The International Nothing

Mainstream
Ftarri 222

Michael Thieke Unununium
Where Should I Fly Not To Be Sad, My Dear?
Charhizma 036

Thieke/Griener/Weber
The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse
Ayler Records aylDL-058

Kommando Raumschiff Zitrone
First Time I Ever Saw Your Face
Quincunx QSR0061

Practically doctoral theses on reed tone manipulation, these four CDs mostly parse the textures and timbres available from the most traditional of woodwinds – the clarinet. Furthermore, with the personnel on the discs Berlin-based, the sessions not only highlight the surge of creativity taking place in the formerly divided German city, but also demonstrate how diverse tone generation and interactions create widely disparate results.

Three of the four CDs feature Düsseldorf native Michael Thieke, who moved to Berlin in 1993. Working in duo, trio and quartet formations, his discs range from all-acoustic Free Jazz (The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse) to minimalist Free Improv (the ironically named Maintream), with the third session (Where Should I Fly Not To Be Sad, My Dear?) slotted somewhere in between. First Time I Ever Saw Your Face is something else again. It lines up Dannenberg-born clarinetist Kai Fagaschinski – who also partners Thieke on Mainstream – with sound manipulator Christof Kurzmann. Vienna-born Kurzmann, who also plays clarinet on the CD’s longest track, otherwise mixes and contrasts Fagaschinski’s woodwind resonance with lloopp software, devices specifically designed for live improvising.

There are other interconnections as well. Two of First Time…’s tracks feature the reedman improvising along with Kurzmann’s manipulation of a sample of Roberta Flack’s vocal version of the title ballad. Meanwhile Margareth Kammerer – who regularly performs in a trio with Fagaschinski and Kurzmann – sings and plays guitar on one of Mainstream’s tracks; while Kurzmann’s voice and remixes are featured on another. Another of the CD’s tunes adds two bassists: Derek Shirley, who is also in the band with Thieke on Where Should…, and Christian Weber, who holds down the bass chair on The Amazing….

That less than 38½-minute CD is a prime reminder that the reductionist ethos celebrated on the other CDs isn’t the only sound coming out of Berlin. Each of Thieke’s seven compositions is a prime slice of go-for-broke Energy Music. Besides highlighting his alto saxophone, alto clarinet and clarinet playing, there’s a place for his rhythm section mates as well. Proffering high-end rhythmic interventions is Zürich-native Weber – who among many others, has played with American saxophonist Charles Gayle and Swiss pianist Irène Schweizer; while the percussion add-ons result from the inventions of Nürenberg native Michael Griener, who has backed soloists as disparate as experimental trumpeter Axel Dörner and traditional jazz guitarist Herb Ellis.

Bobbing, ebbing and flowing in the currents available from breath, strokes and motion, the co-op trio parties like it’s 1969, the zenith of outer-directed Free Jazz. Writhing and wiggling timbres that are wrenched from his body tube and bell rather than his reed and mouthpiece, Thieke’s multiphonic showpieces are still profoundly logical. It may seem as if he’s shoving more notes into an aperture than can comfortably absorb them, but unsurprisingly the shape of these instant compositions immediately distends to fit.

Altissimo cries and irregular vibrations characterize his alto saxophone lines, which are then wedged firmly among the extended techniques of the other trio members. On clarinet his legato tone sometimes suggests the sort of absolute music he and Fagaschinski play in tandem elsewhere, or remain body-tube vibrations. On both reeds his most common strategy is to repeatedly parse particular note clusters until he’s wrung every last variation from them.

As easily able to sound a shuffle beat as bounces and ruffs, Griener’s clattering cymbals often mix it up with Weber’s chiming bass lines; and, depending on the situation, rhythmic accompaniment also results from chain rattling or stick whacks that are as regular as hoof beats. For his part Weber’s walks as easily as he scoots up and down the strings and thumps percussively at points as conclusively as his sul tasto sweeps define other pieces.

There’s similar variety of themes from near-mainstream to experimental on Where Should…. However bassist Shirley and drummer Eric Schaefer – also part of the band Nickendes Peklgras with Thieke – seem to take back seats to the improvisations of the reedist and Rome-native Luca Venitucci on accordion and prepared piano. A member of Zeitkratzer, Venitucci has also worked with daxophone inventor Hans Reichel and Japanese tape artist Merzbow.

Some of the nine tracks here gain their ever-shifting coloration from the keyboardist’s mercurial playing. On accordion he produces ragged quivering peeps, with the rubato bellow textures adding rustic cohesiveness. Preparations are less audible except for a certain underlying connectivity, and a section on “if i think, again, of this place” where melodic counterpoint appears between mellow clarinet pitches and marimba-like pitter patter. Many more of the performances are shaped by Thieke’s zither, whose resonation resembles those you would get from violently scraping the teeth of a metal comb and amplifying the results.

As the reedist’s textures vary from pencil-thin forced finger vibratos to short reed bites, often it’s a combination of these metallic teeth scrapes and organ-like bellow pulses that shape the tune. Agitato as opposed to the languid pace of many of the other tracks, “nach aussen gewölbte mönche” is an example of this with Venitucci-Thieke percussively in double counterpoint introducing irregularly paced drum beats that in turn regulate Thieke’s pitch-sliding alto saxophone quacks and smears to a fitting climax.

