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Among the extended techniques that occupy such an exalted role in the vocabulary of free improvisation, rubbing and scraping may seem humble, but they're vital all the same. Obviously many instruments are played by rubbing their strings with a bow (what those in the biz call arco), but an infinite number of objects can be rubbed or scraped to produce a surprisingly wide variety of sounds--it's common, for example, for a drummer to bow his cymbals or rub a moistened finger across a drum head to create evocative whines and moans. The Chicago trio called the Friction Brothers push this idea to an extreme: on the group’s self-titled debut, released by the Pittsburgh label Abstract on Black, all the sounds are generated by some kind of friction.
Cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm long ago moved beyond the bow, just as percussionist Michael Zerang has gone beyond drums. Michael Colligan (pictured) barely uses musical instruments at all, creating most of his sounds with dry ice and metal. The list of instruments they're credited with sounds like the contents of a kitchen cabinet, junk drawer, or utility closet: knitting needles, cheese slicer, coins, pachinko balls, frying pan, clothespins, marbles, popsicle sticks, and on and on.
Since so many of the sounds are hard to identify by ear, watching the group play live has a special appeal. Many a Chicagoan has thrilled to the sight of Zerang rubbing one of his drums with a vibrator, but no improviser in Chicago (or maybe anywhere) is as fun to watch as Colligan. Over the years he's elaborated on his basic setup: a couple of teakettles, heated on an electric hot plate and then placed on, pushed into, and dragged across the dry ice to produce wonderfully excruciating shrieks and ominous rumbles. These days he also uses the aforementioned frying pan, trombone and trumpet mouthpieces, tin cans, spoons, keys, and more, all of which produce slightly different timbres and resonances when heated and touched to the dry ice. The last time I saw him perform, he lodged a variety of small metal objects in the ice and left them there, which not only made a steady drone but altered the notes he got when he placed other objects on the ice or against those lodged pieces.
It reads almost like an absurdist joke, and if it were only about making weird noises in unusual ways, it'd sound like one too. But the Friction Brothers' ensemble sound is diverse and extremely tactile, blending resonant long tones with abrasive blats, and the three players coax all of these noises out of their hardware in the context of a deeply intuitive spontaneous musical conversation.
The Friction Brothers celebrate the release of their CD with a performance Wednesday night at the Hideout. The Green Pasture Happiness, an electronic trio with Aaron Zarzutzki, Daniel Fandiño, and Brian Labycz, plays first.
Skygreen Leopards, Jehovah Surrender (Jagjaguwar)
Oscar Brown Jr., Sin & Soul (Columbia)
Randy Newman, Good Old Boys (Warner Bros.)
Various Artists, Avanto 2006 (Avanto)
Kelley Stoltz, Circular Sounds (Sub Pop)