Xavier Charles clarinet, harmonica
Ivar Grydeland acoustic guitar, banjo, sruti box
Christian Wallumrød piano
Ingar Zach percussion, bass drum
Recorded July 2006 at Festiviteten, Eidsvoll, Norway
Engineer: Thomas Hukkelberg, Desibel
Produced by Dans les arbres
Dans les arbres (“In the trees”) is named for the collaboration of clarinetist Xavier Charles, guitarist Ivar Grydeland (who also plays prepared banjo and sruti box), pianist Christian Wallumrød, and percussionist Ingar Zach. Together they illuminate a microscopic diorama of improvisation, letting their inhibitions go in service of the moment. What comes of this is as unknowable as it is unscripted, a mystery that is yet naked before us, hiding nothing—only, we have forgotten its way of speaking.
Immediately striking about this all-acoustic quartet is its seemingly electronic blood flow, nonetheless letted by means unplugged. The feeling comes out in feather-light high tones, which caress the air like a hearing test administered by some distant deity. For much of the album’s duration, listeners are thus suspended at an intersection of thresholds: between motion and stillness, utterance and silence, melody and noise. Each of these is, of course, illusory at best, and this is the album’s greatest lesson.
With one exception—“Le Flegme” (Phlegm)—each movement of Dans les arbres describes a state of mind or being. Titles such as “La Somnolence” (Drowsiness) and “L’Engourdissement” (Numbness) are purely descriptive. They are not pretentious hints toward deeper intrigues, although one can hardly deny the music’s mysterious side effects. If anything, the sounds seem cryptic because of their warping of time. Hence, their pervading suspension. What we hear is what we hear.
The album’s initial stirrings paint a forest fire in its infancy, which sparks unnoticed and by the end reaches such force that it’s too far gone to quell. Nor would we ever think to, for by then the flames have already consumed us. Such dynamics come about through the expertise of the musicians, whose ability to listen to one another is mesmerizing, if only because often the instruments are unrecognizable in their extended play. An obvious piano motif might be overtaken by percussion or overblowing from the clarinet, and those in turn by less discernible soundings. In them is the whispering of the veins. Intimations of rhythm are occasional at best, giving way more often to stretches of aphasia and fitful dreams. As if to put a finer point on it, the self-obliterating prophecy that is “L’Assoupissement” (Slumber) echoes like a mournful gamelan for the inner sanctum.
What holds Dans les arbres together is the fact that every element remains crisply defined, each a key that doesn’t so much unlock as interlock. Whether by way of Wallumrød’s hymnody, Charles’s guttural language, Grydeland’s clicking gears, or Zach’s genetic incantations, the overall transmission comes through with messages intact. Throughout the album’s slow crawl toward the resonating chamber of the sun, where histories of inertia dwell in fantasies of their own design, the insistence of a struck gong or a splitting reed comes like a knock on the door, flowing from itself into itself in a cycle of renewal, residue, and retention.
The only comparison I can offer for reference is Nijiumu’s Era of Sad Wings, which may just be the most enchanting things ever committed to record. Whatever the analogue, this is an unusually beautiful creation from ECM, one well worth the risk of expanding your listening for its benefits.