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Creative Sources Redux

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The unflaggingly energetic Portuguese label continues its chronicle of new areas of free improvisation, as Jason Bivins attempts to keep up.

Creative Sources Redux

Since writing about Creative Sources earlier in 2005, over a dozen new recordings have been released on Ernesto Rodrigues’ fine imprint. Still concentrating, roughly speaking, on micro-improv and electroacoustics, the label has developed several specific areas of concentration: solos, duos, and group improvisations.

Michael Thieke has recorded frequently for Creative Sources, contributing to excellent ensemble discs by Schwimmer and one entitled Kreis. Leuchten (Creative Sources 040) is a solo recital – comprised of five improvisations from June 2002 – for alto clarinet. In some ways it’s a shame this disc didn’t come out much sooner, as the wonderful techniques Thieke explores are perhaps somewhat more commonplace now than they were three years ago. But the music is still thoughtful, rich, and satisfying. On each track, Thieke rigorously explores a different technical area. He displays a remarkable range of wet noises on “Nicht Existent.” The breathiness of “Diffusion” is quite intense and gets right into your earhole – at times it sounds as if there are multiple players at work here, and in some ways sounds more like a no-input mixing board piece than a reeds performance. Close attention is required to digest the tiny insect noises of “Jene Randfiguren,” yet this is an interval before the boisterous, expressive concluding pieces. On “Digamma” he actually gets his clarinet to sound like a bass flute, and on “Quellend” the already extended and reconsidered properties of his instrument are abstracted and devolved further as hissing, crackling feedback seems to emit from the horn. It’s a fine disc, and more satisfying than some of the label’s other recent solo reeds releases.

Trumpeter Nate Wooley’s Wrong Shape to Be a Storyteller (Creative Sources 038) sits aside a number of fascinating solo trumpet documents in recent years (by Axel Dörner, Franz Hautzinger, and Greg Kelley, among others). Wooley’s document is a single 51-minute track recorded in August 2004. The nature of solo albums can be episodic, especially when one is ambitious enough to have just a single track. But in general there’s a direction to this piece (indeed, one of its ambitions may be, taking a cue from the title, to subvert expectations about conventionally “narrative” playing). There are certainly any number of interesting techniques heard here: pinched squeals, soft static punctuated by sharp rushes of breath, ghosts working the valves, and unsettling scuttling. But what’s really fascinating is Wooley’s propensity to use post-production and editing (at least I think that’s what’s going on) to create some very rude (and provocative) juxtapositions. Some of this brutal noisemaking recalls Kelley’s work in particular (especially his great recent release on Little Enjoyer/Gameboy): blasts of noise serve as segues to different techniques, but occasionally long periods of silence do the same. The combination of glitches, ruptures, and silences, mixed with Wooley’s already considerable instrumental range, make this a really fascinating document.

Abu Tarek (Creative Sources 025) features two highly gifted trumpeters, pairing the relatively well-known Franz Hautzinger (who has slowly developed a very granular, microtonal improvising style on his quartertone trumpet) with Lebanese newcomer Mazen Kerbaj. The nine improvisations were recorded without overdubbing or editing in August 2003 in Lebanon. As one expects from Hautzinger, very few conventional trumpet sounds are to be heard here, save those of human breath alone. Everything sounds slowed down and vaguely distorted, like a centuries-old magnetic tape from which the source materials have faded. Huge excoriating sounds blend with violent spasms of wind. “Hermel” starts with lonely bugle cries suspended over popping noise, but midway through the piece is overtaken by low cavernous noise – ah, the wonders of close miking! But this is just a prelude for the rumbling flatulence and cranking industrial noise of later tracks, like the helicopter blades of “Kalash 1” and strobe sounds on “Kalash 2.” “Sarukh” explores the greatest extremes, with high pinched squeals contrasting with bullroarer whooshing. And the disc closes with “Rote erde 1,” which is dominated by the sound of gears turning on a desolate windswept plain. This is fascinating, evocative stuff.

Two relatively unheralded Swedish improvisers, saxophonist Martin Küchen (here credited with prepared and nonprepared alto) and guitarist David Stackenäs (who also uses “low-budget electronics” on this disc) explore very subtle, understated territory on Agape (Creative Sources 035). Does the title refer to an opening or to the Latin term for selfless love? Perhaps both. There are five tracks (recorded in May 2004), and Küchen explores resonance and circular breathing (as opposed to the approximations of animal life heard on his fine solo disc on Confront). Though the duo works in careful and restrained territory, they achieve a fullness and rich presence: many of the most powerful moments involve slow feedback humming, microtones flirting then blending, and a slow degeneration of tone that recalls some of Polwechsel’s early pieces. Occasionally there is a clattery breakdown, as on the second track. But they generally avoid any rhythmic impetus in favor of sonic sheen and the crackle of breath mixed with electricity. There is a slight repetitiveness that creeps in by the end of the record, but the stunning third track is worth the price alone. It begins with e-bowed acoustic strings floating through Küchen’s wet gurgles. Things rise and fall, accumulate and disperse (Stackenäs makes some alarm-bell sound which seems to provoke and cajole), fittingly encapsulating this fine duo’s overall methodology.

