Overtone Ensemble (Important Records 2016)
Melbourne’s Overtone Ensemble make drone music at its most fragile, intimate and thought-provoking: high-pitched and often more like tinnitus than a song. Playing homemade “vibrissa instuments” that involve stroking aluminum rods, the quartet gently squeals out minimalist, microtonal music that’s totally acoustic – a shimmering, pulsating, clashing long-distance squeak that allows listeners to exploring living, breathing sound waves. Matching the vibrissas with singing bowls and scuba gongs only opens up new sound worlds. For this truly one-of-kind group, it’s not the notes you play, but what the notes do after you play them.
Brainwashed Despite being one of the more inventive and intriguing artists in the contemporary experimental music milieu, Australia’s Tim Catlin is not a particularly well-known name here in the US, though he has collaborated with both Jon Mueller and Machinefabriek in the past. It is hard to say whether or not his first full-length for Important will raise his profile though, as it easily stands as one of the most uncompromisingly hyper-minimal and outré releases from the label in recent memory. For one, it is devoted primarily to works composed for the Vibrissae, a set of “microtonally tuned metal rod instruments” built by Catlin. Secondly, it provides exactly what the name “Overtone Ensemble” suggests: plenty of eerily harmonizing sustained tones and little more. As such, it is probably a hard sell for anyone not deep into the more rarified fringes of sound art, but it is a quite unique and wonderful release for those of us with ears attuned to that wavelength, at times exploring terrain not dissimilar to that of Catlin’s label mate Ellen Fullman. Other times, it probably sounds like absolutely nothing else on earth.
The Overtone Ensemble project is a fairly recent development in Catlin’s career, as he formed it in 2012 to focus on his Vibrissae works (the instruments borrow their name from cat whiskers). Prior to the birth of the Ensemble, Catlin was primarily known as an experimental guitarist with an impressive talent for instrument modification, building an array of guitars (and a zither) designed for bowing and unusual harmonics. He also built gongs and bells from scuba tanks and heaven knows what else. Catlin is very much an “idea man.” Conceptually, the Vibrissae are an extreme but logical extension of Tim’s earlier experiments with pick-up placement, eBow modification, bowing, and unconventional fret locations. While it is quite a big leap in practice to move from playing a guitar to “activating” metal rods with longitudinal stroking, it is not hard to see a piece like the ghostly, droning “Adumbration” as a bowed performance on an unfeasibly large, multi-person guitar. In essence, Catlin just ingeniously found a way to get the sustained, deeply resonant, and spectral sounds that he always wanted without having to use any effects or processing.
Of course, the downside to the Vibrissae is that rubbing a metal rod offers an extremely constrained palette, achieving a very specific sound quite beautifully, but not leaving many options for stylistic or dynamic variety. Consequently, these four pieces tend to take their individual character from whatever accompanying instrumentation Catlin and his ensemble throw into the mix. On “Scintillation,” for example, there are some clattering metallic sounds, some gongs, and a host of harsh feedback-like whines coaxed from wineglasses or bowls. Elsewhere, “Oscillation” sounds like the ensemble is playing a complex battery of cymbals and large bells, though it gets more compelling as it gets less busy, as all the clattering racket conceals any of the microtonal harmonic activity happening in the background. In fact, it kind of sounds like a wild free-jazz drum solo if the hapless drummer in question suddenly found himself missing his snare, toms, bass drum, and high-hat. Sadly, it is not quite as great as that scenario might sound. The closing “Accretion” is great, however, as the ensemble uses a battery of handbells to create a vibrantly twinkling, surprisingly physical, and queasily dissonant unreality. It is like the air itself is somehow transformed into a visceral and malign entity. There is nothing else quite like it that I have heard.
To my ears, it is exclusively the bookends where the Overtone Ensemble seem like they are realizing their full potential. I would even go so far as to declare “Accretion” an absolutely singular and legitimately evil-sounding piece of music. While the middle of the album is definitely eclipsed by the surrounding pieces, I would not say that this album has any significant flaws that could be avoided: the fundamental premise is necessarily a hugely limiting one. The Overtone Ensemble’s appeal lies primarily in the unique and resonant sounds that Catlin’s self-built instruments generate, which can sometimes be quite amazing given the absence of processing. On pieces like “Adumbration,” Catlin creates a microtonal cloud of harmonies that seems to hang in the air, shimmering and undulating with a life of its own and “Accretion” sounds like nothing less than the very fabric of reality being gleefully ripped apart. That is reason enough to hear this album, as far as I am concerned. Of course, the complex and unpredictable interplay between notes is quite wonderful as well, but the Overtone Ensemble’s talents are strictly limited to texture and harmony. An argument could probably be made that there is quite a bit of hyper-nuanced melodic and rhythmic activity unfolding as well, but it is not anything that is happening on a scale that normal humans can pick up on: anyone looking for great compositions should look elsewhere, as should anyone expecting Catlin’s unnerving harmonic swarm to ever blossom into a beautiful vista of warmth and consonance. This album is what it is. And what it is most closely resembles is an impossible rich, alien, and sometimes absolutely mesmerizing sound art installation that unexpectedly sprung up in my apartment.
Village Voice It is impossible to listen to the Overtone Ensemble’s eponymous second album without thinking about glass: rattling windowpanes, tuning forks on wine bottles, fingertips excruciatingly circling the rims of countless champagne flutes. Stirring together homemade aluminum instruments, re-tuned glockenspiels, bells, and other sonic ingredients, this Australian quartet kick up dense acoustic clouds of no-tone. The aptly titled “Handbells” clusters chimes, then incrementally disintegrates them into horror-flick drones. “Bowls,” a sprawling void with no discernible endpoint, piles din upon din upon din. Bells and metallic reverberations clash on “Eskiphones,” trailing a distinctly analogue feedback; it’s the opening scene from Back to the Future, where a panoply of vintage clocks sound simultaneously, multiplied and intensified. Overtone Ensemble is among 2016’s finest, most fanciful alternatives to real life as most of us must live it, most of the time.
