It's time, once again, to write a new introduction for this space. The the previous set of entries had gotten to be rather long, and a fresh start often feels good. (Please do go ahead and take a look at those many, prior discussions, because upcoming entries will continue to refer to them, whether implicitly or explicitly.)
In keeping with my habits of the past few years, rolling over this page at this time of year is also happening in the wake of finishing a more lengthy, theoretical discussion, Practical listening, the second appendix to What is familiar? — the first being Morality as aporia. (You probably don't want to start with appendices.) This marks the end of my work on longer, theoretical projects, at least for now. So the focus will be on shorter discussions in this space, and mostly on specific recorded examples.
Once again, I am leaving the page in written order, so please scroll to the end if you want to see the most recent entries. I know that some people prefer the reverse, but despite undoubtedly being multi-stranded, in some sense, these entries form a single narrative, and I want to present it in order, rather than suggest an alternate or a-temporality. (Maybe that's worth scrolling all the way to the end...? But don't hurt yourself....) In that sense, this space reflects an ongoing, personal practice. (And thanks for your interest!)
I continue to struggle, to some degree, with my choice of writing topics here, as noted in many of those earlier entries. One part of that is a piece of guesswork: If others are going to say similar things about an album, I'm more likely to focus on something else. I also want to keep things positive, so I do focus on favorites. (Please consult that list any time you like. It is kept up to date, and arranged by year.) I also write about non-favorites, or non-ongoing favorites, whether albums I find appealing for one or two hearings, or albums about which I find something else I want to say. (Sometimes that is negative. And improvised music isn't necessarily expected to be interesting for several hearings.) In other words, I haven't & won't write about everything I hear. I'd also prefer to let this particular space be driven by musical productions reaching my ears, rather than "points" I might want to illustrate. It's best when those two coincide spontaneously. (These opening paragraphs also illustrate the sort of self-obsession that can so easily become a pitfall for a project such as this.)
I'm also expecting more activity on the performance fellowship page, which tells something of a separate story. In the meantime, I'm trying to get better at relaxing, something I seem to have forgotten how to do over the past few years, and perhaps that will be reflected in entries here.Todd McComb <firstname.lastname@example.org>
A decision to write about something, at least as articulated above, is often already premised on a decision to hear something. The experience of encountering compelling music spontaneously can be special, but unfortunately, my circumstances are such that this very rarely happens. To find something I'll particularly enjoy, I generally have to notice & select an opportunity first, whether that's going to a location (venue), getting a recording (physical or otherwise), or even reading someone's recommendations. The latter usually involves making further choices (rather than adopting the entire list of recommendations wholesale). The contours of the present project provide me with some guidance, in terms of which productions are more likely to fit, but as such a project-based approach immediately suggests, there's a risk of confirming my own biases & so missing experiences that might well be exemplary. One might say that my personal familiarity creates its own resonance conditions. I try to counter this pull by listening occasionally to something that seems like it'll be totally different from my usual material, but even that sense of difference or unfamiliarity is obviously itself conditioned by familiarity — i.e. as an exception. (But sometimes that random object does pull me in a new direction.)
Within such a context, one might describe a record label as instantiating a set of recommendations: The editor or editors have recommended these recordings, for one reason or another. There are then labels with a history of releasing albums I enjoy, and so of course I pay further attention. Even still, there are usually choices involved: I don't want to commit to hearing everything, and maybe not even everything that seems to fit the "contours" of this project, as I put it above. I mention this situation not only because it relates closely to some of the "process" (or practice) ideas that I've been articulating around self formation, but because Creative Sources is once again my subject, and it offers a canonical example of such a label-based set of recommendations: The volume of releases is high — I count twenty-five so far this year, more or less — and they generally appear with no description. I'm not sure how well some album descriptions (or reviews, for that matter) really serve to improve my choice of what to hear, since they might e.g. emphasize features I find tangential to such desires. However, no description at all, particularly when the albums involve musicians with whom I am not otherwise familiar (and for that matter, having heard someone in a couple of settings hardly serves to indicate everything they might ever do), puts a rather stark edge on the issue of choice. I've nudged Creative Sources label editor Ernesto Rodrigues for suggestions, but he seems reluctant to offer them, perhaps because such suggestions might have too much effect on feedback he subsequently receives — reciprocal to the issues I've raised here. I don't know. (And, after all, by definition, he is recommending all of his recordings anyway. Is it fair to highlight some over others?) In any case, I continue to make my choices, some more informed (with the dangerous resonance that implies) than others, and hear a subset of new Creative Sources albums. (One of the contours of my practice continues to be a high priority on new productions.)
