The Dogmatics take minimalism from a whisper to a scream
Australian pianist Chris Abrahams, best-known as part of the long-running trio the Necks, has mastered an approach to improvising the builds upon the smallest gestures or melodic kernels, slowly drawing out variations through every single iteration until listeners suddenly finds themselves transported to a new place. Naturally, Morton Feldman frequently wrote pieces that embraced that idea, although his transformations unfolded much more slowly. In the Necks those shifts come amid the patient churn of bassist Lloyd Swanton and the peripatetic drumming of Tony Buck, so the micro motion of the pianist is often obscured a bit.
That’s not the case in the Dogmatics, the duo Abrahams has with the wonderful German clarinetist Kai Fagaschinski (the International Nothing). A couple of weeks back they released their second album, Chop Off the Tops and it refines their singular purpose to a razor-sharp edge. The four pieces proceed with exquisite restraint, mostly framed by brittle, jagged piano patterns that hang ominously in the air. While they often seem to repeat, Abrahams is constantly reconfiguring his lines, occasionally punctuating them with a left-hand interjection. The clarinetist blows astringent, quavering long tones atop the pianist’s fractured symmetries, steadily altering his articulation with split tones, subtle overblowing, haunting, over spilled breaths. The music is all improvised, but the duo’s focus is so precise, making the most of its minimal materials, that it unfolds as if by careful design.
Compared with the opening track “It Never Yielded Results Which They Had Failed to Discover by Other Means,” which you can hear below, the second piece “I Am Now Wearing Surgical Gloves” feels absolutely Spartan in it’s glacial pace and generous use of silence, as Abrahams more often than not strikes a single note that we observe decay until he finds another note to fill the gap. Fagaschinski’s extended technique truly sparkles here, as he shapes a serene presence with the softest attack only to watch harmonic effects quickly abrade his tone. On “Nobody Knew Their Reasons” Abrahams exploits his sustain pedals to turn thwacks upon the piano’s body into portentous thuds while Fagaschinski applies an impossibly tart pucker, unleashing spittle-flecked squeaks. It’s only on the fourth piece, “Death Is Now Your Friend,” that during the final moments the duo pushes into more extreme territory—which they did a bit more often on the 2012 debut album The Sacrifice for the Music Became Our Lifestyle, a brilliantly deadpan title if there ever was one—where the clarinetist burrows deep into his instrument’s ear-splitting upper-register, incontrovertibly, summarily dispatching the more measured tone of the preceding 35 minutes, while the pianist carries on with a carpet of quietude.
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