Reduced circumstances: Bondi & d’incise

Tuesday 15 June 2021

Cyril Bondi and d’incise’s collaborative work with various enembles, including the large Insub Meta Orchestra, has been documented here in recent years. How has lockdown treated them? Well, it’s been ups and downs, it seems, as you might expect. Diminished opportunities to work as a group has forced them into making music on a smaller scale. La lavintse (de Asís​-​Schiller​-​Tantanozi​-​Tataroglou​-​Winter) continues in what appears to be a similar vein from last year’s Levitas: an ensemble playing strangely curtailed compositions that build their character in the small differences of limited means. It’s all acoustic this time, with Clara de Asís returning on guitar, joined by Christoph Schiller on spinet; Marina Tantanozi on flutes with Mara Winter on medieval flutes, and Tassos Tataroglou on trumpet. The four tracks are distinguished by a delicate interplay of small sounds, less mysterious than Levitas but with an elegant transparency. Guitar and spinet intertwine for the first piece, later acting as a very subtle percussion while the distinction between the winds becomes more and more blurred. Tataroglou’s trumpet becomes more noticeably present as the ears adjust. By the last track, a discernible shape to the composition has vanished completely, with the musicians feeling their way through the sounds, one at a time.

While Bondi and d’incise describe La lavintse as “a brief moment of sunshine” in 2020, their September recordings with the Insub Meta Orchestra are remembered as “not fully satisfying”. “Being an orchestra means much more than music to us,” and the necessities of the pandemic broke the 30-odd piece ensemble into smaller chunks to be assembled later in the studio to make the three pieces heard in Ten / Sync. As before, the processes at work are often discernible while being no less intriguing for revealing so much of their inner working to the listener. The logic of Tutti-Soli alternates a large goup chord with a single note sustained by one member once the others have stopped. Presumably, each musician chooses their note, creating a dense haze contrasted with an arbitrary note by a random instrument, sounding like a new wrinkle on the methods used in some of Cage’s late compositions. Sparge would appear to be a slow, circulating chord sequence in which parts of the sequence are skipped in turn, creating a refrain that almost repeats itself without ever being quite the same, a lulling sense of security which is never anchored in true certainty. The longer À la Denzler is less yielding to interpretation, with a sinister ticking underpinning the whole work, softened but never appeased by sustained notes from individual members of the orchestra, in single file or in groups. Lockdown may have pressed them into greater ingenuity here, but hopefully they can reform in full force soon.

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.

On being won over: Alvear-Bondi-d’incise, NEF

Wednesday 20 May 2020

These came out over the last two months so may as well be classed as lockdown listening: the sort that relocates the attention. Both are from the Insub label, who have been turning out some monumental work lately. Neither of these are on quite the same scale, but still impress with the boldness of their conception and imaginative execution. Ocho pretextos is a set of short trios worked out by the performers in joint residences one spring in the distant past of 2019. Cristián Alvear on guitar, Cyril Bondi on percussions and d’incise on electronics; these three have become regulars on this site in one guise or another. Despite this, they keep coming up with new ways to surprise me.

The compositional nature of these pieces is immediately clear: each one works on a sort of grid of regular, repeated sounds, allowing for more ornate details to fill in the gaps. The other joint compositions I’ve heard by Bondi and d’incise are for larger forces, with variety generated by a small set of simple conditions. Here, more free play seems to be allowed within the constraints of repetition, giving each piece a greater or lesser degree of tension. What would normally sound like free improv gains a new perspective from a regular pulse that cuts across their playing. From one track to the next, the slow pulse transforms from a steady foundation to a jarring interruption, harshly strummed or snapped guitar chords mixed with insistent percussion.

I know nothing about NEF, not even why they are called NEF: the three musicians here are named Rodolphe Loubatière, Pascal Battus and Bertrand Gauguet. Seven improvisations, of the sort that are weathered and well-seasoned, always alive but never restless. Each ‘act’ of Intervalles builds up a series of complex textures from a variety of subtle tonal colours that never resolve into anything too pretty or too pat. The sonic intrigue makes sure that things never get dull and I was going to say that if you like that sort of improv you’ll love this, but then I checked the personnel again. The instruments listed are snare drum, “rotating surfaces”, alto saxophone, and nothing else. How did they make this? Where the hell was the sax? They’re even better than I thought.

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.

