Sun Ra Strange Strings (Unheard Music Series/Atavistic)
Ramon Lopez Drums Solo II: Swinging With Doors (Leo)
In 1963, composer Pierre Henry debuted a new work at Saint Julien le Pauvre, one of the oldest churches in Paris. He brought no instruments--only tape. The piece, Variations Pour une Porte et un Soupir, consisted entirely of human sighs, a struck saw, and a squeaky door, all recorded in Henry's barn near Carcassone. It may have seemed like a dadaist joke at the time, but Variations went on to become one of the key works of musique concrete, a compositional approach Henry helped pioneer that emphasized nonmusical sounds. It did not, however, inspire a generation of musicians to pick up the door.
Of the three elements in Variations, the door was perhaps most unusual. Unlike the saw, it can't be controlled enough to create a melody. It can, however, be used to produce a wide range of sounds, some of which resemble the sounds that traditional instruments make. Henry decontextualized the door, manipulating its creaks to such a degree that their source was rendered irrelevant, but two recent releases--a reissue of an obscure Sun Ra record and a new collaboration between Paris-based Spanish drummer Ramon Lopez and Finnish bassist Teppo Hauta-Aho--prominently feature it, free of processing, as an instrument of improvisation.
Recorded in 1966 and released the following year, Sun Ra's Strange Strings rates as one of the most intuitive albums in the bandleader's vast catalog. It opens with "Worlds Approaching," a pure and simple free-jazz piece with little or no melodic theme. Ra (Wurlitzer), Marshall Allen (oboe), and John Gilmore (tenor sax) let loose with solos while flutist Pat Patrick and trombonist Ali Harsan add careful accents. Every now and then a pool of reverb will suddenly wash over everything: Tommy "Bugs" Hunter, a drummer in the Arkestra, discovered he could create the effect by switching cables on the back of the tape machine, making this one of the earliest jazz sessions to feature live dublike mixing. The band builds to an explosive climax and then drops out as an odd percussive pattern swirls and recedes.
Two gripping group improvisations follow: "Strings Strange" and "Strange Strange," both featuring the Arkestra on instruments with which they were totally unfamiliar. According to biographer John Szwed, Ra had recently started collecting unusual and largely ethnic string instruments, and, as Hal Rammel comments in his liner notes to the reissue, this particular project was "a study in ignorance" intended to "open doors into unknown musical worlds." Ra conducted the band only by signaling individual starts and stops, and apart from Ronnie Boykins's bass playing and Clifford Jarvis's drumming, it's impossible to say what's actually going on. There's a mix of low, resonant drones and dry, brittle thwacks, produced by strings of some sort, and there are sharp ripples and rumbles from what are likely thin sheets of metal. Singer Art Jenkins (aka Thlan Aldridge), credited with "space voice," yammers wordlessly, awash in echo. Rammel, an inventor and collector of arcane instruments, did some nice research for his notes, concluding that one of the instruments is a ukelin, an easy-to-play bowed-and-strummed hybrid-zither popular just before the dawn of recorded music.
The Strange Strings reissue ends with "Door Squeak," a previously unreleased ten-and-a-half-minute improvisation from 1967. Although recorded a year later than the other tracks, and presumably with a smaller lineup (the details are murky), it's fundamentally of a piece with them. From an ordinary door Ra coaxes all manner of drones, cries, whinnies, and thuds; at points it sounds remarkably like he's playing a synthesizer. The accompaniment is minimal--some vaguely Asian-sounding strings and a few sporadic bursts of percussion. There's little question this was an informal experiment--occasionally you can hear some whispered directions and unintended noise as the microphone is repositioned--but musically the door clearly had a place in Ra's universe, even if he never returned to it.
Compared to Henry and Ra, Teppo Hauta-Aho is a door virtuoso. For Drums Solo II: Swinging With Doors--technically a Ramon Lopez solo release--he recorded at various locations throughout Finland: his home, a sauna, a school, a train station. One minute it sounds like he's letting air out of a balloon; the next like he's running a belt sander. Or like he's picked up an actual instrument: bagpipe, bassoon, trumpet, cello, electric guitar. The bassist, who's worked with the likes of Cecil Taylor, Evan Parker, and Edward Vesala, isn't merely cataloging noises: his playing is dramatic, rising and falling in volume and intensity. And Lopez, who recorded his parts separately, constantly alters his attack in response. On "A Prayer in My Soul," the low tom rumbles resonate so naturally with the deep creaking it hardly seems like the product of long-distance improvisation. Sometimes the human element is almost undetectable; these could be sounds generated by natural forces, like wind blowing through chimes or water lapping against a hull. Swinging With Doors isn't the sort of album I'll play repeatedly, but I love that it proves you can find music everywhere, even in a squeaky door.