Review: R/S, “USA”

Peter Rehberg and Marcus Schmickler make a perplexing and contradictory duo. Take their computers away from them and their differences, both in theory and in practice, become clear. Perhaps because of these differences, Peter and Marcus have produced just two records together: 2007’s One (Snow Mud Rain), released by Erstwhile, and USA, a live recording released by Pan in 2011. Composed entirely of high intensity, tuneless noise, USA offers no explanation for its rationale or structure, or whether it has either to begin with, which leaves only the quality of the sounds to speak for themselves.

In interviews, Peter Rehberg describes what he does in mostly non-musical terms. Rather than make music, Peter claims he recycles audio. It’s not an easy distinction, but it helps to explain why his music sounds the way it does. His performances are defined by the technology that he chooses to use, which is frequently outdated, and the forms of his pieces are shaped by the way he manipulates samples and chops up sound. Marcus Schmickler, on the other hand, works from concepts, and in interviews he uses more conventionally musical terms, like pitch and counterpoint, to describe his work. As able with classical instruments as he is with synthesis and computer noise, Schmickler’s solo work almost always bears evidence of his musical thinking, whether he’s composing or improvising. But, pinning him down is notoriously difficult, and his collaborative projects are wildly varied. Were it not for his name on the cover, there would be no way I could connect him to albums as diverse as Variety, with John Tilbury, and Rabbit Run, with Keith Rowe and Thomas Lehn.

USA continues that confounding streak. Recorded in 2009 in New York City and Chicago, each of the three featured pieces is a barely controlled eruption of improvised digital tumult. The liner notes refer to the pieces as “real time extreme music improvisations,” but they’re more like walls of noise. Skip to a random part of any of the performances and you’ll find crunchy computer audio being torn apart and reconfigured as asymmetric rhythms, squealing synthetic fragments, and waves of unstable tonality. Structure, form, pitch, duration, and everything else are so smeared that they’re made secondary to the color and quality of the noises used. R/S layer those noises into textured patterns, if they can be called that, until the textures become so intense they subsume everything else. The effect is overwhelming at first, but with time the ears adjust and the music snaps into focus. The textures don’t become less abrasive, necessarily, but they do become easier to discern.

Listening to USA the first dozen times, I was convinced that Peter Rehberg had taken the lead on his American tour with Marcus Schmickler and effectively silenced Marcus in the process, but now I’m not sure. In places, I think I hear Marcus patiently matching Peter’s barrage of garbage audio with long synthetic tones and chunks of digital chatter. Trying to match Rehberg’s onslaught would have been pointless, anyway. Instead, Marcus finds a way to compliment it.

USA is available on Pan Records
Sound samples available at Brainwashed.com

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