Stick three musos in a hotel room and what do you get?



Falt, Rothenberg & Thorne – Faultlines (Rattle)

Stick three improvising musicians in a hotel room for some spontaneous action and what do you get? Something special, writes GARY STEEL.

Now and again an album comes along that’s a living, breathing example of adventuring in music, but it’s comparatively rare. There are loads of hardly ever played albums featuring improvisers doing their thing, too many of them failing to capture whatever it was the musicians conveyed to their audience that night.

“Improv” (as distinct from jazz with improvised elements) comprises a busy international circuit of musicians performing at international music festivals, often in consort with other players they’ve just met. It’s part and parcel of the aesthetic and philosophy of improv: being able to turn on a dime and have a musical conversation that might lead to a productive liaison or simply be a one-night stand.


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The trouble with capturing these sessions on tape is that they’re often so much of the moment, and really geared to be experienced/heard once only, that incarcerating them on vinyl (or landing them on Bandcamp) does them a disservice.

Happily, despite the fact that it comes from a brief encounter in a hotel room, Faultlines is a rare example of three improvisers (and one post-performance manipulator) instantly acclimatising to each other’s uniqueness and creating something strong and heady that defies any attempt at pigeonholing.

Recorded in Finland in 2019, Faultlines features American clarinettist David Rothenberg, Nordic vocalist Anna Falt and Kiwi taonga puoro practitioner Rob Thorne. It’s an incredible match. These 13 pieces are each distinct ideas but each of them carries the rather pungent, deep and exploratory aroma of the session.

Thorne’s miscellany of Maori instruments provides much of the abstract atmosphere and it’s the spell he casts that takes us out of that hotel room and deep into the primaeval forest. Falt’s vocal improvisations are wide-ranging and at times startling in the way only a voice possessed can be. Sometimes she completely makes it up as she goes, while other times she draws on Scandinavia folk culture, sounding like a half-sister to both the North African-inspired ululations of Lisa Gerard and the extreme voice torture of Diamanda Galas.

For me, the most enjoyable element is the sound of Rothenberg’s clarinet, especially when he gets out the bass clarinet, an instrument that’s rarely heard yet compelling in its presence and texture. Topping it all off is the occasional deft and subtle “manipulations and treatments” of label-owner Steve Garden, who on one piece adds a sonic seasoning of what sounds like static and voices from an old wireless set.

I should probably mention that the album’s subheading is ‘Seventh House Music Vol. 2′, a series, according to Rattle, “which champions artists who unapologetically follow their muse free of commercial or generic confines.” I couldn’t think of a more worthy example of that description.

While Faultlines isn’t the kind of record I’ll play a lot, it’s an outstanding example of exceptional musicians – all from different cultural traditions – whose sensibilities are such that they’re able to come together spontaneously and make something rich and meaningful, as opposed to a mere on-the-fly jam session. It’s a rather dark and brooding thing and here’s a thought: rather than the cod-Celtic post-Enya stuff they used on The Lord Of The Rings prequel The Power Of The Ring, why not this? It would have transported it to a whole other place.

Note: Yep, this album came out a year ago! It’s been sitting waiting for my ears for that long. Never too late though, eh?

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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