Ezz-thetics

a column by
Stuart Broomer


Kapital Band 1                                                                                                   © 2021 Lucile Desamory


Improvised music involving more than one person is the most social of musics, if only for the number of its dimensions and its immediate engagement. Further, in its close cousin, free jazz, it’s an insistence on freedom and, further still, the notion that cooperation, interaction and freedom may insist on a certain sense of responsibility, to the immediate partners and audience, surely, but also to the world, insofar as it might be imagined. It’s hard to separate everything from Ornette’s Free Jazz, Coltrane’s Africa/Brass or the London Improvisers Orchestra from the idea of community responsibility, any more than one might separate the more explicit Sonny Rollins’ Freedom Suite, Barry Guy’s Blue Shroud or Peter Brötzmann’s Fuck de Boere.

Not that this is ever simple: a social program, any social program, delimits, in some sense, freedom, immediacy and directionality, even in a title. However, there’s clearly a responsibility, sometimes a necessity, to recognize that there is more than playfulness in improvised music, or that it’s playing for life, its own and all the life around it. For me, the stand-out recording of 2020 was Nate Wooley’s sixth iteration of his Seven-Storey Mountain, a transforming work that has always included stretches of random noise and searing amplified trumpet improvisation, and which in its most recent edition included Peggy Seeger’s intense assertion of women’s rights. Consider, too, Mary Halvorson’s spontaneous Code Girl lyric borrowings from Senate hearings to confirm U.S. Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh.

These relations, though, aren’t exactly easy, and some of the most interesting works implicitly scrutinize, even problematize, relationships among materials. The music I’m including here arises in an almost Burroughs-esque Interzone, musicians making radical choices and novel transactions among values and forms: what to include in work that both admits and interrogates contradictory notions of structure and compatibility, whether it’s mixing improvisation with appropriated texts; matching hip hop club techniques to free improvisation; exploring robotic instruments; or making home-made instruments that suggest police sirens interrupting a junk-yard string orchestra. Freedom is not something to be assumed, in our ears or anywhere else; sometimes it has to be worried, rooted out and seized. Rather than dramatize or “deliver” a message, can improvisation open a text or another sound or another context? Each of these musics takes a radical approach to traditional “musical” content and the musical event, substituting current events, ideology, banality, silence or a compound, sometimes slightly terrifying, sometimes comforting, ambience.

Listening very closely, these musics seem, to varying degree, to be about taking care.


Disquiet

That focus on social responsibility may be felt most immediately in Disquiet (Trost 202, CD and Bandcamp), recorded at the 2018 Nickelsdorf Konfrontationen Festival by the quartet of Christof Kurzmann, lloopp (described by liner note author Guy Peters as “software, a restless web of textures, mirror and echo effects, sonar pulses, discreet and alienating hums”) and vocals; Sofia Jernberg, vocals; Martin Brandlmayr, drums; and Joe Williamson, bass. If it’s often difficult to distribute meaning in music, the task is simplified here by the explicit inclusion of texts.

Brandlmayr and Williamson maintain a light, steady movement, at once free and rhythmic ‒ call it ambient initially, call it the ambient of human awareness as things develop ‒ while Jernberg quietly hums, moans and whispers. The most foregrounded elements ‒ if only by their bright metallic, trebly insistence ‒ are Kurzmann’s found and altered sounds. This ground established, the first major event is the precise and insistent voice of Guy Verhofstadt, Belgian member of the European parliament, attacking the EU hierarchy for its indifference to migrant suffering, pointing out “that the so-called ‘migration crisis’ was nothing but a political crisis, with nationalists from several countries bluntly refusing to respond with decency.” It lasts 2’22” of a 47-minute performance, but it’s as infectious as certain Mingus titles, not something going away anytime soon.

There will be long passages of improvised music, whether the four are evenly combining or individual voices come to the fore, but the political consciousness of the work colors the music. Other spoken and sung passages arise in a variety of languages, creating a cumulative effect of a minimalist oratorio, knit together by the immediacy of improvisation as attentiveness. It’s an extraordinary performance ‒ in its handling of machines and instruments and the range and harshness of Jernberg’s effects (sometimes simply breathing) ‒ one not to be forgotten. One appreciates its humanity, whether in its ability to express emotion, subtle and/or intense, or that remarkable sense of attentiveness, conveyed particularly by Brandlmayr and Williamson, granting what might appear to be a rhythm section a kind of epic grandeur as witness and support. Ambient improvisation becomes the invitation to focussed reflection, including an extended passage highlighting the sound of an almost delicate alarm clock. The work ends with Kurzmann and Jernberg singing a refrain, “No more leaders, No more idols, only beggars, only beggars.”


Internationale Solidarität by Kapital Band 1

One of the things that is most effective about Disquiet is its use of ambient sound and the increasing significance of this contemporary ambient, here becoming a music of daily consciousness, music as daily consciousness. This notion of ambient improvisation is also apparent on Internationale Solidarität (Ni-Vu-Ni-Connu, LP and download) by the Austrian group Kapital Band 1, not to be confused with the France-based band Das Kapital or the international bank Capitol One. Martin Brandlmayr plays a larger role here as drummer in the duo, partnered with Nicholas Bussmann, a cellist devoting himself here to playing robot-controlled grand piano, Winfried Ritsch’s player piano “Der Automat.” This is the third recording by the duo, a group whose compound message may include the particular combination of its name and instrumentation.

