Although it's for the second time this calendar year — and this is the first I've done that in this space — I've decided to roll the previous set of thoughts over to another archive page: The previous nine months simply ended up producing, already, more verbiage (by word count) than any previous sets of entries. Why have I felt so verbose this year? Well, it's been something of a trend here generally, but moreover, it had much to do with the tone of confidence in the previous intro, and starting to feel less like I was exploring what was out there, and more like I had a sense of the field. Of course, such a sense remains particular to me & my priorities, what I enjoy, what I find theoretically stimulating, what I find useful in day to day life.... I guess we'll see where all that goes next.
Any time I start to feel like I know what I'm doing, especially within such an open & dynamic field as contemporary improvised music, it's a good time to remind myself that there is surely far more happening than I will ever know. And I do sometimes lament the static quality of some of my musical inputs, meaning that there are sources I tend to appreciate, and so I always worry about getting into a mental rut.... (And I'm also writing a new intro now in part because there was a considerable lull in having new items of interest to discuss. That happens sometimes, and I'm growing more accustomed to the rhythms in this space: A feeling of being overwhelmed with variety can be followed quickly by wondering why there's nothing new catching my ear.... That dynamic undoubtedly involves my shifting internal judgments too.) So I need to make a point, at least for myself, to continue to seek out something different. In the meantime, readers can always consult my prior (& updated) favorites, summarized by year for quick reference. (I hope that it's useful for people who want a relatively brief list of especially worthwhile — to me anyway — recent albums, without feeling a need to read a bunch of commentary. Words aren't necessary to appreciate music, after all, and might even interfere.)
I mentioned "contemporary improvised music" above, so why does this space say jazz? For one, I started there, and tend to keep web pages at their same addresses, instead of moving things around. But that's obviously a ridiculous answer: When I started this project, I had intended to prioritize USA (or perhaps American more broadly) production — and also youth. I've speculated in the past on why the former priority became untenable, in part because of the dismal support for the arts & education in this country, or perhaps the differing priorities of people who might become involved with musical resistance, but I've found over time that only a minority of what interests me originates in this hemisphere.... (And I simply do not believe that this project "works" if I ignore items I find more appealing — for whatever reason — in favor of items I find less appealing.) In the latter case, I've found that various older performers still have much to say (& that I might have much to say in response), but I do continue to be open to youth & new ideas (I hope!). That said, as I wrote in the prior intro, I take jazz as resistance, as a medium fighting oppression and for social justice & new forms of life. And African Americans played & play a huge role, which ought to be respected any time one uses the term. However, I also don't believe that restricting the sound of "jazz" to the classic sound of jazz suits its liberatory purpose: Time marches on. Moreover, of course, there have been many more improvisatory musical traditions around the world, even as (at least in this country) improvisation was so strongly linked to "jazz" per se in its glory days (the 1960s — the climax of the modern era), such that there are many "roots" today — & many struggles for freedom. And I continue to prioritize improvisation because I believe that it reflects the conditions of life itself, particularly in such volatile historical times. (That's not to say that I won't listen to or discuss composed music, but I consider composition to be something of a crutch — sometimes helpful in getting something done, such that perhaps it can lead to more....)
Notions of composition as somehow "more preliminary" than improvisation might already seem eccentric, but I also try to take an improvisatory approach myself in this space: I try not to wait "too long" before discussing an album, so that I can capture some of the spontaneity of my thoughts & their tangents. Excitement can easily be lost in the sobriety that so often accompanies time, but new insight can form as well, and so whereas I want to be spontaneous here, I also revisit old favorites with some regularity, such that reactions to something new might be played against or through (new?) reactions to something older (although usually still from within the time frame of this project, which began in 2010). So thoughts develop over time, and I've consequently kept entries in written order — thus requiring these restarts — and resisted impulses to provide typical web widgets for searches, etc. So please scroll to the end for the latest entries, and please also be aware that albums might be discussed across multiple entries, sometimes from different perspectives. As noted in the prior intro, I frequently take a "translation" perspective, of one thing into or from something else, not to imply that they then become interchangeable....
Whereas some entries are straightforward, others are more textually involved: This is generally complex music, and I like to let my writing reflect the lines & interactions of the music — albeit perhaps unrecognizably, or perhaps more accurately, idiosyncratically. I'm trying to offer a spontaneous artistic response, and I'm willing to take risks with that, so sometimes I end up saying something silly. (I feel that's better than the alternative.) Despite all this theory — including e.g. in (open) writing projects like Practical listening or Basic mechanics of modernity — or perhaps because of it — I also try to ask what the "use" of an album is, i.e. how can it help me or others in our daily lives? Relevance is very important to me, despite what some might think of this music: New ways of thinking & interacting are exactly what we need in the current historical moment. Or sometimes we just need new ways to survive, and music can facilitate that too.... (In all of this, I generally prioritize small ensembles, but not as small as solos or duos, which present fewer combinatorial possibilities, so expect to find a lot of trio & quartet albums being discussed....)
I think I'll leave these latest opening remarks at that. There's plenty of context for these & other remarks to be found from reading earlier intros or the previous several years of individual entries.... For now, my own concerns return to where they often are, i.e. what new items do I want to discuss? That's largely prompted by whether I feel I have something to contribute, and there is never an ideal place to start.... (And any beginning is a rupture.)Todd M. McComb <firstname.lastname@example.org>
From what I've seen elsewhere, I seem to have more interest in vocal music than most people writing about otherwise similar music, and along with various other stimulating material, the prolific Creative Sources label continues to release more vocal music than anyone else: So opening this set of entries, after a long (& mysterious) mail delay, Factorial was recorded in Italy by a quartet featuring singer Patrizia Oliva, who also uses electronics & plays the Chinese bawu (transverse reed). Oliva, whose vocal technique spans a variety of styles, is joined in the quartet "4!" by Carlo Mascolo on prepared trombone, Domenico Saccente on accordion & prepared piano, and Felice Furioso on drums, bass & other percussion (including "cupa cupa" Neapolitan friction drum). Mascolo had already appeared on Creative Sources with the Lisbon String Trio on Intonarumori (discussed here in August 2017), and indeed the album design for Factorial appears to be similarly inspired, but the others were new to me. (In this case, the collage is by Oliva herself, and there is a different graphic designer, so I don't know if it's coincidence or homage....) Although Oliva was new to me as well, she has already appeared on 18 albums for the Italian CDR imprint Setola di Maiale (hard to obtain, unfortunately), including a couple by Gamra Quartet, a more conventional "free jazz" quartet including reed & guitar & drums in aggressive & somewhat repetitive settings around vocal loops, ostinati, etc. Factorial is generally less aggressive or focused on that sort of canonical "free" style, and even comes off as something of an anthology: No recording dates are given, for one thing, which is not my idea of how to document improvised meetings (although I suppose people can have their reasons), and so along with the variety of vocal styles being employed (not to mention the evocation of collage form), it's unknown how many sessions were involved. Although the vocal technique varies from track to track, or even within tracks — evoking e.g. Joëlle Léandre (on track three, by far the most assertive of the nine) or the throat creaking of Isabelle Duthoit (per e.g. Light air still gets dark), and including e.g. snippets of distant or dreamy pop, cabaret (with maybe a quick hint of Messiaen) overtures, lilting or "naïve" sing-song, Sprechstimme, inarticulate chatter, absent-minded silliness, etc. — there is nonetheless a sort of coherence to the album around the quartet, despite that the group (except Mascolo) varies their instrumentation. Prepared trombone can vary from rather high to rather low pitch though too, glissandi often prominently included, and even the characteristic interaction with accordion (accented by drum set) changes on tracks employing piano instead. The title & ensemble name suggest the various combinations & permutations of sonority & dynamic available across a quartet — as just intimated in my new opening — yet the combos & timbres (which often seem almost subconscious, or perhaps displaying an urge to hide) project a kind of spaciousness that deemphasizes momentum or continuity, such that moods almost seem to hang in the air, gathering like smoke. The result can seem occasionally aggressive, but usually comes with a haunting subtlety, such that depending on context, Factorial can be slow to make a firm aural statement — or alternately, one can become caught in rapt attention to its overall atmosphere & details. (Differing responses to attention from the listener, the basic "ambient" quality here, are a feature of many recent Creative Sources releases....) So despite some issues with the documentary or anthology aspects of Factorial, Oliva's voice comes off rather distinctively (in its variety), amid carefully cultivated & original sonic moods. And despite its attention to rich improvisatory detail, as well as novel technique, the album also has more of a "pop" feel (at least at times) than most mentioned here.9 October 2018
Five by the (mostly English) Runcible Quintet on FMR (discussed here in May 2017) is an album that I had particularly enjoyed not only for its masterful (chamber improvisation) technique, but its cultivated sense of five-way interaction. In some ways, it seemed to be "one of many" albums out of the strong London improvisation scene, employing a global palette of sounds & evocations, and indeed in retrospect, perhaps it developed more tentatively than some. That said, a followup has now appeared — recorded 18 & 23 months later — in Four, and what were perhaps more exploratory interactions have become that much more powerful: However, as the title might already suggest, Four actually opens with a quartet session (minus bassist John Edwards) from late last year, followed by another quintet session (with the same full ensemble) from this past March: Both are about a half hour in length, meaning that Four basically consists of two (relatively) short albums. Returning to a discussion of Five, of course I was familiar with Edwards, and I had already admired guitarist Daniel Thompson (in e.g. Hunt at the Brook & related projects), as well as some complementary material from flautist Neil Metcalfe, but was not yet familiar with drummer Marcello Magliocchi or saxophonist Adrian Northover. As also mentioned at the time, I first enjoyed Five as a sort of "flute trio" album (& I often enjoy flute in improvised music, including for its pan-native evocations...), and then came to appreciate the sorts of interventions & commentary that Northover & Thompson were making as well, as integrated in large part by Magliocchi — whose drumming style I've continued to enjoy, including for its sometimes almost minimalist accents & repetitions. (Subsequently, I was also quite taken with Ag, the trio album from Northover & Thompson with Steve Noble, and their contributions have come to seem that much more distinctive since....) However, the quartet session that opens Four — with a long track, and then a much shorter followup track — precludes focusing on a "flute trio," due to the absence of bass: Guitar fills a similar role at times (as it had, often shadowing Edwards, on Five), but the quartet tends to break more into two duos than interlocking trios (both around drums). Nonetheless, after a relatively austere opening around flute, there is a wide range of energetic interaction & exploration, making for a very compelling track (evoking & incorporating globalized styles into a sometimes mysterious mélange), with a new brightness to the sound in the absence of bass. (The flute & drums duo also seems to profit from a more "direct" interaction.) The short followup opens with a brief guitar solo, into a curiously intricate machinic assemblage.... Of course, Edwards is the player who most attracted my attention in the first place, and his absence makes for an interesting revision to the ensemble, but one needn't dwell on such absence for long, as the next two tracks (of relatively equal length) employ the full quintet again — while often retaining the group's new brightness. The bass makes its presence known instantly, however, and often appears (once again) at the center of activity — including some "flute trio" moments, particularly on the last track, which also features an unusual (for this group anyway) solo from Northover. (Indeed there are more solos here than on Five, and more reed, but there is basically more of everything, due to the increased length, pace, comfort....) Another aspect that I just promised to address is "use," and so what is the use of this album? (What's the use of a runcible spoon? To eat mince & quince, evidently....) First, I enjoy the wonderful collective interaction, which seems like a typical response, but I also hear it as stimulating other creativity in turn, and have generally found listening to Runcible Quintet to be a helpful (& often calming) experience when considering written forms, next steps, etc.: It evokes a timeless quality, but not through a lack of activity or drive... and the spaciousness of the result seems to leave plenty of room for my own ideas as well. (It's also a great, generally non-soloistic tour-de-force for flute, something that can't be said every day. Indeed, Four might already be my favorite "flute album.") And despite some potential awkwardness involved in combining two different sessions, including the quartet, and despite this followup being so recent, Four is simply a great album. Circumstances made me wary, but the result is very satisfying... "ideality" can obviously be an enemy to recordings of improvised music, but this one captures something special, including that Runcible is one of the most compelling improvising collectives working today.10 October 2018
Since Five & now Four, I've been paying more attention to Adrian Northover — who, among saxophonists, is capable of quite subtle ensemble contributions, and the latter might be said of Marcello Magliocchi on drums as well. (Indeed, continuing the remarks begun around Patrizia Oliva & Factorial, Magliocchi has appeared on twenty albums for Setola di Maiale, so he's actually been quite prolific....) On Sezu, another recent release on FMR (recorded in Bristol in March 2017), they're joined by Phil Gibbs on guitar (& banjo for one track), and Maresuke Okamoto on cello & voice (for one track). Gibbs appears on many FMR releases, especially with Paul Dunmall (such that I'm not sure that I've heard him before without Dunmall), but Okamoto (b.1960, Tokyo) was new to me: The most unusual track of the album is clearly the third, on which the vocals appear, mysterious Japanese in the foreground with various shimmering accompaniment. That track does bring an emotional impact after the intricate openings, but the format (straight solo & accompaniment) is simply not one I tend to enjoy. Fortunately, the other tracks are more intricate & contrapuntal: Gibbs brings a dazzling quality on guitar, and has a tendency to dominate the (front line) sound (as opposed to the more "earthy" Thompson, above, who weaves in & out...), but Northover can be more assertive & to the fore on alto sax here as well. Okamoto's cello is the more novel contribution, however, provoking some unusual & creative textures early in the program, and forging more characteristic timbral combinations by the end, especially around noisy bowing, and amid the relatively straightforward yet creative percussion sounds (tapping, rubbing, etc.) from Magliocchi. FMR produces a lot of "chamber jazz," much of it rather similar in style & orientation, but Sezu provides some ear catching innovations around its carefully modulated collective quartet texture, and so makes a powerful first impression. In that sense, the vocal track might not be a favorite, but it's provocative, especially on first hearing, changing the way the quartet interaction is perceived — even as the vocals never return. (The resulting stance is a mix of striving & poise....) I've yet to be especially interested by the more soloistic Japanese productions, or by those oriented on (often delicate) pianism, so Sezu ("Without" in Japanese) is a welcome opportunity to hear a Japanese instrumentalist in a more polyphonic (yet still intense) improvisatory setting. More is clearly possible from such a setting....11 October 2018
Dissection Room, also from Creative Sources (& recorded in Lisbon this past December), is another album delayed by the USPS that I want to note: Although it isn't particularly polyphonic, meaning that it tends to focus on a "central" sound or action more than I usually prefer, Dissection Room is quite evocative of its (medical) setting, with sonorities suggesting a palpable sense of horror: There is sawing, grinding, slashing, pounding, hard echoing surfaces, the metallic shimmer of colliding knives, etc. The album pairs Albert Cirera on prepared tenor & soprano saxes with Alvaro Rosso on double bass — & the two had already appeared together on the more mainstream "free" quintet album Ao vivo!, as mentioned around Rosso's participation in the Lisbon String Trio in July — to be mediated or deconstructed by electric guitarist Abdul Moimême. (The latter actually first appeared in this space back in April 2012....) The often short sonic bursts that make up Dissection Room don't generally engage a lot of long-term continuity, or elaborate much simultaneity, but they do create an austere, clinical mood. (In the notes, Stuart Broomer frames the trio as dissecting music per se, which is probably applicable, but the — admittedly stylized — sounds of a medical dissection room are rather evident to me, so the title seems to be more concrete than merely that.) The main line of inquiry is consequently quite dissonant at times, combining timbres, including some low grade static etc., although it does resolve into a kind of quasi-"anthem" by the end. In the meantime, there are some amazing sequences, particularly about two thirds of the way through the single fifty-four minute track, when some startling polyphonic activity occurs. Otherwise, the eerie & often slow moving (almost minimalist, yet again) collective trio quality embeds a calmness vaguely reminiscent of e.g. Drought, although the latter seems far more naturally-oriented than Dissection Room.... (Yet one wouldn't claim that a cadaver is somehow "unnatural.") A distinct musical character does manage to emerge, though, out of the mastery involved in this rather novel, macabre & clinical operation. (One might otherwise think that such a theme would be more likely to emerge from death metal influenced bands of e.g. New York City, but if it did, it would have proceeded rather differently....) The result entails a perverse delicacy, highly trained surgeons cutting calmly & precisely into tender flesh....
