backchats (2009)

Speak Easy

Creative Sources Recordings cs149

Ute Wassermann - voice, whistle
Phil Minton - voice
Thomas Lehn - analogue synthesizer
Martin Blüme - percussion

#1 Backchat 1

#2 Backchat 2

#3 Backchat 3

#4 Bachchat 4

#5 Backchat 5

recorded March 13 2008 at Museum Bochum and March 14 2008 at Loft Cologne


Downbeat May 2010 ****
"The European quartet Speak Easy uses the quicksilver analog synthesizer squiggles and stabs of Thomas Lehn and the scrabbling percussion of Martin Blume to sandwich the otherworldly vocal acrobatics of Phil Minton and Ute Wassermann. Here the singers produce sounds just as abstract and unidentifiable as any instrumentalist, interacting and prodding not just one another, but their other two cohorts, in a dazzling rise-and-blowout."

Peter Margasak (Downbeat)

“Speak Easy is a quartet consisting of Lehn, percussionist Martin Blume and voice improvisers Ute Wassermann and Phil Minton. Backchats is the group's first disc, though a 2008 Cologne performance was issued on the DVD Speak Easy: The Loft Concert (Pavel Borodin). The curious thing about electronic music in the '50s-60s was its ability to mimic and expand upon the sonic vocabularies associated with instruments and, in some cases, the human voice. In the sounds produced by Wasserman and Minton, this lineage is extended into the realm of free improvisation—trombone or trumpet multiphonics, guttural arco bass scrabble and the like are lent the skewed immediacy of vocal whims. Wasserman's split-tone throatiness and wide interval leaps recall Albert Mangelsdorff or Axel Dörner, also becoming at times inseparable from Lehn's sputtering fuzz and ricocheted patter. Spikes and curves could be attributable to Wasserman's ear-splitting whistles or the knobs and circuits of an archaic synth. Blume and Minton provide a constantly shifting, lower-toned rattle and give the music pan-rhythmic force and bat-out-of-hell drive. Speak Easy are an incredible quartet, especially when given over to the whole and ignoring the particulars.”

Clifford Allen, AllAboutJazz

"bei einer Produktion des SWR, beim NEWJazz Meeting 2005, hatten einander die Vokalisten Ute Wassermann und Phil Minton kennengelernt. Nun produzierten die beiden im Quartett mit dem Synthesizer-Spieler Thomas Lehn und dem Schlagzeuger Martin Blume eine CD beim portugiesischen Label "Creative Sources Records". Überraschend nicht nur, wie gut sich die beiden Stimmen dabei mischen, sondern auch wie nahtlos der Instrumentalsatz daran gestrickt wurde."

Reinhard Kager, SWR

"Superbe disque réunissant deux prestations de ce quatuor formé des vocalistes Phil Minton et Ute Wassermann, le synthétiste Thomas Lehn et le percussioniste Martin Blume. J’adore Minton, c’est connu, mais Ute Wassermann n’est pas mal non plus et, ensemble, ils font des étincelles! L’un comme l’autre sont des vocalistes expérimentaux qui poussent leurs cordes vocales au-delà de la note, pour explorer des sonorités atavistiques et inhumaines. De la grande improvisation libre. Un coup de coeur.

A wonderful record culling two performances by a quartet consisting of vocalists Phil Minton and Ute Wassermann, synth player Thomas Lehn, and percussionist Martin Blume. It’s well known that I love Minto, but Wassermann is pretty good too, and together they get sparks flying! Both are highly experimental vocalists who push their throats beyond notes, in search of more atavistic and inhuman sounds. This is great free improvisation. An instant personal favorite."

