Bagatellen - review

John Butcher | Nathaniel Catchpole | Kai Fagaschinski | Lou Gare | Evan Parker | Seymour Wright


Spread over two compact discs, this Matchless release presents in its entirety a January 9, 2005 concert held in London under the auspices of the ONGAKU: enjoy_sound improv promotional organization. A rare and weighty event, it presented solo sets by six reedists representing a vast range of aesthetics. The performers were, in order, Nathaniel Catchpole, Seymour Wright, Lou Gare, Kai Fagaschinski, John Butcher, and Evan Parker. All of these musicians are British saxophonists, except Fagaschinski, a German clarinetist. Since this was a London event, it's a shame the great Caroline Kraabel didn't have a slot, because I saw her do a solo last year that revealed an idiosyncratic and deeply creative approach to solo saxophone that would've elevated this program.

I will outline some of my biases in approaching this music. I greatly prefer listening to both reed instruments and solo improvisations compared to other many other instrumental categories and performance formats, so I'm happy this document exists. I was fairly familiar with the three veterans - Gare, Butcher, and Parker - while more or less encountering the other three for the first time here. I have read commentary on Fagaschinski's work that suggest it's a highlight of recent improvised music and I sincerely apologize for this regrettable gap in my listening. My familiarity with Gare is strictly limited to a handful of AMM recordings (their early work and 1990's The Nameless Uncarved Block) that I enjoy greatly but not as much as the Tilbury/Rowe/Prévost version. My feelings about Butcher and Parker amount to generic hero-worship of some sort or another, and they are the only musicians of the six I've witnessed in live performance, although in the case of Parker it's been so long that my memory of the music is hazy to nonexistent.

I will now report my experience with each set. If you prefer a summary, I found the Wright, Butcher, and Parker tracks stunning and sufficient reason for any reed fan to listen to this program, while finding the other tracks unremarkable but easily credited with various virtues. With the interactive format of Bagatellen, I hope other listeners will reveal aspects of the music I'm neglecting and prompt me to re-listen to these latter works from a more profitable angle.

Nathaniel Catchpole's "Maurice Brinton" is a slow 19 minute piece that deals primarily in continuous gestures with a duration similar to a single breath cycle and a low degree of internal variation. The first time I played the disc was in my car and I put it in without looking at the track listings or credits. After listening to disc one in its entirety, later in the day I looked at the track info and learned that I had mistakenly identified this as a John Butcher piece because of its melodic austerity and the way it seems to flirt with the boundaries of technical control and welcome unpredictable fractures in timbre and phrasing. I chalked it up to one of Butcher's occasional moments of fixation on static material that leaves me somewhat unengaged. In the midst of sustained tones that I had a neutral reaction to, occasionally a brief goose-like sound would escape through the cracks in timbre and give me a little thrill.

For the most part, it sounds like Catchpole is non-strenuously torturing the saxophone, an aesthetic I usually gravitate towards, but I honestly can't say I enjoyed this piece, even though it's in the same vein as David Gross' playing on Fetish, a disc that clicked into place for me eventually and I now love, although it's the kind of thing that requires a special mood I'm not exactly in too frequently. The strong dependency on a suitably charitable or depraved mood is the same way I feel about harsh noise like Merzbow or the like, which I enjoy far less and far less often than anything that could possibly be done on a saxophone or any acoustic instrument. While not bombastic and destructo-rampage-styled like Borbetomagus, both this piece by Catchpole and Gross' Fetish work are a kind of noise music for saxophone. I don't mean to make any judgements about its value and my experience was mostly neutral, not negative; I can only report my experience as a listener, which is always subject to change. Plus, I've only played the piece three times, so it's not as if I've exhausted every listening strategy on it. I probably would've only played it once if I hadn't assigned myself the task of writing this review. Sometimes accepting the role of a commentator becomes a chore instead of a pleasure. I could've enjoyed my life more if I played the Paul Dunmall solo bagpipe disc, Black Sabbath, or Azerbaijani accordion music I had on deck instead. I don't mean to direct any of these thoughts specifically at Catchpole, surely an admirable and accomplished artist, but sometimes I think I'm crazy to listen to this difficult music instead of the inexhaustible and adequately diverse riches of fail-safe fonts of musical joy.

