Anat Fort Trio w/Gianluigi Trovesi: Birdwatching (ECM 2382)

Birdwatching

Anat Fort Trio
Gianluigi Trovesi
Birdwatching

Anat Fort piano
Gary Wang bass
Roland Schneider drums
Gianluigi Trovesi alto clarinet
Recorded November 2013, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: April 8, 2016

On Birdwatching, Anat Fort’s third album for ECM, the Israeli pianist and composer proves once again that music is a journey without repetition. I trace this axiom back to her label debut, 2007’s A Long Story, from which “Something ’Bout Camels” carried over into the 2010 follow-up, And If. This time around, another tune from that same record—“Not The Perfect Storm”—makes a reappearance, now re-cloaked by the melodic overlay of Italian reedman Gianluigi Trovesi, who joins her trio with bassist Gary Wang and drummer Roland Schneider for her farthest-reaching record to date. The rumbling pianism of that latter track speaks at once to Fort’s illustrative prowess and willingness to sidestep its clichés. Indeed, beyond the thunder implied in the lower register of her keyboard, the broad wingspan of Trovesi’s alto clarinet speaks of clearer skies. The forces at work are greater than the sum of their parts, which over the course of six and a half minutes emit more light than they absorb.

Moved by this collaboration, I opened a recent interview with Fort by asking about Trovesi’s involvement—a partnership perhaps as inevitable as it was unexpected.

“Unlike with Paul Motian, I was never intimidated by working with Gianluigi. I really loved his work, which I’d known through ECM, and fate brought us together on stage for a jazz festival in Novara, Italy in 2013. A few months later, he joined my trio in Israel. He’s such a gentle and beautiful human being, so there was never any conflict. The only thing that gets in the way is the language barrier, but at any rate we communicate through the music.”

Case in point: “Earth Talks,” which finds them conversing as a duo. Like Fort herself, Trovesi seems to attract entire planetary systems into orbit than be gravitationally pulled into others. His chromatic inflections are the blood flow of her ebony and ivory veins, which pulse with solitude even as they drink in joyful praises. Trovesi walks over, never through, Fort’s articulate themes, so as not to disturb their archaeological integrity. Even when he joins the full trio, as in “Jumpin’ In” or “Murmuration,” his sinewy topography feels like grass in love with the soil. In other words: an affirmation of roots.

Neither does the trio engage with blatant exhibitionism, but finds unity—and utility—in the negative spaces that frame each intimate spectacle. Such alignment to the inner workings of faith gives the quartet all the oil it needs to burn through the collectively improvised “Inner Voices.” Though delicate and exploratory, it never breaks its stare. Such disparate elements reach deepest convergence in two variations of “Song Of The Phoenix,” in which the trio clears a path for Trovesi’s transformation from roaming to mourning. His rougher bending of pitch enhances the emotional gravity at hand. Wang and Schneider reveal themselves to be so much more than a rhythm section, but a listening organ attuned to every gradation. Which is not to say their individual talents are not forthcoming. In the trio-only “It’s Your Song,” Schneider’s drumming is remarkably fluent, moving with the insouciance of an Olympic ice-skater, while Wang’s kinetic solo lends the scene some much-needed heat.

It’s impossible for me to experience such gestures without reading biographical impulses behind each tune. The beauty of this record, as with all of them, is that Fort allows more than enough space for individual interpretation:

“I think that’s how I usually treat my music, or how my music treats me, I should say. It’s a very personal thing. I could even call it a private universe, which of course I’m trying to share by playing and putting out there. This recording is different for having so many short pieces, which wasn’t something we planned to do. But as [producer] Manfred [Eicher] and I started mixing it together, we did more editing than I’ve ever done. It clearly needed to be a story of vignettes. That was a surprise for me, and something that the music initiated, and which we answered collaboratively. As I say in the promo video, the music will convey its own story if you let it.”

Listening to what the music was saying led to Fort to add two improvised piano solos: “First Rays” and “Sun.” Added at the last minute, these became the first and last tracks of the final mix. Within this frame, the album is better able to balance color and monochrome.

On that note of production, Birdwatching marks the first time Fort has worked with Stefano Amerio at the Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI studio in Lugano, Switzerland, thus completing her unintended tour of ECM’s heavyweight engineers, rounded out by Jan Erik Kongshaug in Oslo (And If) and James Farber in New York (A Long Story).

“Each of these experiences has been great,” Fort admits, “and Stefano has a great ear. It was very special to record at the RSI studio, because you record live, setting up on a stage in a very small auditorium without headphones or dividers. It’s really unique to do it that way, and he knows how to record so that it feels live but also clean enough to be crafted.”

One can hear this especially in “Meditation For A New Year,” which boasts some of Fort’s most soulful playing on record, but keeps its expansiveness within reason in search of a major chord. Like “Milarepa,” of which only the first of three parts appears on this album, it indicates a new phase of self-expression, a turning of the ear toward the self to know what may become of love.

Interview with Levon Eskenian, director of the Gurdjieff Ensemble

As part of a recent feature on the new ECM album by the Gurdjieff Ensemble, featuring the music of Komitas, for RootsWorld online magazine, I had the fortune of interviewing the ensemble’s director, Levon Eskenian. The article also includes a review of the album by Erik Keilholtz. My own review of the album, soon to appear on this site, will feature others parts of that same interview not included for being more specifically related to ECM. In the meantime, click the cover below to read on.

Komitas

Live Report: Made in Chicago at Cornell

Made in Chicago

Made in Chicago
Live at Bailey Hall, Cornell University
October 4, 2015
8:00pm

In 2013, a year after being named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, drummer Jack DeJohnette was asked to perform at the Chicago Jazz Festival. Given a free choice of bandmates, he convened reedmen Henry Threadgill and Roscoe Mitchell, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and bassist Larry Gray on far more than a whim. Their connection runs back to the early 1960s, when DeJohnette was making a name in his hometown of Chicago. Abrams and company would go on to found the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, or AACM, from whose ranks would arise the legendary Art Ensemble of Chicago. By that time, DeJohnette’s career was already taking off in New York City. Still, he never forgot those formative spaces, where Chicago cats would play together for hours on end in the city’s legendary “loft” concerts, performed in musicians’ homes. As frequent host Mitchell recalls elsewhere, “Every time I get together with musicians from the AACM it’s like we are just picking up from wherever we left off.” And so, despite having never recorded before as a quintet, an organic unity abounded when the historicity of the 2013 gathering was captured as Made in Chicago, released this past January on the influential ECM Records label.

