Radu Malfatti has covered a fair bit of ground over the years, from his early post-jazz/free improv playing to his ’90s reinvention as a Wandelweiser composer to his various collaborations with Mattin, Keith Rowe, and many others. One thing he’s apparently never done before, though, is release a solo improvised album; One Man and a Fly, recorded in June 2012, is his first. The trombonist/composer has documented himself solo playing his own compositions, and documented his improvisation in small combos (mostly duos) but this marks the first time he can be heard improvising solo on trombone.
It’s a welcome addition to Malfatti’s legacy, and doubly welcome for signalling the resurgence of Richard Pinnell’s Cathnor label, which has been dormant the last few years. This album consists of a single 50-minute piece, and as one would expect of Malfatti, it’s quiet and restrained, with the musician’s sounds melting into the ambiance of the room in which he played. And yet it’s also surprising in the particular ways that Malfatti uses surrounding noises as part of his performance. There’s a sly wit to his playing here that makes this a particularly engaging and thought-provoking example of this kind of ultra-minimalist improvisation.
What quickly becomes apparent is that billing this as a solo performance is a bit of dry humor, or perhaps an assertion that improvisation is primarily about reacting and responding, whether that’s to other musicians or, in a solo performance, to the space one is in. Indeed, the album’s title provides a more apt, playful billing, as Malfatti often shares this space with a fly that flits in and out of the mix. When the fly’s buzzing is absent, distant birdsong, traffic, motorized appliances, and other sounds join the trombonist in hushed accompaniment.
Moreover, Malfatti doesn’t just allow such intrusions into his music, he actively responds to these “guests,” echoing their sounds and placing his own sounds in deliberate dialogue with what he’s hearing around him. In this respect, the aesthetic is distinct from composed Wandelweiser works in which extramusical sounds are implicitly welcomed but usually not explicitly acknowledged by the musicians. Such responsiveness can often be expected in improvisation, of course, but it’s rarer for this kind of back-and-forth interplay with the environment to be so central to a performance. At least one direct antecedent is the Erstwhile CD Dach, a 1999 live recording by Malfatti, Phil Durrant, and Thomas Lehn, on which the musicians responded organically to the sounds of a rainstorm and the concert space’s plastic roof popping and stretching in the sun.
There’s a great deal of variety to Malfatti’s playing here, more than one might suspect given the superficially hushed and unchanging atmosphere. At times, he plays long droning tones that mimic the machine sounds and traffic in the background. At one point, what sounds like a lawnmower hums back and forth from outside. Malfatti plays a buzzing tone that rises subtly out of the lawnmower drone, gradually filling the space with noise and then receding, leaving behind the distant engine murmur. Elsewhere, tiny pops, key-clicks, and metal scraping noises only obliquely hint at their instrumental source.
This is a rich, lively soundworld beneath its surface placidity. Simon Reynell’s recording is close and intimate, capturing every subtle detail of Malfatti’s meticulous playing and the room around him; given how precise Malfatti is, how attuned to the smallest of sounds, this kind of intimacy and clarity is crucial to the music’s impact. The album opens with an insistent creaking that might be someone settling into a chair or Malfatti tinkering with his instrument. A plane roars by overhead, getting closer until its sound obscures everything else for a moment, then fading away. Once the disruption has passed, Malfatti takes its sound as his template for the next few minutes, playing a couple of low bassy tones that similarly swell to the point of distortion and then decay. The fly buzzes around, birds and insects can be vaguely heard chirping from outside, and occasional thumps and shuffles suggest human activity happening in the space around Malfatti.
Most interesting of all is the way that Malfatti deals with the titular fly. The bug’s reedy buzzing flits briefly into hearing periodically across the performance’s first few minutes, and Malfatti responds with long wavering tones and breathy exhalations that hiss through the trombone’s tubes. Malfatti doesn’t attempt to mimic the fly’s sound but subtly echoes its buzzing rhythms in the flickering waves of his tones or the sandpaper-like rustling of his breath. He’s playing with the fly, complementing its sounds with his own, creating layered drones in which the fly hums above the trombone. Later, the fly duets with a distant motor, and Malfatti sits out for a few moments, then joins in with some moaning sustained notes and metallic clicking noises.
Sometime after the halfway point, the lawnmower drone becomes dominant for a few minutes, with Malfatti blending his own sputtering murmurs and whistling breaths into the background hum. When the machine finally cuts off, with the abrupt sound of the motor being switched off, the space seems suddenly empty and hollow, with the fly buzzing busily around in this vacuum. Malfatti breathes deeply into the trombone, playing resonant quasi-tones that don’t quite sound but just ring slightly, vibrating the instrument’s metal surfaces with overtones but not letting a proper note escape. It’s a beautiful, mysterious response to the motor’s impersonal hum and the sporadic, inhuman buzzing of the fly.
Like all the best music in this vein, from Malfatti and other musicians who have explored similar territory in the last couple of decades, One Man and a Fly encourages and rewards careful attention to its surprisingly rich, detailed textures. This album will likely not be surprising to anyone who’s followed Malfatti or the Wandelweiser collective a bit, or even someone generally familiar with the post-Cage ideas that animate this music. What’s striking here is the depth and intelligence of the playing, the sense of witnessing a particularly clever musical imagination at its peak.
This is a fantastic example of improvisational reactivity at its most sensitive, all the more impressive – and fascinating – since Malfatti is playing with the accidental and unavoidable sounds of the space rather than the deliberate interjections of other players. Malfatti’s extraordinary openness to the sounds around him suggests a conception of solo music as being not really “solo” at all. Malfatti’s not alone here: there are people operating machines and going about tasks unrelated to music, and there are animals whose noises intersect only by chance with the music. Malfatti’s willingness to let these other sounds inform his own, to play off them and react to them, is a rejection of ego that’s rare enough in any music, let alone in a solo performance where the spotlight is meant to be on a single performer.
Available from Cathnor.