October 15, 2021
Audibly limbering up in an adjacent room in this heavily white-painted, minimalist Cologne church, the NYC alto saxophonist and multi-layering composer Lea Bertucci was appearing at Week of Surprise, formerly titled Night of Surprise. Innate saxophonic reverberation qualities rippled and bounced around the corner, through the doors, into the performing space, and Bertucci hadn’t even started her set yet…
The concept underlying artistic director Thomas Glaesser’s Night of Surprise, in the pre-virus years, was to subject its audience to multiple and simultaneous sonic temptations, with free admission encouraging adventurous chance encounters. With fairly strict German virus-regulations remaining in force, that single day now became an entire week, for 2021, with gigs spread out, ticketed, and limited in attendance numbers.
As this was your scribe’s first experience of Surprise, the difference wasn’t as startling as it would have been for the seasoned Cologne denizen. Although presented more as a conventional festival season in structure, the week’s contents were almost always out there on the front line, prodding toward further developments in the listening experience. The chief venue was Stadtgarten, one of the city’s main pair of wayward music locations, the other being The (nearby) Loft.
As Bertucci begins, she carefully produces breath sounds through her mouthpiece, instantly multiplied electronically so that this lone human emission becomes, before too long, a still-growing whalesong, rumbling around the walls, up into the high-vaulting ceiling. Bassiness and howling co-exist, on varied levels, and reed-biting shivers shoot through the atmosphere. Bertucci builds quickly, increasing mass, vocalizing to encourage feedback, making indrawn gulps and lip-clicks. It’s a challenge to unravel her gatherings, to locate each source, but why would we want to do so anyway?
Bertucci’s tone, particularly when inhabiting immense reverberating structures, is sometimes reminiscent of that issued by English altoman Trevor Watts, when he’s thrown into a suitably large, and matching hollow chamber. Listen to the ECM album Stella Malu, from 1981, his collaboration with pianist Katrina Krimsky.
Spit-frosting in an ice cavern, Bertucci subtly bends high tones in space, searching for frequencies that tickle deep into our ears, not necessarily due to loudness, but more via their highly unusual qualities, not normally found in nature. Eventually, a more active fingering ensues, then Bertucci places her horn on a side table, once some of these emissions have been captured. There’s a small dictaphone held up to a microphone, there’s a certain amount of sample-looping, electroacoustic manipulation, and then there’s this voluminous house of worship, acting as a big-ass amplifier.
We’ve already imagined whales, and now the hard-clack dolphins are darting into this pulsating sphere of sound. Wrested control leads to glacial cracks. Heat doesn’t seem to figure in Bertucci’s music this evening. Locusts swarm through dead radio, making a vibrating hum through this personal cavern-river. Everything is environmental.
Bertucci switches the aura suddenly when she brings out her long wooden flute. Huge ships crush the docks. She makes music that’s structurally, with its alto core, not so far from jazz. But she’s also a naturist noise-sculptor, a deep drone extremist, and a minimalist in the fundamental sense of the word. Bertucci is also, simultaneously, a maximalist, probably at her finest when found in a suitably cavernous space, a naturally reverberant housing.
The following performance was theoretically well-matched, also imbued with space-inhabiting (or space-changing) qualities. The veteran French composer Éliane Radigue was known for her electronic or electroacoustic works, prior to writing Elemental II. This marked a shift of emphasis toward a new repertoire for “acoustic” instrumentation when it was premiered in 2004. Radigue wrote the piece specially for Kasper T. Toeplitz, who performed here at Christuskirche on a two-necked electric bass, turned down to a whispering level. It had the look of a harp, subtly curved, with one volume-control effects pedal for each foot.
A growing sub-rumble makes a sluggish progression up a very gradual slope, with an extremely low degree of change, the ongoing rumble not as enveloping as desired. Toeplitz uses an e-bow to multiply the generated tones, which seem to speed up gradually, if a suspended tone can do such a thing. The quad-speaker set-up assists in full-room colonization of the aqueous high-string emergence, actually sounding like strings, softly caressed and tentative. A bowed phase produces a levitating effect, but there was still little enfolding of the listener in this subterranean state. If the audience hadn’t realized that Radigue penned the composition for Toeplitz, or that it marked a significant change of direction, the piece becoming stripped of its practical background, it would have sounded quite underwhelming.