DENMAN MARONEY

Fluxations
New World # 80607

SOPHIE AGNEL/OLIVIER BENOIT
Rip-stop
IN SITU IS 237

Orchestral and monochordal at different times, the piano is the cornerstone of Western music because of its versatility. But this versatility sometimes limits its adaptability to more experimental music.

Over the second half of the 20th century composers and pianists decided that one way to overcome the keyboard’s innate conventionality was to prepare the strings with different objects. These two CDs — one American and one French — show how these preparations can be used in the context of improvised music. Each is vastly different. American Denman Maroney’s quintet is strongly allied to jazz, whereas the Parisian duo of pianist Sophie Agnel and guitarist Olivier Benoit leans towards free music and electronics.

Over the course of RIP-STOP’s four instant compositions Agnel and Benoit don’t so much play their instruments as extract sounds from them. The textures and patterns created owe more to what the copper, wire and steel strings of the two chordal sources are capable of than conventional playing. Both musicians have long been involved with similar experiments. The pianist has been part of bands featuring Lionel Marchetti on tapes and electronics and Jerome Noetinger on electroacoustic devices, as well as other formations with saxophonist Michel Doneda or harpist Hélène Breschand. For his part, Benoit has been in formations that range from his duo with alto saxophonist Jean-Luc Guionnet to his conduction of the 25-member Grand orchestre d’improvisation.

As early as “rs-1”, resonating plinks from within the piano and oscillating accordion-like tones from the guitarist’s reverb pedal extend the instruments’ tonal fields. Soon rolling, repetitive piano chords and scratching, buzzing fills give way to what appears to be objects pressed against the strings. These quiet internal rumbles are met by near-inaudible guitar resonation and string strikes and lead to almost complete silence.

Mechanized flat picking, together with scatter shot clinking on guitar strings alternate with fist-smashing bangs on the fall board plus low frequency chording on “rs-2”, the CD’s longest track. With the piano dampers muted, mechanical sounding textures appear, followed by right-handed vibrations from the keyboard itself. While this is going on, Benoit produces whistling timbres and note crackles that eventually coalesce into faint grasshopper chirps. Agnel’s response tops these teeny guitar clips with miniscule, single notes resonation that move inside and around the key frame and which are extended with pinpoint pedal pressure. “Rs-3” is more percussive on Benoit’s side, with his strumming on his heaviest strings. Slightly off-key note clusters and bell-like sounds from the keys encourage the guitarist to unleash accelerating feedback. Busy, distorted echoes take the piece out.

When “rs-4” appears, both musicians almost seem to become part of their chosen instruments. Benoit’s crashing guitar chords turn from shaking near-bottleneck to wood cracking, as if the guitar was being pulled apart piece by piece. For her part Angel appears to be rolling marbles onto the piano strings until her finger pressure drives individual notes deeper into the piano innards. Soon, singular sounds drone against the escapement and soundboard, causing sympathetic vibrations from the other strings.

There’s no sign of electronics on FLUXATIONS. Looking at the personnel, in fact, you could imagine that the six-part composition is being played by a standard jazz aggregation of trumpet, reeds, bass, percussion and keys. But the keys here are in the hands of Maroney, the piece’s composer, and manipulated on his “hyperpiano”. This involves working the keys with one hand, while bowing, plucking, strumming and striking the strings directly with the other hand using a variety of tools including copper bars, brass bowls, rubber blocks, bells, knives, mallets, plastic mashers, boxes and bottles.

Maroney, who has exhibited his skills in duet situations with guitarist Hans Tammen and in many bands with bassist Mark Dresser, has the bassman’s rock-solid time keeping helping here. Ned Rothenberg, who plays alto saxophone and bass clarinet, has collaborated with Japanese musicians in the band R.U.B., and explored all varieties of world and improv music. Drummer and vibist Kevin Norton leads his own bands and works with Anthony Braxton, while trumpeter Dave Ballou has been featured in the bands of Satoko Fujii and Andrew Hill.

One of those compositions that oscillates between improvised and written sections, “Fluxations” is just as impressive if you can’t figure out which section comes from Maroney’s pen and which is made up on the spot by the players. On “Part 4” for instance, after a drum roll brings the trumpet-led melody forward, brass shrills and bent notes presage a double tremolo of uneven piano note clusters. Rothenberg introduces a series of descending slurs that are then mirrored by the keyboard with a metal bowl pressed against the strings to produce ringing harshness. Next up is a whinnying horn line and plucked bass tones. Finally the pianist creates a nasal-sounding ending by sliding down the strings ponticello.

“Part 3”, at nearly 13-minutes gives the pianist plenty of scope to explore his instrument with two different touches. One is a double striding, harpsichord-like texture that gets faster and more diffuse as he jumps from one key tone to another and ends with a faint right-handed ruffle. The other evidentially takes place completely in the strings’ speaking length. Meanwhile, Maroney doubles the pulse fields with definite stopped action, Ballou responds with a muted trumpet wiggle and Dresser with a bowed bass line. Soon that line intersects with hocketing piano sounds and vibraharp shimmers. The bassist turns to stretches and scrapes, the vibist to resonating, four-mallet tones and the pianist literally strums his instrument’s inside strings.

On the other hand, the theme from “Part 2” is carried by pseudo steel guitar riffs from the piano as Norton — on drums — plays a careful shuffle rhythm and Rothenberg contributes sliding glissandos. Ballou then introduces a brassy, joyous trill that wouldn’t be out of place in a Mahler lieder. Eventually, Maroney pushes his keys so hard that the output move from doubled regular piano tone to stretched textures that could come from an African lute.

When all the rhythmic and harmonic possibilities have been explored the two-minute coda of “Part 6” is a contrapuntal exercise in opposing tones from the trumpet and alto saxophone, as the pianist chimes metronomic chords behind them.

Two digs into the inner workings of the piano from two different countries show that revolutionary timbres are still available from this Western World’s most traditional instrument.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Fluxations 1. Fluxations Part 1 2. Fluxations Part 2 3. Fluxations Part 3 4. Fluxations Part 4. 5. Fluxations Part 5 6. Fluxations Part 6

Personnel: Fluxations: Dave Ballou (trumpet); Ned Rothenberg (alto saxophone and bass clarinet); Denman Maroney (hyperpiano); Mark Dresser (bass); Kevin Norton (drums and vibraphone)

Track Listing: Rip-stop: 1. rs - 1 2. rs - 2 3. rs - 3 4. rs - 4

Personnel: Rip-stop: Sophie Agnel (prepared piano); Olivier Benoit (guitar and electronics)