Many Europeans, and indeed some coastal Americans, tend to believe that little of artistic value has been produced between Lower East Side and Haight Ashbury. But the country is too large, people too well educated and communications too easy for the hinterland to remain perennially barren. Still, you would not be too far off the mark to assume that the consonant-less State of Iowa has made fewer musical contributions than, say, Colorado.
And yet, jewels do crop up if you plough the cornfield before the blister phase. This compilation of recordings collected by Michael Lytle, Will Parsons, Jon English and several others seriously questions the aforementioned “coastal” dogmatism. The material ranges from cacophonous free form improvisations to vintage synthesizer excursions. At their most intriguing, the musicians experimented with aleatoric forms, forcing the participants to limit their musical communication during the recording session.
One of the interesting features on this record is that often the pieces quiet down, masked by louder sections presented as separate tracks. However, the preceding composition does continue underneath, drowned by the successor bolstered with higher decibel content. Instruments whose projection is stronger in an orchestral setting – both acoustic and electronic – sometimes betray this ingenious proceeding. The stratiform treatment never disturbs, on the contrary.
Little else has been heard from these musicians. I suppose that some of them ended up in academic circles. Michael Lytle moved to New York, just in time, and caught up with George Cartwright and Mark Dresser. He deserves his share of the fame and respect lavished over the years on Doctor Nerve. His clarinet contributions made Didkovsky’s project sound like a hyperspeed big band.
In what is essentially a solo track, Will Parsons combines his penchant for percussive skitter, hand drum snaps and disoriented shakers with pulsating plastic clicks from moog sequencer.
The first group piece based on atonal recipes for dampened prepared piano sounds (Parsons), lowly trombone (Jon English), shredded guitar chords (John Leake) and electronically processed cello (Eric Jensen). Tom Wilcox’s trumpet gets lost somewhere in the abstract cross-pollination of timbres.
The amalgam of talents turns its attention to color and value formations, through random organization of unusual contrasts – Gary Gray’s mbira may be given a key part to play, but never too far away from temporizing steel drums and tender cello pizzicato. As many as three bass players (Paul Berner, Jon English and Don Roach) paint a poetic sunset of musing polychroma. Circumspect trumpet legatos sweep around in a show of restraint.
A piece captured live opens with spry piccolo intrusions by Pat Purswell. The delicate tapestry of electronics (Peter Lewis) and marimba (Parsons) barely distract from the spotlight on the Ornettish horn but delivered on… trombone (Jon English). This intuition will later be rewarded on side B…
Unseen Walls (waltz?)
Michael Lytle appears for the first time here on his signature clarinet. He is seconded by Eric Roalson whose deep, midnight piano clusters sound almost as wooly as Permutative Distortion… Bruce Wirwin’s violin crowds the space before we recess into…
The World’s Most Impossible Silence
…nothing. This is vinyl time, so such moments of ‘silence’ are much more expensive than the frequent oases of silent self-indulgence that mass producers of CDRs are flooding us with these days. Luckily, it does not last long.
Michael Lytle dishes out a modernist pop song, cooked up in the moog, but terrestrial in nature. It is naively ‘complete’ with a pre-determined bass throb and pointlessly groovy solos compressed to high register. But he deserves to be absolved. This is 1971.
Leake does appear and it is a phase-guitar piece, flanked by two basses – one acoustic and one electric (Parsons’s favorite trick?). The rhythm section imparts an ethnic jazz feel, but the shifting guitar phases splash land from another world. Despite an orchard full of shakers, the moog from the previous track can still be distinguished from the guitar-fronted jazzy mass.
In what appears as the continuation of the previous cut, a guitar sustain and double bass tremolos seek correlations with ultra-fast cymbal runs. The braying guitar is of no help for the bass, lost in painful search of the right chord.
The Sands of the Time Reborn
An archival recording, apparently from 1967. Vintage electronics mingle with swoozing “voices”. The drummer (Parsons) is content with punctuating selected beats, leaving the remaining auralspace to phantom effects and the bass player (John Wilmet). Half-present Ken Cohea offers a few half-blows on his sax.
Eight years on and Lytle rejoins on a very earthy clarinet in perpetual overblows. Eager to fly right into the top of the range he often loses projection and clarity. Roalson “helps” by scraping cymbals.
… Now Deceased
One of the more memorable moments on the record is shaped unhurriedly through the otherworldly juxtaposition of woodenly-resonating mbira and chromatic harmonica. In this meeting between the cattle rangers from the wild West and the civilized West Africa, the dépaysement is complete. Pat Hazell’s tonguings on harmonica twiddle, scan and reproduce the images of parched spaciousness. Parsons adds a sparse marimba touch, in support of the mbira (Gary Gray). They are accompanied by a cello drone (Jensen) and an unlikely third idiophone – (Michael Meyers on vibraphone). The band lapses into an elegant tremolo and disappears. It was too short.
The Leo Trio
A viola and marimba duo with some help from harp (Motter Forman). William Hibbard operates his viola with a slurred staccato. At the end of each slice, the marimba (Parsons) throws in a pithy commentary.
Iowa Night’s Bloom
This is the first of two or three fragments that bear an eerie resemblance to the loft-jazz masterpieces from Rivbea… The guitar-bass-drums trio of Leake-Paul Berner and Parsons is joined here by two saxophonists (Larry Easter and Don Edelbrock) and two pianists (Pat Hazell on acoustic piano and Lynn Willard on electric piano). Beautifully fostered by piano tremolos the two soprano saxophones constitute a svelte duo – self-replicating between the left and right channel. The electric aura gives this fragment a “free-jazz-rock” character, aptly constrained by the musicians’ good taste: delicate hi-hat, cloudy guitar, softly arpeggiated electric piano. There is some timbral cross-dressing here. The guitar plays the electric piano part and the soprano squeezes into the guitar’s pants. This abstract canvas could extend over an entire LP side, but it does not.
