Memories Of Sound: Esz Kodesz By Cut The Sky

Now based in Kraków, the new trio from MultiTraction Orchestra’s Alex Roth, with clarinettist Wacław Zimpel and drummer Hubert Zemler, proves a heady blast of electronics, field recording and wild collective improvisation summoning a rich seam of emotion and solidarity

Photo by Arek Blomka

“To understand the stories of a culture is to understand its people; further, to absorb the meaning of a story is to learn from it,” writes poet and broadcaster Seán Street in his 2015 book The Memory Of Sound. Memories and histories have been the subject of fascination for philosophers and a crucial factor in the progress of civilisation since the times of the Greek lyric poet Simonides of Ceos. While the story of Alex Roth’s new trio had started in earnest during 2018 with the guitarist and composer’s residency at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Kraków, its history and communal memory have reached decades and even centuries into the past. Having moved to Poland in an effort to explore his ancestors’ homeland, the music on Esz Kodesz is wordless yet brims with meaning, speaking of Roth’s reflection on Jewish heritage and reawakened identity.

Before relocating to Kraków, Detroit-born Roth had established himself as one of London’s noted experimental music figures, frequently collaborating with like-minded musicians such as John Butcher and Kit Downes and leading his own ensembles, including the constantly reconfiguring MultiTraction Orchestra (which released the excellent Reactor One with Arve Henriksen, Rhodri Davies, and others earlier this year). Still, coming to Poland, Roth had a clear and, in the context of his previous works, quite distinct idea in mind on approaching the research of his forebears’ history and turning these newly discovered memories into sound.

As he reveals in liner notes, he first travelled across Poland and Ukraine, collecting field recordings from abandoned Jewish sites, documenting “neglected cemeteries, forgotten monuments, former ghetto districts reclaimed by ever-evolving cities” and “absorbing aspects of my adopted environment into myself”. The original idea was to compose music around the in situ recordings, then perform it with a group of two Polish improvising musicians he had admired in the past, clarinettist Wacław Zimpel and drummer Hubert Zemler.

As it often happens, things didn’t quite turn out as planned. Instead of composed pieces, the trio’s first concerts that took place in Kraków and London in early 2019 grew from Roth’s field recordings into free-wheeling, extended improvisations, both wild and pensive. Zemler and Zimpel had become staples of the Polish free improv scene over the past decade and have often played together in various ensembles including LAM and Zimpel’s To Tu Orchestra. This extemporaneous chemistry appears as a major driving force behind the trio’s early sets. Despite the occasional rawness of their interactions – Zimpel absolutely scorching on woodwinds like the koncovka and algoza, Roth and Zemler freaking out in unfiltered rock mode – their initial encounters showed just how vibrant this new ensemble could be.

While their attempts to record together in 2020 were thwarted by the Covid-19 pandemic, they would meet again in May 2022 in a studio in Warsaw for three days of improvisation. Esz Kodesz (‘Sacred Fire’) is the result of the material recorded during those sessions, subsequently carefully curated and electronically augmented by Roth. Compared to their earlier live performances, the mood on the album is considerably more toned down, veering towards patient ambient figures rather than energetic free jazz. In place of Roth’s field recordings, the starting point for the improvisations now resided within the players themselves and the new stories they had made together. Each of the six tracks on the album reflects this relationship between memory, music, and camaraderie and is dedicated to a city where the trio had played before or that Roth had visited during one of his field recording trips.

As its title suggests, ‘Clattering (Kraków)’ opens with jackdaws from a Kraków park united in rowdy birdsong, overlapping peoples’ voices, and various other urban sounds. Gently, almost to the point of shyness, Zimpel’s clarinet makes its way into the midst of this natural collective performance, letting loose circular, revolving tones. Zemler soon joins him, drumming a Terry Riley-esque minimal rhythm on steel pans, while his oblong reverberations open up cracks for one of Roth’s elongated guitar riffs to float in through. Similar to the patient, nearly imperceptible variations with which The Necks develop their pieces, the cut gradually transforms into a funky pulse, while the solid rhythmic foundation enables Zimpel to break out a gorgeous lead. The bittersweet vibrato of his clarinet conjures the generational pain and unwavering hope that is often associated with Klezmer music, but without ever directly referencing the genre’s tropes.

In a recent interview, Zimpel revealed he has no intentions of going back to playing free jazz, having found his preferred artistic space in abstract electronic forms. But on ‘The Swans Will Sing When The Jackdaws Fall Silent (Lublin)’ he shows he hasn’t lost any of his sensibilities for collective improvisation. On the contrary, he plays a key role here, pulling Roth’s weeping chords and Zemler’s feather-light percussion into a slow dance with his breathy, sustained textures and cyclical phrasing. It’s a lovely, understated cut that leads into the crystalline ambient atmosphere of ‘Esz Kodesz (Piaseczno)’, perhaps the most intense segment on the album. Here, the clarinet melodies overflow with sorrow, supported by sturdier rock riffs that keep them from spiralling further down and help the music follow a slightly psychedelic path, akin to the nocturnal ambient rock journeys of Jim Jarmusch with Jozef van Wissem and Lee Ranaldo.

With its lounge jazz backdrop of hazy electronics and Roth’s soft guitar articulations, ‘Lullaby For Gajla (Warszawa)’ is like the bluesy drone of Earth meeting the seductive dark jazz of Bohren & der Club of Gore/The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble in some underground Berlin club. An uncomplicated, undulating affair ushers in hypnagogic modes, only for them to be dispelled by the striking, cymbal and kick drum driven grooves and jagged riffs of ‘Podzielone Królestwo (Londyn)’.

Although we tend to associate vivid past recollections with smell and taste, sound memory can be just as evocative and rich. Esz Kodesz is filled with such sonic moments that trigger existing memories and create new ones. The closing ‘Lord, Have Mercy (Lviv)’ is perhaps most explicit in this sense. Roth, Zimpel, and Zemler’s solemn, sacred rendition of a Ukrainian liturgical hymn documents the zeitgeist in which the music was recorded, but also adds to it something of its own, connecting in solidarity the past struggles with the tribulations of the Ukrainian people. It’s an elegant, poignant way of closing quite a memorable album.

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