Berkeley-based baritone Thomas Buckner (USA, ), also the founder of the 1750 Arch labels, began experimenting with new voice techniques during the 1960s.
After relocating to New York in 1983, Buckner became a key protagonist in Robert Ashley's operas and Roscoe Mitchell's pieces.
Most of his recorded output is devoted to other people's music, not to his own improvisations.
Full Spectrum Voice (Lovely, 1991) features works by Robert Ashley, Jon Gibson, Nils Vigeland, Peter Gena, Annea Lockwood, and Roscoe Mitchell.
Sign of the Times (Lovely, 1994) explores music by Jon Gibson, Annea Lockwood, Leroy Jenkins, Brian Smith, and Robert Ashley.
Inner Journey (Lovely, 1998) is devoted to works by William Duckworth, Thomas Buckner, Jacques Bekaert, David Wessel, and Somei Satoh.
His Tone of Voice (Lovely, 2000) features compositions by Blue Gene Tyranny, Mel Graves and Jacques Bekaert.
Pilgrimage (Lovely Music, 1995) was a collaboration with Roscoe Mitchell.
First Meeting (Knitting Factory Works, 1996) was a collaboration with Borah Bergman and Roscoe Mitchell.
Act of Finding (O.O. Discs, 1995) was recorded by a quartet comprising
keyboardist Tom Hamilton, bassist Ratzo Harris, guitarist Bruce Arnold, performing a set of original compositions/improvisations.
8 O'Clock (Mutable) documents two 2000 improvisations with Roscoe Mitchell on saxophones, percussion and flute.
Space (Mutable, 2001) collects two albums by a trio of Buckner, Mitchell and Gerald Oshita, New Music for Woodwinds and Voice (1750 Arch, 1981) and An Interesting Breakfast Conversation (1750 Arch, 1984).
Jump The Circle Jump The Line (Mutablemusic, 2001) is a collaboration with electronic musician Tom Hamilton. This is an experiment in fusing vocal
improvisation and live electronic music. Buckner's improvised performance is
automatically integrated into the electronic soundscape by Tom Hamilton's
analog devices. However, the hour-long work (divided into ten untitled tracks)
sometimes suffers from a lack of real symbiosis between electronics and voice.
For example, at the beginning, the voice
intones a desolate requiem, while the electronics toys with a jungle of silly
timbres. In the sixth episode, the voice recites syllables in an operatic
tone, while the electronics emits abstract noises on a highly irregular basis.
In the ninth track, Buckner's howling and weeping succumbs to inadequate
accompaniment. The tenth and last movement is a masterwork of
subtle mouth noises, but the electronics hardly matches that intensity.
These is a drama in which the two characters do not seem to dialogue: they seem
to annihilate each other when they don't ignore each other.
This album's effort is comparable to harmonizing Diamanda Galas and Morton
Subotnick, perhaps an impossible equation.
But, then, that may just be the whole point.
Alone Together Apart (Mutablemusic, 2002) collects four improvisations
with percussionist Jerome Cooper.
The 24-minute Evocation is a showcase for Buckner's flair for fusing
operatic, Native-American, liturgical, jazz into a highly personal (and
psychological) language, a mournful mixture of mantra, shaman invocation
and stream of consciousness. The percussions are largely irrelevant: this
the show of a man and his anguish.
The shorter Journey is closer to the fractured, dissonant format of
pointillist chamber music: the vocal improvisation is faster and harsher,
mimicking the rapid-fire outpour of tones from the keyboards and percussions.
Emotions are resurrected in the 16-minute Return, a second tour de
force of forlorn chanting.
Buckner manages to be effective both when he depicts anxiety with relatively
tonal chanting and when he paints abstract tapestries with discrete atonal
Contexts (Mutable, 2005) collects three improvisations (solo, with
David Darling on cello, and with Borah Bergman on piano) and an
ILEX (performed by Buckner on vocals,
Earl Howard on electronics, Gustavo Aguilar on percussion and Wu Man on pipa).
The solo is the highlight of the three Buckner pieces:
a monolithic, mournful, nostalgic invocation that sounds like it is coming from a desert plateau of another planet.
and that displays Buckner's fractured melisma in all its emotional appeal.
The cello duo is a more conversational piece in which the voice explores a
broader range of sounds, frequently jumping from one extreme to another,
and focuses on dynamics rather than intensity.
The piano piece is a pianist showcase: as much as Buckner's voice takes
centerstage, it is Bergman's burbling background that steals the show.
Totem (Mutable, 2006) collects seven duo improvisations
between Thomas Buckner and French flutist Jerome Bourdellon,
dedicated to a group of sculptures by Alain Kirili.
They range in mood from the severely ghostly to the grotesquely dadaistic.
They range in structure from casual interplay to interlocked geometry.
They range in sound from cacophony to melody.
Sometimes they engage in percussive duets. Sometimes they seem to merely listen
to each other, uneasy about taking the lead. The voice lowers itself to
the level of indistinguished noise, imitation of animal, madman's howl.
The spectrum is very broad, but there an underlying sense of unity that comes
from Buckner's persona, an unlikely fusion of Alfred Jarry's Pere Ubu,
expressionist theater and John Cage's silence.
Timeless Pulse Quintet is a quintet formed in 1991 by
Thomas Buckner (vocals),
Pauline Oliveros (accordion),
George Marsh (percussion), Jennifer Wilsey (percussion),
David Wessel (live electronics).
It was first documented on Timeless Pulse Quintet (Mutable, 2007),
that collects five improvisations from 2005.
The two highlights are
the 21-minute 21
the 24-minute Just Play (fourth track, not third one as listed on the CD).
The former evolves via a chaotic tension of polar opposites.
The dual forces of the voice and the accordion confront and complement
each other, with percussion and live electronics mostly providing a backdrop
more than a counterpoint. The flow is calm and organic. There is a sense of
unity and purpose to the collective meditation.
The latter has a more neurotic and fragmented quality. The voice occasionally
towers over the harmony, but the instruments here are mostly on equal footing
throughout the proceedings, a fact that makes it less cohesive and more
Luminescence - Canto - Conceptuality (Mutable, 2008) delivers compositions by Annea Lockwood,
Tania Leon and Petr Kotik.
Flutes and Voices (Mutable, 2010) was a collaboration with flutist
Robert Dick, another musician striving to
play his instrument in wildly novel ways.
It is hard to relate to the music when it's just a
vocabulary of guttural, hissing and rasping sounds, as in
In the Land of Perfect Days and
but when that vocabulary coalesces into
a language, the music achieves enough psychological depth to justify the
tremendous efforts of the performers.
For example, the inferno of anguished tones of
Bones of the Tongue seems to express a desperate need to communicate in
the face of incurable insecurity.
Broadcasted Alive sounds at times even more desperate to articulate
intimate feelings, bordering on an epileptic fit except for collapsing into
This often feels more like theater than music.
Thomas Buckner (baritone voice), J D Parran (bass saxophone, alto flute, bamboo flutes, mbira), Mari Kimura (violin) and Earl Howard (electronics, saxello) formed the Particle Ensemble, documented live on Particle Ensemble (2012): Earl Howard's 29-minute Frond, J D Parran's 23-minute Pundititis and Thomas Buckner & Earl Howard's 26-minute Duo Improvisation.
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