AMN Reviews: River Town Duo – For Claire and Philip [Furious Artisans FACD6824]

Fifteen or so years ago the my then-group was on a bill with an improvising duo consisting of double bass and harp. An unusual combination at first sight, but as their set showed, it made for a fascinating blend of contrasts and consonances of timbre and compass. That unique and uniquely right conjunction of instruments is put forward and elaborated upon in For Claire and Philip, the debut recording of the River Town Duo.

The Claire and Philip of the album’s title are the River Town Duo: harpist Claire Happel Ashe and double bassist Philip Alejo. The title track, a composition by Caroline Shaw, alludes not only to its having been commissioned by the duo, but more expansively to the fact that the recording’s six works, composed over the past six years by six contemporary composers, were all commissions from Ashe and Alejo.

On the evidence of For Claire and Philip, Ashe and Alejo have tastes that embrace a broad range of new music. The album is well-balanced between conventionally-framed, lyrical pieces and works informed by the contemporary common practice of seamlessly integrating extended and ordinary techniques. For Claire and Philip (2014) is an example of the former type of work, with Alejo’s slowly bowed melody floating over a rhythmic, piano-like accompaniment on the harp. The Circuitous Six (2016) by pianist/composer Whitney Ashe (and husband of Claire) is an introspective work featuring an abstract impressionist harp line over a restrained bass divided between arco and pizzicato. The composer of On Lotusland (2015), Derick Evans, is predominantly a pop songwriter, but his suspenseful, episodic contribution is conversant with contemporary performance techniques—aggressive percussive effects, harmonic glissandi, microtones and more—as it moves through shifting time signatures and in and out of brief forays into lyricism. Hannah Lash’s aptly titled Leaves, Space (2015) is an undulating, uncluttered two-movement composition ornamented with broad trills and bowed chords from the bass. Two Meditations on Poems of Mary Oliver (2017) by Evan Premo, another two-movement work, evokes early morning New Hampshire with Ashe mimicking finger-picked guitar and Alejo playing a rich, clear upper register arco line. The final piece on the album, the vigorous, five-movement Oxygen (2017) by Stephen Andrew Taylor, draws most consistently on extended techniques for both instruments.

What binds these diversely styled compositions together is the beautiful performance by Ashe and Alejo. Their collective sound is luxuriant and vivid, their individual sounds finely etched. Ashe’s playing is sensitive but sharply focused; Alejo’s signature is a smooth arco that’s forcefully robust in the lower register and highly refined in the upper register. A delightful album.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Jakob Heinemann – Latticework [Scripts Records]; Matt Nelson – Starting [Eschatology Records ER-005]

As recently as sixty years ago, there was very little in the way of literature for the double bass as a solo voice; it was barely even considered a particularly musical instrument. (And don’t get me started on double bass jokes. As the ancient sage Jimmy Durante once said, I got a million of ‘em.) But now, not only is there a substantial and growing body of work written for the double bass either alone or as the solo voice within an ensemble, there is an even greater and faster-growing set of recordings for double bass as a vehicle for adventurous solo improvisation. Two fine new recordings by Jakob Heinemann and Matt Nelson can claim to be part of this now-venerable tradition. Both albums are concise and to the point—Heinemann’s four tracks total 34 minutes, while Nelson’s five come to 23 minutes—in presenting each artist’s engagement with the instrument’s broad range of techniques and consequent palette of sounds. While both bassists make generous and almost exclusive use of techniques largely developed within the last several decades, each does so with a sensibility that’s quite specific and ultimately personal. Heinemann seems drawn to the instrument’s naturally dark woodiness of tone, something he brings out with a robust, heavily percussive touch using both hands and bow. He’s especially effective at combining bow strikes with a strong left-hand attack to create a dense polyphony of timbres. Like Heinemann, Nelson is attentive to subsuming pitch in unconventional sound colors, albeit in a way less oriented toward auto-counterpoint. He shows himself to be particularly adept at exploring the multiphonic possibilities inherent in subjecting heavy strings to varying pressures from bow and fingers; on two tracks he plays with the microtonal variations that arise from simultaneously sounding stopped and open strings.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: William Parker & Stefano Scodanibbio – Bass Duo [Centering CENT1013]

There’s a subtle, but still substantial, challenge involved in improvising a duet in which both instruments are the same. The potential for redundancy and a monochromatic sound is an ever-present specter hovering nearby, which can only be avoided with discretion, technical mastery, and a sensitive touch. Fortunately—and by no means unexpectedly—all three qualities are abundant on this set of double bass duets featuring William Parker and the late Stefano Scodanibbio.

