Tagged: stringed instruments

From the country and the concrete jungle

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Two more cassettes from Staaltape arrived 9th May 2016. It so happens both releases are by women, and very coincidentally the imagery on Rinus Van Alebeek’s collaged decorated envelope (which he customarily includes with every mailout) features the faces of women clipped from his vast stack of old magazines.

Patrizia Oliva has created Numen – Life Of Elitra Lipozi, a most beautiful work clad in a smoky black cover with just a single blue butterfly spray-painted on. The A side, titled ‘Danse Des Fantomes’, is dreamy and evocative and makes me a willing dancing partner of the proposed ghosts and spirits. Voices, loops, and even some vaguely operatic elements are refashioned by Oliva into something personal and strange. She’s playing with magnetic tape like a gifted child sets to work with a box of watercolours. I don’t know why musicians (like Michael Nyman) are drawn to the work of Oliver Sacks (this release includes dedication to that deep thinker). But Oliva may be trying, like Sacks, to map the strange pathways of the brain in her atmospheric and charged music.

The B side ‘A Day Long To’ showcases the “Annette Peacock” mode of this performer…vaguely jazzy free singing she emanates from an indefinable part of her singing apparatus, in an inflected and mannered mode…the lonely avant-ness of Joan La Barbara is notched back two degrees and edged a shade closer to a ghostly portrait of Ella Fitzgerald…by which I mean it’s not clear if she’s singing from her mouth, or her brain-waves. Of course the minimal arrangements that back her up are pretty inspired too, making the most of a studio housed in a matchbox and two rubber bands holding everything together. More tape loops and much dreamy unfinished music drifts into the ether. A nice not-quite-there quality, slightly balmy. Oddly the B-side feels to me like separate songs, where the A side feels like a mini-opera telling a story. Not all that’s here is a song; there’s one very effective piece which is extremely abstract, just repeated patterns, sound effects, and whispered / murmured voices, yet it’s uncanny and highly effective in its dream-like mood sustaining of same. The side ends with a fascinating anecdote about synaesthesia, how it’s possible to see music as colours, and how no two people who have the condition ever agree on what the “right” colour is. Interestingly, the condition was first recorded in medical history by another Dr Sachs, this time a German physician of the 19th century.

In all Patrizia Oliva not only has a singular vision but also a very delicate touch in the creation of her work which is determinedly “non-masculine”, which isn’t to say it’s feminine and decorative, but organised along non-aggressive lines, without the usual male need to follow structure blindly and rush to a contrived ending. “Patrizia lives in the country, surrounded by nature,” write Rinus helpfully. “One lady from the old world”. If that’s true, that’s one old world whose passing we will come to regret. Every commonplace remark made on Twitter hastens the death of these old worlds.

The tape by Valerie Kuehne is of a different order. I couldn’t find a title but it might be called Audiozone #3, part of a series; release is just identified by the two sides, called ‘Ball Side’ and ‘Other Side’. Patrizia Oliva is pleasantly balmy, while Valerie Kuehne is an inspired screwball, in the nicest possible way of course. “Valerie moves in the concrete jungle”, writes Rinus about this American performer. Her songs here feature a kind of demented folk-inflected chanting and yawping, for instance the opener ‘Haul Away Joe’, a sea shanty which requires the artiste to remake herself as a crusty nautical cove on board an 18th century rigger. A grotesque opener. ‘The Graviton’ is better, more of a shamanic free-form wailing trip…like a lost ESP Disk recording from such waywards as Erica Pomerance, much free warbling with plenty of percussion and manic performances from her side musicians. ‘Apocalypse Berliner’ is a spoken word recit which gradually becomes more, erm, impassioned…as she describes some situation which sounds like a grave social injustice, her sarcasm shoots through the top of the thermometer and she becomes positively demented with her passion and commitment to the cause. The sort of loopy radical who might have featured in any 1970 Hollywood hipster road movie made in the wake of Easy Rider. Then there’s ‘Long Long Sleep’, which is like a nightmare parody of Edwardian parlour music with its poised and mannered vocalising which over-stresses certain phonemes in an annoyingly pronounced manner. But you can still sense the underlying nuttiness…her cello work, just now beginning to surface among the chaos on offer, is also certainly highly distinctive and evidence of a wild, peculiar talent.

