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The Contest of Pleasures - Albi Days

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Artist: The Contest of Pleasures

Album: Albi Days

Label: Potlatch

Review date: Jun. 11, 2006

The Contest of Pleasures consists of John Butcher on tenor and soprano saxophones, Xavier Charles on clarinet, and Axel Dörner on trumpet. They’ve taken their name from the title of their first album, a startlingly beautiful performance in a French country church as part of the 2000 Mulhouse festival. Five years on, this new set maintains the group’s overall sound but reflects a new focus on process and production. Following a week’s recording in Albi, France – where the trio was recorded in a number of different acoustic settings – the musicians selected bits from the entire session and rearranged them, editing them until they could reasonably be considered compositions (which Butcher likens to musique concrète). This yields a music that can glow with an almost serene beauty while also making the most abrupt and often jarring transitions.

Though not recorded with the natural reverb of a cathedral, the group still has a huge sound. Whereas the first album blended the sonorities of, say, wind ensemble Alder Brook via Giacinto Scelsi crossed with eai (electro-acoustic improvisation), this follow-up drifts far more towards the latter idiom. All three of these players seem to have made significant strides on their instruments in the intervening years. Dörner seems to be more intent than ever, not simply on subterranean splatter noises but on swirls of air, distant sirens, banshee songs, and a general etherealism that suits this group quite well. Butcher is one of those rare musicians who continues to develop his sound in fascinating ways (just consult his extraordinary Invisible Ear or Cavern with Nightlife), and Charles’ sensibility for this kind of sound is captured in his miniature La Neige Attend la Neige.

Most pieces highlight the group’s blending of crossing tones and long laminal excursions with intense passages where breath and gurgles imitate mixing boards and cassette mangling. The opening of "Garden Cases" is remarkable in this light, with reed sounds like dying wheezes egged on by Dörner's low rustle. Somehow this stuff sounds more like Günter Müller or eriKm than two horns (this same effect presents itself on the Müller-esque pulse of the closing “Les cornichons”). And there are parts of “Karfiol” which focus on abrupt transitions and huge moving blocks of noise in a nearly Joe Colley-like fashion. Yet there are also more conventional pleasures. Sometimes when Charles is really working the upper partials of a note, for example, Butcher gets quite grainy and Dörner plays with clarion purity, resulting in a magnificent drone (as on “Winter Squash”) – but just as often, the group are likely to let the bottom fall out immediately into a blip and glitch sequence.

It’s easy to be impressed by the sheer technical range audible from minute to minute – a sonic bestiary, a catalogue of every click, cluck, murmur, and coo you could imagine. But the real delight is the rich, sumptuous, fully realized group sound, manifested not just in the sonic union but in the purpose of these pieces. A highlight of the year so far.

By Jason Bivins

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