Biliana Voutchkova / Michael Thieke - Blurred Music (3CD)
The triple album 'Blurred Music' features a Berlin-based duo of Bulgarian violinist Biliana Voutchkova and German clarinetist Michael Thieke's three live performances recorded in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York in December 2016. Cover artwork by David Sylvian. 6-panel gatefold.
recorded live on December 7, 2016 at Carr Chapel, Chicago
recorded live on December 14, 2016
at Aux Performance Space, Philadelphia
New York (1:09:59)
recorded live on December 15, 2016
at Experimental Intermedia, NYC
(released July 14, 2018)
All compositions by Biliana Voutchkova and Michael Thieke
Biliana Voutchkova - violin, voice
Michael Thieke - clarinet
recorded live by Michael Thieke
mixed and mastered by Taku Unami
artworks by David Sylvian
design by Yuko Zama
liner notes by Michael Thieke and Biliana Voutchkova
produced by David Sylvian and Yuko Zama
executive produced by Jon Abbey
(p) (c) 2018 elsewhere music
I first came to know these three live recordings of Blurred Music in January 2018 via David Sylvian, who discovered this duo's music several years ago and asked me and Jon Abbey if we were interested in releasing them as a triple CD from Erstwhile Records. Intrigued by the enthusiastic recommendation by Sylvian (who described this duo’s music as “something transcendent”), I listened to the whole set of three recordings twice in a row, and was completely entranced with the music. It was vibrant and dynamic music, while also containing some uniquely mysterious, contemplative silences throughout. The organic, spontaneous feel and the openness of the music initially made me assume that each piece was a result of an exquisite improvisation, but as I kept listening, I came to realize that all three performances were carefully structured interweaving composition and improvisation using the duo’s unique, extraordinary aesthetics. The balance between the two instruments was so delicately and carefully restrained within the classical compositional context. Each recording seems to have its own universe, but as a whole, all three seemed to form one epic piece or a saga, which moved me deeply every time I finished listening to them together. I understood perfectly why the musicians wanted to release these three live recordings as a triple CD, not just releasing one of them as a single CD.
Biliana Voutchkova's violin skills are remarkable, combining a strong core as a classically trained violinist with her free, adventurous spirit, navigating the music toward subtly balanced compositions, along with Michael Thieke's inventive, delicately nuanced multiphonic mastery of the clarinet. What fascinated me most was the translucent area where the two instruments and their pre-recorded materials (which I could not distinguish until the musicians explained to me, since all the sounds felt like they were happening live in the moment) moved along as one unified entity, sometimes on a razor-thin margin between tonality and atonality, while maintaining the naturalness and openness throughout in a similar way as improvisational music, which kept this music from falling into the rigidity of compositional structures. The way the duo developed the music on this thin line between the structure and the breathable open air was just so brilliant - an approach which made me feel like listening repeatedly. I believe that this trilogy of three live recordings is one of the most successful results of incorporating compositional and improvisational elements into one unified music.
Encountering this Blurred Music was the very reason why I decided to start my own label 'elsewhere', from which I can put out the music which truly moves me with its genuineness and timeless beauty, like this Voutchkova/Thieke's duo music does to me every time I listen to. (Yuko Zama)
Berlin-based Bulgarian violinist Biliana Voutchkova and German clarinetist Michael Thieke have worked together intensely within both compositional and improvisational duo and group projects in Berlin since 2011.
In their current project “Blurred Music”, the duo works with musical structures that create a blur; improvised parts alternate with fields of pre-structured material in which digital recordings of the duo are duplicated by live performance. Virtually identical fragments of the live performance synchronize simultaneously with the playback, unavoidably giving rise to blur in the temporal dimension, in the rhythmic, timbral, and motivic variations, and in the microtonal interpretation of individual pitches. The live portion of the duplicated material is still improvised, but within a framework purposefully restricted by the pre-recorded material, the intervals between which are indeterminate. To the listener’s perception, what is being composed in real time blurs into what has been structured in advance; the difference can be registered only after an interval, if at all.
