Saxophonist and composer Bertrand Denzler manages to balance a dizzying number of projects, from free jazz-based groups to improvisational settings melding acoustic instruments and electronics to solo work to fully composed pieces. This year alone, he’s released trio recordings with himself on tenor along with bassist Joel Grip and drummer Sven-Åke Johansson; another with tenor and Ilia Belorukov on alto saxophone and electronics and Miguel A. Garcia on electronics; a duo with bassist Dominic Lash; a solo tenor recording; and this recording of a piece composed for the string ensemble CoÔ. Take a look at the Recent Collaborations page on Denzler’s web site and that list extends even further. But across all of these disparate projects, Denzler’s singular focus is the nuanced detail of sound and the elemental timbres of the instruments he works with.
The group CoÔ is a subset of Onceim (Orchestre de Nouvelles Créations, Expérimentations et Improvisations Musicales) a large ensemble dedicated to collective improvisation as well as music compositions written for the group. Denzler worked previously with the full ensemble for a performance of his composition Morph (reviewed by Stuart Broomer in PoD 51) and Arc follows the general strategies mined in that piece. While Morph utilized a 24-piece ensemble with strings, reeds, percussion, organ, and electronics, the instrumentation for Arc features a septet of violin, two violas, cello, and three double basses. Like on Morph, the two-part composition Arc retains the utilization of tonal striations as its underlying structural underpinning, but the focus on the interaction of harmonics and overtones of strings and the compositional strategies make for some engaging differences.
The recording begins with “Arc 1.1,” an 18-minute exploration of dark, resonant arco sonorities. The piece is structured around eighteen segments of sound, each ranging from just under 30 seconds to just over 60 seconds, separated by short sections of silence. One can hear the ensemble navigating the structure with careful collective listening and an organic sense of time. Some segments are imbued with the low-end rumble of the three basses while, on others, just the thinnest whisper of rasped overtones comes through. While the full aural span of the ensemble is utilized in the opening and closing segments, there is no readily discernable progression of balance, pitch, or dynamic. Instead, the ensemble fully absorbs the form of the piece, voicing each segment with clear starts and stops, letting them sit within the unfolding passage of time.
“Arc 2.1” has a more straight-through structure, the 23-minute piece bisected into two sections roughly equal in length broken by a 15-second pause. Here, the ensemble moves its way through the gradated layering of the piece with a resolute attention to the mutable interactions of slowly modulated pitch and dynamics. Listening, one hears textures and registers hover against the rich field of the full string section, yet there is never a time where any specific voice or instrument dominates. Again, each member of the ensemble fully assimilates the overall collective advance across the duration of the piece, with each tuning, adjusting, and tempering their playing in relation to the supple overlapping cooperative layers. It is easy to lose oneself in the evolving richness of the piece, which patiently winds its way to the lush resonance of the final closing minutes. While all of Denzler’s work is worth searching out, these recordings of his compositions are always welcome.
Michael Rosenstein l Point of Departure l September 2019
Swiss-born, Paris-resident Bertrand Denzler is best known as an intrepid explorer of improvised music and the saxophone’s sonic and expressive range, from free jazz to improvised music, including the extraordinary group Hubbub whose music may offer immediately the rewards of meditation. In recent years he has emerged as a composer, his works including the quartet pieces called Horns 1.2 and 2.1 and the orchestra piece Morph written for the Parisian group ONCEIM, l’Orchestre de Nouvelles Créations, Expérimentations et Improvisation Musicales.
That compositional focus takes a further step here, to a piece for strings in which Denzler appears only as composer. Ensemble CoÔ is a septet organized by bassist Félicie Bazelaire, consisting of the bowed strings of ONCEIM: violinist Patricia Bosshard; violists Cyprien Busolini and Elodie Gaudet; cellist Anaïs Moreau; and the bassists Bazelaire, Benjamin Duboc and Frédéric Marty. Significantly, Arc doesn’t follow the monolithic scale of those previous compositions; however, it retains the fascinating exploration of pseudo-drones, music that is continuous in texture but consisting of shifting materials, doing it, though, at radically truncated lengths. Instead it’s divided into two parts, which are then further subdivided.
