Creative Sources

By Ken Waxman
March 14, 2005

Part of the wave of minimalistic improvisers who somehow manage to appropriate the mechanics of electronic timbres for acoustic instruments, these two French groups still affirm that small intervals, diminutive resonance and near-static harmony can provide memorable music if you ignore the so-called proper way that instruments should sound.

Hubbub tries to transcend the tone question from the beginning. Each of its CDs lists only the players names, not the instruments they play. For the record the band is made up of Jean-Luc Guionnet on soprano and alto saxophones, Bertrand Denzler on tenor saxophone, Frédéric Blondy on piano, guitarist Jean-Sébastian Mariage and drummer Edward Perraud.

All have extensive experience on the somewhat insular French scene. Guionnet and Perraud are put of the appropriately named Return of the New Thing band. The altoist has also duetted with guitarist Olivier Benoît, while Blondy has recorded with master percussionist Lê Quan Ninh. Denzler, who is actually Swiss, has played with people as different as fellow countryman saxophonist Hans Koch and real New Thing drummer Sunny Murray.

Denzler and Mariage are also featured on Metz. So are Xavier Charles on clarinet here, but who is often involved in dedicated electronica, playing vibrating surfaces, turntables and minidiscs, and violinist Mathieu Werchowski, whose experience encompasses electronica with tape manipulators Lionel Marchetti and Jérôme Noetinger and a pure acoustic trio with guitarist John Russell and accordionist Ute Völket.

Perhaps because of this background, electroacoutsic tendencies migrate onto the second CD’s slightly more than half-hour single track. With concentration the sounds can be mesmerizing. At the same time the piece has enough structure to be a sonata or other formal composition.

Initially it builds up from intermittent reed buzzes and metallic baps that are mixed with bell-ringing guitar tones and violin textures. Variations arise following an extended period of aviary trills from Denzler, chalumeau-register buzzes from Charles plus the scrapes of what could be an e-bow moving across fiddle strings. Mariage then begins tapping on his guitar strings with his palms and snapping them as well — gestures that bring out reedy snorts and flutter tonguing from the woodwinds. As the theme is reshaped, compressed, organ-like timbres appear from the violinist, leading to an exchange of sul ponticello lines on his part and dark, fluttering breaths from the reedmen.

Midway through, silence is nudged with the faint intimation of reverb extended by abrasive ratcheting from the top portion of the guitar’s neck, until split-tone reed variations provide new variations on the theme with hummingbird-like warbling. Finally the piece reaches a climax of amp-related wheezy crackles, electronic hiss, intermittent string battering and chromatic runs. As this happens, the clarinetist adds shrill reed vibrations and the tenor man glottal stops and shredded cries. Heightened sounds include thumping guitar picking and wiggling fiddle lines.

A postlude of shattering reed cries mixed with accordion-like squeezes from the strings leads to a 20-second coda of barely heard near silence.

Silence plays a part in Hoib as well, with many of the most hypnotic timbres seemingly taking place just below the threshold of comfortable listening. Divided among two mid-length tracks, the band members assert themselves most individually on “Hoib 2”, which itself begins with almost complete silence for 60 seconds.

Eventually Perraud come up with an odd drum sound — not a beat mind you — and Blondy keystrokes that could come from a toy piano. Soon you realize that the segmented whap that almost resembles a vibraharp’s touch is coming from mallets hitting piano keys, while the spreading harp-like glisses are from the guitar.

With nothing moving very loudly or quickly, subtle tongue slaps and shrill colored air expiration from Guionnet and Denzler are even more obvious. Flirting with micotonalism, the two barely avoid stasis. Alternating obtuse penny-whistle timbres and silence, it’s fairly obvious that this sax meeting has very little to do with a Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane reed battle or anything else overtly jazzy. Respiration does appear, but these abrasive split tones create unknown tonal properties not differentiated notes. Eventually, a backdrop is created out of scraped chromatic colors from the guitar and internal dampening of the piano keys. Hooting, sibilant, almost harmonica-reedy tones from the saxes hang suspended in the air until even the overtones dissolves into silence.

Similar undifferentiated and unknown oscillations are on the first, longer track, along with pressure on cymbal and snare tops from the percussionist, scrapes along the underside and front of the guitar by the plectrumist and a build up of tongue slaps, flattement and colored air from the reedists. Still, with the track angled more towards undulation then movement, clanging ring modulator-like waveforms seem to enter the sound picture as well.

Eventually the drummer builds up his arrangement from subtle touches and split-second cymbal spanks to somehow meld sour snare rattles with sine wave-like piercing cries from the reeds. Eventually, chiming, elongated tongue stops and split tones are bolstered from near-noiselessness with finger and palm percussion and internal piano string rumbles.

Harsh sputters from one sax, shrill, flutter-tongue squeaks from the other, a continual rhapsody of saturated piano tones and pinpointed cymbal pings bring the piece to a climax, while the finale is a flawlessly positioned solo drum beat.

Not jazz or perhaps even improv as we know it, Hoib and Metz deserve concentrated examination by those open to tracing new currents in free playing.