B side of this weirdie in tape form contains ‘Sunshine in the Sunshine’, which is her freakoid take on the Fifth Dimension pop hit, with emphatic singing, chaotic playing from the guest musicians, her mad cello sawing and her frantic attempts to stir up collaboration among all participants. A glorious mess. You’d hate to have her at your birthday party, unless you love to be embarrassed and mortified. A mostly solo work follows, ‘Architecture at Muchmore’s’, with its cracked all-over-the-show melody, and alarming dynamics which require these abrupt shifts of tempo and sudden bouts of intense delivery. Shocking, crazed. Voice and cello only, I think, were used to realise this insight into the cracks of Kuehne’s brain. After this it might be a piece called ‘Leader Eater’ but it’s getting harder to tell one track from another. Part of what we hear sounds like a confrontational performance-art piece that involves yelling at the audience, and further ingeniously complex songs where it’s a wonder she manages to sustain the difficult long tones which the tunes require. I’m a-warming to this release now…Valerie Kuehne is a very acquired taste, but you don’t get this exceptionally high degree of uncut humanity and honesty captured on tape every day. Ably supported by her side players, which include Natalia Steinbach. Alex Cohen, Hui-Chun Lin, The Columbia Orchestra, Matthew Silver, and others, she saws and sings away. Other releases by Valerie Kuehne include Dream Zoo and Phoenix Goes Crazy, both very obscure low-run CDRs.

The tape itself is a provisional attempt at an “album”. Rinus Van Alebeek made the selections and put it together, but didn’t get much in the way of preferences expressed by the creator, who’s presumably so creatively chaotic in her life that she doesn’t bother with bourgeois things like organisation and planning. So “it is not an album by Valerie; it is an album about her”, is the stated claim, along with an attempt to document the “subculture she is a part of”. This provisional aspect is even reflected in the cover, showing details from a notebook, where the track order and even the titles are subjected to much crossing-out and rethinking. Most intriguingly, the result “leads to a couple of obscure passages into 21st century life somewhere in the US.” What in the name of Condoleezza Rice does that mean?

Clip Art

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Thea Farhadian is a musician and composer who also teaches at Santa Cruz. His many activities include playing the violin, experimenting with electronics, and publishing the odd academic monograph. He’s also recently started a record label, Black Copper Editions, of which the first release showcases his duo work with the guitarist Dean Santomeri. Red Blue (blackcopper001) contains 12 instances of their work, straddling that coveted middle ground between composition and improvisation. A lot of musicians claim to achieve this, but it’s clear instantly that the concise pieces on Red Blue are the result of much preparation, containing evidence of structured melody and repeatable elements tempered with more free-form flights.

Additionally, both musicians use unusual tunings, and some “preparations” which in this context may mean inserting objects into the neck of guitar or violin to modify the sound of the strings. “Catchy rhythms, colourful timbres, and iridescent microtonalities” are their avowed aim. Whatever pathways have led them to free improvisation, I would guess it’s not the same route taken by Derek Bailey where the house of Webern and his 12-tone theories loomed so large on the highway. Instead, both Farhadian and Santomeri have a healthy concern with melody and with not alienating the listener too much, and I hear echoes of Henry Cowell (as if rescored for the guitar) and even late Frank Zappa in some of these pieces; parts of ‘Foil’, for instance, kept reminding me of Orchestral Favorites or Studio Tan.

And like Cowell, they don’t the deny the possibility of narrative in their tunes; indeed many of the titles refer directly to things you might see in an art gallery, such as ‘Picture Frame’, ‘House of Colors’, ‘Pencil Sketch’ and ‘Pollock’. When they do attempt a bit of roughed-up atonality, we get ‘Richochet’ with its crocodile clips and scraped strings, but neither musician is fully comfortable with the kind of full-blooded abstract roar we might get from early Keith Rowe, and their efforts at “noise music” are a bit awkward and pallid. Even so it’s interesting how here, and elsewhere, the tension between the need for melody and the need for experimentation produces interesting clashes. From 16 May 2016.

Boxing Match

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Has it Started?

Stefan Thut
Un/even And One
RUSSIA INTONEMA int018 CD (2016)

Swiss cellist Stefan Thut debuted his score Un/Even and One in St Petersburg in 2015 with a bevy of (somewhat more) local musicians who do a top job of sounding like they aren’t there. A short Youtube clip reveals much to this theory: for the 5-strong assembly, virtue is expressed in restraint from virtually any physical movement at all; just a young lady pushing a box around in the foreground while five instruments receive attention only spasmodically. I sense that the concept behind Thut’s scoring is one of meticulous refinement; that of distilling full bars and phrases into the merest of gestures, upon the blank canvas of near-silence. We should not be surprised to learn therefore of Thut’s affiliation with the Wandelweiser group, for whom such matters are a preoccupation.

