The Sardinians Giacomo Salis and Paolo Sanna are only two, but together they constitute a sonically rich, if small, percussion ensemble—one not at all limited to striking membranes with sticks.
For Salis and Sanna, much of the surrounding world—with its objects and actions, its spaces and latent sounds—is reflected in the world of percussion. They describe their work as research into the interlocking worlds of gesture, movement and listening, which they interpret through the use of natural materials as well as conventional percussion instruments. As this release shows, Salis and Sanna situate their work within a continuum with silence and noise at either end, and gradations of musical sounds in between. Their sound has its foundation in the modern classical tradition, with its emphasis on timbre and extended technique; thus the five untitled tracks set out a record of the broad universe of things that can be done with drumheads, semi-tuned metal and other materials: striking, rubbing, scraping, shaking, and more. Sometimes Salis and Sanna beat out regular rhythms on the things available at hand, and other times they suspend pulse in order to use drums as natural amplifiers for the objects that bounce, rub and skitter over them.
An improvised music performance is a celebration of the contingent. It is a unique and telling way of being in a particular environment with all that that means in terms of the accidental qualities that come together to make it what it is, at this given moment: its physical makeup; the possibilities it offers and hindrances it threatens; the stimulation or indifference it inspires in us; and above all the presence of others within it. David Grubbs’ new book, the long poem “Now that the audience is assembled,” is an imaginative way of showing what it is like to confront these accidental facts and somehow make them into a work.
Now that the audience is assembled tells the story of a particular performance of experimental music. The musician, who plays an invented instrument she first must put together, is to work from a verbal score that begins “Compose a gesture that can be repeated.” While the music isn’t entirely improvised it virtually is so; there is a composer here, but one whose presence and role is, as Grubbs describes it in the poem’s Afterword, “vestigial.” Grubbs seems not primarily concerned about such theoretical matters as the relationship between composition and improvisation in largely indeterminate scores, or the relative contributions of composer and performer. He seems instead more interested in describing a performance from the inside—as something that a given person experiences in a concrete way. In fact the music itself plays a relatively minor role in the poem’s narrative; what comes to the forefront are the inner and outer experiences of performance and the way that they interpenetrate each other in the sensibilities of the people involved. Grubbs’ narrative voice moves between first- and third-person perspectives, but even when he writes from an external point of view, he shows what it’s like to be in the midst of the cluster of events and factors that, taken together, are the full experience of performing an improvised set: the set up and preparation of instruments and space; the ebb and flow of audience attentiveness; the interactions of the musician, the composer, an assistant, and the audience members who themselves temporarily become performers; and most engagingly, the musician’s emotional responses to the situation around her and the drift of her thoughts as the evening progresses.
Grubbs presents all this with a narrative immediacy that itself seems to coexist with the moment it describes. In truth, though, the book was carefully crafted over a long period of time—it’s a multi-year reflection on the kind of experience that takes place in real time and that can’t be gone back over and edited in the interest of finding the most felicitous way of meeting a momentary demand. Fortunately, Grubbs worked under no such time-bound constraints, and the result is a work that combines the directness of an actual improvisation with the well-chosen language afforded by after-the-fact reflection.
Composer Eric Wubbels’ being-time (2013-2017), a work for string quartet and quadrophonic electronic sound, is an essay in the effects of tuning on the experience of sound and through it, time. The piece was commissioned by Chamber Music of America for the Mivos Quartet, who premiered it in November 2015 at the Roulette in Brooklyn and who perform it on this recording.
Wubbels, who is a pianist and co-director of the new music ensemble Wet Ink as well as a composer, conceived the piece as a kind of investigation into how the resonances of detuned string instruments interact with the environment and the listener’s perceptions of pitch and rhythm and ultimately, time. Although Wubbels’ preparation for writing the piece included research into the physics and psychology of sound, being-time seems intended to be more the product of imaginative speculation rather than a proper scientific experiment.
The piece calls for a scordatura in which the instruments are tuned down to low pitches whose microtonal relationships create dissonances of varying degrees as well as consonances. The fluid movement back and forth between and within dissonances and consonances gives the piece its distinctive sound.
Although music like this probably has to be heard live to get the full effect, the recording does give a sense of its sound and structure. Overall, being-time creates the impression of an archipelago of microtonal chords separated by silences and electronic events. Most of the movement is carried by the incremental drift of the chords’ inner voices, which subtly changes their color. Although the piece features a range of dynamics, this seems a secondary factor relative to the ongoing recalibration of the harmonies. As with many long-duration works that use silence as a structural element, being-time delays and expands the listener’s sense of anticipation to reveal time for one of the things it is—an unmarked ground for music, a figuratively blank canvas on which sounds are arranged in dynamic relationships.
