Steve Vickery (1990)


The efforts of FMP to document and preserve performances of improvised and composed modern music has given the North American audience a rare opportunity to participate in this most vital link in the sound explorations of European-based artists. While the live concert performance remains the ideal introduction to this form, the recordings that have emerged over the past twenty years from the Berlin offices of Free Music Production(FMP) have opened the door for a wider audience to fully appreciate this often bewildering and uncompromising craft. FMP saw the total neglect of this music by commercial recording companies as a mandate for their involvement and now years later their extensive catalogue may be seen as the beginning of a long story, one that saw the establishment of a new tradition of evolution in composition and performance. This new world of sound is anticipated in the folk music of Bulgaria, Japan, and England, as much as by the innovations of music pioneers in America, India, and Africa. The music becomes more than a cultural response in the direction of social entertainment, it becomes a search for means of expressing a logic that is still in flux. The modern compositional techniques of Bela Bartok, Toru Takamitsu, and even older composers (Khachaturians Toccata roars with the same sonic intensity as the modem day piano masters' most gripping works) shaped a generation that, since the last days of the nineteen fifties, have witnessed an unprecedented synthesis of forms. While the divergent creations of Harry Partch and John Coltrane have led some to argue that the new music has its roots in North America (underscored by the rapidly developed push toward complete "free" improvisation within the American movements such as the A.A.C.M. and their counterparts) the current developments suggest otherwise. We can now begin to clarify, with the revelation of musique actuelle becoming an international forum for exploration (as is suggested by the epochal month-long festival of creative music surrounding the Berlin residency of Cecil Taylor) that this music has developed from a source point that is not rooted in national boundaries but rather finds its genesis in the musician's exploration of the human experience, and is therefore a distinctly personal expression in sound. Working outward from this assumption, the question of the music's origins becomes a sticky proposition for the new listener to unravel The improvised and composed forms that a wider audience are now beginning to regard seriously (thanks to the efforts of FMP alongside labels such as I ncus, Leo, and others like Red, Recommended, and Emanem) have long delighted the ears of the curious and imaginative. Indeed it is the wonder and fascination of the music that gives it its most compelling quality: surprise. The dazzling fireworks of the new improvised music often contains a delayed joke, a shaggy-dog story in sound, where the unexpected left turn is perhaps all that can be counted upon. This is not to say that it is a music of formlessness, but rather that its understanding becomes secondary to the experience. The conditioned primary impulse to understand and identify will no longer fulfil the listener and in effect makes for a rather academic, listless time, waiting endlessly for a recognizable form to emerge so that it an be wrestled to the ground with preconceptions. It is then easier and more satisfying for the music to be regarded at first encounter as a kind of sightseeing. With scenery ever changing, the road likely will follow a more circuitous path than one would expect, but the delight of the travel is enhanced by what is to be seen along the way. Thanks to Jost Gebers and Dieter Hahne for their persistence in documenting this music

The appearance of multi-reed instrumentalist Wolfgang Fuchs this past autumn as a member of Saxophone Colossus introduced to the North American audience a fine new European voice, one with a refined textural sense that explores some unexpected but illuminating corners. So-und? So!, (Uhlklang UK 7) his solo 1985 release, is a statement of then-current affairs for the reedist, in which he employs a wide range of horns (from sopranino saxophone to bass clarinet) in what is essentially a live studio performance. Staccato bursts of a-rhythmic playing meet with slow timbral effects for a mixed program of engagingly short (averaging three minutes) selections. The solitary horn fills up the soundscape admirably, avoiding the standard pitfall of extensive overdubbing for the sake of harmonic density by use of dynamics, rhythmic playfulness, and the risk-taking leaps of melody across the horn's octaves.

Fuchs' commitment to the complexities and distinct tonal personality of each horn makes for a refreshing listening experience. Rather than reshuffling his vocabulary of devices, Fuchs prefers to dig for a certain nuance, colour, or timbral nature implicit in each instrument. So-und? So! is the West German reedist's calling card in this way, turning the listener's ear as though to say, "here are some of the things the horns are capable of, though you might not know it." His work on bass clarinet alternates between sub-sonic fluttering and a piping upper register shout that is forceful and startling, while his soprano and sopranino voices each have an arresting presence afforded him by the open spaces of his solo outing.

Wo der Kopf sitzt , (SAJ-56) the 1986 trio of Fuchs, pianist Fred Van Hove, and percussionist Paul Lytton is a decidedly more searching endeavour than Fuchs' solo session. This can be attributed to the influence of Van Hove and Lytton whose outward-bound natures signal a more intensely "free" approach to sound investigation. The ground that has been covered in past years by improvisers like Lytton in his work with soprano saxophonist Evan Parker and by Van Hove in his work with Phil Wachsmann suggest that the development of intuition and "forward hearing", a kind of aural E.S.P., so essential to the post-1964 American new music, continues to underline and reinforce the foundations of this period's music. There is a particular attention paid to sound detail and tonal "event" that tends to supersede the conventions of sound language and ensemble role playing that became common currency in the earlier eras of free music's antecedents, swing and post-1945 bebop; this is a music that carries on from a tumultuous history yet still advances a new view of its component parts. Van Hove and Fuchs chase each other through this program of improvisations and compositions, conjuring at times the swirling maelstrom of Cecil Taylor's music in recent years though this music remains an individual statement of note. Broad colourful sweeps and delicacy are brought together here, making the trio's performance a creative new avenue that retains the energy of "jazz" music and the expansiveness of spirit that characterizes the orchestral tradition If a listener wanted an immediate introduction to intense, modern European sound, this would be the recording to obtain, for in this release, Fuchs, Van Hove and Lytton produce a high point in FMP's new discography. The high-speed passage of events that greet the listener the first time through crystallize upon repetition as a densely woven sound composition. Highly recommended.

