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Monday, November 11, 2019

Sean Ali, Leila Bordreuil, Joanna Mattrey - I Used To Sing So Lyrical (Astral Spirits, 2019) ****

By Keith Prosk

Sean Ali (contrabass), Leila Bordreuil (cello), and Joanna Mattrey (viola) create dense arco textures for 37 minutes across three tracks on I Used To Sing So Lyrical. Ali appears on the blog with some frequency, especially in collaboration with Carlo Costa. Readers might remember Bordreuil from The Caustic Ballads with Michael Foster. And Mattrey just appeared on one of this year’s best recordings in Jessica Pavone’s Brick and Mortar. Ali and Bordreuil both appear on Lea Bertucci’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, though in separate performances; this is the first time these players have recorded together.

Most of the music is an impressive array of bowing techniques, shredding, scraping, and scratching the gut to its last thread, emitting timbres both deep and woody and high and tinny, evoking moods of tension, suspense, and sorrow. The space is full and the total volume is typically high in “Relic,” yet it displays excellent dynamics through relative volume, fluxing bowing speeds and pulses, and counterpoint. The maelstrom is briefly broken up with the introduction of some objects, perhaps chains and mallets to the body of the bass. “Something About This Room” begins more quietly, with plucked bass providing a clearer sense of movement for the wandering viola and cello, but builds to an all-out arco assault. And “The Air Thick Like So” is a kind of vortex of bows, occasionally separating and slowing harmonically only to converge and quicken, like a feeding frenzy of sharks at the drop of chum.

There’s a sense that other string trios could have made this as well, though that may be due to my relative unfamiliarity with the players and their individual characteristics, but the results are addictively listenable regardless. It’s quite an accomplishment for this new trio, that already move as a thoroughly cohesive unit with a fantastic take on harmony and dynamics.
I Used To Sing So Lyrical is available digitally and on cassette.

The Impact of Astral Spirits Locally

By Keith Prosk

In 2014, the same year that Astral Spirits began, my listening had just begun moving beyond the bop and free jazz classics of the ‘60s and ‘70s into more contemporary improvised music. I only really became aware of Astral Spirits in 2016, first hearing the batch containing Rankin-Parker/Pierce’s Odd Hits, which is still a favorite to this day. And in 2018, when I wrote on some solos from the label, I still thought of it as just another budding local label that was pretty cool. Only as my scope of awareness in this culture widened did I realize that Astral Spirits has meant so much to so many for longer than I knew. It’s a special label for many reasons, from its curation and quality to an emphasis on new and budding collaborations and musicians, but I want to highlight its impact on its hometown of Austin, Texas.

Since its inception, Astral Spirits has cultivated local (and once-local) talent by promoting and providing a platform for musicians in Texas. At this time, these musicians include the sometimes Austin-based Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, the now Marfa-based RobMazurek (we’ll count it), Sarah Hennies, Shit &Shine, SSBT, R. Lee Dockery, More Eaze, Lisa Cameron, Claire Rousay, and Anáhuac (just Chris Cogburn). In releasing recordings from more localized musicians alongside long-time favorites like Joe McPhee, Peter Brötzmann, Ken Vandermark, and others, Astral Spirits gives them a larger stage, which in turn provides greater interest, greater investment, and hopefully more people who want to participate in the improvised music community in Austin.

Additionally, Astral Spirits’ partnerships with Ingebrigt Håker Flaten’s Sonic Transmissions and P.G. Moreno’s Epistrophy Arts performance series has brought more national and international talent through Austin, especially from Chicago. Providing more access to a wider range of performance techniques, styles, and aesthetics is crucial in drawing more listeners as well as developing practicing improvisers through exposure and experience. Austin has a long road to becoming the next Chicago or NYC, if that’s even attainable or desirable, but Astral Spirits has surely helped to grow the improvised music community here.

A lot of business values can more-or-less boil down to openness to new experiences (practically a requisite in this music and in this field), giving a damn (evident in Astral Spirits’ customer care and response, e.g. the uptick in audio quality after early complaints), and building community. A lot of businesses fail at the latter. From my perspective, Astral Spirits succeeds. And has been and likely will be a major player, alongside your local organizers, some press, and a few other labels, in promoting this wondrous music from top to bottom. For that, it’s a label worth celebrating.

Happy 5 years!

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Astral Spirits - Upcoming Releases

Amirtha Kidambi & Lea Bertucci - Phase Eclipse (Astral Spirits, 2019)

KVL - Volume 1 (Astral Spirits, 2019)

Akiyama / Field / Vidic - Interpersonal Subjectivities (Astral Spirits, 2019)

By Lee Rice Epstein

For all its five years, Astral Sprits has been a home for some wildly experimental and radical projects that would otherwise not make it to recording and distribution. Some part of that is due to Nate’s requests to artists, asking them to go out on the limb he’s willing to support; the rest is on the artists themselves and the far sonic reaches they explore and inhabit. And as a bow on 2019, the label’s gone above and beyond with releases in this category, showcasing some very exciting and promising new sounds.

Phase Eclipse is the debut of a duo featuring electronics musician Lea Bertucci and vocalist Amirtha Kidambi (both play other instruments, but not on this album). Even to say Bertucci’s on electronics is somewhat misleading, as her instrument on the album is, primarily, a reel-to-reel tape machine, which she uses to manipulate live recording of Kidambi’s vocals. The result is somewhat reminiscent of Peter Evans Quintet, where Sam Pluta plays a similar role as Bertucci does here. But the tactility of the tape reels warp sound in ways digital electronics can only mimic, and Kidambi vocals are, for those familiar with her quartet Elder Ones and Darius Jones’s Elizabeth-Caroline Unit, tremendously complex and equally tactile. Not unlike KVL, the layers of complexity can take a few listens to track, but plumbing the depths is highly rewarding.

KVL could be something of Astral Spirit’s Chicago house band, with Quin Kirchner on drums and sampler, Daniel Van Duerm on electric piano, organ, and mellotron, and Matthew Lux on bass, with all three contributing electronics. Similar to Jaimie Branch (who guests on one track) and her seminal Fly or Die group, KVL defies easy description. Like Branch, and fellow Chicagoan Joshua Abrams, Kirchner, Van Duerm, and Lux fold together multiple influences, creating layered soundscapes, fluctuating and modulating themes through improvisation. There are elements of dub and drone, overtones of trance and ambient, and some truly galactic vibes. Clocking in at just over half an hour, Volume 1 aptly fills the role of throat clearing, introduction, and a teaser of what’s sure to be much more.

The trio of guitarist Tetuzi Akiyama, saxophonist Gregor Vidic, and drummer Nicolas Field introduces Akiyama to Vidic and Field’sstanding du o. The result is a magnificent set of exploratory improvisation. Vidic and Field’s playing has a rich, textural quality, developed through their use of timbre and dynamics. In this way, Akiyama’s multiphonic approach to guitar, and his innovative use of effects, offset’s Vidic brilliantly. Over the course of 45 minutes, Akiyama, Vidic, and Field generate a nervy tension, walking razor thin lines, such as the ones threaded through the middle of “Inner Circle.” In keeping with the overall Astral Spirits aesthetic, and as a capstone to their anniversary year, the trio’s music is at times stateless, at other times murky and brooding, and yet it’s always highly engaging, rich and thrilling.

Available Nov. 8 on digital and cassette.

Available Nov. 15 on digital, black vinyl, and orange vinyl.

Nov. 15 on digital, cassette, and compact disc.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Keefe Jackson / Benjamin Vergara / Jim Baker / Phil Sudderberg – The Hallowed Plant (Relative Pitch, 2018) ****

By Tom Burris

Three Chicago veterans meet Chilean trumpeter on this first – and so far, only – project from The Hallowed Plant. Recorded at the tail end of 2016, but not released until last year, this disc contains recordings of full-on group improvisations that are abstract and busy, full of texture – but not high on energy. It's not that kind of music. There is almost a disarming serenity to the music, often placing the listener into the eye of the storm.

Trumpeter Benjamin Vergara often leaps out as a composer, and I believe his central role is often inspirational to the other band members. There doesn't seem to be a leader on this session, but Vergara comes the closest. Reed man Keefe Jackson and pianist Jim Baker share a musical kinship that is certainly at work here, as they form an alliance that is mutually beneficial to both themselves and Vergara especially. Drummer Phil Sudderberg is great at wrangling the group and propelling them forward whenever they require a push. The working parts are all here and firing.

