By Stuart Broomer
Swiss-born, Paris-resident Bertrand Denzler is best known as an intrepid explorer of improvised music and the saxophone’s sonic and expressive range, from free jazz to improvised music, including the extraordinary group Hubbub whose music may offer immediately the rewards of meditation. In recent years he has emerged as a composer, his works including the quartet pieces called Horns 1.2 and 2.1 and the orchestra piece Morph written for the Parisian group ONCEIM, l’Orchestre de Nouvelles Créations, Expérimentations et Improvisation Musicales.
That compositional focus takes a further step here, to a piece for strings in which Denzler appears only as composer. Ensemble CoÔ is a septet organized by bassist Félicie Bazelaire, consisting of the bowed strings of ONCEIM: violinist Patricia Bosshard; violists Cyprien Busolini and Elodie Gaudet; cellist Anaïs Moreau; and the bassists Bazelaire, Benjamin Duboc and Frédéric Marty. Significantly, Arc doesn’t follow the monolithic scale of those previous compositions; however, it retains the fascinating exploration of pseudo-drones, music that is continuous in texture but consisting of shifting materials, doing it, though, at radically truncated lengths. Instead it’s divided into two parts, which are then further subdivided.
Arc 1.1 is 18 minutes long and includes numerous short segments of varying lengths, averaging under a minute and separated from one another by silences of (roughly) 14 seconds each. Each of the short segments is characterized by continuous bowing, in which the three basses invariably dominate the texture, dense, sometimes multiphonic industrial growls (achieved perhaps by bowing simultaneously with both the wood and hair of the bow, with a slack bow or with two bows) or hollow harmonics echoing through the vast interiors of the instruments. Through these dense undercurrents pass the eerie, reedy tones of violin or viola, sometimes sounding like radio signals from deep space.
The lack of conventional development within the individual pieces turns them into objects of contemplation, the individual bow strokes and sustained tones of the instruments functioning like layers of gauze, with the gauze itself the subject of one’s concentration, the combinations of gauzes creating different textures and (to sustain the metaphor) colors. Each segment is distinct but similar in its fabrication; each silence becomes itself a component of the work.
The longer Arc 2.1 (23 minutes) is divided into two parts. The textures are denser and more varied as well as sustained, but the sense of shifting overlays remains. The first segment (about 11 minutes) is almost a harbour symphony (fog horns aren’t far away) and there are more dramatic gestures, like slowly ascending glissandi among some of the strings, as if a ship were somehow achieving the doppler effect of an approaching airplane.
These larger movements may be more complex, but they’re ultimately one with the short segments of 1.1. The entire work is possessed of an extraordinary, measured calm, a tranquility in movement, a dialectic between the still and the moving that constitutes a fresh aesthetic gesture, a cinematic effect in sound. The cumulative effect of the work is sufficiently plural that it may well include the individual musicians’ input and decisions. Reflecting Denzler’s background, the music achieves a sense of internal order that feels at once improvised and composed. Arc is one of the most interesting pieces of the year.