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If, Bwana

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Since the Eighties, Al Margolis has earned himself an international reputation as a vanguard for experimental music, running the indie cassette label Sound of Pig Music. Among the label's diverse and thrilling offerings, you will find numerous releases by Margolis (under the identity: If, Bwana), wherein he explores a plethora of sonic experiments, transforming conventional sounds into uncanny otherness, and even finding ways to distort unconventional distortions. His music has succeeded in fusing ambience with industrial and musique concrete, producing strange soundscapes that are both soothing and unnerving, often at the same time.

In the Nineties, Margolis evolved the Sound of Pig label into Pogus Productions, replacing the cassette medium with compact disk technology. His own sonic pursuits have matured too, growing ever stranger and more daring.

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IF, BWANA: 33 Birds Went (CD on Pogus Productions)

This release from 1995 features 58 minutes of haunting sonic experimentation.

If, Bwana is Al Margolis. He is joined here by: Ellen Christi on vocals, Brian Charles on clarinet, oboe and saxophone, Kevin Sparkle on percussion, and Jane Scarpantoni on taped cello. Margolis plays synthesizers, sampling, piano board, cymbals, tapes, cello scrapings, and sampled flute. He also composed the basic tracks for each piece, allowing the other musicians to then create their contributions in their own studios.

While each of the five tracks on this CD explore different manifestations of abstract ambience, electronics (provided by Margolis) pay a fundamental role in melding the other performances into a languid cohesion.

The first track consists of lazy droning accompanied by non-lyrical vocals, moaning clarinet, and sedated percussion.

The second track mixes Christi's vocal antics with a variety of bird-like noises in an aviary echo chamber.

The next track offers more weirdness sourced from Christi's voice and strings under stress, with oboe spiraling like a fanciful reminder of humanity amid the otherworldly demeanor.

Track four adopts a more overt stance with in-your-face saxophone drones, warbling voices, and guttural expressions from a cello.

The final piece applies flute to the prior moods, injecting an almost Disneyesque quality into the stately, pseudo-classical application of electronic effects.

Melodies exist among these tracks, but they are often atonal and seemingly meandering (like the avant garde bridging between jazz songs of the Sixties), apparent only after prolonged exposure. The overall tone, however, is one of gentle floating, an easygoing excursion into abstract structure.

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IF, BWANA: Breathing (CD on Pogus Productions)

This CD from 1996 offers 70 minutes of eerie ambience, segregated into three tracks.

For the title piece, Margolis enlists the sonic aid of: Jane Scarpantoni on cello, Dave Prescott on dijeridu, Brian Charles on dijeridu and oboe. He supplies tapes and effects.

This track is expectedly tribal in undertone, replete with Australian droning and tensely tortured cello strings. Swarming through these clouds come unearthly sounds of diverse origin, all harnessed in a sepulchral attitude, creating an impression of regions beyond consciousness.

The next track (at 28 minutes, the longest one on the CD) displays Margolis at the primary sonic helm, playing piano, sampled flute, tapes, and electronics, with the assistance of Detta Andreana on piano.

Here, the tone is even more ethereal, as battered pianos are twisted and reverberated until they resound like shuddering bees of enormous proportion. Infrequent flute noodling provides a stabilizing point for this gaseous voyage, a melodic but bewildered protagonist with whom the audience can empathize.

The last piece features Margolis on vocals, wind, cello, strings and tapes, with Dave Prescott on additional wind, Detta Andreana on organ and vocals, Dan Andreana on vocals, and Debbie Goldberg on vocals.

This track takes a serious turn, as the instruments conspire to generate a concerned tension by mixed choral threads with treated breezes. Meanwhile, tape effects persist in creeping into view and vanishing, like inquisitive moles who have been summoned by the breathy construction.

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IF, BWANA: Tripping India (CD on Pogus Productions)

The three tracks that comprise the 61 minutes found on this 1997 release are extrovert examples of adventurous sonic experimentation.

This time, Margolis is assembling, processing and manipulating pianos and percussion supplied by Detta Andreana, Paul Marotta, Danielle Reddick, Paul Richards, and Anthony Scafide.

The first track is described as being "for three pianos and tape", and that says it very well. Three pianos explore melodic and capsulated dramatic outbursts amid a host of treatments that simulate a chamber of vast proportions and robotic properties.

