Thursday 26th NovemberNovember 27, 2009
Between the ages of 16 and 18 I studied ceramics to A Level standard in school, before this I had never touched a lump of clay, but only had wistful dreams of becoming the next Rodin. When I first set about trying to build my first dramatic sculpture however I quickly learned that it really wasn’t as simple as having an end product in your head and setting about making it. The clay kept drying on me, pots kept falling apart, or sagging, or if I got past that stage they then chose to blow up in the kiln. I was probably two thirds of the way through my course before I finally reached a stage where I felt confident enough to work freely with my materials and I could throw a decent pot without too much trouble. The thing is, I had whittled down my extravagant ideas so much to be able to keep things simple that in the end I just seemed to make the same medium size pot. Lots of times. Breaking out beyond this would clearly take more than the simplest mastery of my materials.
So musicians, particularly those working with acoustic instruments must feel the same. I would imagine, for an improvising, or experimental musician the wild ideas about music probably come before the skill required to produce it. I can envisage some good, creative music for trumpet in my head, but give me one of the things and I bet I couldn’t get a note out of it. Or a grainy texture… Nmperign, the American duo of Bhob Rainey and Greg Kelley seem to have reached a stage now whereby if something is possible with their instruments (sax and trumpet respectively) they could do it without having to think too hard. the problem then is now they have reached that stage, where to go next, where does the actual music come from once the technical experimentation comes to a halt, or near as damn it. Many of Nmperign’s contemporaries, from around the turn of the millennium, particularly those in Europe seem to have fought with this problem, and found the answer to be to add new elements to their instrument (often electronics) that then need further investigation, or in the case of quite a few musicians, switched instruments altogether. While Kelley has been known to play electronics on a couple of solo discs to some acclaim, and Rainey’s musique concrete album with Ralf Wehowsky was one of my favourites of a few years back, the duo when playing together have on the whole kept their first instruments close to hand. They have then tended to augment their sound by inviting other musicians to play alongside them.
Their new album though, the first for a while as a true unadorned duo, named Ommatidia and released on the Intransitive label is a simple, clean sax and trumpet album, with nothing added and only basic editing work taking anything away. The interesting thing for me then, given their sheer mastery of the tools to hand, is what do they do with them? How can they make an album using methods they know so well and make it sound fresh and worthwhile?
Well having spent a lot of time with the CD today, I can honestly say that if they set out to make something particularly fresh or groundbreaking (which I doubt they actually did) they didn’t succeed. But on the worthwhile front they scored top marks for me. Ommatidia (the name refers to the compound eye that insects have, made up of many visual receptors each looking out into different directions but combining to create one whole resulting image. A clever choice) is in many ways a straight up free improv album, nothing flashy, none of the (excellent) gimmicks, transitions and humour that made their last album for Intransitive alongside Jason Lescalleet so good to listen to, no moments of controversy to pick out, just two musicians in a room playing together. If I had to differentiate this album from other duo Nmperign albums then maybe it is a little louder, a little less concerned by aesthetic finishes. It is truly an honest album that captures in excellent clarity the position these two musicians are at right now, in command and control of their instruments, and working with sheer spontaneity to wrestle and fight with the clay and form music that lives and breathes through its own form, questions and resolutions.
Ommatidia is a great album to get lost in, clear the decks, either put on some headphones or close the doors and your eyes and follow the music through its shapes and angular maze of intertwined splutters, rasps, near silences and drilling aggression and just enjoy the level these two are working on. The sounds just come out of nowhere at what feels like just the right times, sections of calm and energy fit together and compliment each other well, it is simply a real joy to follow closely, mentally separating the two musicians so as to marvel at how they work together. I am one of the first people to applaud invention, new ideas, musicians that seem to challenge worn old boundaries, and I always will. But if there is one thing I have taught myself over recent months it may be that music that does not necessarily attempt to break the rules or find the Emperor some new clothes can still be exceptionally good and thoroughly worth the listening experience. This is definitely the case with this album. I certainly don’t expect the next Nmperign album to sound the same (If indeed there is one, I believe Bhob Rainey has recently moved away from the duo’s native Boston) and for sure both musicians will continue to make very different music elsewhere, but for now this release bottles up years of invention, collaboration and musical familiarity into one finely distilled example of how great musicians that know each other well can produce great music.