Another Timbre TimHarrisonbre
at117 Insub Meta Orchestra - ‘13 unissons’ & ‘27 times’
Co-ordinated and composed by Cyril Bondi & d’incise
Alexis Degrenier (hurdy-gurdy) – Anna-Kaisa Meklin (viola da gamba) – Angelika Sheridan (flutes) – Antoine Läng (voice) –
Anouck Genthon (violin) – Bertrand Gauguet (saxophone) – Brice Catherin (cello) – Bruno Crochet (laptop) - Christophe Berthet (saxophone) – Cyril Bondi (harmonium, bass drum) – d’incise (laptop) – Daniel Tyrrell (acoustic guitar) – Dorothea Schürch (voice, singing saw) – Eric Ruffing (analogue synthesizer) – Gerald Perera (electric double bass) – Hans Koch (clarinet) – Heike Fiedler (voice) – Ivan Verda (electric guitar) – Jamasp Jhabvala (violin) – Luc Müller (floor-tom, melodica) – Maxime Hänsenberger (bowl, harmonium) – Raphaël Ortis (laptop) – Regula Gerber (double bass) – Rodolphe Loubatière (bowl, cymbal) – Sébastien Branche (saxophone) – Sandra Weiss (bassoon) – Steve Buchanan (saxophone) – Thierry Simonot (laptop) – Violeta Motta (flutes) – Vinz Vonlanthen (electric guitar) – Wanda Obertova (voice) – Yann Leguay (electronics)
Interview with Cyril Bondi
Tell us about the Insub Meta Orchestra. It's remarkable and unusual to have such a large group dedicated to experimental music. How and when did it come about, whose initiative was it, how often does it meet and has it changed direction?
I would like to try to answer these questions by focusing on the two main aspects that you have to deal with when you are crazy enough to start an orchestra of 50 musicians: the social and the artistic.
Since I started being involved in musical projects, I was always impressed and excited by the notion of a ‘collective’. The idea of the Insub Meta Orchestra came at the right moment in my personal musical development (you can read it as “our” development because it was and it still is the fruit of a strong collaboration with d'incise). We started with the desire to invite as many musicians as possible to experiment with pieces and a very different approach with a large ensemble. After a few years and many concerts, we asked people to choose if they would like to be part of the orchestra as regular musicians. For me this was a really important thing in the structure of the IMO, that we never made a choice about the participants. This orchestra is a collective of musicians from different parts of Switzerland, France, Belgium and Germany, who have decided to be part of this process by themselves. And from this moment onwards, we had to deal with its potential and its limits.
The social and artistic aspects of the IMO are obviously very linked. In seven years we have gone through different recognisable moments. We started with pieces composed by members of the IMO. The idea was mainly that we have a large ensemble of musicians; let's experiment with this! It was completely influenced by the London Improvisers Orchestra (with whom we played a couple of times during our UK tour with diatribes in 2008-09). Then we decided to work only on improvisation. But it wasn't as easy as expected; we had to built a common vocabulary, language on top of which we could improvise. It was a long process, but maybe the most important one, because it gave us the core identity of the IMO.
After that, and it's a process of creation we still keep, we composed pieces with d'incise; compositions linked with the limits that we reached with the improvisation. Now, when we feel that the orchestra needs to explore new fields, we use improvisation again as a way to define new challenges.
What about the two pieces on the CD? How are ’13 unissons’ and ’27 times’ structured, and how were they developed?
We organised a recording session at the Studio Ernest Ansermet in Geneva during the summer of 2016. The pieces were composed by d'incise and myself. Before the recording session, we had rehearsals with small groups (12-15 musicians) to try the new pieces and explore the best way to share our ideas.
For the ‘13 unissons’, we split the orchestra in 13 subgroups (2-3 musicians) playing just one note as a unison. Every group can play as much as they want but never have more than 3-4 groups playing together. The silence is used as a moment of breath, giving a certain articulation between the musical moments. The main idea is to create different structures and associations between the groups.
‘27 times’ was a difficult piece to record because the structure is quite complex even if the result seems quiet and peaceful. For years our main goal with the orchestra was to convince everybody to feel the ensemble as a whole and not as a collection of individuals. For this piece we ask them exactly the opposite. We started with the idea that each musician had to choose his or her ‘most unique, personal sound’. But obviously, as this is so subjective, we had to find a way to have some coherence.
