Improvising trio Vaster Than Empires (Allen Otte, Erica Dicker, and Paul Schuette) formed in Cincinnati where Dicker and Schuette were pursuing doctoral work, and Otte had been a pivotal staple of the new music scene for decades as a member of Percussion Group Cincinnati. The byproduct of their collaboration has been several years of poignant, fresh improvised music informed by their collective experience in many genres of music making. This album chronicles the time they spent making music together during the summer of 2021 at Otte's home in the Ohio Valley.
Vaster Than Empires (Allen Otte, percussion; Erica Dicker, violin; Paul Schuette, guitars) brings a focused intensity to their improvisational flights, morphing seamlessly between multi-dimensional textures in which the three players ebb and flow between primary and supportive roles. While the creation is spontaneous, the shared aesthetic between the three is apparent in their symbiotic sense of pacing, development, and structure.
The opening track, Astral Crosswind, opens with overlapping, cyclical phrases on pitched percussion, the sound of wind chimes heard through a distorting filter. Schuette enters imitating the repetitive/non-symmetrical nature of Otte’s phrasing with a morse code like figure outlining a tritone on distorted guitar while Dicker plays strident, glissando inflected lines in the high register. Otte returns with a storm surge of sound that washes inexorably over the texture before it blows over. This progression all happens within the first three minutes of the album, but the long lined evolution of the trio’s phrasing is indicative of their intuitive instinct for collective composition. The density of the opening gives way to a more spacious middle section with Dicker playing disembodied high sustained pitches while Otte plays disjunct flourishes on flower pots. Astral Crosswind ends in a dystopian haze, the kinetic energy of the beginning having faded away into poignant hybrid timbres.
The sounds in the initial minutes of Seaward Galaxy suggest foghorns, gulls, and the creaking of docks, though it’s not clear if the music or the title came first (likely the former…). The trio’s penchant for patiently allowing a compelling parameter to emerge as the primary element is evident as we hear electronics squealing emerge from the mix to the fore at the 2:40 mark. At 4:30 the trio returns to the undulating gestures of the opening, now accompanied by a pervasive, unsettling static. Dicker and Otte share a brief percolating acoustic duo before a bowed, multiphonic solo. An extended passage explores insistent regular rhythms on the triangle, and overtone based exploration on the violin. The piece closes with glitchy humor, each player delivering dry, prickly sounds that light up the mix like small sparks.
Empyrean Tides starts with the tambourine punctuating angular gestures on heavily distorted guitar. Dicker spars with skittering passagework, ascending to meet the increasingly high pitched electronics. We hear a kind of electronic bagpipe chorale as the electronics and violin meet on dripping double stops, as Otte colors the passage with turbulent rolls. A veiled, triumphant melody momentarily emerges through the maze of sound, a musical apparition?
The trio builds a wall of sound to open Upcoast Drift, featuring Schuette’s keen ear for variegated timbres. Otte adds gentle violence to the texture with brisk slapping sounds, before the music turns to an activated drone of sustained pedal points in the guitar and repeated chords in the violin. It takes time to really inhabit some musical ecosystems, and Vaster Than Empires is adept at gauging the ideal pacing for an idea to settle, evolve, and then develop and move on. This expansive space is extended with Dicker’s violin stepping forward with stuttering double stops over an open string pedal, before they disintegrate into Otte’s cultivated chaos. The next several minutes retreat to a similarly spacious exploration that we heard in Astral Crosswind, tightrope walking through delicate dialogue without the net of a strong ambient foundation. Though we hear all the players throughout this section, it is on the percussionist’s territory, with our attention drawn to subtleties in the timbre of attack, the shape of short rhythmic gestures, and the silences that surround them. The foundational drone reasserts itself for a closing coda, a final structural frame on a journey of fine variations in sound, gesture, and interaction, guided by the clear and palpable chemistry of these three improvisers.
- Dan Lippel
Erica Dicker, violin. baritone violin
Allen Otte, percussion amplified sound boards, shortwave radio
Paul Schuette, synthesizers, guitar
Recording Engineer: Paul Schuette
Mastering Engineer: Caley Monahon-Ward
Cover Art: Erica Dicker
Package Design: Paul Schuette
Special Thanks - Lauren Mabry, Dan Peck, and to Portland artist/sound sculptor Donald MacLane for the specially built brass dulcimer/hammered mbira
Erica Dicker is a New York-based violinist and improvisor bridging the realms of notated and improvised music. Along with VTE her projects include Blood Luxury (with Dennis Sullivan), Poor Magnus (with Steven Long) and Blood of the Stars (with Dan Peck). A dedicated proponent of new works, Erica is a core member of commissioning groups including Unheard-of Ensemble, Kylwyria and Wavefield Ensemble. When not making music with people dear to her, Erica can be found birding, running or baking.
Allen Otte was a cofounder of the Blackearth Percussion Group (1972) and of Percussion Group Cincinnati and toured for decades throughout the world performing new and experimental music created for him and his colleagues. He regularly presents his own creative work in residencies centered around the theme of performing social justice, (John Lane/ The Innocents Project) and is percussionist with the early music group Trobar Medieval. Otte is Professor Emeritus, University of Cincinnati, and in 2017 was inducted into the International Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame.
