AMN Reviews: Difondo – Sampler & Zither [Setola di Maiale SM3260]

Sampler and Zither is a release from Difondo, the Cagliari duo of Sergio Camedda (sampler) and Giampaolo Campus (zither). The group’s name translates as “basically;” it’s a fitting name given their conceptual focus on returning sounds to the things themselves—that is, to the basic elements and materials of their instruments. The group’s specific interest lies in realizing the possibilities inherent in the divergent natures of the two instruments’ timbral profiles and properties. The sampler is programmed to replicate the sound of a piano, while the zither is played with a variety of extended techniques in order to make the sounds of its individual parts carry more dramatic weight than their sum. Campus makes specific regions and materials of the zither audible through the scraping, squealing, and scuffing sounds of friction and percussive strikes on wire, wood and metal. For its part the sampled piano mostly appears in paratactical fragments—isolated notes and chords sounded fully and allowed to fade slowly. Put together, the two instruments offer contrasts not only of sound color, but of mood: Much of the musical ambience arises from the tension between the meditative pacing of the piano and the restlessness of the zither’s interventions—a restlessness that models the anxiety of anticipation.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Thinking Plague – Hoping Against Hope (2017; Cuneiform Records)

Thinking Plague is the quintessential progressive rock band. This means that they do not sound similar to just about any other outfit that falls under that loose moniker. With each release, they move even further from their initial sound, which had a flavor not unlike that of the Art Bears. Here, on their eighth album in 35 years, group leader and guitarist Mike Johnson is joined by longtime collaborators Mark Harris on sax and clarinets, and Dave Willey on bass and accordion. Rounding out the group on this go-around are vocalist Elaine di Falco, drummer Robin Chestnut, and guitarist Bill Pohl.

Regardless of lineup, what makes Thinking Plague tick is Johnson’s compositions. Writing for the first time for two guitarists, he juxtaposed his own angular style with occasional rock pyrotechnics from Pohl. But overall, the tracks on Hoping Against Hope are dense, knotty, contrapuntal offerings. Not exactly chamber rock, they borrow from jazz but fall outside of that genre. Johnson’s lines are tight and intertwined, as he exhibits control over each member without making their recitations appear rote. They pull apart and come together with ease, and even feature a few fleeting free-form moments.

Notably, the phrasings are so odd as times that the contributions of the individual instruments in isolation can sound outright alien. This is particularly the case with di Falco’s vocals, swooping and diving through registers. Nonetheless, this is not necessarily any different from how Johnson wrote for his other vocalists.

It would be hard to point to any one particular track of the six on this album as necessarily standing out amongst the rest. Compositionally, Hoping Against Hope holds together as a unit. There is so much intellectually-challenging content to unpack, that I could probably come back in a few years and write a totally different review. Not only is this a superb album, it may very well be the best album from a group that has made a number of superb albums. Bravo.

AMN Reviews: Jaimie Branch – Fly or Die (2017; International Anthem)

Trumpeter Jaimie Branch is well-known within the New York and Chicago creative music scenes as a collaborator. Her efforts include sessions with William Parker, Matana Roberts, Jason Ajemian, and many others. On this, her debut recording as a leader, she provides 35 minutes of improvisation, some free, some not. She teams with Tomeka Reid on cello, Ajemian on bass, Chad Taylor on drums, with guests Matt Schneider on guitar, as well as Ben Lamar Gay and Josh Berman on cornet.

In addition to landing in multiple places on the composed-to-unstructured spectrum, Branch’s works also span various levels of atmospherics. As an example, the aptly-titled theme 002 is a catchy, bass-driven vamp with Branch providing a distinct melody. On the other hand, leaves of glass features a pre-conceived, echoing motif followed by the horn players, leaving space between notes at first but then is filled with cello and bass explorations. That track is followed by the storm, which features generous portions of glissando and hushed extemporization. And to drive home the point of how diverse Branch’s approach can be, the album kicks off with a 15-second extended technique trumpet piece, not unlike what one might expect from Nate Wooley.

Fly of Die has a live-in-the-studio feel lending it a sense of urgency and integrity. Ultimately, the album is an evolution of sorts, from structure to freedom, then back to structure. Branch and her compatriots navigate this shifting landscape with skill and ease, of course.

AMN Reviews: Sean Ali – My Tongue Crumbles After [Neither/Nor n/n007]; James Ilgenfritz – Origami Cosmos [Infrequent Seams 12]

Discount this as predictable partisanship if you like, but it seems as if the double bass is coming into its own as the instrument par excellence for solo performance. Whether used for improvisation or the realization of compositions, played prepared or unprepared, modified by electronics or plain, the double bass is a large presence in recent new music releases. Two new CDs focusing on solo double bass show how expressively and technically versatile the instrument is.

