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Imperfect Masters – This Humanly Mess: Music of el Cerrito for Clarinet and Boot, Vol. #23

Full of Nothing

The Boot is a four string, open-tuned slide instrument made by Robert Horton who has played his creation in many bands and in collaborations with Neil Campbell, Tom Carter and Yellow Swans. Horton is an improviser who designed this device to allow him to contribute his own unique sounds and styles to the usual timbres of free improvisation.

The clarinet is certainly a more a familiar instrument, though perhaps not in the hands of Dan Plonsey, who is more frequently found with a saxophone of some sort in his hands.

These two accomplished musicians come together here as Imperfect Masters. Having released music on Digitalis and Students of Decay, this particular album is a contribution to an ongoing series (put out by a variety of labels) aiming to capture the experimental musical activities in El Cerrito, California.

These two gentlemen are accomplished and hard-working artists in the west coast experimental tradition. Plonsey studied at Mills College under Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros and Anthony Braxton. Horton has played in dozens of groups, released numerous cassettes since the early 1980’s and of course, studied the actions of Harry Partch well-enough to understand the magical relationship between creating musical objects and creating music itself. Perhaps it is the fairly recent move toward DIY / circuit bending that inspired Horton to start releasing music again after a long hiatus.

Although I am interested in The Boot as a unique sonic tool, it is the clarinet that stars on this release. While Horton mostly constructs background drones, sitar slides and liquid, acoustic modulations; it is the reeds that sing on the center of the stage. From old-world scales in the Dorian mode to a drunken, jug-band blues; the clarinet expresses emotion by calling out for attention. The reeds flutter and wail, never screaming, but crying out for something grand.

The most gratifying moments are to be found in the musical relationship between these two performers. Either both of them are such well-rehearsed improvisers that they easily blend and connect on each song, whether it is a lo-fi porch jam or a shtetl-jazz flashback, or what we are hearing is the evidence of an intimate musical relationship between talented friends.

Only on the last song, “Canyon Trail Bamboo” does Horton’s boot playing get to take the lead. This track is the farthest from any genre tradition and also quite memorable. As the boot bends wildly and quickly scrapes between octaves, the clarinet adds distant sounds of twisted steam engines which slowly bend and rise.

Other than that, this is primarily a clarinet album. As Kurt Vonnegut supposedly said upon meeting Benny Goodman by chance, “I play a little licorice stick myself”. And as a musician who occasionally tries his hand with that voice, I am seriously impressed by the sounds on this cassette. Many players make the clarinet sound like an old ragtime 78, the Klezmer/jazz leads of a Tzadik release or perhaps even the opening titles to a Woody Allen film. Plonsey hints at these signifiers, sometimes with the feel of direct quotation, but the sound is always his own. Musicians who are aiming for the sound of that old front porch, small town swagger tend to pick up the acoustic guitar or one if its close relatives. This album has that rustic feel, and embraces that distinctly American comfort, using the clarinet instead. This is why the boot is the perfect choice for its accompaniment. It is an instrument that is easily capable of capturing country and Dobro scratches, as well as electric slide guitar vibrato, but its tones always remain somewhat alien.

The music on This Humanly Mess… has some obvious reference points in early jazz, droning minimalism, backyard bluegrass sessions and even carnival music. Somehow it easily avoids being stuck under any of those labels. This is free improvisation. This is noise, but it so far from the current trends toward more academic, electronic noise and purely indebted to the idea that friends ought to be able to simply grab an instrument and freak out with each other as a way of communication and as a way to push each other’s ideas and responses into new artistic adventures.

Track List:

A1) Another Creepy Melody
A2) Final Hour
A3) No See’em Blues
A4) Peter’s Ghost
A5) Crescent Moon Over El Cerrito
B1) Barn Owl Confronts Daylight
B2) Into an Out
B3) Petty Doggerel Charms the Frogs
B4) This Humanly Mess
B5) Canyon Trail Bamboo

Rating: 5/5
Written by: Prof. Melon
Label: Full of Nothing (Russia) / FON35 / Tape
Free Improvisation / Noise-Folk / Jug Band Blues