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.
The Balderin Sali Variations aren’t a series of related pieces derived from a beginning motif but rather an ad hoc orchestra of eleven comprising three generations of improvisers from Finland, Germany, Italy, England, Austria, Poland, Norway and Mexico. The orchestra was put together on the occasion of the 2018 Soundscapes and Soundportraits Festival, which took place in September in Helsinki. The festival’s founder and the ensemble’s organizer is Harri Sjöström, a soprano saxophonist originally from Finland but now residing in Berlin. Sjöström, one of the representatives of European free improvisation’s second generation, is joined here by saxophonist Evan Parker, violinist/electronics artist Philipp Wachsmann, drummer Paul Lovens and bassist Teppo Hauta-aho of the founding/first generation, as well as six other musicians drawn from the second and third generations. A reunion of an extended family of sorts, and one in which the family demonstrates a strikingly intuitive sense of communication.
The most striking thing about the music on this two-CD set is its intelligent handling of space and color—striking, but not surprising, as that is one of the hallmarks of European free improvisation. The ensemble accomplishes this by setting up relationships that naturally vary the densities and timbres that come into play. The thirteen tracks are bookended by improvisations for the full ensemble; in between are improvisations for sub-groupings in sizes ranging from duos to quintets. Some of these subgroupings make for inspired instrumental combinations: soprano saxophone and violin; drums, trombone, and piano; soprano saxophone and quarter-tone accordion.
Another inspired, multi-generational combination of musicians is to be found on The Treasures Are, a duo recording from Sjöström and the younger cellist Guilherme Rodrigues. All of the music on the recording presumably was improvised, but the quality of the interplay is such that parts sound as if they had been composed prior to the performance. Much of the credit for this goes to Rodrigues, who seems largely to be responding to Sjöström’s inventive leads throughout much of the recording. Rodrigues has an almost telepathic ability to complete Sjöström’s phrases, create lucid, coherent harmonies from Sjöström’s melodies, and spin Sjöström’s lines into impromptu canons. Both Sjöström and Rodrigues take the music to many places–from abstract expressionist squeals and squeaks, through freely atonal lyricism, to quasi-conventional harmony—without losing a sense of continuity or stalling for time. In sum, a quite beautiful performance of contemporary European improvised music from two highly attuned players.