Certain forms of free improvisation, far removed from the technique’s roots in jazz, take “free” to its logical extremes. Brooklyn-based electroacoustic collective Causings create restrained, microscopically detailed, almost entirely abstract sound art that’s defined more by its process than by a fixed lineup—they attempt to eliminate any parameter that might crystallize into habit, so that every performance begins with a blank slate.
At Causings’ concerts it’s never a given who will show up or what instruments they’ll play—or more properly, what they’ll decide to use as instruments. Guitar, keyboard, dulcimer, winds, percussion, and other conventional instruments share the stage with found objects (including fixtures or furniture in the room) and field recordings (played from tapes or from cell phones hooked to the mixer). Often the entire ensemble is subject to live processing via a room mike that feeds into a computer. Collaborators might drop by in person or call a member’s phone during the set to participate—Thymme Jones of Chicago prog-rock institution Cheer-Accident (a fellow lover of the unpredictable) is a friend of the group, and he’s rung up from out of town to sing with them. Sometimes onstage performers call each other, which can set up an odd feedback loop.
Causings’ May release Cut Through occasionally settles into what you might call a pulse or tempo, and every so often a slow, stately melodic fragment surfaces, played on mbira or on flute and acoustic guitar in unison. But the music is dominated by what might feel like background noise in another context: a slowly shifting collage of rustling, buzzing, hissing, tapping, jingling, and scraping, threaded through with recordings of environmental sounds and conversation. Cut Through also uses samples from a compilation called La Salsa Que Hizo Historia Vol. 3 and quotations from Hildegard von Bingen’s 12th-century morality play Ordo Virtutum.
The album’s credits on Bandcamp list a bewildering variety of potential sources for its small background sounds, including glue, paper, cactus, pencils, beads, springs, glass, and “cedar,” whatever that might mean. Though very little happens suddenly or with any violence in this music, it can surprise you simply because it gives you so little grounds to develop expectations about what might come next.
Derek Baron and Adam Gundersheimer, both originally from the Chicago area, founded Causings as a duo in late 2013, and fellow former Chicagolander Sandy Gordon joined in October 2014. This spring the collective’s pool of potential contributors began to expand rapidly; for their tour kickoff in Brooklyn, eight people showed up to play. Seven appear on Cut Through, and five have been traveling with Causings for much of their current tour.
For the Causings show at Elastic on Saturday, only Baron, Gundersheimer, and Gordon will definitely be present. Before leaving Chicago, though, they developed working relationships with several stalwarts in the city’s experimental-music and free-jazz scenes, among them Brian Labycz, Aaron Zarzutzki, and Frank Rosaly—in other words, surprise guests certainly aren’t off the table. Headlining is Portuguese guitarist Rafael Toral in a trio with two venerable locals, keyboardist Jim Baker and drummer Steve Hunt.
On this tour Baron has tended to be the member playing traditional instruments: he’s bringing flute, trumpet, a four-string tenor guitar that’s missing a string, and a variety of small percussion that he attaches to contact mikes with clothespins. He’s also got a one-bit homemade oscillator, and he wrote the signal-processing software that Causings use to mess with the output of their room mike. The heart of Gordon’s current setup is a broken dulcimer that she’s prepared for electroacoustic playing; she also uses a harmonica, her cell phone, and an array of bells, finger cymbals, threaded screws, drum keys, and other percussive objects. Gundersheimer will play a piano if there’s one around, and he’s bringing a toy keyboard, a collection of tape players, some field recordings on his phone, and a pedal chain that includes a Kaoss Pad, a Microsynth, and a harmonizer.
Causings also appear Friday night on the WHPK program Pure Hype, which you can hear at 88.5 FM or stream online. (It runs from 9 till 10:30 PM.) They plan to play a special “call-in” set, meaning Gundersheimer will share a phone number that listeners can dial to join a conference call that’s integrated into the music. It seems unlikely they’ll have a seven-second delay in place, so keep it clean, please.
Gordon says Cut Through sounds most like the version of Causings coming to town this weekend, so that’s the one I’m posting. But they have six recordings on Bandcamp, half of which are name-your-price downloads.