Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dreams in Celluloid, Part VIII


Black Narcissus (1947)

Big budget sets, great acting and fantastic cinematography (thanks to Jack Cardiff), Powell & Pressburger were two of the most influential filmmakers of the 1940s. OK, so maybe their films have dated a bit, but there's still a dark, psychological intensity that few contemporary films are able to emulate.

Just ahead of The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus is certainly my favourite Powell & Pressburger flick with all its awkward charm. Five young nuns travel to a distant Himalayan mountain, converting a former concubine-filled pleasure palace of some dead general to the convent of Saint Faith Order and begin to teach children and tend to the sick. The isolation, the emptiness, the exoticism of the place all has an overwhelming intensity that slowly seeps into the emotional framework of the young sisters, stirring up passions in a place where austerity is held above all else (just look at how grey the nunnery is compared with the vivid landscape). The contrasts between each of the nuns from Sister Clodagh’s gentleness to Sister Ruth’s wildness is captured beautifully by the directors and not a moment passes where you’re not considering the everyday struggle of the nuns and the local villagers, as well as the greater overall struggles (both practical and spiritual) of having to live in such a place.


Le Plaisir (1952)

Ophül’s masterpiece, Le Plaisir – literally ‘the pleasure’ and there’s certainly a great deal of pleasure to be had from such a film. Taking three of Guy de Maupassant’s short stories as a the basis for three short films, Le Plaisir is striking in its assumed simplicity and love of life – the joie de vivre is captured exquisitely in a film which teases and tempts us, draws us into the bawdy world of 19th century France where the line between happiness and misery runs thin and the quick transition from pleasure to pain is found on every street corner.

From the swinging Palais de la Dance in the first story to the Madame Tellier’s brothel in the second, (closed for a night so the girls can travel to the countryside) and finally to the studio of a frustrated painter and his luscious model in the last, Ophüls demonstrates his appreciation of human weakness with a sensitivity that perfectly suits Maupassant’s naturalistic dénouements.

The first of the three tales opens with the narrator (Maupassant) announcing that, “I’m so happy to be talking in the dark as if I were beside you,” and with dry wit adds, “and maybe I am.” And straightaway, Ophüls launches us into the heart of the 19th century ball de magnificence where youth meets age in a continual game of pleasure and denial as the central figure dances with a young girl only to collapse with exhaustion and has to be carried home to his wife. The second story and longest of all three follows the travels of a brothel madame, who closes her establishment (a place we are denied entry into) and takes her girls to the country for her niece’s first communion – the beautiful church scene – where the profane meets with the sacred, lust turns to gaiety and innocent fun, and pleasure and love combine in the most touching narrative. And the third, a snapshot of an ambitious artist who falls in love with his model, marries and discovers that lust doesn’t automatically lead to love and happiness can be as short-lived as success.


La Grande Illusion (1937)

War films are pretty difficult to make because of all the madness that surrounds war itself. Of course the easy way out would be to take a simple Hollywood angle, throw in a hero, have him overcome his own fear and save the day. Renoir neither romanticises nor belittles his characters, instead he provides them with complexity through careful observation (a skill no doubt picked up from his own father, the great Auguste Renoir) and a well-developed plot. Each individual remains focused on their own goals and ambitions to some extent, but outside of the obvious (escape for the PoWs and keeping guard for the Nazi prison officers) Renoir provides them with hazy intention.

La Grande Illusion is a film about struggle in a world which is quickly beginning to crumble, where old codes are disappearing and the future is uncertain, the present is unstable and the past is past. One of Renoir’s greatest achievements in this film (and to some extent also in La Règle du Jeu and Partie de Campagne) is his ability to capture this sense of change, illustrated beautifully between the two opposing aristocratic officers, the German Rosenthal and the French Boeldieu, both under no illusion that the rules of war have changed – it is no longer about a gentleman’s fight, but the fight of the common man.

