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at27        duet

Martine Altenburger   cello

John Russell   guitar

total time:  45:29

recorded in Jarny, France, 22nd November 2008

youtube extract


Duet is a recording by Martine Altenberger (cello) and John Russell (guitar) it is one of a handful of new releases on the ever prolific Another Timbre label. Now, this CD will have its critics, mostly from those adverse to what seems these days to be called EFI, or European Free Improvisation, for reasons I have never quite understood, but the term seems to work well as shorthand for those that choose to divide improvised music up into convenient chunks. Duet will probably fall under the EFI heading because it is made by musicians that have been improvising for quite a while, involves acoustic instrumentation and in places can sound quite fast and busy. Still just sounds like an improvised music CD to me ;) So yes it is true that this CD could have been released twenty years ago without anyone blinking an eye. It isn’t as full-on and frantic as you might expect however, quite the opposite in many places, but certainly it is acoustic, doesn’t involve much in the way of extended technique and portrays a direct dialogue between the two musicians. In fact, its beauty all lies in that dialogue.

Duet was recorded live at a festival in France in 2008. I’ve no idea if Russell and Altenburger had played together prior to this occasion, but it probably doesn’t matter. This is an unedited recording of a meeting of the two musicians, a conversation if you will, almost as if someone had sneaked a recording device into a semi-heated debate over afternoon tea, only the words here are replaced by the sounds of bowed and struck cello and plucked and strummed acoustic guitar. I actually do listen to this music as if I were listening to two voices, If other improv records might include a wider variety of sounds, so that the juxtaposition of disparate elements might add to the intrigue, break up the flow, so here this CD contains a simple, if intricate conversation between two musical voices. The sounds do seem to sing out as if articulating words, lines of interlocking sound do feel like sentences, sometimes squabbling with one another, sometimes in harmony. The lack of any edit suggests a warts and all discussion, the good bits thrown in with the awkward, the rushes of activity offset by the temporary gasps for air. If you just sit and listen here, separating the two sets of sounds in your head, thinking of them as individual voices but then listening to how they interlock and correspond then there is so much pleasure to take from this recording. This one isn’t about the overall impact of the music, or the laminal effects of layered sounds, its all about the interaction.

Now it would be easy to apply the above description to any one of dozens of improv releases, and perhaps when writing about improvised music releases of this kind there can be no other way of recommending the music than to just suggest people just follow the music in this way, unravelling the musical dialogue. Duet though is a great example of when improvised music of this kind really works. I have been a fan of John Russell’s wonderfully expressive guitar playing since the mid nineties, his trio with Phil Durrant and John Butcher making a big impact on me in my formative years. Altenburger I am less familiar with, but her confident but yet delicately subtle playing here is a great match for Russell, their sounds close enough to lock together tightly in places, but with a switch of the bow different enough to act in contrast of one another. They are both highly skilled however, and as natural improvisers as you might ever wish for, so the conversation is always engaging, always involving for the attentive listener.

So yes this CD will have its critics. I’m not amongst them however. Its also a great CD to listen to in preparation for this weekend’s festival. Russell will be amongst the musicians I see play tomorrow, looking forward to that. Oh yes and a nice sleeve design as well.”                                                                                  Richard Pinnell,  The Watchful Ear

The following excellent article by Jesse Goin was written as an extended review of Duet on his blog Crow with no Mouth:

“How do you differentiate, when making evaluative judgments, between a musician producing strong work in a specific lineage, and a musician being merely derivative? How do you define, and privilege, innovation over the extension of a tradition? How, for example, is pianist John Tilbury deemed brilliant, even while nearly every critical response to his work contains the apt signifier Feldmanesque, while many other improvisers are regarded less kindly for their decision to essentially continue working through a self-limiting area of sound?

The century-old squabble, to place this question in the context of visual art, over whether Georges Braque or Picasso authored the Cubist revolution came to mind, as I researched the guitarist John Russell and found, again and again, guitarist Derek Bailey in nearly every entry. I am far from an art historian, but I think one thing is clear- Braque was well underway in improvising against the hold Cezanne and other antecedents had on his approach to painting, when he met Picasso. That encounter served as equal parts apprenticeship, catalyst and, eventually, co-creation of new possibilities. As Braque moved beyond the orbit of Picasso, he came to this idea- the painting is finished, Braque said, when the idea has disappeared. At some point in any apprenticeship, the student may develop beyond the original idea and conceptual approach of his teacher. His work is his work, when the idea disappears.

