More than any other kind of music, collective free improvisation succeeds or fails largely on the strength of the chemistry binding its players together. It isn’t unusual for a free improvisational ensemble to play focused, coherent music its first time out, given a felicitous combination of sensibilities and skills. Live at The Battery Books & Music by the Los Angeles area Coldwater Trio—guitarist Haskel Joseph, trumpeter Bruce Friedman and cellist Michael Intriere—captures the group at its first gig; their imaginative brand of chamber improvisation is played with a sensitivity to color and texture that tells of a compatibility transcending their individual voices, which are built on diverse sound palettes. Joseph works with a wide variety of sounds—wah-wah drenched psychedelia, heavy metal scrounge, a shimmeringly clean tone enhanced by reverb. Intriere plays with a proper, classical sound when he isn’t using extended techniques and percussive effects, or setting up asymmetrical pizzicato lines like a bassist walking steadily through changing time signatures. Friedman most often takes the melodic line, playing an introspective mid-register both with and without mute. Although the seven tracks are fully improvised, collectively the group sets up structures and atmospheres that coalesce and melt away organically, whether in the minor key ruminations of a track like Parenthetical, the ballad-like quasi-soundtrack Point Dume, or the abstractly jittery Pico.
A release from the trio of pianist Karoline Leblanc and double bassist Nicolas Caloia, both of Montreal, and Portuguese violist Ernesto Rodrigues, Autoschediasm, recorded in June at the Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal, is an example of discerningly improvised timbral polyphony. From the first instant Leblanc, Caloia and Rodrigues reveals themselves to be possessed of a fine collective chemistry based on keen listening and sensitive responsiveness. Each leaves adequate room for the others’ instruments to breathe and to sound; their music is the product of what appears to be an unforced, natural rapport. As instrumentalists, all three are primarily colorists working with the full palettes that piano, double bass and viola make possible. The group’s fluency in handling color is especially evident on the second track, an exploration of space and tone. The strings are particularly creative here, with Rodrigues spinning out a full spectrum of unpitched sounds against Caloia’s harmonics, plucked and struck notes, and pressure bowing. Leblanc’s discreet interventions serve as the keystone holding Rodrigues’s and Caloia’s centripetal forces in place. By contrast, on the first piece the trio craft a long but coherent improvisation on the basis of skillfully handled dynamics and a seamless blend of conventional and extended techniques. Leblanc is a deft player, playing inside and outside the piano as needed, and alternating lead and support–or simply staying silent–when the collective sound seems to demand it. Caloia gets a robust sound and provides a firm grounding with his powerful mid and lower registers; Rodrigues’s sense of texture comes out nicely in his use of rapidly bowed layers or plucked and tapped points of sound.
On Wired the acoustic duo Transient Canvas—bass clarinetist Amy Advocat and marimbist Matt Sharrock—are indeed wired. Most of the seven pieces on the CD, which the duo commissioned between 2014 and 2017, supplement the basic reed and percussion ensemble with electronic sounds of one kind or another.
Many of the compositions reflect the influence of rock or other recent popular music: they may have discernible, song-like harmonic cycles or well-defined rhythms, or both. But that’s just a jumping-off point; these are influences to be reworked, dismantled and reassembled into something particular to each composer. Exergy Bubblebath, for example, a 2015 composition by Peter VanZandt Lane, takes explicit inspiration from the dance music of the 1990s but refigures it in a series of deftly executed, rapid unison figures for bass clarinet and marimba while electronic sounds ricochet in the background. Syncopation propels Dan Van Hassel’s Epidermis (2017), which breaks up into twitchy repetitions of fragmentary phrases covered in a skin of electronic sounds. Kirsten Volness’s Year Without a Summer (2017) opens with deep, brooding electronic tones before developing into a movingly plaintive bass clarinet melody placed over arpeggiated chords on marimba. Branches, a 2015 composition by David Ibbett, sets out rock rhythms in changing time signatures recalling some of the more challenging kinds of progressive rock; from there, it swerves into an infectiously upbeat outro. Somnambula (2014), by Rudolf Rojahn, repeats a relatively simple but haunting melody over a cyclic song structure, which it then takes through a series of variations. On the more abstract side, Lainie Fefferman’s Hyggelig (2016), which appears to be a purely acoustic piece for Advocat and Sharrock alone, moves in free-floating trills and measured lines. Mischa Salkind-Pearl’s solm (2016) captures in musical analogy the experience of hearing a foreign language whose meanings one doesn’t understand: what stands out are the prosody as well as bits and pieces of phonics with the semantics stripped out. Accordingly, the music is fragmented and focused on the sound qualities of the instruments, enriched by an electronic overlay.
The electronic and electroacoustic music on Raba represents an updating, in its own way, of ambient music by way of contemporary art music. As composer Scott L. Miller explains, the CD began as a retrospective of his work but evolved into a reworking of some old pieces along with the creation of new work.