All that said, I've particularly enjoyed the recent improvised quartet album New Dynamics by Roland Ramanan, Nuno Torres, Ernesto Rodrigues, & Bernardo Álvares. An obvious point of comparison for this album is last year's Nor, considering that it shares two of the musicians & uses the same set of instruments. (Both albums also have three medium-length tracks.) Indeed, I had trouble finding precedents for these two-wind & two-string quartets, although one wouldn't say that such an ensemble seems radical. It would be equally wrong to say that the instrumental constitution creates a certain mood, as well, since the moods are rather different on these albums. There is, however, as one might imagine, a distinct "chamber" quality, even if extended technique is common. So whereas Nor includes Berlin improvisers Axel Dörner & Alexander Frangenheim, New Dynamics instead includes Roland Ramanan & Bernardo Álvares. (It would be wrong to call them substitutes. It is, dare I say it, a new dynamic.) Álvares was totally unknown to me, and I didn't find any substantial information about him online; I assume that he is Portuguese. I did have some familiarity with Ramanan, a longtime member of the London Improvisers Orchestra, from his album Zubeneschamali, released on Leo Records (about which some similar things could be said, especially that Leo releases many appealing albums) in 2014, with Tom Jackson & Daniel Thompson from the trio on Hunt at the Brook. I thought that Ramanan's trumpet kind of dominated that album, which along with e.g. Compost by another related ensemble, explores the acoustic space of a church: There is a sense of finding separate spaces for the members of the trio that also informs the quartet on New Dynamics, even if its space isn't contextualized by architecture per se. (How such a notion relates to the fake "spray" amid empty/monolithic architecture on the cover graphic, I don't know, but it does seem vaguely related.) Individual instruments are generally more discernible than on many albums on which Rodrigues participates, and so one might speak more of counterpoint on New Dynamics than of notions such as the soundscape. There is also a more concrete sense of presence & projection than on Nor, which focuses more on immanent emergence: Indeed, the latter, perhaps in keeping with its partial Berlin roots, has almost an ascetic or severe quality (one might even say Nietzschean), including some higher pitches & harmonics, more percussive attacks, etc. (The trumpet "calls," in the sense used in the discussion of Neutral Nation in this space earlier this month, remain immanent to an emerging landscape, rather than actually emerging or transcending.) New Dynamics thus comes off as more human (dialogic, even) & worldly than environmental, and one might ask what new sorts of dynamics emerge. Different instruments suggest their own different temporalities: By this, I mean generally speaking that the way one interacts with a particular instrument, the way it interfaces with the body, the way it resonates, has a particular temporality or time-scale. One can play slower or faster, but within limits, and there are temporal regions that "fit" the instrument better than others. One could further say that these sorts of relations are often explored in soundscape-type ensembles, but without necessarily seeking a common temporality by which to articulate a counterpoint. (In other words, there must be some temporal relation or correspondence in order to have counterpoint.) New Dynamics does this in a rather human way, including dodecaphony, while still respecting the differing temporal dynamics of the instruments — which, helpfully, are not all that different in the first place. (In this seeming "human" emphasis, then, it differs from e.g. Sediment, a quartet album that otherwise maintains a similarly resolute acoustic stance & pace of interaction.) So a new language of improvised, contrapuntal quartet interaction? That's compelling. (And just how contingent was my hearing of this album in the first place? I cannot really say.)23 May 2016
I want to mention a couple of other recent releases on Creative Sources as well.
I like the idea of an improvising string quartet, and particularly given the extended lineage of the string bass in jazz, that such a quartet should be violin-viola-cello-bass, rather than doubling the violin, makes good sense to me too. So I was happy to get a chance to hear the Iridium String Quartet (recorded last November in Lisbon) featuring Maria da Rocha on violin, Ernesto & Guilherme Rodrigues on their regular viola & cello, and Miguel Mira (here on bass, instead of the cello he plays on e.g. Earnear). This is the first I'd heard (of) da Rocha, and she seems to fit the rest of this group well. The two tracks are named for the melting & boiling points of iridium, and feature a kind of Scelsian string quality... a sense of becoming, metallic scraping... almost industrial at times. One can imagine the changes of state being invoked. As one might also imagine, the quartet can still seem kind of monochromatic at times. There tends to be a rather unified sense of gesture, with a single pulse, relying partly on register (or even pitch) changes for articulation. One might ask what emerges, i.e. what is brought to presence, and in this case, I hear more of the immanent concerns of Nor, i.e. an emergence that isn't from "elsewhere," and likewise doesn't really come to presence. This seems like a first album for the group (which it presumably is), and I believe there is considerable potential, particularly exploring more multi-pulsed interactions. It's already worth hearing.
