AMN Reviews: Kyle Motl – In Search of a Certain Bird [Bandcamp]; Aaron Lumley – Plays the Doghouse Bass [Bandcamp]

It seems difficult to believe now, but there was a time not too long ago when solo double bass recordings were rare events. Things have changed considerably, though, and recordings for solo bassists playing music both composed and improvised have become plentiful—plentiful enough that it seems, at times, that there are almost too many to keep up with. But not too many tout court; as Mae West once said, too much of a good thing can be…wonderful.

Add to that number two new releases for solo double bass from Aaron Lumley and Kyle Motl. Lumley and Motl share some commonalities in that both are predominantly improvisers, and are active in fields that encompass varieties of rock as well as contemporary composed music. Both also structure their solo performances around extended techniques especially developed to draw out the widest range of sonorities from their instrument.

Lumley, originally from Canada and now resident in Amsterdam, was a late-comer to the double bass, only having begun playing it at age 25. On Doghouse Bass he plays a gut-stringed instrument tuned to fifths rather than the standard fourths, which gives the bass a rich resonance. Lumley’s solo performance, recorded in November of last year, is energetic and concerned with the creation of sound masses built up from the simultaneous sounding, whether bowed or plucked or both at once, of multiple strings. His playing here is always forward-moving, pushed ahead as much by tremolo bowing as by an aggressive pizzicato; he often balances an explosive lower register with the shrilling sounds of harmonics, multiphonics, and bowing close to the bridge. His is a raw, exuberant sound expressed in a highly personal vocabulary of limit-challenging techniques.

The three main tracks of Motl’s In Search of a Certain Bird were recorded in August 2019 in a dance studio in a bucolic setting in Vermont. The environment—the room’s acoustics as well as the sounds of the woods coming in through the open windows—appears to have been the main inspiration for the recording; to infer from Motl’s liner note, the recording appears to have been undertaken more or less spontaneously and to have embodied a kind of purposeful purposelessness. The fourth track, House of Apples, was recorded the following month at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska City. In contrast to Lumley’s perpetual motion, Motl tends to break his improvisations up into discrete gestures and themes differentiated, suite-like, with rests or drastic changes in dynamics. Motl can pivot from forte passages to pianissimo with an abruptness that heightens the dramatic effect of such a change; lay down liquid melodies distorted with extreme bow articulation and then fracture them with percussive strikes of bow and hand; punctuate more-or-less conventional pizzicato runs with exotic harp harmonics. Motl’s technical mastery of his instrument is stunning, but always in the service of elucidating a coherent musical logic.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Recent Releases from NoBusiness Records

NoBusiness Records, the Lithuanian label that specializes in reissues of adventurous jazz from the generation of the 1960s and 1970s as well as new improvised music in the jazz tradition, approaches the year’s end with a clutch of releases highlighting unusual instrumental ensembles.

First is Zenith, the second installment in the label’s essential Sam Rivers archival release series. Zenith is a live recording made at the Jazztage Berliner 1977 with an unconventional quintet of Rivers on tenor and soprano saxophones, flute and piano; Dave Holland on double bass and cello; Joe Daley on tuba and euphonium; and both Barry Altschul and Charlie Persip on drums. The quintet was a subset of the larger orchestra Rivers brought to Europe; this may have been their only performance together as a quintet. And an intense performance it is: a single, 53-minute improvisation that establishes and maintains a high energy level throughout. The two drummers mesh well and don’t overwhelm the rest of the group; Holland and Daley, who developed a finely-tuned working relationship in the Rivers quartet during this period, complement each other well and avoid any redundancy of line or color in the lower registers. Rivers’ playing is explosive and inspired, which is no surprise in light of the rich textures his bandmates weave.

Reptiles is a recording of the Israeli trio Bones, comprising bass clarinet (Ziv Taubenfeld), double bass (Shay Hazan), and drums (Nir Sabag). While the pianoless saxophone trio is a well-established configuration within jazz, the pianoless bass clarinet trio is less so. Bass clarinet and double bass are known for being among the quieter instruments in any ensemble but on this raw, forceful recording they show a more aggressive side. Taubenfeld’s sound tends toward the acerbic while Hazan favors a blunt-edged pizzicato on most of the tracks; Sabag’s free polyrhythms provide the trio with a propulsive push. Odd-numbered tracks are collective pieces, while the even-numbered tracks are solo performances for double bass, bass clarinet, and drums, respectively.