While I'm here, I also want to mention a couple of other recent trio albums that sometimes lean in more minimalistic directions, but also feature some novel combinations & interrogations.... Luminária, recently on FMR from the Frame Trio, was recorded in Coimbra in November 2017, and features the duo of Luís Vicente (trumpet) & Marcelo dos Reis (guitar) — who have worked together in numerous recent projects, such as In Layers (discussed in February 2017) & City of Light (discussed in May 2017) — as basically "mediated" by bassist Nils Vermeulen (with whom I was not previously familiar): Straightforward yet novel timbral combinations, usually arising from trumpet & guitar, as supported (harmonically) by bass, are elaborated (formally) into relatively straightforward extended pieces (of which there are six) according to ostinato, hocket, etc. Although I hear it as a more exploratory album — not that it's very "difficult," or hard on the ear — there's also a satisfying quality to the resulting quasi-melodic austerity (which can be heard in full on Bandcamp). Enclins, recorded live at Radio France in June 2017, and the second album from the Clinamen Trio of Louis-Michel Marion (contrabass), Jacques Di Donato (clarinet) & Philippe Berger (viola), after Décliné (discussed April 2015), is even more minimalistic: The "swerve" of "atoms" here is even tinier, yielding slow simmering that sometimes seems to suggest very long & slow melodies amid an overall sparse, buzzing surface.... (One might think of e.g. the intricate clarinet & strings combination of K'Ampokol Che K'Aay, or the variety of activity, including spectral, from e.g. Baloni — which employs basically the same ensemble — but things tend to be far more distended on Enclins, with little tangible activity at most moments.) One can perhaps admire the trio's commitment to their vision (of largely imperceptible action that can nonetheless add up to something meaningful), but if anything, the second album is more smooth & uneventful than the first... it doesn't make for foreground listening for me, although some curious things do sometimes occur. Perhaps the most intriguing development is the increasingly "granular" sense of ostinato, i.e. of timbre "kontakting" a large structural element.... All three of these albums then involve novel timbral combinations, elaborated formally into (tangible & sometimes energetic) results that the listener can then grasp — in other words, they involve some degree or version of timbre yielding large-scale form....12 October 2018
Astral Spirits has been a rather prolific label of late, but I guess I've yet to mention them: That's due in part to their decision to release albums on cassette tape, of course, but with their Bandcamp site I can avoid issues with physical media — & in fact, they've now released a few CDs & have moved into vinyl too. (I can understand people wanting to get creative or retro or what-have-you with physical media, as they come to be redundant for a lot of people, but using a cassette tape is not something I care to contemplate. Personally, as noted probably too often by now, I find CDs convenient: They can be popped quickly into a player without having to worry about software updates or other computer-based harassment. A cassette does not seem convenient, not to mention needing another kind of quality playback device. Anyway....) Their music also seems to come with more of a "rock" orientation than I usually adopt, but they've also been aggressive in supporting explorations of novel sonorities, etc. even if a lot of it is built around speed. In particular, although it's composed music, I wanted to note Convulsionaries (recorded last October, and released on CD) by the Brandon Seabrook Trio, including Daniel Levin (cello) & Henry Fraser on bass: I had discussed Stomiidae back in February, and that was a free trio (recorded 18 months prior) also featuring Seabrook & Levin, there with Chris Pitsiokos. The orientation on Seabrook's compositions on Convulsionaries leaves the bass in more of a supporting role, but there's still much to enjoy, particularly around Seabrook's fast guitar & sometimes cathartic (partially scripted) interactions. It's an enjoyable, maybe even "fun" album (with e.g. almost a James Bond-esque noir quality at one point). More raw is Hiljaisuus ("Silence" in Finnish?!), an LP recorded in Chicago in September 2017, on which the Tashi Dorji (guitar) & Tyler Damon (percussion) duo is joined by Dave Rempis on saxes, forming a trio called Kuzu. Dorji & Damon have been making a big impression around the web, but mostly as a duo, so I was interested to hear them as joined by Rempis: He's quite prolific, often with more of an "inside" orientation than I have, but is seemingly involved in ever more projects, such as Spectral (with recent favorite Empty Castles)... which is very different. On Hiljaisuus — & I have no idea where Finnish comes into it, but describing this very noisy music as "calm" or "spacious & light" seems to be part of its fundamental twist — Rempis gets to be as heavy & aggressive as he wants, in a real free blowing session, but framed by the unique duo style that Dorji & Damon have developed together. (Rempis's participation almost evokes Damon Smith on Ewen / Smith / Walter for me: Although Ewen & Walter hadn't played together before, the sheer speed & "insanity" of their interaction is of a similar vein — even as Smith acts more as mediator, whereas Rempis immediately instigates.) Rempis does begin quite aggressively, such that lightness doesn't seem to be an option for the duo, at least not without first injecting much energy of their own, which they proceed to do: Dorji is actually from Bhutan, and then moved to Asheville as an adult, whereas Damon (b.1987) is from Cincinnati, and now lives in Bloomington Indiana. I hadn't realized that this duo was so "middle American" so to speak, and of course Rempis (having gotten his start with Ken Vandermark) exemplifies a particular strand of contemporary Chicago jazz... such that Kuzu belongs somewhere on the tree (or rhizome) of Americana. The way that Rempis pushes the energy with these guys is amazing, as is their response, and as noted, the influences (& "sharding" etc.) recall Ewen / Smith / Walter (another piece of Americana, however amusing such an observation might seem). Moreover, some "calm" is certainly involved, in an "eye of the storm" sense... so such a suggestion is not as absurd as it might initially seem — even as the surface of the sound is often so frenetic. (One might even suggest a sort of lively inversion of the clinical calm of Dissection Room....) There is, moreover, a strong ritual mood emerging from the core duo in particular: One might further suggest a resemblance, in the domain of results anyway, to Tipple Live at Elastic Arts, a similar ensemble — albeit of players with vastly different styles, in each case — recorded in the same venue two years earlier. (Such a resemblance is, in many ways, quite superficial, and doesn't survive attention to details, particularly since energy moves through the trio differently, yet both invoke a similar ecstatic intensity for the listener. And it doesn't make sense to call Tipple an "American" trio either, although Kevin Norton is from New York....) So the Dorji-Damon duo is forging a distinctive personal style, and Rempis makes for a particularly aggressive (Midwest) collaborator bringing another kind of intensity on Hiljaisuus....13 October 2018
I'll probably continue to write in "bursts" here for the next few months, as I focus on articulating an extended (theoretical) discussion.... In the meantime, I want to note Interfaces (on Ravello Records, which does not seem to appear at the usual retailers) by the trio of Jeff Morris (live sampling), Karl Berger (b.1935; vibraphone & piano) & Joe Hertenstein (drum set & stone-table-percussion). Interfaces was recorded in Woodstock NY, home of Berger's Creative Music Studio, over three days in September 2017, and consists of ten tracks lasting over fifty minutes. It's also the (stated) first album by Morris — no relation to the various other musical Morrises in this arena, as far as I know — & adopts a very particular stance on electronics: Morris has constructed a setup that doesn't produce its own sound, but samples & manipulates the music produced by others. That does include specific software designed in advance for this particular project, and despite the novelty emphasized in the distribution notes, of course various other performers have used similar live sampling & playback: Wade Matthews, Alvin Curran, Carlos Santos, etc. The difference is those performers have also (usually) generated their own sounds, and so Morris is taking a more restrictive approach in that sense: Perhaps the best comparison is actually to Boulez Materialism (discussed here in July), both for its sampling (& mixing) emphasis from the electronics, and for its frequently jazzy or bluesy sound (there especially around bass). The subtitle "Jazz Meets Electronics" thus serves both to describe the result, and to overstate the basic novelty of the electronic interventions.... That said, Morris does produce a unique (if not unprecedented) personal result, and in this case, the electronics often have a percussive quality themselves — coming from sampling drums, piano, vibes... — although they occasionally render (sometimes eerie) legato. Hertenstein has been featured here since early in this project (as his move to New York more or less corresponded with my start), but I had yet to mention Berger: I knew that Hertenstein had been working with him, and of course Berger has quite a history, if less of a recent discography: He's most often on piano on Interfaces, and generally produces the most "conventional" musical input, across a variety of piano styles (almost a tour, from blues to Bach & beyond) at various points. His is a pleasing & easily flowing style, incorporating a range of (often traditional) ideas, and the piano does sometimes ring through clearly (& tonally) for extended passages, while at other times it's more masked (or disarticulated) by electronics. The vibes-based tracks tend to be more abstract, however (& so that much more akin to Boulez Materialism), although the "conventional input" does limit how "out there" Morris can be — albeit while attaching Interfaces much more firmly to tradition. Hertenstein largely moves between the two poles, coming closer to the sometimes raucous or dissonant electronics, or closer to the traditionally thematic piano at various points: The resulting palette can be fascinating (although I'm not quite sure what stone-table-percussion, credited with those hyphens, exactly is), particularly as it's remixed (sometimes aggressively) by the electronics into a general percussive sea. Despite some rather conventional material (always on the verge of being deconstructed) at times, Interfaces is thus an exciting & distinctive debut: So where does Morris go from here?21 October 2018
Tyshawn Sorey is another drummer whom I noticed early in this project, in particular for his many appearances on albums by other people: I see that I first mentioned him explicitly around Steve Lehman's On Meaning in May 2011, but had already noted him on e.g. Steve Coleman's albums, and then again with the cooperative trio Paradoxical Frog the following month. Although I was soon impressed by Sorey's drumming, his leader albums hadn't excited me: I discussed the piano trio album Alloy briefly in November 2014, but didn't end up mentioning the subsequent The Inner Spectrum of Variables (released in 2016) or Verisimilitude (another piano trio, released last year) at all (although I did listen to both). I guess I was starting to think that what Sorey wanted to produce simply wasn't what I wanted to hear, despite my initial impressions to the contrary. It happens: Of course, in this general space, Sorey is also one of the most acclaimed USA musicians of his generation, one of the handful of people that regularly receives prestigious grants & quasi-mainstream attention, etc. (The way that these things work in the US seems very wrong to me, but that's not Sorey's fault, and so I don't want to get too worked up here... but basically, among other issues, technical proficiency is a requirement far beyond having something to say, with the latter seeming to be quite optional. I mean, let's face it, many of the people in charge will be happier if someone has nothing to say: It's safer that way.) So I was doubly pleased that Sorey put the (often romantic) piano trio genre aside, at least for the moment, and created the massive & unusual octet album Pillars: Readers might have noticed that I sometimes chafe at narrative form, generally speaking, and so when Sorey talks of being non-directional & avoiding "linear narrative," he has my attention. The Feldman-esque proportions of the work — at nearly four hours, at least in its triple CD version — are obvious enough, but rather than place sound figures into varying layers via pervasive time signature changes, as Feldman does, Sorey assembles his "moments" into a larger work only later, after they're recorded: The "moment" concept & the nonsequential presentation also explicitly refer to Stockhausen, such that the resulting piece involves surreal shifts that somehow aren't jarring: Pillars instead unfolds according to its own logic, as assembled by Sorey — as editor, basically — subsequent to recording. (I would also recommend the double LP version, which I heard via digital download, in that it's "only" 95 minutes, is generally "brighter" in tone, and moves along a bit more. So it's edited rather differently from the CD version, which has some quite extended & even ponderous moments.) The result has something of an "ambient" effect — also mentioned explicitly by Sorey (who compares it to Zen) — in that it (intentionally) sustains different levels of listener attention (as discussed here around Sîn in February: There are also loud, "scary" moments in Pillars, but it's less about a "close up" quality as associated with lowercase, or a term I prefer around some of those Creative Sources releases, improvisational post-concrète.... It's plenty concrete, though, an edited "tape" assembled only at a remove from live performance.) It should thus reward both closer & more disinterested listening: Yet, because of the way it's constructed, i.e. "subsequently," there's little sense in which details intensify.... In fact, whereas I found Pillars to provide an excellent background for editing (something I do often), I didn't find it to be much of a spur for creative thought more generally. Oh well, it's still an interesting idea, and develops some distinctive textures: One might even suggest that it takes something of an "inverse" approach to that of Anthony Braxton, e.g. on Quartet Live at Sesc Pompeia, where previously prepared electronics prompt (in part) the improvising players. (For Sorey, the transformative "electronics" are largely involved later, i.e. in the editing process.) And indeed Braxton comes off as rather "narrative" in comparison. As does Bill Dixon on Tapestries, which might be said specifically to construct a sort of landscape-narrative form: The frequent austerity (including that of the cover, from the same label), and sometimes similar ensemble sound & even musical contours (especially around brass "calls" & variations in player participation) also mark Tapestries as a clear (& presumably self-conscious) influence on Pillars (which was itself recorded at Firehouse 12 over two days in July 2017)... although a cursory search did not turn up a document of Sorey & Dixon playing together. (Basic textural concerns on the two albums might also be said to be inversely aligned.) Connections to those African American legends extend to Sorey's ensemble on Pillars as well, a unique set of musicians who are (mostly anyway) chosen for their own distinctiveness, rather than according to traditional notions of score & instrumentation: Stephen Haynes (trumpet, flugelhorn, cornet, alto horn, small percussion) plays the only high horn, whereas he had been one of many on Tapestries (with its "inverse" texture); Ben Gerstein (trombone, melodica) & Todd Neufeld (electric & acoustic guitar) return from various early Sorey projects; the inimitable Joe Morris plays both electric guitar & double bass, whereas Carl Testa (mostly known from Anthony Braxton ensembles) adds electronics along with double bass, and is moreover joined by Mark Helias & Zach Rowden also on basses — with Sorey not only conducting & on drums, but on trombone & Tibetan dungchen as well. (Rowden is the one new name, but apparently he has experience playing both Feldman & Scelsi....) So an octet with four people playing double bass is already unusual, and that appears to be less for purposes of volume or reinforcement here than it is to have different styles available for different solos.... (The electronics are very noticeable at times, almost cliché around massive glissandi, but are not at all ubiquitous. The melodica, in turn, is the least obvious instrument credited, apparently fitting smoothly into the electronic sections and/or with the grainy basses.) And then the horns are oriented around trombone, with Haynes also playing brass so as to engage (a variety of) higher registers, and the dungchen appearing at times as a noisily rumbling bass version. (There's thus a specific, underlying profile to the group of horns, forging an "extended" trombone of sorts.) The guitars then add a brightness, sometimes a ringing sense of mellow calm that pairs well with meditation bells, even a lightness that sometimes fades into string harmonics more generally.... For me, the resulting sound happens to be highly evocative of Pieces of Old Sky by the Samuel Blaser Quartet (released in 2009, and still available on Blaser's Bandcamp), with Sorey & Neufeld (& also frequent Sorey collaborator Thomas Morgan on bass). And beyond the basic sound world of that earlier quartet, and beyond or in relation to its own sense of non-narrative form, Pillars also evokes Tibetan ritual music, particularly in its noisy, rattling, clanging, tinkling, perception-filling quality. (In this it reminds me a bit of recent, hybrid favorite AAMM....) Some of the moments tend to be quite static, droning, and work more by way of contrast with others, rather than offering much of independent musical interest: Nonetheless, a ritual quality does emerge, particularly as noise intersects the disorienting, "out of time" quality deriving from the piece's final construction, and as senses are consequently filled again.... (The four minute drum roll that opens the CD mix first suggests highly detailed manipulation of white noise, and I originally thought "Wow, this is certainly austere..." but before it ends, one comes to realize that it's a drum roll, and no other moment is again quite so austere....) There are also some very extended solos, perhaps minimally accompanied, as Pillars erects such a large space (so as to fill nearly four hours, or even more): It supports & surrounds a peculiar spaciousness, though, sometimes (suddenly, ritually) "filled" as noted, even as the timing between individual "moments" might be offset or striking: It comes to yield space for individual expression... somewhere in the past... where a clatter might both be & not be amid a peaceful din. And where vistas emerge... behind oneself... such that "composition" becomes a (previous) mood. Pillars thus does become a drummer's exploration of different spans of time, of the span of time, of spanning time per se. (Is it possible to perform live at all? Maybe not....) It's also ambitious & creative, both formally & for its ensemble sonorities, even if its impact on me has started to fade with exposure.28 October 2018
