AMN Reviews: Gianni Lenoci & Francesco Cusa – Wet Cats [Amirani AMRN052]

41EEaFYzc2L._SS500Wet Cats is a single, nearly hour-long improvisation by Italian musicians Gianni Lenoci and Francesco Cusa. Lenoci, whose background includes studies with Paul Bley and Mal Waldron, plays piano and prepared piano and a bit of wood flute at the very end, while Cusa plays drums. Although they are an ensemble of only two, they fill out a broad spectrum of audio space partly by virtue of the nature of their instruments and partly by virtue of their intelligent playing. Lenoci is sensitive to the piano’s percussive qualities as well as its coloristic effects. He’s capable of taking the music into surprising places, shifting smoothly from agitated, abstract atonality to romantic or bluesy implied chord progressions. Cusa’s drumming is energetic when drive is needed and restrained when the music takes a reflective turn. He is as capable of playing a free pulse beyond barlines as he is able to lay down a solid rock beat. The interaction between the two is assured and seamless; given the quality of their collaboration it comes as no surprise that Lenoci and Cusa are able to maintain a taut focus over the entire course of the performance.

Daniel Barbiero


AMN Reviews: Szilárd Mezei & Nicola Guazzaloca – Lucca and Bologna Concerts [Amirani AMRN050]

Although considerably more rare than the violin-piano duo, the viola-piano duo traces at least as far back as Mendelssohn’s 1824 sonata for viola and piano. Max Reger and Paul Hindemith—the latter a violist himself—added substantially to the repertoire in the last century, as did Darius Milhaud, Hans Werner Henze, George Rochberg and others. Now, Serbian-Hungarian violist Szilárd Mezei and Bolognese pianist Nicola Guazzaloca bring the viola-piano duo into the twenty-first century, albeit in a manner that departs substantially from the conventional chamber sonata.

Unlike classical sonatas, these eight improvisations, four each from concerts in Lucca and Bologna, develop through variations of timbre, dynamics and density rather than through melodic themes and harmonic modulation. But although much of the playing negates the formal vocabulary and syntax of the classical viola-piano duo, something of the latter’s ability to capture an emotional arc remains. The music can be tempestuous, placid, abstract or even plainly melodic, as when Mezei delivers a modal soliloquy during the third improvisation from Lucca. Both improvisers draw on an expanded palette of instrumental colors, setting conventional and unconventional techniques in a mutually illuminating dialogue with each other. Guazzaloca moves agilely from the keyboard to playing directly on the strings inside the piano; his use of objects in association with the piano emphasizes the instrument’s often-obscured status as a percussion instrument. Mezei, too, plays percussively, using a full-bodied attack with the bow as well as a forceful pizzicato; his engagement with hypermodern performance techniques doesn’t eclipse an expressive immediacy consonant with his involvement with Hungarian folk traditions.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: David Toop – Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom: Before 1970 [Bloomsbury 2016]

9781501314513The usual caveats warning against generalizations aside, it’s safe to say that in the arts as in other fields of life, the second half of the twentieth century was an era of improvisation. Encouraged by the dissemination of ideas introduced by Zen Buddhism, Existentialism, and A. N. Whitehead’s process philosophy, avant-garde painters, poets and musicians turned to improvisation as a way of engaging art and life in a spirit of spontaneity. In Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom: Before 1970, David Toop examines the upsurge of improvisation within the music of the postwar period. The book, the first in a projected trilogy of volumes on free improvisation, is the result of the author’s long experience and intimate familiarity with its subject. Toop, who has written extensively on new and experimental music, describes himself as a being “a listener since 1966, a practitioner since 1969” (30).

