Cafe Oto I

Not Cafe Oto I, but close enough.

Cafe Oto I Radu Malfatti and Dominic Lash b-boim

It’s not as though I’m an expert on Radu Malfatti’s work. Let’s get that out of the way first. But I have heard a fair amount. I’ve heard the earlier free jazz, the blurt fart blurt of the duos with Harry Miller, Louis Moholo and Gunter Christmann, and the various orchestras. It’s great stuff if you dig that kind of thing, as there was an energy he could so easily manifest and spurt out into the air, conjuring phrases that spun and connected in fierce connections. He was, is obviously an enormous technician on his trombone, which, admittedly, means fuck all to me at this point. And frankly, I heard all that busy, “gabby” stuff, as Malfatti would call it, after exploring his more recent improv work, like his excellent duo with Klaus Filip, his group with Thomas Lehn and Phil Durrant, Dach or his duos with Mattin. So it stands as sort of stark relief in comparison to the hyper minimal put-put of the stuff from the early 90s onward. The Dach album on Erstwhile is still one of my favorite albums from this area of music, for reasons hard to explain, but easily felt. It was a perfect example of the outside seeping in, as much about the room as the instruments that only occasionally, softly emerged. It was minimalist, but a lush kind of minimalist, as though produced in a laden air, in a room you could feel. As Malfatti gradually seemed to leave improv (although thankfully not entirely) behind to concentrate on composition I generally lost touch with his work. His minimalist conception, like Taku Sugimoto’s work in the last 10 years, at first seemed like a one trick pony, an escape hatch from his previous free jazz work that led only to another corner, at first interesting, but ultimately reactionary, one note, and self-satisfied. It all has been assiduously documented by Malfatti’s own label b-boim and the Austrian Wandelweiser label. I’ve heard a few, and they mostly haven’t connected with me. The gulf between the art and the conception yawned too great. There was also this fear, partly gathered from interviews or articles, of being talked down to by his music, that in essence, this rejection of some of the things I enjoyed in music–the give and take, the split second decision making, the gabbiness–was some sort of bullshit philistinism on my part. Of course, like anything where one takes an artist’s choice as some sort of commentary on one’s proclivities, it says more about me than about Malfatti. And to judge something as large and impressive in scope that as Malfatti’s body of work in this area the last few years is silly, ignorant… folly.

So with all that said, I picked up Café Oto I on b-boim, performed by the UK contrabassist, Dominic Lash, with sine waves by Malfatti, with interest as well as trepidation. Of his large catalogue, mostly unheard by me, it seemed immediately the most interesting in instrumentation. I‘ve always had a visceral reaction to the contrabass. Something in the low groan appeals to me, the resonance. Composed for Lash, who was also on the excellent Bestiaries on Cathnor, Cafe Oto I was originally premiered at, you guessed it, Cafe Oto in London (see Richard Pinnell’s write up at the Watchful Ear), so it seemed like an place to approach this area of Malfatti’s work again . And nearly from the first emergence of the sine waves coupled with a low bowed bass note from Lash I was drawn in.

There is just something so right about the congruencies that emerge from the dry silence of that room in Oxford where it was recorded (although it makes you wish for a more resonant recording). There’s a twinning and pulling apart of sounds that emerge, either one tone ending before the other or one repeating over a sustained tone that feels like slow movements of large swathes of shade. A surprising element is that despite it’s limited timbre palette — the contrabass only sounds four deep notes throughout, the sine waves barely change pitch– it’s really not that minimal, at least as far as silence to sound. The bass repeats itself in varying rhythms and sustains, the sine waves pick up or sink away at intervals, sometimes shorter, sometimes longer. And while Lash’s disciplined playing nearly always stays at the same beautiful, sustained rumble and volume threshold, the sine waves can either be immediately present or barely there, allowing you to forget or mistake them as background hum only the suddenly realize their presence when they drop away.

And at first blush it seems so simple– maybe it is. I, probably more than anyone, have the tendency to look too deeply into things, trying to find connections that may or may not be there. And refreshingly, I’m not really moved so much to ask the questions as to why this rather than that here… I’m not compelled to contemplate how the repetition of sounds creates a sort of timelessness or how it could foster varying degrees, tints of memory. And while one could level these thoughts on this recording, I’m simply not terribly concerned about any of it when I’m actually listening to Café Oto I. I find it instead to be more moving on a visceral level. Café Oto I, like a lot of good albums in this area, seems to sift and bend your environment when you‘re unwary. It can easily function as a sort of room noise, something to simply moves nearly shapelessly in the corner of your ear. It only comes alive when you let it actively engage with you; although, there’s something to be said about simply wandering around, going about your day, drinking coffee, leafing through a magazine when it’s playing. It lends an interesting resonance and import to mundane things. And I could use that more than ever now, drinking beer for lunch, crumbs in my beard.

It ends as soon as it starts. Its brevity, clocking in at little more than a half hour, is both refreshing and confounding. I could easily listen to so much more, but it’s always nice to be left wanting when it comes to music like this. It’s evocative while remaining subtle. And it’s a subtlety that doesn’t need to be explained as such. I feel slightly silly trying to explain it, as it needs no explanation, and instead sits as itself. Always itself.

I’m glad I took the chance on this one.

Available from (I think): erstwhile distro


4 Responses to “Cafe Oto I”

  1. Dominic Lash Says:

    Thank you so much for the time you’ve given to this CD and your thoughtful words. It was a real pleasure playing and recording this piece (it’s fresh in my mind because I recently played it live again, this time in Glasgow). Just a couple of purely factual points that might be of interest: 1) you mention that “the contrabass only sounds one deep note throughout” but in actual fact the bass part contains four different pitches; and 2) among the things one can hear in the background is a lawnmower from a next door garden which sometimes sounds and behaves in a remarkably similar way to the sinewaves…

    • Hey Dominic, thanks for commenting. I really enjoy this one, and I wish I could hear you perform it sometime. Hope you make it over to the US sometime soon.

      Obviously didn’t realize that about the pitches, and I’m a little embarrassed. I’ll correct that. It shows how much the composition plays tricks with the memory of what’s heard and what’s not. Nothing is quite what it seems. I can’t believe I couldn’t recognize the lawnmower, either. But that’s a pretty great sound addition.

      • Dominic Lash Says:

        I don’t think you should be too embarrassed about the number of pitches – as you say, I think that kind of thing is exactly the sort of game with memory and perception that Radu is deliberately playing by writing music like this. Similarly with the lawnmower – I’m quite certain I wouldn’t have realised what it was had I not been there at the time!

        And I shall indeed be coming to the US soon – from March until early next year I’ll in fact be living in New York.

  2. Nice! Maybe I’ll have the opportunity to see you play at some point then. Although, I’m a bit far from NY… Either way, good luck. I hope it all goes smoothly.

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