The triple CD 'Blurred Music' features three of the duo's live performances, recorded in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York during their USA tour in December 2016. These three live recordings are all differently structured, factoring in the conditions and the atmosphere of each venue as well as the musicians' own perspective and mindset. This series of three concerts, all occurring within a nine day period, showcase the very wide range of this duo, so all three recordings combine to form a saga of their peak. Using their highly trained virtuosic skills and intense concentration, the duo carefully deconstructs the conventional tones of instruments into fine particles in an organic flow, to create a completely new world of music on their own, somewhere between tonality and atonality, and will hopefully be recognized as one of the most mature accomplishments of improvisational/compositional works of this era.
John Eyles, All About Jazz
Blurred Music features three live recordings made in a nine-day period by the duo of Berlin-based Bulgarian violinist Biliana Voutchkova and German clarinetist Michael Thieke, during their December 2016 US tour. Recorded in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, each one gets its own disc, lasting fifty, forty and seventy minutes, respectively. The Voutchkova-Thieke duo dates back to 2011, and first recorded together in 2012 for the fine album Already There (2013, Flexion), meaning that the two have had plenty of experience playing and improvising together.
The methodology employed by the duo on these recordings justifies the album title. Firstly, not everything we hear was played live on the nights in question. Digital recordings of the duo, performing material composed or structured in advance, were played at the performances. Secondly, the players then improvised with those recordings, within a framework restricted by the pre-recorded material. So, the end-product on the discs blurs the boundary between composed and improvised music as well as the one between pre-recorded music and that performed live.
It is a credit to the two players that the niceties of that methodology soon seem of incidental importance; listening to the recordings, the depth and richness of the soundscape immediately make it obvious that this is not just one violin and one clarinet playing at a gig but something else entirely, a quartet of two Voutchkovas and two Thiekes. Anyone familiar with Thieke's past groupings—particularly The Clarinet Trio, The Magic I.D. or The International Nothing, to pick but three—will not be surprised by such innovative methods; they are his forte, and in Voutchkova he has found a kindred spirit; the two sound as if they instinctively understand one another, live or recorded.
This album's masterstroke (also true of AMM's 2018 Matchless album An Unintended Legacy, incidentally) is to include three distinctly different concerts, giving each one a disc of its own. Such juxtapositioning emphasises the subtle variations between concerts, due to the room, the players' moods, the audience and its reactions to the players. Even rigidly scored music varies from performance to performance, but music with an improvised component far more so. As their very different durations indicate, the three nights produced completely different results; this was obviously not a tour where each night's concert followed a well-rehearsed plan to the letter. They began differently, developed and ended differently. The only constant across all three was the quality of the playing and the players' reactions which were exquisite in every way. One helluva way to launch a new record label! (8/11/2018)
Bill Meyer, Dusted Magazine
Biliana Voutchkova is a Bulgarian violinist and vocalist who is active in both new music and improvisational circles who currently lives in Berlin. Michael Thieke is a German clarinetist who lately splits his time between Berlin and Rome and his involvement between jazz and improvisational ensembles. He’s also played semi-popular pop with the Magic I.D. They’ve performed together for over five years and released a couple other discs, one on their own and the other with electro-acoustic media artist Roy Carroll. Blurred Music steps up their profile in imposing fashion.
The title of this triple CD signals both intent and result. It comprises three complete performances from their US tour of December 2016. On each, the two musicians interacted with pre-recorded material, which bounds their interactions in ways that blur the boundary between composition and improvisation. They can choose to double the recording, play a response to it, or find a blank place to improvise without it. In concert, it would have been possible to observe the duo’s interactions and have some idea of what they were choosing to do. But the inevitable abstraction of recording means that one can listen with blithe ignorance or curious attention, but never really know exactly what is happening. There are moments each musician closely harmonizes with her or his recorded counterpoint, and others where they play an adjacent pitch, which interacts with the first to generate beating tones. They also engage in duets with their recorded selves; at one point during the Philadelphia set some woody long tones, a pizzicato thicket and some brisk knocking on the violin’s body nicely generate a sonic image of a complete bush.