Culturally, the period Toop focuses on—prior to 1970 and with most attention to the decade and a half before that year—was marked by much ferment. After the end of World War II, philosophical, compositional and technological developments all fostered a rethinking of how and why to make art; one concrete development of this rethinking was a growing interest in improvisation. Largely in America, a fascination with extemporaneity in thought and action grew out of the vogues among artists and others for Zen Buddhism, Existentialism, and the process philosophy of A. N. Whitehead, all of which contributed to the idea of art and life as an ongoing becoming made up of perpetual, open-ended, freely chosen action. In a Europe devastated by the physical and moral destruction brought by war and repressive governments, there was a felt need to start over from nothing. In music, this “Year Zero” mentality led first to serialism and soon after to aleatory and indeterminate forms of music—some of them the product of cross-pollination by visiting American composers–that to varying degrees effectively involved improvisation. Finally, the broadened availability of emergent technologies for sound production and recording, such as magnetic tape, helped provide access to a set of sonic possibilities that hadn’t been practical before.

Free improvisation, which Toop describes as “a music without score, notation, image or text, composer, director or conductor” (15), fit this postwar spirit well, becoming an increasingly formidable presence in the art from the 1950s forward and particularly flourishing in the mid-to-late 1960s. As he shows, though, its foundations had been laid earlier.

Surveying what might be termed the non-musical pre-history of free improvisation, Toop calls attention to early examples of “collaborative spontaneity” (83) congruent with, if not influential on, improvisation in music: Japanese linked poetry, the simultaneous cacophony of Dada evenings, Surrealist automatic writing and drawing, stream of consciousness prose. At the same time that Dada and Surrealism were doing their best to scandalize the Parisian art world in the 1920s and 1930s, experimental musicians and composers like Henry Cowell and Harry Partch were inventing instruments, tunings and techniques that expanded the universe of sounds available for musical use and raised the possibility of changing or displacing conventional notions of what technical proficiency might consist in.

This last point is significant. Toop suggests that one factor slowing the turn to free playing was the constraint that maintaining proper instrumental technique placed on musicians, which made for what he calls “a relative lack of abandon” (51). Early jazz, with its broadened palette of sounds created on conventional instruments played unconventionally, would begin to loosen those constraints. But exactly what role instrumental technique should have within improvisation remained an issue to be debated at least through the 1960s. Toop notes that attitudes toward technique within postwar improvisation bifurcated into two general tendencies: A tendency toward the assumption that improvisation would have to presuppose a certain technical competence or virtuosity in order to be valid, and a counter-tendency toward the opposite assumption, which saw technique as a potential obstacle to expressive immediacy (164-165). (Interestingly, it’s a conflict that hasn’t been resolved so much as it has been surpassed: It isn’t unusual for programs of improvised music to include performers with contraposed attitudes toward the necessity of technical proficiency—sometimes in the same ensemble.)

By the late 1930s, improvisation was becoming a larger presence within musical practice. Toop describes some of the “tentative steps” taken toward free improvisation during this period: Charles Ives’ recordings of 1937, Django Reinhardt’s “Improvisation” of 1938, the free duets of Roy Eldridge and Clyde Hart. Staying within the jazz tradition, the 1940s saw Lennie Tristano and his students delve into free improvisation; the 1950s and after brought the fecund experimentation of Charles Mingus’s Jazz Composers Workshop, the Chico Hamilton Quintet, and Jimmy Giuffre’s various trios. Profound experiments by Chicago’s AACM, the New York Art Quartet and musicians like Sun Ra, Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor pushed jazz-rooted music in radically new directions into the 1960s.

Among classically-trained musicians, the 1950s saw the development of improvised music out of the formal language of avant-garde composition and rapidly expanding methods of instrumental technique. In 1957 or 1958—accounts differ–Pauline Oliveros, Loren Rush and Terry Riley, all students of San Francisco State College composer Robert Erickson, played a completely improvised soundtrack to the short film “Polyester Moon.” During this same period, Oliveros, Rush, Riley and Erickson, joined by Laurel Johnson and Bill Butler, recorded a series of fully improvised pieces influenced by the pointillistic, sparsely-textured sounds of music composed after Webern. Not long before these recordings were made, Lukas Foss had organized the Improvisation Chamber Ensemble at UCLA, a group working with free improvisation, graphic scores and conduction; by the early 1960s, the improvisational New Music Ensemble was formed at UC Davis.

