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Another Timbre’s Berlin Series goes from strength to strength

John Eyles By

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Another Timbre's Berlin Series began slowly and gathered momentum gradually. The first issue in the series appeared in spring 2013 and set a pattern for the series by being split between two of the city's fine duos—Michael Thieke/Olivier Toulemonde and Lucio Capece/Jamie Drouin. Despite that volume garnering considerable praise, the second one did not appear until a year after it and may have been somewhat overshadowed by its inclusion in a batch of releases with the extraordinary Despairs Had Governed Me Too Long by Skogen; as with the first volume, the second was a split disc, being shared by the duo of Christian Kesten/Mark Trayle and Annette Krebs alone. Now, the next three volumes of the series have all come out together, and it seems the Berlin Series is well on its way to becoming an established fixture...

Roananax / Obliq
The Berlin Series no. 3
Another Timbre
2014

This album is split between two contrasting small groupings, recorded fifteen years apart, in 1999 (Roananax) and 2014 (Obliq). The clever juxtapositioning of them not only focuses attention on the differences between the two groupings but also highlights the changes that the city's music has undergone in that decade and a half. As its composite name hints, the quartet Roananax consists of four Berlin stalwarts who together constitute an improv "supergroup"—tuba player Robin Hayward, guitarist Annette Krebs, pianist Andrea Neumann and trumpeter Axel Dörner...an impressive line-up, by any standards. The date of the recording, 1999, is significant as it fell during the growth of Berlin "reductionism," the city's variant of the music known elsewhere as eai, lowercase, onkyo or new London silence; whatever the name, it was characterised by use of silences, low volumes, extended instrumental techniques such as scraping or hissing, allied to increasing use of electronics. In Berlin, the influence of the Wandelweiser group was particularly strong on the new music.

The transition from conventional improv (or EFI—European Free Improvisation) to eai was slow and gradual, evolutionary not revolutionary. The two musics were not opposed but complemented one another, with many players having a foot in both camps, a situation that still persists. The five Roananax tracks here, ranging in length from five-and-a-half to over eleven minutes, provide a valuable snapshot of that transition in progress. Throughout, the improvising instincts of all four players shine through their restraint. Prolonged silences are common, and all four players employ extended techniques so that, beyond subdued breathy sounds, it is often far from obvious that trumpet and tuba are present. Electronic sounds are prevalent; significantly, both Krebs and Neumann are credited with "mixing board"—the type of credit that has become increasingly common since the millennium. This recording deserves a place in "the eai canon" for two reasons, its historical significance and—more importantly—the quality of its music as the players together discover/invent Berlin reductionism.

Fast forward fifteen years and, with the evolutionary process nearing completion, we find the trio Obliq in familiar eai territory. The trio consists of alto saxophonist Pierre Borel, Hannes Lingens on percussion and Derek Shirley on electronics, all three of whom are also in Konzert Minimal (see below) but not necessarily on the same instruments. Their two trio pieces, totalling some forty minutes, are textbook examples of the new music, not least because silences predominate—so, it is fully three minutes from the start of their first piece before any sound is detectable and, then, it is a subtly throbbing electronic pulse that persists for under half a minute before another extended silence...

Sabine Vogel / Chris Abrahams / Landscape Quartet
The Berlin Series no. 4
Another Timbre
2014

Although this volume is technically split in two, both halves feature flautist Sabine Vogel so it acts as a neat transition to the next one which is entirely unsplit. The two contrasting tracks on the disc work well together to create a picture of Vogel's talent. The first one, "Luv," was edited and composed by Vogel from solo improvisations, sound installations, recordings in natural environments (of flutes, found objects, bansuris, wind harps, hydrophones) and duo recordings with Bennett Hogg on water violin or wind violin. Hogg, along with Vogel, is a member of Landscape Quartet, an ongoing environmental improvisation project. On the evidence of "Luv," that project fully deserves to be ongoing; the piece is a richly textured and varied collage that is ambiguous and fascinating in equal measure. Vogel's pure-toned flutes are integrated into a multilayered soundscape that gives up new pleasures and treasures with each new hearing.

