It's time, once again, to write a new introduction for this space. The the previous set of entries had gotten to be rather long, and a fresh start often feels good. (Please do go ahead and take a look at those many, prior discussions, because upcoming entries will continue to refer to them, whether implicitly or explicitly.)
In keeping with my habits of the past few years, rolling over this page at this time of year is also happening in the wake of finishing a more lengthy, theoretical discussion, Practical listening, the second appendix to What is familiar? — the first being Morality as aporia. (You probably don't want to start with appendices.) This marks the end of my work on longer, theoretical projects, at least for now. So the focus will be on shorter discussions in this space, and mostly on specific recorded examples.
Once again, I am leaving the page in written order, so please scroll to the end if you want to see the most recent entries. I know that some people prefer the reverse, but despite undoubtedly being multi-stranded, in some sense, these entries form a single narrative, and I want to present it in order, rather than suggest an alternate or a-temporality. (Maybe that's worth scrolling all the way to the end...? But don't hurt yourself....) In that sense, this space reflects an ongoing, personal practice. (And thanks for your interest!)
I continue to struggle, to some degree, with my choice of writing topics here, as noted in many of those earlier entries. One part of that is a piece of guesswork: If others are going to say similar things about an album, I'm more likely to focus on something else. I also want to keep things positive, so I do focus on favorites. (Please consult that list any time you like. It is kept up to date, and arranged by year.) I also write about non-favorites, or non-ongoing favorites, whether albums I find appealing for one or two hearings, or albums about which I find something else I want to say. (Sometimes that is negative. And improvised music isn't necessarily expected to be interesting for several hearings.) In other words, I haven't & won't write about everything I hear. I'd also prefer to let this particular space be driven by musical productions reaching my ears, rather than "points" I might want to illustrate. It's best when those two coincide spontaneously. (These opening paragraphs also illustrate the sort of self-obsession that can so easily become a pitfall for a project such as this.)
I'm also expecting more activity on the performance fellowship page, which tells something of a separate story. In the meantime, I'm trying to get better at relaxing, something I seem to have forgotten how to do over the past few years, and perhaps that will be reflected in entries here.Todd McComb <firstname.lastname@example.org>
A decision to write about something, at least as articulated above, is often already premised on a decision to hear something. The experience of encountering compelling music spontaneously can be special, but unfortunately, my circumstances are such that this very rarely happens. To find something I'll particularly enjoy, I generally have to notice & select an opportunity first, whether that's going to a location (venue), getting a recording (physical or otherwise), or even reading someone's recommendations. The latter usually involves making further choices (rather than adopting the entire list of recommendations wholesale). The contours of the present project provide me with some guidance, in terms of which productions are more likely to fit, but as such a project-based approach immediately suggests, there's a risk of confirming my own biases & so missing experiences that might well be exemplary. One might say that my personal familiarity creates its own resonance conditions. I try to counter this pull by listening occasionally to something that seems like it'll be totally different from my usual material, but even that sense of difference or unfamiliarity is obviously itself conditioned by familiarity — i.e. as an exception. (But sometimes that random object does pull me in a new direction.)
Within such a context, one might describe a record label as instantiating a set of recommendations: The editor or editors have recommended these recordings, for one reason or another. There are then labels with a history of releasing albums I enjoy, and so of course I pay further attention. Even still, there are usually choices involved: I don't want to commit to hearing everything, and maybe not even everything that seems to fit the "contours" of this project, as I put it above. I mention this situation not only because it relates closely to some of the "process" (or practice) ideas that I've been articulating around self formation, but because Creative Sources is once again my subject, and it offers a canonical example of such a label-based set of recommendations: The volume of releases is high — I count twenty-five so far this year, more or less — and they generally appear with no description. I'm not sure how well some album descriptions (or reviews, for that matter) really serve to improve my choice of what to hear, since they might e.g. emphasize features I find tangential to such desires. However, no description at all, particularly when the albums involve musicians with whom I am not otherwise familiar (and for that matter, having heard someone in a couple of settings hardly serves to indicate everything they might ever do), puts a rather stark edge on the issue of choice. I've nudged Creative Sources label editor Ernesto Rodrigues for suggestions, but he seems reluctant to offer them, perhaps because such suggestions might have too much effect on feedback he subsequently receives — reciprocal to the issues I've raised here. I don't know. (And, after all, by definition, he is recommending all of his recordings anyway. Is it fair to highlight some over others?) In any case, I continue to make my choices, some more informed (with the dangerous resonance that implies) than others, and hear a subset of new Creative Sources albums. (One of the contours of my practice continues to be a high priority on new productions.)
All that said, I've particularly enjoyed the recent improvised quartet album New Dynamics by Roland Ramanan, Nuno Torres, Ernesto Rodrigues, & Bernardo Álvares. An obvious point of comparison for this album is last year's Nor, considering that it shares two of the musicians & uses the same set of instruments. (Both albums also have three medium-length tracks.) Indeed, I had trouble finding precedents for these two-wind & two-string quartets, although one wouldn't say that such an ensemble seems radical. It would be equally wrong to say that the instrumental constitution creates a certain mood, as well, since the moods are rather different on these albums. There is, however, as one might imagine, a distinct "chamber" quality, even if extended technique is common. So whereas Nor includes Berlin improvisers Axel Dörner & Alexander Frangenheim, New Dynamics instead includes Roland Ramanan & Bernardo Álvares. (It would be wrong to call them substitutes. It is, dare I say it, a new dynamic.) Álvares was totally unknown to me, and I didn't find any substantial information about him online; I assume that he is Portuguese. I did have some familiarity with Ramanan, a longtime member of the London Improvisers Orchestra, from his album Zubeneschamali, released on Leo Records (about which some similar things could be said, especially that Leo releases many appealing albums) in 2014, with Tom Jackson & Daniel Thompson from the trio on Hunt at the Brook. I thought that Ramanan's trumpet kind of dominated that album, which along with e.g. Compost by another related ensemble, explores the acoustic space of a church: There is a sense of finding separate spaces for the members of the trio that also informs the quartet on New Dynamics, even if its space isn't contextualized by architecture per se. (How such a notion relates to the fake "spray" amid empty/monolithic architecture on the cover graphic, I don't know, but it does seem vaguely related.) Individual instruments are generally more discernible than on many albums on which Rodrigues participates, and so one might speak more of counterpoint on New Dynamics than of notions such as the soundscape. There is also a more concrete sense of presence & projection than on Nor, which focuses more on immanent emergence: Indeed, the latter, perhaps in keeping with its partial Berlin roots, has almost an ascetic or severe quality (one might even say Nietzschean), including some higher pitches & harmonics, more percussive attacks, etc. (The trumpet "calls," in the sense used in the discussion of Neutral Nation in this space earlier this month, remain immanent to an emerging landscape, rather than actually emerging or transcending.) New Dynamics thus comes off as more human (dialogic, even) & worldly than environmental, and one might ask what new sorts of dynamics emerge. Different instruments suggest their own different temporalities: By this, I mean generally speaking that the way one interacts with a particular instrument, the way it interfaces with the body, the way it resonates, has a particular temporality or time-scale. One can play slower or faster, but within limits, and there are temporal regions that "fit" the instrument better than others. One could further say that these sorts of relations are often explored in soundscape-type ensembles, but without necessarily seeking a common temporality by which to articulate a counterpoint. (In other words, there must be some temporal relation or correspondence in order to have counterpoint.) New Dynamics does this in a rather human way, including dodecaphony, while still respecting the differing temporal dynamics of the instruments — which, helpfully, are not all that different in the first place. (In this seeming "human" emphasis, then, it differs from e.g. Sediment, a quartet album that otherwise maintains a similarly resolute acoustic stance & pace of interaction.) So a new language of improvised, contrapuntal quartet interaction? That's compelling. (And just how contingent was my hearing of this album in the first place? I cannot really say.)23 May 2016
I want to mention a couple of other recent releases on Creative Sources as well.
