Charles Curtis, Alan Licht, and Dean Roberts
(Blank Forms, 2023)
The vinyl was already sold out before the release date, so this historic 1999 minimalist drone classic might only be available digitally—unless Brooklyn’s Blank Forms operation decides to issue a cassette version, as is their tendency. The mixed trio of cellist Charles Curtis, guitarist Alan Licht, and electroacoustic composer Dean Roberts (also playing guitar) arrive from differing, though connected realms. Curtis is primarily known for his deep and durational association with La Monte Young, the arguable founder of minimalist music. Licht emanates more of an alternative rock aura, closely aligned to free improvisation. Roberts is less familiar, arriving in New York from New Zealand to have the first two records of his Thela combo released by Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace! label. Back in the spring of 1999, the three embarked on a European tour, including a session for the Amsterdam radio station VPRO. These recordings are here presented as the LP-length May 99.
The threesome didn’t decide on much prior to playing, their only advance intention being to use extended sine wave tones as a foundation for their improvisations. Once these were set in motion, they had permission to become the dominant structural force, both in terms of volume and constancy. Often, the guitars and maybe even the cello add their own shaped feedback accumulations, although sources are unclear during these recordings. If we’d observed these musicians play it would be easier to assign responsibilities. But this is the joy of such documented environmental music; its mysteries of creation, its disembodied irresponsibility, its communal making, at the service of the drone.
On Side 1, the volume curve rises on the multiple hums, the tangling of strings taking place at an initially lower level. Although hovering, the music does so with rapidity, an out-of-breath pulse. This could be a sliver of a much longer improvisation, as the trio sound like they’re immediately activated, on the move. The cello refracts like a jaw harp in a hard tooth-grip, resonance shifting. The pulsations become more oppressive and dominant, with the cello and guitars almost acting like tinny adornments. This will change, as coiffured guitar feedback comes into play during Side 2. Snatches of radio or television recordings occasionally creep around at the edges. There’s a tone that sounds like an accordion or a harmonium.
The trio’s aim seems to be to recede the known characteristics of their instruments, sharing feedback, commingling tones. There’s a low-hung shipping container metal bass crung-rumble. The ongoing drone-scape produces a pleasing sense of claustrophobia. The English free improvisation (into moderne classical) collective AMM must be invoked as a precedent (besides the clearer choice of La Monte Young himself), particularly in the way that guitarist Keith Rowe has probably been a strong influence on Licht and Dean.
There is a democracy to the drone. Side 2 sounds like a new piece, although continuing the established essence. Small object manipulations continue on the strings, dragged, squeaked and rattled, as the tonal mass becomes steadily louder, deeper and darker. Tense bass frequencies emerge for a closing ten minutes that enjoy a thicker consistency, as tiny metallic fiddlings surface in the tar pit. This is a heavily communal music, in service of the drone. The WAV file of Side 2 has the look of a huge plateau. Play loud! Wear headphones! Await the cassette!