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Reviews of Recent Media

Antoine Beuger + Anastassis Philippakopoulos
Floating By
Erstwhile 098

“Recorded at home,” states the Bandcamp page for this collaboration between Wandelweiser composers Antoine Beuger and Anastassis Philippakopoulos, but to what end and effect? Whose home, and what exactly is home anyway? These are questions paramount to releases on both Erstwhile and Wandelweiser, in which environment is integral to any musical conception. That cryptic descriptor, so familiar and somehow “other” in this context, resides at the heart of this single 74-minute study in tone, breath and the luminous spaces and forces holding and propelling them.

It may be useful, as a way into one of the most simple and complex entries in the Erstwhile catalog, to present something at least bordering on fact. As the single track moves forward, we can hear closely related melodic fragments (Bartok and Messiaen motives come most readily to mind as points of comparison) flanking or punctuating sounds associated with other exhalation of air, breathed or otherwise. The vocalizations begin and conclude the disc. There are also occasional staccato consonants, notably at around 16, 40, and 66 minutes into the piece. The elements seem to accumulate as time passes. Like the melodic motives, the breath sounds relate very closely to each other, occurring in category. They contain changeable helpings of tone, sibilance, and vowel, riding each recurrent wave with a meditative sustain. Headphones reveal some fluctuation in ambient sound as the music progresses.

Beyond these attempts at elemental description lies the magic, and there is plenty. Anyone familiar with Beuger’s two other collaborations on Erstwhile (This Place/Is Love with Michael Pisaro-Liu and Where are we Going, Today with Cristian Wolff) will have some inkling of expectation. We hear similarly reflective textures and serialized sounds pervading both, and there is a serial quality to the discs as heard in sequence, leading ultimately to this new one’s stripped-down aesthetic. Philippakopoulos’ 2018 piano pieces employ melodies that may have provided the genesis for these floating phrases, or at least they seem similarly contoured, but none of this elucidates the sheer beauty of each subtle arc, slope, and point of sound as it emanates, blooms, and disintegrates. The voice is rife with pulse but decidedly unbreathy, save for the ends of phrases, and the breath never quite achieves fullness of tone, though it’s almost always just beneath whatever surface is reflecting the encircling silence.

It could be that the silence is the real magic, the alchemist’s secret beneath all occurrence. It’s legion, a constant inconstancy always in process. Whether anticipating, defining, contextualizing, or commenting, it pervades the whole, amassing shape which is then just as easily dispelled. There’s nothing new in that, especially in these two composers’ long-nurtured soundworlds, but more than so many others less considered, this silence is layered, a protean thing in and of itself, another instrument but one whose size and composition is as varied as the sounds that frame its shifting components. That silence is both foundational and environmental, a place in which all else occurs and to which it returns, like Opener’s return after the outings in Samuel Beckett’s radio play Cascando. If, superficially, the piece is replete with repose, the silence adds intrigue by debunking such notions, a tacet figured bass over which sound and tone merge energetically with the overtonal harmonies inherent in their construction. Each breath and pitch is a kind of simultaneous voyage and destination, captured to be completely immersive but ephemeral. They are centers over a center, and what more inclusive vision of a home, a place in which discoveries are encouraged and considered, could one desire?
–Marc Medwin


Cisco Bradley
The Williamsburg Avant-Garde: Experimental Music and Sound on the Brooklyn Waterfront
Duke University Press

One of the hallmarks of the non-commercial, institutionally unsupported avant-garde and experimental musics of the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s was the creation of homegrown networks by which musicians provided themselves with support, both financial and artistic, and performance opportunities. Whether it was free jazz played in lofts in New York City’s abandoned industrial facilities, or electronic music made in home studios and exchanged on cassette tapes by mail, avant-garde and experimental musics stayed viable through coalitions of artists and audiences that served as social scenes as well as artistic movements. Williamsburg, a Brooklyn neighborhood fronting the East River, was from the late 1980s through the first decade-and-a-half of the 21st century the site of one of those scenes.

