In my experience as a rock writer, when you break music criticism down to its nuts and bolts, it all boils down to a few basic questions: "What does it sound like?" "Why do you like it?" and "Why is it worth my time?" Upon digesting laptop composer Chuck Bettis' Community of Commotion not once, but twice in a row, I can confidently say that I've thrown these pathetic little notions of music criticism I've held on to for so long out the window.
"Why," you ask? (Another question?)
Well, simply put, I can't find anything to compare this record to other than possibly Jim O'Rourke's more electronic-oriented work and the explorations of Downtown New York musicians like John Zorn, Marc Ribot, Wayne Horvitz, etc. etc. or really pragmatic things (a door creaking open, burglar alarm going off, etc.). But making such comparisons would do Community little justice and wouldn't really give you much of an idea as to what to expect.
I can't honestly explain why I like the record either. A lot of it seems rather haphazard and half-formed, like the result of some cocktail party gone wonderfully awry (next time a party like this happens, call me, Chuck!). Boasting an all-star cast featuring the who's-who of the international avant-garde circuit: Ikue Mori, Toshio Kajiwara, Audrey Chen, Tom Boram, Chriss Sutherland, Aaron Brenner, Melissa Ip, Colleen Kinsella, Caleb Mulkerin, Jerry Lim, Mick Barr, and Tim Barnes (not that I've heard of many of these folks), Bettis certainly has his work cut for him.
There's a track featuring Melissa Ip reciting a poem about an orphaned girl's period ("Bleeding Orphan"), there's one track featuring Orthrelm's Mick Barr noodling like a man possessed ("Atheist Revolt"), another featuring hypnotic, tribal percussion and processed vocals ("Doumbek Chanter"), and one track that brings to mind what a sedated version of Wolf Eyes fronted by a deranged Qawwali vocalist playing to an empty dance floor in the pits of hell might sound like (appropriately titled "Deathmetal Dancehall").
The problem is I can't tell you why I like any of it; there isn't a sound or a moment that strikes me as something I could point out as particularly noteworthy. I guess something I enjoy about the record would have to be the way each track was put together and in turn the way the entire record was arranged -- very meticulous, but a loose, relaxed kind of feel present, too. But is that a sufficient reason to recommend a piece of music to someone? "It had a nice feel"?
Regardless of whatever reason I may have for liking Community of Commotion, there's no denying Bettis' gifts as a master improviser and sound sculptor. Throughout it all, Bettis plays the "silent-but-deadly" role, preferring to add a variety of texture and color to each piece instead of dominating his collaborator. In doing so, Bettis constructs more of a presence for himself than if he had built layer upon layer of glitches and assorted aural candy. It also allows his collaborators' work to shine through without necessarily dictating Bettis' contributions either.
And I guess that's why this record is worth your time -- and why it makes the point I started out with null and void -- it's simply a marvel to witness the connections Bettis and his collaborators establish with one another. It's precisely this remarkable understanding of each player's role and the almost sensuous give-and-take that makes Community of Commotion such a fascinating listen, but ultimately a confounding one to dissect in a record review.
1. Playful Moaner
2. Mood Orifice
3. Bleeding Orphan
4. Deathmetal Dancehall
5. Atheist Revolt
6. Angry Rainbow
7. Holographic Universe
8. Doumbek Chanter
9. Sleep Terets
10. Motion Narcolepsy