Sounds Heard: Peter Evans—Nature/Culture
Peter Evans – five
Peter Evans: Nature/Culture
Trying to describe Peter Evans’s trumpet playing pretty quickly leaves you scraping the bottom of the superlative bin. To anyone who’s seen him play, phrases that would otherwise sound like just more breathless, context-free hype (“the greatest trumpet player of our time,” “superhuman”) feel just about right, and yet they only capture part of what Evans, at the age of 28, has already accomplished. Taking off from the solo performance aesthetic of saxophonist Evan Parker, Peter Evans has devoted his early career to the cultivation and refinement of an exhaustive and totalizing virtuosity.
Nature/Culture, a new double-disc release on Parker’s Psi label, offers some surprises though: in addition to the expected jaw-dropping technique, Evans proves to be an electronic musician of uncommon vision and restraint, and a first-rate composer. It makes no sense to pigeonhole him as some Steve Vai-esque technical freak of nature (comforting as that may be to the less gifted). Peter Evans is one of the best musicians of his generation, and Nature/Culture is both a summary and documentation of his achievements so far, as well as a rich, rewarding, and deeply musical album.
Technique as Technology
In classical performance practice, technique as it impacts a player’s sound has developed towards a model of maximal tone, minimal noise. Key noise, breath noise, changes of bow direction or hand position, and any other audible evidence that behind the sound there’s an actual human body are treated as technical problems. The ideal is the erasure of the body’s “imprint” on the sound.
On Nature/Culture, Evans puts forward a powerful and possibility-rich inversion of this model: rather than suppressing noise, technique can be the ability to modulate the noise/tone balance with maximal range, variation, and subtlety. Not only are the noise artifacts of trumpet playing not de-emphasized, they’re amplified, both literally (on disc 1, with the use of an additional microphone positioned by his head), and metaphorically. Evans’s basic vocabulary ranges from angular post-bop lines to “traditional” extended techniques (multiphonics, circular breathing) to a collection of radically original timbres and gestures that hover in the ambiguous middle of the noise/tone continuum.
Evans’s mastery of extended techniques on trumpet is complete and unprecedented. More astonishingly, it’s also combinatorial—not only can he play pedal-tones on piccolo trumpet with total fluency, he can also flutter-tongue them. While circular breathing. For minutes at a time.
This level of technical craft allows Evans to completely transfigure his instrument, to denature and reconceive the trumpet from its basic physical and acoustic properties. Here is where he truly separates himself from the many of his peers in the free improvisation scene, as he’s developed an integrated concept of performance that binds together his technical discoveries into a larger metaphorical framework. For Evans, the trumpet serves as a point of intersection between the human and the technological, and his treatment of the instrument (while allowing for references to historical styles) is primarily abstract and analytical. The trumpet, voice, and microphone are treated as equal partners, as if the metal tube of the instrument connected smoothly to the flesh tube of the vocal tract through a composite vibrating membrane of lips and mouthpiece. The larynx serves as an auxiliary oscillator that distorts or ring-modulates the sound when engaged. The valves of the trumpet are gates and switches that shorten and lengthen the overall circuit, redirecting signal flow. The microphone, most often inserted into the bell of the trumpet as a kind of paradoxical “amplifier mute,” provides abrupt and vertiginous shifts in auditory perspective. In fact, one gets the impression that Evans has set up a sonic network of sufficient complexity that its response to an input is intentionally difficult to predict or control (especially when that input is often at the highest possible gain). For this reason, while his performative godfather is clearly Evan Parker, aesthetically he seems to be exploring territory first touched on by David Tudor’s hardware feedback networks, in which a high-energy signal is sent through an intentionally labyrinthine circuit, with chaotic and unpredictable results. When, at a recent live solo performance, Evans played a piccolo trumpet through the mouthpiece of a C-trumpet into a microphone, this image took on an even more concrete and visible form.
