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Various Artists - Twelve: A Series [1-5] (Tell All Records)

3 April 2006

San Francisco-based Tell-All Records is a young record label striving to create experimental music that’s exciting and stimulating to the ears. Or, to put it in their own words, “to find important, careful, ecstatic, moody, reckless sound.”

That mission has so far has driven them to release outstanding recordings from the likes of THE KALLIKAK FAMILY, ONE UMBRELLA, and LIAM SINGER, plus an excellent introductory compilation. Each release has straddled that line between what you’d think of as pop music and avant garde music.

Their latest endeavor is a 3” CDR series called Twelve, curated by musician DAVE ZOHROB. The ambitious concept behind it is to have 12 different musicians record pieces built around the notes of the chromatic scale. Each piece can only use one note, in octave, but other than that the musicians have free reign. The results so far have been fascinating.

Dave Zohrob kicked off the series with his own work, e. In it, eerie yet somehow soothing tones repeat, as we hear the sounds of the city, of people going about their daily lives, with the ocean perhaps in the distance. As the piece continues, the tones start to resemble a death toll, chiming away the minutes. Then again, maybe those tones are more like an invisible, external source of comfort; it’s hard to tell.

Liam Singer’s f was performed by an ensemble of 12; how appropriate, right? Singer plays drums and piano, while others contribute saxophone, piano, toy piano, guitars, drums, cello, chimes, and their voices. It’s a boisterous, jubilant piece: near-cacophony that instead of sounding chaotic and intimidating sounds like one big party, one all-encompassing celebration that’s filled with surprises even within its 10-minute, one-note limits.

With g The Kallikak Family go the purist route, holding the same tone for what seems like forever. Is this an act of meditation, of rebellion, or of computer simulation? Hard to tell; listening to it feels like alternately listening to nothing and to a TV station’s that’s otherwise gone off the air for the night except for one lingering sound. The Kallikak Family bio on Tell-All’s web site says that group leader ANDREW PETERSON refers to his music as “PURITY music,” or “the sound a computer makes.” Both those descriptions definitely apply here.

Ohio-based sound artist BRIAN HARNETTY’s contribution is called Desire and Winter Birds. He uses d-flat as the central note, but surrounds it with spliced-up field recordings, jazz samples, an announcer’s voice from a nature program, and much more. Because of that you’re not as aware of the note, though it hangs over the somewhat schizophrenic goings-on as a theme, a mood, a feeling.

The most recent Twelve release is from SCOTT SOLTER, whose new album One River has also just been released on Tell-All. Solter’s EP gb (g-flat) is the shortest Twelve EP, so far, at just 5 minutes. But in that time Solter slowly brings to life a bizarre musical being built from creaks, groans, and whirs that stand at the front while a haunting soundscape hovers in the back.

Thus far, each of the five participants in the Twelve series has taken a unique artistic approach to the project—each recording has been its own adventure, its own surprise. I eagerly await upcoming releases in the series!