Todd McComb's Jazz Thoughts

It's time, once again, to write a new introduction for this space. The the previous set of entries had gotten to be rather long, and a fresh start often feels good. (Please do go ahead and take a look at those many, prior discussions, because upcoming entries will continue to refer to them, whether implicitly or explicitly.)

In keeping with my habits of the past few years, rolling over this page at this time of year is also happening in the wake of finishing a more lengthy, theoretical discussion, Practical listening, the second appendix to What is familiar? — the first being Morality as aporia. (You probably don't want to start with appendices.) This marks the end of my work on longer, theoretical projects, at least for now. So the focus will be on shorter discussions in this space, and mostly on specific recorded examples.

Once again, I am leaving the page in written order, so please scroll to the end if you want to see the most recent entries. I know that some people prefer the reverse, but despite undoubtedly being multi-stranded, in some sense, these entries form a single narrative, and I want to present it in order, rather than suggest an alternate or a-temporality. (Maybe that's worth scrolling all the way to the end...? But don't hurt yourself....) In that sense, this space reflects an ongoing, personal practice. (And thanks for your interest!)

I continue to struggle, to some degree, with my choice of writing topics here, as noted in many of those earlier entries. One part of that is a piece of guesswork: If others are going to say similar things about an album, I'm more likely to focus on something else. I also want to keep things positive, so I do focus on favorites. (Please consult that list any time you like. It is kept up to date, and arranged by year.) I also write about non-favorites, or non-ongoing favorites, whether albums I find appealing for one or two hearings, or albums about which I find something else I want to say. (Sometimes that is negative. And improvised music isn't necessarily expected to be interesting for several hearings.) In other words, I haven't & won't write about everything I hear. I'd also prefer to let this particular space be driven by musical productions reaching my ears, rather than "points" I might want to illustrate. It's best when those two coincide spontaneously. (These opening paragraphs also illustrate the sort of self-obsession that can so easily become a pitfall for a project such as this.)

I'm also expecting more activity on the performance fellowship page, which tells something of a separate story. In the meantime, I'm trying to get better at relaxing, something I seem to have forgotten how to do over the past few years, and perhaps that will be reflected in entries here.

Todd McComb <>
18 May 2016

A decision to write about something, at least as articulated above, is often already premised on a decision to hear something. The experience of encountering compelling music spontaneously can be special, but unfortunately, my circumstances are such that this very rarely happens. To find something I'll particularly enjoy, I generally have to notice & select an opportunity first, whether that's going to a location (venue), getting a recording (physical or otherwise), or even reading someone's recommendations. The latter usually involves making further choices (rather than adopting the entire list of recommendations wholesale). The contours of the present project provide me with some guidance, in terms of which productions are more likely to fit, but as such a project-based approach immediately suggests, there's a risk of confirming my own biases & so missing experiences that might well be exemplary. One might say that my personal familiarity creates its own resonance conditions. I try to counter this pull by listening occasionally to something that seems like it'll be totally different from my usual material, but even that sense of difference or unfamiliarity is obviously itself conditioned by familiarity — i.e. as an exception. (But sometimes that random object does pull me in a new direction.)

Within such a context, one might describe a record label as instantiating a set of recommendations: The editor or editors have recommended these recordings, for one reason or another. There are then labels with a history of releasing albums I enjoy, and so of course I pay further attention. Even still, there are usually choices involved: I don't want to commit to hearing everything, and maybe not even everything that seems to fit the "contours" of this project, as I put it above. I mention this situation not only because it relates closely to some of the "process" (or practice) ideas that I've been articulating around self formation, but because Creative Sources is once again my subject, and it offers a canonical example of such a label-based set of recommendations: The volume of releases is high — I count twenty-five so far this year, more or less — and they generally appear with no description. I'm not sure how well some album descriptions (or reviews, for that matter) really serve to improve my choice of what to hear, since they might e.g. emphasize features I find tangential to such desires. However, no description at all, particularly when the albums involve musicians with whom I am not otherwise familiar (and for that matter, having heard someone in a couple of settings hardly serves to indicate everything they might ever do), puts a rather stark edge on the issue of choice. I've nudged Creative Sources label editor Ernesto Rodrigues for suggestions, but he seems reluctant to offer them, perhaps because such suggestions might have too much effect on feedback he subsequently receives — reciprocal to the issues I've raised here. I don't know. (And, after all, by definition, he is recommending all of his recordings anyway. Is it fair to highlight some over others?) In any case, I continue to make my choices, some more informed (with the dangerous resonance that implies) than others, and hear a subset of new Creative Sources albums. (One of the contours of my practice continues to be a high priority on new productions.)

