Robert Dick and Thomas Buckner
Flutes and Voices
I could never have predicted what Flutes and Voices sounded like because, before listening to Robert Dick and Thomas Buckner’s improvisations, I had been deprived of the instrumental and vocal sounds, noises and effects principally composing the sound world of this recording. It would be cheesy to label the album, “not for the faint of heart”, but I cannot deny the extreme abstraction one explores while listening to it. With that disclaimer out of the way, I must emphasize how incredibly delightful Mr. Dick and Mr. Buckner’s musical daring is to experience. Their style of improvisation removes the listener from any expectation or familiarity with either instrument and delivers one’s ears to a new expressive universe, spiraling out of control for much of the time.
There are no elegant flute passages or arias on this recording, nor words nor any discernible melodies except for a few points. A seasoned improvisatory vocalist, baritone Thomas Buckner uses the human voice in an anti-establishment manner hard to put into words. There is some humming and overtone singing, but the sounds he produces are too vibrant, too fleeting, and too multifaceted for a single moniker. He mixtures gasps and grunts, whispers and croaks and the sound of spit along with tongue clicking, snoring, daffy-duck noises and pretty much every unexpected oral sound you’ll hear from a baby’s nursery to a retirement home. The album’s fifth track, “The Bird Scene Says Yes” may be the tamest – at least vocally speaking – inasmuch as Mr. Buckner sings in a pseudo-language of vowel songs and follows a melody that is similarly reminiscent of folk music. Yet, his voice is constrained for the duration, seemingly coming from the back of his throat. This allows this track – the most tuneful of the album – to fit into the expressive palette of the rest of the works.
When I realized this, the careful structuring that must have been considered – subconsciously, at least – I became extremely impressed with Mr. Buckner and Mr. Dick’s musical insight. Upon discovering the CD contained a series of improvisations, I had ignorantly assumed I would regret not being witness to their creation, as if the energy of the performance would compensate for the music’s presumed lack of formal logic. The balance I’ve described in Mr. Buckner’s vocal performance suggests more of a musical structure than I had thought possible, simultaneously proving me wrong and making the music more fascinating.
Composer and flutist Robert Dick’s performance is equally wild and varied as Mr. Buckner, thanks in part to Mr. Dick’s invention, the Glissando Headjoint. This device allows Mr. Dick to produce extended glissandi and pitch bends unlike anything I had heard on a flute. The resultant microtonal/chromatic slides join a host of other flute extended techniques including key clicks, tongue pizzicato, tongue rams and many others. Mr. Dick also sings into his flute, and produces vocal sounds along the lines of Mr. Buckner’s performance, sometimes switching between those grunts and flute playing, so it seems like there is an extra performer in the booth. Like Mr. Buckner’s performance, Robert Dick’s flute playing includes some more traditional flute sounds, runs and the like, but these moments appear in such an unusual context – sandwiched between abundant bizarre sounds – there is no sense that track has been violated by the presence of a distinguishable flute note.
As alien as Flute and Voices becomes as a result of the unusual sounds produced by its creators, the limited post-production carries the music to an even more distant realm of expression. Once I noticed there was a lot of panning going on, I was curious about overdubbing, but – after listening to the CD multiple times – I am convinced the tracks are pretty raw. It is even possible they were recorded with a stereo microphone and the performers moved from one side to the other to create a “live” panning effect. Nevertheless, I am confident these improvisations are presented very close to how they would sound in concert, though I enjoyed being able to imagine the unearthly sources for the strange sounds I heard. Perhaps, being able to see Robert Dick and Thomas Buckner might spoil the wonderful foreignness of their improvisations’ sound world.