If the album can be said to be a feather in the cap of DeJohnette’s already vast output, then by now that same cap could surely unfurl wings and soar of its own accord. His discography reads like a Who’s Who of modern jazz, ranging from untouchables like Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman to the brightest stars, among them bassist Esperanza Spalding and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, of the here and now. Although his integrated style is recognizable across a spectrum of genres and cross-cultural collaborations, his open-door policy with ECM has yielded some of the finest projects of his career. Whether in the Gateway Trio with bassist Dave Holland and guitarist John Abercrombie or the pet project known as Special Edition (which included pioneers Baikida Carroll, Chico Freeman, and Rufus Reid), to say little of the enduring Standards Trio with bassist Gary Peacock and pianist Keith Jarrett, DeJohnette has consistently brought an exhale of soul to every inhale of heart that imbues whatever musical organism he touches. All this and more was in clear evidence on Sunday night as Made in Chicago kicked off this year’s Cornell Concert Series on the Bailey Hall stage.

Before a single gesture of the band went live, I had the rare privilege of interviewing Mr. DeJohnette in an open Q&A session the previous afternoon. I asked him about his association with AACM musicians and how it shaped his musical identity. “Back then, we were cultivating an original approach to improvisation,” he told me in his thoughtful yet humble manner. “AACM’s motto was to establish the serious intentions of everyone that came out of its ranks. Jazz wasn’t simply improvisation, but a continuation of improvisation, creation through a process by which everyone and everything in the multiverse is hardwired to do. That concept fuels me and this combination of players that I got together. To play spontaneously is a challenge. You are exposed. The ability to compose on the spot, to create motifs and rhythms and communicate those not only to the other musicians but to the audience … It’s more like soundscapes, painting in sound.”

I asked DeJohnette whether he felt that hanging out with the AACM crowd allowed him to explore spontaneity in ways he hadn’t before. “Definitely,” he agreed. “Chicago prepared me for New York. It was my school. You practiced at home, but you played and developed your consistency to create and improvise fluidly on the instrument by performing. I don’t like the term ‘free jazz,’ because it’s not really free. The real freedom is in the choices we make. That’s why I always prefer to think of it as spontaneous composition.”

Indeed, we do well to remember that DeJohnette is a composer at heart, crafting — whether off the cuff or with more forethought — melodic and intervallic structures with the ease of a lifelong painter at the canvas. The analogy is not ill-chosen, for it is one that DeJohnette shares in reference to his own craft. “I’m not just a drummer,” he said of the capacity in which fans are more likely to understand him. “I’m a colorist who paints and participates in the music both harmonically and rhythmically.” He likewise cites the piano as a central component of his sonic upbringing. It was his primary instrument and one to which the drums were a later addition.  “I used to spend three to four hours a day on each instrument, because I wanted to bring the drums up to the level of my piano playing. The piano helped how I heard the ensemble, tuned the drums and how I approached the cymbals. If you listen to cymbals closely, they have a gong-like resonance, a higher frequency. Both piano and drums, of course, belong to the percussion family, so for me the two instruments have always overlapped one another.” This idea of overlapping is immortal in DeJohnette’s musical worldview, by which the growth of his art comes across with that much deeper inherency.

Where in the latter vein DeJohnette brought the wisdom of history, Abrams brought the wisdom of process when, following the Q&A, he led a master class for the Cornell University Jazz Band. Since co-founding the AACM, Abrams has had a formidable career of his own not only as a musician but also as a bona fide composer, his String Quartet No. 2, for one, having been premiered in 1985 by the Kronos Quartet at Carnegie Hall. It was from beneath the shadow of this hat that Abrams addressed the young musicians with poignant, if dense, nuggets of advice. “I’m interested in what you don’t know about yourselves,” he told them. “Allow your imagination to go inside.” Simple words on paper, to be sure, but difficult to embody in practice. In his sagacious, patient manner, Abrams worked through moments of confusion and revelation with equal attention, encouraging students to “give it presence” here or “create however you want to play it” there whenever hesitations manifested themselves. All of this was meant to bring across a central point: Evolving jazz artists feed not on the carrion of others, hunt not for things that have been found. Rather, they dig within and give us something we can carry on into the future.

Nowhere was this so aptly demonstrated as in the performance proper, in which the straight line paved by DeJohnette and Abrams yielded a downright ritualistic pentagon when Made in Chicago gave presence to 90 minutes of uninterrupted experience. No titles were given to the concert’s four long tunes, and perhaps any announcement thereof would have imposed on their continuity. The first piece, which felt more through-composed than improvised, opened where most jazz performances wouldn’t: with a cello solo. Gray’s bow was mellifluous yet robust, trailing a mournful shadow by its gait. Like so much of what followed, it catalyzed a play of frequencies, at once ancient and of the moment. One by one, the rest of the band followed suit. As Mitchell’s full-throated alto, DeJohnette’s selective contacts, Abrams’s starlit keys, and Threadgill’s incanting flute took shape, one could almost feel the molecules transforming in the room. It was, I would wager, a challenging introduction to those who were expecting to tap their feet to something recognizable. But as Abrams surely would have reminded us, it was all about sharing a search for the unknown.

How lucid this philosophy blossomed as the pianist himself introduced the second tune, rippling into Mitchell, whose alto proved a force to be reckoned with. His penchant for circular breathing and complex finger work led to some of the concert’s most arresting developments, contrasting beautifully with Threadgill’s halting pointillism. It was as if both were navigating a rift between dimensions, only one was trying to escape while the other was content to remain where he was. Gray and DeJohnette meanwhile played not so much off as through each other, shifting their densities to allow for Abrams’s extensions. Like a player piano gone haywire, his keys seemed to move of their own accord. From there the band whittled its way down to DeJohnette alone, crisply defining every hue with painterly intelligence, as he did also in the next tune, which found him exploring the possibilities of a full-contact drum synthesizer in a veritable rain forest of utterances, and in the final piece, recognizable as Mitchell’s “Chant” from the quintet’s recent album. Here Mitchell dominated on the shriller sopranino saxophone, keeping step with Abrams’s mounting speed. If anywhere, here was the potential of simplicity to the fullest, a difference through sameness that blew the candle flame of inspiration enough to keep it wildly dancing but unextinguished.