As I continue to be busy (with a more extended project to appear in this space), so does Ernesto Rodrigues, with several more new releases, both including himself & not. While I might have something to say later about some of the latter items, with the convenience of Bandcamp, I can make a few remarks about some of the former albums now: In particular, I want to continue a focus on albums oriented on violin family ensembles, perhaps with some added spice. Rodrigues continues to be one of the leading producers of improvised music for bowed string ensembles, and if anything, seems to be intensifying his explorations in this specific arena: Penedo (the name of a region in Portugal) was recorded last New Year's Eve, and is another very long album from Rodrigues, with three twenty+ minute tracks coming to well over an hour. The ensemble presents something of a continuation to the concerns of the trio We Still Have Bodies (discussed here in August), but Penedo employs a string trio with a second cello (frequent collaborator Miguel Mira, yielding a fuller sound) joining Ernesto & Guilherme Rodrigues, and Carlos Santos subbing for Richard Scott on electronics. Santos generally brings a "smoother" (or more austere) style than Scott, with less contrapuntal "melody" per se, and more looping or sustain of frequencies at the extremes. (One might thus compare Penedo to Jardin Carré, the latter being a generally grittier & more inward looking affair, using a different string trio, and yielding a sense of circular reflection....) The second cello, of course, reflects a common (string trio) configuration for Rodrigues, e.g. already on Incidental Projections & Xenon (both discussed here in May 2017), and yields a tenor emphasis: On Penedo (perhaps given its place name title), the "central" texture thus supports a broad landscape sweep, invoking & acknowledging flora & fauna amid a general windswept (including via electronics) expanse. When technology intervenes, or more simply humanity, a sense of hybrid mystery arises, such that one ultimately finds oneself transformed by the journey, yielding a calm awareness & new attentiveness to one's surroundings. (The farewell has something of the ongoing, exploratory feel of Nashaz....) A clear followup to Penedo is then Eris, a quintet album recorded less than a week later in January, also in Penedo, with Anna Piosik (trumpet) joining the three strings & electronics. (Piosik had not been mentioned here explicitly, but has appeared with Rodrigues e.g. in Octopus, as mentioned in September.) I really enjoy the opening to Eris, with a distinct "jungle" vibe immediately troubled by very high electronic pitches, and into wind & whistling tones against percussive whacks.... (The resulting sort of perceptual framing, particularly around enclosures & lines of flight, might be compared to e.g. Primary Envelopment, as first discussed here in March 2015.) From there, if anything, Eris becomes more "hybrid" via an extended "industrial" vibe that emerges to leave the jungle far behind for some kind of interior(ized) space, a factory perhaps... or maybe this is the chaos internal to the mind, to which one retreats... it's spacious though! (The trumpet is occasionally recognizable as such, but is usually deconstructed into a variety of extended pulses & raspberries.) Eris goes on to sculpt & articulate energy in a variety of ways from there, including via a broad range of string techniques & formal procedures, but doesn't seem to recapture its initial excitement. In particular, it seems to focus on various means of achieving continuity, such that string figures sometimes become repetitive (via ostinati, etc.). (Life itself seeks continuity amid so many discords & challenges? Or it's repetition that's a source of discord?) Nonetheless, continued exploration of these textures & timbres is welcome, and Eris likewise yields a sense of calm awareness, generally a welcome "use" for any album. (And these albums are both more distinctive & more satisfying than this quick report might suggest....)
Beyond (perhaps subtly) novel combinations of instruments featuring bowed strings, Rodrigues also continues to explore more specifically traditional (& acoustic) formats, with another "string quartet" album already appearing: Dis/con/sent is also over an hour in length, this time in a suite of seven tracks (alternating long & short) recorded in Berlin in May by Dietrich Petzold (violin, viola, bowed metal), again with Ernesto & Guilherme Rodrigues, now joined by Matthias Bauer (who was new to me, although he's previously appeared on Creative Sources) on bass. In Rodrigues's recent output, Dis/con/sent might thus be compared directly to Crane Cries (discussed here in April) by a "true" string quartet (i.e. with two violins, although Petzold once again changes instruments), or to Theia (discussed here in July) by what I've dubbed a "jazz string quartet" (i.e. bass instead of a second violin). Dis/con/sent is rather different in tone from either, an impressive & imposing release that's often quite aggressive, although slower or more mysterious around extended techniques at times too: Indeed, the "bowed metal" makes a jarring entry within moments, but is used judiciously from there. Dis/con/sent also employs a wide array of 20th century string quartet technique, including in its ensemble interactions, making it an improvised successor to some of the most dissonant — yet conventionally motivic — music in that format. (It might thus also be compared to the recent Ignis Fatuus, another string quartet discussed here in August, in that case doubling cello, and with more of a romantic or wry sensibility around Honsinger....) Indeed, listeners who enjoy e.g. Bartok or Shostakovich might well enjoy Dis/con/sent, although it's that much more adventurous: It's highly contrapuntal, even as the counterpoint can be repetitive at times, extending continuity (per Eris), and even (perhaps) yielding to nostalgia by the end. (However, the fern cover art doesn't appear to be supported by the kinds of naturalistic evocations sometimes found on these string albums from Rodrigues....) Parts of Dis/con/sent end up being calming, but (perhaps as implied by the title) that's more internal to the suite of movements, rather than an overall result, which suggests something of an intentional symphonic form (presumably as spurred by Petzold) & shifting attitudinal dynamic. It makes for a weighty & sometimes almost intimidating album, difficult to hear as fully improvised.... Also recorded by Petzold in Berlin this past May was Buratino, an album featuring Ernesto Rodrigues without either Guilherme or the former (at least not actively playing), but including previous collaborators Elo Masing (violin, from Crane Cries) & Hui-Chun Lin (cello, most recently mentioned here around Poiesis in May) to form a string trio that is further bolstered by Caroline Cecilia Tallone (hurdy-gurdy) & Ame Zek (12-string guitar). Neither of the latter had appeared in this space before (nor had the hurdy-gurdy at all, apparently), although Zek does have a solo album recently out on Creative Sources (First Bow, "dedicated to fight and fighters against corrupt capitalism"), and of course both also involve strings: Buratino thus employs an unusual string quintet, with the hurdy-gurdy providing "bowed" sustaining potential (acoustically, rather than electronically), and includes some new collaborators for Rodrigues. (And perhaps I should add a remark on recent digital-only release Efterår, pairing the two Rodrigueses & Masing in a quintet, this time with Tomo Jacobson on bass & Mia Dyberg on alto sax, neither of whom had appeared in this space previously: It's yet another appealing album, sometimes aggressive after starting on harmonics, and also apparently focusing on mental or emotional transition for the listener via a variety of evocations amid wave-like explorations of continuity — although it's rather short. I also feel compelled to note that it already appeared on Bandcamp the day after it was recorded, in Berlin, this month!) So Buratino consists of five tracks — totaling very close to an hour, and arranged as 3+2, as if two sides of an LP — and ranges from searing aggression to haunting (bizarre, sometimes naturalistic) mystery. Adding the hurdy-gurdy & (unusual) guitar yields more timbral variety, and the wealth of sonic interactions here include some of the most striking & unusual among those assembled on the set of four string albums featured in this entry. Not as traditionally contrapuntal as Dis/con/sent, the quintet instead emphasizes a "main line" that is variously accented: High pitches swirl against a drone in the opening, whereas pizzicati or glissandi might be thrown off repeatedly from a low rumble, particularly yielding to hocket & a driving (grinding) continuity on the second "side" (which seems to want to undo or unwind the calm eventually emerging from the first). The striking sounds end up being rather composite (i.e. involving multiple instruments simultaneously), in repeating stable figures, as opposed to e.g. the sense of "timbral spanning" (or disarticulation) of Coluro. That said, the prolificity & frequent conceptual overlap of these albums does inhibit one in selecting a single item to feature as "special," which of course is not a requirement in this space, but does leave me making these mixed entries: The truth is that if a single one of these albums appeared in a vacuum, I'd probably spend more time on it, but instead I've simply come to expect (yet) more. Such practical circumstances & resulting expectations sometimes make me feel uncomfortable (with my own response), but "comfort" really isn't the point: I actually enjoy & appreciate that Rodrigues releases so many albums with so many different musicians, and don't want to feel as though I'm "penalizing" anyone for doing so!30 October 2018
John Butcher & Eddie Prévost are already very well known, of course, and I haven't been emphasizing solos or duos anyway, but I do want to note their recent collaborative album Visionary Fantasies — recorded in London this past April, and out on Matchless (with discussion, etc.). The album as a whole lasts over an hour, opening with two solos by Butcher, followed by a 19' solo from Prévost, and then a suite of three duo tracks totaling a little over 35'. It's the solo from Prévost that really got my attention, though, with the various rubbed surfaces & shimmering metals suggesting horns & bass, such that at the height of its din, one almost feels as if one's listening to a quartet. The mood of "Obsessional Enquiries" hits me well also, such that I feel compelled to note its symphonic evocations ranging across industrial technology & into the natural (& perhaps even supernatural) world: It ends up being one of the most engaging & transformative tracks I've heard in a while, solo or no. (The noisiness also takes on some of the "peaceful din" quality of some of e.g. Sorey's recent Pillars or even Hiljaisuus by Kuzu, as discussed here last month. Both have Himalayan, Buddhist roots....) When Butcher returns to the interaction — and his preludes had already set a mood — the charged atmosphere remains, with (actual) horn lines (& effects) now intersecting (with precision) the broadly percussive canvas, itself starting anew from a slow clattering, then rubbed metallic calls set against an emergent gurgling... finally into a haunting, yet more identifiable (& ultimately sustained) duo format around the squeaking horn.4 November 2018
I'd noticed pianist Cory Smythe previously — including e.g. for his participation on Mode's Xenakis Edition, Vol. 13 — but hadn't mentioned him here: I guess I'd heard him most with Tyshawn Sorey, as the pianist on piano trio albums Alloy & Verisimilitude, as well as on The Inner Spectrum of Variables with its "jazz" string quartet, but as noted in my discussion of Sorey's Pillars last month, those albums didn't make strong impressions on me. In particular, I tend to see the piano as an absurd, antiquated contraption, and so to enjoy albums where it's deconstructed along those lines, more so than I do traditional pianism — although obviously the piano did have quite a historical run as the central instrument of European music. (I'm more than willing to see that era pass, both for its imperial associations & soloistic orientations, as well as for its relative colorlessness. The piano's practical significance, i.e. for rendering multiple musical lines, has just about ended anyway, what with new technology....) So one might think that Smythe's new trio album Circulate Susanna wouldn't have much appeal for me, and even seeing it praised on the Free Jazz Blog, I might not have listened, except that it was readily available on the Pyroclastic Records Bandcamp site, so why not? (And I didn't actually read Stuart Broomer's comments until after listening to the album, but merely noted his enthusiasm: That's my preferred way to hear a new album. I was then quite surprised by what I heard, since I hadn't even noted originally who was joining Smythe....) It turns out to be a very stimulating album, on a couple of basic levels, namely the unusual ensemble, with Sofia Jernberg (extended vocals) & Daniel Lippel (detuned guitar) joining Smythe on piano (& autoharp & electronics), as well as the interrogation of Americana: The latter in particular fits into recent thoughts here, especially since I'd just revisited some earlier remarks in & around the new opening: Circulate Susanna is also composed music (albeit incorporating improvisation, but offering another reason that I might have been less enthusiastic, even though I do continue to feature some composed albums here) in all but two tracks (i.e. one short improvisational section without the pianist, and one lyrical cover to conclude the album), and interrogates the American Songbook in general via deconstruction of the traditional song Oh! Susanna: Although the piano is sometimes given "extended" treatment, including via its own preparations (& detuning), it mostly comes off as rather straight, framing the album harmonically. Indeed, the leader's own (often repetitive & chordal) playing is of limited interest (although it's clearly his conception), as vocalist Jernberg tends to steal the show through an amazing range of extended technique, particularly exploring infra-chromatic spaces within & around the piano's capacities. (I had recently noted the impressive Jernberg here in June, specifically on With Sofia Jernberg by Lana Trio.) Jernberg ranges from flutey high harmonics (which are unusually powerful) to low growling throat singing, and almost every sort of vocalization in between, from fast (sinus) abstraction to sultry (chest) cabaret. Actual lyrics are found on only two tracks, though (or so I think, as the voice is often partially obscured). I had never heard of Lippel before, and he's much less active, with Circulate Susanna often featuring duos, especially voice & piano (although the others briefly as well), but the full trio interactions are high points overall: Sometimes it's unclear if the detuned strings are guitar, autoharp, or piano preparations, but they add welcome (& understated) spice to the interaction, again troubling the piano's basic chromatic scales, along with & against the voice: It would have been great to have more passages involving the full trio sound... or perhaps will be, another time.... Besides playing on Mode's Xenakis Edition, Smythe's work with Sorey incorporated Xenakis influences as well, but here — other than in relatively brief passages — the piano is generally rather tame & conventional, its repeating chordal assertions seeming almost starkly ubiquitous against other (more novel) sonorities. (So hovering American imperialism begins to sound explicitly unfamiliar...?) Indeed, for me the music is more suggestive of some of John Cage's work, in particular his own work in & around Americana, whether traditional songs in strange tunings or hymns with elements systematically removed.... (I have memories of hearing these, e.g. at Cage's 80th birthday concert, but don't know the names of specific compositions to which I might be referring. Sorry.) Beyond that sort of general interrogation of American history via traditional Americana in song, I might also note similarities to a couple of other unusual vocal albums made in this country in the past decade, North of Blanco for its similar (albeit non-pianistic) palette of Texas weirdness, and Steve Lehman & Sélébéyone for another musician well rewarded by dwindling US "art music" circuits moving into vocally (& perhaps globally) oriented critique.... Frankly, the American Songbook is a lot more palatable to me when presented in such an ambivalent way: I simply cannot accept it as "pure entertainment," as there's a visceral negative response that goes back to childhood (& of course, such problematic responses have been embedded into jazz performance for decades, sometimes subtly). Ultimately, then, despite some musical aspects that don't necessarily accord with my preferences, the result is so distinctive & unexpected that it deserves a strong note here. I'm genuinely impressed by the conception (& the singing): That Circulate Susanna ends up being so thought provoking despite an orientation on generally "boring" piano (indeed treated that way, i.e. as one might say, ironically) makes for a stunning debut in its own way. It's well worth hearing, and hopefully joins Sorey & Lehman on NPR, et al....11 November 2018
