AMN Reviews: Mirio Cosottini – Metodologie dell’improvvisazione musicale [Edizioni ETS: 2017]

Music is a temporal art. It takes place in time and as it does it seems to reveal something essential about time. One way time is revealed to us through music is by way of a spatial metaphor. We perceive a sequence of sounds unfolding in time as moving through an imaginary space. Our hearing music as movement in turn is bound up with our hearing it as changing or staying constant—musical change seems to embody movement, while musical constancy or stasis seems to stand still. In Metodologie dell’improvvisazione musicale, Italian composer, improviser and music theoretician Mirio Cosottini formulates a methodology of improvisation that takes change and constancy as its basic categories.

Cosottini’s methodology casts improvisation in terms of a dialectic of linearity and nonlinearity. These latter two concepts, which trace back to Jonathan Kramer’s book, The Time of Music, provide the foundation not only for Cosottini’s methodology, but for the set of exercises he presents as a means for improvisers to expand their horizons of musical possibility.

Briefly, linearity is the quality of development and change over time; nonlinearity is the quality of invariance over time. Linear music is music that appears to move from one point towards another, in a more-or-less unbroken progression; nonlinear music appears to stay in one place or to reside in discontinuous, autonomous events—to exist outside of or against the inexorable flow of time. The paradigm of linear music is the melody or cyclical chord progression; the paradigm of nonlinear music is the unchanging drone or discrete sound events of a pointillist work. In linear music “before” and “after” are explicitly traced in a succession of sounds; in nonlinear music succession appears to break down entirely into a set of non-contingent moments giving the impression of an eternal “now.” (For those with a taste for metaphysics, the difference between linear and nonlinear can be captured metaphorically by the difference between becoming and being, respectively.)

Cosottini’s appreciation for the potential importance of the nonlinear in music grew out of a personal experience. When asked to compose a contrapuntal exercise over a C major foundation, he wrote a melody based on C melodic minor. After repeated playing, he felt that the dissonance of the minor third within the context of the major modality revealed itself to be of interest as an alternative, if unconventional, way of combining pitches simultaneously rather than an error. Consequently, he began to understand nonlinearity as a way to analyze and organize improvisation.

The exercises, which make up the bulk of the book, are useful not only as ways of getting to know the heft and shape of improvisation’s constituent elements, but as a means of sharpening and directing musical awareness. Some of the exercises address attentiveness and the ability to hear nonlinearity. For example, one listening exercise asks us to hear a set of simultaneously played long tones as a “totality as if it were a sphere.” As the exercise shows, Cosottini presents linearity and nonlinearity are perceptual categories that are applied through judgments that take place within certain contexts; determining whether or not an element is linear or nonlinear may in many cases be the product of a perspective brought to the work. Cosottini describes this perspective in terms of cumulative listening, through which one can discern those pitches, timbres, rhythmic figures, dynamics or other elements that seem detached from the temporal flow of the music

When specifically addressed to active play, the exercises provide practical examples of how to use nonlinearity as a strategy for improvisation. For instance, some of the exercises call for using only five pitches, timbres, sounds or dynamics. Each of these closed sets can serve as the invariant kernel around which an improvisation—its other parameters being allowed to vary—can be built. Paradoxically, the use of relatively small, limited sets of musical material can lend a sense of larger-scale cohesion underlying and tying together individual musical events. When these sets function as constants providing points of reference for development of the improvisation as a whole, the closed set simply becomes an organizing structure for an open performance.

Cosottini’s methodology opens up clear possibilities for leveraging nonlinear forms of organization as alternatives to linear forms of organization. The former are particularly useful for music that eschews tonality; an improvisation based on textural rather than tonal structures, for instance, would offer one such kind of organization. To the extent that it is a purely vertical structure, texture by nature lacks directionality—textural movement doesn’t point toward a goal of resolution as does functional harmonic movement, nor does it imply a kind of musical entailment, as does melodic development. Instead, texture can serve as the basis of an organizational logic embodied in the relative densities, voice combinations and durations of sound complexes or other simultaneous aggregates of musical elements. Organization by textural synchrony, in other words, offers a nonlinear alternative to organization by harmonic or melodic diachrony.

A concern with texture is a concern with architecture in its vertical dimension; it’s a short step from recognizing this to a grasp of the possibilities arising from the use of nonlinear elements as formal substructures upon which to build improvisational superstructures. To take an example from outside the world of improvisation, we can discern in many of Morton Feldman’s compositions a dynamic element which stays at an unchangingly low level. In such cases we could speak of a nonlinear dynamic that serves as a structural anchor, one which remains static while pitches or timbres undergo variations. These changing pitches and timbres would then appear to belong to a linear surface floating over the constant dynamic. Cosottini similarly includes exercises that define musical parameters as constants; it isn’t hard to imagine these constants serving as structural elements on which to build a superstructure of linear events.

