Like the photographic technique from which it gets its name, Francesco Massaro and Francesco Pellegrino’s Double Exposure overlays multiple images to make a complex, composite whole. In this case, the images are sonic images, provided by electronics and acoustic wind instruments set with and against each other to form sometimes sharp-edged, and sometimes blended, gestalts. Although both artists are credited with electronics and reeds–Massaro’s are baritone saxophone and bass clarinet, Pellegrino’s are tenor saxophone and clarinet–this symmetry of instrumentation seems to have been asymmetrically apportioned, with Pellegrino supplying most of the electronics and Massaro handling the bulk of the acoustic playing, at least to judge from those passages where a specific reed instrument can be identified. This would represent a natural division of labor, since Pellegrino established himself as an electronic sound artist before teaching himself sax and clarinet, and Massaro was a composer and instrumentalist before taking up electronics. Either way, the music represents an intelligent and energetic mix of disparate elements, sometimes laid out as separate but juxtaposed sound fields, and sometimes integrated through interactive programming. Sonic exploration via extended reed techniques and electronic abstraction predominates, but there also are more lyrical passages for baritone saxophone or bass clarinet superimposed against a backdrop of sampled sounds and colored noise. There is in particular an especially beautiful passage for bass clarinet and celestial electronics about three-quarters of the way through the duo’s set-long improvisation, which was recorded live in Florence in June of 2021. For their encore, Massaro and Pellegrino provided backing for a text written and read by poet Nazim Comunale.
In May of 2018 Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello and electronics), Abdul Moimême(dual electric guitars) and Carlos Santos (electronics) met for the first time as a trio. The result is this five-track set recorded live at Namouche Studio in Lisbon.
Moimême is no stranger to these pages, having appeared in a duet with saxophonist patrick brennan on 2019’s Terraphonia and with brennan again along with others on 2020’s The Sudden Bird of Waiting, both of which were reviewed here. On Transition Zone he once again is featured playing two electric guitars simultaneously with a variety of outer-edge techniques. Lonberg-Holm also explores the technical borderlands of his own instrument; his pitched, unpitched and semi-pitched sounds, along with extended bowings, complement Moimême’s well-developed repertoire of scrapings, strikes and plucking. Santos adds a continuo of electronic tint to the completely improvised performances. Although the three hadn’t played together as unit before their sympathetic chemistry is immediately apparent on all of these finely sculpted pieces of textural playing. From the scuffed surfaces of Tumultuous, with its harsh weave of feedback, to the long cello tones and ringing open guitar strings of Hushed, Transition Zone shows how three like minds can paint sound from a broad palette of color.
Also worth mentioning is Powndak Improv by Bilbao guitarist Mikel Vega. Like Moimême, Vega is an exploratory guitarist, but of a more conventionally experimental kind. His improvised performances on this album are pitch-predominant albeit tonally decentered; his electric guitar sound is rich with reverb and distortion and at times is directly allusive to heavy metal. On one track he plays acoustic guitar, which he leads through a labyrinth of angular arpeggios and fragmentary chord sequences. On the texturally provocative track Methagaarborg Vega is joined by saxophonist Fernando Ulzión and electronics artist Miguel A. Garcia.
The Nothing of the title of this third collaborative release from Gianni Lenoci and Franco Degrassi is the supposed nothing of an ostensibly empty audio space. But as 4’33” famously demonstrated, empty audio space is anything but empty.
Degrassi is an acousmatic composer and electroacoustic improviser from Bari, Italy; Lenoci, who died in September, 2019, was a pianist fluent in the languages of jazz and contemporary art music. For this recording, which was made in Lenoci’s hometown of Monopli the summer before his death, Lenoci’s playing is at its most abstract.
As might be imagined, the sound of the room in which the two long improvisations on this two-CD set were recorded plays a prominent role whether indirectly, in adding resonance to Leonoci’s piano and the “sonorous bodies” both he and Degrassi play, or directly, in the form of ambient or incidental sounds. Sounds and environment combine into a holistic, if largely sparse, tissue of the audio traces of events and non-events transpiring in the studio. In addition to the sparingly placed notes and other sounds from the piano, there is the sound of footsteps restlessly moving back and forth in the room, electronic interventions, and vocalizations.
