Barre Phillips/György Kurtág jr.: Face à Face (ECM 2735)

Barre Phillips
György Kurtág jr.
Face à Face

Barre Phillips double bass
György Kurtág jr. live electronics
September 2020 – September 2021
Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
by Gérard de Haro, Manfred Eicher,
György Kurtág jr., and Barre Phillips
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover: Fidel Sclavo
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: August 19, 2022

Although Barre Phillips and György Kurtág jr., respective virtuosos of the double bass and electronics, first collaborated by chance, one might not know it by the interlacing qualities of Face à Face. Each artist translates the other’s language in a borderless loop of communication, so that by the end we are one step closer to sharing their lexicon.

They begin in subterranean space, listening as if with the tympanal organs of a beetle to the stirrings of labyrinth makers. And maybe they never plant feet aboveground, more content to abandon the light for other forms of perception. Despite hints of the outside world in the sampled drums of “Two By Two” and the kalimba of “Across The Aisle,” our flesh always feels caught by something we cannot readily touch except in thought. Still, a feeling of tactility reigns.

The briefest excursions never reach two minutes, while the longest ones exceed only four. Among the latter, “Chosen Spindle” travels into backlit caves of memory, where seemingly infinite regressions flirt with the here and now.

Phillips is a sage of the bow, turning harmonies into shaded reveries that speak of decades leading to their emergence. In “Extended Circumstances,” he sings with mythical electricity in folds of cricket-like chatter. His pizzicato, too, moves vocally through the refractions of “Ruptured Air.” Kurtág plays his instrument (a practically biomechanical array of synthesizers and digital percussion) as a physical appendage, never letting go even when placing a shushing finger in the foreground. “Sharpen Your Eyes” is a remarkable example of his structural sensibilities, artfully suited to the bassist’s renderings of space. Their deepest integration takes form in the ironically titled “Stand Alone,” wherein mitochondrial anthems resound. Even “Forest Shouts” speaks in quiet streams of thought, each ripple extending a hand to pull us upstream to where it all began.

If asked to compare this to another album, I might nominate Heiner Goebbels’s Stifters Dinge, to which this may be heard as an electronic counterpart. Both are dreams awaiting visitors.

Kurtágonals (ECM New Series 2097)



László Hortobágyi synthesizers, computers
György Kurtág Jr. synthesizers
Miklós Lengyelfi bass, effects
Recorded August 2008 at the Guo Manor, Budapest
Produced by Hortogonals

In the landscape of electronic music among European art circles, the name of Pierre Schaeffer (1910-1995) is a monumental landmark. A pioneer in musique concrète and its ancillary technologies, Schaeffer introduced a remarkable line-up of composers to new and exciting possibilities in audible media, not least among them Luc Ferarri, Iannis Xenakis, Jean Barraqué, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pierre Boulez. Boulez is particularly important in the context of this album, for he would go on to found the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, or IRCAM, where György Kurtág Jr. later studied. Boulez’s rocky association with Henry led to a schism between the former’s insistence on the integrity of electro-acoustic configurations over the latter’s “computer music.” I find this conflict to be a moot one, however, when considering that instrumental music immediately becomes “electronic” the moment it is recorded, and that electronic music becomes “acoustic” when played through speakers in any given environment. Also, much of Schaeffer’s pioneering work, such as his entrancing Symphonie pour un homme seul (1951), was fundamentally rooted in the acoustical properties of live instruments and the human voice. Whatever the argument may boil down to, this fiercely original album happily marries the two camps into a bustling commune of shared ideas. Kurtág is joined here by two fellow Hungarians: composer László Hortobágyi, who works much of his compatriot’s thematic material into the album’s infrastructure, and Miklós Lengyelfi, a musician of many stripes whose rock roots bring an edgier sensibility to the underlying aesthetic. The three are known collectively as Hortogonals, and through their triangular approach they create music that is undeniably spherical.

Intraga sets the tone for the album as a whole, its varied sounds barely discernible from the surrounding haze: a bass sings at our feet, a toy piano croaks into our ears, and a wordless voice flickers at the threshold of audibility. Kurtagamelan is appropriately riddled with its titular chimes. Their echoes are electronically transformed, seeming to inject a visible murmur into every struck note. A passing swarm of insects retreats into the background. And beneath it all, a muffled drum. The bass continues its subterranean journey, marking its passage through the earth with pitfalls and sinkholes. A brief chorus of voices swells, the wind blows. Interrogation is overlaid with a cicada-like drone and a distant wash of strings, contrasting effectively with the lovely rhythmic threads of Lux-abbysum, which put me in mind of Tomas Jirku’s early click-hop experiments on the Substractif label, though the “live” touches of triangle and other percussive samples add more variation to the music’s topography. Dronezone showcases some of Hortobágyi’s interest in North Indian music, and Kurtaganja a bit of Lengyelfi’s in the electric guitar. This and Twin PeaX form a whimsical pair, respectively characterized by less veiled beats and freer sampling. Necroga closes where the album began, its steady bass strummed like a large cosmic string boring into the center of our spines.

Although the music of Hortogonals is rich in implied silence, here it moves in a continuous stream of sound. The lack of gaps between tracks renders the titles almost arbitrary, even if they do provide the occasional clue into the goings on. The music is dark, but far from ominous, and when it is ominous it is never dark. The experienced electronic listener may not encounter much in the way of innovation in the album’s sound or construction, but will nevertheless find it bears a unique compositional stamp and that sort of haggard beauty only the collaborative object possesses.