The NOWnow

Contre-Plongeé [six cuts for string quartet]
Creative Sources

By Ken Waxman

August 16, 2004

Turbulence and silence, rapidity and languorousness, are the attributes that separate each of these string-driven sessions from one another. Yet the precise methodology and sophisticated experimentation of the seven musicians involved, makes it obvious that contrapuntal chamber music is a plastic enough form to be successfully adapted to pure improv.

The musicians here hail from two port cities — Sydney, Australia and Lisbon, Portugal — and are all trained traditionally enough to know of the regard followers of so-called classical music hold string groups, especially if they’re playing say, Beethoven or Schubert. Yet the unorthodox explorers aren’t content to have this major contribution to musical culture shoved into a sound museum.

Non-standard instrumentation helps the cause on both CDs. The Portuguese quartet is led by Ernesto Rodrigues on violin and viola, who has played with local flautist Carlos Bechegas and Italian saxist Gianni Gebbia among others, and who cites electronic music as an influence on his acoustic violin playing. The other group members, violinist Gerhard Uebele, cellist Guilherme Rodrigues and José Oliveira on acoustic guitar and inside piano, have extensive playing history with local and international improvisers

The Aussie trio is sparked by the extroverted soloing of British-Australian Jon Rose on violin and tenor violin. Another member, who variously plays organ, harpsichord and piano here, is Chris Abrahams, one-third of the country’s microtonal free music ensemble, The Necks. On bass and preparations is Clayton Thomas, who holds down the bottom on these six instant compositions. Making the group a string quartet on one long track is Clare Cooper who similarly prepares her concert harp.

When the penultimate cut of CONTRE-PLONGEE is “Cut 3” and the disc begins with “Cut 2” you figure there has been some rearrangement after the fact. However the four musicians possess such a communality of improvisational thought that no awkward fissures are apparent. What is conspicuous by its absence, though, is the sort of virtuostic clamor that longtime experimenters like Rose specialize in on the other disk. Instead, the Lisbon installation is organic, with even the extended techniques such as col legno and sul ponticello used subordinated to pointillism rather than displayed for histrionic statements. Call this a symphony of scratches.

Like most reductionist music, of course, there are many instances when particular timbres can’t be attributed to specific instruments. On “Cut 2”, for instance, wood banging resonation is heard, and at the end of “Cut 3” there’s a basso voice that could come from a tugboat whistle, though no oral instruments are cited. Similarly “Cut 4” features cymbal-like resonation from something other than percussion, and throughout the CD, a spreading mechanical glissando shimmers in the background.

All during the program, prolonged silences give way to insect-like plinks, squeals and scratches, often as the result of pizzicato as well as arco activities. Oliveira, who works frequently with Ernesto Rodrigues, may feature his guitar here, but the suspicion remains that some of the flailing flat picking and rasping come from one of the other strings or internal piano wires.

Other favorite tones include a pizzicato continuum that backs rotating bottom tones, wood rending scrapes, spiccato raps on the lower strings, intermittent plucks and single fingertip prods on a string instrument’s necks for split-second sound-making.

All of this cumulates in “Cut 6”, where solo flat picking and what sounds like paper being crumbled meets motorized cylindrical tones and the internal ruffling of piano strings. Bell-ringing touches from beneath the guitar’s bridge and high-pitched, tinkling piano notes meld polyphonically with the col legno bowed instruments until the piece concludes with silence.

As brash as the other quartet is understated, the trio of Rose, Abrahams and Thomas charges out of the gate on the nearly 19½-minute first track, “The Superior Mesenteric”. Featured are lacerating bull fiddle movements and steady arpeggios from the forte piano which turn to double, then triple time, trying to keep up with the near-demonic accelerated bowing from the violinist. After a while, Thomas swoops across his lowest-pitched strings as Abrahams attempts some — purposely? — campy 18th century harpsichord fills, though neither gesture retards Rose’s accelerated bowing.

At this point it appears as if the fiddler has two bows in use, one for the top of his instrument’s strings, the other for the bottom. Soon he turns right into hoedown mode, building up to a tremolo crescendo of sounded string tones alongside grating, col legno raps. As Thomas follows along, moving from arco to pizzicato and back again in an eye blink, Rose introduces clawhammer banjo-like frailing that soon threatens to become as mechanical as a dobro’s licks. Near boogie-woogie and prepared piano timbres are contributed by the pianist, but as much as he and the bassist try, keeping up with the violinist is like trying to harness a typhoon. Rose’s lines go past presto to prestissimo, past staccato to staccatissimo and past forte to fortissimo. As a climax and crescendo he redirects the layered sounds of all the strings into tasto timbres and the piece ends with Abrahams chiming, right-handed dynamic clusters.

Cooper’s harp tones added to those of the other three for “The Ascending Aorta”, is a stark contrapuntal example of the difference in string quartet conception between the Australians and the Portuguese. The harpist, who regularly plays with Thomas, creates an ostinato made up of an assembly line of strokes — that is when she isn’t producing a steady slide from the highest register of that 27 string instrument downwards. Abrahams contributes warbling calliope-like timbres from his keyboard as Thomas inserts knitting needles, clothespins, mallets, sticks, cellophane and cardboard strips between his strings to add subterraneous resonation and percussive shuffle bowing to the mix.

Instructively, Rose’s output on this cut stays defiantly near traditional and moderato, leaving the slaps and passing tones to the others. Jus before the finale, he lets loose with a speedy ponticello line, but the aural memory that’s more prominent is of an eerie continuum of near church organ undertow plus buzzing scrapes and reverberating slaps from the 31 other strings.

As a trio the three can call up any technique and style on a moment’s notice and alter it just as quickly. That means that Abrahams creates a fantasia of semi-classical cadenzas in one place, and with the same intensity play a boppish run or exhibit what sounds like the manipulation of aluminum pie plates colliding with the internal piano strings. Similarly, Rose produces a vibration that could come from a reed instrument on one tune, Paganini-like double stop harmonics and flying staccato elsewhere, or ease out flat picking like a Bluegrass mandolinist in a third instance. Thomas can sound like a buzzing, arco string section if he wishes, and produce poised grace notes, basso tones and frenetic wood slaps with the same speed and finesse.

In other situations, Rose has played with Free Jazzers such as drummer Kevin Norton and trombonist Johannes Bauer, and Thomas with multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore and tubaist Joseph Daley, so the most original departure from the norm here is “The Feeding Lumbar”, which could be termed the trio’s “jazz” track.

Including walking bass, piano fills and double and triple stopping from the violin, it finds Abrahams exposing restrained dynamics and just-as-restrained chordal patterns to play a contrasting melody in opposition to Rose’s slurred and chicken-clucking fiddle lines. Thomas keeps the time steady until eventually, the piece ends with dagger-sharp tones emanating from both from both the violin and the piano.

Traditional chamber music followers probably would deny that designation to these CDs. But the committed musicians here are giving that old form new life, or is it lives?