“Tempe Jetz is a sophisticated interplay of extended saxophone, clavinet and field recordings by two master improvisers, experimental woodwind artist Jim Denley (Sydney) and extended keyboard virtuoso Magda Mayas (Berlin).”
Writing about improvisation puts into practice a philosophy, either academic or homegrown, of how musical form relates to the experience of listening. A musical philosophy develops slowly and should be allowed to evolve with more and more listening. I commence my review of Tempe Jetz with this prologue because I am conscious that the musical features that I choose to discuss are pertinent to my listening but might not carry the same importance in Jim Denley and Magda Mayas’ practices of improvisation. Like any review, this piece is a record of my encounter with Tempe Jetz and an expression of my own habits of listening at this point in time. Recently, I have been interested in the many ways that repetition crops up in all sorts of different music, and I find its function in Tempe Jetz interesting.
Repetition describes the return of a figure that has occurred previously. Repetition has traditionally been an important device in the construction of a musical work’s identity, however it can be tempting to pass over the subtleties that distinguish each moment if we fixate our listening on repeating themes. If, instead, we focus on the ways that recurring figures are differentiated, repetition becomes a celebration of the particularity of every event. Nuances of timbre, dynamic inflection, and undulations of pitch and breath can transform repeated gestures. Repetition becomes an invitation to pour attention into the texture of the sound while also sculpting discernable relationships between musical participants. It is this type of repetition that I hear at work in Tempe Jetz where repetition becomes a frame for experiments in the texture of sound. A scrape or a rattle or a subdued hum can go so far as to erode the boundaries between intentioned sound art and ambient noise – this kind of detail is hardly extraneous. Incidentally, many of the improvisations on Jim Denley’s Soundcloud play at the edge of this boundary and incorporate the sounds at various locations, and field recordings also become musical participants in Tempe Jetz.
Tempe Jetz opens with the shortest of four improvisations – A departure. Mayas’ Clavinet and Denley’s prepared alto saxophone coexist in a series of territories. These are characterized by the repetition of common threads between unique expressions, rather than conventional motifs. Denley begins with multiphonics drawn from the harmonic series, returning to a couple of pitches as points of momentary repose. There is a metallic cleaving from one tone to the next and it sounds like the saxophone’s resonance is obstructed by an object in the bell. Clashing microtones beat against each other as Denley resists the centering tendency of the instruments with different degrees of assertiveness. It is the sense of pushing away from the centre of pitches and falling back into them that repeats. This type of repetition makes difference its objective.
At the same time Mayas plays insistent, electrified taps. It is a simple repeating idea made effective by manipulating dynamics and timbre. The texture of the sound varies constantly, moving in waves from defined and articulate, to softer and slightly damped. There is a sense of tightly coiled energy in her taps that begins to unwind, punctuated by space, as Denley’s interrupted long-tones subside. As the pair transition into a second territory, Mayas’ taps become scrapes against the strings of the clavinet and Denley briefly plays a cycle of three pitches. His notes are breathy and are textured with a subtle, granular surface. Interest lies in the sonic detail and the way that gestures dovetail in a mesh of shifting energies.
Ambient noise creeps into the background at the beginning of Customs Declaration, the longest of the four improvisations. Distant traffic underpins a quiet clattering, almost machinelike in its rhythm, and the low rumble of a jet passes briefly into focus. Mayas begins to play in the upper register of the Clavinet amidst Denley’s sustained pitches, which are coloured once again by the rattling distortion of an object in the saxophone bell. The opening strains coalesce on a pitch centre played on the Clavinet, and a repeating alternation of major and minor thirds centres intricate explorations of timbre and inflection. I particularly enjoy the way Mayas’ clouds of high frequencies swoop in and out of the foreground from about 9:15, falling over each other while lower registers refer back to a two-note motif from earlier. Grounding repetition and unhinged exploration counterbalance each other; there are exceptionally beautiful moments.
As with many experimental releases, it is difficult to pin down exactly what makes Tempe Jetz so effective. One might point to particular patterns of interaction that hold Mayas and Denley in each other’s orbits while they play such different materials, novel approaches to repetition for instance. I personally enjoy the way that there seems to be abundant space. It is not space in a literal sense – the sound is nearly constant – but a feeling that there is an opening for each new addition to the textures. But the beauty of this album really lies in the immersive detail of sound and its poetic placement, and these attributes are too deeply situated in the sensuous experience of listening to be captured with language.