In a seeming reversal of meaning, nonlinear elements can serve to define horizontal relationships as well. Some nonlinear strategies—such as the imposition of sudden silences to introduce discontinuity into the flow of an improvisation—could serve as structural boundaries dividing a performance into discrete sections. The pointillism of local discontinuities, by regulating the development of collective sound densities, would then foster organization at the textural level. Recurring yet invariant tones or timbres, such as are suggested in some of Cosottini’s exercises could, when played during structurally separate passages, set up cross-sectional relationships through thematic coherence. An improvisation made up of autonomous events not explicitly related to what precedes or succeeds them—the kind of piece Cosottini refers to as “without memory [senza memoria]”—would nevertheless cohere through a unity of repetition and recollection. This would seem to present the paradox of having locally nonlinear elements work together to create a global sense of linearity, or continuity, but it is through such paradoxes that the musical dialectic of linearity and nonlinearity works in practice.

Daniel Barbiero


AMN Reviews: The Thing – Again (2018; Trost Records)

Scandinavian free-jazz outfit The Thing is back with Again, released earlier this month. Consisting of Mats Gustafsson (sax), Ingebrigt Haker Flaten (bass), and Paul Nilssen-Love (drums), this trio plows through nearly 40 minutes of improv across three tracks.

Unlike some recordings of this ilk, The Thing offers a dense, active approach with all three members fully participating throughout the vast majority of the album. Particularly appealing is how they each seem to be playing independently from one another and yet their combined efforts still form a cohesive whole. Thus, Haker Flaten and Nilssen-Love take on lead roles despite most of the soloing ostensibly coming from Gustafsson.

The album opens with the 21-minute Sur Face, most of which is a Gustafsson showcase, featuring some of his more restrained playing juxtaposed with more aggressive lines from the rhythm section. After inclusion of a short solo from Haker Flaten, Gustafsson and Nilssen-Love join back for a downtempo and introspective interlude, which finishes as a drum solo. With 8 minutes left, the group comes back together, this time with Gustafsson playing in his more familiar and harsher outside style.

Decision in Paradise, an old Frank Lowe piece that was not particularly avant-garde, follows. The Thing stretches it out a bit, slowly ramping it up with chaos and unusual textures. Gustafsson overdubs on soprano and tenor.

Vicky Di rounds out the album with a solid slab of adrenaline highlighted by a monstrous distorted bass solo from Haker Flaten. Perhaps ironically, Haker Flaten and Nilssen-Love otherwise play in a more focused and complementary manner than they do on the other tracks. Over this, Gustafsson wails in a late Coltrane fashion.

The Thing is quintessential free jazz – this is the group that you would recommend to someone who is first exploring the genre as well as more experienced listeners. Another stellar release from this threesome.

AMN Reviews: Quatuor Bozzini / Gyula Csapó – Déjà? Kojâ? [Actuelle CQB 1821]

The title of this three-part work by Hungarian-Canadian composer Gyula Csapó–French and Persian for “Already? Where to?”—seems an appropriate epigraph for someone whose itinerary brought him from Budapest to Saskatchewan, via Paris and Buffalo and points in between.

Csapó completed studies in composition and music theory at the Béla Bartók Conservatory and the List Ferenc Academy of Music in Budapest before going to Paris to study computer music and acoustics at IRCAM. In the 1980s, he came to the US to study with Morton Feldman, a composer whose work proved to be a significant influence. In the early 1990s, he moved to Canada and, after a period teaching composition at Princeton University, settled in Saskatoon, where he currently teaches composition and music theory.

In its scale and general profile, Déjà? Kojâ? takes some of Feldman’s approaches to arranging sounds and develops them in a way that is Csapó’s own. The work, composed between 2011 and 2016, is structured as a triptych of three roughly equal lengths. The sounds move slowly, as if there were carried along on tectonic plates approaching, receding, and grinding together in a sometimes overt, sometimes more submerged, dissonant fluctuation. Texture here is architecture, as Csapó layers sound masses into striated blocks whose fault lines divide the higher and lower registers. The differentiation of voices rather than classic counterpoint really does seem to be the structural key to this sometimes darkly opaque work; throughout it, the Quatuor Bozzini maintain a clarity of individual articulation, even in the densest passages.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: FIMAV 34 – Sunday Performances


VICTORIAVILLE, Que. – With her bass clarinet, Lori Freedman tells stories and evokes emotion in a unique, highly personal way and that is what an early afternoon audience heard in a loving and well-planned solo performance on the fourth and final day of concerts at this town’s Festival international de musique actuelle. Improvising on her own compositions and those written for her, there is a playful and mischievous aspect to her music, reflecting humanity and wonderment as she plays her clarinets in unconventional ways, evoking sounds as a sculptor works clay. Freedman breathes and whispers sounds as she creates textures, vocalizing now and then, or tapping the keys to create a sound without blowing into the mouthpiece, or simply removing the mouthpiece and using it as an instrument, exploiting its unique timbre. Freedman’s performance is planned with plenty of room to improvise and communicate with her audience as they become part of her aural universe. The century-old St. Christophe Roman Catholic church was an ideal setting, with its ceiling frescoes, gilded columns, and natural light pouring in from neo-classical stained-glass windows along the nave, where she played her final notes.

