Carl Ludwig Hübsch’s Longrun Development of the Universe

Is This Our Music?

European Tuba Quartet
Echo-Nomia 4.4

By Ken Waxman
April 17, 2006

Passionate about the investigation of brass tones and timbres – especially with and from his chosen instrument, the tuba – Cologne-based Carl Ludwig Hübsch is the point of congruence and demarcation on these two German CDs. While both group efforts mix composition and improvisation plus formidable instrumental techniques, the European Tuba Quartet (ETQ)’s Echo-Nomia 4.4 may tilt a bit beyond the purview of the non-brass specialist. In contrast, Is This Our Music? with its sly reversal of the title of Ornette Coleman’s famous 1960 LP, succeeds on its own merits.

Calling on the talents of two other experienced Euro improvisers, Hübsch’s compositions substantiate the idea that three brass-like instruments manipulated with confidence can provide all the hues needed for a satisfying improv performance.

“Brass-like” is more than a figure of speech on the second CD, since the saxophone, here played by Matthias Schubert, was initially envisaged as the bastard stepchild of both the brass and the woodwind family. An experienced soloist and another Cologne resident, who often works with alto saxophonist Frank Gratkowski, Schubert is cognizant enough of the saxophone’s history to utilize that brass-like tradition in a variety of ways. Third member of the rather grandly named Longrun Development of the Universe trio is inventive, Amsterdam-based trombonist Wolter Wierbos, who has proven his innovative mettle in bands ranging from the ICP to American drummer Gerry Hemingway’s quintet.

Another Amsterdam resident, but American-born, Larry Fishkind is one quarter of the ETQ. Someone who has worked with the ICP, theatre and philharmonic orchestras plus a Klezmer band with pianist Burton Greene, Fishkind’s skills in jazz and improv are unparalleled. Another ETQ member, German tubaist Pinguin Moschner, is part of a duo with guitarist Joe Sachse, which plays the music of Jimi Hendrix, and has also been in ensembles put together by American composer-instrumentalists Butch Morris, Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell. The most formally trained of the ETQ is Melvyn Poore from the United Kingdom. A University of Birmingham graduate, Poore spent two years as a research assistant at Salford College of Technology and since then has explored the tuba’s electro-acoustic possibilities while playing in ensembles that ranging from the improv King Übü Örchestrü to the formal Fine Arts Brass quintets.

Unfortunately it appears that this preoccupation with New music and electro-acoustics frequently slows down the five extended tracks on the ETQ CD. Also problematic are the five Poore-composed fragments that are interspaced among the longer tracks. Lasting from 28 seconds to slightly-more-than-two-minutes, they’re rather lame POMO japes, verbalized lists in English, French and German of instruments pitched in different keys. Comparable tracks on the other CD, used to demonstrate extended instrumental techniques are similarly superfluous. More germane, tracks titled with fanciful high technology numerology such as “NGC 2265”, “NGC 2270 Terrier” and “NGC 2274 Akkord” are at least lengthier, giving the musicians ample space in which to display bravura techniques.

Segmented into many parts, the nearly 19-minute “NGC 2265” is an exercise in triple counterpoint. Initially directed by mellow, bottom-heavy tuba smears, fortissimo and pianissimo tones eventually give way to buzzed brass mouthpiece action plus distinct reed smears and tongue stops. Circular breathing from all three develop polytonally into linear movement with Schubert supplying frenzied yips, Hübsch panting puffs, and Wierbos sprawling pedal point. As the saxophonist persists in blowing colored air through his body tube, the two low-brass instruments intermingle and vibrate modulated grace notes, then three-quarters of the way through the tune break apart, then harmonize again in a tango-like strut with tremolo vibrations. This dance-oriented congruence lasts only so long and is succeeded by a final adagio section of plunger trombone textures, sibilant stops and peeps from the saxophone, and steady subterranean emphasis from the tuba.

Hübsch’s barking tuba tones, followed by double counterpoint from the other horns characterizes “NGC 2270 Terrier”. But soon his bouncy polyphony is sabotaged by reed whistles from Schubert and textural blasts from Wierbos. In response, the tubaist sounds almost literal nose-blowing pitches. Speedily emphasizing the tactile roughness of the buzzing metal, the trio builds to a crescendo of droning vibrations, then quickly exits with jaunty, unison tongue-stopping.

In contrast, “NGC 2274 Akkord” shows that these contrapuntal actions can be expressed more leisurely, with each instrumental part moving in a parallel line, but never quite touching. At times the saxophone-trombone interaction is reminiscent of 1970s Anthony Braxton-George Lewis duets. Elsewhere Hübsch’s tuba provides buzzing commentary on the other two’s interface, until all three compress sounds into razzing short phrases, then subdivide that into single notes.

Finally, there’s “Al Kaphra”, an offbeat, pan-tonal collection of dancing reed and brass riffs that moves from gutbucket explosions from Wierbos and pedal point spits from Hübsch, into a finale of staggering shape-shifting from all three, ending in a crescendo of pleasantly vibrated timbres.

Hübsch’s collection of burps, pedal tones, wide vibrations and buzzes is multiplied by four on Echo-Nomia 4.4, but while each of the tubaists gets to express himself, frequently with pieces whose themes are outlined in the CD booklet, the general adagio and slower tempos makes CD seem like a protracted program of brass funeral music.

Case in point is the Moschner-composed, 17-minute title tune, a rather sombre, but programmatic demand for a just economic situation. Interpreted in broken octaves, loaded with undulating pedal tones, rubato unison lines and stop-time smears, at times it seems to be the musical equivalent of a thick World Bank report, filled with mathematical formulas and nearly endless. When one part of its molasses-slow development is interrupted by tubing-amplified yells and mouthpiece whistles, this deviation soon subsides into another languid interlude of pulsed and vibrated low-pitched grace notes. A legato and well-harmonized melodic coda uplifts the mood somewhat, but by that time, it’s like the Bank’s frequent tough-love response to developing countries’ economies in default – a little late and somewhat inappropriate.

In definite contrast is Fishkind’s recasting for the ETQ of “Sakura”, a traditional Japanese folk song. Romantic and sedate, it features the American demurely unsheathing the minor pentatonic melody, while the other three produce stately counter-themes, as if each is playing a giant bamboo pipe or massive Oriental sho.

Blocked and twisted valve pressure is also able to create a semi-electronic effect from these all-acoustic instruments on Poore’s “Accord”. At points sounding as if the basic waveforms are sequences by an oscillator, the more-than-12-minute composition moves so languidly that the physicality of the chords as well as the melody is illuminated in slow motion. Throughout, many phrases are flanged, vibrated, enlarged, resequenced and altered, then re-focused, distended and bleached of their vibrational tinctures. The end result is an undifferentiated pure sound that sonically resembles a bone fide electronic signal.

Fascinating as an exercise in tuba tone training, the esoteric appeal of Echo-Nomia 4.4 makes Is This Our Music? a more pleasing introduction to what Hübsch envisions for his brass beast.