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“A Thousand Plateaus” Sees Harlow MacFarlane and Ross Birdwise Invoking the Essence of Improvisation

by Utu Lautturi

Utu is a multi-media artist working in the fields of improvisation and sound design.  Support him here.

Experimental sound improvisation is my life-blood. Whether performed alone or with others, it’s one of the most meaningful and meaning-giving activities I know of. You can describe the physical act of improvising sounds by a plethora of terms, such as ritualistic, experimentation, creating art, or simply having fun (of course, none of these exclude any other term—creating art can be via ritual and often turns out to be fun as well). The dimensions of dedication to improvised experimenting are as varied as the human psyche itself. As the title of the tape on review here describes, there are also ‘thousands of plateaus’ of rewards to gain from such activity. On a personal level, at best, an improvised sound session produces an emergent feeling of emotional purification combined with a satisfying sensation of having also been intellectually challenged. Regarding the final product, the piece of sound art, or the music created, you might end up with something that deeply moves you—and even others—on a visceral level for years. Of course, there’s always the fact that most of what you produce through experiment and improvisation will, at least to the outside world, be meaningless or even annoying:  little more than freakish, indecipherable collages of random noises. And that’s why people rarely publish their improvisations. These sessions or rituals are usually something that are conjured by artists for themselves rather than with the intention of publicly sharing them. However, in a live setting where human contact is part of the equation, sharing an improvisation can be a superb experience. It’s strange how much more sense there is to chaos when you see someone give birth to it.

Here and there, recorded improvisations might work out unexpectedly well. They might have such a profound effect on the artist(s) that there arises a compulsory need to make the recording available for a larger audience. There are improvisations with an aim from the get-go to publish the recording, but in any case, compared to other types of music there are not that many experimental improvisation releases out there. In my experience, from these few even fewer will truly reach across and have the potential to actually function as a shared experience. I’m delighted to say A Thousand Plateaus, released by boutique label Metaphysik, is one of those few.

Harlow MacFarlane (Funerary Call, Sistrenatus, Grey Towers Stone Temples)

A Thousand Plateaus consists of two tracks, delivering over ninety minutes of every imaginable category in the realm of ‘unrehearsed and unedited sound improvisation with no overdubs’, as the album’s promotional write-up aptly describes. The arsenal used in the session is very diverse and heavily effected, its architecture ranging from soft carpets of static to intimate plucking and menacing harsh noise walls. We are guided through shamanistic passages, industrial-techno rhythmic swooning, foreboding and ominous ambience, frolicking audio sprites, and layered chaos. Although this kind of variation can most certainly be a recipe for disaster, and although I can’t always find a clear path or a rhyme or reason for every ‘plateau’ the musicians visit (not to say there should mandatorily be any coherence in experimental improvisation), there is a serious and deliberate feel to everything. Even when during a few fleeting moments a more playful and ear-tickling angle is implemented, it feels justified in some way. There is no gimmickry just for gimmicks’ sake. The primal forces and archetypes channeled in A Thousand Plateaus are in stark contrast with the airy and humane jamming vibes present in more contemporary musical improvisations of jazz, stoner and progressive rock, pop-electronic, or various beat-driven styles. The contents of this tape can rarely be described as music—at least not in its traditional meaning. What we have here is more akin to a full-blown psychedelic trip; it’s rich in surprising, even frightening twists and turns on its path to an expanded sense of self-awareness. Yet, the journey is not completely void of human touch. Ritualistic drumming and vocals here and there keep reminding the listener every aspect is created and recorded live.

Ross Birdwise

The production is very good, and the stereo-image pure and wide. The playing itself is skilled, interesting, and varied enough to actually carry the ear, and with it the mind, through the rather daunting task of following Ross Birdwise’s and Harlow MacFarlane’s creative process from beginning to end. Considering both men’s long history in dark audio arts as well as the quality of other projects and monikers they are involved in such as Funerary Call, Sistrenatus, Ejaculation Death Rattle, and Grey Towers Stone Temples, neither the scenery or the exceptionally well-executed overall performance of A Thousand Plateaus come as a surprise. Side A is definitely more frantic with a fast bass pulse giving an anxious urgency to the high-pitched wails and screeches on top, while side B offers a more classic, meditative, and hazy dark ambient ritual (not without juxtaposing surprises, however). It is pointless to analyze in more depth each and every station, mood, or turn on such a long improvisation. If you are inclined to enjoy intense audial experiences, there will be something new to catch your ear on every round of listening. A Thousand Plateaus lives up to its title by offering substance for endless new forms of thought and fresh mental imagery, no matter how dark or desolate they may turn out to be. Headphones are highly recommended for a fully immersive experience.

Birdwise and MacFarlane have every reason to be proud of this recording. They work seamlessly together, each complementing the other, and form a whole that has already proven the test of time (the original recordings were performed ten years ago). Personally, I believe I would feel right at home in this kind of session and would most definitely enjoy seeing it live.