David Rothenberg - Bug Music [Gruenrekorder/Terra Nova - 2013]
Here’s an intriguing release: the album notes inform us that Rothenberg has made every attempt to “play along” with insect song - playing along live in the field, playing along with recordings (raw or processed) and creating his own insect sounds artificially. He interacts using “bass clarinet, clarinet, seljefoyte and soprano saxophone”, aided and abetted by a few other hands on other instruments. The cd arrives in a playfully packaged digipak, with album notes and text for each individual track.
The opening track, “Magicicada Unexpected Road” is reasonably uneventful, essentially Rothenberg improvising against a swirling wall of insect noise; with his son, Umru, providing electronic squiggles and noises in the mix. Intriguing enough. Hereafter though, the “intriguing” album turns to dung (insect metaphor, check). I’m going to be fairly brutal here (its been a while), so fans of Rothenberg’s work should feel free to stop reading now. Firstly, the second piece, “Katydid Prehistory”, introduces Robert Jurjendal’s guitar - and its horrible. Unfortunately, it has that processed bluesy jazz sound, so beloved of noxious guitarists; he uses it to play… bluesy jazz/jazzy blues and Rothenberg helps him along with similar. Its banal work, alas; even worse, every track featuring Jurjendal is thus rendered unlistenable - except, perhaps, “Insect Drummers 2: The Water Boatman’s Loudest Penis”; where the guitar work is reduced to scrabbling sound effects. Rothenberg’s playing is safe and unadventurous, often operating in languid, noir-ish jazz territories with a few exploratory peeps and poots. There’s an atonal flavour to a lot of his playing, but there’s little here that would stand up on its own. Which is unfortunate, because - more often than not - his accompaniments are often very uninspiring too. The insect sounds are often backgrounded by the dominant Rothenberg, whereas its seems obvious to my mind that the concept of the album would benefit from a more just blending of elements - treating the soloist as just another bug. Sometimes the insect sounds take on the appearance of odd shading for the pieces - like a jazz band with curious electronics; sometimes they are more foregrounded and heavily processed, though always in a somewhat rudimentary fashion. To be honest, the raw sounds are beautiful enough on their own, surely - so if you’re going to process them in any way, they deserve a bit more imagination and exploration. Arguably the best tracks are those which involve the overtone singing of Timothy Hill - largely, I think, because his vocals operate as sound, rather than trying to impose jazz/etc melodies on the insect sounds. The first Hill track, “Glynwood Nights”, though, raises a most pertinent issue for “Bug Music”: “authenticity”.
The album introduction finishes with these words (worth quoting in full): “The three live tracks were recorded out in the field, with no overdubbing by real human musicians and real insects. The others were created in the studio, but all the music has been played, not programmed.”. “Live”, “no overdubbing”, “real…musicians” and “played, not programmed”: authenticity, authenticity, authenticity. These are reasonably hackneyed words today, anyway; but Rothenberg doesn’t just want his cake, he has to have a munch as well. Skirting the (to my ears) suspiciously cavernous reverb on his bass clarinet on “Magicicada Warm Springs”, my main bone of contention is his text accompanying “Glynwood Nights”: “The result is live and somewhat slowed down to reveal the subtleties of human/bug interaction”. I know this is nit-picking, but you can’t have it both ways. (Though, either way is completely fine by me.) Rothenberg is very aware in this area (the execrable “What Makes Them Dance?” sees him singlehandedly multi-tracking an improvising jazz quartet), but the picture he pushes is largely of him standing in a field, joining the insect throng - whereas “Bug Music” sounds anything but that, unfortunately.
Its hard to know who I feel worse for: human ears or the abused bugs. Insects are wondrous creatures, with wondrous sounds and they deserve better, here. I could see Rothenberg’s ideas played out as a 1950’s novelty exotica record: “Bug Jazz!”; with a jazz combo joined by crudely dubbed insect sounds; but otherwise, I feel the tiny invertebrates are crying out for a John Butcher, or Richard Chartier, to sing with them. To some extent, the album art says everything you need to know: its cosy, cute and very cleanly designed; which tells you all you need about Rothenberg’s notions towards the insects and the material sound/production of “Bug Music”. The obvious counterpoint to this, is Dave Philips; who has long worked with insect sounds to great effect. Although, to be fair, he most often leaves the sounds unprocessed and unaccompanied, he nevertheless explores the social and sonic lives of bugs with infinitely more respect and sonic interest than Rothenberg. In “Bug Music”, the insects are as declawed as Jurjendal’s guitar.Martin P