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Review

Nick Roseblade, Vital, April 6, 2021
Wednesday, April 7, 2021 Press

There is something glorious about Pal o’Alto. What I can’t work out is what it is. The album possesses that rare quality of featuring five players at the top of their game. This gives the album a feeling that is seldom felt and even harder to explain. Bob Dylan used to claim that his best music has “That thin, wild mercury sound” to it. It is unquantifiable, but when you hear a particular song you know whether it’s there or not. While Pal o’Alto sounds nothing like Dylan, or his “thin, wild mercury sound”, something is exciting about these four songs.

Each track is named after the players Thomson worked with. The most satisfying tracks are the ones where the styles gel and we are given a cohesive sound. Of course, this happens in all tracks, as does the opposite, but it is during Karen Ng where everything just clicks. Opening with shrill blasts and guttural rumbles Karen Ng meanders along. It doesn’t rush to get going because it has nowhere to do. It feels like the musical version of going out for a stroll in the afternoon, with no fixed destination. Just following your feet, and the pavement, and seeing where you end up. I listened to Karen Ng while I meandered back from the shops, taking an unexpected detour via the park and some back streets. As I leisurely made my way home Ng and Thomson traded lugubrious and curving blasts. There was a part around the halfway mark when Ng delivered a deep, long bass note. Over this Thomson was playing a lyrical motif. It really struck a chord and made my walk home in the bright, and oddly warm, spring afternoon incredible pleasurable.

At its heart Pal o’Alto is a tribute to Lee Konitz, who died in 2020 during the pandemic, but at the same time, it isn’t. Throughout you can feel Konitz’ presence but the songs aren’t inspired by him. They are in fact five friends playing together out of the love of playing. The music here has no real agenda, other than it was what was played that day. And this is what you get. Four performances were captured live by friends and lovers of music. This comes across in all the tracks and makes it hard to switch off after you’ve pressed play. So why don’t you sit back and get comfortable for 45-minutes and enjoy music made for the love of playing?

There is something glorious about Pal o’Alto.

Review

Chris De Chiara, Avant Music News, April 2, 2021
Wednesday, April 7, 2021 Press

There have been many technical and technological innovations in music since 1945 but one of the most important aesthetic innovations has been in new ideas that focus on listening. Innovators like Pierre Schaeffer proposed the idea of reduced listening — an attitude in which sound is listened to for its own sake as a sound object, removed from its source. John Cage invited listeners to hear any sound as music. Pauline Oliveros encouraged listeners to actively experience all sounds through a practice she described as “deep listening”. These ideas all contributed to contemporary music’s focus on the experience of sound itself.

Alvin Lucier’s compositions and installations make use of sounds that are often the results of acoustic phenomena. His work focuses our attention and perception on the physical presence of sound interacting within a particular space. Performing Lucier’s compositions requires performers to learn to recognize, activate, play and interact with acoustic phenomena. The Quatuor Bozzini were clearly up for the challenge when they recorded Alvin Lucier: Navigations. The album opens with Disappearances, a piece that is a single note. That description may sound like it is minimalist to the extreme but to my ears it is a piece rich with development. You hear changes in weight and timbre as each string joins together in unison. The controlled motions of the string’s bows cause phasing and filtering of the sound. The tiny subtle changes in pitch causes beating which reveals pulsating difference tones. Each of these phenomena disappear into one another creating a feeling of movement and making the listener aware of the tiniest changes in pitch and timbre.

The album contains two realizations of Group Tapper, a piece that explores room acoustics by having the instrumentalists treat their instruments as percussion. The performers tap on their instruments in various places and reflect the sound coming from their instruments around the room. The recording engineer does a great job of making the room present on this album so that you can really hear how the group’s performance interacts with the room. Placed in between the two realizations of Group Tapper is for me the most striking piece on this recording, Unamuno. The piece was inspired by early twentieth century Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno and it was originally written for voices. Unamuno is based around four pitches that are continuously arranged into different patterns. It has a probing and questioning kind of vibe to it. The Bozzini’s perform the piece with both strings and their voices. The result is absolutely stunning.

The result is absolutely stunning.

Review

Nick Roseblade, Vital, April 6, 2021
Wednesday, April 7, 2021 Press

There is something about Vertical Squirrels that is hard to ignore. The music they produce is instantly memorable, regardless of whether it fits your tastes or not. The playing is always tight, and nothing is ever wasted. They just know the right notes to play at the right time. On their latest album Le gouffre / The Chasm this trend carries on, again, despite whether the music works as well as it should.

Le gouffre / The Chasm was recorded 23rd October 2019 at Silence in Ontario. It was recorded as part of the You Are ∴ I Am series. Vertical Squirrels had a residency and invited anyone and everyone to come and improvise with them. Le gouffre / The Chasm is the result of that. Throughout the album, especially on A Dewdrop on the Tip of a Blade of Grass in the Setting Sun, there is tenderness on display. The songs gently drift along. There are few moments of abrasive abstraction. Instead, the album is filled with wistful compositions that billow about like washing on the line. The playing is fluid. It isn’t rigid or brittle. Take All the World in Confusion. There is a blistering solo that lasts pretty much the duration of the song. It borrows so many cliché tropes from rock, but it doesn’t feel cliché. It feels the opposite. Vibrant and exciting. The solo is underpinned by elegant piano, sparse percussion, and throbbing bass, amongst other things. Eventually, the solo runs out of steam and gracefully drifts away. This is when the song comes into its own, as the backing instruments suddenly have a moment to shine. And shine they do.