During this 30 minute piece, each musician has to play 27 times. The orchestra is divided into 4 groups (percussions, strings, winds and electronics), playing at 3 moments. In each moment, the musicians has to play 3 times a sequence of 3 times. Which is at the end 3x3x3, so 27 times, but always the same sound.
On the cover you and d’incise are credited in a low-key way as joint composers of both pieces. How did that work?
As I said, the compositions d'incise and I proposed were and are completely linked with the structure and the limits of the orchestra. So, for us, it was natural to propose pieces to help the orchestra to explore new fields. But in a way every composition comes from the orchestra. We always compose with and for the singularity of the IMO.
You and d’incise have a long history of collaboration in several projects over the years, and the music that you make together has shifted to some extent over this period. How would you describe that history?
It's not easy to give a resume of such a prolific collaboration over the years. We come from the same neighbourhood in Geneva. We grew up in almost the same block of flats, but due to the difference of age, we weren't very close during our childhood. We needed a common friend (Gaël Riondel, saxophonist and third member of diatribes for the first years of the band) to propose our first rehearsal in 2004. It was the beginning of diatribes, our main project and, I would say, the basis of all of our projects.
We had two very important moments in our collaboration. The first one was when we decided to continue diatribes as a duo inviting new musicians to improvise with us for each concert. We played with more than 200 musicians from all over the world and created some strong links with a lot of people. Even if we don't improvise so much anymore, I still feel that we need to play and work all the time with different musicians : Ryoko Akama, Cristian Alvear, Stefan Thut, Jacques Demierre, amongst others.
The second moment was when I started to be involved in Insub. D'incise started it as a netlabel in 2006 and I joined him in 2010 to initiate the Insub Meta Orchestra and the Insubordinations Microfestival (more than 100 concerts in small spaces in one week in 20 cities in Switzerland). Then we used Insub as a platform to create new projects: concerts, a label, a studio and an other festival focused on orchestras.
We also have a trio called La Tène, with Alexis Degrenier (hurdy gurdy), a powerful and repetitive project, a clash between traditional and experimental music.
And to finish, to draw a complete picture of this “long history”, we are now working on a series of compositions this year for other musicians: Magnus Granberg, Christoph Schiller, Anna Lindal, Anna-Kaisa Meklin, Bertrand Denzler, The Pitch and so on.
You are both based in Geneva. How is the experimental music scene there, and how is it changing?
Geneva is quite a small city but we're lucky to have really good institutions, venues and festivals to promote experimental and improv music like: Cave12, AMR or Akouphène festival. The strange thing is that we never were satisfied by what we had around us and that was maybe what pushed us to be hyper-active, organizing concerts and big festivals. It's a kind of paradox, but because we had access to a lot of concerts and spaces to work, we felt that we need to extend these opportunities by creating more projects, more space.
“….So, we move from a solo performance by a woman from Chicago onto a thirty-two-member ensemble from Switzerland... never let it be said that Another Timbre is parochial! Previous releases from Insub Meta Orchestra (IMO) have all been on the INSUB label, with the orchestra practically acting as that label's house band. Centred around INSUB's driving forces, Cyril Bondi and d'incise, thanks to that pair IMO has an impressive track record of producing music that avoids the "cocktail party effect" which can afflict some large ensembles. Bondi and d'incise have links with Another Timbre, including the organisation of the recording of Ryoko Akama's impressive 2017 album Places and Pages, which makes it unsurprising that this new IMO release is on the label.
Studio-recorded in Geneva in July 2016, 13 & 27 takes its title from the two Bondi-d'incise compositions that form the album, "13 unissons" and "27 times," extended pieces that run for just under twenty and thirty minutes respectively. For "13 unissons," the orchestra was split up into thirteen subgroups of two or three musicians each, playing just one note as a unison. Every group could play as much as they wanted but never more than three or four groups played together. The main idea was to create different structures and associations between the groups. For "27 times" each musician had to choose his or her 'most unique, personal sound' to play twenty-seven times. The orchestra was divided into four groups (percussions, strings, winds and electronics), playing at three moments. In each moment, the musicians had to play three times a sequence of three times, which is twenty-seven times altogether, but always the same sound. Those compositional structures succeeded in producing controlled, uncluttered music from the orchestra. Because they involve groups playing together, the two pieces have deep, rich soundscapes which make very satisfying listening. Another success for Bondi, d'incise and their IMO associates. “
John Eyles, All About Jazz
“There’s no simple way to pin down the Insub Meta Orchestra. Founded as a large ensemble — a collective, a flexible orchestra — by percussionist/composer Cyril Bondi and composer d'incise, the group explores large-scale experimental improvisation with a focus on space and minimalist changes. Where earlier recordings like Archive #1 included percussive sounds and elements of the chaotic, for the two pieces on 13 & 27, the group pushes deeper into sonic patience for a complex experiment.