In content, you could say that this is semi-improvised chamber music. But since at any moment you have music that was recorded in one room being played back in another while two musicians interact with each other, the recording, and the environmental circumstances of three rooms in different cities, you could say that it’s music of many chambers. And since you are listening to a recording, you could take it a step further and say that it’s music for your personal chamber, and simply bask in the complex play between unabashedly radiant and dryly prickly timbres. Whatever you call it, it provides a sonic satisfaction that delivers on the founding intent of Elsewhere Records. Label head Yuko Zama is married to Jon Abbey of Erstwhile Records, and her aesthetic input has shaped that imprint for years. But where Erstwhile prioritizes ongoing formal advancement, Zama has set out to develop an outlet for music that is beautiful as well as radical. That boundary is just one more that gets artfully smudged on Blurred Music. (10/1/2018)
Eyal Hareuveni, The Free Jazz Collective
Violinist-vocalist Biliana Voutchkova is an experimental artist who spans the widest possible range of sound and movement. The Berlin-based, Bulgarian musician-composer-improviser, who has worked with innovative contemporary orchestras as Ensemble Modern and Zeitkratzer, keeps extending her sonic, physical and technical capacities, evolving into a highly individual musical language.
Very few free-improvisers have such a passionate advocate as iconic art-rock vocalist and sound artist David Sylvian. Last year he did the artwork for an album by Voutchkova, German clarinetist Michael Thieke (from the duo The International Nothing and the group The Pitch), and Irish Roy Carroll who plays on electro-acoustic media, As Found (Sound Anatomy, 2017). But Sylvian's enthusiasm for the music of Voutchkova and Thieke continued and he asked Erstwhile Records’ Jon Abbey to release more music of this duo. Eventually, Abbey’s wife, photographer-designer-producer Yuko Zama, decided to found her own label, Elsewhere Records, and to release a triple-album of Voutchkova and Thieke live performances as the first statement of her label. Sylvian did again the artwork.
Voutchkova and Thieke have been working together since 2011, both collaborate in Berlin’s Splitter Orchestra, and the duo released a limited-edition (170 copies) debut album, the live Already There (Flexion, 2013). Blurred Music offers a deeper, more detailed and varied insights into their rich and intimate aesthetics. Voutchkova and Thieke create intentionally a blur; improvised parts alternate with fields of pre-structured material in which digital recordings of the duo are duplicated by live performance. Virtually identical fragments of the live performance synchronize simultaneously with the playback, unavoidably giving rise to blur in the temporal dimension, in the rhythmic, timbral, and motivic variations, and in the microtonal interpretation of individual pitches. The live portion of the duplicated material is still improvised, but within a framework purposefully restricted by the pre-recorded material, the intervals between which are indeterminate. To the listener’s perception, what is being composed in real time blurs into what has been structured in advance; the difference can be registered only after an interval, if at all.
These complex compositional and improvisational strategies become insignificant when listening to Blurred Music. You can either trust Sylvain's refined taste or simply surrender to the magnificent sonic universes of Voutchkova and Thieke. Soon enough you may find yourself drawn again and again to their addictive duets, wishing for more and always discovering new nuances and ideas. Voutchkova and Thieke offer an arresting journey through sounds and sounds within sounds, increasing their and ours, the listeners, sensitivity of perception. Their sonic explorations are sketched with quiet intensity, reserved but passionate dynamics, adventurous, inventive spirit and austere beauty. Both carefully deconstructs the conventional, sonic spectrum of their instruments into subtle particles that flow organically, creating a completely new language on their own, somewhere between tonality and atonality.