I like the idea of an improvising string quartet, and particularly given the extended lineage of the string bass in jazz, that such a quartet should be violin-viola-cello-bass, rather than doubling the violin, makes good sense to me too. So I was happy to get a chance to hear the Iridium String Quartet (recorded last November in Lisbon) featuring Maria da Rocha on violin, Ernesto & Guilherme Rodrigues on their regular viola & cello, and Miguel Mira (here on bass, instead of the cello he plays on e.g. Earnear). This is the first I'd heard (of) da Rocha, and she seems to fit the rest of this group well. The two tracks are named for the melting & boiling points of iridium, and feature a kind of Scelsian string quality... a sense of becoming, metallic scraping... almost industrial at times. One can imagine the changes of state being invoked. As one might also imagine, the quartet can still seem kind of monochromatic at times. There tends to be a rather unified sense of gesture, with a single pulse, relying partly on register (or even pitch) changes for articulation. One might ask what emerges, i.e. what is brought to presence, and in this case, I hear more of the immanent concerns of Nor, i.e. an emergence that isn't from "elsewhere," and likewise doesn't really come to presence. This seems like a first album for the group (which it presumably is), and I believe there is considerable potential, particularly exploring more multi-pulsed interactions. It's already worth hearing.
Aleph, recorded live in Madrid in December 2015, might be the debut leader album for Guilherme Rodrigues (cello), who is joined by David Area (sines, cracklebox, bottle), Guillermo Torres (synth) & Tomás Gris (cornet, objects). The album consists of a long improvised track, followed by a shorter one that almost seems like an encore — not so unlike Live at the Metz' Arsenal by the MMM Quartet. Indeed, the ensembles might be taken to be vaguely similar, even as Aleph is an album less dense with ideas, marking perhaps tentative relations more so than the studied multiplicity of the former. The album notes thank Wade Matthews, and one might also compare it to Primary Envelopment, likewise for its attempt to reshape perceptions (albeit with less sharpness to the high pitches). On Aleph, the different sounds are articulated through significant differences, such that they stay rather separate, suggesting what I've called a "less dense" ecology. I think there is more to be developed here, more to grow one might say, and I also assume that the entire quartet is rather young, so development of their group ecology does seem likely. It's already a worthwhile debut, particularly if one reframes my remarks as the music displaying an overall sense of balance & restraint (& even gravity) within an adventurous sonic idiom.24 May 2016
I haven't featured much "classical" music in this space to this point, and probably won't, but do want to note the new double album of music by Richard Barrett, Music for cello and electronics featuring Arne Deforce on cello. That I would "need" to mention this album is probably obvious to anyone with a particular view of my output, and I can sketch that easily: Deforce's previous albums on Aeon were devoted to Scelsi, Feldman & Xenakis, only the three modern composers for whom I have discussions linked from my "favorites" list here. Moreover, Barrett himself already appears on such improvised favorites as Colophony & Skein. My own (recent?) predilection for improvised music means that Music for cello and electronics comes off a little stiffly to me — a comment I've been making in this space for albums that seem "too composed" even when they involve significant improvisation — and I find myself easily preferring Barrett's participation in those other projects. (In fairness, I also don't have the liner notes, so I have no idea what they say. Perhaps they add something that might further pique my interest.) I still thought it was worth hearing, even if the prospects of these colliding lines of influence (as articulated above) excited me unreasonably. I guess my orientation toward improvisation is only increasing....
Of course, the notion of improvisation versus composition continues to be articulated in various ways by music, and especially by discussions of that music, that fits with my project more closely. Indeed, I assume that Barrett's compositions involve some improvising, as much "contemporary classical" music does. On the other hand, barring some radical attempt (that I cannot cite; and if something can be characterized as an "attempt," it's probably not radical enough in this context anyway), even "totally improvised" music involves some sense of composition, for which I might substitute "some sense of prior." (Hence, this is another issue of temporality.) In other words, beyond a specific choice to convene a group of people, which is a clear act of composition, albeit one that can perhaps be circumvented by a random gathering, there are all the prior associations & expectations that the participants have about music. Often, in the grand scheme of things, these associations & expectations are rather similar & readily circumscribed — despite, or perhaps because of, a desire to improvise together. (When Evan Parker recently remarked, in the context of his ElectroAcoustic Septet, that convening a specific set of musicians was his manner of composing, some writers seemed to believe that he was being facetious. I agree, at least in principle, with Parker.) First, these comments suggest radical attempts to improvise without actually convening or sharing expectations (or perhaps any prior commonality), something that was more in fashion decades ago. Beyond that, one might interrogate the consciousness of shared expectations: Leave them latent or make them explicit? (This is a compositional choice. I often hear people say that they have no expectations, but frankly, this is impossible, at least for neurological adults. So it becomes a question of interrogating or forging expectations.) Particularly since I've also been criticizing music for sounding "too composed," one might ask about the relevance of explicit composition amid an improvising practice. One obvious response is that if one has a specific musical idea that isn't being projected otherwise, then why not articulate it specifically, whether in writing or otherwise? If we retain an emphasis on improvising, then once articulated, such an idea can in turn inform improvisation. (Such articulation may require considerable effort & practice, particularly if one is to internalize it for one's spontaneous repertory.) So that seems worthwhile, even when prioritizing improvisation — and prioritizing improvisation makes good sense to me, since life is mostly improvised — and indeed many compositions have served as "raw material" for improvisation in just this way. In the case of Barrett's music, there is already considerable overlap with his improvisatory style. Beyond that, I would expect any influence to involve, perhaps, small figures of interaction between cello & electronics (& piano), none of which jump out at me as obvious candidates — but who can say? In any case, we would probably do better to describe such situations according to multiple, perhaps impinging, layers of creativity, rather than as a sort of opposition. (These layers would be articulated, at least in part, via temporal relations. To continue removing the teleological frame, such relations might in turn contextualize compositional activity itself within a broader & ongoing improvisatory practice called life.) This is especially true when one considers how much technical practice, i.e. of particular figures, the typical improviser does: Such familiarizing activity can be said to forge a repertory of tiny, interlocking compositions — to be arranged in performance in more or less typical ways.25 May 2016
Trash with a groove, trash that sings the blues.... This is what we get from Pascal Niggenkemper's new sextet Le 7ème Continent & their album Talking Trash. The sextet is variously conceived as a double trio or triple duo, and features pianists Eve Risser & Philip Zoubek, clarinetists Joris Rühl & Joachim Badenhorst, as well as Julián Elvira playing the pronomos & sub-contrabass flute. I was not previously familiar with Elvira or the pronomos flute (and had little familiarity with Rühl), but it is apparently his own rethinking of the basic Boehm flute mechanism & shows some intriguing capabilities. Whereas the pianos & clarinets come in pairs, then, Niggenkemper's bass is paired with flute. (On track #7, which dates from a later session, Constantin Herzog plays the string bass instead, making each pair the same. The music remains similar enough, however, even though this track is from a newer layer of material composed for the ensemble.) At least one half of the sextet then corresponds in composition to the classic Jimmy Giuffre Trio, or closer to home for these performers, the Kaufmann-Gratkowski-de Joode trio, with its incorporation of piano preparations. (One might even characterize Skein as a different sort of double trio, in that case retaining a single horn.) Regarding preparations, Niggenkemper highlights another splitting of the sextet into two trios, the two prepared pianos & prepared bass, and the three winds. Moreover, those preparations, which involve objects that might otherwise be similar to trash — a crucial difference being that they're still in active use — play a signal role in Niggenkemper's musical interrogation of trash. When thinking about an environmental theme, my mind tends to turn to thoughts of economizing, and from that perspective, Niggenkemper's ensemble seems almost extravagant. I asked him about that, and he replied with an emphasis on the potentials of dualities, confrontations, consolidations, etc. So Pascal's musical mind doesn't turn to economizing, at least not in the way that mine does, and indeed he put out a septet album (Lucky Prime) not so long ago — albeit followed by his solo album, Look with thine ears (discussed here in September). Whereas the ensemble variety in his work is evident, Talking Trash does seem to continue an emphasis on some of the spatial concepts raised by Look with thine ears. (In other words, we are asked to visualize