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the pathetic caverns - music by artist - Gray Code

eclectic reviews and opinions

Gray Code

4 March October 2001

Now! Music and Fashion (Clarendon, Virginia)

Live in Philadelphia 2000

(Metatron Press, 2001)

Gray Code, for want of a better description, is an electro-acoustic avant/improvisational group. The edition I saw was a quartet, lacking Matthew Ross Davis (trumpet, etc.) but including Joe Zitt (voice, melodica, bass), Brian Fending (percussion, voice), Jonathan Matis (electric guitar, voice), and Thomas Bickley (recorder, "digihorn," mixer, laptop). For the most part, they tended toward the gentler side of avant improvisation -- Fending's percussion was more minimalist than busy, the group was more quiet than loud, and they weren't averse to flirting with conventionally pretty melodic structures (though they weren't bound to them either).

They opened with a striking a cappella piece. In contrast to much of the improvised vocal music I've heard, the Gray Code singers favored long, powerful notes, with some interesting harmony configurations. The overtones produced between the singers made it at times hard to believe that most of the sound was coming from two throats (Matis and Fending mostly added percussive vocal elements). The improvisation also had a welcome sense of humor -- when one of the singers coughed, the cough was immediately incorporated into the piece as part of a new series of more guttural vocal sounds.

It was immediately apparent that this was a group without slouchers--it was hard for me to decide which performer was the most musically interesting, either overall, or at any one time. Zitt was clearly comfortable with the melodica and the electric bass, but his vocal work was the most impressive of his contributions -- he has a strong, resonant voice with good pitch control and breath technique, and a substantial range, but he also has the whimsy to incorporate an array of less tonal elements--snarling, babbling, and other sounds.

Fending played a modified sort of trap kit -- snare, low tom, hihat, and array of cymbals, gongs, and shakers. Instead of a kick drum he had a cow bell on a kick pedal, used with good effect and considerable subtlety. He was clearly aware of the tonal rather than strictly percussive qualities of his instruments. I was particularly intrigued by one section in which he pressed the tip on one stick against the snare head, and scrubbed it rapidly against the other stick.

Matis was the only performer to stick to a single instrument throughout the performance, but I doubt a blind observer would have guessed that. His stratocaster ran through a substantial rack full of gear (direct, he had no amplifier.) He was equally adept with spider-fingered chords, sparse, Bill Frisell-like single note and two-note off-kilter jangles, and more exotic "treatments" -- he got some pretty interesting sounds out of whacking the strings with, i think, a pencil. At one point he had a very super-saturated distorted sound at a very low volume, which was an interestingly unusual thing to hear. He would also sample phrases from his guitar, store them in a delay, and play over top of them in a very Frippertronic fashion.

Bickley was probably consistently the busiest of the performers, because in addition to playing assorted acoustic wind instruments and the "digihorn," a saxophone-styled midi controller, he was also mixing the performance on the fly, through both a small mixing board and a laptop computer. He made considerable use of digital delay effects, capturing one of the other musician's output and feeding it back to them. I think (though I'm not completely sure) that at one point he had his digihorn and Matis' guitar output both triggering the same bank of midi samples. That's perhaps worth mentioning: I was alert and paying close attention, my ears are fairly good, and I'm enough of a guitar/bass player that I can generally coordinate finger movements pretty closely to what's being played -- yet there were a number of times during this performance that I was not completely sure which music was coming from which performer, and which bits had just been sampled, and which were really "live."

As anyone who's ever tried jamming with people in a basement knows, improvisation, even within a well-established framework like a standard twelve-bar blues, can easily fall into cacophony in an instant. The risk of creating a murky din rises, I think, exponentially as you add delay loops, sample-remapping, and other electrotoys to the mix. So one of the things that has to be most noticeable about Gray Code is the players' restraint -- this is a chopsy bunch of folks, but chops are (comparatively) easy to acquire -- the wisdom not to overplay, and the gift of really listening to the other improvisers, and fashioning a cohesive compositional whole, is much rarer than the ability to make some whiz-bang sounds on your weapon of choice. And it was here that Gray Code was, finally, most impressive. The players were clearly comfortable with each other, clearly aware of their own space in the overall mix. But there were also very few moments where I had the sense that someone had fallen into a predictable riff, that things had grown stale -- the sense of exploration and discovery was almost continually present.

Do I sound effusive? Well, I'm effusive.

Given the nature of the beast, it's perhaps not surprising that I don't find Live in Philadelphia quite as enthralling as actually watching the band, and its improvisational direction was a little less interesting to me personally than some of what I saw live. Those are fairly minor quibbles, though -- it's representative of the group's sound and sensibilities, and moreover, it's substantial enough to stand up to repeated listening.

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