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Hans Fjellestad - "Red Sauce Baby"

Composer/pianist Hans Fjellestad's entire raison d'etre is to let sounds roam as freely as they need to without any boundaries or controls. Subsequently, Red Sauce Baby is an exercise in unbridled sonic freedom that makes use of everything from electronics to live instruments like gourd pipe, sax and bagpipes. Taking jazz as its major reference point, the album posesses some dramatic surges as well as peaceful swells, culminating in what some may see as cacophonous noise and what others will admire as raw, almost shamanic energy that embodies the true essence of unrestricted music.

     - Paul Sullivan, XLR8R

Fjellestad is evidently a restless spirit whose innate taste for musical risks drew added impetus from his studies with George Lewis at the University of California. As a keyboardist he has performed with the likes of pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and bassist Peter Kowald. More importantly, as a founder of San Diego's Trummerflora Collective, he is part of an active pool of younger improvisors and composers.

Red Sauce Baby doesn't allow you to settle. Refusing to behave itself, it screams, throws things and makes a mess. As Fjellestad says, "Keeping a stranglehold on it, imposing control, makes for lifeless music." Clearly a teasing "Gadfly Principle" is at work, to cite the title of the prepared piano improvisation that follows the two quirky collages opening the disc. On those, piano filters through taped street sounds; bagpipes play "Scotland The Brave" while a church organ broods, free jazz frenzy erupts from woodwinds and percussion, then subsides into a basketball game. Straighter instrumental combinations include two piano duets with Dana Reason, but elsewhere, electronics are drizzled across a text-sound composition in English and Danish, while stones click and an accordion, gourd pipe and trombone sound. It only hints at the flavour of Fjellestad's spicy concoction.

Donkey is Fjellestad's duo with guitarist Damon Holzborn. Show presents live recordings from San Diego and Los Angeles. Both players augment their main instruments with electronics to create scrawl and squall effects. Turntablist Marcus B joins the pair for one piece, and Matt Ingalls contributes clarinet and violin on two others. Whether its source is sampled voices, Fjellestad's synthesizer or Holzborn's acoustic guitar, the music assumes the quality of aural graffiti, jagged hints and smeared traces of illicit communication between members of some clandestine network, tags of the Trummerflora.

     - Julian Cowley, The Wire

New music by San Diego based composer/performer with guest performers. Strong in both composition and content, a genuinely intriguing balance of collective improvisations, guided compositons and sound art. A soundtrack for your ears.

     - Gary Lopez, New Creative Music

Hans Fjellestad is a mad scientist of sound who has long busted out of society's fences around creativity. He is also an improviser/composer/video artist who studied at UCSD and has directed/edited video projects for everyone from Johnny (Rotten) Lydon and Soundgarden to the Monkees and Terence Trent D'Arby. He founded the Trummerflora collective of avant-garde noise collage-ists who occasionally hold court in San Diego. His music is electro-acoustic chaos -- totally unhinged from structure (so much so that "accessibility" is often all but annihilated).

Donkey is a collaboration between Fjellestad and Damon Holzborn, another guitar/electronics groundbreaker. The amusical whinnies and shrieks, spacey tones, and schizophrenic horn lines on Show create a sick urgency that sounds like the world's largest computer suffering cardiac arrest. Large washes of processed sound, like a mothership on hover mode, provide the album's only constant. There are plenty of enlightening moments in these haunting and aggressive 'songs,' psychical revelations both dark and light, much like Twilight Zone moments.

Red Sauce Baby opens by sampling a homeless soul papa waxing about music, craving a beer and a smoke. Amidst wind-tunnel synth, the city streets sound ghostlike and sinister -- a siren, a car driving in rain, the soul papa declaring, 'Oh shit, here come the cops.' Strange, found-percussion, horns, muffled drumming, and even bagpipes parade haphazardly through this album, along with some creepy human interjections. On 'Free Throw Prophet,' Fjellestad's electro-acoustic jazz orchestra waltzes over a sample of one-on-one gym basketball; 'Gadfly Principle' proposes a link between jazz and noir piano. 'Pulp451' sounds like souls in purgatory speaking in tongues over rubbery electronic tones; 'Zoonomania' (I & II) is nearly beautiful, with its herky-jerky dismantling of classical piano movements. Less haunting than Show, Red Sauce Baby creates a freakshow of musical instrumentation that hints at music's future in the same way cubists hinted at the yonderland of visual art.

