French double bassist and vocalist Joëlle Léandre long ago earned the right to be recognized as one of improvised music's aristocracy, with such an impressive history that anything she turns her hand to is worthy of consideration. As an improviser, she has collaborated with a stellar roster that reads like the music's Who's Who — Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, Marilyn Crispell, Irène Schweizer. And, remarkably, she has just as impressive a track record in new music, having performed with Pierre Boulez's Ensemble InterContemporain, worked with Merce Cunningham & John Cage, and had pieces composed for her by both Cage and Giacinto Scelsi. Given that range of activity it is hardly surprising that Can You Hear Me?, a major Léandre composition, successfully straddles the boundary between composition and improvisation.
Dedicated to Léandre's parents, and recorded in concert in April 2009, the composition originally appeared on the album Live at the "Ulrichsberger Kaleidophon" (Leo, 2011), performed by a tentet mainly consisting of Austrian players. The version here was recorded in concert in January 2015 at Arsenal, Metz, with a French tentet. The instrumentation was similar for the two recordings, mixing strings (violin, viola, cello, double bass), trumpet, trombone, saxophones, clarinets, electric guitar, drums and percussion. So, the two versions feature similar soundscapes and, despite close comparison revealing subtle differences, are unmistakably renditions of the same composition. The piece opens to the sound of chattering voices and the disorder of instruments tuning up, before Léandre's bowed bass and the other strings impose some order on the chaos, all of which is clearly in keeping with the composition's title — i.e. can you hear my music above the hubbub of everyday life? — a point re-emphasized by further chatter and a rising chorus of whispers.
Across forty-eight minutes (marginally shorter than the 2009 version, incidentally) Léandre's ensemble passages for the strings provide a strong framework within which other instruments' responses, written or improvised, are integrated into a cohesive whole that sounds natural and spontaneous. After a stimulating climax featuring Léandre's operatic vocals, the piece ends in subdued fashion as she intones a series of g-words in French — grave, grace, guerre, guignol, guerrière, grinçant — thus creating a verbal landscape as rich and complex as the music one that has preceded it. Yes, Can You Hear Me? is an important landmark in Léandre's career, a point re-emphasized by this fine version.
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