Reviewed by Joseph Cummins, November 1st, 2014
Brought to life by Mike Majkowski, the double bass is a living, breathing organism that can morph from the size of an insect, all energy and restless movement, to a creature of cosmic proportions, vibrating in excess of time and space.
Sydney-raised Majkowski has been making a name for himself in Berlin, the flourishing hub of European artistic experimentation, for the past few years. The move to Europe is something that seems almost inevitable for many of the best musicians, and while the void left by such vibrant members of our music scenes is keenly felt by those left behind, the rewards of the journey are there for all to hear.
Why Is There Something Instead of Nothing is Majkowski’s third solo double bass release. The sheer focus of Majkowski’s playing helps this recording to transcend the stultifying effects of capture: while watching this live would be spellbinding, listening to it on head phones is almost just as riveting.
Released as a limited edition vinyl, this album is made up of two pieces. Side A contains Belt of Sand, Side B A Shadow of Silver Dipped in Gold. Majkowski states that ‘the two pieces were developed and refined over the course of approximately 7 months. Recording and listening back to the pieces as I was developing them was central to this process, and something I did countless times over.’ The highly refined state of both pieces is striking.
Uncovering the secret resonances produced by the sound-machine built from a double bass and a human body, Belt of Sand opens with a engine-like bowing pattern. Something about the speed of articulation and complexity of texture evoked here creates the impression of a static piece of art like a statue, such is the discipline and commitment of Majkowski’s playing. It’s hard to imagine how much practice it would take to be able to play with such intensity for a period of 15 minutes, and this quality alone places Majkowski right up there with the top free improvisers in Europe. An apt metaphor for approaching this piece is the archeological dig. As time passes, more layers of sound are unearthed: After 5 minutes a new upper harmonic resonance is revealed, and at 9 minutes another lower tone is struck, like a seam of precious metal. The gradual unveiling of this buried harmony, and the slow but deliberate shifts between the different pitch centres ends up giving the piece a melancholic atmosphere that borders on the melodic. The final plucked note, in the lowest register heard on the track, offers a neat ending. One could argue that it betrays the minimalist ethic of the piece, but it does stay true to the harmonic concerns explored.
A Shadow of Silver Dipped in Gold is built from the repetition of two notes. Working with much less sonic material than the first piece, Majkowski again easily holds the attention of the listener. This is a feat perhaps more impressive considering the desolate sparsity of what he chooses to play. Out of the vast sonic vocabulary Majkowski has perfected – which is on show in, for instance, his work with Roil, Majkowski’s excellent trio with Chris Abrahams and James Waples – his choice to play such simple figures shows a commitment to his concept. After almost 10 minutes of these two figures, we are given a single plucked tone, in the middle register of the bass. Improbably – for me at least – this event signals a shift in direction for the piece. The line of repeated tones that unfold are so resonant that they give the visual impression of being able to see each sound figure fade away into the background.
It is easy to get lost in the swirling motion of Side A. But moving away from the obvious virtuosity of that sonic profusion, Side B offers a cleansing and tranquil passage out of the album. Why Is There Something Instead of Nothing showcases Majkowski’s skill as an improviser. While he has for many years been technically advanced on his instrument, this album highlights the conceptual depth of his approach to sound.