Here is a submission that proves not only that the musical avant-garde is alive and well, but that the mine of contemporary “free” music is so rich, it’s astonishing what you can find if you’re willing to dig. I point out the latter because I’m reminded of a recent discussion with a colleague, in which we noted that it seems most of the current free music touted as “experimental” seems to be made by people who don’t actually know how to make music in the traditional sense; just about anyone with Pro Tools or Logic software can throw together some scratchy sounds and bleeps and bloops and release it as a “noise” album. God, there’s a lot of that about, and you can’t tell most of it apart. Anyway, our griping was probably just mean-spirited, I suppose. Some of this music is done very well, and I myself make lots of music here at this very same computer on which I write these reviews.
Still, it was a distinct pleasure when I started listening to this fine album to find it a truly wonderful, meditative slice of challenging avant-garde in the finest tradition of mid-twentieth century “indeterminate music”. This music popular with smartypants on the New York scene in the fifties has been described as “pitch shadings that seem softly unfocused; a generally quiet and slowly evolving music”, and Pastel fits the bill perfectly.
Ivan Čkonjević is a guitarist from Subotica, Serbia, and this recording is on the Brlog label. His credits include being a member of post-rock band Ana Never, the collective Belgrade Noise Society and Orkestar Gradovi utočišta. None of which, naturally, have I ever heard of. But I am going to check them out!
Pastel is comprised of six lengthy tracks based on Čkonjević’s guitar tones, which often sound very much like an Ebow was employed, as on the first and fifth tracks. These long, drawn-out tones conjure spartan mental visions of Abstract Expressionist paintings in the same way the music of Morton Feldman (my personal fave) does, and are also a little redolent of Frippertronics at their most abstract. These sounds alternate on other tracks with tones more like a piano, glockenspiel or celesta than a guitar, but guitar was the source. The artist informs me that the album was recorded in his apartment “with two zoom recorders, and without later overdubbing. All sound is guitar-based. It was played on two amps.” Perhaps this spontaneity is what adds the air of authenticity that this album definitely possesses.
Čkonjević has help here from Filip Đurović, who handles “sound editing”. Accompanying the guitar is some pretty neat sound art, for example on the second track, “Imp. Hrom žuta”, which is grounded in extremely abstract and subtle sounds, like a manipulated cymbal — organically generated sound waves, you might say (but guitar-based). A delightful sequence of celestial bell-like tones (made with a guitar too) enters about halfway through the piece. They also incorporate field recording-type (indoor) environmental sounds to add mystery, as on the third track, “Imp. Kvarc siva”.
The album concludes with a twenty-two-minute piece of echoing piano-like notes, eventually accompanied by the longer guitar tones and also featuring those weird real-life room noises going on simultaneously. The effect is quite eerie. Then the album concludes with a mysterious crying baby!
So, you can mix experimental sound art with music in a very effective way; there may be a lot of amateurish “guy and a computer” albums out there these days, but Čkonjević’s album is not one of them. This is expert avant-garde music that produces a contemplative, hypnotic mood from the first note and holds it for the entire 80 minutes of this recording. Clearly this is music made by an imaginative man who understands the rudiments of composition and can apply them in an improvisatory situation.
For lovers of abstract sounds such as the music of Feldman, Cage, Christian Wolff, and others of that ilk, this will be a treat. It’s one of the finest recent releases I’ve heard. And it’s a free download.