The Williamsburg Avant-Garde is Pratt Institute Professor of History Cisco Bradley’s well-researched study of Williamsburg’s approximately two-and-a-half-decade-long period as a magnet for experimental and avant-garde musicians of many disciplines and un-disciplines. Much of the book is based on a series of over 200 interviews he conducted with artists, curators, venue operators, and label owners associated with the scene. Drawing on these first-hand accounts as well as on his access to the personal archives of some of the artists involved, Bradley provides a lively account of the neighborhood’s vital experimental music movement from its underground beginnings in various squats and abandoned industrial sites to its eventual dissolution in the face of rising rents and gentrification.

As Bradley tells it the birth of the scene was midwifed by a cohort of young artists, many of them involved with punk music and other performance arts, who began colonizing Williamsburg toward the end of the 1980s. They weren’t the first to arrive; the area’s low rents had already attracted a number of art-school trained painters who could no longer afford the increasingly expensive East Village. In fact, Bradley notes that as early as 1980, census data showed that Brooklyn was home to 13,000 artists and performers. Williamsburg itself was full of abandoned industrial spaces that inevitably were taken over as squats and illicit performance spaces; as Bradley writes, some of the earliest shows were performed without such niceties as electricity. Unsurprisingly this postmodern version of unregulated homesteading, which Bradley describes as the Warehouse Movement of 1988-1994, proved to be highly conducive to fostering risk-taking music. Of a piece with the DIY ethic of those years was the pirate radio station Free103point9, around which coalesced its own community of experimental artists.

Much of Bradley’s account concerns itself with the cultural geography of Williamsburg as mapped out in the clubs – licensed and unlicensed – lofts, and other venues in which challenging music was presented. He describes places like the Lizard’s Tail, one of the first clubs to open; the “really big parties” at the Cat’s Head; the long-lived Right Bank Café and Newsonic Loft; and the Read Café. One of the most important was also one of the last to open – the Zebulon Café (2004-2012), which during its lifetime became the Williamsburg music scene’s center of gravity. Accordingly, two central chapters of the book are devoted to the club and to the artists who played there.

Although Zebulon featured artists playing musics of various types, jazz, free jazz, and jazz-oriented creative music served as its point of reference, particularly during its first years of operation. The club in 2004-2005 provided residencies for veteran musicians Charles Gayle, joined by double bassist Hilliard Greene and drummer Jay Rosen, and Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, who had participated in the loft scene of the 1970s, but who had been inactive during the 1980s and 1990s. Early bills provided platforms for Lawrence “Butch” Morris and Billy Bang, as well as Louis Belogenis’ Unbroken Trio, saxophonist Andrew Lamb, instrument inventor Ken Butler, and the Digital Primitives trio of Assif Tsahar, Cooper-Moore, and Chad Taylor. Other performers ranged freely across genres and included saxophonist Matana Roberts’ quartet; the electronically textured “sound slabs” of Period; the real-time orchestration of Kneebody and Mostly Other People Do the Killing; double bassist Eivind Opsvik’s eclectic Overseas project which combined jazz, classical, North Indian, jazz-rock, and film music; and Edom and Rashanim, two groups associated with John Zorn’s Radical Jewish Culture project.

Zebulon’s years of operation coincided with what Bradley describes as a change in the music scene’s character, which occurred at the beginning of the millennium. It was around 2000, he notes, that Williamsburg experienced the influx of a wave of musicians trained in university programs. Bradley points in particular to the importance of the music program at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, just a few hours away from Williamsburg. It isn’t hard to see why. From 1990 until his retirement in 2013, Anthony Braxton taught there, in the process training a generation of musicians as conversant with improvisation as with innovative forms of composition. By all accounts his teaching was a kind of mentoring that brought out what was best and most characteristic of his students, many of whom went on to distinguished careers. And alumni and alumnae of Braxton’s program, or of the related Middletown Creative Music Orchestra, were a significant presence in Williamsburg in the early 2000s. These included Orchestra founders James Fei, Jackson Moore, Seth Dellinger, and Seth Misterka, as well as Mary Halvorson, Jessica Pavone, Taylor Ho Bynum, Jason Cady, Matthew Welch, and Brian Glick. Not only did these musicians revitalize Williamsburg with their musical ideas, but many of them, inspired by Braxton’s encouragement of a DIY ethic, curated shows, organized long-running performance series, and founded record labels as well. (Wesleyan’s contributions to creative music, which date back to the 1970s, would make for a fascinating history of its own.)