In contrast with the subtlety and nuances of the solo clarinet, the mid-afternoon concert brought together three powerhouse players in a Noise session: Danish alto saxophonist Mette Rasmussen, Toshimaru Nakamura, with his no-input mixing board (using feedback without any synthesizer), and Martin Taxt on C microtonal tuba. It was a supercharged performance with Nakamura and Taxt providing a dense textural canvas and Rasmussen soaring above it with her powerful alto. She can make her instrument talk and draws from it an unforgettable burnished tone. Beyond the wall of sound, we heard subtlety in Taxt’s tuba, half and quarter tones that nuanced this high-volume, high energy trip.

The later afternoon show was called Breadwoman – performance art conceived by American vocalist Anna Homler, with dancer Maya Gingery. and Jorge Martin at the analogue synthesizer. As Homler chanted mysterious-sounding melodies with words from some unknown language of her own creation, the veiled Gingery walked on stage like an apparition from another world, her face covered in a weird mask that looked like folds of bread, slowly moving to sit down, then got up and eyed what look like loaves of bread sitting on tables in front of the other performers. It all happened in slow motion and toward the end, she took one rounded loaf, grabbed chunks of it and dropped the contents on the floor – which turned out to be feathers. It’s a weird world filled with dream-like and moody music, and the audience is expected to figure out what it all means. I’m still working on it.

The big evening concert at the downtown auditorium was another curio. It was called Phurpa, the brainchild of Russian musician Alexey Tegin, who emerged from the Russian industrial music scene to discover and become a devotee of bön, a pre-Buddhist tradition from Tibet where practitioners enter a quasi-religious and meditative state by low and rumbling chanting. Among fans were those who follow sledge metal. With Daniil Zotov and Dmitry Globa-Mikhaylenko, all veiled and wearing conical hats and Tibetan cloaks, they entered the stage and sat on the floor, chanting, with heavy amplification, burning incense, and sipping tea, then started playing traditional Tibetan horns, which emit similar extremely low-register rumbling sounds. They added clanging sounds from various pots, gongs, and shorter higher-pitched horns, the entire show framed by continuous rumbling sounds from loops. We’re left to make meaning from it all.

The last show was a powerhouse noise outing featuring Sweden’s Mats Gustafsson on baritone saxophone and electronica, Hungarian drummer Balázs Pándi, and Japan’s black-clad Merzbow on computer and electronica. The first piece consisted of 50 intense minutes, at times surprisingly varied in texture and tone. In the ten-minute follow-up, Gustafsson switched to tenor sax with a solo that morphed into intense unison playing. There was no call for an encore.

In his festival post-mortem, artistic director and general manager, Michel Levasseur, said he was happy with the festival’s content and ticket sales, about five per cent above last year’s total.

AMN Reviews: John Tilbury / Keith Rowe / Kjell Bjørgeengen – Sissel [SOFA 563]

The fundamental and inescapable fact of our existence is that we are finite beings conscious of our finitude, and no more so than when someone near to us dies. This is the background to Sissel, a quietly moving performance by pianist John Tilbury, electric guitarist/electronics artist Keith Rowe, and Norwegian video artist Kjell Bjørgeengen, who collaborated with Tilbury and Rowe in the capacity of producer. The single piece that makes up the album was recorded as part of the Moving Sound concert series in Stavanger, Norway, in 2016, shortly after the death of Bjørgeengen’s wife Sissel, to whom the album is dedicated.

Taking as their inspiration the Poussin painting “The Gathering of the Ashes of Phocion by His Widow,” Tilbury and Rowe created a spaciously meditative sound environment that seems to move at the measured pace of reflective thought. The focus of the piece falls on Tilbury’s piano lines, which are less lines than intermittent handfuls of resonant notes sounding and fading away—sonic fragments shoring up the piece amid the ruins of silence, giving it a deeply affecting emotional definition and weight.

It’s possible to hear these sounds vanishing into silence as an allegory for the process of working through loss, a gradual process that approaches, but never really arrives at, absolute closure. There’s always some residue that remains, call it memory or the shadow of nothingness that lies across the image we reflect back to ourselves in moments of lucidity.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: FIMAV 34 Saturday Performances


VICTORIAVILLE, QUE. – A male French bagpipes improviser as the opener and an outrageously gifted pair of female Japanese punk rockers as the closer characterized the eclectic nature of the programming Saturday in this four-day Festival de musique actuelle de Victoriaville, which ends tonight with the last of 19 concerts.

