I have to admit, about half the time I’ve picked up a record just because the name of the band wouldn’t leave my head—and who can forget a name like Borbetomagus? Those of you who are historically-inclined will remember that being the archaic name for the German town of Worms, although there’s little (overt) connection between that bit of antiquity and three guys from New York—Don Dietrich, Jim Sauter and Donald Miller—who play sax and guitar and in the words of Byron Coley of Forced Exposure, throw down “balls on the line improvisation with enough energy to flatten buildings.”
Borbetomagus first caught my eye back when their Seven Reasons for Tears LP appeared in the Dutch East India mail-order catalog. Only slightly earlier had I bumped into Coley writing glowingly about the Borbeto boys, so I slipped a check into the envelope and held my breath. That disc impressed me enormously (and as soon as I can get the CD reissue of it I’ll write about that one too), and after that I kept their name on the short list of artists to pick up whenever one of their releases crossed my path at a not-too-murderous price. The pricetag often turned out to be the deal-killer: when I lived in the city and made periodic forays downtown to Tower Records, a lone CD copy of Live at InRoads glowered at me from the racks every time I walked by for the low, low price of $26. I finally caved in and plied the plastic one evening when me and my wife were in the company of another friend, neither of whom think much of my musical tastes.
Few records in my collection have the power to clear rooms like this one. As my wife put it, “It sounds like being stuck in the middle of the worst traffic jam ever.” This is where a discussion of the band typically turns to statements like It’s just noise or How can you listen to that? or, more pragmatically, Anyone could do that (a sentiment echoed, however jokingly, by the audience member who calls out at the beginning of track 3, “Can we play too?”). And no, I can’t say this music is for everyone—in fact, I could probably count the total number of people I know personally who’d savor InRoads (or anything by Borbetomagus) on one hand—but those who are drawn to the material, sometimes in spite of themselves, don’t need to defend their fascination with it.
The typical counterpoint I hear to liking such a thing is, “Well, if you do anything weird, you’re likely to find someone who likes it,” which explains nothing. Within the space occupied by musicians who use “free sound” (i.e., noise), there are people who do it with a great sense of purpose and unity, like Borbetomagus and Merzbow, and then there are people who do it without bringing anything more to the party than their own egotism and vanity. This is not the sound of people indulging themselves, but losing themselves completely in their work, letting something come through them in a way common to all great improvisational music.
So, a traffic jam. Yes, all those horns—but there’s only two of them playing the sax, and somehow they manage to sound like five times that number. Sauter and Dietrich are the nucleus of the group, and a lot of the visual interplay between them doesn’t come through on record. One common on-stage move is for them to press the bells of their saxophones together (an early track of theirs was indeed titled “Bells Together”) and synchronize their breaths and their playing in ways not possible for two soloists playing conventionally. Miller’s approach to his guitar is just to use it as a sound source, one to blanket and surround (and complement) the other players. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s playing what, which is in itself rather startling—a phrase that I was sure was the guitar was in fact being played by the sax, or vice versa. The ultimate effect is to have a set of instruments that you normally think of as having highly separate sounds being blended together into one unified if violent shape. Instead of building to a crescendo, it’s all like one giant sustained crescendo that rises and subsides in different forms.
Curious parallels suggest themselves. When I first started teaching myself Japanese, I actually went about the whole thing backwards: instead of buying textbooks and learning the grammar, I picked up a kanji dictionary and started learning about radicals, stroke-counting and all of the other headache-inducing esoterica that most students of Japanese put off for as long as humanly possible. To me, the kanji mystery was the essence of learning Japanese, and if I could climb over that wall first, the rest was bound to be a snap. (To a great degree, it was.) And in the same way, I wound up diving into the deep end of the free-jazz pool by swallowing Borbetomagus whole, long before I ever touched all of the more palatable music it had been spawned from—Coltrane’s sheets-of-sound, Albert Ayler’s squawking and babbling, Sun Ra, Peter Brötzmann, and all the rest. In fact, going from InRoads to Coltrane’s searing Ascension was such a short leap (in my mind, anyway) that by the time I picked up that disc (cheap!) I wondered why I hadn’t bothered to do so sooner. I had been primed for the likes of Ascension or Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction or the whole of Third Stream for far longer than I’d realized.
In the liner notes for the CD of Live at InRoads is the single best quote that I could use to bolster my case about Borbetomagus. It comes from Richard B. Cummins’s review of the original InRoads cassette, in the March 1984 issue of Cadence: “Stuff like this scares me because, at times, it almost makes perfect sense.”
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind