Thurston Moore & Umut Çaglar – Dunia (2017)
I’ve never entirely known what to make of Thurston Moore – a man who has occupied a singular place in the cultural landscape for the entirety of my life. His first band, the Coachman, was founded the year I was born, and Sonic Youth was among the first I discovered as I entered the underground during late adolescence. Our paths have crossed a few times over the years. We’ve had some nice chats. I really like him as a person, and view his place in the cultural landscape as incredibly important – a guiding light for us all, but his music, with a few exceptions, has never done much for me.
The unique place which Thurston occupies is increasingly rare. He’s a fan and champion of others, as much as musician – the best of a trope, which Mike Watt once distinguished as a musician who comes to their instrument because of their love of music, rather than one who comes to music because of their love for their instrument. He’s had a visible presence for decades and been remarkably successful, while remaining adventurous – defying any loyalty to expectation or genre, and never sacrificed integrity. No small thing. That said, his output, when evaluated within the wide field, is a complex endeavor.
I’m of the opinion that everything should be faced on its own terms, and within its own context. It’s absurd to place a film like Caddyshack next to Citizen Kane. They were made with different intentions, and to fill very different spaces in our lives. They’re both great, and achieve what they set out to, but comparing them serves no purpose. Because Thurston has crossed so many musical territories and contexts over the course of his long career, it seems fair to apply to same logic to the diversity within his practice and output, but this rarely happens. He is almost always viewed through the lens of Sonic Youth, the project within which he yielded the most influence – something which, particularly in recent years, he has worked to unwind, increasingly straying into the worlds of experimental and freely improvised musics.
The truth is, Sonic Youth was never a particularly innovative project. Their sound grew from ground broken by Glenn Branca, and bands like DNA and Mars (no revelation, Sonic Youth were always first to offer credit where it was due), infused with a melodic sensibility which made their music more palatable to uninitiated ears. This doesn’t mean that they weren’t great. Innovation, creative ambition, and quality, particularly within Rock music, are far from mutually exclusive, but in other contexts, this is not always the case.
When I encountered Sonic Youth in 1989, via a dubbed copy of Sister, I was beginning to feel my way into the worlds of Punk, Hardcore, and Indie Rock. Even at the age of eleven, knowing very little at all, I knew I wanted to be kicked on my ass and thrown out of my depths. To my ear, Sonic Youth failed to offer the gut punch and confusion I craved. Like Nirvana, a couple of years later, I didn’t hate it or judge it. They just felt like middle of the road, and someone else’s thing. I trusted their integrity, and would check in from time to time – a little more during the era with Jim O’Rourke, but they never struck a chord.
What my youthful ear had intuitively detected, was part of what made Sonic Youth and Thurston’s efforts so important. By occupying the middle of the road – whether intentionally or not, they were building a bridge, and succeeded to remarkable ends. For a period, their presence and influence ushered an era of pop music which was worth engaging with, and pushed a great many listeners into more challenging realms. But, opening the door for others, and passing through it yourself, are two very different things.
Thurston’s presence in the context of avant-garde and experimental musics is nothing new. These adventures date to the beginning of his career as a member of Glenn Branca’s band, and have been constant ever since. His work as solo and collaborative artist, particularly in recorded form, has been heavily dedicated to it – the quantity far overshadowing his efforts within Rock, pushing well into many dozen releases. Rightfully, he should be considered an improvisor and experimental musician who also played in Rock bands, rather than a former member of Sonic Youth who sometimes improvises and makes experimental music. There are reasons for why the order remains.
Over the years, Thurston’s love and advocation for avant-garde music has instigated collaborations with an astounding range of artists – a who’s who from the early 80’s to the present. But, within the resulting body of music – live and recorded, there have been extremely varying degrees of success. While this is to be expected within a practice dedicated to venturing into the unknown – risk of failure is intrinsic to the process, in the case of Thurston, it is also where the problem often lays. He is a guitarist who has his thing, and does it, but takes very few risks, and hasn’t proven particularly adept at contending with approaches which stray beyond his own. In effect, he largely transfers the same approach to guitar, with its palette of sound, that he deployed in Sonic Youth, into what ever situation he enters. This is great when placed against the fierce, emotive blowing of players like Mats Gustafsson and Joe Mcphee, or a guitarist like Bill Nace, but has a disastrous effect when interacting with someone like John Russell, who’s delicate playing I had the misfortune of hearing Thurston bulldoze, during a gig at Cafe Oto in London.