There's a great section from “This Moves To That” where Baker's chords underneath Vergara's one-note chant becomes a focal point, prodding Vergara – and eventually Sudderberg & Jackson – into inventive reactions. Then Vergara breaks out of his trance and leads the group to the finish line. “North Cult” is a place where horns imitate tube amps buzzing and feeding back for 15 minutes before turning into the most conventionally “jazz” sounding music on the album. My favorite ride in the plant though is “La Repentina Ola,” which opens with Jackson and Vergara chirping at each other while Baker shoots at them with a ray gun. Enter aggravated assault from Sudderberg and it's insane shrieking from Vergara, trilling/fluttering from Jackson, and full-on skin cancer from Baker. The most dangerous synthesizer console in free jazz!

Friday, November 8, 2019

The Madness of Tom Ward

Tom Ward and Adam Fairhall - Susurrus (Madwort, 2018) ***1/2

Madwort’s Menagerie - Madwort’s Menagerie (Madwort, 2019) ****

By Lee Rice Epstein

Tom Ward has been a regular presence on the British free jazz scene for several years now, performing in and fronting a number of avant-garde and free improvising groups, including the remarkably named Quadraceratops and Saxoctopus (yes, eight sax players), Madwort Saxophone Quartet (another all-sax, all-the-time group), Cath Roberts’s Favourite Animals, and the fantastic improvising trio Ma/Ti/Om with percussionist Matilda Rolfsson and bassist Tim Fairhall (if you get a chance, do check out Ma/Ti/Om’s Ashes and Live In London, both on Raw Tonk). Recently, though, Ward launched an independent record label, Madwort, which has fast become fertile ground for his expansive imagination.

Susurrus, the label’s first release, features Ward, on saxophone, bass clarinet, and tambin, in a duo with Adam Fairhall, on piano, accordion, harmonium, and prepared dulcitone. As evidenced by the instrumentation, Ward and Fairhall approach their duet as a musical sandbox of sorts, pushing outwardly against any expectations. Opening with a pointillist piano-sax duet, “Personable Pedantry,” delineate a constellation of notes across both instruments. It’s a nice tune that barely hints that what new- and space-age moments are to come. When Ward picks up bass clarinet and Fairhall moves to prepared dulcitone for “Susurrus,” the dynamism of their ideas creates a subtle trance state. The cover image of a tree without leaves intimates the kinds of effect Ward and Fairhall seem to be aiming for. The title, meaning whispering or murmuring, describes as clearly as it evokes, as the duo overall performs with a kind of conversational give-and-take, the players responding to each other with echoes and teases alike. “Spumous” features Fairhall’s harmonium paired with Ward’s tambin, a pairing that recurs on album-closer “Liminality.” Both performances bring hints of Don Cherry, a somewhat unexpected reference point for a saxophonist, but Ward seems as keenly connected to the spirit as Cherry, and his partnership with Fairhall is bountiful.

For all the meditative sincerity above, Madwort’ s Menagerie is a romp. A brand-new sextet—with the deceptively chamber-esque lineup of Ward on bass clarinet, Cath Roberts on baritone sax, Alex Bonney on cornet, Julie Kjær on flute, Adam Spiers on cello, and Tim Fairhall on double bass—the album blossoms with humor and bite. Ward’s music for the group boasts a thrilling depth, with pairings sliding in and out of focus on “Fish Biscuit Standoff.” It’s a summation of the album as a whole, ridiculous titles (see: “Unfortunate Interaction With a Chair”) and all. I’ve probably heard Kjær on flute more than I’ve heard her on sax now, and her opening on “Islands In the Green,” is grand and melancholy, a songlike melody that’s carried forward by half the band, while the others play a pulsing counter melody. Kjær plays a fantastic solo that leads into a superb solo by Fairhall. It’s not often a group this big performs without percussion of some kind, but the players embrace the openness of the lineup’s sound, with the inherent airiness buoyed by syncopated rhythms, counter melodies, and daring improvisation.

I’ve written several times about what an exciting time it is to be a listener, with platforms like Bandcamp boosting the signal of some of the brightest, most exciting players on various scenes. The British scene, in particular, seems to be embracing the possibilities. Madwort stands next to Lume, Efpi, Raw Tonk, and the many musicians self-releasing their work without a label. The hope (and promise) here is not only will Ward have a regular home for his output, but he’ll also continue to bring together new and exciting projects .

Both available via Bandcamp.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Jazzfest Berlin 2019

By Alexander Dubovoy

“If I could, I would build a theme park. Walt Disney is one of my idols,” said Anthony Braxton during a panel discussion on the third day of Jazzfest Berlin. At first, this statement took me aback, but the more I thought about it, the more it revealed its mysteries. Artists and ideas do have their own theme parks; even creationists and Dolly Parton have their own, so why not a seminal figure like Braxton? I asked him what the entryway to his theme park would be, and he responded, “You can start anywhere. I don’t aim to tell people which way to go. What I want to do is to present a set of menu of options through which the friendly experienced can travel at will.” Braxton seems to be fascinated by the concept of cartography, of conceiving of his art more as a landscape to be wandered than a fixed set of instructions and, at times, even directly using airport maps as graphic scores.

Sonic Genome. Photo by Cristina Marx
Indeed, as the opener of the 56th Jazzfest Berlin, Braxton got one step closer to building what I hope would be called Braxtonland. With his Sonic Genome project, Braxton took over the Gropius Bau, one of Berlin’s eminent contemporary arts exhibition spaces. The Gropius Bau centers around an imposing atrium, with smaller spaces extending off. Braxton assembled a group of 60 impressive musicians (I spotted Ingrid Laubrock, Alexander Hawkins, and many more). They began in one corner of the space playing long tones. Soon, however, they dispersed into smaller groups, into the foyer and even the exhibition halls. Over the course of 6 hours, a changing array of larger and smaller ensembles played compositions from Braxton’s sizeable ouevre. James Fei, Chris Jonas, and Braxton himself conducted some of the larger group works. Kyoto Kitamura performed vocal works and led one of the ensembles in a particularly joyous moment of collective interaction. As a listener, the experience was unparalleled. All of Braxton’s compositions are designed to interlock and intersect. Consequently, walking through the Gropius Bau was a bit like a “Choose Your Own Adventure Book” in which the listener shaped a musical journey through heterogeneous pieces of the same story.

As I spent the weekend trying to attend as many of the Jazzfest Berlin’s events as humanly possible, I felt like I was continuing to navigate a musical cartography. This sense came in no small part due to the excellent work of Nadin Deventer, the festival’s artistic director. Anthony Braxton called Deventer a “visionary and an activist”, and I have to say I agree fully. Often flagship jazz festivals of major cities can feel like smorgasbords of (largely straight-ahead) musical content. Jazzfest Berlin is different. It is a deliberate, curated affair, this year centering around the work of Anthony Braxton and the mottos “Escape Nostalgic Prisons” and “A Mother’s Work Is Never Done”. The resulting festival, rather than taking an agnostic or all-encompassing approach, made a compelling and largely unified case for contemporary innovations in jazz.

Christian Lillinger’s Open Form for Society. Photo by Cristina Marx
In my opinion, one of the most innovative and future-thinking sets was that of Christian Lillinger’s Open Form for Society. Lillinger’s dense metric compositions had an amazing sense of grace. Though the music was often in crazy time signatures and intricately orchestrated between different parts of the ensemble, it also left space for interaction and communal groove. It takes a deft band to play music like this, and the unusual instrumentation (1 drummer, 3 pianists/keyboardists, 2 vibraphonists, 2 bassists, and 1 cellist) held together due to the high level of musicianship. The collective interactions of pianists Cory Smythe (on acoustic piano with computer-based microtuning effects), Kaya Draksler (on upright piano), and Elias Stemeseder (primarily on synths) astounded me. Though the music was extremely complex, it never felt forced and instead pushed forward with an urgent sense of naturalness.