I had been anticipating the third album from HMZ, the Köln-based trio of Carl Ludwig Hübsch, Pierre-Yves Martel & Philip Zoubek, and now it's arrived, out on the Swiss label Insub Records: Otherwise was recorded last November, and consists of two relatively long tracks totaling nearly forty minutes. Compared with the instrumentation on their second album, Drought (which is longer overall, despite shorter tracks), in addition to their main instruments, Hübsch & Martel now employ pitch pipes, while Zoubek & Martel employ synths (with harmonica having been banished, apparently). Although having fewer tracks might mean anything, Otherwise does indeed seem to be more concerned with continuity than was Drought, and in fact the three albums increase in smoothness as the trio continues to develop their sound. (Their first album, June 16th, recorded in 2012, is actually relatively excited, even jagged & with more conventional instrumental figures, compared to what follows. All three can be auditioned on Martel's Bandcamp site, among other items....) Whereas the interaction on Drought has more of a (generalized, e.g. Deleuzian) machinic quality, and a distinctive balance & pace around smaller forms, Otherwise has more of a cinematic sweep, and might be compared to increasingly polished albums produced in series by e.g. Baloni or even the Tom Rainey Trio, in that some of the excitement & novelty seems to wane as the collective style is more thoroughly mined & refined. (And neither synths nor pitch pipes stand out here, but contribute to the smooth, droning background.) The resulting emphasis on continuity does involve more drones, and so takes on a more typically minimalist aura — fitting in well with various other sparse explorations: Of course one might mention the recent album Tse (discussed here in June, and also featuring Martel), another partly Swiss production with its other performers appearing on Insub as well.... In any case, many of the trio's characteristic sonorities continue to be developed, and the result yields a carefully sustained energy that does reward close attention, perhaps despite its more drawn out form. They did also tour again for the release of Otherwise, and so perhaps this trilogy will continue to grow....20 November 2018
I last discussed albums from Ivo Perelman in this space in October 2017 (then around Octagon, by a standard "free jazz quartet," so something of a departure for him), and had only recently discussed (the previous May) some of his work with Mat Maneri: The string based microtonality, absent piano (which appears on so many of Perelman's albums), was appealing, but the albums (especially Counterpoint, to which I had turned only after appreciating Maneri's combination with Tony Malaby on tenor sax on New Artifacts) also came off to me more as "studies" than as finished products. That said, I couldn't resist hearing the latest installment in the Perelman-Maneri pairing, in keeping with Perelman & Leo's prolific history, an entire Strings series: In particular, Strings 1 is basically formulated as a "string quartet" with Perelman's tenor saxophone occupying the role of cello. (Given my interest in improvising string quartets & related combinations, I was eager to hear something like this, particularly coming from a different stylistic orbit than that around Ernesto Rodrigues, who's of course especially prolific in this general arena....) Joining Perelman & Maneri (on viola) are then Mark Feldman & Jason Hwang on violins. (I had most recently mentioned Feldman here in July 2016, around the quartet album Miller's Tale. I see that I had yet to mention Hwang, but he actually has a new album, Blood — the second by his fusion octet Burning Bridge — available on his Bandcamp site. Coincidentally, I was listening to it shortly before learning of the latest releases from Leo: It's appealing, with some creative sonic combos, but is also composed music, and rather more "biographical," or at least cinematic, than I tend to feature.) The resulting album is a very active, and very long (nine tracks, 73 minutes): Perelman's horn often dominates the proceedings, particularly as he plays so often in higher registers, making for many crossing lines, etc. There are some passages with reduced forces, but Perelman is rarely silent, even as the music does very occasionally slow to adagio.... Strings 1 thus retains an exploratory feel, eagerly lush at times, excited, and featuring a litany of string figures & techniques (although not really the reduction that Rodrigues et al. so often engage.), but also projects something of a soloistic quality. It maintains a strong presence as well, and even some aggression across its exhausting duration, during which Perelman's horn does make for quite a cello (an instrument he apparently played in his youth). I enjoy many of the passages, and there's extensive variety, but as suggested, the result still doesn't really seem like a finished product. (It again seems like a series of improvised studies, some more compelling than others.) What comes next? (Literally speaking, Strings 2 was released simultaneously, but uses a rather different ensemble, with Hank Roberts & Ned Rothenberg joining the Perelman-Maneri duo on some tracks.) This basic combo does seem to have a lot of potential, and these players in particular have quite a varied (& global) background from which to draw: Perhaps a subsequent album by the same quartet could forge more of a lasting statement?21 November 2018
I remain in the middle of writing an extended piece, but still coming up for air a bit, and so want to note a few recent items that I wouldn't necessarily have featured here previously, particularly around intrepid power drummer Weasel Walter: Although it's a duo, and mostly created via editing & layering parts against each other in post-production, Poisonous with Peter Evans is a very striking album. Recorded in Brooklyn in January, and consisting of 7 tracks (totaling 40-some minutes), one of which is "straight" (i.e. a free improvisation without extensive post-production), Poisonous continues some of the explorations that Walter & Evans had undertaken in their trio with Mary Halvorson, the third (& final?) installment of which was Mechanical Malfunction (recorded & mentioned here in 2012). Evans' trumpet spans evocations of "Taps" to breathy static, with various chirping, vocalizations & glissandi in between. Meanwhile, Walter seems to play mostly a regular drum kit, but does also employ the occasional ringing metal, wood blocks & especially clickers. However, the real action occurs mostly after the fact, as the album opens with disembodied sounds seeming to hang in the air, and mostly continues to be weird in a very high energy way, including an almost deafening roar at times. (The last track eventually layers all of the material on top of itself, quodlibet style, for instance.) And although some can be quite loud, most of the tracks have a definite conceptual basis, so Poisonous isn't really a free-for-all.... I'd mentioned Walter's most recent duo with Sandy Ewen, Idiomatic, in February, and his latest album is yet another duo, this time with sax player Martín Escalante (who was previously unknown to me), Lacerate: Although it doesn't involve post-production tricks, the latter juxtaposes many of the same basic ideas as on Poisonous, including a softer touch from Walter at times. (All of these may be auditioned, at least in excerpts, at Walter's Bandcamp site.) Finally, as long as I'm mentioning an album outside of my usual, and employing extensive post-production, I also want to note Jeremiah Cymerman's new solo, Decay of the Angel: This is another extensive album, Cymerman's clarinet employing various contrapuntal techniques against itself, often with a melodic orientation, but more often with an aura of noisy dissonance, and usually both. (I had enjoyed Cymerman's playing & conception on e.g. World of Objects, an album for horn trio that also involved extensive post-production, although presumably not as much as on Decay of the Angel. He had appeared here most recently in February 2016, with Sheen by the rock-inspired Bloodmist, who have a recent live double album also available from Cymerman's Bandcamp site....) There's a bit of a tone poem quality overall, albeit across seven tracks & very controlled at times, with some textures maintaining over extended stretches. (And I should add that, while Decay of the Angel is dark, I don't find it to be pessimistic: The often folk-inspired melodic undertow assures that. It's more wistful, even calm by the end.) In any case, there are plenty of intriguing sonic combinations to be found on these albums, particularly as post-production techniques come to suggest interactions that can then be undertaken live.24 November 2018
I first mentioned The Procrustean Bed (a concert series & record label around Kriton Beyer) back in March 2017, in response to Beyer's album Nuc Box Hums with Ernesto Rodrigues, and again this September, particularly with the trio album Digressions (with Nicola Hein). The latter was the label's fifth release, and its sixth is the intriguing electronic trio, Id (recorded in Berlin, November 2017): There, Beyer (exclusively on daxophone, as he'd been on Nuc Box Hums) is joined by pianist Antonis Anissegos (b.1970, Greece) on Wurlitzer electric piano & electronics, and Dan Peter Sundland on electric bass. I was not familiar with either before, but both actually already have albums on Creative Sources.... Id can be a real tour-de-force for the relatively "straight" daxophone, mostly in its horn or vocalizing mode, but is especially conditioned by both the assets & limitations of the Wurlitzer: I don't know anything specific about the various (historical) electric keyboard brands & their strengths etc., only what they sound like on particular recordings (if that), but it appears that Anissegos is employing some custom modules for sound generation, at least at times, although there is also more of a "keyboard" sense at times too, including "traditional" synth modes with glissandi & other pitch bending. Sundland tends to be quite forceful on electric bass as well, often setting a regular thump-thump against which the other performers function almost like dueling horns, but sometimes he's also more involved in the general electronic haze.... There is thus a consistent electronic character, and a generally aggressive quality to the rhythms, even beyond what might be considered to arise from the inherent dissonance of daxophone or keyboard pitch bending. One might even say that Id is rather agitated — perhaps in keeping with its title. There's also often (consequently) a start & stop quality to the sound, usually emerging first from the bass plucking: In this, it's rather different from e.g. Trialectics, another Berlin trio album with bass & electronic sound generation, but trumpet rather than daxophone. Trialectics is thus "more acoustic," but also generally more calm (i.e. less insistent or repetitive) in its articulations, despite what might be regarded as similarly abstract approaches with tight phrases. Despite its distinctive sound, then, Id does suggest more of a "rock" approach, albeit with a pointillistic orientation to its various echoes & rumblings. There's something of a skittering quality too, and indeed, particularly if one listens to distinguish daxophone from keyboard (& I found that, at least initially, the daxophone almost hides behind the keyboard electronics), the former puts on a virtuosic show of mainly linear (i.e. melody-like) material: Its rich chirping timbres are then buoyed & interrogated by the (more musically traditional) timbres of electric keyboard & bass. In that sense, the strange sounds do sometimes serve to add novelty to what is otherwise fairly mechanical material, including hocket & ostinato, etc. (In other words, gestures do become established, and are subsequently recalled, sometimes mechanically & usually with an established pulse.) The result can be quite engaging, however, gritty & squawking or even e.g. percussive at times, if somewhat agitating.... It's not the most free (or most personalized) use of electronics, then, but it's certainly distinctive & assertive.2 December 2018
Ernesto Rodrigues continues to release albums at a dizzying pace, and as suspected, the advent of a Digital Creative Sources has meant even more albums: Many of the early Digital releases involved older material, but many are now quite recent. (I generally find them to be worth hearing, but it gets to be too much music to discuss in any detail. That Rodrigues works with so many other improvisers, both new & in new combinations, does keep things relatively fresh, though....) That said, one of the arenas in which I've found Rodrigues' work to be especially compelling is the improvising string ensemble — and I suppose that the most succinct way to describe the violins etc. is as "classical strings," since Rodrigues has other albums combining classical strings with guitars, etc. — and those explorations have continued to be quite frequent recently: In particular, on the heels of Dis/con/sent (a "jazz string quartet" album, discussed here in October), featuring Dietrich Petzold on violin & viola, there are yet more classical strings albums featuring Petzold: Ljubljana made it to the "main" Creative Source imprint, and it's an album that forges a powerfully calming mood. Recorded this past May, Ernesto Rodrigues & Petzold (here also on bowed metal, as on Dis/con/sent, as well as clavichord) are joined by Guilherme Rodrigues to form something of a classical string trio — pace the occasionally noisy metal or tinkling clavichord. In fact, this is the same personnel (& instrumentation) as on the double album Sacred Noise (recorded in October 2016), the second half of which was recorded in a church. Like many Rodrigues albums, Ljubljana starts rather sparsely, and seemingly with less planning or anticipation than on Dis/con/sent, but eventually evolves into powerful (& sometimes noisy) climaxes that are nonetheless assimilated into an overall air of calm. There's thus a consistently rewarding affective change that emerges from this album, not so unlike e.g. Penedo (by Rodrigues with a different ensemble, also discussed here in October), but in this case suggestive of breathing through stress. (And I can't help but think of Scelsi's Aion, especially pace Petzold's occasionally jagged bowing of metal.) And as already suggested, there is (much) more: Kühlspot Social Club, a short digital album, was recorded just this October, and features the exact same quartet as on Dis/con/sent: Like Ljubljana, it has more of an air of "mystery" than the latter, and involves shadowy (or watercolor) harmonics & what even seem like vocalization effects. Der Sturm is of a more normal duration, recorded back in October 2017, and features the same trio as on Ljubljana: It features more traditional creaking string figures, but likewise turns to flutey lines & landscape colors, amid various quick outbursts. Without Petzold is Repérage, also recorded in October 2017 (also in Berlin), this time with Gerhard Uebele on violin, but also with Matthias Bauer on bass joining Ernesto & Guilherme Rodrigues (on viola & cello): The recording is relatively distant, at least compared to the close mic'ing often used for these sorts of post-concrète albums, but the string interactions are among the most classical — melodic, even Romantic at times — in Rodrigues' recent output. (I hadn't mentioned Uebele previously in this space, but he has likewise already appeared on Creative Sources.) Finally (at least for now), perhaps the most sonically aggressive of the recent classical strings albums is Hexagon, featuring six bowed string players (as the title suggests, but in a curious configuration with a single cello): Recorded just this past October (in fact, the very same day as Kühlspot Social Club, if the info is to be believed), and barely more than half an hour in length, Petzold returns, but Hexagon was actually recorded by bassist Klaus Kürvers (another frequent Rodrigues collaborator), who is joined by Bauer again on bass, violinist Elo Masing (from e.g. Crane Cries) & the two Rodrigueses. The opening string bending interaction makes for an intriguing start, moving into a shearing feel that eventually yields to more of a classical mood, then into some "crunchy" contrapuntal sounds; the second half (of the single track) focuses more on continuity, including around a generalized hocket, such that motives pass in waves between the musicians... who nonetheless continue to produce richly independent detail via technical variety. (The resulting accumulation of power might even be said to evoke Bartok or late Beethoven....) As I've remarked about some other albums (e.g. recently regarding Ivo Perelman), many of these projects do seem more like explorations than finished products, but there is still much to hear — at least for those of us interested in these kinds of textures & (affective) outcomes.14 December 2018
Besides classical string albums, Rodrigues also continues to be very active with ensembles including electric guitar and/or electronics more generally: Indeed, for me the most ear-catching of his recent albums has been Kuori, a relatively short production from Lisbon in December 2017 featuring Lauri Hyvärinen & Abdul Moimême on electric guitars, with Carlos Santos on synthesizer joining Rodrigues to form a quartet. Moimême recently appeared (in October) in this space with Dissection Room (a non-Rodrigues Creative Sources album recorded four days after Kuori), and has been a regular participant on the label. I was not previously familiar with Finnish guitarist Hyvärinen (b.1986), however, although perhaps I should have been: He's recorded with Colectivo maDam (whose album with Rodrigues, Coluro, has been a favorite), as well as with e.g. guitarist Sandy Ewen (about whom more soon) & drummer Andrew Drury (yielding the duo album The Islands, recorded this past April, and appearing on Drury's Different Track Recordings). Kuori is another rather sparse album, as seems to be typical of Hyvärinen as well, but is occasionally loud or intrusive with its fascinating & detailed timbral combinations. It thus projects something of an ambient character (perhaps recalling e.g. Rodrigues' acoustic Sîn), but also involves a variety of extreme pitches, from very low to very high, usually subtly. There's occasionally something of a "spacey" quality as a result, and in fact I was reminded of an image like "Distant Radio Transmissions," which happens to be a Roscoe Mitchell title. (In this case, the title is in Finnish, meaning a shell or casing, as are the track names.) The sometimes prominent ringing & "echo chamber" effects yield that sometimes "distant" impression... sometimes over or across what seems to be a windswept landscape. Despite (or maybe because of) the usual quiet, an intense feeling of ritual gravity is also projected. (The resulting framing & sparseness is indeed more evocative of the timbral spanning of Coluro than it is of e.g. Skiagraphía, which is more "centered" & continuous in tonal sweep, despite the relatively less timbral variety — even rigor — of Kuori.) Needless to say, it's also difficult to grasp who is doing what, particularly amid the electronic manipulations, but the resulting sound is (consequently) quite coherent. It's also quite distinctive, despite involving a quartet of mostly known performers, so I'll have to keep an ear on Hyvärinen now.
