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
Having recently discussed the relatively novel electric guitar combinations of Halster on Mindfulness, it seems worth mentioning, at least briefly, a couple of other recent electric guitar albums by well-known performers.
Joe Morris's new album Shock Axis on Relative Pitch adopts a traditional guitar trio format, with Morris supported by two students on bass & drums, in what end up being (despite some solos) secondary roles. Morris remains very much to the fore here, and Shock Axis would also seem to reprise his self-described "Big Loud Electric Guitar Trilogy," as discussed here in January 2015 in the wake of Mess Hall. That was to be a final installment, and indeed one can hear that Morris has moved beyond Hendrix (the focus of the trilogy) here, more onto the terrain of death metal: It's a fast & aggressive album, with a lot of big electric guitar sound. It's also a long album that's basically in one mood.
Despite its aggressive title, Fred Frith's Another Day in Fucking Paradise, recorded this past January in Oakland, presents a more nuanced & atmospheric exploration of the guitar trio, although with quite a bit of classic electric guitar sound & other weirdness (such as Frith's vocals on track #3). I was likewise unfamiliar with the bassist & drummer. The album starts in a bit of "ea" mode, perhaps somewhat reminiscent of Mindfulness, but uses an explicitly funky bass line by track #2, and seems to glory in a bit of cheesiness, as the tracks start to run into each other, forging a long-form tapestry with something of a coherent, evolving mood. Along the way, it sometimes sounds like classic rock, and sometimes almost like contemporary easy listening. Indeed, its continuity & emphasis on pleasing the listener is almost the opposite of the fractured development of Mindfulness. It seems like an album that some people will truly enjoy — paradise, I suppose. (I can't say as I regret having had relatively limited experience with progressive rock, meaning that I find myself not really being the audience.)
Although not a guitar album, in the same batch of releases from Intakt is Miller's Tale, a quartet album adding well-known improvisers Evan Parker & Ikue Mori to the long-established duo of Sylvie Courvoisier & Mark Feldman. The album begins with four quartet improvisations (at a length of 36 minutes, basically a full album by themselves), followed by five duo improvisations (with the only combination missing being that of Courvoisier & Feldman themselves). Intakt still tries to do something interesting with liner notes, at least sometimes, and those here by Henning Bolte are engaging: For instance, he says that Parker, via collective improvisatory practice, is like "a rock shaped by weathering," that Courvoisier brings acrobatic swirling, that Feldman is the "connecting link between brilliant jumps," and that Mori brings a sense of calm, sprinkling "particles" around with a "drummer's spirit." (In the last paragraph, he even makes an observation about familiarity with which I'd generally agree — although I've had a lot more to say about that topic.) I particularly enjoy the opening Death of a Salesman track, with its frenetic movement, creaking, crunching, multi-faceted counterpoint that yields to car horns, insects, etc. It becomes almost disturbing before adopting what might be termed a brisk classical andante, a shift that marks much of the remainder of the quartet improvisations, namely a melodic & harmonic conception evoking the late 20th century British symphonists & their smooth, modal sound world — albeit, perhaps, interrupted sometimes by "noise." (Miller's Tale thus ends up being far less dense than e.g. Parker's vaguely similar context on World of Object. Going farther afield, one might compare the combination of timbre & counterpoint to that on Tesla Coils, which is nonetheless a very different, "industrial" album.) The quartet also seems to break naturally into duos — and my understanding is that they were first thinking of a series of duos — which is how they punctuate & vary the harmonic sweep (not so unlike various composers dating to Josquin & earlier). The rather classical sense of melody & harmony emerging from the improvisational practice (rather than vice versa) makes me wonder further about shifting ensemble roles, particularly regarding where personal expression yields to functional support. (In other words, what does it mean to start playing harmonic "filler" in such a context? That function was, of course, a norm of traditional jazz.) Such a tension might be the most compelling aspect of the album.24 July 2016
It took me a couple of hearings to warm up to Frode Gjerstad's new album Give and Take with Argentinian musicians Luis Conde (b. 1965; winds) & Fabiana Galante (prepared piano). However, I was won over by the compelling originality of their trio interaction and its distinctive modulation of tension. The way Gjerstad interacts on Give and Take is not actually all that different from his contribution on Live Tipple, even though the other two performers are very different, and so listening to him more individually provided an entry into this (presumably) more South American conception. In both cases, there is a sort of haltingness to Gjerstad's interaction, perhaps conjuring the darkness & space of the North (or in this latter case, South), and in sharp contrast to his many high-energy free blowing (one might even say heavy metal) albums. One might simply characterize such "space" as reflecting receptiveness to other ideas, as the title suggests. Give and Take is also on FMR Records, a label that continues to produce quality packaging, albeit with plastic inserts (about which I can understand the objections, but which do seem convenient to me), in this case complete with an extra glossy (third) panel beyond their usual — on which is printed nothing but more of the same corrugated steel wall with peeling paint. (Since I continue to express a preference for a physical recording, I thought that I should remark on this. It seems strange, but might simply be a consequence of a decision to contract three-panel packaging for an entire series of releases, and not a particular statement about this one.) It seems strange to think now that, much like my impression of the extra panel, I was initially wondering if much happened during the performance: Now it seems very active & full of drama. Indeed, the somewhat halting quality is driven by various collisions between the two wind players (on various instruments), often in shrill higher registers, and articulated "beneath" by quasi-pedals from the piano. The latter is most often rather traditionally pianistic, playing a few chords with a sharp attack, but the preparations do sometimes become prominent in a distinctive style likewise emphasizing quick articulation. The "pivot" role of the piano between the two winds seems vaguely analogous to that of the guitar amid three winds on Anthony Braxton Quartet at Sesc Pompeia — although the latter's South American setting likely suggests more connection than actually exists, what with its electronic score, etc. Give and Take seems resolutely acoustic, despite its sometimes shrill or industrial tone. The sometimes halting quality of the interaction, as tension builds & is subsequently dissolved with patience, reminds me somewhat of Thomas Heberer's (similarly acoustic) style on Cookbook, what with its many pauses & relaxed pace. However, on increasing exposure, although Give and Take does retain a sense of calm, it's unclear whether it's ever really relaxed: Although they have many conflicts & collisions, the musicians promptly return to their conversation & continue apace. Such a sense of temporal collision is foreign to e.g. Heberer's trio on Interstices, on which the musicians maintain a great deal of individual continuity within separate streams that rarely collide: One might consider the two approaches to be temporal (de)involutions (or folds) of each other. Here one could say that the musicians, particularly the horn players, butt heads, but without malice or holding grudges: It's a spirited, open conversation, maybe becoming a little jazzy in moments, and it's indeed moments that characterize the small & sharply contoured figures that construct the larger tapestry of the album. (Track breaks seem to mean little, as individual tracks can vary considerably in tone over their length. Likewise, whether they are named "give" or "take" seems to be of no consequence.) Gjerstad seems to travel as much as anyone, and he releases many different albums with many different musicians. However, whereas e.g. Tipple projects something of a mystical & muted terrain, Give and Take is very much about the here & now, and perhaps the very basic conflicting realities of contemporary world politics. Fittingly, it ends without resolution — or perhaps simply becomes another becoming.
If not for an explicit decision to pay attention to Latin American musicians in this arena, I might not have given Give and Take sufficient attention — or listened to it at all. In fact, Gjerstad & Conde previously released a duo album on FMR in 2013, Mirrors Edges: Although I'm not attuned to duos in this project, it surely set the conditions for Give and Take, as the meeting of the two wind players established a basic initial parity for the interaction — one the piano subsequently pivots into other dimensions. Although it doesn't seem strictly necessary, basic parity between instruments seems like one good basis for North-South combinations of this sort, as e.g. the contrast between the North American horn player & Mexican rhythm section on Rhapsody of the Oppressed (as discussed here in April) can present barriers to a full-blooded ensemble interaction. North & South remain rather separate there. The same might be said, to a lesser extent, of Blaise Siwula's new album with his Mérida Encuentro trio, Songs of Deception on Setola di Maiale. In that case, the album follows Mérida Swings, which included more allusions to Mexican (post-)colonial styles & their European influence, and so marks an ongoing project. On Songs of Deception, after a brief & eerie combined opening, Armando Merid Martin's acoustic guitar often seems more like a percussion instrument, and blends with Edgar Caamal's drums, so as to juxtapose with Siwula's various winds: The "wooden flute" is the most nativist, for better or worse, with some other tracks highlighting more of a typically jazzy reed. There are some appealing sonorities & interactions, although it often does remain more of a separate(d) dialog compared to the closeness of Give and Take. Of course, all of this might be contrasted (likewise for better or worse) with the more integrated approaches to ensemble interaction mentioned in this space a couple of weeks ago around Middle Eastern musicians & The Fold.26 July 2016
Reprising the FMR, Leo sequence (in the opposite order this time) from a couple of weeks ago, also on Leo Records is Zero by the quartet Rotozaza, consisting of Rudi Mahall (b.1966; bass clarinet), Nicola L. Hein (b.1988; guitar), Adam Pultz Melbye (b.1981; double bass) & Christian Lillinger (b.1984; drums). Whereas Mahall (who is my age) is well-known as an improviser, and I've had occasion to mention Lillinger here in the past (in conjunction with his albums on Clean Feed, now of a few years ago), I was not previously familiar with Hein or Pultz: The latter is from Denmark, and appears on some albums featuring Danish improvisers, and the former appears to have initiated this quartet. (I don't know the history of the term "Rotozaza," but this is not the first or only group by that name.) Although Zero is their first album, recorded in March 2015, Hein's website shows that they continue to tour, including this month. So perhaps this is only the beginning. The brief notes suggest that the group combines the "opposites" of free jazz & soundimprovisation, and "demonstrates the fast contrapuntal interaction and compositional virtuosity of the players." Although one can certainly perceive different histories to free jazz & soundimprovisation (with its lineage in Stockhausen et al.), I've never really thought of them as "antagonistic" to each other — although one could take that attitude e.g. from a particular Marxist perspective. From a musical perspective of relation, though, they both open onto a vast plane of ideas & interactions, and if we take the plane itself to be inherently flat.... Anyway, Rotozaza is not the first group to combine improvisatory inspirations, and these days, many or most are rather less explicit about their various influences. When it comes to counterpoint, of course my interest runs high, and Zero is a very active album in that sense: There is near-constant activity from all of the performers, filling a tapestry of sound from various angles & in various temporal domains. In some ways, it's a relentless album, right from the opening track, which I simply cannot fail to hear as evoking a Sufi approach to ecstatic (metallic) rhythmic strumming — but I have no idea if Hein perceives it that way. The high-energy activity & frequent orientation on electric guitar timbres reminds me most closely of Grid Mesh Live in Madrid, another improvised German quartet album from Leo. Whereas Grid Mesh uses two winds, with the trombone, Rotozaza encompasses four different instrument families, including the string bass. However, Rotozaza does not keep the instruments in separate domains, as clarinet & bowed bass will match shrill overtones with the guitar, and sometimes all three might come to sound like wind instruments, as in e.g. the cascading "whistling" glissandi initiating the end of track #2. (These points of tension & collision do seem to be in a somewhat similar mold to those of Give and Take, albeit arriving there with less momentum.) Indeed, maybe Live in Madrid has a little less happening at once. The opening strumming — which occurs already embedded in a texture, after an opening chord that rings familiar to me somehow (perhaps I will place it) — yields to fast finger plucking at other moments, and whereas he uses some electric distortion at times, plucking seems to be an important aspect of Hein's style: Although he plays electric guitar, he talks explicitly of manual creation, of the sound arising directly from the movement of the musician, rather than abstracted electronic production. (So one might compare some of the characteristic sonority, as well as the contrapuntal emphasis, with that on Tesla Coils, but there the electronic "enhancements" go much farther, although yielding a similar sense of intricacy.) By track #3, an almost quizzical quiet pulsing transforms into a funk line (the multiple temporality of which might recall the articulations of Functional Arrhythmias, an album that focuses on such temporal layering) supporting a squealing horn. Track #6 involves what I can only describe as hocketing glissandi — which I particularly enjoyed — and then back to some chirpy funk layers by the last track. The overall result is a dense weave of sound, with high pitched collisions juxtaposed to various rumblings & bangings — and Lillinger is masterful at holding things together, despite lines escaping & impinging in various directions. (Perhaps call the process coagulating, if I may invoke the blood of free jazz.) The result is a great deal of individual originality within an ensemble texture that presents as rather unified (per some concerns of the previous entry), despite or because of its intense variety. The German track titles mention things like meaninglessness, vacuums, empty inner landscapes, etc.: This is presumably a reflection of Hein's philosophical bent, and indeed that orientation seems to draw me to his music, music that he says is a form of philosophy. (I'll forgive the way he invokes dialectics & aesthetics on his web site. That's conventional enough, but what I hear is more planes, pivots, transversals & emergence.... One might say that jazz has always been about transverse emergence.) Although Zero can be overwhelming at times, I keep returning to the hypnotic, ecstatic relations that I hear invoked right from the beginning & their subsequent (and/or past) deployment across a wide sonic & temporal spectrum.28 July 2016
I seem to be having a bit of a leapfrog discussion of pairs of releases on a few different labels, but did want to spend some more time with Perch Hen Brock & Rain, also on Relative Pitch, before commenting. (The next four discussions look to be of albums on different labels, so the leapfrog is over for a while.) The album title — and the actual title might be Live @ The Jazz Happening Tampere (Finland), with Perch Hen Brock & Rain as the name of the band — is a translation or shortening of the names of the four musicians. I had heard a bit of Ab Baars (b. 1955) on horns, but not Ig Henneman (b. 1945) on viola; and of course, I've been familiar with Ingrid Laubrock & Tom Rainey for a while. The quartet is thus formed from two sets of partners, both of whom often perform as duos. (In fact, the album is a co-production with Henneman & Baars' Wig Foundation.) The present album was recorded in November of 2014, during what was their first tour as a quartet, but the members' web sites indicate that they will also be touring this fall, so this is an ongoing project. That seems like a good idea to me, because I hear a lot of potential in this double pairing, but I also hear tentative moments & a tendency to return to familiar duo language. Indeed, that familiarity is what made the album so easy to enjoy right from the beginning, although I came to believe that more could be done to develop a real quartet language. Apparently they do too. Some of the slowness of Perch Hen Brock & Rain is surely intentional, as it projects a sort of stark naturalism, albeit more within the realm of traditional instrumental technique than e.g. sound art, etc. (I probably should have pursued the previous discussion of the Southern California "cool" or calm of Camino Cielo Echo around a theme of naturism, rather than trying to read it through the Arroyo School, but I digress.) Baars & Henneman have been described as paring to essentials, and that description has long fit Laubrock as well. The result is an almost pastoral album, evoking the calm & stark beauty of country living — perhaps in welcome relief to so many city concerts (the grind of which was already invoked in Hotel Grief). There's a signification via absence that may be the quartet's greatest charm. (The layout of the quartet, the way it interacts, might be compared to Laubrock's participation on Anthony Braxton Quartet at Sesc Pompeia, with three front line players focusing on clear articulation around a pivot.) Playing outside of the same, rather closed set of New York City musicians seems to have been rejuvenating for Laubrock & Rainey (and their most recent duo album was recorded not long before, also in 2014), so it will indeed be interesting to see how this quartet develops.8 August 2016
It's been thirteen months since I made some public changes to how I'm approaching "world music" recordings, and although I've had several opportunities to discuss e.g. Turkish or Korean-tinged music in this space, it's been in a typically contemporary or avant garde context. Indeed, it's fair to wonder if, at this point in the history of the music industry & internet, I'm able to hear even a tangible percentage of what might otherwise be appealing (& "available") "world music" performances. Maybe fewer happen, or maybe I just need to adjust my inputs, so to speak. Anyway, given that I haven't exactly embraced the newer distribution channels & their technological overlords, notable releases in this area have been sparse. However, I do want to highlight a recording out of Belgium, Musiques d'Alep (as in Aleppo, Syria), an album that adopts an unusual program sequence for what are otherwise traditional musical genres. Finding a compelling way to present a variety of traditional materials in a Western-style concert has been a general issue for decades, at least for those musicians who chose to pursue it, so in that sense, it's an ordinary development. In this case, though, the musicians are refugees, and so presenting a broad musical picture of Aleppo, including its Sufi intersections, probably seemed like more of a priority. (It's a coincidence that I only just mentioned Sufi music in conjunction with Rotozaza Zero, and there's none of the hypnotic strumming here that I had mentioned there.) The interested reader can read about Aleppo elsewhere, but it has been one of the most prominent cities in the region for quite some time, now devastated by war, prompting these musicians to flee to Belgium, where they found support from the Exile Music Initiative of the Festival Musiq'3. This is an impressive performance by musicians with impressive credentials, particularly in its incorporation of e.g. a Sufi dhikr that merges with the more colorful sweep of the suite as a whole. (I might also refer the interested reader to Maqâmat insolites, an older & more "technical" program from a Syrian soloist illustrating rare musical modes.) This release comes in the wake of the death of Julien Weiss last year, a French musician who had lived in Aleppo & undertook significant effort both to revive historical forms & present them to Western audiences. (Given what's been happening in Syria, Weiss had said he might as well die of cancer.) The result is a high-energy album, likely reflecting the urgency of the situation, rather than a traditional inclination to relax. It makes some particular musical crossings, based both on circumstances & significant prior training & accomplishment. So whereas I still might not be hearing (all) the best contemporary performances, the rich tapestry of Musiques d'Alep certainly deserves attention.9 August 2016
