CD Reviews

Graham Stephenson, Aaron Zarzutzki – Touching

July 14, 2013


The second release on Erstwhile Records ErstAEU imprint is a straight-up recording of two people improvising, and a good one too. If improv purists of one type or another may take issue with the palette of sounds put to use here, there is no mistaking the immediacy and energy of a live , unedited improv session. Stephenson and Zarzutzki are two younger musicians from Chicago whose influences spread far wider than the history of improvised music however. Stephenson plays trumpet and microphone here, and the microphone is a very important addition, turning the traditional brass instrument into a lo-fi cauldron of dirty, gritty sound, the most basic and immediate of electroacoustic effects. Zarzutzki does something similar with his analogue synth, adding a microphone of some kind to pass the sound into a brittle, jagged sound world. Often the volume gets high, and often the sounds are what would traditionally be described as “ugly”, but as with all improv from any generation, what really matters, and what really shines through here, is the connection and flow between the two musicians. The pair use the grainy electronic edge that is applied to the music to add a spark, a vibrancy and sense of uncertainty and danger. A low synth rumble or a squelchy non-trumpet sound might suddenly be halted by a jarring blast of white noise. Or it might not. The thrill of this music is in the moment, the rocky ride undertaken as the listener, hand never far from the volume dial just in case…

There is then, nothing “new” as such here. The music on Touching isn’t a million miles from that coming out of South Korea a few years back, or from the Cornford/Farmer/Hughes axis present in the UK right now, that spirit of communal adventure that seems to sit apart from the usual lineage of the music. What makes this CD so appealing though is its energy. There are nods of the head towards improvisation’s traditions, but then also a feeling of wilfully ignoring all of them and sticking a raw, punkish two fingers up to it all and just letting rip, albeit in a firmly controlled, mature manner. It isn’t all a noisy affair, far from it, but even when Touching drifts into one of its long, itchy, uncomfortably quieter passages there is an intensity to the music that seems to seethe and strain at itself rather than just explode into aggressive expression. Fine work.

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