Silence is, in fact, is one of two canvases common to Thut’s work. The other is ‘the box’. There’s one drawn on on the cover, with semi-explanatory text describing how Thut ‘joined the sounds from transcribed language played through the surface of a moving cardboard box’ to add to the enigma. As I understand it, the musicians’ fingers were prerecorded rubbing words into the surface of cardboard boxes, which recordings were played back during the performance, effectively encompassing the space in conceptual cardboard. The value of the symbol of the empty-box-as-pure-potential is appended by the actual movement of the box throughout the performance, its location at any given point conferring on each musician the right to play.

Over 40 minutes, silence intersperses with sounds barely identifiable: low-volume cello massage and rummaging beneath a layer of tape hiss; a mass of slippery shadows, exhaling emphysemically and pierced by sine waves in a dark basement that yawns with an ancient hunger. What the recording may lacks in terms of immediatism, it at least makes up for by stirring the imagination.

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Is It Over?

Michael Pisaro
Mind Is Moving IX
RUSSIA INTONEMA int017 CD (2015)

Something of a go-to for less voluble composers, guitarist Denis Sorokin facilitates a recent work by another of the Wandelweiser composers, Michael Pisaro, for the novel combination of electric guitar, radio, stones and whistling. No prizes for naming the other, unnamed ingredient as silence (or a recorded approximation of) in immodest volume. The piece was refined in performances over two years (2013 to 2015) before being deemed medically fit for recording, in which: you’ve guessed it, the instruments/sound sources are addressed only sporadically between far lengthier and more considered pauses.

That the hapless listener might come unstuck is occasioned by the fact that the performer’s means of interpretation and the composer’s means of evaluation are equally nebulous. At what point is the performance deemed ‘acceptable’ and how is the listener to know when the standard has (not) been met? When the form of the piece stands so readily to baffle, it is difficult to gauge and this much is neither divulged nor easily relatable. However, one senses such judgements rely at least partially on attaining the ‘Goldilocks’ balance between pause and play that ‘the listener’ stops wondering whether the piece is contiguous and/or continuing. Reaching this sweet spot presumably necessitated a good deal of fine tuning of both composition and intuition.

Thus, the recording takes its place in Pisaro’s ever-satisfying catalogue, alongside fine companions such as 2016’s Melody, Silence by Cristián Alvear. Along with the Stefan Thut CD, it also brings further respectability to the Russian label Intonema, based in St Petersburg, where many of these performances are recorded. Limited edition run, needless to say.

Hvilken vei er ingen steder (del 3)

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Ivar Grydeland
Stop Freeze Wait Eat
NORWAY HUBRO MUSIC HUBRO 3538 LP (2015)

Enveloped in warm and fuzzy nocturne is this serene yet sturdy surprise from the ever-reliable Hubro label, nestling within which we find the laconic Norwegian multi-instrumentalist, one Ivar Grydeland – member of improvising trio Huntsville (previously reviewed here) – and his 6 and 12 string guitars, drowsily picking and tapping out morse code m’aiders in honeyed droplets to the sound of soporific alarm bells. However, the draping of every long tone in echo serves more than simply a sedative function; it is Grydeland’s ‘extended now’ that allows him to improvise atop the sounds of his own playing in a window of time that he likens to a painter’s stepping back from the canvas to regard the work underway. Meanwhile the listener is free to sink deep into a crackly dream world of pin-pricked, low-frequency harmonics; a less focused take on Oren Ambarchi’s soundworld, but a cosy blanketing that never smothers.

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Trondheim Jazz Orchestra / Christian Wallumrød
Untitled Arpeggios And Pulses
NORWAY HUBRO MUSIC HUBRO HUBROCD2566 (2015)

Our first (and last) encounter with the Norwegian ‘jazz’ pianist Christian Wallumrød was bemusing to say the least, an effect partly brought about by the connotations of using the j-word, by Wallumrød’s history with the ECM label and by that record’s unfailing ambiguity of style and intention. Intriguing to a fault, Pianokammer defies the finger of categorisation, falling somewhere ’between the realms of easy listening and cold abstraction’, to the point at which questions such as ‘do I like this?’ become redundant. Whatever motivations led to the recording of that strange selection, they remain invisible to the naked ear.

