Electronic instruments have been part of improvised music for over 40 years and the availability of digital tools as part of the sound palette is something that can clearly be beneficial. Electronic improvisation and sound art generally refer, at this stage, to forms produced with ones and zeroes rather than the mutable and cranky nature of analog signals. But there are a number of electronic musicians who employ the glitchy circuits of yore, including German synthesizer artist Thomas Lehn, who mostly plays the EMS Synthi-A portable synthesizer (first produced in 1971). Two new discs from the cooperative Speak Easy and John Butcher’s octet showcase Lehn’s work in a variable slice of electro-acoustic ensemble playing.
Speak Easy is a quartet consisting of Lehn, percussionist Martin Blume and voice improvisers Ute Wassermann and Phil Minton. Backchats is the group’s first disc, though a 2008 Cologne performance was issued on the DVD Speak Easy: The Loft Concert (Pavel Borodin). The curious thing about electronic music in the ’50s-60s was its ability to mimic and expand upon the sonic vocabularies associated with instruments and, in some cases, the human voice. In the sounds produced by Wasserman and Minton, this lineage is extended into the realm of free improvisation—trombone or trumpet multiphonics, guttural arco bass scrabble and the like are lent the skewed immediacy of vocal whims. Wasserman’s split-tone throatiness and wide interval leaps recall Albert Mangelsdorff or Axel Dörner, also becoming at times inseparable from Lehn’s sputtering fuzz and ricocheted patter. Spikes and curves could be attributable to Wasserman’s ear-splitting whistles or the knobs and circuits of an archaic synth. Blume and Minton provide a constantly shifting, lower-toned rattle and give the music pan-rhythmic force and bat-out-of-hell drive. Speak Easy are an incredible quartet, especially when given over to the whole and ignoring the particulars.