Viviane Houle, Treize

This is the kind of record that gives free improvisation a bad name.  In place of the passion, beauty and intensity that I associate with Peter Brötzmann, Evan Parker, AMM and other leading exponents of the genre, what we have here is an album mostly devoid of those qualities.  Academic from the title onwards – “treize” is French for ‘thirteen’ – there are thirteen tracks here, each one a duet between improvising vocalist Viviane Houle and a different musician.  The overall impression is of a series of cerebral voice exercises; it’s no surprise to me that Houle moonlights as a voice teacher when she’s not performing.

Group improv, for me, is supposed to be about the musicians listening and talking to one another, about moving into and around the spaces between the silences.  But I get precious little sense of dialogue and exchange of ideas in these dry improvisations.  Houle is fond of the old Phil Minton trick of squeezing non-musical grunts and squeaks out of her throat, which means that for about a third of the album her singing is essentially private and incommunicable.  Faced with something so opaque, the accompanying musicians have little option but to fall back into equally solipsistic territory.  On the opening “Mandrake”, for example, cellist Peggy Lee issues a barrage of extended techniques that throw down the gauntlet of challenge to the listener without offering any form of compensatory drama or excitement.  Much the same applies to “Gratte-moi le dos” (drums), “Betters and Bads” (violin) and “A Little Storm” (guitar).

Things do look up somewhat when Houle deigns to stop fooling around with her voice and actually starts singing some tunes.  On “Molehills Mumps” she comes across all wide-eyed and quizzical like Laurie Anderson, while pianist Lisa Miller delivers an engrossing solo improv.  “Paperthin” is one of the highlights, being a shivery nocturne for saxophone and voice in which Houle adopts the spooked fireside ambience of Christina Carter’s recent solo records.  Equally arresting in its own way is “Song Not For You”, the only chance she gets to rock out to Brent Belke’s gloriously distorted electric guitar.

Houle’s lyrics, like her singing, tend towards the fragmentary and dislocated.  It’s frustrating having to work hard to derive much sense from them (they’re not printed on the cover either).  But then again, you get the feeling that direct, unmediated communication with the listener isn’t high on Houle’s list of priorities.  So wrapped up is she in notions of virtuosity and technique that she isn’t really able to connect on a level of instinct.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 19, 2011)

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