The communication between the prisoners and the guards is minimal, and all the more striking for it when for example the German guard gives his harmonica to the imprisoned Maréchal. And Renoir as always has a great sympathy and sensitivity to the figures caught up in this fight, even the German guards who despite their apparent freedom are just as trapped within a regime where the individual is easily lost within the wider aims of the whole. They all want to be re-united with their families, return home to cooked meals and loving wives, not living as they do in isolation and emptiness. What Renoir questions with La Grande Illusion is the necessity of war and how the new rules that defined World War I completely changed the way war was fought.


Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)

Director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski had that special kind of love/hate relationship that gives all of the films they make together that special edge. They made several films together, and Aguirre is the most powerful of the bunch. The sheer intensity of Kinski's acting and onscreen descent into madness as he searches aimlessly for El Dorado is captured perfectly by Herzog. He really pushed his actors to their limits (still does as Rescue Dawn proves), and it really shows in Aguirre, Kinski is practically burning with a passionate rage.

Herzog’s films are always slow and heavy, this is no light offering of feel-good entertainment, this is a full-on dive into philosophical enquiries, continually questioning the nature of life, from the metaphorical spiritualism of Heart of Glass to the insane and obsessive journey of Fitzcarraldo through the Peruvian jungle to build an opera house. But Aguirre is probably his most realised vision – the brooding, dangerous Don Lope de Aguirre relentlessly searches at any cost, disregarding everything else through the Amazon, (home of the recently annihilated Incas) on journey to find gold and wealth – the legendary El Dorado.

From the outset, you quickly realise that this is going to be a powerful film – opening with a beautiful tracking shot of the mountains slowly revealing the band of men making their way steadily, dangerously, precariously through the impressive surroundings. With the power of God behind them, the Spanish soldiers (Don Fernando representing the royal house of Spain) along with Brother Gaspar de Carajal (on a mission to convert the remaining pagans) descend upon the Amazonian jungle with full armour, out of place, lost, overwhelmed, exhausted…


Tropical Malady (2004)

Even now cinema has the power to astonish. Watching the second part of Tropical Malady as a soldier crawls through the jungle haunted by dreams is one of the most magical sequences in film of recent years. Weerasethakul isn't afraid to experiment, sometimes with a playful sense of humour and sometimes with mystical edge.

Tropical Malady is a film split into two distinct parts about the life of a soldier under almost opposing circumstances – reality and fantasy. The film opens with the corpse as a group of soldiers, intrigued by the dead man, stand around and take photographs with carefree exuberance. Amongst them is Keng, a soldier who in the first sequence falls in love with a young country boy who dreams of becoming a soldier. Together with the same carefree nature of the soldiers in the earlier scene, they explore the local area, telling one another stories and gradually, tentatively grow closer together, though whether the local boy is actually in love with Keng or with the idea of being a soldier is difficult to decide.

The second part of a film takes place in darkness, in rain, in thick jungle foliage as Keng stalks through the vegetation in search of the thing, whatever it is that has been killing the local cows. This is a beautiful dreamlike episode, sensory cinema at its finest, following the fears and hallucinations of a single character in pursuit of an uncertain enemy. The parallels between the two segments aren’t immediately apparent, but they are certainly there. It is a film about desire and mystery, discovering something for the first time and searching for something sometimes in vein, but always with passion.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Christian Marclay / Elliott Sharp - High Noon

High Noon
Intakt Records 2000


On High Noon, electronic sampling, cut-up wizard Christian Marclay and multi-instrumentalist Elliott Sharp have fun messing around with the sounds and atmosphere of the Spaghetti Western, deconstructing, obliterating, reworking and updating them through sonic interplay as each musician pushes the other into submission like two old, scarred and dirt-trodden gunslingers meeting one last time for an impressive, final showdown. Marclay's electronics are warm, fuzzy, soaked in a dense, earthy quality simulating sheep bells, billowing wind and the dust and heat of the desert. Sharp's various instruments are minimal and abstract, his guitar plucking on opener 'Blinding Shadow' is sparing and slick evoking the distant memory of some 19th century outlaw folk ballad, later to be accompanied by a similar kind of jaunty piano tune, barely recognisable after Marclay's electronic dissection, warping the traditional into the digital present.