That said, there's a passage in the piece I really love, a respite from characteristic reed sounds that kicks in at 6:35 and hits a sweet spot at 6:54, eventually reverting back to the main thrust of the piece early in the tenth minute. In this gorgeous passage quiet, breathy whistling phrases leisurely enter in isolation and end with a faint fast splutter. As another highlight, in one of my listens I found something meditative and seductive about the last three minutes or so.

Seymour Wright's "All Wright!" is a tremendously inventive 12 minute piece that uses the saxophone as a percussion instrument much more than a reed instrument, but crucially synthesizes both possibilities in a way I've never heard anything remotely like before. It's common among saxophonists to create percussive pops with the keypad or their mouths, and Wright does use these sounds a bit too, but his saxophone-as-percussion concept is vastly more literal, crude, and resolutely unsaxophonic. Using some kind of motorized device, if not several such devices, possibly a hand-held battery operated micro-fan or coffee-stirrer or the like, Wright's piece is immediately distinctive for the persistent layer of clicking sounds that accompany his very sparse and strangulated bursts of reed sounds. The metallic clicks have a timbral intrigue of their own, but their primary role is vastly more revelatory. To my ears, they function as a variation on silence, by which I refer to the fact that ordinarily the sonic context in which musical structures are generated is silence, but logically there are unsilent alternatives for the sonic contextualization of music as well. The broad concept of a drone is the most common example, a layer of sound that is taken a baseline for sound events it doesn't necessarily structurally relate to. I wish to emphasize the phrase "broad concept", because I'm not referring to the narrow concept of drone, like in ragas where there is a critical structural relationship between the drone and the linear sound events, specifically a pitch relationship. "drone" has several related meanings with important distinctions. "All Wright!" is a rare example of percussive sound events - the opposite of a drone - functioning as a sound layer that modulates the sound environment away from silence, while remaining detached from the primary layer of musical structure. This is a fascinating and largely untapped area of musical exploration. Some of the aesthetics championed by Erstwhile Records can be taken as candidates for musical recontextualization apart from their more celebrated role as music, and frequently pose enjoyable dilemmas for the listener in attempting to or even just defaulting to an attempt to adopt a conventional foreground/background distinction among simultaneous sound layers. Whereas continuous sound events dominate these intriguing candidates for environmental modulation, what is especially novel about Wright's work here is that it exposes the possibility of texture derived from non-continuous sound events.

Before elaborating any further on the role of the secondary sound field, let me identify the primary layer of musical structure in the piece. Wright mostly interjects extremely brief snippets of familiar saxophone sounds across an established range of technique, most of which would be considered extensions to the conventional vocabulary of the instrument. The sheer diversity of sound he issues almost gives the impression he's capriciously attacking the instrument with little regard for the specific character of the sound events, as if timing, duration, and dynamics are the chief structural concerns instead of pitch or timbre. I doubt this is truly the case, so I say "almost", but it would be nice to hear pitch and timbre ignored more often by other musicians and whatever Wright is doing is a treat to my ears. The animalistic, raw, seething gestures combined with an extreme sense of drama and restraint recall Jack Wright (no relation), Michel Doneda, Bhob Rainey, and John Berndt, but Wright is distinctive in his emphasis on percussive sound even when actually using the mouthpiece in a relatively familiar way, relative to 2005 when seemingly every possible saxophone sound has been made already, that is. While lacking the elements of linear development, phrasal compaction, and heart-stopping dynamic juxtaposition that put Mats Gustafsson in an untouchable category of his own, Wright's percussiveness is something of an anemic, wispy counterpart to Gustafsson's.

