Gareth Davis & Frances-Marie Uitti
Frances-Marie Uitti – Cello
Gareth Davis – Bass Clarinet
CD and LP on Miasmah, released May 2012
A1 – 2 Am
A2 – Felt
A3 – Smoke
A4 – Cold Call
B1 – Detour
C1 – Razor
C2 – Stained
D1 – East 21st Street
D2 – Static
On ‘Gramercy’, we find clarinet abuser Gareth Davis (who might be best known for collaborations with Machinefabriek and Steven R. Smith) paired with virtuoso cellist Frances-Marie Uitti. Uitti is widely revered for her unusual and original twin bow technique, which allows her to eke out far more sounds from the humble cello that you might initially expect. These sweeps and drones are matched perfectly with Davis’s patented haunted drones and breathy chokes resulting in a deftly academic yet unnervingly involving narrative.
‘Gramercy’ manages the most difficult thing of all and makes music usually restricted to the hallowed libraries of institutions somehow read perfectly amongst label- mates Kreng and Gultskra Artikler. Davis and Uitti are not self-consciously ‘dark’ but their treatments, when combined evoke unmistakably shadowy, abstract imagery. It would be demeaning to simply label ‘Gramercy’ as cinematic, but this is dreamlike and alluring in the best possible way, bringing to mind the seamier, more unusual celluloid memories you could possibly conjure up. While challenging, the patient listener will be rewarded with an album of divine restraint, with its darkest corners inhabited by barely a whisper of sound, and in the end it is this which truly scares us.
A closer listen
How can musicians move music forward? By inventing new instruments – a tricky proposition – or learning to play old instruments in new ways. Gareth Davis & Frances-Marie Uitti take the latter path on Gramercy. Davis is billed as a “clarinet abuser”, although this is perhaps the wrong term, as no crime seems to have been committed against the instrument; instead, its fullest potential has been exposed. Davis doesn’t just play a note, and then another; he experiments with atonal scales, trills and percussive persuasions. Meanwhile, Uitti demonstrates her “twin bow technique”, playing the cello with two bows at once. As one might expect, the effect often sounds like the work of two cellists, especially given the album’s tempered stereo mastering. Combined, the two present an album that is engagingly unusual. The bigger surprise is that neither performer goes off on their own improvisational tangent. Each listens and responds while playing, an extremely difficult feat given the intensity of the performances.
The album challenges listeners to accompany the duo into greater depths as it progresses: a relatively accessible opening piece, followed by two edgier pieces, and then a 21-minute adventure. The curiousity of that opening piece (“2 am”) is that it is so lilting, lovely, and tonal, as if Davis & Uitti are saying, “Look, we know how to do this too, we just prefer to go off-road.” This piece would nestle nicely alongside Greg Haines’ recent Digressions. Having established a home base, the duo then moves on. “Felt” draws out its initial notes, then flutters, alighting and then disembarking from minor keys, refusing to accommodate preconceptions of scale. The track then descends to more thoughtful arenas, subverting expectations yet again by refusing to provide a climax. “Smoke” sounds exactly like its title, dark and low, and “Cold Call” is its shuffling aftermath.
A 21-minute track can be a risk or a declaration. “Detour” is the whirlpool toward which all the other tracks float, the four before and the two behind. On this piece, Davis & Uitti provide an unrushed, unabashed glimpse of what they do best, exploring sonic properties without regard to obvious melody or hook. By this time, the listener is either in or out. “Detour” is akin to the conversation before the commitment, in which one or both parties say, “There’s something you should know about me first.” The only nod to convention is that it starts slowly; it’s not something one would whistle or hum. The midsection is nearly silent, a cave in which Davis & Uitti scrawl their petroglyphs. This makes the stark emergence all the more memorable, a dance of survival and blood.
Two tracks later, the pair present a second extended piece, but after “Detour”, “Stained” seems to operate as a coda, a reminder of the distance traveled from first selection to last. Both instruments rise to an agitated state before collapsing on the threshold of the ninth minute. The long slide to silence is a contemplative gift: an example of restraint in the most welcome of places. Improvisational as Gramercy may be, it is also intentional. By the end, the album’s title is justified: gramercy is an archaic expression signifying gratitude and surprise.
