AMN Reviews: Sam Rivers Quartet – Braids [No Business Records NBCD 138]

It was April, 1979, in the tiny room upstairs at dc space, the long-gone—it’s now a Starbucks, of all things—venue for adventurous groups like the Sam Rivers Quartet, which was playing that night. It was an incandescent performance consisting of one long, intensely-played set. I was there, and still remember it vividly more than forty years later. A month after they played dc space the quartet was in Europe; their concert in Hamburg, Germany from 15 May is documented on Braids, the fourth installment in No Business Records’ extraordinary Sam Rivers Archive Project.

By 1979, Rivers had expanded the trio format he used in the mid-1970s to a quartet; bassist Dave Holland, doubling on cello, was still with him, but Thurman Barker had replaced Barry Altschul on drums, and Joe Daley, playing tuba and euphonium, was added as the fourth member. The double bass-tuba pairing was an unusual one, but even with its bias toward the lower end of the sound spectrum, the group could move nimbly and with a clarity of line, as the Hamburg recording shows.

The album consists of two tracks, the first of which ends in a fade; presumably, both are from the same set, part of which is missing. The music opens with Rivers on tenor in the midst of a collective polyphony that gradually settles into a relaxed groove led by Holland, and culminates in an intense, very fast swing. If the first track deals in high-energy playing, the second, longer track shows the group’s mastery of nuanced textural playing. Barker opens it with a drum solo, which segues into Rivers on solo piano. Over the course of the thirty-plus minutes, the texture undergoes constant changes, with voices being added and subtracted in various combinations and all four players leaving ample space for each other. Particularly arresting are duets for Rivers’ flute, first with Holland on bowed bass and then with Daley on tuba. This clearly was a group that could make the unlikeliest-seeming instrumental combinations work beautifully and naturally.
Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Tom Swafford & Zachary Swanson – Scythe Paths Through the Nettles [Bandcamp]

The music on Scythe Paths Through the Nettles, an album of free improvisations for violin and double bass, is unlike much freely improvised music for strings. Violinist Tom Swafford and double bassist Zachary Swanson play with a strong bias toward incorporating elements of song, sometimes explicitly and sometimes not, into improvisations that are free-ranging yet remain grounded in more traditional forms of music. This isn’t surprising, given that the two met while playing together in an old-time string band. There’s some of the old-time feel to Swafford’s sound—even given some passing episodes of extended technique, his playing shows its roots in fiddling as well as in jazz. Swanson mostly plays a robust pizzicato, although he switches to bow on Spokeshave, Rasp, and Scraper for chording as well as single lines, and on Shoulder Yoke and Harrow Down the Clouds, the most “avant” of the duets. On pieces like By the Fork and the Flail, with its sublimating swing and walking basslines, Swafford and Swanson make explicit contact with jazz; Dark Carlyle and Rear Brake Caliper hint at a chord progression.

Scythe Paths Through the Nettles was recorded in a warehouse in Brooklyn and possibly as a result, its sound quality is on the raw side. Still, it’s an enjoyable listen and presents a unique perspective on unpremeditated music.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Robert Dick & Dan Blake – Laugh and Lie Down [Bandcamp]

Artists like Steve Lacy, Gianni Mimmo, and Harri Sjostrom have demonstrated that the soprano saxophone can work in combination with seemingly odd duet partners and in the process, make compelling and surprisingly complete music. Just last year, for example, Mimmo released a series of duets with violinist Alison Blunt; he and Sjostrom have even recorded a set of duets for two soprano saxophones. There is good precedent, then, for a recording like Laugh and Lie Down, a set of three duets for flute and soprano saxophone.

The three duets are free improvisations recorded in a concert given by flutist Robert Dick and soprano saxophonist Dan Blake in late 2019. As would be expected in a pairing of two monophonic instruments, much of the music is contrapuntal, with Dick and Blake weaving complex, chromatic lines around each other. Occasionally one or the other will set out a repeated figure hinting at a chord progression or a drone for the other to play over, or both will play in opposing or complementary rhythmic patterns; foreground and background are defined in an invitingly ambiguous manner throughout. There is also a good amount of timbral counterpoint, as one might expect from two instruments sharing a range but having very different sound profiles; both Dick and Blake leverage extended techniques to push timbral contrast to a point of creative crisis. The interplay is nimble, ethereal, and impulsive; even on the twenty-seven-minute-long title track the two never let the forward momentum stall.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Shigaraki – Planetes [Astral Concrete]

Solo double bass recordings, once an almost unheard-of rarity, have since their first appearances become an almost routine addition to the genre of solo instrumental recordings. What was true of solo double bass recordings several decades ago is largely true of solo electric bass recordings—while not entirely lacking, they still aren’t routinely encountered, and can sound refreshing when they are. Planetes, the debut album from Shigaraki, is one such recording.

