December 2022 – January 2023

Arts & Letters

While my guitar gently bleeps: Oren Ambarchi’s ‘Shebang’

By Michael Nolan
Another mesmerising album from the itinerant Australian, in collaboration with some of the biggest names in experimental music

There’s a wonderful double-exposure photograph of Nikola Tesla, at the very end of the 19th century, seated in his laboratory reading a book as electricity arcs wildly about him. It reminds me of my first experience of the What Is Music? festival in Melbourne, at the very end of the 20th, where, among 30 or so others standing back to moderate the blasting wall of sound from whichever experimentalists were testing the limits of the PA, a young woman chose to sit on a wooden chair close to the stage and read a paperback. It was the sort of arch display of pretentiousness you can only applaud.

To be fair, this was often the posture of the performers too – seated and frowning over a laptop – as the festival’s rise coincided with that of a new wave of music produced by wrangling various sound sources and manipulating them with software, effects pedals and so on. In probing how sound and music and noise might overlap, it’s perhaps surprising how frequently the answer to the agreeably snotty provocation of the festival’s name was peals of computerised distortion produced by unassuming men in comfortable pants. But even among them there were clear outliers, producing astonishing works whose maximal volume scrubbed your mind of thought and left you uplifted – the sound art equivalent of emerging from a sweat lodge. (One year, admittedly while suffering a head cold, I experienced legendary Japanese psych-noise-improviser Keiji Haino deliver such a maelstrom of heavily effected solo guitar that it made the agitated air seem unbreathable, until eventually I lost all vision and had to grope my way out of the venue to recover.) There was the cathartic rush of being sandblasted by the sample deconstructions of Pita (the late Peter Rehberg, head of the hugely influential label Editions Mego); the Swiss duo Voice Crack, who placed a table of hacked toys, office equipment and photoelectric gadgets in the middle of the audience, switched the lights off and let it all flicker and surge into an industrial bedlam; and the Finnish electronic group Pan Sonic, whose crisp beats and tones of monumental simplicity were like HAL 9000 transferring all power from life support to a DJ set.

What Is Music? was founded in Sydney in 1994 by drummer Robbie Avenaim and drummer-guitarist Oren Ambarchi, in their young twenties, bandmates from noise-punk group Phlegm. They’d recently returned from sojourns in New York City that had seen them not only exposed to some of the free improvisation and experimental greats of the downtown music scene, but pulled onstage to play with them. A chance introduction led to underground eminence John Zorn recruiting the pair to play for his 40th birthday celebrations at the seminal venue the Knitting Factory, despite having never before heard them. Visits to Japan found a similarly welcoming, open-minded commitment to collaboration and led them to work with key figures in the noise music scene. With such experiences ringing in their ears, they sought to deliver adventurous audiences to some of Sydney’s more boundary-pushing musicians. What Is Music? – doubling down on the Knitting Factory’s What Is Jazz? Festival – embraced all-comers from lowbrow to highbrow to brows shaved off completely. After expanding to Melbourne and Brisbane, it became a cornerstone of Australia’s experimental music scene over its near two decades.

The scene that the festival nurtured and networked has since produced several figures now at the vanguard of experimental music internationally, as performers, producers and label heads, and perhaps none more so than Ambarchi himself. Now 53, he’s a leading proponent of processed guitar, and an occasional power-drummer, who has performed and recorded with a who’s who of new music (including everyone mentioned here thus far), taking in minimalism, drone, doom metal, krautrock, free improvisation, and more. He was named joint experimental artist of the year in 2014 by Pitchfork, and his records appear in albums-of-the-year lists in Rolling Stone, The Quietus and The Wire, which had his greying curly mop on its cover a few years ago. His label Black Truffle supports new experimental music from across the globe, as well as uncovering and reissuing archival works. He tours relentlessly, such that he can’t really be said to be based anywhere: he’s as likely to be found in a short-term lease in Berlin as on a friend’s couch in Tokyo, ducking into studios with his collaborators to record improvised sketches in between gigs and festival appearances.

Such is his reputation that the biggest names in their fields will, in an egoless way, offer responses to prompts he provides so he might later thread them through one of his meticulously produced “solo” albums. A new release, Shebang – any attempt to discuss “his latest album” is thwarted by his being so prolific as to always outrun you; he’s been involved in at least two other significant releases since I started writing this – is again the result of pulling together a remote supergroup for a masterful post-production collaboration.