And with Rodrigues, of course there is more: Seconda pratica is another short digital album, recorded in Lisbon in January 2018 (i.e. the next month), this time with Moimême joining Rodrigues & frequent collaborator Nuno Torres on alto sax to form a trio: Once again, a sense of calm emerges from an initial haunting quality, windy & rumbling, amid sudden abrasions, and finally into a surging drone. Chaotic Complex Systems (recorded this past June) reprises the trio of RRR (recorded October 2017, and discussed here in August), with Olaf Rupp joining the two Rodrigueses. It's kind of a rambling, open-ended sequel, but does (also, per Hexagon) feature e.g. some interesting string bending sequences. Much more imposing is Luminescence (once again from October 2017 in Berlin!), a very long digital album featuring Hui-Chun Lin (cello) & Shuichi Chino (zither) joining Rupp & Ernesto Rodrigues to form a novel sort of "string quartet." (Lin was most recently mentioned here, also in October, around Buratino, in that case a novel variant "string quintet.") Luminescence is also a very "busy" album, often with a nearly overwhelming level of activity & detail, but also tends to narrow or focus around the cello, which comes to produce quasi-melodic lines that are in turn richly ornamented by the other musicians (as a sort of groove). The ensemble itself is quite distinctive, but the result is sometimes incoherent, or perhaps searches for coherence around a main line....
Returning to the ensemble on Kuori, participation by Carlos Santos is often difficult to appraise, because it's unclear what he's doing: That's no more the case there than on so many other albums, and indeed that he's credited with synthesizer suggests that he's actually producing tones, rather than "only" sampling & looping & manipulating.... On the recent Le Havre (recorded in France in March 2018), however, he's credited with "electronics" & appears to focus on manipulations, but as usual, not in an obvious manner: One is sometimes confronted by sounds that "must" have come from electronics, but they arrive as a sort of fait accompli, such that one is often unaware of their origins. Joining Santos on Le Havre are the two Rodrigueses, such that one might readily compare to We Still Have Bodies (discussed here in August) with Richard Scott, but whereas it's often quite clear what the latter is doing, Santos usually remains subtle. Indeed, in pairing with the like-minded father-son duo, one might think that Santos's contributions would be that much more highlighted, as e.g. with Scott or Rupp, but that's not really the case. (Somehow they still tend to vanish, becoming spectral.) One might then characterize Le Havre as a "travel" album in that it tends to maintain continuity, even a single sweep, while passing through a variety of locales. (As a study in style, it would be helpful to know more about the actual circumstances of the sonic production, as it probably would for Kuori.) And as with so many of these albums, a latent searing intensity arises from & returns to a mellow sense of calm.... Anyway, that's my little tour of Rodrigues' recent output for the moment: And even as I write this, there are already new albums about which I'll have something to say (soon-ish), and by the time you read this, there will probably be even more....15 December 2018
I just mentioned Sandy Ewen when discussing Kuori, and indeed the central guitar duo of that quartet provides a nice transition into discussing some recent guitar duos, particularly from Ewen: I had mentioned Lake Monsters with Henry Kaiser here back in July 2015, and her relatively new duo album with Weasel Walter (Idiomatic — not a two-guitar duo) again just last month, but Ewen has at least three other recent guitar duo recordings available: The most ear catching for me is Transfusion with the (previously) unknown (to me) Chase Gardner, recorded in Denton Texas in December 2017, and released on Marginal Frequency. Like Kuori, there is a consistent sense of rigor to this interaction, producing a variety of unusual timbres & sonic combinations. In particular, the low growling vocalizations can be especially striking (including when both guitars engage in similar activity), especially when set against a sort of "twisted" gamelan, but also against squeaking crackles, etc. There's thus a wide range of touch on the strings, including via various objects — even sounding almost like a horn at times as well. The combinations tend to be articulated quite precisely, and are often maintained for a while, yielding a bit of a repetitive quality. (There's also a rather consistent background hum at times, which can detract from the crispness of the main interactions as it grows louder....) The striking quality of so many of the interactions on Transfusion might remind me more of Kuori than Ewen's duo with Hyvärinen, Finnish Dinner: That album actually begins rather actively, at least as compared to much of Hyvärinen's work, but slows considerably over time, developing a strange sort of energy (out of continuity) that emerges into more growling vocalizations against "alien" bent pings from Hyvärinen (there on acoustic).... Like Transfusion, See Creatures (from Astral Spirits) originated in Texas, there with (likewise previously unknown) Lisa Cameron on berimbau-ophone & lap steel. (I'm not really sure what the -ophone means for the berimbau, but she seems to have more going on....) That album also starts strong, and comes to revel in weird textures & combinations, there seeming less rigorous, but still striking at times. Ewen thus continues to develop her unique personal style in these duos....16 December 2018
Also not a two-guitar duo is recent double album Molecules by Kazuo Imai (nylon string guitar) & Roger Turner (percussion), recorded in Tokyo in October 2017 & released by Ftarri: I've not explored contemporary Japanese improvisation as much as might be warranted, and as noted here in the past, that's partly because of (what I perceive to be) its more soloistic orientation. (Of course, taking turns soloing has been typical of many popular styles, including US free jazz....) Various timbral explorations & approaches to melody have been intriguing, but my own orientation in this project is more around collective combinations via simultaneity. That said, the interaction on Molecules is very closely intertwined for a duo, one might even say tentacular.... The acoustic nature of the interaction — & Turner is credited with a rather restrictive percussion setup, which varies considerably in timbre throughout the performance, but generally remains restrained in whatever direction it takes... — also serves to differentiate it from the "electric" albums just mentioned here, and yields a rich sense of detail: That's also true of the variety of touch that Imai pursues on the nylon strings, incorporating a range of traditional Asian (plucked) string techniques, together with more contemporary orientations. (I was not previously aware of Imai, b.1955, which is probably suggestive of how little I've pursued contemporary Japanese improvisation to this point, but he's known e.g. as the longtime leader of Marginal Consort.... And Turner has been performing similar duos in Japan, with a variety of performers, for a while.) The liner notes talk both about the recording technique involved, particularly in balancing the dynamics between the two performers without amplification, and about the choice of two sets (from the same evening) on two separate CDs: In fact, the first set (i.e. the first CD) was the first that Imai & Turner had ever played together, and it does begin with more tentative explorations, whereas the second begins from the "hard won" results of the first. (And the first almost seems to start over, with faster responses, not faster playing per se, after about twenty-five minutes.) Their quickly shifting interactions, especially against a variety of rhythmic articulations, keep one focused on details, even as the performance is sometimes quiet, and even as (at least for me) the limits of the duo format do sometimes appear (i.e. when a third person might inject something completely different). Nonetheless, this is a compelling production, evoking something like e.g. the (nautical) farewell of Nashaz at times... particular with its sparseness, which is more understated (particularly in the percussion) than actually quiet. (One might also compare to distinctive, contemporary guitar-drum duos such as Ewen-Walter & Dorji-Damon, and indeed the acoustic Imai-Turner duo brings less of a rock feel, i.e. less rhythmic drive — even as "drive" does quickly become fractured for the other duos... but it does bring a similar spirit of fast exchange of ideas.) Indeed, the "molecular" title makes plenty of sense, since the interaction concerns the smallest musical elements.... It's basically the sheer variety of what Imai can do to a nylon guitar string paired against Turner's shifting, but highly focused percussion techniques that makes for such a stimulating interaction, one for which the two musicians (also) seem to have plenty in reserve. Might someone else be able to add some different sonorities & prompt some other dynamics in a future interaction? Even absent that possibility, the result is already rather appealing.17 December 2018
Since returning from a lengthy hiatus from public improvised music in 2016, guitarist Ian Brighton has been quite active: After releasing a solo album on Confront, and then Reunion: Live From Cafe Oto, featuring different ensembles on different tracks, from solo & duo to quartet & sextet, he soon got my attention with Kontakte Trio (discussed here in August 2017). Now he returns with another post-serial album of ensemble improvisations in Strings, this time featuring a quartet, to immediately catch my ear once again. In particular, regarding the history, Strings (more than an hour long, and recorded on a single day in London this past June) revisits Brighton's "String Thing" ensemble from the 1970s & 1980s, such that their previous album was the second to be released on FMR, Eleven years from Yesterday (1988). Moreover, String Thing already occupied the longest track on the Reunion album, and Brighton has another FMR album in the works, Imaginings, including many of the same musicians: (FMR releases a lot of great albums, and so, although it baffles me) I don't want to continue to question the bizarrely partial information on the FMR site, but while I haven't seen that album listed for sale (or details of its contents), it suggests an anthology of different musicians performing around Brighton, including those from Strings (again) — which actually itself remains absent from the FMR site to this point. So prudence would suggest that I hear that other album before embarking on this discussion, perhaps, but I also tend to be less interested in albums that feature different groupings on different tracks.... Not only that, but despite enjoying Kontakte Trio, and now Strings, I've been reluctant to hear much of Brighton's earlier work: That's probably a strange statement, but as I've remarked before in this space, I came into this project wanting to be "fully" contemporary, not wanting to get caught up in musical history so much... as has been my focus in too many other projects. So I've been circumspect, although revisiting older recordings, especially out of e.g. AACM, has come to inform this space over time. (And that many of these performers have continuous recording histories does provide more temptation to "creep" backward in this regard....) It's strange to me, then (& I've decided to continue to embrace the strangeness, at least for now), to be hearing Strings as contemporary & compelling, while knowing that this is an ensemble formed decades ago: In particular, Brighton (on electric guitar) is joined once again by label editor Trevor Taylor on percussion & electronics, as well as by Philipp Wachsmann & Marcio Mattos on violin & bass/cello respectively, as well as on electronics themselves. (The latter is significant to the blend here, because the strings often appear to be mixed together, and in turn with the quartet, electronically, rather than in the acoustic arena.) Similarities with Brighton & Taylor's partnership on Kontakte Trio are easy to hear, but instead of Steve Beresford's extended piano (& whereas I continue to enjoy that album overall, the humorous samples hold up least well for me over time), there's now a sort of mini string "choir," mediating their serial interactions — with Taylor once again featuring vibes (& now chimes), and so generally projecting a discrete & individual sense of musical note (as serial music so often did, historically, including e.g. per critiques by Schaeffer). Ringing tones often appear more generally, whether from guitar or string pizzicato, into various electronically mediated buzzes or "chirps" at times.... That's the kind of interaction that I've found so directly enjoyable, although I'm not really sure what it is about Brighton's playing that's so immediately appealing — other than its honest directness, I suppose. (Brighton sent me some information about his career & activities, but other than coming out of the general English improv scene around Derek Bailey, I still don't have much of a sense for where he gets his more specific musical inspirations. Something about his world travels for work perhaps? If so, the influences remain abstract.) I'd mentioned Wachsmann previously with another older quartet that made a new album relatively recently, Berlin Kinesis by WTTF (with Roger Turner, Pat Thomas & Frangenheim on Creative Sources, 2015), and he's developed his own style on violin over the decades: The physical playing sometimes seems less technically detailed than that of violinists who are newer to the improvising scene, hence the way it sometimes functions in a choir here, but there's also a novel (& global, via African roots, albeit more classically inspired than many, and so again abstract) musical perspective involved, including via ongoing work with electronics. (I continue to have less of a sense of Mattos, although he appears on many albums out of England.) The eight tracks on Strings are clearly separate, and with rather different characters: The first two are impressive sonically, but project almost a preliminary character, in that they seem to derive from ideas just waiting to be expressed. The longer third track, however, takes on more of an exploratory & transformative character, from low buzzings & whistling dodecaphony into eerie strumming & even a "falling" quality (out of sparseness) — at which point there is still over forty minutes remaining on the album, i.e. a typical full length. Then we get more of the string choir, into an extended tonal theme that evokes Rubbra's Violin Concerto for me (although there are differences, so it's probably coincidence, or perhaps common influence), with the classical "cadential" feel leading into an emphasis on more delicate timbres in the later tracks (including e.g. a vocalizing effect). There's also a sense of mastery that this discussion doesn't really convey, such that whatever the circumstances might be, a particularly detailed & reflective post-serial style finds some of its most compelling contemporary expression here. Indeed there seems to have been no shortage of passion to create this String Theory album after the Reunion concert.... Whatever Brighton did with his (musical) career, and the time away seems to have filled him with ideas, it's thus worked to create something both distinctive & surprisingly polished. Time away can do that — & public perceptions of dodecaphony have changed in the interim as well.2 January 2019