I remember watching High Noon as a child, impressed by the films use of real time to create tension and suspense, waiting for the clock to strike noon and Miller and his gang to come and have his day and take revenge on abandoned sheriff Will Kane. Marclay and Sharp manage to maintain this stylistic tension through a combination of rapid beats (that sound like clocks ticking, chiming, wearing down time itself as that fateful hour approaches) played off against slower instrumentation from Sharp like on the beginning of 'I'll Come Out... Let Her Go!'. The onslaught of sampling comes quick and fast like a gunman drifting from one town to the next, causing trouble, having his way with the local women, upsetting the simple townsfolk and disappearing into a desert of ever-changing rhythms, walls of sound, all-out feedback and twisted electronics, until the haunting finale plays itself out with long, slow guitar drones over a tumbleweed-esque breeze of microtonal clicks and beats.


Monday, March 16, 2009

Michel Chion - Requiem

INA-GRM 1978


Chion's Requiem probably represents one of the defining moments of the musique concrète canon, a work all other pieces must be judged by and one of the few absolute masterpieces of the genre. Things begin with a high pitched tone soon joined by an electro-acoustic, echoing wind and then just after 40 seconds, silence, a man narrating a few lines in French and the start of a slow buzzing, chant-like humming, dripping water, echoes, reverbs and more French vocals repeating the words 'Requiem Aeternam'. And all of this is only two and half minutes into this labyrinthine construction which comes close to nearly annihilating the standard structure of a requiem. Traces of the traditional Funeral Mass remain (largely through the titles of the various movements), but have been so brutally deconstructed that it's very difficult to know exactly at which point in the proceedings you are experiencing. In fact, it's almost as if Chion wants to create all moments at once, stopping time so that everything and anything can happen simultaneously, purposefully disorientating and confusing the listener.

Chion himself has stated that the work is a test of the listener's memory and challenges their ability to be able to connect all the various fragments together in their head. At one moment, you find yourself assaulted by an artillery of static, overwhelmed and confused to then a few moments later be suddenly freed, caught by a single tone, then a fractured libretto (which seems to be transmitted from the nether regions of space), and finally thrown onto an oscillating radiophonic pulse, a powerful wave of sound and whispered vocals, which seem to evoke the passage through time, a calling from another world, the transition from one life to the next. Initially familiar sounds repeat themselves like the three second choral passage introduced in the 'Dies Irae', but slowly as time passes and the journey spins into the unknown depths, those familiar sounds being to dissolve, becoming more and more impossible to cling onto. Towards the end of the piece, after traveling through a maze of sound, disorientated now, the last few minutes of the journey seem to take place alone - the familiar patterns of the beginning have all but disappeared now and through pounding drums, the start of a new harmony emerges. Childlike voices break through from distant realms, as the final waves draw to a close, floating slowly and cautiously with a final flourish before the subdued finale, laughter and then silence.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bobby Previte - The 23 Constellations of Joan Miró

The 23 Constellations of Joan Miró
Tzadik 2001


“It was about the time that the war broke out, I felt a deep desire to escape. I closed myself within myself purposely. The night, music and the stars began to play a major role in suggesting my paintings.” 
Joan Miró

This piece was originally composed for a multimedia event held in Birmingham, UK in 2004, inspired by unsurprisingly given the title by the 'Constellations' of artist, Joan Miró. Bobby Previte (who I've always found extremely hit and miss as both a composer and drummer/percussionist) was - so the story goes - so amazed by Miró's series after seeing them at a Miró Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1993 that he felt almost compelled to write a series of his own musical interpretations of the work.

Each of Previte's compositions reflects not only the instability of the gouche paintings, but also the size of each constellation as well (15 by 18 inches) - in quick improvisations, giving a strong immediacy to the music. The major problem for any musician attempting to translate visual art into the aural realm is how to maintain the substance the of the original work, and offer something distinctive in itself. Something I don't think anyone has ever come as close to as Morton Feldman with his beautiful Rothko Chapel compositions.

