AMN Reviews: Mauro Sambo, Marco Colonna & Ivano Nardi – …non così lontano dal cuore” [Plus Timbre PT029]
“…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.
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.
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.
For good reason, abstract art and improvised music have long been associated with each other. As disciplines, they’ve been mutually inspiring and influencing; as bodies of work lacking overtly mimetic or predictably cyclical forms and conventions, they challenge audiences in similar ways. And, galleries of modern and contemporary art make for congenial settings for staging improvised music.
At the end of last year, the Galleria d’arte moderna e contemporanea in Pordenone in Northeast Italy hosted a program of live improvisation by a trio led by Marco Colonna. Impressioni Astratte—the release is named for the art exhibit it was connected to—captures the music played there.
Colonna, who plays clarinets, saxophones and flute, is a prolific musician of broad culture. In addition to more conventional improvisational settings, he’s played North African-tinged duets with oudist Evaggelos Merkouris, and has transcribed and adapted to solo clarinet selected movements by J. S. Bach. For this date, he put together a geographically-diverse ensemble—Colonna is from Rome–which included double bassist Giovanni Maier (Friuli in Northeast Italy) and Slovenian percussionist Zlatko Kaucic.
Like good abstract painting, the music is fraught with a creative tension that impels a sense a movement. Also like good abstract painting, it is uncluttered. There are no wasted gestures but instead a constantly moving equilibrium of timbres, dynamics and, most importantly, open space. Kaucic’s restrained, sensitive playing has much to do with keeping the overall textures accommodating in that regard. With generous arco lines and discrete use of harmonics, Maier is particularly adept at crafting timbral counterpoint to Colonna’s reeds. Colonna, for his part, maintains a profoundly lyrical voice throughout, providing the center of gravity on which the music balances.
In the end, abstraction rises or falls on the plasticity that defines it—those dynamic relationships of forms and colors that structure the picture plane. By analogy this is true of improvised music, where the stakes and risks of performers disclosing their formal choices in real time are particularly high. Impressioni Astratte is dramatically successful in this regard and is a fine example of painting with sound.
The twelve relatively brief pieces making up The Sounding Door, a trio work by Guy-Frank Pellerin, Matthias Boss and Marcello Magliocchi, represent a variety of inspired chamber improvisation grounded in the textural multiplicity afforded by similarly pitched but timbrally different instruments.
Although each participant is a multi-instrumentalist—Pellerin plays three different types of saxophone as well as bone flute and clarinet; Boss contributes violin, flute and voice; and Magliocchi plays guitar, percussion and a sound-producing sculpture created by M. Andrea Dami—the tracks are never crowded but instead leave space for each individual instrument to develop its voice in tandem with the others.
Most of the pieces focus on the interplay of Pellerin’s reeds and flute with Boss’s violin. The juxtaposition of the violin with the soprano and sopranino saxophones creates a musical tension built on the simultaneous convergence of pitches and divergence of timbre, which often serve to emphasize the brightness of the violin. By contrast, the track Incertitude Rêvée puts the violin against the clarinet’s lower register, the latter taking on the unlikely function of a pseudo-cello in an updated continuo. Un Bicchiere di Spumante features plucked violin and baritone saxophone against a shimmering background of cymbals and other metallic percussion—quite possibly a case of the sculpture audibly asserting itself in the mix.
Improvisation can be, among other things, a kind of spontaneous composition. Two improvisational trios whose common element is Sardinian double bassist Adriano Orrù are exquisitely aware of this and play accordingly. The Palimpsest Trio, made up of Orrù on double bass, Silvia Corda on piano, and Paulo Chagas on reeds, and the trio Orrù Mar Rocha, in which violinist Maria do Mar and clarinetist/bass clarinetist Luiz Rocha join Orrù, take approaches to improvisation which have in common a grounding in compositional principles, while differing in the details.
The Palimpsest Trio’s concern for compositional values—for choosing and putting elements into balanced relationships—is apparent even in the title of their new release, Stanze. A stanza (plural “stanze”) is a compositional unit in poetry as well as Italian for “room” or “stopping place;” the common meaning is of boundary or limit, and by extension a container of discrete measure which can function as a constituent part among parts comprising an appropriately proportioned whole. Terms like “proportion,” “room” and “balance” bring to mind architectural properties. And in fact the nine tracks making up Stanze are permeated by an intuitive concept of musical architecture.