London-based guitarist John Russell has performed, organized festivals, and articulated his ideas about free improvisation for 40 years. He is well represented by a discography that includes some celebrated releases; for many, the most recent gem is the reissue of the sole available recording of the ensemble News From The Shed. This 1989 quintet date is now regarded as a seminal work in the transition for several of its members from the discursive, dialogical and, as one of its participants [trombonist Radu Malfatti] has it, on-and-on-going gabbiness of much free improvisation, to something new- a branch of improvisation that jettisons gabbiness, dialogue and high speed reactions, for a reassessment of the uses of elements like silence, erasure of foreground/background, and a heightened sense of attunement, to reference Malfatti again, to the lull in the storm.

I focus on this particular project, out of all those Russell had been involved with in the nearly two decades preceding News From The Shed, for a reason. While three of his fellows from the quintet- Malfatti, Phil Durrant, and John Butcher- would gradually move further into the radically quieter, less virtuosic and uncluttered area of improvisation called, variously, reductionist, lower-case and EAI, Russell would continue to hone and meliorate the basic elements heard across the decades in his approach- empathic, dialogical, interactive free improvisation; yes, often garrulous, using high-speed reactions and by now familiar extended techniques to draw forth any and every sound from his acoustic guitars. The collective sound of that ensemble was a fulcrum for some to leap into a new field, and for Russell to continue plumbing the more familiar ground established many years earlier in his association with guitarist Derek Bailey. I am reactive, Bailey stated more than once, and Russell's plumb-line, extending a true vertical of free improvisation, is reactive as well.

As I said earlier, I did some surveying of the writing about Russell on the internet; culled from reviews of records and live performances, whether enthusiastic or indifferent, the shadow of Bailey falls across nearly everything I read. In the years since Russell left his former teacher's orbit, whom he received lessons from in the early 70's, he has developed the germinal Bailey approaches-plectrum scrapes and string rasps, above-the-nut plinks, rapid successions of alternating harmonics, percussive chord attacks, and dense, dark harmonies. Anyone, whether intimate or merely acquainted with Bailey's guitar sound, can identify the elements in Russell's approach.

Russell has not remained, however, in that orbit. His approach to the guitar, exclusively acoustic since 1977, engages areas of sound possibilities with greater patience, lingers longer to develop a sound, permits much more silence, clarifies notes and tones through fragmentation and splintering; he reduces and settles, as much as he agitates and roils. In a way I do not believe we ever play music, but are sometimes lucky to get close to it, Russell once stated in an interview, and personally I find that free improvisation specific to a time and place is the best way to do this.

Russell gets close to the music in his duet with cellist Martine Altenburger, titled Duet, released in 2010 on Another Timbre. Duet is a live performance from a 2008 festival in France, edited into five tracks. The sound is excellent, warm and intimate. Wood and wire are heard with clarity, and the silences and rests sound equally live.

Cellist Altenburger is a new name to me, and most certainly to most of you as well. She is conservatory trained, but leaped into a pool of improvisers around 1989 that included Michel Doneda and Le Quan Ninh. Her name appears on only a few releases, despite Ms. Altenburger's consistent involvement with performance events for over 20 years. She moves between performances of Cage and Scelsi, and dates like Duet, in which she scrabbles and sings on the cello, engaging Russell confidently and, at times, mimetically. She pulls a wide range of sounds from the cello, pizzicatto as well as her rich, singing bow work. I do not hear either musician employ extended techniques irrelevantly, or in a show-boating fashion. Rather, Duet is another specific time and place for Russell and Altenburger to push out beyond the received ideas, into conference, engagement, and occasionally, bracing and beautiful confluence. The price of the ticket is met, for me, in the concluding several minutes of track 4, as the duo entwine Altenburger's keening, melancholy cello line, with Russell's odd, strummed folk chords, repeated just long enough to invoke an ancient song.

