Reissue Of The Week: Tonic 19-01-2001 On Black Truffle

Tony Conrad, Arnold Dreyblatt and Jim O'Rourke appear on Black Truffle's remarkable 100th release. Stewart Smith salutes an essential independent label

“Turn it up!” my partner urges a few moments into Tonic 19-01-2001 by Tony Conrad, Arnold Dreyblatt and Jim O’Rourke. With the volume cranked, the trio’s music sounds monumental. Over the slowly shifting drone of Dreyblatt’s bowed double bass and the shimmer and wheeze of O’Rourke’s hurdy gurdy, Conrad’s violin emanates beams of white light, the soaring tones distressed by sharp jolts of the bow. The texture of the strings gradually evolves, with Dreyblatt moving stealthily up the scale, his deep, dark bass tones giving way to ecstatic arcs and forceful bow strokes that land with a shocking intensity. Conrad’s precise tunings ensure that the instruments develop overtones and colours that transform their sounds.

At times, you can imagine that you’re hearing bagpipes or trumpets, perhaps even electronics. Interference patterns and ghost tones emerge, the dissonant textures pushing the ear and brain beyond the strictures of western harmony. This ecstatic music is testament to Conrad’s belief in the liberatory power of just intonation.

An extraordinary archival find, Tonic 19-01-2001 is the hundredth release from Oren Ambarchi’s label Black Truffle. Fittingly, in Dreyblatt and O’Rourke, it features two of the label’s core artists, and in Conrad, one who has had an immeasurable influence on them and the wider Black Truffle roster. Opposed to the elitism of classical music institutions and the hierarchy of composer-conductor-performer, Conrad aimed “to recapture art music to the social level of pop,” taking his work into underground and DIY spaces, and collaborating with the likes of Faust and Genesis Breyer P-Orridge.

With Black Truffle, composer and multi-instrumentalist Oren Ambarchi could be said to be carrying out a comparable mission. The label makes experimental music and sound art accessible, illuminating a continuum that stretches from the post-war avant-garde to the contemporary underground. Black Truffle is genuinely international and cross-generational, tearing down the artificial barriers between genres, the academy and the underground. Noise, drone, free improvisation, minimalism, electro-acoustic composition, musique concrete, field recordings, song, jazz fusion, rock and techno happily co-exist on the label, some of them within the space of a single record.

Ambarchi, who somehow finds the time to run Black Truffle between making brilliant albums for labels like Drag City and Editions Mego, started the label in 2009 as a vehicle for his out-of-print recordings. It soon became an outlet for his numerous collaborations with figures from across the field of underground and experimental music, beginning with Afternoon Tea, an album he’d made back in 2000. Ambarchi’s heavily processed guitar mingles with the tactile crinkle and burr of Keith Rowe’s tabletop guitar while Christian Fennesz, Paul Gough (aka Pimmon) and Peter Rehberg generate static, glitches and alien environments from their laptops. 23 years on, it remains one of the most compelling meetings of free improvisation and emergent electronics.

Ambarchi duos with the likes of Thomas Brinkmann, Merzbow and John Tilbury followed, alongside the first batch of recordings from his trio with Keiji Haino and Jim O’Rourke. Confounding expectations since 2009, the trio’s annual meetings range from tensely delicate piano, vocal and feedback exchanges to scorching power trio freakouts.

While Ambarchi has continued to release major albums on other labels (2022 alone saw him issue the brilliant solo work Shebang and Ghosted, by his minimalist jazz trio with Johan Berthling and Andreas Werliin) several of his most intriguing solo projects have found a home on Black Truffle. Hubris, released on Editions Mego in 2016, is one of Ambarchi’s most ambitious projects to date, bringing together an all-star cast (Arto Lindsay, Mark Fell, Ricardo Villalobos, Jim O’Rourke et al) for an exploration of rhythmic motifs and explosive skronk. The composition has found new life on Black Truffle, via a superb Villalobos remix that recasts it as minimal techno, and an exhilarating live version recorded with a 15-strong band at the label’s 10th anniversary shindig at London’s Café Oto. Featuring seven guitarists, three drummers and Mats Gustaffson’s howling baritone sax, the relentless climax has to be heard to be believed.

The first Black Truffle release not to feature Ambarchi was a reissue of Giancarlo Toniutti’s La Mutazione, a 1985 classic of dark cosmic electronics. Drawing together elements of kosmische synth, industrial music and electroacoustic composition, the album collapses the hierarchy between institutionalised new music and the underground, making it a touchstone for the Black Truffle aesthetic. Bringing rare albums back into print has become a key part of the label’s mission, with Ambarchi issuing work by major figures like Charlemagne Palestine, AMM, Annea Lockwood and Alvin Lucier alongside less celebrated artists like Ruedi Häusermann and Remko Scha.

Building on these relationships, Ambarchi has gone on to release new music by Lucier and Lockwood, and bring to light previously unreleased material by Arnold Dreyblatt, Alvin Curran, Paul DeMarinis and Anton Bruhin. De Marinis’ Songs Without Throats is a personal favourite, documenting the composer’s explorations of synthesised voice and the digital manipulation of speech sounds between 1978 and 1995. ‘If God Were Alive (and he is) You Could Reach Him By Telephone’ pairs Anne Klingensmith’s vocals and tamboura with a Speak & Spell spitting out strings of letters, while ‘R4T’ is suggestive of an AI response to Sun Ra’s synth and drum machine classic ‘Dance Of The Cosmo-Aliens’. Hauntingly strange and beautiful music. DeMarinis and Klingensmith also contribute to She’s More Wild a preposterous 1981 collaboration with David Behrman, Fern Friedman and Terri Hanlon that takes in absurdist theatrical monologue, country and western, electronics and raga. That’s some funky truffle!

