Drone machine

Howard Stelzer celebrates 10 years in Boston
By SUSANNA BOLLE  |  January 14, 2008

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In 2008, local experimental musician, promoter, and head of the Intransitive Recordings label Howard Stelzer celebrates a decade in Boston. And a lot has happened in those 10 years; performances and collaborations with numerous musicians from this city and around the world; a three-day festival of experimental and electronic music at MassArt; and the release of nearly 30 albums on Intransitive.

To mark his second decade in the city, Stelzer has an ambitious release schedule planned for Intransitive in 2008, one that includes his newest solo CD, Bond Inlets, which features a pair of extended, densely textured drones. Reaching an auspicious milestone like your 10th anniversary can of course lead to a spate of soul-searching and self-reflection. But as Stelzer explains over beer and Taiwanese dumplings in his Cambridge apartment, he’s been in the midst of revisiting and examining his work with an exacting and critical eye for a couple of years now. And this latest album is the direct result.

Its title is an anagram of Stone Blind, Stelzer’s first solo CD, which was released in 1998, around the time of his move from Florida to Boston. Not one to mince words, Stelzer says he was unhappy with that first disc from the moment he got it back from the pressing plant. “I threw most of them away, but I couldn’t bring myself to throw out the whole pressing, because somehow people always come to regret doing that.”

Stelzer’s music has evolved since then, even though his basic instruments — cassette players and tapes, which he manipulates like an avant-garde DJ — have remained pretty much fixed, with only a few additions (a synthesizer, microphone, and effects pedal) to his set-up. His early experiments — particularly those with his long-time collaborator, turntablist Jason Talbot — were frenetic and jittery, with lots of fast edits and harsh bursts of sound. His current music centers on prolonged, slow development and subtle shifts in tonal color, texture, and volume. Where he once unleashed flurries of sharp, quick explosions, he now favors slower burns and gradual decay.

A key moment in this shift away from his early obsession with chopped-up tape collage was a long-distance collaboration with New Zealand musician Stephen Clover (a/k/a Seht). The album that resulted, Exactly What You Lost (Intransitive), begins with a volley of noise and energetic, rapid cuts, but the maelstrom quickly subsides, and the rest of the album is a patient exploration of dark, grainy sounds and slow, dreamlike degradation.

After completing Exactly What You Lost, Stelzer decided to give Stone Blind another listen. It was more of a sonic salvage operation than an attempt to exorcise past demons. He sifted through and dissected it, and Bond Inlets would rise from the ashes. “I started pulling all the good sounds out,” he says of the process, which lasted almost two years, “going through the album second by second and cutting it and cutting it until it was exactly an hour long. I pulled out all these sounds and separated them into their original components and started composing with those. And then, after a couple of years of working with just those sounds, I added a few more elements as well, but for the most part the changes were simply the result of the actual process of working with the sounds from Stone Blind. And this is what became Bond Inlets.”

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