trash. And the more, the better.) Moreover, whereas a strict economization notion already inflects the trash "situation" in a particular direction, Niggenkemper takes a more expansively creative approach: While some titles suggest excess trash as a problem, particularly in the image of the seventh continent (and, in French, the Americas are one continent, so there are ordinarily six), others highlight positive responses, whether art projects, plastic-eating bacteria, etc. In other words, we're not asked simply to disdain trash, but to explore more relations around it, maybe even to adopt a more intersubjective stance toward our environment. Such relations are then highlighted by the use of objects in preparations — a paradigm of the "reuse" mantra: We are asked not so much to increase our contempt, although horror toward the accumulation of trash is involved, but rather our appreciation & respect for objects per se. (Our relation to objects in general surely figures our relation to "trash" in particular. In that context, the "reduce" mantra might make only limited sense.) The sound of the album actually reminds me less of Oblengths, which comes off as much more "classical," at least relatively speaking, or Skein, which has a driving sweep & can also make quite a racket, than it does the more static & "industrial" sounds of Anomonous & Pail Bug. However, Talking Trash generally has a larger pallet, and can be more diffuse, almost cloudy.... It's certainly more "open" than Pail Bug, on which confinement is something of a theme. This is presumably Niggenkemper's optimism showing, and as per the previous entry, the compositional basis serves here to highlight particular instrumental combinations & musical ideas: One can imagine the trash itself, the ocean, humanity, other living creatures... in different ways on different tracks. Our perspective becomes troubled: Are we supposed to be repulsed by trash, or identify with it? (Here I figure identification as more involved than mere responsibility.) Whereas extended technique & dissonant "noises" dominate the early part of the album, we are left to wonder to what extent the trash itself participates in the ongoing conversation. Does it participate in singing the blues, then? This sort of intersubjectivity emerges from the clash of different instrument combinations, particularly in energetic & dramatic confrontations such as on tracks #6 & #7 — which are in sharp contrast to the slowly shifting high tones & resulting groundlessness of track #4. (We thus have both the clocks & clouds of a famous dual, "mediated" by the emergence of a herky-jerky tune in track #5.) One thing Talking Trash really might do is make extended technique & object preparations themselves more musically approachable to more people: After all, dramatic movie scores have been doing this for avant garde music for decades. Sometimes a concrete association is all people need to engage with unfamiliar musical techniques, and here we have a very concrete theme. (One might then ask whether the technique serves the theme, or vice versa.) What would it mean actually to identify with trash & its various ramifications? On Talking Trash, that becomes a spiritual (blues) question, consummated in a kind of solidarity by both the final tune & the ensuing applause.26 May 2016
For is an album that might be characterized as both more & less mainstream: It's trio improvisation coming out of the New York Downtown scene, and features not much in the way of typical melody or harmony, but is also apparently dedicated (per the track titles "For") to eight different mainstream celebrities — most of whom do such things as appear on television music award shows. If there's some kind of specific musical or technical connection to the celebrities, I'm not aware of it. (The music is aggressive & noisy, but there could be a particular motif being elaborated beyond recognition, or something of that sort.) Or maybe the name dropping is meant more generally or vaguely. In any case, For is a followup to Ghosts of the Holy Ghost Spermic Brotherhood — which was apparently the first release on Resonant, which appears to be Andy Haas's label — and is now the trio's name. Besides Haas on sax & electronics, Ghosts of the Holy Ghost Spermic Brotherhood include David Grollman on snare drum, objects, balloon, etc. & Michael Evans on snare drum, etc. I had mentioned Evans in this space previously, in November 2014, in connection with the Gordon Beeferman Trio's album Out in Here, where he seemed to share many of the rhythmic concerns of his teacher Milford Graves. In this group, both Evans & Grollman spend much of their time rubbing surfaces to create resonances in similar fashion to e.g. Gino Robair on The Apophonics On Air. (The latter might be described as more pensive & precise, and is certainly more acoustic.) For instance, Grollman rubbing the balloon is quite prominent on track #5. (I have seen a few different live instrument setups that use plastic balloons.) The basic irreverence of the album is underscored by the repeated question "Are you gonna make frittata?" of the last track, but in the meantime, there is a fascinating exploration of various sounds & their spontaneous combination in this rather short (just under a half hour) production. Indeed, it projects a bit of a "heartbeat of the Earth" quality (if I may paraphrase Scelsi) — and it's a rather "messy" becoming. Whereas some improvisations use noise to signal aporia, here the noise is more about the birth of something new, i.e. is a kind of passage itself. Seeing as it's urban music, call it construction noise, perhaps, as opposed to e.g. traffic noise.10 June 2016
Another album I'd have likely never noticed if not for DMG is Live At Issue Project Room by Catherine Christer Hennix (b.1948, Stockholm) and Chora(s)san Time-Court Mirage, playing "Blues Alif Lam Mim in the modes of Rag Infinity / Rag Cosmosis." A couple of weeks ago, I reiterated that I probably wouldn't be featuring much "classical" music in this space, but Live At Issue Project Room might already fit that label, in spite of what I said. It's unclear to me if there's an electronic composition being played, or if the electronics also improvise — for instance, the latter is certainly the case on Phase/transitions & is apparently true to at least some extent of Braxton Quartet at Sesc Pompeia (i.e. Diamond Curtain Wall Music). In this case, the electronic basis can be compared readily to the Indian tanpura, which is often replaced with the electronic shruti box, particularly in Carnatic concerts. So whereas Hennix's background isn't Carnatic, the electronics don't sound out of place. Perhaps the "ragas" named in the title involve a particular sequence of tones that span tonal space in ways that individual ragas usually do not? The result seems both immersive (as is Phase/transitions, to a similarly high degree) & as something of a polyphonic approach to ragas or drones more generally. Such a polyphonic immersion is articulated by the three different vocalists, with Imam Ahmet Muhsin Tüzer & Amirtha Kidambi joining Hennix in that role. Hennix has relations to Pandit Pran Nath (whom I also heard in person in the 1990s), via or alongside La Monte Young, Terry Riley, etc., and so relations to the early history of minimalism, or at least its drone-based incarnation. Beyond the immersive, tanpura-style droning, the voices generally sculpt the flow & evoke an unmeasured Indian classical alap style, although there are (later) sections that are more reminiscent of rhythmic khyal. (Particularly in the former, one can hear echoes of Pran Nath's Kirana Gharana, and its characteristic style not so far from dhrupad. One might call it relaxed as to pacing, but the precision of suddenly hitting particular notes can be quite intense.) One can even observe that measured rhythm emerges progressively, according to a method clearly inspired by Hindustani classical alap. Besides the three vocalists & two performers on electronics (viz. tanpura), there are five improvisers on brass instruments, two of whom I've mentioned here in the past, Amir ElSaffar who has been releasing a series of more mainstream fusion albums on Pi, and Hilary Jeffery who appeared in this space in February 2014 with the Red Dhal Sextet (a group that includes some of the most famous European improvisers). Often the brass is not especially prominent, and I was not previously familiar with the other three performers, but it does emerge forcefully at times, briefly taking over some sculpting for the singers — much as a melodic accompanist would do in an Indian concert. (The result is also not so unlike, once again, Oliveros & accordion swells.) Waves might arise from slight dissonant beats, as the long (nearly 80 minutes) single track modulates the listener's energy, ultimately yielding what feels like a sense of mental freshness once the womb-like immersion ends. As that description suggests, the result can seem a bit "new age" at times, but there is also a tangible outcome, plus notable influences. (Recent reissues from Hennix, also on Important Records, include music with Chinese & Arabic instruments & influences, although her studies in those areas are not mentioned in her bio, which however does mention Gagaku & Notre Dame polyphony. The sort of "triangulated" raga immersion of this album would appear to be inspired at least in part by such medieval, three-part polyphony.) Not so unlike Braxton (as referenced above), Live At Issue Project Room (recorded in April 2014, so much more recently than some of the reissues) might also be said to explore different temporalities via overlapping drones at different paces. However, whereas Braxton's music suggests an open space of action, Hennix's remains closed within itself, sending listeners inside themselves as well (i.e. inside the resulting triangle), rather than out into the world. (In other words, whereas the polyphonic approach yields multiple intertwined or overlapping temporalities, each stream proceeds according to fairly typical Hindustani classical logic, in addition to its rather characteristic Indian texture, in order to forge or reinforce a self-contained whole.) It's a powerful experience, and arises from a distinctive & sophisticated technical elaboration of drone-based music.
