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Wednesday, November 3, 2021

The Trans-Spatial Collaborations of Carlos Santos

Carlos Santos is among the most active members of Lisbon’s very active improvising music community, witness his roles in Creative Sources Recordings. He is regularly responsible for recording, mixing and mastering the label’s Lisbon projects, has constant credits as designer and figures regularly in both label head Ernesto Rodrigues’ numerous orchestral projects and in many small groups as well, contributing imaginative work with computers and synthesizers. Santos comes wholly to the fore in these two recent recordings, both as performer and processor in the finished works. Lisbon must set a record for per capita improvising cellists, among them Miguel Mira, Ricardo Jacinto, Helena Espvall and sometimes Fred Lonberg-Holm. On these recordings, Santos is joined by Lisboan cellist Guilherme Rodrigues who lives in Germany and doesn’t actually play cello here, and Ulrich Mitzlaff, a German cellist who has long lived in Lisbon. Each performance becomes a kind of trans-spatial utopia, whether the musicians occupy different times and places or are creating together in the same room.

Guilherme Rodrigues and Carlos Santos - Uncommon Symmetries (Creative Sources Recordings, 2020)

Uncommon Symmetries is a product of the early days of the Covid lockdown, a 25-minute piece available as a download only. It began with an improvisation by Berlin-resident Guilherme Rodrigues, best known as a cellist, using a shruti box, an Indian instrument that resembles an accordion, with both a bellows and a keyboard, and which is commonly used as a drone instrument. He then sent it to Santos, who has taken Rodrigues’ meditative, continuous improvisation and enriched it with processing and “a second voice, a hybrid of acoustic/digital layer [that] was added enacting a dialogue with the original solo improvisation.”

The shruti box is one of the world’s great sounds, part of the hyper-resonant world of Indian music that speaks directly to eternity, the tamboura string drone, the resonant gourds of the principal string instruments, the nasal wail of the shehnai conjoined with circular breathing, all calling out towards infinity and all combining happily with the mechanized eternity of electronic drones. At the outset the sound appears to be shruti box alone, but other continuous sounds join in, some lower, some of greater density, some emphasizing the accordion-like voice, others with different sonic characters, suggesting an organ’s greater range, that last effect growing richer as the piece ensues. There are moments of silence and towards the end, bird voices appear, the natural world (or something very much like it) taking up residence amidst the merge of acoustic and digital sounds until the bird sounds alone persist. The cumulative effect is trans-spatial, worlds converging, combining and dissolving into one another in an act of singular transcendence.

I/O (Carlos Santos and Ulrich Mitzlaff) – Studies on Colour Field Modulation (Creative Sources Recordings, 2021)

Santos and Ulrich Mitzlaff have played as the duo I/O since 1998, and the two highly distinct pieces on Studies on Colour Field Modulation demonstrate the breadth of that collaboration. The first, “Blau”, was initially performed at a 2014 concert at the Museum Vostell of Contemporary Art in Malpartida de Cárceres, Spain. The recent realization of the piece heard here begins with the cello and laptop wrapped in aluminum foil and consists of an extended unwrapping, sounds beginning in the relative anonymity of rustling foil and muffled instruments, every sound in part metallic percussion. This gradually gives way to greater and greater varieties of instrumental and electronic sounds, which in turn give way to crowd noise, automobile engines and horns, in turn giving way to bowed cello with an increasing presence of processed surrogates and loops of automobile chatter and crowd noise. As with the expanding shruti box of Uncommon Symmetries, Santos’ expansion and alterations of Mitzlaff’s materials become a special kind of duo, traditions of call and response becoming here literal transformations of the earlier sounds until the effect is virtually orchestral, a complement of virtual cellos. Rather than being abstract or mechanistic, it becomes the most mutually attentive of performances, Mitzlaff responding to and developing the work in concert with Santos’ new materials.

The second piece, “Orange”, develops the remarkable synergy that concludes “Blue”, Mitzlaff initially creating an intense upper register pattern that activates the lower sympathetic resonance of the cello’s body. From there, Santos creates fields of droning resonant sound, picking up materials from the cello, expanding and supplementing them with his own battery of blips and whirrs and continuous sounds until the music is a rich field of strings and electronics, an electroacoustic trans-spatial orchestra seemingly hanging in a cathedral-like hyper-resonance, all interactions and meanings expanding exponentially.