Jon Irabagon’s output covers a wide swathe, from standards-friendly jazz to the avant-creative side of that genre. Here, his focus is singular – blast as many weird sounds as possible from a sopranino saxophone. Recorded in the act solo at the reverb-friendly Lakeview Presbyterian Church in Chicago, Inaction is an Action puts Irabagon on the map in a crowded field.
But how does Irabagon compare (if comparison is your thing) to solo sax greats such as Anthony Braxton, Jon Butcher, and Evan Parker? Quite well. Irabagon intrepidly leads us through eight explorations, featuring oral noise walls, squealing, drones, punchy staccato rhythms, overtones, and multiphonics. Often the instrument is almost irrelevant to Irabagon’s final product. The noises sound as if they were electronically manipulated, computer generated, or made by an angry swarm of bees collectively channeling Iannis Xenakis. On the tracks where the sax is clearly discernible, it is played in a tastefully rude manner.
Don’t be deceived by the pastoral cover artwork. This is extreme music. And don’t be deceived by the title. Irabagon is all action.
Pianist Dmitry Shubin and drummer/electronics artist Alexey Ivanov begin the long single track Emphasis paradoxically, by introducing their instruments through an anonymous series of tappings on wood and scrapings of loose metal and taut strings. Eventually the identifiable profiles of piano and drums emerge in the muffled roll of sticks on drumheads, the surging crescendo of vibrating cymbals, and the reverberations of a piano chord repeatedly struck at well-placed intervals. As the piece unfolds, the initial ambiguity of the instruments’ identities finds a parallel in the larger ambiguity of their relationship to each other. For much of the track the usual relationship of piano as lead and drums as support is inverted, with Ivanov’s expressionistic playing frequently taking a salient position. Conversely, the piano often plays the role of a second drum, as Shubin’s attack, particularly in the upper register, emphasizes a kinship to the drums and serves to recall and recover the piano’s status as a member of the percussion family. Ivanov’s occasional electronic interventions serve to underscore the essentially timbral nature of the piece, which nevertheless comes to a close with the relative tranquility of drifting piano chords.
Collages & Dispersions, a solo recording by Canary Islands pianist and sound artist Paco Rossique, is an atmospheric recording that presents the sonic portrait of an invented, artificially resonant space in which small metal objects are tossed about in a humming wind.
For Rossique, a soundscape is above all a work of imagination midwifed by technological means at the service of a sensitive ear. He deftly layers field recordings, prepared piano and electronic treatments into eight interconnected, timbral compositions that emphasize the contrasts between an intermittent low drone and the sharper-edged sounds of prepared piano and objects. The pieces often feature a counterpoint of electronic washes and clanging metal occasionally giving way to recognizable pitches and tone clusters. The voices of birds and humans appear sporadically, grounding this otherwise otherworldly audio landscape in the concrete sounds of the everyday as filtered through Rossique’s unique sensibility.
This is a sensibility that doesn’t limit itself to the manipulation of sound. The eight tracks are held together in a kind of anti-narrative by virtue of a series of prose poems and visual images, all by Rossique, each one of which is associated with an individual track. These verbal and pictorial tableaux, like their audio counterparts, display a dreamlike logic rooted in the juxtaposition of unlikely elements—a convulsive beauty, as the Surrealists would have it.
Featuring members of innovative Colorado-based progressive rock groups Thinking Plague and Hamster Theater, Ligeia Mare released their third album, Amplifier, in late April. This offering can be roughly characterized as a blending of electric Miles, the esthetic of Derek Bailey, fellow avant-grade outfit Biota, and perhaps the aforementioned groups.
The album features Ron Miles, Mark Harris, Raoul Rossiter, Elaine Di Falco, Dave Willey, and Farrell Lowe playing various string, wind, and percussion instruments, as well as contributing voices. While the group focuses on instrumentation (as opposed to electronic manipulation), the recordings themselves are often as much sound collages as anything else. Particularly, the cornerstone of Ligeia Mare is collective, open improvisation, with tracks eschewing typical melodic development or overarching themes. The emphasis instead is on textural and structural components, pulling strange and unexpected sounds from combinations of instruments. As a result, it is often difficult to determine what is being played when, but ultimately that isn’t important. The combination of free improvisation, progressive rock, Rock in Opposition, and weird Americana implies a certain lack of precision. There is no literal or idiomatic interpretation that does Amplifier justice – the group defines its own musical identity.
Ligeia Mare, in the interplanetary sense, is a large body of water found on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. As scientists speculate the types of alien lifeforms that could possibly exist therein, we need not go further than Ligeia Mare the band to hear sounds of an alien nature. Well done.
John Cage may have had a book titled For the Birds, but his contemporary, Olivier Messiaen, often composed from the birds. Messiaen’s adaption of birdsong to art music was the foundation of his work from the early 1950s onward, and this provides the inspiration for Alberto Novello and Flavio Zanuttini’s Le Retour des Oiseaux.
To be sure, Novello, an Italian sound artist currently residing in the Netherlands, is no ornithologist, though he does bring a rigorous scientific background to music. Originally trained as a nuclear physicist in Trieste, he eventually obtained a doctorate in music psychology after taking a master’s degree in a multidisciplinary program in art, science and technology. His work addresses the interaction of sound and perception and the associations that result—a kind of musical phenomenology afforded by the application of new technologies to sound production. Le Retour des Oiseaux is consistent with this program; on it Novello, who goes by the name JesterN, works with real-time electronic manipulation of sound to devise an aural plasticity that plays on the listener’s attentiveness, memory and willingness to recognize the audio uncanny in the deliberate distortion of sound properties. Joining him is Udine flugelhornist Flavio Zanuttini, a musician whose background embraces big band jazz, free improvisation, contemporary art music and points beyond. He and Novello worked together previously on a 2013 remake of Don Cherry’s Complete Communion, undertaken by Zanuttini’s punk-jazz group Arbe Gabe. Their collaboration on Le Retour des Oiseaux is a more cerebral affair, rooted as it is in the tradition of the electroacoustic avant-garde. The result is a set of masterfully constructed, coloristic works emerging from the fecund meeting of acoustic brass and the technological imagination.