Aleph, recorded live in Madrid in December 2015, might be the debut leader album for Guilherme Rodrigues (cello), who is joined by David Area (sines, cracklebox, bottle), Guillermo Torres (synth) & Tomás Gris (cornet, objects). The album consists of a long improvised track, followed by a shorter one that almost seems like an encore — not so unlike Live at the Metz' Arsenal by the MMM Quartet. Indeed, the ensembles might be taken to be vaguely similar, even as Aleph is an album less dense with ideas, marking perhaps tentative relations more so than the studied multiplicity of the former. The album notes thank Wade Matthews, and one might also compare it to Primary Envelopment, likewise for its attempt to reshape perceptions (albeit with less sharpness to the high pitches). On Aleph, the different sounds are articulated through significant differences, such that they stay rather separate, suggesting what I've called a "less dense" ecology. I think there is more to be developed here, more to grow one might say, and I also assume that the entire quartet is rather young, so development of their group ecology does seem likely. It's already a worthwhile debut, particularly if one reframes my remarks as the music displaying an overall sense of balance & restraint (& even gravity) within an adventurous sonic idiom.24 May 2016
I haven't featured much "classical" music in this space to this point, and probably won't, but do want to note the new double album of music by Richard Barrett, Music for cello and electronics featuring Arne Deforce on cello. That I would "need" to mention this album is probably obvious to anyone with a particular view of my output, and I can sketch that easily: Deforce's previous albums on Aeon were devoted to Scelsi, Feldman & Xenakis, only the three modern composers for whom I have discussions linked from my "favorites" list here. Moreover, Barrett himself already appears on such improvised favorites as Colophony & Skein. My own (recent?) predilection for improvised music means that Music for cello and electronics comes off a little stiffly to me — a comment I've been making in this space for albums that seem "too composed" even when they involve significant improvisation — and I find myself easily preferring Barrett's participation in those other projects. (In fairness, I also don't have the liner notes, so I have no idea what they say. Perhaps they add something that might further pique my interest.) I still thought it was worth hearing, even if the prospects of these colliding lines of influence (as articulated above) excited me unreasonably. I guess my orientation toward improvisation is only increasing....
Of course, the notion of improvisation versus composition continues to be articulated in various ways by music, and especially by discussions of that music, that fits with my project more closely. Indeed, I assume that Barrett's compositions involve some improvising, as much "contemporary classical" music does. On the other hand, barring some radical attempt (that I cannot cite; and if something can be characterized as an "attempt," it's probably not radical enough in this context anyway), even "totally improvised" music involves some sense of composition, for which I might substitute "some sense of prior." (Hence, this is another issue of temporality.) In other words, beyond a specific choice to convene a group of people, which is a clear act of composition, albeit one that can perhaps be circumvented by a random gathering, there are all the prior associations & expectations that the participants have about music. Often, in the grand scheme of things, these associations & expectations are rather similar & readily circumscribed — despite, or perhaps because of, a desire to improvise together. (When Evan Parker recently remarked, in the context of his ElectroAcoustic Septet, that convening a specific set of musicians was his manner of composing, some writers seemed to believe that he was being facetious. I agree, at least in principle, with Parker.) First, these comments suggest radical attempts to improvise without actually convening or sharing expectations (or perhaps any prior commonality), something that was more in fashion decades ago. Beyond that, one might interrogate the consciousness of shared expectations: Leave them latent or make them explicit? (This is a compositional choice. I often hear people say that they have no expectations, but frankly, this is impossible, at least for neurological adults. So it becomes a question of interrogating or forging expectations.) Particularly since I've also been criticizing music for sounding "too composed," one might ask about the relevance of explicit composition amid an improvising practice. One obvious response is that if one has a specific musical idea that isn't being projected otherwise, then why not articulate it specifically, whether in writing or otherwise? If we retain an emphasis on improvising, then once articulated, such an idea can in turn inform improvisation. (Such articulation may require considerable effort & practice, particularly if one is to internalize it for one's spontaneous repertory.) So that seems worthwhile, even when prioritizing improvisation — and prioritizing improvisation makes good sense to me, since life is mostly improvised — and indeed many compositions have served as "raw material" for improvisation in just this way. In the case of Barrett's music, there is already considerable overlap with his improvisatory style. Beyond that, I would expect any influence to involve, perhaps, small figures of interaction between cello & electronics (& piano), none of which jump out at me as obvious candidates — but who can say? In any case, we would probably do better to describe such situations according to multiple, perhaps impinging, layers of creativity, rather than as a sort of opposition. (These layers would be articulated, at least in part, via temporal relations. To continue removing the teleological frame, such relations might in turn contextualize compositional activity itself within a broader & ongoing improvisatory practice called life.) This is especially true when one considers how much technical practice, i.e. of particular figures, the typical improviser does: Such familiarizing activity can be said to forge a repertory of tiny, interlocking compositions — to be arranged in performance in more or less typical ways.25 May 2016
