Léo Dupleix, Les Certitudes; Piotr Kurek, Smartwoods

Friday 13 October 2023

Just before, I was talking about distinctions between the process and the piece when musicians get together. “The ensemble Les Certitudes was created in 2021 as a means for developing acoustic music focusing on justly tuned tones and harmonies, taking as a starting point the physicality of the instruments –resonating wood and metal– in a long musical form.” They’re a trio: on this occasion, consisting of Léo Dupleix on harpsichord, Juliette Adam on clarinet and Félicie Bazelaire on cello. The long musical form is a composition by Dupleix, titled Construire sur les ruines d’un passé encore fumant, made up from five movements together lasting nearly an hour. The emphasis on just intonation is almost too demonstrative, proceeding in a slow, deliberate way to let the beautifully constructed harmonies linger. The beginning and ending sections are dronelike without actually being motionless, the opening letting real and implied overtones rise over immobile cello, the closing determinedly cycling through a small set of chords on keyboard while clarinet and cello tentatively seek out more esoteric harmonics. The central movement omits keyboard, giving space for the more directly human instruments to find an intonation that flexes and breathes a little as they slowly circle around each other. The trio’s playing throughout is controlled; unhurried but insistent (it should be noted here that it was recorded in sections over a couple of venues and dates). The trio refuse to succumb to an easy, soft ambience and let their instruments speak full and clear; it’s an admirable commitment to keep the music in focus but I did begin to find it wearying by the end. That might be down to the musicians getting caught up in the process.

Piotr Kurek’s album Smartwoods is definitely a finished object, the end product of process and assembly, incorporating performance. A set of seven instrumental tracks which seem pleasant enough if you don’t listen too close, but then it’s hard not to listen close because the quiet strangeness that permeates each little piece draws you in. Everything’s a little bit off, never quite right. That queasy uncanny valley effect hits you straight off as you think you’re hearing a slightly old-fashioned potted MIDI orchestra plinking and tooting away, but then it’s too organic for that, nothing seems to be running by clockwork. It’s not a reasuring thought as it raises the possibility that things could run off track and turn ugly at any moment. It never does, even while it keeps implying all is not well – at least not on our terms. The small ensemble on harp, winds and bass play very neatly throughout, with the finesse of deadpan comedians pretending to be automata, never quite bumping into each other. Kurek plays keyboards, guitar and (oh jeez) MIDI wind controller, both to insert digital impostors and transform the live instruments into hi-sheen simulacra of themselves. It doesn’t stay around long enough to impose its oddness on you, which makes the oddness the subject as you wonder afterwards what it all means, with each piece a small, unsolveable puzzle.