Experiments with free improvisation were by no means confined to America; they were truly an international phenomenon. In Japan, the classically-trained Takehisa Kosugi and Mizuno Shuko collaborated with the then-untrained Yasunao Tone in largely unscored improvisations during the late 1950s and early 1960s; European groups included AMM, Musica Elettronica Viva and the Gruppo Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza. Although these groups were geographically diverse there was a degree of cross-pollination among them, and some even shared personnel.

By the end of the 1960s, free improvisation had spread to more popular forms of music, most notably through the sound and influence of the West Coast psychedelic bands. The rise and proliferation of free improvisation in the 1960s was an aspect of the radicalization and democratization of the avant-garde culture of extemporaneous action that had taken root during the previous decade, and was seeping into the culture at large. Free improvisation fit the ideological temper of the time by offering “a utopian vision of freedom” (53) as an experiment in ideals of leaderless, egalitarian social organization. Which is still part of its appeal. As Toop appositely notes, it is a kind of collaboration that realizes Sartre’s idea of the group-in-fusion: a praxis or purposive activity taken up by an aggregate of individuals such that each individual’s goals and purposes are subsumed and transformed—are fused into a collective goal–as they are directed toward a common end. It isn’t surprising that some advocates of free improvisation during the mid-to-late 1960s—for example, Franco Evangelisti of the Gruppo Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza–were motivated as much by ideology as by musical considerations to adopt collectivist solutions to aesthetic problems. This was reflected not only in the makeup of the groups playing music, but in the institutions free improvisers built outside of the existing institutions.

Beyond its politics, both explicit and implicit, free improvisation was, and is, compelling as an engagement of some of the basic structures of human existence, in which the very ephemerality of the performance lends it significance. More than once Toop relates experiences—his and others’—in which the musical details of an improvised set are forgotten, while the “human drama” of the improvisers’ interactions with each other and with the audience remain memorable. It’s as if what matters most are the choices made in the moment and the pressures shaping them rather than any given sonic outcome of those choices, or the ways that people improvising together engage each other’s choices as possibilities and obstacles in relation to their own—sometimes at the same time. Toop sums it up with the observation that with improvisation “to play is both a sign and symptom of existence. I am here…” (8).  In that sense improvisation is like an image of life, condensed down to its core: The need to act, often without knowing exactly what the consequences of action will be, but making of oneself what one will as one moves into a future whose exact form is necessarily unknown but whose arrival is inevitable.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Marco Colonna & Agusti Fernandez – Birth of Shapes [Bandcamp]


On the face of it, the duet would appear to be the least complicated of improvisational configurations. There are only two voices involved, eliminating any need for intricate arrangements of either a predetermined or spontaneous sort, and a presumably low upward limit on the variety of textural qualities available. Ramifying from this seeming simplicity though is a potentially complex set of interactions playing out across multiple levels of possibility.

The observation above is occasioned by Birth of Shapes, a set of improvised duets featuring Marco Colonna on clarinet, bass clarinet and baritone saxophone, and Agusti Fernandez on piano and prepared piano, which was recorded live at the Sala dei Giganti in Padua.