Its successor – Untitled Arpeggios and Pulses – arrives in a similar cloak of cool mystery and a title suggestive of the anonymity and simplicity of its ethereal ways. Carried by The Trondheim Jazz Orchestra as a commission for Kongsberg Jazz Festival’s 50th anniversary in 2014, the ‘action’ has moved from the fire-lit living room in winter to the chilled auditorium where quiet coughs mingle with the steam of musicians’ breath. Suspended in air, rendered sluggish by hibernation instincts or lurching like locked groove vinyl, the four sections of this 50+ minute composition consist of short, semi- and atonal phrases repeated ad infinitum by small and unusual instrumental assortments that include piano and pedal steel peddling peace and forgetfulness (part 2), to a trudging, trash-coated behemoth for graunching guitar, Supersilent-style electronics and jubilant bursts of winter-numbed brass.

Clearly intended for a single sitting: walk in at any moment to find an absolute mess. Sit back however, and enjoy the unfurling from afar and things might start to click into place. Devoid of straight up ‘jazz’, the orchestra’s dedicated pursuit of the ‘pulse’ overrides all other aesthetic commitments. It’s challenging music in the best possible sense, and best of all, it knows when to keep its mouth shut.

Brown Reason For Living

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Washington DC improviser Gary Rouzer made a big hit here with his Domestic Shrubbery release, where he showed you just what a man can do with a few sheets of cardboard when it comes to making a “prepared” instrument. I’d favour cardboard any day over the screws and bolts which John “Flipping” Cage seemed to be advocating for his prepared piano, as cardboard arguably causes less permanent damage. I have always suspected Cage wanted to undermine the piano in some way, as part of his destructive anti-music agenda.

Here is Rouzer again with Reasons For Viola And Cello (AMPTEXT), nine intimate pieces of improvised chamber music he made with Paolo Valladolid. Rouzer has his cello, Paulo has his viola, and the “preparations” they used for these recordings are shown in a photo on the back cover. Notice in this inventory there is a certain amount of metal, but mostly wood and plastic, which I think is a good mix for the kind of effects they’re seeking. The great thing is that the instruments are enhanced by this interventions, and the musicians are empowered to grasp at unusual sounds they couldn’t otherwise manage.

The first time the duo played together, they did it in a tunnel in Alexandria, Virginia (much like the Japanese duo Kuwayama-Kijima have often done), and the results of that hopefully very echoey and ghostly session were issued by the Confront Recordings label. This item however is all indoors, has a dry but very intimate feeling, and comes close to realising the dream of “semi-structured conversations” that people have been aiming for with free improvisation music for many years now (I would assume). Even the track titles, which are fragments of intriguing sentences such as “the window fell out”, reflect this conversational aspect. Much to enjoy in this warm and engaging playing.

I’m also glad to read a Polly Bradfield namecheck on the cover. She was a New York violinist who worked with John Zorn and made a few records for Eugene Chadbourne’s Parachute label in the late 1970s, and her work is due for some serious reassessment (and reissuing) if you ask me. From 21 April 2016.

Long Overdue Part 5

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We have heard from Katarina Glowicka (also called Kasia Glowicka) on Red Sun, a 2013 release from Bôłt Records, where she composed piano music for Malgorzata Walentynowicz. Here she is again with Seven Sonnets (DUX 1194 / ARTEK SOUNDS ART003 / BÔŁT RECORDS BR1028), which is her settings for sonnets by William Shakespeare, here given a “modern interpretation”. It’s a boring and slow set, and the listener must work hard to discern any sense to these over-extended tunes with their lengthy held tones and subtle variations. There are songs of a sort. The singer is counter-tenor Arnon Zlotnik, an Israeli-born opera singer who hits the correct notes, but sounds strangely distant and uninvolved, as if he’s passing time in an airport terminal. Considering the sonnets here are all about young love, I’d hope for a little more passion and enthusiasm in the delivery. No such luck. The Rubens Quartet are a string quartet playing Glowicka’s arrangements, which are enhanced with electronic music interventions from the composer. The plan is match the patterns in the string sections with these “electronic counterpoints”. Whatever the intention, it’s done nothing to improve the dynamics of these torpid drones.

All of the above is supposed to build on the music of Renaissance composer John Dowland in some way. Well, this hubris cuts no ice with me; few composers have come close to matching Dowland’s gifts for compression and emotional tautness, and Glowicka fails singularly. Downland always matched the content of the libretto to the music in meaningful ways; the tune, and the way it was played, would illustrate the text in a sympathetic fashion, the two streams of content locked together like a dovetail joint, always delivering a strong emotional charge. This kind of applied songcraft is beyond the capabilities of Glowicka, which is one reason why we end up with this severe emotional disconnect; neither the singer, nor the players, nor Glowicka herself, apparently have the slightest idea what the sonnets are about. With this disconnect, what results is an empty work, devoid of meaning. A modernist statement of intellectual coldness, for the generation that’s become so ironic that it’s forgotten the meaning of everything. Released in 2015.

