CD Reviews

Wednesday 17th June

June 18, 2009

As I mentioned at some point over the last few days, there is suddenly another influx of potentially great CDs here that have all landed on me in a short period of time. There are six (yes, six!) new Another Timbre releases, including the four CDr discs that portray music recorded over a couple of days around London in March. Can’t wait to get stuck into those. Also there is a couple of new Jez riley French discs here, the intriguing Murayama/Ezaki/Kinoshita release, a new Erstwhile and two great looking new Potlatch discs alongside a collection of demos by good people. So yeah, good times.

Tonight I chose one of these new releases, Formnction is the first release by the duo called Narthex on the Potlatch label. This is a release I was very curious to hear after reading recent reports. Narthex are the saxophone / double bass duo of Marc Baron and Loic Blairon respectively. Before I try and write anything on the music I will reproduce the liner notes written by the musicians here, to give you a picture of what this release is all about:

How we proceed
1. We record six improvised pieces of 30 minutes each, in six different locations, numbered in chronological order from 1 to 6. All pieces were recorded in France by our means.
2. The sound recording process is decided upon the listening experience we have in each location.
3. Each improvised piece is divided into six 5-minute long parts.Â
4. We make a 30-minute piece composed of six excerpts from the six improvised pieces. The first five minutes of the recomposed piece are extracted from improvised piece #1 (from 0:00 to 5:00) ; the next 5 minutes consist of another excerpt from improvised piece #2 (but from 5:00 to 10:00), and so forth. We thus achieve a 30-minute long instrumental piece, composed of six excerpts in chronological order.
5. We produce a 30-minute digital piece based on improvised piece #4, which we consider suitable for this purpose. The sounds of the saxophone (Marc Baron) and the double-bass (Loïc Blairon) are respectively replaced with 1000 and 500 Hz frequencies. The background noise is removed by digital noise cancellation.
6. The digital piece (-1) is the first track on the CD because we enjoy the listening experience it provides. We also like the reverse – starting with the acoustic piece (2) – and we recommend to try both.

Right… interesting. The first thing to say about this music is that there is plenty of silence involved. Formnction fits neatly into the canon of somewhat conceptual, uncompromising but equally intriguing releases we normally expect from the likes of Taku Unami, Radu Malfatti, Taku Sugimoto or the Encadre musicians. As the notes above state, the first half-hour long piece is a digital work that constructs one of the acoustic improvisations the musicians played, but switching the instruments for two sinetones, and replacing the hum of the room noise with digital silence, effectively removing all evidence of the musicians and their quiet, sparse music, or at least in their human guise, and replacing it with a highly simplified facsimile. The metaphor of a fax actually works well for me here. It is as if someone took a Turner painting and fed it through a photocopier with the contrast turned up. What remains is a black and white reproduction that loses all unnecessary detail, with just a basic outline of the same size and shape remaining. It has a strange, cold, almost brutal beauty to it. A thick, clingy tone replaces what were probably long sax lines, and smaller popping tones replace the bass. There is a lot of white space in there too.

The second track is, as the notes again detail, put together using six clinically separated segments from six different improvisations recorded in different places, the first five minutes being the first five minutes of the first improv, the second five minutes being the music between 5 and 10 minutes on the second improv, and so on until the six five minute segments form a half-hour long piece. This is a curious work that I like a lot. Any attempt as a listener to try and listen in the normal manner falls short, because as each five minute section passes we enter a different time and place and the music follows off in another direction. There isn’t much music here again, just carefully places sax tones and occasional violent wrench at the bass, but actually the clearest indication that the music has moved from one recording to another is when the faint roomtone that can be heard on most of the segments alters slightly.

I’m not sure about what conceptually drives this music, but I cannot help but feel that the erasure of the human touch has something to do with it. Initially the improvised music, performed by the traditional jazz-related sax / bass instrumentation denies so much of the history of those instruments, and the sounds we get are few and far between, and somewhat removed from the history of the instruments. Then the flow and expression of the improvisations is curtailed when the music is chopped up at even, predetermined points dictated by a stopwatch rather than where the good music may lie. then in the final transformation of the music the sounds are all removed and replaced by the off or on polarisation of the digital reworkings. I am reminded of Radu Malfatti’s digital realisations of some of the scores he originally wrote for instrumental groups.

