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Another Timbre

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Tim Owen looks at four releases from this Sheffield based label that declares itself to be an outlet for "improvised and cutting-edge contemporary music”.

When I was very young I would sometimes lie in the grass, one ear pressed to the soil, for a monoscopic view on life lived literally at grass roots, a telescoped perspective on a teeming world routinely hidden from view. The artists on the Another Timbre label, in the ways they make sound, bring a comparable perspective to the aural minutiae that brings music to life.

Another Timbre, as the label’s homepage succinctly puts it, provides an outlet “for improvised and cutting-edge contemporary music”. Common to all Another Timbre releases are quietness, gestural minimalism, and an emphasis – as might be expected – on the expressive potential of timbre (as distinct from pitch or volume, much less rhythm). The Another Timbre roster convenes at the Venn intersection where artists from multiple disciplines find common ground. Here, musicians with formidable ‘classical’ technique rub up against self-taught masters of new media, veteran improvisers from the electro acoustic, Onkyo or lower-case improvisation scenes, and specialists in aleatory music and cutting-edge composition. It’s a heady, rarefied zone where expression follows deep introspection, and the result is music for deep listeners. These aren’t recordings you can enjoy while vacuuming. John Cage appears to be one of the label’s touchstones, and many Another Timbre release can be heard as a responsive to Cage’s connection of spontaneity with pre-determination. The stunning “Lost Daylight” album, on which John Tilbury plays the piano music of Terry Jennings and, alongside Sebastian Lexer, John Cage’s “Electronic Music for Piano, 1964”, was a highlight of 2010, and made The Wire magazine’s top 10 recordings of that year. The four recordings considered by this article – all released in April 2011 – represent the more abstract side of the label’s output, all being more or less concerned with the refinement of the improviser’s art in the exploration of acoustic and electronic sound in all its fine-grained textural detail.

Sophie Agnel, Bertrand Gauguet, Andrea Neumann
“Spiral Inputs”
(Another Timbre)

Sophie Agnel piano; Bertrand Gauguet saxophones; Andrea Neumann piano frame, electronics

One of my favourite recordings of 2009, Sophie Agnel’s “Capsizing Moments” (Emanem) was a turbulent solo tour de force on prepared piano. Her latest collaborative work, “Spiral Inputs” casts her in quite another light. Here she plays the piano ‘straight’, leaving partners Andrea Neumann to coax comparably sui generis sounds from a piano frame and electronics, and Bertrand Gauguet to coax sympathetically resonating timbres from alto and soprano saxophones.

In common with many Another Timbre releases, the album brings together pieces recorded at different times and places, in this case two live and two studio recordings. The two studio pieces that bookend the album, “Spiral #1” and “Spiral #4” differ markedly. “#1” is so carefully rendered that, across its 18 minute duration, no matter how absorbing the deft sensitivity of the performers, it becomes quite soporific. “Spiral #4” is contrastingly brief, eventful, and light-hearted.

The live performances were manipulated by diffusion “almost randomly” across fifteen loudspeakers by engineer Banjamin Maumus, an effect sadly not transmittable via a recording. The first, “Spiral #2” pre-dates the other recordings by some 20 months. In this earlier meeting the musicians, no doubt less settled in each other’s company, play more directly, and with greater emphasis on their individual lines and the qualities specific to their individual instruments. The result is an openness that grants the listener easy access. But the best balance in their work is achieved in “Spiral #3”, a live recording no less carefully rendered than the two contemporaneous studio takes, but allowed to develop a little more freely in the apparently (surprisingly) less rarefied atmosphere of the Bibliothèque Centrale, Mulhouse. The most sublime moment of this richly rewarding album comes at the conclusion of this track, where the trio’s music attains a truly remarkable limpid beauty.

Tiziana Bertoncini, Thomas Lehn
“Horsky Park”
(Another Timbre)

Tiziana Bertoncini violin, Thomas Lehn analogue synthesizer

Tiziana Bertoncini is a violinist with an education in classical music followed by an immersion in improvisation and multi-disciplinary sound art. Thomas Lehn is a piano student and sound engineer turned analogue synth specialist. Given their backgrounds, the music on Horsky Park is unsurprisingly cerebral, but it is never never drily academic. Their well established working relationship is documented in the pair of recordings bought together here, from Heidelberg in 2006 and Milan in 2010.

