Kevin Parks / Vanessa Rossetto - Severe Liberties (ErstAEU)

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The pairing of Kevin Parks and Vanessa Rossetto may, at first, seem odd. Parks seems largely interested in pure portrayals of improvisation—his collaborations with Joe Foster and Alice Hui-Sheng Chang are comprised of untouched recordings and his live performances don't show signs of prior preparation. Rossetto, on the other hand, would primarily consider herself a composer. And since the release of Dogs in English Porcelain, her records have been the result of meticulous assemblage. What makes Severe Liberties so satisfying, then, is how these two elements—composition and improvisation—come together so harmoniously.

As Matthew Revert noted in Surround, Rossetto's music is interesting because her "source material is often gathered from improvised experimentation" but "is made to exist within a compositional framework." On her solo releases, field recordings are frequently juxtaposed with instrumentation or one another. This consequent reframing highlights, or perhaps imbues, certain emotional qualities to the sounds we hear. Furthermore, the musical qualities of these sounds are explored, and there's a spirit of randomness to them, even if they're coming from pre-programmed machines like those in "348315" and "Whole Stories".

Parks, then, seems like a perfect counterpart to Rossetto because of how talented he is as an improviser. Acts Have Consequences, for example, sounds like a carefully coordinated record. There's a precise balance in dynamics between both Parks and Foster and it's surprising that each track is completely improvised and unedited. That Acts Have Consequences sounds just as thoughtfully constructed as Parks' record with Hong Chulki and Jin Sangtae, an album that was mixed and edited, only further attests to his abilities.

The combination of these two artists leaves us with Severe Liberties, an album whose title refers to the numerous edits that were made with the source material—hours of improvised recordings taken in Vanessa's home. And as the record starts, it makes that idea known to the listener with the sound of contact microphone-derived sounds bouncing across both channels. As Revert's fantastic cover art portrays, Severe Liberties is a record about exploring domestic spaces. It's about our homes and the familiarity of it both as a place and a feeling. And with three tracks that range between 14 and 22 minutes, we're able to get a feel for this space. As is characteristic of previous albums from both Parks and Rossetto, these long-form pieces allow for an involved engagement with these tracks and get a sense of their unfolding narratives.

There are a lot of sounds we hear across these 53 minutes—zippers, the stacking of dishware, processed electronics that sound like fireworks—but it's all so purposefully considered. Take "the details of the anecdote": early in the track, Vanessa walks around and we hear floorboards and doors creak. She eventually turns on a faucet and water begins to funnel down the drain. A high-pitched tone then appears, and because it's so noticeable, it naturally draws our ears back to the running water. And in that moment, we're able to compare both sounds and acknowledge and appreciate the inconsistent rhythm of the water's movement. A softer electronic hum soon appears underneath to assuage the previous tone and the piece moves forward. This sort of methodology permeates Severe Liberties and is exactly what makes it so captivating: there's a constant redirecting of our ears—across field recordings and instrumentation, timbres and rhythms, melody and silence—and it feels like a tour of the house, perhaps not lineally in space or time, but in mood.

Despite the variety of sounds that exist inside Severe Liberties, a few seem especially significant. One of those is the use of voices. While Rossetto has incorporated vocalizing before, and even used her own voice to provide a meta-narrative in Whole Stories, what's here seems especially candid and naturally presented. About three minutes into "seeing as little as possible", we hear her casually talking with someone who is presumably an acquaintance. It's a short exchange, and it's obfuscated by a bit of noise, but it feels all the more personal because of it. The attention isn't drawn towards the conversation. Instead, it's just another sound in the mix, another element that brings up a familiarity of home—the short but polite conversations we have with neighbors. And at the end of "they sit", we hear Rossetto ask Parks, "are you getting tired?" It's humorously positioned, as Parks gets cut off and the following track abruptly starts, but it also provides a glimmer of humanness to the piece. It's safe to say that the human voice would provide such a feeling regardless of what it said, but it's also the genuineness of the question here, and the sound of a weary Parks replying "yea" that makes it so effective. Home is, after all, our place of rest and where we should feel cared for.

Even more emotional is Kevin Parks' guitar. It's often used here alongside contact microphones to create different textures but what really stands out is Parks' decision to incorporate highly melodic instrumentation. These passages appear about halfway through each track and when they arrive, dominate the mood of the piece entirely; it's a sharp contrast with how all the rest of the sounds on the album function. And consequently, it's why these sparse guitar chords and melodies feel more potent than when they appeared on Acts Have Consequences. Nevertheless, Parks' guitar feels wholly appropriate, essentially contributing to the nostalgic atmosphere and tone that the album often evokes.

