Eve Risser’s White Desert Orchestra

by Martin Longley –

Coming to Eve Risser’s new Clean Feed album wearing a blindfold, it might not be immediately apparent that she’s crafting a solo improvisation at the piano. Without watching this French player perform, we’re not certain how she’s creating such disembodied sounds: rumbling glissandi, distant hums, intimately attuned to a germination of minimalist gestures, rising out of silence. She’s adept at preparing the strings, caressing and vibrating them gradually in a journey towards a more percussive existence. It’s a beguiling (and also courageously sparse) consideration of sonic restraint, steadily accumulating a great weight of thoughtfully atmospheric portent.

At the other extreme of  Risser’s playing formats is Donkey Monkey, a duo collaboration with drummer, vocalist and sampler Yuko Oshima. This is a somewhat more hyperactive proposition, as witnessed by the Moers audience in 2010.

At the festival on Saturday, Risser will be giving only the second performance by her new White Desert Orchestra, a movement towards yet another extremity, leaping fully into bandleading with an enlarged ensemble. This new work is inspired by a visit to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and even though it features a wide spread of horns, there is likely to be a focus on subtle tonal layers, and a different form of sensitive probing, all players subject to a soft tension. The presence of bassoon, bass flute and bass clarinet, allied with deep-toned percussion, weaves a rich web of subtly abrasive textures.

“When I write music, I try to do things that I can’t do when I improvise,” says Risser, in the midst of a short French tour. The White Desert Orchestra is her first outing as the leader of her own group. Risser’s previous emphasis has been either on solo work, or co-led small combo settings.

“It was a very big challenge,” she continues. “It was a lot of work, and very interesting. I’d already worked for orchestra and big band during my studies, but now I could really do it the way I liked, and try to find the way it suits me, because when I listen to large ensembles, sometimes I feel it’s too written, or not enough, or too improvised, too chaotic, or with too much soloing.”2015-02-18 Eve-28 Combo-Modifier2tiff3

Risser was a member of Orchestre National De Jazz between 2009-2013, so her experience of the expanded musical universe has been continuous, even if she hasn’t been in a position to compose, arrange and lead. “I tried to imagine the combinations, and architecture I can use to build the piece. The solutions are very curious. There is not one way to write for the big ensemble, for me: I have to write one way for one piece, and one way for another, but I think that I find a balance.”

Risser surrounds herself with players that are drawn from various zones: jazz, modern classical, rock, experimental. She visited the Grand Canyon whilst she was studying in Baltimore, around seven years ago. The experience percolated for a goodly while. “It was a physical shock. I thought that I could translate this into music. If I’m writing a piece from an emotion, I’m hoping that the audience can feel it in the end.”

Being in the Orchestre National helped with her own writing, as Risser could experience the aspects that she liked, as well as those that she disliked. She also witnessed at first hand the dynamics of a large group, over an extended time period, out on the road, working together. There was also the process of new music being delivered, and the tensions derived from the workload, the sharing out of responsibilities: whether new parts would represent a great deal of consuming, or whether they might be quite scanty. The suspense of often not knowing until the eleventh hour. This is all experience that Risser can use as material for her own White Desert Orchestra.

Risser’s band members can’t really sight her behind the piano, so trombonist Fidel Fourneyron tends to give most of the prompts. “I learnt a lot of things, except for conducting the orchestra..!,” she laughs.

Donkey Monkey is Risser’s oldest outfit. “I wouldn’t start a band like that today, because my energy has changed, but since it’s an old band, there’s a lot of meaning, to play that music together. It’s unique, our meeting. It’s meaningful to continue. But if I play alone, the music that comes out is like Des Pas Sur La Neige [the new Clean Feed disc].”

Risser thinks that when she’s alone, the slow, calming, meditative qualities rise up to prominence. She believes that when she’s more animated, in the presence of collaborators, she might tend to be more flighty and extroverted, with greater energy.  “I need that too, but I can get into a static landscape where we can reach a state of listening where we can forget that we’re listening, and we are half asleep, travelling through some mountainous landscape. I try to go towards that state.”

When playing solo piano, Risser assembles multiple levels of sonority. This is surely akin to her approach when writing for other musicians. “It becomes very symphonic. I imagine the orchestra as my ten fingers. I use timbres, objects in the piano, an e-bow.”

It seems as though she’s arranged elements taken from her improvisations, expanding them towards an orchestral scale. “To write on a computer was not working, to write only by hand was impossible, and then I mixed both, and I tried to draw graphic scores. When I write with a computer I try to do things that I’d never be able to do by hand, really complicated stuff. It feels good, to push myself.”

The key to Risser’s alternative dimension is the complex relationship between improvisation and composition.  “Everything is the same,” she muses. “It’s just the way of transmission that changes…”

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