AMN Reviews

AMN Reviews: Surrealestate – Lacunae

Surrealestate: Lacunae (Acoustic Levitation)

Surrealestate is a Los Angeles-based improv collective that has been around in one form or another since 1977. In its current incarnation it includes the six musicians hear on its latest release, Lacunae, which provides a generous sample of group improvisations taken from two nights of performances recorded in 2009.

The most striking quality of this recording is the sheer variety of colors the group can summon from its ever-shifting constellation of instruments. In this regard, multi-instrumentalists Ken Luey on various winds and reeds and Charles Sharp on winds, percussion and small instruments are particularly crucial for defining the group’s overall sound. The ensemble is just as diverse in terms of its influences and backgrounds, its members having been active in jazz, western art music composition and performance, and Asian and Middle Eastern musics.

CD standouts include “Amalgam,” which begins with a lyrically floating melody on the flute that gives way to the sharper-edged sounds of David Martinelli’s cymbals and Jonathon Grasse’s electric guitar, which in turn bring the music back to the flute. “I Still Dream of Nana” is a spacious piece, emphasizing percussion and small instruments; by contrast, “When Cassavetes Hit Reagan” and “Foreign Hand Knot” put to the fore Bruce Friedman’s trumpet and Luey and Sharp on tenor and alto saxophones, respectively, to create densely interwoven polyphonies that at times approach the sound and feel of mid-’60s free jazz. “Full Body Scan” is a dirge-like track featuring the dark tones of Luey’s bass clarinet and Jeff Schwartz’s arco bass, which gradually cede the foreground to the brighter colors of electric guitar, drumkit, and clarinet.

In sum, this is a recording that fruitfully combines musicians who can cross stylistic borders and create an improvisational music that goes beyond genre.

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AMN Reviews: Bruce Friedman – Motoko Honda: Edge Study

Bruce Friedman – Motoko Honda: Edge Study (AnalogArts)

Edge Study is an experiment in tones and textures featuring West Coast composer/trumpeter Bruce Friedman and sound artist Motoko Honda. Friedman is perhaps best known as the creator of the OPTIONS system of graphic notation, a set of combinable symbols defining parameters to guide improvisation. Here he takes up the role of improvising instrumentalist working without a score, while Honda accompanies him on the Nord Lead Synthesizer.

As Friedman describes it, the purpose of this experiment is to come up with a way to reconfigure melody for the twenty-first century—in a way that is freed from functional harmony or pre-established cadences. One approach is to reconsider the basic elements of sound and phrasing underlying melody, and that is what happens here.

The three pieces contained on the CD represent a variety of minimalism grounded in the raw material of tone. Each improvisation follows the same basic template. Friedman creates a series of events consisting of clusters of a few long-held notes, which are followed by silence. Honda’s occasional interventions supply timbral variety and, when chance meetings of trumpet and synthesizer occur, accidental chords. Friedman’s selection of tones is firmly centered on the trumpet’s middle register, while the dynamic range is kept at an even level. The result is an open atmosphere of low density, as sound disperses before it can accumulate into a thickening mass. Any illusion of functional development is avoided through the deliberate use of tone sequences that are structured more by a sense of discovery than by scalar or harmonic development. Reimagined in this way, melody is returned to the ground of its own possibility. In the process, Friedman and Honda offer a kind of analytical decomposition that breaks the basic melodic unit of the phrase into an exchange between tone and silence, and the expansion and contraction of time.

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AMN Reviews: Michael Pisaro & Taku Sugimoto: 2 seconds/b minor/wave

Michael Pisaro & Taku Sugimoto: 2 seconds/b minor/wave (Erstwhile 061)

This recent addition to Erstwhile Records’ fine catalogue consists of three duets between guitarist/composers Michael Pisaro and Taku Sugimoto. Each duet is based on a compositional concept reflected in the title: 2 seconds is built around a unit of pulse; b minor is in the key for which it is named; and wave calls for the musicians to interpret the notion of a wave in any way they see fit. The collaboration took place virtually, with the two participants agreeing on each piece’s underlying concept, and then independently composing and recording their specific interpretations. Each finished track brings together both musicians’ contributions.

