Quarter to Three is the first collaboration between renowned American improviser Steve Cohn, vocalist Annabelle Plum, and shakuhachi player Marek Kimei Matvija. The recordings are textured with terrestrial elements, shifting into various states of imbalance like an intemperate climate: Matvija’s brittle winds, Plum’s gravelly, tempestuous vocals, and the drips and drops of Cohn’s piano, in moments a gentle patter of fingers on wire, in others, a torrential downpour on the keyboards. The result, however, belongs less to this earth than to an ethereal, subaqueous landscape, where the smallest of insects ache and wail with the same fortitude as a woman in heartbreak, where pistols are still drawn to settle old scores, and where water-warped Cole Porter records gurgle on the turntable.
In November 2015, Matvija and Plum, members of the Prague-based Topos Kolektiv, performed with Cohn in a joint concert at the Firehouse Space in Brooklyn. There the trio agreed to embark on a project using Alois Hába’s quarter-tone piano at the Dance and Music School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (HAMU), which Cohn had a chance to play during his visit to the Prague Shakuhachi Festival in 2011. The result was a month-long retreat into the world of quarter-tone music in the summer of 2016, culminating in a five-day recording session, the fruits of which can be heard on this album.
Improvisation with unusual instruments and their unlikely combination has been the prime interest of Steve Cohn`s work for the past two decades. From the traditional jazz piano, Cohn has, over the course of several decades, expanded his field of interest to the Japanese shakuhachi flute, trumpet, trombone, guitar, blues harp, and various percussion instruments, among others. Cohn’s ethos was, at the time of his collaboration with Matvija and Plum, reflected in the work of the fledgling Topos Kolektiv, whose site-specific improvised performances harnessed the sonic peculiarities of abandoned and overlooked spaces in the post-communist Czech capital, and to which Matvija and Plum introduced both evocative instrumentation and non-musical sound.
Quarter tones refers to the notes between the twelve tones of a traditional chromatic scale; microtonality indicates the intervals between those twelve tones that seldom appear in western music. Quarter to Three takes advantage of these underutilized intervals to create unconventional musical colors, blended and layered in brief, self-contained improvisations. The album features the extended capabilities of the voice, the shakuhachi, and one of four quarter-tone pianos designed by Alois Hába, a pioneer of quarter-tone music active in Prague in the mid-20th century.
Prague provided a natural setting for the group’s experimentation, thanks to Hába’s efforts to bring new interest to microtonal music, which he deemed to be of great importance to his ancestors in central Europe. The musician and theorist became a champion of micro-intervals and the breadth of emotional expression they enable, and although his influence failed to extend beyond the Iron Curtain, the “Hába School” came to refer to the many subsequent efforts to bring microtonality to equal prominence with standard European scales.
Quarter to Three flirts with the boundary between normal and strange, “in tune” and out of it. A year and a half after the HAMU sessions, the musicians themselves described the experience of re-entering the world of the recordings as akin to standing “on a boat”; indeed, feeling at ease within the music requires finding one’s sea legs. But being tossed about on its unruly waters, unaware of their depth, provides its own kind of thrill.
released April 22, 2017
Recorded in 2016 at HAMU, released in 2017
Recording and mix: Michal Sýkora
Liner notes: Morgan Childs
Typography: Jiří Toman
Album artwork: Jan Pfeiffer / www.janpfeiffer.info
Production: NEIRO Association for Expanding Arts z. s.