For nearly 30 years, the Norwegian imprint, Smalltown Supersound, has ridden the razors edge of adventurous sound, issuing startlingly ambitious release that span a diverse number of musical idioms, from Neneh Cherry, Arp, The Thing, Lindstrøm, Dungen, Merzbow, Kevin Drumm, Mats Gustafsson, Paal Nilssen-Love, Ken Vandermark, and near countless number of others. Last year the imprint launched a brand-new series, Actions For Free Jazz, with two killer LPs, Mats Gustafsson & Christian Marclay’s Link and Joe McPhee & Paal Nilssen-Love’s Lift Every Voice and Sing. Now they’re back with a third which might just be our favorite to date, Harmonia Macrocosmica, a killer collaboration from Joe McPhee and Lasse Marhaug. It’s been nearly impossible to get off the turntable since it fell into our hands; a high-water mark for 2020 that’s not to be missed.
At 80, Joe McPhee needs little introduction. Since his early appearances with Clifford Thornton during the late 1960s and his iconic launch as leader via albums like Underground Railroad, Nation Time, Trinity, and Pieces of Light, the multi-instrumentalist has forged his own path through the territories of freely improved and avant-garde music. While unquestionably one of the great contemporary torchbearers of the African American tradition of free jazz, of any member of his generation McPhee has arguably proven to be among the most willing to venture far from the idiom’s perceived boundaries, collaborating prolifically and fiercely with an astoundingly diverse range of artists over the years; Pauline Oliveros, Deep Listening Band, Graham Lambkin, Konstrukt, John Snyder, Chris Corsano, Mats Gustafsson, Susan Alcorn, Ken Vandermark, Arto Lindsay, Paal Nilssen-Love, Decoy, The Thing, John Butcher, Eli Keszler, Steve Lacy, Thurston Moore, Bill Nace, Peter Brötzmann, Michael Zerang, and so many others that it would be nearly impossible to list them all.
In light of his long dedication to the practice of collaboration, McPhee’s latest, Harmonia Macrocosmica, a duo with the Norwegian electronic musician, Lasse Marhaug, comes as little surprise. Active and incredibly prolific since the 1990s, like McPhee, Marhaug’s practice feeds off of creative interplay with a radically diverse range artists, practices, and ideas. His catalog is sprawling, peppered with thrilling efforts with Paal Nilssen-Love, C. Spencer Yeh, Okkyung Lee, Otomo Yoshihide, Merzbow, Jim O’Rourke, Mats Gustafsson, and a slew of others. Friends since the early 2000s, the pair initially came together within a quartet that also included Michiyo Yagi and Nilssen-Love back in 2015, the same period during which Harmonia Macrocosmica was recorded. Positioned face to face, the conversation between them truly comes into its own and is filled with an astoundingly singular force.
Despite the density of its structures and tonal interplay, Harmonia Macrocosmica feels like a breath of fresh air, fearlessly skirting the line between creative rigor and focused interplay and a playful irreverence in ways that leave you wondering where the hell you are. Conceived by the duo as a science fiction work, Harmonia Macrocosmica draws inspiration from early electronic music, vintage science fiction films, and McPhee’s lifelong love of cosmic music that began in the 1950s with a childhood encounter with Forbidden Planet and its electronic score, transforming it all into something entirely new and unheard. As a complete, freestanding effort, the album joins two arcs of each of artists practice; belonging to McPhee’s decades deep linage of practice that began in the 1970s with the synthesist, John Snyder, as well as collaborations with Pauline Oliveros and the Nihilist Spams Band, and Marhaug’s long standing devotion to the wilder realizations of electronic music. A truly thrilling exchange of far out sounds, vacillating between kitsch, the austere, and boundary pushing structures, all played against and pushed onto the next level by McPhee’s sax and voice, Harmonia Macrocosmica completely defies genre and definition, rising as a wonderful reminder of what experimental music is all about. A truly radical zone of creative sound that renders an engrossing listen that you can’t pull out of once you’re in. Unquestionably one of our favorite releases of the year. This is a stone-cold killer that can’t be missed. Issued in a limited edition of 500 on copies on vinyl with no repress and no digital, so don’t sleep this one is going to go fast and once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.