I mentioned Mark Wastell & his Confront Recordings last July in conjunction with the trio album Membrane with John Butcher. Now I want to make a note of Trembling Shade, by his long-time trio The Sealed Knot, likewise with Burkhard Beins, but with Rhodri Davies instead of Butcher. (Wastell also plays bass here, rather than tam tam.) The Sealed Knot debuted in 2002, with Wastell calling Berlin (where Trembling Shade was recorded in 2015) their "spiritual home." The release is also part of the twentieth anniversary of Confront, for which Wastell states he will release 20 albums. (I don't know if last year's many releases count toward that project.) With Davies' participation, comparisons to Common Objects, a group the discussion of which kicked off my previous page here, are inevitable: Although featuring many interesting sound combinations, I found Trembling Shade — the title of which seems like quite an apt description — to be relatively more static, lacking something of the "process" (or angular, nonequilibrium) quality that I've enjoyed on Whitewashed with lines. Here it's more contract & expand, or rather tremble — nonetheless worth a listen for its sophisticated acoustic sound sculpting based largely in low-pitched (shaded) regions.10 August 2016
I've been suddenly & rather unexpectedly (for the time of year, anyway) busy as of late, so haven't had a chance to say anything about the latest batch of releases from Clean Feed, a label that starts to seem a bit "too inside" for my current priorities, but that does continue to deserve acknowledgement for its increasingly diverse catalog. Actually, "inside" is the wrong notion, since that suggests a traditional jazz idiom, whereas Clean Feed embraces a wider range of influences. What might be more accurate to say is that they usually produce albums without "too much" (whatever that might be, including simple novelty) happening at once, so as not to overwhelm the listener: There's a bit of a didactic impulse in some sense, introducing or combining musical ideas in digestible bites. (So there wouldn't typically be something like the nearly constant, multi-pronged activity of e.g. Rotozaza Zero, but Clean Feed did recently accommodate rather a lot of simultaneous activity from frequent label collaborator Pascal Niggenkemper on the relatively more intimidating Talking Trash.) Such an emphasis on keeping things manageable for the listener while incorporating different musical inspirations seems to fit bassist Jacek Mazurkiewicz more generally, as I made similar remarks, including as regards to intimacy, about his album Day in the life of a city with Daniel Levin & Rob Brown back in November 2014. More recently, Mazurkiewicz is at the center of the Modular String Trio & its Clean Feed album Ants, bees and butterflies, recorded in April 2014 in Warsaw, Poland. The string trio includes Sergiy Okhrimchuk (violin) & Robert Jedrzejewski (cello), but also adds Lukasz Kacperczyk (modular synth) to make a quartet: One could compare what might otherwise be considered post-production being integrated into the improvisational texture to e.g. the recent work of Jeremiah Cymerman, although Cymerman certainly does let activity level "get crazy." In this case, the synth apparently gets its cues directly from Mazurkiewicz's own electronic processing, while the other strings remain acoustic. So one might imagine a specific "T" shape to the interaction, rather than a free-form quartet, hence, apparently, calling themselves a trio. (Perhaps the configuration could also be compared to the two strings & tuning-modified church-sized organ on Tuning Out, an acoustic album.) I seem to particularly enjoy string instruments, perhaps more than I realize sometimes, so that was part of my interest (on the heels of e.g. Iridium String Quartet, which tends to be much more elemental, so to speak), and indeed an obvious comparison for Ants, bees and butterflies is the Théo Ceccaldi Trio+1's Can you smile?: In that case, the "plus 1" adds Joëlle Léandre's bass (& voice, which is a highlight of that album, and perhaps most comparable otherwise to Birds Abide) to a string trio that already included guitar. There is a similar emphasis on classical string quartet textures together with post-Scelsian technique, and in Ceccaldi's case more of a rock guitar. On Ants, the string quartet reference seems more tangibly Eastern European, and there is likewise some of the same emphasis on symmetric melodies-chords. Some of the tracks are rather gestural, with the opening search (for itself?) via sonar, into a kind of mysterious sunrise on #2 & then the (much more contrapuntal) classical sound of #3 pulled apart by "spacey" synth on #4. (Tracks #7 & #8 repeat a similar sequence, as #4 & #8 are the most complex on the album. If not for what seems like a double sequence of systematically adding activity, I might compare the result to White Sickness, with its similarly random-seeming numeric track labels & emphasis on incorporating electronics in a significant way, but without being overwhelming, formally or sonically. Is this album likewise the highlights of a much longer session?) The result, like much of the Clean Feed catalog, might be heard as something of an interrogation of the familiar itself. Despite that it's fairly slow at times, there's a lot to enjoy on Ants, bees and butterflies, including the creatively layered approach to forging an ensemble, an approach that's at least partly implicit in the recording medium, and so well worth exploring further.15 August 2016
I've been trying to limit myself from saying much about albums that seem more intended for (slightly more?) mainstream audiences anyway, but I did want to make a few remarks about Steve Lehman & Sélébéyone, considering that Lehman is someone with whose work I felt some affinity since early in this project, and whose previous albums I've discussed. Indeed, I asked of the summation of jazz-spectral integration that is Mise en Abîme what Lehman could possibly do from there, and his album with Sélébéyone is obviously (by which I mean it literally comes next) the answer. Despite comments in other publications suggesting that even daring listeners would be challenged, the project has something of a mainstream "density" to it, meaning that on a personal level, it's kind of slow & repetitive compared to what typically interests me here. I would say it's very easy to follow. However, it's also a fascinating & multi-layered integration of musical ideas: One might even say that the many layers of musical activity that are given such structural independence — yet cohesion — in Mise en Abîme are now filled with "real" content via the involvement of NYC underground & Sengalese (Wolof) hip hop vocalists. The album is a collaboration with Maciek Lasserre of France, a sax player with whom I was not previously familiar, but who, like both singers, is Sufi. (Such a reference has apparently become a theme here of late, what with the recently discussed Musiques d'Alep & Rotozaza Zero, the latter offering a rather different approach to some related integrations, but with audible similarity at times.) The sampling & psychologism evoked by the layering of material is also reminiscent of the MMM Quartet, most recently on Oakland / Lisboa. Finally, I want to note that this project comes from a funded French-American musical exchange, not so unlike The Bridge Sessions (as mentioned here a few times already): Lehman has become quite a well-funded musician, and so it's interesting that this is his first release since some big prizes were awarded him. What that says, I'm not sure.
[ PS. I should say that I did enjoy it. ]23 August 2016
I've been taking a little extra time to articulate some thoughts regarding the latest release by Anthony Pateras on his Immediata label, The Moment In and Of Itself: That's partly because it required a little more thought, considering that I've discussed a couple of other albums ahead of it, and partly because I've had some other matters of more urgency occupying my time. I first mentioned Pateras here in December of last year, in conjunction with his band Thymolphthalein, and their compilation album Mad Among the Mad. I was intrigued, but Mad Among the Mad was composed music (that accommodated improvisation), and relied heavily on novel sonorities. In stark contrast, The Moment In and Of Itself is by an improvising trio called North of North, consisting of Pateras on piano, Scott Tinkler (b. 1965) on trumpet, and Erkki Veltheim on violin. Acknowledging his previous history, at least with the Immediata label, on which all releases to this point had included electronics, Pateras includes a sticker on the cover that announces "Instruments which sound like instruments." The trio is quite "straight" in that sense, using traditional virtuosic technique. Is it also a compilation from multiple sessions? It doesn't say, and indeed I only found that it was recorded in 2015 (in Berlin) online. The three musicians are Australian, and so recording in Berlin, particularly with a violin, can't help but suggest Jon Rose (& e.g. Colophony, albeit there with electronics) to me. The music is quite abstract, though, and doesn't rely on evoking surface characteristics from other styles. Rather, as the liner notes indicate, the musicians take a "nuts & bolts" approach to musical relations, approaching them from what I've elsewhere discussed as the molecular level. At least in that sense, the approach is very compatible with my "political" music suggestions, and so of high interest. However, given the frequent starkness of their approach — not to suggest that the music is slow-moving or in a minimalist vein — my initial reaction was one of opacity, not unlike my initial reaction to Give and Take, another highly sophisticated & original world approach to trio interaction. In both cases, it first seemed as though little was happening, whereas they are very active albums, perhaps both also sharing a certain chiseled austerity, with the timbres of The Moment In and Of Itself even more rarely departing from those of standard technique. The notes themselves suggest a "hall of mirrors" with Xenakis, Carter, and Carnatic music explicitly referenced as influences. (Tinkler cites distinguished mridangist Karaikudi R. Mani as his guru. I was not able to learn much about Veltheim's background, but his aggressive violin plays a significant role in the music, with motifs frequently passing between all three instruments.) Given the "nuts & bolts" approach, there is no sense of exoticism, no "new age" quality, but again, a certain starkness. The liner notes are actually rather extensive, again in an interview format: At times the musicians seem almost defensive, but then, surviving the music industry is no simple matter. They seem very concerned to emphasize that they've studied & practiced extensively, though, and don't just play at random, regardless of what people might think — and suggest that some others might be slackers in this regard. In that sense, they want to bring virtuosity back into avant garde performance, as already noted above. Simply, not everyone is able to play together, they say. I think that's true in some sense, namely in an egalitarian collective context where members are concerned to present their most sophisticated & daring ideas — as here. However, I have to insist on the option of also applying the term virtuosity to an ability to incorporate people of various knowledge & ability levels. I would further suggest that the collective setting includes the audience, at least if there's an audience. The musicians also ask about when playing together gets stale, and I agree that's an important question for this kind of music. There was no discussion of the name North of North, which I had taken to be some kind of play on the global North-South, and Australia's physical inversion relative to that dual, but who knows. The first track name apparently references what I more commonly hear called arugula, but the others seem to reflect various general concerns of contemporary philosophy (& maybe arugula marks a dietary philosophy). The first track itself seems to start abruptly, and some seem to end abruptly, in keeping with their rather spiky interplay of rhythms, intervals, etc. (Yet the interplay is more conversational than loud.) I don't know how many times I've written or thought that the piano seems increasingly limited for contemporary music, and then found myself appreciating a new kind of piano trio, in this case with a rather straight piano. I already mentioned Give and Take, another "alternate" piano trio, and other obvious (at least pace my own attention) comparisons for The Moment In and Of Itself are Interstices & Oblengths. Indeed it does have something of the same approach to separate timbral streams as Interstices, at least sometimes — at others, The Moment In and Of Itself contracts to points of tension where the instruments do collide; Interstices also has more of a "mysterious" air, a searching within, rather than nuts & bolts. The latter might apply more to Oblengths, which is revisiting another classic piano trio format, and definitely has more of a jazz ethos. (The long-time trio on Oblengths also asks questions about staleness, at least implicitly. They seem able to avoid it.) So whereas I think these four albums make a great extended program, they have different tendencies, and The Moment In and Of Itself comes off as relatively agitated, urgent music. Its urgency is of a different character from that of free jazz, though, as it forges a new mix of austerity & aggression. One must spend a bit of time with the album, however, in order to begin hearing its demands.24 August 2016
Although it only appeared very recently, there already seems to be some buzz for Nessuno, a live album by an improvising quartet of legends Pauline Oliveros, Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith & John Tilbury. Although it's unclear why this performance from the Angelica Festival in Bologna in May 2011 is only being released now, I'm clearly not the only one who was excited by the lineup. I did some very brief research to see about these musicians performing (or at least recording) together in the past, and didn't find anything — although I assume that the two AACM stalwarts have — but that's certainly no guarantee of anything. Once I stopped to ponder the actual quartet a bit, I started wondering how the three Americans would interact with Tilbury, given his typically very sparse style. (I also thought about Tilbury's political statement about not being willing to perform in USA anymore, due to US foreign policy. That simply seems like reinscribing nationalism to me, and coming from England? They're the last country that should throw stones. Anyway, not that I agree with US foreign policy....) In fact, Feldmanesque playing from Tilbury sets a structural tone for the entire performance, which keeps to rather strict linear procedures & a fairly consistent interplay of sonorities. To what extent this was planned, I don't know, but the first long track (of two, followed by a brief encore) is not as involved or dynamic as the second, suggesting that their style of interaction was indeed evolving in the moment. The first comparison that came to mind for me was actually Feldman's For Samuel Beckett, with its structured pace & consistent textures, although amusingly enough, the twenty-three instruments on that piece might be said to sound more like an accordion overall than the single accordion on Nessuno does. As suggested, there is a bit of mechanical stiffness, particularly to the first track, although one can certainly employ a formal framework as a virtue, with favorites such as Udentity (with its Partch-inspired undertones & funky pacing), Steve Lehman's somewhat reciprocal spectral (overtone) structures as summarized in Mise en abîme, or even the carefully layered, computer-backed drama of the recent Braxton Quartet at Sesc Pompeia providing a range of examples. Nessuno evokes drama as well, but it's more drama at a distance — as if the performers are multiple... multiple characters, "nobody" but multiples? (Perhaps such distance should be reframed as a sense of hypothetical possibility, but the expression does feel indirect.) It's very open in that sense, despite a rigorous dodecaphonic air at times, an air most frequently pierced by drama in the person of Smith's trumpet, in turn evoking the long-form pacing of his own masterpiece Ten Freedom Summers (to be recorded six months later), at least in some moments. Mitchell, in contrast, seems to be much more involved in the subtleties of structural articulation, and tends to be the least readily identifiable, in part because he's the only one changing instruments. I was promptly reminded of Mitchell's Angel City, recorded a year and a half after Nessuno, with its own sparse (sparser) dodecaphonic unfoldings & concepts of duration: The reminder in those notes that Mitchell conceives music as half sound & half silence seems particularly apt here as well. Oliveros is more in the foreground at some times than others, spanning much of the pitch spectrum: Sonorities & some of the articulations are of course evocative of her own summary release with Triple Point, pointedly a triple album, and one that was mostly recorded by the time Oliveros joined Nessuno. One might also compare sonorities to those of e.g. Tuning Out, where the strings start to jump out to the ear in comparison, and where, as on Phase/transitions, vertical layers impinge & transform each other (in an audibly post-Romantic style of apotheosis in the case of Tuning Out). Whereas those albums might be described as about something emerging directly (albeit nonlinearly) from the complexity of a prior situation, Nessuno often remains resolutely linear, with its "freedom" contained within its own granularity, simultaneously filling its own honeycomb — so to speak. At times it even "devolves" into strict turn taking (in a kind of inversion of gamelan-style verticality): Musical simultaneity is deconstructed by such a conversation, one emerging at least partially from a long-form sense of melody & rhythm. Combined with endless permutations of a sustained timbre pallet, there are moments when things really begin to flow, but not toward an apotheosis or change of state. The result is, rather, an engaging exploration of pace (& so space) & dramatic aggregation. There is always more on this plane.31 August 2016
I was not previously familiar with clarinetist Noel Taylor or his Citystream label, but Taylor is a longtime member of the London Improvisers Orchestra, and the appearance of Citystream releases at some retailers within my purview was apparently prompted by its most recent release, Swans over Dorking, an album by the improvising trio Bay's Leap, consisting of Taylor (who appears on every release by the label), Clare Simmonds (piano) & James Barralet (cello). Indeed, this album already has reviews online, unlike the label's previous release(s). As the introduction by Veryan Weston suggests, the trio adopts an "integrated sound throughout" & forges a style of improvised "classical" chamber music. The result is rather more lyrical & lush than music I've typically mentioned here, but it's impressive as improvisation, mostly evoking the kind of post- or neo-Romantic styles of the twentieth century English symphonists, with a dreamy quality sometimes yielding to a disconcerting sense of alarm (whether Schubertian or Faustian), some pointillism à la Brahms, or even a bit of dodecaphony. (The trio do this with "instruments that sound like instruments," not so unlike the much more adventurous The Moment In and Of Itself.) The resulting sense of "playing together" is then rather different from that of a typical jazz trio, although it does retain a conversational sense at times. One obvious comparison would be with I look at you, an English quintet album discussed here back in March: It also has a very classical feel, and is perhaps even more mellow. There is more emphasis on the concept of "beauty" & its interruptions than most music discussed in this space, but Bay's Leap is well worth hearing for its idiomatic sense of classical improvisation.
