AMN Reviews: Michael Duch – Edges

Michael Duch: Edges (+3db010)

Edges is the first solo album by Norwegian double bassist Michael Duch, a veteran improviser known for his work in various international ensembles. Here he is alone, reinterpreting five key works of mid-20th century experimental art music.

All of the works are scored using unconventional methods, whether marks on graph paper, points and lines on a white field, verbal instructions, or an application of non-standard symbols to elements of standard notation. Although varied in their means and appearance, all of them work to foster a collaborative relationship between performer and composer. Because the scores leave significant aspects of the music indeterminate, the performer often must make crucial decisions regarding pitch, phrasing, duration and other sound parameters as required. The results, as Duch arrives at them, are engaging.

The recording opens with “Edges,” a score combining graphic and verbal elements by onetime John Cage protégé Christian Wolff. The score consists of a very spare set of symbols, some of which suggest relative pitches, dynamics and bowings, accompanied by verbal instructions. In contrast to the score’s visual sparseness, Duch creates a thick textural piece that is often aggressive and dominated by dissonant harmonics and shrill polytones. “Edges” is followed by Earle Brown’s “December 1952,” an early graphic score that has literally become a textbook example of unconventional notation in the postwar period. Brown’s notation consists of thirty lines of varying length, thickness and boldness, scattered sparsely in parallel or at the perpendicular on a white field. Everything—pitch, dynamics, phrasing, duration—is left to the discretion of the performer. In contrast to the relatively lengthy and dense “Edges,” Duch responds with a brief and appropriately spare interpretation focused largely on the use of pizzicato and percussive effects employing various parts of the instrument.

“Octet ’61,” a piece by Cornelius Cardew dedicated to painter Jasper Johns, provokes a performance marked by the sometimes jarring tone clusters of overlapping pitches. Duch alternates long and short sound events distinguished by the timbral effects obtained by a mixture of plucked and bowed work, the latter being further varied by Duch’s choices of bow placement. Morton Feldman’s “Projection 1,” a graph paper score originally written for solo cello, is next. The composer specifies only relative pitch and duration, the timbres associated with arco and pizzicato sound production, and the use of harmonics. Duch brings this to life as a series of sometimes abrupt gestures structured by intervening silences. The use of plain, no-vibrato arco works well with the percussive attack during the pizzicato passages.

The final piece is “For Strings” by Howard Skempton, an enigmatic 1969 score consisting entirely of the words “waves/shingle/seagulls.” Through creative string muting and bowing, Duch creates a sometimes literal sound-picture suggestive of the rising and falling of tides and the shrieks of seabirds overhead.

With “Edges,” Michael Duch has produced a wonderful collection that shows just how alive these experimental works are, four and five decades after they were first created. Their open-endedness, which may originally have been received as a provocation by performers steeped in the conventions of art music, is, when interpreted by an inventive musician steeped in the practice of improvisation, an invitation to fascinating sonic excursions.