Revisiting ‘Early Summer’

22/02/2011

Shortly after publishing a review of Wade Matthews Early Summer on this blog, I was delighted to receive an email from Wade in which he set out a comprehensive explanation of his methods, his conceptual approach and his improvisational aesthetic. As he took the time to clarify many of the points I raised, and to set me right on a few of them, it’s only fair, out of respect for the artist, that I take some time to share some of our discussion. This type of dialogue, which unfolds through detailed correspondence, is, to my mind, the lifeblood of discourse around new music, the only problem being, if it is a problem, that none of it can be appropriated by the privileged institutions who officially manage such discourse.

The one thing to be kept in mind throughout an appreciation of this album is that it’s a live improvisation, albeit without an audience. This is challenging and I know it from experience. Some might even ask if it’s worth doing. Derek Bailey, for example, insisted on the superiority of live performance over the recording. I always wondered whether it might not be better to compose the work out of the best takes, given that there was no external pressure to make the album on the fly. But then you don’t really have an improvisation as such. In Matthew’s case, the emphasis is firmly on playing the instruments, the laptops, the software and the two midi expression pedals (the left foot controls the volume of the synthesized sounds, the right food controls the overall volume of the field recordings) After all the preparation, pre-production and dummy runs, the technical realisation is still daunting, the creation of the instrument in its combination of hard- and software, and finally the act of playing the instrument. In the artist’s own words, Early Summer is an ongoing process. This is crucial. First it shows that he means business, as opposed to churning out the results of a random experiment. Secondly, it shows humility and courage at the same time.

Getting down to the details, I wasn’t in the least surprised to find that every aspect of the music was firmly under control, and that there was an answer for every one of my questions, for example the ‘foley-clean aesthetic’ that had intrigued me was a deliberate choice relating to specific representational concerns. Furthermore, I was given insights into the conceptual depth underlying some of the pieces, concepts nonetheless held subordinate to the improvising moment. Finally many carefully considered analogies were struck with historical and contemporary visual arts practice.

Some of my original assumptions about the sounds were wide of the mark: some of the loops weren’t loops at all (though some were), delay effects hadn’t been used and I was mistaken in my identification of some of the sounds as electronic, though after you’ve processed a recorded sound, who’s to tell? But what’s important here, and what Matthews stresses throughout, is that we’re listening to a musical language under development, played on musical instruments, and that it takes hard work, time and patience to find your own voice. If I may quote from our correspondence:-

‘For any musician, but especially for (free) improvisers, developing one’s language on an instrument somehow has to combine what the instrument is capable of and how the musician can use that to get closer to him or herself. I believe Miles Davis said “sometimes you have to play a long time before you sound like yourself.” And I think this is especially true with extremely intractable instruments such as laptops. I use “intractable” to stress how much the laptop seems to want to sound like itself, to impose its own sound. I also think that considering it an instrument, rather than simply a device for use in music making, might help to cast light on another reason why so many laptop players sound so similar: they simply haven’t been playing long enough to know how to control their instrument.’

There’s an ongoing big debate around the laptop-as-instrument. Up until now, I’ve never been convinced, by my own efforts or by anyone else’s for that matter, but following some of the privileged insights I’ve had in examining Early Summer and learning about Wade Matthews totally committed individual approach, I’m much more open to the notion that a laptop can indeed serve as a musical instrument

Finally, let’s all look forward to the next phase of Wade’s explorations in the form of a projected release as one half of a duo alongside Alfredo Costa Monteiro. Soon, we hope.

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