AMN Reviews: Setola di Maiale Unit & Evan Parker – Live at Angelica 2018 [Setola di Maiale SM3880]

Crafting a musically cohesive, uncongested free improvisation with a small group is hard enough. It become much more difficult the larger the ensemble. Some large groups—the Variable Geometry Orchestra comes to mind—have been able to manage this nicely. Add to their number the Setola di Maiale Unit, an ensemble headed by percussionist Stefano Giust.

The Setola di Maiale Unit is a free improvisation group whose membership isn’t fixed. Many of the players are artists on the Setola di Maiale label, which Giust heads. For their appearance at the 2018 AngelicA Festival in Bologna the group, in addition to Giust, consisted of Marco Colonna on clarinets; Martin Mayes on horn and alphorn; Patrizia Oliva on voice and electronics; Alberto Novello on analog electronics; Giorgio Pacorig on piano; and Michele Anelli on double bass. Special guest Evan Parker sat in on tenor and soprano saxophones, while composer Philip Corner and dancer Phoebe Neville dropped to play a brief introduction on gongs. The performance was in part a celebration of label’s twenty-fifth anniversary—an auspicious landmark, and a fittingly fine set to commemorate it.

The hour-long improvisation is tracked into five sections prefaced by Corner and Neville’s introduction. Each section highlights some aspect of the group’s work, usually on the basis of the many subgroupings that emerge over the course of the set. What’s remarkable is that there was no conducting or direction; the changes in dynamics and density and the frequent interludes for solos, duos, and trios were arrived at spontaneously. Each player has some time as a leading voice if not a soloist; there are beautiful soliloquies for piano and drums, and instances of impromptu polyphony breaking out among the horns. It’s exactly the kind of playing one would expect from some of Europe’s most sensitive improvisers, and a happy anniversary indeed.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Jestern & Tom Arthurs – Cahier de petits coquillages Vol IV/V [Setola di Maiale]

In August, 2017, Alberto Novello, the Italian-born composer, programmer, and multimedia artist, and UK trumpeter/composer Tom Arthurs shared an ArtOMI residency in Ghent, New York. The four-week summer program was intended to bring together international artists for the purposing of fostering collaboration; this recording, made during the residency, is one such successful one.

For these performances, Novello, who uses the stage name Jestern, accompanied Arthurs’s acoustic trumpet with analogue electronics. The musical relationship the two forged is one of strong, independent and parallel voices that nevertheless provide complementary parts of a distinctive whole. This they do largely through contrasts of timbre and phrasing, given the particular capabilities of their instruments. Novello’s electronics are glitch and jumpy; even at their most abstract they allude, however obliquely, to rhythms rooted in the body: foot-tapping, finger-popping, knuckle-rapping. Their chopped sounds are a sonic bed over which Arthurs’s melodic lines lie—sometimes uneasily, sometimes comfortably, but always appropriately.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Alberto Novello & Flavio Zanuttini – Le Retour des Oiseaux [bandcamp]

a2144835138_16John Cage may have had a book titled For the Birds, but his contemporary, Olivier Messiaen, often composed from the birds. Messiaen’s adaption of birdsong to art music was the foundation of his work from the early 1950s onward, and this provides the inspiration for Alberto Novello and Flavio Zanuttini’s Le Retour des Oiseaux.

To be sure, Novello, an Italian sound artist currently residing in the Netherlands, is no ornithologist, though he does bring a rigorous scientific background to music. Originally trained as a nuclear physicist in Trieste, he eventually obtained a doctorate in music psychology after taking a master’s degree in a multidisciplinary program in art, science and technology. His work addresses the interaction of sound and perception and the associations that result—a kind of musical phenomenology afforded by the application of new technologies to sound production. Le Retour des Oiseaux is consistent with this program; on it Novello, who goes by the name JesterN, works with real-time electronic manipulation of sound to devise an aural plasticity that plays on the listener’s attentiveness, memory and willingness to recognize the audio uncanny in the deliberate distortion of sound properties. Joining him is Udine flugelhornist Flavio Zanuttini, a musician whose background embraces big band jazz, free improvisation, contemporary art music and points beyond. He and Novello worked together previously on a 2013 remake of Don Cherry’s Complete Communion, undertaken by Zanuttini’s punk-jazz group Arbe Gabe. Their collaboration on Le Retour des Oiseaux is a more cerebral affair, rooted as it is in the tradition of the electroacoustic avant-garde. The result is a set of masterfully constructed, coloristic works emerging from the fecund meeting of acoustic brass and the technological imagination.

Each of the five pieces is named for one of the letters spelling out “BIRDS,” a bit of language play that alludes perhaps to what the musicians describe as their philological interest in Messiaen’s aesthetic. Novello and Zanuttini’s own aesthetic consists in the complex aggregation and separation of Zanuttini’s live and recorded flugelhorn with Novello’s electronic inventions. The resulting music is texturally rich and highly spatialized, though apparently the recording is only a partial representation of the original live performance, which involved a quadrophonic sound system and a visual component as well.

But what of the birds? Oblique refigurations of birdsong do weave in and out of the pieces, whether as the ambiguous chirpings of electronics or in the short, repeated motifs of the flugelhorn. From the very first track we hear an electronic simulacrum of distant masses of birds engulfed by rising winds; the flugelhorn comes in with a three-note melody that serves as the core of an accelerating improvisation. Assisted by Novello’s real-time recording, playback and superimposition, Zanuttini takes this compact cluster of tones and combines, reiterates and varies them, much as a calling bird might do (albeit a particularly deep-throated one). The overall pattern holds for I, where Zanuttini plays fragments of the whole tone scale, adding and subtracting chromatic tones as he develops his line, while Novello contributes samples of birdsong—or electronic mimicry of birdsong. The piece builds up to an atmosphere as dense as an impending summer storm. In a deft play of contrast R follows with a kind of industrial adagio, which sets up a subsequent contrast with the hyperactive, pixillated D, sounding something like the hypothetical inner life of a ricocheting pinball in a game gone mad. S exploits the microtonal nuances of the flugelhorn through looping and layering, culminating in an otherworldly fanfare of timbral distortion.

Daniel Barbiero