The great thing about free music, just like abstract painting, is that it forces you to go beyond the rational, to forget about anchor points, reference models, elements of recognition or patterns of comfort. Does this mean it belongs to the realm of the "emotional"? Well, not necessarily. It can create emotions, but it can contain very cerebral abstractions, which are alien to our feelings, yet still can be appreciated in an aesthetic way, whatever that means. It does resonate with something inside you, or it doesn't, at whatever level, which makes it extremely difficult for your humble servant, the reviewer, to write anything meaningful about it. It is often described as "noise" by its opponents, despite its use of low volume explorations.
Without a doubt the subgenre's roots are to be found in jazz, as testified by the use of instruments and by the musicians' backgrounds. You can also argue that the music's inherent openness and the importance of improvisation are typical for jazz too, but that's as far as the comparison goes. The sounds, the harmonies, the rhythms, the structure, the atmosphere, are anything but jazz.
Presenting all these albums in one go is a little disrespectful, because some of them really require some deeper analysis, but time is lacking, and the choice was either to pick a few out, and leave the rest unaddressed, or present a large bunch of them, with small indications of preference.
Axel Dörner, Werner Dafeldecker, Sven-Ǻke Johansson - Der Kreis des Gegenstandes (Monotype, 2011) ****
It is equally pointless to say that Axel Dörner plays trumpet, Werner Dafeldecker bass and Sven-Ǻke Johansson percussion, because you can only at times recognise the instruments. As the cover art suggests, this is not music for tropical Carribean dance parties, but rather an exercise in minimalism and the feeling of immediacy, of matter and space, of objects, and of being in that space. But it is not in-the-moment either as with free improvisation, because there is a clear development of the music, with moments of increased density and tension, after which siberian winds force you back into an inhospitable calm. That you ask questions, and are left with a feeling of wonder, is part of the process. Whatever it does to you, it will not leave you indifferent. And that's a great accomplishment.
Listen and download from the label.
Muringa - The Unknown Knowns (Sofa Music, 2012) *****
There is no silence here, but an uncanny and slow development of sound, with lots of horizontal lines being imposed on top of the other, leading to sometimes eery moments, inexplicable drama, revealing a world of distress that you assumed could exist but that remains hidden and dormant, then everything goes quiet again, and by doing that the tension increases. Yet at the same time, primarily because of the bells and the clarinet, some pristine beauty and innocence emerges, in contrast to the industrial sounds (or are those helicopters?), on "Northwest Passage". On the last track, out of the slow, often piercing sounds, the tuba (I guess it's the tuba) erupts in dog-like barking, strange and impactful.
Subtle, full of character and vision. Really strong.
Jim Denley, Philippe Lauzier, Pierre-Yves Martel, Kim Myhr, Eric Normand- Transition De Phase (Tour De Bras, 2012) ****
This is without a doubt also one of my favorites in this overview of albums, with Jim Denley on alto saxophone, and flute, Philippe Lauzier on soprano saxophone and bass clarinet, Pierre-Yves Martel on electronics, Kim Myhr on acoustic guitar and zither, and Eric Normand on electric bass. Like "Dans Les Arbres" and "Mural", things happen all the time, often close to a single tonal center, with instruments alternating in long resonance and vibrating airwaves. It is intimate and spacious at the same time.
Sheriffs of Nothingness - A Summer's Night At The Crooked Forest (Sofa, 2011) ****
Jennifer Allum & Eddie Prévost - Penumbræ (Matchless, 2011) ****
Eddie Prévost possibly initiated this kind of music, with AMM, completely changing the way music could sound, and be listened to. He turned his drum kit and other percussion into instruments that produce sustained sounds by using a bow. It is no surprise that he teams up with Jennifer Allum on violin to produce weird sonic soundscapes, with piercing sounds, oscillating in a near vacuum, working in the regions between visible and invisible, audible and inaudible, .... yet incredibly intense in its delivery.