Birth of Shapes’ seven improvisations present the piano-wind duet from different architectural perspectives. On Giant Sleep and Memories at the Mirror, Colonna and Fernandez take the basic structure of the sonata—a solo voice over piano accompaniment—and recast it as a kind of free sonata liberated from strictures of sonata form. Memories at the Mirror adds a further unconventional twist by beginning with Colonna playing two instruments at once, effectively harmonizing his own line over Fernandez’s shaken-metal prepared piano sounds. Other pieces allude obliquely to a Baroque model of interplay between wind and keyboard. Abstract Feelings, for example, is an angularly contrapuntal piece made of thickly knotted lines—coarse-grained baritone saxophone over restless piano cascading across registers—that somehow settles into a pensive, sometimes wrenching, second half. On the title track form follows expression, as an intensely played clarinet, often reaching into the extreme upper register, grinds against a densely droning piano foundation. On all tracks, both musicians constantly maintain a fine balance between classical equilibrium and improvisational intensity.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Mauro Sambo, Marco Colonna & Ivano Nardi – …non così lontano dal cuore” [Plus Timbre PT029]

0292016“…non così lontano dal cuore”—not so far from the heart—is a long, uncluttered and atmospheric improvisation from the trio of Mauro Sambo (electronics, electric guitar, piano, shakuhachi and double bass), Marco Colonna (alto clarinet) and Ivano Nardi (percussion). Over the course of the forty-one minute-long piece Colonna supplies lithe, serpentine melodies that frequently echo or counterpoint themselves thanks to Sambo’s looping and electronic manipulation. The interplay between the two musicians largely centers on the timbral contrasts and overlaps of distorted electric guitar and thunderously resonant piano chords on the one side and the now rounded, now overblown and raw-edged sounds of the clarinet on the other. A high point is a brief duet for the buzzing, sustained notes of the reed instrument and the shakuhachi’s skittishly voice-like melodies. Throughout, Nardi provides sympathetic and sensitive support on percussion.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Andrew Tholl, Corey Fogel & Devin Hoff – Conditional Tension [Populist Records PR010]

Conditional Tension is an apt name for these two long improvisations for acoustic and amplified violin (Andrew Tholl); double bass and electric bass (Devin Hoff); and percussion (Corey Fogel). The first piece, for the acoustic instruments, is an essay in sound construction founded largely on the timbral overlap and divergence of the two string instruments. Both Tholl and Hoff explore different bowings and fingerings to pull extreme sounds from their instruments, often from the higher and lower reaches of their registers. The piece plays as well with textural variations, with dense microtonal drones giving way to an audio space sparsely populated by staccato attacks of pizzicato bass or Fogel’s percussion. As Tholl, Hoff and Fogel play it, dynamics are the other side of density, thickening and thinning textures bringing with them changes in volume and corresponding tightening and slackening of tensions. The second improvisation, for amplified violin, electric bass and percussion, is a more aggressive assault into denser, louder territory.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Gianni Mimmo, Martin Mayes & Lawrence Casserley – Granularities [Amirani AMRN045]; Gianni Mimmo & Garrison Fewell – Flawless Dust [Long Song Records LSRDC138]


These two fine new releases situate soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo in small ensemble encounters with the extraordinary improvisers Garrison Fewell, Martin Mayes and Lawrence Casserley. Flawless Dust sees Mimmo in a duet with the late Fewell, an American-born guitarist who lived and taught in both Europe and America. Recorded in Novara, Italy in October 2014 and dedicated to Fewell’s memory, the music develops through the creative confrontation of two voices along several axes of contrast: Of timbre (Mimmo’s reedy, serpentine lines against Fewell’s prickly points of sound), duration (the breath-carried sustain of the saxophone again the guitar’s short, pizzicato eruptions), and phrasing (the legato of the wind instrument against the staccato of strings). Granularities: A Trialogue is, as the subtitle indicates, a trio date featuring Mimmo with Mayes on French horn, hand horn and alp horn, and Casserley on percussion and granular signal processing, recorded in September, 2010 in the UK. The intersection of the two wind instruments, which often interweave smoothly phrased lines, and the atmospheric interventions of Casserley’s granulations, make for a multifaceted but ultimately integral overall texture that Mimmo in the liner note aptly characterizes as a “complex event.” The constant running through both these rewarding sessions is Mimmo’s distinctive voice, which remains unfailingly lyrical at heart no matter how abstract the surroundings.

Daniel Barbiero