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Thursday, May 4, 2023

Pascal Niggenkemper - la vallée de l'étrange (Subran Musiques Aventureuses, 2023)

By Eyal Hareuveni

la vallée de l'étrange (the valley of strange) is a double bass installation more than a double bass solo album, or as Pascal Niggenkemper calls it, “a face to face between a double bassist and an autonomous augmented double bass in spatialized octophonic setting”. Niggenkemper is playing in a center of a stage, surrounded by a circle of eight loudspeakers. On 3 pieces the double bass is seated on his lap - basso horizontale as he calls it. Next to Niggenkemper, there is an augmented double bass (called, cobonore, a construct between cobot and & sonore) equipped with eight motors in eight time zones, each with a piezo. These zones are animated by the levers of the motors and projected to one or several loudspeakers. The audience is seated in circles between Niggenkemper and the loudspeakers to introduce and share with the audience the sonic experience of being inside the augmented double bass. The album was recorded at la Grange de Floyrac in France in July and October 2022.

Niggenkemper calls this sound installation “a game of opposition and an encounter between the human and the imaginary”. Obviously, he offers an experimental, ambitious and quite eccentric way to invent and reflect the sonic possibilities of the double bass, from a radical and insightful perspective, true to the seminal vision of John Cage. Niggenkemper was inspired by Japanese robotics pioneer Masahiro Mori’s visionary essay “The Uncanny Valley”, suggesting the hypothesis that as robots become more humanlike, they appear more familiar until a point is reached at which subtle imperfections of appearance make them look strange.

la vallée de l'étrange does sound strange, otherworldly, even outrageous and only rarely playful, far beyond the known acoustic or electronics-enhanced extended techniques (though Niggenkemper attaches different objects to the bass strings and body), but it is totally engaging with its unique and surprising sounds and sonic spells as well as its nuanced dynamics. Only the first piece, “Doppelgänger”, employs the familiar dark and buzzing vibrations of a bowed double bass but the random sounds of the augmented double bass soon create a cacophonic and chaotic storm. In the basso horizontale pieces, Niggenkemper plays the double bass with his mouth - breaths and whispers into the f-hole and the endpin entrance, or with assorted objects. On “choice processes frailty” he places small bridges between the fingerboard and the strings and brings the double bass to a Japanese koto territory.

A true work of a double bass poet, sonic explorer and adventurer (and mad scientist), who revisits and reinvents his - and ours - relationship to the bull fiddle.