François Couture, monsieurdelire

"After dying my hair the color of tangerine — with grapefruit and black olive blotches — at age sixteen, my mother, unable to grasp why I insisted on rebelling in ways that garnered bruises and black eyes at school, ended a tearful conversation with the desperate query, "Why are you just trying to make yourself look ugly?" I imagine a similar dialog occurred once or twice between vocalist Ute Wassermann and her parents: "Honey, sing the Hayden. Why did we pay for all this schooling? Why do you only make flatulence and joke sounds with your mouth? You make the dogs howl!"
Created from Thomas Lehn's analogue synthesizer, Wassermann and Phil Minton's unaffected voices and Martin Blume's percussion, Backchats is an inventive, nervous, unsettling-yet-resplendent collection of tracks that belie the mild-mannered photo of the quartet, set up in an airy Cologne loft, from the sleeve insert. Going beyond mere lip smacks and pops and into demonic territories with unprecedented, infernal, guttural purges, Minton and Wassermann lead the works with innumerable unhinged extended vocal techniques: they squeak, snarl, groan, manifest as reverent phantasms, whisper with perverted intent, offer aborted mid-frequency radio broadcasts, resemble police sirens summoned due to mating marine mammals on the Interstate, rise from infant mites to wheezing elderly giants — and back again — form sentences with only consonants, shout obscenities using only vowels, flutter like wild horses, spasm uncontrollably from near-throat singing to mongrel scat, et cetera.
Lehn follows with his EMS Synthi, reeling out gravely pops and clicks, staccato pings of spring reverb, brief washes of high-pitched sine waves, thorny horns, sputtering bird calls, bits of Morse code, vinyl cracks and arpeggiations. In the background, Blume works with shadows of this already obscured imbroglio, maintaining his own penumbra of wispy cymbal rolls, murky tom-tom thumps, bassy bells, bongos, two-second outbursts, bowed cymbal, Gamelan, grumbling bass drums and brushed snares; though often drowned out by Wassermann and Minton, his gentle output stabilizes the group like the foundation of a flamboyant modern structure — one made of balloons, multi-colored ribbons and braided cellophane — that would otherwise float away.
The album might, on the surface, resemble live Foley work, a recount of a twelve-hour conversation compacted into fifty-three minutes and/or the soundtrack to the "too odd, even for us" Looney Toons archives, but the quartet's work is far from gimmick. The sheer number of patterns and transmogrified personalities each member dexterously flaunts confirms a complexity very few can grasp let alone perform. Though their mothers might not understand the aesthetic (Minton's singer parents probably wonder why they shelled out all that money for trumpet lessons), possessing the ability to sound as "ugly" and "strange" as possible puts the members of Speak Easy at the top of the ladder."

- Dave Madden, THE SQUID'S EAR

"cs149Tonight then, as a complete contrast, I have been listening (and watching) recordings of a group named Speak Easy, an improvising quartet made up of two vocalists, (Phil Minton and Ute Wassermann) along with Thomas Lehn’s analogue synth and Martin Blume’s drums and percussion. I say both listening and watching, because as chance would have it in recent weeks I have been sent both a CD (on Creative Sources) and a DVD (filmed by Pavel Borodin for his Panrec imprint) The film is of a concert performed at a loft concert in cologne during the Spring of 2008. it therefore has the title The Loft Concert. Some of the material from the concert, but not all of it, appears alongside further material recorded the day before in the town (city?) of Bochum on the Creative Sources release, which has the title of Backchats.
The music itself is busy, talkative (ha!) improvisation that does centre around the two vocalists. Wassermann generally works with higher squeaks and also blows on a series of small whistles, while Minton sits in the lower regions, more agitated and animated in his approach, looking thoroughly exhausted for most of the performance. (Wassermann also performs standing, Minton sitting) He also plays (does he “play”? what is the correct verb here? I’m not sure he could be described as “singing”) in Toot! with Lehn and Axel Dorner, and as a result he seems to link his sounds directly to Lehn’s here. Martin Blume is a percussionist I had heard of, but never seen or heard play before these releases, and I must say I am quite impressed, His playing is very subtle, quite often very gentle and only really bursting into life when the timing is correct. he works a lot here with textural sounds, rubbing the surface of drums and small metal objects rather than ploughing away with any full-on workouts. There are plenty of quiet moments amongst the flurries of activity though. These are all experienced musicians that know each other well, and so these performances are tight, thoughtful constructions full of vibrancy and power. It would be true to say that Speak Easy make music that maybe wouldn’t have sounded so different ten years ago. If your interest is solely in improvisation that pushes back the boundaries or what hasn’t been done before then look elsewhere, but as a solid, somewhat engrossing recording of some highly skilled listeners and performers this is good music. Thomas Lehn in particular is on top form here.

