Lea Bertucci, "Resonant Field"

Sunday, 04 August 2019 00:00 Anthony D'Amico Reviews - Albums and Singles
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cover imageThis latest release from Lea Bertucci ambitiously follows in the footsteps of Pauline Oliveros' landmark Deep Listening album (1989), though site-specific performances are certainly nothing new for the NY-based saxophonist/composer.  In this instance, the site was the Marine A Grain Elevator at Silo City in Buffalo, which NNA Tapes describes as a "silent, hulking concrete corpse" that stands 130 feet tall.  Unlike Oliveros, Bertucci chose to make her celebration of extreme natural reverb largely a solo affair, using the 12-second decay of the cavernous enclosure to create a rich haze of sustained drones and ghostly harmonies.  After the initial performance, however, she reworked the material with the aid of some collaborators, so the final album is a bit more complex and layered than a solo sax performance might have been.  Not much more though, as Resonant Field's primary appeal lies in those original performances, making it a very different animal than its more composed predecessor Metal Aether.

NNA Tapes

It is convenient that Deep Listening is the most obvious reference point for Resonant Field, as deep listening is exactly what is required to fully appreciate the nuance and intent of Bertucci's work.  In fact, it is an intriguing challenge to try to figure out which unexpected sounds originated from site-specific acoustic phenomena and which were later studio additions.  Given that Bertucci set out to "to excite and activate the space by playing certain pitches and extended techniques," the resonance of the silo undoubtedly supplies some distinctly non-saxophone sounds.  The opening "Wind Piece" is the simplest piece to deconstruct, as the only post-silo interventions seem to be Robbie Lee's flute, some occasional scraping metal textures, and some well-placed ripples and distortions.  The timing of unusual sonic phenomena likely provides the clearest clues, as the deep, slowly undulating drone in "Wind Piece" vanishes as soon as Bertucci stops amassing a ghostly cloud of trilling, fluttering tones around the same frequency range.  Similarly, when she switches to a more forceful and repeating melodic fragment, the reverberations vibrantly ring out as a somewhat transformed shadow image. 

As cool as the natural reverb and resonance of the silo can be, however, Resonant Field is definitely an album with an extremely constrained palette.  As such, three of its four pieces unavoidably feel like variations on the same theme (a solo sax improvisation that alternates between sustained tones and rapid flurries of notes).  The title piece is an imaginative and compelling departure from the rest of the album though, as the languorous initial sax melody is subsumed by rolling, panning, and reverberating drum samples and a rich tapestry of chirping, hissing, and flapping field recordings.  At its peak, it resembles a nightmare set deep in a hallucinatory jungle, but Bertucci eventually tamps down all that roiling, primal chaos to clear the way for more saxophone licks.  Thankfully, those layers of strange and evocative sounds never completely go away, so the piece becomes a compelling push-and-pull between "nocturnal mindfuck jungle" and "silo jazz."  I think the jungle ultimately triumphs, which is great, as I prefer Bertucci's sound art side to her more instrumental one.  Given all that, "Resonant Field" is very much the album’s centerpiece and probable raison d'etre, but the other longform piece "Warp and Weft" has some flashes of inspiration as well, as does the all-too-brief closer "Deliquescence."  Of the two, I prefer the latter, as guest double-bassist James Ilgenfritz unleashes a wonderfully squirming and supernatural-sounding storm of harmonics and bow squeals.  Ilgenfritz also provides the set piece at the heart of "Warp and Weft," as Bertucci's steadily accumulating haze of slowly dissolving sustain is unexpectedly joined by some wonderfully subterranean-sounding groans and shudders.       

While Resonant Field is quite enjoyable for what it is, there are some inherent caveats with any album documenting a site-specific performance.  The first is quite obvious: the acoustics of the original site are very different from those of any home-listening experience and the recording process itself cannot capture the full, surround-sound richness of the performance.  As such, an album is a necessarily "flattened" version of the experience, which places much more emphasis on the melodies and harmonies than was originally intended.  Less obvious is the fact that the space itself dictated the shape of these compositions: certain motifs are sustained and repeated solely because of how they interacted with the resonant frequencies of the building, not because they were an integral part of a deliberate compositional arc.  I suppose it is a nice surprise that there is a deliberate compositional arc at all though, as it is impossible to "compose" in advance when the whole point is to inventively and intuitively interact with the acoustic environment.  Still, I cannot help but wish Bertucci had gone a bit further in her post-performance enhancements, as the reverb of the space is expected to do a lot of heavy-lifting here and it is not nearly as satisfying as what she could have achieved with a greater emphasis on her field recording and textural sorcery.  Consequently, Resonant Field is more of a solid one-off departure rather than a worthy successor to Metal Aether, though the title piece unquestionably ranks among Bertucci's finest work to date.

Samples can be found here.

Last Updated on Sunday, 04 August 2019 18:02