Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Honey on the razor's edge

I recall first hearing the Catalan improviser Ferran Fages in 2006, on a duo release with percussionist Will Guthrie entitled Cinabri. Fages and Guthrie forged an intelligent, cacophonous noise engine of a recording, contact mics and acoustic turntable shredding and rending the air with an improvised musique concrete sourced from metal junk and real time verve [Cinabri was recorded in two sessions, assembled later by the meticulous Guthrie]. Discussing Cinabri with Guthrie a while later, he asked me if I had heard quite another dimension of Fages' musical sensibilities, the 2007 solo guitar release Cançons per a un lent retard. I knew Fages only via the dense sonic bruit of Cinabri, so Guthrie sent me a copy of Cançons, my first taste of his guitar duende.

is among those musical documents that contain moments of uncomfortable, unvarnished vulnerability and sorrow, and I thought so before reading later of Fages' father dying as he composed the pieces. Stark, somewhat redolent of Loren Connors, the use of bottleneck and sparsely placed notes creating a very gradual gravitas [Cançons is 71 minutes of unrelieved dark], I was impressed that this sort of elegy on acoustic guitar was served up by the same fellow who filled the air with sparks and hell-raising sheared metal on Cinabri.

On one singularly striking track on
Cançons, Athens [Greece]-based zither player Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga accompanies Fages by detuning the guitar as he plucks dolorous notes and hammers out shimmering, unstable chords. It is a harrowing effect, an extension of his dark sound that is seamless and invisible. Move forward several years, and Lazaridou-Chatzigoga and Fages have a working duo called Ap'strophe, with two releases available, Objects sense objectes from 2009 and Corgroc, just released as part of the four disc guitar series on Simon Reynell's imprint, Another Timbre.

Ferran Fages has been making improvised music for about 12 years, with five discrete duo projects, two trios and a quartet. His instrumentation is principally guitar, turntables and electronics. I have pointed to the radically disparate sound worlds of Cinabri and Cançons, and at first blush, so they seem. However, the last several weeks of listening a great deal to three of Fages' projects- the 2009 solo guitar release Al voltant d'un para/.lel, the Ap'strophe duo, and Fages' long-standing duo with Alfredo Costa Monterio, Cremaster- I hear a pervasive sensibility throughout both the noisiest and the most dulcet works. In a border land between disorienting noise and sensitive, performative statements, Fages brings to mind an image attributed to the 8th century Indian scholar Santideva, "honey on the razor's edge." Used by Santideva as a metaphor for human desire, I'm appropriating it to convey the sense of buzzing noise latent in Fages' quietest works, and the sweet coherence and clarity at the heart of the sonic maelstrom of Cremaster.

Fages might be the only guitarist in improvised music who can evoke the Taku Sugimoto of
Opposite, and the John Frusciante of Blood Sugar Sex Magik. On Al voltant d'un para/.lel, a live recording from 2007, Fages extends the dark harmonic territory of his earlier solo work, more chordal than single line melodies. Whatever pedals or other devices Fages might use, his notes own impressive hang-time, suspended and replete with rich overtones and harmonics, enough grit and distortion in the shimmer to disabuse anyone he is a straight up romantic. There are passages evoking dolor and doom, but also chordal sweeps and upstrokes that evince the lovely Castles Made Of Sand. It is a grower, asking for repeated, careful listens, a very satisfying iteration in the series of explorations for solo guitar begun in the 2004 release A cavall entre dos cavalls [composicions per a guitarra].

Ap'strophe's sound world is tough sledding, if approached with any vestiges of expectation about what an acoustic guitar/zither duo might sound like. Lazaridou-Chatzigoga offers gears grinding, steady-state sine tones, gates creaking and hallucinatory string-sawing. At times she sustains an abrasive area just to the brink of exhausting its interest. She is alternately delicate, murmuring and purring, and supportive of Fages' occasional foregrounding of the guitar, principally with sustained, wobbly pitches. She brings to mind Harry Partch's kitara, the third bridge mutant of the zither that enabled him to sound extended techniques on a familiar sounding folk instrument. And what of Fages' contribution to the Ap'strophe gestalt? Look, I'm not going to pretend I can always discern where one leaves off and the other begins. Much of the time Fages' guitar is a guitar, picked and strummed here and there through the ambiguity and duo fusion, metal and wood self-evident. [The nearest acoustic guitar-sourced sound palette that comes to mind is that of Arek Gulbenkoglu, a brilliant, sadly overlooked guitarist whose acoustic guitar work sounds like anything but]. Much of the time the duo erase the distinctions, and become the single-sensibility sound generator that characterizes the similarly yoked Cremaster.

This leads me to what was revealed by alternating my listens between Fages acoustic [solo and duo], and Fages with Monteiro, unleashing the torrential but carefully formed cacophony of Noranta Graus A L'Esquerrat, Cremaster's blistering, ebullient release on Monotype. What became evident to my ears is that Ap'strophe often sounds, to sling a little taxonomy to make my point, like a very quiet noise group, and Cremaster often sounds like a cauldron of carefully sounded, distilled and selected abrasions, plangents and ear scours. The sound of honey on the razor's edge, which Fages brings to the collaborations in no small part.

The Cremaster release is stunning, among my few favorite releases in 2010. Fages and Monteiro have collaborated for many years, and their cohesion is as evident as their joined passion for generating streams of thick, cadenced noise that branches off into new directions just when a new direction is called for. The squall and shit storms are somehow shaped and directed by the two, with fantastic episodes of brief percussion patterns and lurching rhythms yielding to an overall avalanche of saturated, extreme sound. This is as good as I think this area gets, and along with the Tomas Korber/Ralf Wehowsky duo on Entr'acte, certain to be among my favorite releases of 2010.

Ap'strophe's Corgroc consists of two tracks, titled after the first line of an e.e. cummings poem that begins
spring is like a perhaps hand

[which comes carefully
out of nowhere] arranging
a window, into which people look.

Corgroc, situated within the Another Timbre series of the-guitar-and-how-it-got-that-way conceit, is certainly vexing at times. There is, to paraphrase Joachim-Ernst Berendt's observation about Monk, "a pathological aversion to playing the next expected sound." Repeated listens lay bare with what rigor and musicality the duo pursue that subterfuge, and actually how much their sound world is made of steel wire and wood after all. I really enjoy the sound of Ap'strophe's intimacy and the degree to which they bring a noise sensibility to their quiet sound spectrum.

Fages' work reminds me of a sort of off-hand categorization system an old friend, himself an improvising musician, shared with me 30 years ago. He said a lot of the music coming out of the European free improvisation scene, as well as American free music, could be heard as either "low-intensity/high volume", or "high-intensity/low-volume." The former, the theory runs, is balls-to-the-wall, screaming free music, volume supplanting a genuine, visceral intensity. The latter is music that achieves that grip of visceral intensity at even low volumes. Ap'strophe, and Fages' solo guitar work, is definitely of the latter. Cremaster's
Noranta Graus A L'Esquerrat, with both extreme volume and attention and care given to the detail in the detritus, is high volume/high intensity.

Fages is someone I think you ought to listen to.


  • Santideva, A Guide To The Bodhisattva Way of Life, trans. from the Sanskrit by B. Alan Wallace
  • Joachim-Ernst Berendt, The Jazz Book


Richard Pinnell said...

Nicely done Jesse. Those last two photos are great.

There will be a new Cremaster 3" on Cathnor this summer by the way!

jesse said...

Thanks for reading, Richard.
Cheered to hear more Cremaster, icing that it will be on Cathnor.