While he’s taken to crediting his instruments as “guitars & whatnot”, Ambarchi is not a guitarist in the conventional sense. It’s more accurate to say he uses a guitar rather than that he plays one. (I have a memory of another What Is Music? performance featuring a line-up of eight guitarists – led by Scott Horscroft, later the producer and engineer for the likes of The Presets and Empire of the Sun – shredding and rock-posturing but with their output dialled down to zero, so all you could hear was the vigorous scratching of their plectrums, before very, very gradually they were turned up to become audible.) Ambarchi runs his guitars through an array of effects, and thumbs and taps the strings to produce pure ringing tones, deep bass notes that thoonk like a heavy stone dropped in water, buzzes and whirrs, or luscious electronic sweeps. The technique is cryptic – is he sometimes triggering samples? are those piano notes produced by treating the guitar sound in some way? – though he favours hands-on tools such as effects pedals over software. In recent years he’s been particularly fond of employing vintage Leslie speaker cabinets, whose mechanically rotating drums and horns are the source of the distinctive Hammond organ sound of ’60s jazz, or, if you like, the swirling, dreamy effect on vocals such as Ozzy Osbourne’s on Black Sabbath’s “Planet Caravan”.

While he can produce an unsettling squall – as per the final track on 2016’s Hubris, thrown into a prismatic aura with a synth set to self-destruct by American drill-and-bass pioneer Keith Fullerton Whitman – more often his shimmering Leslie swells are hypnotic, and they’re frequently wrapped around rhythm tracks supplied by a host of brilliant players in a variety of idioms. Where Hubris is propelled by the rock drumming of long-time close collaborator Joe Talia, elsewhere we hear beats from English electronic producer Mark Fell or Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista. On 2019’s Simian Angel, Baptista plays some exuberant berimbau, the single-stringed bow played percussively and normally associated with capoeira martial arts. Ambarchi’s search for different sound palettes has found him collaborating with minimalist pioneer Charlemagne Palestine, Egyptian-Canadian oud player Sam Shalabi, Japanese noise maestro Merzbow, and on and on.

His spellbinding recordings can feel like travelling, where at times you look out the window and realise the landscape’s changed. Where are we? That effect is almost literal on 2014’s Quixotism, when a pneumatic sound reminiscent of a train horn signals a border crossing from a popping electronic loop that recalls Oval’s ’90s glitch into a passage escorted by master Japanese tabla player U-zhaan. This shouldn’t imply disorientation; these are rewarding works to which you want to return again and again. But nor is such music especially soothing: there is a tension that keeps you leaning in. The listener is suspended in its repetitions, which rarely resolve but shift into new variations.

Shebang has a kinship with the free-jazz intensity of Ghosted, which Ambarchi recorded together in the studio with the Swedish duo of bassist Johan Berthling and drummer Andreas Werliin and released earlier this year. Ambarchi’s guitar-shimmer is like a fog creeping in among the dark, wet streets of a slow-burn thriller, a feeling heightened by loping double-bass grooves, again repeated at length and unresolved. But where Ghosted traded in a kind of apprehension, Shebang – a return to distant collaboration with another virtual ensemble of audacious diversity – conveys something more akin to joy.

If the mood is lighter, Shebang’s four-part composition still leaves you dizzying and repeatedly caught unawares, all in 35 minutes. It opens with Ambarchi playing solo, chopping up some bright, sparkly guitar lines into a twitchy groove faintly reminiscent of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light (or the Afrofunk styles that inspired it). The clipped tones also again recall glitch, but it’s a reminder that while that could be a cold genre – by design, via a sort of intellectual machismo – it proved a stepping stone to applying such techniques in a warm, inviting way. Beneath this we come to detect plaintive voice-like sounds and a hint, almost a wink, of Leslie-cabinet swirl. Joe Talia is back on drums, and from his sprightly entry on ride cymbals he unifies the album’s developments with a brisk, light touch.