Whither Canada? Part 2

Another three items from the Canadian Ambiances Magnétiques label representing aspects of modern music mostly from Montreal. As it happens these arrived before the last batch, on 24th February 2016.

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Calling yourself Ensemble SuperMusique is bound to raise high expectations in your audience, but the team of Jean Derome, Bernard Falaise, Joanne Hétu, Danielle P Roger et al are clearly consummate musicians. Perhaps they mean that the music they play is some form of “hyper-music”, or “meta-music”, rather than implying they have super powers. On Les Accords Intuitifs (AM 222 CD), the players perform in various combinations with woodwinds, electric guitar, percussion, synths, violin, piano, bass guitar, and the human voice. The turntablist Martin Tétreault joins them for two pieces. Together, they play their interpretations of compositions by Malcolm Goldstein, Raymond Gervais (avant-garde conceptaluist and creator of multi-media pieces), Yves Bouliane (bass player in Le Quatuor De Jazz Libre Du Québec), Bernard Falaise, and Joanne Hétu (noted in the last batch) – all of whom are Canadian, with the exception of Goldstein who is half American. All of the works are quite challenging to listen to, full of dissonances, tensions, and yawning gaps; I kind of like the way that classical modernism, free improvisation and contemporary rock noise all seem to meet up in the same room, but the conversations they hold are very forced and mannered, as if they were total strangers trying to be stiffly polite to each other.

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The composer Simon Martin was highly taken with an art exhibit he saw in 2005 and tried to convey his feelings in music. On Hommage a Leduc, Borduas et Riopelle (CQB 1616), he’s expressly paying his tribute to the Canadian painters Paul-Émile Borduas, Borduas’ tutor Ozias Leduc, and the sculptor / painter / lithographer Jean-Paul Riopelle, and he’s engaged three different Canadian ensembles to realise his visions. The Trio De Guitares Contemporain play ‘L’Heure Mauve’, and they pluck and strum single notes on their classical guitars with a certain single-mindedness which to my ears is an attempt to recast the pointillist technique into music; like seeing the brushstrokes of Seurat dot themselves onto the canvas one by one. In fact, the composer is trying to recapture the effects of light on foliage, to get to the heart of one of the things that motivated Leduc to paint in the first place. Next, Quasar quatuor de saxophones blow an impressionistic breeze on ‘Projections Liberantes’, producing many subtle and pleasing overtones in their slightly dissonant overlapping drones. This piece is attempting to say something about the voyage of self-discovery undertaken by Borduas, and proposes 11 minutes of gradual dawning realisation in sound. Lastly, the Quatuor Bozzini raise their violins, viola and cello in the most dramatic piece on the album, called ‘Icebergs Et Soleil De Minuit – Quator En Blanc’. That title alone is evocative enough, and the nerve-shredding tautness of this icy, minimal piece is served well by it. Isabelle Bozzini and her team create astonishing atmospheres and microtonal contrasts in this 17-minute chiller of dissonance and Beckettian emptiness. Simon Martin’s intention here was surprisingly literal – he simply wanted to represent Riopelle’s Iceberg paintings in sound, a series the painter worked on in the 1970s. Worth seeking out images of these stark monochrome oils with their sharp strokes of black, white and grey. And if you want to hear more of the Quatuor Bozzini, they’ve also made records of James Tenney, John Cage, and Steve Reich.

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Quasar – the Quasar Quatuor De Saxophones, to give them their complete name – also have a solo record of their modernistic saxophone work, Du Souffle (CQB 1617). They tackle works by Canadian composers Philippe Leroux, Gilles Tremblay, Jimmie LeBlanc, Claude Vivier and Louis Andriessen. All convincing material and well played too, though LeBlanc’s Fil Rouge strikes a chord on today’s spin, perhaps because of its extreme compression; very short segments in this 8-part suite, of which one lasts just 7 seconds, but still manages to say something with a few well-placed toots. I’ve tried reading the composer’s explanation of Fil Rouge, but it loses me with its abstruse inter-textual associations. With the other pieces here, it’s notable how many of them stand on the cusp of turning into big-band jazz; there’s something about the chord changes, the awkward attempts to “swing”, and the occasional forays into “complexity” that feel like a laborious attempt to score something which any member of Duke Ellington’s orchestra could easily have played at the drop of a fedora. This jazz leaning is most evident on Facing Death, the 1990 composition by Andriessen, which explicitly attempts to pay homage to the music of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. He originally composed this recasting of complex Be-Bop music for strings, knowing full well that “bebop is not at all idiomatic for string instruments”. It kind of misfires in this woodwind arrangement too, but Quasar acquit themselves well with their efforts, and there’s no denying the heartfelt sentiment behind Andriessen’s work. I just wish it didn’t make jazz seem so “worthy”, like some sort of improving text which we have to study, rather than simply dig.

