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Friday, March 17, 2023

Piero Bittolo Bon – Spelunker (Chant Records, 2023)

By Guido Montegrandi

The music on this album is about exploring. It can be described as an extended use of extended techniques to produce an augmented language. The music in this album is about experiencing. Piero Bittolo Bon plays a sax without mouthpieces and most of the time without even blowing into it. As he says in the brief interview at the end of this review he plays in negative extracting sounds from the resonances produced by the movement of the keys inside the body of the instrument. These sounds are then amplified and filtered in real time through stomp-boxes and synths. It is feedback controlled and expanded, it is a sax transformed into a set of percussion, and a flute echoes from somewhere else.

We read in the notes from the artist's Facebook page: “This material was recorded in 2018, more or less halfway my still on-going process of extracting challenging (at least for me) possibilities and exotic dialects from the inside of the horn, which flourished into a whole new set of perspectives on the instrument even when I approach it in a more "traditional" way.” 

The first piece - "game/élan" - has in its title all the coordinates of the place we are visiting, it seems like we are listening to a distorted gamelan but it is maybe just a game and a combination of style and energetic spirit. What we ear are percussive sounds, whistles and blows that gather for a moment and then scatter moving in other directions, another focus. As the Bandcamp notes inform us “ the original recordings were edited and curated by Maurice Louca, a key player in The Cairo and Berlin experimental music scene”.

A different section of the same recording session of "game/élan" is presented in the third piece of the album "game/élan (excerpt)". 

The other piece - "A melange" - offers a catalogue of the different sounds that the augmented sax can produce. It opens with cavernous and percussive sounds and electronic noises; then a flute (?) section marked by the rhythm of the amplified keys. Another change marked by percussive electronic sound followed by controlled feedback and the keys of the sax played to follow a rhythmic pattern. There is a crescendo of noises and whistles and distortions evocative of a tribal setting. The voice, chanted through the cavity of the horn marks a finale where only feedback and clanking are left.

As Bittolo Bon declares this recordings features “the maximalist side” of his solo set “a full arsenal of amplifiers, stompboxes, drum machines and synthesizers is almost constantly involved in the search for some bit of music I might enjoy in that moment: the only rules I gave myself were (and still are) no overdubbing and no loopers allowed.” (notes from Bittolo Bon Facebook page)

It is interesting to compare the music in this album (recorded in 2018) with its minimalist counterpart in (m​ĭ​th​′​r​ĭ​-​d​ā​′​t​ĭ​z​′​ə​m) III - spelunker [un​]​ritual etudes (Self-Released 2022) recorded in 2021 using only acoustic instruments, microphones and amplifiers. The intention and the techniques used are the same but the sound is stripped to the bone and from a strictly personal point of view even more fascinating.

In conclusion “Spelunker” is not music for the faint of heart but if you are brave enough to enter the cave you will be rewarded with paintings and stalactites that are worth the journey.

The album is available on Bandcamp



To have a closer look at the Spelunker project you can choose from Bittolo Bon playlist on Youtube.

We also interviewed Piero Bittolo Bon about his project and its developments 

Spelunker offers to the listeners a sound which is certainly non conventional for wind instruments that’s why I would start by asking how did you come to develop the idea of using the inside resonances of your instrument and the feedback produced by microphones and amps to make music?

It was born by chance: as it may have happened to many wind players or singers or to anyone using microphones, during a sound-check I got too close to a microphone set to a very high gain and this microphone started to whistle. From this event I had the insightnto try to exploit this effect to produce sounds that I might use in an improvisatory context. I plugged my instrument into a guitar amplifier and I started experimenting

Watching your solo performances since 2014 one can notice the expansion of the attachment and the technology used.

Yes, my gear set up has developed a life of its own… it has started to expand in a more or less constant way. But lately I am downsizing because many of the attachment I’ve been using were absolutely redundant. In the beginning I had a little box made to power simple microphone insets with five outputs, I started big, thinking of positioning five mikes in different places of the sax bell, of course different positions into the bell produce different resonances but then I noticed that five mikes were far too many so I settled with just two that, I think, make enough noise. So now this is my standard setting.

Do you consider the instrument you play as a prepared instrument or instead as an instrument to produce augmented reality?

