It's been more than seven years since I started this project, so there's more of a sense of knowing what it is: Broad questions of what musicians are doing or how musical examples relate to my theoretical projects fade — somewhat. (Perhaps it's a cliché, but seven years has a feel of maturity in this regard.) I don't want to feel complacent about what's happening, though, even if some "usual channels" begin to stabilize, and so I'll continue to seek out the occasional wildcard, i.e. something unknown or that I wouldn't necessarily expect to appreciate much. But what sort of music? The implications of "jazz" in the title can vary: For me, it suggests music that resists the status quo, music that forges new senses of social justice, music that improvises new ways of living & interacting — and often with a nod toward the African American history of those impulses, perhaps extended to the ongoing fight against global oppression & imperialism, including domestic & neo-imperialism.
Why improvised music? Because life itself is spontaneous, and so I've tried to retain some spontaneity in writing here as well, i.e. when responding to music. Whereas it might be prudent to wait for fully sober reflections, particularly if one doesn't want one's fanciful thoughts & tangents to end up sounding silly, there's also a personal sense of discovery that cannot readily be retrieved once lost. So whereas I don't want to make counter-factual statements, I do want to retain a novel or imaginative impulse. Most of the entries here are consequently oriented around first (or second or ...) impressions of particular recordings, and I include (at least) basic documentary information, but many recordings remain on my mind, and are mentioned again subsequently in relation to later recordings. (Maybe I should start writing new entries oriented around old favorites? That would presumably provide for a more sober discussion.) Indeed, writing of one album in terms of another album becomes — more broadly — translation of something into something else, including music into writing. That's not to say that the writing is equivalent to the music, i.e. that such translation is "reversible" (as one might say), but that the writing is a response to the music: It's a response to music more than it's an exposition of music. (I've never thought of myself as a journalist, and any such attribution feels very strange. I do cite other people in my work, though, a practice of human society that dates back as far as we know....)
So what am I (here)? I'm a writer, specifically, in that I'm "doing things" with the written word: Whereas some of these entries consist of little more than noting the existence of an album that I think deserves (at least) some attention, others are more deeply engaged. And the latter are some of the texts that readers sometimes find difficult... the difficulty arising in part from my polyphonic writing style, wedged (or translated or transformed) into tapestry blocks or paragraphs such as these via juxtapositions, oppositions, parenthetical remarks, etc. Many entries thus don't proceed via linear exposition or narrative style. But then much music doesn't proceed via linear exposition or narrative style! So I'm a writer who doesn't privilege writing. (Although it won't be happening in this space, a musical response to music is certainly an aesthetic response, and perhaps an interrogation or clarification. Indeed, much music is in response to other music.) Translation has become something of my basic theoretical approach, then, including toward disciplines beyond music. One might consult, for instance, a couple of recent (ongoing) theoretical series, Basic mechanics of modernity & Practical listening. Or one might return to the previous set of entries here, with its own intro, and to those before it, etc. (This intro is simply the latest, rather arbitrary break in my work, another restart.) I like to make words dance, and pay close attention to internal rhythms in every phrase — so maybe that's a key to syntax.
The title of this space doesn't involve only jazz, but also thinking: I'm not only performing as a writer here, but as a thinker or theorist, and what I'm seeking to interrogate & unfold concerns my own thoughts & priorities. (As if any thought is entirely our own.) That's what drives the project, and in this sense, the music is by way of example. Yet as the ongoing sequence on translation suggests, example is not separable from theory: There is no "final objectivity" possible in such a narrative, no "endpoint" to a chain of relations. It's ultimately a bunch of commentary on commentary, across media, swirling around itself. To this we all bring different perspectives & priorities (not to mention different tools): My emphasis on social theory & interaction has in turn produced an emphasis on small — but not too small — ensembles in this space: Whereas I sometimes listen to solos or duos, I rarely features them. Indeed, I rarely mention most albums that I hear: I need to feel as though I have something to say, i.e. an artistic response, or at least to feel as though others with an interest might not notice otherwise. (The latter prompt actually feels more vain. The former usually comes with passion.) And as the mention of sequence further suggests... as not only thoughts in general, but thoughts on individual albums continue to develop through these entries, they depend upon each other & in the order written. (After all, significant albums will be discussed in more than one entry.) I have thus resisted prompts to present entries out of order or in a readily separable (individually searchable) format. So please scroll to the bottom for the latest.
Narrative history affects more than the structure of this writing, of course, and extends into (my prior) personal history as well: What music catches one's ear now has much to do with what has caught one's ear in the past, i.e. personal aesthetic narrative (per an opening to What is familiar?). I spent twenty years focusing on pre-modern music (from around the globe), for instance, after a shorter (but intense) sequence in contemporary classical music. (Although my family lived in a cultural backwater, and worked in construction & farming, I "discovered" classical radio as a small child: They largely left me to my eccentricities, as long as I did my chores.) Consequently, I'm not much into "alternative rock" or various other flavors of USA popular music. "Jazz" often employs such material, but that's largely orthogonal — or one might say historically contingent — to what I'd articulated in the opening paragraph. Given the emphasis on translation, one might even characterize most of my interests in this area as — beyond improvisatory — "crossovers" in some generalized sense. (Perhaps because of all this, I'm often more taken with vocal albums than most people who discuss similar music seem to be.) The "project" here then adheres according to musical relation, i.e. relations between music but also between music & anything else. As I often ask, what is the "use" of some particular recording? What does it do in various (hectic, even frenetic life) circumstances? What can it do for me? (Thus I turn the old notion of "art as monad" on its head. Instead, how does it relate, to whom, to what?)
What exactly is this project then? (It's my most intensive, but not my only musical project of the moment.) It consists of thoughts & examples — including a brief list of favorites by year, conveniently summarized for those with an interest but little time — relating music to other music, and further to everything else — the social world & (often abstract) political resistance in particular. Finally, as the opening paragraph suggests, while I have an evolving sense of what musicians are doing, there's no way I'll ever hear everything. (There are only so many hours in the day, and most of mine already involve music.) So please do let me know if some thoughts here suggest something else I should hear. Or if you already know that I appreciate your music, and have something new. (Unfortunately, like so much work, musical releases seem to come in bunches, and sometimes there are lulls, such as while I'm writing this entry. Other times I feel almost overwhelmed with quantity.) After these seven years, I don't want to find myself in a musical (or intellectual) lull — and certainly not feeling as if I know it all. (There are always new ways of living & interacting, after all. But it's one thing to know that theoretically....) All that said, here's to another productive year, at least musically speaking....Todd M. McComb <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Although, as suggested, I might write some new entries oriented on specific older (relative to this project, that is, i.e. from the past handful of years) recordings, I don't want to start making this space about the past. However, given the retrospective mood of the previous entry, I thought I'd pick "albums of the year" going back a few years. These are selections I'm making right now, not a reflection of what I was thinking then — not that I remember what that was, if anything:
2017: Traintracks Roadsides Wastelands Debris — pinnacle of its genre.
2016: Nessuno — close choice in a year with multiple landmark albums.
2015: Oakland / Lisboa — narrowly edging Natura venomous.
2014: North of Blanco — in an asymmetric duel with Phase/transitions.
2012: Ewen / Smith / Walter — as a bit of a toss up winner among what remains a surprisingly influential (on me anyway) field.
I'm not intending to make this into a regular thing, particularly picking for the previous year. I consider it to be a coincidence that I rebooted this page in January, and don't want to make general commitments for the end of year period. Anyway, perhaps these choices will provide some helpful further context in the present moment.20 January 2018
Although rebooting this page during a lull in releases makes good sense in some ways, it also means I don't have something more distinctive to say from the beginning — and that would likely have been better form. (The lull is starting to end, but as noted, I want to keep the writing in experiential order.) That said, I had mentioned Planets of Kei when discussing Core-Tet Project in December, and now it's here: Not Two has more sporadic distribution to the US than some of the other high volume, quality free jazz labels — and Not Two also probably has the nicest packaging of any of the higher volume labels — but albums do eventually find their way to me. Planets of Kei is an improvised trio album involving not only Szilárd Mezei, per that earlier entry, but Samo Salamon (b.1978, Slovenia) on acoustic guitar & Achille Succi on bass clarinet & alto sax. I hadn't mentioned Salamon previously, but did listen to his recent (composed) sextet album (also with Succi) on Clean Feed, The Colours Suite, recorded a few months before Planets of Kei (September 2016 in Slovenia, in the latter case). Succi had appeared previously in this space with Scoolptures & e.g. White Sickness (first discussed here in February 2012), and has apparently recorded a half dozen other albums with Salamon. (I hadn't noticed most of these, however.) Planets of Kei is a long album, with twelve tracks including four duos, and opens with a striking three-way interaction: I'm not sure to what the "Kei" refers, but it appears in the title of another Salamon album. Nor do I know what makes this "Free Sessions Vol. 1," but presumably more (from this exact trio, from Salamon?) are coming: The opening track proceeds circuitously into something of a cadence on held tones, setting the stage for novel counterpoint from clear gesture. Indeed, most tracks have clear beginnings & ends, with the duo tracks, which are about twenty percent of the album by length, punctuating the broader development. (The last two tracks are the longest, and do incorporate a richer sense of intersecting gesture.) The album is generally neither fast nor slow, but has a relatively leisurely individual pace that can seem almost busy when all three players are active. Both the ensemble & result are thus rather akin to that on Hunt at the Brook, an album that nonetheless seems more intentional & assured. Still, there is much to enjoy on Planets of Kei, occasionally with longer (tonal) quasi-tunes, but usually in the manner of quick bursts & almost pointillistic interchanges that suggest something of a percussive quality by their back & forth interaction. (I sometimes think of Drought due to the pace & three-way timbral clarity, even if the horn might imitate viola or vice versa. Planets of Kei doesn't induce a sense of calm, though.) Sometimes the trio sounds almost jazzy behind Succi, sometimes Mezei goes off on one of his angular riffs (although not virtuosic per se to the degree of Still now), and sometimes the dialog is downright strange — although not in an aggressive way — and that's ultimately the (acoustic) charm of this album.23 January 2018
Another late 2017 release that I want to note, albeit recorded in 2014, is Red October by Polyorchard: It actually appeared on cassette (a very silly idea, if you ask me, but it's also on the Bandcamp site) recently at Squidco — presumably in part due to the North Carolina connection. (It was recorded in Raleigh.) Indeed, Polyorchard has a rather distinctive & seemingly rather "American" improvisatory style of interaction — evocative, perhaps, of Jack Wright & e.g. Roughhousing or Calgary 2012 — that specifically warrants a mention. On Red October, the group is a quartet, nearly a typical "free jazz" quartet in fact, consisting of Jeb Bishop (trombone), Laurent Estoppey (saxophone), David Menestres (double bass) & Shawn Galvin (percussion). And on other albums, the same name is applied to different trios around Menestres. (It took me a moment to remember where I had seen his name before, but Menestres writes reviews at the Free Jazz Blog. And I have no idea what the track titles yielding "I would like to have seen Montana" are about, but I suppose that's American too, at least in a literal sense. Or maybe Russian.) I had mentioned Bishop in September as part of the trombone trio on Konzert für Hannes, and indeed he appears on many albums, particularly out of Chicago, but the other two were new to me. I was quickly attracted to Galvin's orchestral percussion, and between that & the trombone, the quartet does manage to sound different from the classics. As the album proceeds, though, the roles start to become more conventional, even while retaining a contrapuntal sense — as techniques start to seem sequential. (The fourth track is apparently composed, despite the notes talking up the group's focus on improvisation.) There are still some fine moments, with each musician contributing uniquely to the overall texture & in varying combinations.24 January 2018
Returning to discuss more from Agustí Fernández, The Liquid Trio, in which he is joined by Albert Cirera on saxophones & Ramon Prats on drums, appears to be his most recorded ensemble: They have at least two prior albums as a trio, not to mention e.g. Before the Silence (released on No Business in 2016) on which Fernández & Cirera are joined by members of Red Trio (but not Prats), but the focus of this entry is The Liquid Trio Plays Bernoulli, recorded in Salamanca in January 2017 — so, subsequent to the 60th birthday albums previously mentioned here. The reference to Bernoulli is apparently to underscore the "liquid" theme, although clearly a trio oriented around a fixed pitch instrument like piano is not as fluid as some. (Presumably they mean what they say about being under less pressure when moving more quickly, though? Or vice versa, that slower sections carry more weight? Such "musical" Bernoulli evocations do make some sense....) Nonetheless, this trio — which might be compared to e.g. Kaufmann-Gratkowski-De Joode in its ongoing connection — seems to exemplify a significant facet of the Barcelona improvisatory scene. (Besides, perhaps incongruously, these releases from Poland, Discordian Records is another good place to explore Barcelona style. They have a large Bandcamp site: Cirera appears on at least five albums there, Prats two & Fernández seven.) Fernández is obviously central to this scene, as well as to this trio, and Plays Bernoulli is a compelling album, nearly an hour long in three extended tracks. It captures attention immediately with a mysterious piano chord that also seems to mark a sense of urgency, promptly joined by breezy sax & exotic percussion. Much of the album involves more conventional pianism, with the same chord returning in quiet moments in the (longest) first track, but there is also manipulation of the interior (including rubbed strings etc.) blending with percussion. Moreover, there are sounds of transit, explicitly jazzy passages, (briefly) static textures, as well as both relatively simple juxtapositions & complex extended runs. So the interaction is sophisticated & far-ranging, and can be rather raucous: By the end, after slowly building from the longest section of extended technique (quietly opening the third track), the pounding cacophony is quite evocative of a traditional vein of free jazz, and the audience's applause confirms the energy in the room. In short, there are many appealing combinations to enjoy, particularly as Fernández sounds that much more assured in the wake of his 60th birthday events. Plays Bernoulli is oriented more on piano (or any single instrument) than I might prefer, although the sax does occupy the lead in the (shortest) second track, but projects such a broad sense of development & mastery that it will surely appeal relatively widely. (It can also be heard on the Fundacja Sluchaj Bandcamp page.) It's the overall tapestry that stands out, particularly on the opening track, despite that the piano generally remains centered — not so unlike Celebration Ensemble with its larger forces.