All that said, I've particularly enjoyed the recent improvised quartet album New Dynamics by Roland Ramanan, Nuno Torres, Ernesto Rodrigues, & Bernardo Álvares. An obvious point of comparison for this album is last year's Nor, considering that it shares two of the musicians & uses the same set of instruments. (Both albums also have three medium-length tracks.) Indeed, I had trouble finding precedents for these two-wind & two-string quartets, although one wouldn't say that such an ensemble seems radical. It would be equally wrong to say that the instrumental constitution creates a certain mood, as well, since the moods are rather different on these albums. There is, however, as one might imagine, a distinct "chamber" quality, even if extended technique is common. So whereas Nor includes Berlin improvisers Axel Dörner & Alexander Frangenheim, New Dynamics instead includes Roland Ramanan & Bernardo Álvares. (It would be wrong to call them substitutes. It is, dare I say it, a new dynamic.) Álvares was totally unknown to me, and I didn't find any substantial information about him online; I assume that he is Portuguese. I did have some familiarity with Ramanan, a longtime member of the London Improvisers Orchestra, from his album Zubeneschamali, released on Leo Records (about which some similar things could be said, especially that Leo releases many appealing albums) in 2014, with Tom Jackson & Daniel Thompson from the trio on Hunt at the Brook. I thought that Ramanan's trumpet kind of dominated that album, which along with e.g. Compost by another related ensemble, explores the acoustic space of a church: There is a sense of finding separate spaces for the members of the trio that also informs the quartet on New Dynamics, even if its space isn't contextualized by architecture per se. (How such a notion relates to the fake "spray" amid empty/monolithic architecture on the cover graphic, I don't know, but it does seem vaguely related.) Individual instruments are generally more discernible than on many albums on which Rodrigues participates, and so one might speak more of counterpoint on New Dynamics than of notions such as the soundscape. There is also a more concrete sense of presence & projection than on Nor, which focuses more on immanent emergence: Indeed, the latter, perhaps in keeping with its partial Berlin roots, has almost an ascetic or severe quality (one might even say Nietzschean), including some higher pitches & harmonics, more percussive attacks, etc. (The trumpet "calls," in the sense used in the discussion of Neutral Nation in this space earlier this month, remain immanent to an emerging landscape, rather than actually emerging or transcending.) New Dynamics thus comes off as more human (dialogic, even) & worldly than environmental, and one might ask what new sorts of dynamics emerge. Different instruments suggest their own different temporalities: By this, I mean generally speaking that the way one interacts with a particular instrument, the way it interfaces with the body, the way it resonates, has a particular temporality or time-scale. One can play slower or faster, but within limits, and there are temporal regions that "fit" the instrument better than others. One could further say that these sorts of relations are often explored in soundscape-type ensembles, but without necessarily seeking a common temporality by which to articulate a counterpoint. (In other words, there must be some temporal relation or correspondence in order to have counterpoint.) New Dynamics does this in a rather human way, including dodecaphony, while still respecting the differing temporal dynamics of the instruments — which, helpfully, are not all that different in the first place. (In this seeming "human" emphasis, then, it differs from e.g. Sediment, a quartet album that otherwise maintains a similarly resolute acoustic stance & pace of interaction.) So a new language of improvised, contrapuntal quartet interaction? That's compelling. (And just how contingent was my hearing of this album in the first place? I cannot really say.)

23 May 2016

I want to mention a couple of other recent releases on Creative Sources as well.

I like the idea of an improvising string quartet, and particularly given the extended lineage of the string bass in jazz, that such a quartet should be violin-viola-cello-bass, rather than doubling the violin, makes good sense to me too. So I was happy to get a chance to hear the Iridium String Quartet (recorded last November in Lisbon) featuring Maria da Rocha on violin, Ernesto & Guilherme Rodrigues on their regular viola & cello, and Miguel Mira (here on bass, instead of the cello he plays on e.g. Earnear). This is the first I'd heard (of) da Rocha, and she seems to fit the rest of this group well. The two tracks are named for the melting & boiling points of iridium, and feature a kind of Scelsian string quality... a sense of becoming, metallic scraping... almost industrial at times. One can imagine the changes of state being invoked. As one might also imagine, the quartet can still seem kind of monochromatic at times. There tends to be a rather unified sense of gesture, with a single pulse, relying partly on register (or even pitch) changes for articulation. One might ask what emerges, i.e. what is brought to presence, and in this case, I hear more of the immanent concerns of Nor, i.e. an emergence that isn't from "elsewhere," and likewise doesn't really come to presence. This seems like a first album for the group (which it presumably is), and I believe there is considerable potential, particularly exploring more multi-pulsed interactions. It's already worth hearing.

