“There is nothing arcane about it.”

Not too long ago, I attended some performances led by and co-arranged Michael Pisaro, focusing on the music of Christian Wolff and Manfred Werder, on the occasion of the latter’s visit to the West Coast. To the uninitiated, Wolff’s piece “Metal & Breath (2007)” may have sounded like pure silliness. To followers of his music, it might sound completely playful, and perfectly situated within the continuum of his oeuvre. My own take was that it reminded me of late 60’s Art Ensemble of Chicago, and this fully enhanced the listening experience and formulated a connection that I was hearing in music I’d heard for the first time.

Werder’s piece, “20161,” was composed for and was played there before us with an old typewriter. Pisaro also performed his own sparse “A certain species of eternity (1996)”. There was a catch, but then again there wasn’t. Pisaro explained that the two compositions would be performed simultaneously; Werder’s piece: occasionally, rarely, even, depressing a single character loud enough for the audience to just recognize the sound. To his left, Pisaro sounding single, seemingly disparate notes from his own score, at times with grievously less space between tones than Werder on his own instrument.

The performance on the whole was well-worth attending. I likely speak for many in saying that there was wonderment about where this collusion would ultimately leave us. Where the music would end up. As Werder and Pisaro settled their shoulders — an oft-executed (involuntary) sign of completion — 1) the experience was about two simple things to me: the discipline in performance, and 2) not-necessarily concordant, deliberate sounds functioning as music in their own right, without perceived measure or end for the observer, and maybe best appreciated when hanging in space as a catalyst to mindfulness. I fully, actively appreciated it. But I don’t know that I would listen to it again.

Discussing the experience later, a friend was utterly, physically exasperated by it. He’d heard the same thing I had, for the same stretch of time, and couldn’t wait for the Pisaro/Werder piece to be over. His summary, equally as valid: “I have no use in my life for music that is so fucking oppressive.”


I don’t remember the exact occasions upon which I met musicians Reed Evan Rosenberg and Ethan Tripp. Only that they were separate meetings, most likely online. It had been recommended that I touch base with Ethan when I’d begun brewing my own beer. Reed and I shared some overlap, musically, in our interests.

I’d had some knowledge of their work through scattered, obscure sources, and we share mutual friends. So it was natural that we would cross paths. In 2013, I began to visit Philadelphia with some regularity, at least yearly, and it became routine that we would get together, or individually, and sometimes with others.

In 2014, we’d come to know one another well enough that there was regular discussion about each others’ projects, and Ethan and I were causally able to share a bill and perform together along with Barry Chabala, Ian Fraser, and Jesse Kudler. In the late Spring of that year, I’d known that Ethan and Reed would be collaborating on a secretive project for Erstwhile Records. I was unusually intrigued, not least because their record would be released as part of the then-new, cryptic AEU imprint, of which I was equal parts curious and cautious, I suppose. At the time, I didn’t know what AEU was, but had heard from other musicians that it would focus on Americans, along with some other demographic and theoretical criteria that may or may not have been accurate.

Jon Abbey’s deft management of Erstwhile has been responsible for releases that I can easily say are outright groundbreaking. And like any label, or person, or operation can tend to enter, Erstwhile was going through a phase at that time that made me wonder about its direction. I would continue to buy Erstwhile releases, often blindly, but its identity had morphed a slight bit, not unlike a college ball team looking at the core of its lineup as after its seniors’ graduation, and I was privately suspicious of a new and (to me) perhaps unnecessary sublabel that was producing music that I suspected would fall directly into the lineage of the imprint I had come to know extremely well.

By the time Medium Rude had entered post-production earlier this year, I had grown a little impatient: over two years had spanned between our first talks about the recordings they had been working on and completion of the recorded works. Occasionally it would come up in conversation, and I would see in Reed the frazzled indecision of not wanting to say too much balanced with the confidence of a technician who hadn’t fully diagnosed your vehicle’s issues but could provide a rough estimate of the work that would be involved. “What the hell could be taking them so long” never really entered my mind. Rather, “this is going to be so, so interesting, whatever they are up to.”

Abbey mostly, not always, ‘picks’ his collaborators for a given release. Those of us jazz nuts who wonder what Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane could have sounded like together in a residency somewhere? That’s a portion of the thinking that goes into Abbey’s choices, the way I interpret it. Regardless, Ethan was ecstatic that Reed had been the other ‘pick’ for this project. These were buddies who had been on the same side of so many communal arguments about what certain music is, or the intent behind it, or how the ‘cool factor’ is a distractor that should be shot on sight, and particularly as keen observers of what does and does not sprout in the cross-pollination that occurs in music back and forth across the Atlantic. And with that, Jon may not have fully considered what he might have been getting himself into.

To be clear about it, this was an unusual amount of time for such a project to be completed. 24 to 30 months? More? This is the stretch of time between Erstwhile’s announcement of the forthcoming CD and the physical copies arriving from the plant. There was zero holdup in post-production, and I’m pretty sure Abbey had wasted no time when first getting the word out. So this was all Reed and Ethan, gathering material ideas, recording those ideas, listening back to them, deliberating, auditioning new paths to get to some obscure destination, and then waiting. And discussing. They’re both busy people, Ethan and Reed, but made lots of time for this project, and their friendship and their philosophy toward this music strengthened over that time, doubtless.

In many musical relationships, there is a strong element of control. Keep the bassist in the pocket. Rehearse it again. Give the rhythm guitarist his bit in the bridge. Restraint. Insist that the vocalist not leave a given register, do it in a whisper. Your drummer is good, but leave that four on the floor shuffle at home. And rehearse it again. Stretch out a bit, will you? How to get her out of her comfort zone and make the best use out of this damned drummer?

For Medium Rude, it is Reed who is willfully controlled, and much more expansively than any of those examples, at least initially.

