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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Tuba Players

By Eyal Hareuveni

Tuba players are often underrated improvisers and composers. The following experimental projects may convince you that there is more in the deep tones of these unique instruments than we usually pay attention to.

Niels Van Heertum - JK's KAMER +50.92509° +03.84800° (Smeraldina-Rima, 2017) ****

JK’s KAMER is a series of live solo performances in Belgium, focusing on sound design, sound that manifests its own repertoire. This series has already produced several releases and its new one is located in +50.92509° latitude and +03.84800° longitude, the location of euphonium-tuba-trumpet-electronics player Niels Van Heertum’s living room in an old windmill in the East of Flanders. Van Heertum is known from his work with the improvisation collective Ifa y Xango and his collaboration with the ensemble Linus and Norwegian Hardanger violin Nils Økland.

On this solo album Van Heertum explores the qualities and possibilities of the amplified euphonium, tuba, and trumpet, enhanced with subtle electronics. He produces abstract yet absorbing sounds that hover and circle slowly inside the resonant, rounded space of the windmill, echoed and mirrored with overtones. Each of the four improvised pieces suggests a distinct atmosphere, all are minimalist, even brutally simple. “Stroom” is dark and serene, stressing a disturbing stasis that keeps intensifying. “Schim” is more dynamic and even cinematic, revolving around a weird-sounding, industrial pulse yet obscured by a dense drone. “Tocht” blends breathy waves into a storm of tortured voices, locked in some deep abyss. The last and longest one, “Zon”, is the most peaceful one, carefully layered with quiet, meditative streams.

The sound of Van Heertum instruments become independent entities, almost alien to their idiosyncratic sonic characteristics, with a strong tangible, elastic presence. These sounds keep lingering in your head, unconsciously submitting you to a timeless experience.

Microtub - Bite of the Orange (Sofa Music, 2017) ****

The trio Microtub goes much deeper than Niels Van Heertum, deeper into the deep spheres of intonation. British Robin Hayward plays on microtonal F-tuba with Norwegian Martin Taxt and Peder Simonsen (who replaced Kristoffer Lo) who play on microtonal C-tuba claim to be the first, and most possibly, the only microtonal tuba ensemble. Microtub also claim to create sounds where “the doors of the underworld slamming”. The trio often uses colour-coded sculptural scores to define areas of harmonic space in just intonation, presenting geometric structures to be explored by the players over time.

Microtub's third album is actually a 25-minutes EP, recorded during the trio’s one week residency at the Palazzo Stabile Art Center in Piemonte, Italy in January 2016. Hayward composed the main pieces, “Bite of the Orange” and “Violet Man”, focusing on the 11th and 13th harmonics, resulting in a strong microtonal character. These pieces not only highlight the commanding and highly disciplined interplay but also the nuanced, challenging architecture of these pieces. Taxt and Simonsen microtonal C-tubas produce the base foundation of dark and raw, almost still, guttural voices while Hayward microtonal F-tuba suggests a delicate, brighter flow, gently soaring above Taxt and Simonsen tubas. On these pieces the three microtonal tubas sound as merging into a unique time and space dimension that almost freezes, as it is embraced by the long, sustained drones. The short trio piece, “Violet Orange”, offers a more dynamic atmosphere with distant traces of playfulness.

Despite the clear investigative-experimental approach of Microtub, these pieces have a powerful impact. They sound as otherworldly rituals that demand a new manner of listening. It is quite difficult to resume your daily commotion after such a purifying listening experience.

Muddersten - Karpatklokke (Sofa Music, 2017) ***½

Muddersten's aesthetics are opposite to the ones of Niels Van Heertum or Microtub, even though Taxt, with his microtonal tuba and electronics, is a key player in this trio. Joining him is fellow Norwegian guitarist Håvard Volden, who adds tape loops, and the Swedish, Copenhagen-based guitarist, Henrik Olsson, who plays here only on objects, friction and piezo.

Mudderstan is focused on the tension between motion and friction. It visualizes its mode of operation as the hydraulic cycle in muddersten, a type of mud rock whose original constituents were clay. First, the clay is compressed with fat sand, dried out, and turn into stone. Then, delicate flowers settle through its cracks and fissures and begin to soak water. Eventually, the water will gain enough pressure from below and force the surface to break. Mudderstan attempts to replicate sonically this persistent natural cycle to create soundscapes that capture continuous motion, still, motion that creates friction.

The trio was established in 2015 and Karpatklokke is its debut album, recorded in February 2016. The seven improvisations offer a series of scattered and colliding sounds - fragmented, low breathes, alien-sounding ones, white noises blended with electronic, processed sounds - all distorted and mutated into erratic, abstract electroacoustic storms. The chaotic and irregular sonic scenery is indeed hardened, tough and merciless. But it also suggests a hypnotic palette of weird colors and bizarre sounds, flowing in its own special way. Patiently, and with great focus and conviction, Mudderstan distills these sonic storms into fascinating, almost psychedelic soundscapes.