Less Action, Less Excitement, Less Everything (2010)
I’m on a bit of a healthy eating kick at the moment, coupled with a “stop eating snacks at all time of the day” diet. So this morning, before work I was in a shop looking at different boxes of porridge available to buy for breakfast. Of the many options on the shelves, most tried to add a new twist on good old porridge, some adding fruit, some honey, one even mixing in chocolate and banana in the same box (ugh). In the end, faced by all this choice and variation I settled for plain old Scottish porridge oats, which I will enjoy for breakfast tomorrow.
Listening to the first International Nothing album last night may well have influenced my decision in the supermarket today. Sometimes it is the simple, subtle things in life that work best. Adding extra elements often just overcomplicates things and detracts from your enjoyment of the basics when they are just done really well. For me the album Mainstream felt like the shelves of porridge today, a really lovely, deceptively simple article spoilt very slightly by the addition of extra elements. The new International Nothing album, named, ironically, (and brilliantly) Less Action, Less Excitement, Less Everything is, for want of any other ridiculously overstretched metaphor, a great example of a really well made bowl of good quality, simple porridge.
So yes, the new disc is just the two clarinets of Kai Fagaschinski and Michael Thieke, composed, played ’straight’ with little use of extended technique, and entirely reliant on the creativity of the composition and the skill of the musicians to capture the attention and go somewhere interesting. The five pieces here then work with converging and diverging harmonics again, but also there feels like there is a greater sense of structure to the compositions, perhaps more definition in them, and a greater variety in the use of space and time. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this music is how in-tune with one another Fagaschinski and Thieke are. There was once a time when I wrote somewhere that I could pick Kai’s playing out on any CD he appeared on, such was his own personal musical signature, but here I haven’t a clue which of the two clarinetists plays which note, and as the pair cross their sounds over often mid-flow I’m not even sure I always know if the musician that started a note is the same one that ends it. The sense of mutual understanding is present throughout what is a consistently impressive album that oozes a delicate subtlety that requires careful listening to get the most out of. Notes swell out of the silence rather than just begin, and they slip away with a similar charm. The attention to detail is remarkable, not only in this kind of exit and entrance technique, but in the accuracy of the combined tonal playing. Despite there being extended use of harmonic systems here I can’t find a single mistake, a single loose wavering note, a single missed entry point. In short, it is a beautiful set of five fine, compact pieces that have been executed very well indeed. Simple ingredients, well combined by very talented people. Fine music with no chocolate or bananas in sight.
by Richard Pinnell (England, September 2010)
I wondered, when I’d finished listening, why two men capable of blowing poetry through their clarinets would saddle themselves with such a seriously crap album title. But Less Action, Less Excitement, Less Everything expresses the paradox that Kai Fagaschinski and Michael Thieke – have now chosen to pursue a cause that on paper looks unlikely: composed music. Which poses the question – why attempt to write down sounds once revealed through improvisation and run the risk of killing those same sounds stone dead? Especially as these sounds are culled from free Improv’s gestural heartland: distorted, breathy, overblown notes that crack on the border between sounding or not.
In the first piece, “Niedere Arbeiten”, a single moment helps clarify the arguments. A trill clicking of clarinet keys against the body of the instrument registers as incidental detail until, deploying awesome technical control, the trill dips as the clicks intensify. Given these outer limit instabilities, how could that sound be notated? The mystery deepens as equally fickle slap-tongue figurations quietly ‘pop’ in the other clarinet.
Then both musicians inhale calmly, their breath cueing the next section. Whatever notation Fagaschinski and Thieke have devised is obviously a good one. It lends their ideas an elegant sense of order and licenses the unforeseen, as difficult-to-realise notation keeps the narrative dangerous and unsteady. After all, sound couldn’t care less whether it has been written down or not.
by Philip Clark (England, August 2010)
From the family of wind instruments, I must admit that I like the clarinet the best. And here we have two of them: on the right channel Kai Fagaschinski and on the left channel Michael Thieke. They work as The International Nothing. I think we should see the title of this work as the program for this CD. The two play the clarinets with great slowness, with long sustains and decays, and action seems indeed not really apparent. Excitement, yes, that is something that is hard to escape when listening t this release. I think this very exciting music actually. Almost like sine waves humming slow and carefully, sometimes developing into a small melody, sometimes as quickly as that disappearing. Carefully playing with the silent notions. This is improvised music and the odd thing is it sounds on one hand very onkyo, but the more I think about it, I realize we hear the clarinets as they are: clarinets and not as some object with a mouthpiece. That’s an interesting notion about this music. An excellent, solemn work of refined ascetic beauty. Sparse yet rich.