As his aesthetic is already heavily indebted to electronic gestures and timbres, Evans’s use of actual electronics is appropriately subtle— utensile rather than prosthetic. Nature/Culture is divided into a live disc recorded in one take and partitioned into tracks after the fact, and a studio album in which Evans exploits the compositional possibilities of recording technology. On five, the album’s only instance of overt studio manipulation—and one of Nature Culture‘s strongest tracks—overdubbing serves a dramatic, orchestrational function. Four-and-a-half minutes into the piece the sound of a bucket-muted trumpet suddenly bleeds out into a corona of duplicates, a Niblock-style drone-cloud that saturates the remainder of the ten-minute track without calling direct attention to the sudden flip into artificiality.
The lightness of his touch with electronic manipulation reinforces the sense that the technology itself is not quite the point. Technique is the real tool, and it’s the imitation of technological processes and effects, rather than any specific hardware or software, that spurs him to extend the limits of the possible. The result is all the more impressive, and sidesteps the most common trap of the instruments-plus-electronics genre (chez Boulez, anyway): the moment anything is possible is the moment we stop caring. Struggle, fallibility, and risk have to be part of the equation.
Performance as Practice
Watching Evans perform live, it’s clear that, for all his monstrous prowess on the trumpet, he still insists on playing at the absolute limit of his own technique. His virtuosity isn’t of the sweat-less, no-hair-out-of-place variety; rather, he’s always stretching to go a little further, to add one more layer, to avoid repeating himself (though like any seasoned improviser he has a set of go-to gestures and finger patterns).
When pursued with this degree of dedication and restless intensity, the act of performance becomes a kind of practice, an inexhaustible “path” that offers an image of perfection and a series of concrete steps that can be taken to approach it. Solo performance clarifies this dimension even further: there’s no one else to blame if something goes wrong, no other artistic impulse with which to negotiate. For the performer, playing solo is an unmediated encounter with the self. In turn, solo free improvisation (especially on a monophonic instrument) escalates the terror-level of this encounter to its highest pitch. To watch someone overcome the implicit threat of this situation gives you a pleasure similar to watching great athletes succeed under tremendous pressure. You feel proud of your species.
Yet this kind of cultivation, in expanding the limits of the possible, also redefines what it means to be human. Evans’s mastery of extended circular breathing subverts the periodic, breath-determined phrase length that serves as one of the basic, subconscious signs of humanness in music; this in turn allows him to deploy a truly electronic aesthetic as one of several stylistic poles in his solo performance. Thus what might seem at first to be a kind of macho gimmick turns out to be a crucial part of the music’s deep structure—an aesthetic necessity that drives the technical innovation, rather than the reverse.
While the spastic energy of Evans live performances is inevitably somewhat muted on record, the first (studio) disc of Nature/Culture compensates with a fresh focus on composition and formal rigor. Several of the tracks stand on their own as coherent, inventive, and compelling pieces of music that reward repeated listening. the chamber, an 11-minute timbral study, focuses almost exclusively on the sound of multiphonics overdriving a bubble-shaped harmon mute. Evans’s sense of pacing and proportion is mature and unhurried; at several points the music yawns into silence, and he seems perfectly comfortable allowing it the space to rest and breathe before resuming the thread. A similar degree of sensitivity enlivens Nature/Culture b, a kind of duet with controlled feedback, and the year’s clear Grammy frontrunner in the “Best Use of Key Clicks/Valve Noise” category. full, an explosive piccolo trumpet freak-out, achieves an atomized, kaleidoscopic polyphony that’s dazzling, overwhelming, and not a second too long. It’s exactly the result the second-generation of New Complexity composers attempt to achieve again and again. That Peter Evans, simply by going about his artistic business, happens to viciously pwn this particular clique can only be another check in his column.
While Nature/Culture can’t truly replace the experience of seeing Evans play live, as a document of a phenomenally gifted young player operating at the top of his game, it’s tremendously rewarding. And inspiring, too: even as it deftly summarizes what Evans has already accomplished, it also shows him opening up new compositional, technical, and aesthetic possibilities for future exploration. The work isn’t done yet, in other words. Though when you can do just about anything, “What next?” becomes a much more complicated question.