Trash with a groove, trash that sings the blues.... This is what we get from Pascal Niggenkemper's new sextet Le 7ème Continent & their album Talking Trash. The sextet is variously conceived as a double trio or triple duo, and features pianists Eve Risser & Philip Zoubek, clarinetists Joris Rühl & Joachim Badenhorst, as well as Julián Elvira playing the pronomos & sub-contrabass flute. I was not previously familiar with Elvira or the pronomos flute (and had little familiarity with Rühl), but it is apparently his own rethinking of the basic Boehm flute mechanism & shows some intriguing capabilities. Whereas the pianos & clarinets come in pairs, then, Niggenkemper's bass is paired with flute. (On track #7, which dates from a later session, Constantin Herzog plays the string bass instead, making each pair the same. The music remains similar enough, however, even though this track is from a newer layer of material composed for the ensemble.) At least one half of the sextet then corresponds in composition to the classic Jimmy Giuffre Trio, or closer to home for these performers, the Kaufmann-Gratkowski-de Joode trio, with its incorporation of piano preparations. (One might even characterize Skein as a different sort of double trio, in that case retaining a single horn.) Regarding preparations, Niggenkemper highlights another splitting of the sextet into two trios, the two prepared pianos & prepared bass, and the three winds. Moreover, those preparations, which involve objects that might otherwise be similar to trash — a crucial difference being that they're still in active use — play a signal role in Niggenkemper's musical interrogation of trash. When thinking about an environmental theme, my mind tends to turn to thoughts of economizing, and from that perspective, Niggenkemper's ensemble seems almost extravagant. I asked him about that, and he replied with an emphasis on the potentials of dualities, confrontations, consolidations, etc. So Pascal's musical mind doesn't turn to economizing, at least not in the way that mine does, and indeed he put out a septet album (Lucky Prime) not so long ago — albeit followed by his solo album, Look with thine ears (discussed here in September). Whereas the ensemble variety in his work is evident, Talking Trash does seem to continue an emphasis on some of the spatial concepts raised by Look with thine ears. (In other words, we are asked to visualize trash. And the more, the better.) Moreover, whereas a strict economization notion already inflects the trash "situation" in a particular direction, Niggenkemper takes a more expansively creative approach: While some titles suggest excess trash as a problem, particularly in the image of the seventh continent (and, in French, the Americas are one continent, so there are ordinarily six), others highlight positive responses, whether art projects, plastic-eating bacteria, etc. In other words, we're not asked simply to disdain trash, but to explore more relations around it, maybe even to adopt a more intersubjective stance toward our environment. Such relations are then highlighted by the use of objects in preparations — a paradigm of the "reuse" mantra: We are asked not so much to increase our contempt, although horror toward the accumulation of trash is involved, but rather our appreciation & respect for objects per se. (Our relation to objects in general surely figures our relation to "trash" in particular. In that context, the "reduce" mantra might make only limited sense.) The sound of the album actually reminds me less of Oblengths, which comes off as much more "classical," at least relatively speaking, or Skein, which has a driving sweep & can also make quite a racket, than it does the more static & "industrial" sounds of Anomonous & Pail Bug. However, Talking Trash generally has a larger pallet, and can be more diffuse, almost cloudy.... It's certainly more "open" than Pail Bug, on which confinement is something of a theme. This is presumably Niggenkemper's optimism showing, and as per the previous entry, the compositional basis serves here to highlight particular instrumental combinations & musical ideas: One can imagine the trash itself, the ocean, humanity, other living creatures... in different ways on different tracks. Our perspective becomes troubled: Are we supposed to be repulsed by trash, or identify with it? (Here I figure identification as more involved than mere responsibility.) Whereas extended technique & dissonant "noises" dominate the early part of the album, we are left to wonder to what extent the trash itself participates in the ongoing conversation. Does it participate in singing the blues, then? This sort of intersubjectivity emerges from the clash of different instrument combinations, particularly in energetic & dramatic confrontations such as on tracks #6 & #7 — which are in sharp contrast to the slowly shifting high tones & resulting groundlessness of track #4. (We thus have both the clocks & clouds of a famous dual, "mediated" by the emergence of a herky-jerky tune in track #5.) One thing Talking Trash really might do is make extended technique & object preparations themselves more musically approachable to more people: After all, dramatic movie scores have been doing this for avant garde music for decades. Sometimes a concrete association is all people need to engage with unfamiliar musical techniques, and here we have a very concrete theme. (One might then ask whether the technique serves the theme, or vice versa.) What would it mean actually to identify with trash & its various ramifications? On Talking Trash, that becomes a spiritual (blues) question, consummated in a kind of solidarity by both the final tune & the ensuing applause.26 May 2016