Let me also mention the recent City of Vorticity on Pogus, an album devoted to an electronic composition by Tom Hamilton: On the first track, there are three live improvisers, led by label editor Al Margolis on violin, and on the second, the electronic composition is presented by itself. (The notes suggest that we might then improvise along with it ourselves.) City of Vorticity thus illustrates a pole in which the electronics perform a set piece, i.e. do not improvise, while other musicians improvise as conditioned by that electronic environment. (So the communication flows in only one direction where the electronics are concerned.) Whether the same might be said of Hennix's work above, as noted, I am not sure. (The ragas she names could be the compositions in this or a similar sense.)12 June 2016
In sharp contrast to Creative Sources or Leo, the Dark Tree label seems intent on releasing exactly one album a year. Such an approach does seem to have guaranteed that their releases attract attention from writers, and indeed many have been very well received. After last year's archival release of 1970s jazz, they're back to quasi-minimal atonal music featuring French musicians with Tournesol, a relatively short album at thirty-five minutes. Recorded in January 2015, this is Tournesol's (the trio's) second album after Live @ Ackenbush, an even shorter digital album recorded in 2014. Benjamin Duboc has been a fixture on Dark Tree, appearing on the majority of their releases, and here he is joined by Julien Loutelier on percussion & Julien Desprez on electric guitar, both of whom were new to me. Not unlike the piano trio featuring Eve Risser (& Duboc) on the earlier En corps, the guitar trio on Tournesol largely ignores the earlier norms of the genre, and instead seeks a different & egalitarian way to interact. The result is rather minimalistic, with less of the ostinato style that dominated the former, more reminiscent of e.g. "lowercase." (It's much less active, or one might say frenetic, than e.g. Ewen / Smith / Walter, the one album in this format currently on my favorites list.) The track names on Tournesol suggest dusk, and I did find the album to be quite enjoyable & atmospheric when played at that hour, but more as background, since I didn't find that it really rewarded sustained concentration. Nature as a theme — and here we're told that sunflowers are noisy places, with many insects, etc. — seems to be a significant orientation for Dark Tree, starting with the haiku on Pourtant les cimes des arbres, and extending into the creaturely jungles of Sens radiants (discussed here in August 2014). Tournesol also takes this "living" or creaturely orientation, once again as mediated or articulated by the musicians. (In that sense, it projects a rather different feel than e.g. Spill Plus, which evokes objects per se rather than creatures. Both, however, involve an intense reworking of the norms of the instruments involved.) Here, though, there's no tinge of orientalism, as the sunflower involved could well be in our own yard: It invites us to take a new perspective without going anywhere, via a liminality that traverses audibility, different attention to something everyday, and transitional time of day itself. I wonder to what extent this music was inspired by actual recordings of sunflowers, perhaps with pitches transposed.... The effect might be compared to such favorites as Pail Bug, with its acoustic reference to an insect in an enclosed space, or to Growing carrots in a concrete floor, an album that has the most similar feel for me, despite that it injects a deliberate sense of unreality in opposition to the "documentary" quality of Tournesol while using much higher pitches & intensities at times. Perhaps it's a shared sense of growth. (One might even compare the physical buzzing of Whitewashed with lines & its highly technical approach.) The musicians do use some figures I take to be from rock music genres, intentionally or not, but despite the comparisons, the result is rather distinct & personal, another (rather circuitous) approach to articulating the man-nature dual in music.21 June 2016
The Bridge Sessions returns with a second album of France-Chicago collaboration, after an intervening album from the project on Rogueart (which is thanked as a partner in the present notes). In this case, The Sync was recorded in October 2014, and features the same quartet of musicians throughout: Sylvaine Hélary (flute, effects, voice), Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello, effects), Eve Risser (piano, prepared piano), & Mike Reed (drums). Hélary is the musician from whom I had heard the least, which is probably why I found myself especially engaged by her flute playing. (She also shows off a vocal style in the same vein as Joëlle Léandre in track #2.) Flute has been a real feature of the series, intentionally or not, having already highlighted Douglas R. Ewart. Meanwhile, Lonberg-Holm often sounds as if he's playing electric guitar. The results are fairly straightforward collective interactions with changing textures, often resulting in or from a series of solos tending toward intensification of the flow. There also tends to be a tangible groove, i.e. "sync," if not a formal ostinato. Some of the moments are quite appealing, even if the escalation itself yields some stasis at times. The project continues to produce new improvised interactions while building new relationships. We need more of this around the world.5 July 2016
I discussed Natura Venomous & Sieben Entrückte Lieder as Creative Sources releases back in January, and it turns out that they were co-releases with the Sound Anatomy label, founded in Berlin in 2015. The first album on the label, which one can hear on Bandcamp via their site, was Orbit, Dialogue and Trajectory by Richard Scott & Thomas Lehn on different sorts of synthesizers, joined by Axel Dörner on trumpet (recorded August 2014). It's worth hearing for the juxtaposition of Dörner's formally immanent sense with spacey synth music. Whereas this is apparently Scott's label, he does not appear on every release, and the most recent is On Growth and Form, whose track titles apparently refer to microorganisms, by a trio of Evan Parker, Richard Barrett & Michael Vatcher. It features some strangely hocketing ostinato, and some surprisingly jazzy lines from Parker. (It's also an older recording from 2009.) The label also features some duo albums, and as regular readers know, I'm not focusing on duo interactions.
