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It's been more than a decade since clarinetist François Houle and pianist Benoît Delbecq's previous recording, but Because She Hoped proves that they can a strike a mood together quickly. That quiet, misterioso air is one specialty, conjuring a dream state: a slow-motion sleepwalk.
There's some modern chamber music in this duo's approach. Delbecq often prepares his piano in the way composer John Cage made popular. He wedges small pieces of wood or rubber between selected strings to get muted, percussive or bell-like sounds. Preparing different notes different ways transforms piano into a percussion orchestra. The instrument has a lot of voices, and Delbecq may give each voice its own character role; one buzzing note might suggest an mbira, the plucked-metal West African thumb piano. Another clacking key might simulate Cuban clavé sticks.
Clarinetist François Houle also uses various so-called "extended techniques," which we might define as techniques unusual 50 years ago that are almost common now. But just as pianists prepared their instruments by laying paper on the strings long before John Cage, you can trace Houle's striking percussive notes back to vaudeville clarinetists of 100 years ago. It's not the newness of the technique that counts; it's what players do with it.
In Steve Lacy's tune, "Clichés," Houle quotes or mangles familiar licks on clarinet. That solo is subtly funny, but his singing tone sounds good even if you miss all the jokes. Some people think extended techniques are mostly the province of classical music — check out the Wikipedia page for prepared piano. But jazz man John Carter pointed the way toward extreme high notes for clarinetists like Houle, and a bumper crop of contemporary improvisers prepare their pianos. For proof, check out Dred Scott's new solo album Prepared Piano, or Albert van Veenendaal's 2010 CD Minimal Damage, or various works by Andrea Neumann, Cor Fuhler or Denman Maroney. Composer Richard Barrett has said he listens to improvised music to discover what sounds are possible — sounds he can use as a composer. Improvisers who really investigate an instrument know the possibilities best. They can create their own little sound worlds, as François Houle and Benoît Delbecq do here.