ISKRA 1903



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PAUL RUTHERFORD trombone, electronics, euphonium [A2], tambourine
PHILIPP WACHSMANN violin, electronics
BARRY GUY double bass, electronics
EVAN PARKER tenor saxophone [on C3 only]

A1 - DIEPTAUR - 26:32

A2 - PHELGSTAR - 26:54
A3 - PANSHANTON - 24:13

B1 - VEPROL - 24:36
B2 - EIVERL - 8:02

B3 - EMINGHA - 28:55
B4 - MARIB - 6:14

C1 - STOLERI - 35:24

C2 - VENDIA - 24:12
C3 - EPIS - 16:34

All analogue concert recordings by Philipp Wachsmann (except A1):
A1 - London (Pied Bull) 1981 August 16
A2, A3 - Southampton (Arts Centre) 1983 December 1
B1, B2 - Liverpool (Bluecoat Arts Centre) 1983 December 2
B3, B4 - Birmingham (Aston University Arts Centre) 1983 December 4
C1 - Bristol (Arnolfini) 1983 December 6
C2, C3 - London (Seven Dials) 1983 March 17
Total time 222:37

All previously unissued


Excerpts from sleeve notes:

The second edition of Paul Rutherford's trio Iskra 1903, with Barry Guy and Philipp Wachsmann, lasted from around 1977 to 1995. Yet, until this release, the only issued recordings of this superb group are from its latter years. Fortunately, Wachsmann recorded many earlier performances, and he recently selected these five superb gigs from 1983.

The three December concerts from Liverpool, Birmingham and Bristol come from a Contemporary Music Network tour of Britain. These represent Iskra 1903 when it was using more electronics than before or since. In addition to the strings using pedal-controlled amplification, Guy and Rutherford used bespoke electronic boxes made by Ian Mackintosh, and Wachsmann used his own system of electronics which he developed during this period. All were characterised by being 'self controlled' by each musician. The result is a soundscape that is, at times, more electronic than acoustic. An additional colour comes from Rutherford's occasional use of a tambourine as a mute.

The Southampton concert was not part of this tour, even though it occured between the first two tour concerts - the November 30 London concert not being included here. Rutherford plays euphonium on the first Southampton piece, PHELGSTAR, and trombone on all others in this collection.

The final two pieces come from a London gig earlier that year, when the electronics were less pronounced. Evan Parker is added on the second piece, EPIS, to make the group Iskra 1904. (Parker also played with the first edition, but no usable recordings appear to have survived.)

The opening Pied Bull track, DIEPTAUR, is the only one not from Wachsmann’s archives. It comes from a concert of London Jazz Composers Orchestra sub-groups some two years earlier, and provides further evidence about how varied this trio’s performances were.

Three CDs of music by the same group recorded around the same period may seem a bit daunting, until one listens and finds a wealth of very fine music. Additional variety is provided by the differing acoustics of the various venues, and the way the group adjusts to them.

Note that Rutherford named the group after 'Iskra' (the Russian word for spark) which was the paper that Lenin edited before the Russian Revolution. The '19' indicates 20th century music, and the '03' is the number of performers.



Excerpts from reviews:

"That gasping sound you hear is a reviewer coming up for air after prolonged submersion. There's no way to listen to this one except repeatedly, indeed obsessively: if one's first reaction to this astonishing 222-minute trove of unreleased material is that it's simply way too much to digest, the second reaction - once you start sampling it - is that it's almost seductively easy to get plugged into it. The highly focussed documentation - four of the six dates compiled here were recorded inside a single packed week in December 1983 - encourages such obsessiveness, offering one of the finest opportunities for compare-and-contrast sonic archaeology since Leo's series of double-CD sets from Braxton's 1985 tour. All but one of the recordings are by Wachsmann, and the sound is consistently good across the set - a pleasant change from archival recordings that sound, well, archival.

This is slippery music, with a marvellous 'how did we get here from there?' quality. Improvisations typically start with the kind of chain-reaction density of event that is a trademark of British improv - momentary provocations and rejoinders shooting off like sparks from a flintstone. But the players are also masters at sifting a mass of ideas down (when they so choose) to something worth exploring at length, and it's usually not long until some temporary oasis or sturdier sound-sculpture is established among the welter. Stretches of squeezed-down minimalism - gritty electronic textures, stringy drones and languorous microtonal snowdrifts - frequently take over, and in one case (on Stoleri) the musicians sustain this idiom for nearly 20 minutes of continuous, winding development. Every so often, the group's fractious interplay and grainy soundscaping sideslip into vulnerable glimpses of sublimity, as a submerged melody or whiff of tonality breaks through to the surface: listen, for example, to how the buffo opening of Eiverl leads to a Rutherford/Wachsmann duet of unusual simplicity and fragility (strikingly different, in the violinist's case, from his usual quickchanges of mood and style) while Guy supplies soft thumb-piano-style accompaniment.