Another trio (& quartet) album on Sound Anatomy that prompts some additional comment is Auslanders, recorded in Berlin in June 2015. The trio is Richard Scott's Manchester-based Lightning Ensemble with David Birchall (acoustic guitar) & Phillip Marks (drums, percussion), joined by Jon Rose on the second track (of two) to form a quartet. The trio has obviously played together quite a bit, and has a lot of confidence in its collective & audibly English improvising style. The first track is the longest, utilizing a surprisingly sophisticated & understated variety of sonority, sequenced in an almost serialist fashion, and featuring various blending of the instrumental timbres: There is a fairly consistent pace, but interactions & roles might be inflected quickly & at any moment. The Lightning Ensemble makes an impression, even as I suspect that this wasn't their most inspired performance, as the energy does begin to lag a bit after a while. That isn't an issue in the second track, adding Rose (whose Colophony already came from Berlin): There are soon some real "summer fireworks" (to quote the label), leading eventually — and after various ideas seem to have run their course — to an intriguing & relatively slow ending section featuring rhythmic clapping (presumably by Marks). There is a lot of potential in the approach, and Auslanders is already well worth a listen.6 July 2016
My attention was drawn (by DMG) to a set of new releases from Konvoj Records a few weeks ago, and one can listen to their albums on Bandcamp (much like those of Sound Anatomy, per the previous entry). Although the label includes performances by such European stalwarts as Evan Parker & Lotte Anker, the album I found most intriguing was Mindfulness, by the electric guitar trio Halster, consisting of Anders Lindsjö, Adam Persson & Mattias Nihlén. (Then I purchased the album from DMG, both so as support everyone involved, and because I continue to find playing a CD on the stereo to be less stressful — but more below.) Perhaps I'm feeling lazy, but a couple of quotes from the label seem as good as anything else: "Halster is the place, the space, the collective that reinvents itself every Monday night at six o'clock in downtown Malmö. An ominous occasion where the guitar meets its faith in the art of live free improvisation." And, Mindfulness is "one of the most challenging psych-impro guitar trio albums around." As far as "ominous" goes, the album cover has a fairly ordinary-looking photo of the three guitarists staring into the camera, but holding a book with a skull (and maybe I should know exactly what that graphic is, but I don't), and then the back has the same photo zoomed in, and drawn over with "corpse paint" by hand. Why? I really don't know, and it seems kind of off-putting to me — maybe just that I don't understand the reference. The nine track titles are in Swedish, and seem like fairly ordinary titles for this sort of thing, i.e. no explicit goth or doom. Although it is apparently explicitly in that lineage, Halster rarely sounds much like classic psychedelic rock: Well, it does, but in tiny figures & colorations that change quickly. The music rarely has anything like the continuity of rock music, i.e. no driving rhythms, etc. If I knew more about the history of this post-rock "psych improv" guitar genre, I'd probably feel more comfortable writing this discussion, but I do like the music for its fast interplay & recasting of technical structure. I can hear a bit of Otomo Yoshihide in there, but in this case, there is no sense of soloing. The trio is clearly arrayed in stereo across a stage, and is constantly passing small assemblages of notes around, such that sounds move spatially, as the pieces evolve rapidly in strange directions. Practicing regularly as a unit, and every week apparently, does suggest the rock ethos, and an album like Mindfulness can only happen after a lot of collective practice. (It says it was recorded live in a studio, but doesn't give any sort of date. How long did it take? How much was cut from the recording?) Anyway, I don't find any of this to be ominous or morbid, and whereas the album has a forceful presence, it's a steady forcefulness that doesn't seem overbearing. The pace & density of the interactions remain fast throughout, but not super-fast, and they don't accelerate. About the time something might be about to become stale, the trio moves on to something else. So the album is about being mindful of such things? I appreciate both the notion & the result. One might also say that it deconstructs the rock sound, by linking tiny elements together in new & transverse ways, but it does more than use established "sounds." There is a real inventiveness here, particularly in what can be coordinated across three guitars. The result is somewhat monochromatic as a result of using the same instruments, such that the aural surface can take on a degree of sameness that requires close attention (or mindfulness). One might compare it to the wind trio on World of Objects, an album with a similar focus & pace, but which is sometimes much louder & more aggressive. Both might be said to reconfigure memory. Another obvious point of comparison, at least for me, is the Scandinavian quartet album Eye of the Moose — an album where less is happening at any particular moment, but where the differences in the four instruments (particularly the voice) yield a colorful dynamic. The interactions on Mindfulness have a similar, detailed character, but also become transformative, i.e. one musical figure becomes another. (Such latent implications become more apparent as the listener becomes more comfortable with the style, perhaps even the first time through the album. I saw more than one writer remark that the later tracks seems more familiar, but I don't think that's actually the case, i.e. if one were to hear them out of order.) Finally, I should mention Ewen / Smith / Walter as a more traditional guitar trio favorite, and an album that is certainly more aggressive, and which presses forward on speed, such that even more musical figures are exchanged. Perhaps it's ultimately the calm that emerges from the nimble fingers of Halster that makes Mindfulness a compelling album. Perhaps one might then be mindful of something else.
As long as I'm talking about trios of the same instrument, this seems like a good time to revisit Meia catorze by Basso 3, an album I discussed here back in January. Although at the time I said that the overall coherence of the album was more striking than the various influences, I then went on to emphasize some popular music relations more than was probably warranted: I could have as well mentioned some Beethoven-esque counterpoint, or that the "melodies seemingly coming from somewhere else" were likely inspired by traditional Bulgarian choral harmony. More than that, though, I wanted to revisit it, because I had heard it only via the computer, and I finally got a new computer with better sound.[*] I don't want to make excuses, since I chose to write about it anyway, but I wasn't hearing the album all that clearly previously. Compared to Mindfulness, there is much more legato, and ideas play out over longer periods of time. It's more tuneful, and less capricious. It's another of those albums that seems different at different times of day. In this case, it can seem downright scary at night — something I never felt with Mindfulness (thus making its graphics seem even more out of place). In both cases, the trios often come to sound like single super-instruments, in Basso 3's case, perhaps suggesting a single (unusually ornamented) line. (So, what kind of "jazz" might one play over such a line?) For Mindfulness the result remains more of a tapestry. Once again, you can go & listen on Bandcamp — but do have good sound quality available.
[*] Many readers will undoubtedly think that I was being ridiculous in not pursuing better computer sound previously. In fact, when I got a new portable computer for other reasons, I did not anticipate having better sound. I am constantly being told that what I want isn't what other people want, particularly when it comes to technology, and that I always need to compromise (if not forget about it entirely). Moreover, interacting with the consumer technology market usually means something doesn't work as well as it did, and in doing research, I was seeing all the old lecturing by techie types about how one can't hear mp3 defects, etc. (It seemed like the typical way that local techies are abusive & dismissive of things they don't know or can't understand.) I mean, what around us suggests that the general public values quality sound? So, I was not expecting better sound, at least not short of pursuing something specifically made for musicians (and who knows what other sorts of compromises). However, I have to say, this Intel Skylake architecture with high definition audio is rather striking: I shouldn't have assumed that consumer computer sound had to be mediocre. (I had already been feeding computer sound into Dynaudio floor speakers, at least sometimes. So I'm talking about the d/a codecs.) Maybe the condescending techies who don't hear well were out of town the day it was designed.12 July 2016
I didn't feel a real connection with the music, so maybe I shouldn't be discussing it, but circumstances are such that a brief discussion seems warranted anyway: Tim O'Dwyer has released a quintet album on Leo Records, The Fold (Köln Project), recorded in June 2014, and including Carl Ludwig Hübsch (tuba), Bassem Hawar (djoze), Carl Rosman (clarinets) & Saad Thamir (percussion, voice). The only musician with whom I was previously familiar is Hübsch, although O'Dwyer (saxes) does have a trio album out with Clayton Thomas. My interest is basically from two directions: One might describe The Fold as a world fusion album, given its Arabic instruments & performers, and the title (explicitly per the notes) indicates a Deleuzian stance, as inspired by his book, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. Attentive readers might know that I believe that Deleuze had a significant portion of his "fold" historically backwards as regards Leibniz, so it's not my favorite book, despite some solid insights. (Deleuze's fundamental error was not seeing the characteristic medieval analogism of Leibniz's approach, which opposed it to Cartesian modernism, and such a lapse has significant implications for the aesthetic.) Perhaps for similar reasons, I'm also not much into the Baroque aesthetic in general — it was, after all, the aesthetic that emerged from early modern European imperialism. The result is something of a collage album, where one style suddenly transforms into another, as is popular these days (and noted elsewhere with Larry Ochs, Ken Vandermark, etc.). The music is quite diffuse at times, with what even seems like a hint of Scelsi on track #4, but tends to contract into an insistent rhythm invoking middle eastern-style ensemble coordination. The notes also sketch another rethinking of the improvisation-composition duality, with the musicians "submitting" material to O'Dwyer who then arranges it. (So everyone is a composer here, but only O'Dwyer is an arranger & director.) He calls the material "cantis firmi" which strikes a bit of conceptual dissonance for me, given that he's taking an explicitly Baroque orientation (which I don't actually hear). The result is rather festive at times, and The Fold is generally an enjoyable album — despite my comments. It ends up sounding very Arabic at times, and not at all at other times. I appreciate some of the overall concerns, so am interested to see where they might go.
Coincidentally, or perhaps not, another middle eastern-tinged improvisatory album appeared at the same time, Migration by the Resaunance ensemble on FMR Records. Resaunance is a quartet featuring Esin Gunduz, a singer from Istanbul, and the album was recorded in Buffalo in 2014. It's said to take a "chamber music" orientation, and frankly, the whole thing comes off as very easy & tonal to me. (The progressions are quite predictable on first hearing.) Still, featuring Thracian folk songs, along with compositions by members of the ensemble, it presents some new timbral combinations with vibraphone, cello & piano. The result is almost a cross between Sephardic song & cabaret.
(FYI, I also included a rehearing of An Anthology of Turkish Experimental Music, 1961-2014 on Sub Rosa in my personal listening mix here. It's... quite interesting at times.... At lot of it seems to derive from dance club music, though.)13 July 2016
Having recently discussed the relatively novel electric guitar combinations of Halster on Mindfulness, it seems worth mentioning, at least briefly, a couple of other recent electric guitar albums by well-known performers.
