Near Acoustic Extensions

By Ken Waxman
May 16, 2005

Using a combination of acoustic and electronic impulses two Continental ensembles demonstrate how far electronics have seeped into representative free improvisations. What distinguishes the many-headed quartet from the Near Acoustic Extensions septet is that with the Baghdassarians/Baltschun/Bosetti/Doneda mixture you’re more capable of differentiating sounds from individual instruments.

Since the late 1980s, French soprano and sopranino saxophonist Michel Doneda has been exploring textures while linking improvisation to other art forms. He’s done so on his own or with playing partners ranging from French-Vietnamese percussionist Lê Quan Ninh to British tabletop guitarist Keith Rowe.

He’s also been involved in multi-saxophone recordings, including some that included Milan-born, Berlin-based soprano saxist Alessandro Bosetti. Another German, Serge Baghdassarians plays guitar and mixing desk here. His longtime collaborator is sampler player Boris Baltschun, a Paris- based native of Bremen, who works in bands with other searching Teutons such as clarinetist Kai Fagaschinski and percussionist Burkhard Beins.

Baby of the quartet in his early thirties, Baltschun is approximately the same age as the younger, all French, Parisian ensemble on the other CD. Intriguingly most of them have rock band backgrounds.

Composer and ringleader is Alexandre Bellenger, who plays acoustic guitar extended with objects and an analogue synthesizer. His longtime associate is Romaric Sobac, whose instruments of choice are turning objects, rubbings, and guitar frames. Member of bands such as Bobby Moo along with Bellenger, Arnaud Rivière here manipulates cymbals and electronic feedback. A psychomotrician in an adult psychiatry department as well as an improviser, Olivier Brisson works out on bass drum and cymbals. Metz-born, Rennes-based Quentin Dubost, plays acoustic guitar with objects, Jacques Pochat plays tenor saxophone and Thomas Charmetant cello.

It’s those last two who provide the most specific tones on Live, once you figure out what strategic techniques they’re bringing to their axes. Pochat often sticks to single note resonation or blowing colored air through his horn, while Charmetant polyphonically mixes his sharp swipes and spiccato with other impulses to make his points.

Interestingly enough, the final minutes of “Statique 3” – which at less than 11 minutes is the shorter and first (of two) tracks on this CDR – reveal that the cellist’s distinctive pattern is the leitmotif which bridges, alternates, introduces and completes the others’ statements. This is most obvious when swelling cello spiccato meets a mechanized buzz that gets louder and speedier as it’s contorted. Other tones on show through electronic oscillation include hard, sepulchral roars from the bass drum and cymbal snaps, plus slaps, pants and puffs from Pochat. All around these are clash and low frequency pressure from the synth, guitar feedback and the odd string strum plus mechanized ring modulator-like surface drilling buzzes,. The oddest moment appears when it sounds as if the cellist is virtually creating a legato melody.

Nearly double the length “Statique 2”, which actually is the second track, begins with the almost habitual free music drum stick swipe across the ride cymbal. After objects are dragged and rubbed across the floor polyrhymically, a portamento cello pattern creates buzzing interface with the ghost note and glottal punctuation spilling from the sax. Responding to this, machine-altered guitar lines get more abstract as rubbed and tugged percussion textures project on top of unvarying feedback hisses. Cross-faded tones sounding like a train engine, low in the background, then meld with synth feedback patterns and chiming loops. Wrenching scrapes from whatever turning objects may be scoured, textural percussion that may come from the guitar frame, and contrapuntal sideband shrills also figure here. Low-key, but emphasized, cross swipes from cello relate back to the tracks’ initial theme, ending the piece.

Strom’s six interrelated tracks, which curiously enough are titled “Strömung” I through VI, offer more varied textures than Near Acoustic Extensions, although fewer musicians are involved. It may have something to do with the oral instruments since both Bosetti and Doneda are capable of pitches that range from the replication of bellowing through a long hollow tube to ear-cleaning vibrations that sail past aviary trills to otherworldly sibilance.

By the second track however, reed flattement advanced and extended through a rinse cycle makes room for squeaking, unattached output signals that sound as if they’re emanating from a ring modulator. As microtonal as the intonation is, it becomes even more quietistic when, on the subsequent track, ping-ponging impulses move into the sound field. At this point Baghdassarians’ string frottage join strident tongue slaps and whistles which emerge from one saxophone and ululate over top of hissing loops. Soon the other reedman joins, weaving a dense, almost unpenetrable tone that when widened with dissonance makes it seem as if a third reed player is on hand.

Other woodwind variations include throat growls that vibrate like a doorstopper, tugboat-like honks, a quick exhalation, as if a balloon has been pricked with a pin, and puffs of airy flatulence. These small explosions of vibrated tonguing are needed to offset the reverberating voltage from the sampler and mixing desk.

At almost nine-minutes “Strömung VI” is both the climax and finale, uniting sound strategies that have been hinted at on the earlier tracks. Hollow tube harmonies, wheezing hisses, reed kisses, ghost notes and split tones from the horns meld to make common cause with – and be heard above – the bangs and sideband clanging from the plugged in electronics. Pantonal saxophone barks and guitar volume pedal swells add to the miasma that explodes into power-drill vibrations, then fades away into squeaks.

More sound seances than performances, Baghdassarians/Baltschun/Bosetti/Doneda and Near Acoustic Extensions confirm the universality of electronics in France. When coupled with innovative acoustic textures, the CDs also showcase what results when knobs and dials are manipulated by the right fingers.