The title track, composed in 2015 and revised in 2017, exemplifies the paradox of tension within drift that characterizes Miller’s reimagining of ambient composition. The piece is orchestrated for a small electroacoustic ensemble of winds, strings, piano, percussion, and electronic sound. The latter is responsible for the ambience, providing as it does a textural backdrop recalling at times the electronic hum of a distant engine. Over this foundation, the acoustic instruments intervene with complementary washes of sound. The work is low-key but psychologically taut; it creates an atmosphere permeated by unresolved anticipation. The title of The Frost Performs Its Secret Ministry (2016) hints at an esoteric action hidden in an everyday meteorological event; this trio for flute (Laura Cocks), guitar (Daniel Lippel) and electronic sound keeps that action veiled in mostly abstract, unpitched sounds: the flute comes in on a gust of air notes, for example. Lippel’s agitated strumming keeps the piece from wafting into languor and instead adds an urgent, emotional edge. Lippel is the pivot for Meditation (2016) for guitar and interactive electronic sound. The piece is undergirded by a feedback-like hum on which the guitar’s coloristic fragments float; from this basic division of sonic parts Miller builds a subtle drama out of oppositions of timbre: the sharp attack, short sustain and relatively muted tones of the nylon-string guitar provide a compelling contrast to the electronics’ sustained sounds.
Few notions encapsulate the human condition more tidily than the notion of passage: of passing to different places or stages of life, or simply passing through in any of its literal or figurative meanings. On pressing clouds passing crowds guitarist/composer Kim Myhr has collaborated with poet Carolyn Bergvall on a suite of pieces touching on passage and transience in their many manifestations.
The music, which was written before Bergvall’s words were composed, is performed by Myhr on twelve-string guitar and Ingar Zach on percussion, along with the string quartet Quatuor Bozzini, from Montreal. In a structural allusion to passage the six parts of the suite segue naturally from one to the other, and feature repeated figures, ringing chords and arpeggios over insistent rhythms; for the Bozzini there are restrained drones and elongated, unstable chords with subtly rising and falling inner voices. Myhr’s penchant for repetition underscores the spirit of Bergvall’s text: repetition, as the recurrence of something that by itself doesn’t last, is simply the other side of flux. By the same token, Bergvall’s text is well-suited to the music: through images, anecdotes and aphorisms, she crafts an anti-narrative of what it’s like to experience the passing nature of things—in her words, to “move into unknown terrain where the ground is imperceptibly changing.”
Møster! is a quintet of Norwegian rock and experimental musicians led by multi-instrumentalist Kjetil Møster. On States of Minds, a two-LP release also formatted for two CDs, Møster plays saxophone, clarinet, electronics, and percussion; the rest of the group includes Hans Magnus Ryan on guitar and electronics; Jørgen Træen on modular synthesizer and lap steel guitar; Nikolai Hængsle on electric bass and electronics; and Kenneth Kapstad on drums. The group’s sound is a creative amalgamation of elements that at first may seem incongruous, but in fact fit together comfortably in a kind of instrumental space rock for the 21st century. The CDs’ focal points are the two long improvisations, which show Møster!’s skill at creating complex textural pieces balancing a broad spectrum of instrumental color. On some of the shorter, more propulsive pieces Møster or Ryan may take the lead, but in general the sound is a collective one. All in all, this is high quality, intelligent improvisational rock.
The pairing of the same or two closely related instruments, when done well, can make the claim of being something like the anti-homeopathy of music. Rather than using like to negate like, as is claimed by homeopathic medicine, the successful duet uses like to enhance like. Each amplifies the effect of each while helping focus the ear on subtle gradations of timbre and, by extension, expressive force.
Ogni Suono, the Cleveland, Ohio saxophone duet of Noa Even and Phil Pierick, opened the 2018 Sonic Circuits DC Festival this past September. Their set was a remarkable, precisely played précis of their album Saxo Voce, a collection of new work they commissioned from several contemporary composers. As its title suggests, Saxo Voce is an album of music for saxophones and voices matched and sorted in a variety of ways. On a piece like Christopher Dietz’s My Manifesto and Me (2016), which alternates recitative and instrumental passages, voice and saxophone occupy distinct spheres that dramatize each other by way of contrast. On Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s Chroma (2017) for two soprano saxophones and voice, the instrumental parts—long lines moving past each other in slow glissandi—lie over a substrate of wordless voices hardly distinguishable from the sounds of the instruments. The serene pace of the work belies its on-edge dissonances, afforded by overtones, multiphonics and microtonal collisions. Ogni Suono’s facility with extended techniques is further demonstrated in Vocalise II (2016) by Felipe Lara, which rushes in with the hissing of air notes and is sustained on the drone of a tenor saxophone accompanied by a parallel, hummed line.
In contrast to the composed and meticulously rehearsed pieces on Saxo Voce, Explicit, a recording made in Piacenza, Italy in October 2014, is a foray into free improvisation by American multi-woodwind artist Vinny Golia and Italian soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo. Even so, the sympathy and judiciousness of the interplay make it sound as if it were composed. Golia and Mimmo’s close musical synchronicity is apparent from the very first notes of the opening track and develops further from there. The intricate yet spontaneous coordination of phrasing and dynamics is uncanny, as is Golia and Mimmo’s ability to layer harmonies and even set up cadences on the fly. The longer improvisations are notable for having differentiated but linked sections defined by characteristic tempos, dynamics, thematic material and density of texture: the sound of two voices alone but lacking for nothing.