How do musicians improvise together when they can’t be together? 

Birdsongs of the Necromancer is the North Carolina-based experimental group Cyanotype’s answer to that question. Releasing August 7 on Bandcamp, it features eight musicians who use extended techniques—unorthodox ways of making sounds with classical instruments—to bridge the gap.  

Cyanotype is a loose collective that consists mostly of classically trained musicians who have been playing together in various ensembles for years. They don’t have a set repertoire—instead, someone starts playing, others listen a bit and respond, and that listening and reacting guides them into a kind of groupthink. 

It’s electrifying to hear these real-time decisions and reactions in person, which has been captured well on their previous, essentially live recordings. But Birdsongs, made entirely under quarantine, is different.

“There is a long history of these albums that get constructed over the internet or through the mail from people in far corners of the world, sending files back and forth, remixing and layering,” violist Dan Ruccia says. “But that’s very much a process of iteration, right? Using the mail as a compositional tool. We’re thinking about this as an improvisational tool.” [Disclosure: Ruccia writes about music for the INDY.]

For the eight pieces on the album, Ruccia put together scores that merely listed four musicians in a certain order. The first musician would record a five-minute improvisation in a single, unrehearsed take, and send it back to Ruccia. Then the second musician would receive the track with a specific time window in which they would improvise to the recording without listening to it in advance. That would be mixed and sent to the third musician, and so on. 

Instead of iterative composition, it’s a process of accumulating improvisation that resembles Cyanotype’s live works to create that unique sense of connection. Since each musician is improvising separately to a different, accumulating piece, quarantine itself can be said to be a fifth member of the ensemble.

 But the extended techniques the group always employs are the still the binding element.  

Jeb Bishop (trombone) and Laurent Estoppey (saxophone) open “Watch a Wasp” with an insectoid sound like a drone hovering overhead. “Jeb does a lot of stuff using breath in interesting sorts of ways to change the timbre and sound coming out,” Ruccia says. “He does stuff with his embouchure to get a buzz, and he hums and speaks while playing to create different kinds of pitch sets and multiphonics.

“Laurent has a similar sort of vocabulary, but for him, the sax has a lot more to do with using the valves to create different kinds of sounds,” Ruccia continues. “Key clicks and different pitch stuff, playing with different fingerings for things.”

These kinds of techniques aren’t just cool noises. There’s also a politics to it. While the music that has been played on classical instruments has changed and expanded continuously since they were invented centuries ago, the white Eurocentric conventions of how those instruments are to be played have stayed about the same. 

Many trained musicians take those conventions as an unquestionable truth, but others see them as a silencing of possibilities of expression, a muffling of unconventional voices. Extended technique is a form of dissent—its aesthetics is a politics.

Estoppey’s valve clicks and odd breaths, heard early in “Threnody for Breonna Taylor,” sound unnervingly like something outside getting ready to burst in. The scrabbling grows to percussive thumping before Jil Christensen’s oppressive electronic washes and organ sounds overcome them amid Michael Thomas Jackson’s clarinet scream.

On “Oakland Drive,” David Menestres (bass) and Ruccia use unconventional bowing to get atmospheric sounds, like the instruments are being scrubbed with steel wool, creating a soundscape for more tonal playing to emerge from later. The piece ends with Jackson talking unintelligibly through his clarinet, giving the effect of eavesdropping on people passing on a busy sidewalk.

“I am playing second on that track, after David,” Ruccia says. “I’m doing vertical bowing, where you bow parallel to the strings rather than perpendicular to them, to get a wah-wah, whooshy, airy sound. I’m going light with the tension and pressure and using a lot of bow speed.”

Menestres also hits the wooden part of the bow against the body of the bass to make percussive clacks. 

“That’s something that David does a lot more of than me,” Ruccia says. “The bass lends itself more to that. There’s more physicality to it, and it can handle a lot more abuse.”

In its accumulating improvisational form, through the expressive use of extended technique, Birdsongs of the Necromancer is an example of how to overcome physical and emotional isolation to remain part of a musical community and to expand one’s vocabulary when old ones are failing.

“Saying that you can only make this one kind of sound or range of sounds, it’s representative of all the various forms of cultural hegemony that we’re unpacking and talking about right now,” Ruccia says. “I’m not going to be so bold as to claim that we are upsetting the system—we’re not—but it’s still a way of thinking about different ways that things could be said or done.” 

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