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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Catching Up with Ernesto Rodrigues

By Dan Sorrells

Ernesto Rodrigues has a formidable discography. After launching Creative Sources in 2001 to begin documenting his own music, the label has grown to become an icon of free music—especially music preoccupied with silence and space, texture and timbre. As the label has expanded to encompass more artists, Rodrigues has continued to release his own projects and collaborations with musicians from across the globe. Now, more than 15 years later and with over 100 releases to his name, it can be intimidating to approach Rodrigues’ oeuvre. But it would be a shame to avoid it for fear of not knowing where to start.

Though all born of the same musical sensibility, Rodrigues’ discography could be grouped according to the varied approaches he takes to free improvisation. There are his large group experiments like Variable Geometry Orchestra, IKB, or Suspensão; his lowercase pursuits with musicians like Martin Küchen, Heddy Boubaker and Radu Malfatti; and livelier, more ‘traditional’ interplay on early discs like Multiples or recent releases with musicians like Roland Ramanan, Biliana Voutchkova, and Phillip Greenlief.  There are also long-form engagements: with electroacoustic music and the use of computers and electronics in improvisation; with other strings, pushing ceaselessly against conservatory conceptions of string instruments and their place in music; and ongoing dialogues with close musical comrades like Carlos Santos, José Oliveira, Nuno Torres, and his son, Guilherme Rodrigues, who has appeared on many of his albums, dating back to the first Creative Sources release.

Regardless of the specific approach, there’s an aesthetic that underlies all of Rodrigues’ music, one that values the space that surrounds him as much as the music he then puts into it.  It also values the spaces between sounds and gestures, constantly weighing the balance between what exists in the moment before a musical act and what that act might add. David Toop writes in Into the Maelstrom that “music is a respiratory motion – created in the moment of action then fading away – and through that common bond of presence and absence all sounds are connected.” Thinking of music in terms of breathing—especially improvised music like Rodrigues’—has a certain appeal: something about sound as an exhalation; about silence as the corresponding inhalation, a necessary rest between sounds pushed out into being (and from which all is drawn in that gives those sounds meaning); about organic and corporeal rhythm, tied not to strict tempo but to the thrumming energy that marks the very state of being alive.

Here are a few places to start: all released in 2016 or 2017, and most recorded within that same period. Rodrigues is restless. More concerts are being played, more albums are being recorded, being mixed, being pressed in the factory as you read this. Don’t worry about keeping up. There are pleasures to be had in choosing one and listening closely. Afterward, there will always be  more to explore.

Variable Geometry Orchestra – Maat Mons (Creative Sources, 2016)

As always, the geometry is of the n-dimensional sort. The number of dimensions that vary is impressive: membership, instrumentation, location, duration, and so on. Certainly, the overall shape of each VGO performance is highly variable, like a murmuration of birds, as I alluded to in a review of the earlier Lulu Auf dem Berg. VGO remains a compelling attempt to harness the timbral and dynamic range of an orchestra while maintaining the flexibility in structure and individual freedoms afforded by improvisation. Maat Mons is scaled back from the enormous undertaking of Quasar, released earlier in 2016 and featuring the largest group on record to date, with 46 members. The 21 musicians on Maat Mons are less than half that number, but as with all VGO performances, a mere head count reveals little about the direction the music will take.

The piece rouses slowly, maintaining a low volume and a jittery, charged air of possibility as small groups of players make exploratory advances. But soon Rodrigues changes tack, and Maat Mons harkens back to the bigger free jazz-inspired sound of the group’s earliest recordings, as tapping cymbals and an animated bass line sketch out a shaky groove and the horns begin to raise their voices. As the music becomes more dynamic, illusions of figure and ground emerge in the unplaceable, shuffling timbre of nearly two dozen musicians. The listener is moved through the space in which the musicians are performing, one instrument momentarily the focal point, only to be subsumed in the din and the focus shifted to someone else, the foreground and background in constant flux. Three-quarters through the performance, the music drops to near silence, irregular dribbles of piano over a canvass of radio static and Maria Radich’s sibilant whispers.

Suspensão – Théatron (Creative Sources, 2016)

In Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch, he writes of a character who, listening to music in an old timber building, would hope to find “the crowd of dust-motes that he sometimes saw swirling or drifting in a shaft of sunlight.” As he listened to old records, “the movement of the specks” made him “think of energy held in check or of meaning waiting to be expressed. At any moment, the yellow motes might break out of the aimless-seeming formation and might arrange themselves far otherwise; might even comprise a set of signs requiring to be read.”

Théatron called this passage to mind, though instead of accompanying music, the swirling specks are the music itself: sound-motes held in suspension, loosely formed and in constant rearrangement, a set of transient signs hung delicately in the air. The 11-strong Suspensão ensemble deploys its numbers in the service of detail, rather than volume or density—an accumulation of details so fine, in fact, it’s hard to tell whether some are intentional or incidental. Each musician suspends a sound, holding it out into the space, and then another and another, sounds at times hanging in tandem, but all eventually dropping away to be replaced anew. It is music that feels too coherent to be improvised, but which you know could never have been composed.