Also recently from Fundacja Sluchaj, I want to note Ultra by Joe Morris & Agustí Fernández & a string trio (Tanya Kalmanowitch, Yasmine Azaiez & Junko Fujiwara). In this case, Ultra was recorded back in 2011, and Morris had to be encouraged by Fernández to release it. The former had wanted to pair bowed strings with guitar — and had done so with the quartet on Camera, recorded in 2010 & mentioned here in 2011, pairing guitar with two bowed strings (including Fujiwara) & drums — such that those combinations apparently remained on his mind. (Ultra was also recorded three days after From the Discrete to the Particular, a relatively popular album with Morris & Fernández joined by Nate Wooley, and discussed here in December 2012.) Morris had begun his ideas for such an ensemble by composing the music (& including horns), but Ultra was (ultimately) improvised: His concerns had revolved around making sure that the guitar was audible, and balance does remain an issue on Ultra. However, the piano is generally quite audible — the piano quartet is a classical format, after all — and so sculpts & buoys a rather busy interaction of "squeaking doors," pizzicato, harmonics, and ultimately some more minimal playing. Indeed, the opening is amazing, and most of the striking moments come early in the program, as the quintet seems to run out of steam as it goes along, eventually ending in some tuneful moments. I've regularly been taken with ensembles featuring multiple bowed strings, as a quick survey of recent entries here will indicate, and they usually include another instrument (or two), so Ultra fits the mold: Some other albums of note are Chant with its four strings joined by marimba, as well as its generally quieter & smoother texture, The Afterlife of Trees (discussed here in December) with its (in this case) rather minimalist piano quartet interaction, and even Colophony for its tight ensemble of similarly jagged interactions around pizzicato, etc. So whereas Ultra might fail in terms of economy of forces, and not meet Morris's original vision showcasing guitar, it does make some striking contributions to a relatively new & evolving ensemble genre, particularly via its strong sense of rhythm. I guess Morris gave up on ensembles such as this, at least for a few years....25 January 2018
As I prepare to discuss a handful of new releases, beginning to appear again after the year end lull, including a few items actually dated 2018, I want to revisit the "albums of the year" entry from last month: As my remark regarding 2012 already suggested, I didn't really go back & spend time evaluating a choice. I went more on memory & "impressions," and indeed was in something of a rush to provide something tangible (or even juicy) for readers at the head of this new page. Anyway, having subsequently taken some (renewed) time with my favorites from 2012, I realize that I should have listed Yad: Although it's not necessarily as available as some items, and perhaps there's been some "water under the bridge" between me & Jeff Shurdut, Yad is the album from 2012 — among (of course) multiple excellent choices — that I'm finding most compelling here in 2018. (I guess it was a natural outcome, i.e. that I'd reach my limit & go a little past, in terms of what I wanted to relate, and end up overstepping on a choice. And then I'd revise. Perhaps I should also note that the list of yearly favorites wouldn't be identical to a hypothetical "top whatever" list of favorites in general, which — as readers might expect, given my priorities — would be weighted toward recent issues, and likely far more volatile.) I did end up working a bit with Jeff on some projects after that release, a concert & an interview in particular, and sometimes we saw eye to eye, and sometimes we didn't. I know Jeff didn't like the interview result. Honestly, I didn't enjoy the process either: I felt as though we weren't being genuine enough, and I don't really understand Jeff's attitude about... his reputation, I guess it is... so in that sense, it's a matter for him & not me. Jeff basically seemed to want to present himself as a larger than life figure, and for me, that belied his musical strengths, which I take to be more immanent, more participatory & inviting. He's got that "everyday" vibe (in a positive sense such that I find his music to be "useful") to what he's doing, with a variety of sounds from the (usually urban, but also indoor) landscape, including his wonderful idea to tune to environmental resonances. I (still) find the resulting style compelling, so for me, being frank about the whole process made plenty of sense. Anyway, I don't know, maybe this isn't what I (or likely readers) had in mind when I suggested writing new entries about old favorites.... Yad actually involves one of the larger ensembles on the list, an octet, and making the various layers & divergent personal styles come together in a single tapestry is one of Jeff's strengths: That Yad can be both quite dissonant & quite tuneful, often simultaneously, is something I associate with both Jeff & this album (which, incidentally, was recorded at DMG, perhaps marking a particular era). Yad takes in broad territories, via a wide palette of sounds & evocations — powerfully so amid an ongoing drive toward constant newness (reinflected, perhaps, with a traditional tune). It's a great album, and if anything, the followups (& Jeff has a huge prior, exploratory discography as well) are even less available, meaning it continues to stand out after six years: It continues to be a model for me of musical interaction at this scale. And now I've explicitly said so (again).8 February 2018
Although there are still some releases from 2017 awaiting discussion here (and perhaps more that I have yet to hear), 2018 releases are underway with Stomiidae by a trio of Daniel Levin, Chris Pitsiokos & Brandon Seabrook. Stomiidae (recorded over two days in April 2016) refers to a family of deep sea ray-finned fish, and the seven short tracks name various genuses & species in the family, so at least the title seems congruent with many of the earlier Dark Tree releases, which mostly revolved around naturalism & human-environmental figurations. These were by French performers, though, and so this trio is something of a departure — although incongruously, Dark Tree has most recently released a couple of free sessions from 1970s Los Angeles! — as is the music, which despite the titles, seems rather more abstract than it does naturalist. (Perhaps the music's basic aggression, which seems to fade somehow with exposure, is reminiscent of at least the look of these fish.) Anyway, Levin has been something of a fixture here since early in this project, and Stomiidae marks another improvised project for him, following New Artifacts (another two "strings" & horn trio) & others with Mat Maneri: His style continues to develop, particularly in these improvised settings, perhaps most decisively on the solo album Living (recorded August 2015, like New Artifacts, and discussed here in September). Pitsiokos has also appeared here on multiple occasions, most recently with Nate Wooley's enigmatic Knknighgh (in August) — and Wooley was also a fixture in the Daniel Levin Quartet (which has mostly featured composed music). Seabrook actually appeared here way back in 2012, in rather different music, and then most recently — underscoring these various cross-connections — on Pitsiokos's Before the Heat Death (with Weasel Walter & Tim Dahl, discussed last February). With the cello, the instrumentation of this trio is distinctive, although with bass instead, it would be rather classic — from the first Jimmy Giuffre Trio to e.g. You Haven't Heard This from last year. (Or with viola, as one might consider the cello as "between" viola & bass, a comparison would be e.g. Hunt at the Brook. Note, moreover, that the Daniel Levin Quartet had differentiated cello strongly from bass, with the former as a clear front line instrument, so perhaps this latter comparison is more apt.) That said, Stomiidae is indeed a raucous album at times, with various extended techniques, but often slows too... there is sometimes a shadowy melodic sense amid the motion, but at other times, there is traffic or screaming, albeit transformed. (I do have an issue with the recorded sound at times, which is closely mic'd & can lack definition or become muddy, although the three instruments — all in different families — are usually clearly audible.) It generally features quick exchanges, with multiple lines articulated at once from short figures, and so many novel timbral combinations — making for a great start to 2018. I understand that the trio intends to continue performing, and so I look forward to what they do next. This project appears to have great potential, featuring three distinctive & maturing voices from the NY-area improvising scene.
Rather tangentially, although given the (near) overlap above, I do also want to note Weasel Walter's new quartet album Throes are the Only Trouble (on his Bandcamp site): Walter is joined by Michael Foster (saxes), Steve Swell (trombone), & Brandon Lopez (bass). Of course, Swell participates in many quality projects. Lopez seems to have really burst onto the scene — including recently with his own quartet album, The Industry of Entropy on Relative Pitch. Foster appeared with Walter (& Lopez) on Igneity, and also on While We Still Have Bodies (discussed in November). Throes are the Only Trouble is a rather traditional album for Walter, using a classic "free jazz quartet" format (albeit with trombone rather than trumpet), which might be why it's kind of under the radar. There is a distinctive collective sense of rhythm, however, sometimes moving at multiple different paces: Perhaps such "throes" are worked through, however, as the quartet moves more into "slow" (yet busy) rumbling waves (not so unlike Lopez's quartet) by the end. So it shows something of a "coming together" style. Further, although it's a duo, I also want to note Walter's new album with Sandy Ewen, Idiomatic, which is much more probing (including in slow sections) than the trio's (with Damon Smith) recent Live in Texas (discussed here in November 2016) in terms of following the revelatory (and generally very fast) Ewen / Smith / Walter. Anyway, it will be interesting to see where Walter goes from here, as his absence from album production seems to have been short lived after announcing the closure of UgExplode.15 February 2018
In November, I took the plunge to discuss a couple of recent FMR releases by Udo Schindler, and whereas there was much to appreciate, they involved tracks recorded in different months, different performers participating track to track, etc... basically they seemed more like compilations than "real albums," in whatever subjective sense that might be meaningful. Apparently I could have waited only a little while longer for the yet more recent Sound Energy Transformation, as Schindler continues to release albums at quite a pace. Sound Energy Transformation was recorded in Munich in July 2016 by a group called "TrioSET" (their initials) consisting of Udo Schindler (clarinets, soprano sax, euphonium), Korhan Erel (b. Turkey; computer, controllers) & Sebi Tramontana (trombone). Tramontana had performed with Schindler on Hell dunkel, and here instead of horn players employing electronics alongside their instruments, as on that album, the two horns are joined specifically by Erel to handle this dimension. (Schindler's release pace is not confined to FMR either: He has another new album, a duo with Erel, Leben | Nebel on Creative Sources, recorded a day later & mentioned in the info from FMR.) At times, the resulting sound combinations might be compared to the recent Trialectics (albeit including string bass there) or the post-processed horn trio of World of Objects, but as with the previous albums featuring Schindler, there is a rather different mood: Even the most bizarre or seemingly aggressive extended techniques retain such a sense of calm precision that there is clear sonic beauty evoked — even when e.g. blowing a clarinet through its finger holes. Such clarity of tone combines with a clarity of gesture to give the ten short tracks rather different characters, and not generally (overly, overtly) serious characters either. Although I prefer e.g. the opening, where the intricate technical counterpoint even reminds me a bit of, say, Milton Babbitt, there are others in which forms are more open or tonal (and presumably much easier for the listener) — all of this being encapsulated in the notion of "bagatelle" that subtitles the album. (Beethoven's Für Elise is likely the best known "bagatelle.") There is thus almost a lightness projected by what is often rather novel music. Textures are usually not very thick, yet transformation (as per the title) is nearly constant, as each bagatelle (or gesture) proceeds in some clear yet seemingly arbitrary (musical) direction. Some are far more animated than others, while some are more intricate or instead involve broader temporal figures, making for a great deal of sonic variety on the album overall. The result is also something of an electronic interrogation (by Erel) of horn sound, both brass (including euphonium) & (less ubiquitously) reed (& even uncredited, voice), and so might be compared to e.g. Growing carrots... which involves something similar (performed by Wade Matthews) with or for a violin family duo: The latter is rather more piercing (at least at times), and involves a lot more sustained — even gritty — tone from the strings, plus needn't rely on electronics so much e.g. for pitch bending. In other words, Schindler does not have a "dirty" sound in the sense that early improvisers with electronics (many subsequently going into rock music) would understand the term, although there is sometimes "noise" per se: At least after the somewhat startling percussive opening, he & his companions generally maintain a sense of beauty & precision across a wide timbral spectrum. (Timbral transformation proceeds as far as low brass into chimes.) Sometimes they come off almost as mad scientists (or kindly professors) demonstrating tricks — again per the bagatelle notion. Perhaps this suggests or provides the welcoming sense to Sound Energy Transformation, as there is undoubtedly a distinctive warmth injected into these highly technical concerns by Schindler et al. (Transformation of sound & energy per se is undoubtedly a big part of that too.) What they have ready to demonstrate does seem to have run its course by the time the album ends, so I guess we'll have to wait to learn what they cook up next.18 February 2018
Although it was recorded by a trio of English improvisers — Steve Noble (b.1960), Adrian Northover & Daniel Thompson — live last year in London, Ag is a (late 2017) release on Creative Sources: This is not the first English album to appear on Creative Sources, much as there have been recent Portuguese albums on FMR, but it does seem more directly related to some other English releases than much of what appears on Creative Sources (the variety of which I shouldn't understate). Of course, the album is still welcome, including as a sort of international musical exchange, even before it gets exchanged across the globe as an art object... and I'm finding much to enjoy. Only back in May, writing around the sax trio album PEN (and I intend to return to those comments again in a few entries), I noted that I wouldn't be able to differentiate Noble stylistically from other English drummers. The situation has changed rapidly! I elected not to discuss it at the time, but I started to take notice of Noble's music with the Aural Terrains release Home (recorded in April & July 2016), a duo with Yoni Silver on bass clarinet: This is a particularly richly detailed duo of fascinating extended techniques, and both musicians make a strong impression. (Perhaps this is the time to wonder why Ag is named Ag? I don't know why it should be in reference to Silver, but.... The packaging itself is in black & white & gray, whatever that might mean.) Anyway, I've since learned that, among other things, Noble studied percussion with "a Nigerian master" (Elkan Ogunde, with whom I'm not otherwise familiar), and such an influence does show here — although I wouldn't necessarily distinguish West African styles by nationality myself (as might otherwise be implied). I recently mentioned both Northover & Thompson around Runcible Quintet: Five, and something of a similar style of interaction — albeit more austere with a trio — maintains here. (I still very much enjoy both the way the quintet handles a five-way interaction, and the quick & varied musical combinations that result.) Here Thompson is once again on acoustic guitar, while Northover adds alto sax to soprano. I should again note Thompson's prior participation on the acoustic trio album Hunt at the Brook, another original & densely motivic conversation, itself a followup to Compost (with Alex Ward, recorded in 2012). Whereas those albums present obvious precedents for the musicians, other favorites in the horn-guitar-drums genre, despite some clear differences (including electric guitar), present some remarkably similar dynamics: Longtime favorite Pool School (emphasizing tenor sax) is much more rhetorical & so reposed, often with at least hints of melody; more recent release (also on FMR, as were the previous albums mentioned) Tipple Live at Elastic Arts begins in a remarkably similar mood, with "boiling teapots" horn & austere percussion (there, vibes), although it subsequently takes on more of a rock mood, and becomes far louder around the electric guitar. Yet somehow the latter retains something of a ritual feel, and indeed Ag projects a rather strong sense of ritual throughout — sometimes eerie, sometimes austere, sometimes noisier. Although the individual sounds remain fairly clear — although not always (is that another daxophone?) — there is a wide range of timbre, from high resonant lines of flight to slow, bent metal & scraping strings. Evocations of African rhythm emerge at various points, although the strongly energetic performance usually enfolds them, such that the resulting sense of restraint only seems to amplify power & tension. Carefully crafted articulations seem to gain in gravity as (even the faster) figures (seem to) move across the crisply recorded sound stage: There is a consequent feeling not only of ritual, but of broad respect, of opening to the world of exchange & articulation. There are moments when the sax comes off almost melodically & even (briefly) dominates the texture, but Ag generally seems to be a drummer's album, with wonderfully varied accents & dialog from sax & guitar articulating the overall flow: Escaping, squealing lines (even cackling calls) against a pulsating, rattling, earthy background only seem to invoke a further sense of gravity within the proceedings. As does Home, Ag thus offers quite a polished (yet thoroughly improvisational) presentation.
I should also make a (brief) note of the recent (from the same batch as Sound Energy Transformation) FMR release The Dinner Party, featuring Northover with pianist Vladimir Miller (who has been around for a few decades it seems) & bassist Pierpaolo Martino, and also recorded (this time in Italy) in June 2017 — in fact the day after Ag. I like the ominous opening, but the trio quickly involve more conventional musical notions, including the tender piano of 1980s jazz. Still, there are some creaking doors opening from within the general romantic mood of the eight tracks, and I should probably be better able to enjoy something... optimistic, I guess it is... such as this.