Jeff Snyder and Sam Pluta have been working together since 2006 as the duo exclusiveOR. With Snyder performing on analog synthesizer and Pluta on live electronics. Their work explores the intersection of composition and improvisation with live electronics. For “modules” the duo is joined by some of today’s leading creative musicians: Architeuthis Walks on Land (AWOL) which is Amy Cimini – viola and Katherine Young – bassoon, and members of ICE – Peter Evans, Nate Wooley – trumpets, Ryan Muncy – saxophones, Weston Olencki – trombone and Ross Karre – percussion.
“modules” was commissioned in 2014 by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) as part of their ICELab Series. It is a concert length work that utilizes both improvisation and strictly notated material. The piece covers a lot of ground as it flows through its fifteen modules in which seemingly opposing materials (pitch, sound and noise) and methodologies (composition, improvisation and live electronics) seamlessly interact with one another to create a unified whole.
The fifteen “modules” are comprised of five composed by Pluta, five by Snyder and five improvisations from various small groupings of the ensemble. Each of these tracks or modules has its own distinct character, color and instrumentation. Pluta’s modules tend to be more aggressive and noisier, while Snyder’s are often more harmonically focused. The improvised sections are all sonically oriented and very original. Despite the contrasts within each module they really seem connected and many segments flow into one another in a conversational like manner.
Here is an earlier performance with brass quartet, analog synthesizer, live electronics, and percussion. It’s interesting to hear both of these versions because it makes clear the significant contributions that improvisers can bring to pieces like “modules”.
For those that need some kind of categorization I would put “modules” under the banner of “creative music”; in that the sound worlds that the composers and improvisers create, freely explore many different contemporary and historical musical ideas without any allegiance or deference to any of the “school’s” associated with these ideas. This is a trend that has been growing for quite some time and I think the composers and improvisers on “modules” are among the best of a new generation of musicians continuing this exploration.
Chris De Chiara
Dating back to 1991, Andrew Voigt and Ed Herrmann’s Three Duets delves into some of the creative possibilities of the then somewhat novel pairing of saxophone and analogue modular synthesizer. Nearly thirty years after it was recorded, the set still stands as compelling music.
As musicians, the two have explored different paths. Saxophonist Voigt was a founding member of the Bay Area ROVA Saxophone Quartet—he’s the “V” in “ROVA”; at the time these improvised duets were recorded in San Francisco, he’d recently left the group after having stayed with them for a decade. Herrmann, in addition to being an improviser and composer, is a sound engineer and instrument maker who leads audio tours of Chicago. As these improvisation show, though, different paths can converge quite effectively.
Voigt and Herrmann’s collaboration tends to center on the linear mobility of pitch rather than on the more abstract qualities of timbre as such, although certainly there are moments where the quality of a sound becomes its preeminent feature. Assault of the Palindrome, the opening track, finds Voigt’s serpentine lines weaving around and between Herrmann’s uncanny simulation first of upper register plucked strings and then of a low-register, snapping elastic band. Deferring Delusion follows with the two instruments closely overlapping in sound and timbre and then dissolves into the rumble and hum of synthesizer overlaid with the soft twitter of the saxophone. For the third and final piece, Succumb to Mercury, Herrmann sets the textural atmosphere as Voigt explores a range of extended techniques.
Collision Stories are a quartet of San Francisco sound artists concocting an unorthodox mélange of sounds from an appropriately unorthodox set of instruments. Individually, the four—Jorge Bachmann, Bryan Day, Michael Gendreau and Mason Jones—bring highly varied backgrounds to their collective work. Jones, for example, is a guitarist; at the other end of the instrumental spectrum, Day coaxes sounds from handcrafted intonarumori made of metal measuring tapes, radio transceivers, springs and a miscellany of contact mic’d wood, wire and metal. Put together, the group’s sound, as captured on this CD of ten tracks recorded live and in the studio, is an aggregate of elements that are as unclassifiable as they are unidentifiable. Common to all the pieces is a sonic plasticity made of carefully juxtaposed and spaced timbres—sounds of obscure generation impacting each other and then dispersing in a heavily reverberant environment. This is sound that comes very close to the condition of abstract painting: irregular shapes of pure color held together with a finely-tuned dynamism.
The collaboration of acoustic strings with synthesizer can be a challenging. Both strings and electronics are capable of great timbral range, but of qualitatively different sorts. Combining them in real-time performance opens up many different possibilities, and therefore requires some judgment on the part of the collaborators. One such possibility is to set out a contrastive juxtaposition in which each contributor retains its characteristic voice. That is the possibility realized by synthesizer player Cecilia López in her collaboration with double bassist Amanda Irarrazabal and cellist Cecilia Quinteros in a set of pieces recorded live in Buenos Aires this past July.