by Frans de Waard (Netherlands, July 2010)
I saw this pair (Kai Fagaschinski and Michael Thieke, clarinets) at Experimental Intermedia only a couple of weeks prior to this recording. I know at least one of the pieces here (they do play all composed music, btw) was played then (“Sleep!”), perhaps more. In any case, the overall feel of that evening and this recording is quite similar, albeit without the added spice of a naked fat guy. Very soft, a kind of agitated quiet where the reeds circle about each other in a fairly tight weave, tendrils escaping hear and there, always a burr in place. A couple of days later, I was walking down the street with a musician who shall remain nameless, mentioned that set and was told, “I hate that kind of stuff!” meaning: restrained, delicate, channeled. This music is certainly that but I find not a small amount of pleasure in that restraint, especially when it’s combined with a subtle but tangible sensuousness as is the case with these fellows. There’s an obvious joy being experienced by the clarinetists in rubbing together adjacent sonorities, bathing in the resultant overtones. Things are kept moderately tonal, though never sing-song-y, the plies of sound calmly allowed to waft over each other, to settle lightly. “Sleep!” closes the disc and is irresistibly drowsy. Good stuff.
by Brian Olewnick (U.S.A., July 2010)
No pyrotechnics here ― there isn’t a staccato, fortissimo or 16th note to be heard. But Berlin-based clarinettists Michael Theike and Kai Fagaschinski have developed such sensitive awareness of one another’s instrumental gestures and sonorities that their sounds become fused, creating shimmering fields of multiphonics or hovering mists of subtone dronishness that convey the woody essence of their instrument. The twosome find combinations of pitches that reveal interesting presences, sometimes of ghostly different tones. They worry a single pitch, detuning to produce throbbing beats and then finding pure unison, they depart. Lip slides, false fingerings, the entire encyclopaedia of clarinet sound resources are referenced in the Nothings’ five-track explorations. The pieces share a minimalist, ambient atmosphere that gradually reveals itself at a slow, gentle pace. While moments can be somewhat intense, the disc’s overall state is meditative, tranquil and, curiously for its definite “avant” aesthetic, relaxing. Light a candle, soak in a warm bath and let these guys take you on a fascinating voyage.
by Glen Hall (Canada, October 2010)
Reviewers are often tempted to use the title of a record as a description of its contents. And indeed most readers familiar with the musicians in this duo — clarinetists Kai Fagaschinski and Michael Thieke — will be likewise compelled by apparent paring down suggested by Less Action, Less Excitement, Less Everything. While the clarinet’s history is deeply bound up with certain kinds of expressionism (think not just traditional, but Jimmy Giuffre, Eric Dolphy, John Carter, Marty Ehrlich, and Sclavis, just to name a few), these players are known from their participation in a bevy of projects in and around the Berlin “lowercase” improvising scene. Thieke first caught my ears on a 1998 Leo Lab disc from the Clarinet Trio, and later on several fine Creative Sources releases, the superb Roman Tics from Cathnor, and The Magic I.D. from Erstwhile, among others. Fagaschinski’s duo with Bernhard Gal – Going Round in Serpentines – got him considerable attention, and he also impressed on releases from Los Glissandinos and a lovely duet with Burkhard Stangl (Musik – Ein Porträt in Sehnsucht).
The pair seemed, on all these recordings, more interested in the properties of wood, the overtone range of the B-flat, and in the extension of experiments in dynamics and silence inaugurated by Roscoe Mitchell’s “TKHKE.” On this second release, comprised of five compositions that may be far more scripted than they initially sound, the pair both give voice to virtues of so-called “reductionism” but also – in the woody tones, the blending of timbre and overtones, and the anxious quaver of the sound – suggest something very much like Arnold Dreyblatt’s “excited” strings.