Anthony Braxton. Photo by Cristina Marx 
The festival largely centered around the Braxton’s work as an innovator and a pioneer who paved the way for this new generation of musicians in creative music. At the performance of his ZIM Music on Sunday evening, his towering creative achievement was apparent. During an earlier discussion, saxophonists Ingrid Laubrock and Chris Jonas demonstrated the parts of Braxton’s 12 Language Music types, a classification system of twelve sounds. The system begins with long tones (1), then trills (2), and extends further. Eleven refers to “gradient formings”, the transition of parameters over time (for example, dynamics). Braxton’s compositions can be said to live “in the house of” a particular number/type. Ghost Trance Music, for example, which featured heavily in the Gropius Bau performance, makes use of a steady stream of eighth notes and is therefore said to be more “static” and live in the “house of one”. ZIM Music is in the house of eleven, a sacred number that approaches the spiritual unity and transformation embodied in the number twelve (the culmination of Braxton’s system).

Ingrid Laubrock. Photo by Cristina Marx
During the performance, the musicians followed a series of graphic scores with lines that indicated the “gradient formings”, or transitions, of musical characteristics like timbre and pitch. Within this larger macro-composition, however, they were welcome to play others of Braxton’s compositions, as well as to improvise. The resulting music combined macro-level transition with micro-level playfulness, resulting in a confluence rather than dichotomy of improvised and composed elements. The ensemble, featuring Ingrid Laubrock on sax, Erica Dicker on violin, Adam Matlock on accordion/voice, Jacqueline Kerrod and Brandee Younger on harp, and Dan Peck on tuba played beautifully and interactively. Every time Braxton picked up his horn to solo, it was magical. Though I spent much of the weekend enmeshing myself in Braxton’s philosophy and in the Tricentric Thought Unit Construct, I hope and imagine that an “uninitiated” listener could also have appreciated the sheer inventiveness of the performance.

Kim Collective. Photo by Cristina Marx
Not only did the festival’s artists innovate sonically, they also drew techniques from other art forms, like theatre and dance. The Berlin-based Kim Collective staged a “fungus opera,” a wild multimedia work that incorporated composition, improvisation, choral music, name it. Over the course of the performance, a rhizomatic set piece rose from center stage. The fungus opera was the newest culmination in a continued relationship between the Kim Collective and Jazzfest Berlin. The collective also designed an installation (“Gardens of Hyphae”) in the foyer of the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, in which they conducted (intentionally awkward) interviews, played occasional music, handed out the odd spring roll, all from the comfort a billowy, white fungus canopy. The collective stayed in character during the festival, and Liz Kosack wore a mask even during a panel discussion.

Trumpeter Rob Mazurek & São Paolo Underground. Photo by Cristina Marx
A highlight of these multimedia works for me was the performance of T(r)opic, a work originally conceived by trumpeter Rob Mazurek and guitarist Julien Desprez for the Sons d’Hiver festival. In collaboration with the dance project COCO and São Paolo Underground (an alliance of Brazilian musician formed during Mazurek’s time living in São Paolo). The performance began with members of COCO producing rhythms through dancing the coco—“a dynamic folk tradition from the [Brazil’s] northeastern region, born out of slavery and marked by a rhythmic manner of stomping”(program notes). Soon, São Paolo Underground began playing rhythms reminiscent of Brazil’s batucada bands. The horn-heavy band featuring such luminaries as Mette Rasmussen and Lotte Anker played music that was somehow immensely experimental and free, while also grounded in Brazilian folk traditions. An LED installation surrounded the band and dancers. Ushers also gave the audience 3D glasses for an accompanying live-generated 3D visualization. Somehow this wild spectrum of Brazilian folk song and dance, free improvisation, electronic music, and visualization fit together to powerful effect—an unexpected highlight of the festival.

T(r)opic formed the second of two “Late Night Labs”, a new format for Jazzfest Berlin of concerts starting at 22:30. I viewed both labs while lying down on the futons provided in the front row of the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. Fortunately, the music was electrifying enough to firmly prevent me from giving in to the exhaustion that had caused me to choose repose. On Friday night, three trios (Kaos Puls, Moskus Trio, and Mopcut) met for a night of exciting improvised music. In particular, Audrey Chen’s expressive and often unpitched vocal explorations were the source of much intrigue. Sadly, attending these later programs meant I was unable to attend some gigs I wanted to see at the Jazzfest’s partner clubs, A-Trane and Quasimodo. I was particularly sad to have to miss were James Brandon Lewis’s Unruly Quintet, pianist Elliot Galvin, and guitarist Miles Okazaki, who played a Thelonious Monk retrospective (I reviewed the album previously). I also couldn’t make it to the Kiezkonzerte, a free set of concerts with “secret” lineups in neighborhood institutions. I was, fortunately, able to catch the performance at A-Trane of Melting Pot, a collaboration between Jazzfest Berlin, Handelbeurs (Ghent), Nasjonal jazzscene (Oslo), and Jazzfestival Saafelden. Each festival picked a young improviser from its respective scene, and the resulting music was beautiful.

Angel Bat Dawid & The Brothahood. Photo by Cristina Marx
The festival also staged some interesting shows in the Kassenhalle, the smaller hall adjacent to the main one at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. Angel Bat Dawid & The Brothahood harkened back to their Chicago routes. Channeling the impact of Sun Ra and the AACM on her work, multi-instrumentalist Dawid combined free improvisation, blues, and pointed social critique, urging her audience to say that “the black family is the strongest institution in the world.” Drummer Paul Lovens also played an excellent set of concise improvisations with guitarist Florian Stoffner after being awarded the Albert-Mangelsdorff prize. I greatly enjoyed Melez, a new project featuring vocalist Cansu Tanrıkulu. The music was super punk, heavy on electronics, distortion, and rock drumming. When I joined, it seemed like there was some sort of a spider opera going on (it was a festival of zoological operas, wasn’t it?). Lots of black leather was worn. It’s always good to see a jazz crowd doing some head-banging.

Melez. Photo by Christina Marx
Not all the music, however, fit neatly into the amorphous label “free jazz”. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmuserie’s Origami Harvest featured a killer band of Sam Harris on piano and Justin Brown on drums, replete with the Mivos String Quartet, and Koyaki on vocals/rap. Koyaki (whose work readers of this blog may know from the album Way of the Cipher with Steve Coleman) was inventive rhythmically and addressed political issues, including Black Lives Matter, in his raps. Overall, I relished the moments in which Akinmuserie really let loose and in which the string orchestration heated up, and I wish there could have been more of them. The Australian Art Orchestra blended elements of pop music with free improvisation in compositions by Peter Knight and Julia Reidy. Guitarist Marc Ribot’s set also drew heavily from composed materials and, despite moments of freedom, was more firmly grounded in the jazz/“groove” idiom. I found it difficult to engage with the music, but I likely felt this way because it immediately followed the life-changing experience that was Anthony Braxton’s Zim Music.

Both the Friday and Saturday night programs began with a solo piano sets, first by Brian Marsella and second by Eve Risser. Though both sets contained elements of virtuosity (Marsella in his Art Tatum-reminiscent flourishes and Eve Risser in her timbral approach to prepared piano), neither impressed me compositionally as a whole. Similarly, pianist Joachim Kühn’s performance of Ornette Coleman’s music (“Melodic Ornette”) didn’t quite connect with me, despite my respect for his playing and historic collaboration with Coleman himself. Arranging Coleman’s music such that it can be played in tempo and conducted by a band director was certainly an unusual choice. The exclusively white and male big band seemed to me out of place in such a progressive event. Nonetheless, some excellent solos by Kühn, as well as reeds-player Michel Portal stood out.

One of the unexpected highlights of the festival was the (surprisingly well-attended) panel discussions, talks, and film screenings. Several of the events centered around questions of collective organization and of social change in jazz. These issues raised contentious and important social issues. During one such conversation, Angel Bat Dawid yelled and cried at the audience in a demonstration of the trauma she experiences as an African American woman in America and in jazz/creative music. Earlier in the discussion, which centered on collectives in the arts, author Emma Warren spoke about the history of the Total Refreshment Centre, a now-closed DIY venue in London. She passionately stressed the importance of communities in creating spaces and the importance of spaces to creating art. She, furthermore, emphasized the role of space in protecting marginalized voices. It was an apt accompaniment to a festival in which Braxton’s literal use of the Gropius Bau space and philosophical conception of space had been a focal point for me. Warren asked members of the audience to name a place from our lives where “it felt like things could be made” and then performed a “roll call” of these places. After this year’s Jazzfest Berlin, I can say that this definitely is a place where things can be made.

