Fittingly, Les porteuses d’Ô was released in January 2018, the year marking the twentieth anniversary of the formation of Montréal’s Ensemble SuperMusique (ESM). In the years of its existence, the ensemble has explored ways of integrating improvisation with composed music, commissioning over fifty compositions that combine the two. So, it is no surprise that this landmark album features three new graphically-scored compositions which aim to do just that. The line-up of ESM has evolved throughout its lifetime, with few ever-present members; of the twenty-six players credited on ESM’s debut album, Canevas (Ambiances Magnétiques, 2004), only four feature among the thirteen on Les porteuses d’Ô — alto saxophonist and flautist Jean Derome, alto saxophonist and vocalist Joane Hétu, alto Jean René and percussionist Danielle Palardy Roger. ESM co-founders Hétu and Palardy Roger supplied two of the album’s compositions, the third coming from Vancouver-based Lisa Cay Miller; yes, all three pieces do have female composers.
Recorded live in concert, in Montréal, in April 2017, together the pieces run for just over forty minutes, the three being of similar lengths. The album opens with Palardy Roger’s 2014-15 piece En arrivant par le nuage de Oort, the title referring to the theoretical Oort cloud of icy objects, the origin of long-period comets such as Hale-Bopp. Palardy Roger says that “the unfolding of the composition evokes the journey one might undertake between the Oort cloud and the Sun.” Of course, the danger of such a statement is that the composition in question is listened to as programme music, with the listener literally interpreting each sound. To combat that, it would be useful to see the graphic scores themselves, but this CD does not include any of them, only their composers’ notes on them. Suffice to say that the music feels true to its composer’s intention; its soundscape begins with lots of small percussive sounds surrounded by space, and gradually becomes fuller, louder and more intense as it builds steadily to a climax.
By comparison, the next piece, from 2015-17, Hétu’s Préoccupant, c’est préoccupant, is far more garrulous and dramatic. Fittingly, the fifteen-minute track opens with a theatrical drum roll which leads into a prolonged passage of discordant sounds from the nine musicians involved, heralding the arrival of the composer’s own voice. From there on, the piece is episodic with that voice dominating. As the composition focuses on four “concerns that can insidiously interfere in our lives”, starting with “To Fall from High”, there is plenty of scope for expressive outpourings of emotion and angst, including weeping and wailing. The calmer instrumental passages provide welcome periods of respite.
The album closes with Miller’s 2017 composition Water Carrier which (in translation) is practically the title piece. Inspired by the issue of drinking water rights of First Nation communities in Canada, it is wholly instrumental, successfully integrating composed and improvised music. It features some poignantly melodic passages played by the ensemble’s strings. These are interspersed with some strongly rhythmic sections and others with a clear jazz influence.
Together, these three very different compositions show radically contrasting facets of ESM and demonstrate that it is in excellent shape as it enters its third decade.
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French clarinetist Xavier Charles is a true explorer. Musically speaking, his own music and his collaborative projects range from abstract, raw noise to electro-acoustic textures, sound poetry, free improvisation and even the anarchist-punk of the Dutch The Ex (he already joined The Ex gigs for more than 120 performances, including many with the late Ethiopian sax great, Gétatchèw Mèkurya). Geographically, he seems to be all over the globe, trotting from a recording session in Québec City, Canada to Canberra, Australia and sometimes in between even enjoys the Swedish woods with his Norwegian comrades of Dans les arbres group.
This free-improvised session was recorded on May 2016 at the Café-théâtre de Jonquière, Québec City during the local Festival des Musiques de Création, at the end of a short Canadian tour that featured the five musicians playing in different formations. The quintet features three musicians from the local Tour de Bras experimental musicians collective: percussionist Michel F Côté, bass clarinet player Philippe Lauzier and electric bass player Éric Normand plus like-minded Austrian trumpeter Franz Hautzinger and Charles himself.
This meeting of these five distinct improvisers — all are committed to an uncompromising search and research of pure sounds and the timbres of their respective instruments, all in their own personal manners and with their own sense of invention — proves that the language of free-improvisation is truly universal. You just need to have an attentive ears — elephantine ears — trust your comrades and your instincts, and then all sounds — raw, dissonant, distorted, acoustic or electric, melodic, breathy or noisy — find their place in the mysterious great scheme.
The eight improvisations tell different, strange, cryptic stories, with no apparent meanings, clear narratives or comforting conclusions. But all manage to draw the listener immediately into their rich, poetic universes, despite their contemplative, sometimes even austere tones. Nothing sounds radical in these improvisations, even though these musicians do produce some pretty weird sounds. Together, as a collective, they sound much larger, somehow more sensible than apart. You can hear that in the playful Alaplasse, where imaginative bird calls collide gently with noisy, electric sounds, in the almost psychedelic texture of multiphonics on Boudboi and in the extraterrestrial, minimalist-techno pulse of Izatrape. Brilliant.
tse is a suite of five modern compositions that move between doomed simmering’s, angular sourness, and wavering dread. The release comes in the form of a CD on Sheffield’s Another Timbre, and as we’ve come to expect from the label this is another of shot well conceived & perfectly recorded experimental sound craft.
The five-piece work here is improvised, yet it revolves around a series of pre-agreed pitches. So, as a result, you get a suite that has continuity & recurring sour melodies, as well as feeling of foreboding loose-ness, and bitter surprise. The piece was recorded in November 2017, at the insub.studio in Geneva.
