Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Djll’s Electronic Improvisations on Other Minds

courtesy of Other Minds

Over the last four weeks Other Minds Records has released four new digital-only recordings in its Modern Hits series. (Perceptive readers will note that “modern hits” is an anagram of “other minds.”) The series as a whole is devoted to documenting archival works by the unsung pioneers of electronic music from the Bay Area, and each release focuses on a single composer. I first encountered this series in February of 2016, when I wrote an Examiner.com article about the album surveying the work of Ramón Sender, co-founder, along with Morton Subotnick, of the San Francisco Tape Music Center.

The composer featured on the first album in this latest round of releases is Tom Djll. The title of the album is Serge Works, and it is available for digital download from Amazon.com. The title refers to the fact that Djll’s work with improvised electronic music has been based heavily on his use of the analog modular synthesizer system (known as the Serge Modular Synthesizer) developed by Serge Tcherepnin, Rich Gold, and Randy Cohen when they were all at the California Institute of the Arts in 1972. The album consists of seven tracks, covering compositions and improvisations recorded between 1983 and 1988 but not ordered chronologically.

Instead the tracks are ordered according to the resources engaged in each of the works. The central (fourth) track, “FAT,” is the only “solo synthesizer” piece. Lasting almost fourteen minutes, it is also the longest; and it is actually an excerpt from the entire piece, which lasts over an hour. According to Djll’s description in the liner notes, the piece involves multiple voices derived from patching the Serge modules with minimal intervention by Djll as the “performer.” For the most part it emerges as an elaborate unfolding of a polyphony of sonorities, which Djll describes as an ecosystem of contributing voices. Over the course of the track’s fourteen minutes, one can get a sense of evolutionary forces at work; but my guess is that such a sense is only an approximation of the full scope that plays out over the work’s entire duration. Nevertheless, because this is the only solo composition, it provides the best opportunity to get to know the lexicon of Serge sonorities that one encounters in the other pieces on the album.

Djll’s other instrument is the trumpet, and the first three tracks present studio recordings of duo compositions for trumpet and synthesizer. According to my records, the last time I heard Djll playing both trumpet and synthesizer was when, as a member of Fushigi Kenkyūkai, he was part of a sextet providing live accompaniment for a screening of Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée. (On that occasion he was playing his “surrealist prepared trumpet.”) The booklet descriptions for the album tracks provide a useful account of how the sounds from the trumpet interact with the control parameters of the Serge modules, suggesting that the trumpet itself contributes both its own sonorities and the modulation of the electronic sonorities. This is a far cry from doing little more than playing against sounds captured by a sampler, and I suspect that one can spend many pleasant hours contemplating what sort of underlying logic enables the sonorities that the mind actually experiences.

The final track on the album is also a duo composition. It is called simply “Seattle 1988,” because it is basically a document of a live performance that Djll gave at the Third Seattle Festival of Improvised Music. The remaining two tracks involve Djll’s collaborations with percussionist Ross Rabin. The first of these, “Pair Time,” was recorded in Djll’s studio in Santa Cruz, which he describes as “a giant arsenal of instruments.” Over the course of the piece’s six minutes, both performers navigate their way through all of these instruments, making Djll’s trumpet work far more modest. “Francine,” on the other hand, is a more conventional duo with Djll on both trumpet and synthesizer and Rabin adding a zither to his percussion resources.

During the Seventies, there was a certain amount of aesthetic tension between those who used synthesizers to create tape music, taking full advantage of the diversity of studio processing techniques, and those who advocated “live electronic music.” The leading pioneers of the latter “school” was John Cage, who promoted his position primarily by providing musical accompaniment for dances by Merce Cunningham that involved live interaction with electronic gear, often based on elaborately designed circuitry by Cage colleagues such as David Tudor and Gordon Mumma. Since Cage and company tended to work with basic nuts-and-bolts gear, Djll stands today as an early pioneer of the movement to bring a modular synthesizer into the fold. Serge Works provides an informative survey of his pioneering achievements, making for highly engaging listening experiences that deserve multiple encounters.

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