The five untitled pieces—which seem to have been separated from a continuous performance recorded in June 2008 in Udine, Italy—show the mostly parallel motion of two powerful and articulate voices, each complete in its own sphere but whose instances of convergence create moments of collaborative brilliance. The image that comes to mind is of two speakers of mutually comprehensible dialects of the same language, each of which is distinguished by differences of pronunciation and prosody. Some of these differences can be ascribed to differences in background. Scodanibbio was part of the modern classical tradition and played works by major avant-garde and modernist composers, some of which were written for him. Parker was and remains a vital figure in creative music, having played with Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Milford Graves and others in New York and elsewhere. But common to both is a language consisting in an expansive palette of timbres, which Parker and Scodanibbio have developed and structured in their own ways. Parker plays with an exuberance and coiled energy that find expression in denser textures and the explicit rhythms of several vamps and grooves he sets out—not least on the second piece, which moves in an eddy of sophisticated cross-rhythms. Scodanibbio generally favors a more dispersed, episodic sound based on harmonics, multiphonics and bow articulation, but he too spells out rhythms, often by bouncing the bow on the strings or by tapping complex patterns on the body of the bass. Both bassists are masters of sonic nuance and tonal shading; it’s a true pleasure to hear them as they converge and diverge in an elaborate timbral counterpoint.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Yair Elazar Glotman – Études [Subtext SUB013]

R-7265770-1437553488-8865.jpegIn recent years, the uniquely resonant properties of the double bass have attracted both composers and improviser/performers interested in exploring the implications of its distinctive sonic profile. Through the application of electronics, the insertion of foreign bodies into the instrument, the use of special techniques and articulations, or simply the isolation of its sound in a resonant space, innovative artists such as Adriano Orrù, Pascal Niggenkemper and Benoit Cancoin—to name just three—have created intriguing works that have taken as a starting point the double bass as a material fact—an object of wood and metal capable of producing tones with almost infinitely malleable overtone structures. Berlin-based sound artist Yair Elazar Glotman joins them with Études, a set of ten solo studies for an electronically enhanced double bass.

Glotman was trained as a classical double bassist and also studied electroacoustic composition. His current focus seems to be on electronics-centered sound art, some of which has made use of analogue tape loops. These latter come into play in the Études, in conjunction with the close placement of microphones and amplification.

Each one of Glotman’s études is in essence a study of one type of sound or sound quality. The first three—with the addition of the sixth, which is a kind of reprise or continuation of the second—are largely centered on the timbral kaleidoscope obtainable from a single pitch whether this is produced by slow, rhythmically regular bowing, by striking or by plucking. From this basic material, rumbling waves of sound crest and break on a plain of rattling and fluttering wood on metal. Whether these ancillary sounds are artifacts of a recording / amplification / feedback loop or of the performer’s physical gestures is difficult to say and probably beside the point as well. Subsequent études layer additional pitches or pitch sequences onto the ground drone, but in these pieces as well the main interest lies in the ways that looping, rhythmic stimulation of the strings and amplification push and pull out sounds and overtones ordinarily just latent in a tone.

Daniel Barbiero


AMN Reviews: Stefano Scodanibbio – Incontri & Reuniones [Angelica IDA033]

ida033-stefano-scodanibbio-incontri-reuniones-mediumDouble bassist Stefano Scodanibbio was a superlatively inspirational figure not only in the world of the double bass, but in the larger world of new music as well. Even three years after his premature death of ALS this sense of inspiration hasn’t dissipated but rather continues to come through whether in the work being done by those directly influenced by his example—the fine Norwegian bassist Hakon Thelin comes immediately to mind—or in the underlying warmth that seems to pervade the recordings of his encounters with other musicians. The present set of duets and trios spanning 1996-2008, put together by Massimo Simonini in accordance with Scodanibbio’s wishes, provides unmistakable evidence of the musical charisma the bassist could summon in intimate settings.

