CD Review: Tom Hamilton and Bruce Eisenbeil: Shadow Machine

The duo’s improvisational wonderwork merges old-school electronics with post-postmodern guitar.

The expression “electronic music” is used quite liberally these days, encompassing even audio concoctions produced by non-musicians simply stringing together stock beats, loops, samples, and other pre-fab audio elements within rudimentary recording programs. But back in the ’60s, when synthesizers such as the Buchla (1963) and Moog (1964) modular systems were created, and on through the following decade, pure electronic music was almost exclusively the domain of those who understood synthesis well enough to program hardware synthesizers, and whose musical abilities were advanced enough to make that worthwhile.

Tom Hamilton is one of those guys. His music is rooted in the late-’60s world of analog synthesis, and since that time he has produced an impressive body of work, as well as being a longtime member of Robert Ashley’s opera ensemble, and a staple of the downtown New York music scene. On Shadow Machine, Hamilton plays a Clavia Nord Modular, a digital modeling instrument that emulates analog modular synthesizers, using it to create sound events and textures reminiscent classic electronic works by composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Morton Feldman.

Also a denizen of the New York scene, guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil (featured in the May, 2009 issue of GP) is one of the most original voices in contemporary jazz and new music—be it within the structures of his multidimensional compositions, or improvising freely. Eisenbeil transcends the perceived limitations of his instrument primarily by evolving new conceptual and technical approaches to playing it, rather than employing electronic processing (though there is some of that) or “preparing” the instrument with extraneous objects.

The nine pieces on Shadow Machine were entirely improvised live in the studio without punch-ins or overdubs. The myriad sonic events that occur throughout the album are not organized into immediately recognizable forms, yet they proceed with an undeniable authority and internal coherence that makes them distinctly musical and oddly compelling. What is more, upon repeated listening a new musical language with its own unique inflections and syntax may be discerned. And, on pieces such as “Dusting Off Dada,” the sounds emerging from Eisenbeil’s guitar are so vocal-like you half expect the instrument to literally begin talking.

Additional highlights include the Harry Partch-like tuned percussive clanging on “Dot Dot Dot,” the ping-ponging chord fragments and swarming insect textures on “Mars Fell on Alabama,” the ring-modulated mayhem on “The Salt Eaters,” and the final section of “Little Left on the Left,” where Hamilton creates an ominous drone overlaid with clusters of staccato notes emitted by Eisenbeil, briefly evoking shades of Bernard Hermann.

I’m not sure what else to say about Shadow Machine other than that you should get a copy and listen to it. Pogus. —Barry Cleveland