Various Artists: A Simple Procedure

Founded in 2010 and overseen by Mem1 duo Mark and Laura Cetilia, Estuary Ltd. has a reputation for releasing provocative experimental works, and its latest release, the double-CD compilation A Simple Procedure, certainly upholds that tradition. In form and structure, it reminds me a little bit of the Modulation & Transformation and Electric Ladyland compilations Mille Plateaux released in the ‘90s: in listening to each collection, you never knew what exactly you were going to get, but you knew your musical understanding would be profoundly altered by the time it was over. Forty-four pieces are presented on A Simple Procedure, and joining artists who've previously appeared on the Estuary Ltd. label (Blevin Blectum, Ed Osborn, Mem1) are familiar names such as Stephen Vitiello, Daniel Menche, Yann Novak, Robert Crouch, Steve Roden, Kraig Grady, Geoff Mullen, Keith Fullerton Whitman, and so on.

The release isn't just an unrelated grab-bag of experimental pieces, however, but one rooted in the work of John Cage, specifically his 1952 Imaginary Landscape No. 5. Using the I Ching as a guide, he conceived of the piece, rooted in chance operations and equipped with instructions, as a blueprint of sorts for the production of any possible work—even if it was formally created for a solo dance performance by Jean Erdman called Portrait of a Lady (in Cage's own words, “This is a score for making a recording on tape, using as material any 42 phonograph records”). In the spirit of his piece, the forty-two new works on A Simple Procedure were cut onto seven-inch vinyl discs using a Presto 6N lathe recorder from the 1940s, and Estuary Ltd. has issued each of the forty-two recordings as singles, with Mark Cetilia's woozy realization of the Cage work (generated using custom software and the A sides of the forty-two records) included on the B side. Both analog and digital versions of Cetilia's realization appear on the two-CD set (issued in an edition of 200 copies).

The limitless range of possibilities afforded by Cage's instructions translates into a compilation that includes all manner of artistic expression. Some of these three-minute pieces are voice- or field recordings-based (Ido Govrin's “French Beach,” Geoff Mullen's “Spring Walk in Karlsruhe”); others feature acoustic, synthetic, and electronic sounds. Indicative of its stylistic sprawl, feedback studies, guitar and synthesizer experiments, piano deconstructions, noise explorations, spacey ambient-drones, mutant drum workouts, and gamelan miniatures all find their way into the release.

The open-ended quality of the material invites personalized projections, such that Area C's “Porous,” for example, reminds me of the tense closing sequence in Full Metal Jacket. Elsewhere, Amnon Wolman's “Untitled (For M&L)” glassily shimmers like some sci-fi soundtrack proposal, and Kraig Grady's clangorous “The Skirmish of Birds in Cat Museum” lives up to its title. Rare is the piece that conforms to something resembling conventional song structure, though Val Martino's acidy electro-funk cut “Nice Vice” does exactly that. Isolated moments aside, A Simple Procedure honours Cage's spirit and sensibility in a way that would no doubt delight the game-changer were he still with us, and the release also impresses as a document of contemporary experimental practice.

Textura (2015)