On her first album at Native DSD Music, violinist Merel Vercammen recorded free improvisations with eight duo partners. The result is a double album of 25 tracks and over 130 minutes of music.
The album features a collection of intuitive, instant compositions, which reminded her of animals. So Merel named it “The Zoo”, a place without chains or cages, a garden where every animal (or in this case musician) can move about freely.
The recording was divided over five days with two major sessions, one at Old St. Victor Church, a small 15th Century church in Batenburg. The other session was recorded at the Orgelpark in Amsterdam, with an excellent selection of organs and (historical) pianos to choose from.
The 8 musicians Merel chose to improvise with are (in chronological order of recording):
Maya Fridman (Cello)
Bernadeta Astari (Voice)
Vincent Houdijk (Vibraphone & Singing Bowls)
Ties Mellema (Baritone Saxophone)
Wilco Oomkes (Accordion)
Tobias Borsboom (Piano)
Rembrandt Frerichs (Érard Piano)
Jaap Zwart (Organ)
Native DSD Music listeners will recognize cellist Maya Fridman and pianist Rembrandt Frerichs as musicians who have graced our DSD webstore with earlier DSD releases (1 from Rembrandt Frerichs and 6 from Maya Fridman linked below).
Session One: Old St. Victor Church, Batenburg
In this beautiful little church, all the non-keyboard instrumentalists were recorded. The church has an incredible reverb to it, much longer and more diffuse than you’d assume by the looks of it.
Especially for the Surround Sound edition of The Zoo, we wanted to put this special reverb on display as well as possible. This resulted in us choosing the DPA d:dicate 4006A omnidirectional microphones in a 5-channel surround configuration. Merel and her improvisation partners were each given their own spot microphone, a DPA d:dicate 4015 sub-cardioid microphone.
Everything was connected through custom-made Furutech microphone cables, into the Merging Technologies HAPI. No additional equalization, compression or limiting was applied – even to the massive-sounding baritone sax of Ties Mellema!
Session Two – Orgelpark, Amsterdam
For the second session, with pianists Tobias Borsboom and Rembrandt Frerichs, as well as organist Jaap Zwart, the famous Orgelpark in Amsterdam was chosen as recording location. This because of its great organs and its historical Érard grand piano, on which Rembrandt Frerichs played.
Here, we also used the DPA 4006A microphones in conjunction with the 4015A sub-cardioids as spot mics. The result is the beautiful, lush reverb of the Orgelpark, but with enough directivity on the instruments. No EQ or compression applied whatsoever.
When we got to record Jaap Zwart on the organ, the immediate problem of height difference was noticable – the organ is high up on the walls of the venue. We therefore had to adjust our microphone height by two meters. To compensate for that, we had to build Merel a 1.2-meter tall platform to play on, to get back into the stereo image in much the same way that she had been for the other session, as to not shift the sound stage too much between tracks on the album.
Now it’s time for you, the listener, to sit back and enjoy the music at The Zoo!
Merel Vercammen – Violin
Maya Fridman – Cello
Bernadeta Astari – Vocals
Vincent Houdijk – Vibraphone & Singing Bowls
Ties Mellema – Baritone Saxophone
Wilco Oomkes – Accordion
Tobias Borsboom – Piano
Rembrandt Frerichs – Érard Piano
Jaap Zwart – Organ
Total time: 01:38:00
Bernadeta Astari, Jaap Zwart, Maya Fridman, Merel Vercammen, Rembrandt Frerichs, Ties Mellema, Tobias Borsboom, Vincent Houdijk, Wilco Oomkes
Astari, Borsboom, Frerichs, Fridman, Houdijk, Mellema, Oomkes, Zwart
Furutech custom microphone cables, Furutech custom loudspeaker cables, Furutech LineFlux XLR, Furutech NanoFlux NCF
Hapi, Merging Technologies
DPA d:dicate 4006A, DPA d:dicate 4015A
|Original Recording Format|
Ernst Spyckerelle & Maarten Spekschoor
Old St. Victor Church, Batenburg, the Netherlands & Orgelpark, Amsterdam, the Netherlands – June 2019
Pyramix, Merging Technologies
|Recording Type & Bit Rate|
KEF Blade Two
|Release Date||September 11, 2019|
Improvised solos are recognizable as a hallmark of jazz music, but classical musicians also build performances on improvisation. Beethoven was celebrated for his keyboard improvisations, which he later recast in the formal structures of piano sonatas. In modern-day concerto performances, cadenzas, unaccompanied passages by the solo instrument, are often improvised by the soloist.
