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Listening post: Live

by Philip Brasor

Several years ago, the idea of nonjazz instrumentals entered a new realm with the emergence of something called “quiet music,” which is played without a rhythm section on acoustic instruments and based on repetitive patterns. Most of it came out of Chicago, with the experimental quartet Town & Country at the head of the class. Though most quiet music has a dronelike, hypnotic quality, T&C create a groove. The layered instrumentation has a way of getting under your skin slowly and gradually. The band, in fact, once said that the best way to listen to their music is with the lights out “and the mirror ball set on slow.” At times, T&C’s snaky, interlocking patterns sound like the ambient music of Brian Eno and at other times like pointless doodling. It’s as if the members are purposely trying to hide the fact that actual people are behind all this, so it’s a genuine shock when leader Ben Vida unpacks his cornet and gives it a toot. The idea of someone’s breath making these sounds seems to run up against the theory of the group: relaxing, beautiful, but eerily detached.

On their new album, “5,” the quartet delves deeper into string music, with Liz Payne’s scratchy viola competing with Jim Dorling’s moaning harmonium for the main textural signpost. Interestingly, T&C is often compared to musicians like Autechre and Mogwai, mainly nonvocal artists that rely heavily on high-voltage drama. But T&C expend nary a watt in their pursuit of a perfect and unique ensemble sound and it won’t damage your hearing.