In the earlier, lengthier exchange, Lehn at first restricts his lines to a narrow sonic palette of raw electrical output illuminated by intermittent flourishes, occasionally producing a richly vibrant sound something like a harpsichord. Bertoncini decorates these surges and ripples of gritty electricity with some abrasive gestures from the classical violinist’s repertoire. In a later passage these roles are reversed, the violin resorting to high, scraped notes as the synthesizer takes off in a series of rapid, airy flutters. The performance is illuminated throughout by dramatic gestures sparingly deployed. In a particularly arresting moment from the end game Lehn emits a light electronic spray like brushed drums. The later recording comes from an event held at an art fair, at which the duo played suspended in opposing metal containers, with Bertoncini’s violin fed directly into Lehn’s synthesizer. Noise from simultaneous performances in other containers intrude into their music. While this may sound, on paper, an insufferably pretentious setup, the recording doesn’t suffer from it. The continuous background oscillation of Lehn’s synthesizer foregrounds Bertoncini’s dry pizzicato while what I assume to be sonic bleed from noises off provides an unexpectedly apposite rhythmic backing; Bertoncini and Lehn work the room and enter into the unique spirit of the event. Bertoncini’s playing subsequently becomes more aggressive, allowing Lehn the freedom for more irruptive gestures. But the piece settles again before the end, with subtly rounded synth tones and Bertoncini’s bowing creating a dense, swarming effect.

Lucio Capece, Birgit Ulher
“Choices”
(Another Timbre)

Lucio Capece bass clarinet, soprano saxophone, preparations; Birgit Ulher trumpet, radio, speaker

““Closer is a fine illustration of its creators’ individually stated concerns. Birgit Ulher is an improviser committed (according to a statement on her web page) to the development of a “grammar of sounds beyond the open trumpet”. Based in Hamburg, she also organises the cities’ Real Time Music Meeting festival for improvised music. Lucio Capeche (on his blog) describes his art as “no narrative music (no start-no ending-no developments)…sound in its most granular characteristics and its extremes”. Across the duration of its long central live recording and two flanking studio takes, the “Choices” album is an even-handed work of close interplay between these two perfectly matched instrumentalists. They sometimes do little more than exploit the raw sonic potential of their reeds and brass. At other times the effects they produce are much more refined, noises shaped to sound out in playful rumination or pure abstract beauty. In either mode, the duo extract from their instruments all the various tonalities of a larger ensemble, exploiting percussive potentialities to remarkable effect and drawing upon a range of breath sounds from plosive and guttural to ethereal. They coax from their ostensibly limited instrumentation a more astonishing range of effects than many talented musicians can manage with sophisticated sound processing equipment.

Since I began this review another title featuring Capece, the Vladislav Delay Quartet’s début, has dropped onto my doormat. That title sees Capece playing alongside electronics auteur turned percussionist Delay, ex-Pan Sonic sound processor Mika Vainio, and acoustic bassist Derek Shirley. With its blending of dubbed out micro-house and acoustic jazz it’s quite a change of pace from the Another Timbre offering, but many of the core concerns are the same. It might be that I end up playing the Delay album more often, simply because it requires less focused attention , but “Choices” is the purer expression, and in its balance of simplicity of conception, its sense of purpose, and its high-minded musical idealism, in many ways also the more pleasing.

Michel Doneda, Jonas Kocher, Christoph Schiller
“Grape Skin”
(Another Timbre)

Michel Doneda soprano saxophone, radio; Jonas Kocher accordion, objects; Christoph Schiller spinet, preparations

At least one member of the Grape Skin trio should be familiar to many Jazz Mann readers. Michel Doneda has been active on the European free jazz/improv scene since the mid ‘80’s, with many recordings to his name. A particular favourite of mine, “Open Paper Tree” (FMP, 1994) documents one of Doneda’s numerous collaborations with the remarkable Vietnamese percussionist Lê Quan Ninh, and stands as evidence that his interest in timbral expression is nothing new. On “Grape Skin”, however, that interest is taken to the extreme. Of the four titles under review, only this one is forbiddingly austere. The others are all eminently listenable. But “Grape Skin” also repays attentive listening richly, in subtle ways. I can’t say I enjoyed the playback, but its effects linger in the memory.

The “Grape Skin” sessions were recorded in the church at Ligerz, Lake Biel, Switzerland, in 2010, and no doubt the musicians were highly attentive to the venue’s unique acoustics. Michel Doneda plays his saxophone mostly without the mediation of a reed, though occasionally his tone blossoms with the clarity of a flugelhorn. Jonas Kocher’s accordion is characteristically played in low, sustained tones, rather like a softly bowed cello. Christoph Schiller’s approach to the spinet is correspondingly often very dry, emitting dry scraping sounds or the desiccated plinks of a music box. There are no grand gestures here. The music’s attractions are at the microscopic level, where only focus on fine-grained detail can effectively reveal vivid coloration and lively activity. The group sound is all exhalations, soft bumps, shiftings; the mere rumour of music; ghost traces. Into this etherized terrain the spatial/temporal echoes of Doneda’s de-tuned radio intrude with nostalgic resonance.


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