François Houle & Zachary Watkins


Earlier in March, I caught François Houle’s show at the Center for New Music, the new venue just north of Market Street in San Francisco. It’s an interesting place, existing as an office/administrative space for musicians during the day, then opening its doors for occasional evening concerts.

DSCN1596Houle’s “Aerials” is a program of clarinet improvising that’s keyed off of responding to the surrounding space. He started by standing next to CNM’s elegant piano, which is shiny and black and — keyless. Yes, CNM is new, and its piano is still being assembled.

But the strings are there, and Houle’s first piece had him blasting notes into the piano, with mics helping to pick up the reverb. He did this with buzzing sounds and clarinet harmonics as well, getting that “big echoey chapel” effect going in CNM’s relatively small music space DSCN1599(really the office’s common area). It’s an idea he used on the Aerials album as well, and while the idea has certainly been used, it’s still a valid way to wrest some additional sounds out of a horn.

Part of the Aerials philisophy is to mess with all the clarinet’s sonic possibilities. Houle took the instrument apart, playing without a mouthpiece or playing just the mouthpiece.  Houle kept to a melodic form, though, often tussling wtih modern-classical ideas. He would settle on pretty melodies, using pedals to feed them back into harmonized loops. His two mid-length improvisations featured long stretches of circular breathing, at once point settling into quick arpeggios played in buzzy multiphonics, like Philip Glass after a bender.

The second set had Houle working with the Zachary Watkins’ electronics.  Watkins started it off in noisy territory, and Houle followed suit, clacking the clarinet DSCN1605 mouthpiece against its keys for a sound that, on a recording, might actually be mistaken for more electronics.

But it was when Houle drifted to tonal melodies that things got really good. At one point, Houle’s playing was mimicked by a low buzzing tone, while Watkins also replayed slices of Houle’s previous playing. The latter created a shifting, chirping, subtly squeaking subtext, a sound bed for Houle’s melodies. Houle explored lots of marvellous and pretty scales, little gems of melody fed back into the system.

Houle’s improvising is fluid and lyrical, full of creative twists. After having heard his music in mostly composed contexts, it was a pleasure to see him roam in an unbounded environment.


See also: Aerial Clarinet