Günter/Halliwell/Wastell

First Meeting
Trente Oiseaux

MS4
Mark Wastell/Mattin
Vault
w.m.o/r

By Ken Waxman
December 13, 2004

Going beyond expected instrumental tone and textures — and even instruments themselves — is the focus of many younger improvisers, and these two CDs show just how far this concept can be stretched.

Connecting these two is the inventions of London’s Mark Wastell, who usually makes his mark as a cellist, but on First Meeting plays Nepalese prayer bowls, gong and amplified textures, and on Vault just the last. His partners on the former are fellow Brit Graham Halliwell on alto saxophone and feedback and German Bernhard Günter on electric cellotar, while the latter is a duo with Barcelona-based Mattin on computer feedback.

Wastell who often plays in a trio with harpist Rhodri Davies and bassist Simon H. Fell, and Halliwell, who is in another band with Fell, move from microtonalism to out-and-out reductionism here. Two of the tracks are labelled [plus] and two [minus], and these designations are very important. [Minus] tracks are purely improvised, while the [plus] tracks build on pre-recorded tapes of electronic sounds put together by Günter, an electroacoustic composer, who also plays the unique electric cellotar, a bowed, five-string baritone guitar.

Only the ultra discerning may be able to note the differences in these highly abstract situations. Wastell’s metal bowl resonation and the wiggling, whistling tones from Halliwell’s feedback-modulated saxophone connect with thumps and bumps in the [minus] section to produce hypnotic themes.

Lengthier by far, the [plus] tracks introduce more sounds to interrupt quiet, contemplative textures and long periods of silence. Sometimes you hear mechanized clicks and buzzes followed by intermittent chirrups and breaths that seem to come from within Halliwell’s mouthpiece. Or dense, unyielding timbres give way to hissing static electricity, crossed wire interference and squeaking reverb from a ring modulator. At points, the output is so faint that you may question its existence, elsewhere it’s loud enough to producing pulsating rattles. You can hear errant, split-second reed vibrato and paltry tongue slaps swallowed by ascending sine wave loops. Pinched single tone intersect with electronic spicatto and gong pealing, yet nearly all of the really abrasive sounds are buffered by utter stillness and echoing tones.

On the second CD, the aural situation that arises between Wastell and Mattin is even more transcendent. If optics are to be believed, it was also recorded within the premises of a former bank vault. Mattin, who has worked with some of the prime theoreticians of reductionism such as trombonist Radu Malfatti and guitarist Taku Sugimoto, describes the interaction between the central and the peripheral on the four tracks here as having an intermezzo-like resonance.

Well perhaps, but the overriding resemblance is more a recorded and manipulated thunderstorm. Throughout, rumbling, atmospheric percussive tones meet up with shuddering sine waves — not to mention what resembles the aural replication of floor sweeping. Although the screeching, undulating reverb that arises from crossed-wire interference isn’t that common, the dense buzzing output of computer sequences is frequently interrupted by unconnected hisses and scrapes.

One track features what you’d hear if a conveyer belt is suddenly plugged into a wall socket — and the resulting rumbles and drags from items moving on it. Loops are intercut with percussive bumps and a single crack that could be that of wooden pool cue hitting a ball. Separated by silences are dissolving hisses that could result from radio wave interference as well as more substantial textures that suggest rough sandpaper dragged across a resistant metallic surface. Melodies and notes shouldn’t be expected, but at intervals, spray can-like airy whooshes and assembly line loops take on certain rhythmic contours.

Definitely not for everyone — especially those whose idea of noise and music have definite parameters — these CDs aren’t designed for an evening of lazy, easy listening. Instead, they propose and showcase inventive ways musicians are expanding the concepts of sound collection and dissemination.