Friday, December 13, 2019
Carl Testa - Sway Prototypes Volumes 1 & 2 (self-released, 2019) ****½
By Keith Prosk
Carl Testa (contrabass, electronics) assembles Erica Dicker (violin), Junko Fujiwara (cello), Louis Guarino Jr. (trumpet), Andria Nicodemou (vibraphone), and Anne Rhodes (voice) to play for two hours and twenty minutes across four tracks on two CD-length releases in the electroacoustic environments of Sway Prototypes. Testa, Dicker, and Rhodes have recorded together before on Anthony Braxton’s Trillium E and the Tri-Centric Orchestra’s Agora, Questions of Transfiguration, Vogelfrei, and Testa and Dicker also appear together on Braxton’s Echo Echo Mirror House (NYC) 2011; the other combinations of these musicians have not released recordings together yet.
Beyond half the ensemble being prominent personas in the sphere of Braxton - not only as players, but Testa is the Tri-Centric Foundation’s Director of Publishing, Dicker is Braxton’s Concertmaster, and Rhodes is, along with Kyoko Kitamura, an ambassador for Braxton’s syntactical musics - there appear to be some other broad allusions to Braxton as well. The cover art is designed by Yesim Tosuner, who also designed the cover art for GTM (Syntax) 2017, Sextet (Parker) 1993, Quintet (Tristano) 2014, and 3 Compositions (EEMHM) 2011. The Sway electroacoustic environment utilizes SuperCollider software, which Braxton uses in Diamond Curtain Wall Music. I’m already beginning to reach but it’s hard not to think of Braxton’s syntactical music with Rhodes present, . There’s a generative color/visual component to some live performances from the Sway ensemble (utilizing Hydra software), perhaps recalling the color-dependent graphics of Braxton’s Falling River Music and pulse tracks. And though you won’t hear those characteristic eighth notes of Ghost Trance Music, the longer pieces here certainly sound like a journey with tangents, perhaps queued by recurring dynamics that the ensemble falls back to. Lastly, listening to these recordings just feels like listening to Braxton’s (or some of his other students’) medium to large ensembles, with about an hour of mind-melting density that can be revisited repeatedly to realize something new each time. However, Testa is in no way mimicking Braxton. All this is to say that Testa appears to have synthesized pieces of Braxton’s various musical systems into a distinctive new vision with Sway.
The heart of that vision is the electroacoustic environment. Testa compares Sway to George Lewis’ Voyager or Pauline Oliveros’ Expanded Instrument System except in that it is an autonomous program interacting with musicians in real time. The Sway program: (1) receives inputs from each microphone; (2) determines each musician’s amplitude, density, and pitch clarity; (3) translates those parameters to plot each musician on a grid in which each quadrant is associated with effects processing (e.g. delay, distortion); and (4) applies that effect to the individual musician, or not. Sway can be programmed to not process in certain situations. It can be programmed to combine all inputs. It can be programmed to trigger mass effects across all musicians if certain thresholds are met. It can be programmed to jumble the effects in each quadrant if musicians are plotted in the same quadrant for too long. And so on. It’s a malleable system that appears to handle the work that one or two musicians would do while live-processing in an electroacoustic environment.
Despite the prevalence of effects processing, it rarely obfuscates the acoustic mastery from each of these musicians (at least not in an uninteresting way). Dicker and Fujiwara often weave with each other, displaying a dizzying array of bowing techniques both mellifluous and grating; Testa plucks grooves and beats but can yield a deep, tension-building arco; and Rhodes occasionally mixes in groans, ululations, and almost-words among simple syllables like “eee,” “ooo,” “aaa.” But I was most awe-stricken by the contributions of Nicodemou and Guarino Jr., whose agile, twinkling vibraphone transforms into a piano, wood blocks, alarm clocks, and something much more industrial in turns, and whose trumpet instantly communicates to both the group and the system with tinny mutes, slobbering embouchures, peppy fanfares, and moody musings. The contributions of Nicodemou, Guarino Jr, and Rhodes also seemed most ostensibly affected by processing, perhaps because they were playing the system, perhaps because their contributions are more discrete than bowed strings. The overall effect of everyone using a wide swath of technique, with this grouping of musicians, in this processing environment is one of tricksterish mimesis, where instruments can sound like other instruments acoustically but also, perhaps involuntarily, electronically. Processed voicings blend with trumpet, processed violin pizzicato blends with muted vibraphone, and processed trumpet blends with bass arco on top of high-register bass mixing with low-register cello, raspy groans sounding like violin sawing, and staccato trumpet melting with a vibraphone attack. It can seem like a dreamlike state, furthered by the sense that processing most often creeps in, as if you heard it before you were listening to it.
Structurally, much of the music appears to ebb and flow dynamically, between a kind of relaxed, inquisitive counterpoint at lower volume to quicker, denser communications. Rhodes is not present for “Three Sections,” but musicians seem to drop out for a few minutes at a time anyways, so a thirteen minute absence doesn’t seem too obtrusive to the flow. The final track, “Bloom,” is a solo bass piece in which Testa’s errant emotivity reminds me of Barre Phillip’s ability to always evoke a kind of hopeful poignancy among his wanderings, but with some eerie processing.
With Sway, Testa has created a musical system with rare depth. Add an array of absurdly talented musicians, and you have one of the most interesting recordings of 2019. And if these pieces are only the “prototypes,” I cannot imagine the sublimity of the next iteration.
Sway Prototypes Volumes 1 & 2 are available on CD and digitally.