Perhaps the most interesting element on Severe Liberties, though, is silence. There are four extended periods in which we hear absolutely nothing and they each function in multiple ways. For one, they provide a nice flow to the album; their presence is a building of momentum through repose. At the same time, their placement in each track also allows for the sounds that precede and follow them to be all the more effective. Most compelling, however, is how they allow for us as listeners to fill in the space with the sounds of our own home. It becomes a participatory event, which naturally makes the record all the more intimate.

There are numerous reasons as to why this record is such an accomplishment but it ultimately comes down to how beautifully these artists' styles converge. They're both incredibly talented, of course, but the natural merging of styles on Severe Liberties goes beyond that; it's because both Parks and Rossetto were willing to accommodate their own ideas for a greater whole. Various aspects of Severe Liberties sound characteristically Parks or Rossetto-esque but the final product is something unlike anything in either artists' discographies. And for that reason alone, Severe Liberties is worth hearing. Fortunately, it's a success in many other ways as well.

Devin DiSanto/Nick Hoffman - Three Exercises (ErstAEU)

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The opening track of Three Exercises ends with a brief statement: "It's August 9th, 2014. Devin DiSanto and Nick Hoffman, St. Thomas the Apostle Elementary School." Yet before we're told this, certain sounds help to establish the environment we're in—tables squeak loudly across tile floors, doors with push bars reverberate as they close, and both a parent and child talk in the distance. Even if one hadn't glanced at the photos that decorate the CD's packaging, one could likely deduce that these performances took place inside a school gymnasium. But more than just an unveiling of the sounds and location that characterize Three Exercises, "preparation / introduction" reveals a very important component to the album: transparency.

Two writers, Justin Palmer and Sharon Glassburn, are tasked with recording notes out loud into a tape recorder. And throughout the album, we get an understanding, albeit a vague one, of the ensuing sounds. The actual three exercises that take place are hard to parse, however, and an overlap of sounds between tracks diminishes any sense of clarity regarding when each activity took place relative to one another. In "sequence 1" and "exercise 3", we hear Devin playing with a Boggle game—the container is shaken, an hourglass is flipped, and a list of words is recited. Interestingly, a portion of the former is replayed over speakers in "sequence 2", and DiSanto performs a variation of this process that replaces the Boggle game with Bingo, cage and all.

The first and second "exercise" tracks and "sequence 1.2" seem to be interrelated. From piecing the tracks together and viewing the images on the cover, one can somewhat figure out what's going on here: duct tape is measured and placed on the gymnasium floor, DiSanto walks along the duct tape foot-to-foot with a collapsible table that's placed on a moving dolly, ping pong balls fall off that table and their end point is numbered and marked with duct tape. An interlude entitled "recreation" also occurs midway through the album which, appropriately, features basketballs being dribbled and shot into the gym's hoop.

For many, the task-driven nature of Three Exercises will be reminiscent of DiSanto's Tracing a Boundary. On that record, numerous sounds—namely the folding of paper and the soft hum of wind—were heard in an open space. The piece channeled the calming nature of working on a project or doing housework on a Sunday afternoon. Instruments were occasionally played and announcements with specific times (e.g. "13 minutes") periodically interjected but they never detracted from the overall mood. Three Exercises isn't exactly meditative but it feels very much like the product of DiSanto's approach there with Nick Hoffman's texturally-minded works via different types of synthesis (on this recording, frequency modulation and dynamic stochastic synthesis). It never gets too noisy, but it's a clear combined effort and the interplay between both musicians is harmonious and engaging, often helping to pace the record effectively.

There's a lot happening in Three Exercises but the beauty of the recording is that its mysteries don't need to be thoroughly decoded to enjoy. At times, the reveal is delightful—knowing that the terrifying crunch that opens "sequence 2" comes from a spinning Bingo ball cage is hilarious. But more often than not, a play-by-play isn't necessary to be fixated by what's present on these eight tracks; the juxtaposition between the twirling Bingo ball cage and the silence that follows is potent and affecting whether or not we recognize the source. And because of that, the record holds a fascinating paradox of sorts—the semi-acousmatic nature of the work affirms how nonessential it is to see and know the source of any given sound to appreciate it.

During my initial listens of Three Exercises, I made sure to pay close attention to Palmer and Glassburn's notes. At first, they functioned solely as guides who helped me unearth what DiSanto and Hoffman were doing. But after my "need" for them was presumably finished, their roles shifted from somewhat auxiliary to indispensable—their voices, usually signified with tape feedback, were important elements that contributed just as much as anything else to the sonic make-up of these tracks. In other words, the very things that exposed these sounds were better appreciated as pure aural elements. Three Exercises is transparent but the innate qualities of the sounds therein, and our visceral engagement with them, take precedence. And the record manages to point out that exact phenomenon. That the alluring mystique of the record's production is sustained after its literal unveiling is at the heart of what makes Three Exercises a masterpiece.