The three-piece collective is made up of Cyril Bondi — Indian Harmonium, pitch pipes, and objects. Pierre-Yves Martel — Viola Da Gamba, pitch pipes, & harmonica. And Christoph Schiller — Spinet. The blend of droning & sawing instrumentation give the trio a very much of a doomed & slurred sound, and they use this to good effect on tse.
The five-piece suite comes in at a total of forty-six minutes — with each part of the suite hitting between seven & ten-minute mark. The suite opens in a fairly coarse/nervy manner with a spaced-out mixture of brooding string simmers, sudden higher pitched string twangs, and slurred pipes. As we move through the suites runtime the pace is kept fairly considered & slowed — as angular droning meets with a blend of higher-to-sour string pluck, and bleak stretched out simmer. From time to time pulled-out & slurred melodies appear, but ultimately these seem secondary, and the main focus here is to create a doomed atmosphere & malevolent haze of sound
The work does very much feel like a suite, due to both the focused selection of pitches, and the occasion recurring patterns. And on the downside this does, at times, create a feeling of little progression/ movement — but if you’re interested slowed, slurred, off-kilter & decidedly soured modern composition I think you’ll get something out of tse. I took this release away with me on a recent Greek holiday, and it both nicely lulled me out and created an effective bleak contrast to all the sun & fun going on around me.
It’s probably fair to say that we all have our instrumental prejudices, silly as those undoubtably are. I know people who don’t like flutes or violins, baffling as those attitudes are to me. But I have to admit that it takes extra concentration on my part to get past the essential sound of a harpsichord. I do think that this is more an issue on recordings than live as just last year I attended a home concert by the very excellent local harpsichordist Andrew Appel and enjoyed it without reservation. Maybe it has something to do with childhood encounters with the keyboard in schmaltzy horror movies or as backdrop to any number of faux esthete contexts. But that jangly sound, the lack of sustain….something makes it tough for me.
The spinet is essentially a small harpsichord and Christoph Schiller, to the best of my knowledge, pretty much confines his playing to to it. Here, he’s joined by Cyril Bondi (Indian harmonium, pitch pipe, objects) and Pierre-Yves Martel (viola da gamba, pitch pipes, harmonica) on five improvised tracks (I — V). On the first, the trio circumvents any foolish objections on my part as Bondi and Martel lay down long, smooth lines onto which Schiller sprinkles slivers of spinet, glinting amongst the hums. Those drones are beautifully constructed themselves, a lovely combination of timbres, and the spinet adds a wonderful texture. By the way, I’m guessing that Schiller applies some extended techniques now and then (perhaps bowing the spinet’s interior or otherwise directly manipulating the strings?), though I’m not at all sure. II is similar, though generally pitched higher and with somme separation between phrases. There’s a stretched feeling, a bit more astringency that’s piquant, a nice shift from the prior track. In fact, the variation is subtle on each of the five pieces. Given the drone0like nature of the harmoniums, harmonicas and pitch pipes and virtually the opposite aspect of the spinet, that’s not so surprising; only the viola da gamba might go “both ways”, though Martel seems to switch between arco and pizzicato now and then. Another predilection of mine is, with regard to anything more or less in a drone style, toward the low and grainy, so I found IV especially appealing, a really delicious, calm sequence of lines, rich and complex, with deep tones from (I think) the pitch pipe. V offers slightly more aggression from the spinet, at higher pitch levels and with somewhat sourer harmonies and, again, heard in the context of this “suite”, works perfectly well. In fact, listening to tse as a suite, and a very ably constructed one, seems to be the way to go, at least for me. Spinets be damned, it’s an engaging and discreetly demanding listen; good work.
When it comes to naming names in the all-encompassing landscape of contemporary music, Jean Derome’s eminence remains relatively unquoted amidst the sacred cows of the last decades. A first-class reedist and composer, he’s indelibly associated with René Lussier — specifically, in the duo Les Granules — beyond significant proprietary works (random memory selection: 1988’s Confitures de Gagaku, on Victo). Derome has shown time and again that his idiosyncratic creativity, compositional skill and ability to put a theory into artistically fructiferous practice are second to none. In its clever mix of conceptual consistency and stimulating interplay, Résistances clearly explains why.
Though partially scored, the composition’s motility principally depends on the nineteen performers reacting to previously learned hand signals. After acknowledging the crucial elements of orchestration in conjunction with the intrinsic influence of electricity in all forms — including the overall tuning — it takes a moment to realize that the scope of this opus reaches far higher than a simple “conducted improvisation” (note the involuntary irony of the term “conductor” in this context).
Across a plethora of intermingling styles, the ensemble — comprising several among Derome’s regular partners in crime — connects with the basic vibe through surges of energy dressed as eruptions, conversations, screams or drones, the whole informed by a cracking musicianship. Notwithstanding the considerable emancipation allowed and the absence of jazz-related stereotypes, the lingering sensation is that of a finely regulated mechanism. Still, serendipitous mutations occasionally materialize. The bulk of Piétinements, for example, resembles Igor Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring played by Pink Floyd circa A Saucerful Of Secrets, lysergic slide guitars and all. In a pair of collective blasts we couldn’t help thinking — in principle — of Frank Zappa’s Weasels Ripped My Flesh. The absurdly jarring funk of Mélodie 2 flowing into a marvelous Danse finale may indeed prompt someone to start jumping around the house.
Please consider the above references as a mere reviewer’s divertissement. In reality, there’s so much shifting of acoustic identity and abundance of inventive playing here that coming to grips with this particular form of Derome’s imagination could trigger intellectual paralysis in the easily affected. The remedy lies in the very cause: treat the patient to a few additional hours with this remarkable album; then it’s get up, pick up your mat, and walk. Unless one’s dead for real.