Lin Culbertson and Tom Surgal, known to experimental music fans as New York City improv duo White Out, have a long, extensive list of collaborators, including Jim O’Rourke, Mike Watt, Thurston Moore, Carlos Giffoni, and C Spencer Yeh. Collaboration is a key component of the group’s discography, spread out over the last 20 years. For much of that time, Culbertson and Surgal have improvised live with guitarist Nels Cline, though it’s only now, 15 years into their time together, that the trio have released a proper record, Accidental Sky on Northern Spy Records.
The album benefits from the trio’s long time together. Recorded live and completely improvised in Culbertson and Surgal’s apartment, the album finds them locked in and zoned out. They clearly speak the same language, continuing a musical conversation that began in Los Angeles in the early 2000s, when Surgal met Cline at the now defunct Alligator Lounge.
“Every Monday night, he’d be playing at one of the greatest cultural attractions of that era,” Surgal says. His parents lived in the city, so he became acquainted with Cline while visiting them. Soon, White Out began performing with Cline. “We started playing pretty regularly at this club called Spaceland, which is now the Satellite, in Silver Lake.”
White Out quickly recognized Cline’s simpatico style. “He’s a jazz musician, but he’s a very free player,” Culbertson says. “He’s really able to go into sonic territory outside of particular musical parameters.”
The respect was mutual, Cline says. No stranger to collaborative efforts himself — including work with Carla Bozulich, Wilco, Mike Watt, Charlie Haden, Julian Lage, and dozens more — he says that his work with White Out offers a unique arrangement.
“There’s something about what Lin does, and I don’t know if she would agree with this or where a lot of this stuff is derived from, but there’s something, a zone she goes into that makes me feel like I’m in the middle of a Sun Ra record, like Heliocentric Worlds or something,” Cline says. “I love that…She has this intuitive approach. Though I know she’s musically trained, she’s very free, making a kind of cool space music. And Tom’s very well schooled in free jazz, drawing inspiration from people like Rashied Ali, “Beaver” Harris, Jerome Cooper, or Milford Graves…He reminds me in that way of someone like Sunny Murray, or a contemporary guy like Chris Corsano. The combination creates a kind of cosmic freedom, which is great to create in. I find myself able to go to that zone, happily.”
Each member of the group keeps coming back to that word, “freedom,” and Accidental Sky revels in it. Opening on a skittering, percussive soundscape called “Imperative,” its modes can be frantic, like on the swarming “Sirius Is Missing,” but also grooving, evidenced by the brooding “Exaltation By Proxy.” To close the record, the trio chose a lilting, beautiful number called “Soft Nameless Absolute,” which finds Cline strumming shimmering chords under melodic keyboard fragments from Culbertson.
“It was like a musical coda to all the wildness we’d laid down during the day, this euphonious ballad to end on,” Surgal says of the song. “It might have been when the cognac kicked in, too,” Culbertson adds.
“It’s not about showing off your technique,” Cline says. “It’s really about surrendering to sound. Even if Tom and Lin, don’t necessarily focus on the possibility of drama as I do, when improvising, there is a kind of subtle drama that can emerge in our collaborations I find really surprising and pleasing. There’s something kind of restrained about it that’s different than what I do with other people.” words / j woodbury