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josé oliveira | the sound of the leaves of a tree


“A solo is a dialogue with reason.”

José Oliveira annotated his reflections about the work he was developing during the recording of “Tactus Music”. In this diary we observe an idea taking form, but more interesting are the lateral conjectures, the enunciated doubts, the raised problems. More than this: everything that escapes, in the music field, from the exclusive rational sphere, to touch more subjective questions. And in the same way that this percussionist, who represents a good piece of the history of improvisation in Portugal, has ascertained that to record a solo on disc (or to play it on stage) is like doing a strong arm with rationality, he immediately concludes, in these lines written in the spur of the moment, that in such context reason can only be aleatory, and after all “the shadow of reason”.

Thus, if this CD-R contains a conceptual work, the concepts that are confined here are not properly so, but the result of the erosion of hazard on the reactive capacities of the central nervous system of a sound artist. As a matter of fact, the confessed wish of Oliveira “to put some order in chaos” was of little value. After all, it was chaos itself that defined the order… from the order, and this is precisely what characterises any improvised music. To all intents and purposes, he was aware of this. “This music is perverse”, he peremptorily comments.

tactus.jpgJosé Oliveira is a disciple of that particular line of percussionists like Paul Lytton, Paul Lovens or Roger Turner, who attach an endless number of “extensions” to the common drum kit, from small ethnic instruments to metallic and other objects that may give them non-typified sonorities. The option of these musicians for a large quantity of utensils is not an easy one, as they have to use this plurality of means in a way which allows them not to enter into dispersion. This as always been Oliveira’s struggle, and dilemma. And in the same way that other percussionists reduced more and more the proportions of their set of instruments, in quest of a much larger concentration, as it is the case of Lê Quan Ninh, the former collaborator of the Vitriol duo and member of the Percustra project also went through this process of depuration (or was it “purge”?) in which are enough a gong with a bow or a zube-tube in conjuction with the voice. It is his purpose to meet a language or, as he prefers to say, “an autonomous sound dialect”, as long as it is concrete.

“Concrete” like the “musique concrète” of Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry? The diary of his recording explains exactly what he means by this: “Improvised music is becoming “cleaner” and “cleaner”, and in some way “romantic”, or at least “lyrical”. Quite the opposite, I feel like doing a dirty work that goes to the fountain-head. Not only the fountains of reference but to the origin of sound itself, of the sound being organized and transformed into music. When everything was virgin and rough and ugly. A music from an age before music existed. When sound, for instance the sound of the leaves of a tree, was not “the” sound-of-the-leaves-of-the-tree, fully identified and recognized as such, but only and simply the sound of the leaves of a tree. Exactly like this, in the raw. For me, this is concrete music, not so much the dislocation of determined sound sequences, deviating them from context, subsequently organizing them in formal narrative sequences of affinity and contrast, but the concrete sound of the things of the world, independently of its context and of its greater or lesser aesthetic and/or sound quality.” Do some of the passages sound electronic? So much the better, since it was Oliveira’s wish to treat the acoustic material as if it was electronic.

In “Tactus Music”, José Oliveira wanted to do “a kind of improvised concrete music, as opposed to concrete music formally elaborated in studio, in which the arrangement is not based on editing/collage of the sounds according to rational criteria, but on the properly called sounds and on arbitrary sequencial decisions” of its author. The pieces recorded on this disc are numbered from 1 to 8, without titles, which accentuates still more the objective of exploring a sole instrument/object or assemblage of instruments/objects in each of them, in a labour which Oliveira presents as of “composition-for-improvisation”, in conformity with an elliptical structure. How? This is his intention: “To improvise in order to obtain narrative sound syntheses which on their turn allow a work of composition-grouping for the improvisation. To compose the conducting wire but to improvise the wire to the coil.”

However, free will – he is compelled to agree on this – is also somewhat very romantic. Other improvisers had understood this before: Joelle Léandre even used to say that improvisation, with its accentuation of the emotional character of expression, is an heir of the Romantism of the 19th century. Does Phil Minton like to sing Schubert? Nothing more natural if he does…

“Always the eternal conflict between nature and culture”, José Oliveira opens his heart in his notes. Now, the depuration claimed by this musician, not engaged with schools and tendencies, does not want more (or better written: does not want less, as it is not easy) but to go to the essence, searching for “a tautology that provides this music with an ethical guarantee, a philosophical justification by itself”. Again the temptation to rationalize? Not in the least, according to Holderlin, quoted in Oliveira’s diary. In “Hipérion or the Eremit from Greece”, Holderlin considers that “no philosophy arises from the pure intelect, as philosophy is only the limited knowledge of what already exists”, and also that “no philosophy comes from pure reason, as philosophy is nothing but the blind demand of an endless progress in the union and in the differentiation of a possible substance”. Therefore, philosophy is something which stands between nature and culture. And which permits Oliveira to state, like an ethno-musicologist: “The sounds were already there, I did not do anything and limited myself to organize the gaps of silence amid them.”

And so he did, by blocks or modules in which he always tried to fit a “fiercely individual” approach, to use again his own words. With a metal lamella and a violin bow, for instance, he wove a net of continuous multiphonics; with burma bells and bobbins he tried the “incitement to accident, a “decay music” in which the sound is gradually dissipated, like water penetrating the soil”. The concepts succeed track by track, now taking care of exploring the “hidden face” of the instruments, now of finding “new ways”, now of escaping “the stereotyped (non?)-idiom of percussion in the traditional improvisation”, this despite the fact that he considers that improvised music itself is an idiom.

The saxophonist Mats Gustafsson (with Teddy Hultberg and Thomas Millroth) wrote in “Solo Essays” that it is in a solo situation that the improviser must be more implacable – in this (his first) CD totally alone, José Oliveira is faithful to this postulate, not giving way to any conditionalisms. In fact, a concrete music made in real time does exist, and it is here. Please, listen to it.
Rui Eduardo Paes


José Oliveira on Creative Sources Records. All records are available in the Metropolis shop here.