Improvising Trio Blends in Laptop

For the three free-improvising women of Mephista everything is in play, from instrumentation to the listener’s perceptions. An illusion persists throughout Black Narcissus (Tzadik) that more than three people are performing, thanks to the members’s broad range of techniques. Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier is as likely to pluck strings prepared with tape as she is to sound downright romantic, in the classical sense of the word. Susie Ibarra can lay on the drums with out-jazz soul, coming down hard with cantilevered rhythms, but she’s also prone to lose herself in her bag of percussive tricks, which is full of resounding bells and other rudimentary music-making objects. And then there’s Ikue Mori, whose choice of instrument — a laptop computer, with electronic accessories — firmly distinguishes the group amid free-improv’s largely analog international community. Technology also lends Mephista’s music a digital-age patina. Despite an earlier career as a drummer, Mori expresses more interest here in textural than propulsive elements; she employs synthesized haze and microscopic sonic particles, as well as the occasional goofy sci-fi effect. Her influence is often, for lack of a less clinical term, “contextual”: when her contribution resembles a misfiring hard drive, it’s dizzyingly uncertain to the audience what is being performed live, and what was ripped from a pre-existing recording. This is especially so with the traditional aspects of Courvoisier’s playing; when Mori cues the static, the piano can easily be mistaken for a sample. Overall, Mephista’s music will be familiar to fans of free improv and, therefore, disorienting to newcomers: the trio’s notes and noises forge associations that may make sense only on the third, or tenth, listen. Song form, furthermore, is summarily passed over for dream-state logic — the album’s cover art, tellingly, is a classic image from an earlier surrealist, the painter Salvador Dali.

This album review appeared, in slightly different form, in the spring 2003 issue of e/i magazine.

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