Although Scodanibbio was known above nearly all else as a masterful interpreter of new, often very difficult works by contemporary composers—think of his adaptation for the double bass of Luciano Berio’s Sequenza XIV for cello; his realization of works written for him by Iannis Xenakis, Luigi Nono, Brian Ferneyhough and others; and his transcription and performance of Cage’s notorious Freeman Etudes. (Speaking of Cage, the composer was on record as maintaining that Scodanibbio was the definitive interpreter of Ryoanji on double bass—no small praise, as Cage could express dissatisfaction with what he considered performers’ taking undue license in the handling of that piece.) “Nearly all else,” because he was perhaps foremost as an improviser, albeit an improviser with a strongly innate compositional sense who was adept at creating coherent structures in the moment, with whomever happened to share that moment with him. This essential aspect of his playing stands at the core of these exhilarating performances.

On all seventeen of these tracks, Scodanibbio’s ear for composition reveals itself in his choices of timbres and in the instinctively contrapuntal phrasing he layered under or over another player’s line. Both of these qualities were two sides of the same coin; his timbral choices served to create complements to or contrasts with their surroundings, depending on the desired effect, while his sense of phrasing was one that encompassed a unity made up of equal parts pitch and timbre. His trademark integration of harmonics at all points on the instrument with conventional notes allowed him to create highly organic, often lyrical phrases of sharply contrasting timbres.

The majority of the duets in this collection are for strings: Ten for double bass and cello, and one for double bass and viola. This latter, a 2006 encounter with Garth Knox, allows Scodanibbio to elaborate on the methods of real-time composition he developed to a fine degree—the construction of solid textures and cohesive melodies out of the shimmering, ghostly sounds of harmonics and sul ponticello bowing. The contrast of these sounds, at once keen-edged and robust, with Knox’s pointed pizzicato playing is particularly memorable. The eight brief duets recorded in 2008 with cellist Rohan de Saram—who played on Scodanibbio’s Six Duos CD of 2001—explore a quite different realm of sounds. Here the emphasis is on pure color, with both instruments seeming to decompose into their constituent raw materials. Scodanibbio’s duet with cellist Tristan Honsiger, recorded in Honsiger’s home in 2002, starts out in a similar manner—a woody, rattling flourish of pizzicato and strikes with the wood of the bow—but its stabs and arco swoops mutate into the CD’s closest approach to conventional counterpoint for strings, with Scodanibbio undergirding Honsiger’s hyperkinetic melodies.

Scodanibbio’s playing could at times take on the character of the sarangi, the cello-like North Indian instrument often used to accompany vocal performances. Terry Riley, represented here playing Korg Triton synthesizer on a duet recorded in Granada, Spain in 2000, found this dimension of the bassist’s sound attractive. The two recorded a CD together of modally-inflected music in just intonation; the Granada improvisation continues in a similar vein. Scodanibbio provides a percussion-like propulsion to the music, bouncing the bow off the strings to produce a skipping tango-ish or vaguely Middle Eastern rhythm. A 2005 duet with cellist Frances-Marie Uitti, whose unique style of play involves the use of two bows at once, extends the North Indian flavor by starting with a tamboura-like drone, which forms the basis for a gradual move into changing chords supporting a somber lyricism.

The disc is rounded out with three trios for double bass, trombone and percussion, and two pairings with soprano saxophonist Bruce Ackley. The duets with Ackely, recorded in 1996 in Oakland, make good use of dynamic variations and draw on Scodanibbio’s ability to use bow articulations to mimic the sound of the wind instrument, which Ackley puts through a program of trills, whistles, multiphonics and runs. On the three trio improvisations recorded in concert in Parma with trombonist Mike Svoboda and percussionist Michael Kiedaisch in 2004, Scodanibbio’s contrapuntal playing takes on a rhythmic character. Instead of weaving countermelodies around Svoboda’s shouts and whispers, he plucks, strikes and taps in the spaces Kiedaisch opens up along the way.

Daniel Barbiero


AMN Reviews: Michael Francis Duch – Tomba Emmanuelle [SOFALP543]

cover170x170The relationship between an instrumental performance and its setting is a symbiotic one: room acoustics, the location, number and types of instruments, the placement of the listeners, and so forth will affect—sometimes decisively—the way that the sound is produced, received and decoded. Norwegian double bassist Michael Francis Duch’s solo performance in Oslo’s Tomba Emmanuelle, recorded on 13 May 2013 with his Czech-Ease bass, shows how deeply an acoustically distinctive space can affect the sound, and even the architecture, of an unamplified performance organized around minimal harmonic movement.

In a sense any live performance is site specific, being shaped by the contingent factors that determine the acoustic response of its setting. What sets this performance apart from many is the fairly extreme nature of the venue. The Tomba Emmanuelle is a large, barrel-vaulted space renowned for its echoing acoustics. Originally built as a museum for the work of artist Emanuel Vigeland, it became his mausoleum and, after being opened to the public, has been used regularly for concerts.

