cage of sand
sirr 2007

Maya MCD 0201

Of all the instrumentalists who have been impelled to record solo improv performances, violinists have always seemed to be the ones who should take to it most generically. After all, there’s a long history of solo recitals in so-called serious music, with our collective memory filled with images of animated recitalists sweeping their lank tresses into the air along with their bows.

Double bass players are more circumspect. Although solo bass literature exists in the traditional classical sphere, practitioners usually stood aside to let their higher-stringed siblings take the limelight.

Free improvisation did more than offer musicians a new way to play. It redressed this balance, probably because of the preponderance of bassists and paucity of violinists in free jazz, improv’s immediate precursor. Since then, the number of impressive solo bass performances has far exceeded solo violin outings. But these memorable sessions show that there’s still a lot to say with either instrument.

Portuguese fiddler Carlos Zingaro and British bassist Barry Guy have recorded solo discs in the past, along with their myriad other activities. These have included directing large ensembles and collaboration with the likes of saxophonist Evan Parker for Guy, and moving among theatre, dance and improv musics for Zingaro, partnering musicians as different as Canadian cellist Peggy Lee and Swiss electronic duo Voice Crack.

On these discs, each man, as a true improviser, tries something different. CAGES OF SAND is a solo recording for violin, electronics and real-time processing, while SYMMETRIES finds Guy not only playing his own compositions but interpreting two by jazz’s acknowledged bass master, Charles Mingus.

Those two “Weird Nightmare” and “Eclipse”, are also the only times on this almost 70-minute CD that Guy goes the Zingaro route, overlaying harmonics onto the pre-recorded tracks. What results are meditative readings of both tunes with the phantom second bass adding spangling extraterrestrial tones to the melodies played on magisterial low register. “Quiescence”, inspired by a composition by Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) adds a C pedal as well, which may account for the occasional odd string twangs. Essentially, though, the earthy, traditional-sounding tune sounds as if it could have been recorded on a baroque lute at 78 rpm, then slowed down and played at 16 rpm.

Relating to FIZZLES, Guy’s previous solo disc from 1991, the mid-section of this disc is made up of seven identically named miniatures. Ranging in length from slightly more than one minute to a touch less than 2½ minutes, the pieces are surprisingly solid and forcible. Throughout, while some higher-pitched tones make it into the mix, Guy’s preference seems to be for loud and heavier sounds that at points resemble the crash of surf against the shore. Many times he seems to have both hands working up and down the strings simultaneous, plucking and bowing in near-unison, keeping treble and bass in perfect sync. Other times, as on “Odyssey”, Guy, who is known for having extended the range of the instrument, hits the strings with such force that he seems to possess the strength Lennox Lewis used to KO Mike Tyson.

Similarly, you can almost feel the instrument’s wood shaking as he works his way up its neck on “Bichrome terrors”, the longest track with its near sci-fi title. With a lot of his time spent sawing away at the top of the bull fiddle’s range, his repeated note patterns make you wonder if his attack is such, that the taut bass strings appear to have merely the consistency of binding twine for his purposes. Digits and implements easily make them buzz, pluck, bound and spring back, with some parts even moving into the percussion range.

Not that the whole session is an exercise in pugilism. On “Soft Fire”, for instance, Guy incorporates the overtones resulting from his strumming patterns to expose different quadrants of the instrument at different times. There are no electronic effects used here, but still in one beneath-the-bridge exploration, he manages to suggest church bells pealing. Then there’s the final tune, whose title conjures up memories of mythological Charon rowing mortals across the river Styx to their rendezvous with death. Sounding almost traditionally European classical, should the low-pitched sounds be that of oars dipping in the Styx? Luckily the mood lightens — or the destination is reached — by the end, as Guy powerfully bounces his bow off the strings and stretchers out a tight but lively melody.

If there is a criticism to be leveled at this achievement, it’s that, perhaps because of the instrument’s usual tone, too many of the pieces seem excessively sombre.

Guy’s last solo session was in 1991, while Zingaro’s was two years before that. Since that time, the violinist, who has received several prizes for his cartoons, comics and illustrations, has also immersed himself in such visual forms as opera and dance. Using electronics here seems to have allowed him to construct sounds that are descriptive of some of his titles.

“Representations of Beasts” and “Radio Insects” most closely reflect this. What emerges from the chorus of filmy drones and crinkles in the former is the aural picture of many tiny beasts — perhaps chipmunks — racing hither and yon. Soon, as the shrill cycle of ear-splitting tones jockeys for space with the sound of a real violin, you start to wonder if Zingaro is facing off against a Suzuki class consisting of miniature squirrels.

As for the radio insects, the electronic wiggles and static whooshes that surround the violin seem to suggest that these are bugs from outer space. Tiny when synthesized squeaks characterize them, there’s also a massed stream engine effect midway through the piece that could suggest that these insects have banded together — or are very, very large.

Of course “Creative Carving” may serve to frighten off these and other nightmarish creatures. On this track when monster from the deep noises are revealed to be what sounds like tapes running backwards — does one still do this in the age of DAT? — the animal cries are soon soothed with a lullaby played by a ghostly, almost translucent, violin.

Afterlife makes it appearance on this disc too, but the violinist dispenses with it on the first track “The Cities and the Dead”. More urban than deceased, the results seem pretty lively on this, the CD’s longest track, with short whistles and what could be harmonica tones eventually getting faster and finally resolving themselves as note overtones and undertones. The sound could suggest the appearance of a swarm of insects, but it’s probably an electronic string section, created from processed versions of the violin and violinist. Other times, Zingaro’s pizzicato command is such that you wonder if the plucking is being produced with the fiddle on his shoulder on in his hands like a guitar.

Elsewhere on the CD, the new relationship between the violin and its electronic counterpart(s) produces stop-and-start clamor that could be jets taking off, tweety birds complaining, a saxophone’s key pops, processed voices, a child’s video game, temple bells tinkling and clock ticking, faster and faster. Obviously Zingaro has discovered the true nature of electronics — that you can bend them to reflect new avenues of expression with your own instrument as a sound source.

That too is the splendor of free music in the hands — and thought processes — of veterans like Zingaro and Guy. Acoustic or electronic, as these discs show, they have the commanding skills to make their instruments do whatever they want them too.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Symmetries: 1. Whether or not why not 2. Soft fire 3.Weird nightmare 4. Bichrome terrors 5. Quiescence 6. Fizzle 1 7. Fizzle 2 8. Fizzle 3 9. Fizzle 4 10 Fizzle 5 11. Fizzle 6 12. Fizzle 7 13. Odyssey 14. Slow slam 15. Eclipse 16. Dark of light 17. I have crossed by the grace of the boatman

Personnel: Barry Guy (double bass, added harmonics, C pedal)

Track Listing: cage: 1. The Cities and the Dead 2. White Fire 3. Structural Functions 4. Creative Carving 5. Representations of Beasts 6. Logic and Ordered Space 7. Radio Insects 8. Sedimentary Deposit of Suffering 9. Nothing Is Remote

Personnel: cage: Carlos Zingaro (violin and electronics with “real-time” processing)