The artist behind Shigaraki is Franz Cardone, an electric bassist from Pescara, Italy. Cardone is bassist for the band Sherpa; Shigaraki is the solo project through which he explores some of the more expansive possibilities offered by the electric bass alone. On Planetes Cardone works with an economy of musical material which he augments by running his instrument through effects and processing with Ableton. The result is a series of well-constructed pieces with a pronounced musicality. Some of the tracks, such as 7020 and 7021, are atmospheric, reverberant sound tapestries that warp cosmic synthesizer music in a particularly contemporary way. Others, like ABC Asteroid Belt Colonization and Orbita 2, center on the narrative possibilities of advanced bass guitar techniques. The album, which tells a story of interplanetary travel and settlement, is bookended by opening and closing tracks featuring Cardone’s vocals.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: River Town Duo – For Claire and Philip [Furious Artisans FACD6824]

Fifteen or so years ago the my then-group was on a bill with an improvising duo consisting of double bass and harp. An unusual combination at first sight, but as their set showed, it made for a fascinating blend of contrasts and consonances of timbre and compass. That unique and uniquely right conjunction of instruments is put forward and elaborated upon in For Claire and Philip, the debut recording of the River Town Duo.

The Claire and Philip of the album’s title are the River Town Duo: harpist Claire Happel Ashe and double bassist Philip Alejo. The title track, a composition by Caroline Shaw, alludes not only to its having been commissioned by the duo, but more expansively to the fact that the recording’s six works, composed over the past six years by six contemporary composers, were all commissions from Ashe and Alejo.

On the evidence of For Claire and Philip, Ashe and Alejo have tastes that embrace a broad range of new music. The album is well-balanced between conventionally-framed, lyrical pieces and works informed by the contemporary common practice of seamlessly integrating extended and ordinary techniques. For Claire and Philip (2014) is an example of the former type of work, with Alejo’s slowly bowed melody floating over a rhythmic, piano-like accompaniment on the harp. The Circuitous Six (2016) by pianist/composer Whitney Ashe (and husband of Claire) is an introspective work featuring an abstract impressionist harp line over a restrained bass divided between arco and pizzicato. The composer of On Lotusland (2015), Derick Evans, is predominantly a pop songwriter, but his suspenseful, episodic contribution is conversant with contemporary performance techniques—aggressive percussive effects, harmonic glissandi, microtones and more—as it moves through shifting time signatures and in and out of brief forays into lyricism. Hannah Lash’s aptly titled Leaves, Space (2015) is an undulating, uncluttered two-movement composition ornamented with broad trills and bowed chords from the bass. Two Meditations on Poems of Mary Oliver (2017) by Evan Premo, another two-movement work, evokes early morning New Hampshire with Ashe mimicking finger-picked guitar and Alejo playing a rich, clear upper register arco line. The final piece on the album, the vigorous, five-movement Oxygen (2017) by Stephen Andrew Taylor, draws most consistently on extended techniques for both instruments.

What binds these diversely styled compositions together is the beautiful performance by Ashe and Alejo. Their collective sound is luxuriant and vivid, their individual sounds finely etched. Ashe’s playing is sensitive but sharply focused; Alejo’s signature is a smooth arco that’s forcefully robust in the lower register and highly refined in the upper register. A delightful album.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: George Lewis – The Recombinant Trilogy [New Focus FCR284]

George Lewis’ Recombinant Trilogy is a triptych of recent compositions for solo acoustic instruments and interactive electronics. As the title implies, the electronic component, a software program written by Damon Holzborn, combines with the sound of the acoustic instrument to double its voice, alter its timbre, pitch, and apparent location in space, and otherwise fragment and recombine it into what Lewis describes as “multiple digitally created sonic personalities.” The Recombinant Trilogy represents the most recent stage in a long history of evolution; Lewis’ experiments with interactive electroacoustic systems reach at least as far back as his work at IRCAM in Paris in 1984, which included a performance featuring Lewis’ computer-generated improvisations in combination with improvisations by Joelle Leandre, Steve Lacy and others.