In complete contrast to "Luv," but just as engaging and rewarding, the second piece, "Kopfüberwelle," is a live recording from January 2012 in Sydney, featuring the duo of Vogel on flutes with Berlin regular (and pianist in The Necks) Chris Abrahams on pipe organ. The very different sound textures and frequencies of the instruments are advantageous as they combine to create a coherent sound while being different enough to allow each player's strand to be distinguishable. In the live context, with no second chances possible, they both demonstrate their individuality without ever neglecting the needs of the duo. Across the piece's thirty-nine minutes, the two gradually—imperceptibly—converge and mingle, building together to an unforgettable climax. End result: edge-of-the-seat drama. So, two very different tracks, but both so good it is impossible to choose between them. Fortunately, no need to choose as they are both together on one fine disc.

Konzert Minimal / Antoine Beuger
The Berlin Series no. 5
Another Timbre
2014

Despite the quality of the preceding volumes, this fifth release is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of the series. It is the first of the series not to be split but just to feature one grouping, namely Konzert Minimal. The twelve-strong ensemble gives an eighty-minute performance of the 2005 piece "Tschirtner tunings for twelve" by Wandelweiser founder member Antoine Beuger. Formed near the end of 2010 by violist and composer (and a Wandelweiser member, himself) Johnny Chang, Konzert Minimal has focussed on Wandelweiser music, most notably by Beuger and by Michael Pisaro. Having a variable membership and line-up, here the group features three double basses, two violas, vibraphone, accordion, alto saxophone, trumpet, trombone, clarinet and bass clarinet; alongside the ensemble's core of Chang, violist Catherine Lamb, accordionist Hannes Lingens, clarinetist Lucio Capece and bassist Koen Nutters, it includes such notable players as clarinetist Michael Thieke.

Their experience of playing Wandelweiser music is all too apparent—right from the start, the assured performance of each one makes it feel that we are in safe hands and no nasty surprises are in store. Beuger's composition affords each player great freedom to play in their own way. Its score consists of thirty pages from which any number may be selected and played. Each of the twelve players is assigned one or two tones for each page; they may choose any octave and tuning for their given pitches, as well as deciding when to play their tones. In addition, the players frequently personalise it by employing individual textures that owe more to improv that to classical playing. The composition's overlapping tones ebb and flow, each one being sustained long enough to be savoured in its own right and as part of the evolving whole. Altogether, the high point of this series so far, an impressive achievement.

Tracks and Personnel

The Berlin Series no. 3

Tracks: 1; 2; 3; 4; 5; 6; 7.

Personnel: On 1-5, Roananax: Axel Dörner: trumpet; Robin Hayward: tuba; Annette Krebs: electro-acoustic guitar, mixing board; Andrea Neumann: inside piano, mixing board. On 6-7, Obliq: Pierre Borel: alto saxophone; Hannes Lingens: percussion; Derek Shirley: electronics.

The Berlin Series no. 4

Tracks: Luv; Kopfüberwelle.

Personnel: On 1: Sabine Vogel: flutes, found objects, bansuris, wind harps, hydrophones; Bennett Hogg: wind violin, water violin. On 2: Chris Abrahams: pipe organ; Sabine Vogel: flutes.

The Berlin Series no. 5

Tracks: Tschirtner tunings for twelve (2005)

Personnel: Konzert Minimal: Pierre Borel: alto saxophone; Lucio Capece: bass clarinet; Johnny Chang: viola -centre; Catherine Lamb: viola -right; Hannes Lingens: accordion; Mike Majkowski: double bass -left; Koen Nutters: double bass -right; Morten J. Olsen: vibraphone; Nils Ostendorf: trumpet; Derek Shirley: double bass -right; Rishin Singh: trombone; Michael Thieke: clarinet.

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