There is a curious imbalance posed by the combination of a grand piano and a drum kit, the former an inalienable sign of prestige, the latter the mark of the multi-purpose, the dance band, jazz, rhythm, sweat. The former is highly conceptualized, a diagram of tonal music, the latter a collection (whether systematized or random, sometimes both) of things that make noise. It’s as much an image of the mind/body split as it is one of management/workers, here the band name and title insistently meaningful.

A certain air of dialectical materialism hangs over the physical product, while the pianist doesn’t even “play” (work?) but programs. While available as download, the alternative is fascinating: a transparent LP, a hymn to both commodity culture and its erasure.

It's music of many moods, many of them insistently mechanistic, others just cheerfully banal. Side 1, “Internationale Solidarität 1,” begins with rapid, teletype monody and light pentatonics, like a distant Asian court orchestra consisting of music boxes; chords repeat for long periods, sometimes bombastically; short repeating figures emerge; there’s even something resembling soul jazz. Brandlmayr, putative worker in the formation, plays with both significant movement and creativity, animating, decorating, raising the significance, creating “life” and “meaning.” I am not suggesting this as literal or intentional; rather, given the circumstance, it is in-built and inevitable in the listener’s attribution of meaning, in a work that is fundamentally conspiratorial, the fusion of management and proletariat extending to a conspiracy of artist-provocateurs and the sympathetic listener. Around the 14-minute mark of the icy cool transparent vinyl, there’s a musique concrète interlude, water lapping into containers, contradictory signs of fluidity, containment and closure at once. A few minutes later, a final chord hangs over it all, like the failure of the state to wither away.

Side 2 begins with a heightened delicacy, bright percussive intervals in the piano’s upper register suggesting a kind of structure, until the piano (how does one employ the now ambiguous “player”? Let’s be redundant: “player piano player”, the doubly playful) turns suddenly to insistent, heavy-handed, dissonant chords, before moving to a more elusive and complex two-handed development of other patterns. Brandlmayr moves throughout with a kind of elegance, detailing, leavening, even ‒ absurdly ‒ inspiring. Occasional commonplace figures are played with sufficient élan to suggest parody. There are moments as the piece develops in which the piano takes a definite lead. From the seven to nine-minute marks, it elaborates rhythmically detailed “two-handed” music, filled with the kind of patterned dialogue associated with actually playing the piano. Brandlmayr is here, in turn, inspired, creating a complementary polyrhythmic ground that becomes increasingly a “solo” as the piano part becomes both simplified and rigid.

At times the piano’s formal language suggests, specifically, 1830, at others 1930, from the rise of nationalism and the factory to the flowering of the mechanized state; 12 minutes in, piano and drums are perfectly synchronized, giving way to a duet of pensive piano/playful percussion: one of them ponders, the other imagines liberation, a kind of free dance. Together they somehow fuse, contriving some highly liberated interplay, the piano carrying its own dance to weighty chords, levitated by the singing delicacy of the upper-register figuration, a kind of glimpse of a progressive industrialization, low chord, then bright high, low chord-bright high, low chord-bright high, weight-lifted, weight-lifted, weight-lifted ... singing to invisibility (final brush slap, drum pitch rising, light roll to silence) ... you might want to compare it to the “An die Freude” (“Ode to Joy”). There is a sense that enough patterns of meaning have been set loose here to proliferate for centuries.


Matthew Wright’s Locked Hybrids

Locked Hybrids (a Bandcamp only release on Relative Pitch Records) poses questions around the language of free improvisation and repurposing. What is a loop of improvised music – is it more dramatically, perhaps especially, locked than anything else, or multiply and repeatedly liberated?

If the previous recordings are full of meaning, Locked Hybrids is initially full of space, though there is something of the particular ambience and circularity of these discs that seems to be shared here. Locked Hybrids, which debuted in a different form at the 2019 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, is constructed from samples of saxophonist Evan Parker and percussionists Toma Gouband and Mark Nauseef, the trio that recorded As the Wind (psi) but here recorded individually for purposes of this piece. Wright, who uses turntables, samples and synthesizer, works regularly with Parker in the duo Trance Map (and in its expanded form, Trance Map +, the quintet recently heard on Crepescule in Nickelsdorf [Intakt]), and he has also performed in the 2019 iteration of Parker’s ElectroAcoustic Ensemble.

There is a strange resonance between Internationale Solidarität and Locked Hybrids, each suggesting in its own way the mechanized music of dance club culture, with its own insular liberation. There is a sense that the way club culture echoes throughout these works of high art (and vice versa) is far more subversive than the hoary theology of revolution, as if it’s the notion of rhetoric itself that is displaced. There are three pieces here, and there is again a certain mechanical insistence. Each of the first two is exactly 17’56” in length, 42,166 kb as an mp3 download, a deliberate symmetry, an impossible accident.

