Gizeh Records GZH38, 2012, CD & DD album, 43m
£8 CD £5 DD
Improvisation is a complex matter, and often a contentious one: some degree of musical freedom is usually identified with it, to the extent that freedom is sometimes regarded as its defining characteristic, its essence, or indeed as the thing itself. Thus some more partisan free improvisers would not really regard formulaic improvisation (improvisation within closely bounded harmonic and rhythmic parameters) as improvisation at all. I’ve never had much time for debates that centre on the definitions of musical styles or characteristics, but I guess that if you’ve staked your career and practice on a particular ideology of creative freedom the stakes might look higher than they do to me. Personally I think there are other parameters of improvisation that shed as much light on the variety of activities that can be heard; one such is the ‘subject’ of the music.
Obviously improvisation is an abstract art, and it’s hard to say what its literal subject is, what it might be ‘about’; but I’m not suggesting that it’s representational as such, just that there are aspects of the way it signifies that are analogous to representation. I would suggest that the ‘commonsense’ form of improvisation, the sort that has been practiced in modern (and proto-modern) jazz for around the last eighty-five years, and in the jam-band movement for a smaller (but still considerable) number of decades, is primarily about the performer. The performer is the subject in two senses; the first is that their technical skill is held up for our admiration, and we are offered an aesthetic discourse equivalent to the performance of an acrobat or a contortionist. The surface of the work is presented as decorative, the glyph by which any further meanings are signified being elevated to the point of abstraction, just as a printed glyph might be made so decorative in typographic art that it becomes reluctant to yield its grapheme, and difficult to parse.
The second sense is that the performance is understood to be self-expressive; improvised works are widely conceived as directly equivalent to the inner state of the improvisor at the moment of performance, providing the audience with an opportunity to share in the artist’s affective condition. Clearly there are aspects of a performance, depending on the instrument in use, that are erotically manifest embodiments of the performer, in the same way that song speaks the singer’s body; the growling and slurring of wind instruments, for example, allows artists to evade the semantically measured strictures of simply sequencing pitch. However, the ideological landscape of self-expression extends beyond that territory, and takes the specific affective characteristics of the transcribable melodic materials as an authentic rendition of the improvisor’s spiritual state; it proffers the binary units of musematic signification as fixed relations. This may be an arguable position with regard to music, but those relations are still demonstrably enculturated.
Mere do not reject all this out of hand; they don’t pursue the hardcore atonality and arrhythmia of those free improvisors that seek to elide (or dissemble) their creative agency altogether, but occupy a point somewhere on the continuum between the ‘Body And Soul’ of self-expression and complete abstraction. Free jazz (as opposed to the broader world of free improvisation) was as much (or more) about the performer as be-bop or post-bop were, but this album is certainly not a free jazz recording; nor is it an act of creative sublimation, however. The majority of its soundscapes are primarily concerned with their own topography, but the performers’ musical personalities are vital presences, as the actors on that stage; the human subject is not excised from Mere’s narrative, but shown in flight from itself, seeking transcendence in psychedelic praxis. The ego is not absent, but the music lacks the certainty and semantic fixity that would permit it to dominate; or more to the point, it possesses the maturity and autonomy to embrace ambiguity.
Mere is an improvising trio, composed of Thomas Cruijsen (guitar), Gareth Davis (bass clarinet) and Leo Fabriek (drums); they bring a variety of influences and resonances to this recording, including free jazz, drone (and even the drone metal of some of Earth’s less thunderous recordings), free rock, jam bands, folk musics of various forms. There are usually four voices in play, with extended, grainy tones droning behind the more motile articulations of the instruments I’ve mentioned; had I not seen the personnel written down, I’d have identified these sounds as originating with a bowed double bass or cello, but I would guess they are produced either by the clarinet, a bow (or linear scraping?) applied to the guitar, or some combination of the two, processed and sustained through live looping technology. At times it sounds very much like one or the other, but such impressions are undercut by the frequent simultaneous presence of the same instrument in another mode of operation (although I’m pretty sure the drones in the first half of ‘III’ are all bowed guitar). I could, however, be utterly wrong about all this, and although I’m sure Mere would tell me if I asked, the mystery is part of the music’s pleasure for me.
Cruijsen’s primary (identifiable) technique on guitar is to arpeggiate simple harmonies, and sometimes to strum chords, with his major creative efforts focussed on the parameters of intensity, dynamics and timbre. His work here is perhaps the most self-effacing (a clichéd term which I intend to be taken literally) of all three players; although there are clear creative decisions, and deliberate expressive interventions in his playing, it doesn’t feel as though we are intended to hear his soul stripped bare. Instead of performing discursively, he is more spatial in his approach, deploying his instrument’s capabilities in a measured pursuit of specific affective goals, developing backgrounds and atmospheres that are more about the entirety of the sound than they are about himself as a creative agent. For all that he does not put himself forward in insistent self-portrait, however, it is perhaps Cruijsen’s colours that most dominate the palette presented in these improvisations.