     - Troy Johnson, SLAMM

An absolute delight! Transferred this to mini disc for the car and pulled up at the lights with the window down... Very funny stares from the crowd waiting at the bus stop, especially when the bagpipes went into the free jazz impro type section. The disc starts in a Gavin Bryars/Jesus' blood mode with a rambling male voice and environmental sounds this moves into a slow rendition of 'Scotland the Brave; which then descends into a freeform jazz piece, think Dave Douglas at his loosest and you may be getting there. For me the third piece is the most satisfying 'Gadfly Principle' is apiece for prepared piano and evokes memories of both the delta blues and Arabic stringed instruments with the buzzing and rattling of the piano sounding at times like a guitar. Complementing the overall feel of the piece very well the preparations include a music box and a wooden top. 'Pulp451' introduces vocals into the equation with the texts taken from a 10th century Danish source and the love letters of George Washington. Voices become another textural device in this piece with interference and static almost occluding the words - 'Do not misconstrue my meaning' indeed! 'Uncouth Vermouth' is a quartet piece for organ, guitar and woodwind in which the instruments battle for supremacy, slowly becoming coherent and again falling into the melee. The final piece for solo piano explores the notion of a higher connection through deep meditative or sleep states to an altogether higher consciousness. At all times a delight this c.d. at turns soothed and invigorated me. Also check Hans' cutting edge Zucasa site named one of the top 25 essential online music resources by influential Wire magazine.

     - Cris Baldwin, Acid Attack Music

Red Sauce Baby is one of those experimental bands that producers both love and fear. So chaotic and oddly structured that it wrecks havoc on the mind and ear yet also so ingenious that producers can make their career by mixing and making the sound come out just right. Instruments range across the board (with samples of what sounds like sneakers on a basketball floor taking the cake!) and so does the sound. The lovely bagpipes that open "Free Throw Prophet" give way to the sneakers so well that it's almost a half thought. Truly great experimental music can tend to lack direction (or even lack the thought of not lacking direction) but Hans Fjellestad's "Red Sauce Baby" leads the triumphant chaos chorus in line and helps us shutter off the societal ideas of what music is and should always be. MTV and most radio won't touch this with a 10-foot pole, but hell who would want them to? It would just spoil the fun in saying that you've heard the oddest thing in the world and you love it.

     - J-Sin, Smother E-zine

Like a lot of avant-garde composers, hints of delirium are bound to surface. Yet, this chaos is almost always organised, to a degree. Shifting from an organic/natural mode to the electro-acoustic, Hans Fjellestad's ethics of composition are more about the "moment"; where an intense pressure of self-awareness is forced upon the musicians, in which improvisation is the only possible method of escape. The foundation of the compositions on this disc seems to reflect a controlled insanity. Layers of horns rise and fall, sounding like dying insects; babbling pianos converse between each other and scatter to collect what is left of their mind, like failed prodigies that have become nothing but drunks. In short, this album is the soundtrack to nihilism versus the beauty of nature.

     - Roman Sokal, Exclaim!

A student of improvisation and composition, Hans' music makes Miles Davis look like a military band leader. Flowing across filmic docu-songs and filtering piano and voice through traffic noise and bagpipes, this is not for the faint-hearted although it was an education to us first time around.

     - Leftfield Reviews, Worldpop.com

This is a very mixed bag indeed, which is all for the better, making for an exciting hour of listening, with not a boring minute inserted anywhere! You're immediately thrown into a lively street scene with a singing hobo - maybe - or some other rough voiced middle-aged man. A piano sets in as the guy talks about beer and cigarettes, and "oh shit, here comes the cops"... definitely a naturalistic auditive walk down a downtown street! Reminds me, slightly, of some of the stuff that Moondog did on his New York street corner, except this is 2001, and the computerized electronics spice the environment up with swooping plains and illusionary breaks... That was "Slow Motion Perp Walk", track 1 on this Accretions CD.

Next you're up in the Scottish Highlands, by way of "Scotland the Brave" on bagpipes, until your violently uprooted and landed in some freeform jazz situation on east or west coast U.S.A. It's a wild event, resembling some of the smokier sessions with John Coltrane and Archie Shepp in 1967 at Birdland. The track is named "Free Throw Prophet". Some Ligeti organ chords make way for crazed vocals mixed with some groaning golden horns, yeah man! All this is happening in the middle of what sounds like some kind of ball game, and in fact, in the booklet are stated the names of the participants in the basket ball game... holy medallion...!

"Gadfly Principle" is the next track, with just a prepared piano, played by Hans Fjellestad. It sounds at first like an Indian santoor, though, as played by Shivkumar Sharma, or a Finnish Kantele straight out of the myths of ancient Kalevala - but the explanation is that Fjellestad plays directly on the strings, of course. Pretty soon this turns into wildly twisted regular piano playing, however retaining some influences from John Cage's pieces for prepared toy pianos and Conlon Nancarrow's "Studies for Player Piano", as well as some aspects of Ross Bolleter's worn down, aged Australian outback bar piano... Great stuff! You name it - we like it!