Only a few years after the turn of the millennium, the local music scene would undergo a more drastic change. In 2005 Williamsburg was rezoned to allow its development for residential use; this was the event that precipitated the end of the neighborhood as a viable – meaning affordable – home for avant-garde and experimental artists. With the cost of living going up, a steady attrition began that found musicians leaving for Bushwick and elsewhere. Nevertheless, some semblance of an experimental music scene managed to endure for a few more years. Death by Audio, which opened in 2007, for seven years provided a venue for a particularly loud and aggressive music rooted in punk, metal, and noise. At a very different end of the musical spectrum, pianist Connie Crothers, a student of Lennie Tristano’s held concerts featuring her own students, musicians in the Tristano tradition, and others at her loft from the early 2000s until 2012. Even after the concerts were discontinued, her loft continued as a gathering place until her death in 2016.

But by the mid-2010s, it was essentially over. Death by Audio was forced to close in 2014 when its building was purchased by Vice, a magazine dedicated to covering alternative music – an irony Bradley is quick to note. It is the demise of Death by Audio that Bradley sees as the final event in the dissolution of the Williamsburg scene. His book is that scene’s eloquent epitaph, and as a history it undoubtedly will stand as definitive.
–Daniel Barbiero


patrick brennan s0nic 0penings
tilting curvaceous
Clean Feed CF613

One of Thelonious Monk’s greatest compositions – and aren’t they all great? – is “Evidence.” Its groove is as infectious as its rhythmic language of displacement and discovery is complex, rhythmic intricacy that it would be too simplistic to call syncopation, but there’s so much more. The fact that it grew out of “Just You, Just Me,” not to mention the various traditions birthing that standard, adds another layer of reference and connection; layers of communal discourse similarly inform tilting curvaceous, philosopher, composer, and saxophonist patrick brennan’s most recent s0nic 0penings project. It's as if “Evidence” was placed under a microscope, each of its implications stretched beyond recall and, via metempsychosis, transported to another plane of existence, each of the work’s 14 parts an homage and an implication.

I have no desire to stretch the parallel beyond credibility, but listen to Rod Williams’ piano octaves in the opening section. Even more than that, observe the enforced entropy immediately following, those punchy melodies scattering rhythmic fragments in all directions and only regrouping with Michael TA Thompson’s stunning rolls and high-hat exhortations. No, it isn’t Monk, but it rechannels those confluences that defined his innovations, updating them to our own more complicated era. As bassist Hilliard Greene and trumpeter Brian Groder inhabit brennan’s melodic universe, they perform the complex but enviable task of enhancing the allusion while marking the distance separating this aggregate from the histories it celebrates.

brennan’s is music of extreme dynamism supporting a vision somehow both grandiose and accessible, one fostered by each musician. His ensemble is often as disparate as his forms are diverse, each miniature unpredictably witty in a unified context. The fifth part opens with a monumental piano and arco bass drone which leads directly into a melody as beautiful as its staggered statement is unsettling, but the little form fragments around a malleted TA drum solo of delicate forcefulness only to reappear without Williams. Rhythm and meter are just as fractiously treated, occupying some sort of borderland of being and non-being. The fourth part lets the rhythm section loose on theme and groove; the 13th part stabs and punches at figures similar to the whole work’s opening, but every time it appears that something approaching conventional groove is in the offing, the notion is shattered, or nearly shattered, with all the excitement of a band in full simpatico mode, equal parts synchronized and adventurous as they slide in and out of time. Within these iterations, group members don’t so much solo as elucidate aspects of the overarching form. Groder steps into the spotlight to tear up the seventh part, and one of Greene’s most beautiful moments on disc opens the twelfth, a gliding soliloquy of slow communion gradually enhanced by his bandmates.

