The Boston Phoenix
January 13 - 20, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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Avant-garde duty

Lindgren and Field found sFz

by Ted Drozdowski

Erik Lindgren Boston has long been the runt of the avant-garde or experimental-music litter among major cities. This despite the presence of several world-class music schools and a diverse but small population of determined envelope-pushing musicians that's included over the past two decades jazzers Don Byron and Joe Morris, beat iconoclast Willie Alexander, composer Tod Machover, overtone specialist Glenn Branca, guitarist Reeves Gabrels, Jonathan LaMaster of Saturnalia, and the various members of Birdsongs of the Mesozoic and their offshoot projects.

Two Birdsongs members, Erik Lindgren and Ken Field, have been particularly vital contributors as composers and players-about-town, and their energy has much to do with Birdsongs' current status as an international band. Lindgren has also run his Arf! Arf! Records label, amassing more than 60 titles of obscure '60s garage/psychedelic rock and putting out discs of his rabid world-music studio excursions under the name the Space Negros. So it's not too surprising that this pair have just launched yet another venture: sFz Recordings -- a label dedicated to putting out purposefully interesting music, stuff both founders say walks the line between high-end creativity and accessibility.

Naturally, sFz's first three releases come from the Birdsongs axis: saxophonist Field's excellent Pictures of Motion, keyboardist Lindgren's enjoyable Scores!, and a collaboration between Lindgren and Lauri des Marais titled Stimuli/Stories in Sound -- Volume 1. This last has intriguing passages but does not live up to the potential of its title premise or the label's goal of accessibility. Of course, such a criticism begs the question of what defines accessibility. Let's just say that if Stimuli's dark soundscapes, huzzing thrums of quiet and oblique sound, butoh-like development, and tapes of telephone dialogue add up to a widely accessible work, then all the years people like me have spent championing willfully obscure music haven't been in vain. And maybe I'll start tuning into commercial radio to catch the latest by Fred Frith.

Field's Pictures of Motion is appealing from the first cut, the title track, which is a layered composition of alto saxophones overdubbed to provide a wealth of melody and feeling in their subtle shades of tone. Unlike Marais's Stimuli, which remains shadowy, Field's album moves immediately into a mutant strain of feel-good New Orleans funk with "Canned Chicken," a grooving composition built on three saxophones and Eric Paull's street-parade drumbeat.

In a sense, the accessibility of Field's work here comes stamped with pre-approval: some of these compositions have appeared on Sesame Street. "Pass Along," with local bass explorer Mike Rivard's rump-shake drive, even sounds like something James Brown's band might perform while the ringmaster of soul shoots backstage for a costume change. And Field's percussive horns, playing unison and counterpoint, take us right back to the Crescent City in "Parade." Nonetheless, Field keeps things daring, stretching the conventional tonality of his instrument past its limits. Some numbers, like the pulse poem "Corteo," even charge headlong into Philip Glass-style minimalism, weaving thrusts of saxophone over a nattering, shifting bedrock of percussion.

Lindgren's Scores! is the most overtly beautiful of sFz's debut releases. In part that's due to the charming, traditional combinations of instruments he employs: clarinet, flute, violin, cello, and piano for "Scenes from the Nemasket River"; the customary two violins, viola, and cello for "Psychedelic Music for String Quartet"; violin, viola, cello, and piano for "Visions of Seattle"; and so on. String synthesizer and vibraphone are the oddities in the seven works here, yet they're employed with such a gentle sense that they fit seamlessly into Lindgren's chamber-music strategy.

Lindgren himself does not play on the album -- perhaps in the tradition of classical composers he chose to employ a more seasoned hand at the piano, or perhaps he simply wanted to reinforce his identity as a composer after the past 20 years of rocking out in public with Birdsongs of the Mesozoic. Either way, the results speak beautifully. Anyone familiar with 20th-century classical music would have no difficulty digesting his melodies and occasional runs of kamikaze dissonance.

Lindgren also leaves room for his musicians to improvise and interpret in pieces like "Scenes from the Nemasket River" and the 10-minute "Tides," a musical compression of the 24-hour tide cycle. Rockers looking for an entry need go no further than "Psychedelic Music for String Quartet," the album's first suite. Violins float and slash through the second movement like a guitar's singing feedback. And by the end Lindgren has employed microtonality to make his strings conjure guitar riffs and bark out dark, gristled passages that recall the spirit -- if not the sound -- of acid-drenched rock. (Scores! also comes with a disc of ambient visuals set to Lindgren's music, but it's not viewable to Macintosh owners like me.)

Although the work of Lindgren and Field work has appeared in the mainstream on television and in other contexts (Field, for example, has performed for Bill Clinton and with Peter Wolf), I'd be surprised if these CDs reach beyond the converted. But at least these musicians are trying to preach to the unconverted, and their sermons are worth hearing.

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