For its encore, the quintet proceeded whimsically, Mitchell (switching between three saxophones) and Threadgill (on alto) playing with expectations over the solid groove laid down by DeJohnette, who demonstrated himself, like the band as a whole, for all a peaceful commander. As the musicians turned on their last dime, strangely evoking a feeling of travel by way of suspension, I couldn’t help but be reminded of what DeJohnette had said the day before: “I just follow where jazz wants me to go, and where jazz wants to go depends on what humanity does with the challenges we face as a species. We have to adapt to our environment, and I think that music and art speak to that. I don’t know if you’re going to have any more John Coltranes and Miles Davises, but there will always be people addressing the times we live in through their music. The actual event of getting together and playing music together is vital. The people who come to listen are instruments, too.” Which is not to say that we as an audience were being played, but invited to join our notes of appreciation to theirs of generation.

Among the handful of albums in the DeJohnette catalog to which I find myself returning with especial frequency is his 1997 ECM effort Oneness. In addition to its moving progressions, this understated leader date boasts one of his most emblematic titles. Oneness is no mere throwaway concept, but a core tenet of this essentially ad hoc collective. It is an overarching expression for what DeJohnette and his peers can do, a testament to their quasi-spiritual quest for unity. As Abrams mentioned in his master class, musicians don’t need to be anywhere else than where they want to be, and neither did the fortunate listeners, as we sought purchase in the increasing density of their comet’s tail. They followed wherever the sounds wanted them to go and, despite the distant past implied in their advancing years, had nothing but the future in their hands.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)

Third Reel: Many More Days (ECM 2431)

2431 X

Third Reel
Many More Days

Nicolas Masson tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet
Roberto Pianca guitar
Emanuele Maniscalco drums, piano
Recorded August 2014, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Lara Persia
Executive producer RSI: Paolo Keller
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: 2 June 2015

One might characterize multi-reedist Nicolas Masson, guitarist Roberto Pianca, and drummer Emanuele Maniscalco—a.k.a. Third Reel—as having carved a niche for themselves. Truer to say they’ve painted a context around that niche, which has taken shape from sheer formlessness into a tributary, emptying into a sea of shadows. Shadows, because the trio’s gestures seem to grow only darker with time, denying the convenience of light in favor of what can be felt in its absence.

If Third Reel’s self-titled ECM debut was the sun, then Many More Days is its corona, a dream to the former’s waking and a push toward those regions of the psyche wherein eddy fresh rhythmic motives. Days thus feels distinctly microscopic compared to its predecessor, even as it seems to travel farther. “For the first album we deliberately chose to almost never play a strict tempo,” Masson tells between sound and space, “we wanted to explore different ways to play in a very organic, non-linear way. For the second album, we wanted to keep the idea of short pieces, the same basic approach to interacting together, the same flow but with a more defined contour.” Along with the album’s temporal coming of age is the internal addition of Maniscalco’s pianism, which, Masson notes, hints at a chamber music aesthetic that sheds a few layers of jazz toward an art form less interested in genre than in generation.

Maniscalco yields a sizable share of the album’s compositions, ranging from the strangely comforting aneurysms of “Afterwards” to the burnished sounds of “Two-Part Chorale.” Such titles indicate a reflexive naming process. And yet, wherever they might fall into their respective slots, one knows the sacredness of their urgency, which apportions equal value to density and dissolution. Relationships between clarinet and piano or tenor saxophone and drums treat the album’s nervous system as a map to be rewritten. Pianca’s spider-veined chords in “Fourth Reel” and surface tensions in “Gilberto Stimmung” enhance the anatomical aspect, receding but never gone, even in the quiet foray of “Strand.” Each note is an eye in search of a face.

Although the two albums are different, I tell Masson they share a common approach to performance, which feels “bacterial,” as if every composed theme were a culture in a petri dish allowed to germinate and grow until it becomes its own unexpected entity. Though he agrees with this analogy, he cautions against painting Third Reel with a single brush:

“Most of the written material has no preconceived scenario, can be used for different musical purposes, and can take various forms according to the needs of a set or simply the inspiration of the moment. We’re trying to maintain an instinctive approach to the interpretation of our compositions, which are conceived with this idea in mind from the beginning. We’re all writing music for the trio, so I’m only speaking for myself, but in fact many times the idea I had in mind when composing was quite different from the results. We’re trying to leave enough space in our compositions to allow for multiple interpretations and developments. It is true that some pieces have a life of their own—we bring a few dots on a piece music paper and we just let them grow as we play. However, we don’t restrict ourselves to a single concept. If a tune feels complete by just reading it from top to bottom, without improvisations or variations, it’s also fine.”

While such openness might lead to chaos and wildness in the hands of others, in theirs it blossoms in thoughtful radiation. Masson’s own compositions, in particular the emblematic “Simple,” are self-deciphering codes—in other words, pieces that ask nothing of us in return for their admissions except our willingness to hear them as they are. Masson’s writing frames an organic triptych lodged in the album’s center. His “White” was inspired by Masabumi Kikuchi’s Sunrise, to which one may liken a kindred contemplation, while the title track follows clearer peaks and valleys. The same combination of drums, guitar, and saxophone graces Pianca’s “Happy People,” which nestles itself between them in a mosaic of endearing immediacy. Masson observes in retrospect how these three pieces “mark a turning point in the album’s dramaturgy, from the more intimate, chamber music-like pieces to the more expressive, lyrical pieces,” and the attentive listener is sure to feel this shift in visceral spades.

