Sophie Agnel/Bertrand Gauguet/Andrea Neumann

Spiral Inputs
Another Timbre at39

When is a piano not a piano? When it’s reduced to its basic frame and paired with live electronics, as Berlin’s Andrea Neumann does on this CD. At the same time, the input from Paris’ Sophie Agnel own piano further muddies the definition of the venerable instrument since she mostly prepares the strings with objects, stroking and stopping them as often as she plays the keyboard. Not part of this discussion-definition, but contributing mightily to the improvisation is Mulhouse’s Bertrand Gauguet, who in his turns, reduces his soprano saxophone interface to microtonal puffs, disconnected air expelling, flattement and whispered squeaks.

Dependent, as the title notes, on dynamic input from the three improvisers, the resulting four interlocking spirals downplay dynamics for the creative friction produced by intersecting patterns. Interest is maintained throughout by ever-shifting sonic pointillism.

None of the participants is a novice when it comes to this sort of cerebral sound strategy either. Neumann, for example, who also adds electronic devices to her playing this performance, has long been involved with promulgating microtonalism with players such as trumpeter Sabine Ercklentz and turntablist/electronics manipulator Ignaz Schick. Agnel’s collaborators range from baritone saxophonist Daunik Lazro to sound sculptor Jérôme Noetinger. For his part Gauguet performs with a clutch of fellow experimenters including percussionist Lê Quan Ninh and synthesizer player Thomas Lehn.

On this session, Agnel’s low-frequency chording sometimes serves as the leitmotif for the four spirals which make up the CD. Whether it’s resonating timbres from the piano’s bass clef or lightly voiced and fungible treble tones, these keyboard sweeps and presses provide linear directions. Simultaneously she subtly undermines chromaticism with the friction resulting from the hammering and stopping of the piano’s internal strings. Meanwhile, as Neumann’s instrument is compressed into a piano-harp, her intermittent strums and descending plucks produce additional tinctures on this reductionist color field. At the same time a translucent quality is frequently present as well since Neumann’s electronic manipulations create motorized tweaks and twists, droning pulses and crackling flanges that exist perpendicularly to comment on the others’ work. Odd man out, with an oral instrument, Gauguet goes his own way to produces lip-bubbling air pressure, disengaged dog-whistles, aviary twitters and dissonant tongue fluttering. Although one of his sequences uses only key hammering and pad-popping to create an entire percussive interlude, his timbres subtly blend with the others’.

Although it may appear that communication among the three is at points more inchoate than intuitive, genuine sound cohesion is usually achieved. Without resorting to obvious and conventional harmonies, double and/or triple counterpoint exists during several interludes. The most palpable points of intersection result from unison note clusters arriving from each of the opposing string sets. As well, the saxophonist’s irregularly squeezed vibrations are most noticeable when Agnel’s voicing is most cohesive and connective. All of this faintly suggests the Jazz-like trope of reed expansion coupled with keyboard comping.

Spiral Inputs shouldn’t be listened to for Jazz echoes or, as a matter of fact, to find associations with other genres of music. Instead the CD stands on its own as a high quality example of low-key but intense liberated improvisation.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Spiral #1 2. Spiral #2 3. Spiral #3 4. Spiral #4

Personnel: Bertrand Gauguet (alto and soprano saxophones); Sophie Agnel (piano) and Andrea Neumann (piano frame and electronic devices)