Memory has fascinated humans for as long as there have been humans. With their CD Shared Memory the Uliben Duo take this fascination and from it make a metaphor in sound for memory and its sometimes surprising mutability.
The Uliben Duo is French double bassist Benoit Cancoin and German sound artist Ulrich Phillipp, who here contributes live interactive electronics. The two began collaborating about ten years ago as a double bass duo. For this recording Cancoin remains on double bass but Phillipp moves to electronics—seemingly a radical departure, but his experience as a double bassist provides a continuity of sensibility and grounds his choices vis-à-vis Cancoin’s playing throughout the recording.
The four tracks presented here seem to take the relationship between sounds within the flow of time as somehow paralleling the relationship of images in short-term and long-term memory. Cancoin and Phillipp’s sonic image of memory isn’t as a passive archive storing the frozen images of past events but instead is a plastic faculty whose contents are subject to change. Concretely this comes out in Phillipp’s capture and reworking of Cancoin’s tapped, plucked, bowed, strummed and hammered sounds. These sounds undergo timbral mutation, fragmentation, reversal and repetition; figures are switched around and put in places they never originally occupied, appearing and reappearing in different guises. Phillipp wrenches real-time acoustic sounds out of their original contexts in order to create new contexts for them and of them, while Cancoin actively improvises against and reinterprets these electronic recollections of his now-past playing. As within his performances with the exquisite Quatuor BRAC, Cancoin’s presence here is one of uncluttered concrete materiality, while Phillipp’s part is to provide the organic force shaping the duo’s overall, essentially unitary sound.
In 1991, a friend and I were lamenting the relative dearth of interesting music in the U.S. at the time. During this discussion he told me about a Denver-based group called Thinking Plague that was “doing stuff no one else does.” Not long after, I tracked down a CD of their third album, In This Life, which had been released a couple of years earlier on Chris Cutler’s Recommended Records. Featuring songwriting by guitarist Mike Johnson, lyrics by vocalist Suzanne Lewis, the album was engineered by Bob Drake who also played drums, bass, and violin. From the first angular acoustic guitar riffs on Lycanthrope, I was hooked.
Now, the venerable Cuneiform Records, who have put out all of the Plague’s recordings since (as well as reissues of their first two albums), is releasing a remastered version of In this Life on October 2nd.
Johnson writes, “Thinking Plague means the disease of thinking in a society where too much thinking is considered as grounds for shunning…dismissal as out of touch with the ‘real’ world…the disease of the dreamer be she/he a scientist or a poet.” In line with these words, the songs on In This Life have both intellectual and dreamy scope. Compositionally, the group has much in common with Cutler’s Art Bears, even having former Art Bear Fred Frith guest on one track. In addition to the above musicians, the group was rounded out by Shane Hotle on keyboards, Maria Moran on bass and guitar, Mark Harris on woodwinds, and Lawrence Haugseth on clarinet.
While Thinking Plague could have gone in a number of directions with this lineup, they focused on song-oriented avant-garde, albeit with elements of progressive rock and chamber music. But perhaps the most striking element of In This Life, aside from the songs themselves, is the uniqueness of each. Whether you listen to the swirling clarinet and piano motifs of Run Amok, the brooding deliberateness of Malaise, the haunting atmospheres and dense structures of Organism (Version II), or the poignant and evocative Love, each track is a stand-alone slice of dark Americana.
It was nine years before Thinking Plague would record a follow-up, and since then their output has been sporadic but noteworthy. Good news for Plague fans however – the group just successfully funded a Kickstarter for their 7th album, which is being recorded now and is set for release in 2016. In the mean time, turn down the lights, and enjoy the rare beauty of In This Life. This is a top-ten, desert-island recording.
