by Phil Freeman
I’ve known the members of Borbetomagus for over 20 years. I first heard their music in 1988 or 1989. I read about them in Byron Coley‘s “Underground” column in Spin magazine, and bought their Live in Allentown cassette at Bleecker Bob’s Records in New York. In 1996, when I had just begun writing about music for money, I interviewed them for the Aquarian Weekly. By then I’d heard more of their work, including the amazing (and currently out of print) Buncha Hair That Long CD. A year or two after that, I finally saw them live—first at the Cooler, co-billed with Charles Gayle, then at Tonic, co-billed with Merzbow. In 2005 or so, I wrote an essay about Live in Allentown for The Wire‘s “Epiphanies” column; when the band decided to reissue the cassette on CD, with a previously unreleased second set appended, they used the piece as liner notes. In 2010, I wrote a cover story about them for Signal to Noise. And I’ve written about them for Burning Ambulance several times (most notably here and here).
Consequently, it’s impossible for me to approach a documentary about them with any objectivity. I love their music, and I like them all as people. So I was extremely excited when I heard about Jef Mertens‘ A Pollock of Sound (get it from Amazon), a history and portrait of the group made with their full cooperation and filmed over the course of a half dozen years or so. (The 2009 live performance that inspired Mertens to make the movie is included on the DVD as a bonus feature.)
Watching it as a longtime fan, it’s great. It feels like the band is getting their due after 40 years of steady, unrelenting pursuit of a 100% internally defined aesthetic. If you’re reading this at all, you’re probably at least glancingly familiar with their work, but just in case: Borbetomagus are the trio of saxophonists Jim Sauter and Don Dietrich and guitarist Donald Miller. Others, most notably bassist Adam Nodelman and electronic musician Brian Doherty, have been part of the group in the past, but for most of their history it’s been the core trio. Their music is free-form abstraction performed at extreme volume, with all three members employing a variety of pedals and other methods to distort their sound until it’s hard to tell who’s doing what.
Dietrich and Sauter are operating in a zone also mapped by Albert Ayler, Peter Brötzmann, and Kaoru Abe, among others, but their approach is unique in that they approach the saxophone as a source of sounds first, and a “musical instrument” second. This is most obvious when they press the bells of their horns together, forcing the air to find other ways to escape and creating a fierce metallic squeal in the process. Miller’s guitar is the perfect complement—he emits thick roaring waves of static and squalling bursts of electronic noise. I’ve heard him play almost riff-like figures in the past, but in general he’s as intent on avoiding the expected as his two compatriots.
A Pollock of Sound traces the group’s history back to Sauter and Dietrich’s childhood friendship and lifelong parallel exploration of the saxophone’s potential. It discusses the trio’s emergence on the New York avant-garde scene, where they were embraced by some and disdained by others. Each member speaks at some length about his approach to his instrument, and about the group’s collective music-making philosophy. And there’s a substantial amount of performance footage and live audio, much of it previously unreleased. As with most music documentaries, there are talking heads, but they’re all people with long relationships with the group: Byron Coley, Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, free drummer Chris Corsano (who booked the Tonic performance I mentioned above—I can be seen in a photo from the show), and members of the Japanese noise group Hijokaidan, with whom they’ve collaborated.
The biggest problem with the movie is its relative lack of structure. It presents a lot of fascinating information, and by the time it’s over you’ve learned a lot about how and why Borbetomagus do what they do. But some things are glossed over or ignored (I don’t think Brian Doherty‘s name is ever mentioned, and you’d never know from A Pollock of Sound that they own their own label, Agaric), and the narrative structure, which jumps back and forth in time, fails to explain to the viewer all the ways the group’s sound has changed over the decades. They weren’t always an electronics-fueled storm-cloud; early records, particularly 1984’s Zurich, feature a much more “naked” saxophone sound.
As weird as this may seem, it bugs me that A Pollock of Sound is so explicitly aimed at existing Borbetomagus fans. A movie that spent the first 15 minutes or so letting Sauter, Dietrich and Miller explain their methods and philosophy, and only then moved into their history, testimonials from fans and peers, etc., would be much more inviting to the casual viewer unfamiliar with their work. It may seem naïve to believe that someone could come to Borbetomagus “cold” and be converted, but it happened to me! Still, the fact that this movie exists at all is amazing. Borbetomagus are one of America’s greatest bands, worthy of celebration.