Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Joëlle Léandre - SOLO (CD, DVD and book)

Well, it's been a long time coming, or should I say it took me a long time? A book, a CD and a DVD so much information it's difficult to know where to begin with such an object. The first thing to mention is that the original book was published back in 2008 in French and without the extra addition of the CD and DVD. You can read an English review of the book on Free Jazz Blog here. Anyhow the best thing to do when looking over this generous package is to split the objects up into their simple components, and since the CD and DVD are actually quite short (but long enough) its easy to run through the basics of what you'll get to see and hear when buying this set.

The CD (38 minutes) : 
Is a set of bass solos (five in all) recorded in Piednu, France, 2005. The five improvisations are Joëlle Léandre in full flight doing what she does best ..... improvise. I must say that although I've seen Joëlle Léandre in concert many years ago it was an interesting re-discovery to hear the music after reading the book with it's various ideas. You get to hear all the different techniques and sounds that Ms Léandre incorporates in her music on this CD. She shouts, talks, sings and groans all the time plucking or bowing her instrument, sometimes very tender and romantic and at others it's violent, loud or muscular. I particularly enjoyed the use of here voice which on one track (Tk3) sounds like an American Indian who incants poems or songs from some ancient ritual. There's also her beautiful bowing sound which is pure and strong, only possible from someone completely in control of their instrument, and through years of practising and honing of ones art. It's often small details such as this that we don't get to hear when listening to the double bass in an ensemble, whereas here everything is audible. For me the CD was very intimate which made it a wonderful listen, most enjoyable.

For those who don't know Joëlle Léandre this is probably an excellent place to start. Along with other improvisers of her field who create new sounds from their instruments, unexpected noises which one wouldn't always associate or expect coming (in this case) from the double bass. In Joëlle Leandre's case it's quite an extraordinary mixture of sounds, Tk4 takes you through a journey of harmonics produced by her bow, voice that rasps in rhythm to accompany the bow, tapping with fingers/bow that produce random beats and sound. How does she do it ...... ?

The DVD (33 minutes) :
And this is where you discover what's actually going on. The DVD is a set of 4 improvisations from Guelph Jazz Festival, Canada, 2009. Here you see a little of what's been heard on the CD (although not literally), and you get to see how Joëlle works with her bass and extraordinary it is. If you don't play such an instrument you'll be surprised at how visual her music is - i.e. she doesn't just stand there! There's total fusion with her instrument and often one is surprised at how roughly (it seems) she plays the bass. Stretching the strings like elastic bands (do they ever break?), or tapping the wood to make the knocking sounds you hear on the CD. Probably to get the most out of these discs it would be fun to listen to the CD and then watch the DVD to get the full impact of what is going on.   

I should add that although there is some information printed on the discs, there isn't (or I didn't see it) any detailed information printed in the book about the music - that you get to see and hear. Of course it's probably not that important as the music in both cases is excellent, however it would have been a nice 'user friendly' addition which would of helped one enjoy the experience a little more. 
The Book
I found was interesting if a little disorganised, but that might have been the style intended or maybe the way the translator decided to present it. The way the book is presented is almost - in my way of thinking - like a stream of consciousness, leaving out the questions or remarks of the hidden interviewer, not unlike the works of Tony Parker. Joëlle Léandre talks about various subjects and often repeats ideas and names without really adding too much information. Her ideas are lucid and interesting yet at moments one wishes you were there and could ask her "what else about this subject ....?" She mentions Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Bert Turetsky, John Cage, in fact everybody involved in this scene, yet often with little else to say about the meeting, the person or whatever the subject that inspired this name conjured up. However as the book progresses I found plenty of interesting bits and thoughts in general. Chapter 1 - First Sounds/First Lessons is a fascinating look into a certain period of time when Europe was open to new musical ideas and a sort of anarchy (and openness) which has now sadly disappeared. Much of what the loft scene of the seventies represented is ever present in the words of Joëlle, due to the cross fertilisation of ideas which came from that - Steve Lacy, Barre Phillips etc. 

Chapter 7 - Poetics/Politics - struck a particular strong chord for me as she talked about the fickleness of the present day system and how the more experimental side of music is not really represented in our theatres, festivals and clubs. She talks at length about recording improvised music and why it's important and the role of women (or the lack of) in music and in general the improvised music scene. This certainly makes for interesting reading and a subject that could be easily enlarged on as she comes up with some very interesting remarks on reasons for the lack of women in this area, and their roles. 

All in all the book makes for an interesting read even if at times a little frustrating. It's very easily read due to it's light style which is almost informal, and in fact you can imagine sitting listening to Joëlle Léandre chatting away with a glass of wine after a concert somewhere. All you need to do after buying the book, hearing the CD and watching the DVD is to go out and see the woman live at a concert near to you. This way you'll get the complete experience, it'll certainly be well worth it. 

If you're interested by this package don't hesitate and you can get purchasing details from the Kadima Collective site here. I didn't find it on Amazon FR/UK, but I'm sure a quick mail to JC Jones at Kadima will be able to help you find a copy somewhere near you.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Enharmonics, are you out there?

Bosanquet's Enharmonic Harmonium

I'd love to hear from any musician (especially violins players) who could send me recordings - in context - of the difference enharmonically between Gb/F# (and of course other possible notes). In a dinner table discussion last night a friend mentioned that violinists differentiate between the sharps and flats. That surprised me, although of course I have to agree that technically this is the case, and that the reason why it's not standard thinking is due in part to the introduction of the well tempered scale.

