Guitarist and poet, Toronto-born and Nova-Scotia resident, Arthur Bull enjoys a compound musical identity. He has been a part of the Canadian improvising community for decades, developing a personal idiom that draws in equal parts from the extended techniques of free improvisation and the slide and finger-style traditions of blues and folk idioms. These two CDs, from Spring 2018, present Bull in radically different, if equally radical settings.
The Surruralists is essentially a duo of Bull and electric bassist Éric Normand, though guests sometimes contribute to a music that’s at once timeless and timely. The two (sometimes subtly, sometimes not) merge free improvisation with folk singing, mixing French and English traditions to craft a primal music in which country tunes and proto-rhythm ‘n’ blues collide with flashes of an unearthly sound art. Bull’s raw baritone and slide guitar drive Jack o’ Diamonds and Frankie (and Johnny), while his gift for epigram emerges on the spoken Skidmarks: “I couldn’t count how many ways the woodpecker could divide the beat.” Normand adds weird electronic burbles to condition familiar themes, and he’s eloquent on the dirge La courtisane brûlée, with Bull adding plaintive harmonica and Ben Grossman a funereal vielle à roue (or hurdy gurdy).
Among Bull’s international associations is one formed in 2002 with drummer Roger Turner, a charter member of the British school of free improvisation. Turner’s sometimes machine-like approach can be traced directly to an early appreciation of the brilliant precision of Dave Tough, the drummer who propelled the rise of Chicago jazz over ninety years ago. Anyone who imagines free improvisation to be somehow vague in its contours simply hasn’t heard Roger Turner. In 2018 Bull and Turner expanded their duo with the addition of trombonist Scott Thomson for a tour (as Monicker) that stretched from Southern Ontario to Nova Scotia.
No blow by blow description could do justice to Spine: the music is mercurial, each of the CD’s six tracks a continuum of shifting, permutating relationships and voices, much of it conducted at incredible speed, from Thomson’s burbling register leaps and runs, squeezed through a metal mute, to Turner’s high-pitched clatter. Bull’s voices range from long, wandering bass glissandi to high-speed flurries of metallic scatter-shot, liable to be confused with some of Thomson and Turner’s own voicings, but the very determination with which the three proceed soon destroys any identikit game of “he said, he said” with a conclusive “When was that?” It’s a high-water mark in Canadian free improvisation.
Recall if you will music with gestures that are, by your standards, “expressive” (anger, sadness, intense joy — any non-neutral sentiment). Here are some of mine:
- Jimi Hendrix’s Spanish Castle Magic
- Neil Young’s single pitch solo on Cinnamon Girl
- Akio Suzuki performing with a whisky bottle in a sock
- The busy middle passages of Penderecki’s String Quartet No. 2
Within these dear-and-near-to-me examples, there is a demonstration of the thing people call “heart” and “je ne sais quoi” and “they have it” and “spirit”. Despite a divisive spectrum of technical effort and complexity to modesty and simplicity, there are works that override genre, culture, race, etc. to pierce your soul in an equal way.
Though being moderately economic with notes, effects, and quantity of performance, Hmmh says and emotes a great deal. Joane Hétu (voice, numerous objects), Pierre-Yves Martel (on his usual viola da gamba plus harmonica and zither), Émilie Mouchous (a DYI electronics guru on Korg synthesizer), and Carl Ludwig Hübsch (tuba and also numerous objects) play on the physicality and length of breath to create a tense, confining, intimate ecosphere.
Hétu and Martel begin in the right channel with a duet of faint hums and gentle palmed strokes. On the other side, Mouchous conjures placid warbles, chirps, hiss, and Theremin-like bursts and glissandi. The trio often recesses and then resumes with relatively more momentum; near three minutes, they’re joined by Hubsch engaging in a low, fluttering twin to Mouchous, and the quartet begins to unravel with a small cloud of tapping, scratching, and other micro-detritus twirling about. All players lean back half-way through the work and unleash a lung emptying (or filling, like inhaling as much as possible to nearly induce a dead faint) that realizes as a great deal of shrill dragging across strings, mechanical screams and tuba emulating a volatile steam engine. It is literally the sound of screeching brakes and extreme acceleration (bonkers, I know). Effortlessly, the group slinks back into a purring drone before adopting a more percussive aesthetic on Pause innocente. Mouchous’s sine wave persists, but Hétu rattles off long series of sibilant, lippy whispers beside a shuffle of metallic objects and harmonica flare-ups. This doesn’t last long before the ensemble unites again in a lugubrious, slinking texture, though one less exuberant than the previous, and ending with a calming “wind.
Haiku with Bells and Se frotter à Brabylon are the most active of the six pieces, though they still remain more sound art than “music”; you’re more likely to hear staccato pings from items clunking around in a mixing bowl fitted as a tuba mute than melodic themes and development. From a tiny pulse of wood flicks, faint tinkling bells, creative key clacks, and blown hiccups to synthetic opera soprano to dialog between a multiple personalities sufferer to something that sounds similar to simulated engine troubles to erasing so hard your paper test is in tatters, Hmmh makes extended techniques its business.
The virtuosity of Fleur de chaos is in the creativity and collaborative meld the four musicians forge across this disc, the latter giving the impression that the recording was rehearsed, not improvised; ideas flourish and stifle and regrow and die without anyone’s ego attempting to stick out and destroy this new creature.
We have added 4 items to our shop today:
- Coco Swirl by Ratchet Orchestra
- Somebody Special by Jean Derome
- Spine by Monicker
- Solor by Lori Freedman
Find out more about them today!
In the week following, Normand and bass clarinetist Philippe Lauzier, partners in the duo Not the Music, toured with Butcher as a trio. How Does This Happen? documents concerts in Ottawa and Montréal, each the kind of music that succeeds in inverse proportion to its potential to be described. In each piece, we hear series of notes, sometimes multiphonic, sometimes singular, sometimes in repeated two- or three-tone micro-phrases; sometimes the sounds can be comfortably ascribed to individual instruments, sometimes less so, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Normand plays electric bass and objects, but he has succeeded so happily in transcending the electric bass’s typical sound that it’s more likely identifiable as “non-reed.” Even on a recording, one realizes that the sounds interacting in the room, the re-enactment and resonance of sounds within sounds, have become as important as any musician’s individual notes, and that the composition is as much the room’s; as much, ultimately, the auditor’s, as the initiating trio’s. How Does This Happen? It’s either a very long story or something felt immediately.