Between the parabolic “Hill” and the galactic compressions of “Fast Forward,” Masson’s pieces underscore Third Reel’s commitment to let the music go on only as long as it wants to. Each track, no matter how short, precludes the need for elaboration or reduction. I asked Masson whether any given performance of a particular piece influences its duration in real time, or where the band has a sense about how long a piece should go beforehand, to which he responded:

“The performance and the moment has a direct influence on a given piece’s duration, whether it is 2 or 20 minutes long. When we play live, we often connect compositions with open improvisations and therefore what is written becomes part of a bigger piece, like musical crossings to change direction and explore new territories. In the studio, however, we approached the material more with the idea of playing miniatures, each one of them being like a microcosm belonging to a bigger system or characters in a story. The studio in which we recorded both albums also played a good part in the outcome. We recorded at Swiss Radio’s Auditorio Stelio Molo in Lugano, Switzerland. The studio is actually a large wooden concert room designed primarily for classical music. It has beautiful acoustic qualities, with lots of reverb. This room is very inspiring, and the sound so detailed there, that it made us extremely cautious of the slightest changes in dynamics and sound textures. It definitely helped us being focused on the balance of each song. We tried to play only what we felt was necessary.”

Video from the CD release concert at Scnaffhauser Jazz Festival:

In the context of the Lugano studio, we can thank and acknowledge engineer Lara Persia, who may or may not be the subject of “Lara’s Song.” Either way, this piece, written by Pianca, does have something of the technician’s presence about it, the lone silhouette at the mixing board, her hands moving about the knobs and buttons to bring out the moment of the moment. It is therefore, and above all, a song of trust, an opening of newborn eyes, a quiet resignation into being in the world and its many purposes of living.

Behind it all, of course, is producer Manfred Eicher, whose tireless commitment to new music is expressly realized in this project. Indeed, Masson credits Eicher and ECM for playing no small role in the band’s evolution. “Working with Manfred Eicher as a producer is a unique experience,” he says, echoing many others in the sentiment, “and I think he helped us reveal a part of our musical personality and take it to the next level. However, playing live is still another story than making a studio recording, we stretch out more in concert, we’re taking more risks. We’re still experimenting but our musical identity got stronger and I personally feel more confident in what I have to offer.” That said, there is plenty of confidence in the dramaturgy of Days, proceeding as it does with such unhurried graciousness. With it, Masson and his bandmates have assured their place in the label’s history, from which key records by Paul Motian, Dewey Redman, Don Cherry, Keith Jarrett, Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano, and many others have fed into Third Reel’s dedication to liberty and abiding integrity of sound.

(To hear samples of Many More Days in its studio form, click here.)

Sheppard/Benita/Rochford: Trio Libero (ECM 2252)

Trio Libero

Trio Libero

Andy Sheppard tenor and soprano saxophones
Michel Benita double-bass
Sebastian Rochford drums
Recorded July 2011, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizerra, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Putting on Trio Libero’s self-titled debut is like putting on a cashmere robe: it feels that good.

The level of comfort shared by saxophonist Andy Sheppard, bassist Michel Benita, and drummer Sebastian Rochford bears out from the first moments of opener “Libertino” with a looseness that never loses sight or hold of things. The themes are forthcoming but never insistent. An early solo from Benita trades off with some beautiful blowing from Sheppard, who unwinds a kite string toward cloudless sky. “Slip Duty” fronts Rochford’s limber bodywork as it traverses the landscape of his kit. To this percolating core Benita and Sheppard contribute structurally thematic elements in a variety of densities. “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” features Sheppard on soprano. Despite the whimsical title, it describes a world of honest reflection. The two-part “Spacewalk” indeed balances gravity and buoyancy, an alterity of pathos that breathes melody and ends with a nebular cry for solidarity. “Dia da Liberdade” opens with an almost mournful bass solo, a lullaby for the fallen that trips the pulse of Sheppard’s wood-planed entrance. At times one can hear Paul Motian speaking through the drumming (he would pass away only four months after this album was recorded), only with a moth’s added murmuring. “Land of Nod” features more astuteness from Rochford in step with bass and piano. Don’t let the title fool you. It is one of the album’s livelier tracks and ripples beautifully at Sheppard’s fingertips as might a pond’s surface at the touch of a leaf. “The Unconditional Secret” is by far the most beautiful statement of the album. Its diurnal collage unites dreams and realities in a collage of transparencies. “Ishidatami” begins with another lovely bass intro, now with a sopranism as lithe as a tightrope walker bounding from anchor to anchor. The title, it bears noting, is a Japanese term for paving stones used to maintain navigable pathways in erosion-prone mountain passages, and serves well as a metaphor for the band’s unity. “Skin / Kaa” sustains a rubato flow into the modal tributary of “Whereveryougoigotoo,” the latter distinguished by its masterfully legato tenoring. “Lots of Stairs” is a weary but never wearying traversal. Under guise of balladry, “When We Live On The Stars…” concludes with a promise that the people and pleasures we adore will still be waiting for us when we wake.

Nowhere within these relatively brief tunes will you find demonstrative solos or waving of virtuosic flags. That said, it requires a special kind of virtuosity to carry off such music so humbly, and with a spirit that is as naked as the day all of us were born. This is the art of the trio, liberated.

(To hear samples of Trio Libero, click the image below.)

Trio Libero Photo

Text

Mediavolo: Purveyors of Secret Sounds

Mediavolo 1

There’s a reason why Pandora starter songs are called “seeds”: each has potential to grow into something magnificent. My first time using said online radio service, I’d created a Cocteau Twins station to maintain my sanity during some rote task or another, and periodically heard a mysterious song for which I was compelled to stop what I was doing and pay attention every time it came on. That song was “Misunderstanding” by Mediavolo, and my life as a listener was never the same. The music of Mediavolo has touched me like that of no other band. In an age where so many songs and their creators ephemerally surface before drowning in an unfathomable data stream, such life preservers are few and far between.

Mediavolo hails from the port town of Brest, in northwestern France. The band has shuffled its cards a few times over the years but, since 2000, Géraldine Le Cocq (who sings and writes all lyrics) and Jacques Henry (who handles all music, instruments, and production) have been its constant aces. Known affectionately as Gé and Jac, they took over officially as a duo in 2004, a binary star pulling other galactic talents into their sessions’ orbits but always shining brightest at the center of them all. Music had always been a vital force in their lives, prompting Jac to pick up a guitar at age six, and Gé the harp at seven. “We met thanks to common musical connections,” Gé recalls. “I joined the band Jac had with his brother and other friends, as it needed a new lead singer, which led to a name change: that’s how Mediavolo was born.” To that name, there is no meaning, save for whatever one brings to it. Naked and clothed alike, it embraces us as we are and slides around the brain until it becomes a single bead of dew on a blade of tomorrow.