The best is saved for last. Is that the theme that brennan plays to end the disc? It certainly begins on the same note as the first part and consists of similar melodic components. Leaving all that aside, it sizzles with excitement, earthy exuberance amidst the rhythmically arhythmic drive toward a goal simultaneously clear and elusive. brennan offers an absolutely complete statement of bold intent and a precis of all that has gone before. It caps a disc of extraordinary group focus and playing equally inventive and concise, giving the impression that every single note is inevitable in its incisiveness. Every s0nic 0penings disc is well worth hearing, but this one is very special. Not merely another document of a group in transition, it’s a joyous culmination.
–Marc Medwin


Frank Denyer
another timbre at203x2

Melodies is a series of works composed by Frank Denyer in the mid to late 1970s, sparked by the observation that indigenous music traditions on every continent used forms restricted to four notes or less. This led him to fundamental questions: What exactly is a note? Is it the same as a pitch or a discrete frequency? He gradually realized it was something else. Variance in intonation was common practice in western classical music, which suggests that a note could encompass a small range of frequencies. Many non-western traditions, particularly that utilized few notes, tolerated even more latitude in this regard. The fewer the notes, Denyer concluded, the less chance of them being heard as out of tune. To bear this out, he set out to write a two-note melody, thinking it a simple exercise. Instead, it posed even more questions when, for starters, rhythm, dynamics, and timbre are introduced. So, he began to write one-note pieces, only to face new questions: Is a note with a trill the same as one without? What about ornamentations like portamento or glissando? What change in pitch creates a new note?

It eventually dawned on Denyer that “a note could be individually characterised by the width and nature of its pitch band, and through that microstructure become endowed with a special identity.” He then began to speculate how far he could extend this idea in systems with five or more notes. This led to the transformation over three years of an inquiry into an extended composition, one comprised of 25 sections for soloists and small ensembles. Spread out over two discs, this 90-minute work epitomizes Denyer’s unique melding of the ancient and the abstract. The work is divided into five parts, linked with interludes: Part One includes sections based on one, two, and three notes; four, five, and six notes are used in the sections of Part Two; Part Three has melodies of seven, eight, and nine notes; ten, eleven, and twelve notes are used in the sections of Part Four; and the pieces in the final part have 13-15 notes. The works also slowly become longer as each additional note is added to the palette. The opening one-note melody for bamboo flute lasts less than 90 seconds, while the concluding melodies for string quartet and percussion clock in between seven and ten minutes. The glacial accumulations of pitches, instruments, and ideas are ultimately rewarding if offered uninterrupted attention. Melodies is not a collection to be heard a few tracks at a time, or days apart.

The back and forth between pieces for solo performers and small groups over the course of the two CDs is an intriguing countermotion to that of the increasing number of notes employed from beginning to end. One thread of continuity that is distinctively Denyer’s is the use of a single voice – primarily his and that of Elizabeth Smalt (who also plays viola and sneh throughout the collection), though there is also a bustling piece for three male singers with hand-held percussion. As is the case with much of Denyer’s music, the voice can be used to navigate what is simultaneously a sprawling and a stringently attenuated scape, as is Denyer’s use of objects like stones and steel plates for percussion. Additionally, the string and wind instruments common in Western art music are used in decidedly unconventional ways. It is a demanding trek, not one for the tourist stroller. The age-old bromide about a recording that rewards committed listening certainly applies to Melodies; however, the payoff is not instant, but more of a time-released proposition. It may come when hearing an ambient sound and puzzling whether or not it is a single note, or just hearing it as music. Either way, it validates Frank Denyer’s bold inquiry.
–Bill Shoemaker


Bertrand Denzler + S├ębastien Beliah + Jon Helibron + Mike Majowski + Derek Shirley
Low Strings
Confront Core 29

