Electroacoustic Improvisation (eai), in the tradition of misleading genre monikers, needn’t be acoustic, electronic, and improvised. Although purely electronic eai albums can be transcendent — for example, those of Sachiko M, Toshimaru Nakamura, and Otomo Yoshihide’s Good Morning Good Night — I am of the opinion that the genre is at its best when the electronic mingles with the acoustic. The convolution of the two — whether separate but together, or as the electroacoustic — expands the language of the musician, allowing for a richer sonic palette. Through this fortification, new, unique sounds are born, some of which are both the most beguiling and beautiful I’ve heard in my short life. Throughout his career, Thomas Ankersmit has displayed a keen awareness of the possibilities unlocked by this synthesis. For the past 10-plus years, The Dutch-born Ankersmit has augmented his alto saxophone with various electronic components, resulting in a bevy of live performances, sound installations, and collaborations.
Ankersmit’s first full LP Live In Utrecht mixes the aforementioned alto with an analog synthesizer, laptop, pre-recorded sax, and tapes composed by Valerio Tricoli. As far as I can tell, the live sax is only treated to amplification, thus distinctly placing this record in the electro-acoustic, not electroacoustic, domain. Often, some of the most memorable music of this ilk comes in duo form — Greg Kelley and Jason Lescalleet, Tetuzi Akiyama and Toshimaru Nakamura. In a way, Ankersmit is improvising as two halves of himself, his live alto with his electronics. This ‘duo’ results in a layered drone that builds, fades, then grows again during this nearly 40-minute track. It’s remarkable how well this live performance has been captured. The tones that make up Live In Utrecht can be utterly immersive at times. It is as if in each play the listener is sitting in one of Ankersmit’s installations, triangulated between a multitude of channels, drowning in their sound.
The sax’s voice is ever-present in this set, yet it’s difficult to discern from where it originates. For instance, around five minutes in, amidst short-cicuits and a synthetic hum, you hear a squeal in the upper register of the alto. The tone barely sounds treated; just enough to make one wonder whether it is pre-recorded or indeed Ankersmit’s acoustic instrument. This ambiguity persists throughout the entire album, forcing the listener to focus on Live In Utrecht’s aesthetic value, as opposed to its process.
Some contemporary free improvisation players can sound as if they are constructing with method and techniques, relegating aural appeal to secondary status. And at times, such practices come off as intellectual exercises: something to be thought about, not heard. While I’m sure that many nifty techniques are employed on Live In Utrecht, in no way are they focal. I marvel at ‘cutting-edge’ playing, but I’m doubly impressed when ‘new music’ transcends technicality and is entrenched in the conventions of aesthetics. Few releases I’ve heard from this year achieve this as well as Live In Utrecht.