Multiple perspectives of improvisation

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Some thoughts on these new selected works:
-George Lewis, Recombinant Trilogy, New Focus Recordings
-Fred Frith & Ikue Mori, A Mountain Doesn’t Know It’s Tall, Intakt R.
-Jeremiah Cymerman & Charlie Looker, A Horizon Made of Canvas, Astral Spirits

George Lewis’ Recombinant Trilogy is a triptych of recent compositions for solo acoustic instruments and interactive electronics. As the title implies, the electronic component, a software program written by Damon Holzborn, combines with the sound of the acoustic instrument to double its voice, alter its timbre, pitch, and apparent location in space, and otherwise fragment and recombine it into what Lewis describes as “multiple digitally created sonic personalities.” The Recombinant Trilogy represents the most recent stage in a long history of evolution; Lewis’ experiments with interactive electroacoustic systems reach at least as far back as his work at IRCAM in Paris in 1984, which included a performance featuring Lewis’ computer-generated improvisations in combination with improvisations by Joelle Leandre, Steve Lacy and others.
The current album encompasses three duets, each of which features an outstanding instrumentalist conversant in both contemporary composed and improvised music. Flutist Claire Chase, accompanied by Levy Lorenzo on electronics is first with Emergent (2014), followed by Seth Parker Woods, on electronics as well as cello, on Not Alone (2014-2015), and then bassoonist Dana Jessen, with Eli Stine on electronics, on Seismologic (2017), which Jessen commissioned. Holzborn’s program takes the instruments’ sounds and pans them from side to side and top to bottom; breaks them into fragments and then chunks them into quanta of repetition and layering; warps their timbres and shifts their pitches; and in the process synthesizes a global continuity out of multiple local discontinuities. One of the fascinating points of comparison is the very different timbral signature each instrument carries; while all three pieces are similar in their general processes of sonic interface, dilapidation, and rearrangement, they differ greatly in the details of color, density, and plasticity. In all three meetings of electronics and acoustics, the voices of the instruments come through even while undergoing the metamorphoses they’re subjected to: the flute’s pure, nearly disembodied soprano in Emergent, the dark friction of the cello in Not Alone, the earth-shaking low tones of the bassoon in the aptly titled Seismologic. And all of it is built on the foundation of Lewis’ concept and compositions, the solid ground on which these meetings take place.
(recensione pubblicata anche su Avant Music News, il 4 febbraio 2021)

An everyday object or action doesn’t know it’s musical in the same way that a mountain doesn’t know it’s tall; the quality of being musical (or in the case of the mountain, of being tall) has to come to it from outside. For the musical non-musical object or activity, it takes a certain estrangement from the practical concerns of day-to-day life to discover the musical potential in it, up to now hidden in plain earshot. After this opening move, it’s all on the imagination to bring out its voice.
On A Mountain Doesn’t Know It’s Tall Fred Frith and Ikue Mori play with what Mori describes as “the every-day noises” of mundane activities. Frith and Mori have collaborated for forty years, but this album represents their first release as a duo alone. The recording was made in January 2015 in Esslingen, Germany, where Frith and Mori were engaged in creating music for filmmaker Werner Penzel. Finding themselves with extra studio time, they filled it by recording the performances that became A Mountain Doesn’t Know It’s Tall.
The relatively short pieces that make up the album largely consist of abstract sounds sculpted into objects of varying timbres and densities. On all but two tracks Frith plays homemade instruments rather than his usual guitar; Mori provides laptop electronics throughout. What one hears are the creaking, jingling, groaning and snapping sounds of materials colliding or put under pressure and suddenly released, enveloped in a skin of skittering electronics. In the midst of this abstraction Hishiryo and A Thief Breaks Into an Empty House incorporate what may be samples of musical instruments; Nothing to It and Now Here include live musical instruments, in the form of Frith’s electric guitar. These latter two pieces tend toward a dronish filling of audio space in a way that contrasts with the more open-aired, staccato textures characterizing most of the other pieces.
The imagination behind A Mountain Doesn’t Know It’s Tall is rich and attuned to shadings of sound. It also is shot through with the subtle humor needed to bring these disparate sounds into a proximity harmonious in its own wry way.

Although it was recorded in January 2020, two months before the Covid-19 pandemic hit with full initial impact, A Horizon Made of Canvas, Jeremiah Cymerman and Charlie Looker’s set of duets somehow captured in advance the mood of emotional fatigue and desperate endurance that came to characterize the year for many of us.
One of the costs—or, seen from the other side, benefits—of the isolation the response to the pandemic brought is that it encouraged a heightened degree of inwardness. There was plenty of time and opportunity for reflection and all that might mean: regrets, resolve, nostalgia, and self-understanding of all kinds, both happy and painful. The moods A Horizon Made of Canvas tends to evoke fall more on the painful than on the happier side of the equation; if there were a soundtrack to the winter of discontent just finished, it would serve as well as any.
The album’s instrumentation is minimal. Cymerman plays clarinet enhanced with pedals, while Looker plays guitar on three of the five tracks and piano on the other two. This basic array is occasionally augmented by an overdubbed electronic drone. The title track, for example, is carried along on a low-frequency electronic undercurrent, which gives the piece a pronounced industrial overtone. Overlaying this dark foundation are Looker’s deep, echoing piano notes, stabbed out and left to linger and die away, and Cymerman’s minor seconds and menacingly elongated, broken tones. The Ecstasy of Betrayal, an austere, deliberately paced piece that opens the album, also features Looker on piano. The track that carries the vaguely threatening title of I’ll Show You What You Are—is it a challenge? A spiteful declaration? The prelude to an uncomfortable revelation about someone close?–centers on brittle and discordant electric guitar and the minor key howls and squeals of visceral clarinet. Speaking of Dust is largely a tissue of ominous electronics with brightly jagged shards of guitar breaking through; the closing track, Samson, matches Cymerman’s raw trills and smeared notes to Looker’s aggressive guitar interventions.
Throughout the recording Cymerman draws on a variety of techniques to mimic states of emotional unsettlement. His sound is plaintive, imploring, agitated, and often moves within the spaces between the notes of the tempered scale; it’s given less to linear melodies than to forceful eruptions. Looker’s role is less dramatic but nevertheless essential to the collective sound—not the background field to Cymerman’s foreground figure, but a fully complementary voice on equal footing.