Transforming the Space
CIMP #284

Christian Wolff: Bread and Roses
Wergo WER 6658 2

Combining the timbres from the violin and percussion symbolically characterizes the miscegenation that has defined modern music since at least the beginning of the last century. There’s probably a no more European instrument than the violin, or a more African one than the drum. Thus contemporary musical history involves a gradual rapprochement between those two powerful sources.

Take the results of manipulating these two sounds and find the midpoint where notated scores meet free improvisation means that the mixture becomes even more volatile and rewarding. That’s precisely what these two CDs set out to do.

Interestingly enough, both come from supposedly diametrically opposite sources. FAB’s Billy Bang (violin) and Barry Altschul (drums) — aided by a distantly recorded bassist Joe Fonda — are out and out Free Jazzers, working their magic on six original compositions. Vermont-based violinist Malcolm Goldstein and German percussionist Matthias Kaul are from the New music side of the fence and on the 13 tracks here interpret five compositions by American composer Christian Wolff.

Wolff, whose improvisational experience included music making with the British band AMM, created pieces whose shape gives the performers enough latitude to distend the written score. Goldstein, who has collaborated with sonic seekers raging from composer John Cage to Canadian percussion John Heward and German bassist Peter Niklas Wilson, is an old hand at these sorts of improvisations. A bit younger, Kaul, whose coworkers have included such composer/performers as John Zorn, Carla Bley and Slovenian trombonist Vinko Globkar is easily able to do the same.

Linchpin of the session is “For 1, 2 or 3 People” in 10 separate sections, with Kaul cranking the hurdy-gurdy as well as playing percussion and Goldstein vocalizing — well sort of — as well as fiddling. The ratcheted buzzing of string friction from the hurdy-gurdy actually extends the assembly line of abrasive scratches that make up the violinist’s part on these tracks. At the same time, though, between the murmured nonsense syllables and alpine yodels and growls, you hear Goldstein’s extensive violin technique that allows him to suddenly sound out a single emphasized line as well as its vibrations.

On their normal instruments, Goldstein and Kaul don’t so much play together as improvise or read in parallel, a distinctive difference from the close cooperation among the FAB three. They also make more use of silence then the American trio does. Applying torque to his arco lines, either high up, almost near the pegs or bandsaw-like across all four strings, Goldstein is able to move from a sonority that’s almost textbook legit to a shrilling in the furthest reaches of experimentation. And all this is done in the time it takes to gliss from one note to another. Elsewhere he demonstrates protracted string swoops, split-second pizzicato plucks, and concentrated mouse squeaks and bird chirrups.

For his part, Kaul moves from applying gentle pressure on unselected and attached cymbals and creating miniature pealing bell noise to scraping a drum stick right on top of a heavy brass cymbal, formulating press rolls and kettle drum resonation and unveiling an unvarying assembly line of rhythmically resonating wood — drum stick upon drum stick. Finally, on “Edges”, the scrapes, clawing and plucking become even more diffuse with Kaul introducing gamelan-like timbres and Goldstein somehow managing to replicate harmonica inflections.

Solo, the shrill modernism and double stopping the violinist displays during “For 2, or 3 People” turns to primitive Americana as he elaborates the theme of the CD’s title composition. Playing legato, but with enough dissonance to herald his reconstitution of the melody, Goldstein manages to simultaneously recreate the old ballad and comment on it.

Using only the snare drum for his solo feature, “Exercise 27”, Kaul, like a New music Max Roach, uses brushes for polyrhythmic slides and scrapes. With the sensitive recording equipment picking up his every nuance, he whistles at, blows on and rubs other spots than the drum head using the metallic results as counterpoint to decidedly non-militaristic rat tat tats.

Violinist Bang’s storied Viet Nam experience notwithstanding, the only militaristic influences in FAB’s campaign experience is the time spent as foot soldiers in the jazz wars. Collectively the three have been in the biz for a good 75 years, leading their own bands and working behind such leaders as Anthony Braxton and William Parker, to pick two at random.

This connection to history is made most obvious on Altschul’s “For Papa Jo, Klook & Philly Too”, where the thoroughly modern trapsman salutes and recreates approximations of the styles of some of his predecessors: (Papa) Jo Jones, Kenny “Klook” Clarke and Philly Joe Jones. Defiantly anachronistic when expressing the emulations, Altschul soon extends his skills into the 21st century in this finger-snapper. He’s backed by a walking, but distant Fonda and an unrestrained Bang, using short bow strokes like an updated Stuff Smith.

On his own “Tales from Da Bronx” — home borough of the fiddler and percussionist — Bang starts off playing slowly than in lockstep with Fonda. He accelerates to a swinging bounce complete with sprawling screeches, vocal encouragement from the bassman and heavy bass drum thumps plus surging snare rolls from Altschul. Coda is an extended legato string fantasia. Squirming, squeaking, near-atonal glissandos and multi-stops characterize most of Bang’s work elsewhere, with the string high jinks aurally suggesting the picture of a whirling dervish fiddler.

Bang’s dissonant output can be used in many ways as he demonstrates on Fonda’s more than 16½-minute “Song for My Mother”. Here his abrasive runs turn into string kisses, then almost classically cliched buzzing bee tones. With the drummer playing as softly as he can, enlivening the proceedings with the odd rim shot, you can usually hear sporadic ringing notes from Fonda’s bass and his verbal encouragement to himself. As the piece gets faster and more orotund, Bang sweeps out some shrill triple stops and Altschul drops a few bass drum bombs.

As you can see musical miscegenation like this produces some of the most memorable and thought-provoking sounds. And that description characterizes both these sessions.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Transforming: 1. Be Out S’cool 2. The Softness of Light 3. For Papa Jo, Klook & Philly Too 4. Tales from Da Bronx 5. Song for My Mother 6. Coligno Battatta

Personnel: Transforming: Billy Bang (violin); Joe Fonda (bass); Barry Altschul (drums)

Track Listing: Bread: For 1, 2 or 3 People: 1. I (violin and percussion) 2. II (voice and hurdy-gurdy) 3. III (violin and percussion) 4. Exercise 27 (Snare Drum Peace March) For one, two or three People: 5. IV (violin solo) 6. V (violin and hurdy-gurdy) 7. VI (percussion solo) 8. VII (voice and body duo) 9. Bread and Roses (for violin solo) For 1, 2 or 3 People: 10. VIII (violin and percussion) 11. IX (violin and percussion) 12. X (violin and percussion) 13. Edges (violin and percussion)

Personnel: Bread: Malcolm Goldstein (violin and voice); Matthias Kaul (percussion, voice, hurdy-gurdy)