Over the course of six tracks and 31 minutes, López, Irarrazabal and Quinteros work a creative parataxis in which strings and synthesizer occupy distinctive spheres. Both string players explore expanded sound palettes, but no matter how extended the techniques drawn on, the rasp or creak of bowhair on string, the snap of metal against fingers or wood and the physical thump and projection of pizzicato passages all serve to announce the quintessentially acoustic presence of double bass and cello. The sonic balance of these pieces tends to tilt toward the strings, but those moments when the synthesizer comes through are notable for introducing characteristically electronic colors into an otherwise predominantly acoustic weave of sound.
Summing up his aesthetic, pianist Jack D’Amico describes his music as ranging across a continuum of song, noise and silence. Aphasia, his trio collaboration with trumpeter Giorgio Distante and drummer Walter Forestiere, does indeed integrate all three elements into a thoughtful amalgamation of avant-garde timbres and cohesive rhythms standing in the shadows of silence. Ironically enough, the release is named for a medical condition involving language impairment—ironically, because the music here demonstrates a fluency in the vocabularies and grammars of different strains of contemporary improvisation.
Distante, D’Amico and Forestiere, all of whom are from Southern Italy–Lecce, Naples and Bari, respectively–share eclectic backgrounds. With roots in classical, jazz and contemporary idioms, their work has leveraged improvisation and the use of new technologies to enhance sounds both individually and in the aggregate. So it’s no surprise that Aphasia’s four tracks move between electric and acoustic contexts with a transparency that reconciles these two often distinctive milieux.
The opening and closing tracks both center on a sound that recreates, while simultaneously refreshing, the electric piano vamps and steady grooves of early jazz-rock. Aloof’s minor key vamp falls into a beat accented in sevens, while being punctuated by the stab and fade of D’Amico’s chording and Distante’s spare melodies. Aphasia plays a spacious, shimmering electric piano and ruminative trumpet off against the album’s most assertive drumming. The two middle tracks, Regret That and Micro-Macro, work together like a suite, Regret That’s closing drum-trumpet duet leading naturally into Micro-Macro’s opening with an introspective cadenza for trumpet alone. The former piece is built around D’Amico’s classical-modernist pianism, the scraping of the strings inside the piano offset by Forestiere’s well-placed, discreet drumming, which eventually brings the piece into the solid structure of a deliberate 4-4 time. The latter piece sums up the various elements making up the album: Pensive solos for trumpet and piano in which individual tones are given room to breathe; surprising timbres for drums and objects; and the trio’s collective coalescence into a sturdy rhythm.
Pianist Dmitry Shubin and drummer/electronics artist Alexey Ivanov begin the long single track Emphasis paradoxically, by introducing their instruments through an anonymous series of tappings on wood and scrapings of loose metal and taut strings. Eventually the identifiable profiles of piano and drums emerge in the muffled roll of sticks on drumheads, the surging crescendo of vibrating cymbals, and the reverberations of a piano chord repeatedly struck at well-placed intervals. As the piece unfolds, the initial ambiguity of the instruments’ identities finds a parallel in the larger ambiguity of their relationship to each other. For much of the track the usual relationship of piano as lead and drums as support is inverted, with Ivanov’s expressionistic playing frequently taking a salient position. Conversely, the piano often plays the role of a second drum, as Shubin’s attack, particularly in the upper register, emphasizes a kinship to the drums and serves to recall and recover the piano’s status as a member of the percussion family. Ivanov’s occasional electronic interventions serve to underscore the essentially timbral nature of the piece, which nevertheless comes to a close with the relative tranquility of drifting piano chords.
A city of cardboard is a squat made of discarded materials, an expedient settlement for living during economic hard times. Analogously, in this recording the duo Music for Hard Times (Tom Nunn on sketchboxes, resonance plates, music boxes, harmonic rods and other objects, and Paul Winstanley on electric bass guitar with extensions and electronics) build structures in sound out of homemade, jerry-rigged instruments. These structures are textural rather than melodic, consisting of drifting, atmospheric soundscapes in place of motifs stated and varied. As reflected in the seven tracks’ titles, the atmospheres are for the most part bracing—an icy wind modeled in scrapes and echoes, scratches and hums—but not without a certain austere beauty.