Well, both answers could be true, as far as augmented reality maybe it is more correct to talk about augmented language because this peculiar performing mode has made me find a completely different language on an instrument that, played in the traditional way, I am quite familiar with. There is a deviation that was more obvious in the beginning of my search, between what I expect from the fingering I use and the actual result. This deviation is produced by the fact that the sounds I produce come from a negative vision of my instrument. As a matter of fact I do not blow into my sax but I extract resonances that are than amplified and this has brought to a different manner to use sound. Even more, it has brought to use a very rhythmic language because I need a quite continuous action to activate feedback. When I play in a traditional way, my temperament is quite long-winded, I move my finger quite fast and so I have created a language and some alternative fingering that work quite well in this performing mode. Slowly I succeeded in creating a coherent sound environment that I can recognize as my own and that I can really enjoy.

Has this solo work modified the way you play in more traditional contexts?

I think that the two situations permeate themselves in a quite organic way; if you look at my Bandcamp page you will find some acoustic recording that use the same language but without any amplification. In these recordings I use more or less the same fingering and the same mind-set, I use the sax without mouthpiece, I invented a way of playing it using a technique similar to that used with the ney (a end blown flute of Persian-Turkish origin) I use the sax almost as if it were a flute and I also use the voice speaking or singing into it. In the end I have noticed that the material recorded is analogue to the one produced with my electric set. Beside when I play in a more jazz oriented context, I become aware of the fact that, at the level of muscle memory, the suggestions of what I thought myself with this language emerge in my way of playing.

In the Bandcamp notes for Spelunker you say that the only rules you gave yourself were (and still are) no overdubbing and no loopers allowed; with overdubbing you clearly loose some of the spontaneity you get with live recording so my question is about loopers, why have you decided not to use them?

Because I think they are a double-edged sword, I am quite prone to indulge in my comfort zone and I think that if I used loopers, which are very useful in many situations, I would lose some of the focus and the challenge that this way of playing implies even from a physical point of view. It may not seems but this continuous and percussive mode, even if I breath is not involved, is quite tiring for the sinews and the finger muscles and this physical side would be lost if I used loopers.

Looking at the series of your solos which can be watched on Youtube, I’ve got the impression that Spelunker represent a snap-shot of a work in progress that started in 2014 and is still going on?

The materials collected in Spelunker represent an halfway moment in my solo performances because the recording dates back to 2018 ant it was a moment in which I was using all the gears that I have (stompboxes, microphones, synths) and the fact that I had so many sonic possibilities sometimes made it difficult to focus on nuances. In the end I had a great number of recording and, because of my character, I was really terrified by the necessity to make a choice to edit the materials. If I have to choose a take of a composition everything is easier, but when I have to choose what I like and what I don’t in my improvisations I really don’t know where to start; it is not because I like all of them, maybe it’s the opposite or maybe it’s because in the end they all seem acceptable. Luckily in this process I had on my side a great friend and a good musician: Maurice Louca who made the editing selecting the tracks and assembled them in an order which he considered fluent and interesting

From your point of view what is the situation of improvised music in this period?

I think that the situation is better than you can imagine, there are many interesting musicians in more or less jazz oriented improvised music. I can see this because I take part in the organization of concerts for the Ferrara Jazz Club (the city where I live) a beautiful place with a program centred on more “mainstream jazz” but that also proposes events where you can hear more “experimental” improvised music and the scene is quite lively and there are many interesting young musicians.

Speaking about my solo work, I must say that I find it a bit difficult to propose it outside the jazz network of events, maybe because I am considered, and I consider myself, more internal to that network. Maybe the jazz environment is not exactly right for this music even if when I play solo I don’t fell like I’m playing something too far from what I play in a more jazzy situation. The acoustic output may be different but the intention is the same.

What about your future programmes?

I have made a couple of recording that I hope to release soon (at least not after five years like it happened with Spelunker): a solo with a very reduced setup (two microphones and two amps) which focuses on the rhythmic side of my language and a session of the duo Spell/Hunger with Andrea Grillini on augmented drums (he plays a drum set with series of sensors that control a sample library). On the more traditional side I hope to record a new album with my quintet Bread & Fox with Alfonso Santimone, Filippo Vignato, Glauco Benedetti and Andrea Grillini. I also continue my fantastic experience with the Tower Jazz Composer Orchestra, the resident ensemble of the Ferrara Jazz Club that I have been coordinating together with Alfonso Santimone since 2016.


Nick Ostrum said...

Interesting review/interview and very interesting project. I would not have heard of this otherwise. And, you are right, Guido: This is challenging music, but putting in the time and attention does pay off. Cheers.

Unknown said...

Qui Radio Ros Brera, spesso abbiamo avuto in rotazione Piero vorremmo dare spazio anche a questo lavoro.