Free Instrumentation: From The Appalachians To The Alps


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Free improvisation, in its varied processes of evolution, has given rise not only to new ways of playing traditional instruments (piano, reeds or bass) but also the possibilities of engaging non-traditional (jazz) instruments in equally new contexts. Much as using latex, earth or the body in visual art came to prevalence in the late 1960s, so instruments as diverse as the taragato, shenai and Moog entered the realm of free improvisation. Instruments that had not quite found their own voice or contribution in jazz also became frequent contributors in an aesthetic near free-for-all. Instruments and their players were able to develop their own languages, rather than trying to follow the timeworn as the palette changed.

The language of free improvisation still has much to offer in allowing non-traditional combos the flexibility to create their own contexts, as these two recent duo recordings for banjo and cello (Woody Sullender and Kevin Davis) and Gothic fiddle, flutes and harp (Albrecht Maurer and Norbert Rodenkirchen) will testify.

Uncle Woody Sullender & Kevin Davis
The Tempest Is Over
Dead CEO

Free music has had a few cello-guitar duets, notably with guitarist Derek Bailey and either Dave Holland or Tristan Honsinger on cello, but The Tempest Is Over is, to my knowledge, the first application of Appalachian and European stringed instruments to open improvisation. Some of the wryness of Sullender's prior solo disc (Nothing Is Certain But Death, Dead CEO), which in passages looked to Eugene Chadbourne, has been replaced with a striking, granular intensity divorced from his few forebears.

The music is at times evocative, in the hailstorm of banjo plinks that opens the first track, "Strata Collide. This evocativeness is soon subverted, as the tune's second movement contrasts plaintive front-porch plucks with subtonal arco scrabble that builds into a frenzied sonic dance of referential fragments and isolated chatter. The music is often dense, Davis' double-stopped sawing and Sullender's frantic field of plucked atoms filling up any residual acoustic space, lest one might expect sparse chatter. Granted, the pair do know how to make the music breathe—showers of notes give way to open air on and delicacy on "I Can See Humility, but it's not long before the maelstrom returns.

Sullender and Davis certainly follow one another, rather than compete, and it's this egalitarian nature that gives Tempest a very natural freedom. However, I wished for more tunes like the massive, nearly gothic "He Danced His Did, with its plains-like expanses and wistful melodies. There is a unique triumvirate of country, classicism and freedom to be found on Tempest—one just has to listen patiently.

Albrecht Maurer & Norbert Rodenkirchen
Hidden Fresco
Nemu Records

Similarly unique, Hidden Fresco presents improvisations on early European instruments (Gothic fiddle and flute/harp) from Kent Carter collaborator Albrecht Maurer and musicologist/performer Norbert Rodenkirchen. Like the Kent Carter String Trio which its aesthetic somewhat resembles, the Maurer-Rodenkirchen duo strives for a uniquely compositional bent, with steadily lilting themes and a decidedly orchestral weight behind pieces like the rhythmic and vaguely minimal "...A Due. Certainly some of the mass comes from the fact that Maurer's fiddle is a five-stringed instrument, able to hit lower octaves than his usual violin.

The title track, an introductory improvisation, is full of scrabble and glissandi, Maurer skittering across wood and strings as Rodenkirchen operates somewhere between the Andes and the Early Music Consort. Maurer picks up on a courtly phrase and turns it into gorgeous counterpoint, ponticello scrape and buzzing breaths returning to close the piece. Rodenkirchen's flute is hummed on, slap-tongued and yet still beholden to a feeling of "tradition. Whether on winds or the occasional harp, he is a highly rhythmic player, often lending a ground to Maurer's complex flights. These roles are constantly shifting, however—they're partners in a perpetual dance, as on Maurer's multi-part "Fadenspiel.

The recording quality is among the best I've heard; cranked at a decent volume, one literally feels as though in a hall with the pair. One can almost sense the bodily movement of the players, so real is the sound and the space it occupies. Rarely does audio trump musical content, but in this case, they might be on equal footing.

Hidden Fresco is of an entirely different ilk than Tempest; with Rodenkirchen and Maurer both holding status as composers in their own right, the proceedings follow the logic of written music as much as improvisational whims, lending the pieces both shaded delicacy and free immediacy. Both recordings are living proof that the innovations begotten by freedom are not just melodic or rhythmic, but also of possibility.

Tracks & Personnel

The Tempest Is Over

Tracks: Strata Collide; Below The Smith And Wesson Line; He Danced His Did; City Avenues; I Can See Humility; A Tunnel, Imposed; Knocking Dust;

Personnel: Uncle Woody Sullender: banjo; Kevin Davis: cello.

Hidden Fresco

Tracks: Hidden Fresco; ...A Due; Tempera; Fadenspiel; Erosion; Melancholia; Aura; Nibbio; Calindra; Sfumato; Craquelé; Behind.

Personnel: Albrecht Maurer: Gothic fiddle; Norbert Rodenkirchen: Medieval flutes and harp.

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