Looking at art is inevitably more immediate - you can in almost one glance get a sense of the image as a whole - music takes longer to form and to sink into your head, but at the same time to really understand (as far as possible) a painting or other such static visual work you have to spend time looking at it, taking everything in. The image as whole is only a starting point, after that where you go is up to you - your eyes may dart from one detail to the next, they may try to find connections, pick out symmetry or other such arrangements of space, but ultimately this is a very personal response. So what Bobby Previte does brilliantly is reverse this process - so instead of starting out with a whole, you start off with little details, he makes connections, introduces new elements to reflect changes in colour, changes in shape and slowly over the course of his compositions a whole image is formed that somehow stands as equal to the image of the original Miró.

Joan Miró, Personnages dans la nuit guidés par les traces phosphorescentes des escargots, 1959

Like Miró's work, Previte's compositions seem to float, a kind reflection of the stars that Miró was so in love with. And like the paintings, Previte's music pulses, wavers, occasionally blisters and bursts through ostinati and glissandi. I suppose it helps that Miró's paintings are in the first place like the work of other artists like Kandinsky similar inspired by musical origins.

Previte does well to maintain a careful balance and harmony created by well-timed counterpoints - 'Acrobatic Dancers' jump around lightly (vibraphone), float in air crafted by the trumpets of Ralph Alessi and Lew Soloff and then quicken their pace as Previte pounds his drums, before eventually returning to ground as Elizabeth Panzer's harp glides celestially from one track to the next - beginning the soft, mournful sounds of 'The Nightingale's Song At Midnight And Morning Rain'. At times, there's a dense cacophony of sounds like those on 'Wounded Personage where Wayne Horvitz's electronics add a sort of 70s retro-futuristic chic to the mix and at others the music becomes reminiscent of a late-night, Eastern European bar room, comic shanty as witness on 'The Poetess'.

Joe Barbato's accordian on 'The Poetess' certainly adds a lighthearted touch, but the composition still maintains the dark undertones, which run throughout Miró's work. The power of which seems to stem from their inherent instability, and their ability to oscillate between light and dark, being paradoxically both welcoming and disquieting in order to reflect the ever changing flux of the world itself. Imagination is the most powerful force behind Miró's work and Previte manages, with each of his compositional responses, to tap into that force, offering a textural tour-de-force of colliding sounds in brief sketches - the longest of which is just over three minutes - which can switch unexpectedly from the gaiety of a major key to the sobriety of minor, opening up the Universe before your ears.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Dreams in Celluloid, Part VII


El Topo (1970)

The king of cult and all things strange. Plenty of violence, nudity, fantastical sets, non sequiturs, allegorical allusions to myths and religions and a mountain’s worth of – at least attempted – spirituality all served on an esoteric platter in the surrealist manner. Jodorowsky is one of those filmmakers that divides people between the familiar line of love or hate – indifference is not offered. The film starts with the gunfighter, El Topo and his small boy riding through a massacred village in a kind of spaghetti western style, technicolour cowboy sequence. But any comparisons with the Italian genre immediately cease as El Topo embarks on a mystical mission to slay the four gunmen of the desert, meeting a medley of circus-like freaks along the way. Meaning is always elusive, never straightforward or necessarily there in the first place, but I did find an excellent article over at Senses of Cinema for anyone who cares to read a rather pertinent analysis of Jodorowsky’s work.


Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Sometimes being so self-consciously aware of the tradition which has lead up to a certain in point in time can overwhelm and consume an artists own identity – but Bela Tarr seems to take all that in his stride as he manages to find his niche within the avant-garde filmmaking tradition, nodding heavily to the likes of Tarkovsky along the way. They say that patience is a virtue and if there’s one thing that Bela Tarr’s film manage to provide the patient viewer it’s awe as his lingering camera stays with a scene long after the action has passed if indeed there was any action at all. I’m tempted to say that this technique gives the film an almost immediately magical quality as it opens with a scene in which the protagonist, János, explains with the theatrical involvement the members of the local bar the origins of the universe.