Duet isn't for anyone insistent on hearing a new innovation in every release; it is for ears that value, as Milo Fine titled his 1977 release, the constant extension of inescapable tradition.  Or, as Braque said a little earlier in time, Progress in art does not consist in reducing limitations, but in knowing them better.”                         Jesse Goin, Crow with no Mouth

“Coming into this batch, this was the one I figured would be the least enticing. An unfair pre-assessment, perhaps, as I only know Russell's work a little bit and, to the best of my knowledge, had never heard Altenburger before, but I (admittedly) mentally grouped it toward the efi end of things. Well, it is, I suppose, but it's also a rather nice surprise. It's far more considered than most such improvising and both players tend toward the lower end of their instruments as well as imparting something of a melodic tinge to much of the music, not overt by any means, but felt. This is all to the good. Does it get too scratchy/scrabbly for my taste on occasion? Yes, it does. Will most readers here be interested? Not so likely. But it's a good set, one I would have enjoyed seeing and hearing.“              Brian Olewnick, Just Outside

“....A third duo, this time consisting of cellist Martine Altenburger and guitarist John Russell. 100% acoustic music, recorded live. European-style improvisation: serious, demanding, cerebral, rewarding attentive listening thanks to the intelligence of the interactions and the instinctivism current running through it. Russell is definitely not a crowd-pleasing guitarist. Listening to him is difficult. But fascinating nonetheless.”                                                  Francois Couture,  Monsieur Délire

“Sommaren 1974 besökte jag som en mycket ung man Martin Davidson och hans nystartade skivbolag Emanem i London. Då vi samtalade om den nya improns framtid lade han på ett band med John Russell och Roger Smith, en gitarrduo som inte gjorde mycket väsen av sig, fjärran från allt vad kaputtspielen hette.

Snart träffade jag dem på Little Theatre och noterade: ”…jag fäste mig vid duon Roger Smith och John Russell. Vänsterhänte Smith spelar akustisk och Russell elektrisk gitarr. Men trots förstärkningen var Russell otroligt tyst och finstämd. Musiken var som en viskning. Höll man andan på Little Theatre kunde man höra tonerna blanda sig med musikernas andhämtning. Smith och Russell är kritiska. Fingrarna far i löpningar och ackord över greppbrädan, men spelhanden väljer bara ut en liten del att utföra. Inte en ton för mycket kom.”

Det känns som ett privilegium att ha varit med om det. Min förvånade entusiasm över detta low dynamic, gestlösa nyskapande spel, som redan visade en ny väg bortom den ännu långt ifrån - utanför specialkretsar - kände Derek Bailey.

Russells kvaliteter har långsamt utvecklats. Han har – liksom Roger Smith – sökt sig framåt utan att ha gjort alla de omfattande projekt och samarbetsjobb som Bailey. De har funnits nära sina konstnärskap, koncentrerade på dem. Här liknar de flera andra engelska impromusiker från pionjäråren. Maggie Nicols och Paul Rutherford räcker som exempel. Deras insatser är lika omätliga som deras framtoning är lågmäld.

Det kan också ha en grund i att se sitt eget konstnärskap som huvudsaken och inte riktigt bekymra sig om huruvida det är stort eller inte, om publiken är väldig eller fåhövdad. Det är en ovanlig inställning, men ofta finner man de intressantaste profilerna här. Här kan man fördjupa sig sedan man vadat i spektakulära album som liknar varandra.

Och jag minns min häpnad, då jag diskuterade med Martin Davidson om impron hamnat i en återvändsgränd publikt och han svarade med att sätta på duon Smith-Russell. Jag glömmer det aldrig.

På nya skivan i Another timbres gitarrserie möter Russell franska cellisten Martine Altenburger, som har ett ben i samtida konstmusik och ett annat i impro. Den duon är mycket livligare än vad jag hörde för många år sedan.

Båda använder instrumenten som de klanggivare de är avsedda som. Men sedan! Russell är mjukt fåtonig, pauserande, lyssnande, Altenburger också, men hon är samtidigt explosiv. Hon både förmår sluta gitarren i sitt sound och liksom pilla underifrån med små mikrotoner.

Musikerna är ovanligt expressiva för att röra sig i brittisk impros vardagsrum. Till och med Russell kastar ur sig litet högljudda (nåja) staccatti och cluster som Altenburger elegant fångar upp.

Detta är en ovanligt lycklig skiva med fokus på en av stora, men också avsiktligt konstlösa, musikerna. Russell är utmanande oflirtig, obekymrad om effekterna, bara helt försjunken. Och han trivs uppenbart med den mycket sin yviga och uttrycksfulla virtuoskompis på cello.”                                                      Thomas Millroth, Sound of Music

If anyone can translate this from the Swedish, we’d be grateful....

