Hyazo v Levitas

Monday 17 August 2020

Just had a couple of weeks off, going nowhere, of course. Listening to this 2020 release hyazo by Cyril Bondi, Pierre-Yves Martel and Christoph Schiller, the same trio who have us tse a few years back and the brilliant awirë with Angharad Davies in 2019. The three pieces on hyazo are a purportedly different proposition from those previous albums, with each of the pieces here a more controlled composition – two by Schiller, one by Bondi – than an improvisation. The ensemble is much the same as before, with Bondi on harmonium, Martel on viola da gamba, and Schiller on spinet, with the usual additional of pitch pipes. While tse and awirë made use of compositional restrictions on their improvisations, hyazo shifts the balance and allows improvisation within a more encompassing compositional conceit. Where tse and awirë built their improvisations out of limited pitch gamuts, hyazo‘s three pieces use entire, pre-existing music as a reference point: Bondi’s title track is based on a saxophone solo, while Schiller’s Palestrina is self-explanatory. Perhaps the more elaborate structure has cramped the musicians’ style a little too much, perhaps their instrumentation and style is so distinctive… For whatever reason, while hyazo has that same impersonal beauty as their previous work, it’s hard to distinguish these three pieces from them, or indeed from each other.

A couple of weeks later, Bondi released another, larger piece, this time in conjunction with his regular collaborator d’incise. Levitas (Lane, De Asís, Mécanique, Majkowski, Garin) is another group effort that had me worried I was in for more of the same, again. Wrong, wrong. No explanatory notes are given here, but it seems that Bondi and d’incise are the composers but (supposedly) do not play here. The five piece electroacoustic ensemble are listed in the title and includes Rebecca Lane on bass flute and Clara de Asís on electric guitar, with other musicians I’m not familiar with. The true identity of Golem Mécanique, credited with “voice, tapes, electronic”, remains a mystery. The music itself is equally mysterious, falling into sections and episodes that betray the initial impression of a monolithic exercise in the minimal. Various poses and and attitudes are taken up, toyed with and discarded in a seemingly capricious way, with a solemn playfulness that keeps you guessing to the end, wondering if equilibium will be restored if the whole thing is going to blow up. It’s refreshing to hear something this imaginative, with some searching musicianship, permanently incongruous.

Hearing it again: awirë

Tuesday 25 June 2019

I was at this gig and I swore I’d written something about it, but nope. My memory gets hazy and my mind wanders. It happens sometimes when listening to music and I think it happened at this gig, but I could be wrong. Cyril Bondi, Pierre-Yves Martel and Christoph Schiller were playing at Cafe Oto to promote their fine album tse. At the end of the night, the trio were joined by violinist Angharad Davies for an improvised set.

This kind of scenario where musos work together for the first time in front of an audience is often the bane of free improvisation, where the potential thrill of risk-taking and discovery usually succumbs to awkward longeurs or unsatisfying busywork. At Oto, the quartet seemed to be at pains to keep out of each others’ way, working with a highly restrained palette and seemingly determined to make as little sound as possible. Scratch ‘possible’, replace with ‘necessary’: as they played it became clear that they were deliberately taking this approach, each of them focused on the unique timbres of their instruments (violin, viola da gamba, prepared spinet, harmonium drones and pipes) with an absolute minimum of embellishment or extraneous context, other than that provided by their fellow musicians.

Still, I couldn’t fully let go of my hang-ups about improvisation and kept listening out for any signs that the music was becoming too hesitant or precious. Live, in a bar in Dalston, it held together but on the frailest of threads. It felt like a delicate, shared experience that couldn’t hold up under closer scrutiny. I was therefore very surprised when Another Timbre (which had released tse) decided to release this set as a 30-minute CD, now with the title awirë. The short length isn’t the issue; it’s hard to think of anything that could be reasonably paired with it that would not detract from attention to this one piece. Was it really that good?

It would be trite to say that listening to the CD was a revelation, but you get the idea. First, the recording sounds damn good (it has been cleaned up to remove the Unber Eats scooters outside and me spilling Westmalle inside) and what could have been indistinct now sounds incredibly resilient. For thirty minutes the four players spin out a long, thin line of sound, held taut and in suspension without ever slacking or letting it drop, even as they pass it back and forth between each other. The small sounds stand out as significant elements in a self-reinforcing structure that’s as strong as it is light.

As it turns out, there was a compositional method at work. Besides the premeditated approach, a chance-determined gamut of pitches was drawn before playing, keeping the quartet focused on certain notes for a given time, with occasional opportunities for ‘free’ playing. This goes some way to explaining the coherence of the piece, but to work so well as music requires the skill and imagination of the quartet. The arbitrary pitches and structure inspire creativity as much as they impose order, and there is a superb sense of pacing and nuance that ensures that every gesture places the whole attention on sound over idea. A kind of virtuosity that is invisible. Even at the moments of greatest stillness, the music is never at rest.