The second track is "for two manipulated percussionists", which is realistically misleading, for Margolis' "manipulations" transform these often-random beats into a variety of unconventional sounds. Rhythms strive to emerge throughout the piece, finding themselves repeatedly fragmented into a wandering chaos that develops its own quirky structure.

The title track is described as "an audio travelogue with manipulated percussionists". Utilizing vocal effects derived from the taped travel diaries of Dan and Detta Andreana, Margolis adds a ghostly humanity to a cacophony of metallic bangings. Hindi chants surface in the mix, evoking an exotic flavor to this coordinated bedlam.

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IF, BWANA: Clara Nostra (CD on Pogus Productions)

This CD from 1999 offers a single 63 minute composition for 106,476 clarinets.

This music was originally a 30 minute piece that was released on cassette under the title "Horn & Hard Arts (on Sound of Pig Music) in the late Eighties. While Margolis started with four separate clarinet tracks, his tape manipulations bounced these tracks around until he ended up with (roughly) 106, 476 layers. A decade later, meeting the request for a "work for elevator" from an art gallery, Margolis remixed this magnum opus at half-speed, producing "Clara Nostra".

Quite ambient, but at the same time disturbing, this music (in its "Clara Nostra" form) is a dense and ominous excursion through haunted chambers that rumble with foreboding sentiments. Dark and brooding tonalities caper and drone with relentless stamina. The pulsations evolve with gradual velocity, defying monotony with subtle variations and intertwining patterns of quite fuzzy definition. It's like eavesdropping on a conference of monsters breathing with alien cadence. Delicate, high-end trillings resound just beyond the audience's conscious grasp, lending the morass a remote sparkle.

Although quite abstract in description and application, the result is vividly engaging. This soundscape combines aspects of concrete with ambience, producing a subterranean vibe that remains long after the CD has stopped playing.

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IF, BWANA: I, Angelica (double CD on Pogus Productions)

This double CD from 2001 features 121 minutes of almost sentimental discord.

For this ambitious project, Margolis plays guitar, computer, tapes (and the manipulations thereof), Arp 2600, Moog Rogue, and steel cello. He is assisted by: Mike Hoffman on piano board, and Adam Klein on coherent vocals, while Dan Andreana, Detta Andreana, and Debbie Goldberg provide a chorus.

This time, the tracks come in a variety of lengths, from 5 minutes to 19.

Despite the prevalence of electronics in the mix, the backbone of these abstract compositions rely on the abrupt application of unexpected impacts and the tortured mutation of conventional instruments. Rattling metal gates clash with backwards scraping cello, while distorted moans blend with rasping whale blowholes. Vocal effects ricochet off each other like resilient soap bubbles, drifting in an aerial surf of gurglingly explosive synthesizers.

While generally non-melodic, rhythms and dreamy cycles do frequently emerge from this chaotic ambience. Such instances tend to grow rather intense, as if the harmonies exist only to rend the flesh from the audience's faces.

Only one track ("The Railway Station Fire") features lyrical vocals (penned by Jay Noya, and voiced by Adam Klein). These minimally-toned vocals recite a desperate tale of fiery woe in a manner than distinctly evokes the works of Edward Gorey. Behind this narration, a cauldron of electronics seethe and bubble to dramatic effect.

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TOM HAMILTON/MIKE SILVERTON/AL MARGOLIS: Analogue Smoque (double CD on Pogus Productions)

This double CD from 2003 offers 101 minutes of concrete ambience backing recitals of surreal prose.

Mike Silverton is a modern poet who edits and is a frequent contributor to Proctology Today (a professional journal). The addition of his off-center wit and quirky observations to these soundscapes generated by Al Margolis and Tom Hamilton (a veteran to abstract compositions for thirty years).

Silverton's ruminations ramble from subject to subject, one minute analyzing "loose buttons", the next contemplating "loose morals", strenuously drawing connections between normally clashing verbiage, mixing imagery like the pingpong balls in a lottery barrel.

The minimal music occupies the background on this release, functioning as aural enhancement to Silverton's poetry. Appearing every once in a while, these atonal soundscapes lend a fairyland demeanor to the space behind the spoken words, rarely goading any melody from the situation. Bubbling cybernetics drift with sonorous drones and passive textural filigrees.

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