Ombre sur la mesure
Le couple du jour est composé de virtuoses. L’un, Gareth Davis, clarinettiste de formation, se situe plus dans d’obscures et éclatantes oeuvres débordant allégrement les frontières du jazz contemporain pour lorgner vers une formule que tous comprendront : les musiques improvisées. On le rattache très souvent et justement à ses travaux aux côtés du génial Machinefabriek (sur des labels reconnus comme Sonic Pieces et Home Normal), plus rarement et c’est bien dommage, à ses expérimentations jazz. L’autre, Frances-Marie Uitti, a juste révolutionné l’utilisation du violoncelle. Jouer avec deux archets ne lui fait pas peur, tout comme le rejet de toute hiérachie tonale (traduction : la grammaire musicale classique de la musique occidentale). Si son oeuvre la plus citée est sans doute celle qui la voit redessiner les Works For Cello de John Cage, on a également pu la voir traîner du côté du label jazz moderne, aussi passionnant que décrié, ECM. C’est le toujours impressionnant et inventif label Miasmah qui héberge ce projet forcément exceptionnel. Nous avions volontairement fait l’impasse sur la dernière sortie du label de Svarte Greiner (génie dark ambient incontestable) réalisée par Gultskra Artikler, car trop perchée à notre goût et trop habitée par un vivier folklorique (des Carpates ?) difficilement « chroniquable ». Mais revenons plutôt à notre joyau du soir.
Qu’est ce qui a pu pousser deux orfèvres de l’expressionnisme à collaborer ensemble. On s’en fout. Mais tellement. Car outre le saisissant romantisme torturé qui suinte de toute part, c’est ce sentiment d’alchimie véritable, cette impression singulière de l’union du bois et du cuivre pour parler un seul et unique language intraductible, et celà d’une seule voix. Car oui, parler de complémentarité s’élève ici comme un cliché sans nom, comme une insulte à l’unicité de l’union.
Et peu importe les étiquettes, la description et l’intellectualisation technique d’une oeuvre qu’il a bien fallu achever. Je n’y connais absolument rien en musique contemporaine, c’est avant tout parce que résulte de ce disque une puissance et une profondeur phénoménale que je place mes humbles mots à son propos. Parce que la musique du duo d’un jour, si savante et si contemporaine, donne peut-être sans même y avoir pensé un relief imposant à des musiques qu’on a plus l’habitude de pratiquer ici. L’exemple le plus frappant (c’est le mot), réside à coup sûr dans les tranchées béantes de Smoke, où on peut entendre le couple frapper son instrument comme une arme silencieuse pour en faire sortir l’insoupçonnable. Voici qui a presque un côté punk vu et dit comme ça. C’est même le cas, même si je soupçonne nos deux amis d’avoir laissé il y a bien longtemps les chiens sortir de la Quechua. Évoquons alors le terrifiant Cold Call, qui ferait passer n’importe quel poussée dark ambient et sound design comme acnéique.
La musique de Davis et Uitti est un cri déchirant, hurlé à la face d’un monde sourd, qui voit du jazz partout là où il y a du cuivre. Qui pense qu’il suffit de péter dans un hautbois pour accoucher d’un Haendel, qu’il suffit de se réclamer de l’ethnomusicologie pour pouvoir parler de Bela Bartok. Même si encore une fois, je m’évade au dernier moment de ma bile indigeste pour ne pas m’y noyer, cette séance de name dropping est à mon sens tout sauf opportuniste, ne serait-ce qu’à d’épars et calfeutrés moments.
Puis vient le temps des fresques, Detour et Stained, d’où surgissent des bouillons gutturaux, des drones abyssaux, un reliquat jazz caverneux, des crins cisaillés par une douleur qui ne dit pas son nom. Des réponses aux cris respectifs et aux plaintes pour conserver cet esprit de corps et de consistance. Les silences, ici posés, interviennent plus comme une ponctuation certes anarchique mais agglomérante, que comme une orpheline attente vers la fin d’un hypothétique morcellement de l’ensemble. Le plus court mais excellent Ranzor, liera idéalement les deux pavés dans leur scission fugace.
