News from Holland - Volume 1

By Ken Waxman

November 8, 2004

Featuring a mix-and-match collection of players who are members of the n collective, this 10-track CD provides a snapshot of improvisational trends in the Netherlands. The collective’s oeuvre involves structured improvisations and so-called liquid compositions from its members.

However, with the number of laptops on show, not to mention the electronics and amplified feedback in use, it’s as if many of these sound pictures were taken with a digital camera. Still, the improvisations created with the musical equivalent of mechanical camera — acoustic instruments — are just as striking, if not more so, sort of like high quality single reflex shots in a presentation full of digital images.

Case in point is the more than 10-minute “working with the popular forces”, whose extended scrapes, ratchets and wiggles come from four acoustic instruments. Involved are two guests plus two of the collective’s founding members. Percussionist Morten J. Olsen and bassist Koen Nutters, who appear on five tracks each on NEWS, both live in Amsterdam. Guests are Spanish bass clarinetist Carlos Gálvez, who plays with such Dutch New music ensembles as Maarten Altena’s and LOOS; and Berlin-based pianist Magda Mayas, whose experience includes improv with The Necks drummer Tony Buck.

Unsurprisingly involved with textures from both improv and New music, the tune takes its shape from irregularly pulsed bass clarinet arpeggios, machine gun-like percussion timbres, sprawling bass spiccato and Mayas dampening the internal action of her strings. A pointillist assortment of tones that coalesce into an organic whole, it’s a prime demonstration of how wooden marimba-like slaps, a ratcheting, irregular drum beat, and overblown altissimo smears from the reedist plus what sounds like walking footsteps — not walking bass — can be blended into a satisfying whole.

The others, without Mayas show up on “structure no. 1 (with composed fragment)”, a large ensemble piece. Here unified trilling with glottal stops comes from three reedists: Gálvez, saxist Dirk Bruinsma — who has played in bands like The Palinckx octet and with British bassist Barry Guy — and Turkish-born bass clarinetist Sakir Oguz Buyukberber. Now a Dutch resident, Buyukberber, also provides the swirling tone vibrations and whistles that mesh with Olsen’s subtle drum accents and the swelling sound waves and samples from Robert van Heumen’s laptop to make the “structure no. 1 (edit)” — a separate trio performance — exceptional as well.

However on the first tune, shrill, fluttering timbres and motorized puttering plus samples of an American radio news broadcast contributed by van Heumen and fellow laptopist Jeff Carey, fit well with woodwind chirrups. All together these sounds meld with the pluck and sweep of ponticello strings from violist Gudrun Hrund Hardardottir and cellist Sasha Agranov. All’s well until electronic loops reach stentorian proportions, drowning the others, and forcing the percussionist to bang his traps like child demanding to be let in a door. This introduces a voice saying, “stop by the club” as the sounds vanish.

Some of the purported sine wave disturbances on other pieces result from feedback emanating from Bjørnar Habbestad over-amplified flute. Someone who has performed as a soloist at festivals and with orchestras, on other tracks Habbestad’s prepared axe adds mysterious pitches that are as cybernetic as acoustic. But even his unique, ratcheting tones can’t save “pleasant is good”. The set’s nadir, the mix find Olsen and Nicolas Field, another laptopist, creating electronic jiggles that morph into circular dance track beats that could easily come from simplistic drum machines and samplers.

The next track, the three-minute “solitude sample” by van Heumen, doesn’t add to anyone’s luster either. Clicking electronic crackles, crunches and whooshes, the sampled French and German voices heard make you imagine he’s spinning the short wave radio dial as he repairs his instruments.

Conceived to present flexible improvisations by an adaptable group of players, this limited-edition CD exposes some ill-conceived electro-acoustic experiments, as well as a majority of tracks that can be admired. On the evidence here, n collective lives up to its limited mandate.