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If,Bwana with/and/by Trio Scordatura - E (and sometimes why)

If,Bwana with/and/by Trio Scordatura - E (and sometimes why)

Meaning is over-rated. At least to If, Bwana mastermind Al Margolis, it would seem. In complete opposition to a new music scene obsessed by cerebral programs and concepts, E (and sometimes why) passionately uses the vocabulary of the 20th century and strips it of its intellectual grammar. Ignoring the ultra-clever and ultimately undetectable-to-the-naked-ear constructive principles of contemporary composition and instead borrowing only Webern and Boulez's refined sense of aesthetics - their repertoire of wondrous gestures - is a wonderfully subversive move, resulting in a style which is serious, yet sensual; mysterious, yet inviting; complex, yet deeply human. A lot of the music contained on this double-disc collection deals with surface frictions, with the overlapping, rubbing-against-each-other and variations of and between two or more layers of sustained strings, trombone and voice. And yet, the music ventures far beyond the pureness of the drone, the serenity of microtonal shifts. On "All for Al(frun)", Margolis creates a field composed entirely of different pitches of Trio Scordatura's Alfrun Schmid's voice, an inwardly oscillating cluster of constantly recombining constellations, a mystical meditation on mutability and permanence. "The Tempest, Fuggit", meanwhile, pits extracts of Shakespeare against discrete electronic soundscapes and Elisabeth Smalt's pizzicatoed viola, deconstructing the narrative into loose strands of syntax. With the Scordaturas either performing entire compositions, playing alongside pre-recorded tapes or being used as source materials, there is, at times, an element of hyperrealism at work here, the sensation of a man-machine at play. Replacing the musicians with data is never the point, however. Instead, for Margolis, the electronic medium allows him to make the human contributions even more important, inclusive and diverse, opening up a wealth of new possibilities for the relationship between the composer and the performer. Beside the at times mesmerising qualities of the music, that, in itself, is quite a meaningful statement. - Tobias Fischer, Tokafi

This new, fascinating two-disc set from If, Bwana (Al Margolis) could easily have been named for its last track, Diapason, Maybe. Diapason can be defined as either the just octave of Pythagorean tuning, or a great upsurge in harmony. Both definitions come into play throughout this album, which documents a well-conceived and -accomplished virtual collaboration between Margolis and the Trio Scordatura (Elisabeth Smalt, viola d’amore; Bob Gilfrun, keyboard and laptop; and Alfrun Schmid, voice), a Netherlands-based ensemble dedicated to exploring novel harmonic relationships through the use of just intonation or tunings that aren’t based on conventional twelve-pitch equal temperament.

A recurring theme throughout E (and sometimes why) is the layering of long tones into emergent harmonies that shift and swell over time. Because of the tunings and instruments used, the harmonies have a microtonal flavor—they seem to roll, pitch and yaw somewhere in the spaces between equal-tempered harmonies. The Diapason, Maybe, along with the title track and All for Al(frun) exemplify this. Each of the three uses a different voice as a kind of urtext. E (and sometimes why) layers long-bowed tones from the viola d’amore with Schmid’s voice; All for Al(frun) is built up of overdubs of Schmid and electronics; Diapason, Maybe has as its foundation Monique Buzzarté’s trombone drones. On all of these tracks, Margolis’s additive layering of samples produces harmonies that fluctuate between the apparently concordant and discordant, often getting denser as the piece develops. Because of the manner in which the sounds are presented, the listener is likely to become sensitized to the micro-variations in pitch that attend even the seemingly steadiest, long-duration tone. There’s something of a paradox here in that this highly electronic music highlights the tiny inconsistencies that make music human, whether these make themselves apparent through the ebb and flow of breath, barely discernible changes in bow pressure on a string, or a slight wobble in the voice.

A few of the pieces bring out a different side of the sound altogether. The wonderfully titled The Tempest, Fuggit is an ultimately unsettling work centered on Michael Peters’ recitation of Prospero’s lines from Act 1, Scene 2 of The Tempest, punctuated by sampled pizzicato strings and set within a looming, suspenseful electronic drone. Cicada 4AA is a predominantly textural work, while Gilmore’s Girls, augmented by the appearances of Buzzarté, vocalist Lisa Barnard Kelley and Margolis on keyboards, favors more staccato sounds and is in some ways the most overtly microtonal track in the collection. - D. Barbiero, Avant Music News

In 2010, If Bwana (a.k.a. Al Margolis) released Assemble.Age, on which samples of the Amsterdam-based Trio Scordatura can be heard. Now, he enters into full-on collaborative mode with those masters of microtonal/spectral music with this two-disc set, as fine an introduction to the disorderly but precise world of If Bwana as could be desired.

