Article in The Wire (U.K.), January 1996 by Mike Barnes
"You can't think about that music. That music is moving so fast that if you think about it, it's like watching a train go by and counting the cars."
The quote is Captain Beefheart's about his own music -- a typically pithy description and a warning against uptight critical dissection. It also could be applied to the very different sounds of Biota.The Colorado-based group have devised a unique way of working throughout their 16-year existence. They compose and improvise raw material in their own studio, edit it via a painstaking process of tape splicing -- with the introduction of found sounds where apt -- and use this as a foundation for further playing and vocals, by guest musicians including Chris Cutler. On the group's new release, Object Holder, there are 11 contributors. Piano, cut-up rhythm tracks, hurdy-gurdy, pump organ, guitars and percussion all jostle for place like buskers outside some avant garde carnival in full swing. Hail's Susanne Lewis gives the listener a more direct way in with some beguiling melodies. The process and the resultant music are both long and complex, but it's a complexity the group's Bill Sharp is keen to demystify."It's definitely a romantic way of composition rather that classical," he explains. "As classical composers we would simply be concerned with the individual notes, the arrangements, the intricacies of music theory and how the composition itself is the end. Instead we're working much more in a romantic sense in that it's bringing in all these elements that are not purely musical. It's intentionally designed to be elusive, but it's designed to have enough clues for the listener to not be immediately written off."
The shifting, shuddering music, by turns turbulent and peaceful, is full of colours and odd angles which, like the apparently random fall of the pieces in a kaleidoscope, produce their own logic. The analogy is apt -- as well as being influenced by Faust and musique concrete, Sharp tends to describe Biota's music in visual metaphors. He explains the importance of a filmic approach to their music making.
"It can start with an idea that is purely visual. Any of our releases could be considered a composition, but it's still sub-compositions that are linked together in a linear fashion. And any one of these could be seen by a listener as a series of individual settings or a moving through environments.
"Early in the group's existence we were very interested in what certain film makers were doing with the amplification of location sounds. Lynch and Splet, in their work on Elephant Man, were taking location sounds and amplifying them and elevating them to an unnatural level and creating musical content out of the environment. They were doing something in a very conscious compositional way to create music out of the visual realm, the setting. And we were interested by how that could be done by a group in the studio. Very early on we were bringing in aspects of the environment as well as standard played instrumentation."
Biota have a separate, but symbolic, visual wing -- The Mnemonists -- who design all their artwork and contribute when the group make a rare live appearance.
"We did a commission for New Music In America in Montreal in 1990, and we spent a year putting together the stage production," says Sharp. "And when it was executed we did have a multimedia presentation. But we are so linked with the studio in our compositional process it would be very difficult to take it on the road, that's for sure, as most of the studio technology has to come with us."