Jazzfest Berlin 2019 (Sunday)

By Paul Acquaro

The evening of Jazzfest Berlin's final night began with a lively duo with guitarist Florian Sotffner and percussionist Paul Lovens, and ended with a passionate set from Marc Robot, between which we experienced a uniquely Berlin 'fungus' opera and the holistic sound world of Antony Braxton.

Photo by Cistina Marx
The opening event was the awarding of the Deutsche Jazzunion's Albert-Mangelsdorff-Preis to the legendary German percussionist Paul Lovens, known for his work with, well, just about everyone, and notably with the Schlippenbach Trio and the Globe Unity Orchestra. This evening, Loven's was introduced by trumpeter Nikolaus Neuser, singer Anette von Eichel, and trumpeter Manfred Schoof. After accepting the award, Lovens engaged in a lively set with guitarist Florian Stoffner. Approaching his guitar Derek Bailey-like, Stoffner was a noisy foil for the nimble Lovens. The two parried through several short improvisations that verred from probing to spiky. After their set (which, if you ask me, could have gone on much longer), Lovens dug from his drum case a pair of his shoes that he had been playing with since 1964 - which were captured photographer Ziga Koritnik's icon photo.

Photo by Cristina Marx
Next, moving into the main hall, was the Berlin based Kim Collective's "Mass Of Hyphae – a KIM Collective Fungus Opera Creation." The opera was certainly a sensory experience with events triggering other events, lights, and sounds. The "opera" began with a sudden appearance of the  musicians from within and throughout the audience. Running about, bumping into the walls, an emitting monosyllabic sounds, they eventually collected in the center of the room, picked up their instruments and launched into a solidly rhythmic, modal piece. From there, madness ensued. Focus shifted to singer/dancers using the whole auditorium as their base of operations, while video of microscopic fungi, exercise videos from the 1980s, and scientific films from the 1950s played. The night ended with a giant mushroom growing from the floor to the ceiling. Trying to make sense of the opera was futile, but surrendering to the use of lights, projection, space, and perspective, it was one of the more unusual 'jazz fest' experiences, and for the collective, an big upgrade from their performance in a space under the stage last year: truly coming up from the earth.

Photo by Cristina Marx
Composer, woodwind player, and musical  inventor, Anthony Braxton, was up next. Guided by hand gestures and a graphical score, the unique grouping, consisting of two harpists, an accordionist, tuba player, violinist, and second saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, improvised via guidelines set forth by the composer. The charts are works of art themselves and another part of Braxton's musical theory - the 11th category to be precise, "gradient formings". What this mean to the audience however was a collage of visceral musical textures and connections. While at times a bit developmentally static, the overall effect was enveloping (see Alexander's excellent description of the event as well). The focus shifted from musician to musician to small groupings to the full ensemble, it an ever shifting collage of sounds and when Braxton reached for the bass saxophone, I admittedly got giddy - what a great instrument! During the short pause between sets that followed, not one person I spoke to had left the room disappointed.

At Soundcheck. Photo by Cristina Marx
Rounding out the evening was guitarist Marc Ribot and his new quartet. The fiery guitarists most recent recording is a set of protest songs, protesting the current madness and right-wing corruption hanging like a cloud of toxic smog over the US, and this current quartet was a new outgrowth of that music. Fusing his protest songs, "How to Walk in Freedom" and "We are Soldiers in the Army" with with his avant-rock leanings (think Ceramic Dog with a polished saxophonist) and his joyous Latin inflected music, this new quartet with saxophonist Jay Rodriguez, drummer extraordinaire Chad Taylor, and upright bassist Nick Dunston, brought the evening - and festival - to a rousing close. Dunston is someone to watch out for - matching the guitar master in energy and snarl, his solo moments were overflowing with overtones, undertones, and other tones.

The Festival's mixture of master classes, discussions, film viewings, along with the main events make for a musical experience of serious depth, and the extension of the festival into the city is a nice touch. Beginning this year with the staging of Braxton's Sonic Genome at the stately Gropius Bau museum in the middle of the city, to the "Kiezkonzerte" (neighborhoods in Berlin are called Keiz) where musicians played intimate gigs at businesses and homes, to the inclusion of local clubs like Quasimodo and A-Trane, and local musicians like the Kim Collective, there is a lot to take in. As someone, in a conversation, somewhere, remarked "this isn't the Nils Landgren festival anymore."

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Tomeka Reid Quartet - Old New (Cuneiform, 2019) ****

By Jack McKeon

Listening to Old New, the latest release from the Tomeka Reid Quartet, one is struck by the band’s ability to improvise so seamlessly on one another. Reid’s compositions play with time, frequently alternating between straight-ahead, driving rhythms and rubato sections where Mary Halvorson’s guitar is able to float through a complex harmonic web of Reid’s cello and Jason Roebke’s bass. These compositions, and they are composed pieces, feel like extended experiments where each player is somehow aware of their collaborator’s next move on an elemental level. The intricacy and intimacy of the support each musician gives the next is felt through the entirety of the album. While both Reid and Halvorson are given ample room to experiment on their own, the beauty of Old New comes from their ability to coordinate and compliment one another. Moments of “Wabash Blues,” a piece somewhere between a Mingus swing tune and sound art exploration, showcase Reid and Halvorson’s playing as both a dual and a duet. This duality comes to define Old New, which like its title suggests, is concerned with the idea of being two (or more) things at once. New and old, soloist and accompanist, fighter and dancer, Reid’s quartet sways as one through the album’s many stylistic and rhythmic divergences. At once a tribute to hard-driving bop, second-line drum tradition, and electronic music, Old New emerges as a wonderful sublimation of these and other styles.

“Aug. 6,” the album’s fourth track, begins with multiple minutes of Reid producing sounds and harmonics on her cello while Tomas Fujiwara answers with snare drum patterns and cymbal splashes. Reid’s playing is mostly pizzicato here, with interludes where it sounds as if she’s slapping the cello with her bow. As the band falls into a rhythm, Halvorson’s guitar enters to pick up the melody twinned by Reid’s legato bowing. Periods of synchronicity allow the listener to better understand the divergent places each musician wants to take her instrument, as Halvorson breaks into a solo of plunging, shape-shifting bends and Reid returns to a pizzicato phrase in the cello’s upper register.

This is an album that revels in these kinds of stream-crossing moments, where the players come together in order to diverge. Old New is a project of bifurcations and a celebration of unity. It embraces tradition and charts new territories, often at the same time. Though each player does embark on various tonal and rhythmic excursions, the listener may be struck by the centeredness of Old New. This core, built by the quartet’s locked-in performance, is able to achieve musical totality while attending to the minuscule tonal investigations of Reid and Halvorson.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Ivo Perelman and Matthew Shipp - Efflorescence Volume 1 (Leo Records, 2019) ****½

By Sammy Stein

Efflorescence Volume 1 is a 4CD set from Ivo Perelman and Matthew Shipp. Already recorded for later release is Efflorescence 2. Shipp and Perelman have been together on many albums and 7 feature just the two musicians. Efflorescence is a term used in chemistry and means to flower out - it happens when hidden salts gather on the surface of a material so the title seems apt. There is both a chemistry between these musicians and a flowering of their art and revealing of their hidden depths over the 4 CD set which is Efflorescence 1.

CD 1, Track 1 is a conversation of 2 instruments, each travelling their own pathways but converging in harmonic agreement at differing points. Perelman seems to be taking his saxophone into almost melodic realms whilst Matthew Shipp offers dissonant chords and also melodic lines which contrast beautifully with the saxophone workings. Track 2 sees even more melody from both players, whilst Track 3 sees a more familiar Perelman/Shipp discursive entree with Perelman veering from altissimo to lower register and Shipp creating crescendos of scale progressions underneath, coupled with interludes where both q and a across the registers of both piano and sax. Track 4 is atmospheric, gentle and spacey, Perelman's suggestive notes providing pivots for Matthew Shipp to hang his chords on before the track builds into a breathy altissimo sax line, under which Shipp supports with chords predicting the sax notes. Track 5 is energetic and a simplex of complexities swapped between the two players whilst Track 6 has a lot of Brotsmann-esque sax talk over gentle interspersed notes and chords from the piano. Track 7 is sax led, Track 8 piano led and in this one the sax follows the chordal landscapes set out by Shipp. Track 9 introduces an almost swing atmosphere, both fast and slow and then Track 10 is a piano led rhythm-infused number with Perelman's sax picking up the leads provided by strong and linear chord lines. Even the off-notes are perfectly placed here, making it clear that some intuitive playing is happening. Track 11 has breathy sax lines over piano trinkles and track 12 is verging on the melodic again as Perelman shows his gentler side over Shipp's classically lined chords. Track 13 is gorgeous with contrapuntal rhythms played by both instruments, whilst Shipp intersperses his with heavy, deep chords. The final track on CD1 sees Perelman once again speaking volumes in altissimo over contrasting well worked chord progressions from the piano, thunked out with style.

