Mats Gustafsson takes a challenge, Ork Records captures an era
Mats Gustafsson is known as a mighty Swedish hard-blowing free jazz saxophonist and improviser, along the lines of Peter Brötzmann and Ken Vandermark, but on his new album Piano Mating, you won’t hear any saxophone. You also won’t hear any piano. Gustafsson was challenged by the folks at X-Ray Records to create an album using an instrument he had never recorded before.
What he chose was the PianoMate, an obscure synth made by the company Dubreq, whose best known instrument was the Stylophone, which was a small handheld synth played by pressing a stylus into metal “keys” in order to complete a circuit. The PianoMate does not have a keyboard of its own and was intended to be used with an actual piano; two bars with plungers were to be placed on top of the keys on a piano, so when a key was pressed, it would trigger a corresponding synthesized pitch on the PianoMate, played through the device’s speaker.
Adhering to the rules of the challenge, Gustafsson didn’t even hook up the PianoMate to a piano, opting to fiddle with the instrument and its controls for volume and pitch detuning. Piano Mating, available on vinyl and as a digital download, features two album-length tracks, and side A quickly takes shape with an ocean of sound built from microtonal drones.
As the tones go in and out of phase with each other, they create a subtle rhythm, and the whole thing is simultaneously soothing and nervous, with minuscule pitch movements creating major shifts. Side B is more of a dissonant, menacing pile of mutant molasses, and without the pulses of the first track, it is slightly less interesting. It gradually ramps up in volume, and an ascending pitch slide during the last few minutes acts as its ambiguous climax.
This writer was initially skeptical but warmed to its simple charms after giving in and letting the gentle yet insistent tones envelope him.
Ork Records: New York, New York
Formed in NYC in 1975 by Terry Ork, Ork Records is considered by some to be the first punk record label, and although that alone would be an honor, it doesn’t do justice to what a small miracle the label actually was.
Concentrating on 7-inch singles, it had a roster that was unbelievable in retrospect—for example, its first two releases were Television’s debut single “Little Johnny Jewel” and Richard Hell’s Another World EP featuring his iconic “Blank Generation”—and boasted power-pop notables such as Alex Chilton from Big Star and Chris Stamey of The dB’s.
The new collection Ork Records: New York, New York, available as four vinyl LPs or two CDs with a meticulously researched and beautifully designed book, documents the label’s remarkable, yet relatively small run with a wealth of related material and unreleased tracks. Listening to the compilation—with big names alongside obscure, nearly forgotten acts—and reading the book bring home a number of points, including the feeling that something really special was happening then and there and that it needed to be preserved in a frantic “archival kind of drive” according to Ork.
Also, although one could easily get lost in New York, it had a true music scene with bases at venues like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, and the encouraged serendipity of the city seemed to fuel it; Ork Records president Charles Ball recalled that Robert Quine (guitarist for The Voidoids) “happened to live three houses down from me.”
While several of the lesser-known acts have their appeal, including the perky new wave offerings of Student Teachers, other obscurities seem to miss either a spark or an ingredient that kept them from becoming a breakthrough. Influential rock critic Lester Bangs’ tracks can’t shake the awkwardness from his vocal delivery, despite interesting guitar work from Quine and Jody Harris.
Even if the lesser tracks aren’t brilliant, they help paint a picture of a bustling scene, and when the collection hits its high points, they are overwhelmingly great. The unreleased version of “Fa Cé-La” by The Feelies is revelatory, being blisteringly raucous and more charged than the chilly, jittery version on Crazy Rhythms, and Television member Richard Lloyd’s “(I Thought) You Wanted to Know”—presented here with versions sung by Lloyd and Chris Stamey—is a hook-laden power-pop masterpiece that deserves a spot in the pantheon alongside Big Star’s “September Gurls” and Todd Rundgren’s “Couldn’t I Just Tell You.”
Ork Records captured a moment, but the label itself was too diverse to really be a sort of defining moment for punk. As Ork himself said of punk, “Of course, nobody knows what it is. It was never defined for them.”