HumaNoise Congress #22 Wiesbaden, Germany

By Ken Waxman
All About Jazz New York November 2010

Midway through the first evening’s performances at the 22nd HumaNoise Congress (HNC), which occurs annually in Wiesbaden, Germany, just west of Frankfurt, one particular set provided a visceral illustration of the three-day festival’s challenges and attainments. HNC, which took place this year from September 24 to September 26, always throws together improvisers in different-sized ad hoc groups to see what develops.

In this case the line-up encompassed Czech-German cellist Jan-Filip Ťupa, German pianist/violinist Helmut Bieler-Wendt, Japanese-born, Pennsylvania-based percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani, British table-top guitarist Keith Rowe and Wiesbaden’s Ulrich Phillipp on bass and live electronics. Rather than the dulcet chamber-like tones that would be expected from such a string-heavy ensemble, the results were discordant, staccato and definitely percussive. Only occasionally did Bieler-Wendt pluck and strum the piano’s internal strings. Instead he rapped on the instrument’s wooden sides and fallback as well as frequently and silently moving the cover up-and-down. Meanwhile Nakatani’s commonly used a mallet to hammer on a ride cymbal which was also scraped on the skin of his floor tom; he also blew noisily through a hole cut in the middle of a mini-cymbal and tongued the top of his snare skin. Even the cellist – who usually performs in contemporary music groups – contributed to the hubbub with jagged runs exacerbated with the vibrations from a second bow shoved horizontally behind his strings. Rowe added a steady drone throughout, and the piece’s conclusion was eventually signaled by a pseudo-processional march played on the keyboard by Bieler-Wendt.

Involved with the teaching of improvisation, Bieler-Wendt was almost literally everywhere during the HNC. His piano prowess was put to use in a duet with Rowe on the third day and in another with British vocalist/miscellaneous instrument manipulator Alwynne Pritchard on the second. The first featured wood-slapping, string-stopped percussiveness and violent key pumping on his part, countered with bubbling flanges and clanks, mini-fan buzzes and a splint-second burst of radio-propelled rock music from Rowe. With a delivery between that of a rock-music diva and a verbal and physical contortionist, the Norwegian-based Pritchard easily slithered underneath the piano, knocked on its bottom board and caressed its trusses, while alternating between banshee-like wails and wolf-like howls. Simultaneously Bieler-Wendt struck tough chord clusters while rubbing the keyboard with a bunch of inflated balloons left in the hall from an earlier celebration.

Pritchard’s Fluxus-oriented dramatics – which included emptying containers filled with plastic balls or European coins onto the ground; unrolling black electrical tape from one side of the stage to another as she sang; repeating nonsense syllables as she applied clown-like make-up; and vocalizing from different parts of the auditorium – were often aped by Bieler-Wendt, who didn’t confine himself to the performance surface either. Not only did he wander from one side of the stage to the other while improvising, but during some of the climatic all-hands-on-deck daily tuttis, he was often found harmonizing his part in another corner of the two-level, enclosed former-courtyard of the Musik Kulturforum, or like Pritchard, contributing strident textures while positioned at the top of the staircase leading to the upper level. Notwithstanding that the most common timbres arising from his fiddle were horizontally-sawed, ehru-like shrieks, or spiccato runs pulsated with one hand as the other separated strings with clothespins, revealingly he and Pritchard were also both sensitive team-players.

A quintet consisting of the two and Ťupa plus local laptopist Ulrich Böttcher and German percussion Bernd Bleffert was particularly notable. Pritchard’s multiphonic evisceration of a single syllable blended with the string section sounds to provide layered framing for Bleffert’s rhythmic display on his mostly self-created instruments. Moving purposely among his percussion collection at this time, and in other collaborations during the HNC, Bleffert stroked giant chopsticks against metal plates; struck a set of rectangular slate, steel and wooden block placed marimba-like on a stand; whomped metal plates glued onto a wooden plank; and whooshed leather switches through the air. Böttcher’s resonating bangs underlined the set’s unselfconscious humor.

Face-offs between Bleffert and Nakatani, backed by either fluttering peeps from the flute of Mainz’s Margret Trescher or Böttcher’s disconnected pulses, were more illustrative of how both innovative percussionists perfected unique style on un-conventional set-ups. If Nakatani popped a tiny drum, sawed on a ride cymbal or spanked his snare before outputting a collection of ruffs, drags, rebounds and bass-drum whacks with his full kit, Bleffert rubbed stiff paper against an upright bicycle wheel producing harsh resonations; crunched, then ripped apart an aluminum beer can; and finally lobbed the shards through the wheel, producing reverberations as they hit the snare drum below. On the final day when both men played the German’s equipment the differences were even starker. Nakatani’s stick pressure against the rotating wheel for instance, seemed less assured than the butoh-dancer like grace he brought to his conga and kettle drum pressures. Meanwhile Bleffert’s wheel-stroke vibrating achieved the desired effect less muscularly; and when he stroked the kettle drum it was with a wooden container that muted the results.

Another double-threat was Norwegian French hornist and electronics manipulator Hild Sofie Tafjord, a member of the rock-electro-improv quartet Spunk. As a hornist, her roughened pumping and extended bellowing kept the improvisations from becoming too flighty, especially when Trescher lyrical puffs were involved. Tafjord was helped immeasurably by Nakatani’s sonorous gong reverberations plus Rowe’s gurgling and repetitive electronic pulse on one quartet outing. Similarly, her rounded grace notes seemed to encourage Ťupa to convert his atonal string-sawing to harmonizing connective portamento. At points her instrument’s alpine-horn-like characteristics took on further echoes as she processed its tones with electronics.

In fact, one of the HNC’s most dazzling sets unrolled on day two from a trio of Tafjord and Phillipp using live electronics, plus the distinct timbres of Rowe’s prepared guitar. A mélange of blurred crackles, hollow-wooden pops and staccato recoils, the electrified sluices contained traces of sampled sounds emanating from Rowe’s radio. With textures reflecting back onto one another, the piece reached a climax of ring-modulator-like clangs and rhythmic static before downshifting into rubbery, connective drones.

Although some other encounter didn’t work as well, and a few suffered from low-energy, another paradigm of this sort of pure improvisation is the potential for mis-matches and even musical failures. Like guitarist Derek Bailey’s now defunct Company Week, it’s this unpredictability which keeps the music at events such as the HumaNoise Congress so fascinating and ultimately so rewarding.