HumaNoise Congress #20

Wiesbaden Germany
September 26 – 28, 2008

Like an improvised music version of TV’s Survivor – although no one gets voted off the stage – the participants in HumaNoise Congress (HNC) #20, held in Wiesbaden Germany, about 16 kilometers from Frankfurt, had three days in which to discover each others’ talents and technical skills. Unlike the reality show however, the players don’t form alliances among themselves, but instead are organized into different combinations throughout the sessions to see what unexpected sonic sparks could be struck. It’s a testament to the musicians’ listening skills and familiarity with extended techniques that so many one-of-a-kind meetings were so memorable.

Involved in this hothouse atmosphere at the Kunsthaus in late September were 10 players from Germany and elsewhere. From Wiesbaden came electronics manipulator Uli Böttcher and percussionist Wolfgang Schliemann. Flautist Margret Trescher is from nearby Mainz, trumpeter Birgit Ulher from Hamburg and violinist Tiziana Bertoncini from Köln. Chris Heenan, who plays alto saxophone and contrabass clarinet and Willehad Grafenhorst, whose preferred instruments are electronics and contrabass balalaika are Berlin residents. Out-of-country participants were pianist Frédéric Blondy from Paris, Lyon-based bassist Benoît Cancoin, and tenor and soprano saxophonist Urs Leimgruber from Luzern.

Not all the in-the-moment encounters worked. Over-dependent on technique, free to play as they choose and with elastic time limits, some participants allowed single-minded virtuosity and bombastic bravura to replace careful mutual listening and sound cooperation during a few disappointing sets. Luckily such lapses were in the minority.

What was apparent by the completion of the three-day musical marathon however, was that this sounding out – literally – of each other’s strengths and idiosyncrasies led to a wholly-satisfying, concluding “tutti” with each improviser participating. Sonic fulfillment wasn’t reserved for the finale however. Skirting the malfunctions implicit in any unscheduled improv, groupings ranging from duos to quintets created many episodes of empathic sound transference.

For instance an all-acoustic meeting featuring Leimgruber, Ulher, Schliemann and Grafenhorst – playing a contrabass balalaika so large that one edge was propped up on a metal peg – wobbled without losing its equilibrium between lyricism and drones. With Grafenhorst’s slick, finger-style, dobro-like frailing and Schliemann’s rhythmic impetus consisting of bell pealing, bow rubbed against a hand-held cymbal and sticks rubbed – not whacked – on drum tops, space was opened for a virtuosic horn display.

Evolving from low-key parallel gurgling, the brass player and the reedist created individualistic styles. Ulher methodically tongue stopped, then blew colored air through her horn’s body tube without holding the horn to her lips, as Leimgruber inflated a pure tone to wider, more dissonant and more intense vibrations. Waving his horn vertically, the saxophonist produced a continuous concentric trill that pushed the trumpeter into respectful silence until she finally countered with Donald Ayler-styled note spatters. Beside them, Grafenhorst plucked his instrument’s lower strings like a jazz bass and the drummer whapped his woodblock while sounding a steady beat. Interrupting this lapse into formalism with gong-like resonations on unattached cymbals, Schliemann induced Leimgruber to further undercut convention by vibrating soprano saxophone tones on internal strings inside the nearby piano, using the split-tone echoes to reach a lyrical resolution.

Although in retrospect it lacked a conclusive finale, Böttcher’s interface with pianist Blondy and Heenan on contrabass clarinet was memorable as well. Most physical of the players, the pianist often karate chopped notes on the keyboard, then half pulled his arm away so as to extend the echoes still further. Blondy also shook miniature bells near his piano’s soundboard, rolled marbles on the strings and plucked them with hard stocks, a hairbrush and a miniature watering can.

Meantime Böttcher’s laptop computer multiplied input and output signals to splatter, pulsate and done, at points melding with pedal-point respirations from Hennan’s giant woodwind. Holding the metal beats nearly horizontally Hennan sputtered out a watery blues line in diaphragm breaths causing Blondy to hammer repeatedly on the keys and the laptopist to produce drum-like timbres by employing a small mallet on his keyboard. Reaching triple counterpoint, the climax then dissipated into tinkling, high-frequency chords from the piano, foghorn-like toots from the clarinet and jiggling pulses and stops from the computer.

Even more notable were one duo between Bertoncini and Leimgruber and an electro-acoustic effort that matched Ulher and Cancoin with the dual laptop computers of Böttcher and Grafenhorst. On the former, the violinist’s round and sprightly lines and the saxophonist’s elongated tone quickly jumbled into string-scratching from the fiddler and duck quacks and key percussion from the reedist. Deciding on a cumulative dissonant rapprochement, the duo concluded with Bertoncini highlighting a series of widely stopped spiccato jabs as Leimgruber rested the saxophone horizontally on his lap and slapped its bell and individual keys to produce ringing percussive tones.

An apt illustration of the cerebral thought process that goes into instantaneous improvisation appeared during the introduction to the Ulher-Cancoin-Böttcher-Grafenhorst quartet piece. While the horns buzzed collectively, Grafenhorst remained lost in thought, only adding his computer wiggling interface to Böttcher’s tremolo sine waves after minutes had passed. As the blurry oscillations evolved parallel to one another, Ulher, plugging her horn into a transistor radio, used the resulting static as commentary on, and complement to, her half-valve slurs. Cancoin then stroked his bow upwards on his strings, creating a percussive effect, and by thus recalling the introductory drone, cements the circular nature of the performance.

With all 10 players arrayed across the stage of the Kunsthaus’ improvised concert hall, facing the audience in rows of folding chairs, the HNC’s final collective set confirms the sound melding that has solidified during the preceding three days of numerous, intensive interactions.

Collectively the players have built a series of small gestures into strategies and techniques that can be used for musical collectivity and transference. With Schliemann spanking his drum tops with sponges or the rims of his drums with the back of brushes, it’s Cancoin’s sul ponticello string slaps and Blondy’s thick, tremolo internal string plucks which become the percussion section. Holding her flute vertically, the peeps and foreshortened air bites that arise from Trescher’s instrument made common cause with whistling shrills issuing from Leimgruber’s saxophone. Ulher’s legato, nearly inaudible breaths complemented Bertoncini’s violin’s spiccato plucks; and an ever-shifting undercurrent of burbling white noise was divided between the laptops of Grafenhorst and Böttcher.

Cutting loose from the collective, undifferentiated sound, Blondy’s jocular, twanging string vibrations created the conclusive finale. Still the collective expelled horn breaths – including subterranean honks from Heenan’s contrabass clarinet – became a coda that signaled both the end of this improvisation and it’s continuation for the participating musicians – and at the next HumaNoise Congress.

— Ken Waxman

— MusicWorks Issue #103