Peu de mots sont adaptés pour décrire pareille expérience, fascinante autant qu’elle est dérangeante. J’espère donc que vous pardonnerez les miens et que vous vous rabattrez sur une musique, qui parle d’elle même. Miasmah frappe ici un grand coup sourd à destination d’un auditoire exigeant, équipé d’un matériel d’écoute à la hauteur de l’oeuvre. Le romantisme ici dévoilé, certes macabre mais peu funeste, ne peut qu’emporter l’adhésion des plus aigris. Qu’on se le dise.
Gramercy is an anxiety attack waiting to happen; a languid, seemingly infinite prelude to madness. Every second draws closer the darkest of thoughts, nestled in the furthest corners of the mind with no chance of evading those events, no chances of stopping the terrible from becoming a reality. They say there’s nothing to fear but itself, well think again, for this wait is far worse and it will shake your being.
To the first time listener, the melancholy emanating from Frances-Marie Uitti’s cello on album opener “2 am” – probably the most straight forward track on the album – might seem as dark as it gets. It’s brooding, cold and shapes up as an instantaneous call for attention on the listeners’ behalf. What ensues from then on, however, abandons melody almost completely and focuses entirely on the atonal, using abrupt silences and Gareth Davis’ clarinet drones to maximal effect. What follows is a test to anyone who listens to the album, an exercise in allowing the overpowering sense of despair to conquer one’s thoughts and send listeners to terrains they often avoid treading. An overwhelming urge to recluse from all things material runs deep; that far corner in your room seems like exactly the place to be at the moment.
On viewing the album as a whole, a twisted sense of symmetry begins to reveal itself around the album’s centerpiece and clear highlight “Detour”. Sounds unfurl, with cello and clarinet playing as extremely interesting counterpoints to each other, and dissolve into nothing but distant wails. As we approach the aforementioned “Detour” sounds begin to disappear, the music grows slower, silence prevails. It would be natural for one to expect that this silence will give way to something louder, more tangible, a long awaited resolution to the wait, at least one would hope so, but Davis and Uitti have other plans in mind.
Chaos resumes, reaching its peak, the drones have gotten more abrasive and the notes less and less audible. We ask for reprieve, hell we beg for it! The answer remains a very firm “NO!” and by the end of that extremely solemn, highly ill advised, detour, silence returns. “Razor” shuts one out completely and reasserts what “Cold Call” achieves. We accept our fate and come what may, nothing good can come out of it; we surrender. The music is that intense; it consumes all around it with no need for overdoing anything, a stroke of rarely paralleled genius.
The question that begs to be asked right now is why would anyone put him/herself through all this? Why would someone, after reading this, want that amount this amount of madness? Simply put, because it adds flavor to one’s day, it shakes things up and opens closed caverns in one’s mind. It stirs the thinking in a way that I personally haven’t experienced before through music alone. There will always be a yearning to opt out, press the stop button, pick that needle off the record and take the easy way out, but with music this raw and with a gravitational pull as strong as such, it is nearly impossible. This is a record that has to be played from start to finish, a ride that has to be taken without pit stops and one that ends up enlightening its listener.
Being released through Miasmah, this album takes the label in a somewhat different direction since it might be the most atonal, arrhythmic project to be released by the label so far. Signs of any percussion, or moving forward in anyway aren’t to be found on this hour long record, a sickly beautiful all encompassing stalemate, which makes the prospect of whatever Mr. Skodvin picks next for his label extremely appetising and incredibly hard to predict. Having reviewed five of Miasmah’s last seven releases both here and on the pages of The Silent Ballet, the label doesn’t seem to be backing down any time soon and it might be, or in fact is, the most exciting label in experimental music these days. Some will think it’s an overstatement, but it isn’t. END.
The sparse, spare yet evocative track titles on this collaboration between clarinettist Gareth Davis and cellist Frances-Marie Uitti, if taken all together, offer up a for-once helpful guide to the music that they are labelling. Pieces called ‘Smoke’ ‘Razor’ ‘Stained’ ‘2 am’ and ‘Cold Call’ were never going to be lush, rich or pastoral in a way that might be reasonably expected from the instruments involved, and, indeed, Uitti’s twin-bowed cello playing and Davis’s guttural, droning clarinet together serve up a brew that is much harsher, more astringent and abrasively arresting than that.