CD 2, track 1 is a great opener and wake-up number with piano offering chunky, heavy chords over which Perelman soars on tenor. Track 2 misleads at the outset with harmonies aplenty before each instrument diverges, Perelman treading his own redolent pathway over the steady classic lines of the piano. The ending has a madrigal atmosphere at one point which works well before a controlled descent to the end. Track 3 sets off at a jazzy swing with Perelman using a repeated riff, unusual for him, over Shipp's well placed chords and lines - that is before the sax leads up and away and Shipp changes the chord lines to lower, emphasised scale descents. Track 4 is busy, with Perelman's altissimo lines in contrast with deep register notes from the piano for the most part until the sax solos into breathy final notes. Track 5 and 6 are on-going conversations between the 2 instruments with track 6 being particularly verbose from the sax. Track 7 is gentler but not easier, with counter-rhythms from Shipp over which the sax melody flows, held in check by the emergent chords which rear from the piano. Track 8 is a maelstrom of sound initially, crashing piano and sighing, singing sax but it settles into a quirky and dissonant conversation, each instrument seemingly following the other, though it is not clear which is doing what at times. Perelman's control in altissimo is impressive here. Track 9 is more melodic from both players, whilst Track 10 and 11 see a return to the more conversational style which is familiar between the two musicians here.

CD 3 Track 1 is a surprise because Perelman is indistinctly melodic mode- at least at the start, before his innate creativity gets the better of him and the sax is let loose, soaring over the strong chords from the piano. Track 2 begins with crashing, crushing chords from the piano, over which the timorous staccato of the altissimo lines come in before the sax line becomes more forceful and soon the sax is talking over the piano chords - challenging the noisy attitude with pertinent and perfectly placed cheeky notes inserted into any gaps. A lovely track and the unspoken communication can be felt between the musicians. Track 3 is almost a respite after that, a much gentler affair whilst Track 4 is gentler still, more melodic and harmonious - well, until half way through when it digresses before returning to gentleness. Track 5 is rather beautiful but in a different way as Shipp and Perelman take turns about setting the tempo and rhythms whilst Track 6 is more dissonant and includes a lovely forceful ascension from Perelman over some quite extravagant piano before Perelman counter sit with some buzzy, fast fingered work , finishing with altissimo. Track 7 is breathy, gentle and almost tuneful sax over equally gentle piano lines whilst Track 8 is breathless sax over rivulets of notes from the piano, developing into a competitive yet precise divergence with both players in upper registers, playing faster and furious before bringing it back down again. Track 9 is short, sweet and sees both players intuitively picking up each other's lead whilst Track 10 follows a similar pattern but with extended lines and heavier chords interspersed from Shipp, over which Perelman stuts in altissimo and flows beautifully in lower register. Track 11 is set out by gapped chords, providing Perelman the perfect opportunity to insert a melodic episode before both players have had enough of that and chords develop into crashes, the sax soars up and down the scales with tremolo notes at the ends and of course a bit of spoken altissimo. Sweet. Track 12 is part melody, part counter flowing harmonies whilst Track 13 is more of a free flowing conversation. Track 14 is gentle and harmonious versus ebullient in turns.

CD4 Track 1 has all the essence of a funereal march before the sax sings across the top, adding 4 note phrases to lift the dirge-like piano chords. Piano catches on and changes to a lighter touch which is welcomed and the sax soars, creating some emotive lines. Track 2 is heavy from piano, light from sax which makes a great contrast for the ears, whilst Track 3 contains some great challenging sax lines overflowing the piano chords, which are progressive and classical. Track 4 is a lighter affair, with fast but light fingered sax workings over piano chords which feel like they walk the keyboard. Track 5 begins with a piano phrase over which the sax enters and takes the lead. The piano follows, setting the chords now and the sax follows - a case of perfect juxtaposition and turn about between the two players. Track 6 is easy on the ears from both players with melodic, high register sax lines and wavering notes over solid piano whilst Track 7 is faster, trickier and has a fun element sewn in amongst the crashing chords and tenor sax lines. Track 8 is interesting with short repeated melodic phrasing from the sax over intuitively placed chords and lines from the piano with a crazy but lovely section where both players playing their own challenging lines yet each is clearly acutely aware of what the other is playing. Track 9 is fun with piano setting up rivulets of deep notes over which the altissimo lines soar and play. Track 10 is more melodic from the sax, albeit with a twist - over and under which the piano gently assets its lead. A gentle manner with which to finish.

There is intuition and sensitivity in the playing, an understanding between the musicians yet many times, the character of each emerges.

Efflorescence has another meaning - in botany it is when a lot of flowers appear suddenly and this too might explain why each track has an alternative name - flower names. From Cosmos to, Rose, Amaryllis, Jasmine, Sage, Nightshade, Forsythia and more. The plants chosen range from climbers to thick set and sticky plants, from clinging tendrils to tiny demure florets, which seems very appropriate because the tracks on this 4 CD set are variable, each with their own form, their own life, differing energy and an overall tenderness which seems to seep into many of the tracks - possibly part of the musicians' subliminal characters perhaps? As such, Perelman and Shipp have taken different blooms, different fragrances and essences, some ornamental, some useful and just a few deadly. They have combined them into a bouquet and presented them to the listener, tied together with the ribbon which connects the musicians - improvisation, passion , energy and joy. The bouquet is beautiful, its fragrance divine but just be careful and watch out for the deadly nightshade. Excellent music indeed.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Interview with Barry Guy and Maya Homburger

By Colin Green

Barry Guy and Maya Homburger need little introduction though a proper consideration of their work, together and alone, would probably span several volumes. Barry is one of the foremost double bass players of his generation whose versatile performances range from the baroque to contemporary, composed to improvised, and many stages between. His interests and inspirations are vast. He writes and performs across a variety of media and has led and been part of some of the most significant ensembles in improvised music. It’s difficult to think of another musician who has covered as much ground in such an original, compelling and influential way.

Maya is a baroque violinist who was born and educated in Zurich and moved to England in 1986, playing with a variety of period instrument groups including the English Baroque Soloists and the English Concert. She met Barry in 1988 during an extended tour with the Academy of Ancient Music. During 2000 she took part in the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, John Eliot Gardiner’s epic traversal of almost 200 works that started in Weimar and ended in New York. For many years, she and Barry’s innovative duo recitals with their wide-ranging repertoire have held audiences spellbound. She also runs the Maya label, whose website had a wealth of information concerning Maya, Barry and their myriad ensembles. The label’s most recent release is J. S. Bach Soprano Arias and Swedish Folk Chorales , featuring Maria Keohane and Maya’s period instrument group Camerata Kilkenny which alternates arias from Bach’s cantatas with chorales from the Dalarna region of central Sweden.

They’ve had a hectic schedule of late including concerts by the duo and the Blue Shroud Band, a visit by Barry to the RMC (Rhythmic Music Conservatory) in Copenhagen where he’s visiting professor for the premiere of a new work, recitals of the Bach Arias and Swedish Folk Chorales programme in Ireland and at the end of October several concerts and a workshop in Vilnius. They’re playing with the Blue Shroud Band at the Purcell Room on the Southbank on 16 November as part of the London Jazz Festival, a performance of Barry’s The Blue Shroud which draws inspiration from Picasso’s Guernica. This review from August gives an idea of what to expect, with further articles here. NoBusiness has also just released Concert in Vilnius , a 2017 performance by the legendary Evan Parker, Barry Guy, Paul Lytton trio. An abundance of riches.

My sometimes lengthy questions addressed diverse matters all of which they considered in a thoughtful, illuminating fashion. The interview proceeds with Barry first, then Maya and I’ve provided some links for those who want to follow through.

