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N:Q - November Quebec

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Artist: N:Q

Album: November Quebec

Label: Esquilo

Review date: Aug. 30, 2006

The young Portuguese label Esquilo releases but a few recordings, yet they – like this release and the Plus/Minus “remix” disc from earlier this year – are of a very high quality. This interestingly named ensemble – whose grapheme appellation suggests the kind of methodology they are wont to use as a basis for their long-form improvisations – has been around for many years now but has recorded quite infrequently. Their music (on this release there are two half-hour pieces sandwiching a full minute of silence) is as dense as it is enigmatic.

The first track, “November,” is from a Keith Rowe solo radio performance where he tried, for the piece’s duration, to emulate a dead station. Any listener tuning into French radio that night was surely due for a headfuck (though that was not the piece’s intent, since it was a dedicated to Jon Abbey and Yuko Zama, who were getting married at exactly the same time as Rowe was improvising). The second full piece, “Quebec,” consists of treatments of the Rowe piece by the remaining members of N:Q: Julien Ottavi, Will Guthrie and Manu Leduc, an act of fascination with contemporary means (downloads, podcasts, and so forth) of appropriating and transforming sound.

So that’s how it was made. How does it run? Rowe’s piece is absolutely gorgeous if your ears are attuned to the patient lamination of sound, with a thickening forest floor of hiss, crackle, whine and muted voices. What’s particularly satisfying is the way this piece breathes, its changes in density oddly organic sounding for such a thoroughly abstracted medium, its occasional pulses and repetition made meaningful by their infrequency, its unexpected moments of recognizable sound somehow the piece’s most disturbing moments. As with many contemporary Rowe improvisations, there is a passage where the drone increases its palpability and starts to sound like the boring of a heavy metallic drill. Nasty. Nice.

“Quebec” is also dominated by the use of radios, an abiding interest of Rowe’s (both in terms of the chance findings it can introduce into improvising and in terms of its theoretical resonances). With multiple musicians, this piece has a wider sound palette, but it’s just as subtle and patient, with flames seeming to lick at the occasional electric glisses or rumbling nimbus. There are more, for lack of a better term, iterations of individual sounds – bells, beeps, alarms, and forth – instead of the sound of a single complicated noise unfolding or showing itself. And that’s all to the good, since it makes for a fine contrast with Rowe’s piece. Yet the three electronicians are anything but complacent, and seem keen to subvert any definite gesture once it’s made – indeed, just marvel at the dense crumbling noise that seems to crush the piece halfway through.

Together the pieces add up to one of the richest improv records of the year so far. There are only 250 copies, so snatch it up, kids.

By Jason Bivins

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