John Duncan, Incoming (Streamline, 1994)
[originally posted 8May2000]
By now, anyone familiar with experimental music is probably familiar with the name John Duncan, the country- and citizenship-hopping pioneer in shortwave sound who always seems to be one step ahead of the law. One is forced to wonder, after a while, if performance art is really worth getting chased out of so many countries. The guy should just stick to nice, easy music instead of having sex with corpses and throwing a bunch of naked people into a room with all the lights off.
On second thought, maybe I’ll join him on the next tour.
Duncan has been doing performance art for a quarter of a century, but he didn’t start recording and releasing his experiments with controlled shortwave technology and sensory deprivation until the past decade or so, after some prompting by Andrew MacKenzie of the Hafler Trio. Since then, Duncan has devoted more of his time to the musical end of his work and less to the performance art end (and, not surprisingly, he’s only moved a couple of times in recent years). This makes Incoming a relatively early release, despite Duncan’s long association with art.
Given Duncan’s more recent material, one can take a listen to Incoming and draw any number of conclusions as to what happened between this and, say, 1996’s brilliant Send: The Stop Exercise. Perhaps Duncan got more comfortable working with sound that didn’t come attached to sight, or perhaps he’s just gotten angrier. But where the new material is heavily dynamic—mostly on the loud side of things—Incoming is softer, almost tentative in the way it is presented. Oh, there are still
high tones that you don’t want to turn up too loud, but this isn’t a recording that’s going to shake your house apart.
While I like this recording, my gut instinct tells me that the reason it’s softer than others he’s done is that he wasn’t quite as comfortable with the ground he was treading, and given the quality of his other work, I have to see this one in a less favorable light. There’s also a built-in prejudice against Christoph Heeman, who collaborated with him on this release (I find Heeman’s work just plain boring, most of the time). It’s not a bad album, and the $7.50 I parted with was certainly well-enough spent, but neophytes would be better served picking up Send or the compilation CD The Mind of a Missile, both of which feature some of the best work Duncan’s yet recorded. ** ½