Birgit Ulher/Christoph Schiller

Tulpe Schicht Brille
In exhaustible Editions ie-011

The Elks

This is Not the Ant

Mikroton Recordings CD 59

More disappointments for Chris Botti, Chuck Mangione and Wynton Marsalis fans are here. Although these sessions feature a trumpeter playing in a string-enhanced, small group, unlike Botti, Mangione and Marsalis’ oeuvre neither is designed for smooching, relaxing or polite finger-snapping. Instead trumpeters Birgit Ulher from Hamburg and The Elks’ American-in-Berlin Liz Albee have devised discs demanding careful listening to follow the somewhat spiky, carefully skewed microtones that go into serious improvising. Both are committed to negating expected brass timbres from their horns. Fr instance Ulher, who has played with the likes of Gino Robair and Albee in the Splitter Orchester uses these slow-paced showcases to generate original strategy.

Take Tulpe Schicht Brille’s game plan for example. On first glance it might look like the sort of conventional trumpet-and-keyboard lauded by mainstreamers; or since German Christoph Schiller favors the spinet with its obliquely-set strings, some might be fooled into thinking another lachrymose Trumpet’n’Strings is on offer. No way. The CD’s five tracks find two individualists creating idiosyncratic intonations that are often so non-specific that ascribing particular notes or tones to either instrument is nearly impossible. Assuredly the players also promote non-specificity by Ulher linking radio, speakers and objects to her horn exhortations, while Schiller, who also uses objects and electronic processing as playing tools, more frequently slaps, pops and strokes the spinet’s strings than uses the keyboard. A common strategy as exhibited on the title track, finds jangling string strums backing volatile trumpet noises that move from vacuum-cleaner-like buzzes to hollow tube echoes and mouthpiece kisses. As abrupt pauses separate each brass transformation, hissing oscillations and string jitters are also heard until each upsurge blends with others to form a solid mass.

Replicated textures from each player’s exposition mean that the CD’s most characteristic improvisations are also the most aggressive, as with “Pollergebiet” and “Teich Tisch Leib”. On the latter, the trumpeter’s output is mostly attuned to blowing harsh tones against unyielding metal or actively creating new textures by scratching the instrument’s external finish before playing. On “Pollergebiet”, plucked and clanking spinet string stopping plus flanges that resemble the sound of magnetic tape unrolling are Schiller’s high frequency responses to Ulher’s narrative, although he leaves enough space so that Ulher’s repertoire of laughing gargles, sibilant growls and brassy brays can be appreciated. On the concluding “Teich Tisch Leib”, her aggressive blows into the horn’s body tube encourage sinewy plucks and string stops from Schiller, first intermittently than completely blurring with her output into a single uniform tone.

Moving to the Elks’ pasture in Berlin, there are more bugling, barks and grunts audible since the herd of antler-sprouting giant deer numbers four. Albee’s associates include another Splitter Orchester member Italian Marta Zapparoli, whose sound makers include tapes, reel-to-reel tape machine and devices; German clarinetist Kai Fagaschinski, who is part of bands like The International Nothing’ and Billy Roisz from Vienna who adds timbres from electronics and electric bass.

Again the acoustic properties of instruments are buried under layers of processing, vibrations and granular synthesis. Despite the multiplicity, sounds are often diminished to drones or pure air pulsations. Other times the comparison could be made with stentorian growls or approximations of stratospheric clangs from spaceship launches. Although each of the four tracks works within a chromatic foundation, paths in the cosmos are followed. The concluding “Scuba Diving Elephants” for instance, moves from whirled-air whistles to more appropriate bovine-like rumbles, mixed with clarinet overblowing in both coloratura and chalumeau registers. While the elks are establishing their identities via burbling trumpet growls and low-pitched, shaking reed tones, the tape juddering turns percussive while challenging the horns’ well-though-out patterns so that the group almost replicates the turbulence of a battlefield clash before fading away.

Although “Oceanic Bathtube” is appropriately concerned with replicating wave-like splashing among electronic wisps, the session’s other defining track is “Noise for Slugs”. Signal-processed hisses and throbs share space with blurry pointillist intonation that seems to come from mouth stretching and reed-biting as short-wave-radio-like interference further muddies the narrative. While the intersection of snarling brass, crunching metallic string tones and shuddering flanges excitingly reach a point of pure stasis, Fagaschinski’s bird-like peeps coupled with noises from celestial discord adumbrate a concluding firecracker-like explosion.

With sounds like these on both discs, they can be recommended to those interested in sonic exploration and those who aren’t hung up on what intonations are appropriate to different instruments.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Tulpe: 1. Pollergebiet 2. Tulpe Schicht Brille 3. Hohltier 4. Licht Pilot 5. Teich Tisch Leib

Personnel: Tulpe: Birgit Ulher (trumpet, radio, speaker and objects) and Christoph Schiller (spinet, electronics and objects)

Track Listing: This: 1. Gremlins In Space 2. Noise for Slugs 3. Oceanic Bathtube 4. Scuba Diving Elephants

Personnel: This: Liz Allbee (trumpet, preparations); Kai Fagaschinski (clarinet); Billy Roisz (electronics, electric bass) and Marta Zapparoli (tapes, reel-to-reel tape machine, devices)