NUENI #007 - 'HARMONICA FABLES'- Laura Steenberge.

' The adjustments are miniscule. A redirection of the breath; a slight constriction of the vocal cords. Steenberge tilts back and forth between harmonica and humming, often blending the two into a stream of harmonies, as vocal frequencies press against the rasp of blown notes. Her inward breaths are whole and pure; her outward breaths fan in all directions, subdivided into pitches and strange overtones, twisting like a flag in the wind. That’s all there is. Cycles of breath funnelled through wobbling muscle fibres and reeds. On “Chant”, Steenberge spends an entire 20 minutes exploring the different ways in which her hum can wrap around a solitary harmonica tone, inciting distortions and rhythms through vocal interference alone, gradually uncovering every contour of this solitary note by running vibrations along all of its edges.

In the album’s second half, patient intimacy gives way to more mercurial interactions between tone and breath: “The Lady Of Shalott” sounds like a curtain rippling in front of an open window, while the suite of pieces titled “Spheres”, all comprised of high pitches seeping in and out of audibility, seem to mimic beams of light fading and dancing upon the floor. And all the while, Harmonica Fables is bedecked with detail that originates from neither the instrument nor its player, with acoustic phenomena forever flowering across the margins between the two, gleaming and then gone, undulating and then gone, beautiful and then gone. For a record so simple in construct, there are no end to the mysteries here. '

Attn: Magazine

' It goes without saying that there's never enough harmonica in contemporary experimental music, so Steenberge's fine recording has a leg up from the get go. She attended Cal Arts and I'm guessing studied with Michael Pisaro (she appears on his recording, 'Tombstones') and perhaps James Tenney. Not that their influence is marked--it's not--but a vague glimmer of the kind of gentle individualism they teach is apparent on this very unique effort.

There are nine tracks, in three groupings. The first two, 'Ritual for Harmonica' and filezi

'Chant - Harmonica', are the longest pieces at about 12 and 20 minutes respectively and, as their titles might indicate, are the ones with a ritualistic aura. On both, Steenberge hums/sings at the same time as she plays the harmonica, the latter often acting as a kind of drone or pedal point. 'Ritual for Harmonica' uses long tones, burled and complex in their layerings, the vibrato of the voice offset against the subtler vibrato of the harmonica chords. When pitched higher, she almost gets a Lucier-like effect of adjacent tone interference. But the overall cast is one of solitary reflection, thoughts unfurling in strings that are emitted in a quasi-regular manner but vary--intuitively, one feels--in any number of characteristics. (I pick up a glass-like sound as well, as though she's also blowing through, perhaps, a bottle). 'Chant - Harmonica', delves deeper, a series of rich, dark, undulating lines seemingly lasting as long as a breath, the low, buzzing harmonica chord bracing the simple "melody" atop, a sung line (anywhere from 3 to 15 notes) that indeed obliquely recalls the idea of "chant", though from what culture I'd find impossible to say. Her bio references a study if Byzantine chants, but I also find myself thinking along didjeridoo lines. The piece is extremely immersive as well as demanding, developing intensity and intricacy as it progresses--you really have to give yourself up and just wallow in it. Very beautiful.

The trio of pieces bearing the title, 'Sphere' (1, 2 & 3) are quite different, tending toward the high range of the instrument and involving swirling, airy patterns, sometimes reminding me of some of Guy Klucevsek's more abstract explorations (there's some accordion kinship here, I think). Mysterious and enticing, sparkles in an ice cloud. The final four compositions are more songlike in nature, though only vaguely so; maybe the titles nudge one in that direction. On 'The Lady of Shallot', the harmonica takes on a character that sometimes resembles a recorder before splaying out in shimmering, prismatic chords. Thinking of it, maybe it's the title of the following piece, 'Pan and Apollo' that got me thinking of pipes. Here, a rapid cycle of notes alternates between a medium-high, repeating swirl and a much higher, oddly distorting one, eventually overlapping and intermingling--oddly disorienting and quite effective. 'The King's Ears' has a bit of a fanfare quality as well as great sonic depth between both pitches and timbres. It shifts from the initial "announcement" aspect to a kind of chorale, a sung and sighed paean and, finally, to a kind of fast jig. 'Rip Van Winkle' closes thing out sleepily and dreamily, billows of gentle snores, in and out, in and out, yawning and stretching.