These archival projects are a key part of the label’s identity and help create a context for releases by Ambarchi and his contemporaries: his partner, the Canadian sound artist Crys Cole; fellow Australians Joe Talia, James Rushford, Will Guthrie, Sam Dunscombe, Francis Plagne and Julia Reidy; and globally scattered visionaries like Richard Youngs, Eiko Ishibashi, Jim O’Rourke, Joe McPhee and Dewa Alit. With several of these artists contributing to each other’s projects, Black Truffle has a collaborative dynamic that recalls jazz labels like Blue Note or ECM, while reflecting the vitality of contemporary underground and experimental music networks.

Cole and Ambarchi’s second duo album, Hotel Record features some of their subtlest, most intimate music. On ‘Call Myself’, Cole murmurs over dreamy organ and guitar tones, the meaning of her words just beyond reach. Yet it never sounds like we’re eavesdropping on a private conversation. As the album proceeds, Cole and Ambarchi invite us into their world, as they play card games in hotel rooms and make field recordings of their travels. Cole’s full length solo debut Sand/Layna is more intimate still, extending the Cageian tradition of “small sounds” by amplifying objects and the surfaces on which they rest. Cole doesn’t try to conceal her process, leaving in the sounds of her manipulating microphones and amplification devices. ‘Sand’ builds a sustained texture from rubbed surfaces, the ghostly ambience periodically disrupted by brittle snaps, while ‘Layna’ adds environmental sounds and voice, bringing a human dimension to her abstract sound world.

Two Words, Cole’s collaboration with Australian songwriter Francis Plagne is a gorgeous confluence of abstract texture and song. It begins with a lengthy static section that sounds like layered recordings of waves on pebble beaches and wind through trees, but gradually becomes harder to place as Cole and producer Joe Talia play subtle tricks with the stereo field. Plagne’s organ bleeds into the mix, first as a thin wheedling tone, then as a mid-range drone that slowly gathers harmonic colours. Later, an organ melody meanders in the right channel, setting you up for Plagne’s singing of a text by Berlin based poet Marty Hiatt. His incantations recall the songs of Robert Wyatt and Charles Hayward, set against Cole’s drones, chimes and rainforest atmospherics. Sylva Sylvarum, the second album from Cole and James Rushford’s Ora Clementi project, is another stunner, their voices woven into a lush environment of early digital synths.

Eiko Ishibashi is perhaps best known for her finely orchestrated pop albums on Drag City, but her releases on Black Truffle have been equally rewarding. Recorded live in Tokyo in 2013, Ichida begins as a duet between her warm, airy flute and Darin Gray’s probing double bass. Electronics slowly consume the acoustic sources, which morph into ghostly moans and shimmering chords. Gray’s mouthpiece rasps darken the atmosphere, before Ishibashi clears the air with urgent minimalist piano figures that expand into neoclassical harmonies. Yet the electronics work their way back in for a second side dominated by bit-crushed piano figures, hazy organ and astringent hissing. Produced for the Japan Supernatural exhibition in Sydney, the beautiful and disquieting Hyakki Yagyō explores Japanese history and storytelling through a collage of flute, percussion, electronics and manipulated voices. Last year’s For McCoy is another gem, bringing together lush synths, 1960s production pop and ECM style jazz.

There are many other Black Truffle favourites I could mention – Will Guthrie’s rhythmic juggernaut People Pleaser, the wild sample collages of Alvin Curran’s Drumming Up Trouble, Dewa Alit and Gamelan Salukat’s radical reimagining of Balinese traditions on Chasing The Phantom, Amelia Cuni’s stunning renditions of dhrupad, the oldest surviving style of North Indian classical vocal music – but it’s time we returned to Conrad, Dreyblatt and O’Rourke. Tonic 19-01-2001 was recorded as part of a two-night programme at the New York venue organised by David Weinstein. On both nights, the three musicians presented individual projects, followed by collaborative sets, the first with members of Dreyblatt’s ensemble, the second with the trio. As Dreyblatt’s liner notes point out, both he and O’Rourke came to the project with a deep appreciation of Conrad’s sound world and the just intonation principles behind it. The three inhabit “Tony’s sonic universe”, as Dreyblatt puts it, with great sensitivity and a heightened level of communication.

During the first half of the performance, the density of Conrad’s carefully chosen pitch combinations is almost overwhelming. But what happens in the final stretch is quite remarkable. Light and space gradually seep into the thick string textures, with Conrad cutting through the drones with a pizzicato figure on monochord. The instrument’s mid-range thunk has a gentler sonic impact than the violent bow strokes of the first half, but it marks a significant shift in the music. With O’Rourke’s hurdy gurdy maintaining a shimmering drone, Dreyblatt is free to carve out distinctive figures of his own, his gulping bass glissandi complementing Conrad’s stately violin. Over time, these shapes fall away, as the trio unites in a gorgeous pastoral drone that slowly fades like the sun setting on the horizon. It’s an incredible performance, up there with Four Violins in the Conrad discography, and a landmark release from an essential label.

Tonic 19-01-2001 is out today on Black Truffle

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