Say you’re 24 years old, you live in Montréal, you’re studying improvisational guitar, and someone asks you who, out of all the giants in the field, you’d like to duet with? You might, quite possibly, respond just as Antoine Berthiaume did, and say “How about Derek Bailey and Fred Frith?” Bailey, after all, is the grand old man of the collective improvisatory movement, known for eliciting an extraordinary array of unguitarlike sounds from his instrument. Frith was a founder of semi-mythical prog pioneers Henry Cow and has since moved on to a whole range of experimental ensembles, including, most recently, the Fred Frith Guitar Quartet. If your fairy godmother was working that day, you might even fulfill your wish in something like Soshin, wherein Berthiaume trades odd sounds, lyrical flights of fancy, strange distortions and generally gorgeous not-quite-conventionally-musical excursions with these two elder statesmen.
The album opens with its title track, the only cut to feature Berthiaume alone and by far the quietest, most meditative piece on the album. Soshin is clearly a layered multi-track affair; Berthiaume interacts with himself, bowing, plucking, scratching and pounding on his guitar to produce a free-floating sculpture of sound. There are points during this track (about five minutes in) where he sounds like an entire string section, augmented by drums, and others where the unvarnished sound of guitar seems almost nakedly natural. This is also the only track based on any sort of written composition, a collaboration between Berthiaume and Denis Gougeron, yet like the others it captures an unrepeatable, self-evolving moment in time.
The title track is followed by two very different duets with Frith. Morning Froth layers plaintive, pitch-changing bowed notes with nearly conventional sprays of flamenco-esque plucking. The experimental moan flits through the piece like an apparition, along with spectral knockings and overtones, introducing a ghostly spiritual tone. Then the louder plucked guitar takes on an Eastern coloring, spinning fast world-leaning threads of sound into an echoing void. The effect, as a whole, is mysterious and electric, just a half shade off from the familiar. The much longer Indicateur d’assiette is, by contrast, more agitated and driven. Again, you have many, many sounds that don’t sound like they should be coming from guitar: a shuffling, frictive percussion, the swoop of viola, the building patter of helicopter rotors, the rasp of wires against each other, the electric buzz of machinery. There’s nothing here that resembles traditional chord structure, melody or even repetitive motifs — just a complex, free-flowing exchange of sounds, sometimes distinct and sometimes affecting each other in unexpected ways. The use of silence is also interesting here, setting off the musical equivalent of sentences and paragraphs, signalling the advent of something new. It makes you wonder how improvisers coordinate silences, which must in some ways be more difficult than merging sounds.
The final Frith duet, Wolf’s Wood, uses a similar palette of unusual sounds — the growl and twitter of finger stretching strings, a curious muted sawing and the insistent drumming of fingers on wood. It’s an extremely rhythmic track, anxious and somewhat claustrophobic. You realize several minutes in, when an echoing, chiming sound breaks through, that up to this point almost none of the guitar strings have been allowed to vibrate freely.
The Bailey/Berthiaume pieces are somewhat more tonal, but equally interesting. Afternoon Tea builds tension by layering long, sustained notes over their more staccato, plucked counterparts. The result is far more lyrical, more like music as we expect to hear it, but with the added edge that comes from a collaborative effort. Aquathèque, the album’s last and shortest cut, blends an interesting bubbling noise with the pizzicato tones of guitar strings choked up about as far as they will go. Again, there are tones that sound just like violin or viola, and others that evoke the no-human-hand tones of the synthesizer. It all blends in a calming musical meditation — a restrained melding of the two musicians’ thoughts and sensations.
Soshin requires your whole attention. It won’t work as car music or cooking music or any sort of background. To appreciate it, you’ll need a dark room, a soft floor and plenty of unhurried time to think. You may find, as I did, that it’s hard to put all of these elements together, but believe me, it’s worth it.