These Citystream releases don't include much information as regards recording dates, etc., unfortunately, although the packaging itself has a nice feel to it. So they leave me wondering e.g. how long something like Swans over Dorking took to record or produce, and similar questions apply to the label's prior release (as raised above), Stones of Contention (which, although it appeared at the same time at some retailers, was available in 2015 at others). According to web information, half of the sextet on Stones of Contention was assembled from the Berlin Improvisers Orchestra by Sicilian pianist Tommaso Vespo, and joined two local musicians for a session in Sicily. In the first group are Taylor again, Ricardo Tejero (sax, Spanish student of Wade Matthews & Richard Barrett) & Nicola Hein (who was new to me when I recently heard Rotozaza Zero). In the latter are Antonio Aiello (d-bass) & Antonio Longo (drums). Despite the unknown recording date(s), which I imagine could not have been spread out too long, Stones of Contention is, among other things, a fascinating cyclic exploration of pulse & pace — i.e. not so dramatically different from Nessuno, but for which the most immediate sonic comparisons for me were Carlo Costa's Sediment & Strata (& admittedly a bit of the much "busier" Rotozaza, given the proximity of encounter). Indeed it has a similar power to exorcise, leaving the listener feeling refreshed & earworm-free. (Such is very welcome!) Online remarks from Taylor suggest "unresolved undercurrents," and that a "clandestine dispute is secretly encoded in sound," as well as offer a simple rebuttal (from Vespo) about stones making sounds. (Stones, at least via geological formation more broadly, make sounds for Costa too.) Stones of Contention often adopts a modest pace on its eight tracks, mixing some extended technique into what are frequently clear tones, building to various eruptions of style: One probably shouldn't say "building," since as opposed to other recent approaches to postmodern collage, styles (from slow romantic piano & clarinet to light industrial banging to whistles & wind to tongue & groove to classic jazz, insect-ea & on to rock guitar...) emerge as if out of nowhere, only to return to some sort of reservoir of pulsing indeterminacy. In other words, transitions do not involve intensification, but rather a sense of return buoyed by a recurring lyrical impulse. Recourse to a Scelsian blurring of note into sound gives the result an eerie character, somehow corresponding to freshness of mind despite the many references: Exploration of pulse becomes an exploration of attention, but without aggregation or accumulation. The musical stones simply melt away.1 September 2016
Although it's a composed piece, and so not really a priority for this project, I do want to make a few comments on the new Ayler Records release of Joëlle Léandre's Can you hear me?. The earlier recording of this piece — and I believe there are only the two — was already mentioned in this space with the Live at the Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon double album, although as noted there, I was more interested in the improvised trio with John Tilbury. (That trio performance, during which Léandre is very much at the center, evokes some thoughts similar to the recently discussed Nessuno, with its sparseness, harmonics, and Feldmanesque piano chords.) I noted last month how I felt an early affinity with Steve Lehman's music when starting this project, which is why I continue to share some thoughts on his albums that might not otherwise seem relevant here, and in Léandre's case, that affinity actually preexists the present project by twenty years or so, dating to my engagement with Scelsi et al. So in that sense, one might suggest that an interest in Can you hear me? has its origin prior to this project, and while that's partially true, it's surely true that my interest in Léandre remains high. All that said, this is indeed composed music, with the various sections, not to mention the form as a whole, being very audibly similar between the two performances. They actually took place almost seven years apart, and given that the liner notes are dated shortly before the performance date for the Ayler album, I wonder how many intervening performances there might have been. The French ensemble on the new album, named coolly "JL 10," does sound quite confident & familiar with the music. There also seems to be more of an emphasis on the documentary nature of the sound recording with Ayler, more self-consciousness with presenting a lasting document one might say, not that the sound on the Leo album is poor. The new recording lets one hear the precise timbral combinations a little more clearly & consistently, though. (Ayler has also used a three-fold package with a plastic CD holder, so more involved packaging than their standard cardboard slipcase. The notes & labeling are also in French, which is more my experience from other musical genres, rather than the English that seems to remain so standard in "jazz.") In contrast, the Austrian performance has more of a raw newness to it, and so remains attractive on that basis. Whereas Kevin Norton & guitarist Burkhard Strangl are the only musicians from that album, besides Léandre of course, whose music I know from anywhere else, on the new album, most of the names are familiar: Beyond Léandre, the best-known participant is probably Jean-Luc Cappozzo, featured here on Live at Total Meeting as well as Grey Matter (released in 2013), but e.g. the Ceccaldi Brothers also appear, evoking their album (with Léandre) Can you smile?, among others. Like them, many of these musicians have studied with Léandre in France, and so the ensemble is especially personal in that regard. (Perhaps I should also mention the MMM Quartet album Live at the Metz' Arsenal, recorded in the same space as this new recording, but in 2009, like the Austrian recording of Can you hear me?.) On the Ayler release, there are nine unnamed tracks, rather than the single track on Leo, but they both employ the same performance sequence, starting from a chattering "warm up" hubbub — here instantly sounding French instead of German. The notes speak of a sound's "will to be shared," and it's a good reminder that performances & recordings are indeed about sharing. Some sections have more of a "composed" feel than others, particularly when the sound becomes more coordinated & unified, using what are at least superficially fairly conventional classical figures, sometimes a kind of dodecaphonic polyphony that nonetheless admits tuning subtleties. (I think a note of comparison with Ben Johnston's famous microtonal String Quartet No. 7, recently recorded convincingly by the Kepler Quartet on New World Records, is worth making here. Johnston's series of quartets 6, 7 & 8 are dated 1980, 1984 & 1986, and so have some temporal correspondence with the "discovery" of Scelsi & Feldman, and indeed Léandre's own rise to prominence. Although there may be no direct relation here, I don't believe that the timing is coincidence. Certain musical questions were "in the air" at the time.) That said, the "hubbub" that sometimes returns gives the piece something of the feel of a "street operetta," i.e. both an urban quality & an open sense of drama. (Such a mood can be compared to various outputs from the New York Downtown scene — Jeff Shurdut's, for instance.) The result is quite a journey over the course of its 48 minutes, as the musicians & listeners travel across a series of sometimes rather different domains. (One might compare its cumulative, traveling effect to that of Carlo Costa's Strata, pace the latter's very non-urban geology.) Through this, one achieves both a perspective on the mutuality of subject formation, as well as a little more "formation" for us actual subjects today. Thanks to Ayler Records, which generally seems to be releasing more composed music lately, for putting this piece in front of the broader public again.10 September 2016
I'm not sure what it means to Weasel Walter to have closed down his UgExplode label: His most recent album, Igneity: After the Fall of Civilization for three guitarists, three brass, four saxophones, two basses, and Walter on drums, recorded in Brooklyn in April 2015, has packaging & graphics similar to his prior UgExplode releases, but does dutifully omit a label name. It still lists the old URL, but also his Bandcamp page, where a growing variety of new items can be found. (While shuttering the label might reflect the impossibility of making money selling CDs, i.e. the continued shifting of the music business itself, the will to self-produce & be heard is clearly unchanged.) The notes list a history of eight previous "large ensemble works" by Walter, the most recent from 2009. Igneity is described as his first large ensemble production in New York, though, and is billed as "featuring" Henry Kaiser. Does that mean that the main guitar solos are by Kaiser? Perhaps, but I can't really say. The other guitarists are Alan Licht (who has another recent album with Kaiser) & Chris Welcome; on brass is the distinguished trio of Peter Evans & Steve Swell & Dan Peck; while other performers include Tim Dahl & Chris Pitsiokos (both discussed in this space earlier this year), plus Jim Sauter & Matt Nelson, whereas Michael Foster (sax) & Brandon Lopez (bass) were new to me. It's a potent group. Igneity is an hour-long, single movement piece that begins (as one would surely expect) with a great deal of intensity, but soon settles into (somewhat?) less overwhelming scenes, where particular instruments and/or styles of interaction are featured. The overall result is still one of intensity, as the scenes accumulate, and are punctuated by strong rock rhythms & broadly articulated guitar shredding. (One might almost compare the form to that of the Anthony Braxton Quartet at Sesc Pompeia, featuring other extended, composed pieces that offer a variety of drama & a great deal of space for personal improvisation — although Igneity does come off as more linear, despite some nonlinear transitions of its own. Perhaps the result is more a cross between such ideas & Jeff Shurdut's ad hoc, far ranging ensemble improvisations....) The result is a rich & forceful tapestry that I ended up appreciating more than I initially expected, given its sometimes relentless quality. It makes an impression beyond mere doom, shifting focus to the "after" of the subtitle. (What, then, does one do after listening?)
I also want to mention Walter's new solo album Curses, made of four movements divided into a maximal (according to CD limits) number of individual tracks intended for random play. Each track focuses on some particular "means" in an attempt to forge a "rich coherent hierarchy" of sounds generated from a variety of extended percussion & electronic techniques. I'm not focusing on solo albums here, but I thought it was an interesting concept & worth noting. (One might simply conceive it as allocating to the CD player the random performance choices of e.g. Cage's I Ching. The biggest difference is that the musician, having already produced the music, remains unaffected by such choice.)26 September 2016
There's generally less happening at once on Le Ring — one of the many new releases from Confront Recordings — than on albums I typically feature here, but between the various voicings of Axel Dörner on trumpet, the eerie counterpoint of Bertrand Denzler on saxophone, and the chthonic drumming of Antonin Gerbal, the album possesses an elemental appeal. Slow-moving processes collide — not so unlike the collisions I recently discussed on Give and Take, albeit at faster, conversational speeds in that case — and evoke a feeling of being outside of (human?) time, particularly as e.g. the beating of the drums slows down. In other words, there's relatively little sense of melody or harmony, despite the rather straightforward linear approach of each musician, but the resulting interaction produces sensations of unstoppable force & change. (The quality of the result is somewhat reminiscent of e.g. Anomonous, albeit there with more aggressive activity, more varied & often industrial, less elemental.) Le Ring seems to be part of an inquiry into the minimal means required to evoke such an effect. (In contrast, Schall und Rausch: Vapour, also recently on Confront with Dörner, seems to be an exploration of fairly minimal dramatic narrative, i.e. temporalizing or eventalizing per se, complete with climax: There we remain within a historical time.)
I also feel as though I should mention Barely Cool on the pfMentum label, despite that it's a 2015 release. I only recently learned of it via DMG, but did enjoy the combination of Franziska Schroeder on soprano sax, Brazilian drummer Renato Godoy, and especially Brazilian guitarist Marcos Campello. The sonorities remind me of the Tom Rainey Trio, although without Rainey's particular talents at rearranging time. I don't feel that the result always comes together as a trio, but this South American album is nonetheless well worth hearing for its exploration of another style, none of it particularly exotic or unprecedented, but differently focused & showing some individuality nonetheless. (Schroeder is currently a professor in Belfast, having "trained" in Australia according to the notes.)28 September 2016
Although it's much more "rock music" than what I usually feature here, I want to note my enjoyment of Alex Ward's new album Steeped by his electric quartet, Forebrace. Much of the album could almost have come from some sort of alternate reality heavy metal concert — concert, given the extended solos — circa 1970. There are driving rhythms through much of it, along with the occasional funky line or slowdown. At times there is a bit of pointillism that comes off as more contemporary, and of course, heavy metal circa 1970 didn't actually feature the amplified clarinet or much of Ward's extended melodic sense. Steeped is thus a lot more like Shock Axis, albeit with some mood changes, than the other recent Relative Pitch album I wrote about here, the rather reflective Perch Hen Brock & Rain. One might also compare to Ward's recent Power Trips album, by the trio Deadly Orgone Radiation including Weasel Walter, but on which Ward plays guitar. On Steeped, his having played so much rock guitar certainly seems to have informed the conception, despite a return to the clarinet throughout. I don't think anyone could ask much more of the amplified heavy metal/rock clarinet genre, and Forebrace is consistently engaging.9 October 2016
I enjoyed the first album by the Earth Tongues trio, Rune, discussed here in May 2015. Rune got some positive attention elsewhere too, and Earth Tongues return — once again on Carlo Costa's Neither/Nor Records — with a new double album, Ohio. The album consists of two long tracks from the same July 2015 night in Chesterhill, Ohio, what seems to me to be a rather obscure location, but perhaps they have interesting concerts there often, I don't know. I enjoyed the sonorities of Rune, the combination of Costa's impersonally articulated, yet highly varied percussion and brass players Joe Moffett & Dan Peck, with their various tonguing articulation & muted rushes of wind. I also lamented that Rune lacked "simultaneity" & wanted "more interaction" among the processes that intersected there. Well, I didn't get that with Ohio, which is more drawn out, if anything. I imagine this makes it more generally accessible than e.g. Costa's alternately earthy Sediment (or, for that matter, the composed Strata), an album where more does tend to happen at once. So this is the style of Earth Tongues, and I've been feeling more appreciative of the style as is, once again exploring concepts of duration & (perhaps, quasi) randomness within what seems to be a generally geologic inspiration: Most of the time, not a lot is happening, or perhaps a "main" sound & quieter accompaniment, but sometimes these processes do collide to produce fascinating interactions. It's a listening experience that calls for patience, and despite the very occasional piercing tone, might make for good background listening. (I'll probably try that out a little more.) In that sense, it's about sequence, and one can reasonably ask whether it's abstract: Are there abstract processes occurring here, presumably at different speeds, or is the mind desperately seeking them? (In contrast, e.g. Cookbook, which demands somewhat similarly patient listening and attains a similar sense of calm, retains a very human feel, rather than the often impersonal mood of Ohio. The latter seeks to look beyond the human, whereas with the former, one might think of excerpts, of humanity itself as an excerpt of a vast geological era.) I should also note that winds & percussion were the main musical instruments of the Americas, which didn't know strings, and so one could further seek a figuration of abstraction via nativism. Some of the slow drumming & blowing on Ohio does produce that feeling, albeit at a distance. (The brass players are also credited with cassette recorders, but it isn't obvious what they use them for... some occasional, additional simultaneity, apparently, but none of the sounds are obviously impossible for the live players.) I might also compare it to the rather incomparable Nessuno for its long-form linearity: Although Ohio is not nearly as humbling a listening experience as Nessuno is, they both have some rather distant or impersonal qualities, and both are clearly inspired by Feldman's long-form works. The time scale of Ohio feels intentionally erected, and so even if inspired by geologic time, it's articulated via personal & developing technique. It comes to feel human after all.11 October 2016
As readers have surely noticed, I discuss a lot of trios here, largely because it's the smallest ensemble that speaks directly to my project, but that certainly doesn't mean I'm unhappy to find a new improvising quartet or quintet or more, especially with musicians who already have my attention. (Indeed, it can be exciting to hear more musicians fit into & navigate the same sonic space, a space that might come to seem rather full or small, much like our world.) So when violist João Camões told me about his new quintet album, Chant on Improvising Beings, I was immediately interested: Besides Camões, the quintet (called Nuova Camerata) includes Carlos Zingaro on violin, Ulrich Mitzlaff on cello, Miguel Leiria Pereira (b.1971) on double bass, and Pedro Carneiro (b.1975) on marimba. It's Carneiro & Pereira, both of them active in classical music, both the older & contemporary sort, who are credited with having made the recording, and Pereira — who is a different Portuguese bassist from José Miguel Pereira, member of the Open Field String Trio (with Camões) & Basso 3 — who is credited with the mastering (and who also does some "world music" concerts/collaborations). Mitzlaff is not from Portugal, but lives there now, and has e.g. a somewhat rambling duo album with Miguel Mira (who also plays with Camões in Earnear) called Cellos (2010) on Creative Sources. So Nuova Camerata is a "variant" string quartet (bass instead of second violin) with marimba, i.e. not a usual combination for an improvising band, but not so far sonically from e.g. a classical piano quintet. As the collaborations already discussed suggest, Portugal seems to be home to so many improvising string players (perhaps because of Zingaro himself?), and e.g. Ernesto Rodrigues & Creative Sources (among others) record them often, such as on the recently discussed Iridium String Quartet, an album with a more unified sense of gesture; farther afield, whereas e.g. the half-string Nor explores some similar audibility issues, there it entangles a rather industrial (& not "classical") sound.... (I can further reference the improvising string ensemble comments from my recent Ants, bees and butterflies entry.)
