Jürg Frey – “Le poids d’ombre” [INSUB, 2020]

Jürg Frey
Le poids d’ombre
[INSUB, 2020]

INSUB is a record label from Geneve, Switzerland which “covers the fields of experimental, electroacoustic, improvised & composed musics.” Their output is incredibly diverse, and varyingly challenging. Purveyors of the good shit. Already having put out some of my favorite records this year, I was caught last night by them nearly unawares in the eleventh hour with a mid-December email update concerning a new Jürg Frey piece.

I believe that all who possess the capacity to be moved by quiet music remember the first time they heard Jürg Frey. Maybe it was on the bus or a busy street, and the headphones you had didn’t quite do the trick. The ambient noise was an absolute shatter of obfuscation, and Jürg’s track a confusing silent span. Maybe it was in the quiet of your home, the lights dim and purple, and you rode the extraordinary waves of his musical quietudes like the sun-warmed wings of a quietly breathing bird. Maybe it was standing next to the pristine sonic canvas of a private studio. The warm acoustic five-ounce-red-wine buzz of a late night museum gig. A concert hall, their creaky chairs.

No matter where it was, I think we remember it because it was a moment of confrontation. Either with the notions you had about sound, silence, composition, narrative, tonality, or simply a moment of confrontation with yourself. Jürg’s music reveals much less than most composers, and the listener’s participation and mere existence, an oft-forgotten levee in the positions of music listening, is more usually an intimate and integral part of the curious relationship between his music and his profound silences, the reality of his space and fictions of distance.

This new piece, “Le poids d’ombre,” is a work led by two experienced improvisers. Anouck Genthon and Pierre-Yves Martel, playing the violin and viola da gamba respectively. It is the eighth and final installment of INSUB’s distances series, a quarter-long run which spoke heavily on the relationship between composer, improviser, and listener in the “new normal” quarantined working world that coronavirus has wrought.

In the piece, the sound produced by the disciplined bowmanship of the two players rests on the precipice of pure “dragging” sounds and a hesitant, gentle harmony. A natural fusing of the physical surface and the following reaction of the strings. The distance between sound and source is so slim that they almost conjoin completely. Plucking sounds, rather than dragging, give bright tones early on, a second light which fades as quickly as the first. The notion of distance is again touched upon here, as the cycle-esque movements of Genthon and Martel’s improvisations move away and bring back in; the brief returns to pure room silence a loving centerpiece for the shared virtual table of the piece.

Moments of accidental harmony pass, planets nearly crashing. A shunt of light shoots across the black silence of space, suddenly from behind the curvature of a star. A slight pastoral element pervades, as tones resemble accordions, harmoniums, electronic sources entirely. Moments of hesitation are so gentle, yet so stern at the same time, and the play between the slight difference in the tonality and responsiveness of the two player’s strings sometimes resembles a song being quietly sung. Sometimes however, the piece feels more as though someone is speaking. 

The voice speaks on the other end of the title, “the shadow weight,” perhaps that which is being “dragged” behind the sounds. A dark cloud that follows us, watches our hands improvising, knows our movements, knows the route we take home. A juxtaposition with the classical “tamed” tones of bowed playing, highlighting perhaps an innate unmusicality within constructed elements.

I switch to the video of the performance at about 16:30 in and finally see the instruments being played by the performers after listening with my eyes closed. The two rooms are so warm, so well lit, so wooden. Separated by the tiniest amount of pixels. Here, the room has no shadows, no black bird, no distance. The world I had constructed in my head now totally changed by a visual element, they themselves lived ones in the theater of the improviser, and both directly birthed by Frey’s composition, itself another untold story. All of these “distances” converge. Here. There, nothing else in those moments. Because we willed them to be. All participating. Gone, like anything that moves and is passed over. Gone, like our living separate lives. 

Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Steve Jansen – “Locations” [That’s Cool Records, 2020]

Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Steve Jansen
[That’s Cool Records, 2020]

That’s Cool Records is an independent experimental record label founded in 2011 by Steve Jansen, a jack-of-all-sonic-trades from the southwestern corners of the United States who, after endless befuddled minutes of ham-fisted independent research, is confirmed to be not Steve Jansen of Japan, itself not a country. Locations is the 55th release in the TCR catalog, a collaboration between Jansen and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, “the man with the bass,” one of Norway’s most prolific and talented expatriates, who on this recording accompanies Jansen’s tape, guitar, and saxophone work with a combination of electric and acoustic basses.

Locations opens in medias res, almost as if Jansen’s manipulation of various frequencies and pseudo-percussive sound sources were readying a room for the duo’s work to reside in (the first of the many diverse moments the record seeks to make tangible the concept of space). Flaten’s bass is gently passive, like he was just playing to pass the time until a chair was offered. Recorded originally in 2012 as a winter norther was approaching a “wooded backyard studio” in Texas Hill County, once the album gets moving and a certain sense of wary intimacy is established, it’s hard not to picture the two crammed so tightly in a small drafty shed that Jansen has to aim his guitar’s neck skyward to physically fit into the recording.

