Sounds Heard: Tom Hamilton—Pieces for Kohn, Formal & Informal Music
Fatehpur from Tom Hamilton’s Pieces for Kohn
Tom Hamilton: Pieces for Kohn, Formal & Informal Music
Fans of the music of Robert Ashley will know Tom Hamilton as the guy behind the consoles who has mixed the voices and processed the electronic soundtrack in real time for all of Ashley’s performances for the past twenty years. Others might be aware of his multifaceted production work and some of his fascinating electro-acoustic collaborations with free jazz improvisers such as Bruce Eisenbeil and Bruce Arnold. The truly lucky have also been exposed to Hamilton’s own fascinating compositions, such as London Fix, an algorithmically generated electronic score based on the vagaries of the London stock market, or his remarkable works for acoustic instruments and processors employing an electronic harmony generator that were collected on last year’s Local Customs.
But the starting point for Hamilton’s unique musical evolution is the material contained on a new two-CD collection, re-issues of two long out-of-print LPs recorded in St. Louis over 30 years ago. The two discs—one a collection of four short solo electronic pieces, the other two extended performances in collaboration with improvisers JD Parran and Rich O’Donnell—show Hamilton’s initial forays into worlds that he has navigated ever since, but they also reveal, perhaps more clearly than any of his subsequent music, his aesthetic lineage—one that is much closer to the DIY aesthetics of the so-called musical mavericks than the established academic electronic lineage that was more dominant at that time.
The collaborative pieces—Crimson Sterling (1973-77) and Formal and Informal Music (1978-80)—start with an interesting performance concept: a completely pre-produced electronic composition over which musicians then improvise. Hamilton, talking about an earlier all electronic composition, confesses in his booklet notes:
In my visits to the museum to listen to my piece, I always hoped that someone would spontaneously walk into the gallery with an instrument and start playing along.
Indeed, the “human” element added by Parran on multiple winds (everything from flute and clarinet to alto saxophone and South Indian nagaswaram) and O’Donnell (on a wide assortment of percussion instruments from around the world) is ultimately one of serendipity. It’s almost as if they are acting out a 1970s comment by King Crimson frontman Robert Fripp about the music of Steve Reich. Fripp said he would have liked it more if someone were improvising on top of all of those tightly controlled repetitive cells. (Might the title Crimson Sterling somehow be a reference to this?) The closest ’70s minimalism ever came to such a rapprochement was the Spaceship scene of Philip Glass’s 1976 Einstein on the Beach, the only place in the entire 4 1/2 hour opera where musicians are allowed to improvise over the pre-composed music. But the interaction between structure and abandon that Hamilton achieves here is even more fluid because Hamilton gives O’Donnell and Parran much more room. The result is much freer, while the pre-recorded underpinnings keep things from degenerating into total chaos.
The four solo pieces are each named after paintings by Bill Kohn (1931-2004), many of whose vibrantly colored images—both abstractions and architectural renderings—can be seen in reproduction on his generously illustrated website. In fact, the first public hearing of Hamilton’s pieces occurred during an exhibition of Kohn’s paintings in St. Louis in 1975; they were simultaneously released on LP and according to Hamilton’s notes “home listening” is “the preferred environment for this music – the sound quality couldn’t survive the social occasion.” Three of the four—Modhera, Girnar, and Fatehpur—take their names from paintings of scenes in India, but there is little in the music that is suggestive of either Hindustani or Karnatic musical traditions. Rather, these works explore with abandon a wide range of timbral possibilities afforded by the electronic medium the same way that Kohn’s geographic and geometric themes serve as a departure point for vibrant explorations of color. The same is true of Bonampak, whose chirpy chatter is more in the spirit of the more rhythmically charged sections of Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon than it is particularly evocative of Mesoamerican music-making despite being named after an ancient Mayan archeological site in Chiapas, Mexico. At times, Modhera feels like A Rainbow in Curved Air on speed, while Girnar hints at the sonic surrealism of Varèse’s Poème Electronique without any of the corporeal grounding. My favorite of them is Fatehpur, which was actually the first one Hamilton composed so it is the oldest composition of his to be commercially released on a recording. It begins as an otherworldly microtonal meditation comprised of superimposed gong-like timbres and morphs about a third of the way through into something much more sinister before eventually returning to its initial ethereal state.