By Todd McComb
Trash with a groove, trash that sings the blues…. This is what we get from Pascal Niggenkemper‘s new sextet Le 7ème Continent & their album Talking Trash. The sextet is variously conceived as a double trio or triple duo, and features pianists Eve Risser & Philip Zoubek, clarinetists Joris Rühl & Joachim Badenhorst, as well as Julián Elvira playing the pronomos & sub-contrabass flute. I was not previously familiar with Elvira or the pronomos flute (and had little familiarity with Rühl), but it is apparently his own rethinking of the basic Boehm flute mechanism & shows some intriguing capabilities. Whereas the pianos & clarinets come in pairs, then, Niggenkemper’s bass is paired with flute. (On track #7, which dates from a later session, Constantin Herzog plays the string bass instead, making each pair the same. The music remains similar enough, however, even though this track is from a newer layer of material composed for the ensemble.) At least one half of the sextet then corresponds in composition to the classic Jimmy Giuffre Trio, or closer to home for these performers, the Kaufmann-Gratkowski-de Joode trio, with its incorporation of piano preparations. (One might even characterize Skein as a different sort of double trio, in that case retaining a single horn.) Regarding preparations, Niggenkemper highlights another splitting of the sextet into two trios, the two prepared pianos & prepared bass, and the three winds. Moreover, those preparations, which involve objects that might otherwise be similar to trash — a crucial difference being that they’re still in active use — play a signal role in Niggenkemper’s musical interrogation of trash. When thinking about an environmental theme, my mind tends to turn to thoughts of economizing, and from that perspective, Niggenkemper’s ensemble seems almost extravagant. I asked him about that, and he replied with an emphasis on the potentials of dualities, confrontations, consolidations, etc. So Pascal’s musical mind doesn’t turn to economizing, at least not in the way that mine does, and indeed he put out a septet album (Lucky Prime) not so long ago — albeit followed by his solo album, Look with thine ears (discussed here in September). Whereas the ensemble variety in his work is evident, Talking Trash does seem to continue an emphasis on some of the spatial concepts raised by Look with thine ears. (In other words, we are asked to visualize trash. And the more, the better.) Moreover, whereas a strict economization notion already inflects the trash “situation” in a particular direction, Niggenkemper takes a more expansively creative approach: While some titles suggest excess trash as a problem, particularly in the image of the seventh continent (and, in French, the Americas are one continent, so there are ordinarily six), others highlight positive responses, whether art projects, plastic-eating bacteria, etc. In other words, we’re not asked simply to disdain trash, but to explore more relations around it, maybe even to adopt a more intersubjective stance toward our environment. Such relations are then highlighted by the use of objects in preparations — a paradigm of the “reuse” mantra: We are asked not so much to increase our contempt, although horror toward the accumulation of trash is involved, but rather our appreciation & respect for objects per se. (Our relation to objects in general surely figures our relation to “trash” in particular. In that context, the “reduce” mantra might make only limited sense.) The sound of the album actually reminds me less of Oblengths, which comes off as much more “classical,” at least relatively speaking, or Skein, which has a driving sweep & can also make quite a racket, than it does the more static & “industrial” sounds of Anomonous & Pail Bug. However, Talking Trash generally has a larger pallet, and can be more diffuse, almost cloudy…. It’s certainly more “open” than Pail Bug, on which confinement is something of a theme. This is presumably Niggenkemper’s optimism showing, and as per the previous entry, the compositional basis serves here to highlight particular instrumental combinations & musical ideas: One can imagine the trash itself, the ocean, humanity, other living creatures… in different ways on different tracks. Our perspective becomes troubled: Are we supposed to be repulsed by trash, or identify with it? (Here I figure identification as more involved than mere responsibility.) Whereas extended technique & dissonant “noises” dominate the early part of the album, we are left to wonder to what extent the trash itself participates in the ongoing conversation. Does it participate in singing the blues, then? This sort of intersubjectivity emerges from the clash of different instrument combinations, particularly in energetic & dramatic confrontations such as on tracks #6 & #7 — which are in sharp contrast to the slowly shifting high tones & resulting groundlessness of track #4. (We thus have both the clocks & clouds of a famous dual, “mediated” by the emergence of a herky-jerky tune in track #5.) One thing Talking Trash really might do is make extended technique & object preparations themselves more musically approachable to more people: After all, dramatic movie scores have been doing this for avant garde music for decades. Sometimes a concrete association is all people need to engage with unfamiliar musical techniques, and here we have a very concrete theme. (One might then ask whether the technique serves the theme, or vice versa.) What would it mean actually to identify with trash & its various ramifications? On Talking Trash, that becomes a spiritual (blues) question, consummated in a kind of solidarity by both the final tune & the ensuing applause.