Memories Of Mr.23 (The Alfred Harth Chronicles)

TRIO TRABANT A ROMA – State Of Volgograd


Lindsay Cooper, Alfred 23 Harth and Phil Minton were members of the Oh Moscow venture, which – prior to this recording – had touched Volgograd during a Russian tour. In particular, Cooper and Harth were so bewildered – both by the visited cities and the divergence between those microcosms and the Western Culture (pun intended) – that, once returned, they were still feeling like “being in another state, a State Of Volgograd”. The triumvirate, formed by the Frankfurter in 1990 following an invitation by the Budapest Festival, owes its designation to the namesake cheap car manufactured in East Germany, which began to appear outside those borders subsequently to the Berlin Wall’s crumbling in 1989. To quote the originator, “… Trabant is also a word for a planet orbiting a star (…) Earth was under a new ‘orbital tent’ after the iron curtain came down. It was funny to see these odd eastern cars undertaking even long-distance trips through Europe – and, ultimately, all roads lead to Rome”.

Disgracefully, this small ensemble was short-lived; yet State Of Volgograd – the solitary official release – shines among the unconditional masterpieces of improvisational skill, a career landmark for everybody involved. Starting the 90s, Cooper’s multiple sclerosis was already taking a heavy toll, gradually making impossible for her to perform live; obviously, Oh Moscow dissolved, the last concert at 1993’s London Jazz Festival. Harth – as per Vladimir Tarasov’s words – became “as famous as Michael Jackson” in Russia’s avant-garde scene over lengthy periods of clandestinely smuggled records in “hidden narrow holes” before the Soviet Union’s collapse. A TV feature on him, Balance Action, was then realized by a local station. Indeed the relationship linking A23H with that part of the globe has always been pretty special (he went on to form QuasarQuartet, with Tarasov, in 1992).

But Trio Trabant A Roma stood apart from anything else. Three masters of the respective crafts in a setting that, quite impressively, leaves the individual silhouettes easily discernible while defining their union as one of the finest collectives carved in your reviewer’s memory. This recital, captured at Esslingen’s Dieselstrasse in 1991, testimonies about several truths. First, that Cooper, Harth and Minton are rare symbols of multiform instrumental enlightenment. Besides the habitual tools – yes, Minton’s voice is the quintessential human synthesizer – they shared piano duties; Cooper handles bassoon (listen to the marvellous phrasing in the initial minutes of “Orbital Tent”), electronic effects and sopranino, Harth tampers with various kinds of saxes, bass clarinet, melodica, sopranino, Farfisa organ and a Casio sampler. The record, in general, is informed by an intelligent use of technology, especially inventively warped sampling and discreet looping.

The tracks span across a number of moods and circumstances, nourishing an immediately identifiable temperament throughout. Minton sounds slightly more restrained than usual, alternating customary intrusions (the utter destruction of the melancholic tranquillity that opens “Et All Ways Budapest” is a gas indeed) to quasi-blues echoes and heartrending excursions halfway through pygmy chanting and mournful lamentation. To this day his duet with Harth in “Strasbourg Et Amor Trans’n’Dance” belongs in the top ten of my all-time favourite improvisations, suddenly turning into unachievable abstruseness replete with misshapen harmonic connections and excruciating grief, Cooper and 23 superimposing pitch-transposed, looped-and-modified lines over Minton’s drunken crooning in stunning fashion. The whole album is a glorification of total musicianship and an ode to reciprocal listening permeated by equal doses of joy, sorrow and childish astonishment, the musicians catching a glimpse of that “unknown something” which is usually obstinately ignored by the average instrumentalist, almost forgetting the qualities of technical development to run behind colourful butterflies of instant creation. The terzetto delivers in spades, creating music that – in absolutely spontaneous conceptions – is sweetly dissident, utterly immobilizing, restlessly strong, consistently pensive, and nonetheless so amusing.

That the material result this original to our ears 18 years from the taping is the revelation of a haunting permanence, a typical trait of significant art. Brief existence notwithstanding, Trio Trabant A Roma must be placed in a hypothetical Hall Of Fame of sonic originality. A combined vision that, now as then, guides the listener to a superior level of interaction with the unusual acoustic phenomena that only certain ambits of musical exploration can elicit.

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