Piazza Pia
Wig 07

SOFA 508

Described — usually by classical music snobs — as the superlative medium for a composer’s thoughts in chamber music, the string quartet is often resistant to massive efforts to free it of ponderous 19th century memories and shove it into the modern era.

Adding improvisation to the equation makes the situation even more difficult. This demands that the members of the traditional quartet — two violinists, one violist and a cellist — not only abandon comfortable romantic culture, but also spontaneously create as they play.

Wazahugy and the Henneman String Quartet (HSQ) have resolved this conundrum by doing more than filling their books with certified contemporary music. Each formation consists of instrumentalists from jazz, improv and notated music backgrounds playing a combination of written and improvised sounds, further redefined by the group’s instrumentation.

Neo-cons who populate the so-called classical world in even greater numbers than in jazz may not grant string quartet status to either group however. The foursome headed by Dutch violist Ig Henneman has dared replace one violin with a bass — played with distinction by Wilbert de Joode, sideman of choice on many Dutch and EuroImprov sessions — and sometimes uses two violas — the other played by young Oene van Geel of Amsterdam — as formation of choice. American cellist Alex Waterman rounds out the group.

Firmly beyond the pale for these same people is Wazahugy, named with the first syllable of each group member’s name. Even though it has the requisite two violinists on board, both of whom — Ugandan/Briton Philipp Wachsmann and Swiss Charlotte Hug have extensive so-called classical backgrounds — the third “string” is that of Norwegian Ivar Grydeland’s guitar. Perceptive Norwegian percussionist Ingar Zach completes the line up.

Not only would most folks, except for the most hidebound, hear the HSQ as a recognized string quartet formation, but the tunes, written by Henneman to celebrate an Italian getaway, have definite echoes of local folk music and the sacred and secular creations of earlier, classical composers. While she has only concentrated on quartet music for a couple of years, early on she adopted her extensive classical training to write first rock songs with FC Gerania, then film, theatre and concert commissions as well as mixing music and poetry in her acclaimed Tentet. Over the past decade, her groups have included other Dutch experimenters such as trombonist Wolter Wierbos, reedman Ab Baars, and included advanced string players like de Joode, Mary Oliver, Lorre Lynn Trytten and Tristan Honsinger.

You can most clearly hear her inventive mixture of musical past, present and future with “Non Oso”, based on a profane madrigal by Claudio Monteverdi. Initial modern dissonance created by the mix of two violas, cello and bass soon gives way to harmonized low tones from al involved. When the initial theme is limed by the higher-pitched instruments, de Joode, whose employers of choice have ranged from big band Bik Bent Braam to Baars’s trio plus wild cards like American saxophonist Charles Gayle, plucks out the sort of light-fingered, all-over-the-strings solo, he would on a jazz gig. Although wilder, siren-like tones can sometimes be heard, the leitmotif here is creation of a counterpoint that compliments without subsuming anyone’s creativity.

Should you want something even less intimidating, there’s “Semipiaci”, the paraphrase of a brief, San Remo-style pop hit of the early 1960s, with smooth legato harmonies broken up by some sneaky pizzicato and the occasional pluck from de Joode. Then there’s the gorgeous harmonies of “Vivo Son”, the longest track, its melody advanced by what could be a viola weeping, and which is borrowed from a dolorous madrigal written by passionate Carlo Gesualdo de Venosa.

“Vivo Son”, is a feature for van Geel, who shares a similar interest in integrating elements from different musical traditions. An adaptation of a song from the Northern Italian mountain regions, which is supposed to be drenched in melancholy, the violist’s treatment doesn’t seem to reflect that. Using a steady syncopated rhythm, he works his way up the scale, double and triple stopping, alternately cheerful and dispirited.

More dramatic is “Cassettone”, taken andante, where Henneman’s arching viola lines are integrated into the whinnying, swaying sounds from the others. At times sounding as if it could underscore a sophisticated spy thriller, the theme is reprised after motifs and countermotifs have been tossed back and forth among the other three instruments, with de Joode’s bull fiddle carrying the beat.

