In the same week that heightened Homeland Security forced Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdes to postpone his upcoming Rochester concert, the Swedish improv-experimental music duo Sudden Infant was making its own plans to penetrate our borders. And, as far as we can tell, Sudden Infant has been successful.
If it seems strange that Valdes, the much-adored son of Bebo, can't play here while Sudden Infant can, well, that's because it is. Valdes was to be brought to Rochester through the local HavJazz program, a sort of Cuban-American musical embassadorship. And, within the rubric of Homeland Security, Sudden Infant certainly seems more dangerous. No offense to Valdes, but his music isn't equipped to rattle the system quite like Sudden Infant's.
Part free jazz, part punk, part performance art, part "childish nonsense," according to Zürich-based founder Joke Lanz, Sudden Infant is poised to raise all sorts of American eyebrows. And they'll do it with the support of their own government, thank you. Sudden Infant's tour, which starts in Chicago and runs through the end of September, is being funded by Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia. It's a typical example of the type of support experimental musicians in the US would be lucky to have. But when asked about the arrangement, Lanz's punk ideology bristles unprovoked.
"Well, I would be stupid if I wouldn't take the money from the council to support my trips to the US or Japan," he writes via e-mail in rushed and broken English. "I mean, it's a difference to get support from a state council than get support from a multi-national corporation like Philip Morris or McDonald's."
Lanz has been plying his abstract, electronic-based improvisation for the better part of two decades, typically utilizing turntables, various household objects, and toys to construct frantic tapestries of found-sound that are relentlessly restless. This is music well-suited for the short-attention-span set.
A recent live recording finds Lanz with his latest Sudden Infant partner, Nikola Lutz (a classically trained saxophonist and, Lanz writes, "one of the only women I've ever met that is open-minded for traditional music and progressive experimental and noise"), laying out a squirming set of short improvisations that refuse to sit still. Abbreviated quotations from various classical works provide brief moments of foggy relief.
"Like a child, I am always searching for the thing that's coming next," Lanz writes. "I'm always curious to discover new sounds, new combinations, new moments in silence or hell."
We're still trying to figure out what exactly this "hell" is, but we're assuming Lanz means frequent detours into ear-splitting decibel levels or investigations of spiky sound with all its greasy hair left intact. It should be interesting to see how this goes over among the schnooks in the various art galleries and cultural centers where Sudden Infant will be making its US appearances. Like punk rock, this is music that somehow sounds much better when played in a garage or abandoned warehouse, than surrounded by white walls.
Of course, the Sudden Infant sound is nothing new. Aside from the fact that Lanz has been at it for years, a cursory listen to this material by anyone with even a passing interest in improvised jazz or electronics would detect the hallmarks of what has become a musical tradition. Sounds bounce off one another in ways that --- sonically, at least --- make sense. There may be no verse-chorus-verse in tracks like "sectarians in trouble," "my blanch avalanche," or "eat shit!" But this music --- yes, MUSIC --- will communicate with you just the same. It's punk with the guitars-drums-bass-vocals replaced by toys-turntables-electronics-saxophone. So it's fitting, then, that Lanz put in his time as a member of a hardcore punk band many years ago.
"In a way, it is a natural progression," he writes. "Punk was like: Everybody can do everything. Just do it; directly, with no filters. Noise music is still the only non-fashionable style in the music scene, as far as I know."
Perhaps in Sweden. But noise and all its various ancillaries are, somewhat distressingly, alive and well in an age when anyone with a PowerBook is capable of unleashing an unholy maelstrom. Lanz is refreshingly unaware of underground trends, even when he seems to be playing up to them in his own music.
It would be easy to attribute this to some sort of Swedish cultural isolation, but the Internet has done a good job of making "cultural isolation" a thing of the past. Besides, Lanz has his own scene, albeit a small one, in Sweden. And he has his own luminaries to look up to: notably Voice Crack (the duo of Andy Guhl and Norbert Möslang), which has been playing self-described "cracked everyday electronics" since the early '80s, just 100 kilometers away from Zürich in St. Gallen.
"These guys are like the grandfathers of experimental music in Switzerland," Lanz writes. "I always admired their interesting work. I first met them during my radio show, Psychic Rally [which Lanz hosted from 1989 to 1995]. They were performing live at the studio and I mixed my own sounds together with their sounds."
Sudden Infant, Pengo, Emil Beaulieu, Stelzer/Talbot Duo, and Carlos Giffoni play on Saturday, September 21, at Gallery31 in the Visual Studies Workshop, 31 Prince Street, at 8 p.m. Tix: $5 (all ages). 442-8676.