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Orphax, "Saxophone Studies"

cover imageWhile this is improbably the first Orphax release to be covered on Brainwashed, Amsterdam's Sietse van Erve has been a significant figure in experimental music circles for nearly two decades, running the fine Moving Furniture label and organizing events at the STEIM Foundation and elsewhere. This latest album is kind of a decade-spanning labor of love, as van Erve solicited audio files from a number of planned collaborators back in 2006 for a project that was eventually abandoned. However, he recently rediscovered some saxophone recordings made by James Fella and decided to revisit them, resulting in the cacophonously brilliant opening piece "JF." To complement that piece, Sietse then enlisted his father to make some fresh new recordings for him to work his transformative magic upon for a companion piece. While the two pieces sound quite different from one another, both are compellingly unusual forays into longform drone that lysergically swirl and undulate with vibrant harmonic interplay.

Moving Furniture

I suppose saxophone-based drone albums are not particularly common, but the instrument lends itself quite well to microtonal experimentation and sustained notes, so albums in this vein have likely been a relative fixture in experimental music since Terry Riley's early days.To his credit, however, van Erve's approach to this project is a bit of an unusual/outsider one.Namely, he is not a saxophonist and is merely harvesting the sounds from the instrument for his own vision.That might not seem like a big deal, but it completely liberates van Erve from any and all performance-based concerns, so he is not painstakingly assembling the piece in real-time using looping pedals nor is there any real limit to the number of layers he can amass and intertwine.Sietse is also far from dogmatic in his approach to drone in general with the opening "JF," as the central motif is a swaying dance of shrilly harmonizing tones that are constantly changing their relation to one another.He does not use passing dissonances as mere tool to build tension–he immediately creates a fundamentally dissonant world and happily stays there for the duration.There is no sense that the piece is ever on the verge of unexpectedly cohering into a passage of unearthly beauty, but it is visceral and vibrant enough to remain compelling without any conspicuous evolution or compositional sleight of hand: it is simply a wonderfully tense miasma of waxing and waning howls from start to finish, though there are some wonderfully spectral and ephemeral shapes swirling in the undercurrent.It is a truly stellar and unusual piece.

The following "JvE" is considerably less harsh, as its deeper, more throbbing tones weave a slow-motion reverie of buzzing, oscillating, and flanging drones.In fact, it does not sound much like a saxophone piece at all–more like a Sunn o))) that worshipped clarity, precision, and elegance rather than roiling power and density (or like an Eliane Radigue shrouded in fog with a wall of amplifiers behind her).Much like its predecessor, however, there is another layer of activity beyond the actual notes being played.Unlike "JF," however, "JvE" is understated, slow-moving, and spacious enough for the resultant oscillating cloud of overtones to feel like a prominent and integral part of the piece.As if to underscore that feat, the central motif pulls a bit of a vanishing act in the piece's final moment to leave only a drifting, dreamlike cloud of hazy melodies and submerged, sputtering entropy.That transformation is particularly impressive when the context of the entire album is considered, as Saxophone Studies began in feral, confrontational fashion and lost very little of its steam and ability to beguile as it slowly and purposefully made its way towards a quiet, understated, and nuanced coda.

I am quite fond of both pieces, making Saxophone Studies a uniformly strong release, but I am most struck by the comparatively harsh discomfort of the opening piece, which takes drone music to a wonderfully tense and confrontational place.There is a vast ocean of drone in the world and most of it all blurs together for me.Very little of it, however, sounds like it is about to leap out of my speakers to kill me, which is why Saxophone Studies is an album that will stick in my memory.With "JF," van Erve proves himself to be a master at wielding sharpness, shifting dissonance, and unresolved tension to make an extended drone piece feel like a squirming and disconcerting living entity.Of course, focusing exclusively upon "JF" does a bit of a disservice to the more subtle microtonal sorcery of the closer, but two pieces make a perversely effective pairing: it is "JF" that makes Saxophone Studies a memorable and attention-grabbing release, but the more subtle pleasures of "JvE" will remain to be revealed and explored long after I become numb to the howling power of its predecessor.

Samples can be found here.