a column by
Stuart Broomer

Michel Doneda, © 2022 Gerard Fabbiani

Part of what makes music continuously involving is the shifting idea of collaboration, the various modes of interaction that take place, whether it’s interaction with others or the other, the sentient or the material, or those things somehow in between. If the audible would seem to be the precondition for the musical act, there is always the special and instructive case of Cage’s 4:33, a work in which silence itself becomes the pre-condition for an indeterminate collaboration.

The first of these columns (Issue 21, February 2009) began with the history of (mostly) saxophonists exploring the resonant possibilities of architecture: a dam (Werner Lüdi), a reservoir (Evan Parker, Peter A. Schmid and September Winds), a temple of water (Joe Giardullo and Carlos Zingaro), a museum for stone, an oil tank, a gasometer (John Butcher). These architectural and environmental investigations in improvised music have continued to develop, some recent works likely further fuelled by Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns and anti-socializing edicts. All of the music under discussion here dates from the first year, 2020.The soprano saxophonist Michel Doneda goes to a forest in September; tenor saxophonist Sebastian Strinning, goes to a forest and there enters a tower in November; alto saxophonist Seymour Wright plays in an empty Café Oto, in part playing with the physical material of the room itself, in August. The media are just as varied: CD, LP and download respectively.


Michel Doneda

Michel Doneda’s Path Under (Micro-Label) was “recorded outdoor in the specific acoustic of forêt de Saou syncline (Drôme, France) on 29th September 2020 by Gerard Fabbiani.” There are five untitled tracks, the critical environment seemingly not the woods but the saxophone itself. Each piece is exploratory in a sense, concerned with densities and expansions. Several seem to grow in range. Each will be more active at its conclusion than at its beginning, though there is substantial variety in patterns of development. The opening piece plays with the notion of articulation. The first sounds are of air passing through the instrument, recorded very closely, creating the effect that the listener is inside the air column. As the piece develops sounds grow more frequent and more forceful. The second untitled piece is quieter still at the outset but develops more rapidly. As the cycle of pieces moves along, the range of distinct sounds becomes more intense, whether split-tones, compound blasts of sound or sudden and brief fluttering runs.

The fourth episode is more meditative and concentrated. It begins with what might be the sound of sticks breaking underfoot before a series of long quavering tones, fundamentals bending, overtones shifting. There are moments here when the sound suggests barnyard fowl, but there is also the sense at times of a muezzin’s call to prayer, but there is still the sense of testing air, of the communion of vibrating reed, amplifying tube and space, the mind of breath. By the conclusion, the sounds are compounded, more active. The fifth piece, another mind map moving from spatial testing to exuberance to continuous tones, again demonstrates the playfulness of Doneda’s timbral fluency, sounds suddenly shifting from flute to saxophone, from singular to compound pitches. Eventually it becomes the most meditative of these five segments: elongated tones are disappearing into silence, incidental noises – those sticks snapping underfoot – grow louder.

I have listened closely to Path Under, on headphones as well as with room sound, for the sounds of the woods as well as the detail of the saxophone, but I’m listening in the midst of a large urban centre. If I turned up the music to the point that it drowned out incidental noise, traffic sounds, appliances, I would likely be inviting tinnitus. Much of the incidental sonic detail is taking place in the saxophone, especially the complex vibrating detail of the multiphonics and breath of the fifth piece. In each of the first two pieces, a quiet continuous roar appears in the distance, grows slightly louder and disappears. It’s not the wind. It might be the sound of traffic on a nearby highway, but it seems likeliest to be an airplane. Perhaps it’s an inevitable presence, recalling Gordon Hempton’s book-length account of seeking One Square Inch of Silence (Free Press, 2009) in Washington’s Olympic National Park. Perhaps the Path Under of Doneda’s title is double, a path underfoot that is also under a flightpath.


Sebastian Strinning

Sebastian Strinning’s Turm (Tower) (LP or download, Wide Ear Records, WER056 on wideearrecords.ch, WER056) may be more alien, though it is an exploration of a human-made structure, a 150-foot tower, Esterliturm, in Lenzburg, Switzerland (“Trip advisor describes a visit as #5 of 11 things to do in Lenzburg,” Google) in a wood near his home. In Strinning’s approach, the tower becomes an alien extension of the saxophone itself, the sound, again in the artificial world of the recording, suggesting a single instrument. The younger Swiss-Swedish Strinning (he has recorded with Gerry Hemingway and Lauren Newton) is a strong voice in a long tradition, whether considered as the tenor tradition from Coleman Hawkins forward or the special Swiss traditions of echoing blasts amid canyons, peaks and industrial confinements, from the alphorn to Werner Lüdi and the members of September Winds.

Lüdi’s two-day encampment in the vast Lucendro dam became psychodrama, and a kind of narrative may be implicit in Strinning’s time and movement in the tower, though the eight episodes on the LP are identified only numerically. I is already complex, with high-low saxophone multiphonics interacting differently with the tower’s column. There is a second when the sound suggests a creaking gate, yet one that is both ancient and sentient. II consists largely of slow, meditative multiphonics, almost a reverie, that gradually develops tension and melodic shape.

By III, Strinning has taken on the sonic aspect of a distraught rhinoceros, however it’s a rhino with a tin can lodged somewhere in its genetic makeup. It seems to be a kind of covert escape narrative, but one is unsure if the rhino is trying to escape the confinement of the tower (so tight that it rubs off upper partials from the harmonic profile) or the tin can its confinement in the rhino’s cells. IV begins in whispers and whistles. Soon the saxophone, its sound still enclosed, upper frequencies rolled off as if by a band-pass filter, begins to recall its former lives, things like musico-melodic phrases start to emerge, and that throttled sound begins to voice low honks against upper register wanderings, both picked up by the echoing tower (eventually there are even transpositions, harmonic patterning); it’s the horn’s genetic memory of Coleman Hawkins, Albert Ayler, Evan Parker, and Peter Brötzmann, the  sound of that particular, densely-grained continuum which ends side one of the LP with a series of rhythmic honks and a lovely sustained and echoing smear as envoi.