Davis exploits both the wood and the brass of the bass clarinet, moving easily between its sonorous lower register and its more hair-raising upper extremes. He plays with equal commitment in passages of placid introspection and in squawking, honking outbursts of free-jazz firepower. I guess I would identify three main areas of practice, although the distinctions between them are far from clear cut. Near his dynamic minimum, there are extended, keening tones of a primarily atmospheric bent; these merge quite quickly (as they do early in ‘I’) into melodic modal improvisations, that are as evocative as they are beautiful. Time and place are invoked specifically, but not representationally (which would just be corny), and although we begin to sense something of the flow of feeling through Davis’ awareness, his playing seems concerned with ambience, with those parts of his experience that occur outside himself, in which his audience can share. As the intensity of the music increases, so does the subjectivity of Davis’ blowing, the modal and timbral materials of his melodic playing proving inadequate to the task of containing his meanings; both rupture progressively, until at peak moments, tonality collapses, timbre and phrasing de-stabilising in its wake. This tendency is accompanied by a movement from the lower to the upper register, as though from earth to self, from commonality to a more isolated affective position.
Fabriek is clearly more influenced by rock than jazz in his approach to orchestration, preferring his toms to his cymbals for purposes of both timekeeping and dramaturgy. His phrasing also seems to be more about developing and compounding a single rhythmic idea than the less grounded, polyrhythmic approach common in jazz; his is an earthy style of drumming, with a primordial appeal of the sort conventionally associated with the word ‘tribal’ (although it is only certain specific tribes in particular historical-geographic locations that practice the sort of trance-like cyclical percussion that we generally mean by that). Fabriek plays time throughout, and it is always quite easy to feel where the One is, but he rarely plays anything that sounds like a beat; he doesn’t deliver sequenced combinations like a boxer, and his sound does not insist on the defensive bodily reaction that beats demand. Instead he establishes nuanced affective landscapes, working closely with the guitar, and perhaps benefitting in this from the absence of a bass instrument. His dynamic control is pronounced, and leads the trio in the long form development of its improvisations; the textural parameters offered by the choice of whether or not to use snare and cymbals are exploited with great intelligence, and very much independently of questions of overall amplitude. Like both of his collaborators, Fabriek seems as much concerned with space and atmosphere as he is with self, but he lets rip with some passion when Davis begins to screech.
The dynamic maxima that Mere attain in these three pieces are relatively restrained; peaks of intensity are peaks of activity, time becoming saturated with events, and the interactions of the improvisers becoming freighted with an increasing emotional burden; the volume increases, but its range from top to bottom is never extreme. The gradient over which intensity is varied is often extremely shallow overall; in ‘I’ it is more or less a continual straight line of development from start to finish, which requires a remarkable degree of control and a precisely calibrated ear. Especially with three musicians working together, it would be easy to build the dynamic at too rapid a pace, or at an inconsistent rate, and although musicianship is much in evidence throughout this album, this, for me, is its greatest technical achievement. ‘III’, the longest piece by some considerable margin, makes it clear that this is the band’s main compositional parameter, ebbing and flowing through repeated dynamic valleys, like a slow sine wave.
A further clue as to the relative importance of Mere’s creative concerns is to be found in the lack of variation in the traditional receptacles of musical meaning. In terms of key centre and modality, there is very little distance between one piece and the next, or within pieces, from beginning to end. The modalities are able to flex enough to accommodate a certain eastern- or central-European aroma, but they are essentially natural minor modes, of the sort that inform much rock and folk music. There is no sense of harmonic progression whatsoever; the point of the music clearly lies in what the three players do within these self-imposed limitations. Paradoxically, there is a great deal of freedom in a restricted palette, because it becomes unnecessary to expend creative effort on the choice of colour, leaving the artist at liberty to explore other aspects of their practice.
The expressive character of Mere is, on the whole, pretty dark. It’s a music of grainy sonorities and plangent melodies, that pursue a dramatic arc without ever seeming to move any further towards, or away from, the light. Instead, the melancholy twilight inhabited by the music accommodates both quiet contemplation and passionate intensity; as it builds and develops it becomes immensely powerful, but it retains a consistent distance from the lucidity of daylight. This is an unseen music, with a mysterious, crepuscular soul; it makes no effort to obscure its meanings, but yields them slowly, revealing its forms only as rapidly as the listener’s metaphorical eyes can become accustomed to its gloom. The aurality of this recording is a tissue of ritual and trance, and its meanings are only to be apprehended by feeling them, not by interrogating its surface. It is, furthermore, a music of place; it is not concerned with a place in particular, and it would be hard to pin down in so literal a manner, but it has a spatial sense throughout, a concern with ambience that is enveloping, and that locates the specific phraseologies of the performers in a shared context as exacting and coherent as the thirty-two bar chord sequence of a jazz standard. That Mere are able to achieve such concord without recourse to an externally sourced model is a tribute to their commitment to improvisation, and to their mutual creative regard. Freedom to improvise is not necessarily the same thing as free improvisation, but in both cases the freedom is far more of a challenge than it is a liberation; to hear three highly aware musicians grappling with that challenge is thought-provoking, moving, challenging in itself, and deeply rewarding.