Back in spring 2018, New York City alto saxophonist/composer patrick brennan revisited Lisbon. While living there in the 1990s he’d become involved with the Portuguese improvised music community; his return to Lisbon put him once again in the company of the city’s improvisers and resulted in two exhilarating recordings: 2019’s Terraphonia, a duet with electric guitarist and sound artist Abdul Moimême, and now the newly released The Sudden Bird of Waiting.
Like Terraphonia, The Sudden Bird of Waiting was recorded in April, 2018 in Lisbon’s Namouche Studios. Here, brennan is heard mostly on alto saxophone but also occasionally on cornet and jaguar, the latter being an ancient Mesoamerican wind instrument producing a gusty, unpitched sound. In contrast to the earlier set, which explores timbral polarities within the restricted intimacy of the duet, The Sudden Bird of Waiting, which finds brennan alongside of a string quartet of violin (Maria do Mar), viola (Ernesto Rodrigues), cello (Miguel Mira) and double bass (Hernâni Faustino) along with Moimême on two electric guitars played simultaneously and objects, is an essay in the complex sonorities of the contemporary chamber ensemble.
Although the music on the album is fully improvised, the cohesion of the strings and guitars on the one side, and the forceful solo voice of the alto saxophone on the other, give the group’s sound a structural coherence that transcends the momentary alliances that typically form and disperse in the flow of spontaneous music. In fact it is this play of difference separating brennan’s saxophone from the strings and guitars that gives the performance the feel of a multi-movement concerto for alto saxophone and chamber orchestra. Here as on his other recordings, brennan is a compelling soloist. His saxophone emerges as a well-defined, hard-edged line standing out against and weaving through the surrounding masses of sound; these latter consist in an elaborately textured structure built up from the full range of extended and conventional performance techniques present to hand for contemporary players—something of a signature sound for Rodrigues and the string players associated with him. The track Nextness introduces a new element into the mix—the spoken word, in the form of brennan’s dramatic reading of poet Randee Silv’s verbal composition by that name. Silv’s anti-narrative of juxtaposed images and creatively dismantled semantics—a kind of extended technique for language—is perfectly at home in these surroundings.
From its 18th century origins until today, the string quartet has undergone a continuous process of change. One of the more interesting and recent of these changes is the string quartet playing freely improvised, often texturally or timbrally focused music. Europe’s Quatuor BRAC is exemplary of the type; a fine new quartet, made up of highly skilled improvisational musicians from Portugal and Germany, brings its own voice to this solid, yet still young, tradition.
The group, which consists of Portuguese-born, Berlin-based cellist Guilherme Rodrigues; Rodrigues’ father Ernesto on viola; and Berliners Dietrich Petzold on violin and viola and Jan Roder on double bass, recorded Get Your Own Picture in Berlin in October 2018. The inclusion of a double bass makes the ensemble’s configuration unconventional—a string quartet ordinarily includes two violins, viola and cello—but not unique. Quatuor BRAC, for example, also includes a double bass. The occasional substitution of a second viola for violin represents a further break with the string quartet’s traditional instrumentation, but it also helps give the group a distinctive sound of its own.
The trio of the two Rodrigueses and Petzold had already formed a musical partnership, having recorded together previously and released three albums that also appear on the Creative Sources label. Roder thus joins a group already fairly well integrated—and one in which his voice seamlessly blends.
As with traditional string quartets line, and especially the complexities of multiple lines interacting, is the focus, but the Rodrigueses, Petzold, and Roder take this traditional focus and subject it to a particularly creative twisting and distortion that decenters and pushes it to the edges of recognizability. The four also embellish their lines with episodes of purely timbral sounds, the effect of which is to add nuance to what is essentially pitch-driven music. Further adding nuance and affective force is the group’s meticulous and carefully calibrated attention to textural density and overall dynamics.
A release from the trio of pianist Karoline Leblanc and double bassist Nicolas Caloia, both of Montreal, and Portuguese violist Ernesto Rodrigues, Autoschediasm, recorded in June at the Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal, is an example of discerningly improvised timbral polyphony. From the first instant Leblanc, Caloia and Rodrigues reveals themselves to be possessed of a fine collective chemistry based on keen listening and sensitive responsiveness. Each leaves adequate room for the others’ instruments to breathe and to sound; their music is the product of what appears to be an unforced, natural rapport. As instrumentalists, all three are primarily colorists working with the full palettes that piano, double bass and viola make possible. The group’s fluency in handling color is especially evident on the second track, an exploration of space and tone. The strings are particularly creative here, with Rodrigues spinning out a full spectrum of unpitched sounds against Caloia’s harmonics, plucked and struck notes, and pressure bowing. Leblanc’s discreet interventions serve as the keystone holding Rodrigues’s and Caloia’s centripetal forces in place. By contrast, on the first piece the trio craft a long but coherent improvisation on the basis of skillfully handled dynamics and a seamless blend of conventional and extended techniques. Leblanc is a deft player, playing inside and outside the piano as needed, and alternating lead and support–or simply staying silent–when the collective sound seems to demand it. Caloia gets a robust sound and provides a firm grounding with his powerful mid and lower registers; Rodrigues’s sense of texture comes out nicely in his use of rapidly bowed layers or plucked and tapped points of sound.