These three pieces by Los Angeles-based double bassist/composer Scott Worthington represent one half of a collaboration with Italian photographer Renato D’Agustin. The other half is D’Agustin’s book of photographs. While each half complements the other, each also provides a gratifying experience by itself and on its own terms, as Worthington’s contribution ably demonstrates.
Worthington’s three compositions can be listened to separately, but together they create a consistency of mood and dynamic that makes them best heard as an interlocking triptych. The first of the three pieces, A Time That Is also a Place (2015) for flute and electronics, was commissioned by flutist Rachel Beetz, who performs it here. Structured as a series of long tones on flute alternating with silences, the piece is a meditation on breath as a marker of time. Both the tones and silences are given the duration of a breath—a necessarily inexact but very human metronome. The tonal richness of Beetz’s interpretation is supplemented by an electronic playback system, which gives unintrusive support to the flute by supplying ghostly echoes and a quite surf of static. There follows a brief electronic interlude that builds and thickens some of the timbres set out in the first piece, and serves as a hinge joining it to the concluding piece. This latter is the dreamily paced A Flame that Could Go Out (2016) for two five-string electric basses, a sequence of slow and seemingly randomly-ordered chord tones that imply a hesitant movement between tonic and dominant. As with Worthington’s other two pieces, it weaves minimal raw material into something hauntingly beautiful.
…sibilava tra i denti…–“hissed between the teeth”—is the work of two generations of Venetian experimentalists. Multi-instrumentalist Mauro Sambo, here on electronics, double bass, kalimba, gong and other percussion, is joined by his daughter Matilde, who provides field recordings and plays electric guitar and electronics. Both bring sensibilities formed at the crossings of sound and various other media—videography for Matilde, and the plastic arts for Mauro. As might be expected, their collaboration shows a sensitivity to the ways sound can imply and simulate action projected into a three-dimensional space—implication being the soul of their musical wit.
The single, nearly twenty-nine minute track is permeated by an atmosphere of acousmatic mysteriousness, as the sources of Sambos’ sounds seem reluctant to reveal themselves. Until they do, in the form of clearly-shaped guitar arpeggios, a struck gong reverberating in a void, or the skittering of a hyperactive kalimba. Throughout its changes of texture and timbre, the track gives rise to an almost cinematic sense of obscure but purposeful actions performed with the help of unknown means, and all of it taking place just at the threshold of comprehension.
Oker are a Norwegian improvisational quartet made up of percussionist Jan Martin Gismervik; trumpeter Torstein Lavik Larsen; double bassist Adrian Fiskum Myhr; and acoustic guitarist Fredrik Rasten. Their all-acoustic sound is highly atmospheric, based on instrumental textures and static harmonies rather than melody and polyphony; in addition to drones, the group constructs gently rocking chords floating on a foundation of arco bass. Although lacking in overt drama, the music is richly colored, particularly given Oker’s penchant for using extended techniques. The percussive dimension is especially pronounced; in addition to Gismervik’s resonant and sensitive drumming, both double bass and guitar emphasizing staccato sounds, the former with the wood of the bow as well as pizzicato playing, and the latter with creative plucking on either side of the bridge. An important element in the group’s aggregate sound is Larsen’s use of air notes and other unpitched sounds, which complement the harmonics from the string instruments.
Music has changed in radical ways since the string quartet was established in the 18th century, but as a vital force, this fundamental ensemble of two violins, viola and cello endures, and even thrives. So much so that contemporary string quartets, in both their performance practices and choice of repertoire, may inhabit aesthetic worlds more or less removed from that which we ordinarily think of as classical. Violet Spin, a Viennese quartet of eclectic inclinations, blends the influences of jazz improvisation with compositional forms reflecting more recent classical usages.
Founded in 2012 by violinist Irene Kepl, Violet Spin have performed throughout Europe and in Java. Spin is their first release, and it effectively captures the group’s ability to play within and between genres. The musicians—in addition to Kepl, Andreas Semlitsch on violin; Martina Bischof on viola; and Fabian Jäger on cello–are grounded in the discipline of classical performance and deliver a precise sound when called for, but they can also reach beyond those constraints into the looser language of creative extemporizing.
Improvisation is the predominant element in most of the fifteen pieces included here; in contrast to the conventional string quartet’s reliance on contrapuntal relationships, Violet Spin tend to favor the sound of solo voice soaring over a support of pulsing ostinato, chordal vamps or walking lines. There’s a discernible flavor of gypsy jazz, allusions to Latin rhythms and rock chord progressions, and above all, a rhythmic drive, some of it encoded in craftily changing time signatures. (Dare one tap one’s foot to a string quartet? Violet Spin give permission.) But there is another side to the group as well. The three “Chromalog” tracks are sparsely beautiful pieces in which the negative space of silence plays as important a part as the minimal sounds it surrounds; the aptly titled “Grau” weaves unpitched sounds into an acoustic grey noise. And the a capella “face 2 face” turns a handful of syllables into material for a human beat box.