Seemingly all-knowing, all-seeing search engines can mislead one to trust that if Google doesn’t turn it up, it don´t exist. Of course we know this to be untrue. Still, it strikes me as odd that I can only find one, single review of Umberto Echo´s shiny, joyful, early 2013 release Elevator Dubs anywhere online. Of course, there are still other resources out there – perhaps it is all over print media or handmade fanzines or in foreign language press my searches can´t or won´t capture. Either way, this meager presence is hardly commensurate with the album´s stylish, hybrid achievement.
Maybe it´s the title. Maybe everyone expected something ambient. Couldn’t be more different – Elevator Dubs grabs your attention from the opening bars and marches the parade along at some pace for its full, fifty-seven minute length. Well, maybe fifty-two and a half (see below, about the closing track). Slick, hard dubbed jazz-reggae, masterminded by German producer Umberto Echo, aka Munich´s Philipp Winter, much admired for production and/or remix work for the likes of Abdullah Ibrahim, Tack Head, Steel Pulse, Josh Roseman, Sly & Robbie, and many, many more, while going public himself with only a few albums and compilation contributions.
With such a thick Rolodex, he has had no trouble assembling a massive cast of high-profile, talented (in a few cases downright legendary) singers and players to help him realize this fast-paced, world-travelling project, quick right out of the gate covering Ernest Ranglin‘s “Surfin'”, featuring the mesmerizing intertwining of melodica and muted trumpet, followed immediately by a tongue-twisting Portuguese toast by Brazil’s Bani Silva on “Bonde Di Ihmao”, which elegantly slides into the hopped-up bossa nova of “Travels in Hyperreality” (tip of the hat to the man whose name he dubbed out for show business), led by accordionist Jean Louis Matinier and flautist Bobby Rangel, which Winter redirects through a velvet-rope Mideastern maze into a space age lounge, with Barney McAll at the electric keys.
By the title track, the pace has hardly slowed down, but the dub has become more prominent in the mix, keys bubbling, trombones pumping, Matt Darriau of The Klezmatics blowing bagpipes and an end-blown Balkan flute, Aruban percussionist Wally Warning´s vocals dubbed into fractured admonitions. “Obroni Outernational” brings the spirits of Fela Kuti‘s horn section to the forefront, reincarnated as saxophonists Peter Apfelbaum and Ben Abarbanel-Wolff (who wrote the tune). Neatly, the next track is a Fela cover, “Water Get No Enemy”. Singers Earl 16, Luciano, and El Witari pass by. Winter sneaks in his version of German band Senior Allstars “Tomorrow Now” and later, a remix of a tune by The Police’s Stewart Copeland covered by “drummer group” Elbtonal Percussion. Super-relaxed and utterly heavenly, “The Power Dub” even features singing saw. Unexpectedly, the album closes with a ballad a tad too saccharine, sung by Gian Slater, accompanied by a harpist, which just seems to have ended up on the wrong record.
A moveable, skankable feast, almost too generous with its portions.
In recent years, the uniquely resonant properties of the double bass have attracted both composers and improviser/performers interested in exploring the implications of its distinctive sonic profile. Through the application of electronics, the insertion of foreign bodies into the instrument, the use of special techniques and articulations, or simply the isolation of its sound in a resonant space, innovative artists such as Adriano Orrù, Pascal Niggenkemper and Benoit Cancoin—to name just three—have created intriguing works that have taken as a starting point the double bass as a material fact—an object of wood and metal capable of producing tones with almost infinitely malleable overtone structures. Berlin-based sound artist Yair Elazar Glotman joins them with Études, a set of ten solo studies for an electronically enhanced double bass.
Glotman was trained as a classical double bassist and also studied electroacoustic composition. His current focus seems to be on electronics-centered sound art, some of which has made use of analogue tape loops. These latter come into play in the Études, in conjunction with the close placement of microphones and amplification.
