Ned Rothenberg/Peter A. Schmid

En Passant
Creative Works

Caroline Kraabel/Phil Hargreaves
Where we were: shadows of Liverpool

By Ken Waxman
February 28, 2005

Superficially similar, these two reed duos show how dissimilar wind-instrument combinations can be, especially if the primary concept is set out at the get-go.

Interestingly enough, each of the duos includes one American and one European, but the contrasts have little to do with geography. En Passant can be heard as a tradition improv meeting — if that isn’t an oxymoron. New Yorker Ned Rothenberg brought his clarinet, bass clarinet, alto saxophone and shakuhachi to a studio in Switzerland to meet Peter A. Schmid, a Swiss stylist who plays taragot, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet and tubax — a specially designed bass saxophone. They proceeded to play together right off with little or no pre-planning, and then Rothenberg went off to his next gig. Thus the altogether appropriate title, which in English translates as “passing through”. Both men are veteran free improvisers in reed combinations, and what’s more, each has recorded a reed duet with Englishman Evan Parker.

Moving across the channel, London-based, Seattle-born Caroline Kraabel brought her alto saxophone and voice to Liverpool in 2000, where she and local reed hero Phil Hargreaves — who plays soprano and tenor saxophones, flute and sort of vocalizes here — recorded a series of duets. Rather than head into a studio to do so however, they schlepped a DAT machine with them to and recorded outside in seven locations in that British city. Over the next four years the two utilized computer technology to edit the material into one, nearly 50-minute piece that stitches together whole performances, fragments of others, and genuine sounds of the city.

There’s no chance you would confuse either CD in a blindfold test.

In the studio, Rothenberg and Schmid’s strategy depends on which instruments are in use. On alto, clarinet or shakuhachi the American frequently improvises airy decorations, letting the Swiss on the lower-pitched horns to provide the rhythmic ostinato.

More challenging are those instances when both men wield monstrous horns. On the more-than-11-minute “SchRoth #2”, for instance, the slurred vibrations echoing from two bass clarinets are so ponderous that you could be forgiven for thinking that the track was recorded in an underground mine. Amplifying bottom tones, both reedists add buoyant colors to the creation. At one point Rothenberg squeals unconnected legato tones as Schmid provides the pedal point. Then they mesh with double counterpoint tongue slaps, only to split asunder again. Schmid continues his lower-pitched growls as Rothenberg sprays keening rhythmic lines on top of that. After intersecting in different keys, together they pursue the same intermezzo, retarded with note snaps and key percussion. Veering towards the fragmented, the piece ends with both spewing sharp, unconnected arpeggios at one another.

On other parts of the CD, when they’re not snorting dark-textured broken counterpoint, for instance, the low-horn duo turn to tongue slaps, smears and honks as on “SchRoth #8”, with the American on bass clarinet and the Swiss on contrabass clarinet. Sporadically, the multi-pitched hues produced by diaphragm vibrations suggest the soundtrack for barnyard feeding time involving baby chicks and a large sow.

In contrast, a track like “SchRoth #9”, plays up the contrasts between Rothenberg’s alto saxophone and Schmid’s tubax. With the latter spewing stentorian continuum and the former providing high-pitched, broken chords, the lock step soon breaks apart. Minor-key alto lines turn into a gigue-like melody of repetitive multiphonics, while Schmid’s snorts bury themselves further into the earth.

Furthermore, Schmid’s molasses-slow tubax growls on “SchRoth #5” seem to emanate from the lowermost reaches of his horn’s cylindrical tube as they vie for space with floating, double-tonguing from Rothenberg’s flute-like shakuhachi. Combined, the textures produced by the ancient Japanese bamboo flute adhere so credibly with tones from the newly invented 21st century instrument, that the result could be polyphonic gagaku or court music.

Similarly, there’s an atypical point on Where we were that Hargreaves’ out-of-character ethereal flute playing makes it sound as if he and Kraabel have created gagaku or even pseudo New Age sounds. Luckily that doesn’t last very long. Soon Hargreaves, whose past playing partners have included tougher mates like Phil Morton on guitar and treatments or bassist Simon H. Fell, is back on track and saxophone, as dual reed tones almost brutally ricochet off the walls.

Down-pedaling to breathy single notes, the two are interrupted for a few seconds by genuine bird songs, then as reeds resonate in harmony, the saxes have to overcome traffic rumbles and police sirens shrills. Allowing for more silence here than elsewhere, the two turn from throaty, split tones expelled in a whine, to tongue slaps alternating with single note smears. After trying glottal punctuation and bell muting against a leg or hand, curt resonation turns the output to hocketing broken cadences, ranging from nephritic growls to aviary-like polyphonic harmonies.

Liverpudlian Hargreaves, and Kraabel, who also plays in the London Improvisers Orchestra and in a trio with vocalist Maggie Nicols and Swiss violist Charlotte Hug, had agreed on certain improvising strategies before beginning their sound stroll. Thus, often held intervals bridge sonic awkwardness. Furthermore, only for a split second a little more than 17 minutes on do you notice the one, very audible, change in the recording environment. Despite chattering crowds and other sonic impediments, the remainder of the sounds meld seamlessly.

Eschewing for the most part a flute tone that can sound like Paul Horn recorded at the great pyramid, on saxophones Hargreaves prefers staccato phrases, splintered multiphonics and irregular vibrations. His controlled dissonance aims every which way. Taking advantage of the actualities as well, at one point he integrates the echo of passing footstep alongside reed smears or resonating flute vibrations.

Initially enamored with punk rock, Kraabel likes to use her voice, sometimes on its own — as when what seems to be animal cries are heard in conjunction with the saxophone — or vocalized through her horn to add a third harmony to the proceedings. Quirky oral whoops and cries echo horn lines, or, in another dramatic moment, the soprano saxophone mirrors her voice to such an extent that before long the dissonant tones can’t be ascribe to either larynx or metal and reed.

By the CD’s end both reedists appear to be in perfectly symmetry with one another, turning disparate tongue slaps and pitch vibratos from plain repetition to wavers and flutters. By this time moreover, the reed timbres sounded a half step from one other, mesh polyphonically before fading out in poetic harmony.

Two horn duos — two distinct way to approach the partnership — two equally valid systems.