mgr800 on 03/04/2010 at 02:10PM
Solo improvisation is not an easy thing. Being able to carry a cohesive piece of music directly out of one's mind and through his or her fingers, voice, whatever, takes incredible skill and concentration. I had the good fortune to see a masterful solo improvisation set from cellist/vocalist Audrey Chen a few weeks ago while she was in the WFMU studio during Strength Through Failure with Fabio. The intense, haunting, fragile, and beautiful sounds she created with her cello, throat, and electronics both tease and please the ear with fragments of melody, noise, and drone. Listening back to her set just now its surprising that this all came from one person at on time.
One of the most fascinating things about Audrey's music is the way that timbres of her instruments overlap. Aside from the rich bass and midrange of her cello, Audrey emits incredibly high frequencies from her vocal chords as well as the chirping electronic box she played with on Fabio's show. She also gets similar high partials out of her cello by using various extended bowing techniques. The closest point of reference with her vocals are perhaps throat singing and the warbling vocalese of legendary free percussionist Milford Graves, or at times a creaky door being opened slowly.
Duo improvisation is also not an easy thing. The almost telepathic communication required to form a piece of music with little or no pre-conceived structure is difficult to master especially where the concepts of mode, rhythm and tempo are their most abstract.
A few weeks after i saw Audrey play at wfmu I had the chance to see her play a duo set with percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani at a small club in the lower east side called the Stone. Tatsuya, who I have seen play before with another brilliant extended technique percussionist, Jake Meginsky, creates sounds with with a small drum set augmented with gongs, bows, small metal bowls that resonate beautifully, and many different sized cymbals which he most often played by scraping against his floor tom or tiny roto-tom like drum. The sparse and somewhat cosmic qualites (the first time i saw Nakatani play I kept imagining soundtrack to some sort of outer-space collision) of both Nakatani and Chen's music make them perfect partners for improvisation. Just as the tones of Audrey Chen's instruments overlap with each other, the soundwaves coming out of these two seemingly completely different groups of instruments were often strikingly similar. At one point in their set Chen was filtering overtones out of white noise with her mouth and Nakatani hit the same notes by adjusting the pressure with which he was scraping his cymbal. The two of them have a recording called Limn although I have not been able to find it.
Nakatani also has an excellent performance here on the FMA. Chen has a great duo set with trumpeter Nate Wooley on here as well, from ISSUE Project Room.