Opener ‘2 am’ starts abruptly, casting you straight into its feeling of late-night dread with its scratchy sawing strings, underpinned with the clarinet’s keening gloom, rising and falling, vibrating on its deepest notes. Eddies of night time angst are mirrored by the ripples that rise and fall. The moments where the two instruments dovetail provide coherence and, often, beauty to the piece, a motif found again and again throughout the album, noteably also in ‘Felt’, ‘Razor’ and on ‘Stained’ at the album’s end, where their intertwining brings an understated loveliness to the surrounding tremors of unease.
Changes of pace and mood abound. ‘Felt’ and the (once again) aptly-named ‘Detour’ both lead the listener on a chaotic stop-start journey full of tension, suspense, stately elongated passages disrupted by frantic outbursts. The 20+ minutes of ‘Detour’ include moments where Davis’ clarinet takes on the sci-fi sheen of a synth, while at others, Uitti’s cello playing – remarkably – seems to evoke muttering, sarcastic speech, providing an under-the-breath commentary on the music. It often seems like the playing is a deliberate experiment, an exercise in the trying-on of different moods, paces and effects – the two musicians testing out different sound combinations and points of synchronicity and divergence, half-haphazard, seeing which ones best intersect.
At the album’s heart is the astonishing ‘Cold Call’, an organic, literally [heavy] breathing beast of a piece. Sparse and infused with weighty gaps and near-silent spaces, it features cello like footfall and clarinet that Davis seems to blow so gently, so tentatively, that no notes are hit, only painful breathless breaths taken and amplified. These two elements combine into an eerie mix of the unsettling and the curiously, blankly calming in this piece that is down to its bare bones – stripped of some of the histrionic or frantic elements found elsewhere.
After ‘Razor’ gives us suitably slashing string striations, which emerge after its almost dubstep-py womp womp womp opening throb, the long end piece, ‘Stained’, once again runs the gamut of atmosphere and mood, the stain of half-stated fears described by the undulating clarinet notes, the loud moments of intensity frantic, the quieter moments finding both instruments conjuring the image of floorboards creaking in a deserted room. The clarinet both flickers like an extinguishing flame, and sustains a long, final fading note, while the cello behind it plays a repeated two-note segment, like a muted siren, before the album ends with 20 seconds of silence.
Gareth Davis and Frances-Marie Uitti, both remarkable musicians, have come together on Gramercy to produce something yet more remarkable in their collaborating; a piece of music that genuinely sounds like nothing else that these two instruments might produce in combination – difficult, dark, full of inquietude, dread and sombre tones, but also infused with a gritty hard-won beauty in places, and the ability to occasionally delight as well as confront and surprise the listener.
Erik Skodvin’s Miasmah label has made a name for itself by means of a very clear-cut focus on dark ambient and modern composition. And while the sonic palette has been expanded a little bit recently – with the addition of Simon Scott’s shoegazing elements and of Kreng’s jazz surrealism – it would still be hard to claim that Miasmah are thinking outside their proverbial box. The most recent offering, a collaboration of clarinettist Gareth Davis and cellist Frances-Marie Uitti, closes out what little light some of the more recent releases have let into the dark cinematic box of modern composition. In other words: “Gramercy” is as orthodox Miasmahian as an album could possibly be – and it’s an absolute stunner.
Davis, who collaborated with Steven R. Smith and Machinefabriek in the past, breathes unnerving drones or hiccups muted chokes. It is Uitti’s cello, however, which dominates the album. Playing two bows at once, she drowns Davis’s clarinet to dramatic effect. It is when realizing he is edged out that Davis retreats to unsettling melodies to stand his ground. There is an insistence on individual sounds that is reminiscent of free jazz. Clearly, both artists approach their instruments academically rather than aiming at a particular soundscape. Yet that is precisely where they frequently arrive. It is as if both instruments were bleeding into each other, withering in the process until – album centrepiece “Detour” is longer than 20 minutes – a wasteland is all that’s left. “Gramercy”, then, is a ride from the conservatory to Twin Peaks. “Gramercy” is out on cd and 2lp, the latter containing a download code and two bonus tracks.