A wonderful and unusual recording. '

Brian Olewnick (Just Outside)

' Héctor Rey, unser Mann in Bilbao, stellt nach einer längeren Atempause eine ganz besondere Kalifornierin vor. Ihr Interessen an vocal interference, low frequencies, nonsense, Byzantine chant, aliens, necromancy, villains, harmonicas, tuning forks, birds, the music of the spheres, bells münden in das, was sie am CalArts lehrt. Zugleich aber in eine Praxis, deren Kontext sich abzeichnet mit 'Tombstones' for Michael Pisaro oder Julia Holter als zweiter Stimme bei 'Lampstands', mit Titeln wie 'Lucifer in the Shadowlands', 'Elevator Music', 'Perseus Slays the Gorgon Medusa', 'Circe and Medea', 'Invisible Cities' (nach Calvino) oder 'The Myth of Er'. Steenberge komponiert Musik für Renaissanceinstrumente, Reedquintett, Streichquartett, Stimmen, Musik, in der der Klang von Sirenen und Sphären, Mythen und Formen widerhallt... 'Ritual for Harmonica' und 'Chant' sind Solos für Stimme & chromatische Mundharmonika. Zirpende, surrende und wie mit geschlossenem Mund vokalisierte Haltetöne, wie überblasen und kaum mehr als gesummt. Teils monoton gezogen, teils melodisch gewellter Singsang, ruhig und reduziert, wandelweiserisch und pisaroesk. 'Spheres' glasbläst drei Kugeln aus Harmonikaklang, eine durchscheinende, eine rauchig überhauchte, eine changierend schimmernde. Im abschließenden Quartett sind 'Pan and Apollo' & 'The King's Ears' ein kristallin gewelltes und schillerndes Plädoyer für Pans Syrinx und die doch guten Eselsohren von König Midas. Bei 'Rip Van Winkle' erklingen ein schläfriger Singsang, hyperventilierendes Hecheln und wieder ruhige Atemzüge durch die Harmonika hindurch, mit elegischem Abendrot. Zuerst aber rückt Steenberge 'The Lady of Shalott' in den Fokus, eine Gestalt aus dem Artusroman, berühmt durch Tennysons Gedicht und durch Gemälde von Waterhouse (dessen Nymphenbusen gerade Dorfklatsch sind). Die von Spiegeln und Träumen gebannte Weberin, Sängerin und zuletzt schöne Leiche wird von Steenberge schwesterlich aus ihrer Thantosphäre herausgezaubert, mit einem silberzungigen Memento. Ich bin verführt, zu Steenberges Fables insgesamt einen Waterhouse'schen Reigen zu imaginieren aus Sirenen und Windflowers, der Crystal Ball-Schauerin und Saint Cecilia, doppelt codiert durch den bevorzugten Klang panischer Reeds, in dem jedoch eine Najade "Me too" singt. '

Rigo Dittman (Bad Alchemy)

' By its own admission the Bilbao/Berlin based label Nueni Recs goes in for ‘risky’ music. They also adopt an ‘anticopyright’ stance meaning you can share at will. Its a stance I wholeheartedly applaud and with music of such a difficult nature it should be encouraged. If you’re in this game for the money you’re in the wrong game. The audience is tiny here it needs all the encouragement it can get. 

According to her online bio Steenberge’s work is ‘a study of nonsense and the boundaries of knowledge’, medieval Byzantine chant plays a part too. That doesn’t sound too difficult does it but then here comes Harmonica Fables.

