RSS feed RSS Twitter Twitter Facebook Facebook 15 Questions 15 Questions

Bertrand Denzler: Tenor & Antoine Chessex: Fools

img  Tobias Fischer

A dark, decrepit room. A group of shoegazing visitors holding on to their beer bottles. A hooded man standing in their middle, his eyes closed behind blackrimmed glasses, the backwards-bent arc of his body suggesting utmost concentration and tension. In front of him, on a floor made of concrete, a tiny mixing console, a couple of effect pedals, some plastic foil and a long black cable leading straight into his saxophone. A basement? A bad dream? Rapture? The exact time and location of the scene remain unspecified, but it is depicted on the back cover of Fools, an album that seems to rebel against every cliché of „the man with the horn“ as an elegant, slick, suit-and-tie-wearing bohemian. Antoine Chessex's approach to playing his instrument, occasionally referred to as „doom sax“, doesn't take listeners to the blue hour, but straight into a black hole. It is not about athletics and virtuosity, but about power and pressure. And its tradition is not to be found in the realms of jazz, but of noise, drones and sound art – no wonder this man man divides his time between his solo output and the avant-metal trips of group project Monno. Woody Guthrie famously inscribed „this machine kills fascists“ on his guitar, but Chessex's weapon of choice seems far less discriminating: Wide awake and brimming with unreleased frenzy, its barrel is always pointed straight at everyone in his audience.

Although there is nothing militant about his music, so, too, is Bertrand Denzler's. Although Tenor, his first solo full-length in a recording career now spanning almost a decade, involves no post-production or electronic manipulation, Denzler's tone is sharp (in the sense of precise) and insistent (in the sense of demanding attention) and easily as forceful as some of the crunching cascades of distortion and feedback on Fools. To Denzler, one of the greatest pleasures of playing with Phil Durrant and Burkhard Beins in Trio Sowari has always consisted in being able to savor the full dynamic range between moments of whispering quietude and blasts of sizzling noise and on Tenor, he has now remarkably managed to recreate a similarly wide spectrum of expressions in the solitude of a single studio day in Paris. There are just three pieces on the album, but each makes highly effective use of a simple set of parameters to arrive at multifarious results. In doing so, they also seem to be dealing and working with different physical parts, areas or aspects of the saxophone: First, its keys and pads („Filters“), then the full range of the  instrument's expressive capacities („Signals“), until Denzler, on the concluding epilogue conducts his stream of attention towards breath and air, the decisive substances shaping and sculpting each single tone.

For those looking at an album like this foremost from the angle of a demonstration of performance techniques and sound exploration, Tenor undeniably has some fascinating propositions on offer. Denzler is equally capable of creating calm, bass-heavy sheets of undulation as well as roaring multiphonics; simple, dotted one-note lines and complex textures simultaneously made up of inner rhythms, turbulent air currents and harmonics; abrasive metallic colours and tender reed sounds; ricocheting effects, electric razor-like buzzes and wild, aggressive oscillations. At times, he will repeat the same passage twice in a row, merely blowing his horn with a tad more force in the second instant, but creating an entirely new and surprising effect – testimony to the intense physical action taking place here. To direct all attention towards these sonic aspects, Denzler has, save a handful of instances, barred melody from the album. Driving this point home most insistently is opener „Filters“, on which, for the entire duration, Denzler is working with just a single pitch. And yet, each repetition sounds fresh. By means of nothing but breath and pads, he is giving birth to microtonal fields, a wide palette of timbres and constantly shifting accents. Seventeen minutes may seem like a long time for these operations, but already a couple of seconds into the music, one has lost count completely, hypnotised by nothing but the sheer force of his inventivity.

Although Denzler is treating each sound like a world onto itself, there is nonetheless a clear sense of direction and purpose to his work. Decisive moments occur both in „Filters“ and „Signals“, when the underlying processes reach a culmination point in long, sustained passages of piercing, high-frequency notes. In the former, they indicate a temporary climax of a timbral transformation. In the latter, they seem to draw a line between a long phase of juxtaposition - as part of which a variety of elements are constantly pitted against each other in forever-new combinations - and a sweet, consoling coda. At the same time, these processes are never intellectual constructs amounting to fully-fledged „concepts“, but rather paths of development, which keep both performer and public hooked. Denzler's own perspective on these tracks is revealing in this regard: „My idea consisted in simply placing sonic signals within a space and to avoid any kind of linear logic. Asymmetry was a key, the idea of creating a space which I could explore through the use of single notes or repetitions.“ Thus, the music doesn't end with the attainment of a particular destination point, but simply when Denzler wants it to. Perhaps one should therefore not regard the title to this deeply rewarding solo debut as a declaration of love for the tenor in general, but to „his“ saxophone in particular – an instrument which he is re-inventing from scratch with each performance.

The same can certainly be said about Antoine Chessex, as much as his aesthetics may seem to extend beyond Denzler's. There are moments of touching tenderness, when, as in the opening sequence of the B-sides „Illusions“, sustained notes are passing each other by within a quarter tone's distance – or when Chessex is briefly playing without the support of  electronic devices. And then, there are extended drones second to none in their devastating furor as well as riffs revealing more than just a passing interest in death metal. Whereas Denzler is making every square millimeter of his instrument resonate and hum, Chessex is taking it with him into a hallucination, where its formants are distorted beyond recognition. And yet, the closer one listens, the more one discovers that Fools makes use of a strikingly similar set of procedures as Tenor – albeit buried beneath several meters of fuzz. Through the creation of towering walls of carefully refined noise, Chessex is demonstrating the saxophone's superiority over the guitar: Because it is connected directly with the performer's air stream, it allows for a far higher degree of control in the distortion's wave patterns, as well as for a range of additional options, such as screaming into the mouthpiece. Still, making this point is never the only message. By dividing his pieces into differentiated movements and by contrasting his frenzied outbursts with moments of introspection, an emotional journey emerges – one of catharsis and release.

Undoubtedly, the albums will be grouped into „electronic improvisation“ and „acoustic improvisation“ respectively, but the question is whether any of these two approaches is more „real“ or „pure“ than the other. A sax isn't that much different from a knife – it's what we do with it that decided whether it's a useful yet ultimately bland tool for cutting or a powerful weapon.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Bertrand Denzler
Homepage: Antoine Chessex
Homepage: Potlatch Records
Homepage: Tourette Records

Related articles

V.A.: "An anthology of Chinese Experimental Music 1992-2008"
Dazzling, diverse and dramatic: A ...
Concert Report: Merzbow & Richard Pinhas & Das Synthetische Mischgewebe
Live at Stadtgarten, Cologne, November ...
Li Jianhong: Chinese King of Stoned Crowds
Guitarist Li Jianhong (superlatively dubbed ...
CD Feature/ Jamie Saft & Merzbow: "Merzdub"
Utmost respect and utter disdain: ...
Interview with Birchville Cat Motel
“Aren’t ALL descriptive words for ...
Dan Friel: Ghost Town puts the Fun back in Noise
Parts & Labor singer Dan ...

Partner sites