Two microtonal trumpet odysseys from multi-instrumentalist and composer Ben Zucker, folding the massed, atonal attack of mid-20th century avant-garde composition into condensed and personal explorations of space and timbre. Trained in composition by heavy hitters such as Anthony Braxton and David Behrman, Zucker is one of those annoying people who can do lots of things really well. He’s proficient in brass, percussion, voice and electronics. And he’s studied experimental musicking to postgraduate level, in London, with the brilliant Jennifer Walshe.
Yet Zucker’s work is hardly exhibitionist. Rather, its regulated intensity is a unifying strand in a diverse back catalogue. ‘O ur gab’, for example, released a couple of years ago on Phil Maguire’s Verz imprint, deploys a welter of non-verbal vocal techniques to form a glorious, low-key canvas of hisses, clicks and wheezes. And while the earlier ‘Confluere‘ draws on a wider sound palette of trumpet, marimba, percussion and piano, there’s a gauzy emptiness to even the lushest cuts that dial down any jazz overload.
Perhaps it’s that compositional nous that holds Zucker back from performative histrionics in his playing. Through both parts of ‘Intra.Incarn’ he balances focus and restraint, multi-tracking himself (possibly live, via some kind of loop pedal) to build blocks of sound whose mass and shape vary as each 20-minute section progresses. Buzzing nano-swarms morph into keening elephantine choirs, then into glowering, vaporous thunder, and so on in constant, slo-mo evolution.
Key to this is the unhurried, naturalistic way in which Zucker shepherds his army of ghost players through these transitions. Even when a solitary horn line is discernable, its reticence makes it less of a lead soloist than a chaperone, overseeing rather than dictating the hive-mind swirl. We get such a moment about two-thirds of the way through Part 1, Zucker emerging, briefly, from a swathe of white noise like some weary traveller stumbling out of a dust storm before disappearing back into the collective flurry. Imagine ‘Lontano‘ or ‘Polymorphia‘ recreated as spontaneous sound-making, the score absent, the ensemble‘s playing reconfigured as emergent phenomena.
Indeed, Zucker’s strategy of looping himself instead of recruiting additional crew adds heat and light to this manifestation. As on another earlier release, ‘Workswon‘, Zucker revels in the cheekiness that technological replication allows, challenging us to pinpoint a centre of gravity that’s always on the lam. Of course, ‘Intra.Incarn’ dumps the other instrumentation to zoom in on the brass, and by Part 2 those games of hide and seek have become even more unsettling. Layers of monochrome sustain bear down on us in a tidal heave as Zucker dissolves into a universe of duplicates, dancing through a hall of mirrors, losing himself among the clone multitude.