Sbatax (Bertrand Denzler + Antonin Gerbal)
Umlaut Records UMFR-CD43

Bertrand Denzler + Jason Kahn
Potlatch P122

On his Web site, Bertrand Denzler succinctly describes himself as “a Swiss and French composer/improviser/performer/saxophonist” which sums up his work but barely begins to do justice to its expansive breadth. Three recent releases hint at that range – a minutely shaded tenor sax and electronics duet with Jason Kahn, a recording of compositions for a double bass quartet, and the free-jazz inflections of his duo Sbatax with drummer Antonin Gerbal. The recording with Kahn captures a first-time meeting, the composition for double bass quartet is an extension of his compositions for double bass performed by Félicie Bazelaire, and the recording with Sbatax is the third by the duo though the two collaborate frequently in multiple other contexts. On the face of that, one might wonder how/whether this all fits together. But a close listen reveals a sensibility shaped by an ear toward collective, structural form and a penchant for multifaceted timbral detail.

Translations marks Denzler’s fourth release on the Potlatch label which have included a saxophone quartet, a solo tenor recording, and a recording of his composition “Arc” by the ensemble CoÔ. The live recording with Jason Kahn captures a concert at Tiasci, Paris in 2021, the first time the two performed together. Like Denzler, Kahn is a polyglot musician whose work spans text pieces, field recordings, percussion, and electronics in settings from improvisation to composition to site-specific installations. From the outset, the two carve out a reciprocal sonic space with buffets of burred breath and electronic hums and squiggles, developing their improvisation with an assured, patient trajectory. Labeling this a saxophone and electronics duo becomes quickly irrelevant. Here, Denzler’s approach to his horn is as a sound generator and while one can hear the elemental sonics of his instrument as the foundation of his playing, he has abstracted it down to modulations of breath, percussive key clicks and pad pops, and reed-generated vibrations, introducing microtones and skirled phrases as a component in his overall palette. Kahn’s contributions are built from whirrs, gradations of hiss and scumbled textures, static, and crackles. The timbral overlap of the two allow for absorbing interplay as one quickly loses the aural division between the two sound sources. A key defining attribute of this duo is their penchant for leaving plenty of space in their respective playing. They never crowd each other out, able to collectively steer the arc of the improvisation with lissome response. The two are an exhilarating fit and one hopes to hear more from them.

Low Strings, written in 2016 for Sébastien Beliah to be performed with three other double bassists, is the latest missive from Denzler’s body of compositions. The two pieces here quaver and rumble at the bottom registers of the instruments as long arco tones resonate against each other. Execution of compositions like this rely on the patience, attention to sonic detail, and carefully attuned listening of the performers, and this exemplary ensemble was sagely assembled. Beliah, Jon Helibron, Mike Majowski, and Derek Shirley all have extensive experience with these sorts of contemplative pieces in both improvisational and composed contexts. But the opportunity to hear four masters like this massed together is rare. The music sits with a resolute placidity as the microtonalities and overtones accrue. One sometimes hears music like this for overlapping sine tones, but the acoustic resonances of the double bass along with the variegated sonorities resulting from slow arco playing result in a far richer intonations and inflections. This is not music that progresses in any traditional sense of the word, yet it is hardly static in the way that the sounds evolve and play off of each other. While the 20-minute readings of “Low Strings 4” and “Low Strings 3” don’t differ widely from each other, the programming of the two creates a contemplative listening experience, allowing one to be fully immersed in the engulfing sonic space. Beliah did a phenomenal job, effectively capturing the nuanced performances. Listening on a decent set of speakers is strongly recommended.