We’re invited to the second section with the appearance of some breathy, flutter-tongued bass clarinet figures from Australian Sam Dunscombe. Bass clarinet is having a moment in pop culture due to Björk’s wholehearted deployment on her latest album, but Dunscombe, now based in Berlin, is a measure too abstract for the charts. Her compositional work with computer music and field recordings led to last year’s debut solo album Outside Ludlow / Desert Disco, an absorbing piece of sound art based on digitising the contents of a piece of quarter-inch audio tape she found snared on a cactus in the Mojave Desert, as well as atmospheric recordings she made in the nearby ghost town. And, like a ghost, her growling clarinet quickly disappears on Shebang, although forensic re-listens, or perhaps some lucky guesses, might determine her presence as a sound source in other parts.

The album shifts to a quieter passage in which a guitar stutters a single note over deep bass tolls and Talia’s deft addition of snare. Together, their unresolved repetitions supply that trademark tension, like a key slipped into the keyhole but never turned. It’s as if we’re waiting for something, and it turns out we’re waiting for B.J. Cole. Cole is a legendary English pedal-steel guitarist who since the late ’60s has sessioned and performed with everyone from Humble Pie and John Cale to Spiritualized and Sting. His most famous trainspotter moment is in providing the Americana on Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”, but Shebang’s liner notes helpfully direct us to Cole’s 1972 solo album The New Hovering Dog, an astounding prog-folk-country-everything-else extravaganza that no doubt the insatiable crate-digger Ambarchi came across at some point. Here, as Talia adds judicious tom fills and Ambarchi’s oxygenated Leslie sounds rise and fall, Cole arrives with beautiful, pedal-steel flourishes, filling the ear with lush sound.

There are stabs of bending electronic bass and a momentary sequence of idiophonic sounds that recall early ’80s Tangerine Dream, and then part three washes in like a beach tide, delivering Chris Abrahams from The Necks. Abrahams’ rolling improvised piano carries this section into more familiar territory, a feeling enhanced by double-bassist Johan Berthling’s inclusion, playing a two-figured line in the closest thing to a normal chord progression possibly heard on an Ambarchi record. It’s shot through, mind, with a variety of angular synth sounds from another of Ambarchi’s long-time friends, Jim O’Rourke. Unusually a songwriter as well as an experimental sound artist and film-score composer, O’Rourke is probably best known for having been a member of Sonic Youth. Now Tokyo based, he has collaborated multi-instrumentally with Ambarchi on several albums, including Hubris, Quixotism and the raga-like Hence (2018), and in the regularly convened trio-de-force they form with Keiji Haino.

O’Rourke’s sawing interjections here prepare us for the album’s final movement, in which Abrahams’ tumbling piano ebbs in favour of some busy, resonant percussive-string playing, like that of a hammered dulcimer. In fact, it’s 12-string guitar from Julia Reidy, another Australian experimentalist now based in Berlin, whose idiosyncratic picking style was, years ago, the original impetus for the album, after Ambarchi heard Reidy playing in Melbourne and issued an invitation to record some source material. The chiming tone Reidy achieves here is mesmerising. (As is Reidy’s intimate solo album World in World, released this year, which marries electronic sounds and hazy, autotuned vocals with an electric guitar customised with moveable frets to permit unconventional tunings.) The electronic bass then returns to its deep soundings, Talia raises the temperature, and Abrahams and Cole make re-appearances alongside Reidy in an ecstatic swirl of sound. By the time you notice O’Rourke’s return, the rest of the cohort are receding, and Shebang concludes with bilious clouds of his synth and a wry two-note coda.

If frequently moving, Ambarchi’s works don’t generally seek to offer an emotional release. That makes him different from, say, Nils Frahm, whose unfolding compositions carry listeners aloft on a path to euphoria. Frahm’s audiences know where they’re heading, like reading Dan Brown – music for airport novels. Ambarchi’s abstractions tend to let you draw your own conclusions. Is it joy here, then? For me, yes, but I also found joy a few years ago in a performance of Nazoranai, the spectacular trio in which Ambarchi plays thunderous drums with Keiji Haino and bassist Stephen O’Malley from doom metallists Sunn O))), which the wincing ushers at Arts Centre Melbourne could only withstand in 10-minute shifts. What is music remains a live question. So perhaps a reading of Shebang’s uplifting mood owes more to the suggestibility of its cover image of a celebratory slice of rainbow cake, or the dachshunds in party hats depicted within. Or perhaps, in these grimly unsettling times, we’re just looking for a lift – streamers, party poppers, and a round of musical chairs.

Michael Nolan

Michael Nolan is the senior editor of The Monthly.

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