Barry, to state the obvious, the double bass is a big instrument requiring a very physical engagement. In an interview with Barra Ó Seaghdha a few years ago, you spoke of how your early work with dancers affected your relationship with the instrument:

“The more I rid myself of this idea of a large unwieldy resonating box, the clearer the ideas would become. The holding and articulation of the bow, the ends of the fingertips, creativity, the sound concept – all these things came down to a tiny contact point, a little grain of sand. It’s like black holes, which contain huge amounts of energy to be harnessed.”

I’m intrigued by those grains of sand that are also energy sources.

BG: There are two metaphors here - grain of sand, black holes, and additionally, working with dancers. It reads like a rather rag bag of ideas, but in truth it all really boils down to the moment that energy is released into the creation of sound. All of the foregoing have at different times informed my approach to playing the bass. These days I am mindful of sonority, so any articulation has to be there for a reason rather than a loose conjecture.

The “grain of sand” idea acted as a focus, an energy point where the sound source could be concentrated. It was a way of feeling a sharp feedback from the fingerboard to the fingertip. Actually, this came from some kind of dream sequence where all around me, in an open space, everything coalesced to a fine grain of sand being held between my thumb and first finger of my left hand with a very clear crystalline structure which seemed so logical and clean. Thus, was where the sound started. Following that epiphany, I looked at my left hand in a very different way!

Black holes came next on the agenda - again a concentration of energy, but around an event horizon where information is consumed by such a phenomenon, as if diving into a void with all faculties running hoping for the best outcome. Sometimes when improvising there is a kind of euphoria where the sounds represent a kaleidoscope of possibilities where reality sets in to nudge one to make a decision - all in split seconds of course. Exciting moments.

What about the dancers? Working on stage with the London Contemporary Dance Theatre gave me the chance to observe closely the way the dancers directed their energies to perform spectacularly beautiful movements, and for me the implementation of these moves became totally fascinating - for instance, the lifting of a body where the transference of energy from potential dead weight to soaring, combined the timing of two (or more) people to perfectly coordinate the move as if everything was in a state of lightness and elevation. To find a similar situation when playing the bass seemed to me a worthwhile objective. Energy sources come from whatever seems appropriate for the creation of sound – it’s a matter of direction.

You trained in an architectural practice when you were younger and have retained an interest in the subject – the score for Amphi is in the shape of an amphitheatre and you’ve written about the graphic element in other scores. When it comes to music do you have a visual imagination?

BG: I guess I do have a visual imagination when structuring a composition. Quite often the first shorthand gestures are density marks on paper which remind me of a possible musical gesture long before real pitches are put on manuscript paper. In the case of Amphi which you mention, my first idea was to create an “embrace” of Maya’s baroque violin by the Barry Guy New Orchestra players – this delicate instrument surrounded by some seriously heavyweight improvisers. This “embrace” channelled my thoughts to create textures that were inclusive and mindful of the fragility of the violin, but also a robustness of spirit that could travel outside of the structure. As it happened, whilst thinking about the practicalities of the musical setting, I was immersing myself in the architecture of Alvar Aalto and came across a building of his (the Technical University in Helsinki), that somehow summed up what I wanted to present musically. Aalto’s contemporary take on an amphitheatre (which was inspired by an ancient amphitheatre in Delphi, Greece - a meeting place), gave me a visual image of the score’s layout, which articulated my hopes for the music. Whilst the score might seem somewhat busy with architectural graphics and various scratchy cross hatching, the idea was to present an atmosphere, an ambience, within which the music could flourish. Aalto’s architecture seemed to offer sensitivity to the needs of the students whilst presenting a powerful gesture to the realities of organisation supporting university life.

In Un Coup de Dés a graphic score written for the Hilliard Ensemble (available on A Hilliard Songbook - New Music for Voices (ECM, 1996)) the architecture of Peter Eisenman and Richard Rogers informed the layout of the score in a kind of Möbius loop where Mallarmé's poetry contorts itself as it progresses from the start twisting until the final resolution. The rolling dice faces expose pitch aggregates for the singers to use in an improvisational way, so here is an expression of movement as well as information. What I try to do in my graphic scores is to present the “feel” of the piece as well as the required pitch and articulation areas, so the first decision is to ask myself if a graphic score is appropriate for the project.

In many of your larger works for the LJCO, the New Orchestra and Blue Shroud Band, there’s a combination of freedom and structure, improvised and written passages. Do you consider that larger forces and longer pieces require this and how has your writing for such ensembles changed since your first big piece, Ode back in the early 1970s?

BG: For my way of visualising music for large forces, I prefer to harness the creative spirits of the musicians within a robust architecture that I hope will satisfy all parties. Naturally there have been tensions since improvisation and through-composed music are not easy bedfellows. However, I like to think that each piece releases and refines new ways of dealing with the problems. Also, I wish to seek refinement as an ongoing drive towards simplicity, but in reality, forces of expression and musical realisation often push me into more complex writing – not to make things difficult, more to direct the sound worlds envisaged towards a clear articulation of intent.

For instance, Ode was complex from the point of view of notation. The often rapid changes of written and improvised passages in a space-time notation proved difficult to negotiate for many players. Conceptually, the need to respond to a conductor’s gestures was anathema for many, although the final result was really quite spectacular and indicates what can be achieved when a performance has to be realised. The road to that performance was often treacherous. Now my writing tries to be inclusive in the sense that musical tasks are often given to the players as well as me directing. This frees up the structure and crucially allows me to play the bass!

Are the rewards of composing and improvising complimentary; does one give you a perspective the other doesn’t, or do you think of them as points in a continuum?

BG: Since I enjoy the singular discipline of constructing a piece of music and improvising alone or with colleagues, I view this as a giant work in progress. There is the magic of working together towards an elevated state of communication within the improvised format, but I find the solitary moments at the drawing board offer a kind of peace as well as anticipation. I always have the images of the individual musicians for company when composing.

Poetry and literature have obviously provided you with much inspiration, and the work of Samuel Beckett in particular. You’ve spoken about your Five Fizzles for double bass being a development of Beckett’s simple ideas. On the face of it, his spare prose with its own internal metrical patterns is far removed from your rich elaborations. Guy’s Fizzles are not really a musical equivalent of Beckett’s texts; you appear to see (or hear) the words as a jumping off point. Can you explain how that works?

BG: I agree with your observation concerning Beckett’s spare text and my own elaborations which are often fiery and complex. It’s paradoxical, but there’s the less obvious or even opposite view to music following or paraphrasing the text. Whilst I started with the notion of almost a regime of exercises or disciplines of a minimalist nature, it became more interesting for me to observe the singular intentions and character of each text. This in turn suggested treating each Fizzle as a discreet sound world with specific articulations or colours that would characterise the music. So, you see I have entered the Fizzles world with one approach and emerged with another interpretation. Happily, no one has taken me to task concerning this. The Beckett texts act as a focus, a reason for exploring sound. Incidentally, there is a very fine piece of writing by Brian Lynch, Lighting Out for the Territory: Barry Guy’s Fizzles, in Music & Literature No. 4 discussing this very subject.

You wrote She! in 2014 for cello and tape which I think was inspired by Lisa Dwan’s mesmeric performance of Beckett’s Not I at the Royal Court Theatre in London. I saw her perform it later along with two other Beckett shorts, Footfalls and Rockaby, just before she took the trilogy to New York. What were you trying to do in that piece, and why the cello?

BG: Cellist Kate Ellis’s request for a solo piece with multi-tracking arrived just before I attended a performance of Not I at the Royal Court. I was struck by the musicality and rhythmic impetus of the monologue which quickly suggested an approach to this new composition; but this virtuoso performance by Lisa Dawn was perhaps too fast for an instrumental solution. Returning to my studio I did some homework and found a classic BBC TV. presentation with Billie Whitelaw as Mouth (directed by Tristram Powell) which suggested a way forward. Here was vitality, surprise drama but important for me, rhythm, intensity and a perfect speed of articulation which could be translated into music. Decisions were then made concerning register and articulations that remind us of Mouth’s predisposition for repetition. The narrative ghosts Billie Whitelaw’s exposition with my own take on the music’s contour. The Auditor - who has caused much discussed and somewhat troublesome theatrical problems concerning lighting and movement (and is even omitted from some productions) fulfils in my composition She! an elongated presence to contrast the flow of Mouth’s articulations, with each appearance getting shorter in duration (Beckett’s suggestion for the play).