For is an album that might be characterized as both more & less mainstream: It's trio improvisation coming out of the New York Downtown scene, and features not much in the way of typical melody or harmony, but is also apparently dedicated (per the track titles "For") to eight different mainstream celebrities — most of whom do such things as appear on television music award shows. If there's some kind of specific musical or technical connection to the celebrities, I'm not aware of it. (The music is aggressive & noisy, but there could be a particular motif being elaborated beyond recognition, or something of that sort.) Or maybe the name dropping is meant more generally or vaguely. In any case, For is a followup to Ghosts of the Holy Ghost Spermic Brotherhood — which was apparently the first release on Resonant, which appears to be Andy Haas's label — and is now the trio's name. Besides Haas on sax & electronics, Ghosts of the Holy Ghost Spermic Brotherhood include David Grollman on snare drum, objects, balloon, etc. & Michael Evans on snare drum, etc. I had mentioned Evans in this space previously, in November 2014, in connection with the Gordon Beeferman Trio's album Out in Here, where he seemed to share many of the rhythmic concerns of his teacher Milford Graves. In this group, both Evans & Grollman spend much of their time rubbing surfaces to create resonances in similar fashion to e.g. Gino Robair on The Apophonics On Air. (The latter might be described as more pensive & precise, and is certainly more acoustic.) For instance, Grollman rubbing the balloon is quite prominent on track #5. (I have seen a few different live instrument setups that use plastic balloons.) The basic irreverence of the album is underscored by the repeated question "Are you gonna make frittata?" of the last track, but in the meantime, there is a fascinating exploration of various sounds & their spontaneous combination in this rather short (just under a half hour) production. Indeed, it projects a bit of a "heartbeat of the Earth" quality (if I may paraphrase Scelsi) — and it's a rather "messy" becoming. Whereas some improvisations use noise to signal aporia, here the noise is more about the birth of something new, i.e. is a kind of passage itself. Seeing as it's urban music, call it construction noise, perhaps, as opposed to e.g. traffic noise.10 June 2016
Another album I'd have likely never noticed if not for DMG is Live At Issue Project Room by Catherine Christer Hennix (b.1948, Stockholm) and Chora(s)san Time-Court Mirage, playing "Blues Alif Lam Mim in the modes of Rag Infinity / Rag Cosmosis." A couple of weeks ago, I reiterated that I probably wouldn't be featuring much "classical" music in this space, but Live At Issue Project Room might already fit that label, in spite of what I said. It's unclear to me if there's an electronic composition being played, or if the electronics also improvise — for instance, the latter is certainly the case on Phase/transitions & is apparently true to at least some extent of Braxton Quartet at Sesc Pompeia (i.e. Diamond Curtain Wall Music). In this case, the electronic basis can be compared readily to the Indian tanpura, which is often replaced with the electronic shruti box, particularly in Carnatic concerts. So whereas Hennix's background isn't Carnatic, the electronics don't sound out of place. Perhaps the "ragas" named in the title involve a particular sequence of tones that span tonal space in ways that individual ragas usually do not? The result seems both immersive (as is Phase/transitions, to a similarly high degree) & as something of a polyphonic approach to ragas or drones more generally. Such a polyphonic immersion is articulated by the three different vocalists, with Imam Ahmet Muhsin Tüzer & Amirtha Kidambi joining Hennix in that role. Hennix has relations to Pandit Pran Nath (whom I also heard in person in the 1990s), via or alongside La Monte Young, Terry Riley, etc., and so relations to the early history of minimalism, or at least its drone-based incarnation. Beyond the immersive, tanpura-style droning, the voices generally sculpt the flow & evoke an unmeasured Indian classical alap style, although there are (later) sections that are more reminiscent of rhythmic khyal. (Particularly in the former, one can hear echoes of Pran Nath's Kirana Gharana, and its characteristic style not so far from dhrupad. One might call it relaxed as to pacing, but the precision of suddenly hitting particular notes can be quite intense.) One can even observe that measured rhythm emerges progressively, according to a method clearly inspired by Hindustani classical alap. Besides the three vocalists & two performers on electronics (viz. tanpura), there are five improvisers on brass instruments, two of whom I've mentioned here in the past, Amir ElSaffar who has been releasing a series of more mainstream fusion albums on Pi, and Hilary Jeffery who appeared in this space in February 2014 with the Red Dhal Sextet (a group that includes some of the most famous European improvisers). Often the brass is not especially prominent, and I was not previously familiar with the other three performers, but it does emerge forcefully at times, briefly taking over some sculpting for the singers — much as a melodic accompanist would do in an Indian concert. (The result is also not so unlike, once again, Oliveros & accordion swells.) Waves might arise from slight dissonant beats, as the long (nearly 80 minutes) single track modulates the listener's energy, ultimately yielding what feels like a sense of mental freshness once the womb-like immersion ends. As that description suggests, the result can seem a bit "new age" at times, but there is also a tangible outcome, plus notable influences. (Recent reissues from Hennix, also on Important Records, include music with Chinese & Arabic instruments & influences, although her studies in those areas are not mentioned in her bio, which however does mention Gagaku & Notre Dame polyphony. The sort of "triangulated" raga immersion of this album would appear to be inspired at least in part by such medieval, three-part polyphony.) Not so unlike Braxton (as referenced above), Live At Issue Project Room (recorded in April 2014, so much more recently than some of the reissues) might also be said to explore different temporalities via overlapping drones at different paces. However, whereas Braxton's music suggests an open space of action, Hennix's remains closed within itself, sending listeners inside themselves as well (i.e. inside the resulting triangle), rather than out into the world. (In other words, whereas the polyphonic approach yields multiple intertwined or overlapping temporalities, each stream proceeds according to fairly typical Hindustani classical logic, in addition to its rather characteristic Indian texture, in order to forge or reinforce a self-contained whole.) It's a powerful experience, and arises from a distinctive & sophisticated technical elaboration of drone-based music.