So, audibility issues.... Returning to what seems like a wide & mysterious spectrum of emerging Portuguese string improvisers, the most immediately obvious comparison for the "arc" of Chant as an album is indeed Meia catorze by Basso 3, which likewise begins in quiet & often returns there. In both cases, the middle tracks build to more audible, declamatory structures — exemplified on the latter by the title "In All Possible Languages" — and then more & different crossings of those scenes. Nuova Camerata has more instruments, more varied instrumental resources, and so can produce a denser ensemble sound than Basso 3, yet still revels in a minimalist hovering in sonic thresholds. One might already perceive my generally ambivalent reaction to music that interrogates audibility, but in spite of anything I say in what follows, and some of it might suggest something totally different, Chant works amazingly effectively with the general outdoor noises formed by my own particular living circumstances of fairly crowded apartments amid the California ecosystem. I've particularly appreciated Chant in evenings, where a corresponding feeling of liminality suits its articulations well, making the various human & non-human noises seem as if they were made to go together. Such a combination marks the album more generally, such that an elaborate contemporary dodecaphony emerges from murky environmental twittering — and returns to it, then crosses again differently. This is in contrast to the generally more tonal orientation of Meia catorze, or that of another album offering something of the same juxtaposition & exploration, Sens radiants (discussed here August 2014): There, explicit evocation of Michaux's Amazon sits alongside audibly familiar transportation, and of course jazzy lines. Here, the broader environment is much less specifically articulated, and the European music involved is much more modern. (Nuova Camerata thus sounds nothing like Bay's Leap, the recently discussed classically-inspired improvising trio, working on Swans over Dorking in a neo-Romantic mode.) Indeed, the string articulation & contemporary classical textures, not to mention the evocation of audibility, are reminiscent of Léandre's composition Can you hear me?, as recently discussed. Another obvious comparison in this mode is Earnear, and not only because of Camões's participation, but because of its particular sense of contemporary classical music, in that case often articulated more abruptly & aggressively. As far as references here that really "sound classical," and I've largely avoided music that "sounds composed," which might be a similar thing (at least by association), the other is probably The Moment In and Of Itself: There, various influences, including world music, are recast at the "nuts & bolts" level, in order to make something new & not particularly recognizable. (It also has a certain harshness as a result of stripping away layers.) On Chant, the poles of contemporary classical strings & environmental sounds are clear enough, but continually recast. I might finally reference a c.2000 masterpiece such as Boulez's Dérive 2, one of my favorites in that arena, as a classical piece with a similar richness of counterpoint — or maybe I simply associate it with the marimba. One might even sometimes imagine Indonesian gamelan, and its documented ability to synchronize the natural sounds around it.
If Chant is about the poles of environmentalism — or even nativism, as only just raised around Ohio — & classical abstraction, what is the Portuguese experience of the environment or the native or the natural...? (Thus we might "further seek a figuration of abstraction," as I put it above.) Although one can begin from the European experience more generally, my own (theoretical) interaction with e.g. Amazonian nativism is largely via the French. Yet the Portuguese Empire had its own distinct character, starting first, and involving far more inter-marriage than the later English Empire would ever tolerate. It's an experience I don't know much about, at least not directly, but I do start to perceive another kind of Americanism, perhaps the kind that produces structuralism per se (to channel Viveiros de Castro). Here, though, we at least have that feeling of different ways to be in the wider world. Moreover, as I've noted many times now, jazz itself formed in a crossing of European tonality, African diaspora, and (relatively unknown) native elements. Here we have another such crossing, but involving European post-tonality (although let's be cautious of following that post- rabbit hole too deeply). On what does such a post-tonality depend? What inspired it, broadly speaking? Although the contemporary string quartet textures of Chant are recognizable enough, their world contexts, their origins are put into question. The result is not particularly absorbing or buoyant, nor the firm articulation of Earnear, but rewards close attention. As this far-flung discussion hopefully suggests, Chant took a while for thoughts to form & articulate themselves to me, or from me to you. Sometimes it is very active & assertive, though, only to dissolve back into an environmental haze, structure emerging from non-structure, or maybe vice versa? Yet it does not come off as a "sound experiment," nor even an opposition, and certainly not as music history — although it might mark some sort of virtual journey. Is the result "classical" at all? Well, it doesn't suggest totem, as the Australia-tinged (like The Moment In and Of Itself) & similarly straining for audibility Spill Plus does (or as the hyper-modern primitivism of Whitewashed with lines might be said, in some inverted sense, to do): If a concept is a figure of abstraction, how does it cross the totem? Are there mixed, affective modes around this crossing? How might one capture not only the emergence of history, but the elemental as such? These are some questions that come to mind.... At some level, though, Chant is only its own, particular expression, which is so different from that of those other albums just mentioned.
So after some far-flung speculation, allow me to indulge in some more mundane speculation: Why chant? I take the title in the most general French sense (and it's on a French label) as seeking a very broad sense of expression. In fact, when I got the email from João, I noticed the subject first, an album "Chant" by a group called Nuova Camerata, and thought someone was reprising or refiguring the famous commercial Chant (by Monks) album. Sigh, I thought, until I realized who sent it. (I'm talking about a mere moment — but a tangible one nonetheless.) The cover is a photo of bare trees, maybe dead or maybe simply in an autumn state (and the album was recorded in November), which juxtaposes with the sonic richness of the music, yet while evoking something of its earthiness — an earthiness imbricated by abstraction, and looking almost skyward in its urge to travel. (The result is so very different from the quick exchanges & fractured lines of Zingaro on e.g. Live at Total Meeting or Sudo Quartet Live at Banlieue Bleue that I was sort of expecting, and at first perhaps disappointed that I didn't receive, but a new "Lied von der Erde" surely requires more continuity.) The short track #1 remains quiet & mysterious, but a marimba solo opens #2, and the crossings start to emerge, perhaps even coming to a bit of dodecaphonic wistfulness (a la Berg) before ending in what I'll call dripping water. And, back to the "chant" concept: What do I find myself most often wanting to hear afterward? Medieval European music... Extreme Singing being particularly appealing, given the instrumental ranges on Chant & its evocations otherwise.12 October 2016
I want to note enjoyment of a new FMR Records release, Paperstone Suite by the previously unknown-to-me trio of Ntshuks Bonga on saxes, Andy Champion on bass, and Corey Mwamba on vibes & percussion. Although the overall style of the trio is more "inside" than typical for this space, particularly for an improvised album, Mwamba's vibes style — which opens the album with an intriguing solo — is distinctive, and Bonga reminds me a bit of Harold Rubin (cf. 3 on a Thin Line) on horn. Given that Rubin & Bonga are both from South Africa, that makes sense, and in fact there is a Japanese influence to both albums too. I don't understand why this African-English trio (and Mwamba was born in England, whereas Bonga emigrated there as a child) released a first album with titles in Japanese, but there it is. There's also more soloing than I usually feature, but there are some original & creative sound combinations arising at times — some perhaps reminiscent of another FMR trio, Live Tipple (also recorded in 2013).24 October 2016
My discussion of Chant from a couple of weeks ago seems like a good starting point for a discussion of some recent releases from Ernesto Rodrigues & Creative Sources. The first album I want to mention especially is Amoa hi, recorded in Lisbon this past March by a quartet consisting of Ernesto & Guilherme Rodrigues (the latter also on pocket trumpet, in addition to his regular cello), frequent collaborator Nuno Torres on alto sax, and Marco Scarassatti (b.1971) on self-made instruments. The instrument (or instruments) is called the "kraiser" on the album, and whereas I wasn't able to determine exactly what that is, there is a Youtube (a site I do not suggest that you support) video of Scarassatti in a duo improvisation with a Marcelo Kraiser, and I assume that the sorts of objects they use are similar, perhaps identical. Scarassatti is a professor in Brazil, and "amoa hi" is the (mythical, if you will) "song tree" of the Yanomami (described elsewhere as "forest people") of Northwest Brazil. Whereas Chant includes explicit invocations of serial music & other contemporary "classical" techniques, Amoa hi is more generally evocative of an environmental setting & human activity. It's not an exploration of audibility, but there is a definite sense of emergent sound amidst a breathing-like pulse of tension & relaxation. In this case, what we might imagine as sounds of the forest are mediated more by distant human banging or traffic than by classical abstraction, and such "echoes" can mark a change of scene. The plucking & rubbing & such involved might suggest something of the "energized surfaces" of Gino Robair (such as on The Apophonics On Air, an album that comes off sounding much more like a standard sax trio in this context), and the overall texture & pace of the quartet remind me a bit of the Sandra Weiss Quintet on Ramble. In all three cases, I imagine that actually watching the performers would be illuminating, and the kraiser of Amoa hi does remain something of a mystery as it intersects with some of the more standard concerns of the Rodrigueses. (And I have watched people play some rather elaborately home-welded objects here in California, so might have some reasonable guesses as to what's involved.) Much of the mood, including a focus on strings, does seem rather similar to that of Chant, although here involving more the hustle of modern industrial life (at a distance) than an abstract literary pole.
Another recent recording (although chronologically, it should have been mentioned in my previous Creative Sources roundup) is Aether by Rodrigues & Rodrigues with Monsieur Trinité — the latter, if I understand correctly, from Martinique. He plays "small percussion," a little pyramid of cymbals basically, and once again I must confess to having visited Youtube (owned by predatory ad-empire Google), in this case in response to the newer Creative Sources album Saigón by Equinox Quartet. Although the latter seemed too "inside" for me, I was intrigued by Monsieur Trinité, and so wondered what he had done with the Rodrigueses. Aether is rather minimalist, and kind of a strange album. It seems kind of random too, but I guess that's half the fun.
Finally, the newest of these releases is Cyclic Symmetry, a single long (more than 70 minutes) track recorded in Lisbon this past January. Cyclic Symmetry likewise features Rodrigues & Rodrigues (here noted as using curved "Bach.bogen" bows), this time with frequent collaborator Carlos Santos. (He does all the graphic design & much of the mixing for Creative Sources, for instance, including appearing on various earlier albums.) Santos is credited only with field recordings, but the album seems to have been his conception, and may have involved a fair amount of post-production. (Cyclic Symmetry is also an album with no "outside guest," a relative rarity of late on Creative Sources.) The string duo sounds, which would fit neatly enough on a Scelsi album, come in waves, perhaps literally epicycles, as depicted by the graphics. There seems to be quite a bit of precision to how the sounds enter & exit across the long temporal canvas, although to what degree it's actually mathematical is unclear. Similar concerns to those of Chant seem reflected once more, but here with pre-recorded examples of crickets & running water, etc. There are also extended periods of silence (although when the strings play, they are generally audible). In other words, abstraction is set against environmental sounds according to a complicated temporal involution. The ultra-brief notes suggest simply leaving Cyclic Symmetry on loop, meaning (I guess) that it's conceived to be background music. Personally, although it's so similar in conception to the results of some of my actual listening (which includes sounds "from the environment" whether I want them or not), I didn't find having the environment packaged in this way to be particularly compelling: It's an interesting idea, but didn't really work for me in practice. (This discussion also reminds me to revisit Ohio as background listening, as I had intended.) As I remarked to my partner, we have our own crickets. Still, Cyclic Symmetry does mark an overlapping exploration of everyday listening.26 October 2016
William Parker, Joe Morris & Hamid Drake released Eloping with the Sun in 2003, an album I have not heard, but which presents them as a singular & unusual trio of sintir, banjo/banjouke, and frame drum alone. Reprising the Eloping with the Sun name, they return here in 2016 (in an album recorded January 2015 in Brooklyn) with Counteract this Turmoil like Trees and Birds, an album that not only uses the previous instruments, but their regular instruments as well (making this a sort of guitar trio), plus many others. In fact, the frequent change of instruments is the most immediate & striking aspect of the album. (I also read Bruce Gallanter say that the trio subsequently had a residency at The Stone, where they invited various different guests, and everyone kept changing instruments. So in that sense, this album is not a finished product, since they continue to work on the result.) The result is kind of dizzying the first time through, but the second time through, I start to hear mainly the various grooves, such that this remains groove oriented music: Switch instruments and play until you've settled into something, then move on. The periods spent settled into grooves come to dominate perception subsequently, although the basic material & variety also continue to project a strongly melodic & hopeful quality. These are musicians with great senses of melody, and that comes through strongly here. Tracks or sections also vary in character depending on whether Parker or Morris is playing in a register above or below the other, which changes frequently. These are Parker's titles, however. (And Taylor Ho Bynum asserts with respect to this album in the liner notes that "free music is folk music is free music." I agree in some ways, but much of the history of "free improvisation" has involved paring away previous clichés & conceptions, whereas I would not characterize "paring away" as a typical mechanism of folk music. It's, in contrast, more about sedimentation. Nonetheless there is certainly some intersection here, resulting in a spectrum of often fairly traditional, if frequently varied, melodic & rhythmic expression. In other words, it does move between recognizable world styles, prominently including not only Africa & the Middle East but East Asia. One might even connect Counteract this Turmoil like Trees and Birds to the recent Sufi theme in this space. With a strong string emphasis, it is certainly not Americanist, despite its all-American lineup, at least not in a native technological sense.) Is this healing music then? In some sense, more in the span than the details, I agree. It's definitely a pleasing album to the ears.30 October 2016
I was excited to see Ingrid Laubrock move to such a different ensemble — from so much of her recent work with New York-based musicians, that is — in her new album Serpentines, featuring a sextet augmented to a septet by Peter Evans on trumpets: Besides Evans & Laubrock herself on tenor & soprano (and even glockenspiel, something Tom Rainey played on some of her previous albums), the sextet involves Miya Masaoka, Craig Taborn, Sam Pluta, Dan Peck & Tyshawn Sorey. Masaoka on koto is likely the least well-known performer here, although I had heard her previously with e.g. Larry Ochs of Rova. The koto adds an interesting dimension, mostly between piano & glockenspiel here, although the liner note suggestion that the album explores the full capacity of the koto seems like an exaggeration. Whereas Taborn & Peck & Sorey certainly sound like themselves, and Sorey's participation recalls his work with Laubrock & Kris Davis in Paradoxical Frog, something one can indeed hear reflected at times on Serpentines, and whereas Peck's recalls the more recent Ubatuba, an album Laubrock composed (for the first time) via the saxophone (i.e. wind lines in general) rather than piano, not to mention the recent & unrelated Earth Tongues discussion, Taborn is in his more minimalist mode. (The ensemble as a whole, like the Paradoxical Frog trio, is rather minimalist at times, albeit with a relatively large pallet. The opening tracks, with their quick pace & many short figures, are probably the most appealing as regards color.) Pluta strictly plays electronics, though, and to my ear the electronics (starting with track #3) often serve up a big dose of cliché: There are some pregnant moments, whether the electronics are destabilizing an earlier instrumental interaction, or pairing with the growling tuba, but at other times they make it difficult for me to relate to the music. Is one supposed to laugh at the clichés? I'm unsure, but that response doesn't seem to fit the mood. In any case, Serpentines certainly reminds us how creative Laubrock can be, and it seems refreshing that she's moving away from what had come to be a rather restrictive set of musical associations of late. These musicians aren't far from her previous circles, in fact some aren't new at all, but overall, there's a welcome & fresh feel to the ensemble & so to the music. In particular, the way the flow of the album sets various scenes off from one another suggests a rich sense of temporality interacting via foreground & background — with what might be described as background musings from Laubrock sometimes standing pointedly apart from other textures. There is thus a rich & personal sense of counterpoint developing here, despite my misgivings over the electronic manipulations (to which I do not object in principle, and which might be contrasted to e.g. those of Braxton Quartet at Sesc Pompeia, given Laubrock's participation there). Much of the album, only just recorded this past May, involves reduced forces of one sort or another, and so smaller combinations interact with a larger sense of ensemble counterpoint from different vantage points. That sort of shifting perspective of lines & combinations provides Serpentines with much to enjoy.31 October 2016
Ewen / Smith / Walter (recorded November 2011) quickly became one of my favorites, particularly for its fast & fractured (guitar) trio interplay, incorporating a wide variety of preparations & extended techniques. So the trio's followup album, Live in Texas (recorded on three dates during a June 2014 tour), was very welcome. It's another long album, this time 73 minutes, but as noted, coming from multiple live dates rather than a single studio session. I've enjoyed Live in Texas, but I'm also having trouble hearing it as more than an easier reprise of the first album. This is a situation where my personal entanglements might prevent me from hearing clearly: I know the first album fairly well at this point, such that I've internalized its style, yet I still relate to it according to my first impression, i.e. as a fast & challenging album. And I continue to hear it that way now, whereas Live in Texas seems like a conscious attempt to make the style more intelligible to an audience, presumably according to the feedback from a live audience (which is nonetheless inaudible on the recordings). Is that what's happening, or are my perceptions twisted by previous exposure? I'm not really sure, but similar processes do seem more audible & drawn out in time. If nothing else, the sense of novelty is greatly attenuated, which certainly shouldn't be a surprise. That's not to say there aren't new ideas, and in particular, I thought that by the "Avant Garden" tracks, the slower pace leads to some new perspectives on the basic interactions. However, coming back to the possible confusion in my own perception, whereas Avant Garden is site of the last tracks on the album, it was also first of the three consecutive concert sites/dates. The second, and the first on the album, NMASS in Austin, definitely sounds like an attempt to be more approachable while employing the same extended techniques. One certainly wouldn't call it a slow performance, but Ewen / Smith / Walter was especially fast — or so I think. The Cactus Music set (the last chronologically, and the shortest) similarly seems to place an emphasis on intelligibility, and perhaps makes some overtures toward those "wide open spaces" for which Texas is known (perhaps not so very differently from Smith's recent A Place Meant for Birds, or indeed parts of North of Blanco). I still can't help but think, though, that Live in Texas rehashes Ewen / Smith / Walter in easier form more than it explores new territories. However, that first album didn't lack for ideas, and so offers plenty to consolidate: The three musicians remain very active, with great multi-faceted simultaneity, and no sense of anyone dominating. If anything, the style itself does become more idiomatic & convincing.