Paul Schuette is a composer, sound artist, and improviser living and working in Philadelphia. As an Associate Professor at The University of the Arts, Paul teaches courses in experimental and electronic music and curates a concert series, 'Out of the Box', which showcases visiting artists. He is an active collaborator in the Warp Whistle Project with painter Mary Laube and performs as a member of llama/lama with Quinn Collins and Road Julep with Jerod Sommerfeldt.
Vaster Than Empires is the improvising trio of Erica Dicker (violin and baritone violin); Allen Otte (percussion amplified soundboards and shortwave radio); and Paul Schuette (synthesizers and guitar). The four longish performances making up Three Days, which the three recorded in the summer of 2021, consist of spontaneously arrived at and texturally arranged constructions marked by variations in density and timbre. Collectively, the group’s sound tends toward a thick sonic impasto drawn from the harsher end of the audio spectrum. Dicker’s contributions on strings, for example, eschew melodic lines in favor of drones, thickly bowed chords, and the more elemental hues produced by extended techniques; her instrumental voice is appropriately complemented by Otte’s tension-filled percussive excursions and Schuette’s abstractions for guitar and synth.
— Daniel Barbiero, 6.05.2023
Every day moves forward the presence of time, of history, of where we have been and then might in turn be. Today that needle moves decidedly forward with the Avant Improv trio Vaster Than Empires and their recent CD Three Days (New Focus Recordings PAN 28). It is a full album of intelligent, extended techniques invention that brings us forward in the experimental language of abstracted Modernism with sound explorations and noise-pitch dialogues for violin (Erica Dicker), percussion (Allen Otte) and sound artist composer-improviser (Paul Schuette).
This ensemble formed in the course of an intersection in Cincinatti of two of the trio doing graduate work and the other flourishing in local New Music performance. The resultant trio gives us a spontaneous and virtuoso bead on sonic arts that hearkens back to classic improvisers like MEV, AMM and Il Gruppo as it simultaneously looks ahead to the world we will hear and see going forward from this day.
Maybe I say this too much but I believe the sure method for hearing this music properly (as well as any else of the advanced kind) is an open mind and a clear deck while listening and then the patience to let the music flow through your hearing in multiple listens. Now for me right as I pen these lines I am working on listen four and I must say it all is making rewarding sense to me. After repeated hearings it does not sound arbitrary but rather smart and timely in its interactive whole. It is complicated and ever-changing but it is excellent and without a doubt some of the best of this sort of thing that has come by me in the past decade. Vaster Than Empires is decidedly inspired on this album. They are the real thing in Improv today, at the top of the heap in results and good sounds. Do not miss it. Give it a streaming listen at bandcamp. Bravo, bravo!
— Grego Applegate Edwards, 6.05.2023
Speaking of attention-getting, the three-performer group known as Vaster Than Empires (a phrase from the poem “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell) certainly bids for it with combinations considerably more outré than those of the Talea Trio. The mixing of violin with percussion is an unusual one in itself, but combining those instruments with guitar and synthesizers leads to sound creation that is quite far from what most audiences will likely expect from a trio of musicians. The Panoramic Recordings disc featuring Vaster Than Empires is unusual in another way: all four pieces on it are improvisations, which means they are captured in the versions heard on the CD but would never again sound the same even if the performers chose to play them (or something like them) again. There is quite a bit of music here – the disc runs 78 minutes – but as so often with avowedly avant-garde material, there is no significant respect in which the works’ titles bear on or reflect their sounds. All the pieces are 19 to 20 minutes long, and all seem longer because, again as is common in avant-garde material, they offer no particular sense of progression or shape through form: they simply start, do various things, sound in various ways, and then stop. Astral Crosswind includes everything from distorted wind chimes to percussive flower pots, and frequently leads the ear to very high pitches. Seaward Galaxy has a vaguely wavelike opening with honks more-or-less resembling foghorns, but soon loses any possible reference to its title as it becomes a series of squeals and the sound of static. Empyrean Tides combines tambourine sounds with much-distorted guitar notes before moving to high-pitched electronics – those seem to be favorite sounds of these performers. Upcoast Drift fades in, its background-like sounds emerging into the foreground before a series of chords and emphatic attacks turn into a chaotic section that eventually gives way to an exploration of multiple percussion performance techniques. These pieces will appeal only to existing fans of avant-garde electronic and electronic-plus-acoustic music: the works would likely be more interesting if heard and seen in live performance, since there is a visual element involved in multi-player improvisation that is missing on a CD. Two of the Talea Trio’s performances are of 21st-century music, but that three-player music is as different from the three-player material heard here as the 21st century is from the distant past – or distant future.
An improvisational outfit consisting of Allen Otte (percussion), Erica Dicker (violin) and Paul Schuette (guitar, synth), as Vaster Than Empires the trio birth textured, sometimes intense bursts of experimental ideas.
“Astral Crosswind” opens the listen with the sound of chimes, before distorted guitar and sci-fi fueled percussive sounds enter the busy landscape that has Dicker playing at a high pitch, and “Seaward Galaxy” follows with images of gulls and foghorns, where squealing electronics and bowed strings mesh with glitchy, rhythmic avenues.
On the back half, “Empyrean Tides” matches the abrupt tambourine with manipulated guitar to yield an electronic versus orchestral aberration, and “Upcoast Drift” exits with walls of sound, strategic repetition, blended ambience and distinct gestures that allow each player to showcase their vision in a droning manner.
The trio all have impressive resumes of their own, and their combined talents make Three Days a example of improvised brilliance.
— Tom Haugen, 12.03.2023