Submental is the sui generis creation of the acoustic Australian trio 180˚. The group’s configuration is unique: bass flute, played by Jim Denley; acoustic guitar (Nick Ashwood); and the voice and words of Amanda Stewart. The eight pieces on Submental aren’t unconventional art songs, although that certainly would be one way to think of them; rather, they’re dynamic scenarios in which the human voice retains its centrality amidst the musical and non-musical sounds that collide and combine around it. Although the group’s sound is collective, Stewart’s vocal presence can’t help becoming the focus of attention: it’s a human voice saying something, even if what it’s saying is at times a sequence of Dadaesque syllables referring to nothing beyond their own sounds. Stewart, like Denley and Ashwood, has a thorough mastery of extended technique and blends in perfectly with their timbre-driven, texturally centered styles. In some of the music’s truly beautiful moments her whispering naturally harmonizes with Denley’s air notes—a reminder that the flute is really just voice once removed. Here as on his other work, Denley displays a technical sophistication and sensitivity in playing on the border between noise and pitch. No less crucial to the collective sound is the rattle and jangle of Ashwood’s guitar, convincingly likening itself to a detuned zither.
Houston’s Rothko Chapel—an austere room lit with natural light and dedicated to the display of fourteen of Mark Rothko’s late, subdued color field paintings—is a congenial site for improvised performances by the international trio Mural. The group, made up of Norwegian Kim Myhr on guitar; percussionist Ingar Zach, a Norwegian now living in Spain; and Australian Jim Denley on alto saxophone and flutes, has played there twice before the April 2013 date recorded and issued on this three-CD set. (A previous performance, from March 2010, was recorded and released in 2011 by the Rothko Chapel’s own publishing concern.)
Reflecting the immersive, contemplative atmosphere of the Chapel, Tempo captures the last three-quarters or so of Mural’s over four-hour-long continuous performance. Although each of the three discs can be listened to by itself, the music’s full effect and the group’s deftness at developing sonic textures over long cycles only becomes forcefully apparent when all three are heard in sequence during a single listening.
The release’s title says something essential about the music given not only its expansive duration but the way it sets out a concatenation of sound events coming into and going out of existence in time. Mural’s pacing and arrangement of sound into alternating fields and figures create a sense of musical time imagined as having been precipitated into a narrative sequence with all of its peaks and valleys, its alternations of episodes of activity and rest. Through subtle, largely timbral playing Mural collapses time into a single moment present in a low-frequency sound field extending in all directions; through more urgent, rhythmically driven sections—led by Myhr’s energetic pulse on guitar—the dynamic of time’s passage is made clear.
Throughout it all Myhr, Zach and Denley have an intuitive rapport that doesn’t lapse even over such a long period of playing. Zach’s bells, gongs, drums and pitched percussion are put to good coloristic use over the entire course of the performance; Denley’s sax and flutes can be plaintive, abrasive, abstract or voice-like as the moment requires. Myhr is a strong ensemble player who can, when needed, push the group with chordal ostinatos or an insistent, jangling strum just as easily has he can bind the music during its quieter passages.