Dusted The recently released Sonambient box makes a compelling case for the sonic and visual merits of Harry Bertoia’s metal sculptures. Its booklet and eleven CDs invite you to linger long in the radiant sounds and striking images of Bertoia’s work, but they also raise a question — where can this sound world lead. Overtone Ensemble offers one set of possibilities. Tim Catlin has been modifying guitars and developing unconventional systems to trigger them since at least the turn of the century. But in 2012 the formed the Ensemble to play a separate family of self-devised instruments such as the scuba gong and the vibrissa. The former is a cut-down scuba tank, the latter comprises a dozen aluminum rods mounted vertically upon a frame that looks like a cross between a sawhorse and the stand that holds a pedal steel guitar. The vibrissa bears a strong visual resemblance to Bertoia’s tonals, but they’re made from different materials and played differently. Instead of setting flexible rods in motion and seeing what they do, Catlin and his fellow musicians stroke the vibrissa’s rigid ones with their hands using motions somewhat like what you’d use to play a wine glass. And like wine glasses, vibrissae generate clouds of overtones that radiate from a fundamental tone.
The first of this CD’s four pieces is for vibrissae alone. Each musician coaxes a long tone from his instrument which is pitched closely enough to what the next man plays that you hear overtones not only from the instrument their collective interactions. Your appreciation will depend on your appreciation for high pitches; if your tolerance is limited, as is the case of one member of my household, you’re going to want to leave the room whenever the disc is on. But if you can appreciate the nuanced interactions of Keith Rowe and Toshimaru Nakamura’s recordings for Erstwhile Records, you might find a similarly exquisite attunement in the quartet’s patience and precise tonal placement.
This album is not just a product advertisement, though. On three subsequent pieces the ensemble incorporate the sounds of struck bowls and gongs, bowed metal, and e-bow guitars. Like Bertoia’s music, these performances invite you to lose yourself in wave upon wave of enveloping vibrations. But it feels more purposeful and less confined by the limitations of its instruments. The musicians interact not only with their instruments but each other, and the fact that they can do so proposes possibilities for a living metal music.
Attn:Magazine Tim Catlin’s Overtone Ensemble (completed here by Atticus Bastow, Philip Brophy and David Brown) centres on his self-made instrument called a “Vibrassa”: an array of vertical aluminium rods, all set to a different microtonal tuning, which emit pristine sustained tones when stroked by hand. They gleam fiercely like stars, confined to shrill pitches that beautifully evoke the slender and exact aluminium objects that instigated them, while paradoxically feeling shapeless and devoid of point of origin. The clarity of those tones is a crucial component. I’m able to witness the impression of those microtonal intersections as several rods are played at similar pitches – the tones quiver anxiously as though protesting the invasion of tonal purity, generating buzzes and circulating whistles as they grind against eachother. What starts out as a vivid chorus of two or three tones soon becomes a restless junction of collision and consequence: a lightshow of instrumental sound and the strange compounds of acoustic reaction, with different pitches blazing and dimming in ballets of chaotic vibratory phenomena.
Other instruments are invited to interact with the Vibrassa’s sculptures of high frequency. The warm hums of singing bowl swim through the channel of air that lies just beneath, creating their own swirling images of overtone and blurred resonance. The tumultuous opening of “Eskiphones” sounds like a waterfall of liquid metal, shimmering with shades of bronze and steel as it descends, erupting into clouds of bells and chimes at the bottom. It’s like a gigantic watercolour painting, in which each colour is a blotchy composite of other colours, half-blends and intimate merges of contrast. The detail to be observed withinOvertone Ensemble is limitless. In order to hear it all, I have to constantly adjust the focal point of my listening, swimming through the sea of frequency at different depths and in different frames of mind (intense concentration, meditative acceptance…). There’s something exciting about the fact that I’ll never comprehend Overtone Ensemble in its entirety, which is only heightened by the knowledge that even the composers themselves couldn’t possibly have explored every intricate nook of their own creation.
Exactly what it says on the tin. An ensemble that coaxes out the overtones from everyday or ‘non-musical’ objects. It’s all music really. Overtone (pretty much) means just one of the frequencies that makes up a sound, but I guess the name ‘Sound Group’ doesn’t have the same highbrow air.
So far there have been 8 minutes of high-pitched sinewy sound, but it never seems to get piercing and remains in this shimmering stasis, subtly shifting as they stroke the vibrissa. Stroke the vibrissa?? What..? Well that’s the instrument of course, a set of metal rods not unlike tiny versions of Harry Bertoia’s monster sculptures that are apparently named after ‘feline tactile hair follicles’. Probably a great joke to a Biology professor. It sort of shares similarities with Ellen Fullman and her walls of harmonics conjured from giant strings, just a lot more minimal. So deliciously minimal.
Some singing bowls and wine glasses join the feline tactile hair follicles on the second one (of four), adding a percussive element like the sound from a distant wind chime repair shop. They hang there resonating atonally for a while before letting their friends bow some metals. It continues down this route, building to a glorious clatter on the third track, mysteriously billed as ‘hammered percussion’. Well it’s certainly not a piano is it?
Anyway I’m a sucker for this kind of object resonance, but I reckon it’s got a cavernous place inside everyone’s music-guzzling head. Get some clatter in u. Rating 9/10