With each track measuring 20 minutes, the CD has a symmetry that seems consistent with the conceptualism on which the music is founded. Whether or not this symmetry was deliberate, it does allow each piece to feel as if it had been composed as a long-period durational frame. And there are frames within the frames: the music here is very sparse, each sound seemingly set off within parentheses of silences.

The first track, 2 seconds, is structured around a unit of pulse. The predominant sounds are electronic tones of various pitches and lengths, pulsing at one beat every two seconds. These tones are joined sporadically by sounds that resemble metronomic fragments, also with a two second pulse. The contiguous and overlapping pulses give the track a strongly rhythmic feel. B minor has Sugimoto playing slow chord sequences in the key of B minor, while Pisaro supplies melodies of slow, well-spaced notes. This harmonically consonant piece unfolds at a time scale that allows the two to reimagine the relationship between rhythm and lead guitar; rather than having the latter function as a contrasting figure to the former’s field, each serves instead as an equal voice in an ongoing modal counterpoint. The title of the final track—wave–serves as a kind of ur-score preceding and in a sense producing the compositions Pisaro and Sugimoto perform in response. Here a drone meets the sound of what seems to be a field recording of waves at the seashore.

As with Minimalist sculpture and painting, this music has a tendency to move the focus of reception from one exclusively concerned with relationships within the work itself (of, for example, tones to rhythms, tones to timbres, tones to themselves) to one now including the relationship of the work to its context—in this case, to duration as it is experienced by the listener. Though this relationship is external to the composition and playing of the work, paradoxically through the act of listening it becomes internal to the work as it is heard in real time.

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AMN Reviews: Weather Duo – From Field to Platter

Weather Duo: From Field to Platter

The new CD from Weather Duo, consisting of Ben Willis on double bass and electronics and Pat Reinholz on cello and electronics, deftly combines influences from Minimalism, electronic experimentalism, folk and rock. By turns spare and lush, organic and electronic, the compositions and performances build intriguing structures from disparate elements, whether these latter are pulsing phrases, pentatonic melodies, long-period drones, or processed sounds.

Although the CD is divided into separate tracks, the individual pieces work together to create the effect of a long suite. The recording opens with Helicopters, a drone of oscillating microtones that evolves into a pulsing bass with a cello melody on top. Entering Loth has the bass unfold a raga-like exposition in the upper register, leading directly to Loth, a piece that moves from a folk-like pentatonic opening into a cello melody over a bass ostinato that then develops into complementary pulsing phrases carried by both instruments. Interlude is just that, an entr’acte of electronic abstraction that flows directly into the somber, long-held tones of North. Into the Country is a predominantly minor-key piece built on slowly rising and descending lines, while Falling Asleep to the Feedback combines a three-against-four pulse with a vocal/electronic overlay. Following the abstract sounds and extended techniques of He Crawls from Speakers, the CD ends with decaDodeca-Lanterns, a complex pulse piece that starts with overlapping 18-beat and 15-beat phrases and ends with a passage of simple hymn-like harmonies in a reflective mood.

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AMN Reviews: A Sphere of Simple Green – Untitled Soundscapes

A Sphere of Simple Green: Untitled Soundscapes (mwt 02)

A Sphere of Simple Green—the name derives from Emily Dickinson’s poem “The Grass So Little Has to Do” — is a trio of Adriano Orru on double bass, Silvia Corda on prepared piano, and Simon Balestrazzi on laptop, toy psaltery and VCS3. The three soundscapes they have issued on this EP are fully improvised collages in which events are encountered in a non-narrative sequence that follows the logic of sound color rather than harmonic or melodic progression.

The recording opens with a metallic crash and rattle, an electric hum overlapping the staccato tones from Corda’s prepared piano. The bass strings are attacked with a rapidly percussive spiccato and col legno battuto, followed by rapid bursts of conventional arco playing through the piano’s suspenseful chords. The electronics provide a textural backdrop through which the other two instruments weave.

At just over ten minutes the second soundscape is the longest; it is also the most consistently rhythmic. Orru’s aggressively regular spiccato sets the piece up and reappears throughout as a kind of motif, though often altered in timbre and tempo. Balestrazzi’s electronics are to the fore, punctuated by stabs on the piano. Layers of sound fold back on themselves through reverse looping and the repetition of sound phrases in and out of phase. At times one imagines hearing skittering insects and an alarm bell off in the distance.