Given the labels mentioned in this entry, and particularly on the heels of my list of favorites for 2017, which involved the smallest set of record labels yet, I also have to wonder if I've gotten into something of a rut with labels (& so sources): I mused on this issue just last December, and resolved to continue seeking items from less prolific labels. I still feel that way, but at least right now, labels such as FMR & especially Creative Sources have been releasing a lot of albums that I've found enjoyable and/or thought provoking. And it seems crazy to start ignoring sources that I've been particularly enjoying! (So there are already other items from those labels in my writing queue. I'm an obsessive self-auditor, but that doesn't necessarily mean I know what to do about it.) We'll see what happens here as things proceed.... Perhaps something else entirely will catch my ear soon. In any case, I should probably stop making these public apologies, since they're boring.22 February 2018
Ag is certainly a short, enigmatic title, and so is Sîn: The circumflex is curious, but might be an evocation of the almost obsessive attention to detail that dominates the musical interaction itself. The history of Sîn is, at least in some sense, more straightforward: The same quartet of viola, alto sax, trumpet & double bass had already appeared on Nor (recorded in May 2014, and featured here in April 2015). And Ernesto Rodrigues had already turned to different — & less frequent — collaborators on the same instruments for New Dynamics, which does indeed feature a different dynamic around the two-horn & two-string acoustic quartet. (I continue to appreciate New Dynamics quite a bit, but that "sprinkler" cover graphic is among my least favorite on the label.) Whereas Nor was a studio album recorded in one day in Berlin, and New Dynamics was recorded live in Lisbon, Sîn was recorded over two days in a studio (again in Berlin). There are no track breaks, so it's unclear what might have happened on different days, but there are also various pauses in the music that might have been marked by track breaks on other productions. Sîn also differs in that it was recorded by Frangenheim & mixed by Rodrigues — which is typical enough — but then mastered by André Hencleeday (who has participated in various other Rodrigues projects). Perhaps such a rethinking of the audio itself, if indeed it did involve rethinking, accounts for the relative delay in the release as well: Whereas many recordings appear a year or two after they were made, that's less often the case with Rodrigues, who often releases albums only a few months after a recording session, and in fact for context, I was discussing New Dynamics in this space three days after Sîn was recorded. (And for more context, although Nor is a recent album in many ways, there have been over two hundred Creative Sources releases in the interim.) Anyway, the result is such that whereas Nor can be maddeningly quiet, and (much like the first thirty seconds or so of K'Ampokol Che K'Aay) Sîn presents that way for a moment too, it ultimately has a lot more presence: In fact, at one point, it's so loud that it becomes frightening. There is quite a dynamic range, but one can hear everything clearly with attention — which is much more satisfying for me. Where things start to seem a little strange again, however, is that — in spite of passages that can become overwhelming — Sîn is also easy to ignore as background music. Full stop. So how is this situation possible? Perhaps another consequence of the relative lateness of this release is that, much to my surprise, it was already in "cddb" when I went to put a copy on my portable computer (since I move around the area, by public transit, on a regular basis): This was an unusual situation, as very few of these albums are to be found in that database, at least not as soon as I usually audition them. There is another aspect to this, though, and that's that the genre was listed as "ambient." .... As long as I'm discussing computers anyway, then, I have to be specific about my fraught relation to ambient music: I cannot think about it without thinking of the Microsoft system sounds (which were composed by Brian Eno, for anyone who might not know) — and the Microsoft sounds make me angry, because interacting with Microsoft & its noxious products has made me very angry over the years. (I was involved with the DIY culture around computers since before Microsoft, then in the guise of "DOS," and via their contract with IBM, took over the consumer & small business market. I generally prefer BSD myself, although I'm typing this on a very spartan Ubuntu portable. Anyway....) So this history is truly a barrier for me in terms of thinking worthwhile thoughts on the topic, since my reaction is quite visceral. (The startup sound for Microsoft Windows feels like a punch in the face.) That said, I have more or less just described the fundamental goal of ambient music, i.e. to occupy as much of one's attention as one wants to provide, and to be easy to ignore otherwise. So that label does appear to be apt, at least partially. However, Eno has also strongly associated ambient music with computers & studio post-production. And whereas I do insist that one consider the act of recording, mixing etc. already to yield an electroacoustic result, and I have no idea what might have occurred over the two days of recording Sîn, let alone subsequent mixing etc., this is still an acoustic album — in the conventional sense that it records traditional acoustic instruments: The techniques aren't even terribly extended. (One can also listen to the Portuguese half of this quartet explore some similar ideas in the company of two other players on electronics on Skiagraphía, an album recorded a month later in Moscow.) And whereas Sîn wasn't recorded live, such a situation is not unusual for these same performers when creating similar music. So one thus has a basically acoustic, improvised music that "functions" at a variety of attention levels, and moreover, can do so potently. What of the instrumentation then? As did these preceding quartets from Rodrigues, one might even note that Sîn employs three quarters of a classic "free jazz" quartet — with viola replacing drums. The result is a double pairing of horns & strings, although to the extent that the quartet breaks into pairs (i.e. not much), it's more the Lisbon pair & the Berlin pair. And there is consequently more of an orchestral, or a particular (differently immanent) version of orchestral, feel to the proceedings. In fact, Sîn is quite a journey: Despite being under an hour, it feels like a very long album, and I mean that in the best sense: After one already feels as though so much has happened that it's hard to remember the beginning, there is still much more to come. The same phenomenon exists at partial attention as well, with various episodes perhaps standing out across what sometimes seem like lengthy intervals. (It can be very productive background music in that sense.) There are what I might call chordal streams involved in the various — sometimes seemingly independent — gestures that both fill & are spaced through/by the exposition. There are likewise subtle evocations of various world scenes amid what is often a strong contrapuntal orientation (which would also describe K'Ampokol Che K'Aay, as would feelings of lengthiness, coming from what is otherwise a rather different album). That such counterpoint can move seamlessly at different speeds (temporalities), yet engulfed by the sense of "streaming" providing modulation of harmonic content per se, further demonstrates the depth & talent these musicians bring to such densely motivic improvisation (even, or especially, as density per se can sometimes ease). The effect suggests the experience of a contrapuntal "machine" from different angles, including from inside, from outside, and from different times & time scales. As the austere title might already suggest, Sîn comes off quite seriously, and so not with the tacit frivolity of e.g. a bagatelle (per an entry last week), but in a wide ranging & potent realignment of affect — or rather, such potential realignment is what attention can or will drive. (One might even label the outcome theological, including in its interrogation of unity & difference.) So Sîn makes a strong start to 2018 releases, already forcing me to relate differently.26 February 2018
Returning to the most recent batch of releases from FMR (marked as 2017, but seemingly not available anywhere until January), there are a couple of horn trios that I want to note: These are both "conventional" horn trios in terms of a reed with double bass & drums, such that the horn generally functions as the lead, as separate from a rhythm team that might blend a bit more. New World features Simon Rose — who had not (yet) made much of an impression on me, although I had heard him e.g. on CRAM Records — on baritone sax (& occasionally alto, which he seems to have played more in the past) with Jan Roder & Willi Kellers. This is a rather substantial album, nearly an hour long, and recorded in Berlin (on unspecified dates) in 2016. Roder had been featured in this space last year with Happy Jazz, a trio album with Rudi Mahall & Olaf Rupp (who also mixed New World) — and one featuring similar techniques & interactions, but with a generally slower pace of exposition. (Kellers I've mentioned with Grid Mesh & elsewhere, already in 2014 & 2015.) Track titles refer to Joseph Conrad, and indeed there is something of an exotic journey here, including evocations of Africa, perhaps most explicitly with the thumb piano (as played by Kellers, who employs a wide range of acoustic sounding bodies, including wood on wood). New World makes a strong impression not only with its variety of sounds & techniques, but with its aggressive, driving momentum, encompassing various escaping resonances together with frequently changing ostinati (e.g. on thumb piano). There is often a raw quality, and although it was described as "eerie, haunting and unsettling" by Bruce Gallanter, there's an aggressive quality that can even become loud. Dedicated readers might know that I have yet to manage real appreciation for baritone sax albums, but New World is compelling, and uses bari to great effect within its restrictive (trio) context: The wide grain of the sax tone almost becomes a rhythmic element, particularly as transformed by the superbly creative rhythm team, and different registers are handled with sophistication. The result is sometimes a grinding dissonance, particularly when the horn is closely intertwining the bass, but often involves a more straightforward interaction, such as the conventionally alto-dominated track #5 opening with a noisy bass solo. (One might compare to the recent After Effects featuring Danny Kamins on bari, another long album, also on FMR, there with two drummers & bass: The quartet seems more reactive, and less insistent on a particular vision, reacting so much as it does to Alvin Fielder on drums, and across four generations of musical experience. There's also generally less happening at any one time, intricacy largely yielding to a rough-hewn solidity.) By its conclusion, New World feels as though we've been to & through so many places — particularly rhythmically — that after the gamelan-esque close (evoking a bit of e.g. Drought, as it already had in some other slow passages, even as those were enfolded in the unstoppable momentum of the album), there's a palpable sense of "What's next?" hanging in the air. (One might likewise compare some of the resulting sonorities to those of Tipple Live at Elastic Arts, particularly when involving higher pitches. The atmosphere also recalls Sens radiants at times, an album discussed here in 2014, with Daunik Lazro on baritone — in another journey, but oriented more through South America than Africa.) New World has really grown on me: Besides some revelatory moments from Rose, who is certainly on my radar now, it showcases Kellers' versatility to fine effect. In many ways, the latter animates the album.
A sense of "conventional horn trio" can be extended, such that even if one requires drums & acoustic bass, I've featured (by way of ongoing favorites) a trumpet trio in HNH, a vocal-clarinet trio in Light air still gets dark, and even more conventionally (at least superficially), a sax trio in The Apophonics On Air. Whereas I recently shared some ongoing thoughts on sax trios in general (around PEN, also in May), and so included Apophonics On Air (with its very non-traditional percussion blending with Butcher's explorations of saxophone physics), in some ways, the mood of the trumpet trio on HNH (although partly composed) might be more akin to that on New World, even if the registers (& so roles) are more clearly segmented. The voice, likewise, particularly as Duthoit switches regularly to clarinet — or one might say forges vocal continuity with clarinet — functions in many ways like a horn, and indeed Light air still gets dark is also particularly segmented as regards roles within its trio.... After that little reminder, as much for myself as for others, let me turn to the other FMR release I wanted to highlight this month: Intention by the Peter Kuhn Trio is a "clarinet trio" with Kyle Motl (bass) & Nathan Hubbard (drums). Kuhn made something of a triumphant return to music a few years ago, after "finding himself" via Buddhism, and I actually listened to the rather classically (i.e. 1970s) inspired "free blowing" quartet album Our Earth / Our World (with regular Kuhn collaborator Dave Sewelson, again on bari, joined by fixture Gerald Cleaver) at the time. Kuhn followed that with what he's calling his first leader album in over thirty years, The Other Shore on No Business (also recorded in San Diego, in 2015), a prior album by the same trio as that to be found on Intention. (There is another FMR release featuring Kuhn from this batch, again with Sewelson, this time in a quintet, Dependent Origination. It is likewise inspired by Buddhist concepts.) I had actually encountered Motl, also living & working in San Diego, in a series of December reviews on the Free Jazz Blog, and found his bass style (which one can audition on his Bandcamp site) to be intriguing — hence partly prompting me to hear this trio. (I believe that I've heard Hubbard before too, but am not placing where.) Intention was recorded in San Diego last March, and is another substantial album: Despite the personal inspiration involved, it's quite a tour de force of clarinet technique in general, and the "conventional" trio format supports the horn very well in that. The three-way opening is already original, quickly moving into something of a sly melody — and indeed Kuhn has quite a command of tone on both clarinet & bass clarinet, often with a "cool" vibe — with the album later involving the sort of sheering (contrary) counterpoint that I associate with the early fifteenth century. (Not that there is an "early" vibe overall.) There are also some extended techniques, particularly notable on the bass, and so sometimes a bit of a squawky character that nonetheless fits within the overall rhetorical orientation. Mostly it's rather tonal, yet in a sophisticated idiom. (One might compare to e.g. 3 on a Thin Line, featuring Harold Rubin on clarinet, another engaging album, although more rough & variable in its live setting.) There are many enjoyable moments on Intention, which seems to involve another level of confidence & command from Kuhn: It's a particularly coherent "statement" album, I would say. It's likewise clearly a horn trio album — with the clarinet in the leader role, and generally rather separately audible. FMR continues to impress with these well-chosen horn trio releases, presumably from among many options: If someone wants to listen to a creative & representative bari sax or clarinet trio doing "free jazz" improvisation here in 2018, New World & Intention would both seem to be excellent choices.
As long as I'm discussing horn trios, let me also make a note of Moons of Saturn by Frode Gjerstad (on a variety of horns) & "The Cosmic Brotherhood" of Itzam Cano (bass) & Gabriel Lauber (drums): It was recorded in León, Mexico in May, and appeared for sale at DMG recently. The obvious precedent is Rhapsody of the Oppressed (discussed here in April 2016), on which the late Marco Eneidi leads the same Mexican rhythm team. I actually found the (smooth) horn to be the least interesting feature of that album, and working with Gjerstad instead is immediately & appealingly reminiscent of his various world travels & consequently other albums with musicians outside of Europe & the United States (such as Give and Take from Argentina — also on FMR, as per above). Although it employs a very common ensemble, there's a sense of excitement throughout, and even an ongoing sense of resistance & experimentation, i.e. inventing new forms of life within the most well-worn of formats: A typical "free" mode of expression moves into various extended techniques as the album continues (although as readers will know, I'm not generally fond of space themes), including into solos. The Cosmic Brotherhood continues to develop their own personal style on Moons of Saturn. Mexico is a big country, however, so surely there is much more to be heard there.7 March 2018
Continuing the horn trio theme, let me go on to mention trombonist Samuel Blaser's new album Taktlos Zürich 2017, which indeed happens to be a trio (although not a traditional one): Blaser has continued his partnership with guitarist Marc Ducret from their quartet days (which produced albums Boundless, recorded in 2010 & As The Sea, recorded in 2011), and the two are joined here by Danish drummer Peter Bruun (with whom I was not familiar). Of course, Blaser has appeared in this space since his (& my) early days, due to my interest in trombone (& its theoretically infinite pitch divisions). I happened to mention Blaser again last year around an Ars Subtilior disc (due to his A Mirror to Machaut), but his last leader album was Spring Rain (discussed here in 2015), this time applying an "early music" approach to twentieth century jazz. I also mentioned Blaser (also in 2015) as part of the sextet on Ducret's album Métatonal, and indeed although Blaser is generally in the leadership position on Taktlos Zürich 2017, as far as the way the trio is arrayed in practice, most of the compositional material is from Ducret (with even a short piece by Stravinsky). The notes say that this trio has played over a hundred concerts together, although it's unclear why they chose to release this particular concert as an album. As on the quartet albums, track markings sometimes seem to be arbitrary, as the trio — which is often conceptually a duo, with the co-leaders subsequently mediated by drums — spontaneously introduce new compositional material (although here there are full stops, with applause, after the second & third tracks). Blaser's technique remains impressive, with multiphonic playing set against funky guitar — legato against fractured chords. (Per the references of the previous entry, one might also recall Grid Mesh for timbres of the trombone & guitar combination.) There is more pure lyricism here than on most albums I mention, particularly in the slower moments. (Overall, the album does not seem especially coherent, though... a work in progress.)