What Le gouffre / The Chasm does really well is entertaining. It isn’t trying to show off how clever it can be. It isn’t trying to show how well proficient the musicians are. It isn’t trying to these and a slew of other things. At its core Le gouffre / The Chasm is just trying to entertain and it does that. Repeatedly.

The music they produce is instantly memorable, regardless of whether it fits your tastes or not.

Review

Nick Roseblade, Vital, no. 1277, March 22, 2021
Friday, March 26, 2021 Press

Despite the way it’s being dressed up Commutation is a cover, or reinterpretations, album. Each of the eight tracks is a graphic score written by different composers. This means that the composer used visual symbols to create the notation, rather than traditional musical notation. The five composers, Luigi Russolo, Emilie Girard-Charest, Anestis Logothetis, Fred Frith, Maxime Daigneault, span 100 years of music and culture. What is remarkable that Ensemble SuperMusique plays them in a way that you can’t really tell what era they are from. This is down to the ensemble using a collection of winds, electronics, and percussion to make them sounds contemporary. A prime example is Pour l’heure, one of the standout moments. Instead of using strings, Ensemble SuperMusique re-score it is using electronics, as well as organic sounds. The playing is sparse but forthright. The horns give Pour l’heure a sinister vibe that might have been missing on the original score. The final third, with its bellowing horns and scratchy field recordings, really define the mood of the piece and act as a bookend to how it starts.

In the middle of the album is a suite of Fred Frith’s four Stone, Brick, Glass, Wood, Wire compositions. This is the most important section on the album. On this the album hangs. Original a live double album by Frith these performances take his ideas and run with them. Ensemble SuperMusique’s versions have the same vibe, slightly wonky and eerie, but they ramp up the tension in the way that Frith’s versions don’t. Underpinning all the songs is this junk table aesthetic. Throughout assorted things are being rattled, shook, and jingled. The effect is unsettling, but you can’t look away. Just like in a horror film you have to watch the gruesome imagery; despite being warned by the music. The same is true here.

The albums downside is that it is all a bit oppressive. There is no space between the notes being played. Now, I can’t work out if this is down to the way Ensemble SuperMusique has decided to play the pieces of music or if they purposely picked music that would give them the ability to reinterpret the music this way. Given that these are graphic scores it’s hard to know. The only downside to this is that these versions might lose some fluidity to what the originals had. Saying that Commutation is a glorious piece of music that makes us think about how technology is used and what happens with the data after our task has been completed.

… a glorious piece of music…

Review

Nick Roseblade, Vital, no. 1277, March 22, 2021
Friday, March 26, 2021 Press

There is something delicate about Marilyn Lerner and Nicole Rampersaud’s playing on Brass Knuckle Sandwich that you miss the first couple of time you play it. At first, it all sounds like broad brushstrokes of sound. That susurration for example. It is all long, shrill, trumpet blasts from Rampersaud and harrowing piano tinkering from Lerner, but after you become a tune to it, you start to realise that there is a fragility to the playing. Lerner isn’t so much filling in the spaces left by Rampersaud, but she is adding patches of light to encounter the raspy blasts. It works fantastically well. We are giving a vibrant performance and an indication of what to expect on the rest of the album.

Evermore is probably the most conventional track. Lerner’s piano is elegant and wouldn’t be out of place being played at a dinner party. The work runs are measured but with a slightly ominous edge. When Rampersaud comes in, around the halfway mark, her playing is more conventional and restrained. It reminds me of the work of Marc Chagall. The paintings are lifelike but there is a level of abstraction to them that takes you by surprise. The same is true here. Lerner is playing some really beautiful motifs. It pulls at the heart, then Rampersaud comes in and, BAM, everything has a slightly off-kilter vibe to it. It’s the strongest track on the album.

At first, I thought that Brass Knuckle Sandwich was an odd title, but after listening to it a few times it makes perfect sense. The knockout punch happened during Rizoo. The final track, Rizoo, is also the one that everything hangs on. The previous six have set out the aims and points for the performances. They have shown Lerner and Rampersaud’s regard, and disregard, for a convention. There have been eloquent melodies and bestially thrashings, but here it all comes together. To being with Lerner is taking the more collected route again. Her controlled work is delightful, with a playfulness that was missing on some of the earlier tracks. As with Evermore it allows you to get comfortable with the piece. Rampersaud is again shrill, then around the halfway mark, the roles switch. Lerner starts to play more abstractly with Rampersaud playing in a more conventional manner. The change happens so slowly you almost miss it until it’s too late. What Rizoo does it break our mindset of the previous six tracks. It changes our perceptions with not only what Lerner and Rampersaud are capable of, but what the album is about.

At its heart, this is an album that likes to play with our ideas of form and composition. It leads us one way then bops us over the head and runs off giggling, like a character in a child’s comic. There is no malice intended, just a thrill of doing it. But what did we expect from two of Canada’s greatest improvisers? This is an album that works as a conversation between gifted, and patient, musicians. They are both taking the time to get their points across, while listening, and considering the others. If only all music was this audacious.

If only all music was this audacious.

Critique

Claude Colpaert, Revue & Corrigée, no. 127, March 1, 2021
Thursday, March 25, 2021 Press

… the two pieces gathered here play with the space and the acoustics of the venue…