Let me also mention the recent City of Vorticity on Pogus, an album devoted to an electronic composition by Tom Hamilton: On the first track, there are three live improvisers, led by label editor Al Margolis on violin, and on the second, the electronic composition is presented by itself. (The notes suggest that we might then improvise along with it ourselves.) City of Vorticity thus illustrates a pole in which the electronics perform a set piece, i.e. do not improvise, while other musicians improvise as conditioned by that electronic environment. (So the communication flows in only one direction where the electronics are concerned.) Whether the same might be said of Hennix's work above, as noted, I am not sure. (The ragas she names could be the compositions in this or a similar sense.)12 June 2016
In sharp contrast to Creative Sources or Leo, the Dark Tree label seems intent on releasing exactly one album a year. Such an approach does seem to have guaranteed that their releases attract attention from writers, and indeed many have been very well received. After last year's archival release of 1970s jazz, they're back to quasi-minimal atonal music featuring French musicians with Tournesol, a relatively short album at thirty-five minutes. Recorded in January 2015, this is Tournesol's (the trio's) second album after Live @ Ackenbush, an even shorter digital album recorded in 2014. Benjamin Duboc has been a fixture on Dark Tree, appearing on the majority of their releases, and here he is joined by Julien Loutelier on percussion & Julien Desprez on electric guitar, both of whom were new to me. Not unlike the piano trio featuring Eve Risser (& Duboc) on the earlier En corps, the guitar trio on Tournesol largely ignores the earlier norms of the genre, and instead seeks a different & egalitarian way to interact. The result is rather minimalistic, with less of the ostinato style that dominated the former, more reminiscent of e.g. "lowercase." (It's much less active, or one might say frenetic, than e.g. Ewen / Smith / Walter, the one album in this format currently on my favorites list.) The track names on Tournesol suggest dusk, and I did find the album to be quite enjoyable & atmospheric when played at that hour, but more as background, since I didn't find that it really rewarded sustained concentration. Nature as a theme — and here we're told that sunflowers are noisy places, with many insects, etc. — seems to be a significant orientation for Dark Tree, starting with the haiku on Pourtant les cimes des arbres, and extending into the creaturely jungles of Sens radiants (discussed here in August 2014). Tournesol also takes this "living" or creaturely orientation, once again as mediated or articulated by the musicians. (In that sense, it projects a rather different feel than e.g. Spill Plus, which evokes objects per se rather than creatures. Both, however, involve an intense reworking of the norms of the instruments involved.) Here, though, there's no tinge of orientalism, as the sunflower involved could well be in our own yard: It invites us to take a new perspective without going anywhere, via a liminality that traverses audibility, different attention to something everyday, and transitional time of day itself. I wonder to what extent this music was inspired by actual recordings of sunflowers, perhaps with pitches transposed.... The effect might be compared to such favorites as Pail Bug, with its acoustic reference to an insect in an enclosed space, or to Growing carrots in a concrete floor, an album that has the most similar feel for me, despite that it injects a deliberate sense of unreality in opposition to the "documentary" quality of Tournesol while using much higher pitches & intensities at times. Perhaps it's a shared sense of growth. (One might even compare the physical buzzing of Whitewashed with lines & its highly technical approach.) The musicians do use some figures I take to be from rock music genres, intentionally or not, but despite the comparisons, the result is rather distinct & personal, another (rather circuitous) approach to articulating the man-nature dual in music.21 June 2016
The Bridge Sessions returns with a second album of France-Chicago collaboration, after an intervening album from the project on Rogueart (which is thanked as a partner in the present notes). In this case, The Sync was recorded in October 2014, and features the same quartet of musicians throughout: Sylvaine Hélary (flute, effects, voice), Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello, effects), Eve Risser (piano, prepared piano), & Mike Reed (drums). Hélary is the musician from whom I had heard the least, which is probably why I found myself especially engaged by her flute playing. (She also shows off a vocal style in the same vein as Joëlle Léandre in track #2.) Flute has been a real feature of the series, intentionally or not, having already highlighted Douglas R. Ewart. Meanwhile, Lonberg-Holm often sounds as if he's playing electric guitar. The results are fairly straightforward collective interactions with changing textures, often resulting in or from a series of solos tending toward intensification of the flow. There also tends to be a tangible groove, i.e. "sync," if not a formal ostinato. Some of the moments are quite appealing, even if the escalation itself yields some stasis at times. The project continues to produce new improvised interactions while building new relationships. We need more of this around the world.5 July 2016
I discussed Natura Venomous & Sieben Entrückte Lieder as Creative Sources releases back in January, and it turns out that they were co-releases with the Sound Anatomy label, founded in Berlin in 2015. The first album on the label, which one can hear on Bandcamp via their site, was Orbit, Dialogue and Trajectory by Richard Scott & Thomas Lehn on different sorts of synthesizers, joined by Axel Dörner on trumpet (recorded August 2014). It's worth hearing for the juxtaposition of Dörner's formally immanent sense with spacey synth music. Whereas this is apparently Scott's label, he does not appear on every release, and the most recent is On Growth and Form, whose track titles apparently refer to microorganisms, by a trio of Evan Parker, Richard Barrett & Michael Vatcher. It features some strangely hocketing ostinato, and some surprisingly jazzy lines from Parker. (It's also an older recording from 2009.) The label also features some duo albums, and as regular readers know, I'm not focusing on duo interactions.
