Among the taxonomy of actualized music, fewer genre/genre-like terms distinguish music worse than ‘composed’ and ‘freely improvised’ music, especially when they are interpreted as opposites. The two have a clear meaning — in fact maybe a more precise definition than most musical descriptors. While images of what it means to compose or to improvise carry weighty priors, their substantive meaning in relation to the ‘new music’ they are often ascribed lies solely in the process of each. In other words, the terms do not adequately separate aural qualities in the musics to which they are attached. If I were to play Helmut Lachenmann’s “Grido” and Derek Bailey’s “Paris” to virgin ears, their sounds don’t inherently convey that one was composed and the other improvised. This obviously isn’t a new or novel realization on my part, but the uselessness of the dichotomy, the idea that there is neither improvised music nor composed music, but just music, is something that sadly requires restatement too often. If you needed further evidence of this unity, then maybe you ought to listen to Radu Malfatti and Keith Rowe’s behemoth Φ.
Both of equally stellar credentials, Malfatti and Rowe come from disjoint backgrounds. The Austrian-born composer and trombonist Malfatti has been associated with the Wandelweiser composition group almost since its inception and the improvising troupe Polwechel in its nascent years. Keith Rowe may very well be the most accomplished living player of improvised music. A founding member of the groundbreaking AMM and brainchild of M.I.M.E.O., Rowe’s tabletop guitar playing is almost inseparable from the new music often categorized as eai (electroacoustic improvisation).
Listening to Φ, it is obvious that Malfatti and Rowe are not attempting to dismantle the composed/improvised binary. In an interview with Erstwhile’s Jon Abbey during the recording session for this album — an essential companion to Φ — Malfatti directly addresses the vacuousness of this distinction:
…I don’t see a very big difference between improvised music and composed music, because in composed music you can arrange the sounds in a specific way. In improvised music you can as well, but you really need all the other people with the same understanding, the same feeling. But that’s nothing new, because that always has been like that, even in free jazz or Dixieland, you need the people to produce a certain thing. So as I said, I think the main topic, the main interest, is the space and the structure of how to place rooms or commas or sounds. For me, this is the most interesting bit today.
So then, as Radu points out, Φ is just music, even if the first two discs are performances of compositions while the third disc is an improvisation. And, as one has come to expect from Erstwhile, Φ is damn fine music.
The first disc commences with a composition by Malfatti’s Wandelweiser compatriot Jürg Frey. A nearly silent piece, “Exact Dimension Without Insistence” only stipulates a sole low note for trombone and guitar, providing time markings without specific temporal instructions for this perfectly ordinary reality. Transitioning into slightly denser sound fields, Cornelius Cardew’s “Solo With Accompaniment” ends the first disc. Sinusoidal waves and electronic crackling flood the backdrop, while Malfatti’s trombone intermittently slides into the foreground. “Solo” teases with fleeting unitary moments, during which the timbres of the trombone meld with Rowe’s tabletop hum, producing sounds anew only to quickly recede into ambient shuffling.
Disc two again finds Malfatti and Rowe as performers of compositions, though now players of their own works. Malfatti’s “nariyamu,” which loosely translates to ‘ringing stops,’ is again a sequential change from the structure of the first disc, a further increment toward fullness of sound. Orbiting tonality, “nariyamu” resonates with electronic and trombone sustains, pitching tones within an epsilon radius of harmony against another — tones that disagree without being disagreeable. An accomplished painter, Phi dissipates into Rowe’s “Pollock ‘82,” the score for which is an artifact in its own right. Abstract expressionist, as the title suggests, “Pollock ‘82” is Φ’s prickliest piece yet. Never approaching the density of “nariyamu,” on “Pollock ‘82” Rowe unleashes the bizarre world of his peculiar instrument, scraping out unique sounds that defy words while Malfatti barely emits noises beyond muted breathes.
And then finally we reach the third disc and the first fully improvised piece of Φ. Gargantuan, “improvisation” feels like a culmination, a partial restatement of the formative discs. Techniques from the composed works are abound, but there are surprises within “improvisation” (a certain transistor radio REO Speedwagon sample ought to delight). Even still, the three discs don’t sound terribly different. The compositions are inexact, some being graphic, and thus demand improvisation; clearly I am missing the “view from the window” in “improvisation.” Nonetheless, neither “improvisation” nor the works on the first two discs are distinguished by the terms ‘composition’ and ‘free improvisation.’
But again, there is an aura of acceptance — in Φ and concretely in each’s words — of this entanglement; Malfatti and Rowe are post-composition, post-improvisation. However, there is a weightlessness to this album being just music. Φ feels important, capable of statement. Maybe then Φ’s statement is that instead of it being just music, it is music; there is no reduction. Φ is what Feldman found lacking Cage: it “always hover[s], uncertain, between two possible answers.” While admitting the necessity of the procedural titles ‘composed’ and ‘improvised,’ Φ avoids self-identification in sound, instead birthing a continuity of love and music, something that lives eternally.