The group Sbatax, the duo of Denzler on tenor sax and Anonin Gerbal on drums, has been around for over a decade and the two work together regularly in a variety of contexts including ensembles like CCP3, Ensemble ReRe, Horns+, Onceim, Protocluster, and Zoor as well as various ad hoc groupings. Spires is the third release by the group, evolving from more spare strategies of their debut release (reviewed in PoD 51 by Stuart Broomer) to a deep embrace of the free jazz tenor/drums duo tradition. This release kicks off right out of the gate with the thunder of Gerbal’s drums and Denzler’s scorching roar and doesn’t let up over the course of the two 23-minute improvisations. This is unrelenting music which the two players embrace, pushing back and forth, constantly driving each other. Gerbal is an unmitigated force, his torrential drumming caterwauling with a keen sense of open polyrhythms and percussive colorations with thundering kick drum, booming toms, speed-sprint snare, and pealing cymbal crashes. Denzler responds with skirling overtones, squalling bellows, and gritty roars. He clearly relishes the opportunity to unleash with strapping vigor. Yet with all of the brawn and intensity, one can still hear a structural sensibility at play. Kernels of torrential phrases are stated, teased apart, and reiterated with a focused zeal.

For those following Denzler’s work, each of these are worthy additions well worth spending time with. For those interested in diving in, these three are a great place to start. Here’s looking toward what he’s up to next.
–Michael Rosenstein


Michael Formanek Elusion Quartet
As Things Go
Intakt CD 399

Not easy, following Michael Formanek’s last longtime quartet, where he, Craig Taborn and Gerald Cleaver sailed through intricate metrical schemes as Tim Berne keened and surged on the rolling sea. One doesn’t often link Berne and Johnny Hodges, but both altos really know how to connect one note to the next, suavely rounding a phrase. The action is a little scrappier in the bassist’s Elusion Quartet on its second album recorded late in 2022. We open (“Bury the Lede”) with a minute-and-a-half full-band held-chord tremble, Tony Malaby using saxophone as a resonating pipe. Later his tenor evokes the anthemic ancestors, as the quartet get within shouting distance of full modal churning – it’s in 4, with what sounds like one splashy chord change per bar. Kris Davis can hammer chrome piano harmony but doesn’t go full fourths-and-fifths McCoy Tyner. Ches Smith’s accents add another polyrhythmic layer, where in such a context another drummer might thrash.

Tony Malaby’s disruptive tenor and soprano feed that scrappiness. He darts over a range of moods/textures/approaches in short order, an intuitive flyer, resetting the context in the process. He’s got a few arresting sounds, variously suggesting George Adams gospel (“Gone Home,” deceptively simple seesaw à la Paul Motian), borderland corridas, a Dewey Redman growl, or flute-like transparency when doubled by piano (on the shapely descending meander “Rewind”). “In Turn” begins in an oddly aggressive rubato, then flows over floating piano arpeggios in shifting meters. Lopsided time signatures still abound, although (in the modern manner) they are mostly played offhand, without calling attention to themselves. The compelling “Rockaway Beach” starts (but won’t stay) in a backbeaty 8; an octave-bumping little interlude helps defeat a fixed groove. Formanek plays a doubled-up Batman bassline, and a solo to invoke Mingus’ percussive finger-dances (since folks compare any bassist-leader to him anyway). In her solo Davis is crisp like early Herbie Hancock: an explicitly jazzy lightness. She’s not afraid to underplay, if only because the notes and gestures she does choose are impeccably tasteful/tasty. The marchy angularity of “I Don’t Think So” reminds us Formanek had studied various Braxton scores for Thumbscrew’s 2019 repertory project. The bonky ensemble interaction with arco bass on an open section recalls the Circle quartet.

Here as in that other Formanek vehicle, trio Thumbscrew, the drummer doubles on vibes, opening up the possibilities and the palette. Smith’s vibraphone blends with Davis’ carefully pedaled piano and a two-note bass figure in an impromptu gamelan early on “Gone Home.” Moving from swingtime at the drums to tolling on the low metal bars appropriately helps cool ensemble motion, mid-“Entropy.” Vibes, prepared piano, and soprano appear to take cues from the title of the timbrally-minded “Cracked Bells.” A morse-codey rhythm figure eventually emerges, to tighten up the time.

Some name dropping in this review, not because the band/players mimic anyone identified, but to suggest meaningful parallels. These four (like many others) nod to/build on what came before, in a knowing way, while sounding like themselves, no more referential than they are reverential. Elusion is right in their name.
–Kevin Whitehead


Hat Hut Records

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