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Reviews: Sputter

Birgit Ulher: trumpet
Gino Robair: energized surfaces, voltage made audible

Creative Sources


You know what it sounds like already just from the title. Trumpeter Birgit Ulher's rapidly catching up with Ernesto Rodrigues as The Person Who's Released The Most Albums On Creative Sources – this is her fourth for the label (and the fifth, 500g, with Lars Scherzberg and Michael Maierhof is hard on its heels) and finds her in the company of Gino Robair on "energized surfaces, voltage made audible". Of course it's not all sputter; there are plenty of crashes, squeaks, growls and gurgles too, and quite a bit of toybox sci-fi fun on the opening "Capacitance Blubber". Robair is a fabulously resourceful percussionist, and someone we should hear much more of (and see more of on this side of the pond), lightning fast and razor sharp. But Ulher matches him sputter for sputter. Like Axel Dörner, she's got an extraordinary arsenal of New Trumpet Techniques at her disposal, but can play the hell out of the instrument when she has to – check out "The Downy Monsters". If Brötzmann's Tentet is a sonic rugby scrum and Flaherty / Corsano a bare knuckle boxing match, Ulher and Robair are the aural equivalent of the World Fencing Championships. Touché!

Dan Warburton,

all-music guide

This collaboration between trumpeter Birgit Ulher and percussionist Gino Robair is the perfect follow-up to the latter's 2004 album withJohn Butcher, 'New Oakland Blurr'. His partner is once again extremely unorthodox in her approach of her instrument. She uses a wide array of breathing sounds, staccato effects, strangled notes and spit growls that roughly place her somewhere between Axel Dörner and Franz Hautzinger. Robair pushes further his exploration of percussion that is not quite percussive. In addition to rubbed cymbals and the occasional outburst of actual percussion sounds as in 'The Downy Monsters', he introduces 'energized surfaces' into his attire, which means that he controls analog synthesizer modules by moving his hands across or applying pressure to asurface -- a technique that is visually quite interesting and disorienting for the audience when witnessed in concert. On record, it sounds like Thomas Lehn getting busy on his old analog synths, although the result has a sharper kinetic feel. The pairing between Ulher's subnote sound world and Robair's oddly choreographed electronics produced ten quirky, puzzling, highly demanding free improvisations. One feels a palpable tension between the two, as if they didn't quite know the contents of each other's bag of tricks before entering Myles Boisen's studio on that first day of November, 2004. Maybe that is why there is not a dull moment on 'Sputter': each track offers a new configuration of sounds and techniques.

François Couture, all-music guide


Hamburg trumpeter and visual artist Birgit Ulher has been involved in free improvising since 1982, developing an extensive vocabulary of textured breath, brassy pops and burbling which is heard in especially sympathetic company on these two CDs. On the suitably named Sputter, recorded a vear ago in Oakland, California, Gino Robair works with "energized surfaces" and "voltage made audible". His sizzle and fizz electronics, scraped and bowed cymbals and other unconventionally agitated percussion instruments blend intimately with Ulher`s pursed utterances and gassy sputter. It`s improvising with a clearly symbiotic agenda, the two musicians feeding into and out of one another`s playing on each of the ten tracks in ways that generate coherent sound streams from gritty fragments, pulsating filaments and discrete particles.

see also the review to Landscape: recognizable

Julian Cowley,

Touching Extremes

Reading "trumpet" and "energized surfaces + voltage made audible" as sources used by Ulher and Robair, one has the certainty of a totally unconventional sound morphology; that's completely confirmed by the rheumatic fever hallucinations and the electric vegetable peeling coming from the speakers throughout "Sputter". Birgit and Gino live off their respective priorities, finding hundreds of meeting points during this cycle of leaf-curling conversations where the apparent contrast of air and electricity prints instead a rare collection of ideographical aural spermatozoa whose procreative energy is immune to boredom. The immaterial yet rusted pocket money exchanged by the artists during repeated scoffing timbral outbursts and intuitive elucubrations is enough for their music to inhibit any form of relaxation as bubbles, spurts and shuffles pollute the river of instant gratification. At one and the same time lapidary and petulant, "Sputter" belongs in Creative Sources' most fertile territory.

