New avenues of percussion from Carlo Costa and Hannes Lingens
In the last few years I've become an avid admirer of the New York-based Italian percussionist Carlo Costa, a guy who's discovered plenty of nuance and possibilities within a friction-based approach to his instrument. In most cases I've heard him apply his meticulously pitched sounds in collaborative settings where musicians produce texture-oriented noise and collective drones like his trio Natura Morta or extended journeys into subtle interplay, as with his terrific 2017 album with Norwegian guitarist Håvard Volden, In the Wake. On those recordings it's been easy and pleasurable to pick out his contributions, which carve out a vast world of ambience, disruption, chaos, and serenity.
Late last year he dropped his first solo recording, Oblio (Neither/Nor), which both allows for a more focused experience of his aesthetic bedrock, but it also enables the listener to get inside his structural mindset, which lays out a compositional focus using improvisational means. In promotional materials Costa explains:
Memory and its place in music has been a subject I've been interested for the past several years. It's something I keep in mind every time I perform and make music. As I was working on this album in particular I reflected much on the idea of oblivion: the abyss where the past is destined to, from the small casual gestures of daily life to the goals and dreams of a lifetime.
I can't say for sure how this all relates to the music, but I know it ultimately doesn't matter that much to me. Costa cleverly sets up a series of contrasting events, opening the album with a kind of endless low-end hum far in the background (late supplanted by bowed cymbals) over which he peppers that root with an endlessly evolving menu of sounds scraped, bowed, scratched, and rubbed. There are stately punctuations of gently voiced kick and tom, but these elements take on an almost ritualistic presence, guiding along the action, which occurs top of his kit with pieces of Styrofoam, bows, unidentified metal objects, and chains (there's surely more where they came from, but they're not listed on the album cover). Costa's transition between these different devices is seamless, with loads of overlapping activity leading from one event into the next. In fact, on the first of the album's two pieces, "I," Costa builds an impressive flow that seems to fluctuate between narrative and abstraction, but never at the sake of musical logic. Check it out below.
"II" pivots from the heavy friction gambits for slightly more conventional percussive ones, where he digs into some heady polymetric shit, but about five minutes in Costa returns to his sweet spot, albeit in an entirely different manifestation. Throughout the piece sporadic kick drum strikes reinforce the ritualistic vibe, but the general atmosphere is more metallic, replacing the high-pitched abrasion of the first piece with something more crunchy, brittle, and frenetic, with some sweetly clanking triangles adding a tonal depth. Again, Costa reveals a rigorous compositional mindset, this time deploying more space and dynamic range. Too often recordings of this kind of approach feel like a laundry list of techniques, but Costa weaves them all together beautifully and cogently.
More recently Costa released a recording of an excellent duo project with fellow percussionist Jason Nazary called Dim Thickets on Anticausal Systems, the tape label run by Philip White. It documents their first meeting, and I hope it's not the last. Nazary, who's been working with electronics in Anteloper--his duo with trumpeter Jaimie Branch--sticks exclusively to rubbery, blorpy synth tones in Dim Thickets, finding a stunning common ground with his partner's frictives. The music is packed with motion and explosions embedded within wildly a swerving, oozing, and sputtering goo. The dialogue between the musicians is palpable in every herky-jerk machination--they sound like a pair of busted devices trying to function in spite of themselves. There's no missing Nazary's foundation as a drummer, as every pulsation, burp, and smear injects time, however fractured it may be. Costa produces unholy salvos of rasped-and-chafed sound--alternately shy and ominous--but he never lets them overwhelm the collective endeavor. At times Dim Thickets suggests what the Silver Apples might sound like as a free improv duo. The aptly titled "Scattering," below, offers an excellent representation of the pair's tactile approach.
Speaking of distinctive percussionists, I've been enjoying a much different strain of solo percussion music from Hannes Lingens, a German musician who works easily at the borders of the improvised and composed worlds. He plays in several strong ensembles with players aligned with the great Umlaut label, including Obliq with saxophonist Pierre Borel and bassist Derek Shirley, and the stylistically-broad Die Hochstapler with Borel, bassist Antonio Borghini, and trumpeter Louis Lourain--to say nothing of more ad hoc configurations, but the material on his recent Pieces for Percussion (Umlaut) focused on his compositional work. The eight pieces, developed over a period of six years, each focus on specific conceits--whether close-miking a cymbal to reveal textural intricacies often lost with standard recording procedures or the Cagean concept of complementing sounds of nature, recorded through an open window, with his own subtle contributions. Writing about these pieces, Lingens has posited:
I love the regular irregularity of patterns and textures found in nature, the shape of a tree or the sound of water running over rocks in a stream. I am thinking of these pieces as images of such natural phenomena, something ancient and archaic that has been there long before us and will probably stay much longer. Durations of the performances have been defined in the context of this particular record. Also as far as instrumentation is concerned, I view these realizations as propositions rather than definite statements.
As with Costa's commentary above such associations are pretty abstract, but it's clear what Lingens is aiming for. I'm particularly fond of "Goofy Footer," all billowing, crashing cymbal exploration, and "Arythmic Perfection," which takes delight in a skewed tumble of gently struck metal percussion--suggesting a music box turning on itself. A reprised version of that second piece features Lingens applying the same ideas to wooden percussion. Below you can check out an extended study for bowed cymbals that could be a kindred spirit to Costa's work--except that it's not. Lingens creates a microscopically focused sound world rich in overtones and upper register frequencies, both alien and mesmerizing. He generates luminescent waves of glistening sound that make me think of the way Anthony McCall transforms light into 3-D mobiles, drifting, colliding, and stacking up. You can hear it below.