Another job of recent vintage. I met Alan Sondheim through my work at ESP-Disk', and became friends when he and his partner Azure Carter lived a short walk away (now, alas, they have relocated to Providence, RI -- which is lucky to have them, but apparently unaware of its luck). Hanging out at their place listening to Alan demonstrate the sounds of his huge collection of instruments from around the world was a whole education in itself. I was happy to pitch in with these booklet notes when asked, and I heartily recommend acquiring this album.
Listen to any track on this album. Have you ever heard someone else who sings like Azure Carter? I sure haven't. Have you heard anyone who plays as a wide range of instruments, with such gleeful abandon, as Alan Sondheim does? Me neither. Put them together and this may be the most original and unique sound to come along in years, even decades perhaps.
Carter's lyrics are, I am told, related to and/or inspired by Second Life, an online virtual world. That may have significance for some, perhaps even great significance, but even a Luddite such as myself can enjoy them and interpret them in the context of meatbag life: longings for contact and connection, deconstructions of our strategies for satisfying that longing, self-analyses and reflection. Between the conundrums and quirks of that search and the restless music underpinning them, this is an album of unease, of a hypermodern sense of overwhelming possibility, even though sometimes Carter's cadences sound eerily like Psalms or the Song of Solomon (you can hear this right off the bat on "Among the Ferns").
About that music. Alan Sondheim, an underground icon from the '60s thanks to a 1967 debut album on Riverboat that made the infamous Nurse With Wound list, followed up with two albums on notorious outsider label ESP-Disk', has made a 21st-century comeback (in the interim, he established himself as an academic pioneering cyberspace theory). His improvised music resists all genre labels, though one can hear, in the sounds of the instruments chosen if not always the non-traditional techniques he uses to play them, so-called world music; on the tracks Ed Schneider and Chris Diasparra play on, there are traces of jazz in their contributions; and Sondheim's early blues roots shine through on "Credo." It is music based on gesture and timbre rather than harmony and/or melody, and rhythmically abjures beats. "That 'mama heartbeat,' that 'bom-bom-bom' — it's so boring, it's so banal," Don Van Vliet AKA Captain Beefheart once said. "I want things to change like the patterns and shadows that fall from the sun." Sondheim's improvisations are like that, except as though played by a metabolism operating at a faster rate of speed, or filmed and fast-forwarded.
Yet there's an opposite effect, or rather a balance, brought by what Sondheim is doing with timbre — and, thanks to a broad and ever-changing instrument collection drawn from around the world, he's got a dazzling array of timbres available to him, with Schneider and Diasparra adding even more to the collective color palette. When apprehended by a listener acutely attuned to timbre rather than rhythm or the chimeras of melody and harmony, the scurrying gestures of his instrumental lines blur into clouds of sounds that paradoxically suggest a sort of perpetual-motion stasis. But there is no paradox, rather the Buddhist refusal to treat with dichotomy, a suggestion of the infinite possibilities in every moment and every movement. The way Carter's voice frictionlessly twists and slides through the buffeting textures and fits into the cracks amid those timbres/possibilities perfectly complements and reflects that infinity as she and Sondheim paint with sound on the canvas of time.