So that’s the music. Now how about a comparison between the visual and aural experiences that the CD / DVD releases provide. The interesting thing here is that the sound used on the DVD is the same as what appears on half of the CD, the same recording exactly. So, once I had linked up my computer (not owning a TV or DVD player I have to watch DVDs on my Mac) to my hi-fi to ensure decent audio playback I had two recordings of similar quality of the same music, but one of them had pictures. The filmwork itself is very good indeed. Often with video recordings of improv concerts there is only one camera, limited use of tripods and poor lighting. Borodin’s film uses four cameramen using what seems like good equipment. Borodin frequently changes the view, flicking from wide angle shots of the whole group to close ups of individual musicians regularly, and with some shots panning slowly from one of the quartet to another. Minton and Lehn in particular make good visual spectacles. As Lehn flies all over his instrument like some kind of mad professor on acid (Sorry Thomas!) Minton looks a bit like he sounds, sat hunched, purple in the face with a pained expression. I’ll let you work out what he often looks like. So watching this film is actually not a bad replacement for being in the room. The sound is good, we get to see everything, much of it close-up, and the technicalities of recording something like this never get in the way. Borodin never overcomplicates things. His directorship is simple, clean and logical. We don’t get overlong shots of someone’s hand quivering on a dial when the music is happening elsewhere, but then we also don’t feel like we are sat static in one place. Near the end of the first piece on the DVD (there are two half-hour long main performance and an encore ) everything at one point collapses into silence bar a very quiet slither of a squeak from Minton, which he holds for over a minute. During this we also get to see close-ups of the rest of the musicians, as we see them wondering if this will be the end of the set or not, listening intently. As it happens things do start up again, and Borodin films this beautifully, catching the moments on the others’ faces when they realise the music is to continue.

I very rarely enjoy watching improvised music DVDs, but then usually they are not straight DVDs on the performances. More often than not the sound we hear is accompanied by a separate often abstract film. Trying to focus on two separate creative streams is difficult for me, but when the film is just of the musicians at work I have less problems. In places this really felt like I was at the gig. The problem is, I often shut my eyes at gigs… and the urge often took me to do so here! Given the choice of listening to the CD or watching the DVD here I actually do think I would prefer the film. Not always, sometimes it is nice to just lay in bed listening with my eyes closed for instance, but I did really enjoy watching this. I should also add that I have seen three of these four play live a few times, some of them more often than others and so to some degree I knew what to expect. For someone that may not have been so fortunate however this film will probably be invaluable for decoding some of the mystery behind this music. Oh yes and the film also offers an interview with Blume (with English subtitles) and options to switch to 5.1 sound. All in all its a very professional presentation and not one that deserves to be buried."

Richard Pinnell, The Watchful Ear

"Rencontre extraordinaire entre deux vocalistes essentiels: Phil Minton et Ute Wassermann avec le Frankenstein de l’électronique vintage 70’s, Thomas Lehn et un fin renard de la percussion, Martin Blume. Minton et Wassermann nous avaient regale recement d’enregistrements impressionnants pour leur profondeur introspective et une finesse extreme (Tasting de Minton avec Sophie Agnel / Another Timbre, Pollen de Wassermann avec Richard Barrett / Creative Sources et les fabuleux albums solos de chacun: Birdtalking / NurNichtNur et No Doughnuts in Hands / Emanem. Le quartetse focalise sur les echanges ludiques et les possibilites de la creation instantanee de quatre personalites partageant entre chacune d’elles une affinite particuliere. L’interet de Speak Easy vient de ce que leurs Back Chats echappent a toute previsibilite. Il est parfois impossible de dire qui joue ou chante quoi, Lehn evoquant les delires vocaux avec beaucoup de creativite. Speak Easy nous emmene loin dans une serie d’occurrences sonores rares, d’aventures imaginaires et d’histoires les plus tordues les unes que les autres, illustrant l’esprit d’a propos et le don d’invention de ces quatre artistes. Sensationnel… Ute Wassermann n’a peut-etre pas encore une notoriete internationale, mais elle est actuellement la chanteuse choisie par Phil Minton pour lui donner la replique dans l’univers esthetique que celui-ci s’est choisi. Reclamez – donc sa presence dans les festivals en France.
Jean-Michel van Schouwburg (Improjazz)

