It’s marvellous when you catch an artist just as they’re hitting their stride. It’s rarely a single, isolated instance – rather, a series of steps (releases, live performances, soundcloud clips, or whatever) in which they gradually realise that something has gelled, some neural pathway has fired, and they’re off. The floodgates are open.
I think this is what happened with Steve Flato in late 2014. He’d put out a few things before that – the gristly noise of 48v came out on the Homphoni net label in 2007 and Hwaet, a duo with Vanessa Rossetto, was released three years later. But in 2014, things started to gain pace. There were two releases that year: Mara’s Daughters, a three-track cassette of slowly morphing noise and ghostly ambience, coincidentally the inaugural release on the Mexican Lengua de Lava label; and Road to Ruins, on his own Abrash label. Then 2015 saw the gorgeous static wave of Harm Reduction, the process music of Exhaust System, the electroacoustic improvisation of Salon de Flato and the drone-based collaboration with Michael Zimmerman, A Feather On The Breath of A Dog. All different, but all impressive and assured in their own way. Maybe they had all been gestating for a while and their release in relatively quick succession was coincidence. But it felt like Flato was getting a grip on what he wanted to do.
Released back in March 2015 on the unendingly marvellous Kendra Steiner label, Exhaust System takes Flato’s interest in process to a new level of intricacy and focus. Eight instruments – three clarinets, along with an oboe, bassoon, cello, bass and sine waves (I’m counting that last one as an instrument) – tuned to just intonation, whose sounds are then processed and combined. Sounds like Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room reimagined by a multi-windpiped ensemble and mashed up every which way, right?
Wrong. What you get in Exhaust System is four gorgeously sleek sonic objects, as smooth and dense as UFOs wrought from platinum. Flato’s painstaking compositional process is the reason for this transformation, with Lucier’s seminal work a point of departure. He explains: “In Exhaust System, each instrument is on its own timeline. The process, instead of linearly like Lucier, works backwards, from the middle, going 2x speed, half speed, etc and through different permutations. This creates a counterpoint between the instruments texturally and harmonically.”
It’s nice twist on Lucier’s original idea and, even though I’m not big on process myself – just give me the tunes, man – I really dig what Flato’s trying to achieve. It’s not like you can’t make out the original sound sources – there are definite remnants of cello and bassoon identifiable on Part 1, for example – but they’re transformed into something strange and uncannily new. Towards the end of Part 3, you can hear traces of the clarinet’s distinctive hollow groan, but it has mutated into a low, wide flow of sound, like the keening cry of a vast pelican. Aural alchemy.
There’s a definite kinetic, almost physical, feel to Exhaust System, too. It’s the result of Flato setting up his manipulations to cycle through drone-like undulations, creating beds of overlapping tones that seem to float, massive and weightless, in the air, as if orbiting slowly around various invisible axes. And, while the shining, unruffled stretches of sound bring to mind various luminaries of minimalism and electronic music – Terry Riley, Eliane Radigue and so on – by keeping his sources separated (those timelines he talks about), Flato gives us something different, almost choral in the way the shifting swells lock together. That these peaks are the result of a software script that randomised when they would take place in no way undermines their effectiveness. If anything, it adds to another layer of man-machine frisson to the work. Immersive and mesmerising, it’s the care and attention to detail that Flato has lavished on Exhaust System that raises it above most of its drone- and process-based peers. A keeper.