The other noticeable quality that the slow-paced direction provides is the keen attention to detail when framing shots to the point that even once the action (if any has actually occurred) has passed the visual image we are left with remains surprisingly strong. The camera tells the story in such a way as to be nearly unconcerned with what is actually going and far more interested in what isn’t going on, leaving you as the viewer to fill in the gaps for yourself. As the film unrolls, you catch glimpses of what is going on around you, but are never actually given the inherent right to know what is happening. You are an observer as much as the characters are instruments of their fate.

If Tarr perhaps suffers, it is only because the weight of Tarkovsky presses down heavily upon him – but the hospital scene in Werckmeister Harmonies is up there with the Russian masters best.


Dogville (2003)

The One thing I certainly admire about Von Trier is his commitment to a single aesthetic – his Dogme 95 manifesto and his determination to create and develop a new style of filmmaking. He may not always get it right, Dancer in the Dark left me a little cold, but when everything falls into place you get the impression that you’re watching something wholly unique.

Initially Dogville (which isn’t as strict as a Dogme 95 style film like Breaking the Waves) felt a little too staged and a little too contrived. Everything from the lack of set and the restricted space to the voiceover narration all seemed a touch too theatrical and not cinematic enough for my liking, so when you’re completely hooked into a film despite your initial fears you start to see things a lot differently and come to appreciate just how inventive von Trier is.

Watching Dogville it soon becomes clear that this new play/film hybrid (though essentially this is film through and through) has a powerful charge of its own – pushing simple storytelling to the fore as it guides the eyes of the viewer through glimpsed fragments into the increasingly corrupt town of Dogville. There’s a powerful message behind this which ever if you disagree with you can’t help admitting that von Trier has presented a wonderful film in which to deliver it.


The Battle of Algiers (1966)

This film seems as appropriate today as it did over 40 years ago. It has something of the timeless quality that works like Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent still possess when it comes to dealing with conflict and terrorism. The power of the film lies in both its simplicity and its realistic style. The claustrophobia of the tight-knit streets of the Algiers ghetto, the dirtiness of the city and the anxiety of the lives of its inhabitants contrasted against the cheerfulness of the French in their own quarter draws you wonderfully in to present a story of many sides, where sympathy becomes too troubled an emotion to place with any single character.

The Battle of Algiers succeeds beautifully in making you feel uncomfortable, gently guiding you through the decisions of all characters involved – from their vulnerability to their nervousness to their ambition and independent struggle against so many forever expanding factors that push and pull them from one action to the next. This is a story without a straightforward message that continually questions whether the end result is worth the struggle and the fight it takes to realise it.

When the French army - who march with machine-like efficiency through the winding streets of Algiers - threaten to undermine your very existence, destroying your homes and uprooting your families, then difficult decisions must be made and resistant Algerian fighters prepare to defend themselves by any means. And when innocent French people start dying in cafés and along crowded streets then action must surely be taken by the military to make those responsible pay for their injustices? And if both sides understood the reasons for the aggressive actions of the other would they ever stop all the fighting? Belief in a cause is a powerful motive.


Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)

Terence Davies makes me angry and depressed. Is that what you really want from a film? I'm not sure I could handle watching his entire output back to back. It's all so grey and dreary, but despite all this, Distant Voices, Still Lives is beautifully composed and directed. If you're prepared to watch a no holds barred examination of Northern English life that avoids the clichés of more modern British films (not everyone's a gangster) then you'll be surprised just how much this film (and his others) get under your skin.


Zu / Spaceways Incorporated - Radiale

Atavistic 2004


This time it's a collision of continents as Chicago trio Spaceways (Ken Vandermark, Hamid Drake, and Nate McBride) crash head first, fists flying, kicking and screaming straight into Italian Jazz-Rock-Dub trio Zu (Massimo Pupillo, Jacopo Battaglia, and Luca Tommaso Mai). The result is a blast of dark, heavy, rumbling bass, pierced by squealing saxophone and reed playing and rock-orientated, beat-heavy drum bashing.