The current album encompasses three duets, each of which features an outstanding instrumentalist conversant in both contemporary composed and improvised music. Flutist Claire Chase, accompanied by Levy Lorenzo on electronics is first with Emergent (2014), followed by Seth Parker Woods, on electronics as well as cello, on Not Alone (2014-2015), and then bassoonist Dana Jessen, with Eli Stine on electronics, on Seismologic (2017), which Jessen commissioned. Holzborn’s program takes the instruments’ sounds and pans them from side to side and top to bottom; breaks them into fragments and then chunks them into quanta of repetition and layering; warps their timbres and shifts their pitches; and in the process synthesizes a global continuity out of multiple local discontinuities. One of the fascinating points of comparison is the very different timbral signature each instrument carries; while all three pieces are similar in their general processes of sonic interface, dilapidation, and rearrangement, they differ greatly in the details of color, density, and plasticity. In all three meetings of electronics and acoustics, the voices of the instruments come through even while undergoing the metamorphoses they’re subjected to: the flute’s pure, nearly disembodied soprano in Emergent, the dark friction of the cello in Not Alone, the earth-shaking low tones of the bassoon in the aptly titled Seismologic. And all of it is built on the foundation of Lewis’ concept and compositions, the solid ground on which these meetings take place.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Bernhard Lang – Flute & Bass [Kairos 0015089KAI]

The music on Bernhard Lang’s Flute & Bass, and indeed much of the Viennese composer’s mature music, was inspired by the paradox of repetition. The repeated object is somehow both the same and different all at once, in a way that, roughly, a copy is the same and yet different from its original. Lang’s direct inspiration came from his reading of Gilles Deleuze’s book Repetition and Difference, but in one form or another the paradox can be traced as far back as Heraclitus or, more recently and provocatively, to Borges’ story of Menand’s rewriting of Don Quixote. Be that as it may, Flute & Bass is a set of three works whose conceptual depth and performative challenges never overshadow their compelling musicality.

Lang engages the paradox of repetition through the use of reiterated musical elements. This is apparent from the very first composition on the album, Monadologie XVI “solfeggio” (2011) for solo flute, performed by Manuel Zurria. Lang takes repeating, brief phrases of two, three, four, and seven notes and arranges them in a sequence the linearity of which gives the performance the feel of a minimalist pulse piece come unraveled. By using different phrases and building an increasing sense of urgency into the piece’s narrative arc, Lang introduces an element of variation into and through repetition. (In another working of repetition, Lang takes the piece’s melodic content from a flute etude by Prussian emperor Frederick the Great, himself an accomplished performer on the instrument.)

Differenz/Wiederholung 25:…more loops for U. (2014) for solo double bass is more fragmentary in sound than Monadologie XVI, but as the title indicates, is just as reliant on repeated figures. Here these largely take the form of gestures drawn from the instrument’s repertoire of extended techniques: overtones and multiphonics, bow scratches and grinding, drumming on the bass’s body, left-hand pizzicato, and many more. The piece was inspired by electronic dance music and DJing and hence has a loose-jointed but pronounced rhythmic drive. The technical demands on the bassist are extreme; bassist Dario Calderone’s deliberately rough-edged performance is breathtaking.

The final piece is Difference/Wiederholung 22 “Winterlicht” (2010), a 25-minute-long duet in which Calderone is joined by Zurria on bass flute. Here too repetitive figures come into play, but the focus is largely on timbral continuity and contrast. As in DW22 the double bass part here makes liberal use of extended technique—as does the bass flute part, although less dramatically—to support and subvert the more melodic flute lines. The soundworld of the piece is unusually rich thanks to the remarkable interplay of the two voices.