Recorded in an intimate live setting in Yamaguchi, Japan in 1997, The Aiki represents a rare meeting of pianist Masahiko Satoh and drummer Sabu Toyozumi. The two long duets that make up the release are the product of a chemistry that is as deep as it is rarely given occasion to combust, as Satoh’s tightly coiled, knotty lines find a fine foil in Toyozumi’s muscular excursions ranging over the entire drum kit. If the pairing of piano and trap drums implies a relatively restricted palette of timbres, Satoh and Toyozumi compensate by building their improvisations through a sophisticated use of space and dynamics.

Another recording from the 1990s, Blue Cat is a 1991 session for the quartet of cornetist Bobby Bradford, alto saxophonist Frode Gjerstad, double bassist Kent Carter, and drummer John Stevens. The four play a finely crafted free swing especially notable for the mutually supportive, motivic interplay of the two horns and solid playing from the rhythm section.

Finally, Brain in a Dish from the trio of Steve Swell on trombone, Robert Boston on piano and organ and drummer Michael Vatcher is a freely improvised collection of eleven pieces that takes Swell’s extended vocabulary of growls, squeals, air notes and buzzes and situates them within a sympathetic and stimulating setting. Particularly intriguing are the pieces for the timbrally distinctive combination of trombone and organ.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Sivan Silver-Swartz – Untitled 6 [Editions Wandelweiser EWR 1920]; a•pe•ri•od•ic – for [New Focus Recordings fcr249]

Nearly seventy years have passed since John Cage composed 4’33,” his most famous—or notorious, as at the time it seemed—“silent” piece. Since then the questions 4’33” raised—regarding the limits and definition of music; the relationship between the work and the environment in which it is performed; the ontological different, or indeed indifference, between sound and silence; and above all, the degree of control or letting-go a score can or should exert over its product—have given rise to a significant lineage or tradition within new music. Two new releases of music for chamber ensembles fall within that lineage and serve to bring it forward.

The Chicago ensemble a•pe•ri•od•ic, founded by composer/pianist Nomi Epstein in 2010, fits firmly, and quite deliberately, within the lineage initiated by Cage’s work. The group, which on this recording is an octet of violin, cello, flute, bass clarinet/clarinet, bassoon/voice, French horn, piano, and voice, performs works biased toward various kinds of indeterminacy, whether of orchestration, sound material, or architecture. Silence also plays a major role in their music, whether as primary material or as a structural element.

The four compositions on for were commissioned by the group; three are by group members and the fourth is by composer Michael Pisaro.

Violinist Billie Howard’s Roll (2016) comprises a sequence of soloists playing a sustained tone ending with a freely-chosen upward or downward glissando, followed by a silence. What comes to the fore in this work is the unique timbral quality of each instrumental voice, with the lower-pitched bassoon and cello making an especially rich impression. Vocalist Kenn Kumpf contributes Triadic Expansions (2) of 2017, a piece of mutating harmonies built up from slowly ascending or descending scales of more or less arbitrary pitch content. The entrances and exits are staggered in a way that creates an out-of-synch effect that keeps the center of gravity for the entire sound mass in a constant state of motion. Combine, Juxtapose, Delayed Overlap (2013-2017) by Epstein, is a very quiet textural piece that seems to play with the ambiguous status—are they music? Are they noise? Are they just a strange crystallization of silence into sound?–of liminal audio events. Pisaro’s festhalten/loslassen (2013), in contrast to the austerity of Epstein’s piece, contains passages of almost lush bundles of sustained tones moving cloudlike across and through each other. The piece is broken into sections by long silences and is punctuated with passages for percussive pizzicato strings and a slowly ascending scale begun on piano and continued on horn.