Joe Morris's new album Shock Axis on Relative Pitch adopts a traditional guitar trio format, with Morris supported by two students on bass & drums, in what end up being (despite some solos) secondary roles. Morris remains very much to the fore here, and Shock Axis would also seem to reprise his self-described "Big Loud Electric Guitar Trilogy," as discussed here in January 2015 in the wake of Mess Hall. That was to be a final installment, and indeed one can hear that Morris has moved beyond Hendrix (the focus of the trilogy) here, more onto the terrain of death metal: It's a fast & aggressive album, with a lot of big electric guitar sound. It's also a long album that's basically in one mood.
Despite its aggressive title, Fred Frith's Another Day in Fucking Paradise, recorded this past January in Oakland, presents a more nuanced & atmospheric exploration of the guitar trio, although with quite a bit of classic electric guitar sound & other weirdness (such as Frith's vocals on track #3). I was likewise unfamiliar with the bassist & drummer. The album starts in a bit of "ea" mode, perhaps somewhat reminiscent of Mindfulness, but uses an explicitly funky bass line by track #2, and seems to glory in a bit of cheesiness, as the tracks start to run into each other, forging a long-form tapestry with something of a coherent, evolving mood. Along the way, it sometimes sounds like classic rock, and sometimes almost like contemporary easy listening. Indeed, its continuity & emphasis on pleasing the listener is almost the opposite of the fractured development of Mindfulness. It seems like an album that some people will truly enjoy — paradise, I suppose. (I can't say as I regret having had relatively limited experience with progressive rock, meaning that I find myself not really being the audience.)
Although not a guitar album, in the same batch of releases from Intakt is Miller's Tale, a quartet album adding well-known improvisers Evan Parker & Ikue Mori to the long-established duo of Sylvie Courvoisier & Mark Feldman. The album begins with four quartet improvisations (at a length of 36 minutes, basically a full album by themselves), followed by five duo improvisations (with the only combination missing being that of Courvoisier & Feldman themselves). Intakt still tries to do something interesting with liner notes, at least sometimes, and those here by Henning Bolte are engaging: For instance, he says that Parker, via collective improvisatory practice, is like "a rock shaped by weathering," that Courvoisier brings acrobatic swirling, that Feldman is the "connecting link between brilliant jumps," and that Mori brings a sense of calm, sprinkling "particles" around with a "drummer's spirit." (In the last paragraph, he even makes an observation about familiarity with which I'd generally agree — although I've had a lot more to say about that topic.) I particularly enjoy the opening Death of a Salesman track, with its frenetic movement, creaking, crunching, multi-faceted counterpoint that yields to car horns, insects, etc. It becomes almost disturbing before adopting what might be termed a brisk classical andante, a shift that marks much of the remainder of the quartet improvisations, namely a melodic & harmonic conception evoking the late 20th century British symphonists & their smooth, modal sound world — albeit, perhaps, interrupted sometimes by "noise." (Miller's Tale thus ends up being far less dense than e.g. Parker's vaguely similar context on World of Object. Going farther afield, one might compare the combination of timbre & counterpoint to that on Tesla Coils, which is nonetheless a very different, "industrial" album.) The quartet also seems to break naturally into duos — and my understanding is that they were first thinking of a series of duos — which is how they punctuate & vary the harmonic sweep (not so unlike various composers dating to Josquin & earlier). The rather classical sense of melody & harmony emerging from the improvisational practice (rather than vice versa) makes me wonder further about shifting ensemble roles, particularly regarding where personal expression yields to functional support. (In other words, what does it mean to start playing harmonic "filler" in such a context? That function was, of course, a norm of traditional jazz.) Such a tension might be the most compelling aspect of the album.24 July 2016
It took me a couple of hearings to warm up to Frode Gjerstad's new album Give and Take with Argentinian musicians Luis Conde (b. 1965; winds) & Fabiana Galante (prepared piano). However, I was won over by the compelling originality of their trio interaction and its distinctive modulation of tension. The way Gjerstad interacts on Give and Take is not actually all that different from his contribution on Live Tipple, even though the other two performers are very different, and so listening to him more individually provided an entry into this (presumably) more South American conception. In both cases, there is a sort of haltingness to Gjerstad's interaction, perhaps conjuring the darkness & space of the North (or in this latter case, South), and in sharp contrast to his many high-energy free blowing (one might even say heavy metal) albums. One might simply characterize such "space" as reflecting receptiveness to other ideas, as the title suggests. Give and Take is also on FMR Records, a label that continues to produce quality packaging, albeit with plastic inserts (about which I can understand the objections, but which do seem convenient to me), in this case complete with an extra glossy (third) panel beyond their usual — on which is printed nothing but more of the same corrugated steel wall with peeling paint. (Since I continue to express a preference for a physical recording, I thought that I should remark on this. It seems strange, but might simply be a consequence of a decision to contract three-panel packaging for an entire series of releases, and not a particular statement about this one.) It seems strange to think now that, much like my impression of the extra panel, I was initially wondering if much happened during the performance: Now it seems very active & full of drama. Indeed, the somewhat halting quality is driven by various collisions between the two wind players (on various instruments), often in shrill higher registers, and articulated "beneath" by quasi-pedals from the piano. The latter is most often rather traditionally pianistic, playing a few chords with a sharp attack, but the preparations do sometimes become prominent in a distinctive style likewise emphasizing quick articulation. The "pivot" role of the piano between the two winds seems vaguely analogous to that of the guitar amid three winds on Anthony Braxton Quartet at Sesc Pompeia — although the latter's South American setting likely suggests more connection than actually exists, what with its electronic score, etc. Give and Take seems resolutely acoustic, despite its sometimes shrill or industrial tone. The sometimes halting quality of the interaction, as tension builds & is subsequently dissolved with patience, reminds me somewhat of Thomas Heberer's (similarly acoustic) style on Cookbook, what with its many pauses & relaxed pace. However, on increasing exposure, although Give and Take does retain a sense of calm, it's unclear whether it's ever really relaxed: Although they have many conflicts & collisions, the musicians promptly return to their conversation & continue apace. Such a sense of temporal collision is foreign to e.g. Heberer's trio on Interstices, on which the musicians maintain a great deal of individual continuity within separate streams that rarely collide: One might consider the two approaches to be temporal (de)involutions (or folds) of each other. Here one could say that the musicians, particularly the horn players, butt heads, but without malice or holding grudges: It's a spirited, open conversation, maybe becoming a little jazzy in moments, and it's indeed moments that characterize the small & sharply contoured figures that construct the larger tapestry of the album. (Track breaks seem to mean little, as individual tracks can vary considerably in tone over their length. Likewise, whether they are named "give" or "take" seems to be of no consequence.) Gjerstad seems to travel as much as anyone, and he releases many different albums with many different musicians. However, whereas e.g. Tipple projects something of a mystical & muted terrain, Give and Take is very much about the here & now, and perhaps the very basic conflicting realities of contemporary world politics. Fittingly, it ends without resolution — or perhaps simply becomes another becoming.