From the opening passages of “Niedere Arbeiten,” what’s more apparent is the flirtatious reference of the duo’s moniker, as they conjure a sound that’s both of place and of no place. They weave their way in and out of woody intervals that invoke The Magic I.D. and Neuschnee, but also toy with the melancholy of Mitteleuropa, playfully discarding snatches of song form here and there. The lengthy “Crystal Clear Fog” sounds the most like new music, with stacked overlapping tones, occasional bent notes, and a spare anxiousness of a sound that – as “pure” notes become harsh ones – is straining for release from within. It almost sounds like they are converting certain elements of clarinet traditions to the raw properties of the wood from which the instrument is fashioned, and from there ensconcing it in moss or lichen, the whole music like the sound of natality.
And yet it also, after the brief fragment “Dichtung und Wahrheit,” can sound very instrumental and constructed. Oddly, as on the superb “Amongst Dissidents,” it’s in these latter moments when their sound is least clarinet-like. (On this piece I hear accordion and amplifier feedback channeling Ligeti’s “Atmospheres.”) After this, the lonely quaver and tonal dissolution of “Sleep!” is like a bath, a John Carter solo piece on Quaaludes. Sink in and enjoy.
by Jason Bivins (U.S.A., January 2011)
Active since 2000 as a duo, surely clarinettists Kai Fagaschinski and Michael Thieke are not interested in confrontation at all costs. Still, this CD – their second as The International Nothing – makes me wonder about that kind of attitude and vibe, despite the overall feel of detachment characterizing the music. This probably depends on the type of shrilling pitches that the two contiguous reeds typically generate, often becoming the reason of a slight loss of balance (and in distracted individuals, of nervousness: don’t try to approach this recording while performing other activities). Even if the compositional architecture is essential and utterly comprehensible over the course of five episodes, the effect of adjacent tones and upper partials on the auricular membranes after half an hour of intensive treatment is quite noticeable. Quivering frequencies and split harmonics mix with the noise of the keys and the deep inhalations heard before a new figure is explored, the timbral sum akin to the superimposed waves of a humanized, if stone-hearted synthesizer. When TIN attempt a sketch of melody, they usually end scarring a linear geometry with additional helpings of grating discordance, causing the listener to immediately forget the few moments of literal charm elicited mere seconds prior. The 36 minutes revolve more or less around this basic scheme, with a couple of silent segments in between for good measure. It works in spurts, not completely in my opinion. The lingering idea is one of an album for connoisseurs – better if members of the Lucier & Niblock Oscillation Club – unlikely to involve a larger audience due to a certain degree of involuntary cynicism. Not that this is necessarily a defect, but these guts say that something is missing for elevating the disc’s status to memorable. Love the title, though – an incitement to the abandonment of stereotypical EAI, maybe.
by Massimo Ricci (Italy, December 2010)
[...] A generation removed from the saxophonists, the members of The International Nothing, German clarinetists Kai Fagaschinski and Michael Thieke, are committed to pure abstraction, as well as more melody-based projects. Thieke, for instance, is a member of Dok Wallach, a Charles Mingus tribute band, and both play with singer Margareth Kammerer and electronic manipulator/vocalist Christof Kurzmann. Fagaschinski’s flirtation with restrained lap-top sounds also ally him with reductionist sounds. In fact while the Twine duo appears preoccupied with the energetic output of high-pitched, fortissimo and staccato timbres, the improvising on Less Action, Less Excitement, Less Everything – true to its title – slides and sluices around enervated tones, with the doubled tessitura sometimes masked by extended silences.
Occasionally reflecting the clarinets’ wooden properties, most of Fagaschinski’s and Thieke’s layered reed tones are solid and almost unbreakable. While chromatic and undulating, the double counterpoint is more moderato than agitato and except for bursts of forte shrilling, deftly expressed in mid-range tones. Polytonality abounds, with pitch vibrations occasionally taking on pipe-organ-like cohesion, and on every track, diminishing into near-inaudibility for a short period before a final variant bubbles to the sonic surface. Only rarely as well do the two lines separate either, with one becoming nearly mellow and the other sharply staccato.
“Crystal Clear Fog” is a fine example of this approach. Not only do the initial lines undulate in unison as they move infinitesimally up the scale, but one clarinetist manages to sound a grace note with almost trumpet-like in construction and another as if woodwind trills are refracting back from a piano’s innards. Eventually it appears as if the pressurized tones are constantly spilling outwards until they reach an almost lighter-than-air stasis. Following a short interlude of air being forced through two body tubes, harmonized reed chirping is mutated into strident chromaticism as the finale. [...]
by Ken Waxman (U.S.A., January 2011)
Mainstream (2006) stream