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Monday, June 12, 2017

Strings of Strings

By Stef

The Octopus - Subzo(o)ne (Leo, 2016)

Four cellos, three Germans and one French, two men and two women: Nathan Bontrager, Elisabeth Coudoux, Nora Krahl and Hugues Vincent. One of the distinctive features of an octopus, is that it has neurons spread throughout its tentacles, which allows the arms to work kind of autonomously from the small central brain without entangling its arms in knots. And that's how the music kind of works. Improvisations leads to structure. Ideas get launched and are taken up by the others, not messed up, or shaping a chaos of conflicting ideas, but rather a common forward moving approach. The arms may play different styles, and even musical genres, and even that works well. They take an angle of approach and develop it, and the result can be playful, austere, mysterious, eery music, full of wild tension or quiet contemplation, with ever shifting tonal colours and timbres, but it is the interplay that is the most amazing, the collective creation of patterns that get picked up by the musicians to play as if rehearsed, delivering a kind of simultaneous and subconscious understanding that they are in the same music, just bringing it to life together. This common concentrated focus on the co-creation and the wonderful control of total freedom seem like a paradox, and it can only be explained by a perfect knowledge of the instrument and the like-mindedness of the four artists.

The band has performed together since 2013, and made the soundtrack for the award-winning Turkish movie "Time Worm" (2014). This is their first album.

Nuova Camerata - Chant (Improvising Beings, 2016)

This is a little bit of cheating in our string of strings reviews, because Pedro Carneiro plays marimba on this album, with Carlos Zingaro on violin, João Camões on viola, Ulrich Mitzlaff on cello, and Miguel Leiria Pereira on double bass. Just like "Subzo(o)ne", this album breaks all boundaries of genre, hovering somewhere in the sonic environment of classical avant-garde if it were not totally improvised, with lots of open space - some instruments stay silent at times to let the others play. 

Chant 1 is a short chimaeric exploration of sonic space, with short bursts and attempts to dialogue
Chant 2 is a longer piece with alternating moods, dark bass and high-pitched violin, with the marimba adding accents, then the bows move into a repetitive single-note frenzy, over which the violin keeps singing short and forlorn phrases, then it moves to even sparser and deeper regions, dark and foreboding
Chant 3 offers different voices consecutively, duo interactions, echoing, dialoguing, then the whole quintet stirs up a disturbed movement, leading into Chant 4.
Chant 4 starts calm then becomes agitated, nervous, dissonant, full of inherent drama and gravitas
Chant 5 brings hesitating madness, with little sounds colliding in a timeless space
Chant 6 is dark, ominous and hypnotic, with repetitive phrases shifting through ever darker shades and oscillating intensity
Chant 7 is long and equally dark, with sudden changes in tonality and density and with the distant hammering of the marimba adding eery touches, and with the strings weird interactions like a dance of lost souls. 

Apologies for the enumeration and description. I just wanted to illustrate the breadth and variety in approaches, the incredible musicianship that creates something deep and resonating by pushing their ideas and instrumental prowess beyond known borders. 

It sounds like a chant of despair, like the cover art, this is not a colourful spring day with birds twittering from the green leaves in the trees, this is not a chant of celebration, not even a chant of protest. It requires close listening. 

Iridium String Quartet - Iridium (Creative Sources, 2016)

Also from Portugal, but then of a totally different nature, is the Iridium String Quartet. Here there are no sudden bursts of energy, or agitated changes of nervous interaction, or big intervals between high and low registers, but two long gliding improvisations with subtle and minor changes in tone, but a wealth of timbral changes and shifts in sound color and intensity.

The quartet are Maria da Rocha on violin, Ernesto Rodrigues on viola, Guilherme Rodrigues on cello, and Miguel Mira on double bass. Despite the horizontal structure around a single tone, the music is not slow of flat, it keeps shimmering and changing in intensity, like some raw organic process taking place, and then the album's title comes to mind: Iridium is a metal that is among the most dense and difficult to work of all known substances. The titles of the two tracks refer to the boiling point (4428°C) and its melting point (2466°) and maybe that's what you hear, the slow transformation of something unwieldy into something else, into another substance by adding energy to it, adding fire to hard matter and to gradually make it change, to make it soundshift in front of your ears, to create sonic vapours out of hard compounds, to create sonic fluids out of the very foundations of our existence. It sounds like a churning cauldron of redblack turbulence. It is fascinating and as usual, beyond any known musical category. Calling it minimal or even drone would do the music injustice, because it's too rich for that. The instruments work in different layers and change constantly despite the strong tonal centre. They add, they withdraw, they deliver piercing overtones or carefully paced plucking or endless bowed murmurs. 

To listeners not familiar with the work of Ernesto Rodrigues, I can only recommend them to give it a try, and to listen a lot to this album, with undivided attention. Each listen will make it richer and more lively and deeper than before.