Duch’s performance, a single 28-minute long piece, makes full use of the mausoleum’s peculiar acoustics. At the beginning Duch settles into an apparently simple, steadily and evenly bowed drone grounded in the bass’s low G. Aided by the accumulating echo, the drone turns out to be rather complex. About five minutes into the performance the G seems to ramify as the lower partials become audible; an A emerges as well, possibly the effect of the adjacent A string beginning to vibrate in sympathy with the bowed E string. The sonority ramifies further into a chiming, bell-like chord, which itself multiplies into something sounding like a harmonic cycle played on a carillon. After a brief fade Duch resumes the drone an octave higher—presumably on the open G string—and over time brings in a variety of techniques to alter the timbre: flautando effects through changes of bow and/or finger pressure; bowing on the bridge for a brittle, glassy sound; playing microtonal near-unisons to produce a sound like the throbbing of unsynchronized airplane engines as well as a phasing effect. As the performance develops Duch gradually introduces more tonal and harmonic variety against the drone, and ends with rapidly played harmonics alone.

With fundamental pitch held more or less constant throughout, the listener’s attention can turn to the microstructures of the music—the local changes in texture and dynamics that the room’s acoustics help to bring forward and that cumulatively shape the performance’s macrostructure. Although the resonance of the space tends to pile up sounds and make for a thick texture, within the thickness there is some variation, particularly when the lower tones drop out about 19 minutes in. Duch’s manipulation of attack and accent through changes in bowstrokes also exploit the ambient echo to momentarily increase and then lessen the density of the sound, in addition to introducing nuanced variation of dynamics.

A fine recording of a mesmerizing performance, best heard through headphones.



AMN Reviews: Håkon Thelin & Stefano Scodanibbio – A Stefano Scodanibbio [Atterklang309]

tumblr_inline_n60vsxD7tu1r5w0caNorwegian double bassist Håkon Thelin came to know the Italian bassist Stefano Scodanibbio after the two met at Thelin’s solo recital in Bergen, Norway in 2005. The friendship and professional relationship the two developed was crystallized in a joint tour of Norway in 2009 and lasted until Scodanibbio’s tragically early death from ALS in 2012. A Stefano Scodanibbio, which brings together three tracks from the 2009 tour as well as solo performances by each musician, is Thelin’s tribute and memorial to this superlative exponent of the double bass.

The CD begins as Thelin and Scodanibbio’s friendship did, with a solo performance by Thelin. In fact the disc is bookended by two solo performances recorded by Thelin in Norway in 2013: Luciano Berio’s Sequenza XIVb and Scodanibbio’s Geografia amorosa. Sequenza XIVb was originally composed for solo cello, but at Berio’s request was adapted for double bass by Scodanibbio in 2004. Scodanibbio’s adaptation involved some reworking and the addition of original material, resulting in a virtuoso piece that wrings out of the bass virtually every timbre it’s capable of producing. Over the course of its thirteen minutes it makes extreme technical demands of the performer, who must negotiate a rigorous course of extended pizzicato and arco techniques while maintaining the work’s essential musical coherence. Thelin’s realization of Scodanibbio’s score is masterful, from the opening harmonics plucked harp-style with both hands through the rapid sul ponticello bowed passages, frequent flageolets and all percussive points in between. Thelin’s performance brings out the implicit rhythmic pulse—an important structural element that unifies the piece but that is easy to overlook in favor of the brilliance of its surface events. If rhythm is the implicit theme of Sequenza XIVb, it is the explicit, organizing force behind Geografia amorosa, originally recorded by Scodanibbio for a 2000 release of the same name. This 1994 composition incorporates a series of percussive gestures that make of the bow a kind of mallet, striking the strings above and below the bridge, tapping the instrument’s tailpiece and ribs, and rubbing rhythmically in conjunction with left-hand pizzicato harmonics. Thelin executes all this with an admirable clarity that lays bare the structural continuity of the piece.

The three duets consist of two improvisations and a performance of Scodanibbio’s 2002 composition Da una certa nebbia. On this latter piece, which Scodanibbio originally composed for himself and Barry Guy, Thelin takes the first bass part, originally played by Scodanibbio, while Scodanibbio takes the sparse, second bass part, originally played by Guy. The work unfolds in a set of slowly moving, stratified planes of sound bumping up and scraping against each other at deliberately spaced intervals. Thelin sets out dissonant two- and three-note harmonies and arpeggios, which Scodanibbio punctuates with well-placed pizzicato notes and harmonics, gradually contributing long-bowed, complementary tones to Thelin’s surging, sustained sonorities.