The final track features the electronics’ floating long tones suspended over an E, whether stated on the bass’s plucked open string or implied by surrounding activity. The E functions less as a harmonic center than as a point to return to, a landmark in a hazy atmosphere of heavy echoes out of which the bass’s upper register tones and harmonics emerge.

A Sphere of Simple Green succeeds in creating a coherent sound painting out of the colors available to the musicians. The voices heard here are diverse but well-integrated, each retaining its own character even while in the midst of the others. In terms of timbre, the array of instruments and effects proves a good match, leaning toward a hard-edged sound that benefits from the close-miking and crisp recording. For this set of improvisations in which gestures rather than phrases determine the pattern of interaction, all three musicians are well attuned to each other, building an organic sound from complementary movement.

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AMN Reviews: Output:NOISE Improv Collective – Soundtrack to DSM-IV

Output: NOISE Improv Collective: Soundtrack to DSM-IV

Music has often been inspired by written texts—think of the influence on music, both instrumental and vocal, of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, Edgar Allan Poe’s various works, or James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. These works of literary imagination would seem to provide natural sources of creative material for the musical imagination. How unexpected then to find a musical cycle inspired by a very different kind of source text—the Fourth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). But this is precisely what the Output: NOISE Improv Collective has done: Created a set of improvisations taking as their starting point selected DSM-IV entries defining psychiatric conditions.

Each track on this new release features a randomly assembled quartet or trio subset of the seventeen-member collective creating sound portraits of the following disorders: Delerium, Pica, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Depression, Tourette Syndrome, Cymophobia, Sleep Terror Disorder, Narcolepsy, Catatonic Schizophrenia and Trichotillomania. The results make for intriguing if sometimes difficult listening, as could be expected from the source material.

A number of the pieces really do provide recognizable impressions of the title disorders. Delerium, an improvisation for guitars, percussion, bass guitar and cello, melds scrapings, distorted staccato guitar and feedback to create a convincing simulacrum of hallucinatory perception. By the same token, the repeated guitar figures opening Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder remind one of the obsessive’s unstoppable attention to tiny details. Depression’s oppressive drone is the soundtrack to a grey, overcast mental state that won’t lift, while Tourette Syndrome aptly layers aggressively spasmodic sounds over a spoken stream of invective and shrilling soprano saxophone. Trichotillomania, a disturbance in which one pulls out one’s own hair, is conveyed in a weirdly concrete way by the manner in which the track’s violin and cello foreground the sounds of bowhair on the strings.

Beside their relationship to the underlying extra-musical concept, the pieces on this recording are meant to function as integrated electro-acoustic improvisations in their own right. And they do.

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AMN Reviews: Adriano Orru – Hesperos

Adriano Orru: Hesperos (LBN011)

Hesperos is a new solo release from Sardinian double bassist Adriano Orru on the La Bel netlabel. The six pieces collected here are diverse in sound but unified at the conceptual level. What Orru has done is form each one around the idea of a winnowing down to fundamentals, quite literally: All six are constructed around the fundamental tone or tones of one of more open strings.

Whales opens the collection with sul ponticello bowing on multiple open strings. Orru creates brief sound events, separated by pauses, made up of harmonics or tone clusters frequently built around minor seconds. The piece culminates in waves of chords bowed in rocking motion over all four strings. A plucked open E string announces and anchors A sa muda, a six-beat lyrical piece with a Phrygian feel. This is followed by Hesperos, a percussive piece in which prepared open strings are struck in rapid rhythms. The aptly titled DEbEF is built around these four tones rooted on the open D string. The tetrachord is bowed with increasing speed, sounds smearing into each other to create accidental chords. Orru here uses sul ponticello bowing and a rapid tremolo to alter the timbre and durations of the notes. Halys begins with a rich bowed open A string and develops with the feel of an adagio, a lyrical line moving slowly over its chords. Whether plucked or bowed, the melody falls back on the simple refrain of the open A. The collection closes with the lengthy Cosmognia semplice, in which the open E string is struck rhythmically with beaters while metal objects and marbles are placed on the strings to rattling effect.

Orru’s album is lyrical at the same time that it is experimental. The idea of focusing each piece on an open string is a natural one for the bass, and here it is developed in ways that elicit a kind of singing—the results are not at all dry or abstract, as one might expect from an experiment rooted in such an a priori concept. This is a variety of idea art that doesn’t sacrifice the art for the idea.