Whither Canada? Part 1

Herewith some items from the Canadian Ambiances Magnétiques label representing aspects of modern music mostly from Montreal. Arrived 7th March 2016.

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Joane Hétu is a vocalist and sax player, renowned on the Montreal free improvisation “scene”. Her Famille (AM 225 CD) is a selection of concert recordings made between 2009 and 2015; the Mercredimusics @ Casa Obscura series of concerts might be the Canadian equivalent of Company Week, dedicated to free improvisation. Certainly, the team-up-with-anyone spirit nurtured by Derek Bailey is alive and well in Canada, if these snapshots are anything to go by. There’s a long list of fellow improvvers on the sleeve here with which Joane has thrown down her vocal and woodwind exploits, including a few names we recognise, such as Pierre-Yves Martel, Philippe Lauzier, and Alexandre St-Onge. Not every track is an outright winner for me, but the subdued mysterious mood running through this album is very intriguing, and my preference is for those cuts which whine and drone exquisitely without anyone appearing to exert themselves very much. Joane Hétu’s sax work is adequate, her voice work is far more distinctive, and while her errant hooting may be an acquired taste her murmurs and pained squeaks are strangely satisfying, in spite of their minimal content. So far a picture emerges of Canadian improvisers being capable of far more restraint than you might find, let’s say, during an evening with Peter Brotzmann and Evan Parker.

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Speaking of Pierre-Yves Martel, I was reminded of his astonishing record Continuum when I heard Émilie Préfère Le Chant (AM 223 CD), a solo release by Émilie Girard-Charest, and wondered if this talented violoncello player had spun in his orbit or come under his influence to some degree. Her self-composed ‘S’offrir’ is an exquisite dream of near-silence: as with Continuum, there’s the same concern with maintaining a rigid posture while playing and doing nothing to disturb the enchanted mood. The other interpretations of works by contemporary composers are slightly more “busy” and would veer towards the now-conventional dissonance and randomness, were it not for the exciting electro-acoustic effects (I think) in evidence on such strange weirdies as ‘Espoir Squelettique’, written by Maxime Corbeil-Perron. ‘Altered Gray’ by Frederik Gran is another one that seems to have electronic elements bundled in the package, and is equally puzzling in its uneventful, hard-to-follow structure. Arid spiritual journeys await the listener here, with only a few drops of cold water offered for relief along the trail, and it’s never clear what the destination is or when we’ve actually arrived. Joane Hétu (see above) composed the title track, an angular and unpleasant piece that requires much dragging and stabbing of the strings to perform it.

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More desiccated modernism by Quattor Bozzini as they perform Momento (CQB 1615) by the depressing post-serialist Aldo Clementi. This Italian composer who died in 2011 seems to have regarded his work in purely academic terms, measuring his success as a series of “contrapuntal exercises”; critics, when attempting to summarise it, apparently tend to reach for metaphors of decay. Clementi strove to compose music that describes its own gradual extinction. One imagines he was happiest when watching the sands run out of an hourglass, and then retiring to bed replete with the satisfaction that another day had been wasted. These various canons and other pieces, ranging in date from 1968 to 2005, brought a deathly pallor to my skin, induced short breathing, and made me dream of wandering 19th-century parlours with no windows and heavy green wallpaper everywhere.

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Contrabass player Nicolas Caloia has been working for years to try and blur the edges between composition and improvisation, and bring together high art and low art in a single enticing package. To that end, he has worked with several improvising players and attempts to “channel” their energy in his compositions. On Les Bonnes Histories (AM 226 CD), he does it with the flautist Jean Derome, the clarinettist Lori Freedman, and two vocalists – Gabriel Dharmoo and Geneviève Letarte. Sad to say success has not been manifested here. I can’t find much evidence of channelled energy, or indeed any movement at all in these sluggish suites. And I’m all in favour of blurring cultural distinctions in the name of reaching a wider audience, but why then does Caloia’s work remain so cryptic and inaccessible? A confusing, broken narrative may slowly emerge for the patient listener, but the point of this work remains very obscure for me; everything proceeds at a leaden pace, and the information seems deliberately veiled and clouded in pseudo-mystery. The cartoony rebuses with their captions, including a human intestinal system, a red-brick bridge, and a large eye with clouds floating nearby, don’t lighten the mood, nor explain anything very much. I remain completely alienated by this overly-intellectual and torpid music.