So how are the mouthpiece-related sounds perceptually relativized by the mechanical backdrop? First we can note that the clicks are in a class of non-rhythmic loops, repetition without accents or other variations to create an experience of motion. Power tools are another good example of this type of sound field, though there's nothing overbearing or wearisome about Wright's gentle clicks. Despite their rhythmic neutrality, the sounds are discontinuous, creating a temporal grid that eliminates the temporal amorphousness of silence. If this grid was removed, Wright's playing would be comparable to the mostly silence school of solo horn music pioneered by Radu Malfatti, Mats Gustafsson, Bhob Rainey, et al, where the experience of tempo and meter are taken to their vanishing point. In this grid, however, temporal reference is continually reset. Wright's sparsity is exempt from the drama of duration. It's a remarkably novel experience. Novelty aside, what it shares with the aforementioned players' work is the lowercase essence, a foregrounding of certain details of sound - timbre and envelope, for example - that are typically masked by pitch modulations and other larger structures.

Having portrayed this distinct music/environment division in the piece, there are two critical points to be made. First, in case it's not obvious, I'm simply reporting my experience and interpretation of the music, and I have no idea whether Wright's intentions or viewpoint is similar at all. But the most interesting qualification to be made is that the division verges on disappearing as often as it crystallizes in my perception. Take for example the sound at the 0:41 mark, one of my favorite moments in the piece, a small burst of blown sound somewhere in between a percussive pop and a reedy buzz. It's a lovely little sound and the way it's squeezed in between the fairly uptempo steady click loop almost transforms the surrounding clicks into a rhythmic event instead of an environmental background, creating the experience of perceptual flip-flop between rhythmically neutral background modulation and foreground phrasality of an austere, rhythmically minimal nature akin to that explored by post-techno artists like Plastikman or the stuff on the Mille Plateaux Clicks and Cuts comps, which I find to be a fascinating and frequently enjoyable innovation. Indeed, the role of Wright's clicks in the piece are malleable and resist the kind of pigeonholing I hinted at above.

Perhaps the most robust dissolution of boundaries between the two sound fields comes around the 10:00 mark. The clicks had already been drastically accelerated by this point, and suddenly Wright launches into staccato slashing reed jabs that motionally dovetail with segments of high velocity clicks. The mouth/reed system and the motor/striker system interact at the phrasal level. This is a section of the piece that becomes unusually animated, with some very exciting action between 10:13 and 10:19 that climaxes with something seemingly falling to the ground and making a metallic or perhaps glass-like clink fondly recalling the opening moments of Greg Kelley's monumental If I Never Meet You in This Life, Let Me Feel the Lack.

Listening to Wright's piece reminds me of the little battery operated fans I saw in some bargain store recently. It's a shame I didn't snag a few then, but I'll have to go back sometime before they're gone because they were just perfect for soundplay or gifts for musician friends. They were cheap and had great soft plastic blades. Although I'm not a musician, I do enjoy tinkering with sound when an opportunity presents itself in daily life. I've discovered some sounds that strike me as the sort of thing one of today's reed or brass extenders would give their left pinky to be able to make, but these are things that don't require the slightest bit of technical discipline or effort on my part, just pleasant and easily reproduced accidents from playing with scraping, rubbing, or bowing gestures. These experiences and Wright's simple mechanical gadgetry are object lessons in the simple truth of independence between method and content that may be disconcerting to the instrumentalists who've dedicated countless hours to achieving the rare technical skills necessary to make certain sounds at the thrilling boundary between fast rhythm and granular tone. Perhaps the reason why these instrumentalists produce such consistently excellent music is that the technical challenges function as aesthetic constraints, whereas someone tinkering around with unassuming objects can easily get sucked into the open-ended physicality of the devices and sacrifice an aesthetic focus. Nevertheless, this a purely conceptual challenge and it would be great to hear the current movement of lowercase improv based on unconventional uses of acoustic instruments enriched by musicians who use more modest technical means but retain the austerity and focus of this music. I'm thinking of a vast array of objects here, but it does bear making special mention of balloons, which offer a wider range of sound possibilities than any other known instrument while also requiring about the least amount of skill to play successfully. I think many musicians are secretly frightened of balloons, as if they are a threat to their profession like computers and robots once were to factory laborers. It's frankly depressing how few active balloonists there are in the improv scene.

