(Two assumptions before I begin: As far as I can Google, cellist Ulrike Brand and guitarist Olaf Rupp's Shadowscores is their first recorded output. And for the sake of this review, let's imagine that this album is sequenced in the exact order it happened.)
The field of improvisation is rife with well-established groups who, after years of working together, can rely on muscle memory before being stumped during a performance puzzle. It's fantastic when these artists build upon their collective repertoire of tricks and traditions, taking time-honored ideas into deeper directions. They now exude a familiarity the listener can point out of a line-up and almost label. So does that negate the idea of "experimental?" That shouldn't be the (only) selling point of music. I digress.
But how great is it to witness a relatively newish duo (or trio etc.) engage in its initial musical union? When done right, the internal dynamics reflect the nature of any meeting between similar minds: awkward, eager, second-guessing, and hopefully an eventual coalescence where dependence and independence build a sympathetic merger.
Just after the opening cloud cluster of "Rotbuche," you note that Brand exudes a more elegant, lyrical "academic" approach (check her CV to see why); Rupp's is a free-form Derek-Bailey-meets-John-Zorn's-crowd aesthetic (aka a little rowdy and aggressive). The two banter back and forth with bowing, pizzicato, forceful plucks, and sustained pitch-based gestures that build into a furor, all abruptly diminished by Ulrike sliding down her strings like a record coming to a stop. A broken pointillism follows only to be interrupted with Rupp's raucous palming. Ulrike briefly adopts a slowly strummed ostinato over which Rupp offers a minute rock lick before both players shatter the piece into jagged fragments of long bow strokes, picked harmonics and rumbles. Under Ulrike's fevered chordal attack, Rupp demonstrates a nimble (!) Flamenco fingering; it is at this point that the listener understands that the virtuosity of the album is beyond a mere creative approach to instruments: Ulrike and Rupp are also technical savants in their respective corners.
This method continues with each player switching from idiosyncrasy to extended effects to chameleoning each other into a swirl of "who is doing what?" As mentioned above, this music is a convention and conversation that evolves into a partnership as the duo gradually (I might be imagining this) embraces trust. You know, when you tell a person you have some weird skeletons (maybe literally) and the other responds with, "Eh, it's cool." You can now be yourself. That's a very abstract analogy of "Wintersonnenwende" (track two) where the scratchy scrapes, squeaking sound boards and twanging Chinese vamp (Rupp does hold his guitar the way a pipa performer might) further submerge these two wonderfully anomalous individuals into another sphere; even when you think they have exhausted their technique, Ulrike and Rupp rip open the work and show off a complicated texture of gravelly electric static, melodies wrenched from the "wrong" side of the fret board, steady motor-like growls, and finger nails desperately scraping across wood strings (think digging out of a coffin).
After seventy minutes, as the duo trails off into dust, I'm reminded of something author Elizabeth Bowen said: "Intimacies...often go backwards, beginning in revelation and end up in small talk without a loss of self-esteem." She was referring to female friendship, but I'm hearing the same situation with Shadowscores.
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