Sandy Ewen has a couple of other new albums on her Bandcamp site as well: Garden Medium is with Rebecca Novak & Carol Sandin Cooley, and Etched in the Eye is with Danny Kamins (saxes) & Robert Pearson (keyboards), the second album by that trio. Both of these are Texas albums, and the former in particular seems like a direct extension of Ewen's guitar style with more objects & electronic manipulations, building into a more robust trio style per se, including a strange sense of poise, as it progresses. The latter has a somewhat more traditional sound, but maintains the exploratory mood. These are also long albums, and you can check them out (together with Live in Texas) online. They all project a strongly egalitarian ethos.2 November 2016
The Core Trio of Thomas Helton, Seth Paynter & Joe Hertenstein is back with another album (this time live in Houston) "featuring Matthew Shipp." This second album (on Evil Rabbit) is less triadic and more dissonant than the first, but remains largely within the extended tonal domain, projecting two half-hour-long improvised symphonic — or perhaps more the piano quartet they actually are — tapestries. The performances are often led forcefully by Shipp, with bassist Helton first setting the tone with a distinctively warm style, and the others helping to modulate & shape these long-form pieces without resorting to much flash or climax. They might be called gritty. The result is an interesting field of musical (in a recognizably traditional sense) tensions moving through multiple areas, almost an "alternate musical reality" to 60s jazz, given its similar harmonic explorations amid the rather different sense of ensemble & raw material across its various scenes.13 November 2016
Evan Parker hasn't been releasing much on his Psi label of late, and indeed the previous release is of a performance from 1978, but the most recent album As the wind deserves some discussion. Given that Parker describes it as one of the best things he's ever done, it's fair to wonder why this 2012 recording had to wait so long to appear: Parker does offer an answer, that he considered it to be more an album by Mark Nauseef (b. 1953, New York), whose idea the trio had been — but Parker eventually asked to release it himself. Besides Nauseef, who has had quite an interesting career, despite me never having heard of him, on metallophone percussion, Parker (on soprano only) is joined by Toma Gouband on lithophone percussion. I had never heard of Gouband either, and his lithophone style is basically hybrid, with stones placed on a drum surface, presumably to provide resonance. Resonance is a theme for the album as a whole, as it's really quite beautifully recorded acoustically in St. Peter's Whitestable cathedral. Regarding Nauseef, who often plays metallophones, and is credited that way on the label website but not on the disc itself, his career includes being in the mainstream Ian Gillan Band in the 1970s, and various world music productions with CalArts. In fact, he produced The music of K.R.T. Wasitodiningrat (one of his teachers), a creative "world music" album that I found especially appealing at the time. So those connections seem both palpable & surprising. There is a lot to like about As the wind, and indeed the opening (title) track is distinctive & highly appealing, with the soprano sax combining variously with the timbres of the two rather differentiated percussion materials. Parker calls this music to "clean up the sorry state of the world," and surely the world feels sorrier now more than ever, but the album also suffers a bit from being overlong: It just doesn't retain a strong appeal for me over its full length, despite the various fascinating sonic combinations that occur at various points — which may well explain why it languished unreleased for a while. (And it's not obvious how it might be improved by editing.) Some tracks take on more the mold of a conventional sax melody with percussion accompaniment, such as the East Asian tune on track #8, rather than the more dynamic timbral interaction that sometimes occurs between the three players, becoming more static in general via such static roles. (The basic mood is sometimes similar to that of Counteract this Turmoil like Trees and Birds, as discussed here a couple of weeks ago. That's another album that one might describe as being concerned with cleaning.) There's still a lot to enjoy, and this sort of timbral focus from different percussionists (and/or others) seems like an idea on which to expand.14 November 2016
I want to make a brief note about Machines, an album by The Ägg on Swedish label Tilting Converter. I probably would have never noticed this album otherwise, but saw it discussed on the Free Jazz Blog. You can read something about this large ensemble's procedure on the Bandcamp page: Although the description is rather lengthy, it still leaves various questions. However, the basic facts seem to be that the large ensemble sounds like a smaller ensemble because only some of the sound sources are (stochastically) active or captured at any one time, and moreover, sounds are generated or captured only via some kind of cross-simultaneity. The result has a fairly typical sonic density for the music in this space, but with a sense that a lot more is happening in the background. There are a lot of strings — including Joe Williamson (whose label this is) & David Stackenäs from Hot Four, whose Eye of the Moose continues to be a favorite, and indeed one can recognize some related approaches to timbre, albeit rather differently arrayed. The prevalence of strangely off-center string sounds, and their different relationships between the tracks, almost brings to mind the recent Eloping with the Sun album: There is a similar sense of calm emerging from the semi-repetitive complexity. One might also compare some of the string combinations to those by the Swedish guitar trio Halster & their album, Mindfulness (discussed here in July). Whereas I guess I'm not finding it to be something for sustained listening, Machines is an intriguing album that would seem to be suggestive of far more possibilities. It also amuses me that they are calling the result "nonmusic."27 November 2016
Confront Recordings continues to release an amazing volume of material, mostly (or maybe all) free improvisation, mostly English, sometimes incorporating German-speaking musicians, especially from Berlin. (This is Mark Wastell's label, and he's selling highly lacquered LP-like CDs in sturdy metal cases.) The England-Berlin connection does seem to be extremely fertile at the moment (as does Lisbon-Berlin), and various performers & labels are involved. That said, I want to highlight a "strictly English" album on Confront, Four Quartets by Tom Jackson, Ashley John Long (bass), Benedict Taylor & Keith Tippett (b.1947). There are four unnamed tracks, alternating long & short, which might have been recorded over more than one day in a studio in Cardiff. The result yields an appealing, dream-like tapestry of sound: More than being markedly original, Four Quartets reminds me rather strongly of some other recent albums, but these are albums I much enjoy, such that I'm finding similar contours to be compelling here as well. The first obvious comparison is Hunt at the Brook, also featuring Jackson & Taylor. Their playing is quite recognizable between the two albums, particularly since both adopt a similar "chamber" context via extended classical, acoustic technique. Another obvious reference is my favorite current Giuffre-configured trio, Kaufmann-Gratkowski-De Joode, with their piano, horn (often clarinet) & bass lineup: Four Quartets adds Taylor's viola to a similar ensemble, giving it a double string configuration (not so unlike Stone Quartet Live at Vision Festival, an album that, however, focuses more on shifting duo interactions & maintains more long-form continuity). Particularly in its opening track, though, Geäder assembles very similar concerns, and indeed the range of technique on the instruments is similar too. Whereas parts of Geäder do use some different procedures, much of Oblengths comes off as rather more harsh or aggressive. Both are more angular, one might say: When Four Quartets doesn't seem calm, it seems almost buoyant, or again, dreamy. Points of tension come & go, often without a broader arc. The long-form style of the longer tracks might almost be compared to Nessuno, particularly in the way the piano frames timing & texture via the background for most of track #1 (whereas that track later erupts into a popular piano style, initiating an extended bluesy coda that's almost legible as jazz per se). However, Nessuno retains steady pacing concerns (i.e. arc), rather than the ebb & flow of Four Quartets, and is more abstract & formal overall: There's a bit of a romantic quality bubbling (usually) beneath the surface on the latter, and post-romanticism seems to be a distinctly English concern these days. Although it's not an acoustic album, the MMM Quartet's Live at the Metz Arsenal might actually be the most evocative comparison for me, what with Alvin Curran (at least for one) similarly weaving a variety of allusions into the texture, often in the deep background, such that they emerge (almost by erosion) at conspicuous points. (It's the opposite of becoming indiscernible, one might say, becoming legible.) All that said, of course Keith Tippett has had a long & distinguished career, and I haven't followed it much, so I cannot say to what extent his playing here is typical of his other activity. (So I come to this as someone who really did notice this album first because of Hunt at the Brook, although with an awareness of who Tippett is. It will probably attract attention based on his participation alone.) One specific thing I enjoyed is that his prepared piano almost sounds like a harpsichord at times (unless that's actually prepared bass sometimes). Indeed, the various harmonics passed between the three stringed instruments is a highlight of the quieter portions of the album. Although the piano has some rather conspicuous moments, it certainly does not dominate, and one can appreciate the simultaneity of the four musicians' contributions. Jackson also turns in a real tour-de-force as the single horn, and indeed single non-string, moving in & out of the texture with a mixture of command & delicacy. (Long was a performer totally new to me, but also appears on two recent recordings on FMR, also with well-known musicians. His style seems to fit well with what Taylor & Jackson have done & are doing.) One might describe the overall result as having impressionistic colors, and it's likely inspired by film music; although no traditionally staged drama would actually suit it, one can perceive a bit of "character" between the instruments & their own well-established sets of technique. One might even say that there are sometimes different, simultaneous dramatic pacings. The dream-tapestry thus becomes an interrogation of narrative temporality via its many allusions.28 November 2016
I want to acknowledge a new album out of Victoriaville this year, Frederic Rzewski (b.1938) & his longstanding trio Musica Elettronica Viva (founded in Rome in 1966) with the improvised Symphony No. 106. Pianist Rzewski — whose The People United Will Never Be Defeated! variations have become a 20th century solo piano "classical standard" — also does a bit of speaking, and is joined on keyboard & electronics by contemporaries Richard Teitelbaum (b.1939) & one-time Scelsi collaborator Alvin Curran (b.1938), the latter also using samples & shofar. When this trio started playing live electronic music (as their name says) in the 60s, of course technology was very different, and at a few points, one might even think of an old Atari video game when listening to Symphony No. 106. I assume that this sort of nostalgia is quite intentional, and indeed Rzewski's piano playing takes on a sentimental tone at various points too. At other times, there is a rich electronic counterpoint derived from the piano & other inputs: These sections are relatively brief, but are the most ear-catching part of the performance for me. Both then, and in some of the other sampling-based interaction, one can hear Alvin Curran's style with the MMM Quartet — most recently appearing on Oakland / Lisboa. There is some psychological depth here as well, but the music is usually relatively easier to follow, and indeed tends to follow Rzewski's lead much of the time, making it almost an elaborately ornamented solo performance, albeit greatly exceeding that label at times. There's a real poignancy that emerges, making for another worthwhile contribution by someone known for bringing social conscience to classical music.18 December 2016
I continue to listen to Matthew Shipp, as one of those obviously very talented musicians whose ideas & interests overlap mine enough to attract repeated attention, but whose music — somehow — never quite speaks to me. Maybe it's time to admit that we're in this relatively dissonant relationship to each other, and it might never change. (I'd been thinking that if I kept listening, and found the right combination, things would align for me.) It's not as though Shipp would be the first person in that situation with me, but I guess it still seems awkward. Of course, Shipp is prolific, so there are plenty of opportunities to hear & discuss his music, and in this case, the impetus is Tangle on Fataka: There he joins John Butcher & Thomas Lehn, making for something of a sequel to their trio Exta (discussed here in October 2013) with John Tilbury. Another reference would be the previous trio album on Fataka, A field perpetually at the edge of disorder (discussed here in August 2014), also with Tilbury (in that case in a "conventional" piano trio with John Edwards & Mark Sanders). Both were well-received albums internationally, and I imagine that Tangle will also be a hit. (Note that Shipp had already appeared on the second Fataka release, in a duo with Butcher, likewise recorded at Cafe Oto, so this is not a new context for him. And of course, last month I noted Live Featuring Matthew Shipp, a rather different Texas context.) So one thing this album has me thinking about is Shipp's "intuitive" style & predilection for chords, and how it relates to Scelsi's (or Scriabin's, etc.) similar piano music. The thing with Scelsi, of course, is that he soon went on to explore the "interior" of sound, i.e. quarter tones & other shifting micro-intervals that the piano cannot accommodate (at least not conventionally). This is exactly the sense in which a fixed pitched instrument such as piano seems so limited today, and yet despite remarking on this numerous times, I continue to find engaging new approaches to piano. (So I can be very silly!) Here — not so unlike what they did with Tilbury, at least per the very terse description I just gave — Butcher & Lehn bring an infra-pitch quality to the music, though: Butcher's "physics" of the horn already explores various resonances that don't necessarily match to established scales, and Lehn's synthesizer provides a ready means to incorporate pitch-bending into a keyboard idiom. That said, something of a chordal ostinato character — again, not so unlike Scelsi's piano music, although I don't want to suggest that Shipp is actually derivative of that, other than (perhaps) sharing an approach — remains, and Butcher actually comes off as a bit more of a traditional horn player (as he increasingly seems to me to do on e.g. The Apophonics On Air, an album I initially heard as very "physics"). The result is high energy, not nearly as eerie as Exta, more jazzy or sometimes even classical. So Tangle generally has a lot of continuity, i.e. is not of the fractured style I often feature here. I'm not sure what differentiates the short final track from the 3-track suite, but per the liner notes, Nate Wooley sees the trio as overcoming the alternating poles of finding new sounds & refining a musical language. He says that many musicians are "trapped" in such alternation, although I'm not sure how true that really is. (These notions intersect around concepts of embeddedness. In other words, a language-context can suggest sounds.) In this, though, he cites Butcher's refinement & Lehn's sense of history to go with Shipp's thirst for new sounds: Again, I question that, but it's worth repeating. In any case, a sometimes rather forceful presence from Shipp often seems to take on a majestic (classical) quality in the context of the trio on Tangle, making for another enjoyable album with piano: If I may channel Shipp's remarks from elsewhere, though, it might be better to think of his piano as timeless rather than novel.19 December 2016
Not so unlike Symphony No. 106, although overtly composed in this case (despite the implications of the earlier title), Dre Hocevar's new nonet album Transcendental Within the Sphere of Indivisible Remainder can be heard as a kind of greatly embellished solo, here from the drummer rather than a pianist. The live electronics (in particular) do build to a contrapuntal frenzy at times, but there is a thread of continuity through the piece, largely buoyed by Hocevar himself. Even with the various other instruments, there is a sense of percussive thinking occurring throughout. (The nonlinear continuity through various "scenes" might be compared to e.g. Carlo Costa's Strata, although that's an acoustic album.) Most of the performers were actually unfamiliar to me, with the exceptions being Sam Pluta & Lester St. Louis (from previous Hocevar albums) and Henry Fraser on bass (who appears on a recent release by Chris Pitsiokos). Despite the percussive theme, Transcendental Within the Sphere of Indivisible Remainder remains quiet at times, and evokes industrial music: The notes suggest such notions as "slingshot" & "coil & recoil" to describe the nonlinear continuity. As with some of Jeff Shurdut's albums, after an extended cacophony, a real horn melody emerges at the end to summarize. One might think in terms of assembling, as scenes coalesce, particularly via polyrhythms. As with other Hocevar albums, the title suggests some kind of psychological or transverse theme, in this case perhaps relating to negative dialectics: We are left to reconstruct & undo a prior dialectic resolution, while able to know only its "remainder" — for which one must construct a transcendental direction in order to escape. Or something like that. Between the theme & the set of extended techniques, one can hear Transcendental Within the Sphere of Indivisible Remainder as very much an album of its time.20 December 2016
