Tom Hamilton/Bruce Eisenbeil

Shadow Machine
Pogus 21051-2

Leimgruber/Lehn

Lausanne

For4Ears CD 2072

Detached from the not-so-tender blandishments and showy gimmickry of pop music, the synthesizer can be a highly pliable improvisational tool in the right hands – as these superlative duo sessions demonstrate.

Like any instrument used by a particular musician, it’s the individuality of the performer that angles sound towards the unexpected. Plus the autonomy implicit in Free Improv means that the synthesizer players here use their machines differently. New York-based Tom Hamilton’s program on Shadow Machine is more spatial, while Köln’s Thomas Lehn’s improvising on Lausanne is more spectral.

Someone whose interests include sound installation and multi-media, Hamilton’s disc captures his ongoing playing situation with New York jazz guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil, usually found in pure improv situations. On the other hand Lehn, who began his career as a jazz pianist developed his individual approach to the synth with collaborators ranging from drummer Roget Turner to sound-singer Phil Minton. Part of the coterie of present-day reed explorers, Lucerne-based tenor and soprano saxophonist Urs Leimgruber has exposed the unexpected contours of his instrument(s) in many situations including those with bassist Joëlle Léandre and pianist Jacques Demierre.

On Shadow Machine, Eisenbeil’s angled and flanged twangs often accumulate into banjo-like abrasions as they face Hamilton’s burbling concentric signals. Or the guitarist’s scrubbed chording and string-tapping become wrenchingly staccato as synthesizer pulses radiate microtonal notes that finally coalesce into high-pitched room-filling drones. A track such as “Little Left on the Left”, for instance, suggests musicological rather than political commentary, with the dualism of the title reflected in parallel narrative strategies from both men. String plucks seem to enter the sound field from two different loci with the eventually isolated licks from Eisenbeil sharply outlined as Hamilton’s patched-in splays diffuse and broaden into near-organ-like slurs.

Alternately moving crab-like across the strings with slurred fingering on the sardonically titled “Mars Fell on Alabama” – no sign of a contrafact here – Eisenbeil’s shifting harmonies match Hamilton’s swelling and contracting oscillated buzzes until the timbres are virtually indistinguishable from one another..

Adagio mitosis such as this is even more prominent between Leimgruber and Lehn, who have worked together in other circumstances. Many times on the five tracks, particular timbres or tones will advance, waver and be resolved in different pitches and speeds almost before you can figure out which was actually produced by a saxophone reed rather than the synthesizer’s innards, and vice versa. Luckily there is no way a synthesizer can produce a tongue slap or a reed bite or a saxophone can mix signals or patch mechanized drones into an improvisation. Still, even such common tropes as twittering or percussive impulses arrive from either side; as do timbres you could swear are patched into the improvisation – but are as often acoustic as electronic

Still a track like “Quatre” is more problematic. Its initial echoing glissandi is eventually defined as being from Leimgruber’s reed – that is once it constricts into a single vibrated node that is barely breathed by the saxophonist. On the other hand, the blurry growling thumps and squeaks that can be attributed to ring-modulator manipulation must come from the synth. Similarly “Deux” only resolves the conundrum when you note that since the saxophonist is already producing irregular vibrations, doits and cries from within his horn’s body tube, then the bird-like chirping and chalk-against-the-blackboard squeaks must be from the synthesizer.

Liquid and looped, Lehn’s ramping reverberations and voltage crackles set up a proper backing to Leimgruber’s staccato and fortissimo yelps. Following a protracted path of silence, the interface is redefined once again with barely there ghost-note patterns from Leimgruber and shattering synthesized timbre crackling from Lehn. Finally both tones fade into stasis.

With the two players from the Old World and the two from the New World all operating at top form, there is no winner in this synthesizer-plus match up. Choosing one over the other is, like this improvising, completely personal.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Shadow:1. Dusting Off Dada 2. Dryer Mouth 3. Shadow Machine 4. Dot Dot Dot 5. Mars Fell on Alabama 6. Walleye Spawn 7. The Salt Eaters 8. Little Left on the Left 9. Silver Through a Straw

Personnel: Shadow: Bruce Eisenbeil (guitar) and Tom Hamilton (nord modular synthesizer)

Track Listing: Lausanne: 1. Un 2. Deux 3. trios 4. Quatre 5. Cinque

Personnel: Lausanne: Urs Leimgruber (soprano and tenor saxophones) and Thomas Lehn (analog synthesizer)