What Music Can Be

Recent Fossils (ear X-Tacy Records)

Ut Gret
Bear (Independent)

Less the Band

By Tim Roberts

While working on a film version of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Orson Welles said that it was the biggest train set a boy ever had. The same could be said of music. Indeed, like any train set, the whole thing is designed, built and guided by one person or a team who can act as omnisciently as they wish and let the music go where it must, or involve themselves in every note played (which is when someone probably gets miffed enough to uncouple the cars he brought from the train and stomp home). Even so, there is an underlying structure, a few rules to follow (can't have two engines running on the same track in opposite directions), but you have lots of tools to use (jamming Popsicle sticks under the track bed to increase the grade of a hill) and you can come up with something that will make your friends gape while they exhale a lot of "wows" and "gees" and "cools."

Two bands that illustrate what Orson Welles said, one from Louisville, the other with a connection to the city, have released works that are immersed in that possibilities of what music can be: Recent Fossils by Ut Gret and Bear from Less the Band. The only difference is that neither band used Popsicle sticks for anything.

Billed as a 25-Year Anniversary Box Set, Ut Gret's (rhymes with toot sweet) Recent Fossils is a three-disc exploration of the boundlessness of improvisational music while demonstrating how it can all still fit within the structure of composition. In packaging as handsome as a new pastor's first Bible, the selections in Fossils range from pieces built around a single instrument (disc one, "Compositions for Experimental Gamelan") to a variety of improvisational works (disc two, "Idiomatic and Non-idiomatic Improvisations") and finally to their interpretation of an iconic modern work (disc three, "In C by Terry Riley").

The core members of Ut Gret - Joee Conroy, Gregory Acker, Gary Pahler and Stephen Roberts - are joined by an all-star team of improvisational and jazz musicians, including Louisville's Todd Hildreth and Misha Fegin, along with David Stilley, Dr. Eugene Chadbourne, Dean Zigoris, Henry Kaiser and several others. What they all accomplish together is simply astonishing for anyone with ears willing to open and minds ready to receive.

In the first disc, the pieces are based around a gamelan (a chime-y instrument that has the ring of a glockenspiel with the low sound textures of a marimba) and underlying each piece is a soothing tone, like background music for a massage session, while any overlaying melodies sometimes crash together like cars in a dirt track race. Selections on the second disc are heavily rooted in jazz and fusion with some touches of folk and rock. The third disc, Ut Gret's rendition of Terry Riley's In C, was recorded live at the long-gone Tewligan's Tavern, the only place in town where an audience could hear something like Ut Gret one night then slam dance to punk rock the next. Riley's lengthy work is considered a masterpiece of modern music, ranked with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Of Ut Gret's performance, the curious will understand. Others might just hear discomforting noise. And that's OK. The other two discs (along with the scholarly liner note booklet) themselves are worth the investment in the set.

Ut Gret takes its name from two concepts: Ut, a German term to indicate the lowest tone on an organ (also called the base tone) and Gret, taken from the name of the mischievous nomadic people from thousands of years ago who would roam from village to village and alter artifacts, leave behind others from different places and just generally screw around with cultures. In the improvisational music brought to us by Ut Gret in Recent Fossils, we get a foundation (a hint of a composition, if you will), which is the ut of their music and the sometimes zany exploration of improvisation, which is their gretness. In the three-disk set, Recent Fossils gives us a deeper structure of music: the tones behind the notes you hear and the rumblings under the rhythms you feel. Like In C or Picasso's Guernica or William Burroughs' Naked Lunch, it's a grand experiment in an art.

Coming up closer to the surface, however, is a work from a band that acts as a companion piece to other art it creates. Bear from Less the Band stands on its own as a recording of downbeat, down-tempo, dreamy and trippy ambient rock. But it also acts as a soundtrack to the band's stage show and the stories that unfold on the band's Web site, which also contains an interactive Flash-based comic book that explains the concept of the album and why there's a childlike drawing of a robot and a bear trudging through a snowstorm on the back cover.

Expertly-produced by Louisville's Ray Rizzo, who is also the band's percussionist, Bear is full of music that mirrors Rizzo's own musical experiments in pop (with L'Woo), soul and funk (a.m. sunday) and jazz (the Java Men). The songs contain flashes of dry lyrical wit amid the often lovely melodies textured in reverbed guitar and synthesizer. There's some Lou Reed style talk-singing in "I Want to Know You" and a stinging rap in "Cord on Rat." An added treat are the short instrumental bon mots between several of the tracks, such as "Transmission Theory" and "If I Unscrew That Will Your Ass Fall Off?"

Two particular tracks, though separated by others, seem to form the basis of a story: the aforementioned "I Want to Know You" and "I Don't Know You Now." The latter contains a variation of the melody played at the end of "I Want," before the theme featured in "Transmission Theory" appears, followed by a finale where the tempo increases and the vocals become wailing and angry. The two songs act as a theatrical core for the entire work, which makes Bear far more than a stand-alone recording. It seems like it is only part of a larger work that can stand alone, but needs a connection to something visual. It's a soundtrack needing a movie or a stage show. That by no means makes Bear worthless. Instead, it lets its listeners look for their own ways to match their visuals to the music they hear.

Unfortunately, Orson Welles stepped away from his Heart of Darkness project. It would be several decades later before the story was once again adapted for the screen, but not before the locale was moved to Vietnam, the story altered so that it involved a renegade Army colonel and an officer sent to kill him and its name changed to Apocalypse Now. Still, the deep story structure remained intact while the film's creators took calculated and effective liberties with the appearance. Just like someone who takes a simple oval of train track and builds an entire railroad world from it.

Recent Fossils and Bear do that for music.

Check out the musical train sets at www.utgret.com and www.lesstheband.com.