The first track, “When Time Collapses,” is so minimal that its sonic spaces, even temporal distances, invite precise measurement while remaining unclear. A pattern of truncated Parker trills, Gouband’s single rock-on-rock percussion strikes and Nauseef’s drum strokes suggests that their regularity might be perfect, yet there’s something else afoot, the sudden clusters in the silence seeming irregular, whether they are or not, a suggestion of the listener’s need for variety and pattern ‒ that is, the listener’s indeterminacy as much as the music’s, the anxiety of silence, the desire for exactitude, a fear of the random.

The title of the second track, “Setsuna,” is a Japanese word meaning "a moment; an instant." The word comes from a Buddhist term meaning "split second," and the design here is insisted upon by that act of naming, as if these most abstract of forms both require and deny a relationship to language and duration. It’s a second split over 17’56”. The soprano saxophone is looped into a drone, sounding at times like a bowed gong; it is accompanied by a percussion loop that sounds like tabla, or the deeper mridangam or both. The suggestion of Indian music may actually be an idealization of the apparent continuum of Indian music. As it continues, what was once soprano saxophone becomes a purely electronic, complex drone, ultimately an electric organ cluster; the percussion speeds up, and there’s a general shift to higher pitches.

Is this a sonic and experiential question about time rather than a conventionally social or political one? What is our freedom? From what potential tumult does this radically still beauty arise?

The final piece, “Digital Medieval,” is longer‒precisely 18 minutes – but seems significantly shorter because it’s (relatively) so full of sound, as if absence has thus far extended time. The music is either an insistence on self-scrutiny or, conversely, an insistence on scrutinizing the experience of time as it is filled with the constant sound of Parker, Gouband, Nauseef, the space dense with backwards/forwards soprano bird calls and percussion-strike loops. It’s also a liberation: the world filled with sound from every direction, we are relieved of the anxiety of both space and time.


Marco Scarassatti/ Abdul Moimeme Zero Out

Zero Out (a download-only release on Oem Records) presents three improvisations by Brazilian sound artist Marco Scarassatti and Portuguese guitarist Abdul Moimeme. Scarassatti builds his own instruments and orchestrates cities and kitchens. He sometimes employs a cabinet of percussion devices and winds and has given concerts using a river and a gas range as principal instruments. Abdul Moimeme plays guitar, sometimes conventionally, but more often standing between two guitars, laid flat, sometimes covered in sheets of steel, that are played with an assortment of devices including e-bows and objects. Here Scarassatti plays a viola de cocho ‒ a small, fretted, mandolin-shaped, indigenous instrument, Scarassatti’s constructed by a luthier from West/ Central Brazil, but here prepared ‒ and “Tromp Kirk Roland” (Roland Kirk horn) ‒ a metal bell connected to a length of plastic and a saxophone mouthpiece. Wonder what it sounds like? That’s what makes it particularly fitting here: it sounds like the wail of a police siren, in this case an instrument that might be expected to repress the very performance of which it’s a part.

The opening track, the 21-minute “Desolation,” sounds like an orchestra of de-tuned strings and junk percussion, as the two musicians generate torrents of sound, like a simultaneous array of folk cultures that have embraced the random and dissonant. There’s a sense of ritual, as if an improvisation by two musicians also has two conductors. At times it sounds like the cries of animals, a threatened forest or a zoo abandoned by its attendants. At another point an extended wail hangs between animal and air-raid siren. The horn whips through all of this like a siren, like the arrival of police or military, but there is no rushed departure of the strings, cries or percussion. They persist as does the siren. The brief “Silence” is devoted to the strings: hands rub along them longitudinally, creating muffled whistles. Picks or fingers run across strings with moving bridges, creating sliding pitches that invoke Harry Partch’s instruments.

The final piece, titled “Breath,” may allude to a series of continuous sounds. A gravelly continuous wind sound suggests the Tromp Roland Kirk is being blown into an oil drum. There’s an electronic machine sound with almost a turbine burr. Wind sounds combine with scraped metal, suggesting multiple techniques applied simultaneously. Even without immediately recognizable string sounds, there are high scraping and bowed sounds emitted by electric guitar. The 16-minute improvisation, like all of this achieved without overdubbing, suggests an orchestra of home-made and found industrial instruments, made of diverse materials, some amplified, some with reverb, but an orchestra performing scores with the architecture and variety of Varèse. There’s a genuine sense of the urban primitive here, a modernist to post-modern aesthetic acted out in an emulation of an abandoned industrial world, creating a music that is at once personally expressive, orchestrally formal and impersonal, a simultaneous repudiation of the industrial and triumph of its repurposing.

This might be the first post-Bolsonaro symphony, the values of a wild, threatened by industrial detritus, which has turned that ruined landscape into the material of a personal and collective triumph, an improvisation so focussed that it includes extended introspective listening, dialogue and achieved form.

There is a sense here, and in all of these works, that notions of content, what can be contained and what can be included, are shifting, opening to other inputs, tremendously varied, some radically unpredictable in their character and effect. It is also a musical world in which interpretation, even description, becomes fiction, conspiracy, betrayal, satire, even hymn or chant.

© 2021 Stuart Broomer

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