Daphne Oram — composer, noise-maker, studio manager, and sonic experimenter — hung the following Francis Bacon quote (from The New Atlantis, written in 1627) on a wall in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop:
"We represent small sounds as great and deep; likewise, great sounds extenuate and sharp; we make diverse tremblings and warblings of sounds, which in their original are entire. We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds. We have certain helps which set to the ear do further the hearing greatly. We have also diverse strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and as it were tossing it: and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller, and some deeper"
Note that, despite being a place engrossed in film scores and music production, there is no mention of melody, form, technique, embouchure, fugue rules, voice leading etc.
For whatever reason, the art of sound is not peddled as much as it should be in many music program curriculum requirements. Getting five hours of scales practice in per night, jealousy of the preternaturally gifted violinist in the class always taking the honors, failing an opera audition by a tenth of a percent; for jazzers, the muscle memory ability to improvise over ii IV I and sharp 9 chords is crucial; Media Music people learn how to fit choruses and verses with bridges and modulations to the relative major and minor harmonies. These are the concerns of the music student (they were mine, though I gave up on being a professional guitarist after I figured out I would never be able to play as fast as Alex Lifeson on "Freewill").
But what about tests of sonorous coherence? Not orchestration lessons where composers learn range and pairing and "proper" timbre, but knowledge of sound; anything from microscopic blips to an accumulation of layers of rhythm, tempi, harmonic consonance / dissonance folded into a single BLAP. How does a sound interact with another? What can it accomplish in a solo setting depending on acoustics, or weather, or other physical limitations? What happens when I blow lightly and quickly tap a lethargic horn? How can I meld percussive tinkering and melody into a single note? What happens when I saw my piano in half and drag it behind a tractor? What cacophony would that crane perched way up there make as it hit the ground (after someone destabilized it by digging a little into the foundation of the cliff)?
What sort of timbral resonance can I conjure by spinning a plate on my bass drum? How about I bow twine strapped tightly over resonant soup cans; also, include a guitarist — maybe bass guitar — doing some slow, woozy slides with a wobbling drum stick in the strings. What if I shout through my clarinet to give the impression of part war-time radio announcer, part fevered dictator, while also letting out screams and hollers alongside an equally vocal percussionist who also flicks out microbursts across her kit? What if we ask that electric bassist to twitch up a steady pulse while a trumpeter pops in with occasional, spitting squeals and burps — and add another person in there just on snare to augment the pan-rhythmic dynamic.
What if we do all this and steer it with mischief and fun?
Billed as a quintet of semi-traditional instrumentation, Camille Émaille (percussion), Xavière Fertin (clarinets), Louis Freres (bass), Tom Malmendier (snare drum), and Thimothée Quost (trumpet, no-input mixer), the super-group Escargot exemplifies what happens when protégés, trained conservatory alumni, and seasoned improvisers work beyond convention and the beyond-beyond outside of that.
(You can do your own research into the many disparate collaborations, duos, trios etc. the above participate(d) in. However, please look into Émaille and Fertin's Oxke Fixu work, a project whose headshot shows the two painted as a mix of demons, aboriginal ghosts and freshly spawned goblin warriors.)
As illustrated with the above examples from the first few tracks of Dart Love (a reference to a snail's mating behavior while in an intersex state), the members hold to the fraying threads of free-jazz while reaching back to embrace more tribal, ancient ceremony. Case in point "Tecçi(z)tecatl" where the group begins as a fragile vocal hum on the horizon; Fertin's coo progresses from innocent lullaby to gargled vomit in an abrupt and vacillating manner. "Vernaculus Luna" loosely stacks thumb piano blips over a swelling drone of purring bass clarinet and circular breath exhales.
At this point with moderately interesting improvised music, I often write "the group continues on like this throughout the next X minutes," meaning we've seen all the cards, yet the band plays on (that's not always disappointing). This isn't the case with Dart Love, as the five economize their sound palettes, limiting each piece to a few concise gestures, some bigger and / or more frightening than others, developing them, wrapping them up, and moving on. Escargot gradually and purposely reveal what's behind the macro curtain with much patience; hell, Quost holds back his no-input mixer glitches and percolations until the penultimate track, and that thing is usually an over-shadowing standout in any ensemble. This pacing provides impact for surprises such as plodding Sabbath rhythms ("Un Millimètre Par Seconde"), overactive funk (Freres on "Ovotestis" and "Péché Mortel De Paresse"), quail calls ("Hiver Sous Terre") and everyone aiming for forte while muting whatever they're touching.
The last chapter consists of six short sketches with a long silent passage between the first and second. From an unhurried set of rubs, scrapes and scratches to a fevered version of the same to a grandiose cloud of buzz, gong rolls and bass drum thumps to wild mice scuttling across floorboards to jiggling chimes to a military dirge à la something out of Stravinsky's L'Histoire du soldat, Escargot keep the "what's next?" alive even to the last, leaving you wanting an encore.
Put down your cello, go outside, and really listen to what's happening in your yard / on your street / under a bridge. Come back and replicate what you heard. Now get to work because Escargot is already miles ahead.
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