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Thursday, April 2, 2020

Palynology - Axel Dörner & Agustí Fernández (Sirulita Records, 2019) ****½

By Stephen Griffith

A few years ago, an online friend sent me a note urging me to pick this up. Since that guy's musical tastes dovetail with mine and he wouldn't recommend something willynilly I quickly ordered it. After all, Mark Sanders was an excellent drummer on things I liked on Emanem and other labels and I liked Dörner's playing with Die Enttäuschung and on Monk's Casino. There's no need to restate anything in the earlier review other than it opened my ears to Dörner's use of advanced trumpet techniques and electronics in a duo setting to create very interesting soundscapes.

Fast forward to 2019 and Sirulita releases a 2001 recording of Axel and Agustí Fernández called Palynology, a term meaning the study of plant spores or pollen, both ancient or modern. Since the three song titles are all plant names perhaps there's one item successfully explicated. Bandcamp seems to be the key to unlocking a lot of older unreleased performances which, at least in this case, show no signs of being musty period pieces. Rather this proves that effective use of advanced techniques and electronics have been employed by these two musicians for at least two decades.

"Poinsettias" gets things off to a jarring start as Agustí's woodblock over strings scraping is immediately overtaken by rapid fire electronically manipulated pulses by Dörner in each of the channels quickly creating alternating herky jerky rhythms. Fernandez briefly plays the keys but most of the playing in this piece is rubbing the strings creating reverberant sounds. Axel alternates soft acoustic techniques with the electronics to add slowly changing movements with a tension throughout. At the 14 minute mark Fernández plays a brief rumbling motif in the lower register with seemingly damped strings and an extremely resonant soundboard. From here the piece winds down ending with an electronic hum. "Azaleas" is a more ethereal piece featuring mostly soft noteless exhalations of varying intensity by Dörner as Agustí almost imperceptibly builds a rhythm across the strings that at times sounds like a ghostly train going through a dream.

The 20 plus minute "Saruma" features one of those jaw dropping performances that fans of the Catalan pianist are somewhat conditioned to but never fail to get fresh pleasure from each new experience. From the beginning he creates a sonic howl in the lower and middle registers within which melodic figures flit in and out as the intensity ebbs and flows. Dörner mainly plays a harsh noteless blast of white noise in the center constantly (I think I detected one break). There's enough variation going on throughout that interest never wanes; I have no idea if the piano was prepared specially for this or adroit use was made of the pedals to have such easy to detect melodies within the squall. Finally as the piano winds down you hear soft higher note embellishments of the low keys. After wondering if it was odd harmonics of the piano, it's Axel quietly adding the accents from his trumpet as the song fades out. Nearly twenty years later it sounds fresh and great.


Nick Metzger said...

Great review Stephen, I've really enjoyed this album. A truly wonderful pairing.

Stephen Griffith said...

Thanks, Nick. I approached it somewhat warily but once I started listening the music was very welcoming. I'm really glad it was released.