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Sous Les Voutes, Le Serpent... CD quality download
[M048A-DL]

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Sous Les Voutes, Le Serpent... CD quality download
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Listen to #2:
"Victimae Paschali Laudes"
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Listen to #2:
"Victimae Paschali Laudes"
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* this is a 96 kHz recording

 

Michel Godard (serpent, Tuba)
Linda Bsiri (voice, trumpet marine)
Mark Nauseef (percussion)
Pedro Estevan (percussion)

One glance at the cover of this album should prove sufficiently promising of a revelatory listening experience; or at the least something a bit different. French tuba player Michel Godard presents here a suite of music spotlighting the serpent, a kind of valveless ancestor of our modern-day tuba. Godard began playing the serpent in 1979, seemingly on a whim, and has since become one of the world's leading practitioners of this instrument, whose nomenclature is so obviously derived from its writhing shape (as can be seen in the picture). Michel has been busy over the years as an in-demand performer, spotlighted on recordings with numerous French orchestras and chamber ensembles. As an adjunct to his playing activity, Michel keeps active in the education field, conducting master classes for tuba. But this is not the limit of the man's scope.

On the cross-cultural and improvisational music end he has chalked up experience with an international rainbow of highly respected and award-winning instrumentalists: Louis Sclavis; the Tunisian oud expert Rabih Abou-Khalil; ECM recording artist Kenny Wheeler; trombonist Ray Anderson; Sonny Murray, and the list goes on. Godard is also currently a member of Pierre Favre's quartet "Les Tambours du Temps". Somehow amidst all this work he has found time to front his own ensemble. Active since 1995, the group features Mark Nauseef on percussion; pianist, Sylvie Courvoisier; and bassist Tony Overwater. Those already privy to the MA Recordings canon are perhaps aware of Michel's previous recording with Mark - the Loose Wires project on the German label, Enja. It was here where the two teamed up with virtuoso Miroslav Tadic, for a blast through free forms and electrified avant-garde realms. None of what you may or may not have heard however will prepare you
for what is in store on....

"Sous Les Voutes, Le Serpent.......", the first recording to feature the serpent as the main instrument ( at least outside a classical music environment ) that I have ever heard. Alongside Godard for the project are vocalist Linda Bsiri; and percussionists Mark Nauseef, and Pedro Estevan. It is Nauseef however who tends to take center stage, stepping out from behind the drum kit (where he is in great demand as a member of ensembles led by Kudsi Erguner, the aforementioned Khalil, and numerous others) to accompany Godard on gongs, bells, and Tibetan singing bowls.

As the journey disembarks we find ourselves cloistered in the confines of a sanctuary,
Godard setting the tone oh so solemnly with an august reading of a traditional plainchant. His confidence behind the instrument is enlightening; his unselfconsciousness admirable in the extreme. Supplanting a sense of mischief behind Godard's ghostly billowing nuage, is the percussion section. But Nauseef and Estevan do not so much PLAY, as they do induce a state mind, partly by what sounds like two cymbals being clattered together under water! "Lise" is an original composition. While Nauseef here restricts himself to intermittent chimes on a set of crotales to demarcate the conclusion of each melodic phrase, Linda Bsiri's voice enters the fold, speaking in a whisper of hushed tones and muted eruptions. Godard and crew next (on "Serpentus") paint a tenebrous night scene of a deserted coastline on the extremity of some antipodean land mass. Synthesizers and fancy electronics are not necessary to capture the essence of an icy placidity.

By the time we reach "Conversation Pour L'eternite", a sizable transformation has taken place: here the work in effect becomes as much the domain of Nauseef as anything else, commencing with a spacey vocal / percussion duet. Bsiri is particularly impressive in how she manipulates her voice to blend with Mark's percussion, controlling the emotive element in her performance to retreat into quietude just prior to the point of climactic convulsion. Godard takes a breather here, and later on Mark's two percussion solos, but returns to the center of attention for "Serpent Chant". This receding and reappearing forms a sort of large scale compositional arching pattern, which is mirrored on the micro level in each piece by the way Godard tends to initially state his presence, only to mask himself behind one or more of his cohorts at midpoint; and finally returning to the forefront at a later stage. Closing out the proceedings in pagan guise is a demonic subterranean landscape sketch for tuba and gongs. There is irony in the air though in how Godard wrenches forth a bizarre low-register grumbling, and passages of harmonic overtones, which sound even less like a "real" tuba than the serpent does! Once again both he and Nauseef display their acumen at merely suggesting what lurks behind the creaking wooden door, leaving the details to be filled in by the listener.

As a whole work this recording represents one of those rare occasions of a style that cannot be properly placed in the context of any line of accepted traditions; embracing a sense of contrast rare in today's music - exploratory but reverent, its strength and confidence balanced by humility and serious questioning, culminating in a skillfully paced and precisely reasoned piece of musical dialogue. The recorded atmosphere (captured in a Spanish monastery) exploits the natural acoustic environment of its setting in a way that outdoes even some of MA's other releases, which are famous for their heavenly acoustic spatiality. Like them, "Sous Les Voutes....." captures an intense resonance enabling the listener to imbibe every hue from an endless palette of sound color on this organic meeting of wood, skins, metal, and voice.

ABOUT THE SERPENT

Once considered "the bass of the cornett family", the serpent is a wind instrument whose period of common use far predates that of our modern-day brass tuba - so much a mainstay of the band and orchestra we are familiar with. Its wood mouthpiece imparts a mellow earthy tonal quality that brass instruments do not possess; perhaps like a bassoon in the absolute lowest register.

Historical evidence tells us the serpent made its debut circa 1590, when it was invented by the Frenchman, Edme Guillaume, an official of Bishop Amyot's Episcopal household. Guillaume envisioned his coiled snake-like creation as a sort of bass cornett, and so perfectly suited it was for lending a bottom-heavy gusto to church choir music, especially Gregorian plainsong. Subsequently, in the mid-1700's, the serpent was adopted by military bands, only to be finally replaced by valved brass instruments during the 19th century. Its earliest known performer was Michael Tornatoris, who in 1602 was appointed to the Church of Notre Dame des Doms, Avignon, in Godard's home country of France.

Now, what will be obvious to the listener, is that the serpent does NOT lend itself to histrionic flights of technical razzle-dazzle! And here is where the sincerity of Michel Godard's musical voice speaks for itself. For as Godard no doubt is aware, one probably will not take the world by storm as a performer of this highly idiosyncratic instrument. So what was it that brought the serpent to the point of near-extinction? Well, amongst other reasons: valves.

In Edme Guillaume's original design, the serpent demanded from a player an exacting sense of pitch. Once valves were introduced however (so the story goes), the level of technique of most performers fell drastically - a result of their mistaken notion that valves rendered accurate intonation unnecessary, bringing on a stinging disrepute in which the serpent found itself nigh the bullseye of barbed attacks from many a composer. This kind of criticism has been mouthed by subsequent generations of people, many of whom have never even heard the instrument. Revealing in all of this is how Michel has used the serpent's modest disposition as a virtue to be exploited for the sake of harnessing a kind of expressive angle that serves his ends magnificently on this recording. Enjoy this rarefied experience.

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