Waiting for Grace
This is apparently Parsons on vibraphone, but little, if anything can be heard. This sure ain’t Robert Wood.
Back to the Playground
A group noise piece opened by scattered piano sounds, voices, a wand patting on a piece of furniture. Lytle’s bass clarinet gropes for intonation. Mike Brawner adds extra noise on rubber hose. Clarinet, voice and piano are settling down within this makeshift, purposefully directionless amalgamate.
Freedom’s Not Something Someone Tells (the Way to Live)
A short song featuring Candace Natveig’s nice voice, trombone and vibraphone.
Falsestart, Falsestart, Falsestart
A rehearsal snippet – one piano chord returns over and over again. Cymbal overtones are multi-layered beyond measure and drown it all out.
An Infinite Regression
A multi-tracked racket for electric bass, organ, voice, trombone, trumpet, percussion and drums – all looped around and thrown into the bucket. This apparent output of many sessions (1972-76) is not shaken, but rather carefully rotated in analog manner, as it were.
First Rites, Before
John Patterson’s guitar solo vies for our attention, but it’s a foregone conclusion that our ears will rather collude with the cellulosic warmth of Parsons’s mbira. Monosyllabic vocal and gummy, wavering flute (Grace Bell) add little extra texture.
Solomon’s Mines, Birth
Hot on the heels of some uncredited bowed strings, multiple vocal polyphonies sound rather accidental. Mark Solomon’s flute yanks and zigzags away when the drummer picks up speed, with Lynn Willard’s piano emulating the effort.
Peace Like a Football Growth
This accumulation of sources spanning four years begins with long notes on tenor sax (Jon Monick) interbreeding with some bowing on acoustic bass and articulate cymbal work from Parsons. The saxophone’s improvisational scampering is mostly dissonant and it invites a whole bag of background racket.
Moment of First Choice, Freedom
Here’s a contest – who will blow/bow higher – Charles West on his clarinet or Bruce Erwin on his violin? The assistants are at the ready to help. The violin does sound folksy, yet the clarinet steers away confidently from any klezmerite connotations. Not uninteresting.
Choice Abandoned, Get a Job!
Will Parsons joins the line-up in a Steve Miller-type piano accompaniment. The trouble is, Lol Coxhill’s role has been usurped by a rather traditional Dixie clarinet playing by Charles West. In one lyrical violin solo Bruce Erwin appears to relish his short E-string detachés. The piano shuts down the nostalgia, brusquely.
Where Karma Curdles & Hurts, Dharma
A surreptitious Jon English on trombone and Carolyn Berdahl on cello roam in the presence of listless bass and cymbal ostinato.
With Sun Inside, Maturity
After an Arkestra-style expressionist tutti of soprano saxophone, trombone, tenor, flute and fluegelhorn, Will Parsons impersonates Don Moye – savoring the slow, grand buildup of percussive microtones. Don Edelbrock’s soprano sax appears the most agile in the pack and departs from the increasingly riffing surge. Gary Gray’s mbira appears in a more structural role here than previously. Tom Wilcox’s fluegelhorn goes solo, polished, mezzotint, creamy, cup- or harmon-muted. There is a sense of polyrhythmic relaxation is there. Linda Dillon’s flute and the saxophones converse with dignity. The atmosphere of “Wildeflowers” is with us again.
Clarabelle Interlude, Self Explanatory
The same, extended line-up but different music: liturgical clucking, rubbery preachings, synthesized bubbles. The random distribution of outcomes leaves one perplexed.
Last Wrongs, Death
A collection of excerpts from Parsons’s library of pieces for voice and “impakt percussion synthesizer”. What we get here is a dense swirl of cricket shimmer and some assorted percussion. Buzzing dragonflies, bumble bees, orthoptera and other airborne anthropods have all conspired to crap their sizzle in three or four simultaneous, multiplex layers. Bells, cymbals and triangles initially keep this concert almost “human”, but even these are later subjected to tape speed processing.
The Knight of Swords, Comes & Cuts Away One By One All the Things You Cling to, Until You’re Left with Only One
These tape compositions by Lytle (1968-70) and Parsons (1976) are interesting in their use of vintage Buchla, Synthi and Moog Mark II synthesizers which were available in various academic institutions at that time.
Lonely Woman, Ornette Coleman
In a complete change of mood, Jon English invites us to adjust our set of expectations to his echoed trombone performing one of the 20th century musical monuments. Some sequenced “piano” sound peeps from a synthesizer, manned here by Peter Lewis. He peppers his keyboard with shortlived echo-arpeggios. Finally, perpendicular transgressions modulate the classic climate with dissonant dirt. Only the repetitive electronic throb stays on. This 1973 version is well worth investigating by all Ornette Coleman’s fans. And just about anyone else.
Decay of Mayamusic
A barely audible ditto for violin, clarinet and flute.
Decay of Shivadrone
Michael Lytle closes the record with a line on Moog Mark III.
This record is unique and there is little else that compares favorably. Lytle’s small format recordings from the New York period are, by comparison, pedestrian.
LYTLE, PARSONS, ENGLISH, ROACH, GRAY, LEAKE:“Iowa Ear Music” (1967-76)
LYTLE-CARTWRIGHT-MOSS: “Meltable Snaps It” (1980)