I would also suggest that if this really is the case I'm surprised that more composers don't spend more time writing Gb(') or F#(') to define the difference. The same thing should be applied to ALL notes as there is in this case an enharmonic difference between all notes. I of course quickly checked this with a few professional violin players whom said there WAS a difference, although some seemed unsure of whether they used it or not, others seemed quite sure. A saxophonist friend of mine also suggested that we probably also played that way. However talk is one thing and I'd be interested to hear a piece played with and without those differences. If anybody out there has some real practical experience of this I'd be most interested to hear from them, especially if we could add in some musical examples!

Delegates at the 1932 Arabic Music Conference in Cairo. 

After having spent several years playing Arabic classical music my experience is that many players 'believe' in the difference yet cannot consistently play 'it/them'. The Arabic music system has smaller intervals of a quarter tone built into it, yet the conference of Cairo 1932 could not agree on these differences (intervals/pitches) which is interesting for a music which uses 1/4 tones (on a daily basis). Reading the notes taken from the conference it seems that many musicians were not able to agree on the exact difference, however most could agree on perfect intervals such as the 3rd, 4th and 5th. The Azerbaijany musicologist Jahangir Selimkhanov once told me, that due to the development of European systems, Azerbaijan had started to loose all notions of smaller divisions which normally applied to the Persian scale (Mugham) systems*. 

Meanwhile back at Enharmonics again ......

A normal enharmonic keyboard only has 17 keys as it adds two notes each time for C#/Db, D#/Eb etc. However, it seems that the difference doesn't count, as I understand it, between B and C, although I'm not sure why. Apparently the first example of a keyboard purpose built for this enharmonic system was Nicolas Vicentino (1511-?1575). He actually built a keyboard which had 36 keys per octave, the problem being that you need to double the C# key and have both C# and Db, etc. I notice that various other people built systems with 77 keys for 4 octaves, which by my calculation makes 19.25 keys per octave? Curiously, I wondered if people had actually gone further with this idea, and it seems that a certain Friedrich Suppig published in 1722, one of the definitive works for an instrument with an enharmonic keyboard. The Fantasia of the Labyrinthus Musicus, a multi-sectional composition that makes use of all 24 keys (like Bach), and is written especially for a keyboard with 31 notes per octave and uses pure major thirds - which probably starts to get into the difference between E# and F. I couldn't find a recording of what must be  a fascinating work, however, I did find an interesting article here written by John Charles Francis. If you're interested, the document is freely download-able and is certainly a fascinating read.

Enharmonics are not unique to classical music, folk music, and general popular song (meaning songs we sing to ourselves - children's songs as an example) all have this element, although intuitively used. In previous centuries, one major problem, whilst collecting examples of folk melodies, meant that 'trained' musicians assumed (wrongly) that slight inflections such as enharmonic differences, where in fact due to poor voices, often transcribing melodies into a 'well tempered' system. Gradually collectors and other musicians realised that these inflections were in fact an important part of the music. Composers, Bartok and Vaughan Williams, spent many hours collecting and transcribing such music, although whether they kept those exact pitches in the newly composed material that came from such work I'm not sure. Nowadays folk societies like the Cecil Sharp House, house large collections of field recordings of singers and instrumentalists from previous eras, where musicians spend hours copying exactly each different pitch change.

As a musician (and conservatory educated) I'm certainly interested in the idea of enharmonics and their implications, although I remain sceptical that classical musicians 'naturally' play that way, unless of course you actually ask it to be used - i.e. as in micro-tonal composition. My instrument, the saxophone, is not in tune (well tempered), and learning to play in tune is one of the first things one does. It is certainly difficult to forget your natural sense of pitch, which in my case seems to be a slightly sharper sound, and it is probably this natural enharmonic pitching which enables true musicians to have an individual voice. A good example of this could be Jackie McLean, known for his slightly 'out of tune' sound. But, when playing in an ensemble situation, he blended perfectly. It takes many years of embouchure training to keep the sax in pitch with other instruments, and I often find that the ear makes you play certain notes flatter or sharper in various situations. Whilst playing with other people you of course have to make adjustments to their sense of pitch, even if many of those musicians pride themselves on being 'in tune'. Interestingly, Ornette Coleman once remarked, quite correctly, that he wondered who had decided what was in tune and what was out of tune.

At this present time I'm working on solo saxophone improvisations which include different pitch bends and overtones, which are rarely exact pitches. In overtone chords certain notes are often 1 ' (comma) sharper/flatter, although it's difficult to determine exact pitches. However, after last nights discussion as mentioned above I'll be all the more intrigued to pay attention to the enharmonic possibilities and also be keeping my eyes open for recordings that use this in a traditional context.

Lastly, the image at the top of this article is a Harmonium developed by Bosanquet, an English scientist and musicologist who was interested in this idea. He developed (see the link above) a harmonium that actually played the enharmonic system. Yet, if I understand correctly, he had to make a few compromises to fit the idea into his keyboard. He also wrote a treatise (1875?) on musical intervals and temperament which I believe is still available, if you're interested.

*= I'll try to get some sort of verification of that from him in the next few weeks, maybe a guest post.

Postscript : I found this book which would certainly be a good read : 

Enharmonic instruments and music, 1470-1900. 
Revised and translated studies. CD included. 
Latina, Il Levante Libreria Editrice, 2008. 
ISBN 978-88-95203-14-0 

The link for the site is here
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