The two drummers (Battaglia and Drake) and the two bassists (Pupillo and McBride) split the album down the middle as the Zu members take the first half of the album and the Spaceways crew the second. Luca Tommaso Mai on Saxophone and Ken Vandermark on Reeds are the two main players each vying for space throughout, launching into at times aggressive melodies trying to outdo the other in a constant game of push and shove often turning into wonderful cacophony if at times a little too brief like towards the end of 'Thanatocracy.'

The last thing I heard Pupillo play on was a new Peter Brötzmann recording from the Bimhaus in Amsterdam and there's actually some strong similarity between the two sessions - though Radiale is certainly less intense. His bass rings out like a buzz saw at times finding a little room now and again to really stand out as Battaglia pounds his drum with military like precision. On 'Pharmakon' Battaglia builds up slowly, maintaining a steady beat though at times I did find his playing a little too predictable following a strong rock-style structure, but when it works it works really well and allows Mai and Vandermark to show off their skills in the foreground.

As you'd expect the second half of the album with the switch around of bassist and drummer is a more jazz-orientated affair, especially Drake's drumming, which never ceases to impress me. McBride who I don't really know that much about keeps a steady rhythm without driving as much as Pupillo (whose playing is definitely beginning to grow on me).

The second half also features a cover of that Art Ensemble classic - 'Theme de Yoyo' which seemed to me to emphasise the importance of the vocals in the original, though the breakdown is still strong and Mai and Vandermark add about 10 seconds (a little short for my liking) of impressive improvising in the middle. And finishing with the Sun Ra cover I think works really well. Again this is a song that takes its time to get going, but allows the players, especially Drake and McBride more freedom to improvise and set the scene until about half way through the familiar rhythm kicks in and everyone follows suit, rolling happily into its almost Krautrock-esque jam band finale.


CRASH: The Magazine

On March 9th 2009, CRASH magazine went online. From now on, most of my articles on art, film, photography and other such subjects along with some creative work will now be posted over there.

From the website:

‘Crash’ is an aesthetic quality in opposition to the formulaic, the sterile and the life lived automatically.

Captured by an artistic production, it is the point at which forces converge to produce a moment of clarity which challenges the way we see the world.

Instances of ‘crash’ are not limited to a single artistic movement, but found in great art of all ages and all places.

Crash Magazine aims to report, review and creatively explore these moments.

That means that this blog will now be almost exclusively dedicated to music. I will however finally finish my film list for anybody that's interested.

Posts of the future:

Bobby Previte - The 23 Constellations of Joan Miró (Tzadik 2002)

Zu / Spaceways Incorporated - Radiale (Atavistic 2004)


Friday, March 6, 2009

John Zorn / George Lewis / Bill Frisell - News For Lulu (Hat Hut Records 1988)

News For Lulu
Hat Hut Records 1988


Since it's stopped raining and the sun is out and the air is gradually becoming warm and fresh, I thought I'd move away from the free improv antics of the British crew and switch to the American post-modern, Zorn and co. tribute to 50s hard bop. News for Lulu is a far more relaxed record than previous ones posted as everything from the Louise Brookes cover photo to the laid-back, New Orleans style smokey jazz playing and improv breakouts breaths in cool.

With Zorn on alto sax, George Lewis on trombone and Bill Frissell on guitar, this is the kind of 'Keroaucian, On the Road, drive from bar to bar in top down, borrowed Cadillacs or other such jalopies, getting a little bit high and hanging out in small smokey bars, chatting to strangers and exchanging stories' type of jazz.

