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Stéphane Rives - Fibres

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Artist: Stéphane Rives

Album: Fibres

Label: Potlatch

Review date: Jan. 8, 2004

As we lurch forward into the 21st century, aficionados of improvised music might well wonder if there is any possible further development in the world of extended instrumental techniques. When guitars have been atomized a la Keith Rowe, saxophones deconstructed a la John Butcher, and drums liquefied like Burkhard Beins, where do we go? Well, Stéphane Rives – a young French soprano saxophone specialist – has surprised me quite a bit in coming up with a recording of solo pieces that sounds new.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “he really gets inside the horn.” Usually, this phrase refers to a player whose knowledge of and facility with a saxophone is consummate. That may be so with Rives, although his saxophonic language is so far removed from “conventional” playing that such assessments may be moot, but if we were to apply the phrase to Fibres, its literal accuracy might reveal something of what’s new in Rives’ approach. In these intensely focused improvisations, most of which concentrate on a single aspect of the instrument's sonic capabilities, you can hear the horn’s metal, its varying resonances and vibrations, and its meeting with the player’s breath. As the label’s promotion aptly indicates, Rives’ “musical expression is close to an ‘acoustic-concrète’ approach to the instrument,” which focuses on the grain and the texture of sound itself rather than line or harmony.

What, then, separates Rives from similarly-obsessed sopranists like John Butcher, Bhob Rainey, and Michel Doneda? I would say first that the similarities are there and they should stand as a commendation of Rives abilities (in addition to which, Rives claims some of these players – along with Evan Parker and French trombonist Thierry Madiot – as inspiration). But I would also note that what distinguishes him is the way in which he personally transforms these shared elements into his own private, sometimes densely coded language. There are no squawking staccato runs here, no skirling tapestries of Parker-like sound, no duck calls or abstracted lyricism. Just sound: granular, laminal, and, yes, fibrous.

From the opening “Larsen et le Roseau #1” (the compositions are apparently named for sonic areas Rives is currently exploring, and he returns to each at least once throughout the hour-long record), the insanely high-pitched continuous tone will startle you. Even someone who listens to just a ton of improvised music can’t help but be impressed by the intensity of holding this single tone over the course of several minutes – it could actually fool some people into thinking they were listening to a Sachiko M or Toshimaru Nakamura record! – and then, very slowly, transforming it into a rawer, rising sound that abruptly ceases. Occasionally he is able to summon a ghostly saxophonic double (I kept thinking that over-dubbing was involved, but apparently this is not so) by producing a shadow tone in the low register, producing a sympathetic vibration in the horn, or using keypads to create a weird counterline. Elsewhere on the recording, Rives shows a facility for drone material, creating a huge shower of sound on his “Ébranlements,” and for seemingly pulverizing his saxophone and reducing it to a gurgling, wet wreck on “Granulations.” This is extremely rich, rewarding music which succeeds at the difficult task of expanding the language of the soprano saxophone while helping to establish the personal language of its practitioner, M. Rives. And, fascinatingly, Rives claims to have “no strictly musical intention” but seeks instead “to create new ways of shaking up [the] listener’s psychological security.” These improvisations can lance through the sunlight hours of your day, or surround you with eerie nighttime shadow. Listen to this one.

By Jason Bivins

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