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Jérôme Noetinger & Will Guthrie: Face Off

img  Tobias Fischer

Banish all thoughts of Travolta and Cage’s fantastical cinematic battle of explosions and bad turns. The face off here is more like what one finds in hockey. Two men face each other, and the transaction between them is resolved by split-second reactions. It’s rough, it moves, and its pacing is clearly quite thought out, but it’s also bracingly unpredictable.

Recent releases from Erstwhile have taken a forward position in the dissolution of the composition/improvisation divide, but there’s a good old-fashioned reactivity about this one that is most engaging. Action matches action, reaction tops initial gesture; the rapid rate of change and the intuitive development of the CD’s twelve brief pieces align it with free improvisation. There is a pugnacious quality to these encounters, a sense that one is in the presence of men duking it out, which not only makes one think again of hockey, but also of free improvisation’s duet-as-confrontation tradition; think of Evan Parker and John Stevens, or countless recorded or merely recounted encounters with Derek Bailey.

Neither Guthrie, an Australian percussionist who currently lives in Nantes, France, nor Noetinger, a resident of Grenoble who plays a Revox tape machine, are particularly gentle. On “Cymslake” they challenge each other’s turf. A first burst of cymbals slows, betraying that it comes from Noetinger’s tape. Guthrie pushes back with in-the-red noise, proving that two can overload a microphone. They leap into the next track like a cinematic jump cut, but with equality established they shift into quieter realms, finding between them a sound like a boiler-sized metal cat purring.

But even though these encounters speak in mechanical/metallic tongues, they retain an essential musicality, jointly generating a rhythm of exchange and propulsion. It’s just the appearance and reappearance of a skidding tape head or a recorded cloudburst that makes the groove rather than a 4/4 beat. There are also moments where the music is comprised of parallel actions, like vintage AMM. The presence of extended cymbal play and passages of radio static make the similarity sonic as well as dynamic. But these balanced sequences never last long; an abrupt halt or a filmic transformation occurs, so that the changes within a given piece seem more dramatic than those between the ending of one track and the beginning of the next. The editor’s sculpting razor is as important as what is played in determining the content.

Face Off feels at one old and new. It celebrates sounds and methods that have been around for decades, and at no time does one feel like one is hearing music of a digital age. But it is played with such immediacy and paced with such unpredictability that it feels as fresh as the thought you haven’t finished yet. It is music of possibility.

Bill Meyer.

Homepage: Erstwhile Records

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