Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Music Reviews

Artist: Martin Taxt
Title: First Room
Format: CD
Label: Sofa
The debut solo album from microtonal tuba player and composer Martin Taxt, a duet with Inga Margrethe Aas on viola da gamba and double bass, sits in a middle ground between classical solo and drone. It’s melodic, but many of the notes are so long and so sustained that they start developing their own drone-line textures.

It’s a single 35-minute piece that layers up live and studio recordings, with a reactionary concept at the core where the performers respond to the previously recorded layers. Perhaps the most striking parts are the pauses- while some drone works deliberately avoid stopping for breath, this work has several points where the tone ebbs away into silence or near-silence before gradually returning for another, different wave. Exposing the creaking tones of studio furniture adds extra texture at the top.

Taxt recently finished a masters degree in Music & Architecture, and this work is described as a tribute to the Japanese tearoom and the tatami mat- but if anything it seems to describe slightly larger, emptier rooms, studio spaces, or some kind of geometric cave. It’s a lovely nuanced bit of work that brings character and a sense of storytelling with tones normally used in flatter, more open drones, and it does it all rather nicely.

Artist: Luca Collivasone & Gianni Mimmo (@)
Title: Rumpus Room
Format: CD & 12"
Label: Amirani Records (@)
Rated: *****
Now this is a surprising delight- a collaboration between avant-garde soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo and Luca Collivasone, the player of the unique "Cacophonator" instrument - a tricked out and wired up 1940's sewing machine aggressively modified into a bizarre musical instrument. Although Mimmo is new to me (he's been releasing albums since 2005), I reviewed Collivasone's 'Vostra Signora Del Rumore Rosa' LP here back in 2018, and if you want a more detailed description of the cacophonator you can refer to that review. This certainly isn't the first collaboration of between a jazz instrument and electronics (or something like it) but because of Luca's highly varied instrument it sounds like something fresh that's never been done before. Something that comes to mind as vaguely similar are the collaborations between free jazz multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee and synthesist John Snyder, but even they pale in comparison to this.

'Rumpus Room' opens with a track titled "Township Ecstasies" with Mimmo running up to the highest notes while Luca provides bizarre rhythmic input on the cacophonator. Lots of other strange but familiar sounds emanate from it too, and it even manages to provide double-bass that could have come from Bruno Tommaso or Charlie Haden. As the players delve deeper into the instrumental interplay feeling each other out, the track serves as a showpiece of what these two are capable of, and it's formidable. Over the course of eight tracks clocking in at a mere 31 minutes, these two musicians challenge each other in a way they've probably never been challenged before. After a few listenings it almost seems as though this combination was a match made in avant-garde free jazz heaven; there is so much chemistry at work. The general aura is mysterious melancholy, and I'm reminded of Tuxedomoon in that regard, although this is really further out. While Collivasone provides the environment this strange trip is set in, Mimmo plays the part of the protagonist who must navigate it, and does so with nimble aplomb. While some might find some of the weird sounds that pop out of the cacophonator distracting, I found it to be a source of endless inventiveness and amusement. It is the ultimate X-factor in improvisation, and really takes the avant-gardeness of this free jazz experiment to a whole new level. Mimmo's virtuosity on the soprano sax cannot be overstated; he's just that damn good, and with the Collivasone Cacophonator as his foil, this surely is a dynamic free jazz duo.

Artist: Sheriffs Of Nothingness
Title: An Autumn Night at the Crooked Forest, four fireplaces (in reality only one)
Format: CD
Label: Sofa
The established Norwegian string duo of Kari Rønnekleiv and Ole-Henrik Moe offer up their fourth album on Sofa, and it comprises four long pieces of soundscaping that are part drone, part ambient, part experimental, part environmental. Each one is an exercise in spaciousness and reflection. Tones arrive and depart in slow waves, and every progression is gradual. It is pitched as a tribute to the fireplace, as a place to gather, tell stories, and achieve calm, but it also has decidedly dark undertones, of solitude and loneliness. It was even recorded by a fireplace it seems, though the sound is not invasive.