Such transitions and linkages are the heart of this music, and they have a subtle way of leaving you wondering if it's the sound itself that's changed, the musical context around it, or (in a kind of duck-rabbit illusion of change) just your own perspective as a listener. On Vendia, for instance, fierce knocks erupt from one of the strings just before the 12-minute mark; initially this seems an isolated outburst, but half a minute later, all three players return to the idea, first smoothing it out into a calm pulse then later flipping it back in the direction of hammering mayhem. The motif seems completely absorbed and disposed of by this point, but a minute or so later Wachsmann now spins it off in a different direction, mimicking (with pizzicato and detuning) the woody pluck and pitch-slides of a Chinese instrument, then plingy ukulele.

Aside from the tracks I've mentioned, it's worth singling out Phelgstar, a performance of unusual formal cogency and ease from within the spacious acoustic of the Southampton Arts Centre: the arco strings and Rutherford's euphonium (the only track on the set to feature the instrument) repeatedly expand outwards into rich tapestries of sound then contract to the tiniest gestures. Epis, the 16-minute track that concludes the entire set, is a notable encounter between the trio and a guesting Evan Parker, whose tenor sax playing is at its most curt and guttural; it's fascinating to hear how the trio's aesthetic changes in response to his presence, with Wachsmann and Guy virtually slashing through the performance. But there's ultimately no way to summarise this set, even in an extended review: it's music that won't be rushed into yielding up its treasures. The fairly rudimentary electronics may sound a bit dated in this age of laptop wizardry, but otherwise this is (as they say) timeless stuff. Enjoy it, study it, wonder over it - well, just listen."


"Sound quality is good and the music offers more diversity than one could expect, with some concerts featuring more electronics than others and different kinds of interaction. Despite occasional lulls, the music remains challenging throughout, with lots of intense moments and a fair share of beautiful, transcending passages, for instance: a mournful middle section in Phelgstar, the ferocious first minutes of Emingha, and the electronic-heavy Stoleri. CHAPTER TWO fills a gap in Iskra 1903's available history -- maybe a bit too generously, but I personally wouldn't want the task of stripping this album down to a single or even double set."


"As on every album where he is present, Rutherford effortlessly grabs attention. His knack of making the trombone sound light, airy and soaring is uncanny; no one else makes the instrument sound like this. Here, Rutherford experiments by using a tambourine as a mute (on Eiverl and Vendia), achieving an interesting effect that expands the palette, as does his use of euphonium on Phelgstar. But it is his unadorned trombone that most often steals the limelight. Wachsmann and Guy do not defer to the trombone unduly, but its power and range dominate the soundscape far more than the bass or violin can.

Iskra 1903 was an innovative grouping in several ways: the threesome did not include a drummer, giving their music an unfettered, free-soaring quality; they frequently played passages at low volumes, requiring intense attention from listeners, long before this became commonplace; and, unusually for the time, all three players used electronics. Wachsmann used a system that he devised himself, while Guy and Rutherford used electronic boxes made by Ian Mackintosh. Each musician controlled his own system.

By today's standards, the use of the electronics is understated and integrated with the instruments; there is no sense that the two are being contrasted, rather the electronics serve to enhance the instruments, although occasionally - as towards the end of Emingha - the electronics can sound rather pocket-calculator tinny and primitive. As if realising this, Rutherford enters with a colossal blast of bass-heavy trombone that blows away the electronics and transforms the piece.

Evan Parker is present for the last track, Epis, from March, 1983. It makes for an interesting and contrasting end piece; Parker and all three members of the trio were well-established sparring partners by 1983 but, in truth, the addition of the saxophone dilutes the purity of the trio's sound, making the piece sound rather cluttered compared to what has gone before.

There is a lot of music here to digest and savour. Given that the bulk of it was recorded live in six days, the quality and variety is amazing; initial indications are that it will be an album to return to again and again, each hearing revealing fresh delights. Invariably, music featuring Guy, Rutherford or Wachsmann is worth investigating - and music featuring all three together is simply compelling."