Thanos Chrysakis & Philip Somervell - Knotted Alembic (Aural Terrains, 2012) ****
It could sound strange, but this music has kept me company during the long morning commutes to work, calming my nerves in the daily traffic jams and hostile motorised compatriots. Thanos Chrysakis and Philip Somervell dive deep into the sound possibilities of their pianos, often inside, but not necessarily. Chrysakis also plays synth and vibes, as well as shruti box and chimes.
The result of an incredible beauty, calm, paced, and in contrast to its dark cover, the sound is light and clear. On several tracks the shruti box provides the single-toned drone, on which drops of sound occasionally fall.
Otherways and Free Space - Life Amid The Artifacts (Emanem, 2011) ***
The music on this album is a compilation by the British art music scene of the seventies and early eighties. They are John Stevens on cornet and voice, Trevor Watt on soprano saxophone, Herman Hauge on alto saxophone, John Russell on electric guitar, Nigel Coombes on violin, Ron Herman and Marc Meggido on double bass, Dave Solomon on percussion, and Simon Mortimer on piano. Despite the minimalist approach, many things are happening here: instruments react with little notes, like a conversation of a group, exchanging thoughts and exclamations and confirmations and disagreements, not with lyricism, but with conversational intensity, struggling to be heard, glad to share insights. The album ends with two sax-percussion duets. Great that this music is again available, and it demonstrates the musical vision by these artists so many decades ago. On the downside, it remains a compilation of music that is not entirely coherent.
Lapslap - Granita (Leo, 2012) ***½
After "Itch", "Scratch" and "Zuppa Inglesa", this British trio releases its fourth album. The band is Michael Edwards on tenor and soprano saxophones, computer and midi wind controller, Martin Parker on french horn, flugel horn, recorder, computer, and Karin Schistek on piano and synth. Although minimalist in nature, the music can be extremely abrasive, harsh and raw, punching out at the listener with high volume and intensity. Quite varied and carefully crafted.
Myelin - Axon (Intonema, 2012)
Myelin is the duo of German trumpet-player Birgit Uhler and French saxophonist Heddy Boubaker, who perform here their second album together. You will rarely hear the normal sound of their instruments as they use lots of extended techniques, and add other input such as radio, sordinos, mini-speaker and numerous objects.
Soizic Lebrat & Heddy Boubaker - Off The Record (Audition Records, 2011)
Classically trained cellist Soizic Lebrat joins self-educated bass and alto sax-player Heddy Boubaker, both from France, exploring sound and timbre and textures.
Download full album here.
Earl Howard - Granular Modality (New World Records, 2012)
"Granular Modality" is a sonic sculpture by Earl Howard on alto saxophone, electronics and synthesiser, with Miya Masaoka assisting on koto on the second track. In contrast to most of the other albums in this review, some of the sounds are really in-your-face, lacking subtlety and the natural control the genre requires.
Christina Kubisch - Mono Fluido (Important, 2011)
German flautist and composer Christina Kubisch releases sounds she recorded more than thirty years ago, digitalised and re-edited them. "The sound sources are flute (alto and bass flute) played by myself, the sounds of swinging plastic tubes in the air, the recordings of the windscreen wiper ("tergicristallo") of my old car, the sampled sounds of glass and of my own breathing. Just pure instrumental sounds and some "field recordings", no electronics. The piece is a quiet piece of ambient music, an acoustic landscape, unspectacular and yet intense", as the composer explains.
Ernesto Rodrigues - Suspensaõ (Creative Sources, 2011)
Portuguese Ernesto Rodrigues, on viola, harp, metronomes, and objects is joined by his brother Guilherme Rodrigues on cello, Gil Goncalves on tuba, Nuno Torres on alto saxophone, Abdul Moimeme on prepared electric guitars, Armando Pereira on accordion and toy piano, Carlos Santos on electronics and piezo elements, and José Oliveira on percussion.
How this octet manages to keep the music at an almost conceptual level, with light touches here and there, with at times barely anything audible beyond the occasional flutter and scrapes and bells. The music and the listener are kept hovering between reality and dream, between concept and realisation.