At 35 minutes long, Sean Ali’s debut solo recording, My Tongue Crumbles After, is a succinct portrait of the artist. Ali is a New York City based musician who, playing in tandem with double bassist Pascal Niggenkemper, has taken prepared double bass into extreme territory. On this recording of improvised music he employs preparations as well as tape collages using recordings of the spoken word as their source material. On each of the pieces, Ali teases out the implications of a single or related set of sonically well-defined gestures and techniques. His use of preparations allows him to distort the instrument’s native sound while maintaining enough of its natural profile—through the recognizable actions of bow and fingers—that it still makes itself known as a double bass. This is as true of pieces like Heartstack and Fingerdeep, rooted in a pizzicato technique that links them directly to a more conventional double bass sound, as it is of a track like Salutations, which largely takes place in unpitched territory, or Lime Works, the industrial sounds of which seem far removed from the wooden acoustic instrument that produced them.

Like My Tongue Crumbles After, Origami Cosmos, the second solo recording by James Ilgenfritz—another New York double bassist—focuses on pieces built around the performer’s repertoire of sounds and techniques. In this case, though, the pieces were written by others–four New York composers, who collaborated with Ilgenfritz in order to translate his sound into their own compositional languages. Often the vocabulary is his, and the syntax theirs. Annie Gosfield’s Rolling Sevens and Dreaming Elevens arranges Ilgenfritz’s bowed and plucked harmonics and multiphonics into distinctively formed phrases following regularly structured rhythmic cycles. Rhythm is an unexpected element in Miya Masaoka’s Four Moons of Pluto, a microtonal drone piece whose long bowing patterns implicate a recurring, if variable, pulse. JG Thirwell’s Xigliox leverages multiple stops, open strings, and call-and-response phrases across registers to make Ilgenfritz’s single instrument sound like a choir; this piece in particular brings out Ilgenfritz’s robust tone and vocal-like vibrato. The polyphony woven into Xigliox is developed to an extreme degree in the closing piece, Elliott Sharp’s Alethia for prepared bass. This etude for constant pitch and constantly changing timbres multiplies musical and non-musical sounds simultaneously and represents Ilgenfritz’s most radical performance of the set.

Both recordings are highly recommended.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: John Zorn – The True Discoveries of Witches and Demons (2015, Tzadik)

This is the second release from John Zorn‘s organ-based metal trio Simulacrum. Featuring core members John Medeski on organ, Kenny Grohowski on drums, and Matt Hollenberg on guitar, the group is joined by Trevor Dunn on bass and Marc Ribot on guitar. With the expanded lineup, the overall feel of this album is more full and dense, at least in the textural sense, than the group’s debut.

Particularly, while the self-titled Simulacrum release was essentially very well-done technical metal with organ, this album leans more in something more of a hard rock direction. Zorn’s compositions still move at frenetic speed, shifting rapidly from theme to theme, but Ribot’s playing adds a bluesy element in contrast to Hollenberg’s more straight up speed riffing. Together, they combine for dual guitar leads, as well as prickly lines and discordance that would not be out of context on a King Crimson recording.

Ribot’s influence also seems to bring the group downtempo from time to time, focusing on atmospherics rather than an all-out sonic assault. It is in these moments that Medeski also shines, contributing thick chords and swirling themes. Dunn makes notable contributions, especially on Sorcerer, which moves in a thrash / speed metal direction. If anything, Grohowski’s role is downplayed, perhaps due to the drums being deemphasized in the mix. Nonetheless, he remains busy in the background.

The True Discoveries of Witches and Demons ends with two longer tracks, each exhibiting the aforementioned atmospherics in a controlled-improvisation setting. This is new ground for Simulacrum, and emphasizes the significance of Ribot’s contributions and how Zorn may have crafted these pieces for Ribot’s presence.

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AMN Reviews: Jérôme Combier – Gone [Aeon AECD1651]

Pitch can be likened to shadow. Shadows exist along a gradient, varying in darkness and density with the position of the viewer, the relative constancy of the light source, and the interposition of objects. Like shadow, pitch is something that exists in gradations rather than in discrete units that are precisely defined one against the other, the equal temperament tuning system notwithstanding. Much of the music of Jérôme Combier’s Gone, a set of five compositions for chamber ensembles of various sizes, takes pitch as a shadowy phenomenon with blurred boundaries.

Terra d’ombra (2012-2015), a work for partly-prepared piano, harp and cello, evokes the analogy of sound to shadow in its title. Combier’s allusion is to umber, a dark brown color named for a clay originally from Umbria, but the term translates literally as “earth of shadow.” This archaeological meaning comes out in the piece itself. The composition is based on gestures producing muted sounds—most dramatically, percussive strikes on the instruments’ bodies and partly-damped strings—which blend into well-defined pitched sounds on piano. There is no hard-and-fast boundary between the two classes of sounds, and pitch itself, particularly as it’s played on the cello or the prepared strings of the piano, is often treated as a continuum or fuzzy aggregate. Gone (2010), for clarinet, piano, string trio and electronics takes the conception of pitch as a continuum even further. Playing alone or in combination, the instruments create clouds of sound through glissandi, harmonics and extended techniques; pitches slide into and through each other and disappear into pure timbre. A similar effect is had in the swooping, wobbling microtonality of 2015’s Dawnlight for flute, piano, violin, cello and electronics.