On a recording like Bass & Flute much hinges on the ability of the performers not only to meet the extreme technical demands of the music, but to provide genuinely musical performances. It comes as no surprise that Zurria and Calderone both certainly do. Rome-based Zurria is a master of contemporary music for his instrument, and Calderone, an Italian-born musician currently living in Amsterdam, is one of the finest double bassists in Europe and indeed anywhere.
Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Samora – Quasar [Rizosfera/NUKFM]

Samora is the solo project of Enrico Marani, but on Quasar, a multimedia work encompassing sound, visual art, and text, Marani expanded Samora to a complement of five. For the ten-part musical suite that makes up the work Marani, an electronic musician known for his wide range of collaborations with international artists, is joined by Eraldo Bernocchi, a composer, producer, and electronic musician associated with the post-industrial and ambient genres; and Silvia Corda, the Sardinian pianist/toy pianist/composer fluent in both freely improvised music and contemporary experimental art music. In addition to these superb musicians, Marani brought in philosopher Davide Bertolini to write an essay and visual artist Stefano Ricci to provide images.

Quasar’s ten parts find the three musicians in differing configurations: five for the full trio, two for the duo of Marani and Corda, one for Marani and Bernocchi, and two for Marani alone. Despite the variation of voices in combination, there is a consistent overall sound linking all ten pieces—a meticulously composed ambient impressionism made up of a richly woven tapestry of audio colors. Unlike much ambient music, which relies on predominantly dark and hazily-defined layers of sound, Quasar favors a brighter palette calling up the sounds of mallet percussion, flutes, rainsticks, and tintinnabulating bells. From the harp-like glissandi and embroidering piano chords of Part One, through the electric guitar, chromatic piano, and thick bass harmonies of Part Three, the vintage synthesizer sounds of Part Six and the jet-roar chords of Part Nine, the suite casts sound as a plastic material—something to be molded into coherent forms driven by the dynamic interrelationships of contrasting timbres. To make music this way is, as Bertolini puts it at one point in his essay, “to make something from that which is other.”

SAMORA – Quasar • USB Card + eBook + Digital Streaming

Daniel Barbiero


Issue No 6 of IM-OS Out

The Winter 2021 issue of IM-OS, the journal of improvised music and open scores edited by Carl Bergstroem-Nielsen and Jukka-Pekka Kervinen, is now out. The issue features the scores Sound Liberation Improvisation #s 4-6 by Gene Pritsker and Paths by Cristiano Bocci, and the articles Animated Notation by Carl Bergstroem-Nielsen and Interpreting Three Open-Form Compositions by Daniel Barbiero.

AMN Reviews: Stefan Schmidt: můra; arc/hive b-[classical guitar] [Bandcamp]

Stefan Schmidt, guitarist, composer and sound artist from Baden Baden, Germany, is a musician of many different sides. Although his primary instrument is classical guitar, which he studied in music schools in both Germany and Argentina, he also played electric guitar in punk bands and more recently has broadened out to play other string instruments and to work with electronics, which he often uses to create gradually developing, industrial- and noise-informed soundscapes. The latter is on display in můra, a set of nine pieces for cello and electronics. Throughout the album, Schmidt applies different types of electronic processing to his cello work. The title track and opening piece, for example, uses granular synthesis to transform bowed strings into skittering waves of abstract sound while still retaining something of the cello’s native sound. As on můra so on other tracks the acoustic instrument is recognizable even as its sound undergoes metamorphoses. On zoufalství a single bowed tone surfaces and descends relative to a deep bass foundation; on hřbitor the instrument’s sound is stretched and slowed to the point where one can imagine each individual hair of the bow pulling on the string. On rubáš the cello takes on a motoric sound, revving on a slow trill.

Several months before he released můra, Schmidt released arc/hive b [classical guitar], a collection of previously unissued performances for classical guitar spanning fifteen years. The fourteen tracks ably demonstrate the broad extent of Schmidt’s engagement with the instrument and its sonic potential. The playing ranges from conventional, as in juuichigatsu, to largely conventional with a judicious application of extended technique (gesrah), to almost entirely unconventional (eraly dren and maqtred, the latter a delicately beautiful piece constructed almost completely from harmonics). Prominent are pieces featuring electronic processing of the guitar, whether with granular synthesizer, loops or other forms of sonic augmentation. The final track, the nearly fifteen-minute-long muara, is a heavily treated performance that points forward to Schmidt’s recent work with sounds drawn from a dark ambient palette.

Daniel Barbiero