Likewise featuring trombone is Somewhere in the Upstream, recently released on Clean Feed by the Michael Dessen Trio, and recorded in 2016: This is composed music (by Dessen) dedicated to Yusef Lateef (1920-2013). As per the previous entry, this is a conventional horn trio, with clear segmentation of roles, although bassist Chris Tordini & drummer Dan Weiss do also have distinctive personal styles on display, and Dessen handles the electronics. Not only do trombone lines sometimes extend or deconstruct into electronic tones — in something of the manner of George Lewis — but the composition involves computer selection of material to be displayed for the performers. (Exactly what processes are involved is not stated, nor are they obvious to the ear.) Dessen sometimes evokes the blues in his trombone playing, and the entire production has good presence, particularly as it becomes more traditionally jazzy at times. This is actually Dessen's fourth trombone trio on Clean Feed, and third with Weiss. (I mentioned the previous two very briefly in 2014. The first was with Tyshawn Sorey — & also Tordini). It involves solos etc., in the traditional manner, albeit charged by computer selections & electronic deconstructions. It seems as though more could be done in this direction, but apparently Dessen wants to keep things grounded in "inside" styles. Somewhere in the Upstream is still an enjoyable album, mixing as it does some ensemble conservatism with contemporary electronic enhancements (and some fine individual playing).8 March 2018
Turning to some other recent releases from Creative Sources, specifically ensembles featuring bowed strings, Zweige presents a natural successor to Blattwerk, as discussed here in June. Indeed, Zweige was recorded (in Lisbon, last February) the day after Blattwerk, and augments the quintet of the latter (Harald Kimmig, Ernesto & Guilherme Rodrigues, Miguel Mira & Vasco Trilla) with Alvaro Rosso on bass, making for a string quintet (with two cellos) plus percussion. It even, likewise, features two similar length tracks. (Zweige also predates the Lisbon String Trio series, at least as documented so far, in which Ernesto Rodrigues & Mira are joined by Rosso, by a couple of weeks.) These combinations continue to fascinate, and not only does Zweige augment the quintet on Blattwerk, but it's mixed (by Carlos Santos) to have rather more presence: High end to low end to various quiet scrapings & subtle percussive rattles, it's all easier to hear. Describing Zweige as a "natural successor" was not merely a turn of phrase either, as naturalistic themes maintain — thus appearing to retain continuity with Kimmig's album Raw (on Leo, discussed here January 2017) — including those sometimes frustrating interrogations of audibility. (And I do further wish that these various words deriving from "nature" weren't already so fraught with other meanings, from nudism to anti-immigrant politics. That makes it difficult to be succinct, but the reference here is generally to biology & ecology.) Various origins & inspirations for sound blend, but continue to suggest trees & forests & their inhabitants, living & otherwise. (And I feel sheepish for not having understood the title on Blattwerk as an explicit reference in this regard. This is not the first time I've approached a compound German word via its two parts, rather than realizing that it was already a well-known term: I've come to anticipate neologisms, I guess, including, as in this case, inappropriately.) As a sequel from the next day, it's hard to say that Zweige breaks new ground, but I do find it easier to hear, and therefore appreciate — hence furthering exploration of these string-based ensembles: Some of the background creaking might even present as some sort of wind instrument, for instance, as all manner of subtle sounds are coaxed from the strings & rubbed percussion. (The notion of a flat tapestry, varying in waves, also continues to apply here, as the interaction never becomes terribly layered despite its shifts.) From later in the year, and so following the Lisbon String Trio series & others, is Synchronous Rotation, recorded at CreativeFest in Lisbon in November 2017, by a quartet of Ernesto & Guilherme Rodrigues, Gianna de Toni (double bass) & (again) Vasco Trilla. I was not familiar with de Toni, but she appears on a prior album on Creative Sources, Trees (recorded in May 2013) by a quintet including both Rodrigueses. So Synchronous Rotation forms an alternate "Lisbon String Trio" around Ernesto, bolstered once again by Trilla's imaginative percussion. It also continues the recent history of geometric cover art on Creative Sources, particularly around the String Theory series (as does, more as a hybrid, the very sparse Spiric Sections, recorded the following day, also at CreativeFest 11), and the music suggests a corresponding technical quality: Synchronous Rotation consists of one modest length (under thirty minute) track, and opens strongly, with rich counterpoint around what I might describe as post-serial thematics. It's much more forceful in its first half, evoking various string associations, but seems to become more subdued following a long, quiet interlude. (One might say that after some equivocation, minimalism decisively asserts itself, although its reign does not remain untroubled. There's even something of a spiritual, Scelsian vibe to the drone & rattle combination that arises toward the end, as distinct from the presumptively geometric evocations.) Trilla does seem more animated at times, so perhaps this is the start of him putting more of his personal vigor into these projects with Rodrigues. And perhaps the more "ethereal" results are generated as a consequence of the "rotation" (to which the title refers) — I'm not sure — but the album does fade to a close. I can't claim that either album truly distinguishes itself in the midst of Rodrigues's massive outpouring of recordings featuring himself with various other string players, but both Zweige & Synchronous Rotation present independent points of interest, documenting the ongoing development of Rodrigues's "string theory" more generally. (And the latter also includes a nice two-panel, full color photograph of the quartet in concert.) There is clearly more to explore here: I'd be keen on hearing some of the early, high energy passages of Synchronous Rotation elaborated in different directions, say. Given the pace of these releases, perhaps that's already in the works.13 March 2018
I haven't been featuring composed music here much, particularly not composed music that doesn't involve improvisation, but do want to mention Kyle Gann's Hyperchromatica "for three retuned, computer-driven pianos" (2015-17), recently released on a double album by Other Minds Records. I had mentioned Ben Johnston's microtonal string quartets as part of an aside in a September 2016 entry concerning Joëlle Léandre's Can you hear me?, and Gann (b.1955) was a student of Johnston (b.1926): Gann's three pianos are each tuned differently (together in "13-limit just intonation"), so as to provide thirty-three notes per octave, and then coordinated by computer control. (A few pieces in the set are written to be playable by human performers, but most are not.) The result is a fascinating exploration of these various interval shadings & consequent far-flung relations. The music itself is a bit "cheesy" I'd say — and Gann kind of acknowledges this at times in the discussion of each piece on his website — in that it often uses conventional formats & figurations, but in service of illustrating the potential of the tuning & setup. (And I've already shared my thoughts on "space" themes, so that aspect is probably less appealing to me than to most listeners.) It pursues this exploration remarkably well, and particularly as a (lengthy) set (of 17 pieces), one can hear much potential coming from this sort of tuning sophistication. It's not a matter of retuning every piece either (i.e. persistent novelty), but uses a particular fixed tuning for an array of pieces deriving from different musical styles. I believe that the potential should be readily discernible by most listeners too, meaning that this is not really arcana, although obviously the setup is eccentric (albeit practical). Moreover, Gann develops a distinctive approach to polytempo in some of these pieces too, particularly as tempi can interrelate with pitch ratios. (Denman Maroney's work with undertones is relevant on this topic, although also different.) Microtonal relationality remains a vast canvas, and Hyperchromatica is a sustained exploration of a particular subspace. (The penultimate track, "Liquid Mechanisms" is the individual piece that most catches my ear, for whatever it's worth, although it would likely sound too weird without the specific context of the full set.)18 March 2018
As long as I've mentioned Gann's Hyperchromatica, let me also mention a new recording of the complete string quartets of Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) by the Ars Combinatoria String Quartet — available from Erik Carlson's Bandcamp page. (There is no first quartet, which was withdrawn by Babbitt. This & more information can be found, including via the links to the individual quartets, on the Wikipedia page devoted to Babbitt.) These pieces, particularly the later quartets, are actually less approachable than Gann's work, and I've spent some time (off & on) listening to them since the recording appeared late last year. I'm having some difficulty learning them, but am nonetheless finding them engaging. This is some of the most sophisticated serial music ever written (super arrays & aggregates being two of the related concepts Babbitt uses to extend the tone row notion), and although many listeners would likely disagree (and I know for a fact that many do, since Babbitt's music has not been well received by the public, including within the classical music community itself — where I've witnessed much invective over the years), Babbitt has a real ear for music, including jazz. This music does not seem out of place next to e.g. some of the string music I've featured from Creative Sources. Like much of that music, each quartet comes off feeling very long & so as a world unto itself (as based on its unique constituting relations). Despite the comparison, there is nothing else quite like it, particularly with its haunting sense of familiarity. (Beethoven's Große Fuge sounds strongly at times through No. 2, for instance, although that's not noted by Wikipedia.)19 March 2018
Landlocked Beach is one of the most immediately striking albums I've heard in a while. It suggests a variety of intersecting things to say, but no particular order for saying them. For one, it's amazing that Ernesto Rodrigues continues to find so many distinctive albums — in this case, all the way from the Bay Area, where I live: And I've been woefully negligent about getting out to local concerts, so I haven't heard the Animals & Giraffes duo, despite that they have been artists in residence at the Center for New Music, where I am sometimes a member (that is, when I remember to renew). I can make a variety of excuses, I suppose, but the main issue is that it's about two hours each way for most concerts, sometimes more, and I've been so busy.... In some ways that sounds reasonable, and in others it sounds stupid: This album reminds me that I should be more involved locally. Anyway, Landlocked Beach was recorded in Berkeley in March 2017, apparently for a radio show on KPFA, and the performance even features callers! The core duo is poet & vocalist Claudia La Rocco with Philip Greenlief on tenor sax. I was not familiar with La Rocco, but she works, for instance, at the newly reopened MOMA in San Francisco (which was designed to feature more sound installations). Her voice is striking throughout what can only be described as a spoken word album: Most of what she says is very clearly articulated, in the way a professional might read ad copy. Occasionally she moves briefly into a different register, and there are some samples, rarely with some intentional distortion, but mostly La Rocco's voice is very clear & present — such that the whole album might even be characterized as an interrogation of presence. Greenlief is someone who revels in extended techniques & exploring physical space: His music here is mostly "corner cases" so to speak, some of it perhaps inspired by actual physical corners. It's drones & register shifts & timbre mutations, etc. — including some extended passages without voice, but most often (in dialog) in the background. Greenlief is presumably the connection to Creative Sources, as he already appeared on Sidereus Nuncius (recorded in Seattle in 2006) with Ernesto Rodrigues; he also worked with Pauline Oliveros, and e.g recorded That Overt Desire of Object with Joëlle Léandre (Oakland 2002). It's customary for Animals & Giraffes to have a guest and here it is Jon "Wobbly" Leidecker on electronics: Besides some occasional "musical" playing along with Greenlief, some of it serving to intensify the general atmosphere, Leidecker injects various samples & cuts. (His participation might be compared to e.g. the recent Kontakte Trio, although Greenlief keeps things more anchored in physically tonality.) In fact, I'm not sure how much of the speaking part is La Rocco actually repeating herself & how much is Leidecker. Either way, the result yields an eerie sense of time & repetition (perhaps not so different from a Rodrigues album like Cyclic Symmetry) across the one very long track. One of the most striking things about this trio, then, aside from the penetrating voice itself, is the very different contributions made by the three members — to the point of projecting an almost orchestral feel from such small forces. (This outcome thus suggests a real "proof of concept" regarding potency. Perhaps one might think of spanning three distinct sonic dimensions.) Overall, one might describe this spoken word album as being animated by a repertory of textual-vocal figures that are retriggered & modified, almost suggesting a fugue state at times. Later, this material is retriggered by random comments made by people calling on the phone. I'm not sure how well Landlocked Beach works for listening more than a few times, but it is definitely worth hearing at least those few times. I guess I'm a believer in spoken word albums now!12 April 2018
Although it's from a quintet called Dart Love, Escargot seems to center on percussionist Camille Émaille (b.1993, Nice, France). The rest of the band — and just looking at the album, I'd've been inclined to swap album & band names, but the previous sentence reflects how they're listed at Creative Sources — consists of previously unknown players Xavière Fertin (clarinets), Louis Freres (bass), Tom Malmendier (snare drum) & Timothée Quost (trumpet, no input mixer). I assume they're also young, and they use a variety of extended techniques: Indeed, as the inclusion of a performer specifically on snare drum (next to the more general percussionist) might already suggest, it's often difficult to know who is doing what. In fact, considering the variety on Émaille's solo album Bekkos, including plucked strings or mbira, even what sounds like a horn, etc., some of the thirteen tracks on Escargot might be solos. Others appear to be duos, trios, etc., such that — particularly combined with the wide range of sonorities involved — I'm reminded of the "exhibition quality" of percussionist Dre Hocevar's otherwise rather different ensemble album, Surface of Inscription (mentioned here in October). However, Escargot isn't so much about musical transformation as it is personal transformation, with its centered sense of place & deep sonic investigations. Bekkos & Escargot were both actually recorded in "the woods of Québec," in January & February 2017 respectively. (I'm reminded of some of the weirder productions on Tour de Bras, but I don't know what connections these musicians might actually have to Québec.) Émaille has not only studied Middle Eastern percussion (the influence of which would seem to be rather attenuated on these albums), but at Mills College with William Winant, Fred Frith, Roscoe Mitchell, et al. — which is perhaps why her albums do not seem like empty (musical) exercises, but rather (already) forge a real & novel sense of sonic connection. At times, the sonic environment reminds me of the breathy clanks of Nashaz, or even the more chime-like passages of Landlocked Beach, but although there is a sense of peace, there is also a raw quality to Escargot. Émaille even vocalizes on some tracks, in a style not unlike that of Joëlle Léandre (until — the unnamed? — track eleven anyway), or at least I assume that the vocals are hers. (One might also note a Scelsian spirituality to the music throughout, although Dart Love appear to be seeking even more depth of expression.) As noted, it's hard to know who is doing what much of the time, but beyond Émaille, I was struck by the percussive clarinet tonguing (with some help from others?) on track four, as well as the bass playing on track six (amid a rather brilliant ensemble combination in general). Although the sounds are often raw, shifting & noisy, there is also significant restraint, such that at brief moments (e.g. parts of tracks eight & thirteen) there is almost a sentimental mood. (The final track, the longest, also includes several minutes of silence or near silence, recalling e.g. the ending of Oblengths, although in this case, there is no audience & so no possibility of an "encore." I guess it's because of snails & winter....) Indeed, Escargot is quite an affective album, and Émaille sounds like a major ascending talent, particularly when it comes to improvising a wide range of affective relations across a variety of timbral combinations.13 April 2018
I've heard multiple albums by Israeli, New York-based tenor sax player Yoni Kretzmer, but have yet to mention any here: So I do want to note his new double album Months, weeks and days (recorded in May 2016), featuring Frantz Loriot, Christopher Hoffman, Josh Sinton, Pascal Niggenkemper & Flin van Hemmen in a sextet called New Dilemma. This is actually Kretzmer's second New Dilemma album, with the first (from 2009) being a quintet (minus the second horn) using otherwise different personnel. Obviously I was attracted by the personnel here, as on so many Kretzmer albums featuring these & other musicians, and e.g. Niggenkemper & Loriot do have impressive moments. (All but Kretzmer had been mentioned previously in this space.) Overall, although there are passages I enjoy, Months, weeks and days does not really speak to me, so perhaps I shouldn't have posted this note. That said, the combination of horn (& I'm not sure about the value of the second horn here) with string trio & drums is generally appealing, and in this case, results in some very dense music: There is quite a bit of freedom, although confined to tight spaces within a rather rigorously layered compositional framework. (A lot of the action is in cross relations, and much of the compositional planning seems to be about maintaining density.) I.e. this is not at all airy or spacious music, but a dense tapestry — some of the passages, particularly those e.g. evoking traffic, recall Jeff Shurdut, for instance with their urban sounds. (Sometimes, but no more often than these other evocations, it's rather classically jazzy. At other times, it feels almost organ-like via close harmonies, perhaps recalling Baloni.) I think the idea is basically to bring a "jazz horn" together with classical string harmonies, which has an appeal, but I'm still not getting a real message beyond individual expression in tight spaces. Months, weeks and days does feel like something of a landmark for the prolific Kretzmer, though, given its length & density.20 April 2018
