AXEL DÖRNER/ROBIN HAYWARD

Axel Dörner & Robin Hayward
Absinte Records

RUTH BARBERÁN
Capcidad de pérdida
Creative Sources

MICHAEL VOGT
Argonautika
Recommended Records

By Ken Waxman
April 11, 2005

Breath control, valve blocking and twisting plus sound, extensions using acoustical or electrical timbres distinguish these CDs, part of the move by brass players to attain the creative freedom improvisational reedists have enjoyed for many years. Limited by the number of valves extant on the trumpet and the tuba, compared to the keys of a saxophone or clarinet that is, ingenious stratagems are used to extend and amplify the instruments’ natural range and pitches.

Key performer is Berlin-based trumpeter Axel Dörner, who since the late 1990s has moved from playing Free Jazz with the likes of German pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach and Swedish drummer Sven-Åke Johansson to evolve a more abstract interface for the trumpet.

Axel Dörner & Robin Hayward matches up the trumpeter with British-born, Berlin-based tubaist Robin Hayward, who has turned the tuba into a reductionist and microtonal sound source through judicious air redirection, valve blockage and manipulation. Meanwhile Dörner’s example has encouraged other trumpeters in Europe, Asia and North America to try out similar minimalist, non-narrative strategies, One of them is Barcelona-based Ruth Barberán, part of the IBA, collective and usually found playing in groups with accordionist Alfredo Costa Monteiro and mixing board manipulator Ferran Fages. A novella, compared to most CD’s potboiler length, Capcidad de pérdida is a slightly more than 35 minute peek into her sound world.

Like Hayward, another tuba crusader, Michael Vogt is a little distant from the others. Someone who lives in Triepkendorf, Germany and plays with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, Vogt comes from the legit world. Known for his interpretation of contemporary tuba repertoire by such composers as Morton Feldman and Lutz Glandien, Argonautika is his second solo tuba disc. His CD is also the only one that extends brass properties electroacoustically using tapes, an effects unit and a vocoder.

Recorded in 2001 when Hayward was in his most experimental stage, the duo CD with Dörner is packaged in a sleeve designed to hold a 10-inch LP. But that’s the closest to traditionalism that it gets. Longest performances – more than 18 minutes and almost 13 minutes respectively – are two untitled tracks recorded live in concert. Not that you could tell this, since the sound quality is no different from that of the other two which were captured in a rehearsal space cum recording studio.

Beginning with watery valve twisting to produce foreshortened tuba tones, Hayward’s choked aperture is soon joined by higher pitches from Dörner’s trumpet. As the tubaist slowly leaks pressure from his tube, the trumpeter expels a steady obliggato of colored air. In between silences, he circularly breathes and lets loose with mouthpiece blats. Soon Hayward pinpricks the monolithic tone, releasing tapped energy from his tuba’s valves as if he’s deflating a colossal balloon. Dörner’s timbre turns harsher as the tubaist’s valve twisting starts to resemble the sound of an incoming tide. It’s mixed with side band overtones, which in other circumstances would come from an analog synthesizer’s knob turning.

Protracted and more concentrated, track three’s double counterpoint features the trumpeter expiring pure analog air through the lead pipe without valve-depreciation, as well as showcasing grumbling blasts from the tuba. As strident trumpet mouthpiece soul kisses complement amplified whirls from the tuba’s twisted valves, rhythmic breaths, tongue slaps and stops redirect the air to a machine-like buzzing undercurrent. Eventually the aural sensations produced are as if Hayward was vibrating his bell against a paper-thin metal surface, creating finger cymbal-like splashes. Meanwhile Dörner’s mouthpiece osculation meets the faintest echo of tonal variations and consistent whirling timbres caused by air leaking from the tuba’s blocked tube. This pointillistic build up of strangled cries and airy overtones finally gives way to what sounds like one solid object hitting another then – complete silence – or is it merely unaccented air?

Suspicion that some of the broken chord improvisation is talking place in the range of canine hearing persists in “Werchlich”, which translates as “mushy”. Quick tongue articulation from Dörner and mouthpiece blasts from Hayward permeate the silences, although there is a very brief interlude of recognizable brass harmony. Metallic scrapes, groans and bubbling air trickled through valves and lead pipes complete the interface.

Throughout, it appears that the tubaist is most concerned with pressure and vibrations, whereas the trumpeter concentrates on tone. This definition sets off Barberán’s solos from those of Dörner. Her overriding fascination seems to be with rhythm and noise.

Packaged in a booklet featuring the least visually friendly lettering possible –white on a washed out puce background – Barberán’s four improvisations are harsher and more violent than other solo trumpet excursions. Timbres can be reconstructed to replicate fingernails scratching on a balloon, ratcheting pressure against metal, and include tongue slaps that resemble a car motor turning over on a cold morning. Occasionally a swell of ghostly squeals and quivering vibrating nodes slices through the silences with a vicious force that makes it appear as if she’s turning the trumpet inside out.

“Lo contrario de pérdida de capacidad” adds to the bestial comparisons with hollow tube blows taking on budgie-like trills, and extended mouse squeaks and valve manipulation sounding like galloping hoof beats. However the CD’s polyphonic tour de force appears with “Objectes”.

True to its tile, the track is almost 11 minutes of cascading air expiration plus scraping and crashing metal-like clangs. Varying the pitch, forced breaths sound as if they’re being crushed against an unyielding substance, with articulated slurs being altered in the throat before being forced through the lead tube, creating vibrations that could come from a drum stick being scraped across a ride cymbal. Using her hand to tap the valves for rhythm, Barberán’s also able to construct double counterpoint – panting a repetitious, near braying slur. Eventually what sounds like chaos in the cutlery drawer fades into counterpoint extensions from nose and mouth breaths.

Appending electronics to his compositions gives Vogt a different tool kit than the players on the other CDs, but he doesn’t eschew extended techniques either. Vocoder effects that make a human voice sound synthetic could have been dispensed with however: Robotic R2D2 tones on a couple of tracks sound gimmicky, not innovative.

Electronics do add dimensions to pieces like “Tombeau” and “Mopsos’ Ende” nonetheless. On the former, tapes create a harmonic dual between a tuba line played andante, in a stately manner, and noises that suggest a helicopter hovering overhead as the instrument’s bottom is pushed across rough terrain. As clanging side bands redefine the sound it seems as if the electrified tuba and effects have become two different radio stations, one broadcasting a traditional mass, the other a beat-heavy, hip-hop show.

The saxetuba or electrified tuba with saxophone mouthpiece is featured on “Mopsos’ Ende”, which is almost nine minutes of overblown reed shrilling mixed with cavern-like brass echoes. Gyrating extensions from the effects unit produces mechanized buzzing tones that diffuse throughout the limited aural space with delay and echoes setting off a replication of accelerating, repetitious percussion tones.

Sideband loops add thunderstorm-like electrified discord, tugboat-whistle squalls and pings that could come from mallets slapped on vibraharp keys. With the increased waveform energy allowing resonating, expelled timbres to accelerate, ricochet and echo, Vogt’s advantage over the all-acoustic efforts on the other CDs is that his compositions become almost visceral as well as aural.

With these tonal innovations affecting more and more brass instruments, these CDs prove that in certain parts of Europe, the future is now.