Similarities and differences: Cyril Bondi & d’incise, Magnus Granberg

Monday 20 May 2019

Listening to the latest release by Cyril Bondi & d’incise, it’s easy to hear similarities with their previous releases with the Insub Meta Orchestra. The sound pulses and flows without any overt movement or direction, each moment self-contained. Here are three shorter works, Mem, Aleph, Lassis, each around ten minutes. The twist is that each is played twice, first by quartet The Pitch (clarinet, vibraphone, pump organ and double bass), then by Bondi and d’incise on various small organs with Mike Majkowski on double bass. The differences are subtle, with the latter trio sounding softer, more homogeneous without the percussion to add articulation. An echo, diminuendo. The shorter durations and consequent reduction in scale gives each piece a more definite, almost subjective shape. It’s pleasant listening, but that pleasure is sequestered within a comfort zone. It sounds more modest, but that may be because I’m coming to if after hearing their other recent album of deconstructed dub under the guise of Diatribes.

When I wrote about Magnus Granberg’s last release, Nattens skogar, I compared his music to late Morton Feldman: each one is the same yet each one is different. This new CD, recorded with his regular group Skogen, again contains a single ensemble work. Nun, es wird nicht weit mehr gehn is nearly an hour long and features nine musicians but retains the starker sound-world of the quartet in Nattens skogar. It begins with a scraping sound punctuated by two chords on prepared piano. The consistently low volume levels throughout belie the sharp relief of the sounds being played. This low but distinct relief continues throughout; a slow, irregular rhythm of percussive sounds, some electronically amplified, against a faint background of string drones, electronic buzzing, field recordings, or silence. At one point, a high keening can be heard from either a violin, a recorded bird, a bowed vibraphone or feedback, or possibly a combination of the above. Where earlier works by Granberg presented a continuity of sound, here the interplay of sound and silence builds a more complex image, making each new sound’s introduction or withdrawal all the more striking, whether it’s bursts of line noise or recordings of wildlife. I’d described Nattens skogar as “the clearest expression I’ve yet heard of the aesthetic world Granberg has constructed” and Nun, es wird nicht weit mehr gehn continues that development, where the overall image grows more mysterious even as each element comes into clearer focus.

Debasing the Coinage of Popular Usage: Alan Courtis, Diatribes

Monday 1 April 2019

After hearing so many stripped-back works for solo guitar, it makes a fun change to get sent a guitar album that is cranked and processed halfway to heaven. Alan Courtis’ (bloke from Reynols) solo album Buchla Gtr mashes together one of those 80s-retro Steinberger headless electric guitars with a 60s-retro Buchla modular synthesiser into a seamless whole. The recordings were made over a week at EMS in Stockholm back in 2014 and then reworked over the next few years. As a double LP, each side presents a contrasting tableau of drones and buzzes that morph from ecstatic to sinister and from chilly to decadent. It’s a salutary lesson that the grey area between amplified guitar sounds and electronic oscillation is to be embraced rather than feared. If you were a spotty teenager who got off on Metal Machine Music, (No Pussyfooting) and Sonic Youth’s EPs then this album is a useful affirmation that your youthful tastes didn’t always suck.

Still speaking of guitars: I was at a Julia Reidy solo gig a while back and started thinking about how popular music gets used as material these days. Once, tropes from rock or jazz would be incorporated into other musical styles to act as a signifier of that genre; now, the substance is reworked into new forms. Reidy strummed a 12-string acoustic with live processing and drones provided by the laptop at her side. Chords were prolonged, removed from conventional structural function, sense or context. The point of focus became the tension between the sound in the moment enjoyed for its own sake and the potential for where it might turn next.

I don’t want to use the term ‘deconstructed’ to describe this style as it’s too often used as the smokescreen for ill-conceived pretentious food and even more pretentious music. I’ve just checked again and thankfully the blurb for Diatribes’ new release Echoes & Sirens doesn’t use it either. Here, the subject is dub, filleted and collaged into something that is decidedly not dub, however much one may be struck by a passing resemblance from time to time. No guitars here, except for the bass. A real horn section, with organ, drums and electronics that largely behave in the expected manner. The four tracks, each ten minutes long, imply that some other game is being played here, as does the fact that Diatribes is the duo of Cyril Bondi and d’incise, whom I have reviewed in various guises before.

There is a concept at work, according to the sleeve notes. Each track takes a classic of early 80s dub as a starting point and reworks elements of each by adopting techniques used on sound systems by MCs at the time. I have no authority to judge how successfully the album may be “considered as four imaginary moments of a sound system night” but that’s not the point as far as I’m concerned. While the material and technical concepts may be borrowed from popular music, the method by which they are adapted and applied to a new situations sounds entirely original and the whole thing sounds fresher when heard free of expectations to be true to an imagined model. Or, perhaps this is less an act of collage or d-d-deconstruction and more a cubist representation, incorporating time and subjective experience to move beyond simple mimicry. Each track focuses on a different approach, building up a chorus of echoing brass in ‘Dub fire will be burning’, stringing everything along a line of hi-hats on ‘Tell me, what do you see’, or chopped fragments in stuttering loops on ‘Continually’. A lot of these manipulations sound like they were captured in performance with a lesser degree of electronic manipulation later on, which is pleasing.

