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The Portuguese label Creative Sources is slowly beginning to gain the reputation and recognition its strong catalogue deserves. Jason Bivins surveys the five most recent releases from this very active label.

Creative Sources

About a year ago, I first reviewed a Creative Sources disc for Dusted and noted that improvised music would be nothing without local scenes and the labels dedicated to documenting them. That’s still true. But when people start to take notice, the next level is the formation of links with other scenes. The Lisbon-based label – run by Ernesto Rodrigues, an excellent improviser who plays on some of the label’s releases – has made that next step. Along with labels like Erstwhile, For4Ears, Confront, Meniscus, and Potlatch, this imprint is documenting some of the finest “lowercase” improvisation around and has become a label with a strong track record and a global focus. Their release schedule has really picked up of late too. In fact, they’ve just dropped a quintet of recordings featuring a fairly broad array of European improvisers. Many readers won’t be too familiar with the majority of the players. That deserves to change.

Metz brings together a fantastic group for a single, 32-minute improvisation recorded in a temple in the French city named in the title: clarinetist Xavier Charles (who some may have heard on the fabulous trio recording The Contest of Pleasures), tenor saxophonist Bertrand Denzler (a member of Momentum), electric guitarist Jean-Sébastien Mariage (who plays in Hubbub), and violinist Mathieu Werchowski (who has worked with British guitarist John Russell). The piece opens in a somewhat standard fashion, with breath noises mixing with ultra-high pizzicato. But thankfully, rather than a half-hour whoosh and hiss-fest, this slice is coherent, purposeful, and not nearly so placid as one might expect. For every slowly gathering wave of sound, there is a contentious aside: when Denzler and Charles begin to drift into chorale, Mariage issues forth some gnarly crackles or Werchowski some rude creaking (and there is a pretty stunning cloud of noise that gathers about 1/3 of the way through). This is not to suggest that group animosity is pervasive, or that things never get started; rather, these four players are smart enough not to get complacent, to let things develop and resolve too neatly. And it’s this resistance that, combined with their use of the temple dynamics, makes this recording both provocative and lovely. Things develop, they break down, they rest in silence, and proceed once more, yielding quite a rich feast for such a short duration. Both radical in its reserve and compelling in its beauty, Metz is one of the best in this batch.

Nearly four years old, this trio meeting from France – with Mariage again on guitar, Dan Warburton on violin, and Frédéric Blondy on piano – recalls for me a very specific French musical source, the master Olivier Messiaen. The three long improvisations on L’Écorce Chante la Forêt feature a voicelike instrumentalism and interaction that, for all its rude squeaks and tempests, reminds me of the late composer’s preoccupation with birdsongs. For much of the title track, it is difficult to discern how Blondy coaxes the shimmering translucent sounds from his (apparently prepared) piano. Warburton glides over his strings, as Mariage rudely throttles his pickups (often using a slide in multiple ways), but the pianist blasts through his instrument’s representations as Rhodri Davies does with harp. The results are subtle and transfixing, and the intense music conveys quite vivid imagery which, perhaps embellished by the evocative French titles, suggest that upon entering a seemingly tranquil space one is delighted to discover the wealth of detail and activity that teem below the surface. Appropriately, one has to listen very actively to these performances for, while they do occasionally invite you in with threeway tussles or with accessible chamber music gestures, this is more often the music of nightbirds and hidden things. The long, slowly warping tones of “Sleep, Perchance to Dream” confirm this impression most psychedelically; despite the use of extended techniques, the music coos to you, tugs at your eyelids, and invites reverie.

