Fred Lonberg-Holm

Dialogs (2002)


By Ken Waxman
April 18, 2005

Solo cello recitals are becoming increasingly common in improvised music as more instrumentalists playing so-called classical instruments are drawn to the sounds. With the novelty gone – Mark Wastell of the United Kingdom and Nikos Veliotis of Greece have created impressive solo cello sets recently – the challenge is to establish an identity within the ever-shifting music.

Vienna’s Arnold Haberl – who performs as Noid – and Chicago’s Fred Lonberg-Holm have created impressive documents by adopting two simple, yet expressive strategies. Noid’s Monodigmen is more than 73 minutes of repeated loop patterns, creating 13 hypnotic tracks that range from four seconds to almost 12½ minutes. Repeated, close listening exposes the rhythms and patterns in what seems at first to be a monochromic sound. Elsewhere Noid has collaborated with musicians as different as Israeli saxophonist Assif Tsahar and British-Australian violinist Jon Rose, as well as with performance artists and dancers.

A separate column would be needed to list Lonberg-Holm’s collaborators, who range from Chicago drummer Michael Zerang, to just about any player passing through the city, most notably German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann. However Dialogs (2002) released on a British label, is the cellist’s attempt to transfer an ensemble sound onto his instrument’s four strings and wooden frame. He does so by appending a basket full of small speakers, test amps, motors and piezos, which are pickups that give each string its own separate signal. That way treble and bass strings have separate ouputs, creating a unique stereo blend.

Mixing the temperament and techniques of minimalism and electro-acoustic music, Noid sounds patterns that are repeated for an extended period of time. Elsewhere, electronic loops would be used to produce this resonance, but he, like several other young experimenters, manages the same feat acoustically. As he says, “when the point comes where I think ‘it’s not possible to play any longer,’ I continue playing. When I reach the point where I think ‘I can play for hours’ I stop”.

On Monodigmen, stratagems used to amplify the cello’s woody resonation take many forms. The oddly titled “36,5° celsius”, for instance reflects that hotter than hell temperature with rubato wood sawing noises that could be made by a boy scout trying to start a fire by rubbing horsehair bow and nylon strings together. “Vacuum” doesn’t reflect its title however. Instead, nearly 12 minutes of “Flight of the Bumblebee”-like spiaccato bowing, using the same seven accented notes in various permutations, finally create corrosive undertones that reference a hornpipe or a gigue.

“Herz” reflects the same sort of mesmerizing pattern that appears to have no beginning and no end, although the pitch and tone variations break up the emphasized patterns to such an extent that a beat and specific rhythm emerges from the repetition. This is a method favored by AMM and The Necks. Conversely, “Einsam” is more than 10 minutes of infinitesimal squeaking motions that include distant whistles. There are points where the transparent tone almost dissolves into stasis, but minute chirps pulled from string partials near the tuning pegs provide timbre.

Additional secondary overtones come from vibrating a horizontal bow between the strings and from woody echoes of the belly and ribs of the instrument itself. Sometimes pulsation even appears to be emanating from the wood itself.

If Noid eschews electronics this time out, then Lonberg-Holm embraces them, trying to find as many harsh noise permutations as he can grind from his amplified and motorized axe. Throughout, the sounds he creates range from staccato sine wave smacks and alley cat-like screeching to more restrained plinking and plucking that go beyond the so-called British-oriented small sounds dubbed insect music. Some timbres resemble wood splintering, others breaking glass and still others a piccolo’s extended shrill. At various points he makes the cello morph into a kazoo, a chromatic banjo or bagpipes and take on the stentorian tones of the double bass’s lowest strings.

Showpiece of the session is “Dialog 6”, which at a touch under 13 minutes manages to package almost all of the extended techniques together. Supplementing existing tones with one that could be that of a tiny, motorized fan hitting the string – a common inclination of AMM guitarist Keith Rowe – arco scrapes and sweeps constitute the tune’s first section. Passing on the sound of a vibrating horizontal bow behind the strings, Lonberg-Holm blends his spiccato with ratcheting impulses and rending tones. Skipping lightly down the strings for a time, abrasive scratches appear, vying for aural space with a secondary trilling line. Crumbling and crackling percussion-like vibrations reconfigure the upper partials as the cellist, pizzicato, leans into banjo-like frailing, interrupted by what seems to be fingers rubbing against an inflated balloon. Ghostly cries produced from full pressure on the highest-pitched string meet up with a pseudo Bronx cheer produced by speedy string concussion. All this force the output into quicker and quicker grooves until all sound fades away.

Knob tuning and whistling, the thump and bump of lower-pitched reverb turns to piercing flutters, and among the extended string interface the odd legato, standard pattern are also harvested by Lonberg-Holm from his sound collection. Furthermore, just as Noid insists that no electronics are used in Monodigmen, so Lonberg-Holm trumpets the fact that no overdubs are used on Dialogs (2002).

Whether you prefer your cello straight up or with electronic attachments, both Noid and Lonberg-Holm show that an improvised solo CD isn’t limited to any pre-set of sounds. The Chicagoan has proven he can be as sonically interesting alone as with others. Now let’s hear a recording of Noid interacting with other players as well.