Saturday, November 14, 2009

Good Brain Places

Much about my new home city is still mysterious to me. I'm still not completely sure of where it is I live without printed directions. But it doesn't take more than a few months in Austin to conclude that the place is bubbling over with frustrated musicians, intensely creative freethinkers with much to express and too few close listeners to appreciate them. For every agitated group of unknown noisemakers, there's a full club's worth of jaded hipsters who think they've heard everything but don't know the names of any local acts -- they only go out to see DJ's. In this Austin is exactly like Chicago, San Francisco, Denver, and everywhere else.

One thing that sets this town apart is that by sheer mass, there exist enough weird musicians for a scene to coalesce without much if any audience becoming involved. All around Austin there are little clots of bands who support each other, book shows together, and commiserate at house parties and dive bars over how misunderstood they are. These collectives share band members, record labels, living space, influences; unlike a lot of less fortunate places they seldom if ever all sound alike. One of the signal pleasures of browsing the Austinnitus Audio Series archives is the lack of correlation between musician credits and style of track.

This several-year anthology of improvised, experimental, and "difficult" musics is not for the faint of heart. While some of the pieces offered are soothing and consonant (the New Music Co-op's "Untitled," Alien Time Ensemble's "Sympathetic Drive" featuring Mike Matthews' lovely tenor playing, E.C.F.A.'s rousing Ornette/Borbetomagus sax honk jams) many others are minimalist drones. Appreciating music this free of traditional harmonic and structural constraint is totally subjective, which is kind of the point. I couldn't tell you why Frequency Curtain's "Axi-OHM" is an excellent, fascinating experimental piece while Bright Duplex's "Dangerous Celebrities" sounds like somebody puttering around in the garage sorting tools aimlessly for ten minutes; that's just one person's independent reaction to these recordings. Likewise, the repetition and loop choices of Moray Eeels' "Jobsworth" sounded unsettling and haunting to my ears; another listener could well find it slapdash.

What's important to take away from this generous collection of Texas experimentalism isn't whether there's anything from which you can hum the tune. (I found most of it to be pretty enjoyable although I've been listening to Gastr Del Sol and Glenn Branca since I was 12; I was/am a weird kid.) There's two things that make the "difficult" and "challenging" branches of independent music important for informed fans to absorb. First is the community spirit at work here. There's a lot of good local bands writing pop songs who have trouble filling a club; this fiercely pure brand of DIY experimental is almost by definition made for its musicians first and foremost. In order to have an audience or even band members enough to execute some of their more cinematic ideas, Austinnitus-affiliated artists must support each other tirelessly and passionately. That's a valuable concept to appreciate for narrow-minded guitar-slingers everywhere.

What's really exciting about living somewhere with a thriving, categorization-defying alternative to the alternative is the boundaries being trampled and what that means for music consumers. The Austinnitus page scrupulously credits players and instruments for every track shared, but scanning these listings won't necessarily help predict what the music will sound like. Listening to some of the larger ensemble pieces is an active exercise even for trained ears. Is that a sample, a bowed instrument, a guitar effect? What is recording and what is performance? It may not be possible to come up with the right answer on one's own, but what's important and vital in this project isn't closed-ended answers to questions. It's the continuing process between music and musician, composer and composition, listener and recording, that calls into question very basic assumptions about what is and isn't a finished piece of music and what if any response is expected from it. The chief enemy of the artist in any discipline is complacency; the creators and curators trampling on the perceived boundaries of any art form are performing a valuable service by constantly expanding the limits of what is possible.

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