Reed is predominantly what some call a computer musician. It’s apt. I came to know his music as the shattered and explosive output of years spent programming, staring into a laptop screen, and demoing what happens with the ears when strings of code are finally released by the human to do their will through speakers. He is extremely good at it, and his work can range from utterly jarring and passionate to outright nauseating, as a matter of physical response. It’s truly brilliant and such a unique approach that the discipline and knowledge that goes into such a process completely escapes me.

For this project, it was decided that Reed would almost fully abandon the computer for tools with which he was not perfectly fluent, if he entered with a familiarity to some of them at all. With the most minor exceptions, Reed is all analog here, forced to make use of a new rig, broken in some ways, that had very specific purposes, with some that required real-time exploration from him. There is a minor bit of programming involved from Reed. But the way it has been described to me leaves me with the impression of someone on an island who must use technology with which he is only conceptually familiar to build a communication device.

The device in this sense is a bit of code through which his own independence comes through: weighted probability triggers to assign Ethan his own crucial functions toward getting out of certain territory, or maybe retreating into it. Musically, it’s real time improvisation pushed back onto the other, bordering on game theory. Where these dynamics specifically play out on the record is anyone’s guess, but it’s fascinating to think about where it might be organically translatable to the otherwise unaware listener, manifesting itself clearly as tension/release. Because Medium Rude is best listened to as a record, with careful sequencing a big part of it, the payoff is that this masochistic struggle that begins with “malevolent neutral” is so violently resolved at the end.

Ethan’s line of work in his day to day makes itself evident in the tools he uses in music. He’s a brewer who painstakingly perfects recipes the way a chef matures and then guards his most inventive creations, all the way down to culturing jar after jar of yeast in his basement, labeled by date, origin, and stage. He is also a graphic designer of an exceptional degree, who is every bit as business minded as he is a student and critic of the finest detail. In performance and in the studio, it makes sense that he engineers his own rigs using DC circuits to drive motors, speakers, and other agitational methods to be controlled only as far as he can predict, while at the same time welcoming unexpected results. Where this machinery can sometimes take over and yield actions in improvisation that he couldn’t have anticipated is as important to Ethan as the correct value of a potentiometer in one of his builds.

The crossover between them is what drives Medium Rude into new territory for both of them. Ethan forced Reed so far out of his comfort zone that there may have been night sweats as a result of deliberating what he could pull off with limited physical resources, when a bit of code and a high powered machine might have solved any one paradox in a fraction of the time. Reed was fine with the challenge — and his level of comfort was reportedly evidenced in their recent live performance of the concept of Medium Rude — and he found a way to push back. Ethan would yield some of his own control by way of a line out from his own rig for Reed to appropriate, using Ethan’s searches at his own table as source material for real time improvisation and even molestation. I’m reminded, at a more basic level, of Cor Fuhler’s credit as ‘inside piano’ for the phenomenal Hands of Caravaggio, wherein his role was as a physical disruptive force to John Tilbury’s characteristically thoughtful phrasing on piano. This push-pull between Ethan and Reed is in every way the foundation of the final work. And it typifies the late night discussions or phone calls as much as the music that made it to tape. It is important to emphasize that as much as Reed and Ethan agreed on processes and what they were hearing in situ, the music is a product of rejection. That is, the common rejection of a particular idea, or of the insertion of a concept and where it might fit in the whole. And certainly the rejection of a given sound as commodity for acceptance of its greater use as a character in a newly devised alphabet.

Ultimately, the sounds heard undeniably sound like Ethan throughout much of the record. And the narrative plays out like a discussion moderated by Reed. In hindsight, had Ethan and Reed chosen to go with their standard rigs for recording/performance, it’s impossible to describe how different the results would have been. While this statement may seem obvious, I’ll say it anyway.

I won’t describe the music here. It feels absurd to do so. Like I said, Medium Rude is best listened to as an album. I hear ‘The Floating Continent’ and ‘The World of Ruin’ together as a long, noisy ballad. And ‘Double Suicide’ is the ultimate in resolution for this record, where Ethan relinquishes his own role and Reed so assertively establishes a sort of bastardized sovereignty. So shocked by it when it spilled into my living room for the first time, I now can’t imagine anything else that could approximate the closure that comes from it. I immediately emailed them after my first sitting with it: “You fucking fucks. This is exceptional.” And it is. It’s among the strongest records I’ve heard in years.

The most I can objectively offer here about their music is this: This record is what effort sounds like.

Regarding the sublabel, and the current limited narrative about its origin and what it is: a setting aside of the AEU as a governing concept or category for this record is the most mature stance with which I can listen. To listen to Medium Rude in the context of something that seems to me to be self-conscious robs the record of everything that is so special and distinctive about it. That doesn’t mean I will stop snapping up each that Erstwhile puts out. I’m not prone to ignore such amazing musicians because of a philosophical distraction. We’re much better taking in Medium Rude and so many other AEU releases as part of the deeply established Erstwhile continuum on its own, divorced from concept or movement or whatever, I think. My view is that it is a fitting document that tells us exactly where the label is, at present, and nothing more.

As there was between my friend and I with the Pisaro performances, there will be differing responses to Medium Rude, and to what the hell it is. And that is what is important about it, or any music for that matter. I won’t get into Cageian waxing about environment. You know what that is. I’m more prone to examine finer specifics, such as relationships (personal ones, lateral ones), experiences, the mood of the observer, or lineage when sitting with a new work. My experience with Medium Rude is obviously influenced by my relationship with the men who created it, and also, from a distance, with the process itself. There is no escaping that. But it is moreso influenced by my own refusal to abandon real expectations, and my experience with it benefitted greatly from doing so.

There is nothing arcane about any of it, at all.


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