From Marne To Seine

Pascal Battus is the French performer who is renowned for “playing” his rotating surfaces and his ability to squeeze sounds out of non-musical, inanimate objects – such as lumps of plastic, styrofoam, polystyrene and paper, all substances which, as it happens, appear on Pascal Battus / Dafne Vicente-Sandoval (POTLATCH P116), his new two-disc album which features a number of duets with Dafne Vicente-Sandoval playing her bassoon. On disc 1, Marne, the small objects have contact microphones to amplify them; on disc 2, Seine, it’s a set of all-acoustic performances. Battus unplugged. I suppose the first thing to note is that this is quite some way from “conventional” free improvisation, and in addition is rather a non-musical set. Dafne Vicente-Sandoval, who we have heard on the 2013 Remoto album on this same label, makes low purring and droning sounds on her bassoon, but is not here to play tunes or demonstrate her extended technique; what she provides is one more fabric in a sea of fabrics. A minimal sea. The textures of the waters, if we can put it like that, are both viscuous and airy. In fact we’re not even talking about water, and neither Battus or Vicente-Sandoval are in a boat. Got me?

So far you may wonder what’s the appeal of this rather empty-seeming process record…well, for one thing there’s this air of exploration to the work, lending the album a slightly mysterious quality; neither of the players seem quite sure where this is going to lead. I kind of like this. It isn’t to say they are hesitant or tentative, but neither are they trotting out their well-worn riffs and tics in anticipation of familiar results. It’s clear that Battus is adept with his rotary devices (whatever they may be), yet his rotations and scrapes produce sounds quite unlike the (very few) other players who use comparable techniques in this field. One of them is A-F Jacques, the other is Alfredo Costa Monteiro. In a blindfold test, you’d easily be able to identify the inert metallic and plasticy scrapes produced by Battus. Yet he’s not playing a musical instrument. That alone may tell us something.

Another observation we could make concerns the variety in the volumes and flavours of the sounds, now loud, now soft…but that’s a totally fatuous remark…at any rate neither party is intending to bore themselves or the listener, and of course they wish to explore and push for changes wherever possible, ever given such an evidently limited set-up.

Hmm, I seem to be pushing Dafne Vicente-Sandoval to a secondary role in all this, which is not the intention…it’s harder to identify her contributions, so a more careful listen is needed. One reason for that might be her own use of mics and a mixing desk, although that isn’t to say her sounds are being filtered. Wherever there’s a trace of human breathing, even if it’s just the patterns of breathing, she will be there. I hope so anyway. It’s beginning to feel this music is so alien that we can only understand it through abstractions, through reflections, models that are drawn on a piece of plexiglass. Dafne’s contributions are more evident and apparent on the Seine disk, where the all-acoustic setting is much more natural for her bassoon’s growls, purrs, and extended sighs. Sound-generation is still her main task, probably exerting a huge amount of discipline just to avoid making recognisable notes or patterns that would make a human being feel more at home. Here, the sounds of the two players interlock much more successfully, becoming a tight wafer of rigid drones. At this point the record is starting to become like sleep-walking, a mysterious trance state – both for the players, and for us. The ultra-slow pace and the gentle, gradual movements, add to this impression; the whole body swathed in bandages, stumbling awkwardly but silently towards its unknown destination.

I was almost ready to dismiss this item on first spin (it left me infuriated), but I think it was worth persevering. From 16 May 2016.