January 16, 2006
Passions and Prayers
Between the Lines
Post No Bills
Musick für Kammerensemble
Opus Incertum on C
By Ken Waxman
January 16, 2006
On occasion imagining themselves with lower standing than so-called classical composers, improvising musicians create program music, hoping to theoretically reach a similar elevated level especially if the results are presented in concert. Many times this yearning expressed in semi-notated works is further staunched by utilizing strings and other orchestral instruments for similar purported prestige.
As these three examples of chamber-improv, created by different musicians in different countries demonstrate however, its usually the techniques, traditions and passions of improvisation that make a fundamental impression on the listener above and beyond the composition itself.
Each of these sets prominently features strings, piano and trombone. Plus, in the case of Israeli pianist Yitzhak Yedids Passions and Prayers and the German quintet Post No Bills Musick für Kammerensemble such common orchestral instruments as flute, tuba, French horn and clarinet. In fact, only Jean-Pierre Jullians Opus Incertum on C features a percussionist the composer himself but he isnt heard at all in its First Movement, and his playing remains succinct and low-key throughout, until friction and scrapes are briefly explored in the penultimate track.
Additionally both Jullians and Yedids CDs are explicitly programmatic. The percussionists two movement, 16-track suite honors the sport of camarguaise, and one of its greatest participants, rasteur Christian Chomel. Similarly Passions and Prayers is a five-part, 20-motif suite written in tribute to Yedids home city, Jerusalem. In contrast, Post No Bills CD is defiantly microtonal and abstract.
If musical passages in Passions and Prayers and Opus Incertum on C represent roles and actions, then Musick für Kammerensemble has no back story. Its nearly 74 minutes of uncompromising contemporary chamber music played by an unusually-constituted ensemble of clarinet, piano, tuba, vibraphone and Christoph Weinheimer doubling flute and violin.
Both the other CDs almost have unstated librettos. Yedids emotional storytelling cycle structures themes, motifs and prayers to celebrate the people and atmosphere of the ancient Israeli city. Throughout however, a melancholy flavor haunts the work. Much more celebratory, Jullians disc tries to replicate the essence of camarguaise, that takes place in a bull ring, where rasteurs try to retrieve various articles such as fabric ends or strings placed on the face or around the horns of six bulls. The grace under pressure demanded in this role often resembles a wild, crowned dance or the split-second decision-making of musical improvisation.
To this end the second and more interesting movement of Opus Incertum on C
involves all the musicians in a shrilling, contrapuntal exchange with carefully timed dance rhythms and march suggestions. Echoing both Bizets Carmen and Cretan dances, it gives the CD additional, extra-musical connotations.
Besides the percussionist, whose background includes work with American bassist Barre Phillips, the band is filled with first-call French jazzers. Bassist Claude Tchamitchian has worked with everyone from American multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee to French pianist Sophia Domanchich; pianist Stephan Oliva has played with guitarist Marc Ducret and drummer Daniel Humair; and tenor saxophonist Lionel Garcin was in a trio with Phillips and Canadian drummer Michel Lambert. Additionally, Guiallaume Orti plays alto saxophone and percussion and Larent Hoevenaers, cello. Violinist Régis Huby works with such folklore imaginaire specialists as cellist Vincent Courtois and clarinetist Louis Sclavis, while trombonist Thierry Madiot is part of a trio with French saxophonist Daunik Lazro and British bassist Paul Rogers.
Obviously the tenor of Yedids homage is much different than that of Jullians. But its almost excessive formalism results more from the background of its performers than the composition itself. The pianist, who has extensive classical training, and who also studied with Paul Bley, has surrounded himself with players with similar backgrounds in notated music. Bassist Ora Boasson Horev, who is part of Yedids regular trio, is in the Israeli Camerata Orchestra and baroque music ensembles. American-born clarinetist and bass clarinetist Orit Orbach has played in the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the Israel Chamber Orchestra and Haifas Israel Northern Symphony. French hornist Alon Reuven plays with The Israel Camerata and violist Galia Hai is in the Israel Contemporary String Quartet. Only trombonist Yaron Ouzana from Ramat-Gan, whose slashing and buzzing solos often lift the ensemble, has extensive big band, jazz, funk and Latin music experience.
Sometimes, as on the first track, the trombonists repetitive pedal tones mix distinctively with heraldic clarinet lines from Orbach, while Part 5 includes honking glissandi from the trombonist and hornist Reuven as the clarinetist slurs lower chromatic pitches. Throughout, however, many of the motifs resemble nocturnes, and too often its evident that the music is being read rather than improvised.
For example the CDs third section, which deals with the development between imagination and reality, follows the thunk of woody bass parts and triple-stopped string spiccato with an almost hygienic dialogue between the hornist repeating one motif
and split tones from the clarinetist. After the pianist and trombonist join for the continuo, all the instruments accelerate to a crescendo of striated tones which brings forth sound pictures of cartoon-like storm clouds and thunder bolts. As trombone bites and speedy arco fiddling from Hai mate with high-pitched, right-handed key tinkles from Yedid, concentrated stumpy tones continue unraveling until the end.