Mediavolo 3

Listening to any Mediavolo album is an exercise in pareidolia—that psychological phenomenon by which we see familiar shapes in clouds, stars, and the occasional potato chip. In this manner we may read core influences into the band’s multifaceted sound, including Cocteau Twins, Kate Bush, Blonde Redhead, David Bowie, and various new-wave synth acts of the 70s and 80s. For me, Cocteau Twins looms largest of these (for those keeping score, check out “Resolve,” “To the Eye,” “Fanciest Scheme,” “Up Ahead,” and “Wh”). Are these a conscious homage to the band, or does the affinity come about organically? Jac: “I discovered Cocteau Twins very late, when the band had just imploded. What struck me most, the first time I heard one of their songs, is that I felt at home. I think it’s a bit of both: I’ve an organic link to their music, no doubt, and somehow, I set out to carry on with their music in my own way.” Jac, it bears noting, grew up on a steady diet of Beach Boys and Beatles, neither of which bear out on his compositional world, but whom he credits nonetheless for making him the musician he is today. Whatever the persuasion, Mediavolo is a universe unto itself, where popular footholds are white dwarves at best. As in a kaleidoscope, such elements are fragmented beyond recognition, so that from them a new mosaic emerges.

About my beloved “Misunderstanding” there was much to learn, and proper tutelage came in the form of A Secret Sound.

A Secret Sound

Released in 2006, it securely holds the throne of Mediavolo’s sonic kingdom, taking sustenance from the purple gold dripping down its castle of crossed destinies. Opening gambit “How Does It End?” is as splendid as they come, an anthem of shadows that crosses that clearing in the forest into which we all day must take leave. “Is it fear that sustained us?” Gé sings, balancing each word on the tip of her tongue before it drops into the abyss like the rabbit before Alice. Thus set, the stage of Mediavolo’s masterful songcraft opens its curtains. Resonating through its chemical admixture of sparkle and gloom is a phenomenal distillation, one that functions as something of a meta-statement for the band by way of its evergreen philosophical question.

“Humane & Live” finds an answer. With clear and present vocals (a harbinger of things to come on the latest record, Modern Cause), Gé floats the question “Am I afraid to die?” on post-storm streams, following it down sewage drains where, unwavering as the darkness there, she proclaims, “I’m not afraid to die.” The narrative voice finds further resolve in the track of the same name, which ends wordlessly—each utterance a torch without bearer whose wanderings are masked by the click of hammered leather on cobblestone.

The songs of Mediavolo often assume short story form, but on A Secret Sound the band takes especial care to evoke a poetic mise-en-scène. Gé elaborates: “It is the result of the systematic working method Jac and I had at the time: he wished the lyrics to be linked to the movies in his mind. These he would recount for me to develop an interpretation. It’s actually a storytelling-based process.” An example is the Dickensian nightmare that is “Death & the City.” This visceral nightscape follows Jack the Ripper through the less-than-pretty alleys east of Charing Cross. His is a resolve of a different order, flapping at his shoulders like a cape: a crude farewell to the corpses he leaves behind. His footfalls trail from nefarious transactions behind closed doors, through which bodies pass like so many ghostly matters into the annals of history. The streets of London bleed to the rhythm of Gé’s breathing (heard throughout the song in the right channel), and rebuild themselves in the enchanting synthesizer, which floats away in a nocturnal fog stretching out every final gasp to an unsuspecting dawn. “Hunted” revisits these autopsies and grants asylum, through sheer power of will, to blasts of light intent on clearing away the badness. This is the most hopeful song on the album, an affirmation on stilts.

“Hoary Man” is a true standout and another that feels tugged from some ancient past. As geometric arpeggios from bass drop anchor into ocean of mineral, a vision unfolds of another place where a golem-like figure embraces the narrator as a Venus flytrap closes around its meal. Fungible, smelling of rotting leaves and loam, yet caught in the eyelash flutter of a Frosted Elfin’s wing, the music here describes memory so powerful—of achieving one day fleeting confluence with the cosmos before gasping anew on the shores of reality—where swims the very figure who gave her life.


(“Hoary Man,” directed by Nicolas Hervoches)

Not all stories are pulled from dusty tomes. Touched off by echoing guitar, “Mass Anaesthesia” flanges into a traffic jam as timely as the technology used to record it. Gé floats above it, playing the part of the postmodern angel, dangling the ennui of our age on a string just out of reach. “Such a sight just fills my heart with awe,” she admits of these processions of anonymity. Cars become people and people become wishes, each desire fulfilled at the press of a button, the swing of a door, the click of a heel on hospital linoleum. Likewise the piano-driven “Dripping Mind,” which holds true to itself even as the barometric pressure drops for a spell, Gé’s voice oozing through the mist amid a flurry of banshees pushing its way beyond the pale of a covered moon.

My heart abounds
With suns and stars

So avers Gé in “Secret Sound,” emblematic not only for yielding the album’s title but also for so carefully walking the line between sleeping and waking. Its aftereffects oscillate into “Misunderstanding,” bringing us back to where we started. Through its motions the band peels back layers of cloud to expose the invisible heart within. A second voice—the first of a handful—makes itself known, an alter ego singing of need and brokenness.


(“Misunderstanding,” directed by Nicolas Hervoches)

Lest we dwell too long in the shadows, “Hollow Of You” plows a decidedly romantic field. It is a rainbow drained of its color and cinched so tight that it goads the diaphragm into self-expression. Nominally ending things is “Chimera,” which is notable for at one time being the album’s opener and for whimsically including Jac’s voice in the studio just before he lays down the drum track. I ask Jac about this moment, which adds a human touch and reminds us that someone created all that we hear: “If you listen, closely with headphones, to ‘A Day in the Life’ off Sgt. Pepper, a person counting down to the famous violin crescendo can be heard. That’s an accident. It was never meant to be perceptible. At the time, no tool existed to isolate and erase a sound from tape. But it is the type of ‘secret’ a listener loves to discover. In studios today, there’s no such thing as ‘accidents’…merely the will to make a reference to mythical recordings…or let the listener in on the behind-the-scenes process. The latter was my intention.” This train-tracked journey flows through the enigma of silence into a hidden track called “Trapped.” Originally penned by Jac for a play, Gé contributed new lyrics, thereby enabling a grungier, less pulpy hue to the tip of the dragon’s tail.