Which is Steenberge blowing up and down a harmonica. Not that this is an hours worth of Larry Adler does Bob Dylan on drugs but the first two tracks ‘Ritual for Harmonica’ and ‘Chant - Harmonica’ are the hardest to endure [and for the most part I did endure] both being lengthy explorations in to the sonic vibrations created when lips meet instrument and deep breaths resonate with reed plate. With ‘Ritual for Harmonica’ Steenberge alternates lengthy rasps on the harmonica with breathy incantations, the much longer [twenty minutes worth] of ‘Chant - Harmonica’ is a connected series of shorter blasts where Steenberge combines breathing and harmonica creating a dual pitch drone that depending on your bent is either aurally stimulating or just plain annoying. I have to admit to being drawn in to it at one point but trying to key in to its abrasiveness is a difficult task. There are two further sections; three ‘Spheres’ where the blowing and breathing is sweeter and four final tracks that are the nearest we’re going to get here to melody. ‘The King’s Ears’ ventures in to Laurie Anderson territory with an eruption of wordless tones to compliment the sawing while last track ‘Rip Van Winkle’ is, as its title suggests a lullaby. After all that gone before its a welcome relief. '

Mark Wharton (Idwal Fisher)

' Unusual record by Laura Steenberge…forward-thinking and in a class of her own, this West Coast US composer is a talented multi-instrumentalist and composer, and a singer…has ideas about music and language, and has composed a lot of pieces for the voice…plays unusual instruments such as the viola da gamba and the contrabass (though also the piano)…say all this as preface to Harmonica Fables (NUENI RECS. #007), an entire album composed for the harmonica. How many modern compositions have been scored for that instrument? To be accurate Harmonica Fables is harmonica plus voice, all performed by Steenberge, and her vocal moanings and murmurings are a large part of the work that we will hear. 

I suppose the two front-loaded pieces might be considered the keystones to this particular pyramid of ideas…the first one is titled ‘Ritual For Harmonica’, and it’s a slow and contemplative drone piece of low harmonica notes and breathy voice tones, which somehow seems to encapsulate many forms of devotional and religious music, from Gregorian chants to Tibetan monks singing and blowing their bones…by way of early man sitting around a campfire and slowly evolving their vocal sounds into the first manifestations of language. “Ritual and metaphors of the supernatural” are among the themes that interest Steenberge, and right out of the block we have a piece that might just touch on these metaphysical dimensions. The second piece is ‘Chant – Harmonica’, somewhat more aggressive and not so clearly situated in the contemplative realms of quiet spirituality, this is one where she’s pressing her mouth and entire body into that metal fretboard and coaxing whatever nuggets of esoteric knowledge she can into the ether…with her fascinating “sing as you blow” technique, we’ve got a thrilling audio sensation as vocal humming blends into the harmonica wheeze, and the makings of another new language seep forth. 

So far, a powerful 32 mins of music to carry out healthy day-dreaming and inspired musings to…two shorter suites follow. Going by typography of layout in cover (related items grouped by spacing, and colour), and by the titles, evidently we are expected to treat ‘Spheres 1-3’ as a set of connected ideas…these three miniatures explore what can be done with the higher notes of the instrument, and she gets a potent squealing eeriness with mixed chords and celestial tones that Pauline Oliveros woulda loved. Lastly, four pieces that really are “fables” as promised by the album title. Stories from myth/literature old and new that stir the imagination and rattle the bones…these are recast as tales told in music…to do justice to the tales of Rip Van Winkle, The Lady of Shallott and Pan and Apollo, Laura Steenberge departs from the steady droning technique and exhibits great invention with her trills, scales, intervals and melodic will-o-the-wisps…doing things previously thought impossible on the harmonica. 

Without knowing anything else about her work, I’d say this is a clear example of how the power of the ideas and the compositional requirements can really drive a musician/player to new heights of achievement. To put it another way, when you need to you can move mountains with a flick of the little finger. With abstract painting artworks by Ander Sagastiberri Fernández, this is another distinctive entry in the Nueni catalogue, run by Héctor Rey in Bilbao. From 1st February 2018. '

Ed Pinsent (The Sound Projector)