"Pulp451" sounds like some Stockhausenesque overtone exercise, as in "Stimmung" or "Sternklang", and when, in the midst of the vocal permutations a Danish voice appears saying something like "She's the kind of girl, she's the kind of girl - you can see it, you know it - that you can't get"... But - is that out of "Saxo Grammaticus", like the booklet says? Huh? This even sounds like some of the deep throat stuff that sound poet Henri Chopin produces, and as I am one of the sternest advocators of sound poetry, this is probably my favorite on this very varied album. The electronics are very spatial, moving about like a band of trigger-happy mosquitoes in some early piece by Bernard Parmegiani of Groupe de Recherches Musicales! The female vocals are fascinating, like the outrageous mouthings of Hebriana Alainentalo; mystic of Swedish Lapland.

The two tracks for piano duo called "Zoonomia" are restful experiences that you badly need after the above-mentioned events... This is to flow out into, down the middle of the flow, in a slow floating feeling under the clouds, as your youth passes by... like the Dean of the Bananas University having a lazy afternoon by the grand piano, meditating on some illicit actions he engaged in way back when... The second of the two pieces with the same name is more complicated, as if the business-man-suite-keyboardings of the former variation was about to break down into some raw facts of Dallas, Texas life, where it's pure hell to get out onto Central Expressway when you're on your way home to Melody Park Apartments on Melody Lane, where the landlord really knows how to keep them cock roaches at bay, and you redress to attend the Sunday meeting at the Kingdom Hall.

"Uncouth Vermouth", again - track 7 - brings on saxophone whines that could almost pale - or at least match - the stuff on the vinyl "So - Und? So!" from guru Berliner Wolfgang Fuchs! Hit it!

Concluding track sounds pianistically like some of Ligeti's "Etudes", or maybe even some of the "Sonates pour piano" by Pierre Boulez, played by Herbert Henck - but here it's a composition by Hans Fjellestad played by the very same Mr. Man! This is "Three Sockets", and it finishes up this highly interesting and enjoyable CD in high style. Thanks, guys!

     - Ingvar Loco Nordin, Sonoloco

Last issue I looked at Donkey's live improvisation album 'Show' from Accretions. Hans Fjellestad is half of Donkey and here presents an album of group and piano works, improvised and 'scored'. It comes with a beautiful insert book by Kinsey: this is largely burnt orange/red. It includes collages of handwritten score extracts, photographs of prepared pianos and possibly Fjellestad, a plasma bag (tasteful) and an ancient worldweary foetus drawn on the cover. This reflects the 'serious/high' art nature of the project, as do liner notes about the various pieces (which will be plundered for material below). 'Slow motion perp walk' opens with a collage (unfortunately Fjellestad uses the term 'assemblage' in his notes which is probably more accurate) of a (homeless?) man singing 'when I was a ittybitty baby' with reminiscences (shades of Bryar's 'Jesus Blood'), some piano, site recordings of winds, wooshes and the city with other unidentifiable sounds to create a subtle entrance. And a bagpiper playing 'Scotland the brave' over some warming-up type gentle explorations is a great opening to the "recorded in a Mormon chapel" 'Free throw prophet'. The piece shifts between wild drumming and blowy woodwinds, with organ in there wheezing and chording, and slower more restrained periods where the winds seem to talk - and providing a very unusual percussive track is a basketball game, probably recorded in the adjacent court, with balls bouncing and feet squeaking. In 'Pulp451' two texts are read - various Washington's letters by Carol Genetti in a singing/speaking operatic voice, while Tue Gaston's more sedate dry voice delivers 10th century Danish - over a substrate based on 'pitch and rhythm material derived in part from US and Denmark geographical data'. This is a shifting soundscape from restrained percussive shadowing through plucked strings and clicking electronica buzzes to guitarish fuzz, synths and Tuvan samples. However the geographic data was used, the result is terrific. The final ensemble work is 'Uncouth vermouth' where a duo has been rescored for clarinet and saxes, guitar and organ, and the result is squeaking and pumping dancing around and drawing you in.

Of the piano pieces, the 'Gadfly principle' is a prepared-improvised solo (with bells, rattles, slides, a music box) which skitters over the keyboard in an active and surprisingly melodic fashion, the left hand providing some occasional depth to the running right. All the while there are the shimmering metallic resonances and vibrations from the preparations adding an extra dimension. Fjellestad is joined by Dana Reason on two duets 'Zoonomia I and II', which have been inspired by Erasmus Darwin's writings about generative processes. Lyrical, with at times a jazz sensibility, these are warm unfolding pieces in which the two voices combine with and play off each other with an engaging subtlety. The album ends with another dynamic solo 'Three sockets', and together these tracks constitute a sequence that add a fascinating dimension to the album. Freeform improvisation - not one of my big genres - but this has variety and a surprising touch of, what class? classicism? structure? whatever, something that makes this engrossing and enchanting by turns. An album which should stand the test of time and work its way into some different sets of ears.

     - Jeremy Keens, Ampersand Etcetera


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