I was wrapped up with another project, so it's taken a little longer to focus on Crane Cries, an improvised string quartet album from Creative Sources featuring Ernesto & Guilherme Rodrigues together with Elo Masing (b.1984, Estonia) & Dietrich Petzold (b.1954) on violins (& sometimes viola for the latter). I was not familiar with Masing, who has some compositions available online, but Petzold had appeared with the Rodrigueses already on Sacred Noise (a double album recorded in October 2016): That album generally features much smoother textures within a quieter, more often minimalist, vibe (with the second disc having been recorded in a church). Crane Cries, recorded in Berlin last October, is also a very long album (over seventy minutes), and considering that Petzold not only switches instruments (& he also plays a variety of instruments, beyond violin, on Sacred Noise), but recorded & mastered the album, this might be his project as "second violin." However, obviously Ernesto Rodrigues has been involved in an extensive series of improvising string projects — although not previously a classical string quartet per se, at least to my knowledge — and Masing seems to be making a significant debut here. (She also appeared on last year's recording of Cornelius Cardew's Treatise by a London improvising ensemble.) Although the variety & density of string figures & exchanges create a rather different feel from some of the smoother or otherwise more minimal albums from Rodrigues, such a style is not unprecedented: In some ways, Crane Cries seems like a continuation of the Lisbon String Trio series (from earlier in 2017), although there is no bass & the cellist is different too. Perhaps then it's more simply a continuation of the stream of various Rodrigues albums featuring multiple bowed strings in general.... (One might even compare to e.g. The Afterlife of Trees, discussed here in December, where the Rodrigueses join a different sort of Berlin string duo, also including violin, to form a quartet. The music there is rather less contrapuntal, however.) In any case, a turn to such a classic quartet configuration — albeit with Petzold sometimes switching to viola, and so doubling the middle ranges (as is so often the case on recent Rodrigues albums), even as the cello is here the low end instead of the middle (as it likewise has been so often for Rodrigues, and for that matter, various tenor-oriented counterpoints) — is surely notable. Regarding density (& e.g. the previous entry), it's also difficult to know exactly what was planned or understood prior to the performance, but the quartet does tend to keep to a typical twentieth century string quartet density throughout most tracks — and the departures are also seemingly intentional invocations of style. Whose crane idea was it? That's a tangible question (and perhaps Masing — yet another violinist to appear on a Rodrigues album — is the answer). And whoever it is, are the titles retrospective or was the theme planned? (Do the titles form a narrative?) I tend to think that each track indeed involves the sounds of living crane activity (i.e. is at least inspired by it), and so there must have been some planning or coordination. How much of the detail actually derives from cranes? Not all of it, obviously, since there are romantic harmonies & other traditional string figures. (There is no shortage of variety in this regard.) So perhaps this is something like Messiaen's bird pieces, which involve various supplements — not to mention his particular sensibility when transcribing into (Western) human notation — to the harmonic & rhythmic potential of the bird songs & sounds per se, in this case focusing on one species (or actually, at least according to the title, family). The result is technically sophisticated, including a variety of harmonics, pizzicato (which are especially amazing on track five), glissandi & other pitch bending. (And note that I've long explicitly enjoyed Messiaen's birdsong pieces, so this is not a novel musical influence for me. That said, Messiaen's bird music did not involve microtonality or so much timbral detail.) There's also something of a landscape feel, particularly in the epic second track, such that a sense of distance enters into what is often a rather immanent interaction: Whereas Crane Cries evokes the natural (zoological) world explicitly (& specifically), the landscape quality & general technique might be compared e.g. to Rodrigues work on Traintracks Roadsides Wastelands Debris — (another long album) explicitly dealing with "non-nature." Similarly, Chant, featuring a string quartet of its own (plus marimba), mixes a wide variety of twentieth century (classical) string techniques with a sort of vaguely natural or "world" quality. (So if anything, such a "polarity," i.e. between classical string interactions & in this case, animal sounds, is more stark on Crane Cries. And when those poles do coalesce, it's usually in the more minimalist mode of sound exploration.) Among recent Rodrigues albums, one of the most similar is obviously K'Ampokol Che K'Aay, despite the inclusion of the clarinet: The use of classical string figures & style of counterpoint, not to mention (once again) the naturalistic & postcolonial cosmopolitan vibe, suggests a similar interaction & sometimes mood. (Crane Cries, perhaps as inspired by actual cranes, is generally more languid, however, even romantic at times.) Whereas much of the album is active — and there is a good recorded presence — it's also (as already noted) sometimes more minimalist (perhaps as a further interrogation of classical styles), including within the landscape mode. In the end, perhaps the simplest summary is that many different sound events occur over the course of these eight tracks, some of them seemingly part of a concrete (naturalist) narrative, but also including plenty of "music" per se to occupy the listening mind more generally — frankly to the point of exhaustion on first hearing. So it's quite a meaty album, albeit not particularly abstract due to its specific zoological reference point. (And as far as continuing to feature so many Creative Sources releases, I continue to especially enjoy them.... I'd be happy to have more from others provoking thoughts in me too. Meanwhile, I have to discuss what actually calls, or cries, out to me.)25 April 2018
I was intrigued to see that Gino Robair & John Butcher had released another trio album, building upon their longtime (twenty+ years) duo, A Geography For Plays (on Robair's Rastascan Records) — particularly since The Apophonics On Air (on Butcher's Weight of Wax imprint), their trio with John Edwards, has been on my favorites list for a while now. A Geography For Plays is a somewhat longer album, but isn't actually a very recent recording, having been made in London in November 2014 — still more than two years after The Apophonics On Air, though. Whereas that earlier album is mostly acoustic, perhaps as exemplified by Edwards' participation, Robair does play "synth" as well (& I don't know exactly what, since that's all that's listed), but the newer album, with the duo joined by Dieter "Dieb13" Kovacic (b.1973) on turntables & computer, has a more specific electronic orientation: Butcher is also credited with "feedback" & besides the rather general "energized surfaces" (& this sometimes simply means "drums") & prepared piano, Robair plays something called a Blippoo Box. The latter is an electronic sound producer supposedly motivated by chaos theory — whereas a co-listener noted that it sometimes sounds like some of the weirder vocalizations from dogs. (This seems to be an apt observation to me, and so can be compared directly to impressions of a daxophone.) Of course, the participation of a "DJ" — & I don't know to what extent either Wobbly or Dieb13 embraces the term — also recalls the recently discussed Landlocked Beach, and there are some similar clicks & pops to go along with cuts, etc. (One might also compare to e.g. Primary Envelopment, a quartet album with an otherwise rather different feel, for the relatively modest "noise" factor.) At other moments (particularly track four), The Open Secret (the name of this trio with Dieb13) sounds almost like a conventional sax trio — more so than The Apophonics ever do, actually — with bass drones from the electronics, and fairly straightforward sax & percussion. So, perhaps because of the electronic emphasis (& enhanced novelty there), the trio actually ends up seeming more conventional overall on A Geography For Plays: Other tracks feature common evocations such as jungles, harbors (which I do enjoy) & outer space. It's a generally appealing album, but ends up being less thought provoking than I had anticipated. What are Robair & Butcher up to since? Presumably their collective sense of space, acoustics & resonance remains striking & creative....30 April 2018
When discussing Crane Cries a couple of weeks ago, and evocations of animal sounds in general, I was unaware that Fred Lonberg-Holm was in the process of releasing an album featuring actual (interactive) animal sounds, Bow Hard at the Frog: The latter (on Corbett vs. Dempsey) was recorded at night in the Florida Everglades in February 2016, and features amphibians (as credited participants, although not individually!) & insects (as rather constant background) "performing" along with Lonberg-Holm on his cello. Gustavo Matamoros is also credited with field recording, which may simply mean that he recorded the session (but then why credit it that way, unless it was his idea?), or perhaps that he adds some previously recorded samples too. (This is not explained in the very sparse documentation, but he does apparently move the microphones for the different tracks.) Lonberg-Holm (who is wearing mosquito netting in the photo) generally plays noisy, croaking cello, often in longer tones, sometimes closely mic'd — in a generally Scelsian idiom, one might say, sometimes quite dissonant. Frogs & toads respond(?) to this, as Lonberg-Holm responds to them. (Experiments with e.g. gamelan music have already suggested that even insects modulate their sounds according to the musical environment, although insect modulation is less obvious here, so "respond" is presumptively correct.) The "interactive" aspect is important, at least according to my own interests, and actual animal participation certainly suggests a different ethical position from the human evocation or representation of animal sounds on e.g. Crane Cries (along with so many other albums). However, as long as I'm thinking in that direction, notions of consent would appear to remain absent. So is this a trio? I would have to say that it's either more than a trio or less than a trio, but I suppose "trio" works as a sort of compromise. Is it all that interesting to hear? Honestly, no, although there are layers to the interaction, and it does often seek the foreground. (However, I also grew up on the edge of a swamp, so I've heard similar sounds many times.) But I'm intrigued by the general idea, and particularly with the prior context, wanted to note the project. In particular, that the human musician's participation is mediated by the animals, and (either as condition or consequence) away from traditional tonality, makes for a different trajectory than that more often undertaken.
As long as I'm turning in the direction of (more literal) environmental sounds, I'll also note Chantier 4 (on the Swarming label) by Pascal Battus (found objects), Bertrand Gauguet (alto sax) & Eric La Casa (microphones). As the numeral indicates, this is actually the fourth release (recorded across five sessions in 2013 & reduced to three tracks, suggesting substantial editing) in the series, which documents & interacts with the sounds of a Paris construction site. I hadn't heard any of the previous three, beginning with the first release on Another Timbre in 2012, nor anything else from these musicians, but decided to take the plunge here fairly randomly, and likewise before I heard Bow Hard at the Frog. Once again, it's (even more) unclear how La Casa's participation differs from an ordinary recording engineer, except that he moves around with the musicians, but the project is again a "trio" considering the construction noises involved. (There is even some interaction with construction workers, although they are told to get back to work rather than worry about the musicians. Nonetheless, the musicians react to them, so it's a partial or partially one-way interaction.) Indeed there is a lot of activity, as one might expect to arise from the (apparently) extensive editing (via jump cuts, etc.): There is sometimes speaking, as well as various background noises, sometimes becoming quite loud. There also tends to be a rather noticeable echo, which I don't personally associate with construction sites. (Once again, I have extensive formative experience in this sound world, having worked in the family construction business from childhood, but that didn't include big urban projects like this, so that's probably the difference — surrounding structures, larger spaces, etc.) The result is quite rich sonically, an "interpretation" of the experience, making the album itself into a construction site (per Battus, who also notes that the "construction site" per se vanishes as the building appears). One might even compare to e.g. Traintracks Roadsides Wastelands Debris — & a construction site is something of a "wasteland" at times, again speaking from experience — or similar (musical) evocations of industrial & city noise. Although human evocation of human activity might not present the same ethical questions as doing the same for or with animals, there is still a distinction between inspiration & direct participation. (And of course the human world of legal rights entered into negotiations for making these recordings.) In that sense, Chantier 4 is a multi-layered interrogation of human mediation & participation in general. It also includes some interesting (in the abstract) sonic combinations, presumably as modulated by the two performing musicians, whose specific activity is often difficult to distinguish. I found the result to offer some real satisfaction, though, albeit after having been heavily edited, and mostly as (sometimes dissonant) background listening. (In other words, I'm not inclined to seek out the other volumes, but I found the experience — conceptual & otherwise — to be valuable, particularly given my continuing interest in "industrial" music in this space.) In yet other words, the pacing itself could be said to sanctify & transform the material, and that emerges only in post-production.9 May 2018
The latest release from Thanos Chrysakis has the rather self-explanatory title Music for Two Organs & Two Bass Clarinets, and was recorded last April in a church in Germany. Although the differences in the instruments aren't explained, Chrysakis is credited with chamber organ, so presumably a portable, while Peer Schlechta is credited simply with "organ," and so presumably the church organ. Their sounds blend rather seamlessly much of the time, and together, form a rich harmonic backdrop for the five improvised tracks. The project might thus be compared to e.g. Tuning Out (& other projects by Veryon Weston), also recorded with church organs, but in that case emphasizing hybrid tunings arising from "in between" stop positions & interrogated by flexible string instruments (which also turn to dodecaphony at times). However, Music for Two Organs & Two Bass Clarinets is actually rather conventional in its frequently lyrical clarinet parts, such that an initial sea of darkness & dissonance comes to be dominated by melodic elements: The organs move progressively into the (conceptual) background as the album proceeds, yielding the foreground to Chris Cundy (who has recorded with Chrysakis & elsewhere previously, including with more extended technique than here) & Ove Volquartz (with whom I was not previously familiar, although I see now that he has recorded with Udo Schindler) on bass clarinets. There is thus a sort of romantic quality that emerges, if not a traditional jazziness — in this case, evincing a more rhetorical modern lyricism (say, of the 1980s). The resulting combination actually seems as though it might be enjoyed by a more mainstream audience, provided it can navigate the initial sense of disorientation & novelty: Indeed, some textures might even be said to evoke c.1970 heavy metal, if obliquely (by way of an ice cream truck?). These more conventional melodic concerns (albeit quasi-fugal at times via the organ backdrop) are in contrast, then, not only with Tuning Out, but with e.g. Phase/transitions — a project Chrysakis must know, and which actually shares a more consistent timbral affinity (via its accordion, computer, and soprano sax combo), but which also indulges a much wider pallette of sonic inspirations & invocations. (The latter is indeed much more of a sphinx, given its length & variety of approaches, such as incorporating an electronic cellist over an internet connection & employing a computer intelligence as another improviser.) So whereas Music for Two Organs & Two Bass Clarinets didn't involve a more adventurous interrogation of perception & normality, as I associate with Chrysakis in such projects as Carved Water, it's still a particular interrogation of its texture-world, and rather enjoyable in its own almost straightforward manner.14 May 2018
Although it's obvious that I haven't been focusing on larger ensembles here, that becomes particularly relevant with someone like Ernesto Rodrigues, who releases so many larger ensemble albums. (And of course Rodrigues's discography is huge in general, with many albums employing smaller forces.) I do want to mention the recent Tellurium, though, both for the music itself & for a couple of formal reasons: First, Tellurium is numbered 500 on Creative Sources, so something of a milestone, and seemed to be released individually for that reason. And I do want to honor the label that is releasing the greatest volume of interesting material (at least to me) right now. Second, Tellurium is in Rodrigues's "String Theory" series, and I've noted other such items: The first String Theory album was Gravity by an ensemble of 17 musicians, so the 16 musicians on Tellurium actually mark a return to those roots, but I had personally taken notice with the quartet album Xenon (discussed here May 2017) & then the somewhat larger Heptaphonies (discussed July 2017). (Tellurium also seems to relate to a mixed "Isotope Ensemble" that has a forthcoming release, Barium. Indeed it's related to various larger ensembles, as Tellurium was recorded at CreativeFest #11 last November, which produced Rodrigues-led albums by IKB, Variable Geometry Orchestra & Suspensão too.) Tellurium is generally a restrained album, as one has come to expect from Rodrigues, with various activity in waves, sometimes highlighting more the tinkling of piano or zither, but more often bathed in string harmonics... later into pizzicato. There is a tangible classical feel, particularly evoking music by Xenakis, the mathematization of which implies an impersonal quality that is also felt here. It's almost timeless or epic, though, in a way that Xenakis never quite managed — maybe even panoramic in the sense of distance interrogated through its sometimes ethereal mood. Although it takes barely over half an hour, Tellurium is thus a stimulating journey. I suppose I should also make a few remarks on why I haven't been prioritizing larger ensemble albums such as this: When it comes to a system dynamics perspective, a trio already obliges musicians to think beyond a single dualism (although that thinking might still involve only duals) — and those interactions can readily be extended via "partial objects," smaller figurations allowing multiple interactions, or different interactions among different physical components, such as individual strings. Larger ensembles obviously present more such combinations for interaction, and on Tellurium, even a (naïve) permutation approach suggests a very large number indeed. Yet, when it comes to the world, rather than the laboratory of a musical performance, the number of possible interactions is not nearly high enough. So yes, I am actually saying that large ensembles are not large enough! Moreover, this is no simple matter of adding more musicians, at least via recorded media, because of the limits of hearing & distinguishing. In my opinion, making the most of larger forces requires something other than a traditional audience setting or recording, i.e. it requires something like a "sound installation" approach that allows the listener to move around physically amid or within (if we are to assert boundedness) a differential sonic space. All that said, I do find Tellurium to be a rather enjoyable tapestry. So what do the next 500 albums hold for Creative Sources (especially if I may dare to believe that Ernest Rodrigues will maintain his current, astonishing creative pace)?