I've heard New York saxophonist Michael Foster (b.1988) in a number of projects at this point, most of them raucous & rock-oriented with driving rhythms: I last noted him here in February around Throes are the Only Trouble with Weasel Walter, and previously in a more extended discussion of While We Still Have Bodies (November 2017). I've actually heard more, though, e.g. duos with Ben Bennett, in various albums available to hear online — & have noted descriptions such as "noise punk" & "in your face" applied to his aggressive style of various alternate mouthpieces, tubes, etc. (He had a previous duo on Relative Pitch too, The Caustic Ballads with cellist Leila Bordreuil, 2016.) However, although I'd continued to listen, I was especially struck by the recent Bind the hand(s) That Feed, and took more of a look at Foster specifically (as opposed to simply as a member of a duo or collective): It turns out that he's "overtly queer," which is what tends to animate so much of his extended technique, and which I hadn't seen mentioned before actually exploring his own site. I was drawn to the music first, but found myself agreeing with much of what Foster had to say about queering music as well, not only in terms of transgression per se, but in terms of transversality — particularly relative to the basic pyramidal shape of Eurocentric modernity (to reinject my own terms), with its focus on filial (e.g. economic) descent & heteronormative relations. (In fact, I felt that Foster's remarks & music served to emphasize & illuminate some of the basic theoretical issues I'm currently exploring in Postmodern Aesthetics — a longer essay to be completed in the next few months. I felt a stronger affinity, in other words, and in this case, for clear reasons.) Besides Foster, though, Bind the hand(s) That Feed comes from a collaborative trio that includes both Katherine Young (b.1980) & Michael Zerang (b.1958): I was intrigued by Young since early in this project, but besides contributing to some of Anthony Braxton's projects, she hasn't released much since Pretty Monsters (mentioned here in January 2013), an album with a composed feel & a rock sensibility. In fact, Young's participation was a major spur to wanting to hear Bind the hand(s) That Feed, as I continue to be intrigued by bassoon: That's undoubtedly due in part to the fascination my children had with the instrument when they were young — and that I didn't feel as though I could afford to enter the pricey & dicey realm of bassoon ownership for them. (Even "cheap" copies cost several thousands of dollars. I did enter into the only somewhat less dicey realm of oboe ownership, though, and that instrument is still being played....) I've since contented myself with the wonderful Ramble from the Sandra Weiss Quintet, itself an acoustic group more about pacing than here.... Finally, I was also intrigued by Syrian-American drummer Zerang (the senior member here) since early in this project, and had last mentioned him (June 2015) with The Bridge Sessions: I hadn't really found anything to feature him in a while, with much of his work involving accompanying relatively straightforward free jazz, and he's often more in the background on Bind the hand(s)... too, although that's rarely while engaging in typical drumming in this case, such that Zerang adds another layer of varied weirdness to the proceedings. (Between the double reed, the electronics, and Zerang's participation, I was reminded of Psychotic Redaction, a recording dating to Chicago in 2006 that I actually featured early in this project — it would be too rhythmically traditional for this space today. And taking a further look, I found that Young & Bruckmann had actually recorded — also at Elastic Arts in Chicago, as here — an album with Sam Pluta on electronics, Live - Elastic - 10.20.16 for Minus Zero records: It's different enough, but less radical, or indeed queer.) All that said, electronics are much more prominent on Bind the hand(s) That Feed than I was really expecting (although Foster does his work with microphone placement, so technically differently from what Young is doing, which is "electronics" per se), and it ends up being a bizarre yet compelling album: I love the weird growling bassoon & electronics in the opening track, particularly for how subtly aggressive it becomes. There are some vocalizing effects as well, mostly from Foster (I think), in something of an exploration of growls (& sometimes whistles, or breath per se), into which Zerang blends in various ways, less so than he frames.... By the last track, there's almost a traditionally free sax trio forming, with bassoon filling the bass role & some identifiable percussion, but in between, there's a variety of tautly slow or quiet sections as well: One almost gets the sense of "distant radio transmissions" again (e.g. regarding Kuori, as discussed here last month, & where there's a separate "electronics player") or indeed gritty strings, such that a different ambient vibe emerges from raucous aggression, crackling skronks against searing rubbed surfaces & percussive raspberries.... (How aggressive can breathing really be, one might wonder?) Whereas Bind the hand(s)... is then an intriguing issue from the less prolific Young (who in turn plays an unusual instrument), it also seems to be a significant event for the prolific Foster, as the queering he emphasizes & explores engages another level of musical abstraction. The sheer intensity that the trio in turn focuses into a relatively calm (& technical) ambient setting (at times at least) is simply amazing as well — as is the fearlessness from which that setting emerges. This feels like a unique event.3 January 2019
Thanos Chrysakis returns with another quartet of deterritorialized (or deconstructed) sounds reterritorialized into classic forms: Iridescent Strand was recorded in London in November 2017, and features five tracks from Chrysakis himself (credited with laptop computer & synthesizers), Sue Lynch on reeds, James O'Sullivan on electric guitar, and Joe Wright on tenor saxophone with dynamic feedback system. (O'Sullivan has appeared with Chrysakis before, e.g. mentioned here in March 2015 around Asphodels Abide, while Lynch & Wright appear to be new collaborators: I found nothing by Wright, but Lynch has recorded with The Remote Viewers.) A horn is sometimes recognizable, although generally blended into the overall texture, but not always, and most sounds seem to be highly processed. For instance, the striking opening with its loud bass roar around various strange bounces & boings suggests an origin on guitar for the latter, but the latter might also be synthesized or related to whatever this "dynamic feedback system" is doing with the tenor sax. Harmonics fly, bass is generally big (despite no obvious bassist), ringing tones develop, and before the album's end there's a sort of metallic gonging — such that, once again, one might associate metallic sounds with the guitar? In between, there's all kinds of pitch bending, a bit (at least) of sampling, various loops (I guess?), some industrial buzz, and even a bit of horn skronk.... As "dynamic feedback" suggests, and as Chrysakis' previous keyboard work has already suggested (especially for organ, e.g. Music for Two Organs & Two Bass Clarinets, discussed here in May), there's a unifying overall texture, and indeed an evocation of some of the happenings of Pauline Oliveros' late Phase/transitions triple album. (The sorts of sounds that break up the larger textures are surprisingly similar in both.) One might also note the precedent of the dual electronics setup on Skiagraphía, which suggests more of a surging, ambient wave. (Despite the substantial electronic manipulation, sax & viola might actually be more identifiably themselves on the latter album.) I've noted before how Chrysakis excels at highlighting particular musical elements on the fly, thus drawing a structure into existence out of seemingly chaotic sounds, and Iridescent Strand indeed seems to consist of studies on molding or fusing deterritorialized sounds into e.g. grooves or recitatives, such that they come to take on an eerie familiarity despite their disembodiment. It's almost as though Chrysakis is taming & rearticulating (or sculpting) wild or orphaned sound fragments. (And as the synthesizers credit suggests, he adds some sounds of his own, including "spacey" sounds that quickly reassimilate to the texture.) Although sonically unfamiliar, and sometimes dissonant, the result comes to have real sensual appeal.... Iridescent Strand is thus a transformative album, generating (relative, musical) simplicity from (timbral) chaos — a real-time study in sonic form & perception — always finding a way forward. (Simplicity per se might be overrated, but we do need a way forward amid chaos today, and so such a result definitely seems relevant.)4 January 2019
I've appreciated Portuguese violist João Camões in previous albums such as Earnear (recorded in 2010 & 2011) & Chant (recorded in 2015) — each rather different in conception — and now he returns with the rather short (half an hour in total) Selon le vent (with its two tracks recorded in May & June 2016 in Lisbon) on JACC Records. (I had noted JACC Records in May 2017, around House Full of Colors by a Portuguese quartet including Zingaro, Miguel Mira, et al....) On Selon le vent, Camões (b.1983) joins the preexisting French duo of Gabriel Lemaire (on saxes & clarinet) & Yves Arques (on piano) — with Alvaro Rosso (on bass) joining for the second track. Of course, Rosso (from Uruguay) has appeared frequently in this space at this point, especially with Lisbon String Trio, and most recently (in October) with Dissection Room.... Lemaire (b.1989) was mentioned here in February 2016, around Walabix invite Maris (which also noted his work with Quatour Machaut). Arques is new to me, however, and it's the piano that I've found problematic in my appreciation of Selon le vent: The first track is basically what I've been calling a traveling album, passing through a variety of sonic landscapes, with the piano working percussively & subtly in the background as support for the horn-viola duo, who traverse a variety of spaces via harmonics & shifting textures, incorporating pizzicato & halting snippets of folk-like melody against eerie whistling & scraping, etc. In this, they recall not only various other, recent soundscape albums — as this remains a popular arena for exploration, including here — but e.g. Camões himself most recently with Autres Paysages (discussed here in December 2017), another travelogue and/or landscape album — and the first from Camões to involve a horn. By the end of the detailed first track, however, the piano emerges from its mysterious depths (e.g. low rumbling & thunks) to articulate repeated figures in a clearly pianistic, even coloristic manner, and the resulting sense of (re)entry of Western tradition (as it's invoked for me anyway) is something that I find a bit jarring & unresolved. And although the second track, now featuring Rosso to create a bigger overall sound, includes many intriguing ensemble passages, much of it involves the swirling piano in its usual harmonic-chordal mode (after more of an emphasis on preparations early): Indeed, the other three musicians each end up taking "solos" against jazzy piano accompaniment, albeit interspersed with less typical ensemble interactions.... The second track thus projects a "stronger" sound, perhaps forges a more emotional sound per se, but also projects more of a typical free jazz feel. (In both cases, continuity is relatively emphasized. However, one should also note the trio's name, Pareidolia, such that continuity can be illusory.) An album like this would seem to highlight my ambivalence regarding the piano & its associations, and I don't mean to pick on Arques — and indeed he's apparently an authority on the work of Henri Michaux, thus underlying the travelogue conception of the album — but when the piano comes off "straight" here, it detracts from the intensity of the album for me. Such an observation also needs to be placed against frequent pairings with keyboard, including piano, from Camões: Earnear features piano centrally, often straight (but with more of a contrapuntal emphasis, rather than coloristically), and even Chant might be said to involve an overall conception that "fits" the piano (albeit actually using the more exotic marimba). One might further note my interest in Feldman, including related articulations (e.g. from Tilbury) that indeed use the instrument coloristically... such that the contours of my perceptions & preferences around the instrument remain paradoxical. (The lingering tenderness that emerges from Selon le vent might also be suggestive of Feldman, et al....) I do find the Camões-Lemaire pairing to be intriguing, and there's still a strong & appealing sense of detail throughout the two rather different scenes of Selon le vent — making it well worth hearing. The timbral soundscape genre remains a difficult one within which to make a distinctive impression, though.6 January 2019
Speaking of paradoxical perceptions of piano, and indeed speaking of Michael Zerang on Bind the hand(s) That Feed a few days ago, it turns out that Zerang is now (as of this week) releasing more material on his Pink Palace Recordings, including The Shuddering Cherub "for solo piano with vibrating elements." The latter is ostensibly composed music, and for a solo performer, but not only do I want to note Zerang's recent projects (beyond accompanying others), but his specific rethinking of the piano: The Shuddering Cherub is a very active album, featuring some sort of automated controls, such that the entire interior of the piano is involved in various preparations that can be sounded throughout the instrument at once. (The result puts a new exclamation point on my description of the "piano as an absurd, antiquated contraption" in a discussion of Circulate Susanna in November.) One might thus describe the result as Nancarrow meets prepared piano, and indeed there's various fast individual striking of strings together with various strumming almost continuously. It occasionally sounds traditionally pianistic, but only as layered against the interior manipulation, and in one section takes on some of the "gamelan" character that I've noted in other prepared piano albums — but still against the fast individual strikes & strumming. (The piece thus tends to move in waves, and isn't especially percussive.) It gives a rather different impression of the piano, although the latter remains more audibly identifiable than e.g. on Ernesto Rodrigues's Piano album (recorded in 2015 with Carlos Santos), on which the piano is treated much more radically, and almost entirely according to friction, producing piercing highs & grinding lows without so much as a single string being hammered. Still, Zerang's conception sounds distinctive, and moreover the extent to which it's composed is unclear: As on Follow the Light — a companion release involving a quintet of quasi-hurdy-gurdy, two violas & two contrabasses — there's clearly planning involved, but much of what happens seems to be spontaneous. (And I probably have rather different notions of the merit of calling something "composed" than many writers.) On the latter album, the central instrument is "Queequeg's Coffin" (played by Zerang), a cello-based instrument played by turning a wooden wheel, as designed for a theatrical production of Moby Dick(!): The album begins in the mode of a thick drone, sounding almost like an organ, and eventually produces a variety of counterpoint in the strings, thus seeming to "open" the drone to various interactions, cracking its homogeneous sense of time.... (One might compare to Buratino, mentioned here in October, which likewise incorporates hurdy-gurdy into a string quintet, there including guitar as well. The broad impression is rather different, though, even as many of the string interactions do end up sounding similar....) Both albums would appear to respond to the jazz saw about "changing the instruments" in order to change the music, and to do so decisively.7 January 2019
It seems as though I'm always starting a discussion of new albums — and it's usually plural — from Ernesto Rodrigues with some sort of disclaimer. I guess that's both because he makes so many albums, and because I continue to especially enjoy many of them. Obviously there's nothing wrong with that, and so I guess the disclaimers come into play simply because I'm devoting so much time to his music, and also because on a "per album" basis, I'm being relatively neglectful. It's the latter that eats at me sometimes (& not only regarding Rodrigues), but there are only so many hours in the day, and the alternative is to say nothing, and so to feel as though good work is being ignored (which is also why I feel less of an urge to discuss albums that other people are discussing, although I do do that sometimes anyway). And then regarding the former, I haven't actually heard it, but I often imagine people thinking "Why is he always discussing the same musician?" Well, not always.... but Ernesto is creating a lot of music that I value, and in fact that often fits right into my priorities here in general. (And beyond that, he also releases a lot of great albums by other people too, often musicians who are unknown at the time, yet go on to more.... I can't even count the number of times I've "discovered" someone only to see that they already have a Creative Sources album. I don't know if Ernesto does all of his own talent scouting, but however that works, it's been very successful, and across a range of styles.) Moreover, although Ernesto plays with several of the same musicians over & over, he also engages much more widely, and that gives many of his albums very different characters. Even his personal discography has come to encompass hundreds of musicians, and involves a variety of styles & priorities. (One might even observe that simply assembling so many musicians into so many different groups, including of various sizes, is itself impressively musical within the basic mode of relation....) Today, though, I want to discuss some recent albums from Rodrigues that are very much his own, consisting of medium-sized groups of performers whom (in most cases) he has engaged on many recent projects: Before I get to Stratus, though (recorded in Lisbon in June 2018), which I hear as another high point to date in his output, I want to discuss some earlier albums in the same "arc" (at least as I hear it), especially Mimus: Mimus is the latest release from the 8-member (duh!) Octopus ensemble, whose first album Vulgaris I mentioned briefly as part of a long survey in August, and whose second (mini, digital) album Dofleini I mentioned in September. Mimus was recorded only twelve days after Dofleini, also in Lisbon in March, and uses a nearly identical ensemble (with