"Com estudos clássicos e um trajecto ligado à música contemporânea, a alemã Ute Wassermann tem-se dedicado igualmente à improvisação, na qual aplica técnicas vocais que exploram a bifonia e a ressonância espacial, além de lhe providenciarem novas formas de trabalhar a nível do timbre e da articulação. Neste álbum, encontra-se com a figura de topo do vocalismo improvisado, Phil Minton, este trazendo consigo um “background” no jazz. O envolvimento instrumental é dado por Thomas Lehn no sintetizador e pelo percussionista Martin Blume, tudo resultando numa música plena de dinâmicas, agitada e bruitista em que o detalhe é tão importante quanto as atmosferas criadas. Muitíssimo bom.
Rui Eduardo Paes

"Takie nazwiska jak Phil Minton, Ute Wassermann i Thomas Lehn daja³ jak zwykle duz²o do mys´lenia, ale jednoczes´nie zastanawia mnie czasem czemu akurat wyrobione nazwiska daja³ ludziom prawo wyrabiania sobie opinii na starcie nie przes?uchawszy materia?u. Materia? ma dos´c´ nerwowy rytm, co jest zrozumia?e przy uz²ytym tu syntezatorze Lehna i improwizacjach Wassermann i Mintona. Arpeggia, trzaski, dz´wie³ki imituja³ce wre³cz jakies´ dziwne odg?osy natury. Przypomina mi to troche³ jakby skrzywiony soundtrack do kreskówek Looney Tunes z Warner Bros. Ale nie ma w tym z²adnego mizdrzenia sie³ do s?uchacza i tak cze³stego np. u Johna Zorna postmodernistycznego eklektyzmu, tu wynika to raczej z dobrze zharmonizowanej struktury i przemys´lanego podejs´cia do tworzenia muzyki swoistej a nie opartej na cytatach. takowych tutaj nie ma. S´wietna improwizacja oparta na super zgraniu i warsztacie."

Astipalea Records (Felthat Reviews)

Speak Easy features two soundsingers and two instrument operators performing the five improvisations that make up this nearly 54-minute session. Considering the elasticity of both Wasserman’s and Minton’s vocal equipment though, it’s more difficult to link certain tones to one or the other than to discern Lehn and Blume’s contributions. For instance some of the flat-line nephritic snarls heard are undoubtedly from Wasserman, whereas Minton’s expected Bedlam-reminiscent languages include a hearty helping of falsetto hysteria.

"From the first track, when the two voices commingle, their tessitura is widened or narrowed to best vibrate alongside the others’ work. Minton’s throat-gargling fits on top of brush swishes and drum top friction from Blume, while bel-canto warbling and glossolalia from Wasserman abuts snare pops and flams. Synthesized crackles and splutters advance to dot-dash formulae as Minton’s gurgles and resonating bass-baritone undulations plus Wasserman’s Minnie Mouse-like lip burbling accelerates to unleash what sounds like an aviary of whistles, peeps and chirps. Tongue-twanging, buzzing syllables, rumbling snores and pig squeals are also on show, countered by bell-pealing plus reverberating oscillations from Lehn.

If anything though, the vocal performances are the inverse of anthropomorphism. Wasserman and Minton’s textures sound no more human than those proffered by Lehn and Blume; and often less homo sapient. On the fourth track climax for instance, Lehn’s extended signal processing becomes shriller when strengthened by a whispering bubble of nonsense syllables from Minton and Wasserman’s raps and twittering. Blume’s repetitive pounding on wood blocks and knackers is given added impetus from Daffy Duck-like syllable spitting, while Wasserman’s peeps are backed by percussion-produced hoof-beats. Finally Minton’s yodeling matches up with Lehn’s wave form wiggles in a fashion similar to the link between bass drum thumps and tonsil scraping cries.

Either of these discs demonstrates how verbal sound astronauts expand the limits of nature’s oldest instrument when dealing with contemporary instrumental tones. The secret: not shying away from primitive mouth expression." Ken Waxman (JazzWord)