Payne / Lindal / Liebowitz is an album from last year on Carol Liebowitz's Line Art Records, but I only learned of it (via DMG) recently. Indeed, given that it's a 2015 release (i.e. old by the standards of this space, and recorded back in 2012 — not unprecedented by any means for a new release), given that it already received mainstream attention from NPR (and that kind of marks the tongue-in-cheek limit to what I sometimes characterize as "mainstream" here), and given that I have relatively little experience with the music of Lenny Tristano, there are plenty of reasons not to remark on Payne / Lindal / Liebowitz. However, I want to at least note it for myself, if nothing else: These are evidently very experienced musicians, having worked with the (recently) late Connie Crothers, as well as her teacher Tristano, and have formed a distinctly personal style of collective classical improvisation. The trio of "instruments that sound like instruments," i.e. clarinet, violin & piano, is immediately evocative of recent favorite The Moment In and Of Itself from Australia, but in the latter case, one finds spiky rhythms, perhaps spiky personalities, and a profusion of (technical) world influences. In contrast, Payne et al. retain a basic chamber feel, with clear tones buoyed by a range of instrumental mastery in a classical vein: An emphasis on 4/4 time, and binary rhythm in general, lends a flexible & limpid quality to the music, with various divisions & shifts of meter readily accommodated into a calmly sophisticated tapestry. Such an underlying coherence yields sounds & interactions that are constantly finding their way to the surface of that tapestry. (The result might also be compared, in its sense of "classical" improvisation, to the recent Swans over Dorking, which projects an explicitly post-Romantic conception. Payne / Lindal / Liebowitz has a very classical style of interaction, but doesn't suggest a particular stylistic era. Rather it suggests the twentieth century more broadly, pace specific remarks on rhythm & phrasing.) Indeed, the performance accommodates a variety of polytonality & contrapuntal exchanges via double stops, etc., and does so in such a smooth way that even when the musicians are ostensibly playing highly dissonant lines, they're projected with such mastery that the music retains a calmly open texture: Here's this dissonant sequence that you know I can easily play. It's a strange sensation, and leaves me grasping a bit as to the message here — perhaps it evokes various other comments about how instrumental technique is becoming too polished to "really" sound like jazz. Well, that sounds like an exaggeration, but there's such a friendly ease to this trio that any (technical) musical tension seems to fade to the background amid the open sense of textural interplay. Bill Payne's clarinet tone is often amazing, and Eva Lindal makes violin technique sound easy too. The combo is almost dreamy, even during hammered piano chords. The liner notes suggest, moreover, that the music is at times "mystical" or "tense," but I just don't hear it, particularly not the latter, unless one speaks of distance... mediated distance in which any tension or mysticism becomes "this is mysticism is...." There's a sort of emotional recursion to it. All that said, the trio has a very distinctive collective sound, and clearly listens closely to each other. That alone makes the eponymous Payne / Lindal / Liebowitz worth hearing for anyone interested in classically-tinged improvisation, despite some weird misgivings about how easy the musicians make it all seem. I'm at a loss to name a similarly "friendly" trio album with so much harmonic sophistication. (Anthony Braxton expects friendliness from his audiences, but his music often retains a competitive edge.) Maybe it becomes almost edgy in its intensive & extensive friendliness?30 December 2016
There are far more recordings originating in Japan or with Japanese musicians than I've been able to follow. In some ways, this is a matter of inclination, since so much of this music seems to be both in the post-rock mold, and to focus on solos. On the latter, the operating principle often seems to be that a series of solos will continue to push subsequent expression into another plane, and such a notion does seem to function in this music, again taking so many of its cues from rock, but I'm generally more interested in a collective simultaneity. That said, even a label such as Improvising Beings releases more Japanese-French musical combinations than I really manage to follow, but I do want to mention the recent Four Pillars of Destiny — the album numerically following (Portuguese) Nuova Camerata's Chant, and one that features French cellist Hugues Vincent together with Japanese trio Maki Hachiya (voice), Shota Koyama (drums) & Yuta Yokoyama (trumpet): In keeping with a rock impetus, this is basically a vocal album, with Hachiya's voice in the lead role for much of the hour-long program, together with a varying accompaniment. In keeping with the French connection (and the album was recorded on Hokkaido early in 2016), one can almost perceive some cabaret style, albeit highly modified, and with a tendency to explore both earthy & ethereal combinations. Although Hachiya can project a very earthy tone, somewhat in keeping with c.1970 heavy metal aesthetics (& reminiscent of Joëlle Léandre at times, particularly in a shared approach to register changes), the very brief ethereal sections, where all of the musicians are working in higher registers & overtones, might be the most striking. Given the range, it's quite a vocal tour-de-force, particularly when it comes to stamina, although as noted, the other musicians usually feel like accompanists. (One might also think of the poetics of the later loft scene, perhaps even beat poets in a nonsense mode.) Most tracks have a regular rhythm or implied ostinato, although it's not always explicitly sounded, and they sometimes do take a more diffuse or open approach. (I actually enjoy the very brief shift in sonority at the end of the last track, when the musicians are wrapping up the set. It sounds much less European!) At times, Vincent's cello almost conjures a Turkish or Central Asian sound, although the cello is probably the least prominent instrument overall here, with the trumpet sometimes dueling the voice. There is still a nice variety, even if its coherence is largely gestural & strongly oriented toward lead vocals.
I had first mentioned Vincent in February 2015, in conjunction with the (partly Russian) string trio Free Trees on Leo, and he's been rather prolific since, including releasing Subzo[o]ne (also from Leo, recorded September 2015 in Dortmund) with a cello quartet called The Octopus & including Nathan Bontrager, Elisabeth Coudoux & Nora Krahl. Like Free Trees, the emphasis on Subzo[o]ne seems to be variety, with fourteen tracks, some short, and titles in English, French & German. (There is thus an element of exhibiting one's various techniques, rather than issuing an artistic statement, unless that statement is postmodern variety per se — an "audition tape" I've called this format in the past. There is no Japanese or e.g. Cambodian, though, as on Vincent's Improvising beings duo album Tagtraum with John Cuny, another catalog of influences.) The "non-broken consort" generates a big wall of sound at times, but remains sparse at others, yielding a rather idiomatic "string" language via various rhetorical gestures & alternating textures. I can imagine more being done in this idiom, not so much in terms of variety, which is already emphasized (as noted), but in terms of developing more specific collective expression. Indeed, the cello might be the perfect instrument for this sort of contemporary, whole consort — a different mode from what has become the traditional jazz saxophone consort — a "whole consort" in an untraditional sense, since the instruments are at the same pitch.
Speaking of string albums on Leo, Raw (recorded in Munich during January 2015, and the first I've seen from Leo not to come in a jewel case) features John Butcher together with the Kimmig-Studer-Zimmerlin string trio (lacking viola), and is perhaps the most evocative of Chant in its basic idiom: Here a similar nature-culture dual is interrogated via a string-wind contrast (as opposed to string-marimba), with titles focusing on the outdoors & the sky (& even astronomy per se, an investigation in which various peoples have participated over the millennia, particularly as regards weather). The result is likewise quite enjoyable at times, and features similar issues with audibility, as the various string techniques — pizzicato, glissandi, harmonics, percussive strikes, etc. — interact with the physics of the horns, the soprano whistling, etc. (The basic quietness & mood, not to mention the similarity of the ensemble, sometimes suggests Nor with its two horns & two strings. Nor is probably more specifically ascetic, though. I should probably also note that I'm finding Chant much easier to hear since I received a physical copy, and subsequently digitized it myself. What this says, I really have no idea, since I'm using the same equipment.) There is a resulting play of space & dynamic range that goes on to suggest not only lines of flight, but brief pulses of alarm within a call & response context... a context which tends to fade or escape. Sometimes one might simply be waiting for something to happen (not so unlike weather or astronomy, I suppose), but then one can also almost hear sound-characters emerging. There is a resulting feel of timelessness that nonetheless seems absolutely contemporary, albeit with a quiet yet sometimes dramatic insistence on specific figures. The album doesn't actually seem very Raw, particularly as its sense of poise overflows into various extended spaces. Is it part of a new naturism, or does it interrogate that trend? Is it "only" a concerto format with a guest soloist, or does it recast such a dual?2 January 2017
I was totally unfamiliar with Canadian violist Pierre-Yves Martel (b.1979), although he had already appeared on several albums, mostly from Canada. That changed with Drought, his recent trio with Carl Ludwig Hübsch & Philip Zoubek: I mostly noticed the album for Hübsch, since his tuba playing had drawn my attention previously, although I had yet to hear a project that really connected with me. I was also familiar with Zoubek, first via Joe Hertenstein and most recently on Pascal Niggenkemper's Talking Trash, an album which (deservedly) got some record of the year attention. "HMZ," as they're calling themselves, turns out to be a rather distinctive trio, with the breathy tuba in the low range, the piano often sounding like gamelan (or tonal percussion array more broadly), and the viol's own buzzy harmonics. Martel sometimes plays electronics or does sound installation, but the (historical) viola da gamba appears to have become his main instrument; here he plays treble viol (called "soprano" in the credits). For those who aren't familiar, it's the frets on the viol that mainly distinguish it from the violin family, and those frets produce the characteristic buzzing sound. Here, using the treble (which has not had much of a solo repertory), not only is the range differentiated from the "foghorn" bass of the tuba, but the harmonics can be particularly sharp, serving to accent many of the preparations. As the players joining Martel should suggest, Drought was recorded at the Loft in Köln in 2015, but also presents an ongoing project: The trio formed in 2012, and actually released its first album ("June 16th") in 2013 on the (unknown to me) Schraum label. There is supposed to be another new album appearing soon on Tour de bras. Whereas the distinctively different & differentiated sonorities of the trio might suggest an album such as Interstices (which likewise draws, at least in part, on the Köln music scene), the effect is rather different: Perhaps in keeping with its name, although Drought plays on similar ideas of separation & simultaneity, it doesn't lead to much in the way of intensification. (It never sounds like jazz.) It has a kind of ascetic effect, and indeed its pace, sonorities & density are evocative of Nessuno for me, given the deliberate technical articulation of both. The result in either case is a slowing of the mind, and here with it an elegant & eerie new sense of focus — both arising from a quasi-minimalist, largely acoustic interactive setting. (One might go on to note the sound of slowly dripping water, not so unlike the ending to Chant, at times. It's thus a "natural" feel of slowness, albeit highly mediated by human technological articulation. In other words, there's no actual water!) A variety of influences are distilled & refracted into such a distinctive style of interaction, interaction that seems to interrogate temporality itself via its multiple sense of layering. Unlike the following album, there is a sense of taking a deep breath in the face of ongoing strangeness, i.e. a sense of actually situating oneself — however temporarily — within the maze of today's world.
Exploring Martel's other output led me also to Boule-spiele, a trio album recorded in 2013 (but released last year on a label out of Bogotá Colombia, Bruit Collage) with Magda Mayas (b.1979) & fellow Canadian Éric Normand (electric bass). There is not even an option to pay them on the label's Bandcamp site, so I have no idea how long Boule-spiele might continue to be available, but it's well worth hearing. In this case, we don't have an acoustic album, but rather a more industrial soundscape, albeit with a similar pacing. The participation of Mayas brings to mind e.g. Spill Plus & its explicit primitivism, albeit in that case in an acoustic setting that tends to hide & move away from continuity toward a more fractured expression. (I should also mention that her trio Great Waitress is releasing a new LP — meaning I probably won't hear it — called Hue.) On Boule-spiele, continuity seems to be a major concern, with the trio keeping its collective "eye on the ball," so to speak, even as mechanisms of continuity might become nonlinear. Again given Mayas's participation, one might even analogize to the continuity of e.g. The Necks, although there alluding to more in the way of popular & world music idioms — whereas Boule-spiele is more essentialized, yet retaining some sort of glimmer of dance club style behind its "nightmare" surface: Nightmarish & "everywhere distortion" are indeed two of the descriptions that the notes (by Jim Denley) offer us, although the album is actually rather quiet at times, and many tones do ring clearly (if unusually). I can attest that co-listeners have found Boule-spiele actively disturbing on more than one occasion, although I don't find it to be relentless at all. It's almost subtle at times, although it does maintain a sort of edge. (I guess I simply enjoy its articulation of dissonance, so it surprises me when others are disturbed.) Perhaps the best comparison is another industrial-tinged statement in Anomonous, an obscure continuing favorite, and an album that includes piercing highs, an urge to flight (and maybe even an emergent tune). The "ball game" is much more consistently immanent, though, especially as its "almost everything you can imagine done to a string, done" quality — a quality that is surely its major charm — seems to strive not for a sense of escape, but of purification. This is presumably what gives it its latent power, and hopefully these ideas will also be elaborated.9 January 2017