Each of the three performances, all recorded within nine days on December 2016, has its own distinct atmosphere. The “Chicago”, recorded at Carr Chapel, begins with a restless tone poem but soon Voutchkova and Thieke develop a gentle, compassionate intimacy, courting and teasing each other with intriguing, dissonant sounds. Often Theike’s ethereal multiphonics merge into Voutchkova’s soft overtones and suggest a vibrant, sonorous texture. Surprisingly, the duo even spices its busy conversation with fragments of folk songs and elements of contemporary chamber music. “Philadelphia”, captured in Aux Performance Space, uses the resonant hall beautifully to weave patiently layers upon layers of sustained sounds, floating and flowing majestically in space. This piece alternates freely between a quiet and highly disciplined drone soundscape, stressing the microtonal precision of Voutchkova and Thieke interplay, and a lively, tense and open conversation between the two. “New York”, recorded at Experimental Intermedia, is the most complex one, shifting constantly from a meditative, chamber texture to a searching, restless mode, still, a playful one; then to a static drone entity that gently vibrates with microtonal waves; and to an intimate, inventive talk between old comrades and again to a contemplative and berathy, almost silent texture before concluding this engaging saga with Voutchkova and Thieke singing a beautiful melody that allow these two kindred souls to dance around each other and sing-play-chant-meditate in their very own expressive language.
TJ Norris, Toneshift
I’m catching up with this set of live performances which is also the first release from new imprint on the block, Jersey City’s own Elsewhere. The limited edition set features Berlin-based duo of Bulgarian violinist Biliana Voutchkova and German clarinetist Michael Thieke. Recorded in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York in 2016 it boasts lovely 6-panel gatefold cover artwork by none other than David Sylvian.
We first travel to Chicago on the first disc. The space is cleared with some fidgety actions by the pair. In between the sawing and air pops is a drone flare that dis/appears with odd timing. The stage is set for this fifty minute singular work to unfold in what appears like a melancholy overture at first. “Improvised parts alternate with fields of pre-structured material…virtually identical fragments of the live performances synchronize simultaneously with the playback.” The instruments, both known for their ability to create sounds as voluptuous as they can be shrill, seem to be in a hardy conversation that doesn’t skip a beat, even without a beat structure at all. That’s right, this is going raw, without percussion. The tweets and tweaks of notes writhe above the contorted melody in such a curious way. If you like way out jazz mixed with contemporary cut-up classical your ears will be dancing in disquietude.
It’s been less than ten minutes in and these guys are circulating the space, following each other, in both opposition and in concert. There’s this loose feel that suddenly tightens and shifts dramatically when you least expect. I particularly like when there are those few and between moments of very intimate solo playing where, for instance, you can hear Thieke’s raspy last breath like a hissing snake, or where Voutchkova’s bow sounds as though its whittling down its last fiber. In these moments you can hear effects like gurgling birdcalls that are likely vocal treatments and amped breathing. There are resilient moments of heavy fiddling, and when its layered it becomes interestingly unbalanced. I’m momentarily reminded of Sun Ra somehow.
In Philadelphia (CD2) their atmospheric sound is tuned in, glaring bright. Here they make sounds that are slightly more cosmic, with slight alterations, drawing fine lines with a gray air about it. The performance starts off much more understated and chilly than the previous. Voutchkova picks at her strings in short plunks that sound like pecking, this is further visualized by the additional bird snaps and flaps. The sound board mix is perfect, you can easily hear tiny chattering of finger movements along with the way in which their playing fills the surround of the space itself. They jig and play with micro-effects until colliding in a stringed call to action, with its sharp pitch and wiggly aftermath. This is an introverted set projected outwardly with a certain fearlessness.
Then CD3 takes us to their performance in New York which seems to pick up almost exactly where they left off in the Midwest. The disc includes four additional short excerpts from each of the performances which offer some sweet focal spots. It’s the longest of the three performance, with more of an abstract classical feel. That is until the deep field sounds start to emote, they are in the thick of it and contend by offering a peculiar prepared sound. The instruments chirp in flux until they let go with a sudden, cavorting and extended wail. This then shifts into lower tones followed by a pleasing and lengthy respite of small sound effects: cracks, sloshes, and other acoustic bending.