The hourlong performance is the ninth “Suspensão” piece, continuing work developed on the 2011 double-album of the same name and 2015’s Jadis La Pluie Était Bleue.

IKB – Chelonoidis Nigra (Creative Sources, 2016)

The IKB ensemble – named for the International Klein Blue that adorns the album art of each release – is the sweetspot of Rodrigues’ musical world, as far as I’m concerned. It checks all the boxes: quiet, considered improvisation, but with a bit more lively interaction; a group large enough to pique interest, but not to drown out detailed dialogue; a cast of long-time, dedicated collaborators; an established aesthetic that continues to pay dividends; and a strong emphasis on performance tailored to the unique acoustics of each venue.

Chelonoidis Nigra is the fifth IKB album, recorded live at the end of November 2015 with a 16-piece ensemble. It’s quiet music that you want to experience loudly; it often feels as though, if you could only get a little closer to the sound, whole new levels of activity would be revealed, bustling just beyond earshot. A large group playing quiet music subverts expectations, but there’s a big benefit: low volume forces musicians to listen more closely. Musicians become more invested in a collective sound, shaping one giant sonic event, rather than trading in sixteen competing ones.

Ernesto and I have talked about the fluidity even in his “fixed” groups. Often the logistics of getting musicians together results in fluctuations in size and membership, IKB being no exception. But in many ways, this also benefits the music: it shifts the focus away from personalities and onto the music alone. An underlying concept or matured aesthetic is retained across performances, and so a group can become just the sound: IKB is one species among many. In its approach, an antidote emerges to the negative “excess of expression” Rui Eduardo Paes often hears in improvised music. In the liner notes to Sudden Music, one of Rodrigues’ earliest records, he writes that “the music that we listen to here is ‘sudden’ because it emerges as if by miracle from a surface that we thought neutral (silence) to disappear at once, as if it had never existed.” In the measured investigations of Chelonoidis Nigra, the silence gives, and the silence takes away.

Korhan Erel, Elena Kakaliagou, Jonas Kocher, Hannah Marshall, Dirk Marwedel, Theo Nabicht, Ulrich Phillipp, Ernesto Rodrigues, Wolfgang Schliemann, Nicolas Souchal – HumaNoise Tutti (Creative Sources, 2017)

HumaNoise Tutti is an opportunity to hear Rodrigues in a large group that’s not of his own devising—though there is often such complex and varied activity here, it would be misleading to evaluate it in the context of any one individual. The HumaNoise Congress is an annual gathering of international musicians in Wiesbaden, Germany, who over the course of several days play in every combination and as a group à la Derek Bailey’s Company weeks.

HumaNoise Tutti features three long performances of the full decet, which morph from clamorous counterpoint to restive drones to faint whispers and flits of sound. A rundown of the instrumentation gives an idea of the aural diversity: electronics, French horn, accordion, cello, extended saxophone, contrabass clarinet, double bass, viola, percussion, trumpet. There’s a broad range of musical experience and temperament here, though as with much modern free improvisation, close listening and the suppression of individual virtuosity in the service of atmosphere is the rule (although Souchal opens “Sunday Evening” with a lyrical and rather direct turn on trumpet). In the 21st century, we’re starting to see how lessons from the many “factions” of free improvisation that have arisen over the last 50 years might be pooled into a larger musical practice, one that transcends—or at the very least bridges—idiosyncratic philosophies, scenes, and techniques.

Fernando Perales, Abdul Moimême, Ernesto Rodrigues – Siete Colores (Creative Sources, 2016)

Siete Colores presents a trio of Rodrigues’ viola and the dual electric guitars of Moimême and Argentinean Fernando Perales (perhaps best known for the group Reynols with Anla Courtis). As “23º44'00"S 65º29'00" O” opens what’s immediately notable is the reverb, which lends the impression the music was recorded in a cavernous environment. However, as the piece moves on, there are hints this might be an illusion—effects applied to Perales’ guitar—and that your brain has been fooled in the way reverb easily fools it: into imagining the great open space required to produce what are only artificial reflections of sound. For their part, Rodrigues and Moimême inhabit this imaginary cavern, sounding its depths, generating music with the odd quality of being both ominous and bright.

At the start of “4170 m”, Rodrigues touches bow to string with such lightness that it sounds like the faintest breath through a horn, a remarkable evocation of respiration via vibrating string. The guitars sound so distant, it’s as though they are in another room, or part of another recording altogether that someone is listening to somewhere else far away. Listening feels like a suspension—like walls and floors have dropped away and no matter which direction you reach, nothing solid, tangible will ever be touched. Sound waves may travel through the medium of air, but this music produces a kind of synesthesia, a mental image of prismatic light rippling through the aether, or sunrays splayed upon Seven Colors Hill in northwest Argentina, from which the album takes its name.