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Mikrokosmos: Quartetski Does Bartók (AM 224 CD) is a much more successful instance of the cross-fertilisation and bridge-building which I assume Nicolas Caloia is aiming at. This Montreal five-piece (confounding expectations raised by their name that they might be a four-piece) strive to reinterpret classical music in a contemporary setting, and on the evidence of this release they do it very well, producing a listenable and entertaining experience. Pierre Yves-Martel (bass, synth) and Philippe Lauzier (woodwinds) are present, along with the electric guitarist Bernard Falaise, the violinist Joshua Zubot, and the drummer Isaiah Ceccarelli. Images of their stage set make Quartetski look like a cross between a chamber ensemble and a rock group, and their music delivers precisely that – original melodies and arrangements reshuffled into accessible modernistic arrangements, with a jazzy swing feeling, dissonant noises and scrapes from the violin, loud rockist segments from the guitarist, and even free improv elements from the woodwind section. A lot of stop-starts, quick changes, and poised dynamics allowing each musician to shine; the brevity of these pieces, and the slight air of genial clunkiness in the playing, also made me think of Maher Shalal Hash Baz. I’m not at all familiar with the works of Bartók, and a purist classical buff might give a more cautious reception to this album (or even retreat from it in horror), but ignorance is bliss and I’m finding this a pleasant spin today. When Michal Libera does cultural mashups for his Bolt Label, he’s trying to get the audience to ask deep and searching questions about the meaning of things we previously took for granted; Quartetski are simpler, and they just want us to enjoy good music in a new setting, with fresh ears. If you want more of this, they “did” a Prokofiev album in 2007 for Ambiences Magnétiques. Fine work.

Dance of Death

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The record by Ryan Choi The Three Dancers (ACCRETIONS alp060CD) is a strikingly unusual piece of improvisation…it’s not often we hear the ukulele played in the context of free music, and not only that but Choi has his own highly idiosyncratic approach to playing it. He’s a young fellow born in Honolulu where he still lives; it’s interesting to me that he’s adopted what I would regard as a “traditional” instrument from that part of the world, and turned it to his own ends. Interesting to me, as I’m a collector of reissues of old Hawaiian 78s recorded in the 1920s and 1930s by Sol Hoopii, King Benny Nawahi, Jim and Bob (the Genial Hawaiians) and others; those records were I think originally “sold” to the audience as novelty items in a market rich with country and blues records, but they have an infectious charm and energy, plus the musicians were all consummate craftsmen capable of producing exciting effects from their ukes and slide guitars. Ryan Choi may not play recognisable melodies, and in fact his fractured music is much more in keeping with the uncertainties of today’s end-times, but he does have the energy of my pre-war Hawaiian heroes. The Three Dancers just crackles with life, even when the sound is understated and spare. There may be electronics on here on one track, but Choi is far from being a noisy improviser.

He’s also not averse to things like repetition, patterns, rhythms – said rhythms sometimes being buried in the midst of his complex uke lines and clusters, but emerging none the less to give each piece here an undeniable inner energy. I like to highlight this because repetition, patterns, and rhythms are so often regarded as “the enemy” by some hard-core improvisers who make no concessions to audience pleasure. Choi uses these forces in service of his central concept, which is to make a dance record, or at any rate a record “about” dance in some way; the title is directly inspired by the Picasso painting of 1925, hanging in the Tate Modern, a jpeg of which I happen to have on my screen just now. Many of Picasso’s details are appropriate to the music we hear; the patterns on the curtains either side of the frame, the rather wan colours of the dancers’ skin, and in particular the jagged saw-edge shapes carried so threateningly by the ambiguous figure on the left hand side. Her face, incidentally, was inspired by a mask from New Guinea; if you decided to fly westwards from Honolulu, you’d be in Papua New Guinea in just 20 hours. This may not have any bearing on anything, of course. Choi has evidently picked up on the spikiness of Picasso’s painting, as reflected in the twitchy energies of ‘Apollon At Eros’.

