes that keeps notching up our attention span throughout.—MR

Talking Drum
by Chris Brown
Pogus, New York, 2005
CD, P21034-2, $14

Rogue Wave
by Chris Brown
Tzadik, New York, 2005
CD, TZ 8014, $14

Reviewed by René van Peer
Bachlaan 786, 5011 BS Tilburg, The Netherlands

Chris Brown, pianist, computer music composer and co-director of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College in Oakland, California, showed a special attention for rhythm and percussion in earlier works of his, such as Lava (released on the Tzadik label in 1995) and a series of collaborations that he compiled on the 1996 Duets album on Artifact Recordings. While he was completing the latter, he started developing an interactive spatial setup for linking drum machines with live percussion, which he called Talking Drum. He published a detailed technical description of this installation work in Leonardo Music Journal Vol. 9 (1999). On an album with the same title Brown recently released recordings of a number of these installations, interspersed with location recordings he made in Bali, Cuba, Turkey and the Philippines.

It is exactly the juxtaposition between the different types of situations that makes Talking Drum a wonderful listening experience. What all recordings share is a strong sense of informality and spatiality. On the other hand there is a marked difference between the intentional character of improvisation in the installation recordings and the looser interaction in the other takes. The interplay of the musicians (percussionists as well as players of other instruments) with the computer driven percussion does sound intriguing, initially almost like a ball being hit back and forth in a game of tennis until players and machines start to interlock, or move apart into separate patterns that drift through each other but don't audibly get together into a superstructure. What is very clear to the ear (especially when listening through a headset) is how the sounds are distributed over the space and move through it. Still, these pieces somehow tend to sound restrained and forced, as if the musicians always need to be prepared for the unexpected, to pit their wits against the imperturbability of the systems they are facing.

The location recordings are quite different in that respect. Several of these were made during dances and ceremonies, in which percussion plays a major role. The Cuban and Balinese tracks just bristle with musicians going at it full tilt, dancers and standers-by charging the atmosphere with their response. Here, too, the spatial quality of the recordings draws you into the action. Actually not all these environmental recordings are percussive. You can hear people milling about on a market, traffic in the background, sometimes passing by at close range. There are takes of frogs and birds. But because of being interspersed with the ostensibly percussive pieces, their rhythmical aspects are brought to the fore. One of the most enchanting recordings was done in the Hagia Sophia mosque, where you can hear the measured hammering of carpenters, amplified by the grand domed hall and shrouded in the thick veils of its reverb.

What makes this album outstanding is how Brown has achieved in weaving these very different recordings together. He has created transitions that are remarkably smooth and logical, making one grow out of the other, often by using some rhythm pattern or timbre that they share, as a bridge. Thus this entire CD is a complex of interplay between all these various strands. Despite the contrastive quality of the various components Brown makes it work as one large-scale composition.

The four recent and two older pieces on Rogue Wave show that characteristics apparent in Talking Drum are interests Brown has pursued throughout the years - the interaction between electronic systems and live musicians, the distribution of sounds around a space as part of his compositions and recordings, and his predilection for rhythm as a major driving force for his music. Rogue Wave does, however, present a far broader sampling of Chris Brown's multifaceted work. It includes computer network music, which he pioneered with his colleagues of The Hub; his piano playing; his work with self-built and adapted instruments; collaborations with other musicians and composers, such as the virtuoso percussionist William Winant who is featured on three of the tracks; and even a piece of symphonic instrumentation, scaled down by necessity, but impressive nonetheless. Called Alternating Currents, it was commissioned by Kent Nagano for the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra in 1983. This piece seems to foreshadow Lava being likewise scored for percussion, brass and live electronics. Written over twenty years ago it already shows Brown's use of complex and irregular rhythms (which may expand and contract) as central to his compositional work.

Even more spectacular is the most recent piece, after which the CD was called. The dense buzz of a bull-roarer serves as a ground layer on which Brown, Winant and turntable player DJ Eddie Def throw percussive sounds from the various sources in their respective domains - electronic, acoustic and vinyl. The intensity of the patterns mounts and subsides. Trying to follow in detail what is going on you stand a serious chance of getting swept off your feet by the powerful density of the texture, which does indeed feel as if a wave of sound is crashing into you.

Brown himself performs in all the pieces on the Rogue Wave album, mostly doing live electronics. Apart from the Rogue Wave piece he is most perceptibly present in Transmission Tenderloin and Retroscan. The former was taken from a live broadcast, which is part of an ongoing series of collaborations between Brown and Guillermo Galindo, in which their electronic music improvisations are broadcast over different frequencies, to be picked up by people in an outdoor audience on receivers they bring with them. This turns the environment into one large performance space full of moving sound.

On Retroscan Brown plays the piano that is in its entirety a source of the sounds generated and then transformed by an interactive computer program. The music bounces back and forth between the playing and the modifications - the program responding to the input of sound, and Brown responding to what comes out of the system. On the one hand there is a continuous dialog that resembles a conversation, in which new views are introduced into the thoughts that develop. On the other hand the electronic sounds become a layer separating itself from the acoustic sounds, turning into a changeable blanket of drones and riffs on which Brown drops single tones, snatches of melody and resonant bangs and taps on the frame.

These two CDs complement each other beautifully, one focusing on this interactive electronic installation that Brown developed, which is presented as a large composition; the other compiling different aspects of his work. Together they are a showcase of his versatility as a composer and player of electronic music, and of his capability to set up musical dialogs through intelligently and sensitively designed electronic systems.— René van Peer

Past Feature Article: If, Bwana / Al Margolis featured in UK's Wire Magazine
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