If not for an explicit decision to pay attention to Latin American musicians in this arena, I might not have given Give and Take sufficient attention — or listened to it at all. In fact, Gjerstad & Conde previously released a duo album on FMR in 2013, Mirrors Edges: Although I'm not attuned to duos in this project, it surely set the conditions for Give and Take, as the meeting of the two wind players established a basic initial parity for the interaction — one the piano subsequently pivots into other dimensions. Although it doesn't seem strictly necessary, basic parity between instruments seems like one good basis for North-South combinations of this sort, as e.g. the contrast between the North American horn player & Mexican rhythm section on Rhapsody of the Oppressed (as discussed here in April) can present barriers to a full-blooded ensemble interaction. North & South remain rather separate there. The same might be said, to a lesser extent, of Blaise Siwula's new album with his Mérida Encuentro trio, Songs of Deception on Setola di Maiale. In that case, the album follows Mérida Swings, which included more allusions to Mexican (post-)colonial styles & their European influence, and so marks an ongoing project. On Songs of Deception, after a brief & eerie combined opening, Armando Merid Martin's acoustic guitar often seems more like a percussion instrument, and blends with Edgar Caamal's drums, so as to juxtapose with Siwula's various winds: The "wooden flute" is the most nativist, for better or worse, with some other tracks highlighting more of a typically jazzy reed. There are some appealing sonorities & interactions, although it often does remain more of a separate(d) dialog compared to the closeness of Give and Take. Of course, all of this might be contrasted (likewise for better or worse) with the more integrated approaches to ensemble interaction mentioned in this space a couple of weeks ago around Middle Eastern musicians & The Fold.26 July 2016
Reprising the FMR, Leo sequence (in the opposite order this time) from a couple of weeks ago, also on Leo Records is Zero by the quartet Rotozaza, consisting of Rudi Mahall (b.1966; bass clarinet), Nicola L. Hein (b.1988; guitar), Adam Pultz Melbye (b.1981; double bass) & Christian Lillinger (b.1984; drums). Whereas Mahall (who is my age) is well-known as an improviser, and I've had occasion to mention Lillinger here in the past (in conjunction with his albums on Clean Feed, now of a few years ago), I was not previously familiar with Hein or Pultz: The latter is from Denmark, and appears on some albums featuring Danish improvisers, and the former appears to have initiated this quartet. (I don't know the history of the term "Rotozaza," but this is not the first or only group by that name.) Although Zero is their first album, recorded in March 2015, Hein's website shows that they continue to tour, including this month. So perhaps this is only the beginning. The brief notes suggest that the group combines the "opposites" of free jazz & soundimprovisation, and "demonstrates the fast contrapuntal interaction and compositional virtuosity of the players." Although one can certainly perceive different histories to free jazz & soundimprovisation (with its lineage in Stockhausen et al.), I've never really thought of them as "antagonistic" to each other — although one could take that attitude e.g. from a particular Marxist perspective. From a musical perspective of relation, though, they both open onto a vast plane of ideas & interactions, and if we take the plane itself to be inherently flat.... Anyway, Rotozaza is not the first group to combine improvisatory inspirations, and these days, many or most are rather less explicit about their various influences. When it comes to counterpoint, of course my interest runs high, and Zero is a very active album in that sense: There is near-constant activity from all of the performers, filling a tapestry of sound from various angles & in various temporal domains. In some ways, it's a relentless album, right from the opening track, which I simply cannot fail to hear as evoking a Sufi approach to ecstatic (metallic) rhythmic strumming — but I have no idea if Hein perceives it that way. The high-energy activity & frequent orientation on electric guitar timbres reminds me most closely of Grid Mesh Live in Madrid, another improvised German quartet album from Leo. Whereas Grid Mesh uses two winds, with the trombone, Rotozaza encompasses four different instrument families, including the string bass. However, Rotozaza does not keep the instruments in separate domains, as clarinet & bowed bass will match shrill overtones with the guitar, and sometimes all three might come to sound like wind instruments, as in e.g. the cascading "whistling" glissandi initiating the end of track #2. (These points of tension & collision do seem to be in a somewhat similar mold to those of Give and Take, albeit arriving there with less momentum.) Indeed, maybe Live in Madrid has a little less happening at once. The opening strumming — which occurs already embedded in a texture, after an opening chord that rings familiar to me somehow (perhaps I will place it) — yields to fast finger plucking at other moments, and whereas he uses some electric distortion at times, plucking seems to be an important aspect of Hein's style: Although he plays electric guitar, he talks explicitly of manual creation, of the sound arising directly from the movement of the musician, rather than abstracted electronic production. (So one might compare some of the characteristic sonority, as well as the contrapuntal emphasis, with that on Tesla Coils, but there the electronic "enhancements" go much farther, although yielding a similar sense of intricacy.) By track #3, an almost quizzical quiet pulsing transforms into a funk line (the multiple temporality of which might recall the articulations of Functional Arrhythmias, an album that focuses on such temporal layering) supporting a squealing horn. Track #6 involves what I can only describe as hocketing glissandi — which I particularly enjoyed — and then back to some chirpy funk layers by the last track. The overall result is a dense weave of sound, with high pitched collisions juxtaposed to various rumblings & bangings — and Lillinger is masterful at holding things together, despite lines escaping & impinging in various directions. (Perhaps call the process coagulating, if I may invoke the blood of free jazz.) The result is a great deal of individual originality within an ensemble texture that presents as rather unified (per some concerns of the previous entry), despite or because of its intense variety. The German track titles mention things like meaninglessness, vacuums, empty inner landscapes, etc.: This is presumably a reflection of Hein's philosophical bent, and indeed that orientation seems to draw me to his music, music that he says is a form of philosophy. (I'll forgive the way he invokes dialectics & aesthetics on his web site. That's conventional enough, but what I hear is more planes, pivots, transversals & emergence.... One might say that jazz has always been about transverse emergence.) Although Zero can be overwhelming at times, I keep returning to the hypnotic, ecstatic relations that I hear invoked right from the beginning & their subsequent (and/or past) deployment across a wide sonic & temporal spectrum.28 July 2016
I seem to be having a bit of a leapfrog discussion of pairs of releases on a few different labels, but did want to spend some more time with Perch Hen Brock & Rain, also on Relative Pitch, before commenting. (The next four discussions look to be of albums on different labels, so the leapfrog is over for a while.) The album title — and the actual title might be Live @ The Jazz Happening Tampere (Finland), with Perch Hen Brock & Rain as the name of the band — is a translation or shortening of the names of the four musicians. I had heard a bit of Ab Baars (b. 1955) on horns, but not Ig Henneman (b. 1945) on viola; and of course, I've been familiar with Ingrid Laubrock & Tom Rainey for a while. The quartet is thus formed from two sets of partners, both of whom often perform as duos. (In fact, the album is a co-production with Henneman & Baars' Wig Foundation.) The present album was recorded in November of 2014, during what was their first tour as a quartet, but the members' web sites indicate that they will also be touring this fall, so this is an ongoing project. That seems like a good idea to me, because I hear a lot of potential in this double pairing, but I also hear tentative moments & a tendency to return to familiar duo language. Indeed, that familiarity is what made the album so easy to enjoy right from the beginning, although I came to believe that more could be done to develop a real quartet language. Apparently they do too. Some of the slowness of Perch Hen Brock & Rain is surely intentional, as it projects a sort of stark naturalism, albeit more within the realm of traditional instrumental technique than e.g. sound art, etc. (I probably should have pursued the previous discussion of the Southern California "cool" or calm of Camino Cielo Echo around a theme of naturism, rather than trying to read it through the Arroyo School, but I digress.) Baars & Henneman have been described as paring to essentials, and that description has long fit Laubrock as well. The result is an almost pastoral album, evoking the calm & stark beauty of country living — perhaps in welcome relief to so many city concerts (the grind of which was already invoked in Hotel Grief). There's a signification via absence that may be the quartet's greatest charm. (The layout of the quartet, the way it interacts, might be compared to Laubrock's participation on Anthony Braxton Quartet at Sesc Pompeia, with three front line players focusing on clear articulation around a pivot.) Playing outside of the same, rather closed set of New York City musicians seems to have been rejuvenating for Laubrock & Rainey (and their most recent duo album was recorded not long before, also in 2014), so it will indeed be interesting to see how this quartet develops.8 August 2016