Another trio (& quartet) album on Sound Anatomy that prompts some additional comment is Auslanders, recorded in Berlin in June 2015. The trio is Richard Scott's Manchester-based Lightning Ensemble with David Birchall (acoustic guitar) & Phillip Marks (drums, percussion), joined by Jon Rose on the second track (of two) to form a quartet. The trio has obviously played together quite a bit, and has a lot of confidence in its collective & audibly English improvising style. The first track is the longest, utilizing a surprisingly sophisticated & understated variety of sonority, sequenced in an almost serialist fashion, and featuring various blending of the instrumental timbres: There is a fairly consistent pace, but interactions & roles might be inflected quickly & at any moment. The Lightning Ensemble makes an impression, even as I suspect that this wasn't their most inspired performance, as the energy does begin to lag a bit after a while. That isn't an issue in the second track, adding Rose (whose Colophony already came from Berlin): There are soon some real "summer fireworks" (to quote the label), leading eventually — and after various ideas seem to have run their course — to an intriguing & relatively slow ending section featuring rhythmic clapping (presumably by Marks). There is a lot of potential in the approach, and Auslanders is already well worth a listen.6 July 2016
My attention was drawn (by DMG) to a set of new releases from Konvoj Records a few weeks ago, and one can listen to their albums on Bandcamp (much like those of Sound Anatomy, per the previous entry). Although the label includes performances by such European stalwarts as Evan Parker & Lotte Anker, the album I found most intriguing was Mindfulness, by the electric guitar trio Halster, consisting of Anders Lindsjö, Adam Persson & Mattias Nihlén. (Then I purchased the album from DMG, both so as support everyone involved, and because I continue to find playing a CD on the stereo to be less stressful — but more below.) Perhaps I'm feeling lazy, but a couple of quotes from the label seem as good as anything else: "Halster is the place, the space, the collective that reinvents itself every Monday night at six o'clock in downtown Malmö. An ominous occasion where the guitar meets its faith in the art of live free improvisation." And, Mindfulness is "one of the most challenging psych-impro guitar trio albums around." As far as "ominous" goes, the album cover has a fairly ordinary-looking photo of the three guitarists staring into the camera, but holding a book with a skull (and maybe I should know exactly what that graphic is, but I don't), and then the back has the same photo zoomed in, and drawn over with "corpse paint" by hand. Why? I really don't know, and it seems kind of off-putting to me — maybe just that I don't understand the reference. The nine track titles are in Swedish, and seem like fairly ordinary titles for this sort of thing, i.e. no explicit goth or doom. Although it is apparently explicitly in that lineage, Halster rarely sounds much like classic psychedelic rock: Well, it does, but in tiny figures & colorations that change quickly. The music rarely has anything like the continuity of rock music, i.e. no driving rhythms, etc. If I knew more about the history of this post-rock "psych improv" guitar genre, I'd probably feel more comfortable writing this discussion, but I do like the music for its fast interplay & recasting of technical structure. I can hear a bit of Otomo Yoshihide in there, but in this case, there is no sense of soloing. The trio is clearly arrayed in stereo across a stage, and is constantly passing small assemblages of notes around, such that sounds move spatially, as the pieces evolve rapidly in strange directions. Practicing regularly as a unit, and every week apparently, does suggest the rock ethos, and an album like Mindfulness can only happen after a lot of collective practice. (It says it was recorded live in a studio, but doesn't give any sort of date. How long did it take? How much was cut from the recording?) Anyway, I don't find any of this to be ominous or morbid, and whereas the album has a forceful presence, it's a steady forcefulness that doesn't seem overbearing. The pace & density of the interactions remain fast throughout, but not super-fast, and they don't accelerate. About the time something might be about to become stale, the trio moves on to something else. So the album is about being mindful of such things? I appreciate both the notion & the result. One might also say that it deconstructs the rock sound, by linking tiny elements together in new & transverse ways, but it does more than use established "sounds." There is a real inventiveness here, particularly in what can be coordinated across three guitars. The result is somewhat monochromatic as a result of using the same instruments, such that the aural surface can take on a degree of sameness that requires close attention (or mindfulness). One might compare it to the wind trio on World of Objects, an album with a similar focus & pace, but which is sometimes much louder & more aggressive. Both might be said to reconfigure memory. Another obvious point of comparison, at least for me, is the Scandinavian quartet album Eye of the Moose — an album where less is happening at any particular moment, but where the differences in the four instruments (particularly the voice) yield a colorful dynamic. The interactions on Mindfulness have a similar, detailed character, but also become transformative, i.e. one musical figure becomes another. (Such latent implications become more apparent as the listener becomes more comfortable with the style, perhaps even the first time through the album. I saw more than one writer remark that the later tracks seems more familiar, but I don't think that's actually the case, i.e. if one were to hear them out of order.) Finally, I should mention Ewen / Smith / Walter as a more traditional guitar trio favorite, and an album that is certainly more aggressive, and which presses forward on speed, such that even more musical figures are exchanged. Perhaps it's ultimately the calm that emerges from the nimble fingers of Halster that makes Mindfulness a compelling album. Perhaps one might then be mindful of something else.