This is a very physical record. I’m unsure how they created thtrain chugging sounds but that alongside the squiggly strings make for a uniquely playful portion nearly forty-five minutes in. They bring the long horns and singular squeaky pops with warbly voice into the final minutes, leaving an uncertain stillness in the room. (9/21/2018)
Brian Olewnick, Just Outside
'Blurred Music' is technically the first recording from Yuko Zama's very exciting new Elsewhere label. I wrote earlier about Melaine Dalibert's release, the second in the imprint's early catalog; it was a single disc and, for me, easier (in one sense, anyway) to grasp. Here we have three CDs, three live recordings from within the space of nine days in December, 2016, each with its own complex character. I found it tougher to grapple with but, ultimately, just as rewarding.
I've known and greatly admired Thieke's clarinet playing and composing for some time now, particularly as involved The International Nothing, his clarinet duo with Kai Fagaschinski, and The Magic I.D. with Fagaschinski, Christof Kurzmann and Margareth Kammerer. I was much less familiar with Voutchkova's violin work, though what I had heard led me to "place" her more in the jazz-based free improv camp rather than the quieter, smoother territories often investigated by Thieke, so I was curious and even tentative about this combination. It was only belatedly that I realized I actually possessed an earlier collaboration, 'Already There' on Flexion (2013), which I enjoyed a great deal at the time; the problem with hearing too much music: one forgets things one shouldn't--need to revisit it.
In any case, I came into this with notions both accurate and false. The methodology used here is fascinating. There's a base of pre-taped material. The duo sometimes attempts to duplicate these sounds (the "blurred" aspect arising upon the inevitable failure to do so precisely) and sometimes improvises along with/atop it. There's more to it than that and I may not be understanding it completely. The at-home listener, however, can only rarely distinguish between the taped and live sounds, so experiences the music as a two violin, two clarinet quartet. The first portion of Chicago is rather active, even frenetic, tending more toward the kind of movement I'd associated with Voutchkova--very gestural and virtuosic, with Thieke (unusually, in my experience) following suit, his clarinet a-bubble and not above the occasional shriek. But soon enough, the music splays out into thick, taffy-like lines, slowly settling into various lovely forms of stasis, then spinning out once more into a soft but energetic space with spit-out breath sounds and quietly strangulated vocals and pizzicato attacks. There's more of this kind of back and forth on the first disc, 'Chicago', than on the others and for my taste, the music works better the less raucous it is, but that's perhaps more on a micro-level. Listened to as a whole--a more difficult task, more so over three discs--it fits in quite well as a "chapter".
'Philadelphia' picks up, a week later, where 'Chicago' left off. In fact, I found myself wondering if the underlying tape might be one long session, returned to at the point which the previous concert ended. I've been remiss in remarking how simply gorgeous the meld of violin and clarinet (or two violins and two clarinets) is. That's brought home near the beginning of this set, the strands intertwining licorice-like, creaminess and grit, so great to wallow in. After my first listen-through, I had the impression that 'Chicago' was the most active and intense section, but I was over-simplifying. There's plenty of intensity on hand in Philly. For just one example, there's a portion that begins some 25 minutes in that's like being among a set of buzzsaws--pretty spectacular, ultra-intense music. Even the quieter moments are somewhat harrowing.
The New York set, recorded at Phill Niblock's Experimental Intermedia loft, runs to 70 minutes, a good deal longer than the prior two (about 50 and 40 minutes, respectively). Part of my fascination with this release is the embedding of three fairly long sets into one (as I hear it) extremely long one. This begins with layers of extended tones, the kind of laminal approach that I find very satisfying, allowing the listener to directly experience variations in pitch and timbre and construct relationships for himself. They slowly dissolve into a kind of warbling keen, pitched high, birdlike, before tilting back into relative consonance, where it lingers for a delightfully long while, fluctuating and quavering. Midway through, there's a quiet nest of pizzicatos and muted squeaks and breath tones. Here, and later as things quiet down even further, the integration of the tape with the live performance is utterly seamless. The set is perfectly paced, always riveting, concluding with hazy, uncertain lines that point toward future music.
A really fine, complex and unusual release, and a superb initial outing for Elsewhere. (8/8/2018)