The pre-recorded material represents the Auditor and diverts the listeners focus, but before the gesture of compassion from the djellaba-clad figure (in the stage play) I requested Kate Ellis to exclaim the words “what?..who?!..she!..” as a dramatic grounding and surprise interruption of the musical/linguistic tirade.

I understand you’ve written something for the Kronos quartet based on Beckett’s What is the Word and are also planning to use that poem in a new Blue Shroud Band composition with Savina Yannatou voicing the text.

BG: Yes, What is the Word is a new string quartet that utilises my analysis of the structure of Beckett’s last poem. The text as such does not appear within the quartet, but the words silently hover in the background. However, I plan a version for the Blue Shroud Band referencing this structure, and of course having Savina Yannatou voicing the words, and I may use some additional texts from Irish poet, Kerry Hardie. The quartet was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet as part of their Fifty for the Future project which offers a library of contemporary string quartet music for young ensembles interested in honing their knowledge of new music from around the world. I’m honoured to be one of the fifty chosen composers.

Time Passing… (Maya, 2015) for soprano, baritone, string ensemble and improvising double bass and soprano is one of your most multi-layered works to date. Part of the inspiration came from hearing the cantata Meine Freundin, du bist schön by Johann Christoph Bach at a concert in London by the English Baroque Soloists under John Eliot Gardiner, subsequently released as Welt, Gute Nacht (SDG, 2011). The cantata contains a lengthy and beautiful chaconne – possibly the baroque form capable of the greatest profundity -- in which an intoxicating violin accompaniment (played by Maya) intertwines with the soprano voice. In Time Passing… the penultimate, and longest section is the apex of the work where you set excerpts from Beckett’s prose-poem Ping in English and French, sung, muttered and spoken, but also merge at varying removes the ostinato theme from the J.C. Bach chaconne. There are some ravishing string textures and an obligato nervosa energy in the bass and cellos whose relationship to the words sound, at least to me, like a contemporary equivalent of the cantata’s violin part. This was a bold move by you, but it seems to work incredibly well with the two musical worlds illuminating one another in a totally unexpected and very moving way, transcending both.  

There are similar passages of such unity in diversity inThe Blue Shroud, which includes your setting of the sublime Angus Dei from J. S. Bach’s B Minor Mass, that seem to go beyond a mere collage of past and present. How hard has it been to achieve such meaningful correspondences?

BG: The referencing of old music in my compositions I guess reflects my life as a performer. I’ve had the utmost good fortune to play in the ensembles conducted by John Eliot Gardiner (The Monteverdi Orchestra, as it was in the seventies, subsequently the English Baroque Soloists), Christopher Hogwood (Academy of Ancient Music), Roger Norrington (Kent Opera, London Classical Players), Richard Hickox (City of London Sinfonia) and John Lubbock (Orchestra of St Johns) and many others. The music grew on me as each ensemble developed, so it is no surprise that the sounds I’ve encountered have lodged themselves in my musical brain.

Within Time Passing…, a fragment of the chaconne you mention allowed me to express my infatuation with the piece, and in particular the soprano and bass baritone pairing, which was so engaging when I first heard the piece with Maya playing the violin obligato. The “obligato nervosa energy” you observed (starting in the bass) is in fact a small conceit - a hidden reference to Beckett’s Play that runs counter to the Ping narrative. It was never my conscious decision to have it represent a contemporary equivalent of Maya’s violin obligato. The rhythms are based upon the dialogue between the three protagonists, and Beckett’s theatrical note of “Rapid tempo throughout”, so we have Ping and Play counterpointing each other.

In The Blue Shroud, I’ve used fragments from the Mystery Sonatas of H.I.F.Biber as well as J.S. Bach’s Agnus Dei as a way to elevate the listener to a particular aural sensitivity. My task as a composer was to prepare and place these passages in a context that would avoid gratuitous quotations to make the work easier to accept. The three baroque moments are delivered precisely at the point where our feelings need a different focus. It’s no coincidence that in the Homburger/Guy duo, we play several of Biber’s pieces, so I had a clear idea of how well they could exist in The Blue Shroud. Belief and love for the music was important in this setting, but nevertheless I was aware of the risks – particularly in the placing of the Agnus Dei and what could come afterwards. A simple chorale using the words of Kerry Hardie led the way.

One thing that strikes me about your writing for strings in Time Passing…, and other works such as After the Rain (NMC, 1993), is how you open out the sonorities of the instruments. Texture and shape seem to be interdependent, if that makes sense.

BG: Working with the finest string players throughout my career has paid off. I love the sound of a string ensemble perfectly tuned and balanced, so somehow textures and the musical architecture visit my creative writing as friends, allowing me a flexible and colourful palette to travel with.

Would it be fair to say that memory and the passage of time have been a preoccupation in your music of the last decade or so?

BG: Not a preoccupation. It just happens that my love for early music nudges me to certain musical resolutions. In the Kronos string quartet piece, I use fragments from Pelham Humfrey’s verse anthem O Lord My God where my rather busy music is arrested at the boundary/threshold between thoughts. The Humfrey was deeply ingrained in my memory way back when John Eliot Gardiner recorded the piece ( Music of the “Chapels Royal” (Erato, 1980) and I was mesmerised by the beauty of the music, which, what can I say - guided me when looking for a particular sonority and moment of repose in the quartet music. Needless to say, the fragments are treated with special articulations that elevate the music to ethereal regions, which in some ways takes me back to my first encounter.

You’ve written many pieces for Maya on the baroque violin. Are there any specific challenges writing for that instrument, which has gut strings and a lighter bow, a softer, grainier sound, with its own distinctive overtones and articulations when compared to a modern violin?

BG: Well, you have answered your own question really. What I am very aware of when writing for Maya and her baroque violin is the necessity of respecting the instrument. This does not mean avoiding contemporary articulations, more using them with care, and researching what really works for the instrument and bow. The fingerboard is shorter than the modern equivalent and the strings do not respond well to heavy pizzicato. The rewards are an open natural sound, unstressed and clear with quite spectacular colours. Her way of playing has huge expression but avoids the bloated moments of ego playing that we often experience.

You’ve played in piano trios from the outset; in Howard Riley’s trio, then with Marilyn Crispell, Agustí Fernández, Paul Plimley, Jacques Demierre, Katherine Weber, and more recently Simon Nabatov on Luminous (NoBusiness, 2018) and Izumi Kimura on Illuminated Silence (Fundacja Słuchaj!, 2019). What’s the appeal with that formation?

BG: Another fortunate manifestation in my life. The Howard Riley Trio started my love for the piano/ bass/drums format. In those early days I was well aware of the Bill Evans Trio, which seemed to me the most perfect ensemble music. With Howard we were looking for an interplay that had a similar feel but using open improvisation and our own compositions. Here was a ‘classical’ formation with the potential for moving outside of the conventions, although the music of Evans, La Faro and Motian continued to light the way.

My writing for Marilyn and Paul Lytton has always been based on the premise that Marilyn can play melodies beautifully, she always has the ability to take the piano apart when appropriate. A similar situation exists with Agustí Fernández and Ramón López. Agustí has written some amazingly beautiful pieces which haunt me, and of course are thrilling to play.

Speaking of pianists, the recently released Odes and Meditations for Cecil Taylor (Not Two, 2019) draws inspiration from Cecil, Augusti and Marilyn, whose Three Poems for Cecil Taylor are set during the piece. You played in a quartet with Cecil, Evan Parker and Tony Oxley in 1990 ( Nailed (FMP, 2000) with his quintet in Stockholm in 1991 and tentet in Saalfelden in 1992. Cecil said that if he played bass, he’d play like you – what was it like to work with him?

BG: What can I say? – playing with Cecil was a dream come true. Other than the playing aspect, we conversed over many subjects - for instance we talked a lot about dance and the creative arts in general. His knowledge of architecture was also wide ranging. The larger ensemble pieces were somewhat difficult to put together since his method of delivering musical information was a mixture of picking up by ear certain passages, quickly committing them to manuscript paper, often in a cryptic form, remembering structural elements and ensemble registration. Often all of this would be different at the next rehearsal, so frustration was the order of the day. If the methodology was difficult, the final concerts were always a revelation.

That’s a common observation from those who worked in his larger groups, Cecil’s way of mixing things up. Over the last decade or so it’s been common for you to have musicians in the ensembles improvise in rotating formations. I’m thinking of the collections on the Not Two label: the two Mad Dogs sets, Tensegrity (Small Formations) and Intensegrity (the Small Formations). It’s a practice that goes back to the early free jazz festivals and Derek Bailey’s Company weeks. What are the attractions for you?

