Michael Fahres: The Tubes
Cold Blue

Charlemagne Palestine: A Sweet Quasimodo Between Black Vampire Butterflies for Maybeck
Cold Blue

The prototypical Cold Blue release intermingles classical, electronic, and field recording elements into a genre-defying whole that's always provocative but never alienating. Bolstering their appeal, the label's releases are infrequent, so their arrival becomes something of an event. Last year, for example, witnessed the appearance of stellar recordings by Chas Smith and Daniel Lentz; these latest offerings by Charlemagne Palestine and Michael Fahres do nothing but uphold the label's track record.

As a celebrated performer and composer of some forty years standing, Palestine's reputation naturally precedes him, and, needless to say, he cuts an arresting figure, especially when his piano is draped with a small zoo of stuffed animals. His ritualistic, sometimes hours-long piano performances develop organically with the focus on overtone interactions generated from a small selection of notes. The Cold Blue set begins with spoken reminiscences about his early years in California (accompanied by the soft drone of a rubbed brandy snifter no less). Though it's initially disconcerting, one gradually warms to the intro's inclusion, as it lends an intimate character to the performance, making it feel as if one is hearing him perform in his living room rather than at the Maybeck recital hall in Berkeley, CA.

The thirty-seven-minute piece proper begins with Palestine worrying a two-note cell obsessively, as if contemplating the journey ahead and the route to follow. His playing rapidly accelerates and then slows; quickly establishing the work's tremolo character, he almost surreptitiously adds layers from a second piano. The notes swell into ‘architectonic' masses, and the work ruminatively ebbs and flows, and intensifies as Palestine's attack turns ever more aggressive. Shifting waves of sonorous clusters reach their peak at the thirty-minute mark before the tempo slows and the introductory two-note cell reasserts itself; Palestine then guides the listener towards the work's close with the comment “Normally, I would do an ending but this is just the beginning” and a brief bit of falsetto vocal musing.

Wholly unlike Palestine's release, Fahres' The Tubes will appeal to devotees of the more ‘environmental' side of Ingram Marshall's oeuvre (Alcatraz and “Fog Tropes”), though Fahres pushes his album's material even further into electroacoustic abstraction than does Marshall. The opener “Sevan” presents Parik Nazarian's haunting vocalizations as recorded in massive pipes near the shore of Lake Sevan, Armenia. Heard over a pulsating hum, her singing resembles phantoms calling to one another, and consequently the piece is best heard with headphones in order to appreciate the voices' spatial positioning. “Sevan” is bookended by “Coimbra 4, Mundi Theatre,” a vibrant soundscape of a city-wide festival in Portugal, that weaves bright trumpet fanfares, Tavener-styled choral singing, bells, and voices into a collage-styled work—Fahres calls it a ‘geophony'—that's similar in style to recent works by Janek Schaefer.

It's the title piece, however, that's most striking. At El Hierro, the westernmost Canary Island, Fahres recorded the sound of the ocean's ‘breathing,' an effect created when water pushes its way into underground tubes of volcanic rock and forces its way upward in fountains through holes and cracks; throughout the half-hour meditation, the ocean sounds do in fact suggest the amplified exhalations of a sleeping giant, though sometimes the waves' roar violently escalates to a vicious lash. Fahres found the ideal interpreters in trumpeter Jon Hassell and didgeridoo player Mark Atkins as the two merge at times indissolubly with the ocean sounds. With Hassell's breathy smears and Atkins' guttural tones alternating like primitive creatures' mating calls, “The Tubes” becomes a remarkable three-way dialogue between the didgeridoo's croak, the waves' relentless surge, and Hassell's explorations.

Though radically different in stylistic character, The Tubes and A Sweet Quasimodo Between Black Vampire Butterflies for Maybeck make for equally compelling additions to Cold Blue's catalogue.

April 2007