I could only judge this CD a qualified success.
John Eyles 2002-11-20
The Sheer Frost Orchestra operate at the interface between music making and performance art, where the process of creation is designed to be publicly viewed and explained, and is at least as important as the product - the music. The SFO has existed since 1993, and until 2001 consisted of seventeen women (non-musicians, sometimes randomly chosen) playing electric guitars laid on their backs on the floor and struck with glass nail polish bottles (yes, really). Marina Rosenfeld provided the players with a series of techniques (eg the drop, the hop&), with "musical parameters" (such as fast vs slow, dense vs sparse&) and a grid-like score. So, the SFO is deliberately against technical virtuosity in favour of serendipity, against phallocentric guitar-heroism in favour of a detached, unphysical approach to playing.
In this latest version of the SFO, twelve women played electric guitars and five sampled the sound of the guitars and transformed it on laptops. The recording dates from a performance at the Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC, in April 2001. Interestingly, a cursory glance at photographs of the event, with the women kneeling over the guitars to play them, might lead one to think they were at work in a sweatshop. Here is a telling quote from Rosenfeld: "It was fun, and then it started to sound good." For anyone who has not seen the SFO in performance, that is the crux of the matter - how good does the music sound, away from the event? Does it have a life of its own on CD? The answer is a very qualified "yes".
The twelve guitarists produce sounds that vary in frequency and texture, but there is little variation in note duration, less melodic content than is contained in the most uncompromising improv guitar performance, and only brief rhythmic passages. The laptops produce sounds only distantly related to the sound of a guitar - low frequency modulated drones reminiscent of a didgeridoo, very high frequency electronic twitterings at the threshold of (my) hearing - which contrast with each other to produce a textured electronic composition.
At present, I could only judge this CD a qualified success. After listening to it about a dozen times, it seems to be revealing less with each listen, rather than opening up fresh insights and interactions. Despite the electronics, the music is rather flat and uniform, lacking highs, lows and climaxes. I cannot imagine stumbling upon this CD in a year's time with a shriek of delight and a shiver of anticipation at hearing it again.