BG: I suppose my liking for breaking up the large group into small formations (when we are given the opportunity to do so) resides in the fact that all of the players respond to new settings with a corresponding brilliance in the results .It is really astonishing and refreshing to hear so many ways of making music together. After days of rehearsing and refining one of my compositions, the small formations represent a kind of release valve.

You’ve been playing freely improvised music since the earliest days in London – you appear on the Spontaneous Music Ensemble’s Withdrawal (1966-7) (Emanem, 1997). What have been the most significant changes in playing this kind of music since you began?

BG: I guess the word is refinement. Through the years we have developed instrumentally to the point where our chosen instrument is merely the means to communicate with fellow musicians at a very advanced level. I don’t want this to sound pompous, but by the accumulation of experiences we can almost consistently offer a musical narrative that is as convincing as any other sound world. Not that every listener likes it, but that’s another subject. We have learnt to understand when the going gets tricky, and negotiate our way out of a difficult situation. The expansion of our collective awareness to fine musical nuances represents a constant expansion of our abilities to decode musical intentions. The mystery and magic of all this is what drives us.

I think that the whole language of improvisation has become quite flexible, so some of the disciplines that we set ourselves in the SME days are much looser but paradoxically tighter. Perhaps one of the significant changes is the use of electronics in real time performance. Obviously, the hardware and programmes have been refined to a point where a digital based sound world can interact seamlessly with traditional instruments. My parting comment on this manifestation is that often it is too damn loud!! Perhaps this shows my age…

On that subject, you turned 70 in 2017 and Fundacja Słuchaj! ‎ released an album of your 
birthday celebration performances in Warsaw which I reviewed last year: Blue Horizon. Barry Guy@70 There have been quite a few albums recently. Are you busier now than before, or is it that we’re just hearing more of you?

BG: Yes, there have been quite a few albums released – I guess it’s been the result of live recordings with different ensembles. The diary always seems full with lots of interesting and fulfilling projects, which generally are one- off affairs. The days of being on the road for long periods of time seem to have evaporated, which is no bad thing, and travelling with musical instruments is tiring and frustrating most of the time. I think most musicians are experiencing the same these days. It is perhaps the psychological stress of not really knowing if the instrument will arrive at the destination or in one piece. And there is always the problem with the lack of money to find an efficient route to the concert venue. Now of course, we have to be aware of trying to do less in terms of flying, and this invites speculation about retiring. This is a subject that Maya and I talk about quite a lot, especially as she’s at the coal face working at ways for instance of getting the musicians of the Blue Shroud Band from ten different countries to the same place at near enough the same time. That is stressful. One delay can scupper the whole project which often takes years to arrange. For now - onwards.

I see that next March there’s a three-day celebratory residency in Krakow marking the 50th anniversary of the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, with two days of small ensemble concerts followed by a big band concert. Can you say what your plans are for that?

BG: For the final concert in Manghha Hall we plan a first set with the so-called Flow 1 and Flow 2 (first performed in that way in Vienna last year) The second will be Harmos. As for the small ensembles in the Alchemia Club on 6 and 7 March, I’m still working on a musical proposal to involve as many musicians as possible.

Turning to you Maya, in respect of the duo’s performances you’ve spoken about aiming to destabilise the audience by musical stretching. What do you mean by that?

MH: Perhaps “destabilise” is too negative a word. The process which we love and call “musical stretching” is the seamless flow from ancient to new music and vice versa, which sometimes happens in such a subtle way that it takes a moment for the listener to realise that he or she is in another world/century. What’s important is that the content, passion, emotions etc. etc. within the music are not put in boxes labelled “old music”, “new music” or “improvised music”, but come across as an expression of being human and of giving to the audience, regardless of the so-called style. The best compliment I received once for a performance of one of Biber’s Mystery Sonatas is, that it sounded like a modern composition. This means, that we can do the “musical stretching” even within the actual piece and within the particular style and period in history.

What we also love about this way of combining and linking compositions is the actual moment of “destabilising” so to speak and of being in between styles, when the seamless link happens, it enhances each composition in a very special way. For example: when we start Biber’s Carrying of the Cross out of the pianissimo end note of Barry’s improvisation Peace Piece , the mournful beginning of the Mystery Sonata is stronger than ever.

You and Barry have performed as a pair for some years now. Have the concerts evolved?

MH: Yes, we are getting more and more intense in our expression and togetherness which the audiences appreciate very much, and reactions have certainly been extremely positive in recent years.

One of my favourites of your Duo recordings is Star (Ergodos, 2016) featuring three works written for the pair of you by Irish composers. How varied is the music written for the duo by others?

MH: We have to admit, that we don’t play many duos from other composers written for us within our concerts. The project Star for example was more for the actual recording, and the pieces do not fit as well into our programmes as for example do those of György Kurtág. However, we would love to perform them again, possibly in the context of new works by these composers. As for Irish composers: Ben Dwyer has written several pieces which we have performed on special occasions with great joy. His piece “Umbilical” was one of the major challenges for our duo in the last years, but again – only one of the parts fits into our duo programme and is so challenging, that we can’t often manage to find enough time to prepare for it. Right now, we’re preparing for the recording of his quartet What is the Word for actor, guitar, violin and bass and I am also working intensely on his six solo violin pieces, Residua - both works inspired by Beckett. The Buxton Orr composition, one of the first ever written for our duo, has also been silent for many years, for similar reasons. And other pieces by various composers have not been played so often, since they aren’t quite as idiomatic for the baroque violin as we’d hoped.

During the small formations’ improvisations on Intensegrity, recorded at the Alchemia in Krakow, you play pieces such as the closing passacaglia from Biber’s Mystery Sonatas and Bach’s great chaconne from the second Partita. How do you feel they work in that context?

MH: I personally feel that Bach and Biber work extremely well in the context of improvised music concerts. The performances you refer to basically place these baroque pieces into a similar context to what we do within our duo concerts. As in the those performances, we have tried to create meaningful links for these baroque moments, for example: with a piano solo leading into the Bach Chaconne and even more specific: Julius Gabriel who plays right after the Biber Passacaglia, created his saxophone solo based on the four descending notes which form Biber’s Passacaglia theme. We all thought that the link was magical. The audience in the Alchemia, who otherwise listens mainly to improvised music and Jazz, is always very receptive and appreciative of the baroque moments within the programme. Last year, we performed six Biber Mystery Sonatas there interspersed with saxophone solos from Mette Rasmussen, Mats Gustafsson and Torben Snekkestad. It was extremely moving.

How much improvisatory freedom do you get in Barry’s pieces?

MH: Barry is a master of giving me just the right amount of freedom within his compositions. Too much would intimidate me, since I don’t consider myself as an improviser. But, what he manages to do is magical, since he gives me certain material to work with allowing me to grow into improvising moments and extended areas of graphic notation and freedom which are totally inspiring and liberating. He also encourages me to play certain fully notated passages in an improvisational way and to make them work even better by taking certain liberties. All this has of course to be done with great care and respect for the composition.

As you know, we perform three of his solo violin pieces – Celebration , Inachis and Aglais – often as a duo with me reading the fully composed score and Barry improvising. This has led me to a new and wonderfully liberated way of playing these very demanding and technically difficult pieces. I’ve also played with many improvisers, amongst others: Evan Parker, Zlatko Kaučič, Lucas Niggli and Paul Lytton.

To what extent has your approach to the standard repertoire been influenced by your exposure to improvisation? For example, the Mystery Sonatas are written in a very fluid, improvisatory style, full of odd modulations with swift changes in direction. There’s room for ornamentation, but presumably also a lot more while remaining “faithful” to the score.

MH: This can be answered in a very concise way: my playing of all music, including Bach, Biber and also new music by Kurtág, etc. is hugely influenced by the freedom experienced in listening to free improvisation and also being involved in improvising ensembles myself. Two main aspects are very important, playing the music as if it was invented/created on the spot, and to always be as free as possible within the given rhythmic structure. In other words, no phrase is ever played in a totally regular or “normal” way, but always with the ultimate search for rhetoric and agogic expression.

Many thanks, I’m grateful to you both for taking time out from your busy schedule. It’s been fascinating.

‘Breathing Earth’, recorded on the album Ceremony (ECM, 1999):