“John Russell is one of those musicians who gets overlooked far too often, unfairly so considering his seminal role as both organizer, instigator of Quaqua, and participant in groups like his trio with John Butcher and Phil Durrant along with various groups led by Evan Parker. He also doesn't record that often, even less so in duo formats, so this meeting with the French cellist Martine Altenburger is a particularly welcome release. Russell's flinty acoustic steel string guitar has an unadorned directness that hits immediately; his playing is all about attack and articulation with no fussy extended techniques, string treatments, or e-bows to be heard. Altenburger, who has been working for the past couple of decades in the Toulouse area with musicians like Daunik Lazro, Michel Doneda, and her husband Lê Quan Ninh, provides the perfect foil. Leaping effortlessly between glissandi and pizzicato pop she keys in to Russell's sense of phrasing and momentum to engage him in intimate, conversational freedom. One gets the sense of two old friends engaged in a relaxed dialogue; nothing is rushed and over the course of the 45-minute extended improvisation, the two interweave sonorous fragments and rough-textured, prickly exchanges. There are few guitarists who can manage as distinctive a sound on an acoustic instrument as Russell, and in this setting he is particularly attuned to the sustain and tone of his instrument, letting craggy clusters ring out and resonate and then countering that with choked percussive plucked strings, damped arpeggios, and brittle flurries. Altenburger is exacting in the way she places dolorous, lyrical arco, scratchy harmonics, and sharp plinks against Russell's playing and the warm sonorities of her cello play nicely against the drier tone of her partner. Some may quibble with the somewhat loquacious nature of this meeting, but the warmth and candor of this one win out in the end.”

                                                                                     Michael Rosenstein, Paris Transatlantic

“John Russell brings a sense of balance to his improvisations, an ability to both generate material independently and to play with other musicians in a strikingly interactive way. It should be a necessary quality for improvisers, but only a few possess it to the guitarist’s degree, and his work should be far more widely known than it seems to be.

As a one-time student of Derek Bailey, as a devotee of pre-WWII acoustic archtops, and as a master of harmonics, Russell has inevitably been compared to Bailey, for many the literally definitive free-improvising guitarist. Such comparisons are easy, though, and they serve only to prevent actually hearing what rare and original music Russell achieves. Risking further over-simplification, the two musicians may actually be opposite: where Bailey disrupted the idiomatic gesture, Russell sometimes invokes it; where Bailey practiced discontinuity, Russell can create alternative order. While Bailey preferred the fresh encounter, Russell has established a number of long-term playing relationships, including those with pianist Chris Burn, drummer Roger Turner and the saxophonists John Butcher, Stefan Keune, and Evan Parker.    

Eschewing the electric guitar completely, Russell has become a master of acoustic sonority, matching timbres with pipa and cello, approaching even a koto for sustained resonance. His use of harmonics (the technique of touching a string without depressing it and picking the string mid-way between the fingered harmonic and the bridge for maximum articulation, creating ringing bell-like tones) is immediately notable and genuinely significant. In a sense, Russell is a “natural” guitarist, one of those musicians who has a symbiotic relationship with the instrument. Just as Wes Montgomery’s left hand would circulate around the fretboard, always moving across the strings and up and around the neck, Russell creates a fluid movement with the instrument. Here the use of harmonics is central: for Russell the fingerboard is apparently multiple. He finds new tones in the same place, new relationships in the same gesture. A second trip across the fingerboard is always a different excursion. The harmonic is a transparent sound: silence and ambient sound pass through it. It accounts for Russell’s unhurried pace and his sense of order, even when he’s playing fast: there’s simply so much going on.