Los Glissandinos – already vying for most pithy and punk rock name by an improv duo – are sine wave specialist Klaus Filip and clarinetist Kai Fagaschinski. From a couple of dates in Austria during July 2004, Stand Clear (Creative Sources 029) features some of the richest and best-integrated electro-acoustic music so far this year. Control and restraint are the name of the game here, expressed most sumptuously in the gorgeous, long, sustained tones where the two instrumentalists blend seamlessly together, achieving the fullness of an Eliane Radigue or Alvin Lucier piece (particularly so on the opening “The Long Ride of Sancho Panza”). Filip (whose work I really only know from the slightly disappointing Building Excess on Grob) is masterful here, subtly introducing different levels and shapes from the background. And Fagaschinski’s control extends not only to circular breathing and even breath but to very finely nuanced use of breath to connote feedback and radio static. The disc’s centerpiece is the 25-minute “History of Animals,” whose most immediate feature is the way round low-tones force their way to the front against flickering sparks of static. But the piece is really about oscillation and sympathetic vibration, the way the huge low end reverberates along with the clarinet or the way both pinch off their instrument’s high range until the music is constricted to the point of a dagger. This is an intense disc which stands out from the pack.

Swift Machine (Creative Sources 036) seems a somewhat odd title for music so patient and organic sounding. Gilles Aubry puts his computer into the mix with saxophonist Antoine Chessex and guitarist Torsten Papenheim from Kainkwartet. Though there are a lot of bracing moments on this disc, I find it to be the least compelling of this lot. When the music works best – as on the second and the sixth of these untitled improvisations – the trio wades through nicely organic, integrated stuff, with no voices trying to dominate. In other words, their music works best when they just let it go. But they don’t always do this so well. Occasionally they seem to get preoccupied with specific gestures (like Papenheim’s occasional Bailey-isms, Chessex’s slap-tonguing, or some theremin-like sounds) that pull against the improvisations’ flow. Not that I begrudge these players the attempt to combine idioms; it’s just that the attempts don’t always grab me so much. But these are still fine musicians taking chances, and the album has its share of good moments anyhow.

Dining Room Music (Creative Sources 039) is from a very intriguing quartet consisting of Quentin Dubost on guitar, Ingar Zach on percussion, Stéphane Rives on soprano saxophone, and Wade Matthews on bass clarinet and alto flute. More than most of the releases in this batch, it’s a meeting (recorded in August 2004 at a festival in Beirut, of all places) of two somewhat different approaches to free improvisation: Dubost and Rives tend towards what is often misleadingly called “lowercase” music while Matthews and Zach display a greater affinity with more effusive, expressionist improvisation. Each musician gets an insane range of sounds out of his instrument and, needless to say, conventional properties are rarely audible. As the quartet finds its way through the first piece, the dominant voice is Zach’s as he rubs and bows to create massive low end spectres that send the other players scurrying. The best moments of this piece, as on the other two, are the more subdued ones since the heat and fire tend to obscure Rives’ subtle contributions in particular. The second piece connotes the tall bamboo pictured on the cover, with deep resonant wet noises dropping amidst actively clattering wood amid hazy heat (though I occasionally find Matthews’ busy contributions to be a bit distracting). But the promise of the meeting is fully realized in the gorgeous third piece, where anguished saxophones moan in restraint while Dubost sizzles.

Finally, Stralau (Creative Sources 032) is a long improvisation is credited to tenor saxophonist Bertrand Denzler, trumpeter Axel Dörner, baritone and soprano saxophonist Daniel Erdmann, drummer Michael Griener, and the ubiquitous Günter Müller (on iPod, md, selected percussion, and electronics). It’s music that confronts two challenges head-on: first, the long form improvisational course, and second, the use of basically conventional instrumentation in such spare, non-idiomatic playing. Griener is something of a wild card here, as his subtle rattlings and reverberations link up with Müller to provide a continually adapting bed of sound. In this kind of context it’s very, very difficult to adapt wind instruments (saxophones in particular, I think) to music which aims to avoid conventional gestures and expressions. These players, especially Denzler and the masterful Dörner, pull it off quite well. It’s not as if they really want to efface themselves, but rather to dissolve conventional boundaries. For while you hear a sudden thwack or scrape, a jagged blast of feedback or horn howl, what really compels is the overall sense of merging. True, that could be said of many recordings. Stralau, however, has a kind of fractiousness or an edge to it that lifts it above the dreamily commonplace.

By Jason Bivins

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