João Camões & Jean-Marc Foussat - À La Face Du Ciel (Shhpuma, 2016) ****
Marialuisa Capurso & Jean-Marc Foussat – En Respirant (Fou, 2016) ***1/2
By Dan Sorrells
Playing in a duo with electronics shaman Jean-Marc Foussat must be like discovering what instrument your partner plays the moment the curtain rises—and perhaps more disturbingly, discovering minute to minute that it’s a number of instruments you’ve ever encountered before. Two recent duo recordings are as much about how traditional instruments respond to the frenetic, protean realm of electronics and synthesizers as about the power Foussat wields with such devices. À La Face Du Ciel pairs Foussat with Portuguese violist João Camões, while En Respirant is a duet with Italian singer and fellow electronicist Marialuisa Capurso.
It’s tempting to view Foussat as the dominant force on À La Face Du Ciel, with Camões playing defense. This may be misleading however, if only because discerning when Foussat is being pro- or reactive is far from straightforward, and the unflappable Camões sounds as self-possessed in responding as he does when he takes the lead. Earlier this year, I reviewed Bien Mental, the trio of Foussat, Camões, and Claude Parle. There, Parle’s sweeping accordion drones were the cohesive, binding element. Here, that role falls to Camões, as it is often difficult to follow everything Foussat is doing in detail. There’s an arc to each of the two pieces that’s drawn by the familiar timbre of Camões’ viola, an earthy, grounding force in a music that is otherwise extraterrestrial, interstellar.
“Suite Pour La Trosième Oreille” gets off to an abrasive start, and it’s unclear whether Camões is amplifying his viola, Foussat is manipulating it, or a mixture of the two. What’s immediately apparent is how near-sounding the recording is. Listening through headphones lends the impression of a concert from within—less that you’re in an aural space than your skull is the space. (“Do you hear that sound?” Daniel Higgs once asked. “Your resonating skull sound—the sweetly humming skull tone.”) It’s a fitting illusion for music that’s linear but constantly shifting, like the endless turns and warps of thought itself.
As always, I’m amazed at the sheer variety of effects Foussat produces. “Suite Pour La Trosième Oreille” eventually shifts into the rasp and buzz of a robotic cicada swarm. “Mécanique Verte” is oceanic, with Camões’ plinking pizzicato notes splashing in Foussat’s watery sampling. But what Foussat tosses into the mix never sounds like some jumbled grab-bag; it truly seems he has an encyclopedic knowledge of every strange timbre available to him, and chooses exactly the sound he intends for each moment. Camões often counters with lyrical, punctuated remarks, poking holes in Foussat’s enveloping sound. Still, in one rather disconcerting moment towards the end of the record, it sounds like Camões simply evaporates into computer bleeps and bloops, finally succumbing to the digital onslaught.
En Respirant is more programmatic, briskly changing ideas and approaches. The music here is about subverting—even destroying—some of our most strongly-held aural associations by playing with the human voice, which by the very wiring of our brains we can never fail to address. Both Foussat and Capurso use their voices as fuel for their electronics, distorting them beyond all recognition but periodically revealing flashes of the human source. Paradoxically, this allows some of the most conventional moments to be the most powerful – towards the end of “Osmosis,” after a thorough deconstruction of anything resembling humanity, the sound drops away to Foussat’s electronic shimmer, and Capurso enters with a simple, hymnal melody, vocal loops slowly breaking away and diverging in a haunting canon.
“Purple Future” playfully contrasts Capurso’s voicings with those of seagulls, something that sounds ridiculous, but feels logical in the psychedelic swirl the two have conjured. The track moves from trippy to soothing to rather menacing while preserving many of the same elements. By adding and subtracting sounds, the context of others is rebuilt on the fly: nighttime insects change in a moment from summertime soundtrack to rapidly encroaching swarm.
Both À La Face Du Ciel and En Respirant document fascinating strategies for dealing with the “problem” of Foussat: Camões, by using virtuosity and ingenuity to confront him on the viola’s terms; Capurso, by blending into the electronic wash and addressing his challenges from the inside out.