"I listened to this music repeatedly for days, in every possible situation: the silence of a room, by headphones in front of a muted TV, by walkman on a train, while reading, mixing it with the wind, the birds, the faraway noises. Each of these settings seemed to work, a sure sign of the sonic value produced by these creative visionaries. What transpires from every performance is a high-class musicianship alimented by many flights of fancy which allow the trio to navigate waters whose XX-century chamber music undercurrents are evident at various times, all the while maintaining a peripheral far-sightedness on the borders of relevance. In some of the sections the music seems to come from another era, like opening the door of a room whose content is connected to a forgotten past; those are the instances in which the musicians retrieve simulacra of melody by crumbling the involuntary counterpoints raised by their exchanges into small particles of melancholia, starting a phrase only to shut it off when realizing that the heart starts warming up. In more ways than one, the use of electronics adds doses of 'calm urgency', transforming the instrumental timbres just that necessary bit for the flanged harmonics and ring-modulated arcoing to fuse in a collective voice that somehow responds to the outside world's calls with unpredictable yet alluring affinities. In other occasions, everything almost stops and only a minimal hum - like an organic standby - remains, as Iskra look over this condition with controlled apprehension in order not to let that flickering flame extinguish in silence. When the fire is rekindled, we're ready to start again, as always with no chance to file this fabulous music in stupid boxes labeled 'time', 'place' or 'genre'."


"With Wachsmann onboard the string-heavy sound of violin and bass augmented by primitive interactive electronics gives the music a new dimension. Staunch non-idiomatic strategies open up to allow for a more lush sense of timbres and voicings. Rutherford can be a particularly melodic player which Wachsmann and Guy respond to with well with their rich, almost classical tone. But they can also move into total abstractions, particularly when bringing in electronics and live processing, which the three use to collectively transform the timbres and densities of the trio. With over 3 hours of music, there's a lot to digest. One is struck with the breadth of their playing within the constructs of the spontaneous trio setting.

The first disc begins with an improvisation from a London 1981 concert of sub-groups from the London Jazz Composers Orchestra. Here, the interaction is more conversational, with countervailing lines which slowly open up to a more open central section where Rutherford's blats and grumbles play off of percussive strings and echoing electronic filigrees. The majority of the set consists of recordings from a short tour in December, 1983. It is particularly intriguing to hear the series of pieces from the tour, where the three had a chance to hone their approach to creating spontaneous forms. The electronics are more fully integrated into the ensemble interactions. Disc three ends with two pieces from a March, 1983 concert. While Vendia shows a more restrained use of electronics, the closing Epis is noteworthy in the addition of Evan Parker on tenor sax. While the trio readily absorbs Parker's playing into their complexly layered skein, the group dynamic is transformed, making it clear just how strong a unit the three had formed.

The recordings have been impeccably mastered and the ambience of the various rooms comes through, providing an effective snapshot of the performances. Add this one to the long list of arresting archival recordings that Emanem's Martin Davidson has released."


"Guy, Rutherford and Wachsmann all make use of electronics, in the form of gadgetry specially designed by Ian Mackintosh and Wachsmann himself. These ring modulation and pitch-shifting devices might sound primitive to today's Max/MSP ears, but the way the musicians use them in different acoustic environments to add definition, colour and depth is exemplary. Even so, it needs concentration and stamina on the part of the listener to appreciate the consummate virtuosity of these masters and the gamut of techniques, textures and atmospheres they explore. Don't be put off by the anagrammatic track titles or the sheer size of the set, either; there's enough magic here to keep you enthralled for the rest of the year."


"This work is no less significant for its long delayed appearance; in fact, it's important material for anyone interested in the processes and potential of improvised music. Apart from sheer quality, the group is distinguished by both its instrumentation and the extensive use made of live electronic signal processing by each of the three members. Rutherford is the most elegant of improvising trombonists, surprisingly tuneful with a clear upper-register and a gentle attack (almost the Jimmy Dorsey of free improvisers). Alone or together, Wachsmann and Guy are consummate string technicians, able to summon up between them the resources of a string quartet.

The resultant music, along with its apparent Romantic revolutionary impetus, seems at times a kind of improvised version of early twentieth century modernism, Bartok, say, or Schönberg, with Rutherford's particular sweetness straying as far as Rachmaninoff. In addition to the trombonist's tunefulness and the orchestral bent of the strings, there's an astonishing deliberateness about their musical paths, sometimes moving along with composed assuredness without direct reference to another's part, at times exploding into flurries of closely detailed interaction. Often the trio's work resembles orchestral rather than chamber music.

There is far too much music here for any detailed account of its spontaneously matrixed paths and events, but it maintains a consistent musicality and invention along with tremendous textural variety. If large structures are unplanned, there is nonetheless a sense of imminent form in these extended pieces, a provocative shunting of large blocks of meaning. Like the mysterious composition titles this music is utterly original.

The final track, a brief quartet (Iskra 1904) formed by the addition of tenor saxophonist Evan Parker, is an arresting conclusion. If the saxophone is the characteristic instrument of jazz and much jazz-derived free improvisation, its effect here is oddly normative, bringing the trombone and string textures closer to the fold."



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