First piece “Hearth, Red Gloom, with lot of Near-Ir” is quite a bold form of drone, a steady level of extended string sounds that feels like it borders on science fiction. “Great Spruce-log” is notably scratchy compared to the rest, a gradual series of sharp-toothed bowed sounds that is the release’s closest flirtation with actual rhythm, and which listeners averse to more tortured sounds will find uncomfortable, while “Under-ash-embers, with Hints of Green Light in Spectrum”, before further scratching sounds arrive, feels like listening to nocturnal winds from the partial comfort of a cabin- very evocative of a true Northern Lights experience, or at least my limited experience of them, which was cold, slow and majestic, but still worthwhile.

This is one of those releases where at some points, like the beginnings of “Muted Birch-logs”, the overall levels are so low and ambient that it becomes necessary to turn off the air-conditioning in the room I’m listening in in order to be able to hear it properly. Given the hot weather as I write this, that’s a bit of an inconvenience, though it’s not really one I can blame the composers for!

It’s deeply atmospheric and evocative, not always in a comfortable way, but as a 70-minute portrait of Nordic beauty in isolation, it’s really quite powerful.

Artist: Philip Corner
Title: Chord / Gong! (with Carles Santos)
Format: 12" + Download
Label: Unseen Worlds
“Chord / Gong!” is a digital restoration of a 1978 recording of two long piano pieces from Philip Corner, assisted by Carles Santos (and performed on Charlemagne Palestine’s piano!). Originally available on cassette, it has been dusted off and it has to be said, the remastering is excellent, and the recording quality shines as though it was a brand new recording, with just a slight exception of some crushed tones at a couple of points.

Musically, the beginning of “Chord” inevitably draws comparisons with the other famous minimalist Philip, the arpeggiated chord feeling somehow almost a trademark of Philip Glass- but over the course of 28 minutes it leaves such comparison behind and heads off into a selection of different tone variations, ranging from very light and fragile, through to romantic, before ending aggressively. It’s an interesting exercise in the range of expressivity possible with self-imposed chord limitations, and while it never goes truly out-there- no thrashing or hammering, no gaps, nothing overtly experimental- it is something of a journey nevertheless.

“Gong!” does push the tonal range somewhat more, beginning with low rumbles and reverberant tones accessorised by small atmospheric noises that are periodically recognisable as piano, but often just very low drone, finishing with a barely audible tail that really draws you in as you genuinely struggle to hear the last section.

The two pieces are a very well-balanced pair, a yin and yang of romantic and dark, and they feel like special works. The only thing I find offputting about the release is the oddly vain artwork, strangely, but musically it is simply formed but exquisite.

Artist: Robert Millis
Title: Related Ephemera
Format: 12" + Download
Label: The Helen Scarsdale Agency
This LP from Robert Millis is a reflection on the fact that early shellac and wax cylinder records were fleeting novelty items, and decidedly temporary, at odds with the long-term collectivity and adoration that they inspire in some today. The source material is predominantly the surface noise and hiss from old records, but with a large helping of atmospheric and melodic ambient sounds to provide meat as well. Due to the deliberate artifacting, it was mastered twice, once for vinyl and once for digital, with apparently very different results, so I should say I’m commenting on the digital version here, where a lot of the crackling sounds feel almost electronic, like sci-fi locust noises, and not old but rather surprisingly new and clean.

The real composition, if you like, is actually the slow glass-like melodic elements that run underneath the noise, while old shellac recording material as found sound is sometimes more of a cameo than the central focus (final track “Lament (I Always Hesitate)” sums this up in barely one minute). On the first side of the LP is a single 20-minute piece “Samsara” which is extremely spacious, almost barren, but with slow changes in this fragile tone keeping a dynamic going, while the second side contains six shorter pieces with a bit more diversity. Pieces like “Matters Of Court”, are generally a little more traditionally composed, bordering at times on abstract symphonic, with some beautiful string work, while “Further Evidence To The Contrary” is an interesting little piece from the softest edge of glitch work. The fragile tones return with the almost-choral atmosphere of “Only Here For A Short While”, before being interrupted very abruptly by an old spoken-word recording, and for contrast, the almost inaudibly low drone of “Theories Of The Lower Twelve” wanders into sonic space that old vinyl could never get anywhere close to reproducing.

As love letters to old shellac and vinyl go, this one is rather obscure. But as an experimental ambient work that eats up the ambitious challenge of merging vinyl found sounds with some absolutely gorgeous melodic elements, it’s rich and impressive.


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