SYNTOPIA QUARTET

Mars
Nemu 001

CANARIES ON THE POLE
Canaries on the Pole
Free Elephant 007

By Ken Waxman

Related at least in song titles to extra-musical concepts, these quartets extend the sound lineage far past absolute music. Although the CDs avoid sonic solipsism, you may be hard pressed to link a portrait of the Red Planet to the Syntopia Quartet’s CD. Because of its terrestrial connotations on the other hand, Canaries on the Pole seem better able to replicate the aviary qualities of its namesakes.

Polytonal and polyphonic timbres are in sight on MARS. But for the most part this nine-track suite outlines a more formal, detached and bleak portrait than the cacophonous sonic violence you would imagine from a CD named for god of war’s planet namesake.

Although you wouldn’t link canaries to sonic violence, there are several yawping explosions on the other CD, along with hard twittering, elongated chirps and percussive displays that could arise from bird clawing. At the same time CANARIES ON THE POLE’s 16 tracks include sounds that range from unabashed minimalism to Klangfarbenmelodie, brushing up against fortissimo, harsh atonality.

Members of both the Belgian-German Canaries on the Pole and the Syntopia Quartet, based in Cologne, Germany have similar backgrounds. Classically educated for the most part, each has evolved a mature style that adapted European notated as well as improvised strategies. Plus each functions as if he’s a connective part of a team of astronauts – or is it flock of birds?

In the Syntopia Quartet, drummer Klaus Kugel, who works regularly with Lithuanian soprano saxophonist Petras Vysniauskas and American trombonist Steve Swell, is unobtrusive and discreet. No show-boater, he shies away from flashy – and noisy – parts of his kit. He’s more likely to be striking a bell, rattling a cymbal or patting his snares offhandedly, then overusing the bass drum or snares. Professor of double bass at Music University Köln, Dieter Manderscheid, who regularly works with soloists like saxophonist Luc Houtkamp of the Netherlands, is similarly self-effacing. His rhythm is felt more than heard. In the front line, violinist Albrecht Maurer, whose background includes early music as well as collaborations with veterans like American bassist Kent Carter, uses advanced string techniques to animate Mars’ barren landscape. Claudio Puntin, a teacher and veteran of large ensembles, showcases similar effects from both his clarinet and bass clarinet.

With the bassist swapped for a second reed player, CANARIES ON THE POLE follows a somewhat similar strategy – although these birds fly in from three different cities. Cologne-based soprano and alto saxophonist Georg Wissel, who has worked with tubaist Carl-Ludwig Hübsch, expels timbres ranging from peeps and squeaks to harsh split tones. So does Brussels-based clarinetist Jacques Foschia, who when not involved with radio projects usually improvises in larger groups. Master of advanced violin techniques Wuppertal, Germany-based Christoph Irmer has in the past matched wits with British saxophonist John Butcher and American bassist Dominic Duval, among many others.

Throughout MARS, tempos vary from adagio to allegro, with aviary chirps from the reedist plus vibrating string double counterpoint creating a sort of languid pointillism. Klaus’s cross handed drumming melded with faster spiccato lines from Maurer plus bass clarinet glissandi can sometimes push the output to a unique baroque and Cool Jazz emulsion.

The percussionist’s further sound expansions include a jolly jew’s harp rubber band-like twang – joined by hoedown-suggesting fiddle lines – irregular triangle pings, and knuckle-knocking drum top bounces, accompanied by Manderscheid’s ground bass continuo and surprising screeching multiphonics from the clarinetist. Legato with formal modulation most of the time, at points Puntin astonishes still further by adapting a Klezmer-styled tremolo vibrato. This encourages polyphonic triple counterpoint among the reedist and the two string players who node-stretch as his tone vibrates.

Climaxing these musical tendencies is Mauer’s almost 12-minute “Olympus Mons”, the CD’s peak, to and from which the other compositions ascend and descend. Episodic, it encompasses rococo unison work and dissonant solos and duos. Put on its path by double bass pedal point after a nearly inaudible introduction, double-stopping violin movements and reed bites convey the subsequent variation. Following resonating beats that could conceivably come from an African drum like the bugarabu or the djembe, a fluttering, almost a capella reed line turns to overblown vibrations, which are then succeeded by classically tinged double counterpoint from the strings. Splayed and sul ponticello, the double bass continuo and violin ostinato dissolve into near Baroque sounds that are capped when Mauer and Puntin combine contrapuntally for a lively concluding melody.

Putting aside those tracks which at one minute or less only give the Canaries enough space to express a single squeak, slap, shriek, yell or honk, the chief complaint about some of the others is that rather than reaching a defining climax they just end, as if the musicians had suddenly found something else to do.

That means a tune like “#4”, modulates downwards from clarinet tongue slaps and saxophone aviary tweets to wide interval arco squeals and shuffles from the percussionist before elongated and emphasized tonal shifts dissolve into wooden pops.

More accomplished is the almost 15 minutes “Petite Viennoiserie”. Beginning with double stopping staccato lines from Irmer and reed honks, it reaches a crescendo of rubbing rosin, percussive slaps and distant reed vibrations that work into fluttering counterpoint. Soon, as the percussionist shuffles and vibrates his drum tops, the violin response is almost formalistically melodic, saved from romanticism by drum pops and pressures. Mid-range trills from the clarinet plus buzzy brays and multiphonic squeals from the saxophone become more diffuse and atonal until Irmer’s concluding portamento line creates a high intensity climax.

Among the undulating and wiggling flutter tonguing and irregular pitches elsewhere, canary references are never far from the surface – even if the aviary connection arises through colored air forced through the horns or fortissimo squawks. There are many varieties of the yellow bird, but when some of the murmuring tones fall to basso pitches, you begin to suspect that the species is larger than ornithologically known. At least the definitions work musically if not scientifically.

While the programmatic connections of the music on both CDs often don’t quiet compute, the playing is strong and satisfying enough.

Track Listing: Canaries: 1. F```` 2. Poule Position 3. Oe-Zoem-La 4. #4 5. Metal Delirium 6. Baltic Fleet 7. Pan! Pan! 8. Ahinga Rufa 9.Canaries du Chef 10. Soupe Canaries 11. Fried Canaries 12. Canaries on the Rocks 13. Canard Laqué 14. Coupe Canaries 15. Petite Viennoiserie 16. E’hm

Personnel: Canaries: Jacques Foschia (clarinet and bass clarinet); Georg Wissel (soprano and alto saxophones); Christoph Irmer (violin); Mike Goyvaerts (percussion)

Track Listing: Mars: 1. Goodbye Earth 2. Chryse Planitia 3. Tempe Terra 4. Elysium Planitia 5. Valles Marineris 6. Olympus Mons 7. Newton Basin 8. Chasma Boreale 9. Back to Earth

Personnel: Mars: Claudio Puntin (clarinet and bass clarinet); Albrecht Maurer (violin); Dieter Manderscheid (bass); Klaus Kugel (percussion and sound objects)