Album Write-Up: Is this ~Nois

Chicago-based saxophone quartet ~Nois releases its debut album Is this ~Nois on Friday, June 26, and I’m sharing my thoughts on and impressions of it! I don’t know how much my opinion counts when it comes to talking about other people’s music or how it’s played, but I’ve been enjoying this album (I got a sneak peek, HA) and my only hope is that something in my description of these pieces maybe makes you want to give them a listen. 

At first a breathy, bleeding-watercolor beginning to ~Nois’s bold debut, Hans Thomalla’s Albumblatt II builds to a kind of ecstatic cacophony, almost creating the impression that the listener is walking slowly towards a beach filled with a huge (and very vocal) flock of birds— with the occasional run-in with other errant lone birds along the way. The quartet has a way of effectively making these errant loners really pop out of the background and get in your face, but not so much that the eventual climax lacks impact. 

In Craig Davis Pinson’s Dismantle, a gray, blurry opening sound (like the low hum of an amp) almost immediately gives way to the grooving rhythmic content that defines much of the piece. Dissipating at times into highly rhythmic key clicks and featuring percussive tongue slaps, much of this work is reminiscent of some of the ominous, tense undercurrents of metal music— a strong influence of Pinson’s. I tend to experience the strange feeling during this piece that the stretches of greater rhythmic activity are normal time, and that the passages which feature more long, multiphonic tones are a kind of slowed-down time— a slo-mo. 

Niki Harlafti’s Vaisseau Fantôme, based on a theme from Ornette Coleman’s album Free Jazz, comes across at first as almost conventional in its use of texture (particularly in contrast with the previous two works on the album), but ultimately proves to be quite impressive in its ability to convey both spookiness and playfulness. Her use of space and silences in this piece serves to evoke a series of poses both morose and comical, in a way that turns on a dime and reminds me (in a good way) of cartoon scoring. Harlafti demonstrates a strong sense of character and flare, and she has a way of setting up a lick to suddenly fall flat on its face, dust itself off, and run away in a totally new direction. 

Though the texture is somewhat static for the first few minutes of Marcos Balter’s Intercepting a Shivery Light, there is a sense of motion that is both sweeping and busy at once. The way the material is passed around quickly throughout the quartet (and done so quite seamlessly, I might add) creates an effect of being surrounded by flying moths under a flickering street light. The texture changes suddenly and dramatically for a brief time around the halfway point, marked by a kind of quiet bubbling (made brighter by the clicking of keys) and louder voices’ breaking through only here and there. 

By writing material for each instrument in unexpected parts of its range, as well as including plenty of multiphonics, Matthew Arrellin creates a near-constant feeling of tenuousness in his piece Apertures. With craggy low tones under extremely high squeaking ones, there’s a sense of conflict when listening— not simply in terms of low vs. high, but more as a matter of order/control vs. chaos. There’s an inherent instability in playing multiphonics or playing in an extreme register, and the feeling of being at risk of falling apart really only lets up maybe in the last two minutes of the piece. It’s not an easy piece to listen to (nor do I expect it’s easy to play, though I am no saxophonist), but its rather quiet end brings a restfulness that is made more satisfying by the tension we’ve just felt. 

Consort for four detuned soprano saxophones, a work by David Reminick, ends the album. It begins in a way that is barely-there, with quiet skitterings and flutterings that gradually seem to coalesce into more solid sounds and clear attacks— it’s almost like a machine is slowly turning on and warming up. The quartet quite successfully brings out the contrast between these flutterings and louder interjections. Tuning the saxophones a quarter-tone apart for this piece not only introduces an interesting question of what tuning and harmony can sound like under certain constrictions, but also has a way of creating a sound that evokes an image whose boundaries aren’t entirely firm and clear-cut. We don’t hear verticalities in neat layers, but rather in clouds. 

In the June 12 interview I did with the bois of ~Nois, we talked a little bit about how part of the concept of this album dealt with how many of the sounds they make on their saxophones while playing these pieces have the effect of separating the listener from their conception of a Saxophone Sound™; that is, how “saxophone-like” are the sounds that are coming from their instruments? What’s the typical function of a saxophone (or specific saxophones) and in what ways can one experiment with and alter that function? Using percussive key clicks, extreme registers, unexpected tunings, and more, the quartet and their performances of these six pieces serve to ask these questions. 

Thanks to Hunter Bockes, János Csontos, Jordan Lulloff, and Brandon Quarles for chatting with me about this project! If you haven’t checked out the AudPod interview yet, you can listen right here on the Episodes page, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify.