Delving into any recording that bears the mark of the seminal avant-garde label Table of the Elements demands a higher plane of listening than the average pop, jazz or modern classical record. The label's catalogue is a celebration of experimentation and minimalism, but not by the standards of Philip Glass' or Steve Reich's sense of narcotic arpeggios. Rather, each release is an exploration of the imperfections of a single sound grinding into infinity, and the uncharted dimensions contained within each anomaly in tone and texture. Everyone, from Tony Conrad to John Cale, John Fahey to Captain Beefheart, has found a home for the most unorthodox chapters of their careers under TotE's wings -- chapters considered too far out there by most labels' standards.
Table of the Elements Festival No. 4: Bohrium presents five days of music and film that shuns the ivory tower for something that more closely resembles punk rock's outsider ethos and anti-establishment buck. This follows in the footsteps of TotE's Manganese Festival, which took place at the Tula Foundation in Atlanta in April, 1994, or the more recent Dubnium Fest at South by Southwest last March.
Bohrium features performances from some of the label's long-standing acts, including Tony Conrad and Loren Mazzacane Connors, to more recent acquisitions, such as Rhys Chatham and Leif Inge. Each artist brings a distinctive bend to free and defiant music, ranging from intense minimalism to massive heavy metal.
Much of TotE's history is rooted in its work as an archival label, documenting lesser-known enclaves of the downtown, Manhattan art-rock scene of the 1960s and beyond. In exploring the periphery surrounding drone-rock icon the Velvet Underground, label owner Jeff Hunt discovered violinist and filmmaker Tony Conrad.
Conrad landed in New York in the early '60s after graduating from Harvard, and was drawn to the city's blossoming Fluxus art scene.
Fluxus was a phenomenon of the times that mixed strong elements of aggressive humor with absurdity, and was iconoclastic in its treatment of academia. It was antagonistic, but poked fun at audiences who were too invested in the status quo. "I've always felt that a dash of humor helps make things more comfortable while you're delivering a serious message," Conrad says.
A long-out-of-print 1972 collaboration between Conrad and the legendary Kraut-rocker Faust, titled Outside the Dream Syndicate, appeared as one of TotE's earliest releases. Afterward, Conrad became the label's flagship artist.
To apply the term "minimalism" to his craft is a bit misleading. To the uninitiated ear, Conrad's recordings can sound like little more than a constant drone, ground out on a violin. But shifting pitches and subtle changes in tone reveal entirely new worlds in the sounds he creates.
"What have you got if you have music without rhythm and melody?" Conrad asks. "When you narrow the focus that much, you begin to hear a different kind of melody and a different kind of rhythm that's always been there, sitting inside those notes very delicately, but hasn't had a chance to come out in that form until you silence the other elements that have been creating distractions around it."
The effects of alternating pitch during his performances are something he likens to the illusion of watching wagon wheels in a Western film spin backward. "There's the movement of the film and the movement of the wheels, and when they interact you get these weird effects. Those kinds of effects happen in sounds that are carefully controlled if you keep them together. There might be no rhythm on the surface, but there's an inside rhythm, tucked away in the note, like some kind of missing dimension. In those hidden dimensions there are all kinds of movements and rhythmic activities."
On Fri., Sept. 1, Conrad hosts "An Evening in the 1960s Underground," screening films by New York art filmmakers of the era, including those of Ira Cohen, Jack Smith and Piero Heliczer, as well as his own films.
Other events over the weekend include a tribute to Appalachian avant-garde guitar luminary John Fahey, as well as sets of meandering improv rock by San Agustin and Loren Mazzacane Connors.
Norwegian sound artist Leif Inge will perform his "9 Beat Stretch," in which Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is digitally slowed to a snail's pace and stretched out to a full 24-hour concert.
Rhys Chatham headlines two evenings at the festival. On Sat., Sept. 2, Chatham's Guitar Army performs a set of the massive merger of rock-guitar swells and modern classical elegance of his work from the 1970s and '80s. The following night (Sun., Sept. 3), he will premiere a new group, called Essentialist, in which the ensemble's focus shifts to the realm of heavy metal.
Chatham has been a fixture on the New York avant-garde scene since the early '70s, though much of his time is spent in Paris, where he currently resides. He was a student of such early experimental music luminaries as LaMonte Young and Morton Subotnik, who shaped the direction of his early work. But despite those lofty, left-field influences, it was witnessing a Ramones show at CBGB's in the mid-'70s that drove Chatham to pick up an electric guitar.
Since that fateful encounter with "Blitzkrieg Bop," Chatham has straddled the gap between rock and classical music, most notably with his 100 Guitar Orchestra, adopting a hands-on approach to the music. His better-known works, including "Drastic Classicism," "Guitar Trio" and "An Angel Moves Too Fast to See," are at the frontline of his approach. At times, he conducts the players in the traditional manner of an orchestral conductor. Other times, he slings a guitar, always to the level of extreme volume.
Like Conrad, "minimalism" doesn't exactly fit Chatham's approach to the music, which comes from the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Arrangements are sparse and drawn out, focusing on the tonal phenomena that occur when overdriven sounds collide.
Essentialist takes on a more Kantian approach to heavy metal in the sense that Chatham has broken the music down to its basic duties, revealing what exactly makes heavy metal so heavy. "In doing this I hope to arrive at an a priori essence of heavy metal, reducing it to a basic chord progression," Chatham explains. "A basic riff as far as the guitar lines and bass are concerned, an essence that is undeniably heavy metal, yet one that is divorced from its context -- long hair on guys, tattoos, vocal lines, extended guitar solos, 'middle brow' chordal progressions, adolescent boys with raging hormones, etc."
This reinvention of the music by exploiting the base components is an M.O. that underscores Table of the Elements' fingerprint, no matter how minimal or massive the sound. It's a clear and coherent refinement that offers a challenge to the listener and their modes of processing the music. It may be more demanding than what's on the radio and what's on the charts, but it's what good, adventurous music and art are all about.
Thurs., Aug. 31
John Fahey Tribute/CD-release concert
John Fahey/Elizabeth Cotton (video)
Fri., Sept. 1
"An Evening in the 1960s Underground"
Hosted by Tony Conrad
World premieres of two films by Ira Cohen: Brain Damage and Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda
Also featuring films by Jack Smith, Tony Conrad and Piero Heliczer
Plus Hubcap City
Sat., Sept. 2
Rhys Chatham Guitar Army
Film and video featuring Charlemagne Palestine
Sun., Sept. 3
World premiere of Rhys Chatham's Essentialist
Leif Inge 24-hour Concert "9 Beet Stretch"
Mon., Sept. 4
Japanese New Music Festival, Ver. 4
Acid Mothers Temple
With Akaten, Zoffy, Zubi Zuva X, Seikazoku, Shrink Wrap