The four improvisations on Sepulchers are the product of a duo made up of two musicians each of whom brings a well-developed set of techniques and attitudes to their collaboration. Both double bassist Kyle Motl and baritone saxophonist Rhonda Taylor are strong individual players who often perform solo. And yet at the same time they fit together well in the collective intimacy of the duet. Like many contemporary instrumentalists, Motl and Taylor draw on what has become something of a common practice of extended performance techniques as a way of reframing familiar—and sometimes not so familiar—musical practices, the better to reveal some ordinarily overlooked or previously unimagined quality. For example, the first track on the album takes the most basic of musical keys—C major—and defamiliarizes it by pairing Taylor’s long, tonally centered notes with Motl’s rattling and grinding of the bow on muted strings. The other pieces are less allusive to conventional musical framings, focusing instead on more elemental, almost viscerally pre-musical sounds. For example, on Sin Eater the baritone sax serves as a conduit for the sounds of constricted breath and stifled cries; similarly, the title track largely keeps both instruments within a low volume, high-intensity range of pitchy noise. Gnashville ends the album on a bed of buzzing drones from both Motl and Taylor.
It seems difficult to believe now, but there was a time not too long ago when solo double bass recordings were rare events. Things have changed considerably, though, and recordings for solo bassists playing music both composed and improvised have become plentiful—plentiful enough that it seems, at times, that there are almost too many to keep up with. But not too many tout court; as Mae West once said, too much of a good thing can be…wonderful.
Add to that number two new releases for solo double bass from Aaron Lumley and Kyle Motl. Lumley and Motl share some commonalities in that both are predominantly improvisers, and are active in fields that encompass varieties of rock as well as contemporary composed music. Both also structure their solo performances around extended techniques especially developed to draw out the widest range of sonorities from their instrument.
Lumley, originally from Canada and now resident in Amsterdam, was a late-comer to the double bass, only having begun playing it at age 25. On Doghouse Bass he plays a gut-stringed instrument tuned to fifths rather than the standard fourths, which gives the bass a rich resonance. Lumley’s solo performance, recorded in November of last year, is energetic and concerned with the creation of sound masses built up from the simultaneous sounding, whether bowed or plucked or both at once, of multiple strings. His playing here is always forward-moving, pushed ahead as much by tremolo bowing as by an aggressive pizzicato; he often balances an explosive lower register with the shrilling sounds of harmonics, multiphonics, and bowing close to the bridge. His is a raw, exuberant sound expressed in a highly personal vocabulary of limit-challenging techniques.
The three main tracks of Motl’s In Search of a Certain Bird were recorded in August 2019 in a dance studio in a bucolic setting in Vermont. The environment—the room’s acoustics as well as the sounds of the woods coming in through the open windows—appears to have been the main inspiration for the recording; to infer from Motl’s liner note, the recording appears to have been undertaken more or less spontaneously and to have embodied a kind of purposeful purposelessness. The fourth track, House of Apples, was recorded the following month at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska City. In contrast to Lumley’s perpetual motion, Motl tends to break his improvisations up into discrete gestures and themes differentiated, suite-like, with rests or drastic changes in dynamics. Motl can pivot from forte passages to pianissimo with an abruptness that heightens the dramatic effect of such a change; lay down liquid melodies distorted with extreme bow articulation and then fracture them with percussive strikes of bow and hand; punctuate more-or-less conventional pizzicato runs with exotic harp harmonics. Motl’s technical mastery of his instrument is stunning, but always in the service of elucidating a coherent musical logic.
When Pierre Schaeffer asserted that musique concrète would provoke musicians to discard old habits vis-à-vis sound and return to actual experience, he helped point the way toward a paradoxical sound art where the concrete becomes abstract and seemingly simple sounds instead reveal themselves to be complex objects. Although very different from each other, two recordings, one electronic and one acoustic, meet on the common ground of Schaeffer’s paradox.
The concrete element in Phantoms, the album by Italian sound artist Sonologyst, is the pre-recorded material that serves as the foundation for Sonologyst’s explorations of sound structure and timbre. The album’s evocative soundscapes are made up of apparently old and more recent recordings of voice, non-Western music, and other, less identifiable sources, which are looped and broken up into cyclical and/or textural objects seasoned with Sonologyst’s own electronic tones. Phantoms clearly is descended from classic musique concrete, but it is tweaked and shaped by contemporary technologies and sensibility.
By contrast Gristle, by the American double bassists Kyle Motl and Zach Rowden, is grounded in the concrete reality of the raw sounds issuing from acoustic instruments. Both Motl and Rowden have long demonstrated a facility for coaxing new and startling sounds from their instruments through the application of foreign objects and unconventional techniques; put together here, the effect is exponential rather than simply additive. Not surprisingly, Gristle documents a vortex of sound in an idiolect far removed from the double bass’s ordinary voice, as Motl and Rowden forcibly extract overtones from plucked and bowed tones, exposing them as the sometimes knotty complexes that they secretly are. Although purely acoustic, Gristle does what Schaeffer declared that musique concrète would do: nothing less than bring to awareness the appearance and development of sound forms and colors.
The piano trio has evolved in many different ways since the classic Bill Evans Trio, with bassist Scott LaFaro, introduced the format to a looser, more polyphonic sound. The Kyle Motl Trio, which in addition to the bassist includes pianist Tobin Chodos and percussionist Kjell Nordeson, pushes the piano trio further into territory notable for the independence of its voices and its harmonic complexity.
The music on Panjandrums isn’t made out of conventional melodies and harmonies—far from it—but nevertheless it artfully conveys a range of moods and states of mind: restlessness, exuberance, introspection, capriciousness. Architecturally, each of the group’s three constituent parts is an interlocked piece in a tightly integrated whole. Bass and piano are distinctive but complementary voices carrying convoluted, often dense and rapid lines with, through and against each other. The drums set out a free pulse subdividing time and parceling it out into sequences of irregular but balanced and compact quanta. The closes the trio come to a conventional jazz trio piece is xOr, where the piano clearly takes the lead over a regular meter and a bass laying down a discernible harmonic foundation, complete with the simulacrum of a walking line. This is meticulously constructed music well-served by a crisp and finely balanced recording.
As I write this, double bassist Kyle Motl is on tour, playing contemporary compositions for solo double bass by the great Romanian Spectralists Iancu Dumitrescu and Horatiu Radulescu, among others. The works Motl has chosen to play are all conceptually and technically challenging pieces that extend the range of sounds the instrument can produce and correspondingly, the performance methods required to produce them. On Transmogrification, Motl’s new solo CD, the bassist plays his own music. But here, as in his touring repertoire, his playing is informed by his fluency in the language of contemporary performance practices, allowing him to take the instrument to the edge of its known world.
The fifteen tracks are sequenced to trace a narrative arc starting with the concrete, largely conventional Panjandrums for pizzicato bass and moving through increasing stages of abstraction. Although he uses advanced techniques and often prepares the bass with foreign objects, Motl’s choices are always intelligent and above all, musical, no matter how far the distance he takes the bass from a traditionally lyrical sound. He’s particularly good at drawing percussive effects from the instrument with fingers, hands and a tautly bouncing bow. On several tracks he modifies the bass with objects inserted between the strings in order to envelop the notes in a rattling, buzzing sound; on others, he elicits a fascinating world of quasi-electronic sounds simply with nuanced bow articulations.
All in all, Transmogrification is a fine addition to the large and still growing catalogue of recordings for solo double bass.