Each one of Glotman’s études is in essence a study of one type of sound or sound quality. The first three—with the addition of the sixth, which is a kind of reprise or continuation of the second—are largely centered on the timbral kaleidoscope obtainable from a single pitch whether this is produced by slow, rhythmically regular bowing, by striking or by plucking. From this basic material, rumbling waves of sound crest and break on a plain of rattling and fluttering wood on metal. Whether these ancillary sounds are artifacts of a recording / amplification / feedback loop or of the performer’s physical gestures is difficult to say and probably beside the point as well. Subsequent études layer additional pitches or pitch sequences onto the ground drone, but in these pieces as well the main interest lies in the ways that looping, rhythmic stimulation of the strings and amplification push and pull out sounds and overtones ordinarily just latent in a tone.
At the outset, Garratt grabs attention, with the powerful 2-minute track Laika blasting strident, periodic warnings on top of synth layers. By the third track, The Solipsist, analog and digital approaches are mixed together so thoroughly that they become an inseparable blend of static and drones. Other tracks include sweeping, repetitive motifs, drifting waves of alien darkness, and sinusoidal drones.
A notable debut.
The late, lamented, and highly unconventional rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, whose family came from the town of Oświęcim and perished in the death factory the Nazis built on that spot, once referred to the fact that the souls of the deceased are still there and cannot rest. They require prayers, they require testimony. And they probably require music, too.
Berjozkele approaches as an ambient haze. “Lullabies are a musical guide into the subconscious…on the border between waking and dream,” writes Ola Bilińska, whose project this is, in her introduction. Down the centuries, up to and even after the Holocaust, the relationship between Jews and Poles could be fraught. While increased contacts between Jews and Poles led to each culture having significant knowledge of the other, this knowledge stopped well short of mutual understanding; in one anthology, Michael C. Steinlauf writes that “[t]he cultural life of these groups developed separately: “A ‘Chinese wall,’ it was commonly said, separated the two peoples”.
Yiddish Lullabies and Evening Songs tears down this wall, at least quite a few bricks, in a soothing, sobering, salubrious style. That world can never be recreated, but these brilliant interpretations of songs of succor sung in a language that once flourished on Polish soil by a young Polish speaker provides plenty of room to reside in it for a while and consider what its future might have been.
Instead of rehashing tried-and-true styles, Bilińska has pared down the arrangement of each to a lone synthesizer, a lone electric guitar, a lone trumpet, clarinet, vibraphone, or simply the lone echo shadowing her soft voice. One is accompanied by an “artificial” field recording, the closer just by birdsong and hoot owl. Which perfectly suits the material. Each song has a history, some long, some relatively brief, and a birthplace – Romania, Poland, Russia, Silesia. Some come from the stage (by “father of the modern Jewish theater”, Abraham Goldfaden), some based on poems (one by a poet killed by Stalin, another by an émigré to America whose daughter married Woody Guthrie), some handed down in the family home and recorded by folklorists, another by Viktor Ullmann, a composer who died in Auschwitz. All the songs are, perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, about nature (Berjozkele means “the little birch trees”), country life, the river turning from red to dark blue, a well standing “all lost in thought”, mountains and vales and magic, magic, magic everywhere. The life the people were living.
Beautifully designed and illustrated, featuring exemplary background notes to the music and its history and context, all lyrics in Yiddish, Polish and English. A labor of love, a great work of art and certainly an album of the year.
As the first hints of Autumn reach the upper midwestern United States, so does Robert Scott Thompson‘s latest release, Summer Idyll. In tune with the album’s title, Thompson’s approach here is pastoral, focusing on lilting ambience.
Unlike some of Thompson’s recent electroacoustic works, the efforts herein include gentle, shimmering waves (rather than walls) of sound, slowly plucked string instruments, and subtle, tribal percussion. While over 80 minutes in length, two tracks take up more than half of that duration. The 30-minute title track is a combination of analog and digital synths with extensive processing, while the slightly shorter Lacuna features a hint of darkness by way of its drone-like atmospheres – perhaps foreshadowing of the winter to come?
Thompson has characterized Summer Idyll as containing early or alternate versions of tracks for an upcoming album on the Anodize label. If these are outtakes, it only reinforces his proficiency as a sound sculptor. Bravo.