The taut and at times jagged Dog Eat Dog (2014) for cello and acoustic guitar relies less on a dilution of pitch and more on a simplicity of structure. The three-movement work is organized to feature one or a limited number of gestures per movement; although the performers are restricted in the types of sounds or techniques they are to play, they manage to draw timbres from every part of their instruments. The string trio Noir Gris (2007) is somewhat more conventional in sound but it, too, is built up out of deliberately limited elements, in this case melodic fragments meant to parallel the rhythms and durations of speech.

The Ensemble Cairn, a group founded by Combier and made up of alumni of the Conservatoire National Supérieur of Paris, bring these pieces to life with vividness and a refined sense of color.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Ross Feller – “X/Winds” [Innova 911]

726708691127-front-cover “X/Winds” is the debut disc of composer Ross Feller. The disc contains eight pieces composed by Feller over the last twenty years. Ross Feller is both an accomplished composer and educator. Feller’s compositions have been performed throughout the USA and Europe. As an educator he has taught at the University of Illinois, Oberlin, Georgia State and is currently at Kenyon College in Ohio. Feller is also an accomplished saxophonist and improviser, you can find a recording of him and Roscoe Mitchell improvising together on Feller’s web site. As a composer Feller’s music comes out of the more eclectic aspects of modernism, improvisation, electroacoustics and his interest in contemporary philosophy. Chances are you haven’t heard the music of Ross Feller but you should!

The disc opens with “Triple Threat”, for three soloists and an ensemble of nine. This is a work that deals with opposition and multiplicities, with a form inspired by the fractured lines found in Deleuze and Guattari’s book “A Thousand Plateaus”. The violin, trumpet and clarinet soloists are pitted against the ensemble, with the soloists and various ensemble combinations competing for the listener’s attention. Within the ensemble itself a “classical” percussionist is pitted against a “jazz/rock” trap set player heightening the intensity. It is a highly engaging piece and a wonderful introduction to the music of Ross Feller.

Feller’s use of electroacoustic sound is somewhat unusual in that the sounds are most often used to reinforce or to frame the instruments they accompany instead of being the focal point of a work or an equal member of the ensemble. Instead Feller’s use of electroacoustic sound is a very subtle but very effective enhancement or augmentation of the acoustic instrument or instruments in play. Despite this way of working with electroacoustic sound, all three of the pieces that make use of electroacoustic sounds are very different from one another. “Still Adrift” is for piano and electroacoustic sound. This recording is from a performance by pianist Adam Tendler at Roulette. In this piece the piano part is augmented by a subtle fixed electroacoustic part that focuses on the resonance of the acoustic piano. The effect of the acoustic piano with this electroacoustic sound builds a kind of dreamy virtual space that heightens the natural color of the live acoustic piano as it drifts. In “Sfumato” for violin, bass clarinet and electroacoustic sound, the electroacoustic accompaniment lightly frames the textural and timbral content of the violin and bass clarinet as they explore a variety of textural and timbral contrasts. “Retracing” for violin and electroacoustic sound was originally composed to accompany a dancer but works extremely well as a concert piece and is beautifully performed by Dorothy Martirano. In this work the electroacoustic sounds generally reinforce the harmonic content of the violin but also adds some depth and space to the overall sound field. It is a wonderful piece!

“X/Winds” also contains two very different works for solo instruments. “Bypassing the Ogre” is for solo trumpet and performed by Peter Evans. The piece has a loose, almost improvisatory feel. It makes extensive use of extended techniques and its overall language is reminiscent of sound languages from trumpet innovators such as the AACM’s (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) Lester Bowie and Wadda Leo Smith. On the other hand “Glossolalia” for solo cello is somewhat in the “modernist” vein. Feller comments in the liner notes that he found his inspiration for this piece in the utterances of “ecstatic tongues”. The work is filled with sharp angular gestures, glissandi and various bowing techniques all while navigating rapid changes in dynamics and rhythm. It is given a very dramatic and colorful performance from cellist Franklin Cox.

The album includes two additional ensemble works. “Disjecta” which is the longest piece on this album, is for percussion quintet. “Disjecta” is a striking piece, full of contrasting moods and colors. The five independent parts collaborate and compete, fuse and separate, as they explore pathways of independent rhythmic trajectories that build out from silence. In addition to the wonderful performance from the Oberlin Percussion Group, the recording really captures the spatial placement of the various percussion instruments. The final piece is the title track “X/Winds” which is a work for symphonic wind ensemble with piano and percussion and is performed by the Oberlin Conservatory Wind Ensemble. It is a stunning piece filled with contrasting textures and dynamics that build into frenzy and then dissipate into quiet airy sounds.

Ross Feller’s work freely explores challenging ideas, resulting in original and engaging twenty first century music. Highly recommended!

For more information: Innova/Feller

Chris De Chiara