Our Faceless Empire: Cali-Portugese Improv

Ernesto Diaz-Infante, Manuel Mota, Gino Robair, Ernesto RodriguesOur Faceless Empire (Pax, 2010)

This one’s all about strings — not sweet symphonic strings, but the percussive potential behind strings: the dry clacking and snapping of acoustic guitar and viola, the tiny grunts and pops of electric guitar.

Diaz-Infante and Robair are both part of a Bay Area improv scene that favors a sound-sculpture aesthetic, with performances rich in extended technique. Robair stopped calling himself a drummer at some point, preferring the term “energized surfaces” to describe his combination of oddball objects (bowed styrofoam, for instance), and unconventionally played drums, all of it adding up to a forest of sounds barely traceable to acoustic instruments.

So, this album is full of rattly, percussive sounds — a mesh of sound, full of strings clicking, squeaking, and scraping. Ironically, it’s the drummer who produces the longest and most singing tones, if you can call them that. Robair frequently bows his cymbals or other free-hanging pieces of metal, producing a tarnished ringing tone with a scraped quality, a siren’s cough.

Small blips of guitar tones appear on “E Metico Labilty,” and an accordion seems to pop up on “Um Lilburn Em Flovilla,” towards the end of the album. Mostly, though, it’s a thicket of what’s sometimes called insect music, lots of little sounds adding up to a collective and a direction.

The first three tracks keep things on a fast gait, clattery but not overwhelmingly busy, and often quiet. The third track, “Mi Conde, El Odiosas,” gets downright rowdy and is followed by the quiet respite of “O Bursty Bruegel,” a calming sheen.

The album come to be when Rodrigues (viola) and Mota (electric guitar) were doing a tour from Vancouver on down the Pacific coast. It’s all part of the improv mystique: players of similar minds getting together, spinning music into the air, and possibly never reconvening in that exact combination again. Sometimes, it’s nice to have a document of those moments.