Sophie Agnel, Bertrand Gauguet and Andrea Neumann - "Piste 02" (Spiral Inputs)
“I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,” the New Seekers sang in that old Coke commercial, giving voice to a toxic musical platonic ideal. How much music is rendered unlistenably bland by the search for perfection? Sophie Agnel, Bertrand Gauguet and Andrea Neumann not only embrace the impossibility of perfect harmony, they go out of their way to foster confusion.
Alongside these three (who play piano, saxophones, and piano frame, respectively), there is a fourth member — engineer Benjamin Maumus. His unique speaker setup during the recording ensured that the musicians rarely were certain of the origin of the sounds they heard. He scattered speakers throughout the recording and performance spaces, and routed sounds so that the speaker nearest a musician might exclusively play someone else’s sounds. Combine this with the presence of two pianos (albeit one that is unboxed) and you’ve got a fine mess that keeps the players off balance. Everyone in the group had to really listen to figure out whether the sounds they heard first were their own or someone else’s.
Ironically, this off-center strategizing has yielded some admirably balanced improvisation. All three players come from a generation that has embraced extended technique as an essential. Gauguet plays more rasps and moans than recognizable notes on his horns, but is more overtly expressive than, say, Bhob Rainey or Stephane Rives. Neumann matches his lower pitches with e-bow hums, and Agnel spends plenty of time rummaging inside her instrument’s innards. But even musicians devoted to the extraction of unfamiliar sounds can amass a familiar vocabulary. While Maumus’s spacialization doesn’t mess with the musicians’ sounds, it does oblige each one to work hard in order to be aware of the group context. They respond to the uncertainty with both attunement and quiet abandon, which yields music that is constantly changing yet well paced, at once detailed and immersive. Their playing eschews conventional harmony, but the complementarity of the action is so harmonious that they establish a Platonic ideal of their own.