Aleph, recorded live in Madrid in December 2015, might be the debut leader album for Guilherme Rodrigues (cello), who is joined by David Area (sines, cracklebox, bottle), Guillermo Torres (synth) & Tomás Gris (cornet, objects). The album consists of a long improvised track, followed by a shorter one that almost seems like an encore — not so unlike Live at the Metz' Arsenal by the MMM Quartet. Indeed, the ensembles might be taken to be vaguely similar, even as Aleph is an album less dense with ideas, marking perhaps tentative relations more so than the studied multiplicity of the former. The album notes thank Wade Matthews, and one might also compare it to Primary Envelopment, likewise for its attempt to reshape perceptions (albeit with less sharpness to the high pitches). On Aleph, the different sounds are articulated through significant differences, such that they stay rather separate, suggesting what I've called a "less dense" ecology. I think there is more to be developed here, more to grow one might say, and I also assume that the entire quartet is rather young, so development of their group ecology does seem likely. It's already a worthwhile debut, particularly if one reframes my remarks as the music displaying an overall sense of balance & restraint (& even gravity) within an adventurous sonic idiom.

24 May 2016

I haven't featured much "classical" music in this space to this point, and probably won't, but do want to note the new double album of music by Richard Barrett, Music for cello and electronics featuring Arne Deforce on cello. That I would "need" to mention this album is probably obvious to anyone with a particular view of my output, and I can sketch that easily: Deforce's previous albums on Aeon were devoted to Scelsi, Feldman & Xenakis, only the three modern composers for whom I have discussions linked from my "favorites" list here. Moreover, Barrett himself already appears on such improvised favorites as Colophony & Skein. My own (recent?) predilection for improvised music means that Music for cello and electronics comes off a little stiffly to me — a comment I've been making in this space for albums that seem "too composed" even when they involve significant improvisation — and I find myself easily preferring Barrett's participation in those other projects. (In fairness, I also don't have the liner notes, so I have no idea what they say. Perhaps they add something that might further pique my interest.) I still thought it was worth hearing, even if the prospects of these colliding lines of influence (as articulated above) excited me unreasonably. I guess my orientation toward improvisation is only increasing....

Of course, the notion of improvisation versus composition continues to be articulated in various ways by music, and especially by discussions of that music, that fits with my project more closely. Indeed, I assume that Barrett's compositions involve some improvising, as much "contemporary classical" music does. On the other hand, barring some radical attempt (that I cannot cite; and if something can be characterized as an "attempt," it's probably not radical enough in this context anyway), even "totally improvised" music involves some sense of composition, for which I might substitute "some sense of prior." (Hence, this is another issue of temporality.) In other words, beyond a specific choice to convene a group of people, which is a clear act of composition, albeit one that can perhaps be circumvented by a random gathering, there are all the prior associations & expectations that the participants have about music. Often, in the grand scheme of things, these associations & expectations are rather similar & readily circumscribed — despite, or perhaps because of, a desire to improvise together. (When Evan Parker recently remarked, in the context of his ElectroAcoustic Septet, that convening a specific set of musicians was his manner of composing, some writers seemed to believe that he was being facetious. I agree, at least in principle, with Parker.) First, these comments suggest radical attempts to improvise without actually convening or sharing expectations (or perhaps any prior commonality), something that was more in fashion decades ago. Beyond that, one might interrogate the consciousness of shared expectations: Leave them latent or make them explicit? (This is a compositional choice. I often hear people say that they have no expectations, but frankly, this is impossible, at least for neurological adults. So it becomes a question of interrogating or forging expectations.) Particularly since I've also been criticizing music for sounding "too composed," one might ask about the relevance of explicit composition amid an improvising practice. One obvious response is that if one has a specific musical idea that isn't being projected otherwise, then why not articulate it specifically, whether in writing or otherwise? If we retain an emphasis on improvising, then once articulated, such an idea can in turn inform improvisation. (Such articulation may require considerable effort & practice, particularly if one is to internalize it for one's spontaneous repertory.) So that seems worthwhile, even when prioritizing improvisation — and prioritizing improvisation makes good sense to me, since life is mostly improvised — and indeed many compositions have served as "raw material" for improvisation in just this way. In the case of Barrett's music, there is already considerable overlap with his improvisatory style. Beyond that, I would expect any influence to involve, perhaps, small figures of interaction between cello & electronics (& piano), none of which jump out at me as obvious candidates — but who can say? In any case, we would probably do better to describe such situations according to multiple, perhaps impinging, layers of creativity, rather than as a sort of opposition. (These layers would be articulated, at least in part, via temporal relations. To continue removing the teleological frame, such relations might in turn contextualize compositional activity itself within a broader & ongoing improvisatory practice called life.) This is especially true when one considers how much technical practice, i.e. of particular figures, the typical improviser does: Such familiarizing activity can be said to forge a repertory of tiny, interlocking compositions — to be arranged in performance in more or less typical ways.