The forgoing suggests, perhaps, a contrast between an intimate conversation & the chaos of the larger world, and such a contrast might in turn suggest a continuum. I'm not going to try to assert a border between large & small ensembles, though, and if anything, such a threshold is variable & dependent on musical approach. For Rodrigues & colleagues, whose instruments are already conceived as multiple, such that a "partial objects" approach (or dividuation, as one might say) allows various simultaneous interactions anyway, a septet can become a rather large ensemble. That's true to some extent on the recent Meandros e Vertentes, recorded live in Lisbon this February, which also tries to balance a more traditional approach to free playing. Its "Free Music Septep" (and although I've seen sites correcting this to Septet, the "Septep" spelling is found in multiple places on the album, including the CD itself, so I have to think it's intentional) this time involves a mix of instrument families: Ernesto Rodrigues himself, Luiz Rocha (clarinets, having appeared with the Lisbon String Trio on Akuanduba, discussed here in July), Guilherme Rodrigues, Eduardo Chagas (trombone, a frequent collaborator on Creative Sources, including a recent duo with Ernesto Rodrigues, Holes and Cracks, and an upcoming quartet album with the Lisbon String Trio, Tactile), Karoline Leblanc (piano, also appearing with Lisbon String Trio on Liames, discussed in August), Hernani Faustino (double bass) & Paulo Ferreira-Lopes (drums). The septet thus consists of a rather typical "jazz" collection of instruments (Ernesto himself on viola being the least typical), particularly relative to the Rodrigues's output otherwise, and does connect (& tangibly so) to some of their less avant garde projects — as the participation of Faustino might have already suggested. Indeed, some passages involve a boisterous & traditional "free" style, evoking urban traffic noise, etc. Other passages are much quieter, however, in keeping with Rodrigues's other concerns: One can even note a formal alternation between the five tracks (together lasting nearly an hour), with the massive outer tracks including both noisier & more spacious sections, and the even-numbered tracks generally remaining quite minimal & calm — and the (shortest) third track consisting of a kind of rush of glorious racket. The opposing block structure (and the extent of planning that was involved, I have no idea, although the outer tracks do seem to involve cycling through more specific inspirations, although in less of an explicit collage mode than is found so often in analogous contemporary efforts — e.g. Ken Vandermark, etc.) reminds me a bit of Messiaen, although the resulting sonics certainly do not. Let me also note a couple of favorites employing (vaguely) similar ensembles: Yad (octet) generally has much more presence; one might say that it never hides, as Rodrigues albums sometimes seem to do, lending an anxious edge to its interrogation, and indeed a more personal emphasis than the sometimes impersonal (e.g. trans- or posthuman) quality emerging from Meandros e Vertentes (& recall that the "fold" concept, the name of the opening track, is central to e.g. Deleuzian philosophy). Skein (sextet) is perhaps even more processual, but also retains a strong — even relentless — foreground amid evocations of specific harmonic styles. So both Yad & Skein are more tonal than Meandros e Vertentes (although themselves plenty dissonant, which is of course a contextual term). The latter thus involves not only various layers of (sometimes opposed) activity, but a sort of emergent structure via the (sometimes dodecaphonic) contrapuntal interactions. It's sometimes almost jazzy, with a sonic richness emerging out of spaciousness itself. (Indeed, some of the more extroverted moments are a real treat, and novel within Rodrigues's recent output.) And it's sometimes about barely conscious scrapings, human relations receding into a general calm.... It's thus another album (like Yad, but in a rather different way) that leaves one listening intently to the environment. The latter is one measure of its success (i.e. affectivity per se), as is the ability to project some individual personality. Whereas this might be a good entry into Ernesto Rodrigues's music for some — and I certainly have no "ideal" suggestion! — I found it to be more preliminary than polished: Perhaps its consequent rather open quality is (also) an attraction for some readers, though.25 May 2018
Bird Saw Buchla, appearing recently on the Danish Clang label (but not yet on their website, as of this writing), is another album of novel timbres & sonorities that deserves a mention: The trio, reflecting the title, consists of David Rothenberg on clarinets & ipad, Nicola L. Hein on guitar & circular saw, and Hans Tammen on Buchla Music Easel. The clarinet is an obvious enough instrument, and in this case, regarding the title, Rothenberg is known for — among other domains of fauna (as e.g. he even has an oblique reference in What is familiar? for his Bug Music book) — his exploration of bird song, and that's explicitly evoked at various points (& especially in the third track featuring, I believe, the ipad & samples). Hein first appeared in this space with Rotozaza Zero, and continues to be active now that he's based in New York. Tammen had not been mentioned here (and Rothenberg not really for his own music previously), but I've noticed him e.g. with Denman Maroney: I'm no historian of synthesizers, so would not recognize a Buchla Music Easel among others, but apparently it's one of the earliest, and is now being manufactured again. As its fascinating instrumentation suggests, Bird Saw Buchla indeed gets to some rather interesting interactions. Unfortunately, it begins with more conventional interactions, i.e. jazzy clarinet against weirdly repetitive & noisy accompaniment. (Apparently the circular saw is a mechanism for striking the guitar strings very fast & evenly. Overall, there's often a short & fast quality against Rothenberg's rich tone & legato.) The third track moves into the electronic register, as noted, with a variety of flittering & even some spacey clichés. (At times it has a bit of the frenzied feel of Natura venomous, which is likewise oriented around birds.) Then the second half of the album is generally more interesting, as the fourth & sixth tracks in particular produce some tautly creative three-way interaction. Whether this sequence arose from the trio's own explorations, or was intended to help the listener enter their sound world, or some combination, I'd be more interested in an album that begins where this one ends. (And in fact, there is no recording date or location information included with the physical CD, so we know nothing of how many sessions were involved, etc. I do continue to boggle at this bizarre urge to "document" something without documentation, but maybe that's my own issue.... I should also note that I was not able to have the CDR recognized by my traditional CD player: I have no idea if that issue is or will be resolved.) There is thus ultimately a sort of naturism (and not meaning bodily nudity, but "naturalism" has its own not quite right meaning...) combined with a mechanical perversity that would fit readily together on e.g. Creative Sources (& Tammen appeared on that label in its early days). And I'm serious about interest in a second album — but guys, please do provide some documentation. Even as is, I suspect that this album would have more appeal than the strange description suggests... and thus than is likely to be generated in practice.29 May 2018
I wasn't sure what to expect from 0 minutes and 0 seconds, recorded in Berlin last October, but it ends up being one of the most compelling recent albums from Ernesto & Guilherme Rodrigues. (And of course they both appear on so many albums....) The uncertainty derived from two basic dimensions, the first being the apparent "tribute" mode engaged by the title: This must be an evocation of Cage, right? (His piece 0'00", composed in 1962, is subtitled 4'33" No. 2, and so is a direct followup to what is often considered — especially by non-admirers — to be Cage's most influential, or at least provocative, composition.) Yet, besides the fact that Cage's 0'00" directs the performer to do anything (rather, to "perform a disciplined action") for any length of time, it is unequivocally labeled as for soloist (on any instrument). So here the solo instrument is a quartet of strings & electronics, and moreover, there are five tracks: As is not always the case in this music, there are even clear track divisions, with a few seconds of silence between them. So perhaps one should think of five different versions (although Cage himself did allow for "interruptions" in this work). 0 minutes and 0 seconds is not the first album by Rodrigues to present an enigma within a tribute context (and indeed Ernesto has a new album For Cecil Taylor that I expect to hear in the next few weeks): I ended up saying nothing about it at the time, in large part due to my own confusion, but e.g. Licht had already appeared in 2015. One might conclude that the title is simply an ordinary (German) word, but the evocation of Stockhausen's massive cycle goes beyond the title & in concrete ways, such as the seven tracks of the album (& perhaps even the septet of musicians). I rarely ask Ernesto anything specific about his music per se, but I did ask him if that album related to Stockhausen. (It cannot be a faithful performance of the score, at least not in any complete or logical sense.) His response was cryptic, so I dropped the subject. In any case, whereas Rodrigues's Licht is much more manageable than Stockhausen's, his 0'00" would appear to be rather more expansive than Cage's. (One might also call these "classical albums" accordingly, although at this point, I'm not sure what sort of point such a distinction would be making.) In keeping with a sense of 0 minutes and 0 seconds as consisting of five different performances of Cage's work by the same quartet of musicians, there are strong & overlapping perceptions of temporality involved: Much seems to happen, despite the relatively short length (just under forty minutes total), such that each track constitutes its own individual world: These can be quiet worlds, yet with an intensity that relates to qualities of duration per se. Not unlike Sîn, 0 minutes and 0 seconds also responds to different levels of attention, from concentration to indifference, although it can tend to fade away under the latter condition. (And regarding the "what's next?" question asked around Tellurium last week, 0 minutes and 0 seconds is numbered higher than 500 in the Creative Sources catalog, as were already Sîn, Meandros e Vertentes, etc. So things continue to happen quickly for Rodrigues....) Likewise in keeping with a sense of classical performance, there are perhaps questions of elitism lingering behind such work, and so this might be a good time for a few (more) general remarks: First, the notion that "popular" music, emerging from within the confines of imperial modernism, could be uncontaminated by the conditions of its emergence is an absurdity. One can speak of insurrection, of course, and the means at one's disposal, but there is certainly no purity to any such project — as seems to be posited by some critics of elitism. In fact, one requires considerable investigation in order to strip away layers of imperial imposition, and the basic ways in which Western tonality has rendered itself as being self-evident. If one responds in turn that such investigation is not, in principle, open to everyone, of course I must agree, because people function under various constraints (in actuality). So experimental music of this sort is certainly not sufficient, but it does contribute to the insurrectional character of popular struggle by virtue of its confrontation with universalizing & transcendentalizing imperial (musical) rhetoric. It is a matter, in other words, of immanent revolt at all levels, and so of not automatically or necessarily being content with whatever kernel of "the popular" presents itself. (Personally, whereas I can hear the insurrectional qualities to be found in e.g. the American Songbook, I also hear the modernizing tendencies, particularly the embedded anti-indigenous rhetoric, strongly & moreover, first.) After all, popular radio was established for social control: This is simply a fact, regardless of whatever heresy might have been allowed into it over the years. So sometimes, perhaps, one might do well to begin again from "first principles" of music, and this is what we see today in experimental improvisation: How does one forge or trace or acknowledge a new form of life, beyond the supposed non-alternative of contemporary neoliberal globalization? Is envisioning (or en-audibling) the non-impossibility of change inherently elitist? Let us hope not! (Is the unfamiliar elitist? In what sense might this be true or untrue? It is not a simple question....) So these are general comments, but what of this particular music? For one, the smaller forces (that I tend to favor here, as noted too often already) are easier to assemble, requiring fewer resources or coordination — in that an album always enacts or projects an economy of forces. (Although one could also posit that the popular, by definition, allows for the gathering of larger forces.) On 0 minutes and 0 seconds the Rodrigueses are joined (only) by Andrew Lafkas on double bass & Bryan Eubanks (b.1977) on "oscillators," yielding my second basic uncertainty around the album: I was not previously familiar with either. However, Lafkas had worked e.g. with Bill Dixon, and even has a trio album Funkhaus (released late last year) on Fine Noise and Light with Mazen Kerbaj & label director (& bassist) Mike Bullock: That is also a pulsing affair, but tends to be less smooth. Lafkas & Eubanks have actually worked together regularly, including years of performance (& albums such as Oceans Roar 1000 Drums, from 2012) as a trio with loft-era jazz drummer Todd Capp: Theirs is another exploration of duration & continuity via waves of sound, this time with drums forging much of the segmented material for elaboration via complementary smoothness. (Coincidentally, Capp joins the duo of Guillermo Gregorio & Nicolas Letman-Burtinovic for many of the tracks on their recent album Futura Spartan Suite, another innovative clarinet trio record that, like Bird Saw Buchla, is accompanied by very little documentation.) The general smoothness of whatever the oscillators are (& it seems to be basic sine wave production) tends to facilitate even more blend than an actual string quartet, which the ensemble otherwise resembles: The album begins with a brief clear tone (from an oscillator, I suppose), and quickly moves through a liminal, sheering presence via the strings — a Scelsian becoming, one might say. (One might also hear pre-echoes of Tellurium.) Some other tracks can have been more calm, rather than emergent per se, perhaps amid whistling harmonics or a sense of a distant signal, even the chirping of birds.... What such a description cannot convey, however, is the basic affectivity involved, and how 0 minutes and 0 seconds consequently modulates the listener's mood & receptivity. (One might think of notions of interiority & command — or indeed of being outside time.) Perhaps I will compare to some other favorites, and in particular Growing carrots..., which projects a similar sort of experimental emergence, but within a different (again, as one might say, here following Steve Goodman, aka Kode9) "politics of frequency" — such that, in other words, Growing carrots... generally emphasizes higher pitches within its particular assemblage of strings & electronics. Whitewashed with lines had explored similar sonorities (including as process-based) with related sorts of rigor & conceptions of dissonance.... Although this discussion projects an impersonal quality, 0 minutes and 0 seconds retains a very human core, such that expression itself is highlighted: In this, it's almost the inverse complement of Traintracks..., in which a more immediate expressivity is turned toward articulating industrial (i.e. inhuman) devastation. In that sense, 0 minutes and 0 seconds is more immanently noetic (i.e. regards the interiority of thought), and so successful (as well as novel) as a tribute to Cage.2 June 2018
I was excited to see that the latest release on Al Maslakh, AAMM (recorded in Berlin in 2015), was a joint effort between English legends AMM (in their current duo format) & Lebanon's "A" Trio, as led by label director & extended trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj. In this case, expectations didn't end up being a negative for my reception of the album, since despite a few spots where the musicians might be said to lose their collective edge, AAMM has made a strong impression right from first audition, eliciting intense ongoing attention. AMM require little introduction, of course — and I'm also looking forward to hearing their new triple album, An Unintended Legacy, in a trio configuration with Keith Rowe, but haven't had the chance yet: I mentioned Eddie Prévost most recently in this space in September, around his double duo album with Christian Wolff, Uncertain Outcomes. Tilbury has been mentioned more frequently, including for his participation in the all-star quartet album Nessuno: Tilbury's spacious chords & open sense of time often seem to frame that album, whereas they are more internal to the overall dissonant tapestry on AAMM. His Feldman-esque piano does continue to project a certain feel, however, particularly as it remains more (clearly ringing &) pianistic than much of what I've been featuring on the instrument. Besides Kerbaj, whom I first mentioned in this space around Ariha Brass Quartet (in February 2017) & who has participated in albums with e.g. Ernesto Rodrigues, the "A" Trio includes Sharif Sehnaoui on acoustic guitar, whose quartet album Nashaz (also on Al Maslakh, and also recorded in Berlin in 2015) has been an ongoing favorite for its airy & open, yet dissonantly human, rattling. "A" Trio also includes Raed Yassin on double bass, who had not been mentioned here individually: The bass is far from an afterthought in this quintet, however, as it projects an incredible potency, to the point of making other objects in the room (e.g. a fireplace poker) rattle at even modest volume — & this is not a normal experience for me. "A" Trio have (at least) three prior albums, the first on Al Maslakh, and then two recorded in 2012, including Live in Nickelsdorf on Roaratorio, which should be relatively obtainable for those readers who enjoy vinyl. As my opening remarks might have suggested already, there are some tentative moments early (although surrounding a surprisingly strong initial outburst), but the performance comes to involve deeply affective extended interplay within its single "unholy" (per the track title, apparently referencing the church location) track: It's not simply a matter of dissonance, which can be intense, yet always richly detailed & controlled, but of the lyrical sense that comes to emerge within the smallest spaces of the tapestry: This is not dissonance ornamenting melody, but rather melodic fragments ornamenting broader articulations of dissonance. It is presumably AMM bringing this kind of lyrical & airy touch amid a grinding earthiness, but it's anything but an awkward addition or afterthought: One comes to perceive the melody originating from the humming, scraping & muted blowing through tubes — as already latent there. (The "airiness" includes literal breath through the extended trumpet, but there is little in the way of traditional horn sound.) So whereas there is sometimes a pulsating drive — and in that, AAMM might evoke e.g. Sîn, another acoustic tapestry album from Berlin that can be both delicate & powerful at once — there is also a Chinese-naturalist feel to a later section, and at another point, watery burbling transforms into tuneful harmonics that almost suggest emergence from a Zen garden. The variety of accents, many subtly from Prevost, is also especially rich, lending different emerging evocations to these different passages & articulations. (It's possible that the sometimes overpowering rumbling of AAMM is behind some problems I had in trying to carry a copy on my portable computer, as I struggled to find equipment that would read it. However, it plays fine on my 1990s vintage Rotel player — a strange development, in that I cannot remember a previous example of a CD behaving better on a traditional CD player than on new computer hardware. A small computer speaker obviously isn't ideal for this music, as the church recording location should underscore, but a laptop DAC can be plugged into any speaker setup... and the stereo sound quality is actually superb, pace this complication.) A structural assemblage of delicacy & force, dissonance & lyricism, is then what gives AAMM its broad potency, although it still might be compared (at least superficially) to a variety of other "tapestry" albums, including in the electroacoustic domain, that produce a cumulative "orchestral" effect. However, here the result entails a unique cross-cultural intensity.8 June 2018