At the end, there’s “Ecco,” an augmented paraphrase of a dancing song by Florentine Francesco Landini. However it’s obviously Henneman, not the Italian, who conceived of the banging-on-the-instruments’ sides percussion which take up the first few minutes of the tune. Strumming and bowing build up, only to give way to the two higher fiddles echoing one another’s phrases in counterpoint, while their lower-pitched cousins pluck away. Striking bows on the strings give some passages the same rhythm the pounding heels of flamenco dancers’ shoes produce. Finally, a suggestion of the melody is superseded by a version of it in full harmonic splendor. The piece ends, but a split second later you hear the saucy echo of a concluding bow strike.

Should HSQ’s innovations give string quartet moldy figs apoplexy, cardiac arrest may result from them hearing Wazahugy’s performance of all improvised material. Both of the band’s violinists are probably quite familiar with this sort of reactionary backlash though. Before interacting with the likes of saxophonist Evan Parker, guitarist Derek Bailey, bassist Barry Guy and drummer Tony Oxley, Wachsmann’s background was graphic and prose-based scores, conceptualism and electroacoustics, plus the music of Webern, Partch, Ives and Berio — all neo-con bugaboos. Hug specializes in theatrical solo performances, sometimes taking place outdoors, and has recently become more involved in improv with the likes of keyboards/electronics specialist Pat Thomas and violinist Phil Durrant.

Electronics aren’t that prominent on the five instant compositions that make up WAZAHUGY, but Hug’s extended techniques, including four-string-at-once soft bow, moistened hair wet bow and torqued hair twist bow are all on display. During the course of the nearly 18 minute first track, the fiddles drone at the bottom of their range so often that they resemble cellos or basses — or swooping predatory fowl. Zach, who has also duetted with guitarist Bailey and is part of the No Spaghetti improvisation ensemble, offers, as counterpoint, shimmering cymbal echoes, minute bell-like peals and asymmetric percussion diversions that can sound like glass shattering or oil drums being thumped. Grydeland, another No Spaghetti participant, who has recorded with drummer Oxley, chimes in with a Bailey-influenced vocabulary of accented plucks, flat picking touches behind the bridge and silences.

Redefining the quartet into a series of duos on the final track, one violin — Wachsmann? — explores different stops on his instrument as the percussionist manipulates tone and pressure on his. Then the other fiddle works off Grydeland’s reverberating guitar chords. Still later, one violin softly bows in the lower register while the other extends higher-pitched sounds. A sudden cymbal crash shatters these mid-range, mid-level lines into atonality for a stretch until the four regroup in time for percussionist and guitarist to complement each other’s inventions.

Elsewhere, string output is extended and mutated by the drone of electronics, with white noise is as often on tap as outer space implications or even bird warbling. Is what appears to be the sound of balloons being twisted into odd shapes coming from the string players, you wonder? And how many other groups have thought of using the buzz of mutated string sets to back up low-key flat-picking from the guitar?

Cognizant of the string quartet’s chamber music origin, Zach contributes to the overall sound picture by expressing himself in the subtle use of unusual implements such as what seem to be cowbells, toy xylophones and triangles. His art is in restraint, often upping the tempo, never rousing himself to bombast, and astutely integrating his sounds among the 10 strings that make up the rest of the quartet.

Those interested in the future of the so-called traditional string quartet should make a point of listening to Ig Henneman’s session. Those wondering about other chamber music setting in which two violins can function, should seek out WAZAHUGY. Most far-sighted folk should be interested in both discs.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Piazza: 1.Via Roma 2. Marranzanta 3. Cassettone 4. Spolia 5. Vivo Son 6. Palpito 7. Satiras 8. Semipiaci 9. Non Oso 10. Piazza Pia 11. Ecco

Personnel: Piazza: Oene van Geel (violin, viola); Ig Henneman (viola); Alex Waterman (cello); Wilbert de Joode (bass)

Track Listing: Waz: 1. 17.28 2. 6.27 3. 9.17 4. 9.38 5. 8.31

Personnel: Waz: Philipp Wachsmann (violin and electronics); Charlotte Hug (viola and electronics); Ivar Grydeland (guitar); Ingar Zach (percussion)