Of course every player has their thing, and there is no fault in that, but, within experimental music, a great deal draws on the experiment itself – venturing into the unknown and breaking your own mold. In the words of Eddie Prevost, to learn to make music as if it has never been played before. A fairly standard strategy is making room for those with whom you are playing, listening, being guided by them, and responding. To quote another British icon, John Stevens, if you can’t hear another musician, you’re playing too loud, and if the music you’re producing doesn’t regularly relate to what you’re hearing others create, why be in the group?. These are challenges which I’ve always wanted to see Thurston rise to – to hear what he sounds like when he doesn’t sound like himself, and what others push him to be. This is what makes experimental music so remarkable – the unknowns, and the becoming of the sum of the parts.
To an extent, you can’t entirely fault him. In their purest form, avant-garde, freely improvised, and experimental music have no defined perimeters or aesthetic, Rock music has both. Players of the former spend lifetimes trying to achieve freedom from the constraints of definition and habit, while those from the later struggle toward an iconic, defined sound, something which Thurston achieved remarkably early in his career. It’s not easy to throw that out the window and unlearn everything you know. In many ways, the faults within his body of experimental work are a consequence of his passion for this music. Had he taken more consideration when forming his collaborations, and stuck with players more suited to him – Gustafsson, etc, I doubt I would have given it much thought. But what’s the fun in that?
When Thurston began showing regularly at gigs in London, subsequently moving there and playing many himself, I wondered if he was entering a more introspective, adventurous period in his career. Sonic Youth was becoming a thing of the past, and his new home was host to one of the most rigorous communities of improvisors on the planet. It seemed like the time was right, but, as these things often do, it’s taken some time. The Austin, Texas based imprint Astral Spirits‘ latest releases, a collaboration between Moore and the Turkish guitarist / multi-instrumentalist Umut Çaglar, is an indication that this period is beginning to bear fruit.
Çaglar’s name carries far less fame than Thurston’s, but no less respect. He’s been part of the Turkish underground for years, notably as a member of Konstrukt, a project which has been making waves since the late 2000’s, collaborating with everyone from Marshall Allen, Peter Brötzmann, Evan Parker, and Joe McPhee, to Akira Sakata, William Parker, Keiji Haino, and many others. During the same period, he’s sculpted an equally impressive body of work under his own name. Konstrukt, and Çaglar’s efforts at large, stand among the great emblems of contemporary improvised music – sculpting an aggressively ambitious creative realm, defiant of geography, focused on forging unmediated conversation through sound.
Given the cadre of names Çaglar has collaborated with over the years – most of whom occupy the fiercer territories within improvised music, Thurston is an obvious collaborative match, but as their duo unfold across the two sides of Dunia, obvious is the last thing which springs to mind.
Dunia is one of those moments which reminds you of what improvisation and experimental music is all about. Not only is the LP creatively stunning and filled with surprise, but it is the sum of its parts, rather than two players contributing signature sounds. It’s almost impossible work out where one begins and the other ends. Each, where ever the are, appears through responsive and balanced texture and tone – the hallmarks of sensibility relinquished to a moment filled with unknowns. It is a mistake to approach Dunia through any system of generalities. While largely constructed from the atonal sounds of electric guitars – well within the palette for which Çaglar and Moore are recognized, it’s crucial to move beyond superficial aesthetics – to listen to what’s actually happening. The album is a clearly the product of the ear, as much as the heart and mind – of both players bending their sensibilities to make room for the demands of the other. However aggressive or challenging the outcome may appear, it is a clear product of mutual respect, restraint, and learning in real time – a near perfect capsule of what makes experimental music so great.
Dunia is the product of two equally balanced minds, making it unfair to focus to heavily on Moore, but, given his place in the cultural landscape, it’s hard not to exclaim, it’s about fucking time! The LP is the realization of a long road – arguably the best I’ve ever heard him, and proof that an old dog can learn. It makes me incredibly excited to hear what’s next, and from what I have, it seems like Dunia is the beginning of an incredibly rich chapter in his career.
Yet another stunning release from Astral Spirits, joining their already incredible catalog of adventurous sound – a rare insistence of quality, which has returned me to label loyalty which marked my youth, making me want to buy an entire discography on faith. My hats of to all involved – Çaglar, Moore, and the label itself. You can check it out below, and pick it up via the duo’s Bandcamp page, Astral Spirits, or from a record shop near you. I highly recommend that you do.
Thurston Moore & Umut Çaglar – Dunia (2017)