One of the composers who studied under Pisaro is Sivan Silver-Swartz (b. 1993). Like many composers of his generation, Silver-Swartz works in eclectic forms ranging from composed new music to rock-derived song. His Untitled 6 is an hour-long work in just intonation for three or more violins, violas, cellos or other bowed instruments that can be detuned as called for by the score. On this recording, the piece is played by two violas, two cellos, and one violin. As with the compositions on for, Untitled 6 is an open-form work that leaves many performance decisions up to the players. The performers are divided into two groups, one of which is assigned a score arranged somewhat like a chessboard each of whose squares specifies a given sound gesture or a silence; this set of performers is given latitude, within some constraints, to choose the sequence of squares, and hence sounds or silences, they will play. The score for the second set of players is a linear table that specifies durations but allows for choices of dynamics and gestures. Like Kumpf’s Triadic Expansions (2) or Pisaro’s festhalten/loslassen, Untitled 6 unfolds in a set of slowly shifting harmonies, but here the harmonies are given a particular piquancy from the instruments’ tunings and from the limitation of melodic material to open strings and the first harmonic—overall, music cast in a somewhat darker shade of consonance.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Various Artists – Anthology of Persian Experimental Music [Unexplained Sounds Group]

Three or so years ago the Unexplained Sounds Group issued a digital collection of experimental and electronic music from Iran. It was the first of USG’s fascinating set of surveys of experimental music from places whose musical communities are often overlooked or obscured, sometimes for extra-musical reasons. As was the case here: in order to avoid having the Iran collection banned from certain platforms, USG had to label the release as “Persian” rather than “Iranian.” In a way, though, the name is rather fitting, since it serves to imply the continuity of musical culture in what is now called—censors be damned—Iran.

USG has reissued the original digital album as a limited edition CD supplemented with digital bonus tracks. What the collection demonstrates is that Iran’s musical underground doesn’t appear to be working in complete isolation; the sounds here compare well to electronic work being made elsewhere in the world. The predominant tendency is toward heavy electronics in a dark ambient mode, but there are some tracks that summon the rhythms of dance music, others that feature cosmic choirs of voices sounding through layers of electronic fuzz and grit, and yet others centered on undulating drones and synthesized arpeggios. And as with USG’s other surveys of experimental music outside of the Western world, this one is worth hearing.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Zosha Di Castri – Tachitipo [New Focus Recordings FCR227]

Tachitipo, a set of five works composed between 2010 and 2017, is the first monograph recording from composer Zosha Di Castri. Originally from Calgary, Alberta in Canada and now resident in New York, where she is on the faculty of Columbia University, Di Castri began composing through the Edmonton, Alberta Symphony Orchestra’s Young Composers program and went onto double major in composition and performance. Di Castri is a pianist as well as a composer, and sometimes will use improvisation as a way of forming compositional ideas.

The pieces on Tachitipo demonstrate Di Castri’s versatility in composing for different instrumental groupings; included are works for chamber ensembles and small orchestra, a string quartet, a solo piano work and a piece for voice and electronics. The pieces for orchestra and mixed chamber ensembles show Di Castri’s aptitude for handling contrasts and similarities of instrumental compass and color. In a recent interview, she named Debussy as an early influence; the importance of timbral relationships in her music would seem to bear out the continuing importance of his example.

Cortège, composed in 2010 for the Acanthes Festival in Metz, France, is scored for thirteen piece orchestra. The piece, played here by the Talea Ensemble, is study of contrasts: dark and bright, light and heavy, as muffled drums are played off against the voices of flute and clarinet, and the mood alternates between a compressed, nervous energy and a melancholy languor. Forma dello spazio, also from 2010, is a quintet for flute, clarinet, piano, violin, and cello, commissioned by the Banff Center and realized here by members of the fine International Contemporary Ensemble. The piece was inspired by mobile sculptures and does seem to capture something of their motion: skittering violin and piano and rising and falling undulations on clarinet provide movement over the undertow, sometimes explicit and sometimes implicit, of suspended tones. The writing features nice timbral fusions of violin, clarinet, and piano in the upper registers.

Di Castri’s String Quartet No. 1, composed in 2016, was first played by the ten finalists in the Banff Centre’s International String Quartet Competition for that year. The piece, energetically played on this recording by the JACK Quartet, opens with a discordant flourish and rides a series of surges and retreats—of dynamics, of swift and slow glissandi, of unsettling harmonics. A subtle rhythmic coherence runs throughout and binds together this otherwise episodic work.