He may even have found a way to reflect something of the darker side of that image; it was painted after a three-way love triangle that ended badly, and the suicide of one of Pablo’s friends. Choi’s ‘Three Dancers’ is the most dissonant of the three pieces here, and also the most unusual in its surface sound. At first I thought he was using backwards tapes, or playing the entire recording backwards; it’s more likely to be a combination of his highly aggressive technique – he attacks the strings like his fingers were a swarm of hornets – with some form of electronic manipulation. It’s an eerie, unworldly sound. Here, more than anywhere on the record, we have the sense of the Danse Macabre which underpinned the original painting, the sense that the three figures are drawn into a vortex of negative energy from which they can’t escape. Their very limbs are entangled in this nest of psychic tendrils, and Ryan Choi has found a way to express this darkness in sound.

While this is a short record – around 20 minutes, meaning it might almost have fit on to a three-inch CDR – there is, as other commentators have observed, a great deal of musical energy compressed into it. Choi plays the baritone ukulele, with percussion and electronics, and also did the sketch on the cover; it’s as if he asked a stenographer to describe the Picasso painting in shorthand, and this was the result. This record marks his return to music after several “gap years”, but apparently he’d been thinking about the work since around 2001. Very good. From March 2016.

Déchirure

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Bien Mental (FOU RECORDS FR-CD 12) is another unique slice of improvised music from the French label Fou Records, and it’s a team-up of the Algerian Jean-Marc Foussat, the French accordion player Claude Parle, and the Portuguese viola player João Camões. To my mind all three are practically outsiders…not exactly part of the star system of improvised music, coming into the arena through different personal pathways, and not even entirely sure if they want to align themselves with the precepts of the genre. Camões, for instance, was classically trained at the Conservatoire in Coimbra, and only found out the joys of free playing after he moved to Lisbon and got out on the streets; he prides himself on his “physical approach” to the instrument, and blends his classical skills with free playing techniques. Foussat is not unknown to us…we interviewed this lovely fellow in an early issue of the magazine, and though his releases may be sporadic and uneven, they always find a place in our heart. He’s a VCS3 player and can be very noisy with that instrument. His Marteau Rouge project enabled him to take that noise on stage and deliver slabs of analogue racket in the public arena. While he’s also known as a sound engineer – he recorded many improvisation gigs in the 1980s, including one or two for Company Week – he owns himself a shy and reclusive fellow, and in his printed bio here states how he started out playing the guitar but found instead he enjoyed the solitary pursuit of programming the synth, working with ruled paper and “trafficking the tape” as he calls it. As to Claude Parle, he would like to refuse any sort of classification, and likewise had a classical training which he pushed down a jazz route, and also diverting his skills to perform with visual artists, actors, and dancers – a path which some improvising “purists” might be reluctant to pursue. But Parle clearly welcomes collaborations, and it’s evident they do something to free up his creative juices. In maverick fashion, he claims he’s trying to develop his own language of playing, which he calls “direct music”. He’s not even certain if he really plays the accordion; his instrument is a prototype experimental device built for him by an Italian maker, and he’s still not totally satisfied with it.

What happens when three wayward and obstinate types of this nature join forces? The results are Bien Mental, or “totally bonkers” to use an English idiom. Three long pieces of extremely maximal and busy improvisation, but a music that’s also well removed from anything resembling aggressive, free-form, clattery and over-done improvised music. There’s a certain conviction and depth in all the playing that makes the music feel right, with a strong centre of gravity, and even if the notes are flying like sparks from a dynamo this is not some ephemeral Catherine Wheel of noise; there are indeed traces of classical structure, understanding of musical notation, and even detectable elements of this new language which Claude Parle is still attempting to formulate. I suppose this all points to an exciting journey of discovery; the musicians are still inventing new things, and not quite sure what they are exploring. They may be trying to access areas which have not already been chewed to pieces by the teeth of the other improvising jackals which roam our over-crowded musical forests.

Summary of good points, then: a very good sympathetic encounter session between like-minded musicians and men with strong personalities, each with refreshing and unusual ideas about new directions for improvisation. An attractive sound; strange musical forms, but the blend of electronics, viola and accordion creates pleasing effects, bizarre detuned drones, and bittersweet combinations of noise/music, structure/chaos, and abstractions/tunes. A controlled, directed energy; the music doesn’t rush to a climax, but walks over its terrain with purpose and focus, with an undeniable weight and force behind it; the listener is happy to join this journey, rather than finding themselves confronted with a welter of angry, overly-complex tones and busy playing. Excellent piece; I sincerely hope these three can coincide again. No wonder they look so excited and triumphant in the inside photograph. Foussat and Parle in particular look as though they’ve just found buried treasure. Maybe they have. Maybe they feel compelled to share the joys of going “bien mental”. From 5th January 2016; many thanks to João for sending this.

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