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Charles Cohen
Brother I Prove You Wrong Albert Freeman , May 8th, 2015 13:30

Since Rabih Beaini took it upon himself to reboot Charles Cohen's career on his searching Morphine Records imprint, the long-obscure electronic improviser has become something of a cause célèbre in underground electronic circles. It's quite a sudden and late career turn for a musician who has been steadily honing his craft for 40 years revolving around one instrument, his Buchla Music Easel, in a slow drift from composed works for dance and theatre further and further into free improvisation. The decision put him in stark contrast to most of his peers from the 70s, who followed the mainstream of electronic music into the studio, a realm it is only now emerging from. Cohen's rise is fortuitous and quite nearly an accident, but given shifting currents and ideas in contemporary electronics, his grandfather status as one of the few standing members of his generation makes the accolades he's now receiving quite deserved.   

Cohen never fully disappeared in the interim, popping up for rare solo or group shows in his hometown of Philadelphia, sometimes alongside luminaries and fellow residents like Marshall Allen, and releasing a solo album on cassette in 1988 as well as a couple others as a member of ensembles in the intervening decades. Beaini's trio of archival releases did much to drag him into the spotlight and placed him on stages around the world, many of which found audiences encountering his now-deeply developed sound for the first time. It also placed him in the awkward position of rising to fame on the back of music recorded decades ago that many were only now hearing, with the rift between these dated recordings and his present methods quite clear to close listeners. Brother I Prove You Wrong at last addresses this gap with Charles Cohen's first set of new solo studio recordings in nearly 30 years.

From the opening minutes of his new album, it's immediately clear that the decades spent studying his instrument and playing innumerable performances have given Cohen a grasp and virtuosity in his work comparable to few synthesists. This isn't a showy, classically-informed idea of musicianship, and his long history in the midst of free jazz, noise, and cosmic electronic players is evident. Rather, it revolves around the musicality unique to his Buchla, an instrument that is at once both limited – it uses a single complex oscillator on the semi-modular synthesiser – but approached with vast experience by an expert player, it's expressiveness is remarkable. Cohen has become somewhat of a poster figure for the instrument, and he is known for unorthodox technique and total mastery of it, here heard often live and with only minimal overdubs on some tracks. Research into the design and capabilities of the Buchla go some way to explaining the sounds found here, but the human touch is everywhere obvious. Most pieces could be reductively described as extended sequencer-driven synth jams, but there's a delicateness and refinement and also an emotional content here that is extremely rare in such music.

Like famous long recordings of jazz players doing extended solo sets, Cohen knows that atmosphere and emotional content are more important than density, and as such, aside from the brief and busy 'Cloud Hands' that opens, which offers deft demonstration of the trickery and control he manages over the instrument, the rest of the album emphasises depth of feeling and subtle beauty. The next three pieces occupy the remainder of the first two sides, and they are very deliberately paced, based around slow, repeating sequences and impressive special and textural transformations of simple synthesized elements with emphasis on specialized sounds slowly panning across the stereo field. This is particularly noticeable on 'The Boy And The Snake Dance', where, true to the title, the 13 minute length seems to effortlessly slide past in deep hypnosis as elements are introduced, transformed, and subtly danced around the room with panning. The sound of pieces like this, while sparse to the point of minimalism, is still full and enveloping, and Cohen's development of his ideas is engrossing. 'Formation Of Matter', another programmatic title, indeed sounds like the soundtrack to stellar formation or a slow coalescing of particles into recognisable form as a bassline slowly undulates while higher frequency scrapes and distant bleeps emerge and fade into the background field of sound, slowly accruing mass.

The cosmic drift remains even in 'Mankind And Mannequins', which finds Cohen using his voice completely unaffected and stripping accompaniment back to a bare repeated sequence and hazy, filtered and textured noise. His narrative about a traveling couple and a mannequin in a mall and the difficulties of communications between states of matter and being is not easy to extract a concrete meaning from. Indeed, the backing music is appropriately abstract, and when his vocals fade for long minutes in the middle section and return for the ending, the humanising aspect offers a moment of respite from the pure electronic sound but does not radically change the feeling of the record. 'Beirut' offers another contrast, this time in tempo and texture, as the prevailing drone ambiance of the album is traded for choppier, more aggressive patterns in the high register taken at a faster speed approaching techno tempo even if far away from it in feeling.   

In assessing the importance of artists like Charles Cohen, it's important to remember that he, by only the narrowest margin, missed out on being simply another outsider whose contributions to the music world remained mostly unheard. While unlikely that Cohen's work deeply influenced many before his belated exposure, it's inspiring that he had the courage and vision to keep going, and it's more inspiring that he finally received his due. Striking as they are, the few records of archival recordings said little about where he now stands, and Brother I Prove You Wrong says much more. The album is a deeply affecting work of great and subtle musicianship, accomplished via the most uncommon means, and a vindication for an artist who at long last found an audience but whose work, both now and then, remains timeless.