This is an exquisite session by a supremely well-balanced electronic-acoustic quartet.
The lynchpin of the group might be Swiss pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, if only because of her recent duets with one bandmate, British saxophonist Evan Parker (2014’s Either And Or on Relative Pitch), and longstanding relationships with the others, American violinist Mark Feldman and Japanese electronics artist Ikue Mori.
The first half of Miller’s Tale (Intakt) brings this international cast together on four fully improvised quartet pieces. The second presents duets by every potenreal pairing but Courvoisier/Feldman (a partnership already represented by five previous duo and small ensemble recordings on Intakt alone).
The set begins with the quartet’s most dramatic and invigorating performance, and ends in the intimacy of the duets. The gradual sharpening of focus has a truly entrancing effect.
“Death of a Salesman” is a mesh of creaky, scrabbling and soaring violin, Mori’s shattered glass electronica, damped piano frame percussions and harp strums, and Parker’s serpentine saxophony. The whole thing is launched skyward by Parker and Feldman’s unison lyrical ascension, but ballasted by Courvoisier’s pounding bass notes.
After such drama, “A View from the Bridge” weighs Mori’s fractured electronic birdsong against a tension between Parker’s snaking sax lines and gravid chamber-music piano and violin.
“The American Dream” – the longest piece by far at 13:30 – begins as a forthright Courvoisier/Mori dialogue, with (presumably sampled) snare drum hits mirroring the stress tensions in Courvoisier’s animated improv. This intro is bought to a hush by Parker’s monotone circular breathing, which sets the scene for a mournfully lyrical Feldman solo that’s shadowed by wisps of rustling and chirruping electronica, and bolstered by a solemn and sensitive piano accompaniment.
The last of the quartet pieces, “Up from Paradise”, is exceedingly gentle, with Parker’s tender lead soprano cushioned by an electronic aureole as it unfolds in curlicues of circulated breath to the accompaniment of plucked strings, then yields to Courvoisier’s piano – brittle ivory glints against electronic wisps and slithers of strings and sax.
The five duets further heighten the listener’s receptiveness by accentuating specific tonal relationships: the constancy of the violin’s tactility when set against the capriciousness of Mori’s typically frangible electronics, and Mori’s ability to mould and sustain sounds versus the violinist’s gestural temporality; the initially confrontational, targeted impacts of Courvoisier’s and Parker’s steely pas de deux, versus Parker and Feldman’s slithery, lyrical entwining; and Mori’s shapeshifting, as she first puts Parker’s versatility and mastery of technique to the test, then acts as a future-Orientalist prism for the refraction of Courvoisier’s elegant classicism.
This is improvised music at its most refined. Everything’s beautifully captured, rendering the ensemble’s every expressive subtlety of sound or allusion as ravishment.
Sylvie Courvoisier piano; Mark Feldman violin; Evan Parker soprano & tenor saxophones; Ikue Mori electronics.
Buy Miller’s Tale direct from Intakt.