Malcolm Goldstein/Matthias Kaul

The Smell Of Light

By Ken Waxman

November 1, 2004

Definitely not from the jazz side of the fence, but undeniably free music, The Smell Of Light is an even rarer artifact. It’s more than 68 minutes of improvised and other sounds from two masters of non-linear forms, who mould the instrumental advances of jazz with New music experimentation.

Composers as well as instrumentalists, American violinist Malcolm Goldstein and German percussionist Matthias Kaul have been collaborators in this sort of free play for several years. Visually, their packaging is unique as well. Each of the 1,100 copies of this CD is packaged in a bag made from one piece of artist’s Wolfgang Kahle’s Silence II, which was painted on Kinwashi Japan paper. Kaul followed a similar strategy with Fever, his 2002 solo disc, wrapping it in another piece of visual art.

Of course pretty packaging and good intentions count for nothing unless the two musicians can create exceptional sounds. They do. Thus, The Smell Of Light can be appreciated by anyone from the jazz world who has heard Leroy Jenkins or Billy Bang’s thoughtful duos with drummers, as well as by folks from the so-called legit world who know and appreciates post-John Cagean sounds.

Goldstein has toured worldwide since the early 1960s, performed with numerous dance ensembles and in New music festivals, in addition to Cage himself. In the late 1990s he immersed himself more in pure improvisation, recording with the late German bassist/critic Peter Niklas Wilson in Hamburg and with prepared guitarist Rainer Wiens and painter/percussionist John Heward in Montreal.

Also well traveled, Kaul’s work draws on rock, jazz and formal percussion studies. His associates have included a clutch of North American and European composers and performers including pianist Carla Bley, trombonist Vinko Globokar, composer/saxophonist John Zorn and composer Mauricio Kagel.

An experimenter with the hand-cranked hurdy gurdy as well as an innovator in using a music store basement’s full of standard and very odd percussion instruments, Kaul — and by extension Goldstein — are most impressive here on the final trio of extended compositions. Polyphonically, the three — “concerning melody”, “Last! Movement” and “Good mourning moon” — demonstrate how the fiddler’s unbridled virtuosity can intersect with the bizarre and commodious textures that resound from Kaul’s percussion.

Liquid-to-arid undulations moving through a sound field animate the more-than-17-minute “Last! Movement”, which perversely enough is actually the CD’s penultimate track. Here, short, col legno glissandi and scrapes from the violin meet up with steadily encroaching drones and abrasions from the drums. As the violinist continues ponticello, the drum strokes compress, crowd in on one another and arrive louder and faster. Amid the patterns of spiccato violin, one technique Kaul applies is dragging individual drumsticks across a ride cymbal while producing ululating boisterous sounds from his drum tops. One point in the track’s development is broached as percussion reaches a factor of loudness and violin tones turn abstractly squealing and sharp.

Replications of feedback, created with electronics, arise as Kaul explores parts of his extended kit with the movements and cunning of a feral animal. Meanwhile the few violin asides are nearly inaudible, since Goldstein seems to be splitting sound nodes with the friction of his strings. For a finale, sul tasto fiddling plus ratchets, rattles and percussion strikes join, then dissolve into silence.

Fades sum up the interplay between timbre and textures that characterize “concerning melody”, which tightrope walks the line between noise and melody — as do several other pieces here. With the violinist contributing ponticello arpeggios and jettes, Kaul highlights the shattering and plinking of tubular bells and tam-tams. Following some speedy, bongo drum-like rhythms, he expands his palate with textures that could come from electronic drum pads, shaking chains, bashed wood block and resonating kettle drums. As the violinist’s playing accelerates in tempo — sometimes sul tasto — so does the cross sticking and bounces of the drummer. Finally Kaul sums up with the manipulation of the wood and metallic parts of the kit.

Built on polyphonic abrasions, Kaul’s hurdy gurdy manipulation on “Good mourning moon” is as much about the percussive movement of the instrument’s crank as the harsh tones produced by the barrel organ. Sympathetically, Goldstein contributes spiccato and col legno textures. Soon every shrill, twisted and pointed sound husk takes on different densities and discordance, as the glottal stops and broken chords coalesce into multi-counterpoint, aggressively rubbing against one another. As pizzicato plucks from the violin join with interconnected, high-pitched scarps from the hurdy gurdy, aviary-like dissonance — that doesn’t reference Dolphy or Messiaen’s more measured approaches — is heard.

Elsewhere other techniques are on show. They range from the pointillistic conjoining of selected abrasive loops and mechanized drones on percussion to the players verbalizing syllables that range from animal-like yelps to Goldstein’s voice and violin exploring the gamut of modally related pitches in a Cage mesostic

The number of scrapes, ratchets, mumbles, rumbles and drones exposed on these pieces guarantee that The Smell Of Light isn’t easy listening. Just listening of the fascinating kind.