I'm always impressed by Zorn's diversity and while I admire his Naked City outfit tongue-in-cheek style of jazz, I prefer his Masada work and his numerous tribute albums to jazz legends like Sonny Clark, and some of his Film soundtracks aren't bad. But what he does best is take the old, give it a little twist and stay largely true to the original which in this case happens to be the classic hard bop of Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, Sonny Clark and Freddie Redd. And as long as it stays away from the 80s cheese jazz elevator music it's even better.


Thursday, March 5, 2009

Evan Parker / Keith Rowe / Barry Guy / Eddie Prévost - Supersession (Matchless Recordings 1988)

Matchless Recordings 1988


Anyone with reservations about the use of the prefix 'Super' when applied to a recording should throw all their ideas about New Pornographer style supergroups playing power chords and falling horribly short of expectations out of the window. This is the kind of quartet you only wish you'd been around to see when they first got together, sat down, stood up, started throwing ideas around and improvised live in front of a small, but I'm guessing highly appreciative audience back in the 80s. They'd already been doing this kind of thing way before I was born so you'd think that maybe soon, someday they're going to run out of ideas, but each of the musicians on this recording seems to be like an endless spring, forever flowing with music that drenches your expectations in pure bliss.

Like the Gustafsson record, this is one that beautifully crafts space, exploring the silence with a never-ending array of ideas from dissonant noise to hypnotic conical sax solos. The experience of the musicians means that they already know what works and what doesn't, but that doesn't stop them from trying out new things, breaking into a chaotic drum thrashing together with Parker's crystal shattering sax playing, Guy's scraping bass plucking and Rowe's eerie, harsh electronics. In the end it's all part of the artistic process and the way this unfolds means that you can listen on repeat for hours and still fail to understand the complexity behind their playing.


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Mats Gustafsson - Impropositions (Phono Suecia 1997)

Phono Suecia 1997


A brief interlude from my extensive and rather time-consuming Favourite FIlms list - a task I can't ever seem to get around to completing partly because I end up watching half the films I'm trying to write about and constantly changing my mind about what should go where and partly because I just don't have enough free time. Perhaps I should give up sleeping altogether. One of my new year resolutions was to slowly reduce the amount of sleep I had to give me more time to do more important things, but it's something I'm still working on.

Anyway, I should move on to the reason for this post. One of the things I love best about rain is the ability it has to hold my attention for long periods of time just looking through a window upon a framed world gradually becoming soaked in water. This gazing can be misinterpreted as daydreaming, but that would imply that my mind was wondering elsewhere and not really thinking about the rain before me and that isn't true - well most of the time that isn't true. So what does that have to do with Mats Gustafsson? Well, listening to Impropositions is a bit like watching the rain - the process is slow, almost meditative, there is a beauty about it that isn't immediate and it takes a while to fully appreciate the complexity and the beauty behind that process.

Impropositions bears a striking resemblance to John Butcher's Resonant Spaces of last year - there is an emptiness which lingers within a loosely defined space as notes scrape out of Gustafsson's various instruments (Soprano, Baritone and Tenor Sax, Alto Flute, Flageolet and his own specially made Fluteophone which comprises of a mouthpiece attached to a flute body). What I imagine as I listen to Gustafsson's complex patterns and harmonies is a large room, at first silent until water begins to drip through the cracks - the first drop, splash, ripple emphasises the silence and shortly another follows and then another in a sequence that reminds me of the end of Tarkovsky's Stalker as the three men reach their destination. Notes then pour out and every now and then explode as Gustafsson pushes a big breath of air right through the instrument. At times it sounds as though Gustafsson is fighting with his instruments. At others he seems to step back and let long notes hang suspended in the air.

Compared with two of my other favourite Saxophone improvisors - Evan Parker and John Butcher - Gustafsson's improvisation through advanced circular breathing and technical prowess rather more disturbs than seduces the listener, often opening up the space around you only to suddenly close you in, trapping you in a powerful jarring section that dissects the fragility of the preceding silence the same way a brief spell of hard, heavy rain, blown by a gust of wind crunches against the window. It's something that certainly requires patience to appreciate, but when you're in one of those observant moods it's a real pleasure to listen to something so spellbinding.


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