As long as I'm talking about trios of the same instrument, this seems like a good time to revisit Meia catorze by Basso 3, an album I discussed here back in January. Although at the time I said that the overall coherence of the album was more striking than the various influences, I then went on to emphasize some popular music relations more than was probably warranted: I could have as well mentioned some Beethoven-esque counterpoint, or that the "melodies seemingly coming from somewhere else" were likely inspired by traditional Bulgarian choral harmony. More than that, though, I wanted to revisit it, because I had heard it only via the computer, and I finally got a new computer with better sound.[*] I don't want to make excuses, since I chose to write about it anyway, but I wasn't hearing the album all that clearly previously. Compared to Mindfulness, there is much more legato, and ideas play out over longer periods of time. It's more tuneful, and less capricious. It's another of those albums that seems different at different times of day. In this case, it can seem downright scary at night — something I never felt with Mindfulness (thus making its graphics seem even more out of place). In both cases, the trios often come to sound like single super-instruments, in Basso 3's case, perhaps suggesting a single (unusually ornamented) line. (So, what kind of "jazz" might one play over such a line?) For Mindfulness the result remains more of a tapestry. Once again, you can go & listen on Bandcamp — but do have good sound quality available.
[*] Many readers will undoubtedly think that I was being ridiculous in not pursuing better computer sound previously. In fact, when I got a new portable computer for other reasons, I did not anticipate having better sound. I am constantly being told that what I want isn't what other people want, particularly when it comes to technology, and that I always need to compromise (if not forget about it entirely). Moreover, interacting with the consumer technology market usually means something doesn't work as well as it did, and in doing research, I was seeing all the old lecturing by techie types about how one can't hear mp3 defects, etc. (It seemed like the typical way that local techies are abusive & dismissive of things they don't know or can't understand.) I mean, what around us suggests that the general public values quality sound? So, I was not expecting better sound, at least not short of pursuing something specifically made for musicians (and who knows what other sorts of compromises). However, I have to say, this Intel Skylake architecture with high definition audio is rather striking: I shouldn't have assumed that consumer computer sound had to be mediocre. (I had already been feeding computer sound into Dynaudio floor speakers, at least sometimes. So I'm talking about the d/a codecs.) Maybe the condescending techies who don't hear well were out of town the day it was designed.12 July 2016
I didn't feel a real connection with the music, so maybe I shouldn't be discussing it, but circumstances are such that a brief discussion seems warranted anyway: Tim O'Dwyer has released a quintet album on Leo Records, The Fold (Köln Project), recorded in June 2014, and including Carl Ludwig Hübsch (tuba), Bassem Hawar (djoze), Carl Rosman (clarinets) & Saad Thamir (percussion, voice). The only musician with whom I was previously familiar is Hübsch, although O'Dwyer (saxes) does have a trio album out with Clayton Thomas. My interest is basically from two directions: One might describe The Fold as a world fusion album, given its Arabic instruments & performers, and the title (explicitly per the notes) indicates a Deleuzian stance, as inspired by his book, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. Attentive readers might know that I believe that Deleuze had a significant portion of his "fold" historically backwards as regards Leibniz, so it's not my favorite book, despite some solid insights. (Deleuze's fundamental error was not seeing the characteristic medieval analogism of Leibniz's approach, which opposed it to Cartesian modernism, and such a lapse has significant implications for the aesthetic.) Perhaps for similar reasons, I'm also not much into the Baroque aesthetic in general — it was, after all, the aesthetic that emerged from early modern European imperialism. The result is something of a collage album, where one style suddenly transforms into another, as is popular these days (and noted elsewhere with Larry Ochs, Ken Vandermark, etc.). The music is quite diffuse at times, with what even seems like a hint of Scelsi on track #4, but tends to contract into an insistent rhythm invoking middle eastern-style ensemble coordination. The notes also sketch another rethinking of the improvisation-composition duality, with the musicians "submitting" material to O'Dwyer who then arranges it. (So everyone is a composer here, but only O'Dwyer is an arranger & director.) He calls the material "cantis firmi" which strikes a bit of conceptual dissonance for me, given that he's taking an explicitly Baroque orientation (which I don't actually hear). The result is rather festive at times, and The Fold is generally an enjoyable album — despite my comments. It ends up sounding very Arabic at times, and not at all at other times. I appreciate some of the overall concerns, so am interested to see where they might go.
Coincidentally, or perhaps not, another middle eastern-tinged improvisatory album appeared at the same time, Migration by the Resaunance ensemble on FMR Records. Resaunance is a quartet featuring Esin Gunduz, a singer from Istanbul, and the album was recorded in Buffalo in 2014. It's said to take a "chamber music" orientation, and frankly, the whole thing comes off as very easy & tonal to me. (The progressions are quite predictable on first hearing.) Still, featuring Thracian folk songs, along with compositions by members of the ensemble, it presents some new timbral combinations with vibraphone, cello & piano. The result is almost a cross between Sephardic song & cabaret.
(FYI, I also included a rehearing of An Anthology of Turkish Experimental Music, 1961-2014 on Sub Rosa in my personal listening mix here. It's... quite interesting at times.... At lot of it seems to derive from dance club music, though.)13 July 2016
To favorite recordings list.
To early music thoughts.© 2010-16 Todd M. McComb