Birgit Ulher’s work exists in a transitional zone between electroacoustic improvisation and reductionist composition, with the singularities of her practice enabling her to traverse both these genres with fluidity. Ulher’s use of scores often gives her hollow clangs, fatigued breaths and darting squeals a structure lacking in pureblood improv. And, while she plays quietly enough for the silence fetishists – her style is shorn of idiom, often pared down to the sound of air passing through metal valves and tubes – the ragged dissonance of what results is disconcerting enough to have ostensibly more refined fellow-travelers dropping their titanium-framed spectacles in shock.
Ulher is a prolific player and recording artist, with collaborations with Ute Wassermann, Gino Robair, Lucio Capece and others under her belt. But this latest CD on Hideous Replica, as well as its predecessor, 2014’s ‘Araripepipra’ (with Gregory Büttner) are as good examples of her craft as any. ‘Matter Matters’ even comes packaged with a colour reproduction for ‘Traces’, the opening track, although attempts to follow the rutted and splotchy traces left by Ulher’s various manipulations – of trumpet, radio, speaker, objects and tape – has mixed results. Listening scoreless, the see-saw scrapes, throaty puffs and twitchy knocks spill out into the air, hanging motionless like cosmic debris scattered across the night sky before fading into nothingness. Matching these discrete, textured particles to Ulher’s carefully-drawn lines, marked in different colours on graph paper, reveals a structure previously sensed only implicitly, lassoing freedom into linear formality. Ultimately, however, the increased detail the score brings to the listening experience outweighs any feelings of restraint.
We aren’t presented with the scores for the other two cuts on ‘Matter Matters’, which consist of a performance of part of Christopher Schiller’s 2013 work ‘Die Schachtel’ and a take of ‘Splitting 21’, by Ulher with Micheal Maierhof. One could imagine a similarly fruitful conflict if we were, but instead we are left to luxuriate in the spare gorgeousness arising from Ulher’s engagement with these pieces. In ‘Die Schachtel’ it’s just Ulher and her trumpet, using conventional and extended playing techniques to move through a series of curtailed squeaks, fricative blasts and percussive gurgles. Each new sound is as perfect and individual as pebbles on a beach. Release notes describe ‘Die Schachtel’ as “a collection of graphics, numbers, texts and pitch structure”: as a way of pushing a player out of their comfort zone and forcing them to draw on reserves of technique and imagination, it is ideal.
‘Splitter 21’, meanwhile eschews chain-like progression for synthesis, layering mechanic rumbles and piercing tones in hefty chunks. Ulher’s trumpet is almost melodic at times, calling through the haze of splutters and spools with clear and resonant voice. Any resemblance to sharp-suited modal icons is banished early on, however, with a series of long, blues-less cries that are shrouded in hissy rattles, as if some vital component of the instrument has worked loose and is vibrating in sympathy (it may be that one of the preparations Ulher adds to her horn – clips or sheets of coloured foil – is responsible). Nevertheless, the image of factory bebop is hard to shake off, the combination of plaintive horn licks and mechanical clamour making for an evocative sonic tapestry, human and machine in irregular harmony.