Difficult Music

Wednesday 30 May 2018

Last Saturday night I was out at Iklectic, listening to a live set by Marie-Cécile Reber and Christoph Schiller. Missed the rest of the gig as I sat outside with friends drinking beer and listening to the constant thunder of the electrical storm passing overhead. I’ve written before about Schiller’s duo CD with Morgan Evans-Weiler with the self-explanatory title spinet and violin. Couldn’t drag the spinet to London, so Schiller played zither and melodica while Reber amplified and processed small sounds into finely-grained textures. Schiller has a strangely obdurate way of playing. His plucking of the zither is always immediately muted, as with his spinet: small spikes of sound with only a tint of the string’s pitch remaining. These can act as highlights or as intrusions, coaxing the sustained sounds into different attitudes.

Another Timbre has released a new recording of Schiller’s spinet, this time playing as a trio with Cyril Bondi on harmonium and Pierre-Yves Martel on viola da gamba. Still, it should not be a surprise to find that the disc, titled tse, does not sound like Early Music, except perhaps in a very distant way, as with Jürg Frey and Magnus Granberg on Early to Late. The older instruments share that quality of sound now admired and exploited, of being ‘thinner’, less full and less absolute, with greater transparency and variability than, say, a cello or piano. Bondi and Pierre-Yves Martel play long notes that weave in and out around faint but sustained harmonies, using pitch pipes to add another thin layer of colour, slightly out of register. Schiller plays very sparingly, the percussive sound of the spinet acting both as commentary and disruption, fixing the sound into place with a defined shape, lest it all fade into a wash of ambience.

The music is improvised but defined by strict self-imposed limitations. Playing techniques are deliberately reduced and at times the pitches are restricted to just three or four, selected at random.
There are five tracks on tse – pieces, or movements, or parts, or panels – and they all sound pretty much the same. This is music which takes concentration, both to play and to listen to, with a focus on the details contained in the surface. The technical simplicity belies a complex effect on the attentive mind. It’s an extreme kind of twist on what Artur Schnabel said about Mozart’s piano sonatas, “too easy for children and too difficult for adults.”

While I was on holiday before Christmas, a disc arrived in the post from Morgan Evans-Weiler, the violinist on that duet album with Christoph Schiller. A thoughtful friend stashed it safely in a drawer I never open. Unfinished Variations (for Jed Speare) is a single piece for solo violin, released on Sarah Hennies’ label Weighter Recordings. The label blurb promises that “all releases are professionally manufactured CDs with austere letterpressed artwork” and this philosophy carries over into the music. Evans-Weiler’s playing forces the listener’s ear into a double perspective, simultaneously rigorous and fragile. It’s a kind of musical brutalism, foregrounding the rough material of the bowed violin strings, presented in a stark design. Evans-Weiler’s extended composition is made of microtonal double-stops, bowed in brief, discrete strokes. Passages range from near-inaudible to strident, always pushing the rasp of bow against string to the fore. An uneasy tension arises from repeated chords where the intonation slowly, but unsteadily, changes. The tension never resolves, but it may subside a little. Punters who get off on the solo work of Tony Conrad and Polly Bradfield would probably want to follow up on this.

Christoph Schiller & Morgan Evans-Weiler: spinet and violin

Thursday 20 July 2017

It describes itself as “an extended improvisation” but I don’t believe it. A few years back Another Timbre put out a solo album by Christoph Schiller titled Variations – a strange hybrid of improvisation and composition. Schiller worked inside an amplified spinet and piano with various objects to compose a canon out of improvisations of predetermined length. His working methods were inspired, producing evocative sounds that only occasionally betrayed their origins.

Someone could carelessly say that improvisation is about spontaneity, but that only goes some way towards a satisfying musical experience. When away from the club, the theatre, the sense of community, the bravado, the booze and only the sound remains. As Schiller said, “A recorded improvisation is as fixed (or even more fixed) as a written piece.” Improvisation is about heightened senses of judgement, knowing when and how to act, even if only on a subconscious level.

This new duet by Schiller and violinist Morgan Evans-Weiler, titled simply spinet and violin, exercises such a fine judgement over such a long time that it’s difficult to believe that, as Evans-Weiler confirms in the accompanying interview that the music was completely improvised, or that they haven’t been playing together for years:

It was clear from the second that we started playing what direction it was going to go. I think we have both become increasingly interested in pitch and so the focus was very much on permutations of pitch sets and working through these sets over time.

The focus on pitch yields a fascinating study in timbre and texture. Carefully choosing when to deploy each new note creates a beautifully paced slow arc of sound that builds up ominously before dying away to almost complete silence halfway through. Strangely, this stillness and subsequent stirring into activity again feels like a natural progression than a break or a structural argument. The shifts in dynamics throughout the piece are all the more striking and effective for being confined to a relatively narrow range.

Both musicians hover in a state halfway between definite pitch of ‘proper’ playing and the indeterminate sound of ‘extended’ techniques. The piece begins with Schiller plucking muted spinet strings against Evans-Weiler’s frail violin drones. Any tendency to pursue a particular gesture or sound gets reined in by an emphasis on pitch, yet the pitch itself remains a nebulous ideal which may be approached but never possessed. This ambiguous haze persists throughout, like a familiar image that preys on memory but never quite resolves into recognisable focus. Sustained double-stops float microtonally, the strings from both instruments rasp and buzz, a rare plucked note dropped like a pebble into a pond. The spinet rattles and echoes – at times it seems like there are electronics involved, with lower pitched sounds welling up in the background. It’s all hard to tell. I haven’t heard many pieces this year composed as well as this improvisation.