While as you may guess Formnction will not please those that have little time for the conceptual end of things I rather like the way this has all come out. The digital piece has a hard, constructivist feel to it that my graphic design trained mind rather likes. At the same time, trying to listen to the acoustic cut-up piece as a single musical work is also an interesting experience. I wonder if, when music gets this minimal, when the palette contains only very few colours and the sounds are somewhat oblique does the collage method of its creation really show? Were the original, sparse improvisations any more coherent than the final piece we hear on the album? Just working through this CD a few times, letting these ideas stew is a nice way to spend an evening. I like Formnction a lot, but many other won’t. Beautiful sleeve design too.

A quick plug for a gig tomorrow night that unfortunately I cannot attend. The Post Quartet play at Café Oto with Angharad Davies standing in on one of the violin chairs. They will perform works by Michael Parsons, Taylan Susam, Tom Johnson, Henri Vaxby and Helmut Lachenmann’s magnificent work for solo cello, Pression. Wish I could be there but I can’t.

I will hopefully be back in London on friday and Saturday nights though to catch this year’s Cut’n Splice event, this time featuring Alvin Lucier presenting several of his pieces, the DAARS project, John Duncan with CM von Hausswolff, Jason Lescalleet and others. Then more gigs next week. It never stops…

Comments (5)

  • gohleekwang

    June 18, 2009 at 2:04 am

    i have a demo from Marc Baron which he called it “conceptual instrumental work” in his email. very interesting works too, the first listening was a challenging / funny one (and very refreshing too), atleast 3 times i have go and check my cd player see if it is working properly, and question if the sound is coming from the recording or just the noise outside, and look for his email to find out what instrument he actually play on the recording.

  • franlopez

    June 18, 2009 at 3:52 am

    I remember reading Diego Chamy’s comments on this record some time ago:

    It’s interesting. I haven’t heard the actual thing, so I don’t have an opinion, or anything to say about the record, but it’s interesting that you are wondering:

    “if, when music gets this minimal, when the palette contains only very few colours and the sounds are somewhat oblique does the collage method of its creation really show? Were the original, sparse improvisations any more coherent than the final piece we hear on the album?”

    And Diego asks:

    “What is happening in between these 5-minute extracts? Why aren’t we able to experience 5 minutes all at once? Would it be better to scratch this CD before playing it? And what about any other CD?”

    Reading your blog and some other places, I get the feeling that there are a lot of releases every week. I can only wonder, what’s the point?
    (Yes, I know that’s not what you were saying and neither was Diego, it’s just a feeling I’m having. And yes, I realize that the fact that we are asking the question because of a record should say something about the answer itself. But still, I think it’s good to think about this.)

  • Richard Pinnell

    June 18, 2009 at 10:25 am

    Fran, many thanks for sharing that. I often enjoy what Diego writes and that is an interesting piece about an interesting CD.

    Getting into the question of why there are so many CDs is perhaps an unrelated (and already much discussed) question, but I do like what Diego has to say about Formnction refusing to follow the normal “logic” used by musicians. The second track is indeed like a patchwork quilt, but an interesting thing for me is that the musicians used a formula to decide which patches to place where, they did not just choose the “best” ones. This leads me to wonder how they feel about what could have been the stronger parts of their improvisations left on the virtual cutting room floor? This method rejects the usual pattern of going through recordings looking for the strongest parts to put together a CD, reinforcing my thoughts on how this release seems to be denying the normal more “human” processes involved in music from taking place.

  • Alastair

    June 18, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    Angharad is standing in on a violin chair?

  • franlopez

    June 19, 2009 at 1:12 am

    Yes, I know it’s a common place. For some reason it’s been bothering me a lot these last couple of weeks…
    When I wrote that comment, I saw a really clear link between what you were saying, what I remembered Diego saying and what I was thinking. Now, that link seems a lot blurrier.

    Anyway, the important thing about the comment was Diego’s article, everything else was some ramble I’m absolutley not sure about.

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