20 Years of Experimental Music
FibrrBX 01/Mikroton CD 76-85

Encapsulating two decades of an ensemble’s performing history on disc can be difficult. Spreading the results over 10 CDs can be even more trying and in some cases numbing. Luckily Formanex, the French experimental music trio, overcomes some of these drawbacks by including sounds from 1998 to 2018 that in the main feature expanded line-ups and guests. Still, at points immersing new timbres into the band’s mixture of electronic and ambient sequences merely intensifies sameness.

Intertwining influences from post-punk, notated music, minimalism, microtones and Jazz improvisation, Formanex today consists of guitarist Anthony Taillard, Julien Ottavi, who plays percussion, laptop and electronics and Christoph Havard’s electronics, objects and sometimes alto saxophone. Over the years other players such as Emmanuel Leduc on guitar and electronics, the three members of the British group AMM, especially guitarist Keith Rowe, and the six to 10 musicians who make up ONsemble have played alongside Formanex.

Listening to early discs, it appears that Formanex experimented with genre variations before settling on a consistent and characteristic approach. The oddest and closest to a misfire here is CD6 from 2005, when a trio of Taillard, Leduc and Ottavi interpret three untitled compositions by German sound artist Ralf Wehowsky which returns the trio members to their Punk-Rock roots. A collection of dial-twisting outer-space-signal turbulence and unabashed industrial noise, the garbled growls, skidding car and freight train rumbles are intensified with high octave crackling drones. While the finale contrapuntally positions sampled children’s’ voices and ear-splitting shrieks, pressure was maintained but not explicit concept portrayal.

This detour is puzzling since the earliest tracks from 1998-1999 collected on CD8 with the same personnel, capture a minimalist program. Although the selections encompass metallic rubs, vacuum cleaner-like buzzes, bell-pealing and kettle-drum-like thumps, the sonic density is alleviated by guitar frails and watery shakes that move throughout and finally dissolve. Later on this concept becomes customary, as expressed on the extended “Demonology #11” on CD 9. Here additional electronics are brought into play by Taillard, Leduc, Havard and Ottavi plus Laurent Dailleau on Theremin and laptop. A hissing undertow soon dominates the aural space, briefly shaking the studio narrative, but still moving it convincingly chromatically. As the heavily amplified vibrations shake and crackle, a secondary wave form peeps alongside the first until curvaceous drones are replaced by steady synthesized groans that could be a downpour in a tropical rain forest including jungle birds’ trilling echoes .

Following a two-year hiatus that lasted until 2011, Formanex was still trying to define itself as a recording entity as tracks from 2012 on two different CDs indicate. Vestiges of programmed electronic ruggedness are still present, but the assembly line of spacey, buzzing motifs is now being supplemented by aleatory strokes from the two guitarists. Heard alongside bubbly laptop vibrations are guitar frails and shuffles, frequently sourced from up-on-the-neck or below-the-bridge strokes.

It’s evident that 2014 was a particularly fruitful period for the band, with CDs 2, 3 and 4 dedicated to that period, Capturing Formanex’s shift towards partly notated and pre-conceived formulas, each of the discs features the expanded ONsememble. One disc, dedicated to Phil Niblock’s compositions, also includes Leduc, Taillard and Ottavi’s guitars and electronics plus Havard’s alto saxophone. The others match Ottavi’s percussion with the ONsememble and an AMM-variant with Keith Rowe’s prepared guitar, John Tilbury’s piano and composer Christian Wolff playing piano and guitar. Chunky, solid and nearly oppressive, Niblock's score interpretation manages to be microtonal and orchestral at the same time, with little tonal distinction among the 14 players’ instrumental timbres. Its climax is a droning buzz. Ending with performances by Rowe/Wolff/Tilbury, the other CDs trio tracks are distinctively self-contained but the orchestral tracks are different still. With programmed electronic crackles, sliced guitar runs and shuffling runs the trio selections relate more to AMM’s discography than Formanex’s, In full orchestral form through “Looking North” and “Edges” on one and a contrasting “Edges” on the other disc find Tilbury’s and Wolff’s piano chording and Rowe’s guitar plinks sliding through a slowly building ONsemble exposition that includes percussion shakes and rolls plus additional arco sweeps and pizzicato plucks from five or six additional string players. Before the electronic ostinato subsumes the output of all the musicians, exquisite clarinet trills and bass trombone slurs are added to the unrolling sequences.

“Hang Ups” the single extended track on 2016’s CD5 is a modification of these AMM-related inflections. Rowe’s prepared guitar is featured alongside Taillard, Havard and Ottavi playing mostly objects and electronics as well as more instruments, objects and electronics from a seven-piece version of ONsememble. Including Rowe’s idiosyncratic plucks, frails and twangs, the wave form-propelled and six string instrument squeaking narrative expands with an overlay of drones and signs with intermittent percussion-like rumbles and chalumeau clarinet gurgles. Midway through as the backing turns elastic and paused segments finally move forward, bird-like peeps are faintly heard alongside clarinet trills and double bass thwacks. Wrenching free from the dial-twisting textures Rowe asserts himself with sitar-like vibrations as well as radio-sampled noises.

This collaboration is intensified even more on CD1. The Formanex trio and, on the second variant six members of ONsememble, interpret parts of “Treatise”, Cornelius Cardew’s graphic score alongside the members of AMM who were present in the 1960s when “Treatise”, was created. Consisting of leisurely evolved electronic whizzes, connective feedback and percussive bumps, the first variant seems as if it’s hanging motionless in the air until meandering piano clips, cymbal-on-drum-top scratches and guitar-string suction produce individual interjections which bring out the theme’s lyrical qualities. Finally the track climaxes with twisting wave forms facing contrapuntal challenge from Tilbury’s recital-ready chording. The pianist’s crafty and skillful patterning also make itself felt as part of the 12-piece configuration. But this “Treatise” variation is amplified with hollow vibrations from clarinet and alto saxophone as well as shill electronics. Its singularity is finally defined however as radio-sampled pop songs disrupt the theme while percussion-like rumbles inflate the near minimalist playing.