Ilia Belorukov, Ernesto Rodrigues, Nuno Torres – Tak Prosto (Creative Sources, 2016)

Tak Prosto is another interesting trio that pits Rodrigues’ viola against a doubled instrument: this time the alto saxophones of Creative Sources regular Nuno Torres and Russian Ilia Belorukov, who in recent years has been increasingly documented by Mikroton Recordings. Tak Prosto consists of a studio track and a longer live recording captured on the previous day.

“Studio” mines saxophone territory similar to musicians like Michel Doneda or Seymour Wright, with an intense focus on controlling very quiet—almost precarious—pitches, sounds that are nearing the edge of the players’ ability to control. These often breathy explorations meld fluidly with Rodrigues’ feathered touch, which often activates the strings just enough to shave off a few wispy harmonics. “Live,” recorded as described at Vertikal Gallery in St. Petersburg, sheds the crisp, sanitized sound of the studio. At times it feels like a fog, or like looking through a hazy film: tones are stretched thinly, slowly, and here and there the outside world seeps through, doors or footsteps, low voices, a distant phone, an inexplicable woodblock tapping that may be the musicians, but may also be someone else, an unwitting accomplice. By the end, what began as a quiet piece of “lowercase” eventually awakens into a louder repartee, with Torres and Belorukov sputtering Parkeresque lines with their strange quality of pulsing time.

Ernesto Rodrigues, Guilherme Rodrigues, Monsieur Trinité – Aether (Creative Sources, 2016)

Aether opens on frail strings that barely have enough mass to register as sounds. From Monsieur Trinité’s small percussion you begin to get a sense of the open space of the Panteão Nacional, which was formerly a 17th century Baroque church. It’s the same venue that lent the almost psychedelic blurring of sound to previous records like VGO’s Lulu Auf dem Berg and IKB’s Rhinocerus. As “Hesiod” progresses, the strings thicken in tone, Guilherme’s deep pizzicato plucks resounding like notes tossed down a well.

The word “aether” makes me think of something unsettled by the most delicate of touches, set into motion at the slightest provocation, the sense of some disturbed field of energy that a musician is certainly aware of when playing in a massively reverberant space. Ernesto has talked of his interest in site-specific playing, acknowledging the importance of the performance space in shaping music. There are a few moments in “Hyginus” where single viola notes are allowed to fully decay, laying bare the enormous natural reverb in the Pantheon. At one point, the Rodrigues scrape the hairs of their bows along the instruments’ wooden edges, a sound so sharp it sounds like splintering wood, a tree crashing down in the forest. Notes return like boomerangs. But no matter the strength of the attack, each gesture is ultimately engulfed by the Pantheon, slowly stretched and smeared in a sonic environment that effaces all sounds, pulling them into gossamer threads of silence.

Ernesto Rodrigues, Guilherme Rodrigues, Adam Goodwin, Kriton B. – Nuc Box Hums (Creative Sources, 2017)

A friction quartet, at times quite energized. In addition to viola, cello, and double bass, the instrumentation is notable for Kriton B.’s daxophone, a rather obscure instrument in the class of “friction idiophone,” which consists of a wooden block with contact microphones that can be fitted with a variety of different wooden “tongues,” which are then played with a bow and a second piece of wood called a “dax” that is used to adjust pitch and timbre. The resulting music exists outside the idea of notes, scales, or any other neat Western organization of sound. Still, the daxophone has an affinity with the strings: an impressive array of rasping, scraping, whining sounds, all undoubtedly connected to the pressure and tension of objects rubbing together, and which fit snuggly within more rough-hewn methods for playing string instruments. One is reminded of skull resonance, of sound as a vibration transmitted through a solid object rather than through the air.

The album and song titles are all related to beekeeping, although I hear less Kent Carter’s “insect music” than perhaps the creaks and groans of the wooden nuc boxes themselves as they thrum with activity, as though the contact mics had been embedded in the very walls of the artificial hive. The pieces range from the creaking drones of wind whipping through an old barn to incredibly tense knots of activity, the sense of torsion palpable, like branches being bent and twisted into splinters or the sound beneath the waves as a ship gets tossed against the rocks. The daxophone pushes the three string players away from clean tones and traditional playing: instead, they meet its strange challenge by rubbing strings, bowing wooden bodies, plying out harmonics, or pizzicato attacks with no particular note in mind.


Colin Green said...

An impressive set of reviews.

If you want to see the original Klein International Blue, there’s an Yves Klein retrospective at the Tate, Liverpool, until 5 March

Martin Schray said...

What an excellent piece of work, Dan. I must admit that I'm not familiar with Ernesto Rodrigues' music at all but especially the albums with larger groups remind me of Wolfgang Fuchs' marvelous King Übü Örchestrü. The bunch is actually worth a whole week of posts, there's a lot of listening to do now. Thanks a lot, the reviews are very well-written (as usual).

Paul said...

Martin, you are so right. This should have been spread out over a week - so much to dig into here. Thanks Dan!