The CD with cellist Martine Altenburger is called Duet, and the title might be considered definitive rather than simply literal. It has as little verbal description as might be appended. It’s divided into five parts, numbered 1 to 5, with the explanatory note that “track divisions are only for the listener’s convenience.” The poet John Keats once described the quality of “negative capability” as the ability to live without anxiety in the midst of uncertainty. It’s a quality Russell seems to possess and he conjoins it with rare receptivity. In his past duets with Roger Turner (hear Birthdays on Emanem from 1996), Russell has emphasized the percussive quality of his attack as well as the specific timbral variety of his guitar. Something similar happens with Altenburger, whose cello—in strings and register—is a much closer partner for Russell’s guitar. The two share an acute consciousness of the significance of timbre, to such an extent that timbre is virtually consciousness. Identity seems here to pass from one instrument to another, from strings to strings, from wood to wood, as if guitar and cello are exchanging physical space, as if each musician plays the other’s instrument. By the conclusion, only the most divisive kind of listening can separate the sounds of one instrument from the other.”         Stuart Broomer, Point of Departure

“Exquisitely shaped, this disc offers up more than three-quarters of an hour of untrammeled improvisation demonstrating that in the right hands, a sound meeting can be both profound and unpretentious.  Recorded at Jarny’s Musique en Mouvment festival, the cello-guitar twosome manages to mix an appropriate soupçon of legato pacing in with the staccato and sharply pointed extensions to ensure that exaggerated timbres don’t predominate. Nonetheless there is enough rubato, if understated, movement from the two, singly or together, that the piece doesn’t become placid or soporific.  A portion of this balanced spikiness is that the performing partners come to Free Music from different circumstances. Cellist Martine Altenburger, a Toulouse resident, is involved in multi-media creations and experimental notated music, as well as close collaborations with such French sound explorers as saxophonist Michel Doneda and percussionist Lê Quan Ninh, who coincidentally mastered this session. On the other hand, London-based guitarist John Russell has been a hard-core improviser almost from the beginnings of his career with his playing partners extending from fellow Brits like pianist Chris Burn to German saxophonist Stefan Keune.

On Duet, Russell’s bristly and resonating picking is often shadowed by sul tasto rubbing, vibrating notes and methodical string-stopping from Altenburger. If her processes also include interludes of legato, almost impressionistic sprawl, then she makes up for that with bow bottom taps on the body of her cello and chunky string-stopping. These node augmentations are not only noteworthy on their own, but also subtly reinforce those episodes from the guitarist when his metronomic strumming reaches a point where he’s violently stroking the pick guard and wood rather than the strings.  Conversely when the cellist pauses and shuffle bows to near inaudibility, it’s Russell’s dramatic fills and near-rococo fingering which moves the layered interaction from minimalist movements to more open-ended creations that bring in chord extensions and partials. Luckily these brief pseudo-ethereal moments are few and far between, as are those interludes when the guitarist appears to be spraying and splashing discordant asides or Altenburger’s kinetic pulsing almost takes on wood-splitting properties.

By the instant composition’s final variant, the tone and pace of the interactive interlude changes. Rapidly spiraling lines from both players are expressed individually at the same time as spiccato thumps from Altenburger and clip-clopping frails from the guitarist are superseded by a folksy air from Russell matched by long-lined cello sprawls. Simultaneously hard-paced and discordant the measures vibrate themselves into intermittent textures and a concluding rapprochement.  Banishing memories of Jazz string duos or chamber music duets, Altenburger and Russell demonstrate how precarious and instantaneous meetings can, with skill and luck. be transformed into memorable improvisations.

                                                                                                                                                      Ken Waxman, Jazz Word

Cello and guitar giving life to a relationship based on physically erudite intercourses and tit-for-tat acoustic swaps, like an adult couple having passionate sex in between quarrelling incidents. The proficiency shown by Altenburger (first time with her for this writer) and Russell is explicated through a kind of investigative muscularity ending in repeated moments of sparkling turmoil. They look for a meeting point persistently and nervously, getting really angry more often than not, ultimately managing to fuse the respective improvisational instances into consistent statements. Despite an excellent recording quality allowing the detection of the tiniest vibrations in the instruments’ structural mechanisms, the pair is willing to slap the listener’s face repeatedly and healthily. Twanging and popping strings, robust knocks and vigorously rubbed surfaces are a steady presence, forcing us to lower the headphone volume in some of the most dynamically charged passages. Calmer sections do subsist, though: when Russell bends pitches behind the bridge and the nut after plucking – thus responding to the firmly minimal lines arcoed by Altenburger – suddenly different lights diffuse, precious instants of relative tranquillity enjoyed before a new flood of dissonant rasgueados and hoarsely tremoloed upper partials regenerates the earlier feuds. Enlivening, to say the least.                                                 Massimo Ricci, Touching Extremes

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