I haven't said much about Okkyung Lee to this point — although she's appeared here on Skein & with e.g. Evan Parker's Electroacoustic Ensemble.... I've also been less likely to feature composed music, but do want to mention Lee's recent Steel - Flower - Bird (Cheol - Kkot - Sae in Korean) on Tzadik, in part due to some previous remarks in this space regarding Korean fusion attempts: Henry Kaiser's Megasonic Chapel was discussed in May 2015 (and again in December 2015), and Treatises on Trans-Traditional Aesthetics, with two Korean performers among a more varied ensemble, was featured last November. (For some reason, these attempts to combine Korean music with Western improvisation have spoken to me more persuasively than some other projects, although I cannot personally claim as much specific influence from Korean music as from some other traditions....) Lee's suite opens with what initially presents as a duo between Pansori singer (Song-Hee Kwon) & cello, but quickly discloses the involvement of more performers: traditional percussion (Jae-Hyo Chang), high horn (John Butcher), bass (John Edwards), more percussion (Ches Smith).... These opening sections often seem to be dominated by the vocalist, and present some wonderful twisty passages in what tend to come off as spontaneous exchanges. When the electronics (by Lasse Marhaug) enter suddenly & forcefully, though, I start feeling less engaged: One has the sense of a cross between a race car & death metal in that section, and although a climactic passage of chirping birds (riffing off Butcher's high horn) is appealing, the piece then turns to a repetitive chant in steady rhythm. After an extended percussion solo & some tender flourishes (after fighting off, for a while, an almost intrusive sax), the second (much shorter) piece begins without a break — based on a simple piano (player uncredited) lullaby, again in steady rhythm. There appears to be an autobiographical factor at work in the suite, such that the later sections don't engage me as much musically. However, there are some wonderful cross-cultural exchanges prior to taking up more rigid and/or romantic styles. (In this, Steel - Flower - Bird is almost the opposite of Bird Saw Buchla from last month, as the latter begins conventionally & increases in originality as it goes.) Butcher's (soprano) participation with Lee & the Korean musicians was fascinating, in particular, and I'd be interested to hear some of those textures explored outside of the context of an autobiographical composition.9 June 2018
I'm not sure what "composed" means in this case — and I certainly do not mean that as a value judgment on the music, as I've mostly been enjoying non-composed music (whatever that means!) anyway — but I also want to mention William Parker's recent Lake of Light (recorded on a single day in Brooklyn in February 2017) featuring AquaSonics waterphones on Gotta Let It Out. This is an ample album of seven tracks covering more than an hour, played by a quartet of musicians (exclusively on waterphones by Jackson Krall) including Parker himself together with Jeff Schlanger, Anne Humanfeld & Leonid Galaganov: The ensemble itself further raises the question of what "composition" means in this context (and frankly, I think it's become more common to say that something isn't composed when in fact there were various significant prior decisions being made, rather than to hedge the other way around), in that besides Parker, one of them identifies as a percussionist, and the other two as visual artists. (I had already mentioned the instrument here in September 2017, as being played by Glynis Lomon in Leap of Faith, but had no real sense of the full sonic potential or limitations of the instrument from her performances, since they were embedded in larger ensembles.) To me, this immediately suggests concepts of sound installation & so e.g. Carved Water (which nonetheless sounds rather different). And indeed the performances are quite percussive, although they include various intriguing bent tones & shifting resonances via the motion of water. Moreover, the richly polyphonic individual pieces sound quite spontaneous (again, in a good way), such that I suspect that Parker led them with some explorations that were then taken up by others in their own way. There is consequently a strong quality of timbral experimentation & openness, together with a pervasive spiritual quality, that combines to give the proceedings a general feel that's surprisingly similar to that on e.g. (the recent) AAMM or even on 0 minutes and 0 seconds. (I found Lake of Light to be an intriguing playlist followup to the former, in fact.) Although one can further note a sophisticated sense of temporality, I also feel that Lake of Light drags on at times, as the experimental impetus starts to seem like lack of direction or focus. Still, there are many fascinating moments, suggesting many more possibilities in turn.10 June 2018
The improvised trio album Seraphic Light derives from a conference-concert at Tufts University (in April 2017) at which William Parker, Matthew Shipp & Daniel Carter first addressed the topic of "Art, Race, and Politics in America" verbally, before addressing it musically. Given both the setting & the stature of the musicians, Seraphic Light is sure to be on many "must hear" lists, including those from people who are a lot more concerned with tradition per se than I am, but I do want to add a few notes about what is an enjoyable & largely tonal album: I had mentioned Carter most recently (last August) around Carol Liebowitz's Poetry from the Future, and indeed it displays a similar orientation toward extended tonality & far-flung harmonic modulations. Carter's various horns are thus quite recognizable. Here the piano is manned by Shipp, and his sound (e.g. that with the Core Trio, first discussed here in June 2014, or more broadly, the many recent albums with Ivo Perelman) is also readily apparent, particularly with its drive & tapestry-like sweep. There is much passionate momentum between these two, generally maintaining strong continuity across a variety of tonal modulations & rhythmic shifts (via generalized hemiola, etc.): Superficially, Seraphic Light almost comes off as a duo then, but attention to Parker's playing reveals that he is often making significant (perhaps mediative) contributions. (Similarly, he was something of the "glue" on Beyond Quantum, forging a trio from the pairing of Anthony Braxton & Milford Graves. It would thus be difficult to summarize Parker's style, as the forgoing Lake of Light amply demonstrated — although perhaps one might consider the recurring "light" image further.) This is particularly the case when e.g. the piano reaches an impasse via escalating tensions, although a smooth "chamber" feel does tend to maintain (rather than the "spikiness" that Shipp might summon elsewhere by way of rhythmic interpolation). Of course, these senior musicians have great command of their instruments, allowing them to proceed idiomatically through many lively & spontaneous musical ideas, in what remains a charged atmosphere (at least relative to the classical, even romantic, evocations involved) that continues to mine the aura of (modern) beauty per se. The result is sometimes stormy, occasionally pointillistic, but remains very concerned with forward momentum — & so perhaps with social momentum (& indeed with social harmony figured as beautiful).11 June 2018
Intending to discuss a trio of recent releases from Relative Pitch, I want to begin with Happi (recorded in Sweden in January 2016) by the Tatakai Trio of Martin Küchen (soprano & sopranino sax, snare drum), Anders Lindsjö (guitar) & Raymond Strid (drums): Küchen has been quite prolific, especially for the Clean Feed label, but I see that I had yet to mention him here. Although I had listened to a selection of that material, and it's generally enjoyable, it's also more attuned to popular sources, and so hadn't called out to me (at least relatively speaking). Here though, Küchen enters (likely not for the first time) the more fractured & off-center world of e.g. Pool School — and indeed, at least here, Tatakai Trio shows considerable stylistic resemblance to the Tom Rainey Trio. I had previously featured Lindsjö — who is likely the least known member of the trio — as part of the (also Swedish) guitar trio Halster, around their album Mindfulness (discussed here July 2016): It's music of close listening & timbral exploration. Finally, Strid is also well-known, although I see that I had only mentioned him here (January 2016) with Voice & Percussion, a duo album with (also Swedish) vocalist Andreas Backer. However, I was first aware of Strid from his trios with Joëlle Léandre & François Houle (although I see that I hadn't mentioned them). So this is already an all-star trio — rather than up & coming, as one might have described a couple of the musicians on Pool School — but the similarities of interaction & exposition are sometimes uncanny: This is true of both the fast & slow tracks (on these albums with relatively many distinct, shorter tracks), encompassing bent tones in rhetorical timbral explorations & halting off-center rhythms, although Küchen might evoke "rock" per se a little more concretely at times. In fact, although the Tom Rainey Trio did its own followups to Pool School (on Intakt), featuring more composed music, Happi is so evocative of that album that it almost seems like an intentional second volume. Coincidence? (Perhaps the sometimes sheering tone or feedback places it more on the side of the often more raucous Tipple Live at Elastic Arts, featuring another Scandinavian horn player in Frode Gjerstad in a superficially similar trio. The fractured dialog might also be compared to that of You Haven't Heard This, albeit there in a somewhat different trio configuration.) Although I was eventually struck by the similarities, my first response was simply to enjoy Happi, as its style was immediately appealing — even familiar...? The appeal remains, and so perhaps this Swedish supertrio will continue to pursue their sophisticated, joint improvisatory style beyond these horizons.12 June 2018
Geometry of Caves (recorded at Firehouse 12 in December 2016) is another album that made an immediate & strong impression on me: Vocalist Kyoko Kitamura is the most striking participant, but the remainder of the quartet consists of all-star performers Joe Morris (here exclusively on guitar), Taylor Ho Bynum & Tomeka Reid. Although I didn't remember, I had actually mentioned Kitamura in this space in August 2015 as one of the "additional" participants on the "duo" album Signal Gain by Josh Sinton & Dominic Lash. She has also worked extensively with Anthony Braxton (as well as Ho Bynum) in the past, and is employed by the Tricentric Foundation. Of course, Morris (who begins the album on the heels of a quick stroke from Reid) is quite prolific, and was last mentioned here in January, around Ultra with Agustí Fernández. Ho Bynum is someone whose music I likewise explored fairly early in this project, but with whom I had yet to really connect: He does participate to fine effect on Quartet at Sesc Pompeia (around which he was most recently mentioned here, in April 2016) though, performing Braxton's Diamond Curtain Wall Music. This is then an opportunity for both of these musicians to work without a defined compositional structure, as opposed to much of their (at least recent) work. Finally, I hadn't mentioned Reid previously, although I had listened to some of her (more mainstream oriented) albums & noted the broader acclaim she had received: On first impressions, Reid is the least apparent member of the quartet, but subsequent listening reveals a very active presence right from the beginning, and indeed a crucial role. Geometry of Caves seems to mark something of a departure for Morris, i.e. from the visual or photographic orientation of some ongoing projects (to which the "shine" of Ultra was related), as it seems to evoke a kind of musical blindness via its quick figures & varied close interactions: This sort of imagery has already been associated with e.g. blind polyphonist Alexander Agricola & his labyrinthine counterpoint from the late fifteenth century, and the cave image would seem to reflect a similar orientation (and perhaps suggests a classic philosophical evocation as well). Moreover, the cover graphic shows what is apparently a computer rendering of intricate cave passageways, with only a tiny portion marked as "explored" — a wonderful metaphor for free musical experimentation. Reid & Morris begin the album in close dialog, and form something of a duo throughout, as their lines & articulations often intertwine, including pizzicato cello at times, as well as broader percussive qualities. Likewise, Ho Bynum (here on cornet, piccolo trumpet & bass trumpet) intertwines Kitamura's voice, with changing roles in different tracks, depending on instrumental (or vocal) register, as well as contrasts of relative continuity against fractured figures. (The way that these two duos — of the most similar instruments here — both intertwine each other and relate to the larger quartet is almost reminiscent of Runcible Quintet, minus the unifying drummer: At times, from the perspective of one duo, the other presents as a single entity, thus forming a composite trio — although it would be easy to overstate this mode of interaction.) Although I hadn't found much personal connection with Ho Bynum in the past, his interactions here are especially impressive: Minimal means or short repeated tones are often used to suggest an entire dialog, even a sense of swing choir at times, via rhythmic offset or clear timbral contrast (with the voice, which itself might be "muted" in turn). The result is a charged sense of musical economy that both animates the quartet more broadly, and — together with the string duo — serves to place the extended vocal technique in sharp relief. (Among the previous vocal albums that have caught my interest here, mostly quartets as it happens, I note that horns have often been absent: Isabelle Duthoit does employ clarinet on Light air still gets dark, but there it's a matter of articulating continuity between voice & horn, and of course the two are not independent. Perhaps the most similar configuration is actually that of VCDC, mentioned in November, with Frode Gjerstad on clarinet, as well as Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello, joining vocalist Stine Janvin Motland & percussionist — rather than guitarist — Ståle Liavik Solberg. However, Solberg's apparent hornless — but with guitar — followup Eye of the Moose projects a more similar sound & conception in many ways. For a comparison of vocal style alone, Catherine Jauniaux on Birds Abide might be the most similar, but that's an older album, and often focuses on bowed string interactions.) The voice might be said to convey a sense of musical economy as well, as it's not always active, but might articulate high pitched tones (mirroring trumpet) or low rumbles (likewise), often in twisty passages — maze-like, but not all alike. Cello harmonics come to appear in upper registers as well, as various lines intertwine in close counterpoint, at times even becoming pointillistic (especially) via guitar: The sometimes dreamy quality of Geometry of Caves is thus not only infused with a spiky intensity, but despite the occasionally percussive cello, or the unusual use of bass trumpet, tends to emphasize higher registers. Indeed, one might note — in a further sense of intersection & "blind" collision in turn — that the instrumentalists largely find themselves in the same range as the voice. In many ways, such "hide & seek" serves to intensify perception of the voice, which as noted, projects the most immediately striking sound of the album: Not only does Kitamura utilize a variety of register alternations over larger periods, but various (non-verbal) phonemes, buzzes, creaks, fast throat articulations etc. within the smallest spaces. The result suggests a conceptual span or tapestry, in which various combinations & configurations might not be arrayed systematically (at least temporally), but yet emerge over the course of the album as mappings of its interiorized spaces. (One might thus suggest a sense of triangulation....) The ensuing sense of balance can feel eerie, given the variety of quick exchanges from which it derives over the course of the seven tracks — feeling its way, as it seems to do, through metaphorical darkness — yet & consequently placing Kitamura's wonderfully varied vocal figures in sophisticated textural relief.
