Last Esquilo Quartet

Graham Halliwell’s On The Sensation Of Tone was originally released in 2005 in a 12-copy limited edition, initially conceived as a collaboration with visual artist Nash Masood. Despite the fact that we’re by now familiar (in part) with the concept of “saxophone feedback”, something that involves a complex game of microphone placing and soft touching of the instrument’s keys, the inexplicable enthralment that this music causes is still a sort of mystery to me. A term of comparison that came to mind at some stage in the playback is – perhaps obviously – Alvin Lucier, especially in virtue of the wobbly bordering tones that, repeatedly during the piece, place a touch of instability in an otherwise rather soothing (at least for my own needs) cerebral liniment. The 3-inch CD does not present actual surprises or sudden changes, beginning and ending with the same type of expansions and contraptions interspersed with more or less acute frequencies. The firm advice, though, is that of repeating the experience in all kinds of possible setting (which indeed one should do for every record when the living conditions allow it, thus finding the correct balance between personal pleasure and understanding of the composer’s intentions). Via headphones, there’s much to be heard in regard to the mechanics of sound production (only then, for example, you’ll be able to clearly distinguish the clacking keys modifying the sonic tissue), whereas enjoying these mildly incandescent diffusions in a room brings partially different results, ethereal layers of slightly morphing nimbuses intensifying our will of forgetting about everything else for the entire 19-minute duration.

In May 2008, Michael Vorfeld wrote an essay called Ringing Light, published on the Detritos art magazine, to which he also added some graphics. On another 3-inch disc we now find the sonic transposition of those ideas, the piece’s title remaining the same. Scored for “light bulbs, percussion and self-designed stringed instruments”, this is perhaps the best music I’ve heard from this artist, at least among his own propositions. A fine juxtaposition of contrasting factors: varying dynamics and total void, anxiety and calmness, gentle flow and harsh impassiveness, making use of the extremes of the audio spectrum with keen compositional authority. Vorfeld leaves the right time to each statement to resonate and fade away, fixing single events – including the apparently insignificant ones – in our memory to carve a heterogeneous picture of intelligence that mixes concrete and insubstantial sonorities to convey a kind of untainted radiance that is meant to last. Even the (unusual) utilization of a recurring rhythmic pulse sounds perfectly logical, the piece reaching its conclusion exactly with that, leaving the audience in a state of satisfactory uncertainty. I listened to this five times in three days and it is still growing on me, revealing new secrets with every additional spin. Highly recommended.

Besides the above reviewed small formats, the Portuguese label issued two full-length CDs, albeit both are rather diminutive in duration. Tomas Korber and Utah Kawasaki’s Pocket Size Isolationism is, honestly, a difficult record for me to give an assessment to. I’m fairly familiar with, and appreciative of, Korber’s past output but was instead completely unaware of the Japanese’s activities until now. The problem derives from the fact that a sizeable chunk of this recording belongs to that category of live performances where the action is so “micro” that numerous incidental sounds of the room and from the outside (motorbikes, screaming children) are doing the work, which is nice at times yet – for my personal taste – has become somewhat stale: too many people are exploiting this option by now. This occurs following a scathingly sharp discharge of treated guitar and feedback at the beginning and one is left waiting for minutes and minutes (and minutes…) after that, catching just glimpses of minor movements and rare manoeuvring of tiny bits. Luckily, the second half or so starts realigning our ears with more tangible transmissions, as the body of the piece – exiguous as it remains – becomes somehow expanded by a growingly penetrating drilling of the membranes by a superimposition of mainly acute frequencies, static enough to hypnotize a bit yet alimented from within by something comparable to a barely perceptible irregular throb, especially in the conclusive section. This section definitely saves the day, giving the listener a reason to play again a disc which, otherwise, would have sounded as one-in-a-million in this progressively overcrowded genre (there’s still a long way to go before reaching the figures of “artists” and “releases” of esoteric ambient, though).

Better satisfactions came from Rebecca’s Variation No.12. Kai Fagaschinski and Michael Renkel are one of those combinations of sonic personalities that seem to function whatever the context you put them in and whichever the instruments they utilize to convey a peculiar kind of discipline. This record’s principal feature – my favourite – is a noticeable transformation of the structure of the music from legitimate improvisation to something that sounds preconceived and realized according to a specific design (that might be the case, but I sincerely didn’t check – no time to surf the web these days, and the sleeve says nothing in that regard, except that the performance was recorded by Christoph Amann, usually the sign of great stuff in this field). This is particularly true for Renkel’s strings (he plays guitar and zither with “preparations”), which at the beginning are exploited in their percussive aspects more than anything, while – as the piece goes on – the duo depicts different tonalities thanks to a knowledgeably sensitive use of bowing techniques (the zither is especially useful for gentle overflows of upper partials, so beautiful at times). Fagaschinski alternates light insufflations of sheer air-through-the-conduit to almost flute-ish emissions and minor contrasts, in general remaining on the caressing side of timbre, superbly complementing his comrade during the execution of a plan that meshes intuitive discretion and critical acuteness of the perpetrators, who give the impression of choosing the right thing to do at all times. Not a masterpiece, but definitely a cleverly measured recording.

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