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Saturday, May 4, 2019

Two from Axel Dörner

By Nick Ostrum

Isabelle Duthoit, Axel Dörner, Matthias Müller, Roy Carroll – The Monophonic Havel (Mamu Music, 2018) ***½

This is an interesting release. I was familiar with Dörner and trombonist Matthias Müller (owner of Mamu Music) but had never encountered vocalist Isabelle Duthoit or electroacoustic artist Roy Carroll before. Already at first listen, it became apparent that I had been missing out on some very creative musicians.

From the first hisses, wisps, and buzzes of the initial track, Werder, I was hooked. (I am not sure what to make of this, but each track is named after a city, district, or natural site in or around the German state of Brandenburg, located, notably or not, in the former East Germany.) The Monophonic Havel is reminiscent of Dörner’s work on the Creative Sources label (Fabula and nie come to mind). The music is general quiet, but it is not quite as expansive and delicate as some of his earlier forays into electro-acoustic minimalism. That said, I was not surprised discovering with a quick internet search that both Duthoit and Müller have recorded with Creative Sources, as well.

It took me a few years and an upgraded sound-system, but I have warmed to this style of music over the years. It still does not always resonate with me, but it certainly does on this album. Duthoit, Dörner, Müller, and Carroll’s sounds frequently entangle and fuse into an almost seamless, solid knot, only to emerge as separate threads again moments later. Sometimes I hear discrete trumpet, trombone, vocals, and other various sounds. Others, I hear layered drones, or ripples and slaps. At others, it sounds like breath (possibly conveyed through brass), wind, and faint ruffling that resemble an open-air field recording, albeit with intention.

Despite very balanced performances, I was most struck by Duthoit. I do not listen to much abstract vocal music. There are exceptions, but, too frequently, I find it either distracting or, after a good half-hour or so, tiresome. Duthoit may help change my mind. She is creative but reserved. She seems to have mastered an impressive vernacular range. She can blend with a horn or Carroll’s bag of electronic tricks. When necessary, she can simply breathe her way to the front, or surreptitiously fade into perception with one of her delightfully odd, throaty incantations. The skills she deploys here would be lost in most other situations. They shine here.

Axel Dörner, Augustí Fernández, Ramon Prats – Venusik (Multikulti, 2018) ****

Featuring Dörner on trumpet and electronics, Augustí Fernández on piano, and Ramon Prats (whom I had previously not encountered) on percussion, this album is more active than the previous one. And, although it comes as no surprise that Dörner’s name graces the label, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Fernández playing in such a thoroughly abstract vernacular. He has explored some of this territory before, but it seems he was particularly focused on nonidiomatic techniques and percussive dynamics on this recording.

There is no single leader or stand-out on Venusik (presumably a portmanteau for Venusian music) and that all pieces are largely if not completely improvised. Still, if you come to this as I did, relatively familiar with some of the larger twists and turns of Dörner’s catalog, you will likely know what to expect. Tracks tend more towards spacey soundscapes than songs. (Two notable exceptions are SSO, wherein ebullient piano pounding and trumpet wailing overlay restive drumming and the wandering SUPARCO, which gives way several minutes in to some energetic free improv and, toward, the end, a series of extended piano trills and repeated note-clusters, electronic static, and percussive clatter.) Tracks also tend to experiment more with sound dynamics and textures than with rhythm, melody, and sonority. Spatiality plays an important role in most of these pieces, even if the musicians inevitably give in to their horror vaccui after more restrained and focused frictive passages. This album, in other words, has a lot going on and, even if we can affix certain labels or adjectives to its tendencies, it is quite unpredictable and, in that, intriguing. If you listen passively, it might be easy to dismiss this as just another release of extended techniques and strange, slightly unnerving musical ambiance punctuated by some intense, though arrhythmic and amelodic, blow-outs. If you listen actively, however, nuances emerges and it becomes clear that this is one more worthwhile contribution to all three artist’s catalogs and particularly that of Dörner, who has been exploring this musical territory at least for over a decade and a half. And, as the years and releases pass, he consistently and meticulously digs deeper and deeper into its potentialities.


Colin Green said...

I like your distinction between passive and active - listening to something as distinct from just hearing it. How much do we, as the audience, bring to the process?

Keith said...

It's easier for me to listen closely when I'm in the role of audience... something about the ritual of performance, seeing the causes of sounds, knowing I'll only hear this combination once, perhaps something else. Otherwise, I still have to make a somewhat concerted effort to give enough without bringing too much. Meaning, enough attention to create distinction without too much baggage to cause misinterpretation or bias. I'll do close listening for the recordings I review now, and I usually cannot find all of what I heard then when I "listen" to it in, say, the car. I only recently discovered Pauline Oliveros' Deep Listening handbook, but it's been a great gift for my mind and ears and I suggest it for everyone; it's more immediately about listening to "silence," each other, and sensing the body, but its effects trickle down to louder listening. I imagine it quickly creates an appreciation for wandelweiser and its adjacent musics like the Berlin scene Muller and Dorner kind of work around.

More to the point, I discovered Monophonic Havel just this year and it's been one of those late discoveries I've warmed up to quite a bit

Nick Ostrum said...

Thanks for the posts, Colin and Keith! I must confess, I did glean the active/passive binary at some point from Oliveros and John Cage, as well as Paul Hegarty’s Heideggerian/dialectical examination of noise in Noise/Music: A History. I think you are both right to bring up the subjectivity and biases of listening, as well. I am sure musical theorists have spilled a lot of ink on this, but there is something semiotic about this process, wherein the listener (receiver) imposes meaning on music (sign) just as the musician/composer (sender) does. Whether that meaning is justified or convincing – and not just the result of one's mood or another personal bias – is left to the review and the reader. Even wit that in mind, however, it can still be a challenge to distinguish between what I as listener am bringing to the music and what the musicians are actually trying to convey, especially as repeated listens sometimes produce different impressions.

Colin Green said...

Improvised music invites active listening. What you tend to hear is music that is not content to settle into a singular pattern, but complex accumulations and processes of cultivation that make little sense unless you’re directly engaged with those processes. As listeners, we’re forced to become immersed, and there are times when that might be easier to achieve as part of an audience of like-minded people.

Nick Ostrum said...

Cheers to that.