He’s As Beautiful As A Foot

Powerful solo work from Alex Riva on his album Solos And More At Studio 304 (WIDE EAR RECORDINGS WER054), which he mostly realised through playing that much maligned and overlooked instrument, the recorder. Rarely heard in experimental or improvised music, one notable exception being the outlier performer Dominik Strycharski from Poland who went the extra mile and then some on his Ghosts CD in trying to make a point about harmony as refracted through the music and ideas of Louis Andriessen. 1

Riva seems to be based in Zurich but made this record in Bengaluru in India (a sojourn which may account for the colourful mask on the cover), and has evidently developed a unique and very exciting approach to playing the recorder. I see he also does it in group settings with Irlumb and Kirilumb, but this record gives us a chance to hear him alone and thus savour his bizarre tones, his extreme high-register sustained blasts, his use of circular breathing to maintain that inexorable assault…he also invites us to take note of his “barking” approach which surfaces on one track here and does indeed resemble the hoots of a mutant dog mixed up with saliva and ragged breath. He claims he discovered a lot of these techniques during the 2019 recording session, which is hard to believe as it took place in a single day…I think what’s noteworthy here is not just the far-out sounds he creates, but the way he is carving out a process and method in pursuit of his personal artistic goals. To me it’s arguably more interesting than some improviser’s “extended technique”, which can result in rather dry results. Conversely, Riva is as juicy as a guava.

Did I say a solo record? Not entirely. We mustn’t discount the contributions of Mikael Szafirowski (fellow member of the group ZGB), who is credited with mixes and remixes and worked on two tracks here, including the amazing ‘Sun Ra Becomes Rasam’. This Sun Ra tribute is a real blast, not simply namechecking the great jazz man as others are content to do, it somehow conveys a lot of the truth of John Gilmore’s tenor solos, pushed through the narrow pipe of the recorder, and does this while invoking a particular kind of spicy tomato soup local to South India. The other collaborator is film-score performer Bindhumalini, who supplies classical Indian singing on the 10:18 minute piece ‘Carnatic Music Class with A Martian’, and it’s this one piece that allows us to appreciate the rugged and rough-edged approach that Alex Riva is pursuing; through applying electronic distortion (I think) to his crazy toots, the musical contrast with the steady and on-point traditional singing couldn’t be more effective. Bindhumalini is not just some random guest vocalist who turned up for the session; Alex Riva has known her for over ten years, and delights in the way that her strong personality always results in “a plunge out of the everyday world”; it’s this otherworldly, hallucinatory magical realism they pursue on this exceptional track.

Alex Riva sums up the value of collaborating with like-minded souls through the phrase “more is more”, which he has made his personal maxim on his journey through life. Meanwhile for those listeners who simply want the wild extreme of high-register notes peeping from flutes in a deliciously insufferable manner (surpassing even Evan Parker, at times), then tune in to the weirdly-titled ‘The Self-Immolation of a Toe’ or its brother piece ‘The Reincarnation of a Toe’. It’s been a joy to discover the “rough and radical” music of this fellow. From 7th May 2021.

  1. Another great recorder player is Lucia Mense, who works miracles with the sub-bass recorder.

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