Unaltered Empire

With Unaltered Empire (2008), Mediavolo carried its ethos over into even more visual territory. Its striking cover implies a private room, an almost David Lynchian spiral into a ceiling fixture where inner and outer spaces become one. This leads me to ask: Does the music start with imagery, or vice versa? Jac’s reply: “I remember very clearly traveling through unknown worlds, my head filled with images, while I listened or composed music as a boy. That’s why ‘concept albums’ have exerted a strong appeal for me: Sgt. Pepper, Tubular Bells, Never for Ever—albums developing their own worlds. I’ve always wanted to write albums as such. So it is true that before music or lyrics, come images.” Gé adds, “And Jac took the habit of sharing his images with me. But it is impossible to convey, with lyrics, as many meanings as with images. That’s why the cover art is so important.”

Unaltered Empire takes its inspiration from Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” telling instead the story of a young woman’s transformation into a butterfly. Accordingly, it plumbs the depths of our biological minds and pushes Mediavolo into its most cosmic directions yet. Many of the songs play off the storybook nature of Secret, but do so with a biographical lens focused on childhoods. Consider “Treasure Box,” which crosshatches the snow blind of birth with the charcoal of development. Crafting words as photographs, it rewrites a death in the family, throwing light across the blank page by way of the guitar’s golden sunrise. Consider also the denser palette of “Dry and Brave,” in which last night’s dreams are stretched to breaking and repaired as if by watchmaker’s tools. A purging, this is.

The title track, too, is touched by familial magic, adopting a maternal tone that whispers lullabies and wisdoms. It springs before us, a fantasy novel come to life, wielding tongues against the great Silence. Dissolution of allegiances, a cutting of blood ties in favor of the new veins: the songs will outlive us all. Only now do we discover that the titular empire is entirely on the inside. It is carried in the heart, in the hands, in our labyrinthine brains, filling the skull with a vintage that can never be brought to lips.

In some uncanny way, listening to these songs lends exactly the same feeling as a scene in the film Amelie in which the title character, upon finding a trinket box that once belonged to a boy now grown, returns it to him anonymously but watches unnoticed as he cradles the all-but-forgotten storehouse in his hands for the first time in decades. We are thus privileged to know the connectivity of “Black Roses,” to peek inside the time capsule of “Selling Birds,” and to taste the flightless habitus of “The Backroom of My Mind.” And further, the dulcet axis of “Fanciest Scheme,” which splits consciousness into dots and dashes, each signal received on a scratching record that trails a ligament of stardust.

As singer, Gé soars and mires in equal measure. Harboring little interest in adornment, she brings her beauties on this album to three blinding jewels. The first of these is “Cavalry Drum,” a song of conflict rolled until rice paper thin. Jac’s guitar captivates with its radiance, threading a bass line between predator and prey with a nervous excitement. Throughout the song’s interweaving of speech and conscience, Gé patterns mysteries with due clarity. “This song,” she tells me, “is about feeling strongly about simple things. Our world draws us away from nature, from contemplation. We surround ourselves with technology, and feel ‘happy,’ ‘excited,’ ‘contented.’ Can it ever make us feel ‘alive’ as the sun does when it touches our skin?”


(“Cavalry Drum”)

“Dr Quayle” occupies the center of this masterful song trio. Its exacting compositional science heightens the laboratorial feel of the lyrics. A guitar solo sweeps across the night like a patient’s cry, as do Gé’s powerful highs in the final stretch. With such noir-ish granules working their way down the Mediavolo hourglass, it might be tempting to file the band under Gothic or Darkwave. Such designations, however, ring reductively, deferring instead to something more inclusive. “Restraining myself to a channeled kind of music is very difficult,” Jac admits. “I have so many different musical urges that Mediavolo ends up with multiple identities. Labeling our music has always been a problem. That’s why I’d rather it came under ‘indie pop.’ It’s a large enough tag to encompass all of what we do.”

Either way, the good doctor’s tinkering yields the most sublime creation in the Mediavolo archive: “To the Eye.” As the pinnacle of the band’s craft, it heralds a great beyond when music will one day live of its own accord and resound for its sake alone. Which is why the guitar is forthright but also suffused with a child’s wonder, as expressed in Gé’s lyrics:

they say that a star that we get to see
has long blown away and died
but how can this feel true, that is,
to the eye?

An insightful observation, to be sure, of the body’s generative power, but also of its penchant for immediacy. Gé stirs her hands in the overlapping tide of guitar, bass, and drums. From this she plucks her words, fixing each to a constellatory joint and breathing perfect animation with harmony. According to Jac, “To the Eye” takes its cue from The Sugarcubes and The Sundays (another heavenly band that should be of interest if anything herein strikes your fancy), but its winds blow decidedly off planet.

Before moving on to Modern Cause (2011), it bears us well to look at the foundations on which A Secret Sound stands: namely, the two French-language albums that preceded the band’s switch to English.

Soleil sans retour

Soleil sans retour (2003) is a self-styled “collection of short stories on the difficulty of living in today’s world.” By way of introduction, the title song orchestrates our inclusion in a sound-world dappled with shadow and the promise of skin-to-skin contact. With its tasteful keyboard accents, this compact drama evokes old discoveries and new nostalgias. As with much of what follows, there is antiqueness at play, a chain of vignettes swimming in increasingly potent fire. “Cryogénie” is a strangely tender crawl inward and spins Gé’s reverbed voice atop a crunchier peak. Touches of mandolin speak of sconce-lit catacombs, while above ground lovers wander, ignorant, through catacombs of their own.


