Jérôme Bourdellon/Thomas Buckner

Totem
Mutable 17526-2

By Ken Waxman

Extending wordless throat and mouth timbres so they approximate those of an instrument has become commonplace in New music. However spontaneous improvisation only results if the underlying musical perception matches whatever tones spill from the oral cavity. Totem is one of those instances, precisely because American baritone Thomas Buckner’s bravura duets with French flautist Jérôme Bourdellon evolve interactively.

Buckner – who for over 30 years has been involved in similar situations with such composer/performers as Robert Ashley, Roscoe Mitchell, Alvin Lucier and Leroy Jenkins can shape his output to meet particular situations. As can Nancy-based Bourdellon, who has improvised with American multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee and composed theatre and dance pieces. This aural pas de deux evolves in double counterpoint as each player not only reflects, but appears to anticipate the other’s ideas.

For sheer virtuosity there’s “Totem 6”. As Bourdellon’s prolonged glissandi eventually splinter into individual chirps, Buckner’s mouth does aural calisthenics. He

giggles, snorts, gurgles, whoops, pants, yelps, retches and speaks in tongues; creates Donald Duck-like quacks, lip pops, cheek pops and tongue twists. The simultaneous humming and blowing from the flautist may recede into the background, but its presence prevents discord.

Here and elsewhere, if it wasn’t for the other’s tubal air flow, quivering echoes and lyrical peeps as backdrop and cushion – which alter in a nanosecond – then the soundsinger couldn’t move from plainsong-like textures to teeth straining razzing in a similar time frame. Perhaps the strongest instance of the partnership is, that while lacking obvious romanticism, two longer improvisations are clearly lyrical ballads. As the flautist’s connective portamento create harmonious polyphony, even the vocalist’s buffo stutters and theatrical whispers don’t upset this rapprochement.

By the CD’s finale, the fact that one instrument was crafted and the other grew organically is as inconsequential as the flute’s serial number.

In MusicWorks Issue #99