Optimise Your Airflow

Couple of new releases here from the Swiss label Insub.Records…I have the impression they’re releasing more systems-based music lately, as that’s mostly the vibe I’m getting from For Four Double Basses (NO NUMBER). Bryan Eubanks is credited as composer – we’ve mostly heard from this Portland fellow in an improvising context (electronics, oscillators, saxophone…) but here’s he’s proving his composerly abilities can pass muster on the parade ground as he embraces certain modernist precepts. The work is played by four bassists, including the very good Australian player Jon Heilbron who has surfaced here now and again. We get a copy of the detailed prose instructions for the score inside the CD, and the front cover also presents a partly-graphic score with simple instructions for how the work unfolds and how to perform it.

Numbers, lines, repeated phrases…somehow it puts me in mind of the gallery works of Sol Lewitt. As well as making use of natural harmonics, Eubanks understands a lot about scales and tunings, and uses these as one of the building blocks that form this work. And there are elements of duration and micro-tonality which will be familiar to any student of minimalist composition. The audible results certainly are minimal, and in fact I wonder to myself if we’re just hearing a single phrase repeated several times over, where certain parameters (pauses and durations) change ever so slightly with each repetition. Simple though the instructions are, they actually seem a shade too over-engineered for the music that’s ended up on the grooves. I have listened intently in search of a transcendent moment, but this record just stays in the same place for 47 minutes. Still, it’s not an unpleasant place to stay in.

Compressibilités (NO NUMBER), devised and played by Lise Barkas and Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy, probably isn’t a formal systems-based piece at all, but it certainly is pretty minimal and presents a challenge to the listener who might be expecting a more conventional form of improvisation. Indeed this pair of French players are going out on a limb and being quite innovative on this record; for one thing, it’s mostly made with bagpipes, an instrument which Lise Barkas has made all her own (that and the hurdy-gurdy, which we’re coming to). Or rather it’s made using bits of bagpipes – each track specifies which gauge of bagpipe was used, and indicates which parts came into play, sometimes the chanter, sometimes the bag, sometimes the drone. It’s as though this most familiar of traditional instruments were being rethought and rendered in schematic, as our French explorers attempt to recast its voice in an experimental music context.

Despite this slightly diagrammatic, systematic approach, the music is not simply a series of exercises in process, and each piece results in exciting new sounds and shapes – often pushed to the limits of listener endurance, especially with some of the shrill pieces. You’d often be hard-pressed to identify the bagpipe if you heard this one “blind”, and to be fair there are other devices in play, such as percussion liberated from a drum kit (cymbal, or one half of a bass drum, or even just the fittings for a tom), oscillators, and foreign objects such as washing machine parts or a jam jar. This kind of approach may be familiar to fans of that school or sub-genre of free improv which delights in reverberating and vibrating certain objects, in search of a mesmerising process drone. (Pascal Battus is one that comes to mind.) It’s also interesting, but probably unrelated, that “compressibility” has a very definite meaning in the world of thermodynamics; I don’t say that our French duo are trying to emulate that branch of science, but there is something very precise about the way they conduct these simple musical explorations, as if they were trying to discover for the very first time exactly what the bagpipe can do, and the descriptive track titles are simply the documentation of their experiments.

Musically, they not only produce exciting effects, and exude a high degree of focus and concentration, but also score very high on aesthetic charms and beauty even within the limited boundaries they set for themselves. The last track uses the hurdy-gurdy, an instrument which Barkas has played in the group L’Écluse. Very fine and unusual record.

Both the above from 14 June 2022.