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.

Insub Meta Orchestra: Choices & Melodies

Friday 25 May 2018

Insub Meta Orchestra: Choices & MelodiesRight at the end of last year I wrote about a CD of two pieces by the Insub Meta Orchestra; a fine disc that showed what can be done when a simple but smart rule is applied to a large group of musicians to interpret simultaneously. The same group has now released an LP/download of two more pieces, recorded around the same time. Two choices: each player shall make either of two sounds and may change every five seconds. Autonomous melodies: each player may play a free melody, of just three or four notes.

These two open compositions, again by Cyril Bondi & d’incise, show what can be achieved when creativity is constrained in a way that may be considered extreme. Of the Another Timbre disc, I observed that it “reveals more of the musicians; not of their ‘personalities’ but of their understanding of how to give music life.” This LP continues the theme but explores it in ways not heard on the previous album. If the listener were to compare the two, they would notice striking differences appear straight away. Two choices works with unpitched sounds, forming a thread of complex sound that constantly changes timbre without a change in character. In fact, the exact nature of the sound remains elusive throughout. With some 32 musicians all making sound at the same time, with electronics, acoustic instruments and voice, no single timbre will ever come into focus. They are all presumably playing softly. Any change of an individual musician may only be perceptible as part of a group, but the exact combination of sounds that change cannot be known. The overall perception of the sound will be affected by how the individual sounds interact with each other.

On the flip side, Autonomous melodies takes a different direction; it’s loud and lurches through a repeating melody that can still never be quite pinned down. The sleeve notes even refer to it as “a kind of alien piece in the orchestra’s esthetic”. The pitch of each note becomes a complex chord that is never resolved. Obvious elements frequently reappear, but there are so many of them that they never settle into a context. It all ends up sounding like a single, protean voice that echoes and reverberates through a melody that remains simulataneously distinct yet undefinable.

It’s a powerful demonstration of indeterminacy applied to large groups. In both pieces, each musician’s interpretation, taken separately, would be noticeably different in content but obviously the same in structure. Taken simultaneously, a strange reversal happens: the content is unified but the structure becomes unknowable, other than through explanation.

Working With Limitations: Insub Meta Orchestra

Saturday 30 December 2017

13 unissons: thirteen groups of two to three musicians each, playing one note in unison. Each group may play whenever they want but never with more than three or four groups playing together.

27 times: four larger groups each play at three different moments. In each moment, each musician must play a sound three times in sequence on three occasions, the same sound each moment.

Simple enough? The scores for the two pieces that fill this new release on Another Timbre are sufficiently clear and succinct to fit in a tweet. Every musical score could be described as a balance of restrictions against possibilities. The pieces played here by the Insub Meta Orchestra have heavy restrictions placed on them by simplicty, but allow for an unexpected amount of detail to emerge.

A critical factor here is the orchestra itself: 32 musicians, including voice and electronics, provide a wealth of timbral and textural variety, opening up the reductive score to an unexpected amount of complexity. A smaller ensemble could also give a satisfying performance – in a more severe, minimal style – but here the diverse instrumentation is the point. Cyril Bondi & d’incise, who have previously collaborated on projects such as Ryoko Akama’s places and pages, have here coordinated and composed works that provide a rare maximal interpretation of the minimal. To a casual listener, any sense of a single, top-down rule governing each performance would not be evident.

With its overlapping single tones and accidental harmonies, the sound of 13 unissons shares many traits with Cage’s late number pieces. (The absence of potentially short, loud or other punctuating sounds indicates a key difference in the composition.) The longer 27 times presents an even more haunted atmosphere, and is more distinct. Sounds emerge, make their presence felt, and then fade from consciousness, only to reappear later. In the meantime, the instrumentation and the groupings of sounds have changed, so that a succession of moods are established and then transformed. Some musicians choose to play very softly, even compared to their colleagues. This adds a beautifully subtle sense of shading to each relatively louder sound when it is repeated.

It’s unusual to assemble such a large group as this on an ostensibly ‘open’ form of performance; even more so to take all that musical talent and sublimate it into a focus on giving finer nuances to a single, coherent body. This disc elegantly negates the usual paradox of applying limitations to give freedom to the performer. In this case, the removal of overbearing notation or programmatic continuity reveals more of the musicians; not of their ‘personalities’ but of their understanding of how to give music life.