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Sunday, December 3, 2017

Kyle Motl - Transmogrification (Self/Bandcamp, 2017) ****

By Rick Joines

Why release a solo album? A pianist hardly needs an excuse—such a thing makes perfect sense. We are used to solo piano. There is always an audience for that. When horn players do so, the point seems to be the display of the musician’s technique, invention, prowess, and maybe endurance. Audiences for that are smaller, more specialized, but it doesn’t take much persuasion to convince anyone those are solo instruments. With the bass, things are different. It seems like a utility: we take it for granted, never give it much thought.

To release a solo bass album, then, is already to make a stand, state a claim, take a risk. If the goals and intentions of a solo bassist differ from other soloists, the goals and intentions of a solo free jazz/free improvisatory/avant-garde bassist differ even more. Fans of this music don’t need to be convinced it should exist. We can’t get enough of it. And though we feel that a bassist walking a thumpy line behind other jazz musicians is a thing of wonder, we know the bass is capable of more. What we love isn’t that the bass can create lines as beautiful and melodic as a horn or a piano or a violin. What we love is the bass—its size, its shape, its sonorities, the ways the bassist’s body conforms to it so that the music emerges from their union.

There are ways to prepare a piano to extend what it can do, breath tricks for the horn, all sorts of gizmos one can add to a drum kit to complicate the notion of the percussionist as a mere time keeper. But the bass fetishist can never get enough of how a bass can be altered, or the range of sound that can come from it. Besides the whole vocabulary of arco and pizzicato technique, the experimental bassist adds other extended techniques—bowing in places that would make Bach blush, using two bows, using bows backwards or using parts of them that music teachers said would break, using things that aren’t bows as bows, popping sticks or beads or canned goods or whatever might be lying around between the strings—as if they were bicycle spokes—to conjure the unexpected, rubbing, beating, scratching, yanking on strings like they said something about your momma . . . much of what this kind of playing produces isn’t conventionally beautiful, but it is fascinating and enthralling, and it makes us wonder what else a bass might do.

Kyle Motl is a DMA candidate at the University of California, San Diego. Besides his work on extended harmonic technique with renowned bass soloist Mark Dresser, he is engaged in several projects involving composition, software, fractals, and other mysteries of the universe. He calls this acoustic solo bass album Transmogrification. To “transmogrify” is to change or alter something in form or appearance with the implication that this transformation has something strange, magical, surprising, or possibly grotesque about it. “Transmogrification” is the act or process of transmogrifying, or is the result of that act. The contrabass, and the music throbbing from its strings and hollow core, are all transmogrified in Motl’s hands. He does not translate, or transpose, compositions meant for other instruments or contexts. His metamorphoses transmute the sound of the bass and our sense of the sort of thing a bass is.

His virtuosity and the quantity of his technique exceeds my ears and my vocabulary: fast pizzicato slides into slow, sustained melodic phrases; the bow sometimes pugnaciously, sometimes with meditative deliberation, bounces and stutters over strings in sharp angsty bursts of screaming skitters or in slow ricocheting arcs of wispy breath. Bowing and plucking occur simultaneously—at cross purposes as often as in harmony. His bass can growl like a guitar through an overdriven tube amp and can quiver with spacey sci-fi soundtrack digital artifacts. From moments when he and his bass seem engaged in mortal strife, we get glimmers of a philosophy of music unsatisfied with the clichés of what musicology calls “thinking.”

His uses his titles thematically: there is the explosive, off-balance, tumbling power of “Panjandrums!” “Skrull” takes its name from a band of villainous extraterrestrial shapeshifters the Fantastic Four battle, and “Skryll,” from a destroyed empire in the Star Wars galaxy. Motl puts the “I” in it in “ax[i]on”—a theoretical subatomic particle that might help clear up some unsolvable problems in physics. The thunderous sweeps of “Thwombulous” onomatopoetically speaks for themselves. Multiple series of harmonic sparkles create constellations in “Scintillionic,” and in “Phosphene Alpha” we “see stars,” as when using certain mind-altering hallucinogenic substances. In “Gimblegyre,” Motl jabberwocks his bass, and it does “gyre and gymble in ye wabe.” There are color pieces, like “Umber”—sounding dark, dusky, reddish brown and also like an old meaning of the word, like “shade” or “shadow.” The slurring legato of “Multiferrous” possesses a high iron content. Some pieces may have philosophical or nearly theological insinuations. Is the "Transmogrificant I" a “Magnificant” for the bass? And does Motl reveal a gnomic wisdom in “Gnomon”?

What is the wisdom of the solo bass, and of the solo bassist? There is a Confucian saying that applies to Motl’s record: “Going too far isn’t much different from stopping short.” In these short, brilliant displays, Motl never goes too far: he never tries our patience, never hurts our ears, always transforms every sound, stroke, and screech into the kind of investigative music we always hope for. And he never stops short: he shows us his every facet—he gives us all his technique, all his theories, all his philosophy, and all his genius each time. For those who can wrap themselves around it and not let it go, Transmogrification provides a wide range of wonderful protean delights that promise to change us by revealing things we could have never imagined.

Listen to, and please purchase, the album here:

Kyle Motl