(“Cryogénie,” directed by Nicolas Hervoches)

“Dernière fantaisie” (Last Fantasy) feathers the album’s swan, working its contortions through the instrumental simmer of “Final” and on to the smooth echo chamber of “Wh.” Between their frame lies a treasure trove of faded photographs. From the slices of 70s rock that clasp then release us through the chronological reckoning of “Ma redemption” and “Ballon rouge” to the ever-after wayfaring of “Le Gouffre aux chimères,” we sense reams of trauma with every lyric sweep, but also the marginalia of difference between them (note, for instance, the watery play of harpsichord and vibraphone in “Antichambre”). What distinguishes Soleil is its malleability: just when you’ve pegged a song’s psychological shape, it contorts into something new yet clearly underwritten by the same genetic signature. Furthermore, with “La Fille de Ryan” (Ryan’s Daughter)—a nod to the David Lean film of the same name—it foreshadows Effets Personnels, which takes listeners on a soldier’s “philosophical and surrealist journey” through the First World War.

Effets Personnels

Effets waltzes its way across fallen soldiers and makes of their last wishes a symphony of flesh hurled toward the horizon in endless catapult. Looking at the sky as if from the bottom of a well, the albumoffers hope in small, unreachable circles—closest perhaps in “C’est écrit dans la glace” (It is Written in Ice). References to war abound. “Mogador,” for one, names a class of French naval destroyer, cutting surf toward the anthemic “Safari” with a heart of darkness in mind. Even the promise of “Le Phare” (The Lighthouse), in spite of its enchantments, is tainted by amnesia. The effect is such that evocative titles like “Un Papillon sur l’épaule” (A Butterfly on the Shoulder) and “L’echo dans la vallée” (The Echo in the Valley) feel all the more claustrophobic for the meticulousness of their arrangements. Memories of open sky and pasture are only that, drawn away as they are in the saddles of emotional horses who recede into afterlife with every clop of hooves, over lullabies and goddess trails before seeking the shelter of “Necropolis,” where materialize and dissolve the echoes of gatherings and family affairs, of victors’ nightmares and victims’ dreams, leaving only the title track to show for their passing. Here is the wonder of birth expressed in sound, pulling the fatal transition of life as a razor across stubble, its wake as bare as our first moments in this unwritten world.

Modern Cause

And so, we arrive at Modern Cause, a record that is, in Jac’s words, “a patchwork of moments in life, with no link existing between them.” Its prologue comes in the form of “Dan,” which reiterates some of the backward glances of Empire but with a new age of emotional becoming. I ask Gé if this is a personal song: “It is indeed personal,” she says, “but it does not root itself in reality; it is a projection. That siblings love each other is taken for granted. Family is not immune to implosion, however: small things, slight differences of perception add up, until the wrongs of life reveal them. I drew my inspiration from some of my own family’s words and moves, and tried to imagine what they could lead to in a distant, cold, and love-free environment.” In both this song and “Up Ahead,” she fully embodies the protagonist, as if she has dug up some corroded jewel and polished it as if it were her own creation. Is not singing, then, a form of acting, or is it something deeper? Gé: “I regard singing as acting, definitely. In that respect, I’ve always agreed to embody the male characters of Jac’s brother’s lyrics [on the older albums], and I’ve never attempted to feminize the stories that came to me involving one. It so happened that the emotions of some of them started resonating with my own. ‘Keepin’ out’ is one of those occurrences.”

Indeed, in the indie rock vibe of “Keepin’ Out” Gé converses as if with herself, pulling teeth from the gums of the ego with pliers coated, in her turn of phrase, with “non-secretive scorn.” These machinations charge through an increasingly dense vocal flock until they find neither resolution nor peace, but rather the reality of moving on.


(“Keepin’ Out,” directed by David Carquet)

An exception to this rule is “We Danced Today,” which closes the album’s intimate economy with Jac’s singing: “I was convinced the song fitted Gé’s voice. But when we started recording, we realized quickly something was wrong. The demo vocals I had recorded kept sounding better. We finally understood the musical pitch was that of a male voice. Gé convinced me to take the lead.” His voice lends a historical charge to the song’s lavish—if sparsely populated—ballroom scene. Faces disappear with every twirl and contact, until fadeout draws its curtain near.

From this song alone, one may note the distinct production values of Cause, the result of Jac’s desire to go for a Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” effect, affording less scrutiny of the mix in the interest of overall atmosphere. In this regard, “Latent” is the album’s centerpiece. The anthemic loop thereof trades anticipation for acceptance, ending in a protracted instrumental outro that lures us deeper with every reset. Such structures, Gé notes, informed the lyrics: “There is a clear division in the middle of the song. The first half is tense and anxiety-provoking; the second is luminous and full of hope. To me it evoked those moments when we are confronted with difficulties and the feeling of release when we step out of them. The second part did not need lyrics, the music alone conveys the feeling.” This is especially obvious in the nakedness of the acoustic version:


(“Latent” Acoustic Attack Session)

Although Cause is less specific at the mixing board, it fully discloses its ghosts. Its crucible aesthetic boils down past and future impulses into a here and now of raw vitality. As a result, a heavy nostalgia pervades that was very much a part of the recording process. Says Jac, “When you get older, you sometimes wish to go back to what you once knew. As a matter of fact, the studio in which we work looks very much like the room I had as a boy. Some of my old toys sit on the shelves…” One of the album’s many affordances, however, is that it leaves plenty of room on those shelves for listeners to place their own mementos, be they a set of keys alongside the teenage thrill of“You Wish Mark Steered,” moth-eaten pajamas curled around “It’s Begun,” or glass marbles bending light into “Peggy ’60,” each object follows us like the eyes of a banknote. Their regard anoints us i search for plainspoken undertakers.

The music of Mediavolo may draw its waters from many wells, but nothing tastes quite like it. It does not regard itself in the mirror, but instead acts as a mirror itself, one fit to contain any face that dares approach it with an open ear.

