Another Timbre TimHarrisonbre

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Review of the 'Duos with Brass' series by Jean-Claude Gevrey, from his 'scala tympani' blog.

“Rarely has there been a label committed to improvised music which has developed with such speed and determination as Another Timbre. In just three years this Sheffield-based label already has around 40 releases to its credit. Throughout 2010 the recordings have come in series of four, grouped according to instrumentation.  After the piano and guitar, it's the turn of brass – coupled with a second instrument in four impassioned duos.

Readers familiar with these pages will doubtless already know the Another Timbre catalogue, and will know that it is a gem of a label as its impressive productivity is matched with a very high standard of quality (a pairing which is not often found these days).  Behind it all is a man, Simon Reynell, who carries his microphones wherever his instinct takes him.  And it always seems to guide him towards outstanding improvised performances.  It's worth saying that Reynell works as a sound recordist in documentary television, where he has acquired not only a technical expertise but also an ability to listen and draw back from the subject in hand, allowing it to develop freely.  You may wonder whether these qualities have developed more in relation to having to capture difficult sounds than by the demands of BBC programming, but that is another debate....  What matters here is that these four recordings where tuba, trumpet or trombone are matched in unique combinations with a second instrument, are certainly well worth a listen.

It's to Arezzo in Tuscany that the owner of Another Timbre went to record a collaboration between Roberto Fabbriciani – a native of the town – and Robin Hayward, a Briton living in Berlin.  The former is well-known within the world of contemporary classical music, a great flautist who has extended the possibilities of his instrument.  He is attributed with the invention of the hyperbass flute, an instrument as unique as it is imposing with its 12 metres of tubing and its range that stretches 2 octaves below that of the contrabass flute. Hayward is a seasoned improviser who approaches the tuba with meticulous care, and who uses on this recording a fully microtonal version of the instrument that was recently developed.  Whether working with a new version of his instrument (Hayward) or stepping for the first time into the world of improvisation (Fabbriciani), here both musicians leave behind their familiar habits and explore new territories.  Indeed you can feel a certain tension from the first moments, a seriousness in the face of the unknown.  The recording took place in the Basilica San Domenico, whose dimensions and reverberant acoustic doubtless reinforced the solemn character of the music.  Almost anxiously, the huge sound machines produce timbres which slowly stretch out across the space and whose richness is nourished by the vibrations of metal and the reverberations given back off the stone walls.  The sound textures and the structural fabric work well together, and you have to listen closely to  catch the extremely low frequencies which are at the threshold of human hearing.   The music is imbued with an almost intimidating sense of weightiness, as if coming from a gigantic being which you could never comprehend in its totality and from which emanates a sense of power in a latent state.  It's a bit like finding yourself face to face with a beached whale which is still animated with small jerking movements and whose intentions are difficult to interpret.  You are witnessing a long and agonising process whose occasional twitching movements are certainly petrifying, but whose final outcome is beyond doubt.  Two of the tracks offer some respite from the general austerity:   « Riflessione » and « Colori de Cimabue », a reference to the great Italian painter one of whose famous crucifixes hangs in the Basilica.  Here the sound palette becomes wider, the sonorities more diverse, and you can almost discern a sketchy narrative or, at any rate, you can wallow irresistibly in a mass of sound adorned with fabulous reflections.  The last piece returns again to the growling, groaning sounds of the beginning, a radical music that is more admirable than seductive, but is no less important for that, and may even be historic.  

A.D. are the initials of Angharad Davies (violin) and Axel Dörner (trumpet), a duo who you think you have probably heard already, but haven't.  The London-Berlin axis has always been a rich one in improvised music, and has given rise to many subtle and fitting collaborations, and this one might have taken place five years ago.  In fact this meeting was recorded in December 2008 and the resulting music is absolutely exemplary of the overlapping aesthetics of the two musicians.  The brilliance and luxuriousness of the instruments are deliberately set aside in favour of a more internal exploration, keeping a cool head and clear ideas.  Proving once more his immensely impressive technique,   Dörner concentrates on tiny areas of breath, whistling, saliva, sighs and whispers with a rigour that never lets up.  As for Davies, she too exploits one by one the reduced surfaces of her instrument, brushing the strings to produce tonalities that border on ultrasound, stubbornly working with textures which,  though fragile, never drag at any moment.  The collaboration works in such a way that when one musician is anchored in one area, working to produce a theme, the other often imitates them or, alternately, sets up a counter-movement.   I particularly enjoy « Stück Dau », which huddles in silence at the beginning and then unfolds wonderfully, tracing from the middle of nowhere  an enticing pathway that leads ultimately into some kind of festival where it's as if the vibrations of atoms in orbit are made audible.  Paradoxically quite conventional (from the point of view of the 'codes' of the genre), this performance, virtuosic in its sobriety, shines out above all through its finesse and clarity.  

It's difficult to know if the title Giles U. is a wink in the direction of the Thai dissident who is accused of the crime of lèse-majesté and is currently in exile in the UK.  In any case there's nothing political discernible in the work of Carl Ludwig Hübsch and Christoph Schiller, who don't wear red shirts in the photo on the back of the cd leaflet.  Thanks to the tuba (which Hübsch plays) the first seconds inescapably recall Nella Basilica, although this superficial resemblance dissipates very quickly.  The raucous breaths and barrage of particles emitted by the tuba mix with a variety of sounds emanating from Schiller's spinet.  Yes, spinet: relatively little known, this miniature version of the harpsichord is rarely heard in improvised music, or indeed any other.  It makes it even more intriguing to hear theses surfaces being rubbed and clattered, strings being plucked or caressed by an electromagnetic instrument, and vibrations being altered by different preparations.  It's a very active music, the duo setting off in several directions and engaging in various modes of interaction.  Nothing is impossible: a cold shower, an insect bite, metal percussion, a repetitive rhythm that gradually falls apart, a bottleneck or a piece of polystyrene; all are used as accessories in what we should call a slide spinet(!), broken off for a fraction of a second or pouring out in torrential rustlings.  Successive layers of material build up into a powerful flood of sounds which, in addition to its unusual instrumentation, finds a legitimate place in the latest offshoots of the family tree of European free music.

Finally two young French musicians (hurrah!) combine on the fourth disc in the series.  I know Olivier Toulemonde (acoustic objects) from a trio with Michel Doneda and Nicolas Desmarcheliers, but here he is accompanied by Mathias Forge, trombonist and member of the MICRO collective (musique improvisée en côte roannaise) and, as his CV tells us, a descendant of a long lineage of woodcutters.  From the first « sshhtoiiiing ! », you can't help trying to imagine the apparatus involved.  It could be threaded rods, springs, balls, bowls, steel wool and other utensils in contact with a vibrating surface, rather like  ingredients being cooked in teppanyaki style. There is a clear preponderance of metal objects, and a bow is also used to draw out groans and other sounds.    As for the trombone, you hear hissing, humming, coughing, blathering, all executed with great skill and some strident sounds you might expect from a carpentry shop or a maze of pipes used in fluid mechanics. On many occasions the contributions of the two musicians comingle, as when, for example, a cloud of white noise arises that could be either formed in the bell of the trombone or come out a shortwave radio. There is plenty of movement, but without any unnecessary gestures.  In the bat of an eyelid we go from chaos to control and back, as when a scraping trowel threatens to break a contemplative pause, or the passage about 15 minutes in when the pace stops suddenly and passion dissolves into serenity.  Perhaps this flow without any dead time is explained partly by the fact that this very coherent 38 minutes is actually the result of the (skilful and imperceptible) editing of two performances, one with an audience, the other not.”        

                                       Jean-Claude Gevrey, scala tympani