Review: Nocturna Discordia #33, Barcelona

Dave Foxall enjoys a session of delicately expressive sonic miniatures, and a beast of a contrabass clarinet, from the heart of Barcelona's improv scene

Every Wednesday evening, in the Gràcia district of Barcelona, there’s a session dedicated to free improvisation and experimental music-making. It’s sponsored by Discordian Records – hence the name – and about the only rule is that instrumentation and personnel should vary from week to week.

This particular week, Christer Bothén was visiting from Stockholm (as part of a dance & improv project, Labatori del Silenci) and he took the opportunity to join a few sessions around town during his stay. He was joined for this session by Miquel Jordá (sopranino saxophone, wooden flute), El Pricto (alto saxophone and clarinet), Luiz Rocha (bass clarinet) and Vasco Trilla (drums). The Nocturnae Discordiae have a strong reputation for quality playing but it’s fair to say that Bothén acted as an additional draw, partly because he brought along a beast of a contrabass clarinet (and the chance of a new or unusual sound is catnip to this particular audience) and partly because of his experience and track record – everything from playing with Don Cherry on Bengt Berger’s classic 1981 ECM release Bitter Funeral Beer to being an integral member of the avant-jazz Fire Orchestra on last year’s Enter via Rune Grammofon.

Enough preamble… What transpired was an hour-long succession of sonic miniatures, often delicately expressive, each with a varied selection of musicians.

Beginning with a quartet (sin Rocha), the ingredients were sparing: a rustle of percussion, the pure high sopranino tone, a harsher alto contribution, and unmistakable low-end flurries from the bass clarinet. At this stage, the focus was pure sound rather than any recognisable melody, using extended breathing techniques, slap tonguing and mouthpiece manipulation resulting in an ebb and flow of synchronised cacophony which quickly dissolved back into a silence against which each in turn threw a minimalist line or two. Behind all the woodwind action, Trilla provided a backdrop of unconventional (and unpredictable) clatter with precision control – attacking rims and stands, using a bow on the cymbal, adding temple bells… the perfect complement to the others’ questing experimentalism.

Next up, a clarinet trio with two basses (Bothén and Rocha, plus Pricto) – all circular-breathed swirling rhythm, a brief bass duel/duet and we’re done, short and sweet. Bothén switched to the contrabass (finally!) and the same trio produced something a little more "driven". The deep, soft, in-the-belly tone of the contrabass seemed to incite Pricto and Rocha into a brief free frenzy, a nice counterpoint to the gentle depth of Bothén’s drone.

The revolving lineups continued, each lasting for just a few minutes; enough to create a mood or moment, always ending at a peak of audience enthusiasm. And there was a building enthusiasm on the stage too. Free improvisation encounters are always interesting but they don’t always result in happy accidents or telepathy. But at this particular session, there was a loose, relaxed joy circulating, risks were taken, boundaries shoved and pushed and it seemed to be one of those evenings when everything paid off, everything just worked.

Which is not to say it was all pretty minimalism. At one point, Rocha rasped, deliberately unmusical (which of course, only served the music more), even removing the mouthpiece to articulate weird vocals down the column of his bass clarinet. Another moment, El Pricto leapt into a harsh and brutally yearning alto solo which invocatory mood was only furthered by his Aleister Crowley t-shirt. And Bothén too took a jagged solo on his bass, full of contrast between deep sawing tones and breaths that seemed to barely make it out into the room. The point being, there were moments when it felt like the full gamut of sounds was being utilised in some sort of mad collage and yet there was always a sense of order and even restraint hovering in the background – often provided by Trilla’s beautifully idiosyncratic percussion.

(Discordian is a Barcelona label dedicated to “unconventional music and sound experiments”. A few days before Nocturna Discordia #33, the same musicians conducted similar experiments in the Discordian studio and the results will no doubt be available via Bandcamp at some point in the future.)

Text by Dave Foxall, photo by Roberto Dominguez

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