I've been mentioning water in this space regularly of late, and so discussing Carved Water, the new quartet album from Thanos Chrysakis & Aural Terrains (designed by Carlos Santos, who does most of the graphic design for Creative Sources), seems like a great way to (perhaps obliquely) continue exploring such ideas. It was recorded in Budapest in October 2014, and besides Chrysakis on laptop & electronics, features Swiss soprano sax player Christian Kobi, also recently featured on the soprano sax quartet album Cold Duck with John Butcher et al. (as discussed here last January), Danish drummer & lighting artist Christian Skjødt (b.1980), and Hungarian violist Zsolt Sörés (b.1969). I had speculated that Kobi had initiated Cold Duck, and his soprano articulations — with some tonguing "ostinati" particularly standing out — often form the raw material for the electronics artists in the improvising quartet on Carved Water. According to his site, Skjødt's work involves relations of memory, becoming imperceptible, autonomous systems, physics, etc. Sörés writes of "formation strategies and immediate transitions," & about developing a "sound economy" — language that resonates with me — the temporality of which is explored e.g. via simultaneously looping slower & faster. This is a sophisticated quartet of improvisers, then, taking up many of the broad themes of contemporary art & life: In part, they say they're seeking to bring social interaction back into music, to make composing less autocratic. The latter, of course, is another persistent theme, and Carved Water is an admirably coherent essay in these ideas. In fact, it derives from a sound installation exhibit (otherwise featuring Hans Koch & Jon Rose, among others) called "On the Edge of Perceptibility," which would seem to suggest exactly the sorts of interrogations of audibility that have sometimes frustrated me in this space. However, although Carved Water does reward close attention & active listening, particularly as sounds move across the sound stage, I don't feel the frustration of things going inaudible. (That's not to say it doesn't happen, but the frustration isn't there. It's an enjoyable album to hear throughout.) Perhaps this reflects Skjødt's priority that it be "impossible to stand at a distance" (or indeed his work in lighting), but it must also reflect Chrysakis's keen sense of form & balance. I most recently discussed his music in this space (in September 2015) in connection with Exaíphnes, a brief string quintet (in the same sense that Boule-spiele is a string trio) album on Creative Sources with Ernesto & Guilherme Rodrigues: Exaíphnes, whose evocations of suddenness might be said to reflect concerns different from a sound installation, often presents ringing tones amid a classical sense of form. It was actually recorded three months after Carved Water, countering the latter's emphasis not so much on clear tones, but on static itself as a building block — an emphasis that is likewise being explored by many musicians around the world today. Such an emphasis on static, albeit often highly attenuated (i.e. as it blurs into repeated tonguing), plus the various creaking & fluttering, often makes for a stormy piece — perhaps itself a gross invocation of water. The sound combinations consequently vary, are sometimes quite assertive, but aren't overwhelming (at least in my opinion), i.e. they retain a sense of balance that seems to characterize Chrysakis's music more broadly. Invoking water thus suggests not only the "clouds" of some other recent (especially Portuguese) music, but how that water might move otherwise, whether through the scarcity of Drought, or e.g. the temporal geological formations of Carlo Costa's work on Sediment or Strata. Indeed, aren't the latter often carved? Here we might consider less the "artifacts" of the action of water than the act of sculpting itself, a kind of liquid sculpting that crystallizes into a sound installation (or onto a CD!): Moreover, the sound installation concept attempts (per the Budapest show in general) to interrogate "applications of the medium of sound in visual arts." I might reframe this priority (as I have previously) as an interrogation of presence, and so one might ask, how does an album such as this problematize the border between attention & background listening? Do sound installations suggest background listening? It seems to me that problematizing foreground attention brings, as a consequence, an ability to query the relations of "use" in such a setting: I've asked before, but is this music useful? What does that mean? One thing a sound installation might be said to do is reconfigure one's perceptions of a physical space, and this is how I met it in architecture: Something like the massive triple album — and RIP to inimitable icon Pauline Oliveros — Phase/transitions arises out of these concerns (and in that case, moves on to concerns of forging space over considerable distance, among other things), and one might even note its very stormy, similar sense of drone to that on Carved Water. Particularly given the many previous collaborations between Chrysakis & Wade Matthews, perhaps the most similar album to my ear is Primary Envelopment, an album that might also be said to invoke water at times (at least now that I'm listening for that theme): Carved Water doesn't have so much in the way of (piercing?) extremes, confining itself (one might say) to the actual space of an installation & not its enclosure or modes of escape... despite arising from investigations on the edge of perceptibility — and does physical inaudibility become a sort of proxy for "difficulty" in music in such a setting? — and might be said to have a more concrete (even creaturely, immanent to the industrial sounds) presence in this sense, whereas Primary Envelopment becomes about finding oneself amid various external sources & forces. (One can also compare to Matthews' installation-tinged album with Israeli sound artists, Growing carrots in a concrete floor, again with its interrogation of pitch & boundaries: In other words, one might note that the high pitches initiating the album tend to blur location, and so enable the installation to escape its own space.) Finally, another clear sonic comparison for me is Whitewashed with lines, both for its similar mix of ensemble timbre & its invocation of "process:" Carving water, at least in its liquid state, would seem to be quite a process, whether electronic or not. (Sounds flow, perhaps in more than one direction.) There are many recent albums that might be described in some combination of terms similar to what I've used here (i.e. process, static, sound art, etc.), so perhaps what stands out most for me is the elegance of Carved Water, the extent to which an improvising quartet using such far-flung (yet in some ways very ordinary) elements can achieve such a "perfectly" balanced — yet thoroughly questioning — result. And so a final pair of questions: How does a sound installation, of all things, become sufficiently dissociated from its own space such that it can become a successful "installation" somewhere else, many places else via recording? What does perfection mean in such a (liquid) context? Perhaps it's a matter of using static to blur specificity (of place, in effect to defocus the background), i.e. perfect vagueness. And perhaps invoking (vague) elegance makes little sense when the second (shorter) track is dominated by what might be described as an extended raspberry, but such is the economy of attention forged in transition between larger- & smaller-scale elements by this surprisingly satisfying album. (Or maybe after all this water, I'm just wet.)11 January 2017
I discussed Kochuu, a trio album by Alexander Frangenheim, Isabelle Duthoit & Roger Turner, back in March of 2015: It was recorded in April 2013, and now has a sequel, Light air still gets dark by the same trio, recorded in December 2015 (so about two and a half years later). Kochuu had been my introduction to vocalist Duthoit, and I've had opportunities to hear more from her subsequently, but Light air still gets dark seems to mark a new & distinctive level of mastery in the development of her style & that of the trio. (Whether they continue to perform together, I do not know.) I've also been paying attention to Frangenheim, and in particular his releases on Creative Sources, most prominently Nor (at least in this space), and so Light air still gets dark raises similar questions of presence & audibility: Frangenheim, once again, mixed the album, and so I have to wonder whether it presents a similar "straining to hear" experience in live performance, or if that's more an aspect of the mixing. (Hearing quiet sounds when one is in the room, an otherwise quiet room that is, does seem to be much easier than hearing everything once it's etched onto plastic or magnetic media, so the mixing is an issue for a production like this regardless.) Was the quiet screaming that is the most characteristic aspect of this album actually all that quiet? For me, that's a question of (vocal) technique beyond the result of the production itself, which can of course be appreciated without asking these questions. It can be appreciated, that is, with close attention — since like these other recent Berliner albums involving Frangenheim, there is not always a lot of presence. Nonetheless, the combination of highly developed bass & drum techniques, together with Duthoit's amazing voice, makes an impression. (Apparently I haven't had occasion to mention it, but I've also been listening to other albums featuring Turner, including some of his Japanese collaborations with their usual taking-turns approach. That includes albums featuring vocalists, which seem to be more common from Japan. He makes a strong contribution here as well.) The album opens with a composite "shattering" sound, and soon suggests indeterminacy between clarinet & vocal articulation. At times, Duthoit is clearly using one or the other, more often her voice, but at other times, it's unclear. (A couple of tooth references in the track titles might suggest a kind of middle position, and evoke a similar sort of "inside the body" dynamic as on Kochuu.) Group articulation remains subtle, with all three musicians frequently active together in a fascinating web of closely sculpted sounds. Particularly given Duthoit's theatrical vocal style, taking in a range of bodily resonances, the album that comes to mind for me by way of comparison continues to be Catherine Jauniaux's Birds Abide — a recording with more presence, but which illustrates another trio with very experienced accompanists around a featured vocalist. The Duthoit-Frangenheim-Turner trio does tend to retain rather distinct roles, instead of the kind of shifting textures I often enjoy, and this is surely an outcome based not only on their three very different instrument families, but on the legacy of vocal performance as well: There is the vocalist, and there are accompanists. The tangled unity with which many sounds are articulated on Light air still gets dark does trouble an easily layered listening, but we never hear a thorough mixing of roles. The extended string technique does serve to unify the sound, with the voice sounding as both a sort of horn & a sort of string. (I should also note the dedication to the late Johannes Bauer, still featured in this space on Grid Mesh Live in Madrid.) I find the aesthetic of quiet screaming to be fascinating, but as noted I also wonder how quiet it really is/was — although I can only listen to what I have. (Focusing on a result, an object, is usually fine for listening to music, and enjoyable in this case: It only becomes an issue when I try to state what I find compelling about the experience. But then, maybe I'm often fooling myself when I think I'm able to say why I like something.) Moreover, I marvel at the soothing effect such an album full of screaming has had on co-listeners. Move one's troubles off into the distance? I find myself listening attentively, so perhaps the quiet serves to mediate the listening distance somehow? (I don't find it relaxing, since I feel as though I need to pay close attention. It brings the opposite of indifference for me.) In any case, regardless of these questions of intent or volume, Duthoit is one of the most compelling free vocalists coming onto the international scene in the 2010s, and Light air still gets dark is perhaps the most consistently engaging vocal album in the genre. (And with plenty of latent aggression, if one wants to keep an edge in today's world....) This is a must hear for anyone interested in free vocals amid rich ensemble technique more generally.
Vocals continue to be relatively uncommon on free jazz/improvisation albums — and I've seen various suggestions by various people about why that might be — but Creative Sources produces many albums with vocals. Indeed, no other label can compete with the volume & variety of their recent releases in this arena. (There is not even an obvious second to compare.) Another vocal release from the end of 2016 is Monsters for breakfast, a trio featuring the vocal duo of Mascha Corman & Thea Soti (b.1989) joined by Salim Javaid (b.1991, Czechia) on prepared alto sax. Monsters for breakfast was recorded in Köln in August 2015, and features sixteen mostly short tracks. (My copy had a problem with the pressing that affected about 5 minutes of the album, beginning in track #6 & going through the first minute or so of track #8, but these are being repressed.) It's an album that seems to be very free-wheeling & spontaneous, i.e. without a lot of planning. It also takes in a wide range, with various emission techniques (including growling, like Duthoit, cheek popping, etc.), some nonsense, some clear English, some of it spoken, the vocal duo sometimes intertwining itself, sometimes taking turns, sometimes with a jazzy sound, sometimes evoking world music or nostalgia, always toward a wide & varied tapestry of interaction. Sometimes the saxophone is less noticeable, but at other times, it adds greatly to textures which might seem a bit static (amid frenetic activity, that is) if they remained purely vocal. It doesn't seem at all like a finished project or an album with a coherent theme in that sense, but there is much to hear. Unlike Light air still gets dark, Monsters for breakfast is an album with plenty of presence then, highlighting a variety of ideas. (One might compare to Ute Wassermann on Natura Venomous, also on Creative Sources, with its pointillistic polyphony & whistling accents. Or of course, there is Jaap Blonk on the very strange North of Blanco, still one of my favorite recent ensemble collaborations involving voice.) So why is voice not very popular in this music? I have to imagine that one aspect is exactly the question of presence that is interrogated by e.g. Frangenheim et al.: The human voice dominates our sense of presence, at least if it can, something that quietness & blurred articulation can problematize, in turn problematizing the place of us humans (and our sense of familiar) in the world more broadly. It also calls for more & different technique, something about which vocalists are (rightly) rather protective. Nonetheless, the voice remains a signature human instrument, and for obvious reason. So I remain intrigued by these explorations, even if it might be fair to say that they are less "advanced" than some non-vocal music sometimes is. Monsters for breakfast adds to a general exploratory mood by pairing two different voices, a choice thus far even less common in this music, and so a choice worth noting.30 January 2017
FMR is another label that continues to release a wide variety of material from around the world, and that has come to include a significant core of Portuguese music (in addition to that of the prolific Portuguese labels themselves): In Layers is their third release featuring trumpeter Luís Vicente, after Clocks and Clouds (all Portuguese quartet) & Chamber 4 (half Portuguese, half French), this time in a half-Portuguese quartet with Onno Govaert (drums, Netherlands) & Kristján Martinsson (piano, Iceland). Guitarist Marcelo dos Reis has also been mentioned here in the past, and had appeared on Chamber 4 with Vicente (as well as on a No Business LP, one of two recent releases by that label to feature Vicente, and which I have not heard), plus a couple of well-received albums on Cipsela. Vicente had also appeared on two recent Clean Feed albums, Deux Maisons (again with the Ceccaldi brothers, as on Chamber 4), and Live at Zaal 100: The latter was the recording venue for In Layers as well, and its "Twenty-One 4tet" melded Vicente with three Dutch musicians, the great Wilbert de Joode, plus John Dikeman & Onno Govaert of the present album. I had no experience with Martinsson prior to this, but Govaert (b.1987) — who is credited first on In Layers — is part of Cactus Truck, also with Dikeman (as well as Jasper Stadhouders), a more "combustible" rock- or punk-oriented trio. So although these musicians are relatively new on the international scene, they've already been prolific, and here they've produced another improvised album inflecting the various musical concerns that appear in different guises in those other collaborative projects. I particularly enjoy the opening track on In Layers, with its anticipatory muted trumpet, and subtle interactions among the other performers: They appear in different layers, but in a fractured egalitarian exploration. Although Vicente's becomes the most prominent sound through much of the album by the middle of the next track, that track initially continues the egalitarian mood, and features some brief but pregnant acoustic guitar from dos Reis. At that point, much of the album starts to consist of an emergent, yet sometimes muted, trumpet line over a roiling accompaniment: This sort of quivering landscape supporting far-ranging trumpet interrogations is reminiscent of Bill Dixon's late work, as exemplified on Tapestries — one might even analogize it to the quiet screams of Light air still gets dark. From there, one hears more ostinato & repetition in support of the trumpet line, including some minimal procedures & a trend toward open textures somehow working together with Govaert's often assertive quasi-rock-style drumming. ("Quiet banging" could be said to characterize much of the piano contribution, for instance, sometimes more repetitive, sometimes less, sometimes with preparations.) A more egalitarian texture returns in the final track — the clear layers emerging in the middle tracks might be said to become rearranged geometrically or temporally — with the ending focusing on some relaxing guitar playing amid a breezily fading background. (The "Spanish" guitar of track #4 is probably dos Reis's most prominent contribution otherwise. His playing, all acoustic here, demonstrates quite an economy of means.) The ending thus lends a mentally refreshing aspect to the album, based on space, if perhaps retroactively. This sort of geometric interrogation can be figured from the beginning as a question of from where (in a rather abstract sense) we're hearing the ensemble, such perspective determining which instrument is most prominent, etc. As the opening survey suggests, In Layers arises from a rich & varied context of exploration by musicians with many developing connections. In that sense, it's more of an exploratory stepping stone than the crystallization of a particular style. So where will this generation of performers take us next?
Also in the same batch of releases on FMR is Atractor Extraño, an improvised trio album recorded in Chile in November 2015 across three sessions (with the final track being live). Interest in this South American trio album presumably derives from Frode Gjerstad's tours there, and previous FMR albums featuring these performers: Luis Conde, who plays alto sax on Atractor Extraño, played bass sax etc. with Gjerstad on Give and Take (recorded two months earlier); electric guitarist Ramiro Molina also has a duo album with Gjerstad (Unseen Seas, recorded likewise in September 2015). The trio is completed by Nicolas Ríos (drums) to form a fairly standard free jazz ensemble (and in fact similar to Gjerstad's on Live Tipple), called Rulemares. Although the performers speak of how far it is "from one house's door to the other," & of how a "score for this kind of work doesn't exist," the interplay on the album features tight interaction between the musicians. There are dreamy harmonies, jazzy cadences, some slower parts & a bit of "noise" (particularly on the final, longest track, which is perhaps the most dissonant), etc. There's thus a somewhat conventional jazz or even popular feel to the music, including various allusions, emphasizing the ability of the musicians to "lock in" and perform tightly together. (To this they add some contrapuntal & stylistic subtleties of their own.) Atractor Extraño is a long album, and so provides plenty of opportunity to hear these performers' styles, thus continuing FMR's apparent (& welcome) ongoing interest in South American music.
