Dominic Duval bass; John Heward drums, kalimba, voice; Joe McPhee soprano saxophone.
The concept of this CD lays in the title - undersound being synonymous to understatement.
This recording finds Dominic Duval with yet
another set of musicians; however, having been on the road for quite some time,
the trio have achieved a unique level of togetherness in bringing out their concept.
The total time is 59'52
You could think of refraction as a fortuitous metaphor for improvisational
interaction: refraction is, after all, the effect which a medium has on a
wave passing through it, and hence it's a model of mediation. Better than
reflection, which simply sends the unwelcome message back the way it came,
refraction takes the wave on board, but actively. One person's sound,
mediated by the presence of a playing partner, transformed.
In this quartet, everyone mediates everyone else; Adorno might call it a
constellation of players, clustered around an ineffable nothing, a logical
nothing which is the source of the music itself. Four musicians, each one
refracting the contributions of the other three. It sounds like a
cabbalistic formula, not a jam session.
And in fact, this isn't a jam session at all; the group has a logic far
removed from jazz, and these musicians are by no means part of the jazz
tradition per se. Brennan, Coleman and Wolfarth released an album under the
name "Momentum" a year or so ago (Leo Records LR CD 274), a series of
tightly-argued duos and trios which seemed to be reaching through
Stockhausen's moment-form the concept of a music devoid of a logic of
continuity, music which is purely about the current moment in search of a
fresh take on free improvisation.
One of the features of their style is that their pieces are generated from
gestures which are small, always small. One is reminded of the Buddhist's
concept of de, the virtue of the tiny. In this case, the sounds are small
because they are brief, not quiet. Not much of this record is low-volume,
but the quartet have, whether by accident or design, fashioned a style which
loves to work with staccato sounds, sounds of small duration.
Interesting, then, that the music documented here feels much more packed
with incident than the previous Momentum release. There, the trio uses up
acres of acoustic space to set off their smallest sounds; the silent and the
very quiet are prized. It works, but this session doesn't repeat it;
instead, in quartet format, the concept works differently. Many of the
tracks here bristle with energy, and that makes their connections with
anything like "moment form" far more tentative.
Even a track like "Elastic Collision", with bowed strings from both cello
and piano, is given shape by the leaping dance of Wolfarth and Coleman, the
latter working at rhythm above (but not to the exclusion of) melody on his
bass clarinet. It sounds as if Wolfarth is playing a supernaturally supple
range of exotic percussion, or as if Coleman has a snare drum instead of a
reed; one refracting the other, refracted by those slowly changing, groaning
In other places you can hear this quartet mutate into what sounds like a
kind of jazz band, but things aren't quite as they seem. Take "Relativistic
Momentum", on which Wolfarth and Coleman trade lines like any duelling reed
and drum combo. But what's going on in the background? Brennan switches
between jagged, Tayloresque sprays of notes and a quieter style more in tune
with Zimmerlin's robustly un-jazzy playing. Free jazz can be so serious,
after all. Here, it sounds as if the group has wandered into the farthest
edges of the style quite by accident, and is pleased but slightly amused to
find itself there.
"Standing Waves" has a quite different feel. Think of Zeno's paradox of the
arrow which, when fired at a target just a few yards away, must cross half
that distance; but to do so, it must cross halfway there, and so on, so that
the arrow will take an eternity to get anywhere, no matter how fast it
flies. The music here has something about it of that arrested motion as it
seems to scurry purposefully forward. There's a sense of time being
suspended, for ten minutes, in a limbo of joyously dubious logic.
The other tracks can be read with a similarly metaphorical eye to their
titles. "Simple Harmonic Motion" pitches the piano and violoncello together
in a contrapuntal workout which has their lines moving together and apart,
although the harmonies certainly aren't as simple as the exercise-book stuff
that makes them out to be. Notice particularly how Coleman brings his bass
clarinet into the contrapuntal interplay, and then moves it into the
estimable polyrhythms Wolfarth is laying down alongside (not underneath)
this harmonic work. Simple? Hardly; but the term "simple harmonic motion"
does, of course, describe the movement of a pendulum between two states of
extreme potential energy, with a zone of maximum kinetic energy in the
middle exactly how the clarinettist sounds for much of this
extraordinarily layered performance.
Or take "Force on a Moving Charge", which this writer is tempted, in the
absence of a good general grasp of quantum mechanics, to read in terms of
two things: the combination of magnetic force and electrical charge which
produces motion in the linear motor (or, on the contrary, that of magnetic
force and motion which produces electricity in the dynamo), and a rather
weak pun. This music feels very much like the fruitful nexus of forces of
qualitatively differing types. And the pun? Well, this piece really does
seem to have a stop-start momentum, as if the group were forcing themselves
on, yet in a charge: half a league, half a league, like Zeno's arrow all
All of these things happen because this is, after all, improvisation, or
what one might refer to as refractive music-making. This CD documents the
playing of four unusual imaginations which have found themselves at a level
of mutual understanding unusual in such mixed company. Their playing may be
concentrated, but they share their ideas with relative ease, relative
comfort. So when they stretch out and encounter something less-than-expected
(free jazz, say), they are stretching away from a known point, not exploring
or explicating a theoretical base.
In other words, "Constructive Interference": the tendency for two waves, on
meeting, to reinforce and enrich one another, rather than cancelling one
another out. On this track it's especially clear, with deep timbral
communication creating an exhilarating texture which never congeals into a
mere wall of noise. The four individuals challenge one another, and in so
doing they form a gestalt, not an undifferentiated sludge. Yet they do
cohere, and they robustly interact with one another.
All of which is quite important, because it's too easy to hear a record like
this recorded on what is nearly the instrumentation of the classic jazz
quartet -- in terms of the cliché of over-intellectualised jazz, jazz built
on theory instead of some intractable spirituality, that empty, sentimental
locus of capital-tee Truth. If jazz it is -- and it doesn't feel much like
jazz, something which Brennan is keen to emphasise -- it's the sort built on
a kind of mutual overlapping, a community of conception which is baggy and
vague and not so easy to codify. These are not musicians reading from a
score or a theoretical essay.
They certainly don't sound like musicians reading much of anything. They
sound like musicians playing. The sound of four musicians, who share some
ideas about a kind of music they might like to make, playing that music,
pulling and pushing it, seeing where it can take them. A joyous, ingenious
What could be simpler, or more complicated, than that?
London, June 2000