Certainly one musician who has developed an idiomatic personal creative music in this decade is the West German guitarist Hans Reichel. Reichel's use of radically altered and deconstructed guitars (perhaps guitar itself is too narrow a definition for the instruments that Reichel uses) is in the tradition that has previously been associated with innovators like Frith and Bailey but his music is singularly his own. It is a music that contains elements of gamelan, koto, appalachian hammer dulcimer, Jimi Hendrix, and the unexplainable sound of machinery talking to itself after the workers have gone home. Reichel’s music could become hugely influential if the trend that has begun in the United States (he has been showcased in two mainstream musicians' magazines, Guitar World and Guitar Player, high circulation pop music glossies) continues past the inevitable first blush of success that heralds each new guitar "star". Reichel is unlikely as a choice for freak success but he is certain to gain many long-term listeners with the release of his 1987 solo guitar album, The Dawn of Dachsman , (FMP 1140) on FMP. It is a recording that could be played on a continuous loop at low levels without disrupting conversation but played at regular levels it is mesmerizing, a warm metallic sound that resists definition.

Other examples of Reichel’s output over the seventies and eighties are also documented through FMP, who pride themselves (j ustly) upon making an effort to keep their catalogue in print. With luck, Reichel’s intrusion into the North American new music fringe will raise the profile of FMP artists and open the doors for further touring. (Reichel toured in the U.S. and Canada in the fall of 1988.)

Carte Blanche, (FMP 1100) finds Günter Christmann and Torsten Müller making an elated and beguiling music that quite surpasses the limitations usually found in the duo format. Christmann's long association with FMP both as a soloist and in outstanding collaboration with percussionist Detlef Schönenberg has given him an expansive vocabulary of sound language to draw upon, resulting in a music that brings to mind the dexterity and recklessness of a circus juggler.

Torsten Müller's rich double-bass tone and fluid upper register leaps both provoke and lull Christmann's antic colourist approach represented here, making for an unexpectedly soaring sound from two bass-clef instrumentalists.

As is the case with Wolfgang Fuchs' solo recording on Uhlklang, the division of densely textured improvisations and compositions into a number of short tracks makes this recording particularly desirable to those unfamiliar with this very "free" style of music making. Although there seems to be no electronic processing of the instruments, Christmann's trombone at times emits a high, piercing wail not unlike an electrified trumpet. The selections featuring two basses are high-velocity skirmishes, exploring some overlooked nuances available to the string player that rarely are utilized. Carte Blanche fits squarely into what seems the central philosophy of the FMP artists and staff; adventurous yet accessible, "outer edge" playing.

Christmann and Müller disregard the standard North American style that has evolved since the middle sixties (i.e. Ron Carter) and pursue instead their own European roots music, building on the bass technique of players like Peter Kowald and Maarten Altena, cultivating folk musics and the modern orchestral approach. They are distinctly "free," a delineation that FMP and its companion performance events such as Total Music Meeting have built up alongside similarly-focused North American events such as the Victoriaville Festival, and Musique Actuelle.

The duo of Rüdiger Carl and Sven-Åke Johansson are another example of this phenomenon of a decidedly mature free improvising unit. In their 1985 FMP release of a live performance, Fünfunddreissigvierzig, (FMP 1080) Carl and Johansson confound the senses playing a combination of tenor saxophone, clarinet, percussions, and accordions. Exhilarating is a word seldom used to describe the accordion, but in this case it may be applied. The duo performance captured here is one of the more refreshing free outings that has been released recently with a distinctly European quality lent to the proceedings by the accordion's subliminal connection to the romantic aura of French and Italian film of the late fifties. The duo also share in the fun, lampooning the audience's expectations with a gleeful abandon.

Solid music that is again resolutely personal and idiomatic, the duo canter and ramble along as though passing through some Chaucerian tale. Both Carl (on tenor) and Johansson (on drum kit) play with a spirit and wilfulness that suggest their common background in conventional "jazz" music yet without resisting the impulse to turn phrases upside down, making the unexpected allusions to "jazz" funnier than ever. Make no mistake, these are adept musicians on a collision course with inventiveness. The fact that they choose, as does Dutch percussionist Han Bennink, to present their music with a leaven of good humour is simply an extra incentive for the listener.

Transition , (FMP 1170) a 1987 recording by the trio of Heinz Becker (brass), Louis Sclavis (reeds and woodwinds), and John Lindberg (bass), is an interesting exploration of slightly more conventional trio playing that is none the less inviting. The music is presented in a series of short precise vignettes showcasing the considerable talents of the three musicians with an accent on space, tone colour, and rhythmic suppleness. Particularly noteworthy are the contributions on bass clarinet by the relatively under-recorded French reedman, Louis Sclavis. Sclavis' sound and conception of the music dovetail with his companions here creating an uncluttered trio setting. The combination of wood flute and bass clarinet against the stop-time pizzicato bass of John Lindberg creates a high contrast effect with the inclusion of Becker's open horn. Lindberg's own work on Transition , both on arco (bowed) and pizzicato (plucked) upright bass, favour an overtone rich blend as he glides chords under the two wind players. Segues are numerous but remain clear as rhythms and melodic figures are expressly stated.

With such an impressive first release, it should be hoped that this trio will join the round of acts featured at this fall's upcoming festivals of modern music.

from: CODA Magazine # 232, June/July 1990

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