The primary interlude in the previous (paratactic) movement already had (heard) me thinking of improvised vocal albums more broadly, such that whereas e.g. Eye of the Moose can be cited for its similar pace & fractured quality, one might also emphasize — by way of contrast — its broader overall (pitch) range via bass & drums, making it more suggestive of spaciousness (& gravity) than claustrophobia: It also invokes a different politics of frequency. (And vocalist Andreas Backer, whose technique encompasses many similar elements to that of Kitamura, was only just mentioned in the previous entry on Happi.) Beyond the already noted vocal similarities on the older Birds Abide — a release within the same temporality as Pool School in 2010, but belatedly noted here only in late 2013 — albums involving voice seem to be gaining in prominence more recently: For instance, Clean Feed has been releasing more vocal albums, including two this month, and I wanted to make a few remarks about With Sofia Jernberg by Lana Trio — a Norwegian group (and Clean Feed continues to feature many Scandinavian performers) consisting of trombone, piano & drums. I wasn't familiar with Swedish-Ethiopian vocalist Jernberg (b.1983) previously either, but it appears that I should have been: Indeed, recalling the VCDC reference above, she has two albums (the second on 482 Music) in a quintet called Seval that includes Lonberg-Holm (again) & David Stackenas (guitarist for Hot Four, i.e. on Eye of the Moose), and so has a clear overlap with some other albums mentioned here, albeit in that case, in a more pop-oriented context with lyrics. (Jernberg has also appeared with Fire! Orchestra.) Her high squealing glissandi & slow percussive articulations are the most striking features on With Sofia Jernberg, and her sense of textural emergence recalls Duthoit. As on Geometry of Caves, it's the voice-horn duo & its interactions that are some of the most stimulating, as Henrik Munkeby Nørstebø on trombone sometimes employs breathy blasts or growls circling the voice. But more often, the instrumentalists are relatively subdued, with the voice in the foreground, often focusing on quiet emergence amid minimal activity — although they can sometimes be full-bodied & aggressive too, as at the beginning. The result (recorded in Norway in March 2016) comes off as rather exploratory, even preliminary overall, sometimes unfocused & sometimes focusing on simple combinations. Still, it's worth hearing, particularly for its exploration of vocal glissandi & extended technique more generally. (The second Clean Feed vocal album in this batch is Imaginary Band, a composed septet album of dreamy pop or cabaret stylings by vocalist Lynn Cassiers, with whom I was also not previously familiar. In terms of employing popular idioms, the rougher With Sofia Jernberg could then be said to occupy an intermediate position between Imaginary Band & the more abstractly balanced Geometry of Caves. The degree of "polish" involved in Clean Feed albums does continue to vary quite widely....)13 June 2018
I probably wouldn't have chosen to discuss Loud based on musical content alone, but wanted to make a few remarks in the context of the recent set of Relative Pitch releases: In particular, Loud (recorded in Berlin in June 2016) marks that label's entry into the Berlin scene & its often quiet music, emphasizing continuity amid subtle timbral interactions that move beyond relations between traditional "musical notes." For Relative Pitch, this suggests not only a move beyond the US-based production from which they began (and with which they continue, e.g. in recent albums by Nate Wooley, Brandon Lopez, etc.), and even beyond albums by well-established Western European improvisers (e.g. John Butcher, Alexander Von Schlippenbach, etc.), but into categories of "genre" per se: Indeed, one might also view the other albums just discussed here in terms of genre, from the eerily similar horn-guitar trio inspirations of Happi to the fractured vocal quartet tradition of Geometry of Caves. Whereas the latter does feature well-known US performers (and is not the label's first release with Joe Morris), it also seems to be a carefully planned entry into a lineage of similar albums, one without any recent precedent in this country. (The two duo albums that are also a part of this recent set of five releases do seem to be more unusual & US-derived.) What does all this suggest? It suggests to me that whereas Relative Pitch started out with concert-related activities around New York, it's now aspiring to be a general US-based label for improvisatory musical trends such as these: Thinking about it, there is really no other such label in the US, with most offering rather more restrictive selections of materials & inspirations. (There is no US Clean Feed, say, let alone no high volume label emphasizing composition-less free improvisation....) So perhaps Relative Pitch sees itself as consciously bringing this music before the US public (& such consciousness has me almost feeling as though Geometry of Caves is "too perfect" — although I admire the result, its consequent perfection of gesture, one might say). All that said, Loud itself (by a trio called Flamingo) has earlier connections to the Berlin scene. Indeed as it happens, I mentioned a Creative Sources album with Chris Heenan (& Alexander Frangenheim, et al.), named simply Berlin, back in July 2014: I complained that it was one of those albums exploring the limits of audibility, and so was frustrating to hear. (Whereas I've seen various remarks, including more recently, about how setting a low volume level & just leaving the recording on autopilot — so to speak — results in a recreation of the auditory experience in the room, I've also already expressed disagreement: In the original room, one can adjust & direct one's hearing & attention in ways that are much more difficult, if not impossible, once the dynamic limitations are fixed in media. Such an observation seems to be obvious, yet one continues to see these philosophical statements about recording.... Perhaps in a format with more bandwidth than CDs, such statements might become more accurate, but I'm not so sure....) Joining Heenan (here on contrabass clarinet) in Flamingo are Adam Pultz Melbye — who appears on Rotozaza Zero, and was most recently mentioned here around Hyvinkää last October — on bass, and Christian Windfeld (with whom I was not previously familiar) on snare drum & objects. Presumably to address some of the concerns I've articulated around Berlin, and indeed those of the lengthy parenthetical remark, Flamingo are also joined by Roy Carroll, credited with "amplification & feedback." (I had mentioned Carroll in December, in the lengthy entry concerning The Afterlife of Trees, for his trio album As Found with Biliana Voutchkova.) So then, as the title indicates, this production takes the quiet scrapings & timbral inflections, and feeds them back, making them louder in real time. The result is easier to hear, and I appreciate that (& indeed other recordings, including on Creative Sources, have moved toward greater audibility in the interim as well): Close mic'ing & selective recording choice (& intensification) make good sense to me in general in this music. Loud then consists of a single track lasting well over an hour: Continuity is emphasized much of the time, but there are some breaks. The bass & low horn (almost like a foghorn at times) tend to rumble or hum along, accented by rattling percussion, with processes maintaining for a time before tiring or transforming: Sometimes the trio (or quartet) sounds almost like a helicopter, whereas at other times they might evoke primitivism — throbbing along with a variable level of insistence in either case. As usual, some passages are more engaging than others, such that one gets the feeling of improvising "through" some stagnant points to find more stimulating interactions — in this Loud can be readily compared to e.g. AAMM, although perhaps not so much to what seem like more carefully sculpted albums in Sîn or 0 minutes and 0 seconds (the latter in five movements) — i.e. a few recently released Berlin albums of note, among so many.18 June 2018
Tse — recorded in Geneva last November by a trio of Cyril Bondi (harmonium, pitch pipes, objects), Pierre-Yves Martel (viola da gamba, pitch pipes, harmonica) & Christoph Schiller (spinet) — is not from Berlin, but similar ideas do operate. In fact, given its five movements of close, pulsing concentration, 0 minutes and 0 seconds is a close comparison. However, whereas both albums possess a process-like smoothness, as well as an airy human quality, Tse is generally brighter and involves more convergence between tones than the counterpoint (& broader pitch range) of 0 minutes and 0 seconds. One might also compare Martel's trio album Boule-spiele (first discussed here in January 2017, and again for its Tour de bras release in December), which is both more dissonant & more focused on continuity per se. (Loud might be said to occupy an intermediate position on both accounts.) In the case of Tse, more can be said of the specific approach: Online comments relate that the performers agreed on a specific sequence of pitches for improvisation, by way of orienting their activities, lending the resulting sense of convergence. Contrasts are obtained in large part by dialog between the two smooth, sustaining instruments & the decaying percussive attack from the spinet. A sense of dissonance almost seems to build within pitch unisons as a result, recalling Scelsi's multi-faceted explorations of single tones. One might also compare its slow smoothness to other Another Timbre releases, such as Antoine Beuger's (composed) Ockeghem Octets, likewise each based on (double) pitch sequences. The slowly shifting, individual tapestries on Tse thus build a buzzing (sometimes verging on shrill) quality punctuated by ringing plucked strings that provide a further sense of time hanging in the air like mist.... (Audibility is not an issue here, and in fact there's a loud climax in the center of the middle track.) I had been drawn to Martel based on the trio album Drought, which is likewise calm, but more rhythmically varied & insistent (and that trio does intend to release a third album later this year, so I'll be anticipating that). I see that I hadn't mentioned either Bondi or Schiller previously, but both have large discographies of similarly abstract reductionism already, including extensively on Another Timbre & e.g. on Creative Sources. (Both had also worked together, but without Martel, in the past.) Coming together in this new trio, then, Tse ultimately projects a strong sense of calm via its shifting tones & steady articulations: Its resulting sense of focus transfers, in turn, to the listener, making for an appealing & "functional" album. (I'd be interesting in trying it out as the backdrop to, say, a group study hall session, since it projects such clarity of thought.)19 June 2018
Some of the music that most captivated me early in this project was by Henry Threadgill, and in particular This Brings Us To, which happened to be new at the time. It also gave me the opportunity to ponder continuity with jazz from the sixties, about which I basically had only foggy impressions — but these did include e.g. impressions of Air. That spacious (now quintet) style — and there was the intervening sextet album Tomorrow Sunny... as part of the recent continuum as well — seems to have found its epic climax, at least to this point, with In for a Penny, in for a Pound, and indeed the latter brought Threadgill a Pulitzer Prize. That particular event seems to have been latent in the early days of this project as well: Although I was only getting my bearings, I did note debates about whether e.g. Threadgill was a "composer" or an "arranger" — with the differing prestige implications of those terms. I have the impression that Threadgill himself values the title "composer," and it would be even more difficult to deny him that status at this point, particularly with his recent pair of albums, Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus & Dirt... And More Dirt, and their increasingly "composed" feel (the former even more so). Personally, though, I don't place more value on the notion of being "a composer," i.e. telling someone else what to play, in greater or lesser detail, than I do on being a performer or musician more generally, especially in the mode of spontaneous improvisation. (For one thing, the class implications of the "composer" arrangement are palpable. This is also why I haven't really embraced terms such as "spontaneous composition" either, because they mostly seem to want to reinject a sense of hierarchy into musical creation. I mean, is it a good performance or isn't it? If it bears hearing again, great....) So in that sense, Threadgill has been moving away from my areas of interest.... Moreover, he's also embraced the piano — and to a great extent, as Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus now features three of them! — an instrument about which I feel quite ambivalent — and as something of a stunning development, at least considered from the prior perspective of Air. (Of course, it also makes sense that Threadgill might want to invert his former activities in this way, simply as a challenge if nothing else.) And whereas Double Up Plus is already a rather large group around the pianos, an octet (which doesn't include Threadgill, who engages in Butch Morris inspired conduction), Dirt... And More Dirt involves a "Kestra" (I assume short for orchestra, perhaps as inspired by the Sun Ra Arkestra) of fifteen instruments — so larger than I usually consider in this space. Whereas this recent pair of albums (both recorded during the same four day span in September 2017, and totaling 90 minutes) does move away from my main interests here, then, it's also quite enjoyable. So I wanted to make a few remarks based (both) on my earlier engagement, as well as my enjoyment today. In fact, pace the discussion of composition per se, what makes these performances so striking is their sheer fluency with the music: I was further struck by a comparison to Bartok, both for the spiky rhythmic energy, as well as for the reworking of folksong. (Of course, their respective bodies of "folksong" are rather different, but perhaps not in spirit.) Threadgill's music is more complex, however, with various interlocking facets, whether via rhythm or allocation of intervals. And yet, these albums come off as quite fluent, fluid & spontaneous, whereas a classical orchestra (e.g. the Chicago Symphony under Boulez) seems — at least at times — to strain to play Bartok's notes exactly right. So I want to note this accomplishment quite clearly: Despite (which is how I'll put it for these purposes) being a "composer" in this music — and these (musical) interactions clearly involved substantial planning — Threadgill's music manages to sound fresh & unselfconscious. Of course, this is a credit both to Threadgill & to the many musicians involved: In particular, returning musicians Jose Davila (now exclusively on tuba) & Christopher Hoffman (who joined only with Tomorrow Sunny...) stand out for me, especially their duets for Double Up Plus. It's a great combo, and these albums are packed with appealing solos & distinctive duets etc. for less usual combos. (The continued emphasis on soloing isn't necessarily my thing either, but this is also where Threadgill's compositional prowess comes into play — such that some of these pieces might be considered as concertos with cadenzas, or perhaps a Concerto for Orchestra, again to evoke Bartok....) Of course, as already noted, it's the pianos that seem like the biggest musical departure, and Threadgill had already employed two in the first album by Double Up, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (discussed in April 2016): Apparently the three pianos are not about using different tunings, so as to get around the fixed pitch limitations, but in part to have different people taking different solos. And again, the result is appealing, enjoyable music, with counterpoint spinning off in all directions (perhaps recalling e.g. Myra Melford on Tiger Trio Unleashed whose Threadgill-esque qualities I had noted in February 2017). (I might also note the traintracks & broken fence on the cover, suggestive of Traintracks Roadsides Wastelands Debris perhaps, but of what possible relevance here? Although the placid cover of Dirt... And More Dirt does appear to include actual dirt, the simplicity of the landscape image still doesn't suit the music.) Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus is probably best received as a "classical album," then, and its first (& longest) track is especially impressive: It seems as though it would appeal to a classical audience seeking a thorny 20th century-esque concerto — and that's not a small niche. (The other three tracks are also appealing, but involve American popular traditions more prominently. Perhaps one should think of Gershwin. And, again, we have someone reciting the list of contents as the final track of each album.... I hope that someone appreciates it, because I don't.) One might likewise hear these albums, particularly in reintegrating piano, as further developments of large-form AACM compositional ideas & aspirations, such as those emerging in earlier decades around Muhal Richard Abrams.... There's also something of a feeling of collage via the various materials evoked, clearly marking Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus as early twenty-first century music. (Although we see more of the avant garde moving away from collage at this point, it's still very common & popular in these musical genres.) Dirt... And More Dirt continues the sonorities & interval concerns articulated & developed in This Brings Us To more directly, but now (similarly) brings two pianos (& now two drummers), as well as a brass choir, to the music. It's thus more dense than In for a Penny, in for a Pound, particularly as the two title pieces are articulated over much shorter time spans. (The pianos are not at all incidental either, as e.g. some short tracks are piano solos.) That the large ensemble never seems especially heavy or turgid, particularly as it shifts through smaller units, is also a credit to Threadgill's compositional ability, which he continues to explore in this setting. (These are thus more "abstract" works, versus songbook-inspiration etc. The styles are immediately recognizable as similar, however.) The result might be characterized as kaleidoscopic, if not for the way that it so often "contracts" to a piano (as the center of the texture, or alone) — apparently the medium through which Threadgill had worked out his compositional ideas all along (just like so many European composers before him).22 June 2018
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