Margolis emerged from the grittily experimental early 1980s underground tape culture, and his music has maintained a stubborn refusal to be pigeonholed. As Dan Warburton points out in his review of Assemble.Age, his work might have made the staggeringly diverse Nurse With Wound list if he’d been around five years earlier. All that said, and despite the always unpredictable mixture of improvisation and composition that guides much of his output, there is a certain ineluctability in the placement of each sound that is difficult to equate with the multifarious timbres on offer. A clarity of purpose emerges amidst the relative mayhem. The title piece, nearly 15 minutes long, is a case in point, as minimalist textures support gradual timbral saturation and harmonic diversity in slow micropolyphonic dance. Even more post-Ligetian is “All for Alf(run),” consisting entirely of vocals, or vocal samples. Both of these fairly lengthy explorations thrive on microtones, which transform their harmonic language, ridding it of any cliché, fitting perfectly Trio Scordatura’s aesthetic and sometimes beating their way toward Alvin Lucier’s now-ubiquitous language in the process.

In a totally different world is what I hear as the album’s tour de force, the 20-minute “The Tempest, Fuggit.” Anyone who remembers those fantastically surreal John Oswald and Paul Haines collaborations will have an idea of what to expect. Here, Margolis dismembers Shakespeare, but this is a much darker world, one whose evil is never assuaged by translucent electronic textures and bright sibilants. Words like “Hope,” “Both” and “Hither” are given special prominence through repetition and a forward mix as the piece unfolds along paths charted by Michael Peters’s stunning reading. The music evokes similar legions. It is difficult to reconcile the Webern-esque pointilisms from strings atop slowly serpentine keyboards and flutes (just to cite one example), but they work. More than that, they seem absolutely natural, rocky outgrowths that mirror the ever-evolving consonants and vowels Peters lets fly.

As with that 2010 collaboration, it is impossible to tell with any certainty where If Bwana ends and Trio Scordatura begins, thus the “If/and/By.” Identities merge as completely as genres. The lo-fi turning of pages on “Tempest” give the music a DIY feel, but all else resembles what Partch might have done with musique concrete. In the end, it is the openness and fluidity of Margolis’s vision that has allowed this radical music into being. - Marc Medwin, Dusted

You might recall Trio Scordatura in a preceding If, Bwana release – Assemble.Age! – but in this circumstance the album’s title clarifies since the very outset that the business has been pushed to another level. Indeed Elisabeth Smalt (viola d’amore), Alfrun Schmid (voice) and Bob Gilmore (keyboards and laptop) bring something special to this double whammy, enriching with a distinct human component Al Margolis’ “academically improper” compositional conceptions. The ensuing music is intelligently awkward and typically difficult to categorize, barring the creation of a “Bwana” label: rich in disruptions yet engrossingly (and economically) minimalist at times, comprising twisted details that, in a general context of rationalism, increase the amount of question marks each and every time the discs are spun.

The vocal factor is important throughout. The most challenging piece on offer – “The Tempest, Fuggit” – is centred around a mild dismemberment of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, extraordinarily performed by Michael Peters. Selected words get bent and stretched, certain sibilant traits are highlighted, the concomitant sounds intensifying the alarming sense of displacement transmitted by the whole track. Elsewhere – as in the opening “Gilmore’s Girls” – single female pitches emerge from the mix as to provoke first, dissuade later a listener willing to find a way through ambiguous harmonic environments.

The generation of subtle microtonal shifting is one of Margolis’ strong points: the CD is full of gradually altering agglomerations and manufactured choirs that appear, in a way, uncoloured – in spite of the fact that they’re made of relatively animate matters – while revealing a number of freakish attributes. We imagine creatures with a pale skin and eyes without pupils, heads turned towards the sky in a hopeless prayer for the advent of a cross-eyed god. When the voices are supplemented by string drones the ears reach the climax of pleasure, and we fully recognize If, Bwana’s hand in systems of massive contrapuntal blocks that, for some supernatural process, result light as a feather. - Massimo Ricci, Touching Extremes
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