one substitution, at saxophone), whereas Vulgaris had been a little different (including e.g. piano & cello). Mimus also seems to capture a new level of sophistication for these ensembles, specifically in its "underwater" sense of lighting & color: It opens seeming almost like an organ, but with much more timbral detail & sensitivity than available from an organ keyboard. As so often, it's unclear what Carlos Santos is doing with electronics, but the trumpet (Anna Piosik, mentioned here in October with Eris) & two reeds (Bruno Parrinha, mentioned with Lithos in June, and Paulo Galão, not mentioned previously, but appearing on various Creative Sources recordings) combine with the strings (Rodrigues himself, the relatively well-known Hernâni Faustino on bass, and André Holzer — who is new to me — on resonator guitar) & snare drum (João Valinho, also not mentioned, but appearing with Rodrigues in Diceros, as well as without Rodrigues in the Free Pantone Trio, which I also hadn't mentioned) to produce a variety of musical activity that not only yields an underwater feeling, but what seem to be variations in light & color: Like the octopus depicted on the cover, there is almost a translucent quality to the music, such that various elements continually shift to take on background colors, including via pulsing resonances. The result has a sort of (ambient) smoothness that does nonetheless become more busy at times, perhaps mixed in real time with some looping? (There are hints of an industrial vibe at times too, for instance, albeit submerged.) There's something of a slow evolution as a result — i.e. a sense of austerity — but one's energy level can be powerfully modulated by what are ultimately relatively subtle — yet immersive — articulations from these standard (classical) instruments. Whereas Mimus is striking for its sense of immersive shading, in April (i.e. the following month, also in Lisbon), Rodrigues recorded another new album (3 Phases (III) Black) with a previously existing medium-scale ensemble, Diceros, and it obliges with a more rumbling & earthy sound: I'd mentioned Diceros (also) in August around Urze, but that was an octet (and so a natural pairing with Octopus), while 3 Phases (III) Black is a 12tet. (And without an explanation, I don't know what the three 3 Phases albums have in common beyond being recorded on consecutive days at the same venue... three different improvisation styles in historical order, I guess? Besides Rodrigues himself, Santos is the only person to appear on more than one of them, and the orientations are rather different: 3 Phases (I) White is more traditionally jazzy around sax & piano, while 3 Phases (II) Grey intriguingly pairs Rodrigues with a saxophone trio — SAT — in what ends up being a mostly quiet, drone album.) 3 Phases (III) Black didn't make as much of an impression on me as Mimus did, but I do want to note it, since it explores its own sorts of sonorities in an ongoing project, and particularly since I'd originally mentioned Octopus & Diceros together.... Perhaps more significant to this line of inquiry, however, is Backlighting (which I'd also mentioned already in August), another April 2018 recording, and one that seems to take up the coloring innovations of Mimus in a smaller (& quieter) format, in particular placing viola against three winds from different families (flute, reed, brass). I've found Backlighting to be too subdued to be of much use in my life, but did want to note it again as apparently pivotal within these recent developments....Stratus takes up a similar viola & winds quartet — with trumpet (now João Silva, who had appeared already with Diceros, but hadn't been mentioned here before) substituted for trombone, and then supported by acoustic guitar (Miguel Almeida), "computer" (Carlos Santos) & once again, snare drum (João Valinho). (The other winds are again frequent collaborators Paulo Curado & Bruno Parrinha, also from Backlighting. So there are four musicians in common with Mimus, and Almeida returns from e.g. Xenon, first discussed here in May 2017.) So whereas it often seems to me that Rodrigues' larger ensembles involve considerations of who is available as much as they do specific "scoring" choices — and availability is certainly an important practical part of daily improvisation — this one — actually called Ernesto Rodrigues 7tet, at least on his Bandcamp site — seems to be more consciously & specifically chosen. (Stratus is also rather different from the "Septep" on Meandros e Vertentes, which often involves more of a traditional "free jazz" feel, as discussed here last May, and includes no musicians in common other than Rodrigues himself.) There's thus less of an "ad hoc" sense than one sometimes gets from ensembles such as Suspensão, IKB, VGO, String Theory, etc. — although it should be noted that IKB is explicitly named for a color, and that Suspensão has involved similarly shimmering or watery pastels.... (One might also reference Evan Parker regarding choosing musicians as a method of composition, which does seem to be in full operation here. In this & other senses, composition per se might then be considered "impractical....") As these forgoing comments might already suggest, then, Stratus (likewise) involves close attention to color, in this case, not in a watery vein, but in the open air: Sounds range from eerie tinkling & harmonic glissandi to deep rumbles & percussive horn pops, distant traffic, even fugal textures, with shifting timbres working into a broad tapestry of often translucent color. It's sometimes hissing or searing, often quiet, yet generally bright: There is thus little in common with the dark ambience of e.g. Sîn, which suggests more of a "close up" orientation than the broad & shifting perspectives of Stratus.... Moreover, sonorities & timbres often seem to move past each other in layers, not only yielding kaleidoscopic combinations, but a kind of textured smoothness that makes for a very different tapestry than that of e.g. Coluro, with its aggressively distinct timbral counterpoint. (One might also compare to the first, sky-themed track of Selon le vent, as discussed here earlier this month... there's something of a similar feel, there with a smaller ensemble.) It's also easy to hear Stratus as an acoustic album, despite the mysterious presence of Santos, who is (again) presumably making sure that everything is audible, perhaps sustaining some lines.... The result doesn't sound like "jazz" at all, but does project a subtly uplifting quality: Stratus can seem like background music at times, but there's a latent power that comes through consistently, at least for me. And as the extended opening might suggest, it's also an album that I spent some time with, at least as compared with my usual practice of giving early impressions here: Part of that was the timing over the new year, but part of it was some ambivalent impressions on my part, and returning to the album in some very random moments. (And "randomness" can be an important part of appraising "use....") It might be subdued — at least much of the time — but it's been consistently effective, and with a wonderful variety of texture & color that is distinctly its own. Perhaps between this milestone and the many "digital" releases appearing recently to document an even wider variety of interactions (via Bandcamp), Rodrigues has reached a new plateau in his career — and just as he'll turn 60 this year. 12 January 2019
Ayler Records continues to release some distinctive items, and I see that I haven't had much to say about any of their releases since Joëlle Léandre's Can you hear me? (in September 2016), so although it's composed music, I want to make a few remarks about the recent album Barclay by the Scott Fields Ensemble (a quartet).... I'd actually noted Fields relatively early in this project for his unique personal style on guitar, but hadn't had much to say, largely for the same reason, namely that his releases tend to be relatively composed. In fact, I'd only mentioned him to this point around Conference of Analogies by the Eckard Vossas 4 (a Creative Sources release, also with Simon Nabatov, discussed in April 2017), saying that the "idiosyncratic sense of movement & transition does continue to remind me of Fields elsewhere." A similar comment applies to Barclay, which is actually the third in a Samuel Beckett Trilogy from Fields — with the first two (also eponymic) titles appearing in 2007 & 2009, i.e. a while ago now. Indeed, not only does Fields have a taste for Beckett, but literary inspiration in general, having e.g. composed for the Multiple Joyce Orchestra as well.... Moreover, Ayler has already supported a similar orientation in e.g. Marc Ducret's Tower Series (inspired by Vladimir Nabokov), along with the various other (mostly composed) new concepts that they've been releasing.... However, Barclay is an instrumental album, and doesn't attempt to "transcribe" the three plays on which its three tracks are based, but rather to render them into music diagrammatically, i.e. as inspired by the basic motion & feel of the texts, their characters & pacing etc.: There is thus usually a bunching (knotting), halting style, with bursts of activity often followed by repose, then more activity again, etc. (The final track is both more contrapuntal & more sustained in its activity, with a couple of basic figurations weaving together....) I certainly don't claim to be an expert on Beckett or literature per se in general (at least not from an "inside" perspective), but I do appreciate these sorts of trans-modal projects, i.e. making something out of something else, particularly across forms & genres. (After all, it's what I'm so often doing here!) There's thus a formal inspiration, both more broadly, and according to individual phrases: Fields (on electric guitar) is joined by Matthias Schubert (tenor sax), Scott Roller (cello) & Dominik Mahnig (percussion) to form colorful & appealing timbral combinations as well, such that the halting bursts are often distinctive & sparkling on their own — beyond formal considerations. (I'd also mentioned Mahnig in a piano trio with Nabatov back in February 2016, but hadn't actually mentioned Schubert previously, and Roller is new to me.) It's thus an enjoyable (& contemporary) sounding quartet, often with a "jazz" vibe (& with very clear & warm recorded sound), yet sometimes projecting more of a rock ambience around guitar.... (So let me also note that the music could hardly be more different from e.g. Feldman's organ-esque For Samuel Beckett....) It does seem to me to forge a "sound" & style, though, one that would be conducive to a more spontaneous approach. (And in my terms, that's what composition per se is for....)17 January 2019
Trio was recorded in Nova Scotia in July 2013, and released in late 2016 — both a long time ago for an album to be newly featured here. I foggily remember seeing it listed at Squidco in February 2017, and the easygoing yet vague description from John Heward did intrigue me, but it wasn't enough to prompt an allocation of time & money. I didn't really know who any of these three musicians were. Later, still in 2017 I believe, I came across Trio on Bandcamp — I'm not quite sure from where (as a few possibilities present themselves) — and had a listen. It was hard to categorize, but also understated. I hear so many hours of new music (for the first time) most weeks, most of it exactly once, and Trio didn't jump out at me. It's not a "jumping" kind of album. Then a couple of other releases appeared last month: The first I noticed was Le way qu'a do (recorded in Spring 2018), the second "free form folk" album by Les Surruralists (after Sortablue, released in 2014), a duo of Arthur Bull & Éric Normand (with some instrumental support from others on their second release). It was a "different" sort of album for me, but Bull singing "Jack o' Diamonds" did make an impression — including on some people around me. Not only is Le way qu'a do traditional folk songs, though, but the opening instrumental track (referencing Monsieur Coleman, I assume Ornette from the style) was intriguing atonal, yet mellow & flowing. (The songs are tonal, though.) And I had noted Normand already in Boule-spiele (discussed in January 2017) & e.g. Torche! (discussed in December 2017, when I wrote that it consisted of, to paraphrase, "simmering world mediations speaking from North America") — i.e. very different albums — but hadn't noticed guitarist Bull. (And he does indeed bring some of that distinctively bluesy "roots" style to Trio, albeit transformed.) The second relevant December release was another Heward album in the Mode Records "Avant" series, I guess titled John Heward Quintet, and recorded in 2014 prior to the Guelph Festival, for which the quintet was formed: The most distinctive interaction is between Heward & Barre Phillips, whose duo seems to inaugurate much of the early quintet interactions in general, but the quintet also involved legend Joe McPhee, along with Lori Freedman (who has a couple of recent albums out herself) & pianist Dana Reason (with whom I wasn't familiar at all). This is a very long recording, and frankly I found much of it kind of tedious by the end, various duo interactions... but was specifically intrigued by the way that Heward would frame (or bisect) various activity, setting one interaction in relief, then another: There was both a starkness to what he was doing, as well as some deep rhythmic & structural insight.... I also (finally) noticed a few other facts: Avant (which pairs with e.g. Mode's Scelsi, Xenakis & Cage Editions, i.e. recordings I've found to be quite significant in the past, but which has a rather strange catalog itself) had released multiple prior duo albums with Heward, Heward had just died in November, and he wasn't actually a new name to me (although I hadn't remembered my two prior encounters...). So now I found myself interested in both Bull & Heward (1934-2018), and found my way back to Trio: I hadn't heard of bassist Adam Linson (b.1975) either, although it turns out that he'd already been active with some very prominent improvising musicians, but shortly before this project started (& so that's kind of a coincidence). And he currently has a research appointment in computer science & philosophy, working in cognitive psychology... so hasn't been so active musically. Finally then, what one finds on Trio does seem understated, combining as it does the contours of a gritty, bluesy style with processes of abstraction: Bull's fast plucking style (in shifting ostinati) frequently has a percussive quality as well, such that it's not only a guitar trio, but something of a percussion trio — with both Linson (via bowing) & Bull (via feedback) sometimes providing continuous (legato) tones as well. (Trio also appeared in the US the same month as Jack Wright's Roughhousing album, and has some similar qualities in its dynamics & interactions, qualities I associate with American music per se.) The subtlety of the resulting musical interaction also suggests a timeless quality, such that Trio isn't (obviously) connected to any musical trends — such that a 2013 recording can still sound very fresh — and such that its passion (initially anyway) comes off as understated. The bowed bass can become quite intense, though, and the guitar can sound zither-like (in ways that remind me more of the Vietnamese dan tranh than the canonical Chinese zheng, but that might all be incidental). At one point on the first track, a rock vibe even emerges briefly, before shifting elsewhere, as simultaneity itself slips in time: Indeed the "sliding" temporalities remind me a bit of (my comments last September on) Sensoria, another abstract album incorporating American roots.... There's moreover a strong conversational quality to Trio, as already suggested in Heward's short introductory paragraph, something that I've sought since early in this project: So this is a good example of becoming trapped in my own conceptions, such that an inability to assimilate this music mentally to what I've been learning over the past few years led me not to notice that it involved a different & distinctive approach to what I'd been seeking in the first place.... So that's humbling, and indeed the music itself suggests a profound humility — despite percussive attacks & sometimes searing dissonance. At times, I thought there simply wasn't enough happening, particularly in the more exploratory second track, but the intense moments of simultaneous conversation don't really stop, rather they merely "slide" (via differential slowing) into collective positions of less vertical overlap, i.e. not based on rhythmic divisions or actual rests. Trio thus comes to involve various framings & perspectives, but with no one "above the fray" so to speak (or below) — & comes to project a strongly emotional quality as well. (I've found that this album has sometimes upset me, even made me angry.... And that's definitely American. At first I didn't even realize — and that's very American too.) The various shifting repetitions come to build a powerful rattling momentum at times, such that what seemed understated comes to seem very potent & collective. I was consequently forced to make this entry: Heward (who was better known as a visual artist) will clearly be missed.