Arc 1.1 is 18 minutes long and includes numerous short segments of varying lengths, averaging under a minute and separated from one another by silences of (roughly) 14 seconds each. Each of the short segments is characterized by continuous bowing, in which the three basses invariably dominate the texture, dense, sometimes multiphonic industrial growls (achieved perhaps by bowing simultaneously with both the wood and hair of the bow, with a slack bow or with two bows) or hollow harmonics echoing through the vast interiors of the instruments. Through these dense undercurrents pass the eerie, reedy tones of violin or viola, sometimes sounding like radio signals from deep space.
The lack of conventional development within the individual pieces turns them into objects of contemplation, the individual bow strokes and sustained tones of the instruments functioning like layers of gauze, with the gauze itself the subject of one’s concentration, the combinations of gauzes creating different textures and (to sustain the metaphor) colors. Each segment is distinct but similar in its fabrication; each silence becomes itself a component of the work.
The longer Arc 2.1 (23 minutes) is divided into two parts. The textures are denser and more varied as well as sustained, but the sense of shifting overlays remains. The first segment (about 11 minutes) is almost a harbour symphony (fog horns aren’t far away) and there are more dramatic gestures, like slowly ascending glissandi among some of the strings, as if a ship were somehow achieving the doppler effect of an approaching airplane.
These larger movements may be more complex, but they’re ultimately one with the short segments of 1.1. The entire work is possessed of an extraordinary, measured calm, a tranquility in movement, a dialectic between the still and the moving that constitutes a fresh aesthetic gesture, a cinematic effect in sound. The cumulative effect of the work is sufficiently plural that it may well include the individual musicians’ input and decisions. Reflecting Denzler’s background, the music achieves a sense of internal order that feels at once improvised and composed. Arc is one of the most interesting pieces of the year.
Stuart Broomer l The Free Jazz Collective l August 2019
Denzler has created a few of my favorite pieces of music over the last 5 - 10 years, always pushing into areas one doesn't expect, especially from an improvising saxophonist. Here, he enlists the aid of the group, CoÔ, made up of the string section of the fine Ensemble ONCEIM (Patricia Bosshard, violin; Cyprien Busolini, viola; Élodie Gaudet, viola; Anaïs Moreau, cello; Félicie Bazelaire, double bass; Benjamin Duboc, double bass; Frédéric Marty, double bass) in the production of two dense, mysterious and rich works, 'Arc 1.1' and 'Arc 2.1'.
The first is a series of grainy, complex swatches of bowed tones, undulating internally, shifting ground in a fascinating manner, some voices ascending, some static, some shifting unpredictably, the whole emerging as a kind of material--I think of a fabric but one that has the complexity of stone if that makes any sense. There's something of a Niblockian aspect, but smaller scale and isolated, allowing for great penetration into each morsel, at the same time allowing them to be considered side by side as the work progresses. The predominance of low strings provides a wonderful, thick bedrock as well. 'Arc 2.1' is a kind of diptych, the sound unbroken for the first half of its 23 minutes, a brief pause, then continuing. The low, surging lines sound like dopplered airplane engines, the higher strings swirling and eddying like avian murmurations, fluctuating in a seeming random manner but evoking a difficult-to-pin-down logic, ranging ever higher and wispier. Again, the spirit of Niblock seems to hover but Denzler has found his own domain and applied a very fine ear to the strings, the ensemble brilliantly reacting to his requests.
Wonderful, entrancing music--a great job all around.
Brian Olewnick l Just Outside l July 2019
Composer Bertrand Denzler’s Arc, a two-part work for string septet, is a meditation on the sonic possibilities opened up by, and open to, contemporary advanced string performance technique. The piece was composed for and in collaboration with double bassist/cellist Félicie Bazelaire and CoÔ, a string ensemble put together by Bazelaire for the express purpose of extending the range of string music through the commissioning of new work and the development of string instruments’ technical resources.