Massimo Ricci, Touching Extremes



Sputter and Landscape:

For years North American improvisers have gone to Europe to play with like-minded musicians; today the traffic is as frequently the other way. Sputter and Landscape: recognizable (both on Creative Sources) are a couple of souvenirs from Hamburg-based trumpeter Birgit Ulher’s recent American odysseys that show her interaction with similarly minded Yank music experimenters.

In Europe Ulher works in a variety of international ensembles and seems to have a particular affinity for percussionists. The UNSK quartet, of which she is a member, includes Swedish drummer Raymond Strid, while British drummer Roger Turner is with her in the PUT trio. So it makes sense that on these new CDs she’s partnered with two of the United States’ most inventive sound-makers, who are also percussionists: the Bay Area’s Gino Robair and Chicago’s Michael Zerang.

Just as Ulher, like countryman Axel Dörner and Boston’s Greg Kelley, is expanding the trumpet’s language, so in their own ways are the Californian and Midwesterner doing the same for the percussion family. Listed as playing energized surfaces and voltage made audible on Sputter, Robair uses synthesized live electronics to extend his kit’s capabilities. Similarly, Zerang’s expanded kit on Landscape: recognizable includes friction drum, wind whistle, xylophone bars, snare drum, bird calls, and metal.

Not that anyone is nonplussed during the course of these improvisations. After all, Robair has matched wits with reed experimenters like Britain’s John Butcher and Anthony Braxton; while Zerang has done the same with Butcher and folks like Germany’s Peter Brötzmann. Encountering a metal tube with three valves merely calls for different strategies. Expanding the aural panorama on Landscape: recognizable, is the wildcard: Chicago-based audio artist Lou Mallozzi. He adds his arsenal of turntables, CDs, microphones, organ pipes, and amplified voice to the sound miasma Zerang and Ulher create.

In this context, Sputter is practically an acoustic session. From the beginning of the Robair-Ulher meeting thrashing input signals, masticating impulses, and hissing oscillations predominate. But you can still hear the puffs of colored air, spattering triplets, and buzzing lead pipe movement that can only be created orally.

At various times Ulher bubbles near subterranean pedal tones that swell to aviary caws, throat slurs, and eventually piercing shrills—then she adds yelping internal valve lesions. Rubato, often spewing microscopic tones, the trumpeter doesn’t neglect flutter-tonguing, tongue-clicking, sudden volume shifts, and mouthpiece kisses. She can replicate the creak of a raising coffin lid to meld with Robair’s otherworldly cymbal scrapes, or cackle crone-like to join the percussionist’s static tuning actions. For his part, Robair triggers wave forms that can be compared to a pre-recorded tape running backwards, a vacuum cleaner’s roar, Morse code, and insistent doorbell buzzing.

On “A Genius of Trunnels”, for example, he outputs church organ-like striated tones that finally reveal themselves as cymbal and gong battering, while Ulher explores plunger tones and growls from the capillary valves. Eventually, cymbal vibrations mix with the brassy duplication of distant thunder. On “The Downy Monsters”, the longest track, Ulher’s near-polyphonic output reaches almost accordion-like compression as air and metal vibrate around single breaths. Completing the impulse as if he too was manipulating another part of her instrument, Robair triggers a complementary pulsating sequence, shoveling and sawing on unyielding hard surfaces.

Similar surfaces get more of a workout on Landscape: recognizable, while the addition of a third sound source makes the session both louder and livelier. Zerang adding aural percussion, plus the pre-recorded voices from Mallozzi’s pre-existing CDs, as well as his microphones and amplified voice, give this session more of a verbal quality. Frequently the pre-existing human timbres are mere gibberish, crowd noises, or murky, below the hearing threshold. Sporadically between turntable rumble and mic hisses, however, full words and phrases emerge, though the significance of an announcer intoning “to wait”, “now”, “listen”, or “before” in the midst of a group improvisation is a query best left to Mallozzi.

