Certain Questions
Unit UTR 4134

One of he most heartening signs of the continued health of so-called free music is the number of new players who migrate to it every year. Today, with a few decades of history to look back upon, free improvisers are arriving from other places than the jazz tradition.

There are already a small number of former rock musicians attempting — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — to play free, and an even greater group of musicians of European classical heritage turning towards the genre. One of them is Swiss violist Charlotte Hug, who demonstrates here how traditional training and idiosyncratic bowing techniques can be brought together for experimentation. Like many other young musicians she ups the ante by adding electronics to this mix as well. Still, she has some personal insurance in the form of her collaborator, keyboardist Pat Thomas.

A British improviser, just slightly older than Hug, Thomas has not only been involved with jazz and more popular music since his early teens, but also investigated electronics shortly after that. Since then he’s racked up an impressive resumé, having worked with both veteran improvisers — guitarist Derek Bailey and percussionist Tony Oxley, to name two — and tyros— trombonist Gail Brand, to name another. Over the years he’s also partnered some advanced violin/viola players such as Phil Durrant, Carlos Zingaro and Phil Wachmann, making him perfect for this disc.

Hug, whose theatrical solo performances have included playing in an S&M club’s soundproof torture chamber and outdoors while standing on a platform suspended in a tree, has also explored other facets of collaborative EuroImprov, having worked with percussionist Günter Müller and violinist Durrant. On this disc, distinct bow configurations are utilized for a set of uncommon sounds, including a so-called soft bow, which touches all four strings at once; a wet bow which moistens the bow hair; and twist bow which torques the bow hair.

Somehow during the course of the 11 tracks, the two manage to create enough sounds for an entire orchestra. That is, of course, if an orchestra could be created where the players use unconventional instruments as well as extended techniques, and some of the musicians dropped in from Saturn or other parts of the solar system. Many times, different tones can definitely be recognized as coming from Hug’s viola. But detecting the keyboard can be another matter.

For a start, some of the sounds include kettledrum-like deep echoes, the ascending blends of which should by rights arise from a church organ, and percussive knocks on what could be a hollow plastic log with an identical hammer. There’s a peculiar cuckoo clock hiccup, the expected formation of bird calls, some whistling that’s probably torqued strings, plus protracted laugher and miniature puppy barks that could be created by either instrument. At one point Hug’s arco explorations suggest flute songs, while it’s likely the keyboards and electronics that mimic woodwind triple tonguing obliggatos. The very skeptical, however, would probably doubt that a few pizzicato strokes and what appears to be electronic vibes playing took place on terra firma.

No one can be exactly sure which “certain questions” were being asked with this disc. Can Hug improvise? could be one and do she and Thomas work together well? could be another. The answer to those two is “yes”. However we’ll have to wait until the next installment to get the answer to whether they can improve on this disc.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Q.01 2. Q.02 3. Q.03 4. Q.04 5. Q.05 6. Q.06 7. Q.07 8. Q.08 9. Q.09 10. Q.10 11. No question

Personnel: Charlotte Hug (viola, electronics); Pat Thomas (keyboard, electronics)