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Sylvie Courvoisier - Mark Feldman Quartet
To Fly To Steal
Intakt CD168

Mark Feldman + Sylvie Courvoisier
Tzadik 7633

Mark Feldman + Sylvie Courvoisier

The husband-and-wife team of violinist Mark Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier are in the process of developing an unusual  musical practice, an exploration of improvisation in which the musical language – materials  and method – develop directly from the high modernism of Bartok, Prokofiev and Webern as practiced in the early decades of the 20th century. That might seem like a natural approach for a violinist and a pianist as technically accomplished as they are, but it’s daunting territory, an approach as distant from the raw vigor of free jazz as the randomized sound of much free improvisation, yet somehow further still from the through-composed works that this music superficially resembles. 

Oblivia is a duo recording, with five compositions credited to Courvoisier, one to Feldman and five to both, presumably collective improvisations. Listening to it without following the program, one is repeatedly struck by unison passages that couldn’t be improvised even by players this gifted – the kind of unison lines that turn up, for instance, in Courvoisier’s “Messiaenesque.” But the riddle of improvisation and composition that the two weave has far more dimensions than this. Courvoisier’s “Bassorah” has the dramatic stillness of the most profound elegy, the piano punctuating and echoing and somehow enfolding and unfolding the violin lines in acts of empathy that suggest spontaneous crafting throughout. It ends with a sustained high note from the violin with micro-inflections of bow-grit and pitch, a sound so mournfully sustained that it is literally created by Feldman whether it refers somehow to a score or not. The playfully pointillist improvised piece that immediately succeeds it, “Yis a Yis,” has passages of upwardly scurrying chromatics from both piano and violin that are almost unison, if not quite, and there’s the suggestion throughout that processes of composition and improvisation have somehow blurred together. Now that’s a process that’s afoot in many areas of improvised music, but Feldman and Courvoisier practice a special kind of precision of detail. Another improvisation, “Fontanelle,” mixes piano interior and alternately bowed, plucked and scraped violin spinning off into high harmonics. It has the random dialogue more typical of improvised music, but even here the discipline of the other collaborations comes through—its ideas are brightly articulated and delivered with a concision that speaks of an intense economy.    

Part of the specific emotional and formal character of this music must be traced to Feldman’s violin playing. It’s genuinely virtuosic, and though one will very occasionally hear a trace of bird calls that suggest a Chinese erhu or some idiomatic American fiddling (channelled through Aaron Copland), his sound is an acutely refined instrument, every touch of the bow, every whistling harmonic, every shift in vibrato, the gesture of a controlled technique. Piano sound is less variable, but Courvoisier, as well, is a master of the honed detail. The collaboration introduces an emotional range to improvised music that reaches back to the acute tensions and harmonic complexities of Bartok’s violin sonatas (though Feldman’s own “Purveyors” seems to reference the melody of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”). The music doesn’t usually invoke serialism, but rather a pan-chromaticism that makes for extraordinarily intense micro-gestures within broader tension curves. Courvoisier is acutely attuned to the possibilities of this language. A piece like her “Dunes” creates composed lines of tension between the piano and sudden violin declarations and then multiplies the tension with apparently improvised passages in which they seem to come both closer together in line and further apart. It’s a level of precision rarely approached in improvised music and it restores levels of formal relationship that can startle. These emotional states, unnameable yet profoundly resonant, are literally created in the spaces between the two instruments.

Turning to the Courvoisier-Feldman quartet, one begins to hear a kind of social contextualization as that special dialogue is extended into the group. Similar qualities were apparent in Courvoisier’s earlier project with Feldman in Lonelyville (Intakt CD 120), but that group seemed less focused on the Feldman-Courvoisier musical relationship with cellist Vincent Courtois a linear element close in prominence to Feldman, while Courvoisier’s role was closely intermingle with Ikue Mori’s electronics and Gerald Cleaver’s highly propulsive drumming. The quartet of To Fly to Steal is a more orthodox grouping, with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Gerry Hemingway literally replacing the silence that seemed to spotlight every gesture on Oblivia. In its place is a much looser group language, a warmer sonic environment that’s immediately apparent in the opening “Messiaenesque,” the only piece to appear on both CDs. Feldman contributes two composition to this disc, including a piece called “The Five Senses of Keen” that seems to create its own space, a warm tonal ground that resonates with pastoral countryside, invoking the special mood of American folkloric composers like Copland and Virgil Thomson. While Feldman’s violin flashes with much of the same brilliance and precision, it’s also freer here, alive to the denser fields of stimulus generated by the improvised language of the group. One of his most startling moments comes in a blistering solo on one of the collective improvisations, “Fire, Fist and Bestial Wail.” While Feldman’s tone will make him the center of attention almost anytime he is playing, there are some wonderful trio moments here as well. The dialogue between Courvoisier, Morgan and Hemingway in the improvised “Whispering Glades” suggests how the group is shaped by the history of jazz, an element largely unapparent on the duets of Oblivia. A similar moment occurs in the way Courvoisier comps on Feldman’s “The Good Life,” dismantling the composed figures to create tremendous rhythmic energy.  As stunning as Oblivia is, the quartet music To Fly To Steal may be larger in its meanings, its dialogues and its very frame of reference.

–Stuart Broomer
ECM Records - Tomasz Stanko Quintet "Dark Eyes"

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