Both Shirley and Schaefer make their presence known on “der verfolger” where an understated bass line and resonating tubular bells set the scene. Following an interlude where gently curving clarinet lines are ornamented by push-and-pull quivers from the squeeze box, the drummer’s buoyant pops interface with Thieke’s distinctive double-tonguing.

Although there’s no keyboard in sight, the duo tracks on Maintream also suggest pipe-organ-style polyphony. That’s because the union of cohesive reed tones ululate with formalist layering. Capillary grace notes, chalumeau resonation and coloratura obbligatos are part of these exercises.

At points, such as on “wenn alles weh tut und nichts mehr geht”, the dual clarinet polyharmonies are overlaid on top of one another so that they shimmer with additional multiphonics. Encompassing zart textures that reference both medieval-styled chanting and hypnotic pitch sliding, the mood is only shattered when reed bites upset the tone or the sharp intake of breath is heard. Elsewhere, organic pulsations ascend to squeaking altissimo only to slide down to almost hollow passages that sound as if air is being forced through PVC tubes.

Working as a double duo with Shirley and Weber on “lovetone”, a fuller, more multi-layered sound is produced as sul tasto bass work extends undulating reed slurs in broken octaves. As the almost 9½-minute tune evolves from piano to fortissimo, a crunching bass lines helps isolate the two reed timbres, one of which gets higher-pitched, the other lower.

Trimbral contrasts created by Kurzmann’s vocalizing in German and English and remixed sequencing may append further reed textures to the one track on which he’s featured, but the end product isn’t as developed as what the Viennese mix master does on First Time…. Additionally, while Kammerer’s singing on “and the morning” may adumbrate the delicate manipulation on First Time…, the trio work here sounds more decorative than anything else. Overall, her bossa-nova style guitar strumming and soprano voice may be harmonically compatible with the double reedists. But even when the instrumentalists go beyond those strictures and vibrate reed textures irregularly, it sounds as if the two are merely taking the place of acoustic guitar accompaniment than participating in a full partnership.

A matched vocal-instrumental affiliation is more viable throughout First Time… however, because Flack’s contribution is sampled, not live and controlled as he sees fit by Kurzmann’s lloopp device. Both on the title track and on “Roberta (reprise)”, after a theme statement, her impassioned singing dissolves into sound atoms and is replicated then replaced by chalumeau tinctures from Fagaschinski’s clarinet. Even at those points, before Fagaschinski’s carefully measured arpeggios begin to fade, software mulches the split-tone smears and lip-bubbling textures into abstract droning signals, as non-instrumentally specific as they are non-vocal.

Otherwise, the counterpoint here is between man and machine. Motor-driven pulses share space with lip sputtering, while single intakes of breath and mouse-squeaking reed timbres are displayed among triggered whooshes and flanges from the lloopp. Should Fagaschinski vibrate split tones, suggesting both high-pitched and low-pitched respired textures, then blurry intimations of backwards-running tapes from Kurzmann’s devices connect them into a single solid ululating tone.

Clattering and twisted mechanized crashes and crackles provide the third voice on “Chow”, which finds both Fagaschinski and Kurzmann on clarinets. Harsh, slurring and with definite woody overtones, Fagaschinski’s reed-biting and tongue-stopping altissimo passages command centre stage as muzzy, disconnected lines from the second reed vibrate and sampled snatches of a child singing is also heard.

Eventually the harmonica-like chromatic note patterns from the dual reeds are isolated from the spinning, interchangeable, software-created tones. Interactive as well as detached, Fagaschinski’s acoustic chirps eventually turn pastoral, the better to contrast with the post-industrial revolution polyrhythms of Kurzmann’s devices.

Taking ostensive pop sources as raw material on which to build improvisations confirms that Berlin-based creators remain committed to finding unique forms of playing and composing. Each of these CDs demonstrates different, equally valid, strategies.

— Ken Waxman

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Track Listing: Where 1. if i think, again, of this place 2. 2. fünf treppen 3. portnoy 4. der idiot 5. nach aussen gewölbte mönche 6. mmm 7. der verfolger 8. element 110 9. einen käfer werfen

Personnel: Where: Michael Thieke (clarinet, alto clarinet, alto saxophone and zither); Luca Venitucci (accordion and prepared piano); Derek Shirley (bass) and Eric Schaefer (drums)

Track Listing: Nothing: 1. einfache Freuden 2. we already know... 3. wenn alles weh tut und nichts mehr geht 4. feathered machine song 5. and the morning# 6. rollig 7. lovetone* 8. hauntissimo (for Lucy & Richard Stoltzmann)^

Personnel: Nothing: Kai Fagaschinski and Michael Thieke (clarinets) plus Derek Shirley* and Christian Weber* (bass); Margareth Kammerer# (voice and guitar) and Christof Kurzmann^ (remix with additional voice)

Track Listing: Amazing: 1. A Dispatch from Reuters 2. East is West 3. A Bullet for Joey 4. Two Weeks in Another Town 5. Unholy Partners 6. Two Seconds 7. Key Largo 4:29

Personnel: Amazing: Michael Thieke (clarinet, alto clarinet and alto saxophone); Christian Weber (bass) and Michael Griener (drums)

Track Listing: First: 1. Roberta 2. Aisha 3. Marisol 4. Chow* 5. Irina (6'36)

6. Roberta (reprise)

Personnel First: Kai Fagaschinski (clarinet) and Christof Kurzmann (lloopp, devices and clarinet*)