Lou Gare's "Saxophony" works as an 18 minute easy listening respite from the boundary-pushing music of the other five players. Sounding much like Evan Parker's tenor work but without the timbral harshness and virtuosity, it's an evenly paced, jazzy, flowing run through a seamless series of closely related melodic variations with a lovely use of the acoustic resonances in the room. It's pure, relaxed melody somewhat shorn of passion or tension. Polished and enjoyable. Actually, this piece greatly reminds me of another UK tenor saxist I saw perform recently in a small group jazz setting, Simon Picard. I guess I like this stuff, but... where's that Black Sabbath disc?

Kai Fagaschinski's "Manchmal Glaube Ich Schon, Das es überhaupt Keine Liebe Mehr Gibt" and "Ich Kann Im Fortschritt Keine Fortschritt Sehen" add up to over 22 minutes of solo clarinet music that has proven to be the most challenging segment of the program for me in that I find myself loosely attracted to them but ultimately fail to have a thrilling experience despite considerable effort. It's easy to cite their virtues, however; Fagaschinski has a fine command of extended techniques and can construct precise phrases in which two or three distinctive timbres evenly alternate. He has a slow, methodical approach here that exposes the expressive possibilities of simple gestures through steady repetition and tiny modulations, aligning himself with the John Butcher school of solo music in which ideas are restricted and developed instead of multiplied, with a tendency to aim for minor timbral variations as a primary parameter of development. Unlike Butcher as his best, though, the dynamic contours of Fagaschinski's phrases are very conventional, mostly gentle arches. Perhaps that limits their appeal for me. As a further distinction, Fagaschinski doesn't operate at the threshold of technical control like Butcher, instead reproducing what are surely diligently practiced techniques with a sense of conservative craftfulness.

"Manchmal" is surprising in its early passage of conventionally expressive melody, delivered with a carefully controlled trilling technique I really enjoyed, but before long it switches to faint unvoiced sounds, while retaining the rough pacing of the melody to give continuity. Fagaschinski then abandons this territory as well when he shifts into high-pitched twitters and a harsher palette similar to Wolfgang Fuchs. My feeling was that he had a very coherent and promising concept early in the piece that would've been better to continue with instead of switching his materials entirely. Now I like when people change directions in the middle of a piece, but typically I like it when this happens very frequently and achieves moment form, not just every few minutes in an otherwise traditional theme and variations approach. If someone is gonna take the traditional route, I'd rather hear them stick with it and really unleash the logic of the phrases they're dealing with. In a reaction that applies equally to "...Sehen", it seemed that Fagaschinski was just working on one idea for a minute or two, then switching to another one for no other reason than he no longer felt like playing something, as if the music is being driven by the waxings and wanings of motor system dispositions instead of musical intentions. I don't find this to be an interesting approach to solo music at all, because I don't hear any relationships between the extended sections on one hand, and the music fails to function in terms of moment-form on the other hand.

I think of this, and to some extent Catchpole's piece as well, as an example of middle-of-the-road improv, in the sense that it seems the player wants to reject conventional melody but still work within the same model for phrasal shapes, winding up with bland melodies played with generic phrasing. I'd rather hear someone like Gianni Gebbia, Tim Berne, Anthony Braxton, or Vinny Golia work a sweet melody with groove and grease, or alternatively, someone like Evan Parker, Jack Wright, or Michel Doneda completely reinvent the shape of individual phrases and explore parameters unrelated to pitch. To my ears, Fagaschinski's work here neither retains the fruits of traditional approaches nor pursues an aesthetic radical enough to give the experience of tasting new fruits. That's not to say those high-pitched twitters weren't awfully nice!

