Looper

Squarehorse
Absurd/Utan Titel CD

Sound of Mucus
Filth Pharmacy
Ninth World Music

Veliotis/Sugimoto/Koshita/Unami
Quartet
Hibari Music

By Ken Waxman
June 13, 2005

Free music has never been more international than it is in the age of supersonic jet travel and easy access to the Internet. But 21st century mobility does more than allow the free flow of products and ideas among interested individuals.

This mobility has also made the existence of multi-country band a common occurrence. Consider the three CDs here. Looper consists of a Swedish saxophonist, a Greek cellist and a Norwegian percussionist. Sound of Mucus – what a name [!] – finds the same saxophonist in an experimental trio with two fellow Swedes, while the Quartet session links the cellist with three Japanese lower case improvisers.

It doesn’t stop there either. Soprano and baritone saxophonist Martin Küchen, cellist Nikos Veliotis and percussionist Ingar Zach are separately in other bands with different Europeans – Germans, Italians and players from the United Kingdom – some of whom play in still other combos with musicians from the groups here.

However mobility is only valuable if the musical end product justifies the trip –which it does on these CDs. Instructively enough, the most satisfying CD is Squarehorse, which features Küchen, Veliotis and Zach. The other two are impressive, but, perhaps because of inbred nationalism seem more committed to a rigid structure – if that can be said about free improve – than the trio disc.

Made up of two, long – more than 23½ minutes and almost 38 minutes respectively – tracks, Squarehorse shows what three musicians with a command of many idioms can accomplish. As well as playing Free Jazz with Exploding Customer, saxophonist Küchen has created dance, theatre and film soundtracks, Veliotis specializes in playing graphic and contemporary scores as well as free music, while Zach’s higher musical education also includes interaction with a variety of free players, including electro-acoustians.

This background allows the three to create poly-tonalism that could be linked to electronics – except all they use are acoustic instruments. The second track, for instance features a constant buzzing hiss traversed with swiveling, sul tasto action from cello that gets louder and more spacious as the piece develops. Solid breath exhalations from the saxophonist mixes in piping buzzes and shrill squeaks that add to the almost machine-like, droning oscillations and mallet-driven percussion twists and turns from Zach

Mechanized, the signals from the instruments appear to multiply and distend, successfully shrouding pitch origins. Some pulses may result from multiphonics being expressed without key pressure through the saxophone, others from sul ponticello string sweeps and still others from pliable accents of felt-tipped mallets resonating on drum tops. Shrill textures do make their appearance, but the overall impression is of concentrated echoes and silences.

Built on sawing arpeggios from Veliotis, that themselves take on looping characteristics, the shorter, premier tune is amplified with echoes that arise from Zach’s drum stick scratching the ride cymbal plus internal bell-muted reed blowing from Küchen. Hisses reach a crescendo of oscillated drones until the higher-pitched tones fade away. Almost impenetrably, vague timbres invade the silence, finally joined by a mechanized murmur that gradually becomes louder and converts into an unyielding mass of synthetic output, expanded with barely audible, tongue-stopping ghost notes and which leads to a finale of complete stillness.

Conversely, silence appears to be verboten among the studio timbres created in the months before the Looper session by Küchen, here on soprano and baritone saxophone and found objects, and the other members of the Sound of Mucus. Together for six years before recording this set, the band’s sound owes much of its distinctiveness to the string textures created by Herman Müntzing – who has played with American guitarist Eugene Chadbourne – from his self-invented flexichord and his sampler, plus textures and tones from the percussion, drum machine and CD player of Andreas Axelsson, whose other collaborators have ranged from Dixielanders to punks.

With sounds produced that resemble back-draft hollow tube snorts and watery bubbling at different times, the sampled and mechanically produced add-ons are used sparingly. “Lesson I” may include the hint of a sampled symphony orchestra, for instance, but flat picking from the flexichord and aluminum pie plate-like rattles from percussion are more prominent as is the friction resulting from rim shot scrapes and clinking bells.

Extended reed spetrofluctuation replaced by saxophone body tube gurgles makes “Lesson V” stand out, as does abrasive percussion scouring, quick breath patterns and echoed strings. On the subsequent track, these shadowy plucks give way to frailing licks, squealed pitch vibrations from the saxophonist and curt sharp rolls from the drums. Concussive wooden block textures mix with weighty bass drum thumps and pre-recorded, gyrating organ chords until cymbal slaps give way to a solitary bell peal.

Tension release appears on “Lesson VIII”, during which snorted sax vibrations and abstract metallic rasps from the drummer are underscored by an ostinato in unvarying pitch. Crisscrossed tugboat whistle toots, vibrated surface tones and claw-hammer picking relate the single tone continuum to the louder, more abstract cadences of the other tracks.

Isolated, minimalist pitches also characterize Quartet, recorded in summer 2004 in Tokyo. Each of the three quietistic tracks relates strongly to the Onkyo or reductionist ethos of much recent Japanese Free Music. Usually limiting himself to one or a few notes at a time, cellist Veliotis, makes common cause with three locals – Taku Sugimoto on acoustic guitar and e-bow, who also has played cello and improvised with Swiss drummer Günter Müller; violinist Kazushige Kinoshita, who operates with the instrument on his lap; and Taku Unami on contraguitar, who as a laptopist and guitarist, has worked with British and Spanish microtonalists.

Unless reductionism is your favorite sound, the cellist’s “acedhd” would appear to be the most satisfying track. Distinctive, but defiantly minimalist, is Sugimoto’s more- than-33 minute [!] “music for 4 stringed instruments”, it’s a good thing the molasses-slow piece is titled this way. Among the massive stretches of unadulterated silence are literal split-second incursions from the strings. Most frequently it’s a single guitar resonation which is heard – most likely from the composer – although at points pizzicato string snaps and or an arco violin or cello sweep are also audible –, not to mention feet scuffling and instrument repositioning. When three-quarters of the way through there’s a high-pitched plink and then an answering pluck, in this context it’s as if John Coltrane and Rashied Ali had embarked on a contrapuntal duet.

Although “acedhd” is almost similarly mute except for an echoing footfall more than three minutes into the track, after that portamento from the fiddle and cello wavers, sways, then turns into an unvarying drone. Still the nodes are separate enough so that you can make out variations in the note or set of notes on which both are harmonizing.

At this point the single tone expands into a slightly dissonant, but cohesive synthetic loops as vibrating nodes transform all 20 strings into one instrument with a meandering tone. Near silent partials with very faint overtone vibrations make common cause with silence until undulating strings combine once again into a pattern of notes, with their pitches and overtones. The intersection of the bow hair and the strings can be clearly heard and part of the infinite sustain could come from e-bow. Moderato, not a millitone louder, softer, faster or slower, the piece reaches a point where you can almost see the surging musical line.

Also concluded with a minute of silence, the final improvisation captures the taps of the cello pin on the ground, the rattle of a vibrating stick against strings and even spicatto double counterpoint from the bows. Climax is reached with swelling arco timbres with the harmonic undercurrent of ululating harmonic loops, succeeded by a coda of silence.

Followers of extreme minimalism may get more from this CD, which does define Onkyo at that particular moment, while anyone who has heard Küchen in the freeform UNSK band with German trumpeter Birgit Ulher and Scandinavians, drummer Raymond Strid and Lise-Lott Norelius on live electronics, will no doubt be impressed by Filth Pharmacy.

Seek out those discs, but do all you can to find Squarehorse.