Like much interesting new music, Arc represents the realization of a poetics of extended technique. Both of its parts are made up floating blocks of sound densely composed of multiphonics, unpitched noise, slow glissandi, harmonics and overtone patterns thrown off by a variety of extended and conventional bowings. Arc 1.1 is episodically structured as a series of brief events of approximately one minute each separated by several seconds of silence. By contrast, Arc 2.1 develops in a weightier, more cumulative manner. Its 23-minute length is broken in two by a few seconds’ silence at roughly the midpoint; each half is a long evolutionary event of slow harmonic change with a quasi-electronic, feedback-like sound. On both Arc 1.1 and Arc 2.1 the presence of three double basses in the septet gives the piece a virtually omnipresent low undercurrent, felt even when not explicitly heard.
Daniel Barbiero l Avant Music News l July 2019
This release is particularly welcome as Potlatch Records has not released an album since Infra by Pascale Criton, in September 2017. As the label issued its first album—No Waiting, by Derek Bailey & Joëlle Léandre—in 1998, this is an opportunity to mark the ground-breaking label's twentieth anniversary, and send congratulations to proprietor Jacques Oger. It is fitting that an album featuring Bertrand Denzler marks the occasion, as he has been a Potlatch regular, in various guises.
Recently, saxophonist Denzler has gradually been transforming from performer (as on his 2011 Potlatch solo album Tenor ) to performer/composer (the 2015 Confront release Morph with ONCEIM) to composer (the 2018 Confront Collector Series album Basse Seule, written by Denzler, performed solo by bassist Félicie Bazelaire).
Although the cover of Arc credits Bertrand Denzler / CoÔ, its music was written by Denzler and performed by the seven-member CoÔ, which consists of the bowed strings from ONCEIM (l'Orchestre de Nouvelles Créations, Expérimentations et Improvisation Musicales, incidentally), including the septet's founder Bazelaire as one of its three double basses, alongside a cello, a violin and two violas. So, after writing for one bass on Basse Seule Denzler has now written for seven strings. The music here consists of the eighteen-minute "Arc 1.1" and the twenty-three minute "Arc 2.1."
Straight from the start of "Arc 1.1" it is clear that we are not in conventional string quartet territory, nor in that of improvising string ensembles such as Stellari String Quartet or Barrel. Having seven stringed instruments, in particular those three double basses, gives a rich, bottom-heavy soundscape which resembles that of an orchestra more than a quartet or trio. Denzler's compositions exploit those characteristics to the full. Although Basse Seule consisted mainly of a series of short études for bass, with a couple of longer pieces, the two Arc tracks have the same composer's fingerprints on them. Both make extensive use of long arco bass notes which never approach drone territory, but serve to underpin the music.
"Arc 1.1" consists of eighteen pieces ranging in length from thirty to seventy-five seconds, most being around fifty seconds long. The pieces are separated by breaks and so stand alone, although employing similar sounds. They are not particularly melodic, sounding as if they were written for dramatic effect, occasionally employing extended playing techniques to achieve this. The overall impression is like a cinematic soundtrack where short bursts of music fit particular scenes; in this case, given the album cover's beautiful spacey images, the appropriate scenes might involve the aliens' mother ship hovering just above a terrified city while the inhabitants anxiously wait to learn their fate...
In contrast, "Arc 2.1" consists of two extended pieces of about eleven minutes each, separated by a short break. Their lengths give the composer and performers a larger canvas to work with and they fully exploit that; in particular, the violin, violas and cello are far more in evidence, their parts being well-framed by the ever-present basses. As before, long arco notes prevail and merge together to amply fill the soundscape, creating rich, relaxing music in which it is very easy to drift off and lose oneself; this would be the ideal musical accompaniment to lying on one's back on a warm summer's evening and gazing up at the heavens, free of alien mother ships, of course. Exquisite. (Try it as you listen to the YouTube sample of the piece, below.)
On this showing, we must hope that Denzler continues to expand his composing activities... without abandoning his playing, of course.
John Eyles l All About Jazz l June 2019