12 October 2011


Freedom is strange beast. It’s a motherhood good but a political football as Liberty: just think “freedom from” and “freedom to”. But in music, it’s a challenge to my traditional ears but a quizzical and refreshing opening to new sounds and techniques. I guess it’s under Free that you’d place Verschrankung Duo and Julian Day’s A.I.R. Certainly they were advertised under the banner of Free Improvisation and Experimental Music Resource. Experimental may be the better name. Why?

Surely the techniques of Verschrankung Duo are free. There’s no traditional tonality or harmony or chart or melody or rhythm. I spoke to Reuben after, and the word he most used was texture. Seeking aural soundscapes of beauty with two instruments that intermingle as sounds, rather than within formal structures. Seeking techniques to fill space with this interaction. But interestingly, this is not an individualist pursuit. Richard introduced the duo with a translation of “verschrankung”. It’s German for entanglement, so this is not libertarian but socialised. Two instruments seeking close relationship in aural space. Maybe I take the political parallels too far (especially given that music is the most abstract of the arts), but I find my mind wondering on issues when listening to these open and searching sound explorations. I like that, and it’s seldom something that I do listening for more traditional and formalised musics. I include most jazz in this group, with its western concepts of rhythm, melody and harmony, even if it goes dissident with improvisation, although free jazz crosses over. This experimental music is a non-intellectualised form that gets me thinking and that intrigues me. V Duo played three pieces. The first two were openly textural. I noted circular breathing in one or perhaps two tunes; lots of slaps and pops and breathing rather than forming notes, and the use of a drum as a resonating membrane. I liked Reuben’s tonality when he dropped into some delicious, murmuring bop lines, and Richard even implied chords with a baritone sax ostinato in the third tune. There’s wasn’t much tonality, but it was nice when it appeared, and the soundscapes were intricate and quite beautiful for the rest of the time.

The approach was different but the effect was similar when Julian Day performed his piece labelled A.I.R. (An Infinity Room). This was a barrage of amplified, organ-like keyboard tones with moving harmonies and resonating beats that filled the space and moved with performance and place. Again, I found my mind wondering, so the effect, at least on me, was the same. I found the volume satisfying and necessary for the style, but also tiring and perhaps damaging in its relentlessness. But the rhythmic beats that grew from two small keyboards set with the same vibrato organ tone and played with bolts weighing on keys, six bolts per keyboard for a pairing of six-part harmony, was a killer: overwhelming and powerful but quite beautiful. Being contemporary, it was also environmental in its response to space (beats and balance changed as I moved my head and presumably would change more if you walked around the room) and historically aware in its response to Western harmony and its view to future musical structuring. I’m sure it was formal rather than free: this was composed. Julian slowly moved bolts to depress keys on each keyboard, moving one after another so the two keyboards lost and returned to unison, all under some formal, mathematical rules that structured the composition but in living response to the repetitious beating groove. This was loud and mesmeric and all-encompassing: at odds with the approach of Richard and Reuben, but alike in outcome.

The Verschrankung Duo comprised Richard Johnson (soprano sax, baritone sax, drum) and Reuben Lewis (trumpet). Julian Day (keyboards, bolts) performed A.I.R. (An Infinity Room). Both performed at a night of experimental music at Smith’s Alternative Bookshop.

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