It's been thirteen months since I made some public changes to how I'm approaching "world music" recordings, and although I've had several opportunities to discuss e.g. Turkish or Korean-tinged music in this space, it's been in a typically contemporary or avant garde context. Indeed, it's fair to wonder if, at this point in the history of the music industry & internet, I'm able to hear even a tangible percentage of what might otherwise be appealing (& "available") "world music" performances. Maybe fewer happen, or maybe I just need to adjust my inputs, so to speak. Anyway, given that I haven't exactly embraced the newer distribution channels & their technological overlords, notable releases in this area have been sparse. However, I do want to highlight a recording out of Belgium, Musiques d'Alep (as in Aleppo, Syria), an album that adopts an unusual program sequence for what are otherwise traditional musical genres. Finding a compelling way to present a variety of traditional materials in a Western-style concert has been a general issue for decades, at least for those musicians who chose to pursue it, so in that sense, it's an ordinary development. In this case, though, the musicians are refugees, and so presenting a broad musical picture of Aleppo, including its Sufi intersections, probably seemed like more of a priority. (It's a coincidence that I only just mentioned Sufi music in conjunction with Rotozaza Zero, and there's none of the hypnotic strumming here that I had mentioned there.) The interested reader can read about Aleppo elsewhere, but it has been one of the most prominent cities in the region for quite some time, now devastated by war, prompting these musicians to flee to Belgium, where they found support from the Exile Music Initiative of the Festival Musiq'3. This is an impressive performance by musicians with impressive credentials, particularly in its incorporation of e.g. a Sufi dhikr that merges with the more colorful sweep of the suite as a whole. (I might also refer the interested reader to Maqâmat insolites, an older & more "technical" program from a Syrian soloist illustrating rare musical modes.) This release comes in the wake of the death of Julien Weiss last year, a French musician who had lived in Aleppo & undertook significant effort both to revive historical forms & present them to Western audiences. (Given what's been happening in Syria, Weiss had said he might as well die of cancer.) The result is a high-energy album, likely reflecting the urgency of the situation, rather than a traditional inclination to relax. It makes some particular musical crossings, based both on circumstances & significant prior training & accomplishment. So whereas I still might not be hearing (all) the best contemporary performances, the rich tapestry of Musiques d'Alep certainly deserves attention.9 August 2016
I mentioned Mark Wastell & his Confront Recordings last July in conjunction with the trio album Membrane with John Butcher. Now I want to make a note of Trembling Shade, by his long-time trio The Sealed Knot, likewise with Burkhard Beins, but with Rhodri Davies instead of Butcher. (Wastell also plays bass here, rather than tam tam.) The Sealed Knot debuted in 2002, with Wastell calling Berlin (where Trembling Shade was recorded in 2015) their "spiritual home." The release is also part of the twentieth anniversary of Confront, for which Wastell states he will release 20 albums. (I don't know if last year's many releases count toward that project.) With Davies' participation, comparisons to Common Objects, a group the discussion of which kicked off my previous page here, are inevitable: Although featuring many interesting sound combinations, I found Trembling Shade — the title of which seems like quite an apt description — to be relatively more static, lacking something of the "process" (or angular, nonequilibrium) quality that I've enjoyed on Whitewashed with lines. Here it's more contract & expand, or rather tremble — nonetheless worth a listen for its sophisticated acoustic sound sculpting based largely in low-pitched (shaded) regions.10 August 2016
I've been suddenly & rather unexpectedly (for the time of year, anyway) busy as of late, so haven't had a chance to say anything about the latest batch of releases from Clean Feed, a label that starts to seem a bit "too inside" for my current priorities, but that does continue to deserve acknowledgement for its increasingly diverse catalog. Actually, "inside" is the wrong notion, since that suggests a traditional jazz idiom, whereas Clean Feed embraces a wider range of influences. What might be more accurate to say is that they usually produce albums without "too much" (whatever that might be, including simple novelty) happening at once, so as not to overwhelm the listener: There's a bit of a didactic impulse in some sense, introducing or combining musical ideas in digestible bites. (So there wouldn't typically be something like the nearly constant, multi-pronged activity of e.g. Rotozaza Zero, but Clean Feed did recently accommodate rather a lot of simultaneous activity from frequent label collaborator Pascal Niggenkemper on the relatively more intimidating Talking Trash.) Such an emphasis on keeping things manageable for the listener while incorporating different musical inspirations seems to fit bassist Jacek Mazurkiewicz more generally, as I made similar remarks, including as regards to intimacy, about his album Day in the life of a city with Daniel Levin & Rob Brown back in November 2014. More recently, Mazurkiewicz is at the center of the Modular String Trio & its Clean Feed album Ants, bees and butterflies, recorded in April 2014 in Warsaw, Poland. The string trio includes Sergiy Okhrimchuk (violin) & Robert Jedrzejewski (cello), but also adds Lukasz Kacperczyk (modular synth) to make a quartet: One could compare what might otherwise be considered post-production being integrated into the improvisational texture to e.g. the recent work of Jeremiah Cymerman, although Cymerman certainly does let activity level "get crazy." In this case, the synth apparently gets its cues directly from Mazurkiewicz's own electronic processing, while the other strings remain acoustic. So one might imagine a specific "T" shape to the interaction, rather than a free-form quartet, hence, apparently, calling themselves a trio. (Perhaps the configuration could also be compared to the two strings & tuning-modified church-sized organ on Tuning Out, an acoustic album.) I seem to particularly enjoy string instruments, perhaps more than I realize sometimes, so that was part of my interest (on the heels of e.g. Iridium String Quartet, which tends to be much more elemental, so to speak), and indeed an obvious comparison for Ants, bees and butterflies is the Théo Ceccaldi Trio+1's Can you smile?: In that case, the "plus 1" adds Joëlle Léandre's bass (& voice, which is a highlight of that album, and perhaps most comparable otherwise to Birds Abide) to a string trio that already included guitar. There is a similar emphasis on classical string quartet textures together with post-Scelsian technique, and in Ceccaldi's case more of a rock guitar. On Ants, the string quartet reference seems more tangibly Eastern European, and there is likewise some of the same emphasis on symmetric melodies-chords. Some of the tracks are rather gestural, with the opening search (for itself?) via sonar, into a kind of mysterious sunrise on #2 & then the (much more contrapuntal) classical sound of #3 pulled apart by "spacey" synth on #4. (Tracks #7 & #8 repeat a similar sequence, as #4 & #8 are the most complex on the album. If not for what seems like a double sequence of systematically adding activity, I might compare the result to White Sickness, with its similarly random-seeming numeric track labels & emphasis on incorporating electronics in a significant way, but without being overwhelming, formally or sonically. Is this album likewise the highlights of a much longer session?) The result, like much of the Clean Feed catalog, might be heard as something of an interrogation of the familiar itself. Despite that it's fairly slow at times, there's a lot to enjoy on Ants, bees and butterflies, including the creatively layered approach to forging an ensemble, an approach that's at least partly implicit in the recording medium, and so well worth exploring further.15 August 2016
I've been trying to limit myself from saying much about albums that seem more intended for (slightly more?) mainstream audiences anyway, but I did want to make a few remarks about Steve Lehman & Sélébéyone, considering that Lehman is someone with whose work I felt some affinity since early in this project, and whose previous albums I've discussed. Indeed, I asked of the summation of jazz-spectral integration that is Mise en Abîme what Lehman could possibly do from there, and his album with Sélébéyone is obviously (by which I mean it literally comes next) the answer. Despite comments in other publications suggesting that even daring listeners would be challenged, the project has something of a mainstream "density" to it, meaning that on a personal level, it's kind of slow & repetitive compared to what typically interests me here. I would say it's very easy to follow. However, it's also a fascinating & multi-layered integration of musical ideas: One might even say that the many layers of musical activity that are given such structural independence — yet cohesion — in Mise en Abîme are now filled with "real" content via the involvement of NYC underground & Sengalese (Wolof) hip hop vocalists. The album is a collaboration with Maciek Lasserre of France, a sax player with whom I was not previously familiar, but who, like both singers, is Sufi. (Such a reference has apparently become a theme here of late, what with the recently discussed Musiques d'Alep & Rotozaza Zero, the latter offering a rather different approach to some related integrations, but with audible similarity at times.) The sampling & psychologism evoked by the layering of material is also reminiscent of the MMM Quartet, most recently on Oakland / Lisboa. Finally, I want to note that this project comes from a funded French-American musical exchange, not so unlike The Bridge Sessions (as mentioned here a few times already): Lehman has become quite a well-funded musician, and so it's interesting that this is his first release since some big prizes were awarded him. What that says, I'm not sure.23 August 2016
To favorite recordings list.
To early music thoughts.© 2010-16 Todd M. McComb