Carl Testa might be most well-known for his work with Anthony Braxton over the last decade. The school of Braxton (Wesleyan and beyond) has, of course, produced some of the most exciting and inventive musicians of our time. That said, many also struggle to break free from Braxton’s shadow and style. A series of two volumes (with a third on the way), Sway Prototypes may just be Testa’s early, definitive statement of independence.
The name Sway comes from an “interactive live processing environment” generated in SuperCollider. Rather than simply providing more “electronics” to play, however, Sway functions autonomously in reaction to changes in the “amplitude, density, and pitch clarity” of each instrument. When a musician strays on any of these metrics from their average over the previous second(!), the program steps in not to “correct” the tone, but to modulate it. (For more, see Testa’s fascinating description here.) Although this is a really unique and compelling processor, it is, in a sense, another instrument, albeit independent from any one player. What I am in interested in here is not just the novelty of the process, but also the product. And although the computer manipulations add depth and variation (and a lot of those), Testa the composer and bandleader is the critical element here.
In part because of the density added by Sway’s modulations, Sway Prototypes sounds like a band much bigger than it actually is. The ensemble consists of a core six members (Erica Dicker on violin, Junko Fujiwara on cello, Louis Guarino Jr. on trumpet, Andria Nicodemou on vibes, and Testa on bass and electronics) on two tracks with an additional seventh (Anne Rhodes on vocals) on one. The outlier is the “Bloom,” the second track on Volume 2, which is Testa’s solo contribution. The overall effect lies somewhere between free blowing sessions and the more composed free jazz big bands of, for instance, Steve Peck, William Parker, or Anthony Braxton. That, however, might just be this listener’s attempt to put recognizable constraints on it. The Sway Prototypes do not actually sound like Peck, Parker, or Braxton music. Rather, this is undoubtably bears the imprint of Testa, as well as the gathered improvisors and interpreters.
Although these albums are titled Sway, the music is more disorienting and bleaker than that name suggests. Rather than the breeziness implied by the title, the first track on Volume 1, “Three Sections,” evokes a squall. Gusts of sound blow from all directions. Waves of brass bleed into crackly electronics and trembling strings. A final fade points just to a temporary abatement rather than a cathartic conclusion. This track is a marked contrast to its successor, “Quadrants,” presumably referencing the format of the Sway interface. This is the first track that includes Rhodes on vocals. The result is something quite different from what I expected after hearing “Three Sections.” Classical- and folk-inspired motifs pop in and out of perception, as do cacophonous modern compositional elements. Rhodes explores a range of modern vocal techniques, frequently quite delicately and, sometimes, manipulated electronically. As noted above, there is a system to these real-time electronic interventions. That said, they seem to appear almost randomly, if also seamlessly, and push the music to the boundaries between acoustic and electronic soundworlds, and even between human and machine intentionality. As much as this is a full ensemble effort and a Testa-driven piece, Rhodes’ contribution is singular.
The same holds for “Emergence,” the first track on Volume 2. Over the course of 45 minutes, the music shatters, swirls, reconstructs, and decomposes in a refreshingly understated manner. At numerous points, Guarino’s trumpet or numerous configurations of strings threaten to break out of the wreathing morass of sounds, but never quite break the surface. This is to the piece’s credit. In its balanced and restricted dynamism, the piece evokes a gradual appearance rather than a sudden break through. Rhodes’ voice offers a magical, almost elvish ambiance to roiling whorls of the rest of the ensemble. Things begin to simmer 14 minutes into the track, only to settle just a minute later over the bubbling textures of Nicodemou’s vibes, Testa’s electronics, and an entanglement of rumbling and scratching violin, cello, and bass. Apart from a few instances of controlled boil, the strength of “Emergence” comes from its layers of sound that are at times muddily, at others ethereally pastoral.
The second track on Volume 2 is a solo piece for bass and electronics. This piece is definitively darker than the others as Testa’s bass quavers (or his Sway program quavers the bass strings?) in alternating slow and punctuated bow strokes. Testa employs similar techniques on the previous pieces, but too often his bass work is buried within the ensemble. Here, one can discern the slightest creaks, knocks, and clatter and the shimmer of the sharpest cuts (and electronic crackle). And, in isolation, one can almost feel the reverberations of the layers of pulsing chords and the wandering pizzicato.
All in all, these Sway Prototypes are two deeply enthralling albums and together form a compelling testimonial to Testa’s vision, creativity, and sheer talent as a composer and bandleader. I look forward excitedly to where he takes this Sway project next.
Testa, Carl : Sway Prototypes - Volume 1 (Sway)
1st volume of bassist Carl Testa's Sway electroacoustic interactive software, taking the individual playing of Erica Dicker on violin, Junko Fujiwara on cello, Louis Guarino Jr. on trumpet, Andria Nicodemou on vibraphone, Carl Testa on bass & electronics, and Anne Rhodes on voice, Testa's software generating responses that push and pull the musician in unique directions.
Testa, Carl : Sway Prototypes - Volume 2 (Sway)
2nd volume of bassist Carl Testa's Sway electroacoustic interactive software, taking the individual playing of Erica Dicker on violin, Junko Fujiwara on cello, Louis Guarino Jr. on trumpet, Andria Nicodemou on vibraphone, Carl Testa on bass & electronics, and Anne Rhodes on voice, Testa's software generating responses that push and pull the musician in unique directions.
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