25 May 2016

Trash with a groove, trash that sings the blues.... This is what we get from Pascal Niggenkemper's new sextet Le 7ème Continent & their album Talking Trash. The sextet is variously conceived as a double trio or triple duo, and features pianists Eve Risser & Philip Zoubek, clarinetists Joris Rühl & Joachim Badenhorst, as well as Julián Elvira playing the pronomos & sub-contrabass flute. I was not previously familiar with Elvira or the pronomos flute (and had little familiarity with Rühl), but it is apparently his own rethinking of the basic Boehm flute mechanism & shows some intriguing capabilities. Whereas the pianos & clarinets come in pairs, then, Niggenkemper's bass is paired with flute. (On track #7, which dates from a later session, Constantin Herzog plays the string bass instead, making each pair the same. The music remains similar enough, however, even though this track is from a newer layer of material composed for the ensemble.) At least one half of the sextet then corresponds in composition to the classic Jimmy Giuffre Trio, or closer to home for these performers, the Kaufmann-Gratkowski-de Joode trio, with its incorporation of piano preparations. (One might even characterize Skein as a different sort of double trio, in that case retaining a single horn.) Regarding preparations, Niggenkemper highlights another splitting of the sextet into two trios, the two prepared pianos & prepared bass, and the three winds. Moreover, those preparations, which involve objects that might otherwise be similar to trash — a crucial difference being that they're still in active use — play a signal role in Niggenkemper's musical interrogation of trash. When thinking about an environmental theme, my mind tends to turn to thoughts of economizing, and from that perspective, Niggenkemper's ensemble seems almost extravagant. I asked him about that, and he replied with an emphasis on the potentials of dualities, confrontations, consolidations, etc. So Pascal's musical mind doesn't turn to economizing, at least not in the way that mine does, and indeed he put out a septet album (Lucky Prime) not so long ago — albeit followed by his solo album, Look with thine ears (discussed here in September). Whereas the ensemble variety in his work is evident, Talking Trash does seem to continue an emphasis on some of the spatial concepts raised by Look with thine ears. (In other words, we are asked to visualize trash. And the more, the better.) Moreover, whereas a strict economization notion already inflects the trash "situation" in a particular direction, Niggenkemper takes a more expansively creative approach: While some titles suggest excess trash as a problem, particularly in the image of the seventh continent (and, in French, the Americas are one continent, so there are ordinarily six), others highlight positive responses, whether art projects, plastic-eating bacteria, etc. In other words, we're not asked simply to disdain trash, but to explore more relations around it, maybe even to adopt a more intersubjective stance toward our environment. Such relations are then highlighted by the use of objects in preparations — a paradigm of the "reuse" mantra: We are asked not so much to increase our contempt, although horror toward the accumulation of trash is involved, but rather our appreciation & respect for objects per se. (Our relation to objects in general surely figures our relation to "trash" in particular. In that context, the "reduce" mantra might make only limited sense.) The sound of the album actually reminds me less of Oblengths, which comes off as much more "classical," at least relatively speaking, or Skein, which has a driving sweep & can also make quite a racket, than it does the more static & "industrial" sounds of Anomonous & Pail Bug. However, Talking Trash generally has a larger pallet, and can be more diffuse, almost cloudy.... It's certainly more "open" than Pail Bug, on which confinement is something of a theme. This is presumably Niggenkemper's optimism showing, and as per the previous entry, the compositional basis serves here to highlight particular instrumental combinations & musical ideas: One can imagine the trash itself, the ocean, humanity, other living creatures... in different ways on different tracks. Our perspective becomes troubled: Are we supposed to be repulsed by trash, or identify with it? (Here I figure identification as more involved than mere responsibility.) Whereas extended technique & dissonant "noises" dominate the early part of the album, we are left to wonder to what extent the trash itself participates in the ongoing conversation. Does it participate in singing the blues, then? This sort of intersubjectivity emerges from the clash of different instrument combinations, particularly in energetic & dramatic confrontations such as on tracks #6 & #7 — which are in sharp contrast to the slowly shifting high tones & resulting groundlessness of track #4. (We thus have both the clocks & clouds of a famous dual, "mediated" by the emergence of a herky-jerky tune in track #5.) One thing Talking Trash really might do is make extended technique & object preparations themselves more musically approachable to more people: After all, dramatic movie scores have been doing this for avant garde music for decades. Sometimes a concrete association is all people need to engage with unfamiliar musical techniques, and here we have a very concrete theme. (One might then ask whether the technique serves the theme, or vice versa.) What would it mean actually to identify with trash & its various ramifications? On Talking Trash, that becomes a spiritual (blues) question, consummated in a kind of solidarity by both the final tune & the ensuing applause.

26 May 2016


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© 2010-16 Todd M. McComb