Heaviness of Heart

On Edges (+3DB 010), the improvising double-bass player Michael Francis Duch steps up to the manly task of performing compositions by five Big Kahunas of the 20th-century avant-garde – Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, Cornelius Cardew, Morton Feldman and Howard Skempton. In turn, these yield up (1) dissonant avant scrapes, (2) haunting minimal plucks, (3) neo-Baroque stern drones, (4) precise measured stillness and (5) complex aerobatical overtones. Throughout, this versatile player drains any trace of the original American or English sensibilities from his targets, replacing it with what I take to be tight-lipped Norwegian soberness. Bracing dose of detox music for your bloated liver.

Duch also wields a bulging, sensuous bass as part of Lemur, the Norwegian scrapey combo which also features the composer Lene Grenager, Hild Sofie Tafjord (sometimes a noise artist as part of Fe-Mail) and the shrill flautist and visitor from Elf-land, Bjørnar Habbestad. Aigéan (+3DB 011) contains some of the most unearthly gaspings and pipings that anyone’s yet unleashed in the name of free improvised music, all players maintaining an audibly rigid control-posture that would make their chiropractors proud – unless they’re also yoga practitioners, which is likely. As someone who gets out of breath just by reaching for the TV remote, I admire the constrained energy of these narrow-waisted Nordic ones; if they were birds, they would have thin, sharp talons and metallic bills truly to be feared. From same label as above, these two releases represent a cold but powerful double-whammy punch that shows Norway are going to be strong contenders on the canvas of experimental gameplay.

While we’re still sojourning in the half-light of the Nordic realms, here’s a Touch reissue of Mount A (TOUCH TONE 41) by the Icelandic cello player Hildur Gudnadóttir. This melancholic droner originally came out in 2006 under her Lost In Hildurness guise, and on it she applies her wiry, iron-like bowing arms to the cello, the viola da gamba, the zither, and some percussion devices including the piano and vibes. Plus she uses her vocalising as another musical instrument. Unlike some overdubbers who aim to achieve a warm stew of overlapping frequencies and sonic effects, this austere player keeps every note as sharp as a dried-out bone that’s been washed up on the shore, weathered by the wind, and carefully kept on the mantelpiece by a vengeful widow until the perfect moment arrives when she can use it as a stabbing dagger against her foe. Plenty other tales of woe can be yours by tuning into this superb record of crisply resonating strings, which (like the music of the great Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson) achieves stirring near-monumental effects, through slow and careful playing. The owner of the label tells me it’s the first time they’ve ever put a human face on the cover of one of their releases.

Another who keeps all her notes as crystal-clear and astringent as a white diamond is Sharron Kraus, one of our favourite acoustic guitar and vocalist merchants who has been tagged with the contemporary “dark folk” label. Here she is with The Woody Nightshade (STRANGE ATTRACTORS AUDIO HOUSE SAAH063), ten songs plus lyric sheet insert inside a gatefold CD decorated with her trademark botanical borders, and performing with a clutch of musicians equally committed as she to keeping the music simple, direct and shorn of unnecessary flourish. Backing vocalists Nancy Wallace, Susanna Starling, Clare Button add ghostly harmonies to make you shiver, while string player Nick Palmer contributes suitably restrained decoration with his nimble strums and picks; and there’s also electric guitar and live electronics in places. Each tragi-beautiful song uses elliptical and obscure imagery to deal with unknown and unknowable things, mostly painful and difficult, but all is sung with the brave optimism of one who carries the scars of sorrows nobly borne in every care-worn note. “An album is a cohesive artistic work,” she writes on the sleeve note, making a strong case for the physical object as she laments the current state of disconnected downloads and context-free mp3 files washing around the digital universe. “If you want to keep [music] alive, keep buying albums”.

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