Other pieces included on Tachitipo are the mechanical typewriter-inspired, long title track of 2016 for two pianos and two percussionists, played by the incomparable Yarn/Wire; 2017’s Dux, a solo piano piece performed by Julia Den Boer; and the vocal and electronics work The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named (2013), a commission from the Canada Council for the Arts performed here by Ekmeles.

AMN Reviews: The Balderin Sali Variations – Boreal Delights At the Soundscape & Soundportraits Festival – 2018 [Leo Records CD LR 870/871]; Harri Sjöström & Guilherme Rodrigues – The Treasures Are [Creative Sources Records cs605]

The Balderin Sali Variations aren’t a series of related pieces derived from a beginning motif but rather an ad hoc orchestra of eleven comprising three generations of improvisers from Finland, Germany, Italy, England, Austria, Poland, Norway and Mexico. The orchestra was put together on the occasion of the 2018 Soundscapes and Soundportraits Festival, which took place in September in Helsinki. The festival’s founder and the ensemble’s organizer is Harri Sjöström, a soprano saxophonist originally from Finland but now residing in Berlin. Sjöström, one of the representatives of European free improvisation’s second generation, is joined here by saxophonist Evan Parker, violinist/electronics artist Philipp Wachsmann, drummer Paul Lovens and bassist Teppo Hauta-aho of the founding/first generation, as well as six other musicians drawn from the second and third generations. A reunion of an extended family of sorts, and one in which the family demonstrates a strikingly intuitive sense of communication.

The most striking thing about the music on this two-CD set is its intelligent handling of space and color—striking, but not surprising, as that is one of the hallmarks of European free improvisation. The ensemble accomplishes this by setting up relationships that naturally vary the densities and timbres that come into play. The thirteen tracks are bookended by improvisations for the full ensemble; in between are improvisations for sub-groupings in sizes ranging from duos to quintets. Some of these subgroupings make for inspired instrumental combinations: soprano saxophone and violin; drums, trombone, and piano; soprano saxophone and quarter-tone accordion.

Another inspired, multi-generational combination of musicians is to be found on The Treasures Are, a duo recording from Sjöström and the younger cellist Guilherme Rodrigues. All of the music on the recording presumably was improvised, but the quality of the interplay is such that parts sound as if they had been composed prior to the performance. Much of the credit for this goes to Rodrigues, who seems largely to be responding to Sjöström’s inventive leads throughout much of the recording. Rodrigues has an almost telepathic ability to complete Sjöström’s phrases, create lucid, coherent harmonies from Sjöström’s melodies, and spin Sjöström’s lines into impromptu canons. Both Sjöström and Rodrigues take the music to many places–from abstract expressionist squeals and squeaks, through freely atonal lyricism, to quasi-conventional harmony—without losing a sense of continuity or stalling for time. In sum, a quite beautiful performance of contemporary European improvised music from two highly attuned players.

AMN Reviews: Richmond Avant Improv Collective – Häxan (Cinema Paradiso Vol. I) [Bandcamp]

Häxan is a 1922 Swedish-Danish silent film that purports to trace the history of witchcraft in the West from pre-Christian times through the Middle Ages and early modern period and up to the early twentieth century. The film is a quasi-documentary on a subject often treated in a sensationalistic manner; with its scenes of pagan rites, Satanic temptations, and trials by ordeal, it can be dark, and was considered graphic for its day.

It also was an occasion for music. Like other films from the silent era it was accompanied by live music: original showings featured an orchestra playing a score comprising bits of Beethoven, Schubert and Gluck. More recent screenings have also featured live music, but of a different type altogether.

Häxan (Cinema Paradiso Vol. I) is the Richmond Avant Improv Collective’s interpretation in sound of this soundless film. The Collective, ordinarily a septet but often adding players as needed, was an octet for the occasion. Playing live in the studio, the group improvised as the film ran. The titles of the four tracks—Hell, Confession, Witchcraft Trials and Deeds of the Devil—give some idea of the flavor of the music. The sounds are predominantly dark—a looming overcast of electronics, minor-key melodies on the cello, keening sounds from the saxophone, eerily oscillating voices and distorted electric guitar chords—and evocative. One need not see the film to “see” the film, when listening.

Daniel Barbiero