For Orrù, Corda and Chagas, architectural balance takes multiple forms. First is the basic push and pull of very different timbres and articulations holding the strings, piano and reeds in an elastic tension. Sounds are placed with care beside, beneath and above one another, resulting in textures that highlight timbral contrast or concord as the moment requires. Corda’s piano is mostly a sparse, staccato source of vertically-stacked tones; Chagas’ legato lines add a fluid, vocal quality to much of the music; Orrù’s use of bowhair and wood, fingers and foreign objects to excite the strings builds a polychromatic bridge between percussion and wind. The evocative Aubade, with its modal sax melody, is a good example of how this dynamic plays out.
Just as important as timbral balance is the balance between filled and empty spaces. Orrù, Corda and Chagas use staggered and coincident rests as fundamental elements for collating phrases into larger, collective compositional units. This is evident on all tracks, but most especially on Enjambements, where open spaces play as significant an overall structural and expressive role as sounds.
In contrast to the Palimpsest Trio’s use of substantial blocks of empty space as structural elements, Orrù, Mar and Rocha build their performances more out of the timbral interplay of instruments that overlap substantially in sound color. Over the course of two pieces recorded live in Portugal earlier this year, the three weave an often dense texture of contrasting and complementary colors and articulations. Their instruments’ capacity for braiding long, sustained tones is demonstrated right from the opening of the first piece. The arco double bass and violin sometimes sound like a single stringed instrument of unusually wide range, while the registral coincidence and timbral similarities of bowed bass and bass clarinet are capable of blending into one seamless sound. At the same time, the three are more than happy to explore the unique sound profiles of their individual voices, creating often intense passages of starkly opposed timbres that effectively play off of the surrounding moments of instrumental confluence: Broken figures emerge from a smooth field, which eventually reabsorbs them.
Despite outward differences, what each of these pieces by both trios share is a meticulous placement of sound and a nuanced internal balance among three independent voices. Close listening is the prerequisite for doing this successfully, and as both of these recordings amply demonstrate, that is a skill that these five fine improvisers have in abundance.
The rarefaction of the title of this collection—a lessening of density or pressure in a medium, as when a sound wave passes through air—is meant as an overall metaphor for the music it contains. All of the pieces reflect flautist/composer Jane Rigler’s interest in the rarefied, individual sound properties of music at an elemental level, where the basic building blocks of material, gesture, timbre and density can be foregrounded and formed into independent structures of—often quite literally—breathtaking subtlety.
The tracks, consisting of nine relatively brief pieces and one longer suite, were fully improvised by Rigler and a small ensemble made up of Janet Feder, Shoko Nagai, and Satoshi Takeishi, in various combinations and on various instruments. Except for one improvisation for Rigler on solo piccolo and one duet for Rigler again on piccolo and Nagai on accordion, which are presented as they were played, the performances were reworked by Rigler in the studio through editing or overdubbing in order to emphasize some aspect of the sound or to infuse compositional structure.
In the solo pieces for herself Rigler shows how she can dig deeply into music’s formative factors to come up with compositions focused on micro-level phenomena. She takes, for example, the hollow of the breath as it explodes into and travels across the mouthpiece of the flute or piccolo, shucking off the skin of pitch and leaving the inner husk of air rushing through and around the metal tube. The multi-tracked Pulsar 1 for overdubbed piccolos plays with the microtonal discrepancies between the voices—creating a choric effect for one, as it were—while the similarly layered Pulsar 2 takes as its subject matter the low, resonating drones of bass flute, voice and electronics.
The four quartet pieces Rewind, Externally Rarefied, Literally Rarefied and Rewound are essays in the timbral interplay of flutes, prepared strings, percussion, keyboards and electronics, often sparsely textured in order to allow each individual instrument to display the grain of its own voice. Sparseness—a rarefaction of performance–is in fact an overriding aesthetic value for all of these performances, which seem in the end to want to go beyond the physics of sound and to portray instead the coming into being of the music-bearing gesture against a background of emptiness.