Today’s review is of another tape. yep, another one. Its not me is it? These damned things really are making a comeback! Fortunately again I was lucky enough to have been sent a download link to the digital files, though I did still purchase the physical object as well, despite the fact I have nothing to play it on. The release in question then is a set of two pieces (though maybe they both might have been edited from the same live set?) by the duo of Michael Johnsen (electronics and saw) and Pascal Battus (magnetic pick-ups) Recorded live at a venue named Bitches in Nantes, France, the tape then is titled Bitche Session and is released on the Organised Music from Thessaloniki label.
Now I am not that familiar with Michael Johnsen’s music, having not heard any of it before, but a very thorough write-up of it can be found here. Pascal Battus’ work on the other hand, I know very well. Combined here it is very difficult to ascertain which of the two musicians is making which of the sounds. The overall feel of the music is of a rough, raw set of live music recorded on just a couple of microphones. Its a clear recording but has that certain distant feel to it that many live recordings of this type feature. Whether this would be possible to discern once the music has been placed onto a cassette tape though I’ve no idea. The music then is abrasive and ugly, mostly shortish sounds, either the result of tiny electroacoustic blasts of one kind of another or Johnsen’s contact miked saw wobbling about. The feel is all very brittle and devoid of anything that might traditionally be called beautiful, but the strength of the music is in its conversational aspects, as the work has a strong narrative, almost chatty feel to it. Overall what we actually here is very much traditional improvised music, not that sparse, not that hectic either, but just using rough, edgy electronics and the bowed and flexed saw as the tools of choice.
The second of the two pieces here is my favourite, and particularly late in the track when a series of glistening high pitches that I think come from the bowed saw coalesce into one mass over which smears of grainy abstraction and sudden bludgeoning hits of feedback are placed. This isn’t easy listening by any means. My father, who is here this evening and heard me playing the music described it as “the sound of an electrocuted bullfrog” which as a description is really quite accurate, probably better than anything I could do, and actually, given the tape’s cover image (which he had not seen) it seems he has similar thoughts to the musicians.
Having watched Pascal Battus perform a couple of times over recent months, much of what is to be enjoyed in his live work comes from the visual aspects. Given the photos I have seen of his electronics set-ups, and given what I have witnessed of people playing the saw in the past, I suspect that the same could be said of Johnsen’s performances as well. So here, as all we have is an audio recording I do wonder how much we might be missing, but then we must also treat this release as a separate object by itself, and so who plays what, and how each sound is made becomes not as important as how it all works when listened to blind. I’d say then that Bitche Session is an acquired taste. There is no sign here of instrumental dexterity as we traditionally know it, and what it is replaced with is an understanding of how electricity and audio signals work when filtered through various circuits, but ultimately we are left with forty-five minutes of music that will be a challenge to a good number of people. This isn’t easy listening.
I personally enjoyed these two pieces, but ultimately I found myself wondering how much more I might have enjoyed the music live. I’d like to have been able to separate the two musicians’ sounds better so as to follow the interaction better, and perhaps a little more colour and variety in the music might not go amiss either, but as a set of two pieces of good, solid improvisation with a modern twist this works well.