On Kunststoff, the classically trained vocalist Ute Wasserman and the excellent trumpeter Birgit Ulher deliver ten dense improvisations in exactly an hour. Ulher – who has recorded some interesting duos previously – works in much the same non-idiomatic trumpet range as Ruth Barberán (below): sudden pops, radiator hisses, flutters, and gurgles. Wasserman’s vocals are ridiculously expressive, ranging from the brassy inventiveness of Phil Minton to the perplexing theatricality of David Moss to the warped instrumentalism of Jaap Blonk. There is fierce, quicksilver dialogue, deep empathy, and an abundance of space/respect on this recording. They seem to speak in a private language that might come from birdlike insects or subterranean creatures: one hears creaks, croaks, wails, whistles, kissy noises, and wet rattles – sometimes all in a single track! Very occasionally the music hints at familiarity: on “Stoff 2” and “Stoff 4,” for example, you feel as if you’re listening in on a bagatelle from Pluto. But for much of this disc the feel is muted and somewhat alien, though there is good dynamic and expressive range. I think it would be a better record if it were shorter and tighter – an hour seems somewhat too long. And the duo’s tendency to resort at times to echolalia and mimesis, a pet peeve of mine in improv music, at times is wearying (though, given what this demands Wasserman do with her voice, I’m inclined to overlook it). But taken a track or three at a time, one can’t help but be dazzled by the exchanges and by the variety of sounds.

Trumpeter Ruth Barberán was on one of my favorite releases of 2004, a Rossbin disc entitled Atolón. It’s hard to listen to her first solo disc, Capacidad de Pérdida, without thinking of recent solo entries by the likes of Greg Kelley, Axel Dörner, and Franz Hautzinger, who together have labored to create what might meaningfully be called post-Bill Dixon trumpet, consisting of resolutely non-idiomatic gestures like smears, walls of metallic squealing, chortles, and farts. There are four tracks here – three recorded at the trumpeter’s home and one live in Barcelona – that total just about 35 minutes. The title track is strongly reminiscent – in its focus on sucking sounds, great washes of noise, and unexpected dynamic dropoffs – of Kelley’s If I Never Meet You in This Life Let Me Feel the Lack. Best of all is the windy landscape of “dos dies,” where Barberán’s explorations of near-silence are quite effective. Solo recordings are tough, of course, the two major dangers being the “notebook of techniques” trap (where one impresses with instrumental tricks while falling short of delivering memorable music) or the “narrative dearth” trap (basically the absence of compelling solo voice and, significantly, solo statement). You really hang yourself out there with a solo record, and in many ways Barberán falls prey to both pitfalls. Few of the techniques she explores – flushing water, hyperactive breathing, keening feedback – will seem conservative to anyone who listens, of course, and there is always the “how the hell does she do that with a trumpet?” sense (close mic recording helps). But many of them have been explored more effectively by other players elsewhere. Additionally, the material itself is slightly repetitive. Barberán is an excellent group player and her solo stuff should be listened to as well. It’s provocative, it’s interesting, it’s highly abstract. But her best solo work lies ahead.

Multi-instrumentalist Ferran Fages was, like Barberán, a participant in 2004’s raucous, exciting Atolón, whose fractiousness and sheer declamatory power are miles away from this release (Creative Sources will release a new recording by this trio – rounded out by Alfredo Costa Monteiro’s accordion – very shortly). He’s also half of Cremaster. On his solo disc A Cavall Entre dos Cavalls, Fages here trades in his acoustic turntable (no, I don’t really know how it works either) for a clean toned electric guitar. In just over thirty minutes, Fages deliver fifteen brief tracks (with only two breaking the three-minute mark). He strums quite a bit, occasionally summing wisps of feedback and overtones, and frequently makes some very emphatic asides where he nails harmonics or some simple repeated motifs in a style that recalls a cross between Derek Bailey and early Taku Sugimoto. For the most part, though there is structure to these pieces and they are accessible, Fages seems less concerned with harmony than with texture and gesture. A minor chord is simply an evocation, struck more for the way it resonates than anything else. The music is filled with hesitations and tentativeness as well and at times even seems to concentrate on its own idiosyncrasies (the slight distorted muffle of the low end, for example, or slight intonation problems in the upper register). This is solo guitar that’s lonely, pared-down, and possessed of its own weird elegance and a healthy dose of melancholy.

Taken as a whole, this quintet of discs is pretty satisfying. While some clearly work better than others, they give improv freaks some insight into what’s happening in some lesser-known European scenes. They also confirm the strength and identity of this excellent label.

By Jason Bivins

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