Notwithstanding this, Ulher’s tone appears harsher, more rhythmic and coarser than on Sputter. Sure there are twitters and warbles, but also many more growling wah-wahs, tongue-slaps and stops—the better for counterpoint with Mallozzi’s triggered processed sounds plus the bounces, ruffs, and general metrical impetus from Zerang’s percussion collection. As someone who can produce resonating tones from hand action on snare tops or floor creaks, Zerang’s dexterity makes him the perfect intermediary between the electric and the acoustic impulses of his partners here.

Although Zerang’s wind-whistle prowess is no more than serviceable, the chirruping effect—part penny whistle and part bird call—he creates encourages the trumpeter to respond by rubbing textures from her mouthpiece and osculating tongue-slaps in a flurry of brassy notes. “Blame Pericles”, the CD’s climactic track, has Zerang in proper percussive mode, albeit on metal snare drum. Stripped-down kit notwithstanding, his bull’s eye targeting of the beat crosses patterns with Mallozzi’s gamelan-like tones. Meanwhile, the latter’s organ pipe pops bring quick-tongued buzzes from Ulher. Finally she snaps out a coda of honks and peeps on top of murmuring and hissing tape noise from the audio artist’s palate.

Landscape: recognizable confirms that Mallozzi was more assertive, but not to the detriment of the overall sound, while Sputter replicates how well two committed improvisers can think and create in a recording studio..

by Ken Waxman, 16 January 2006,

IMPROJAZZ 122 (Février 2006)

Dans cette fuite en avant / percée créative des trompettistes radicaux se distingue particulièrement Birgit Ulher, une improvisatrice hambourgeoise très impliquée sur la scène de la musique improvisée en Alemagne. Ces troisdisques en suivent déjà deux autres publiés par Creative Sources: Tidszon par le groupe UNSK (Ulher, Norelius, Strid, Küchen) et son duo avec la vocaliste Ute Wassermann.

Birgit Ulher n'adhère pas vraiment à la tabula rasa radicale des Axel Dörner, Masafumi Ezaki, Ruth Barberan et compagnies dont Creative Sources se fait l´écho, si écho il y a, entendu que cela souffle «à l'intérieur»... Elle pousse le plus loin possible la tradition de l'instrument et de l'articulation des notes et des timbres dans leurs derniers retranchements. Au-delà des Bill Dixon, Leo Smith, Marc Charig, Lester Bowie et Toshinori Kondo, mais toujours dans la trajectoire créée par ces formidables improvisateurs (et compositeurs!) de la trompette. De même Zerang et Robair sortent complètement de leurs rôles de percussionnistes et se muent en chercheurs de sons.

Dans Sputter, Robair est crédité aus energized surfaces et voltage made audible. Ne me demandez pas d'explications sur cette instrumentation. Au rythme où va le lable Creative sources, Ernesto Rodrigues n'aurait pas le temps de répondre à mes questions et je n'ai pas de contact avec Robair. Tout ce que je peux vous dire, c'est que je trouve les sons électroniques produits par Gino Robair nettement plus enthousiasmants que le toutvenant laptop et autres machines qu'on entend de nos jours. Il y a dans Sputter une dynamique et une volonté de dépassement tout à fait intéressante. Les energized surfaces sont sans doute ces moteurs qui font vibrer la surface des tambours de Robair, qui a séjourné à Londres et y a fait la rencontre déterminante d'Eddie Prévost. Il a publié un fantastique disque solo, Singular pleasures, sur son label Rastascan, et cette technique y était utilisée.

Jean-Michel van Schouwburg, Improjazz

Signal to Noise

Without reeds, trumpets (like trombones) can be cold instruments for such minimalist playing, and Ulher doesn't try to mask the fact. Her playing can be guttural and harsh, and she makes use of the horn's metallic sounds. But with the embrace of San Francisco percussionist Gino Robair's electrified percussion, she creates a warm bath of abstraction, similar to her excellent disc Slants with electronicist Ernst Thoma (released by Unit in 2003). Robair here is credited with playing "energized surfaces, voltage made audible" and in general has penchant for Styrofoam, resonating chambers an muted vibrations. Putting the sounds he creates through analogue synth modules, he creates a soundscape so complimentary to Ulher's playing that it sounds at times like a multi-track recording of a single player. Far from discounting his contribution, it's to his credit that he creates an environment that they can both sink into so completely.

Kurt Gottschalk, Signal to Noise #41

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