“Forgetting is an act of purification and sacrifice. Memories are sacrificed so that nothing can cloud the visions that will come. This act prepares for the call, the message that awakens the survivor to proceed into the liminal state, into the dream world. At the sanctuaries of Asclepius, a patient was not allowed to enter the Abaton, meaning ‘place not to be entered unbidden’ unless they received a clear message or vision to come.”
- Maggie Macary, Forgetting and Remembering in Epic Literature
The art of creative “forgetting” is one of the methodologies employed on “Abaton”, Sylvie Courvoisier’s ECM debut. This double album, resolutely genre-defying, is divided into conceptual halves. One disc, subtitled “Four Compositions” presents music written by Courvoisier; the other features “19 Improvisations”, collective music composed on-the-spot by Courvoisier, Mark Feldman and Erik Friedlander. Abaton is also the name of the ensemble - whose concerts now similarly span Courvoisier’s compositions and freely-structured material. For their ECM recording, the trio had originally intended only to record written material, but were encouraged by Manfred Eicher also to play freely, extending the spirit of Sylvie’s compositions. The invitation was enthusiastically accepted: the language of improvisation is by no means foreign to these players…
Sylvie Courvoisier: “I’ve always been a little torn between contemporary music and jazz, or rather improvised music. It’s true that I’ve moved further and further away from ‘jazz’ in my current work, but I don’t care for labels. There will certainly be a moment in my compositions where there’s a basic line connecting to jazz. Jazz lives from improvisation; it has helped me develop this instinctive side of musical activity. When you play improvised music, instantaneous composing is what’s really going on. Every improviser is a composer, and in a way the work of composing itself is an improvisation, but of course one that’s slower, more thought over and revised…To improvise well, you have to forget everything; so to compose well you have to forget everything, too. Paradoxical, isn’t it? When I’m improvising, I like to develop it as if I were composing a piece. Some improvisations are impossible to write down and they’re magnificent.” (from an interview with Christian Steulet).
Courvoisier was born in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1968. Her earliest pianistic influence was Thelonious Monk. She was struck by the fact that Monk had opened up new perspectives in improvising that were not based upon the idea of the clever line or technical display. Instead, in a way that still seems modern, Monk was working with intervals, clusters, sound. Other early inspirations were Bill Evans, Paul Bley, Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, Edgar Varèse, György Ligeti. Such inspirations have led her gradually to her own, robust music which in the words of one critic, reviewing a Courvoisier show at the Library of Congress in Washington, “combines cleverly composed construction and improvisational freedom - a strong and unmistakably personal mixture of expressionistic, minimalistic, polyphonic and modern jazz languages.”
As Thomas Steinfeld writes in the CD liner notes, Courvoisier has “also studied Arnold Schoenberg’s musical teachings and learned from them that (…) the major achievements of the musical avant-garde are found, not in the liberation of pitch, but in the expansion of timbre. Her music thus has passages of exhilarating harmony, now boldly stated, now merely suggested. Then the violin or the cello rises to a solo that refuses to balk at vibrato or at the glow of melody wafting on air (…). The violinist suddenly supplies a pizzicato, the cellist strikes the instrument with the bow, the pianist brushes the string with her hand, all only for an instant. In such a play of timbres, old experiences recur as if they were wholly new.”
As a composer, she has been commissioned to write music for concerts, radio, dance and theatre. Her works include a “Concerto for electric guitar and chamber orchestra” (1999), “Balbutiements” for vocal quartet and soloists (1995-2000), and “Ocre de Barbarie”, for metronomes, automatons, barrel organ, piano, tuba, saxophone, violin and percussion (1997).
As an improviser Courvoisier has toured and recorded with a wide range of artists including John Zorn (she continues to perform in his Cobra projects), Tony Oxley, Fred Frith, Joelle Leandre, Michel Godard, and others. Since 1998, Sylvie Courvoisier has been based in Brooklyn, NY, and continues to work with an ever-widening cast of players – central amongst these is Mark Feldman, a frequent duo and trio partner. Courvoisier also plays in the trio Mephista, with Ikue Mori and Susie Ibarra, in cellist Vincent Courtois’s group and in duos with Jacques Demierre, Lucas Niggli and Mark Nauseef.
Courvoisier has been recording as a leader for the last nine years and has appeared on more than 20 albums, many of them with Swiss labels.
Violinist Mark Feldman is amongst the most prolific of contemporary recording artists having appeared on more than 100 jazz and improvised albums and more 200 albums during a decade as a session player in Nashville. Based in New York since 1986, he is a much sought-after player. Feldman has been closely associated with John Zorn on numerous projects and has performed with – amongst very many others – Paul Bley, Muhal Richard Abrams, Lee Konitz, John Taylor, Dave Douglas, Tim Berne, Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano, Kenny Wheeler and Louis Sclavis.
In recent seasons Feldman has been a crucial component of John Abercrombie’s Quartet, appearing with the guitarist on the widely praised “Open Land” and “Cat’n’Mouse” albums, and touring widely. Feldman is also increasingly active as an interpreter of contemporary composed music. In 2002 he premiered the Violin Concerto of Guus Janssen as soloist with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.
Thomas Steinfeld: “Feldman is known not only for his beautiful tone and sheer virtuosity, but also for the joy he takes in sudden inventions, his delight in switching genres and even in merry impromptus.”
Cellist Erik Friedlander was born in New York. His involvement with improvisation began in the late 1970s when he began working with bassist Harvie Swartz. By the end of the 1980s he was playing regularly with John Zorn, Dave Douglas, Joe Lovano, and Marty Ehrlich subsequently recording with all of them. Friedlander has led his own groups Chimera and Topaz, and participated in recordings with amongst others Myra Melford, Laurie Anderson, Phil Woods, Fred Hersch, Scott Johnson and Mark Dresser, and appeared with Courtney Love’s band Hole on MTV Unplugged.