The solo Scodanibbio performance included here is & Roll (2007), Scodanibbio’s playful translation to the double bass of themes derived from Jimi Hendrix. The piece, recorded at the Norwegian Academy of Music in November 2009, can be seen as well as heard.

A Stefano Scodanibbio is a fine homage to one of the most important double bassists of recent times. More than that, it demonstrates that Håkon Thelin, in addition to perpetuating the technical traditions associated with Scodanibbio’s style of playing, is a sensitive and accomplished instrumentalist in his own right. As an added bonus, the CD is accompanied by a booklet containing an edited version of Thelin’s thoughtful essay on Scodanibbio’s instrumental style and work.


AMN Reviews: Benoit Cancoin – Instants Minuscules Solo pour un [Blumlein A025]

Benoit Cancoin’s first solo release features four improvisations for four people—one of whom was still in utero–performed in four different locations. The improvisations were played as personal concerts for the people involved, in their homes or workshops. Given the closeness of the relationships and the intimacy of the settings, they represent extraordinary collaborations between performer and audience.

All four pieces feature a gestural approach to free improvisation that focuses on the peculiarities of the instrument—its pattern of overtones, responses to changes in bow pressure and articulation, the way different regions of the fingerboard affect the brightness and darkness of tone when fingered, tapped, or bowed a certain way. Throughout Cancoin creates a complex soundworld of drones, multiphonics, glissandi mimicking the Doppler Effect, creaks, slaps, scrapes and more. In the end, there is a kind of portraiture at work beyond that of the person and the space inspiring the playing. In essence Cancoin is painting a sound portrait of the instrument, bringing out its manifold qualities and quirks of personality.

AMN Reviews: Mike Bullock – Fermented…Earth/A Cat’s Tiger [shadowselves02]

The single nineteen minute track that makes up this second release from double bassist/sound artist Mike Bullock’s Shadowselves label is something of a paradox: a polyphonic soliloquy.

In addition to playing double bass, Bullock creates sounds with synthesizer, voice and the movement of pens and pencils across paper. Bullock favors an elemental approach to the bass, foregrounding the sounds of its raw materials in action, whether in the form of bowed open strings or the contact of the wood of the bow against the strings’ metal surfaces. Similarly, Bullock’s vocalizations emphasize the grain of the voice unencumbered by language, while his synthesizer whooshes, chirps crackles and buzzes around it. From a quiet opening balanced on the point of a pencil moving vigorously on paper the piece broadens out to a gradually accumulating sound world; the sounds are layered sparingly but with enough interactive mass to create movement and a dynamic relationship among parts. This is one of those intimately-scaled recordings that succeeds in putting the listener on close terms with the instruments and objects creating sounds.

As with the previous issue from Shadowselves, this release comes in a very limited edition of fifteen, with each CDR accompanied by a unique, beautifully-crafted porcelain tile handmade by Bullock and his wife Linda.

AMN Reviews: Patrick Crossland & Alexander Frangenheim – Ape Green

Patrick Crossland & Alexander Frangenheim: Ape Green [cs243]

It isn’t every day that one runs across a duo of trombone and double bass. Even so, the two instruments’ differences in timbre and overlap of range make them potentially compatible partners. This potential is well-realized in this collection of improvised duets by Patrick Crossland on trombone and Alexander Frangenheim on double bass.

Throughout the set, Crossland and Frangenheim fully explore the richness of sound available to them both collectively and individually. Frangenheim brings out the extensive timbral possibilities inherent in his instrument, plucking, bowing, tapping and rattling until a complete sound profile of the double bass accumulates from his individual gestures. His use of different bow articulations are especially noteworthy, and allow the bass to play interlocutor to Crossland’s expressively vocal-like inflections, which are by turns grousing, inquisitive, lyrical, ruminative and declarative. Each player’s aural space interlocks with the other’s, creating a shared middle ground in which the roles of lead and backing line constantly shift. In the process—which both balances on and grows out of the mutually reinforcing qualities of contrast and likeness–each makes apparent the unique and defining characteristics of his particular voice.

Although the CD is organized into twelve relatively brief tracks, the momentum and continuity are such that, as with a well-written book, it’s hard not to take in the whole in one sitting.