Each of the five pieces is named for one of the letters spelling out “BIRDS,” a bit of language play that alludes perhaps to what the musicians describe as their philological interest in Messiaen’s aesthetic. Novello and Zanuttini’s own aesthetic consists in the complex aggregation and separation of Zanuttini’s live and recorded flugelhorn with Novello’s electronic inventions. The resulting music is texturally rich and highly spatialized, though apparently the recording is only a partial representation of the original live performance, which involved a quadrophonic sound system and a visual component as well.
But what of the birds? Oblique refigurations of birdsong do weave in and out of the pieces, whether as the ambiguous chirpings of electronics or in the short, repeated motifs of the flugelhorn. From the very first track we hear an electronic simulacrum of distant masses of birds engulfed by rising winds; the flugelhorn comes in with a three-note melody that serves as the core of an accelerating improvisation. Assisted by Novello’s real-time recording, playback and superimposition, Zanuttini takes this compact cluster of tones and combines, reiterates and varies them, much as a calling bird might do (albeit a particularly deep-throated one). The overall pattern holds for I, where Zanuttini plays fragments of the whole tone scale, adding and subtracting chromatic tones as he develops his line, while Novello contributes samples of birdsong—or electronic mimicry of birdsong. The piece builds up to an atmosphere as dense as an impending summer storm. In a deft play of contrast R follows with a kind of industrial adagio, which sets up a subsequent contrast with the hyperactive, pixillated D, sounding something like the hypothetical inner life of a ricocheting pinball in a game gone mad. S exploits the microtonal nuances of the flugelhorn through looping and layering, culminating in an otherworldly fanfare of timbral distortion.
Minneapolis-based Mike Olson is a composer and producer who has developed his own rather unique style and sound in an evolutionary and organic manner. At first blush, his recent release, Six Projects, seems to plant him in an as yet unnamed category – musicians utilizing a combination of space / ambient music and modern electroacoustic composition and improvisation. Others who might be placed in a similar musical geography include Sound Awakener and Robert Scott Thompson.
But any attempt to classify Olson is an exercise in futility. While the first two of his “projects” on this release, Flute Clouds and Noopiming, do harken to the works of Klaus Schulze, Brian Eno, Steve Roach, and Robert Rich, they also incorporate snippets and samples of actual instrumentation. These micro-recordings, however, seem to be heavily manipulated into each piece as a whole. For example, in the 20-minute Noopiming, overlapping vocal shards slowly build into a dense wall-like texture, then dissipate into a looming atmosphere. Rather than composing with notes, Olson seems to be using samples as his atomic elements.
Other tracks take on a tribal-ambient approach with emphasis on complex patterns of percussion with background drones. What They’re Doing approaches being a modern chamber-orchestra piece, with squealing sax and manipulated spoken word over vibes, strings, and drums. Implied Movement combines sequencers with metal percussion and undulating waves of sound.
Another aspect of Six Projects that makes it an ultimately rewarding listening experience is Olson’s clever use of dynamics. Parts of these recordings are barely audible, or make use of a frequency range outside of the expected. This results in, at least in my experience, hearing the album anew when piped through powerful speakers instead of a computer or headphones.
Regardless, it takes a while to get your head around what Olson is doing here, but doing so is time well spent.
Whether in group format, solo, or as leader, Kris Davis is on the rise. Her output over the last 15 years is numerous, yet not prolific. Instead, this Vancouver-born, New-York-based pianist and composer focuses on quality over quantity. Further, like many of her collaborators in the Big Apple’s creative music scene, she is not afraid to eschew the jazz label with which she is often classified.
And speaking of those collaborators, the lineup on this release is rather unique. Joining Davis on piano are Ben Goldberg, Oscar Noriega, Joachim Badenhorst, and Andrew Bishop on various clarinets, her husband Nate Radley on guitar, Gary Versace on organ, and Jim Black on drums. The combination of four clarinets, as well as both piano and organ, helps Davis establish a singular sound.
Indeed, Save Your Breath features solid, contrapunctal composed pieces – orchestral music in the guise of creative jazz. While I am not certain as to whether Davis ever played with Anthony Braxton or studied under him, one can hear a subtle Braxton influence here, perhaps due to Davis’ hanging in circles of Braxton’s ex-students and collaborators, such as Mary Halvorson and Tomas Fujiwara. But what lifts this recording outside of the jazz pigeonhole is Davis’s use of texture and space. Rather than just laying down individual lines, each musician is contributing pieces to an overall theme or sonic landscape. For instance, the opening track, Union Forever, resembles a cross between chamber music and French progressive rock. Not to say, however, that the group doesn’t break out from time to time, especially on the aptly-titled Whirly Swirly, or go all freak-out, such as on The Gost of Your Previous Fuckup. And Davis is not beyond a spacious interlude, such as on the title track, that borderlines on the electroacoustic.
Davis has been releasing solid material for years, but her trajectory is on the upswing – she keeps getting better and better. Save Your Breath is one of the stronger albums of 2015.