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Charlotte Hug / Fred Lonberg-Holm: Fine Extensions

John Eyles By

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Dating from a concert in Zurich in March 2009, this duo between violist Charlotte Hug and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm adds to the impressive array of improvising string recordings already on Emanem. The viola and cello—the two middle members of the violin family—overlap in the pitches they can produce, so the combination makes for fascinating listening; mainly, their sounds are distinct enough to be clearly distinguishable, but sometimes they play in similar ranges so that they blend together more. Hug and Lonberg-Holm have history dating back to Chicago in 2005, with their first duo album (Flying Aspidistra #5) having been released in 2006 on the hard-to-find (and rarely reviewed) Flying Aspidistras label.

Given that history, the two should know each other well enough to avoid an awkward tentative period at the start. Nonetheless, the start of "Part One" is most reminiscent of birdsong, with each player sending out their trademark call to identify themselves. If that suggests competition between the two players, with them staking out the territory they intend to occupy, thankfully it never materializes. Overall, the reality is more akin to birds' mating rituals than to the daily dawn chorus. Soon viola and cello are engaging in rapid-fire call-and-responses, leading to sympathetic passages in which they interweave sustained notes to produce a harmonizing drone.

Across three varied and contrasting pieces—two extended improvisations and a third shorter one—they do display familiarity with each other's playing through their rapid responses. Occasionally one will generate a snippet of melody that is picked up and repeated, back-and-forth, before fading away and being subsumed into the whole. Throughout, they make good use of dynamics, with the volume and pace intermittently falling to allow for quiet passages full of small, detailed sounds. Such passages do not sound premeditated, instead emerging as a natural consequence of their interactions. Remarkably, the entire album is devoid of any music that is reminiscent of the instruments' roles in classical music or in string arrangements deployed in jazz or rock—one reason it sounds so fresh, every time it is played.

Towards the end of "Part Two," Hug begins using her voice as another sound layer to complement the two instruments, melding with her viola playing to good effect. At times, she vocalizes rather than sings, frequently producing eerie, other-worldly sounds that serve as a reminder of her penchant for performing in odd locations, such as the London Dungeon or the ice tunnels of the Rhône glacier.

Hug's singing continues on "Part Three" which acts as the album's tailpiece. She sings properly, letting her voice soar in a quasi-operatic style reminiscent of a soprano's warm-up exercises. With the voice offset by harmonizing string drones, it brings the album to an excellent close.

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