Contrast this to the 10th track on Opus. Its a double-tongued interlude from trombonist Madiot, which picks up the hard metal vibrations of the bell as he plays. Before a finale shaped by Jullians zealous flams, flapping snare snaps and press rolls, growls and snorts from Garcins saxophone, open the piece into a Willem Breuker Kollektief-style march.
A few tracks earlier, veloce passages turn to jazz-like swing with brass grace notes sharing space with peeping saxophone smears and Tchamitchians ostinato that takes on slap bass characteristics. Overt paradiddles from the drummer back up melodic expansions and contractions from Ortis alto saxophone. Finally a contrapuntal horn action takes the piece out.
Throughout what would be orchestral sections are broken into component parts, although much of the more than 11½-minute piano-and-strings Movement I appears to be mere harmonic coloration. Metronomic piano chording and harmonized violin, cello and bass lines probably have more romantic resonance than Jullian intended. Another drawback is the sheer number of motifs. Setting aside the infrequent tutti passages, at points its as if camarguaise development slows down ratcheting percussion, whereas a piano fantasia or echoing horn-like trombone timbres are rarely heard unfettered by accompaniment.
Jullians triple-timing on the penultimate track, following a sul tasto solo violin line, and preceding buzzed horn timbres and placid string layering lessens some of the tension that has been built up for a proper conclusion.
Conversely, perhaps its the nature of the history implicit in the growth of the Jewish State, but musical pathos constantly overwhelms any jollity implicit in Passions and Prayers compositions. For instance, the strings concentrated arco work, that keens like oldsters at synagogue prayer, implies weeping whispers that add to this melancholy. So do more semi-classical portamento interludes, which are spiked with sharp piano interludes that slice tutti harmonics. Implicit parallelism among the sections often floats upon ghost-like chords, while notes shaken from the horns imply a constant walk along precipices rather than a musical resolution.
Eventually as the motifs and sub themes return in Part 5, the trombone and horn attempt to assert rubato differentiation, but the gloomy string parts predominate. Before the entire suite ends with the ensemble playing the same motif that began Part 1, Orbach smears a chromatic low pitch, Horevs outputs a similar stentorian sul ponticello action and Yedid speeds dynamic vibrations. His solo piano outing in Part 4, which includes multi-finger arpeggios and rapid-fire cadences impresses, although when he refers to the suites development, his playing appears a bit distant.
Encompassing many memorable instrumental passages, glum Passions and celebratory Opus are united in that neither quite expresses the program at which each composer aimed.
Musick für Kammerensemble is a completely different proposition, although the German musicians participating in the nine, un-named, instant compositions have similar so-called serious music backgrounds as the Israeli and French players.
Homburg-born multi-instrumentalist Weinheimer and Frankfurt-born clarinetist Ole Schmidt are involved in dance, theatre and chamber projects as is Onasbrück-born pianist Robert Schleisiek. The first two helped create a 24-hour improvisation involving chamber ensembles and soloists, as well as computer-generated sound production and player piano compositions. On the other hand, Cologne-based tubaist Carl Ludwig Hübsch regularly works with improvisers like trombonist Wolter Wierbos from the Netherlands, while vibist Tom Lorenz, from Düsseldorf has played with local jazzers such as bassist Dieter Manderscheid anmd as a soloist with the WDR Big Band.
Theres no chance of a Flying Home or Bags Groove quote appearing here when the metal bars are struck with tremolo vibrations however. Patterns resembling tam-tams or tubular bells are more likely to be heard, though most are probably courtesy of Lorenz. Often hell meld busy rubato arpeggios with the piano, although most of the pieces are built on pastel tinctures rather than any sense of dynamics.
On tunes such as the nearly 11½-minute track five, Schleisiek cross fades ghostly piano chords including single string microtones, but the end result is more descriptive than some of Yedids more restrained portions of Passions. Here too, the vibist gradually reveals a simple line as the tuba burbles pedal point, the clarinet extends smears to split tones and fiddler Weinheimer creates circular spiccato textures.
For his part Schmidts simple trills relate back to American chamber jazzman Jimmy Giuffre and the minimalist reedists who followed him. Yet even with Schleisieks patterned, unfussy piano lines and the occasional cymbal pop, the effect skirt preciousness because of Hübschs sonorous and burnished pitch-sliding. Should the sort of romanticism that affected some of the tracks on Opus threaten to arise here, then its almost literally blown away by the tubaist and high-pitched sul ponticello fiddle squeaks.
The more than 23½-minute final track detaches the five even more from impressionism, as Hübsch moves from a stirring display of buzzed lip growls, valve twisting and blocked tubes to effervescent counterpoint with chalumeau clarinet lines. When these accelerate to harsh whistling from the reed and cavernous pressure from the brass beast, the constricted tones define Post No Bills parameters better than any written libretto. Concluding with thick, subterranean tuba snorts and polyharmony from the others the CD confirms that in the proper hand instant compositions can make more of an impression than formal ones.