Wednesday 1st SeptemberSeptember 2, 2010
When The International Nothing’s first album, Mainstream came out back in 2006 I somehow managed to miss picking up a copy. I heard the music, or some of it anyway, when Alastair, my co-presenter on audition brought his copy in to play on the radio one week, and so I think I assumed I owned my own disc, until recently I noticed it was the only gap in my collection of releases from the Improvised Music from Japan group of labels. Perhaps it was the album’s proximity to the Magic I.D release that came out around the same time, involving a similar cast of musicians that put me off making an immediate purchase. I wasn’t a huge fan of that group’s first album. So this disc, which centres around the clarinet duo of Kai Fagaschinski and Michael Thieke, but also includes their Magic I.D colleagues Margareth Kammerer and Christof Kurzmann on separate tracks alongside the bassists Christian Weber and Derek Shirley wasn’t high up my purchasing list back then, and subsequently got forgotten. Then, a few weeks back when IMJ’s Ftarri label released the follow up CD, i decided to buy a copy, and while placing my order I added a copy of Mainstream in. Both arrived, and I will write about the new disc tomorrow, but now, better late than never, here are my thoughts on Mainstream.
First of all, the title is a cheeky one, maybe a nod to the way the Magic I.D release was described, as some kind of attempt to find a wider audience. Although there are songs to be found on this release, Mainstream really doesn’t live up to its name, though all of the tracks here are apparently entirely composed, a fact that sounds clear in some places, but less so in others. The first four tracks here are all relatively similar in style, the duo of Fagaschinski and Thieke playing without guests, working mostly with the notion of harmonic patterns, often matching each other’s pitches perfectly and then letting the music evolve as the two clarinets wander out of sync with each other. The music is generally slow, recorded quite loud, all notes, no extended techniques, and on the whole never slipping into any melody, though each of the opening pieces suggests that it might do any second.
I like these pieces a lot. They have a misleading simplicity to them, you could be mistaken for thinking the music was improvised, or that playing together in these finally tuned harmonic exercises might be easier than playing “straight”, but in fact there is a lot of skill and thought gone into the creation of this music, from the writing, which clearly required a fine knowledge of the instrumentation involved, to the finely tuned ear required to perform the music. I think I’d probably have days when the constant crossing over of clarinet lines and steadily repeated passages would grate on me a little, but listening tonight with dimmed lights and unusually quiet streets outside an open window it works really well.
The fifth track- and the morning, includes Kammerer on guitar and vocals, and inevitably I lose a bit of interest. The similarity between Kammerer’s voice and Billie Holiday’s is evident here, but I’m just not a fan. The opening tracks had a real subtlety to them that feels a little lost here as the vocals take front stage. The guitar playing does little for me either, a kind of rhythmic use of two chords for much of the time, very basic but somehow not as intriguing as the way the simple clarinet lines mix with each other. The following Rollig brings things back to the basic two reeds format again, simplifying things even further into a series of patterns that repeat gradually, moving out of sync with one another, stopping once worn out and a new pattern of intertwined playing replacing the last one. There are faint resemblances to Feldman here in the way the music moves through these often similar yet slightly different structures.
If Rollig is my favourite duo track on the album, the seventh piece on the album, the memorably titled Lovetone could be my favourite overall. Fagaschinski and Thieke are joined here by the twin double basses of Christian Weber and Derek Shirley, but things are still not allowed to dissolve into a free-for-all mass. The composition is as tight as ever, perfectly picked out harmonics allowed to meet together and then gradually pull apart, but the addition of the two deep voices of the basses adds a nice depth to the piece, either when growling under the strain of a bow or plucked with a thumb. On this piece the music feels darker, more sinister, looming large around the listener while remaining so simple, the added instrumental weight and widened, deeper musical palette works very nicely indeed.
The final piece is a remix of the duo works by Chistoph Kurzmann. He seems to have cut the pieces up and overlaid them into a kind of seething mass of sounds that works OK really until Kurzmann begins to sing. For me (and I appreciate I am very much in the minority here) the track becomes completely unlistenable once Kurzmann begins to sing. I can’t really make out what he sings about here, and I can’t see myself remembering any of these tunes at all, but the half-spoken voice feels like a rhythmic device as much as anything more.\
So, a mixed bag. One thing that is very clear however is the exceptional degree of skill involved in performing this difficult music. While I could easily have discarded a couple of track here there can be no debating the musical dexterity of these two instrumentalists. The rest just all feels like a bit of a pantomime. The new CD only involves the clarinet duo, so I suspect, and hope that I might like it all a lot more than Mainstream, but I’ll get to that one tomorrow. Interesting, really quite different music anyway. Glad I finally got around to pinning a copy down
For Wombatz, and anyone else interested, I worked thirteen hours today and so came home just as exhausted as yesterday. Three very strong coffees have helped me through this review, so apologies for its thin quality, but I can guarantee that I have spent quite a bit of time with this album over the past couple of weeks. Off to bed now. Oh yes….