In a sense, the critical acclaim garnered by the Potlatch imprint is much ado about nothing, though that's in no way indicative of the label's quality. The label adheres to fairly consistent aesthetic coordinates, with more than a tendency toward eai (electro-acoustic improvisation) or minimalism or lowercase improv or whatever clever codification is used to indicate such sounds these days. Propagations, one of Potlatch's most recent releases, collects a quartet of saxophonists for 40 minutes of music that, unsurprisingly, has a distinct lack of easily identifiable saxophone sounds. Two altos (Marc Baron and Jean-Luc Guionnet), a tenor (Bertrand Denzler) and a soprano (Stéphane Rives) get together, but the results tend to blur the lines between the musicians. Individual output is, at times, sketchily recognizable, but Propagations relies more on anonymity in its low-key sea of soft and subtle sounds.
Wide-open spaces mark Propagations; the players rarely crowd each other, and it's not unusual to find only two, or even one, of the quartet's members playing at any given time. Like the end of a bag of microwavable popcorn, much of the album is populated by sparse and unpredictable pops and clucks, separated by a silence marked not by tension, but rather a relaxed sense of patience. When the sound is strung out, the players intermingle a bit more freely, their soft tones in tight layers, rising and falling, or creeping along underfoot before coming to a staccato, sputtering end. Their are some massed moments in which the quartet play with some insistency, finding a volume in numbers that is almost monolithic against the relative tranquility of the rest of the disc. Even at its most insistent, however, Propagations won't wake the neighbors (though some of the higher register squeals might rouse the family dog).
Improv of this sort doesn't require or rely on a payoff, and, anyone waiting for any sort of formulaic crescendo or finale would be frustrated more times than not. Still, there's something quite satisfying about Propagations' third track. It's not the only time the quartet engage in long tones and layered sound, but it's the disc's most striking passage, richly running counter to the silence and space that play such a big part in Propagations’ sound. Despite the quartet's clear intent to travel well outside their instruments' expected norms, there remains a careful quality to the album's sound, and any skepticism from the novice regarding the peculiarity of the group's sound should be summarily extinguished by the precise nature of their near surgical approach.