AMN Reviews: If, Bwana – E (and sometimes why)

If, Bwana: E (and sometimes why) [pogus 21062-2]

If Bwana
If Bwana (Photo credit: kubia)

This new, fascinating two-disc set from If, Bwana (Al Margolis) could easily have been named for its last track, Diapason, Maybe. Diapason can be defined as either the just octave of Pythagorean tuning, or a great upsurge in harmony. Both definitions come into play throughout this album, which documents a well-conceived and -accomplished virtual collaboration between Margolis and the Trio Scordatura (Elisabeth Smalt, viola d’amore; Bob Gilfrun, keyboard and laptop; and Alfrun Schmid, voice), a Netherlands-based ensemble dedicated to exploring novel harmonic relationships through the use of just intonation or tunings that aren’t based on conventional twelve-pitch equal temperament.

A recurring theme throughout E (and sometimes why) is the layering of long tones into emergent harmonies that shift and swell over time. Because of the tunings and instruments used, the harmonies have a microtonal flavor—they seem to roll, pitch and yaw somewhere in the spaces between equal-tempered harmonies. The Diapason, Maybe, along with the title track and All for Al(frun) exemplify this. Each of the three uses a different voice as a kind of urtext. E (and sometimes why) layers long-bowed tones from the viola d’amore with Schmid’s voice; All for Al(frun) is built up of overdubs of Schmid and electronics; Diapason, Maybe has as its foundation Monique Buzzarté’s trombone drones. On all of these tracks, Margolis’s additive layering of samples produces harmonies that fluctuate between the apparently concordant and discordant, often getting denser as the piece develops. Because of the manner in which the sounds are presented, the listener is likely to become sensitized to the micro-variations in pitch that attend even the seemingly steadiest, long-duration tone. There’s something of a paradox here in that this highly electronic music highlights the tiny inconsistencies that make music human, whether these make themselves apparent through the ebb and flow of breath, barely discernible changes in bow pressure on a string, or a slight wobble in the voice.

A few of the pieces bring out a different side of the sound altogether. The wonderfully titled The Tempest, Fuggit is an ultimately unsettling work centered on Michael Peters’ recitation of Prospero’s lines from Act 1, Scene 2 of The Tempest, punctuated by sampled pizzicato strings and set within a looming, suspenseful electronic drone. Cicada 4AA is a predominantly textural work, while Gilmore’s Girls, augmented by the appearances of Buzzarté, vocalist Lisa Barnard Kelley and Margolis on keyboards, favors more staccato sounds and is in some ways the most overtly microtonal track in the collection.

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