The two pieces involve a carefully planned approach to music that opens for delineated experimentation. The first piece, “13 unissons” features a divided approach to the group. The methodology creates the music and explains the assumed ease with which the musicians use such restraint (a matter particularly of interest to anyone listening after years of, say, coaching youth soccer leaving the imagination unable to grasp a few dozen placid performers waiting their turns). The orchestra is divided into 13 subgroups, with only a few allowed to play at a time. The piece relies on sustained notes, building slowly and letting slight wobbles take over. The appearance of any bass notes creates a distinct shift in sound, the tonal change — in this setting — darkens suddenly in comparison to the spacious build of the rest of the piece. The track also relies heavily on silence. The lengthy cessations allow for moments of reorientation before a further constrained push into something more opened (again restricted by the lower pitches).
The album’s other piece “27 times” remains a greater challenge. For this piece, Bondi and d'incise attempt to draw out the specific sounds of each individual in the group. Through a mathematical arrangement, the various sections of the orchestra fit their work together, building repetition upon personal idiosyncracy with deep pauses. As a conceptual work, it’s a worthwhile and heady endeavor. The compositional structure explores the limits of individual freedom and expressions within the confines of strictly regulated work, simultaneously calling attention to the individual musician while undercut her ability to stand out in nearly any manner except for tone. It sets a limit to understand limits, but also to challenge the range of expansion within (or past?) those limits. It’s a bit of an expanding universe situation.
The concept manifests itself best in its limitations. Thinking through the individuality of the smaller bits, it’s the coherence of the piece that comes to the fore, marking either an unintended consequence or a depiction of the patient ensemble’s sublimation to the broader sonics. It partners well with “13 unissons,” sharing some tonal similarities while still creating a new effect. Either piece would feel well out of place on Archive #1 or the darker, grittier Archive #2. It works to define the shape of the orchestra and marks a particular moment in the group’s presumably a-directional evolution. Though there’s plenty of music here that’s pretty or interesting, there’s little that’s easy, which fits with the group’s project, offering challenges studies in the intersections of individuality, highly ordered structure, and open playing.”
Justin Cober-Lake, Dusted
““Insub Meta Orchestra was founded after a London visit in 2009, when curators Cyril Bondi and d’incise met up with members of the London Improvisers Orchestra. That’s the foundation story, but both in ethos and style Insub Meta seem far closer in spirit to The Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra. There’s the same instrumentation eclecticism, with hurdy-gurdy, viola da gamba and melodica all in the mix, but more important for such a large ensemble – 32 members currently – is a generous restraint and refusal to overplay.
As d’incise has explained elsewhere, the IMO philosophy has involved a slow and patient analysis of the exact parameters of sound: learning the difference between a drone and white noise, what’s a click and what’s a crack, how to inhabit the soundcloud without making it precipitate. The thoughtful reticence of the 30 minute opening cut ’13 unissons’ is utterly compelling. Every sound seems to stand for itself, and yet there is a steady geologic movement to the piece which belies any thought of randomness.
This is even more obvious on the 30 minute ’27 Times’. At almost no moment is it possible to say with confidence what instrument is playing what. On a short track, that can still remain a matter for curiosity, but as everyone recognises, long durations eventually banish curiosity about exact instrumentation. ’27 Times’ has its own distinctive structure, and simply stands on its own terms: mysterious, shifting, unexpectedly centred on numbers, like the three muffled beats that come (presumably) from Bondi’s bass drum about ten minutes in. It’s a remarkable project, totally immersive and accessible, and further successful chapter in Another Timbre’s far from flagging commitment to the New Quiet.”
Brian Morton, The Wire
“13 unissons: thirteen groups of two to three musicians each, playing one note in unison. Each group may play whenever they want but never with more than three or four groups playing together.
