The middle child of the string family, the cello isn't heard from often enough in the improv world. Those who do pick up the instrument in jazz and experimental musicsRon Carter, Tom Cora, Tristan Honsinger, Martin Schutz and Abdul Wadud come to mindonly underscore the scarce beauty of its rich tone and broad range. But the unassuming violoncello does seem to be gaining in popularity in recent years and some younger players are joining the small legion of new music cellists.
Baltimore-based Audrey Chen is one of the most notable of the young cellists and Abattoir, her duo with electronics manipulator Robert von Heumen, is a full round of beautiful playing and surprising turns. Chen's dexterity as both an instrumentalist and a vocalist is fairly striking and with both voices she moves easily between the pretty and the ugly, not always in tandem. The acoustic strings and singing voice give a very human feeling to the CD, only to be undermined by Van Heuman's live processing. In his hands, Chen's voice might start to develop an artificial sustain and within seconds be swirling like water down a drain. Fragments of her cello playing seem to be preserved and regurgitated as blipping percussion. At other times, the electronic elements separate themselves fully away from the acoustic, giving the odd sensation of an unstable duet, sometimes merging into a complex solo and then dividing again into two. The guttural sounds both favor at times might prove difficult to some listeners, but the five tracks here are endlessly inventive.
In many ways, João Lucas' settings for cello and electronics are more surprising by being (at least in spurts) more conventional. The Portugal resident's primary instrument is the piano and he plays accordion as well on Abstract Mechanics while providing intermittent electronic beds for the duo with cellist Miguel Mira. The piano is often the dominant voice, as Lucas seems to struggle against a bit of formalism. He is no doubt an adept classical player and much of the disc's charm comes from the waxing and waning of orthodoxy; he is fond of playing taut phrases without feeling the need to resolve them. The cello and electronics also seem to come in waves, often feeling like a single voice (more in sympathy, though, than via electronic linkage). About a quarter of an hour into the seven-part suite, a sing-song vocal (provided by Thiago Lucas) enters with dubious support from the instrumentalists, again creating a sensation that this all should be familiar, even if the elements don't quite go together and yet aren't quite separable. Ultimately, Abstract Mechanics is an enjoyably disorienting exercise in off-kilter arrangement.
The Pursuit of Happiness is the first release from the string trio ARC in 16 years and their first to use electronics. Violinist Sylvia Hallett, cellist Danny Kingshill and bassist Gus Garside are all vets of the British free improv scene and this 2008 recording shows that despite the time passed and the new technology employed, they still share a deep connection. Hallett and Garside's use of electronics is kept to a minimum and often seems to provide an artificial (or augmented in any event) level of sustain; the recording is impossibly close, with stereo pans putting the listener in a center that doesn't really exist. Hallett and Kingshill's plaintive, wordless vocals add a haunting atmosphere to some of the tracks, while others carry more of the sparseness and abruption common among the British practitioners.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Bloodknot; Hone; Endless Summer; Ear to Ear; Game; Feasting.
Personnel: Audrey Chen: voice, cello; Robert van Heumen: laptop, controllers.
Tracks: Intro; Abstract Mechanics Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Part VI
Personnel: Joao Lucas: piano, accordion, electronics; Miguel Mira: cello
The Pursuit of Happiness
Binding Light; The Rite of Strings; Quintessence; Forgetting All Over Again; Phantom Caravan; Grandpa's Box; Sand Maps; A Chance Occurrence; The Pursuit of Happiness; Dividing Into One; Where Rivers Meet
Personnel: Sylvia Hallett: violin, electronics, voice; Danny Kingshill: cello, voice; Gus Garside: double bass, electronics.