This feeling of closeness, or perhaps more fittingly tightness, manifests a sonic expression early on as the sound of strings, Jansen’s metallic, birdlike, and atonal, Flaten’s more natural and wooden – jerk over and over one another like a slowly falling stack of wiggling iron rods seeking a parallel. It’s claustrophobic for sure, but clanging finally to a silent place on the floor, “Movement and Stasis,” the third track, brings the record to a more morose and dejected space of dark jazz and rudimentary electronic manipulations of sine and static. Here, the record seems to find another “location,” a space akin to the image gracing the cover of the record. Gray, unnerving, perhaps miserable but at the very least definitely considering it, Jansen and Flaten together, as all effective collaborations do, create a curious and engaging palate. Rather than complimenting each other with a sonic aesthetic that would easily blend into a smooth and easily traversable surface, here the players instead seek to challenge the assertion of the other’s technique with differing severities of textures and urgencies to establish a genuine relationship therein. These are not necessarily moments of absolute polarity, but there is a certain bridging that needs to be established in order for the two to compliment each other.

As the record continues, this complementary dichotomy is redefined again and again (the word “and” even going so far as to being an important thematic reoccurrence through the release’s track titling), like the early stages of a romantic partnership; constantly reaffirming the trajectory and tragedy that flows through this record like pale smoke. Musical conventions are less so diluted here than other experimental works of the same milieu. Instead of seeking to reject the personality of one’s instrument for the sake of experimentation, removing oneself from popular tropes and sounds and playing styles, it is always refreshing to hear adventurous guitar that still sounds like guitar. Jansen’s electric playing recalls the eeriness of doom metal deftly without committing either to long-form chord drone or deconstructed riffing. Instead, the free jazz tendencies at the core of this release drive feedback-saturated works like “Sound and Silence,” shifting across the fretboard as if the violent motion of the guitar’s playing were more important than the resonance of the note that was struck.

A shift in “location” is again perceived at about the middle of the record, as “Strength and Sanity (Dedicated to Booker Little)” creeps into view with a decidedly more classical tape music-esque motif repeatedly and solemnly bellowing behind delay-ridden electrical work. Dirge-like and deceptively beautiful, it is one of the stronger moments on the record where a piece feels less like an experimentation than a distillation of focused emotion.

The mournful modus operandi of Locations continues into the record’s second half, as a yawning maw of drones and string bends, vaguely like whale-song, introduces “Before and After,” another piece more concerned with dread and distortion than development, certainly at this point in the record at least. Like the souls of the dead were themselves visiting Texas Hill County, the track further emphasizes the interesting ability the album has to flirt heavily to the “horror-movie-music-in-the-forest didactics” of its sonic elements without committing entirely to an aesthetic or listening space similar to releases in the dark ambient or dungeon noise scenes. These sounds don’t need the somber breath of a midi pipe organ to sound mournful, they don’t need ghoulish samples to sound haunted, and they certainly don’t need reverb to sound atmospheric. This is homegrown horror.

But surprisingly, this record tends to hold off from devolving fully into sonic realms frequented by fans of harsh noise and power electronics that might enjoy this brooding release. Even as moments of distortion and intense feedback are utilized, they are done so in such a well-mannered way that it never comes off as violent, nor even aggressive really, which is all the more sinister. The methods by which Jansen and Flaten seek to dismay and disarm you are instead through the alien quality of their instrumentation and playing styles. Uncertainty abounds as the tangible texture of the plethora of drones peppered throughout the album seemingly attempt to induce a sense of familiarity or precedent, but the foreground, which is more often made up of string-based free improvisation, gives a certain uncanny quality to an otherwise more-on-the-nose dark ambient release.  

“Life and Death” marks a welcome return of Flaten’s acoustic bass, an element that I do wish was much more prevalent on the bulk of the recording. Truth be told, I wonder if my ears are failing me (though I suppose collaborations such as this one might revel in the fact that I’m about to say this), but I can’t quite tell the difference between the qualities of Jansen’s electric guitar and Flaten’s electric bass. To me, it felt like the recording slowly drifted away from the set piece established in the instrumentation of its early moments. Maybe it’s fitting then, that this welcomed revisiting feels like a penultimate and referential “location” for the final act of record. As if Locations operates on a circular track, the exploration and improvisation that makes up the bulk of its runtime feels like a long arch (“spiraling around and into abstract slugs”) back to the free jazz at its bookends. It’s a welcome return, and the idea of “and” once again feels significant.

Here too is some bowed work, from Flaten presumably, a fantastic juxtaposition to the angularity of the fingerplay that makes up the bulk of his contributions, itself at the forefront of the record’s final pieces. Fluttering and moody stringwork is countered by Jansen’s almost strawlike improvisation, an aquatic friction which once again facilitates a wonderful give and take between the two very contrasting aesthetics of the artists.

Finally, we are given the most truly “free jazz” moment of Locations with its final piece, “Witches and Devils,” which is fittingly dedicated to Albert Ayler. A frenzied and panicked finish to an otherwise arguably relaxed record, it almost feels like a perplexing afterthought, but due to the experimental nature of the release, it doesn’t feel too off the cuff. Ultimately, “decisions” like these make Locations feel like more of a shared sketchbook than a singular collaboration, but the unpretentious and slightly hesitant quality of Jansen and Flaten’s playing makes it an engaging albeit chaotic listen. Locations feels apt, as these pieces most successfully exist as differing windows into an otherwise pervading central feeling – one of bloodshot eyes and empty coffee cups, final straws and last words, dead trees and dying worlds.

As the record fades out, I can’t help but think of the approaching winter storm that was mere hours away from pummeling the southern branch of Texas this collaboration was recorded in. A Texas norther is a terrifyingly sudden cold front which is characterized by strong northernly winds and often, a black sky that punishes otherwise unsuspecting southernly placed locales like a frozen hammer. As the music fades out, intention or not, composition or not, what remains here is this black sky – the long blanket of anxiety that courses through the experimentation – the cold, cold wind. For a record concerned with “location,” this representation of its surroundings is its greatest artistic achievement.