Daniel Studer – Extended For Strings & Piano (ezz-thetics, 2019) ****
I am a recent convert to Daniel Studer’s work. I actually gained my first exposure him only recently, in his Leo Records release with Gabriela Friedli and Dieter Ulrich (which, to correct the record, included tracks composed by Studer as well as Friedli). Since then, I have had the pleasure to work through two of his newest releases.
Extend For Strings and Piano consists of Harald Kimmig on violin, Frantz Loriot on viola, Alfred Zimmerlin on violoncello, Philip Zoubek on piano, and Studer himself on double bass and compositions. This is a moderately-sized ensemble working the full range of their instruments (read: extended techniques and percussive, grating strings) and with great discipline and restraint. Logical connections can be drawn to the Another Timbre and Creative Sources scenes. Nevertheless, Studer and co. take their amelodic, frequently minimalist tendencies in a somewhat different direction. Dynamics play a major role in this music, as scrapes, saws, and strikes arise almost organically out of silence, only to fade just as abruptly. The tracks cohere, but focus is placed on each piece as an atemporal, non-progressive whole, sans the slow welling and layering of sound that Rodrigues and his circles frequently explore. There is a fragility, subtlety, and deep pensiveness to the performances on this album. Brief successions of notes and resonances waft in and out of the three “Bagatelle” tracks in particular. In “motus,” the strings energize and stumble over each other evoking the more delicate tendencies of the horror vacuui school of contemporary composition.
Even so, this is not just heady, theoretical music. As Brian Morton point out in his liner notes, this is in part a return to the very roots of jazz, even before Sydney Bechet and others made it wind music: “The early ‘jazz’ groups were string ensembles, employed to entertain rich men but free after hours to explore their instruments, their tools, without restraint.” As long as we consider this “restraint” as externally imposed, rather than as self-control, self-restraint, and technique which exist dialectically with freedom and exploration (Morton’s notes invite this dialectic by invoking Marx), this point is quite apropos. This is not traditional jazz in any sense of the term. Yet, it harkens back to the curiosity that inspired those early experiments into the turn of the 19th century’s “new music,” the quest for novel sounds, timbres, and musical space. This string sextet is far from alone in this pursuit. That fact, however, makes the peculiarities of this album all the more important.
Kontrabassduo Studer-Frey with Jürg Frey and Alfred Zimmerlin – Zeit (Leo Records, 2019) ****½
Keith Prosk wrote an excellent review of another recent Studer release, Zeit, a few months ago and I have no intention to simply reiterate what he so keenly characterized as the wandering “bassscape(s)” and enthralling electro-acoustic “amassing” and release of tension. For what it is worth, however, I would like to posit this album as a point of comparison to better understand the course of Studer’s current musical thinking.
Zeit is a collection of recordings from 2004, 2007, and 2018 worked quite convincingly into a cohesive album. Unlike Extended recorded by one ensemble over the course of one day, therefore, Zeit is a document of extended process, practice and selection. It balances the acoustic – that early jazz rootedness - with the electro-acoustic; it contrasts and combines studies in bass sonorities and contending rhythms with more rounded explorations of quartet (bass-bass-violoncello-clarinet) dynamics absent even the possibility of interplay. (The four tracks including Jürg Frey and Zimmerlin required the participating musicians be isolated from each other for the duration of the performance.) The sound is more developed and refined than that on Extended and, conceptually, it might even more progressive. That said, the relative fullness of Zeit helped me better sense of the controlled sparseness and sharp discordance of Extended, and vice versa. In his liner notes, Giancarlo Schiaffini identifies a strand of “dynamic minimalism” that underlies Zeit. Similar impulses fuel Extended, which, with its experimental, almost Bauhaus-level functionalism seems an excavation of these same “dynamic minimalist” undercurrents. Extended takes the bare, acoustic, atavistic approach. Zeit meanwhile deploys a wider range of instruments, techniques, sonic manipulations, and conceptual deviations. It nevertheless pursues the same goal: excavating and mapping a small piece of the immense musical ground that has opened between the first improvisations of early jazz and the contemporary world of composition. It is a goal, of course, that can only ever be achieved in fragments. These albums show, however, the pursuit is nevertheless well worth the effort.