By Neil Davidson and Michael Duch
I hadn’t previously come across the work of guitarist Neil Davidson and double bassist Michael Duch: the former has contributed to numerous releases on labels such as Another Timbre and Creative Sources, whereas the latter is a member of improvising ensemble Lemur and also performs in a trio with John Tilbury and Rhodri Davies. “Øra”, their first collaborative recording, is a curious release in that it is split equally between two contrasting approaches.
The first and last tracks (all four named only by their duration) are very much sound-led, in the sense that the focus seems very much on the timbres and textures created by the glistening shimmer of Davidson’s (presumably bowed?) acoustic guitar and Duch’s sometimes deep and thunking, sometimes long and keening double bass. While there is some movement and development, the structure could be described as kaleidoscopic, rotating around a single point while varying the configurations of colours and shapes. The middle two tracks, in contrast, present a more gesture-based approach: this time a sense of performance overshadows timbral concerns, with more to-ing and fro-ing, more dialogue, more tension-and-release — in short, more of what one would expect from a ‘traditional’ free improvisation.
One’s experience of the album therefore depends very much on the kind of approach preferred: some will be enchanted by the tonal magic wrought by the opening and closing tracks, while others will prefer hearing the duo get on and play something. Either way, the record neatly demonstrates two potent forces acting on current improvised music, presupposing two different historical currents and two different understandings of the role and agency of the artist. In a way, the sounds that become detached from the act of performance and gain their own objecthood in the sound-led pieces are re-grounded and re-inscribed as gesture in the more ‘performed’ pieces, in concurrence with the re-assertion of the musicians’ selfhood.
What the record doesn’t achieve is the putting into question of that performing selfhood, in the way that a work by someone like Nick Hennies might — the nudge and wink of sound production as performance theatre is absent, and I was never intrigued by the thought of what might lie behind the sound. This is an observation rather than a criticism, however, as Davidson and Duch are clearly working with very different aims in mind. The switching between two modes evident on “Øra” is far from schizophonic, to mis-use R.M. Schafer’s term, but rather is always controlled, considered, and assured; the deep, glistening waves of the more timbrally-oriented pieces I found particularly absorbing.