27 times: four larger groups each play at three different moments. In each moment, each musician must play a sound three times in sequence on three occasions, the same sound each moment.
Simple enough? The scores for the two pieces that fill this new release on Another Timbre are sufficiently clear and succinct to fit in a tweet. Every musical score could be described as a balance of restrictions against possibilities. The pieces played here by the Insub Meta Orchestra have heavy restrictions placed on them by simplicty, but allow for an unexpected amount of detail to emerge.
A critical factor here is the orchestra itself: 32 musicians, including voice and electronics, provide a wealth of timbral and textural variety, opening up the reductive score to an unexpected amount of complexity. A smaller ensemble could also give a satisfying performance – in a more severe, minimal style – but here the diverse instrumentation is the point. Cyril Bondi & d’incise, who have previously collaborated on projects such as Ryoko Akama’s places and pages, have here coordinated and composed works that provide a rare maximal interpretation of the minimal. To a casual listener, any sense of a single, top-down rule governing each performance would not be evident.
With its overlapping single tones and accidental harmonies, the sound of 13 unissons shares many traits with Cage’s late number pieces. (The absence of potentially short, loud or other punctuating sounds indicates a key difference in the composition.) The longer 27 times presents an even more haunted atmosphere, and is more distinct. Sounds emerge, make their presence felt, and then fade from consciousness, only to reappear later. In the meantime, the instrumentation and the groupings of sounds have changed, so that a succession of moods are established and then transformed. Some musicians choose to play very softly, even compared to their colleagues. This adds a beautifully subtle sense of shading to each relatively louder sound when it is repeated.
It’s unusual to assemble such a large group as this on an ostensibly ‘open’ form of performance; even more so to take all that musical talent and sublimate it into a focus on giving finer nuances to a single, coherent body. This disc elegantly negates the usual paradox of applying limitations to give freedom to the performer. In this case, the removal of overbearing notation or programmatic continuity reveals more of the musicians; not of their ‘personalities’ but of their understanding of how to give music life.”
Ben Harper, Boring Like a Drill
The shift from music as a way of showing off the wealth and splendour of royalty, aristocracy, or principality to music as a way of generating private profit brought with it a corresponding downsizing of the typical ensemble. Today, a few large, 100-piece orchestras still retain a precarious existence as museum acts; meanwhile, the vast majority of new music is composed and performed by individuals or small groups, with fewer ways to cut the profit pie meaning bigger slices all round (and, for many musicians, the difference between being able to eat or not). No doubt technology has played a role in this too — it’s now possible for a single individual with access to a computer to compose, record, and master a piece of music as grand in scale as anything by Mahler. Plus, isn’t it just easier to get things done when there’s only yourself to organise?
Into this context step the Insub Meta Orchestra, a 50-piece ensemble with members from Switzerland, France, Belgium and Germany that operates in the fertile space between formal composition and improvisation. 32 musicians contributed to their new album “13 and 27”, and for the piece ‘13 unissons’ were split into 13 subgroups, each of which plays just one note in unison, repeated as often as they like. Most of the tones are long in duration, and the various unisons often create faint beating, resonance, or haze around a tone. Silence is used to separate out the playing into distinct moments, resulting in several sustained chords with various configurations of pitches. It’s pleasant enough, but not necessarily groundbreaking; maybe I’ve just heard too many pieces of a similar ilk.
‘27 times’ is a more complex piece. Each musician was asked to choose his or her ‘most unique, personal sound’, which they then repeated 27 times across roughly half an hour. Many of the chosen sounds turn out to be faint, dissonant, and/or quite rough in timbre, with the low volume and tentative pacing keeping things tense and muted rather than aggressive or harsh. The effect is like walking through a deserted city at night, one form morphing into another in the dark-obscured unfolding of urban topology. The repetition here is even stronger than in ‘13 unissons’, in the sense that form, pitch and duration are more closely matched between repetitions, but paradoxically this serves to underscore subtle differences in timbre, pitch, and resonance. This is certainly the more engaging and evocative piece of the pair for me.
The logistical (not to mention financial) challenges of convening and organising such a large group of musicians would be enough to put many people off, but as Insub instigators Cyril Bondi and d’incise and their collaborators have discovered, it prompts new ways of thinking about how to make music together with others. From a listener’s point of view, it widens and diversifies our musical world still further.”
Nathan Thomas, Fluid Radio