Mediavolo 2

Exploding the Sandbox: A Moment with TOTEM>

Voices of Grain In his seminal essay “The Grain of the Voice,” French philosopher Roland Barthes asserts the failure of language to interpret music for the precise reason that language and music are one in the same. Needing no self-projection to justify its existence, music is a signifier without identity that expresses its materiality by what he calls the “grain.” During a recent interview with between sound and space, guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil, who alongside bassist Tom Blancarte and drummer Andrew Drury is part of the free improvisation triangle known as TOTEM>, explains the importance of the grain in a mode of sonic production that may seem far afield of its roots but which in fact burrows past them: “The history of what I’ve been involved with, which is jazz-based, brought me to these sounds. When I look at the music of, for instance, of Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler, and how each had his own musical influence—for Taylor it was classical; for Coltrane, world music; and for Ayler, folk—as a springboard for improvisation, I see those same influences in my own evolution. All of this and more, including contemporary classical music from the second half of the twentieth century (Xenakis, Reich, Lachenmann, etc.), has made me realize that playing guitar is in large part about imitating my own environment. It’s not unlike a child who acquires language just by being around family members and learning to communicate. For me, it’s as simple as that. I take everything I’ve ever heard or experienced and pass it through my filter, using my guitar as an instrument for the exploration of that sound by way of communication. So concepts of music, noise, or sound—really, all of these things are part of the same thing.” We may easily connect this way of thinking to Barthes, who avers that music, “by natural bent, is that which receives an adjective,” an assertion that renders moot any question of genre. Subjecting music to the violence of nominalization precludes the lived experience of its descriptive realities. In less uncertain terms: adjectives are active, while nouns are dead matter. The creation and absorption of sound functions as an act of translation, a way to experience the afterlife of sonic production through another form, be it in words or in reverberations.

TOTEM

To be sure, the matter-makers of TOTEM> know a thing or two about adjectives. Voices of Grain, which comes five years after their 2008 debut Solar Forge, brims with them. Although thoroughly established on the lunatic fringe of New York’s jazz scene, their presence is mappable by no coordinates, save the curtain behind which an ancestral Oz beats his drum. The virtuosity of each member is formidable, but when standing in the center of their galactic fury we needn’t understand any means of execution. We are more likely to find strange comfort in the mystery behind every utterance. Despite the frenzy, there is hardly a trace of urgency to the sounds, which come to us through noose-outlined ovals of sky, each a window into another, ad infinitum. And where does all of this leave the hapless writer, who struggles with words as if severed from the music they entail? Eisenbeil has an answer for that, too: “A vast majority of sound is created in the world and how that sound is used in situations is predicated on people being engaged in one form or another. Writings by those who sit removed just expecting to be fed say more about the writer’s environment than about the music’s. Musicians will tell you that the more the audience is involved, the better the experience is. It turns into something larger than everyone and everything involved. It’s an ancient process.” As indeed the free qualities of “Genosong” take shape, and in my own attempts to participate in the conversation, I initially struggle for reference points. To wit, possibilities include the Laswell/Haino/Ali joint Decided … Already The Motionless Heart Of Tranquility, Tangling The Prayer Called “I” (1999, Tzadik) and the pioneering work of Derek Bailey. Yet the confluence of signatures that is TOTEM> discloses another genealogy entirely, one quoted above yet also expressed by spontaneous architectures. The result is a hulking vessel that becomes indistinguishable from the waters it plows. Between the breakers of Drury’s drumming, Blancarte’s thick knot-work, and the guitar’s ever-fractal song, the trio trades shine for brine in a pirated helix of comportment. One can almost feel the mitochondria warming up. There’s a sense here of tentacles grasping on to something, of suction and underbellies barnacled by nocturnal passage. What seems a maritime nightmare is in fact a jazz dream, each strand of braid taking a solo while the others lock into supporting grooves. Such moments are brief, although periodic enough to prove TOTEM>’s three-dimensional locution. From oceans eternal to motions internal, from ship to submarine, creaks and water pressures abound in the claustrophobic symphony of “Written in the Body.” What appears to be a dive inward marks its clip by friction of strings and osmosis of skins. Chronology, then, becomes not an ordering of events but an event of orderings, each strand one possible pathway through the mind’s eye, a constant breaking and reconnecting of bare life. Further tensions ravel in “Toward Jouissance,” which stretches and rubs a balloon to the brink of rupture, and in “Counter Memory,” which draws a whirlpool of collective becoming. The latter is more explicitly layered as guitar elicits a frantic cartography across insectile spectrums. “Message Without a Code” not only names the next track, but might as well be the band’s slogan: despite the seemingly cryptic methods (extended techniques, and so on) of execution, the sounds produced are stark naked. Acceptance of that nakedness, molecular it may be, are the listener’s only entrance fee to a full experience of these goings on. More than that, it’s an awareness of one’s physical universe and the planetary alignments of performance. No mere analogy, this image reaches back to Eisenbeil’s genealogy of forms, which taps into a decidedly Foucauldian sense of biopower, that elusive yet pervasive technology of physical management: “Noise is the grain of the voice, and with the grain expresses power,” the guitarist goes on to say. “The idea is that all of the leading exponents of jazz have always had this kind of noise in their sound. Whether it was Ornette Coleman or Charlie Parker, or Evan Parker, or William Parker…many of these musicians were criticized early on for this grain that comes through their sound, which people initially perceived as noise because their emotional filter didn’t allow it to penetrate their being. Yet now that noise is accepted. It must be heard.” Perhaps this is the message of “Post-Repeating,” the album’s most outward statement by far. It cuts a vast horizontal plane, a frozen ocean cracking in the sun with meditative cause, and paves our way toward the final “Silence On Its Road.” In the end, there is only the beginning, a gesture that resounds with every possibility at its fingertips. All explosions look like implosions with enough mirrors around. “Music,” says Eisenbeil, “is best when formed when people have an open heart.” It need be nothing more or less. Like the arrowhead that ends the band’s name, it points forward, no more knowing of the future than the rest of us. And so, while the album does proceed in an extremely physical manner, it orbits us at such a rate that the distinction between the body and its environment collapses in endless porosity. Eisenbeil agrees: “I love playing with Tom and Andrew. It’s a fantastic experience for being completely natural. Every single time we get together, whether in public performance or in the studio, it’s a transcendental experience that is much bigger than the three of us. The sound is an entity in and of itself, a universal life force that the three of us are part of.” To that life force will be added the curious who, with open ears and hearts, find themselves drowning in the sandbox of TOTEM>’s sound-world, swallowing every last grain until it screams.