Erwan Keravec brought his instrument, part of the folk tradition of his native Breton region of France, to the century-old St. Christophe church for his afternoon concert, slowly emerging from the rear balcony as he played and ambled his way to the magnificent altar at the front. He laid out drone sounds, alternating with melodic runs and long tones as he experimented with the acoustic possibilities of the space. His richly-coloured conclusion, combining rhythm, texture, and melody was a vivid demonstration of its orchestral potential.

The European content continued with Dálava – American vocalist Julia Ulehla, now living in Vancouver, backed by a quintet, singing Moravian folk songs collected in a book by her great-grandfather and brought to the U.S. when her father fled Czechoslovakia in 1968. In ballads and waltzes, Ulehla used her rich and powerful voice to give new life to these songs in a jazzy musical setting, her vocals beautifully and tastefully supported by her life’s partner, guitarist Aram Bajakian, and cellist Peggy Lee, who echoed and enhanced her melody lines. Though few in the audience understood the Czech language, thanks to her introductions, and explanations of these songs of passion, her dynamic stage presence, and passionate delivery, their themes spoke to all of us, a warm and accessible show.

American vocalist Audrey Chen partnered with Richard Scott and his analogue synthesizer in the next show – an hour-long demonstration of how the human voice and electronica can co-exist as they interact. A veritable sound sculptress, Chen explored the range of vocal possibilities alongside Scott’s electronic creations. After half an hour, we got the point.

Our interest was re-ignited with the Swedish group called Fire! – a progressive-rock and free jazz amalgam featuring Mats Gustafson on saxophones and electronica, electric bassist Johan Berthling, and the fabulous Andreas Werliin on drums and electronica. This is a group that cooks, whether on slower tunes and ballads or in full fury, with Gustafson leading the way thematically on baritone and tenor, concentrating on long tones and repeated motifs, and driven forward with gusto by the well-tempered rhythm section. Even if the encore was a one-chord wonder, intense playing and a rich group sound made it all worthwhile.

The late evening concerts featured three Japanese shows, the first a double-bill that began with Phew, the stage name of the singer and punk artist who performed with her laptop and electronica. We heard her ah’s and other sounds and echoes thereof, other sounds, and electronic textures in various combinations. It was all cleanly presented, orderly, and somewhat conservative – an exploration that failed to stir the imagination.

The group called Saicobab is a fusion trio simulating Indian ragas with Yoshida Daikichi playing the electric sitar, Hamamoto Tomoyuki on percussion, and vocalist Yoshimio, with her sparkling and quirky stage presence and use of electronica to change the texture of her sound. These are all seasoned musicians, and they have fun, but the electric sitar lacks the rich tones of the acoustic model, the miked tambourine fails to reverberate like the tabla, and the ensemble is more a novelty than a re-interpretation of the real thing.

More successful was Afrirampo, the reunited duo of electric guitarist Oni and drummer extraordinaire Pika. They emerged in the Japanese experimental rock scene in 2002 when the musicians were in their late teens. After much success, they split up in 2010, and reunited two years ago. Barefoot and skimpily dressed in matching dresses, they came on stage beaming and bursting with energy, and led the audience in an “I love you (Je t’aime)” call-and-response – as if to show that these young women want to have fun as they perform. Have fun they did, romping through a hard-hitting session of tunes that brought a claque of head-bangers to the edge of the stage, and displaying mastery of their instruments and rock conventions. These women play at the highest level and even as the clock struck 1:30 a.m. the crowd was engaged and happy.

The festival continues today with five final concerts.

AMN Reviews: Stephanie Richards – Fullmoon (2018; Relative Pitch Records)

Stephanie Richards is a Canadian-born composer / improviser whose armament of choice is the trumpet. Now a resident of New York, she has collaborated with Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Butch Morris, and John ZornFullmoon is her first release, a solo effort with live samples from Dino J.A. Deane.

As far as I can tell, all sounds on the album are derived in some fashion from Richards’ trumpet. But she does not play the instrument in the conventional sense – instead, she explores her ability to create drones, percussion, and resonance, using varied extended techniques. Yes, she does provide a melody or two, but in a non-repetitious, improvised sense. Deane’s contributions build up Richards’ pieces with overdubbed layers of the samples, often resulting in an electroacoustic feel. These processed acoustic sounds emulate not only percussive elements but even string instruments.

Richards refers to her approach as re-composition, where she breaks down each recording and then builds it back up from constituent parts. This is a lengthy process, as it took her over two years to finalize the nine pieces of Fullmoon. As a result, this is a singular release. Both harsh and alluring at the same time, this album will make you unthink what you know about the structure of music.