Michael Vorfeld/Chris Heenan

Half Cloud, Half Plain
Esquilo Records ES008/ESVAR004

Wolfgang Schliemann/Michael Vorfeld

Alle Neune: Rheinländer Partie

Creative Sources CS 089 CD

Both a respected visual artist and a musician, Berlin-based Michael Vorfeld has carved a unique niche for himself by improvising percussively not only on an extended variant of the drum kit, but with an attached collection of strings he hits, bows and scratches. Affiliations for these unique sounds have ranged from his membership in a trio with Wiesbaden-based reedist Dirk Marwedel to the large Ensemble 2 INQ.

Taking another route, these examples of his art are in duo form, and both share a jagged, futuristic approach. Otherwise they couldn’t be more different. Half Cloud, Half Plain matches Vorfeld’s percussion arsenal with the extended techniques of American Chris Heenan’s contrabass clarinet. Alle Neune: Rheinländer Partie, in contrast, is a combination of Vorfeld with fellow percussionist Wolfgang Schliemann – who also plays in Ensemble 2 INQ. Subtitled “percussive work since 1992”, it showcases nine percussion duets.

While likely to be more admired by beat-mongers, the later disc may be a bit too much of a good thing for the non-percussion fanatics. Striking (ahem), for the way in which Schliemann and Vorfeld can produce with only four limbs as many textures, rhythms and pulses that Art Blakey- or Max Roach-led percussion ensemble needed many associates to create, the CD is very much of a piece. And that piece can go a very, very long way – as drum battles featuring the likes of Roach and Buddy Rich or Rich and Gene Krupa proved earlier on.

The main fascination here lies in trying to isolate which implement is being struck, oscillated, triggered, scraped, thumped, whistled, pulled, pressed or whacked to generate a particular sound or sounds.

Among the particulars noted are what seem to be breath aspirations, abrasions on unyielding but responsive metal surfaces, wood aggressively ruptured and split apart, crumbling and balled paper, strokes on glass test tubes, wetted fingers dragged along drum heads, upright drum sticks propelled across ride cymbals and the usual assortment of more expected ruffs, rebounds, paradiddles and flams.

Schliemann adds found sounds and objects to the mix, the textures of which evidently are responsible for the insistent squeak of penetrating splutters, radio-tuning-like flutters and motor-driven buzzing that adumbrate further peeping noises. Gradually these sounds are exposed as recurrent, striated beat oscillations. Overall, the program also leaves enough space for Vorfeld’s string-set thumps, the timbres of which end up being simultaneously organic and synthetic. For instance “Böse Fünf” seems to add triggered ring modulator sideband murmuring and insistent vibrated drones to a sequence of low-key intermittent palindromes. Moving backwards and forward, these sul tasto string-affiliations are blurrily framed among bass drum whacks and gong resonations, as well as isolated thick crunches which make it seems as if all the instruments are being physically wrenched with great difficulty across a solid surface.

Perhaps the most audacious track however, may be the first one, “Vorderkranz, grosser Keil.” On it the blurry, reductionistic sound waves produced by Vorfeld’s string drones and Schliemann triggered echoes are interrupted twice by split-second fortissimo excerpts from saxophonist Peter Brötzmann’s Machine Gun session. Whether designed as spoof or acknowledgment, no clearer link exists between today’s experimental music and that of the 1960s. The remainder of the track is then concerned with understated pitter-pattering and backbeat strokes, including church bell-like peals, static rotations and glass pings.

Chris Heenan is a multi-instrumentalist in the Brötzmann mold. He also plays alto saxophone, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet and analog synthesizer and works with musicians ranging from New York guitarist Chris Forsyth to Hamburg trumpeter Birgit Ulher. Unlike Brötzmann, who has never found a note he couldn’t inflate to its widest circumference, Heenan is a committed minimalist, belying the size of his horn, by concentrating on muted pressured overblowing.

On this session, ironically recorded in the exact same Berlin space less than five months after Alle Neune: Rheinländer Partie, Heenan’s staccato yet unadulterated timbres provide a sympathetic contrast to Vorfeld’s percussion textures. Common Free Music tropes such as tongue-slapping and colored air expelling on the reedist’s part and harsh, inchoate drags on unyielding metal and pounding on unconnected surfaces on the percussionist’s aren’t neglected. But the profoundly acoustic interplay – including protracted silences – would never be confused with earlier reed-percussion duos such as those of Even Parker and Paul Lytton or Brötzmann and Han Bennink. Here barely-there rhythmic pulses and didjeridoo-like hollow tube echoes make common cause with unexpected passages of musique brut, where rampaging thrashing and jagged strumming on the percussionist’s part often arise and dissipate unexpectedly.

Instead, on a track like “Darker at the Bottom than at the Top”, tongue pops and slaps plus reed snorts continuously meet up with pressurized drum rolls and the screech of scraped cymbals. Although the bulging, polyphonic drone is almost mechanized, you know a human is involved when you hear Heenan audibly stop to breathe in more air as he plays.

Also characteristic on Half Cloud, Half Plain is the more than 14-minute title track, where a solid interface is produced by harsh and jagged pressure from both Vorfeld’s utensils plus Hennan’s low-pitched aviary vibrato. As the reedist continues growling staccato split tones and their reflective overtones, the percussionist’s chromatic rattles, squeaks and splintered ride-cymbal friction retreats enough to allow Hennan to snort a final flowing tone studded with fortissimo key pops.

Although the diversity among the sounds produced by reeds on one hand and strings-and-percussion on the other give this CD an upper hand over the other, both are fine examples of Vorfeld’s distinctic sonic art.

— Ken Waxman


Track Listing: Half: 1. Half Cloud, Half Plain 2. Darker at the Bottom than at the Top 3. Once Over in the Plain Part and Twice in the Clouds 4. One Large Opening with Others Smaller 5. Clouds Lighter than the Plain Part

Personnel: Half: Chris Heenan (contrabass clarinet) and Michael Vorfeld (stringed instruments and percussion)

Track Listing: Alle: 1. Vorderkranz, grosser Keil 2. Rumelner Kracher 3. Drei - gerade aus Bärbel 4. Variante von Fuchsschwanz 5. Böse Fünf 6. Schräge Sechs links 7. Die verflixte Sieben 8. Hau den König 9. Letzte Chance

Personnel: Alle: Wolfgang Schliemann (assorted percussion and found objects, hit, bowed, scratched and thrown) and Michael Vorfeld (stringed instruments and percussion, hit, bowed, scratched and plugged)