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Intriguing Imbalances

img  Tobias Fischer

It is an evening of duos at the Ausland experimental concert space in Berlin. Just a few minutes ago, Paul Abbott and Daichi Yoshikawa have explored the suspenseful dynamics between forceful drumming and piercing high-frequency manipulations. In roughly three quarters of an hour, headliners Al Margolis and Gerald Fiebig will gently close out the evening with a blend of sweet drones, intimate field recordings and a fantastical recorder performance. Right now, however, the club is on fire, rocking to the sound of the strikingly simple set-up of Rodolphe Loubatière and Pierce Warnecke. To my left, almost hidden in the back, Loubatière is sitting hunched over his snare drum, tapping it with his fingers, caressing it with a brush, probing its sound capacities with a bewildering variety of objects. To my right, Warnecke's face is lit up by the flickering lights of his laptop screen as he picks up cues from Loubatière and feeds them into his system, translating 1s and 0s into spellbindingly tangible transmissions and then blasting them into the audience as crisp clicks and crackles, deep bass grunts, ferocious noise and almost lyrical sequences. It is an intense performance and yet with plenty of space, raw and yet sensitive, colorful yet defined, painfully loud at times and yet occasionally withdrawn and tender. Once it is over, the audience erupts not just into polite applause, but the cheering and hollering typical of a rock gig. It is, as I will soon find out, a common reaction.

Contained power
The duo are part of a community of bands and artists grouped around the Lyon-based Gaffer imprint, a platform at the cusp between free improvisation and free jazz, which has managed to inject a new drive and momentum into a scene which occasionally seemed to run on routine. Since both artists had spent some time in Lyon, they were remotely acquainted both with each other and Gaffer labelhead Franck Garcia - Garcia and Loubatière having met several years back at a time when Garcia was organising two gigs for Loubatière's trio RYR. Their collaboration followed several years later. By this time, Garcia had also been introduced to Warnecke through mutual friends and had come to appreciate his work. The blend between their respective sound worlds was as surprising as it was convincing, the combination of approaches yielding what the Gaffer labelhead refers to as a 'dark identity'. When he organised his renowned Gaffer Fest in 2013, it seemed only logical to program them for the night. Their set would be sandwiched in between some of the most exciting and renowned formations on the line-up and yet, as Garcia remembers, their performance was "truly mind-blowing. They played a short set, maybe too short … people were screaming for more!"

It is fascinating to contrast the explosive directness of their live gigs with the  contained power on their eponymous debut album Non Lieu. The very night of their Berlin performance, still flushed with adrenalin, I return home with a freshly acquired copy of the LP under my arm, falling into a comfortable chair and spin the album on my turntable in the state between waking and dreaming. Passages of the concert are coming back to me in blurry white-colored flashbacks, as the record feeds from the same sounds and timbral contrasts, similar modes of interaction and fields of suspense. At the same time, everything is a lot more measured and composed-through, as the music passes through a series of carefully arranged scenes, none of them as violent as the occasional blasts at Ausland, few of them as discrete as the moments of near-silence I have just witnessed. It is far less obvious on vinyl who is doing what and the subtle references to labels like Raster Noton in Warnecke's digital emissions or the embedding of Loubatière into a fascinating tradition of snare-only-sound-artists are reduced to mere echos – they may not have managed to commit the madness and intensity of the live situation to tape, but they may possibly sound even more unmistakable and unique in the studio than on stage.

Raw energy
A few days later, I am sitting with Pierce Warnecke in his studio, a cosy room in a big backyard building filled with small offices and project spaces, ranging from major commercial companies to underground artists. As it happens, this is also the headquarter of emitter micro, the label and event organisation, which he's been running with fellow sound artist Kris Limbach, responsible for a colorful catalogue of tape, CD and videotape releases as well as the highly successful bi-annual emitter festival. I've decided to speak to Warnecke in person about Non-Lieu, having spun his LP on repeat for the past few days without the sounds ever loosing their fascination on me. Pierce has tried to prepare a not-too-dark-and-strong coffee in a tiny kitchen without windows to prevent our already caffeine-flushed brains from exploding, and we're now drinking it in small, hot sips while discussing the history and future of the project. "The funny thing is that this recording was done at our very first meeting - it is a documentation of the first time we played together, ever", Warnecke says, "I think there's something very raw in the energy around a first meeting - maybe this applies to other things besides music as well? Subsequent playing with anyone will, no matter how hard you try, be influenced by what you have learned by playing with said person. Of course, good things come out of this development and knowledge of the other - but somehow when a collaboration starts there's something very unique there." The live situation, he emphasises, tends to put him under a lot more pressure, which is generally a good thing. But since the stakes are higher, the room for errors is smaller. In the studio situation, meanwhile, errors can lead you to discover the unexpected and unintended, which seems to be exactly what happened during that first encounter with Rod in Geneva, where the album was recorded: "There is less of a concern with the passing of time, for me, in the studio. When there is no audience it's not as important to be critical with each moment. This is of course just my experience in improvising, many musicians are very comfortable with letting things run, playing a long time and making errors live. I guess I still have some learning to do there. But like I say I get bored quickly at concerts as a listener, so I try my best to avoid imposing this feeling on others when I play."