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AMN Reviews: Joelle Leandre – Solo

Joelle Leandre: Solo (Kadima Collective Triptych #3)

Kadima’s third installment of its indispensable Triptych series, this package of a CD, DVD, and book is devoted to the French double bassist Joelle Leandre. The CD is a recording of a 2005 solo performance at Piednu France; the DVD was shot at the 2009 Guelph Jazz Festival. Both are welcome additions to Leandre’s recorded output. But possibly the most fascinating element of the package is the book, an autobiography written in conversation with Franck Medioni. Originally published in French as A voix basse, Kadima has now made it available in English.

Leandre’s oral autobiography crackles with all the immediacy and spontaneity of having the subject herself in the room, speaking directly to the reader. Like her definition of jazz, the conversation recorded is a ceaselessly creative effusion stamped with her personality: Outspokenly passionate, impulsive, and direct in expression. The book is structured topically, allowing the bassist to situate events of her life story in the context of her thoughts on her background and education, influences, instrument, and approach to improvisation.

Leandre comes from a working class family in the south of France. Indeed, a recurring motif of the book is her conception, clearly drawn from her own self-conception, of the musician as a worker or an artisan as much as an artist—or, to use one of her images, as a farmer who gets up early every morning and gets to work with his tractor. A strong work ethic figures prominently in the stories she tells—of studies with Pierre Delescluse and subsequently at the Paris Conservatoire, and of her own early practice regimen. Although it can be said that her subsequent career in improvisation involved the renunciation of some aspects of her grounding in European art music, she does credit her rigorous training with giving her a solid foundation in technique and reading ability that allowed her access not only to some of the most advanced literature for her instrument, but to a deep grasp of its possibilities and limits. This foundation is still evident in Leandre’s characteristic blend of the structures and sound palette of contemporary art music with the energy and spontaneity of jazz.

As important as her formal training was, of equal importance was a set of chance encounters and of more deliberate meetings with remarkable men and women. One such encounter was with a recording—a Slam Stewart LP Leandre picked up in 1971, because she liked its cover. The music, which she describes as a “shock to the system,” introduced her to jazz and broadened her relationship to the bass. Of the significant people she met—among them Giacinto Scelsi, Derek Bailey and Irene Schweizer–several were to exert influence over her music and more general outlook. Perhaps the most important of these people was John Cage, whom she first met during her initial trip to the US in 1976. Cage opened her up to sound as such; his advice to her to let sounds be themselves had a profound philosophical as well as musical impact on her, and contributed to her decision to be more than just an orchestral or ensemble bassist. From Cage, whom she describes as her “spiritual father,” she got a sense of freedom and the permission to follow it. It’s easy to see how Cage’s philosophy of freedom conjoined to discipline would be congenial to her, appealing as it does to both sides of her character–her work ethic and her impulsiveness. Leandre’s relationship to Cage was such that she suggested he write a score for double bass; his response was Ryoanji, which as she tells it was conceived in Marcel Duchamp’s apartment in Neuilly, where Cage frequently stayed when visiting France.

Leandre’s relationship to her instrument is, not surprisingly, an intense and complicated one. The chapter “Base/Bass” may well be the finest description of the phenomenology of the bass-bassist symbiosis—of what it’s like to live with and through one of these imposing wooden monsters. The bass for Leandre is a second body, “a big empty box” supported in every sense by the musician who must play it in spite of the difficulties inherent in its large size and limited portability. (Any double bassist will nod in agreement when she describes the bass as a “whopping great thing that puts us through hell. But we love it.”) What seems to attract her is the intense physicality associated with playing the bass and the sonorous gravity of its voice. On this latter point Leandre asserts that she’s chosen to pursue sound over virtuosity—an important decision that informs her playing and gives it its peculiar character, making it especially suitable for duets—a format that, not surprisingly, she prefers.

In addition to their inherent musicality, Leandre’s performances are remarkable for the element of theatricality she often brings to them. It isn’t unusual for her to integrate voice and movement into the music, creating a multi-modal experience of particular richness. Seemingly more than most, she incorporates a gesturality in her work that goes beyond the effort needed for the mere production of sound. In this regard it is interesting to read that she comes from a family of circus clowns—and it’s easy to see the connection between the clown, relying on the eloquence of gesture and an expressive motility, and the bassist herself, who draws on these same resources in performance.

