The Shift

Songs From Aipotu
Leo Records CD LR 599

Ttiziana Bertoncini/Thomas Lehn

Horsky Park

Another Timbre at40

Bringing unprecedented invention to his analog synthesizer playing, Thomas Lehn has, since the early 1990s, demonstrated that this mass of tubes, patch cables and switches can be as effective a vehicle for improvisation as his original keyboard – the piano. In varied configurations, including the band Konk Pack and duos with the likes of saxophonist John Butcher or drummer Gerry Hemingway, he has repeated demonstrated that the electronic box is capable of a lot more than sonic coloration.

Lehn, who recently relocated to Vienna after a quarter-century in Köln, is featured here in two widely-disparate settings. Horsky Park is a chamber-improv recital with Italian violinist Ttiziana Bertoncini, who like Lehn plays both New and improvised music; while Songs From Aipotu is by The Shift, a band completed by four other established German players.

With Frank Gratkowski on alto saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet, pianist Phillip Zoubek, bassist Dieter Manderscheid and percussionist Martin Blume participating, the professed Aipotu “songs” are defined and deconstructed as early as the first track, appropriately entitled “Introduction”. With Lehn’s pressurized oscillations and staccato flanges setting the scene, a third tandem interface is set up alongside the metronomic strumming and exposed note clusters emanating from Zoubek`s piano plus higher-pitched squeals from Gratkowksi, who often seems to be playing two horn simultaneously.

Although Zoubek, who is also in a duo with trombonist Paul Hubweber, and Gratkowksi, a member of many ensembles, are experienced in solo work – as is the synthesizer player – the tunes are given added impetus from group arrangements which encompass propulsive drumming from veteran Blume, plus steadying pops from bassist. Manderscheid is involved in a quartet with Blume and also anchors the massive James Choice Orchestra, with the percussionist.

The Shift’s narratives involve angled and percussive lines that movie backwards and forwards, crosswise or up and down as timbres migrate without distinct identifiers. Theremin-like pinched tones could come from synthesizer patches or tautly wound bass strings; while metronomic thumping may result from two-handed piano pounding and or measured slaps from the drum kit. Only Gratkowski’s tongue-stopped squeals and reed bites are evidentially from him alone. But the suspicion remains that some of the quivering squeals may be doubled by a tremolo synthesizer line. Changing directions in the piece’s final variant, Blume knocks out a staccato, Jazz-like rhythm, which is almost immediately met by twisted puffs from Lehn’s machine. Settling down to a serene interlude, Blume runs a wet finger across his drum tops; Zoubek tries unassuming piano chording; and Gratkowski’s pseudo-romantic clarinet sequence is matched by Manderscheid’s languidly vibrated bowing. The finale encompasses quivering delays from Lehn’s synthesizer plus gentle growls from Gratkowski’s bass clarinet.

Elsewhere the five leave no texture unexplored as they work their way through a varied collection of sounds. There is unaffiliated flutter tonguing and reed kisses plus corkscrew snorts from Gratkowski; cross-purposed piano chording and cascading lines from Zoubek; positioned string plucks from Manderscheid; and Lehn suspending and prolonging sound envelopes with mercurial forays into blurry drones or electric piano chord replications.

Although involved with chamber-music-styled improvisations, Horsky Park doesn’t shy away from abrasive interaction as well. With her playing sul ponticello at points and usually staccato, Bertoncini differentiates her acoustic strategy from Lehn’s electronic one by staying resolutely linear. Parallel improvising in broken chords means that her tremolo string scrubbing and his instrument’s sequences of burbling drones and staccatissimo clatters pass closely by one another without harmonizing. But the result isn’t discordant enough to become glaringly atonal. Occasionally the synthesizer’s oscillations quietly quiver, allowing percussive qualities to arise from the fiddler’s string scrubs or from tapping of her bow’s frog against the violin’s wood. Sharp, staccato and shaped, this musical match is all about tonal exposure. While the duo’s timbres are calmer and less frantic than the quintet’s, they’re still exploratory and multiphonic.

Two sound essays in how an analog synthesizer's many textures can be adapted to an improvised setting, the choice between them lies in whether the listener prefers stentorian or understated tone manipulations.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Horsky: 1. Galaverna 2. Moss Agate

Personnel: Horsky: Tiziana Bertoncini (violin) and Thomas Lehn (analog synthesizer)

Track Listing: Songs: 1. Introduction 2. Modern Classics 3. Gavotte 4. Shot

Personnel: Songs: Frank Gratkowski (alto saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet); Thomas Lehn (analog synthesizer); Phillip Zoubek (piano); Dieter Manderscheid (bass) and Martin Blume (drums and percussion)