issue 15 :: July 2008

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REVIEW: Splinter Orchestra

“s/t” CD [Splitrec]

reviewed by Josh Ronsen

The Splinter Orchestra’s revolving membership can swell to a staggering 50 performers of improvised music from Australia. On this recording, the group is only 26, mostly on acoustic intsruments with 3 on laptops and synthesizers. The only names I recognize are Robbie Avenaim on percussion and Jim Denley on flutes and flax (saxophone with flute mouthpiece?). The record is divided into three “Plays, ” subtle — especially considering the mass of performers — improvisations, and two “Tutties” in which everyone jumps in full throttle it seems. Although playing as a group (with numerous lineup changes) since 2002, we hear only one well-rehearsed 2006 recording session.
The restrained “Plays” slowly evolve, recognizable instrumental timbres — piano twinkles, scrapes from a double-bass — mixing with unnamable noises. The liner notes, written by group member Ben Byrne (laptop), speak of harnessing raw improvisation with simple rules, but the rules are only given for a “Tutti.” The reductionist nature of the Plays is paradoxically perverted by having so many performers not performing at once, the result is of normal density on the level of an active quartet, but an amazing adept and flexible quartet. “First Tutti” and “Second Tutti” set each player into an all-out assault, but unlike the free-jazz approach of, let’s say, the Brotzmann Tentet or the London Improvising Orchestra (mentioned in the liner notes as the spark that launched Jim Denley and Clayton Thomas to form their own large-scare group), here each player is restrained to playing one note/sound until stopped by one of the sub-leaders of the piece. The resulting mass of sound — seemingly monolithic and unchanging — although one can hear when some instruments drop out — explodes from the first second, violently juxtaposing rubbles, drones, screeches, buzzes and rattles into a glorious mess. The segregation of these two approaches on this album destroys simple morphological approaches, the soft/LOUD/soft scheme or the LOUD/soft/LOUD. For this we can be thankful.
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