ANTOINE BERTHAIUME/QUENTIN SIRJACQ/NORMAN TEALE

Leaves and Snows
Ambiances Magnétiques AM 135

URSEL SCHLICT/BRUCE ARNOLD
String Theory
Muse Eek MSK 124

With manipulation and mixing of electronics and computer programming language becoming as much a part of improvisation as tuning instruments and finding performing environments, both intuitive and academic approaches are being tried.

Just as no one would attempt to say – to use a far-fetched example – that Dave Douglas is a better trumpeter than Kermit Ruffins or vice versa, because one attended the New England Conservatory and the other learned his technique on the street of New Orleans, musicians who discover electronics and mixing themselves or come to them during their course of studies must only be judged on how well they use the software.

Essentially the totality of the playing – regardless of any signal processing – captured on LEAVES AND SNOWS and STRING THEORY is acceptable enough. But notwithstanding electronic sophistication, neither CD possesses the spark to make it a breakthrough session.

Paradoxically these processed add-ons also mean that while the first disc is ostensibly by a trio and the other by a duo, the aural documentation is pretty similar. That’s because Norman Teale, one of the three performers on LEAVES AND SNOWS, is a graduate student at Oakland Calif.’s Mills College’s Electronic Music and Recording Media program. As sound engineer, the mixing and electronics are his contribution. Quebec guitarist Antoine Berthiaume and French pianist Quentin Sirjacq – jazzers who met in bassist Joëlle Léandre’s improvisation class at Mills – play the so-called real instruments. Berthiaume has already recorded duets with British guitarists Fred Frith and Derek Bailey, while Sirjacq flits among improv, New music and composing incidental music for film and dance.

STRING THEORY’s participants on the other hand, are already veteran musicians, German-born, New York-based pianist Ursel Schlicht has in the past collaborated successfully with downtowners such as trombonist Steve Swell. An educator, who is New York University’s Summer Jazz Guitar Intensive Coordinator, Bruce Arnold explores the possibilities of 12-tone applications in jazz improvisation. This recorded meeting with Schlicht on piano and prepared piano, and Arnold on guitar and the environment and programming language SuperCollider, came about after the two met at a Jazz festival in Monterrey Mexico.

It’s probably a compliment to the programmers that neither disc sounds excessively electronic. The two pianists and two guitarists are as texturally expressive on what are apparently acoustic passages as they are on the atmospheric electronic ones. Still, the twitters, scrapes, pulses and patterns probably could have been shaped differently and with more depth. LEAVES AND SNOWS especially, suffers, since only five of its 14 [!] tracks are more than four or five minutes in length. Schlicht and Arnold fare slightly better, since not only do they give themselves enough space to get into the meat of the improvisations, but the title track alone is a three-part suite of almost 17 minutes.

Earlier, the pianist’s command of the stopping and scraping, often bell-like echoes that arise from her prepared instrument makes more of an impression than Arnold’s often jagged, sometimes whizzy outer space-like whooshes. At times her touch appears excessively heavy in order to maintain its place among the pitch changes and delays – as well as the warbling hisses – that the program generates. On “Resonance Pattern” for instance Arnold’s (Bill) Frisellian buzzing notches turns to droning pops and squeaks that contrast nicely with her keyboard’s harmonically expanded arpeggios, extended with the pedals and bowed internal; string stopping.

Additionally, as “String Suite” develops, Arnold produces keening Middle Eastern pitch modulation, displayed on top of quivering electronic pulses. As Schlicht digs deeper into the soundboard’s lowest quadrant, moderated piano voicing give way to metronomic curves that pulsate sympathetically with his lines. Eventually the two settle on a chromatic interface that doesn’t so much accompany as ping-pong off of one another’s timbres.

Interestingly enough, Berthiaume’s and Sirjacq’s most distinctive creations also appear on the later part of the program. Romantic, “Spirals of the Unresolved”, concludes with a hint of stereotypical Oriental scales, while the obviously-titled “Kawaidski” is a touch-over-one-minute track that (electronically?) alters both instruments so that the resultant tones sound as if they come from the largest modern kotos. More impressively, “Nuclear Times” features SirJacq pumping the piano keys formally as if he was playing an anthem, while Berthiaume rubs rough, quivering pulses from the guitar strings. It’s as if a rockabilly guitarist has wandered into a funeral home, for a jam with the resident accompanist.

Oddest of all is “Contemplating Innuendo”, where the folk-revival style guitar strums, bell ringing echoes and piano key patterning take on a courtly English air. Here the resonating guitar picking and percussive undertow suggest psaltery and continuum, perhaps expressed as an approximation of a slow, melancholy medieval dance, or more likely intuited by approximating the part-innovative/part traditional output British guitarist John Renbourn pioneered in the 1970s.

Another guitar-playing John – Fahney – is echoed in Berthiaume’s improvising strategies elsewhere, though in the Québécois’ case flanges, fuzz tones, obtuse primitivism and steady rasgueado techniques get equal space; as do hardened strumming and scraped Free Music echoes. For his part SirJacq moves from gentling dynamics that could have come from a clavichord or another ancestor of the modern piano, to prepared-piano-like slides and strikes, plus moderato cadenzas and arpeggios that take into account keyboard architecture.

Besides odd electronic oscillations and delays, Teale’s contribution is (purposely?) only obvious on “Cases and Staircases”, where among the textures are those that resemble thunder storms, train whistles and crumbling tinfoil.

Instances of electro-acoustic interface, both CDs will likely excite those already enamored by the genre than those who need convincing.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: String: 1. Interference Pattern 2. SpaceTime 3. Event Horizon 4. Resonance Pattern 5. Mvt 1 6. Mvt 2 7. Mvt 3

Personnel: String: Bruce Arnold (guitar and SuperCollider); Ursel Schlicht (piano and prepared piano)

Track Listing: Leaves: 1.Un petit morceau de visage 2. Cases and Staircases 3. Freedom Fried 4. Staring at a Western Time 5. Leaves and Snows 6. Contemplating Innuendo 7. Kawaidski 8. Comme un lézard sous le grand fouet du jour caniculaire 9. Nuclear Times 10. À l’heure ou la mouche fait place au moustique 11. Spirals of the Unresolved 12. 40 Pills 13. Interlude 14.Club Six

Personnel: Leaves: Antoine Berthiaume (guitar and percussion); Quentin Sirjacq (piano and percussion); Norman Teale (engineering, mixing and electronics)