My other prior encounter with an album from Heward, as noted parenthetically above, was 4x3 (recorded in 2017 — & so his most recent performance available at the moment, released in 2018 on Tour de bras): This is a strange album, pairing Scott Thomson on trombone with Heward on drums & Michel Bonneau on congas, balofon, etc. The contrast between the horn legato & the accompanying percussionists drives much of the action, but Thomson's variety of articulation is impressive indeed. (Sometimes he's percussive as well.) The sense of continuity versus discontinuity, smoothness against sharp attacks, thus reminds of Trio, although Thomson generally stays very much to the fore. (And although the album notes mention these performers joining Heward's weekly improvisation series, again I didn't take note. The soloistic orientation wasn't aligned with my interests anyway.) Leaving Heward behind, and turning to Bull again, then, even more impressive from Thomson is the recent Spine, debut album by the trio Monicker (recorded in June 2018), in which Thomson & Bull are joined by Roger Turner on drums. (Like Trio, Spine appears on Ambiances Magnétiques, a Montréal label that I'd sampled, but hadn't really "grasped" to any degree. Many of their releases are composed music, but many are improvised....) Actually, the existing duo of Bull (who took time away from music, returning in the early 2000s) & Turner was joined by Thomson: There is once again a focus on some amazing trombone articulations, once again becoming percussive at times (as does Bull via the sharpness of his string attack), but with more depth of interaction overall. (And both of these albums were recorded in Montréal, where Heward lived. It's Bull who moved to Nova Scotia.) Continuity & discontinuity thus remain themes, sometimes involving sharp resonances or tinkling metal... as various accents & rhythmic implications shift in their details. Monicker again comes off as more soloistic (& also often subtle) around the very resourceful Thomson, but also expands upon a flexible style of musical interaction that doesn't really correspond to anything anywhere else. So Spine is (also) well worth hearing & a distinctive debut. And despite aspects of minimalist abstraction in their conceptions, all of the albums in this entry are in fact quite active sonically — thus forging new (musical) possibilities.30 January 2019
When it comes to Québec & the Montréal, at least as articulated by recent improvisatory performances on Ambiances Magnétiques — & they release various composed albums as well, there showing more rhythmic structure & control — what I generally hear is an open & flowing, mystical or ritual style that favors a more overlapping "mensural" (although I have no idea if they explicitly adopt that sort of medieval notion) approach to time over clear collective rhythms or grooves. One might even associate such an approach with the "hippy" concerns of the 1960s: Such imagery comes to mind for me regarding the recent Fleur de chaos (recorded in October 2017), by a quartet called HMMH featuring Joane Hétu on vocals. I hadn't mentioned Hétu here before, but she appears on many albums in a variety of contexts, here in a very free guise, voice often growling low in the texture, only sometimes emerging to prominence — maybe via fast whispers etc., and with her sometimes switching to saxophone as well. (The continuity between vocalizing per se, including far back in the throat & with a turn to horn, does suggest Isabelle Duthoit on Light air still gets dark, which might be the closest analog, there embedded in a more explicitly post-serial or indeed quasi-spectral conception.) Hétu is also the executive producer on recent Ambiances Magnétiques releases, and is joined here by Émilie Mouchous (with whom I am not otherwise familiar) on synthesizer, as well as the pairing of Pierre-Yves Martel (here on viola da gamba & harmonica) & Carl Ludwig Hübsch (tuba). Of course, the latter two have already appeared here with their trio HMZ, both with the texturally distinctive Drought, and with the more recent & smooth Otherwise (discussed in November 2018, there adding synths to their previously acoustic toolkit). As is typical of recent projects from Martel — & Tse (discussed here in June 2018) may be canonical in this regard — various high held tones often dominate the texture, producing dissonance & abrasion via their collisions. Other times, the general texture consists more of a low roar, suggesting a windswept landscape even into strangely raucous noise.... Indeed sounds tend to run together, including the voice as noted, in order to produce a pensive & ritualistic atmosphere generally lacking strong rhythmic contours, and with vocal attacks varying (or absent): There are thus different musical (or timbral concerns) in different tracks, ultimately producing a heightened sense of awareness — in a sort of solo-less ritual reminiscent of e.g. the quintet Torche! (discussed here December 2017 & mentioned again in the prior entry), in both cases developing tension largely without rhythmic clarity or individuation. (One might even compare e.g. to Ernesto Rodrigues's recent Montréal, featuring a return by Karoline Leblanc on harpsichord, a generally atmospheric & slowly rumbling album that likewise produces a sense of ritualistic drama....) So, as akin to Drought, there is often a kind of basic starkness to Fleur de chaos, yet it can also be very active (usually briefly & around the voice). Otherwise, one might speak of slowly shifting weirdness, and a general sense of exploration, from which (what I might call) a truly North American musical vibe does emerge (in something other than a traditionally jazzy idiom, the latter actually being closer to European modernism). Fleur de chaos retains an overall sense of calm, however, such that despite the sometimes chaotic interactions, it can often seem almost minimalist (or, one might say, intensely focused). One might then relate (it) to various modes of communion....4 February 2019
I want to note a couple of other recent items from FMR, which does continue to confuse me by not having an "official" list of releases available.... These are also both albums that involve dodecaphonic & even post-serial improvisation, so it's not a totally arbitrary pairing. First I want to highlight Frost Burning, which is listed as a "Spring" 2018 release on Bulgarian violinist Biliana Voutchkova's web site, and seemingly considered as such by the FMR numbering, but didn't appear anywhere (that I could find anyway) until DMG last month (& still no appearance at Squidco — although the FMR releases appearing at these two outlets have often been somewhat different). Voutchkova is joined by Alexander Frangenheim — who has appeared frequently in this space since first being mentioned with Ernesto Rodrigues, but who'd also already recorded with e.g. English free improvisers — & Greek pianist Antonis Anissegos — whom I'd mentioned with Id (from Kriton Beyer) in December 2018 — to form the trio The Forestry Commission: Besides being slow to appear (but hey, better later than never), Frost Burning was also recorded (in Berlin) back in February 2016, i.e. before both The Afterlife of Trees (the first Voutchkova album discussed here, in December 2017) & Blurred Music (not discussed here, but an interesting concept album with Michael Thieke that received some good attention elsewhere) — which were themselves recorded later in 2016. (And Id was recorded only in November 2017.) That might be coincidence, but Frost Burning also presents a relatively easygoing & approachable performance of dodecaphonic improvisation between piano & the two strings. It extends into various post-serial realms as well, perhaps evoking some pensive (e.g. set theory) pieces by Xenakis: Particularly with piano (& on FMR), it might be compared with Still now (if you still), which nonetheless emphasizes more traditionally free virtuosity around speed & spiky rhythms, etc. Frost Burning is more mellow, although energetic in its own (incendiary) way, and with many details to enjoy. I feel as though it might make for a good entry not only into these musicians' individual styles, but into post-serial improvisation more generally, since it does stop well short of overwhelming the listener with figures & relations (as well as being acoustic). And it appears that The Forestry Commission could be an ongoing project, so it'll be interesting to hear what they do next....
Less easy to hear, or perhaps I should say more enigmatic, is On the Validity of Tractors, which was actually recorded back in July 2013, although published only late last year. The Valid Tractor trio consists of Pat Thomas on piano & electronics, Dominic Lash on double bass, and Lawrence Casserley on "signal processing instrument." I'd mentioned Thomas with the WTTF Quartet, recalled just last month around Strings & Philipp Wachsmann's participation — & a group that had also featured Frangenheim. Lash appeared here most recently with Extremophile (with its partial medieval inspiration), but Casserley is actually new (to this space, albeit previously active with Evan Parker, et al.): His development of a signal processing instrument (starting from IRCAM), i.e. electronics that sample other sounds but don't produce their own — should also be invoked as a precedent for e.g. Jeff Morris on Interfaces (discussed here last October), in that case a rather more aggressive & jazzy album.... On the Validity of Tractors actually begins with a relatively similar dodecaphonic vibe around piano as on Frost Burning, but becomes progressively diffuse as the album proceeds: Eventually it's about the tiniest of figures in a smooth & mysterious tapestry. (Coincidentally, I had an extended electrical outage earlier this week, and was able to listen to this album absent some of the usual background noise, especially the constant hum of electricity, and it opens up considerably under those circumstances....) The liner notes discuss tractors, specifically radiators. From there(?), relationships proliferate like mad in the music, almost evening out into a tinkling, simmering hum itself as a result. The basic feeling of diffusion (around electronics) comes to suggest a sort of ritual quality of its own, indeed making for an enigmatic album. Still, I have to say, I simply enjoy the dodecaphonic & post-serial style (in general) — and the unusual sorts of affective relations that it can produce & trace on both of these albums.9 February 2019
I saw the release announcement for Skullmarks last year (actually together with Molecules, discussed here in December), but it's yet to arrive at US retailers — so I (eventually) ordered it directly from John Butcher at his website. I immediately noted the release, since I'd been intrigued by the English ensemble Common Object in the past, particularly as expressed around Whitewashed with lines in June 2015 — in a discussion that opened a new series of entries here, and found me confronting some of my (fraught) impressions of the English scene. The group was formed by harpist Rhodri Davies, whose composition occupies the first disc of Whitewashed with lines, and Skullmarks presents a composition by John Butcher, with the group now expanded from a quartet (& that from a trio) to a sextet. (Butcher & Davies are joined once again by Lee Patterson & Angharad Davies, but now also by Pat Thomas & Lina Lapelyte, thus doubling the violin & electronics constituency of the group — & augmenting the overall smoothness of its sound. I hadn't mentioned Lapelyte previously, although she'd appeared on Goldsmiths, a 2016 album featuring both Davieses & others. But Thomas had just been mentioned with On the Validity of Tractors....) The performance & composition both derive from the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford, with Butcher selecting four objects from the site's ethnographic collection, and arranging the performers within the museum space: So it's not a matter of written music, but rather a setting, including both geometry & more specific (object-based) inspiration. According to the notes, all six musicians contributed compositions toward this project, but no word on whether any of the others will be released on record.... (It's perhaps also notable that although the recording was made, once again, by Simon Reynell, the album doesn't appear on Another Timbre — as did Whitewashed with lines — but on Ftarri out of Japan. I guess this is a matter of spreading the wealth, so to speak? In any case, the Ftarri release is of excellent quality, including graphics, notes & packaging in general.) The addition of more performers, to form (if anything) a more eccentric overall combination, does work well: Textures are more full, and range across a variety of material & inspirations, including with some pauses, presumably around changing object focus: One might note e.g. birdsong, windy echoes, even moving into a sort of cacophonous electronic jungle.... (And note that the "Common Objects" of the group's name was originally a reference to their instruments, so this museum project is something of a doubling of object reference. Presumably arising from Thomas, there are also some passages that highlight pure electronic sound generation, as opposed to the process/sampling approach of Patterson, which is often geared more toward textural continuity.) The result is generally compelling, combining a sense of exoticism with a taut focus that functions well in an ambient setting — in terms of which, Skullmarks is a rather dynamic album (i.e. less minimalist than Whitewashed with lines, but still very concerned with precise expression). However, the museum setting also raises a number of other questions beyond my basic appreciation for the music, particularly around cultural appropriation: Although Common Objects have previously featured English archeology as inspiration — and indeed Lord Pitt Rivers got his start with English archeology — the museum objects in question here are from North America (three of them) & Nepal. Note, moreover, the sense of space that's interrogated & projected by the album (& composition) as well, namely the museum itself. (In other words, the album begins from an explicit post-appropriation, post-imperial situation.) One might thus take the museum itself as a "de facto" result, from which Common Objects continues an interrogation of global humanity, i.e. simply continues moving forward (as history must). That seems like too easy a framing, though, and indeed my previous wariness regarding the English scene revolves around this post-imperial situation more generally: If jazz is about overcoming imperialist oppression, then what is (or can be) music from the very center of world empire? (To me, the English have always been the worst of the invaders, and these largely North American object selections do nothing to ameliorate that impression.) Of course, such a question is also presumptive of unity & uniformity, and many people in the UK certainly never agreed with English policy abroad, down to this day. (One can say the same of residents of Israel, the US, etc....) I imagine that such questions & differences of perspective can seem more organic — at least in some sense — from within that interior setting, but for me as a North American, they remain problematic. (I don't know that it's reflected in the performance, but the Pitt Rivers Museum was also intended to illustrate an "evolutionary approach to culture" — something with which I very much doubt I'd agree. An emphasis specifically on everyday objects, though, is significant....) Back to appropriation, then, exactly what is being appropriated? When this topic arises in (usual) musical discussions today, it (most often) ultimately involves someone making a living (perhaps a very nice living) on ideas developed elsewhere (in some sense). And I do think it's important to ask who is benefiting economically (since, after all, economics comes to dominate all facets of society in our era) from such activity: Here, that's obvious enough in that the musicians are furthering their careers, the museum is justifying its ongoing existence, etc. Yet, we aren't talking about an economic windfall by any means — one might even be talking about "sacrifice" in order to follow an artistic passion & even to keep these objects in the collective imagination. In other words, did this project actually prevent anyone else from doing anything, including (hypothetically) selling music on the same themes? To answer affirmatively would require a broad loop through global social relations, although it's not an absurd answer... just a distant (& highly contingent) one. It's also interesting for me to ponder that I've generally enjoyed English improvising albums that take in wide territories for their musical inspiration, whether a global sense of musical activity, or indeed the non-idiomatic style that tries to avoid any such external reference. (Ag, for instance, is vaguely nativistic, at least in one sense of that term....) The difference here then isn't so much with the actual styles of sonic production — which are, after all, those the performers have developed over decades (& so basically unique) — but the specific object focus: Presumably that did inflect the performers' imaginations as well — perhaps according to many of the same terms as I'm considering here. (One might even figure these concerns into "process" more generally, which is an ongoing orientation that Common Objects has borrowed from minimalism per se.) Farther afield, the variety of shifting textures & emphasis on timbre almost suggest a Creative Sources album — from which a different perspective on global (musical) borrowing emerges: I might compare to e.g. very recent favorite Stratus, with its frequently sunny & "outdoor" feel, also with electronic "smoothing," or to the acoustic Sîn, jagged & dark, also with a variety of "episodes" (around unknown inspiration). Perhaps the most similar is Skiagraphía, though, similarly brief & with a dual electronics setup.... (Note that Skullmarks was actually recorded prior to all three of these Rodrigues albums, two of which also originated in 2016.) Comparatively, the English scene comes off more self-consciously, particularly given the written discussions associated with the music, but also likely due to the simple passage of time, allowing such questions to foment more explicitly.... So which musicians should be inspired by prior Native North American production? Isn't that a question of attitude? Who else would make music like this? What other music, if any, might be made in its absence? (Such questions can also take on a different feel when populations have been almost totally devastated... not that such devastation was innocent.) In any case, one might differentiate Skullmarks from some of these other (ambient) sonic tapestries, not only according to its specific object focus, but due to its particular sense of interiorized space (yielding another sort of precision) as well. In particular, this isn't a "travelogue album" (as I've observed so often, most recently last month about Selon le vent), but focuses on a specific (yet composite, one might say) space. Simply, it concerns different (& seemingly more specific) relations — a kind of refiguration of (local & so global) responsibility per se. In other words, there's almost a feeling of claustrophobia, yet yielding broad tautness & intensity — including around such questions. And so whereas I might need to question continued possession of these objects by this museum, I also have to follow my ear on the music: It's masterful according to notions of instrumental command & ongoing development of a distinctive ensemble sound, and it's thought provoking. In other words, it's very good.20 February 2019
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