Michel Doneda, Jonas Kocher, Christoph Schiller - Grape Skin (Another Timbre, 2011)
Incredibly intense sound environments by Michel Doneda on soprano and radio, Jonas Kocher on accordion and objects a,d Christoph Schiller on prepared spinet. I have the impression that this is something I've heard so often before, on other of these minimalist albums, but then again, it's sound is truly addictive in its compelling tension, soothing calm and unnerving shrill invasiveness.
Michel Doneda & Jonas Kocher - Action Mécanique (Flexion, 2011)
Michel Doneda plays soprano and sopranino saxophones, Jonas Kocher accordion and various objects. The music was recorded in Sofia, Bulgaria in 2009 during a live performance and at times you hear the audience.
Like with so much of this music, you could qualify it as horizontal developments, with tones stretched beyond the usual, with the other musician interfering, adding and then relaying the tone, filling the space, seeking depth and shades and subtle timbral colorings, creating novel listening experiences out of instruments that cannot be more traditional.
Michel Doneda, Kocher, Grom, Sambolec- Udarnik (L'Innomable, 2011)
Michel Doneda on soprano and Jonas Kocher on accordion are joined by Slovenian musicians Tao G. Vrhovec Sambolec on computer and, Tomaž Grom on double bass. Mystery and exploration are the words, as well as conflict and contradiction, of gentleness and rawness, industrial versus natural sounds, confrontational or serene ... and possibly because of the four musicians, the music itself is a little richer than the duo albums.
Osvaldo Coluccino - Atto (Another Timbre, 2012)
Rafael Toral & Davu Seru - Live In Minneapolis (Clean Feed, 2012)
I have reviewed some of electronics wizard Rafael Toral before, with mixed outcomes. Sometimes I get it, sometimes I don't. In contrast to the previous albums, drummer Davu Seru plays drums in the traditional way, no bows or brushes, but hard-hitting avalanches of beats.Toral kind of uses this foundation to weave his electronics around, sometimes small and full of surprise like little birds, sometimes angry and violent like the best guitar shredder. Not really my cup of tea, I must admit.
Annette Krebs, Anthea Caddy, Magda Mayas - Thread (Another Timbre, 2012)
Two tracks, the first called "Sand", the second "Shore", these three women have a strong an unique coherence in their approach. Annette Krebs plays prepared guitar, tapes, mixing desk, Magda Mayas piano and Anthea Caddy the cello. The music is hesitant, with strange intrusions of Mozart's 40th symphony, or is this a coincidence? Calm intensity varies with outbursts of furious clamor. It is all very strange, and one is left wondering what it is all about.
Jean-Luc Guionnet & Sijiro Murayama - Window Dressing (Potlatch, 2011)
A sax-percussion duet? By Jean-Luc Guionnet and Seijiro Murayama? Yes, for sure. But think again about the sound you can expect from a sax-percussion duet. Yes, you hear the sax, and you hear the percussion, but that's about as close to existing experiences that you get. On their previous album, "Le Bruit Du Toit", they were inspired by their immediate environment, evoking and reflecting and maybe just being the object that inspired them. Now the process is less clear, yet the music is as compelling, crafting sounds around silence.
Thomas Tilly & Jean-Luc Guionnet - Stones Air Axioms (Circum, 2011)
Lucio Capece & Radu Malfatti - Explorational (B-Boim, 2011)
Lucio Capece plays bass clarinet and Radu Malfatti trombone. They play one long piece of fourty minutes, and even if you turn the volume up to the maximum, you still hear nothing, apart from the occasional and extremely rare sound. A statement, but nothing more.
In sum, as with all music, you are the judges. Jazz purists will find nothing of interest in the above, avant-garde "classical" music fans will not like it, yet the genre's potential, it's emotional power and low-volume subtleties are exceptional, not to mention the incredible conceptual understanding and discipline of the musicians.