Strange Vibrations

Sound tumblers Chris Cutler and Thomas Dimuzio flirt with the fault line.

For avant-garde composers Chris Cutler and Thomas Dimuzio, musical ideas are kind of like eggs in an earthquake: They hatch, they crack, they shatter and ooze, and they can leave your senses scrambled. One thing's certain, ladies and yolks: The best place to be when the tectonic plate hits the fan is smack-dab in front of the speakers. With your ears -- and your mind -- wide open.

This talented duo's seismic simulations -- whether intended or not -- often result in a highly entrancing listening experience, one in which low-end rumbling and shifting textures sustain a thrill topped only by the rippling body of Mother Nature herself. Considering that Quake -- the pair's first improvised collaboration as a duo, packaged on Cutler's RéR/Megacorp imprint -- drops more industrial hammers than Thor at a blacksmith's convention, it's little wonder that two such adventurous noise-dabblers christened their works with a name from the holy book of Richter scales. "Nearly always, titles are given to things afterward," Cutler explains. "For musical logic, they [the Quake sessions] needed a title. Otherwise, it's just sound coming at you out of loudspeakers. But it's much more interesting to have some cue, some visual idea, some theatrical, dramaturgical notion to hear things through. It makes them more like a narrative."

Cutler and Dimuzio's calculated before-and-aftershocks originate from digital samplers, processors, shortwave radio signals, CD players and an indispensable ingredient called a piezo: a small, flat, disc-shaped device that converts direct vibrations into electrical energy, which can then produce sound through an amplifier. "Whereas a microphone will only pick up sound in the air, a piezo will only pick up sound if it's actually stuck to something," Cutler explains. "The vibrations can be turned into sound. [Piezos are] used to test the integrity of bridges. If there's a crack somewhere, it won't vibrate properly." Compared to Hollywood's Sensurround -- a muddy-sounding bit of promotional hype that placed clumsy V-shaped panels at the back of movie theaters to shake things up during bad disaster flicks like 1974's Earthquake (one where Charlton Heston didn't gun down a single ape, mind you) -- Cutler's methods might seem like something of a pocket-sized quantum leap. And a rather ingenious one. "I piezo everything," he says. "All the drums, cymbals and all sorts of other junk that I have lying around, and it's all run through a mixing desk, and then it goes through various effects units. So it ends up sounding -- most of the time -- not very much like drums at all. But I'm playing all the time. The way I've amplified them is analogous to the way an electric guitar is amplified, and I can't think of anybody else who's actually done that. I don't know why. It's such a logical thing to do."

Go ahead, Quake my day: Ex-Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler shakes things up.
Go ahead, Quake my day: Ex-Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler shakes things up.
Multi-instrumentalist Thomas Dimuzio.
Multi-instrumentalist Thomas Dimuzio.

Raised in England -- but actually an American citizen born in Washington, D.C. -- multi-instrumentalist Cutler is no stranger to technical sleight of hand. He drummed during the '60s in R&B and soul bands, then wound up in a group called Louise, beating skins behind an "improvised electronic row" in London's psychedelic clubs. At the start of the '70s, he began a prolific seven-year stint in the legendarily experimental Henry Cow, a group that shaped much of his reputation. Through possible bovine intervention, these critically acclaimed wizards of prog (Geoff Leigh, Tim Hodgkinson, Fred Frith, John Greaves, Cutler and occasionally Peter Blegvad) combined didactic political ideology that railed against the destructive nature of capitalism with lengthy, complex and symphonically structured arrangements. Frith's tortured guitar -- heavy with an emphasis on sudden hairpin turns -- electrified the proceedings, which ran saxophones, organs, wild rhythms and assorted gadgetry through a centrifuge of contortions and strange time signatures. Ignoring rock and roll's hedonistic antics, the band favored left-leaning cultural debates, showcased by 1975's In Praise of Learning, perhaps its most challenging and heralded album. After the Cow was put out to pasture in 1978, Cutler went on to co-found a series of culture-clashing groups: Art Bears, News From Babel, Cassiber, the (ec) Nudes, P53 and the Science Group. He teamed up with Gong, Biota and the Residents before rounding out the late '80s as a member of Cleveland's avant-garage outfit Pere Ubu. Other lasting collaborations -- too lengthy to list in their totality -- include worldly flings with Africa's Kalihari Surfers, Germany's Perfect Trouble, Japan's Mieku Shimuzu, Sweden's Between and Portugal's Telectu. A full-time working musician, part-time composer and lyricist, the busy 53-year-old Cutler has appeared on more than one hundred recordings; he writes extensively about musical theory, teaches abroad, and -- oh, yeah -- runs a record company in South London.

As if that weren't enough, Cutler finds time to occasionally shake things up with notables from this country's avant-garde epicenter. San Francisco-based Dimuzio met his partner in drone more than ten years ago, after he submitted a copy of his harsh-noise debut to Cutler's label, RéR Megacorp, in 1989. "When I came out with Headlock, I sent Chris a copy as well as John Paul Jones and Brian Eno," says the 35-year-old sound designer. "I got a two-page letter handwritten back from that guy [Cutler] in a week and a half. I was blown away. He wanted to distribute it, and he requested fifty some-odd copies! Coming from one of my musical heroes, that was an amazing thing. It made my year." Headlock is the kind of confounding listen that reality-deprived triflers like Rip Van Winkle and Lazarus might appreciate; it's a blistering and dense wake-up call to the wonders of atonality, musique concrète and improg that blurs the traditional line between sound and music. So forget about counting sheep to it. "It gets decent airplay in the UK," the unsung artist notes. "In fact, all my royalties have been international royalties from Headlock."

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