April 3, 2011
1, 2, 4, 3
Perhaps it’s the because of a longer and more genteel recital tradition, but while improvisers such as the United Kingdom’s Rhodri Davies and France’s Hélène Breschand have forged unique microtonal and multiphonic roles for the concert or Celtic harp, as far as most music followers are concerned, in North America only Zeena Parkins is involved with similar multi-string experiments. Well, not quite.
Anne LeBaron, who teaches at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, and is best-known as a composer of operas and other New music celebrating fantastic figures such as Pope Joan, Marie Laveau, and the American Housewife, has a parallel career as a harpist. LeBaron’s forays have included recordings with Jazz and/or Free Musicians such as pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and reedist Wolfgang Fuchs and his King Übü Örchestrü. This two-CD set consists of notable improvisations from eight different sessions between 2002 and 2010.
Someone who has explored the tones and textures of her instrument in performance and composition, LeBaron’s most consistent statements here involve interjections from other string players. Although her group work with horn players is also stimulating, it lacks the simpatico timbres created by string melding. Conversely and regrettably, the five excursions that match her harp with its Japanese equivalent and a Far Eastern woodwind appear more oriented towards sonic novelty.
Probably the most consistent instances of group string interactions occur on tracks with pianist Georg Graewe and bassist John Lindberg from 2008. Multi-colored fantasias with frequent metronomic or percussive asides, the performances set up shifting string inventions. “Wake” for instance involves buzzing and sul ponticello strategies from the bassist, high frequency metronomic pacing from the pianist plus an occasional plink and pluck from the harpist. Eventually as the tune moves from andante to presto, LeBaron’s broken-octave, percussive additions put in sharper relief the pianist’s pitter-patter chording and elastic cadenzas or her speedy glissandi intersect with wooden slaps from Lindberg. Outright friction characterizes the follow up “Stream”. Its cumulative galloping tremolos somehow manage to be both impressionistic and abrasive.
Just as striking are LeBaron’s duets – or duets adding electronics – with violinist Leroy Jenkins. Alone on “Rippling with Leroy” the two sympathetically expand the textures available with multi-string rubato runs from the fiddler and resonating note clusters from the harpist. This reaches a climax as Jenkins’ more irregularly vibrated lines are met by LeBaron’s connective strums. Finally the harp’s multi-string glissandi supersede Jenkins’ strident sprawls.
Adding electronics spreads out nodes, partials and oscillations in both players’ output. However “Lagniappe: Hourglass of Stars”, adding Earl Howard’s signal processing to the harp and the violin timbres augmented with live electronics leads to more sonic colors. For instance granular synthesis allows blurred hums to be pierced by soft, vibes-like strokes, prepared harp shimmies, harsh fiddle swipes and guitar-like strums. The wrap up transforms the formerly gentle presentation into staccato resonations.
Bassist Torsten Mueller along with LeBaron provide the connective comping on tracks involving horn players, most notably in a group with trombonist Paul Rutherford; Fuchs on bass or contrabass clarinet; Chris Heenan on alto saxophone or bass clarinet; and from the legit side of fence, Nathan Smith on clarinet and bass clarinet. Working in a language that has strong Jazz antecedents as well as New music’s lack of restrictions, there are points at which four different yet parallel lines are advanced simultaneously.
Particularly dazzling are those points at which Heenan and Rutherford face off. “Make a Map, Not a Tracing”, for instance mixes the alto saxophonist’s narrowed reed bites and altissimo runs with the trombonist’s braying andante lines. Heenan’s subsequent contrapuntal comments on Rutherford’s mellow slurs are encouraged by the bassist’s low-pitched plucks and the harpist’s finger-picking patterns. “Deleuzion” on the other hand is enlivened when LeBaron’s staccato dulcimer-like plucks are challenged by plunger pulses from the trombonist. This follows an interlude where Heenan’s squeezed reed bites and Rutherford’s discursive trills are initially backed by guitar-like comping from the bassist. LeBaron’s comfort with the alto saxophonist may result from her earlier experience playing with him in the ad-hoc American-European Mount Washington ensemble.
Fuchs’ subterranean tones are put to best use on “Succulent Blues”, where his snorting contrabass clarinet creates a heavily rhythmic bottom for Mueller’s irregularly pumped strings. Meantime LeBaron’s swift, low-pitched pizzicato and higher-pitched lines from violinist Ronit Kirchman replicate piano-like glissandi and guitar-like twangs respectively. The finale involves Fuchs’ irregularly vibrated lines balancing on top of an overlay of sul tasto strings impulses.
Although the trio tracks with kotoist Kanoko Nishi and shakuhachi-player Kiku Day add variety to the two-CD set, the end result is too ethereal, especially when compared to the improvisations. Filled with spare, morose and otherworldly flanges and clinks, the most memorable narrative is also the spikiest. “Funeral Bells for Harry Partch”, honouring the American pioneer of just intonation, is filled with koto shimmies, metronomic harp twangs and a wraithlike lyricism from Day. Initially played diminuendo in a near-monotone, the piece resolves itself when long-lined shakuhachi puffs, cascading glissandi from LeBaron and Nishi’s staccatissimo thumps combine.
Fascinating for those interested in the evolution of harp playing beyond decoration and accompaniment, 1, 2, 3, 4 should also attract those who follow any of these participants, fascinated to hear how interaction with a harpist changes everyone’s sounds.
Track Listing: CD1: 1. Heat Wave 1 2. Succulent Blues~+% 3. Rippling with Leroy? 4. Mirage? 5. Deleuzion*&% 6. Principles of the Rhizome*&% 7. Make a Map, Not a Tracing*&% 8. Heat Wave 2 9. Intermezzo+ CD2: 1. Wake# 2. Stream# 3. Sukkulaoi Scream^ 4. Into Something Rich and Strange! 5. Submerged Cavern! 6. Song of Marble! 7. Funeral Bells for Harry Partch! 8. Full Fathom Funayurei! 9. Lagniappe: Hourglass of Stars?@
Personnel: Paul Rutherford (trombone)*; Nathan Smith (clarinet and bass clarinet)^; Chris Heenan (alto saxophone or bass clarinet)&; Wolfgang Fuchs bass clarinet or contrabass clarinet)+; Kiku Day (shakuhachi)!; Anne LeBaron (harp, amplified harp, electronics, flute and percussion); Georg Graewe (piano)#; Ronit Kirchman (violin) ~; Leroy Jenkins (violin or amplified violin)?; Kristin Haraldsdottir (viola)^; Torsten Mueller% or John Lindberg (bass)#; Kanoko Nishi (koto)! and Earl Howard (electronics)@