ENSEMBLE X – Ensemble X

Red Toucan

Martine Altenburger: violoncello; Tiziana Bertoncini: violin; Uli Böttcher: electronics; Xavier Charles: clarinet; Markus Eichenberger: clarinets; Nicolas Desmarchelier: guitar; Carl Ludwig Hübsch: tuba, ensemble initiator, catalyst; Harald Kimmig: violin; Dirk Marwedel: extended saxophone; Matthias Muche: trombone; Nils Ostendorf: trumpet; Ulrich Philipp: double bass; Christoph Schiller: spinet; Angelika Sheridan: flutes; Olivier Toulemonde: objects; Michael Vorfeld: percussion; Nate Wooley: trumpet; Eiko Yamada: recorders; Philip Zoubek: piano

To borrow a quote from deus ex machina Carl Ludwig Hübsch, who formed this collective in 2008 in the occasion of a seminar on improvisation in Basel, “X stands for the Xth big ensemble, while symbolizing an ensemble of nameless musicians, of non-soloists who dissolve into a big group the personal voice they developed over the years”. That “non-soloists” is the key to partially theorize the mysteries and concealed plots comprised by this first-class album from 2012 which, to my memory, represents one of the finest efforts for large improvising entity savored in many months (albeit with typical delay, mea culpa).

The mix might reveal a few idiosyncratic inclinations indeed, the recording – best enjoyed on good quality headphones – capturing the details very accurately. We feel like witnesses in a series of never-joining parallel paths that, somewhat miraculously, generate a perception of rational simultaneousness. In accordance with the unconscious (or not) meshing, every message – given or received – weighs quite a lot inside the gradual kinship matured between listeners and players. In this milieu, each performer’s individual education and technical cognizance represent cardinal factors, everybody aware of when the “rule of the untold” should be enforced. This sense of restraint is what lingered in our mind after the initial couple of a long concatenation of spins. The acoustic balance, in all circumstances, is magnificent: no instrumental family seems to prevail anywhere, everything results proportionate and sublimely poised to these ears.

However, the dynamic miscellany of Ensemble X can also reach levels of surprising impulsiveness in spite of the overall tendency to “play less”. Episodes may occur where pitches literally pop out of the instruments during call-and-response multiplicities, or – as in the final movement “X111” – sequences of contractions and expansions authorize comparisons to certain chapters of Frank Zappa’s late production, either with the Ensemble Modern or via Synclavier (if you haven’t heard Zappa’s Feeding The Monkies At Ma Maison yet don’t talk at least for a week). Skilfulness is always accompanied by intelligence which, at the end of the day, is the only indispensable constituent for such an ample group to adequately express its potential. And, if you really wish, it’s still possible to focus on single voices, or groups of voices. This elasticity in the acquisition of sonic data is perhaps the (indirect) best praise we can give to Hübsch’s vision.

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