The continuous rattling roar of V signals that air column, saxophone and tower have become one, human, mechanism and building become one; at one moment there’s a terrible cry, a moment later a strange tooting tune, all of it suggesting a soundtrack that might “echo” the narrative of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau. The brief VI, less than three minutes long, is evanescent, almost evocative of a shakuhachi. VII is focused on upper-register bending sustained tones with light key pad punctuations, its less muffled highs signalling a shift in the resonance, a certain clarity, another space, free improvisation here a narrative of a vertical passage. The concluding VIII focuses on long tones and the middle register, as if the conflux of man, mechanism, building has found its sweet spot. Burred dissonances gradually disappear into a purified resonant melody that feels, ultimately, almost medieval, like plainsong echoing in a stone church.


Seymour Wright

Seymour Wright is a key explorer of both the musical implications of the jazz past and the possibilities of expanding the sonic and expressive capacity of the saxophone. Revisioning on the historical side, he’s a member of أحمد [Ahmed], a collective quartet with pianist Pat Thomas, bassist Joel Grip and drummer Antonin Gerbal that is re-examining Ahmed Abdul-Malik’s fusion of jazz and Middle-Eastern music in the late 1950s and early ‘60s; Thomas and XT, the duo of drummer Paul Abbott and Wright, have just released a two-LP response to Cecil Taylor’s 1973 Akisakila, another dialogue about significant paths from the jazz past. That interest in exploration clearly extends to the two pieces of (If) I Remember Rites (2020) (Takuroku, 2020) from a Café Oto performance without an audience. The cover image suggests the silence of a destroyed saxophone reed. The vibrating vamp of the reed is broken from the bark or stock; the vamp itself is splintered and broken.

That sense of loss might be central to one of the works, Natural Rite [angle] (2020, for Carole Finer). Carole Finer was a founding member of the Scratch Orchestra, a crucial ensemble for English radical music founded by composer Cornelius Cardew. She presented “Sound Out”, a weekly broadcast of experimental and improvised music on Resonance FM for 13-years until March 2020, when she passed away from Covid-19 related pneumonia. Wright’s piece, a “rite” in more than its title is self-described as a “solo for alto saxophone on window, shutters, radiator and wall.” 15-minutes long, it begins with a high-pitched, whistling sound accompanied by various incidental sounds, likely simply movement in a room. There are occasional inflections in the whistle of the alto saxophone, as Wright finds various echoing surfaces around the room. That only occasionally inflected whistle starts to give way from the seven-minute mid-point to a series of percussive sounds from the sonic surfaces in the room, perhaps most notably the sound of a radiator, with something, presumably the saxophone, being dragged across surfaces creating resonating metallic sounds, whether isolated or in a drum-roll like continuum, that gradually become a kind of complex percussion music, literally constructed from the saxophone’s “silence.” It's very much a ritual, a kind of silence to mark the passing of a significant musical presence that touches on both the endless availability of sonic materials and the silence of passing, the silence of the pandemic, a silence both dictated to the empty space and a defiance of that dictated silence.

That exploration of silence, a rich, Cagean silence and the “silent” saxophone, becomes even more pointed in Knot Rite (2020), subtitled “after Frances A. Yates, Jan Kopinski and Tina Brooks.” It’s a particularly noisy “solo for three alto saxophones and their feedback” in which the saxophones are not blown but played by the presence of microphones, pitches determined by the placement of the saxophones in the room. As the title multiply suggests, it’s an intense experience, an inescapable “Knot Rite,” its punning name becoming synonymous with the harsh feedback that is its fundamental sound. There’s another thematic component in the dedicatees. Frances A. Yates was a scholar of the renaissance whose 1960 book Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition had a transformative impact on renaissance scholarship, demonstrating the centrality of hermetic mystical traditions (an alchemy of spirit as much as chemistry) on renaissance thought. That dark mystery may extend to Tina Brooks, the tragic figure of the heroin-addicted jazz musician, almost too good to be understood. Listen to him closely and in detail on his five Blue Note records, only one of which was released in his lifetime, with support from musicians like Lee Morgan, Johnny Coles, Kenny Drew, Wilbur Ware and Philly Joe Jones, and you hear a virtually unknown musician who could stand comparison with significant contemporaries like Hank Mobley, Wayne Shorter, and Joe Henderson. The saxophonist Jan Kopinski may be included for his soundtrack to Alexander Dovzhenko's 1930 film of Ukrainian peasant life Zemlya (Earth), released on CD in 2003 (Slam CD 255). So there’s a rich iconography lurking behind the three altos and their wall of feedback; the unmanned saxophones generating bass roars and various tonal compounds may suggest an alchemist’s music.

One recalls the word music of Wright’s insistent punning on his name, the collective title (If) I Remember Rites, like Eliot’s “These fragments I have shored against my ruins…” Even in its shards, its bits, its industrial banshees, music is still present here, perhaps never more insistently present than when reduced to ashes and wails, beckoning, singing, through the flames.


© 2022 Stuart Broomer


Web addresses:

Michel Doneda Path Under (a CD on micro-label: www.cecilepicquot.fr)
Sebastian Strinning, Turm (WER056, LP or download, at wideearrecords.ch
Seymour Wright, (If) I Remember Rites (2020)

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