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Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Latest Releases of Guitarist Ed Pettersen

Norwegian-American guitarist Ed Pettersen is unique character in the field of free-improvisation. Pettersen is also a folk/American singer-songwriter, producer and writer (who once was also a contributor to the Free Jazz Blog). He fell in love with improvised music as a teenager, studying in New York with Lennie Tristano and later on produced jazz musicians as Giuseppi Logan. His latest releases on his own label, Split Rock Records, stress his interest in the many forms of the art of free-improvisation.

By Eyal Hareuveni

London Experimental Ensemble - Cornelius Cardew's Treatise (Split Rock Records, 2018) *****

This double album is the most impressive one. British experimental and quite controversial composer Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981) was a member of ground-breaking London improvisation ensemble AMM and a contemporary of other iconoclast composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and La Monte Young. His score Treatise was created over four years from 1963 to 1967 and remains to this day one of the most acclaimed graphical scores of contemporary music. This complex, 193-pages graphic magnum opus is an intricate visual piece of art, incredible for its detailed lines, geometry and abstract shapes, and, no doubt, intimidating authority. Cardew, while working on the Treatise, was fascinated by Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, the Chinese Book of Changes, I Ching, and the writings of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Pianist John Tilbury, who collaborated with Cardew in the Scratch Orchestra and wrote a biography of Cardew commented about this score: “Treatise does not wholly belong, either to Cardew or to those whose lives it nourishes and inspires. It is offered and shared unconditionally, untethered to any rules or laws of musical composition or any other figments of the musicological imagination”.

The 13-musicians London Experimental Ensemble consulted with few close associates of Cardew. These musicians are members of the weekly improvisation workshop of Eddie Prévost, a founding member of AMM Music and a frequent collaborator and friend of Cardew, who has played in the premiere of  the Treatise on April, 1967 in London (together with David Bedford, Keith Rowe, John Surman and Tilbury). Another reference point was Carol Finer Chant who played with Cardew in the Scratch Orchestra and graciously joined the Ensemble for the Treatise performance.

Pettersen organized and produced this two hour-plus performance of the Treatise on January 2017 while living in London. The Ensemble's sound, adopting Prévost advice, used Cardew’s inspirational graphics to create something that Cardew himself may not have imagined with their fresh and bold interpretive freedom, or as Cardew put it: “my reputation is free to suffer”. The unique instrumentation of the Ensemble - mainly string instruments, including the Turkish cümbüş played by Finer Chant, the 8-string lap steel Weissenborn guitar played by Pettersen, two double bass players - Olie Brice and Jordan Muscatello, two electric guitarists, two synthesizer players, sax player and trombonist - suggests an insightful perspective into the labyrinthine score. The two parts of Treatise are performed enthusiastically, with rich sonic detail and without surrendering to any stylistic convention. Like AMM’s music, Treatise evolves and flowing organically as in an enigmatic, sometimes even in a hypnotic dream-state, as if having a life or musical mind and imagination of its own. “By goodwill and purposeless”, as Prévost noted.

Henry Kaiser & Ed Pettersen - We Call All Times Soon (Split Rock Records, 2018) **** 

This compact album (at least in the time frames of prolific guitarist Henry Kaiser) is the most accessible one, and is only 41 minutes long. The guitar duet With We Call All Times Soon features Kaiser playing only the rarely-heard 18-string harp guitar while Pettersen sticks to his 18-string Weissenborn guitar. This unique instrumentation allows both to explore new and challenging soundscapes and textures. The four free-improvised duets have a strong conversational sensibility but without any attempt to sketch a cohesive narrative or commit to a clear structure. Kaiser and Pettersen sound as navigating in close, associative universes. They are totally immersed in the distinct timbral range of their guitars, experimenting with extended techniques and employ few pedals to enrich the textures. Both keep crisscrossing organically from the sonic universe of the American primitive guitar of John Fahey, through the abstract improvisations of Derek Bailey and the atmospheric lines of Terje Rypdal to the singing tones of Malagasy guitarists and the folky-Amricana work of Jerry Garcia. “Cosmotron Express” establishes the emphatic, searching  interplay but “Diving Seacopter” already suggests an enigmatic-cosmic soundscape as Both Kaiser and Pettersen make full use of the resonant qualities of their respective guitars. “Triphibian Atomicar” explores similar resonant sonorities even further but in a looser, intuitive manner, by just letting the light-metallic sounds ring and float and “Repelatron Skyway” offers a dive into a psychedelic swamp of nuanced noises and distorted sounds.

Henry Kaiser / Ed Pettersen / Martin Küchen / Tania Chen / Jeff Coffin /  Damon Smith / Jordan Muscatello / Roger Turner - Interstellar Transmissions (Split Rock Records, 2018) ***

This double-album offers mixed perspectives about free-improvised meetings, some loose and less focused, others more intimate, yet demanding and more satisfying. The back cover of the double-album Interstellar Transmissions offers scace information about the recording process. The title, obviously, references John Coltrane and Rashied Ali's iconic duo, Interstellar Space (Impulse, 1974), and all the free-improvised pieces here are also titled after planets. The transmissions may suggest that not all the musicians played at the same time at recording studios.

The first album is a set of four improvisations featuring guitarist Henry Kaiser and his close associates, pianist Tania Chen and double bass player Damon Smith, with Petterson on guitar, Swedish sax player Martin Küchen, American sax and flute player Jeff Coffin, and British electric bass player Jordan Muscatello from the London Experimental Ensemble. Kaiser was recorded at a studio in California while other musicians in a studio in London.

These improvisations offer sparse, cosmic-psychedelic textures, relying on the distinct sonorities of all the string-instrument, including Kaiser’s 18-string harp and the piano strings. Only the third piece, “Jupiter”, charges the loose interplay between the sax players and the string-instruments players with some interest and tension. The second album offer a more intimate setting with only Küchen, Pettersen on the guitar and veteran British drummer Roger Turner. The three musicians keep searching and challenging each other with their extended techniques, improvisation strategies and uncharted sonic terrains. The sonic universes of the distant, atmospheric-distorted electric guitar lines of Pettersen with the tortured, restless breaths of Küchen and the fractured, metallic percussive noises of Turner settle immediately on a common ground and reach their destination on the intense and playful in the most strange manner “Uranus” and “Earth Too”. The complete sense of freedom, the patient interplay that embraces all sounds - noisy, distorted, chaotic and the melodic, the deep listening and the constant, restless search for new dynamics and textures contribute to the success of this set of improvisations. A demanding journey, often into barren sonic territories, but a fascinating one.