"...Sehen" is the only piece in the program where really quiet territory is explored and using headphones significantly changed the experience. At times it's like being massaged by unusual reed sounds, a lovely experience. An extraordinary passage of ultra subtlety commences around 9:08 and sustains a beautiful faint texture for the final five minutes of the piece, dominated by tire deflating sounds, with delicate trills entering at 10:34 and what I'd call the moment length highlight of these two discs coming at 11:49, a trilled phrase at the boundary between offering rich internal structure and being an even chunk of air noise. Magical stuff. This and similar phrases in this passage give the feeling of hearing power tools from a thousand feet away, and they're placed into elegant sequences with the flat deflation sounds and generous pauses. The piece ends on a peak as faint whistling sound begin to emerge amidst the unpitched textures.

John Butcher's "291/5" is by a long shot my favorite piece in this program. Just like Butcher's solo albums reliably offer an aspect of his musicality the others don't, this 19 minute solo offers something quite apart from his solo albums (though I haven't yet heard Caverns of Nightlife). For starters, it's much longer than the pieces he's released. It also reaches some terrifying extremes of intensity that could be a new reference standard in his oeuvre. He pushes the saxophone to such shocking extremes of sound intensity that it sounds like my speakers are splitting open. I think I should put a new age solo piano album in my stereo just to test my speakers and make sure they haven't been reduced to shreds and tatters. Butcher plays with a passionate abandon here that matches Ayler as his most energetic; it's the sound of a total human body set into unified motion and exploding. Whereas Ayler's music is based on folk melodies, Butcher's music is based on the work of Adolphe Sax, so the cathartic passion takes on a vastly different musical character.

Butcher doesn't create a large volume of sound too often here, though there's a section that takes the feeling of piercing birdsong to rare extremes; his intensity is like the spring coil attack of a tiger's nearly instantaneous acceleration into motion. His playing has an urgency of motion sometimes absent in his work. It's a quality I really respond to, something that taps into a kinesthetic modality.

[6:24-7:10] has the groovy forward motion of a surf rock guitar loop. Around 10:07, Butcher hits a fierce groove to put James Brown to shame, though he'd been working up to it for a little while, and for the next 97 seconds his rhythms are so hot it almost feels like a Billy Cobham or Alphonse Mouzon drum kit solo from the golden years of fusion, with constant shifts in accent that never let the meter or tempo settle to a fixed position. More to the point, it has the rhythmic nuance of Akira Sotoyama's drum kit twitches in Tipographica or Tim Berne's knack for letting a groove come right to the brink of falling apart, a feeling best captured in Bloodcount in tandem with Jim Black's like-minded flirtations with collapsing drum kit grooves. The way Butcher squeezes in a quick fast line at 11:12 is like the way a great drum kit solo might use a quick roll fill to jump-start a phrase. The short scalar run in [11:44-11:46] is a rhythmic lapse that causes Butcher to lose his momentum. The groove disintegrates and he shifts into staccato phrases for a short bit, and then defaults to his sicko birdsong freakout mode, which is always welcome to my ears because I just can't get enough of harsh, pitch-pitched music, especially if it has a trilled or buzzing quality. That must be why I'm so infatuated with Michel Doneda's music.

Incidentally, bearing in mind that this program presents a succession of six performances in the same concert, and given that Butcher is the most aesthetically flexible of the six players, I can't help but wonder if his playing in this piece was partially shaped in response to the music that came earlier in the evening. That would be part and parcel of freely improvising I suppose.

Evan Parker's "Solo for Hugh Davies" is a 19 minute addition to his solo canon. Parker continues to blur the boundary between notes and tones by issuing spiralling cascades at such velocity that not even the saxophone itself can keep up, generating sonic afterimages and mysterious epiphenomenal sound layers that make me shudder with pleasure. In a world filled with saxophonists exploring leisurely soft timbral delicacies, the pure ass-whooping visceral force of Evan Parker's solo music is more dramatic and heart-stopping than ever. With the feeling of sheer exhaustion that comes from a lengthy Parker solo workout, it's wise he was allotted the final slot in the program, although in practice I feel the same way about Butcher's piece and prefer to listen to Parker's finale in a separate session. Aside from that, the diversity of the program lends itself to an appealing continuous listening session.

Michael Anton Parker - Bagatellen - August 2005