With this triple package of book, CD and DVD, Kadima Collective has presented a complex musician in a masterful way. Solo will be of interest not only to double bassists, but to anyone with a desire to understand improvised music from the perspective of one of its leading performers.

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AMN Reviews: Rupp, Williamson and Buck, Weird Weapons 2; Joe Williamson, Hoard

Olaf Rupp, Joe Williamson and Tony Buck, Weird Weapons 2 (cs197); Joe Williamson, Hoard (cs199)

With Weird Weapons 2, the multinational trio of German guitarist Olaf Rupp, Canadian double bassist Joe Williamson, and Australian percussionist Tony Buck create a sound that Buck has rightly described as “very active and busy.” Both long tracks are intense and relentless essays into the unconventional applications available to conventional instruments. This is acoustic music as the sound of raw materials—string instruments and drums decomposed into wood and metal elements in a clattering, scraping cloud of sound. On occasion the recognizable voice of guitar or double bass emerges, only to recede again into the sound signatures of its constituent parts. The overall effect is of an accumulation of countless individual sonic facts into a thick mass.

Williamson’s solo recording is very much in the same vein. The two long cuts feature the rough, low frequency rumble of overpressured bowing, providing a throbbing undertow that sounds at times like a straining engine—created acoustically, this is industrial music from a time before electricity.

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AMN Reviews: Quartet Solo Series Volumes 1 & 2 (sm0001 & sm0002)

A performance for solo instrument, at its best, can be like a compelling soliloquy offered by a well-developed character in a play: Nuanced, exposed, and drawn from those ordinarily obscured corners of personality that are completely revealing of character. In the case of solo experimental music, the character revealed is often that of the material substrate of music proper, whether of the instrument or object producing sound or of sound itself. With its Quartet Solo Series, the experimental music label Striking Mechanism provides an audio space for adventurous soloists to explore this material substrate.

The two CDs under review are the first two in the series. Each CD is issued in a limited edition of 500 and contains four solo performances by classically trained composer/performers. Rather than executing conventional compositions in a conventional manner, they improvise in ways that show a commitment to a broad conception of sonic possibility.

The first volume in the series contains two electronic soundscapes bookended by exploratory improvisations on acoustic instruments. Leading off is Marina Peterson’s five-part investigation of the sonic properties of the prepared cello. Peterson approaches the instrument with pressured bowing, rubbing and percussive strikes; the sounds she creates range from muted rasps to bell-like tones and quasi-whispers. Phillip Schulze presents “Cause Unfold Proceed II,” a work for electronics governed by parameters drawn from the environment, hardware and software, and feedback. Jonathan Chen, Striking Mechanism’s founder and a violinist and violist as well as a composer, provides a track of feedback produced by three independent, interactive systems run through a toy drum kit. The final solo is Andrew Raffo Dewar’s two-part “Diptych” for soprano saxophone, recorded live in the resonant Wesleyan Memorial Chapel at Wesleyan University. Dewar’s performance features rapid runs, multiphonics, trills and bent notes punctuated by discreet silences.

The second volume, like the first, contains experiments encompassing acoustic instruments and electronics, both alone and in combination. Jessica Pavone’s aptly titled “This Is My Violin” investigates the sonic properties of virtually all parts of the instrument. Pavone integrates percussive strikes on various parts of the violin with more conventionally played repeated motifs and variations, all gently modified with echo effects. In his five concise improvisations for unaccompanied double bass, Carl Testa employs bowing attacks and articulations that emphasize complex overtones. Each improvisation is titled with a graphic symbol suggestive of the sound—a provocative case of music being perhaps more directly described by an illustration rather than in words. Katherine Young’s “Storm” for bassoon and tape takes the shape of overlayered clouds of tones, often creating the effect of a variable drone and ending with a brief, repeated phrase in a minor mode. The CD ends with Jonathan Zorn’s undulating, atmospheric “Dia no vive aqui” for electronics.

Since the pioneering composers of the last century began insisting on placing music in the larger context of sound, the mutual influence and interaction of sound as material and music as form has provided a fruitful field of investigation for experimental musicians and composers alike. These two discs present eight thoughtful ways of working in that field.

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