This palimpsest-like concept of slightly exposing other motifs which have already been established is even more evident on the group’s most recent discs, one featuring only Taillard and Rowe on prepared guitar with Ottavi playing percussion, laptop and electronics; and the other where a mixed Formanex-ONsememble plays two contemporary composition with in both cases the composer as part of the ensemble. Watery, droning and intermittent, the trio version of “Three Lines to Achieve Almost Nothing” introduces a hithertofore folksy and dissociated strumming from the guitarists, which before it’s dissected with string-pressed objects, creates a cunning contrast with motor-driven oscillations and programmed laptop sputters. Half way through frailing strings, buzzing synthesis and belt-stropping textures become almost motionless. Finally guitar twangs and hissing drones harden the narrative to produce an unvarying clicking finale.

There not much choice between the minimalist compositions of “Fragile Being, Hopeful Becoming” with composer Michael Pisaro on guitar and “Shogun” featuring the bass harmonica (!) of composer Radu Malfatti. On the first, it’s probably the composer whose occasional twangs insinuate themselves among inchoate buzzing that consists of squeezed horn parts, moving objects scrambles and electrified surges. Attaining a crescendo of a wall of noise, the piece finally climaxes with vibrating shrills and a single string plink. As for Malfatti’s piece, entire ensemble textures are concentrated into moving the exposition upwards into a droning overlay. In stages the measured sequence is dissected and splintered with string strums and percussion pops and finally when the sound becomes louder, horn hints. Coiled electronic drones finally give way to percussion and ascending string swells as the piece moves from an echoing metallic buzzing into decisive bright trills and downward growls.

No better forum than this set exists for checking in on the breathe of Formanex members’ improvisational, interpretive and collaborative skills, although you may often have difficult picking individuals out from the ensembles. Maximum appreciation will come however by not trying to listen to all 10 discs at the same time.

—Ken Waxman.

Track Listing: CD 1: AMM/Formanex/ONsemble 1. AMM / Formanex Play Treatise by Cornelius Cardew 2. AMM / Formanex/ONsemble Play Treatise (p. 46-47) by Cornelius Cardew CD 2: Formanex/ONsemble/Christian Wolff/Keith Rowe/John Tilbury 1. Two Pianos by Christian Wolff 2. Edges by Christian Wolff 3. Trio Rowe/Wolff/Tilbury CD 3: Formanex/ONsemble/ Wolff/Rowe/Tilbury 1. For 1, 2, 3 People by Christian Wolff 2. Looking North by Christian Wolff 3. Edges by Christian Wolff 4. Trio Rowe/Wolff/Tilbury CD 4: Formanex/ONsemble/Phil Niblock 1. Disseminate 2. To Two Tea Roses CD 5: Formanex/ONsemble/Rowe 1. Hang Ups CD 6: Formanex/Ralf Wehowsky 1. Untitled 12. Untitled 2 3. Untitled 3 CD 7: Formanex/ Rowe 1. Three Lines To Achieve Almost Nothing CD 8: Formanex Early Works 1. S/T 2. Soulevement 3. Le Langage Du Thé 4. Chercher Le 2eme Oeil CD 9: Formanex/Kasper T. Toeplitz 1. Szkic 2. Demonology #11 CD 10: Formanex/ONsemble/Radu Malfatti/Pisaro/Seth Cluett 1. Fragile Being, Hopeful Becoming by Michael Pisaro 2. For Formanex by Seth Cluett 3. Shoguu by Radu Malfatti

Personnel: CD 1: 1. John Tilbury (piano); Anthony Taillard, Keith Rowe (guitar); Eddie Prévost (percussion); Julien Ottavi (percussion, electronics); Christoph Havard (electronics) 2. Tristan Ikor (alto saxophone); Clara Bodet (clarinet); Taillard, Rowe, Jenny Pickett (guitar); Tilbury (piano); Benjamin Jarry (cello); Mael Foliard Legal, Roman Papion (bass); Prévost (percussion); Ottavi, Havard (electronics) CD 2 1, 2. Formanex/ONsemble/Wolff/Rowe/Tilbury 3. Wolff/Rowe/Tilbury CD 3: 1, 2, 3.: Formanex/ONsemble/Wolff/Rowe/Tilbury 4. Wolff/Rowe/Tilbury CD 4: 1, 2.: Bodet, Fabrice Arnaud-Crémon, Godefroy Aertgeerts (clarinet); Havard, Héraud (alto saxophone); Taillard, Rowe, Leduc (guitar);Jarry (cello); Legal, Papion (bass); Ottavi (percussion, electronics); Sylvie Noël (synthesizer) CD 5: 1. Bodet (clarineyt, electronics); Noël (piano); Taillard, Pickett (guitar, electronics); Papion, Sarah Clénet, Jérôme Joy (bass, electronics); Carine Léquyer (harp, electronics); Ottavi (percussion, electronics); Havard (electronics) CD 6:1, 2, 3.: Formanex/Ralf Wehowsky CD 7: Formanex/Rowe CD 8: Formanex CD 9: 1, 2.: Taillard (prepared guitar); Dallwau (Theremin, laptop); Ottavi (laptop, electronics); Leduc (electronics) CD 10: 1, 2: Formanex/ONsemble and Michael Pisaro (guitar); 3. Formanex/ONsemble and Radu Malfatti (bass harmonica)