This obsession with trying to avoid boring the audience is certainly palpable in the duo's rapid fire exchanges and may explain why they opted to keep playing with each other despite their engagements in a variety of other projects - Warnecke's schedule is certainly not in any danger of too much slack, with his video work, solo performances and production work for other artists taking up most of his time. One of the things he appreciated about Loubatière right from the start, as he explains to me, is the dynamism and energy of his approach, the diversity of sounds culled from his instrument. Most of all, as much he appreciated the minimalism in his set-up, he enjoyed the non-minimalism of the results even more. "What's nice with Rod is that we share this idea of possible extremes, from very silent to loud and slow to fast, anything in between", he says, carefully drinking from his still hot coffee, "Aesthetically in this duo I think we both agree on a  performance as an opportunity to explore any possibility our percussion+electronics duo has to offer. This can range from small solo parts, acoustic or electronic, to more reactive improve things, to all out noise. We both like the notion of intensity in performance - Rod is definitely energetic and I think the audience feels this. I certainly do! And while I am not necessarily physically intense, I hope - I try at least - to make my sounds intense. I think intensity is not just about power and volume, but more about surprise; sudden change in sounds, dynamics, spectrum. For me this comes from Musique concrète where activity in terms of segments, phrases, often changes quite quickly - natural decays in sound are cut, things stop in the middle of a development …" I know exactly what he means. The Berlin scene, as eclectic and plentiful as it may be, is still known for its quiet sets which, despite their in-the-momentness, can sound like notated music at times. Playing quietly, slowly and with a small amount of instruments can be beautiful, but it can also be tiring – how many sets of improvisation can you fill with just a handful of notes and silence? Loubatière and Warnecke may not be the only musicians offering an alternative to this philosophy. But they are certainly among those who have managed to offer a strikingly convincing concept.

A second perspective
With this two-way-communication in mind, I decide to contact Loubatière to find out more about his perspective and his his path towards the duo, a path which has included bands such as Nervure with guitarist Olivier Dumont on Creative Sources, on which both performers are submitting their instruments to a breaking test. Loubatière has also performed in the vast Insub Meta Orchestra, a large, fluctuating group of well-known, highly individual improvisers, where the idea is to create a unified sound. Increasingly, meanwhile, he has become comfortable with the solo situation, appreciating it for its capacity of revealing insights about himself in the act of performance. Over the years, his work with objects has become more consistent, his attitude towards breaks and breath in the music more confident. In tandem with Pierce, he seems to have arrived at a temporary peak in his own development, which he describes as a gradual process of self-discovery: "I started learning music in school but never with any tangible success. I turned towards improvisation because it seemed the obvious thing to do after these rather disappointing years. The desire for freedom and creation allowed me to flourish and gain confidence in myself. I played free jazz but  for me it was not my music. After a concert of Edwart Perraud, who used raisings on his snare, I decided to take up the idea and develop it but just with one snare drum. My snare drum became a source of amplification and not a percussion instrument. I work on my music through discovering other arts: contemporary arts, visiting museums and listening to a lot of music. I always question my way of proceeding. I practice my snare drum or my drums before a date or a tour for prepare the music I'm playing."

Especially with regards to their shared aim of avoiding too quiet and predictable material, their performances require plenty of just that: preparation. In the duo with Warnecke, of course, this foremost relates to the balance between the acoustic and electronic sections of their set. The main challenge, speaking more concretely, is feedback. The duo use two mics on the snare for direct amplification and a third mic for processing. Because of their preferred high volumes, feedback is a constant companion. Curiously enough, the really exciting things started happening once they began considering feedback not as a risk, but a tool. One of Warnecke's biggest pleasures on stage, for example, is to allow feedback in a situation where Loubatière is extremely busy. The snare output will then disrupt the feedback loop, but cause it pick up again as soon as he stops playing. One of the things that also adds to the already heightened tension is the serious possibility that Loubatière can actually play louder than the laptop, which creates a more equitable position compared to more conventional confrontations between electronics and acoustic instruments. The result is a situation where the audience is pleasantly disorientated, as Warnecke puts it: "I think the main benefit of have multiple sound sources is the ability to change the listener's focus by switching between snare only, amplified snare, processed snare or just electronic sounds. For me the snare drum is almost like an additional speaker on stage, that Rod controls alone. So it makes an interesting imbalance knowing that there's a kind of wildcard that you don't control - in terms of the final mix - while you play."

It is a wildcard that has served them well so far. The tour they've just finished hasn't lost them any money, which they consider a success – especially for  Loubatière, who still has to work on the side to finance his recordings, performances and the monthly events he organises through the Insub netlabel and concert series in Geneva, Switzerland. And then, a new recording is on the table, in which one half will be improvised and recorded in real time, the other heavily edited and using very specific sounds. To get there, however, playing live even more is vital. After all, as Loubatière stresses, that's where ideas are created. And precisely in the creation of ideas, as they've sufficiently proven, is where their true talents lie.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Pierce Warnecke
Homepage: Rodolphe Loubatière
Homepage: Gaffer Records