THE SEALED KNOT

Surface/Plane
Meniscus MNSCS012

PETER KOWALD/MIYA MASAOKA/GINO ROBAIR
Illuminations (Several Views)
Rastascan BRD 049

One percussionist, one musician who plays a four-string instrument and another whose equipment is strung with many multiples of strings make up both trios featured on these improv sessions. Yet despite these points of congruence, they’re as different as hot dogs and fish-and-chips, as one featured two Americans, the others two Brits.

Actually it’s the third man — coincidentally a German — who probably best defines the differences. ILLUMINATIONS (SEVERAL VIEWS) features the late Peter Kowald combining his bass fiddle and basso voice with Miya Masaoka’s kotos and Gino Robair’s percussion on 16 furious, roaring take-no-prisoners sound pieces.

Kowald, whose experience went back the strum und drang noise-making of MACHINE GUN and other Free Jazz explosions, was the musical antithesis of percussionist Burkhard Beins, one-third of the band Sealed Knot with cellist Mark Wastell and harpist Rhodri Davies on SURFACE/PLANE. A proponent of the reductionist style, Beins, who ironically comes from a rock background, often tries to be as nearly noiseless as possible here and is concerned more with slides, rubs and trills than any distinctive percussive displays. With his confreres working the same territory, their CD is as much a definition of improv minimalism as one could imagine.

ILLUMINATIONS (SEVERAL VIEWS) is just one of plethora of CDs that Kowald somehow presciently recorded in the two years before his death of heart failure in September 2002. Especially after his residences in Japan and the United States, he could still stoke the old Free Jazz fire if recording with veteran New Things like drummer Sunny Murray, but his versatility meant that he could adapt himself to more freeform and cross-cultural, less jazz-based sessions like this one.

On “View Twenty-one’ for instance, the bassist supplies a countermelody of plucks and the occasional arco slide to mesh with Robair’s hard kettle drum-like sounds, as Masaoka cascades resonating tones that threatens to evolve into gagaku or court music. There’s no much change of that, though, Masaoka, whose collaborators have included guitarist Fred Frith and saxophonist Larry Ochs has fashioned new timbres for her 17- and 21-string instruments so that it can sometimes sound as if she’s playing a hammered dulcimer or a strummed 12-string guitar.

This is apparent on “View One”, where her plectrum strums on the multiple strings sets are only Oriental by inference. Robair screeches bird-like with his faux daxophone and Kowald rumbles away with tugs from the bottom of his axe. On “View Twenty-two”, the longest tune, the positions are almost reversed. To the accompaniment of rolling hand drum accents, Kowald comes up with some high-pitched violin-like — or is it biwa-like —squeals and Masaoka moves her bridge around to create wavering, descending plucks.

Still his bass continuum isn’t limited to what Kowald can play on his bull fiddle. On a couple of the tracks he vocalizes cavernous Wicked Warlock of the West tones that at times seem to suggest Bedlam murmurs as well as sonority of the evil spirits you sometimes see and hear portrayed in Oriental films. When faced with this, Masaoka’s contributions become positively cinematic, with harp-like glissandos followed by approximations of guitar flat-picking. Robair’s rhythm arrives from unselected miniature cymbals in one spot and simultaneous bass drum action and ride cymbal reverb in another.

Elsewhere it sounds as if he’s manipulating small metal bowls and bells, buzzing tones from his e-bow and faux dax, rumbling bent pressures from his conventional drum kit parts and using trash can lids as percussion helper. The last sound brings forth garbage scow tones from Kowald’s bowed bass as well.

Between ghostly overtones produced by the bassist exploring out-of-the-way pressure points on his instrument and the kotoist’s sliding glissando that moves from impressionistic legato to discordant near reverb, both string slingers push their instruments’ output far beyond the expected.

So on SURFACE/PLANE do harpist Davies and cellist Wastell, who has been quoted as saying that he “detests” the sound of the conventional cello. Davies’ sonic hates aren’t known, but his method for dealing with traditional harp sounds is even more radical. With items ranging from unpainted doll’s heads to sticks and clothes pins placed between his strings to mutate the sound, and a use of a bow and/or split-second pizz motion to express his range, the romantic, shimmering overlay you associate with the harp is missing.

The two have been expanding their microtonal string palate for years, apart and together in groups such as the one headed up by pianist Chris Burn. Yet by making their playing more utilitarian and almost post-industrial here, they fit more closely with similar electronic impulses from, Beins. He plays in similar bands on the Continent such as Perlonex with electronics maven Ignaz Schick and Phosphor with the likes of Andrea Neumann on inside piano and Annette Krebs on guitar and electronics.

Much livelier than the first number, “Plane” finds preparations helping create a harsh interface for all three instruments. Featuring an underlying electronic sine waves — origin unknown — Beins symbolically steps forward scratching his ride cymbal with a drumstick, oscillating tones from what could be unselected cymbals, drum tops or even tin foil, as Wastell appears to respond with heavier and harder raps against the wood grain of his cello. Among all these timbres, understated harp string plucks resonate with cathedral like-tones as items inserted between the strings vibrating them still further. An ear-splitting metallic squeal serves as the introduction to tones that resemble sounds as different as the panting of a dog, the shaking of a guiro or perhaps a pepper mill, cap guns firing and what would be tongue slaps if any reeds were present.

As a recurrent pattern of cello strokes suggests the sounds of a motor trying to turn over on a sub-zero winter day, wood-rendering impacts and electronic-assembled woodwind-like tones appear until they vanish underneath a series of shuddering strokes on the bass drum and cymbal reverberations. Then what appears to be a bell tree, metal bowls and muffled cymbals are tapped, whacked, and scratched until the sounds get more distant and fade into pulsating electronic impulses.

Not surprisingly, unmistakable surface noises make their appearance on “Surface” with what sounds like woody slaps on the cello front and ricocheting harp-string tones. As electronic preparations create static undertones throughout, aviary shrills and doorstop reverberations lead to what could be the ghostly sounds of a heavenly choir that morphs into a sharp cymbal scratch and one final string pluck.

Developing improvisations with output several decibels lower than on the other disc is the challenge Sealed Knot face and overcome. Arriving with ears and thoughts lacking preconceptions of what improv should sound like means that either CD can offer equal delectation.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Illuminations: 1. View Fifteen 2. View Sixteen 3. View Ten 4. View Twenty-one 5. View Eighteen 6. View Twenty-two 7. View One 8. View Twenty 9. View Two 10. View Eight 11. View Nine 12. View Eleven 13. View Twelve 14. View Seventeen 15. View Fourteen 16. View Thirteen

Personnel: Illuminations: Miya Masaoka (17- and 21-string kotos); Peter Kowald (bass and voice); Gino Robair (percussion, e-bow, faux daxophone)

Track Listing: Surface: 1. Surface 2. Plane

Personnel: Surface: Mark Wastell (cello); Rhodri Davies (harp); Burkhard Beins (percussion)