Traveling to South America & beyond, Gjerstad continues to find interesting musical situations in which to participate, and the same might be said of venturing to exotic Texas: Also on FMR, The Shape Finds Its Own Space documents Gjerstad joining Damon Smith & Alvin Fielder at Austin's No Idea Festival last February. Smith had already documented Fielder's recent drumming on his own label, on the quartet album From-to-From, which I described as retaining a "calm attitude" (as discussed here in December 2013). The Shape Finds Its Own Space is not nearly so calm, and indeed after a fractured horn opening by Gjerstad, Fielder often takes a forceful lead, as the ensemble sometimes pares down to a classic bass-drums rhythm section or indeed a solo drummer. The result is a "big" drum sound, with what feels today like an old-fashioned approach to rhythmic articulation — and, after all, Fielder is over 80 — with a likewise traditional jazzy bass line. Gjerstad's more contemporary opening kind of fades to the background, as he goes on to adopt some aggressive "free" sax lines as well, largely leaving the lead to Fielder (as tightly accompanied again by Smith). From-to-From is a richer album in this sense, but perhaps this release will bring something of the Texas scene, or at least the distinguished Fielder, to Europe.3 February 2017
I had noticed albums from Al Maslakh Records of Beirut in discographies & searches before, where I could sometimes see the distinctive graphic sense of label editor Mazen Kerbaj, but it was only recently that I decided to take the opportunity to listen: The label's most recent offering, Nashaz, was recorded in Berlin in February 2015, and features an improvising quartet of Andrea Neumann (b.1968; inside piano), Sharif Sehnaoui (guitar), Michael Thieke (b.1971; clarinet) & Michael Vorfeld (percussion). As the recording location, not to mention the presence of three German performers, suggests, Nashaz adopts important aspects from the Berlin scene, particularly from its more minimalist pole focused on detailed sonic interplay. However, as reflected in part by some Arabic titles — and the album title itself means "dissonant" — there is also a worldly & sophisticated sense of expression that seems to take us beyond any particular realm of sonic experimentation. Although Sehnaoui (who is new to me) has appeared on other Al Maslakh records, it is Thieke who is credited with making the recording. (I had mentioned Thieke in this space back in July 2013, but only incidentally. He also appears on the recent Because life should be so wonderful (I) on Malaysian label Herbal International, the second of a four-part series composed by Paed Conca, this entry featuring Japanese vocalist Maki Hachiya in a quartet with three clarinetists, recorded in Bern & mixed in Beirut. The album mostly constructs a world of shifting high pitches, with occasional melodic figures or harmonic outbursts.) It's possible I had heard Neumann previously, although her recorded output is not very large: She takes working inside the piano to the extreme, dispensing entirely with the outside, so as to leave something of a rigid harp. I've mentioned Vorfeld a couple of times in the past eighteen months, first as part of the percussion quintet Glück, and then regarding Sieben entrückte Lieder with Gratkowski & Richard Scott. Nashaz itself opens with a quiet hum & some offbeat banging, with a minimalist atmosphere often leading into denser textures. Indeed, it might be time to come up with a different term to describe the sorts of atonal textures derived from minimalist explorations but deployed in a non-minimal way. (We are not in a realm of repeated piano chords here.) It is perhaps the immanent character of Thieke's clarinet interaction, projecting a strong sense of breath, but within an ensemble texture that consists largely of struck or plucked notes, that is the most distinctive aspect of the sound of Nashaz — differing markedly from e.g. the previously discussed In Layers, on which the trumpet often soars above the texture. The sense of breath infuses the entire album with a kind of ritual calm that in turn intensifies the stakes of the interaction. Whereas Nashaz is mostly acoustic, the acts of pickup & mixing have not disappeared from the production, and so there is a bit of an electronic quality (as there truly always is with a recording), maybe even with a bit of an industrial edge: Indeed, in many ways Anomonous & its sophisticated contrabass clarinet & hyperpiano interaction is my most ready sonic reference, although there the result has a heavier sound, less subtle, and with some "normal" piano playing at times. Another comparison from this space is Whitewashed with lines, with its careful textural unfolding & processual creation of another landscape — and indeed Rhodri Davies has appeared on Al Maslakh, on the album Bricolage. Another clear reference, likewise overflowing the Berlin scene, one might say, is Spill Plus, a quieter album with a similar urge to vibrate (and the Spill duo also appeared on Al Maslakh, with the 2010 album Stockholm Syndrome — which I likewise did not register until after making the sonic connection). Perhaps I should mention Sediment as well, given its quasi-impersonal sense of calm & breath. Although I keep mentioning notions of calmness, the opening (title) track actually comes off (without contradiction) as a profound meditation on the ubiquity of trauma — an interpretation I'm basing "only" on my own thoughts & feelings while listening, although perhaps supplemented by the title — i.e., on the violence inherent (at a deep level) to life & existence themselves. The opener is also the longest track, but there is much else to hear: The even-numbered tracks are shorter, more gestural ("fluctuating"), with a kind of composite gonging emerging in the first, and alien bent chimes in the second. The longer middle track is perhaps the most prominent for guitar (and for a bit of an electronic quality), and follows an assertive, high-pitched opening with a strong sense of momentum (derived from a sort of hocket): One might take the curving curve of its title to be the clinamen. The final track builds a resonant echo that seems to arrive (after much activity) at a foggy seaport, and so ends by implying the start of a world voyage (sonically reminiscent of e.g. Sens radiants, as discussed here in August 2014) — and by its title, such a voyage becomes/comes from an oblique burning. (That sounds familiar somehow.) As noted, the clarinet remains an immanent part of a quietly splattering, percussive landscape that evokes the broader world in a number of registers — from the muffled yet precise industrial rumbling of strummed piano strings to distant tribal rhythmic becoming. As opposed to recent themes (in this space) of water, the interaction never does liquefy — one might say that it remains solidly human even as it deindividuates. Again, there are a number of albums that employ (at least superficially) similar sounds & approaches, so what makes Nashaz stand out to my ears? Is it anything real (e.g. transferable)? There's no tangible link to my work with Arabic classical music, for instance, but there is an analogous humanity. At some point, then, I just have to trust my own sensibility, and relate that even after several hearings, I continue to feel engaged & refreshed by this album.
In many ways, the prior album on Al Maslakh is even more striking: Ariha Brass Quartet (recorded November 2013 in Beirut, and released in 2015) features Axel Dörner, Franz, Hautzinger & Mazen Kerbaj on trumpets, and Carl Ludwig Hübsch on tuba. Apparently they forego mouthpieces for this highly focused interaction, which although rather minimal at times, does include a broad range of sonorities via breath, tonguing & other (sometimes percussive) forms of articulation. One might even characterize it as a collective study in articulating breath through a tube, again with a strangely effective sense of momentum (and again, a kind of ritual calm, which is the main thing I associate in common between the two albums). Hübsch recently appeared in this space with Drought, another album that projects a sense of calm, but in that case, sending the mind in a variety of almost centrifugal directions (in part via differentiated timbres) — as opposed to the hermeneutic concentration of Ariha Brass Quartet. The album I find perhaps most comparable, although still quite different, given its multifaceted ensemble, is the very underrated Ramble — another great album for clearing the mind (particularly of earworms). I should also mention the Earth Tongues trio (and its albums Rune & Ohio), with its perhaps even more similar breathy & richly articulated trumpet & tuba, there joined by actual percussion for color & in that case at a slow (albeit not truly geologic) pace. One might also note the soprano sax quartet Cold Duck (and in turn Kobi's electronically manipulated articulations on Carved Water). But with Ariha Brass Quartet, there is no electronic manipulation, unless one counts the recording & mixing processes themselves, and one should: Close miking is crucial to the brass articulations here (as it had been to the mix on Nashaz). What we hear, then, is an exploration of the rhythm of breath out of the smallest spaces & deviations, an exploration that almost seems to make pitch irrelevant (such that the trumpet & tuba seem interchangeable at times), forging a kind of equality amid difference. There isn't a lot happening sometimes, as procedures often slow to a single articulation, yielding a heightened sense of mental focus. (It would appear to evoke the ocean & seagulls toward the end as well.) Ariha Brass Quartet lets us hear, yet again, that even (especially?) in our highly mediated technical world, there remains something special about breathing. It's a uniquely appealing album that manages to exceed its own seemingly limited scope.13 February 2017
The Daniel Levin Quartet has used three different bassists, at least on recordings, but their latest release on Clean Feed, Live at Firehouse 12 (recorded May 2016) enacts a more substantial change by substituting Mat Maneri's viola for Nate Wooley's trumpet. So the Daniel Levin Quartet is now a string trio (viola, cello, bass) with vibraphone, i.e. another ensemble that's mostly from the violin family (such as those surveyed here last month), and one with a sudden similarity to recent favorite Chant & its string quartet with marimba lineup. As opposed to Chant, though, an often quiet & multi-faceted album incorporating a significant amount of classical string quartet history, and with an ensemble apparently conceived that way from the start, Live at Firehouse 12 reflects the distinct history of this particular quartet & its ongoing approach to ensemble. Indeed, it begins with an aggressively jazzy bass ostinato that dominates the opening track & suggests that these string instruments are not to to be treated "equally." A jazz approach to bass had been a normal procedure in previous albums, supporting a cello-trumpet front line, and so here we hear a similar approach, with a cello-viola front line. Moreover, it seems that Maneri's scratchy viola lines are intended to recall Wooley's muted trumpet, a displacement that seems more idiomatic as the album progresses. Indeed, the transitional character of this live recording (and recall that the Daniel Levin Quartet had already mixed live & studio releases among their first seven albums) is animated by its incorporation of Maneri, reaching perhaps its most idiomatic moments in the duo improvisation with Levin that follows most of the composed tracks. (It was recorded thirteen months after Friction, which includes Wooley, but also introduces Zetterberg with a jazzy opening bass solo, and which had been recorded a full five years after longtime favorite Organic Modernism, an album that marked something of a plateau for the quartet at the time.) Although Live at Firehouse 12 focuses on some complex compositions by Levin, it's "always lyrical" (per Clean Feed, albeit including dodecaphony), and indeed the disparate (historical) assembly of the ensemble yields an inherent dynamism beyond the presumptive timbral uniformity of the strings: Such differentiation would seem to provide the group with plenty to explore, and one can hear that exploration proceed into the more fluid ensemble interaction of the final track. Is there more to come? (Perhaps a quintet?)
It's probably more important to me than to readers, but I do believe that there's something of value (even) to readers in rehearsing where I'm coming from with these remarks: A new release such as Live at Firehouse 12, one that intersects some of the earliest months of this project, gives me opportunity to reflect. Rather, at least to me (and this is why I've spent so much time articulating thoughts on familiarity & aesthetic narrative in particular), it requires reflection on the arbitrary place from where I began this project: Simply put, things I only randomly heard some years ago continue to animate my thoughts in ways that I can't really escape. (At the most obvious factual level, this dynamic can be observed in that it elicits the present paragraph.) Organic Modernism — together with This brings us to, Pool School & Polylemma — is one of the four (or five) albums remaining from my original favorites list of late 2011. (This brings us to is actually two separate albums, and I believe, but don't recall with certainty, that Fremdenzimmer was added to the list only shortly after it was created.) I had begun writing on this topic & in this space in October 2010, and in a strange coincidence (or was it?), This brings us to, Pool School & Organic Modernism were all first mentioned here in May 2011, and actually discussed in more detail that June. (Polylemma would appear, as the first all-European album here, that September. It's amazing to think that I stayed away, relatively speaking, from international performers for close to a year, but that was the project I had set for myself, i.e. explicitly to emphasize USA musicians. That emphasis has obviously faded.) That these albums were introduced & then discussed in something of a two-step is an indication that I was sensing some changes in my approach, and the tendencies of that particular moment have largely continued. Or else I've locked myself into those choices, and cannot escape my own prior thoughts — such a point of doubt or ambivalence is exactly why I take self-auditing so seriously. I first encountered both Levin & Wooley on Pete Robbins' Live in Brooklyn (after I had heard some more mainstream-oriented music by Robbins via Pandora, which sure seems like a long time ago), and it turned out that, beyond appreciating his style, Levin's recording career fit my own timing particularly well: He had a handful of recent albums I could hear, but not too many, and not from too long ago. (My intent here had been to emphasize contemporary material from the start.) This happened a mere half a year or so after this project began, a far shorter period than has unfolded subsequently, and so here we are, with me openly wondering whether I can really interrogate my own history in a meaningful way. Another fact that this "audit" revealed to me is how this space has increasingly come to emphasize collective improvisation, with "composed music" confined to only a few arenas: Indeed, Clean Feed — with Levin being one of the main reasons — is one of the few labels represented on my current favorites list by albums featuring a substantial component of composed music. (The same is also true of the Pi label, supplemented by — as a strange coincidence? — a few albums involving Thomas Heberer elsewhere, as well as Bill Dixon's Tapestries. It's a short list.) Although it includes five weighty compositions by Levin, Organic Modernism actually has more group improvisation than either Friction or Live at Firehouse 12, which increasingly involve only brief improvisatory sections for reduced forces (perhaps reminiscent of Franco-Flemish polyphony, in which e.g. Josquin wrote especially energized sections for duos & trios). So maybe I should make a few remarks about composed music: I view improvisation as fundamental, i.e. as the way life is lived. In other words, I take acts of composition — acts that are never entirely separate from the improvisation of everyday life anyway — as inputs to what we actually do, or in particular, music we actually play. Such an approach might be said to be inspired by Indian classical music, where raga phrases & compositions are practiced endlessly, but specifically so that they can be articulated flawlessly & spontaneously in the course of an organic improvisatory process. Of course, one way to view composition is as an attempt by someone who isn't even present (the composer) to control people who are (the musicians): Deification of composers from earlier eras feeds into such a pathology of control. However, I do see composition as valuable: If you've got a musical idea that involves multiple people, but isn't arising spontaneously (even if it's inspired by spontaneity), why not codify it & see about playing it? Composition might also be an explicit means to reject the historical clichés that sometimes haunt improvised music: It can (at least in principle) be resolutely new. For me, then, such an exercise becomes "real" when the new material isn't imposed (as such), but arises from an improvisatory context (i.e. unmediated life). In other words, it becomes real when a prior act of composition becomes irrelevant. (That people speak of "instant composition" is, to me, simply a way of accommodating an obnoxious insistence on the superior value of "composed music," a notion that derives from an earlier era. And maybe that era, the era of imperialism, wasn't so great.) In this sense, composing has nothing final about it, but is a way to step back & work out some ideas for later use — and once again, then, I'll emphasize use. A composition, or document more generally, isn't much of anything until it's used, i.e. lived: Perhaps the right analogy (per the constitutional crises of our time) is a law & its interpretation.14 February 2017
Another recent Clean Feed release is Before the Heat Death, a short album (29 minutes) recorded in January 2016 by the CP Unit: Chris Pitsiokos (alto sax), Brandon Seabrook (electric guitar), Tim Dahl (electric bass) & Weasel Walter (drums). This is a very high energy, fast moving album, with the exception of the middle "ballad" track, and features a "jazz style" exposition of material inspired by rock & experimental music. I enjoyed its insistent sense of interlocking simultaneity that manages to pass through so many areas, including many brief yet idiomatic solos, in so short a time. After Pitsiokos's recent participation in Collective Effervescence (discussed here February 2016), and his trio album Protean Reality (mentioned at the same time), Before the Heat Death (on which all the tracks are his compositions) would seem to be something of a followup to Maximalism (discussed here August 2013), a trio with Walter & Ron Anderson (electric guitar). The latter first prompted me to pay attention to Pitsiokos, who is developing a very impressive & personal sax technique, and here with less of a soloistic orientation. Of course, fast rhythms amid a huge cascade of notes are nothing new for Walter, and indeed one might compare e.g. Ewen / Smith / Walter (an exhausting album more than twice as long) for a similar sense of breakneck speed, but that album comes off almost as discursive relative to the tight interaction on Before the Heat Death. The material itself wears on me — and in a strange sense, that's impressive too in such a short album — but there is a definite sense of something new taking shape. The hyperactivity somehow yields a sort of essential quality, a contradictory mental paring of activity per se. Or maybe that's just what good fun always does.15 February 2017
The other recent Clean Feed release that I still want to mention is Lignes De Crêtes, a live improvised trio album (recorded May 2016 in Paris) led by Jean-Brice Godet (clarinets, radio, dictaphones) with Pascal Niggenkemper & Sylvain Darrifourcq. I was attracted by Niggenkemper's presence on the release listing, but couldn't quite place Godet: I had him confused with someone else, it seems, but he studied with Joëlle Léandre, and plays on her second Can you hear me? album (discussed here in September), as well as on Carlo Costa's Strata, another large ensemble piece. (I had heard Darrifourcq with the Ceccaldi brothers, but don't remember much about his drumming, although it did have a rock edge there.) It turns out that Godet also has a previous, composed quartet album (also featuring Niggenkemper, this time with Michaël Attias & Costa) on Fou Records, Mujô: The notes say the material is based in Japanese thought, but it mostly comes off as rhythmic & harmonic post-bop, often with tight ensemble interaction (although there are some eerie, lowercase moments too). Godet's "straight," front line playing is enjoyable there, and suggests a personal style. Anyway, Lignes De Crêtes is not much like Mujô (which was recorded in Brooklyn in 2013 & 2014): It projects a noisy, almost disinterested background, from which expressive elements sometimes emerge (or crest?). Indeed it's lucky that I was first attracted by Niggenkemper's presence, since his prepared bass sets much of the tone, starting from the first track, on which it eventually merges with the clarinet (presumably aided by some electronics with which Godet is credited?) to form a composite instrument, the horn coming to suggest strange accents for the shifting & noisy bass. The album is dominated by duo interactions, including an extended clarinet-drums duo in the third track — such that Niggenkemper is not always at the center of activity, but he often is, and indeed one can almost perceive his (highly prepped) solo album Look with thine ears sounding throughout Lignes De Crêtes. (E.g. the first track of Talking Trash unfolds from a similar place as well.) The album flows out of its strange sense of "material," and much of that comes from Niggenkemper; it might thus be more accurate to describe him as the leader. The "negative" track titles seem to indicate a quest to move away from anything familiar, and whereas this album produces some great sequences & striking timbral combinations at times, much of it can seem rather "raw," especially for a label like Clean Feed that features so many polished (and composed) productions: We are often basically waiting for something to happen, at least in the ensemble sense. (The zither, played by Darrifourcq particularly from the latter portion of the third track, and yielding intense duos on the last track, is also worth noting. It's something that happens.) According to Clean Feed, this apparently involves exploring "ideas of impermanence and imperfection," which I think it's fair to say is utterly ordinary for an improvised music concert. Criticisms aside, there is something intriguing happening here, and not so unlike the previous entry (and I will likely revisit this notion again soon), there is a novel sense of "material" subjected to traditional procedures — not jazz-traditional in this case, and not emphasizing speed, but of a more abstract process type. Once one begins to grasp the material behind the development, the development process itself starts to seem repetitive. The result is therefore not "raw" per se, but rather a different crossing of material & development that (not coincidentally) yields a sonic density fairly typical of a Clean Feed album. In spite of its novelty, then, and perhaps because of it, Lignes De Crêtes presents a slowing down, a restricted development of possibilities emerging from a new (although increasingly explored) timbral world of buzzing indeterminacy.18 February 2017
To favorite recordings list.
To early music thoughts.© 2010-17 Todd M. McComb