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SOFA 513

Ensemble at Musica Genera 2002
Musica General MG 006

Overcoming the challenge of fomenting non-idiomatic improvisations in the gray area between composition and improvisation has been a preoccupation of inclusive European musicians for the past few decades. Making that concept work in the field between electronic and handmade sounds preoccupied them in the 1990s. In the 21st Century, as these two consummate CDs demonstrate, the most accomplished instrumentalists are able to wrap all these tendencies into a program that can be performed by larger bands — six and eight musicians are featured in the sessions here.

Xenophobes may dispute it, but another reason these performances are so memorable is that the improvisers, whether British, Welsh, French, Greek, German and Norwegian — to rhyme off the nationalities on both discs — have really developed a Pan European sonic sound. This mastery of the notated, improvised and electro-acoustic means that an ensemble such as the Oslo-based No Spaghetti Edition can alter its composition each time out, adding new sound sources to plectrumist Ivar Grydeland, bassist Tonny Kluften and percussionist Ingar Zach who make up the core group. Similarly Chris Burn’s usually all British Ensemble is this time filled out by French clarinetist Xavier Charles and Greek cellist Nikos Veliotis. It’s a concept that could give anti-EU British Tories conniption fits.

As a matter of fact Veliotis’ harsh cello tones, combined with the scrapes and rasps inflicted on the copper and steel strings during Burn’s inside piano forays and by Welsh harpist Rhordi Davies on his instrument, provide the six pieces with a distinctive percussive plait. Adding to the mesh, is the characteristic understated reed tones of long-time Burn associate saxophonist John Butcher, extended still further by the textures arising from the synthesizer and electronics of Mathew Hutchinson, who is often found in a New music context when not improvising with Burn and Butcher.

Take “Rotacja”, built around droning, ostinato electronics interrupted by echoing reedy buzzes from both woodwinds and rasping string swells and koto-like scrapes from the string players. Using brief silences as time-outs, these periods of sound respite are usually brought to an end by the sudden full-force smash on piano keys or cello strings plus the vociferous warbling of shrill, aviary reed multiphonics.

Except for “Qpdbqp”, an almost 8½-minute Veliotis-composed example of one dense languidly moving single tone, ensemble or Burn-created pieces revolve around grating clawhammer picking or harsh flat picking from the strings, as well as ear-splitting squeals, pitch distortions and distended mouthpiece raspberries from the oral instruments.

Never letting the listener forget for a moment that the non-reeds can be heard as metal objects, the compositions seem to revel in harshness, with instruments appearing to be beaten with whatever blunt object is available to create more sound sources. As reed chirps meld with undulating electric-motivated buzzed synthesizer tones, you can also sometimes hear eccentric scraped lines that reconstruct themselves into resonating bottleneck-like tones.

Though you would think that guitarist and banjoist Grydeland would indulge in similar outlandish techniques, neither he, Kluften, Davies nor German inside-piano specialist Andrea Neumann are that up-front in their contributions to the Spaghetti octet CD. Instead, except for some distinctive below-the-bridge exploration from the guitarist, thumps from the bassist’s sticks and rubber band preparations and characteristic inside-piano string sweeps they stay in the background. In the foreground are tones produced by Charles — who also introduces wavering harmonica timbres where appropriate — fellow Frenchman Michel Doneda on soprano and sopranino saxophones and the trumpet and electronics of Germany’s Axel Dörner, who also often plays with Burn and Butcher.

A mixture of very short — five of the 12 tracks are less than two minutes — and very long — two are respectively almost 21 and nearly 30½ minutes each — REAL TIME SATELLITE DATA isn’t as satisfying as the other CD. Over the course of more than 72½ minutes some of the impressive dense harmonies are dissipated. Not that the improvisations are ever less than convincing however, but eliminating the shorter tracks may have been a better idea.

Consider the more than half-an-hour in which “Who is changing places” develops. Beginning almost inaudibly, the sound field first blossoms with unidentifiable scratches and saxophone tongue slaps, tiny hollow rolls from the percussionist and oscillations and buzzes from electronics. Following an ascending line of static, undulating mouth timbres constitute themselves into snarls and scratches that resemble the panting sounds a dog makes when he wants to get outside. As the underlying programmed tone expands from just below regular hearing to slightly louder, bass fiddle power plucks meet billowing chromatic trumpet growls, interspersed with minute glockenspiel thwacks. Defining leitmotif of this instant composition is the constant circular breathing tones from the horns, distributed in such a way that you can hear the individual nose and mouth breaths that soon start to resemble a hospital patient’s oxygen tube. Finally the infirmary-like stillness is shattered by the sidewalk drill rattling of cymbals and bells and a collection of airy blown noises and reverberating growls that could signal quitting time at a metal fabrication factory.

Just as impressive, though more morbid, is the almost 21-minute “In gasping death”, which depends on percussionist Zach’s versatility. It begins brutally enough with long, sibilant reed tones, brassy chromatic trumpet runs and the snap of drumsticks. Following guitar flat-picking, bass plucks and what in other circumstances could be a whirl drum sound, repeated gagaku-like court music from bells and metals are heard. Before the bells take on regular cathedral-like cadences, it appears as if small objects are being rolled on the floor and along it, as an assembly line of electronic rumbles comes to the fore. Abrasive drum scrapes, rubbed cymbals and kettledrum thwacks break up rolling drones from the reeds and dense sine wave movements. By the end, an assembly line of buzzes, crackles and cracks from the electronic impulses and scraping reed split tones are succeeded by polyphonic human-sounding shrieks that give way to an inside piano string sweep.

Although some of the shorter tracks evidently seem to centre more on resonating furniture-moving timbres than concise improvisational extensions, taken a few at a time, they can provide pleasure as well.

Pan-European and Post-Modern at the same time, and despite some personnel crossover, the octet and sextet here provide subtly distinct and equally legitimate examples of 21st Century creativity.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Ensemble: 1. Zaczac 2. Rotacja 3. Qpdbqp 4. Strach Na Wroble 5. Kontynuowac 6. Konczyc

Personnel: Ensemble: Xavier Charles (clarinet); John Butcher (soprano and tenor saxophones); Chris Burn (piano); Nikos Veliotis (cello); Rhordi Davies (harp); Mathew Hutchinson (synthesizer and electronics)

Track Listing: Real: 1. Soon, too soon 2. In gasping death 3. Micro warehouse 4. Micro luggage 5. Micro control journal 6. Mini systems 7. Macro photography 8. Macro investors 9. Super systems 10. Who is changing places 11. Super position 12. Super opposition

Personnel: Real: Axel Dörner (trumpet and electronics); Xavier Charles (clarinet and harmonica); Michel Doneda (soprano and sopranino saxophones); Andrea Neumann (inside piano); Ivar Grydeland (guitar and banjo); Rhordi Davies (harp); Tonny Kluften (bass); Ingar Zach (percussion )