Mittimus & Nix Pickler – Devices (free improvisation)

self released, 2011, DD album, 55m 49s


Free improvisers take a lot of different routes to a lot of different destinations, or to put it another way, improvisation can be free in a lot of different ways. When it first burst into the world it was as an avant-garde practice within jazz (although most became aware of it when it was sufficiently established to warrant an album release on Atlantic Records). At this point, what it was free from was harmony, and to a lesser extent, metre; timbre was already a subject for transformation and exploration in jazz, although early free improvisers did exploit this further, but there was a context, of discrete, identifiable notes assembled into melodic phrases, and of ensemble texture, that was still identifiably jazz (at least in retrospect – many contemporary ears heard it as random noise!)

I suspect that general perceptions of free improvisation, inasmuch as there are any at all, are that it is a chaotic clattering, a high energy soundfield of dissonance and rhythmic incoherence, the consequence of musicians freaking out in a disorganised way. The fact is that the term refers to a diverse set of musical practices, which have been used to create music at all points between the poles of tonal and atonal, metrically strict and arrhythmic, loud and quiet, smooth and harsh, pastoral and violent, beautiful and ugly, confirmational and horrific. What they have in common is the initial lack of a detailed model for performance (and it should be noted that mainstream jazz, and other improvised musics, occupy a position on the continuum of relative improvisational freedoms, rather than being entirely detached from the free).

Improvisers may take any element of their available musical materials as a field for improvisational exploration; most will take several, but usually a small number will be foregrounded. Mittimus & Nix Pickler show little interest in functional harmony on Devices, although there is certainly some melodic invention: there is sometimes a weak sense of tonic stability, but mostly there is what might be termed an incidental atonality, a lack both of any settled key centre, and of much sense that the players are going out of their way to avoid one. There is sometimes a clear metric structure, as in ‘Pully Bulpit’, where a series of regular guitar attacks emerges for a short while from a rhythmically indistinct soundscape, or in the first part of ‘Rubylith Destiny’, where the extreme upper register of the bass clarinet is exploited for some melodic explorations with a gestural, but coherent phrase structure. ‘Testerdays’ is built around an extended drum kit work out, that is pretty much metronomic in its deep structure. Predominantly however, metre is provisional at most.

Where the real work is done on this album is in the area of timbre. These three improvisers both exploit and process the timbral capacities of their instruments, with a constantly inventive creativity that leaves the listener sometimes unable to distinguish which player is producing what sound. Is that a plectrum scraping guitar strings or a double bass being bowed above the bridge? Or indeed, a bass clarinet being blown hard into an effects processor? It’s usually not impossible to work it out if you listen hard, but the implication is clear: it doesn’t matter.

This is a statement in, of and about sound. It is not an expression of instrumental virtuosity; nor is it an utterance whose meanings can be found in a close reading of its melodic content. Melodically focussed music is, in certain important ways, hierarchical, and Devices is to me a fundamentally democratic work. Clearly there is the sense that no player takes a role that could be described as ‘leading’, even by turns: there is no moment I can point to and say ‘x is blowing, y and z are comping’. But there is also a way in which conventionally structured work enacts the social hierarchies of the broader context: figurative painting foregrounds certain elements, both the depicted object, and the specific techniques used to depict them; thus drawing is accorded a higher status than modelling, and modelling a higher status than colour. The sense that there is and should be a hierarchy is built into the practice, in a way that it is not built into the colour field paintings of Mark Rothko for example. So in music, the dethroning of melody and harmony from their positions of dominance allows a fairly negotiated distribution of power between the participants in a musical encounter. The negotiation is conducted in the music, and if the players’ primary concern is for the ensemble sound, as here, no single voice will emerge as a leader.

Mittimus & Nix Pickler cover a lot of textural ground on this release, sometimes eliding and sometimes emphasising their instruments’ ‘natural’ voices. There are times when the totality of their efforts amounts to an ambience, a layering of long notes and sounds, and others when incident collides with incident in a seeming chaos of sound and fury. At times these acoustic and electromechanical instruments are exploited to produce sounds that resemble the automatically (and incidentally) generated noise of industrial machinery; there are times when the personalities of three creative voices are immanent, and others when they are subsumed within the work. What is consistently present throughout this nearly an hour of uncompromising artistic effort, is an uncompromising integrity and a sense of total focus: the texture never becomes a simple background, but continually holds the sympathetic listener’s attention, rewarding them with a continual flow of transformation and invention. This is an intelligent and highly accomplished essay in the art of improvisation.

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