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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The murmuring of sound ...

[b]By Stef[/b]

Some music does not require melody or even a variety of notes. Its focus is on the sound itself, on its colors and shades and timbres, and how that sound can be slightly altered to offer different perspectives and aural vistas, and in that case, one note may be enough, you just make its sound evolve and change and tell a story. With one note? Yes, it's the murmuring of sound, like the wind or the river or the sea, that keep repeating and repeating or prolonging and prolonging whatever they are doing in that specific context, and you can only admire its beauty and strangeness and magic, because it captivates you, brings you under a strange spell and you try to get meaning out of it, like the ancient Greeks tried to get meaning out of the mountain stream in Delphi to get stories and predictions from the Oracle, just because of the murmur of water, the murmur of sound, always the same and always evolving, telling stories below the surface, between the ripples and the undulations and the waves. In this case, the oracle is the Swedish Sofa label.

The Pitch - Frozen Orchestra (Sofa, 2015) ****½

The first album is performed by "The Pitch", a quartet from Berlin, consisting of Boris Baltschun on electric pump organ, Koen Nutters on bass, Morten J. Olsen on vibraphone, and Michael Thieke on clarinet. The band is expanded to become a tentet with the following guest musicians : Lucio Capece on bass clarinet, Johnny Chang on violin, Robin Hayward on tuba, Chris Heenan on contrabass clarinet, Okkyung Lee on cello, and finally Valerio Tricoli on revox. The album consists of two pieces of about twenty minutes : Side A and Side B. So much for the facts. 

What you hear is one minimalist drone of sound, solidly supported by the pump organ for its unchanging continuity, while other instruments weave in an out of the texture in barely noticeable yet all too present changes and shifts. The overall atmosphere is heavy and dark, ominous and full of dread. Its the kind of music you would expect to hear in the underworld. Nothing happens but there is no joy either, only a sentiment of resignation and submission to the fate of being where you are, with the occasional recognition of individual voices quickly absorbed by the greater whole. Even if it will not cheer you up, the album is absolutely fascinating to listen to, and it is of a phenomenal austere beauty. 

I am not sure how a tentet can be arranged to arrive at this sound, because it really requires all musicians to stay very close to a tonal center, staying very far from what they must be used to get as musical score. That by itself increases the quality of the performance. 

Mural - Tempo (Sofa, 2015) ****½

This is a very long and fascinating journey into the deep nature of sound, with Jim Denley on wind instruments, Kim Myhr on twelve-string guitar and zither, and Ingar Zach on gran cassia and percussion.

The album gives on three CDs a good part of a four hour performance at the Rothko Chapel in 2013. The music is less murmuring that this review's title might suggest. The approach is minimalist in terms of instrumentation and pitch variation, but the trio evolves between fascinating quietness and violence, working with intensity, power and other dynamics at their disposal to create an absolutely unpredictable suite of sound. At times you think that Armageddon is near (play it full volume) followed by zen-like calm and sooting bell sounds. The inherent repetitiveness of their music's nature builds hypnotic tension that can easily be challenged by disturbingly human cries on the sax or ripped to pieces by majestic bangs on the gran cassia, creating maximal dramatic effects contrasted by more quiet moments that never drop the overall tension of the sound.

The three musicians are phenomenal at co-creation, improvising together and moving together in developing the dark and fragile atmospheres they build, an amazing feat that becomes more impressive the more you listen to it.

You could think that after three previous albums, the nature of their approach has been explored but that is definitely not th case. The fact to have now a triple-CD album, bringing us the last three hours of a four-hour concert is amazing. It was all performed in one piece, so it is sad indeed that we have to change the disc from time to time, but that's really a minor thing, and we obviously wish to have had the first hour too.

This music requires attentive listening, because a lot is taking place, making this a must-have for fans. 

Ingar Zach & Miguel Angel Tolosa - Loner (Sofa, 2015) ****

Back to murmurs now, with Ingar Zach on percussion, electronics and field recordings, and Miguel Angel Tolosa on electronics, field recordings and electric guitar. The album was already reviewed by Paolo Casertano, but I wished to add my comments which are not too far away from Paolo's appreciation.

In contrast to the other Sofa albums reviewed in this post, the overall sound is more linear, a kind of continuous and oscillating background like an electronic swell, dark and foreboding, with many different sounds all coming together like an ocean rising it, allegedly the result of ten years of sound collection, and the amazing feat that both guitar and percussion manage to stretch sounds indefinitely, while changing timbre and intensity as they move forward on this longitudinal journey. As memorable as the other two albums reviewed here, and again a different perspective on what can be achieved in this very specific subgenre that the Sofa label brings us.


Colin Green said...

Stef, I'm afraid I couldn't really follow the last paragraph of the first review. Why do you think it's difficult for musicians to observe a tonal centre? They've been doing it for hundreds of years - to state the obvious: you just need to agree the key/tonal centre, and given that you say "nothing happens" they appear to have their work cut out.

Stef said...

What I mean is that it requires technical discipline to play in a tentet with various voices and without moving away from a tonal center. Listen to the music : it's hard to describe without having heard it ... my description is no doubt ineffective in describing it.

Colin Green said...

I'm not sure it's a description of the music so much as a comment on the technical ability of the musicians. As such, it's doesn't really say much more than, for example: "the band manages to play in tune throughout the performance". Nothing groundbreaking or noteworthy about that, particularly if the tuning has been agreed beforehand. What is noteworthy is that here it's restricted to a single note or tonal centre, though Stockhausen did the same thing in his vocal peice "Stimmung" written back in the 1960s:

Michael Campbell said...

Anywhere know where I can purchase Tempo? It seems to be sold out on their site