Queen Mab Trio

See Saw

L’éncorce Chant la Forêt
Creative Sources

By Ken Waxman
August 15, 2005

Changing the configuration of an acoustic trio with as few as one instrument alters the internal relationship so profoundly that the coloration can, to indulge in cliché, practically change from white to black.

So it is with these two multi-country chamber ensembles. Queen Mab, consisting of two Canadians – Toronto pianist Marilyn Lerner and Montreal clarinetist Lori Freedman – plus violist Ig Henneman from the Netherlands, has produced See Saw, a CD that leans towards the New music part of the improv continuum. L’éncorce Chant la Forêt – (rough) translation “singing bark of the forest” – despite the inclusion of a prodigiously educated and prize-winning so-called serious music composer, Dan Warburton – is firmly in the minimalist, non-idiomatic Free Music vein. Warburton, a British-born, Paris resident, who is a violinist, is joined by two French musicians, guitarist Jean-Sébastien Mariage and pianist Frédéric Blondy, both of whom are also in the Hubbub quintet. Although Hubbub’s signature textures usually range from below inaudible to deliberately stentorian, two other members of that band work with Warburton in a combo called Return of the New Thing which, as the title indicates, takes its inspiration from maximal 1960s improvising.

Each session here however, is memorable in its own, much different way. Full appreciation, however will probably be tempered by how many conventional music signposts the listener wants or needs for full enjoyment.

In more conservative musical situations the diverse influences which make up Queen Mab’s unique oeuvre would be viewed as beyond experimental. Yet in more catholic free music, the sounds of Freedman – whose associates have included American reedist Joe McPhee and Czech violinist Iva Bittova – Lerner – whose playing experiences encompass Latin, Klezmer and jazz gigs – plus Henneman – who has played in rock bands and with chamber groups –add up to detached virtuosity tempered with a European New music ethos.

Contrast this with L’éncorce Chant la Forêt. Firmly EuroImprov, at points it replicates nearly all the scrapes, plinks and oscillations that can be made by stringed instruments constructed from wood.

The improvising on this CD appears to building up to “Sleep, perchance to dream”, the 30 [!] minute final track. Unfortunately, the three players give themselves a bit too much license over that much aural real estate. With the violin vibrating sul ponticello squeaks that at points take on reed-like tints, the guitar creating frailing steel-string scrapes and the piano concentrating on abstracted patterning, bonding seems lacking.

Meandering largo with an undulating, almost electronic ostinato, the performance reaches a foreshortened climax slightly after the midway point, then subsides again. Percussive taps on internal piano strings, which seem to include the hitch pin and sound board, penny-whistle like pitch stopping from the fiddle and a suggestion that Mariage is rasping objects over his guitar strings, then propels the piece with miniature mouse-like squeaks to its conclusion.

Earlier, on the slightly more than 12-minute title track, Mariage’s string finger taps joins with soundboard stroking from Blondy and fiddle runs from Warburton to surge from sine wave replication to classically oriented jettes. Descending piano chords, off-centre keyboard plinks plus crackles and pops from amp distortion give this piece a paranormal identity, particularly when the primary theme alludes to the sounds a balloon makes as it’s scratched and stretched.

Initially livelier than the others, “oort: un jardin doucement ratisssé par les perubations stellaires” – a quiet garden disrupted by stellar disorders – features patterning string cadences that unite in broken octaves. When the underlying buzzing distortions advance to knob-tuning shrills, the pitter-patter of stopped keyboard action unites with violin glissandi to increase the volume. Quickly enough though, reverberating low- frequency dynamics from all the strings attain a languorous pace, insinuating that the collective improvisation could end in a nanosecond or continue for infinity.

Nothing in See Saw’s nine selections, recorded in four different Canadian locations, achieves any of the extremes Blondy, Mariage and Warburton engender. But Freedman, Lerner and Henneman’s teamwork produces a more colorful sound picture than the other CD’s somewhat monochrome tinctures.

Most noticeable are See Saw’s two longest pieces – Lerner’s more than nine-minute “Three Strikes” and Henneman’s almost nine-minute “Galina U”. The later, written in homage to the “stubborn, passionate music” of St. Petersburg-based composer Galina Ustvolskaya, is almost 19th century in its romanticism. It features Lerner heavy-handedly rumbling in the piano’s lowest quadrant before she introduces some splayed pseudo-stride. Rough sul ponticello tones from the violist then meet screeching flutter-tonguing from the clarinetist, until Freedman’s trumpet-like fanfare gives way to sinuous-sawing from Henneman. As the fiddle tones soften to tender, they join equally gentle single notes from the piano to recapitulating the main theme.

Harsher, “Three Strikes” features rough whistles from Freedman’s reed and Henneman’s lowest strings sounded col legno, interrupted for brief treble patterning from Lerner’s piano. As the violist turns to shuffle bowing, the pianist suddenly launches a series of contrasting dynamic runs with irregular accents emphasized by pedal work. Subsequent deeper and darker timbres constitute themselves into a counter melody of expelled colored air from Freedman until the piece dissolves into silence

Then there’s Henneman’s “Lori F”, a feature for the bass clarinetist. Virtuosic, Freedman first intermingles mellow and irregular vibrations, accelerates to multiphonics, and subsequently blows squeals, trills and squeaks. Meantime, Henneman swells lower toned arpeggios, then joins Lerner’s galloping comping to provide cushioning, broken octave accompaniment to the woodwind player.

Elsewhere, Lerner’s output ranges from sandpaper rough, inside-string resonation to tinkling, balladic fills. Freedman’s characteristically dissonant reed snorting and aviary shrills also give way to pulsating bass clarinet body tube burbling and conservatory-approved extended glissandi. Henneman, who usually includes ratcheting sweeps in her playing without upsetting the harmonic balance, can also slyly come up with timbres so atonal that they unintentionally sound like Jack Benny practicing on his $5 fiddle.

With the compositions almost evenly apportioned, See Saw confirms the range of Queen Mab, which evolved from what initially was a duo of Freedman and Lerner. While the trio’s innate formalism probably prevents it from going the all-improv route favored by L’éncorce Chant la Forêt, it could challenge itself more by recording extended compositions. Alternately Blondy, Mariage and Warburton could brighten their collective color field by widening and toughening their recorded performances.