Improvisation is not playing the first notes that come into your head. Musicians carry around a personal encyclopedia of music they have studied and performed. Jazz musicians know by memory hundreds of popular standards and jazz instrumentals. Classical musicians who trained at conservatory draw on a different but equally rich musical tradition.
“Seal”, the entrance into “The Zoo”, is the first of four duets with cellist Maya Fridman. Listen for the response of the two players to each other’s ideas. The piece begins with soft, sustained, bowed notes by both cello and violin. When Fridman begins to play pizzicato (plucked strings), Vercammen echoes her. The players pause for a measure of rest, then the cello re-enters with a minor key melody accompanied by plucked strings on the violin. Roles are exchanged; the violin picks up and further develops the theme to the accompaniment of plucked cello strings.
Merel Vercammen’s selection of the order of the 25 pieces on “The Zoo” emphasizes differences between the various combinations of players, contrasts in style and mood, and I recommend playing the album in that order. Because I planned to review Maya Fridman and Vercammen’s duo EP “Silent City” for this article, I also listened to the four violin and cello duets in a playlist sequence, as if they were movements of a musical suite (tracks 1, 11, 15, 20). Try this yourself; it’s like finding a secret place in “the zoo” where you can hear the intimate and intuitive communication between the two players.
It is impossible to do justice to the breadth and scope of this album in a few paragraphs. Briefly: the duets with fortepianist Rembrandt Frerichs weave together strands of 20th century classical and new improvisational music. (I recommend Frerich’s Just Listen album “The Contemporary Fortepiano” to interested listeners.) The first of three duets with baritone saxophonist Ties Melema, “Elephants”, lurches into the sonic territory of free jazz. A furious onslaught of saxophone bellowing sends the violin into a dust cloud of double-stopped chords. The meditative “Snow Leopard” draws softer sounds out of the baritone sax. The three duets with organist Jaap Zwaart elicit flourishes from the violin, in dramatic contrast with the towering sounds of the church organ.
In the liner notes, the selections on the album are divided between “The Zoo” and “Endangered Species”, animals that are disappearing due to encroachment from human development and the effects of climate change. It is possible to listen to this remarkable album as pure musical expression, but it deepens in meaning when heard as an artistic perspective on this global challenge.
The Zoo is a double album of free improvisations recorded by violinist Merel Vercammen with eight duo partners. Each work is violin with one of the eight different partnering instrumentalists (and vocalist in two of pieces).
So, Vercammen named the album The Zoo. The cover drawing reflects the work “Melancholic Rabbit,” an improvisation with cellist Maya Fridman. Other tracks are named for the animal that came most readily to mind after listening to the recordings, from Funky Iguana to Elephants to Armenian Mountain Viper to Black Rhinoceros to Mountain Gorilla—25 in all for 130 minutes of crazy fun and challenging musicianship. (Yes, it’s a double album.)
With Merel Vercammen’s violin as the consistent voice in this double album the results are remarkably coherent, while each instrumentalist joining her brings a different voice or timbre to the rich sonic tapestry. These various improvisation duo partners include cello, voice, baritone sax, piano (two different artists on two vastly different sounding pianos), accordion, large pipe organ, vibraphone and singing bowl. Yes, singing bowl—an inverted bowl played by striking or by rotating a mallet around the outside rim.
And the improvisations are very good, leaning more to classical influences than jazz. Even Rembrandt Frerichs, the only Jazz musician on the recording brings a classical flavor to his improvisations while playing a 19th century Érard straight strung grand piano like the Érard grand piano.
What Vercammen accomplishes here is exceptional, both as composition and as execution. She and her duo partners take great risks and pull it off delightfully. We get to come along for the wild ride through the musical expressiveness of the performers in each of these pieces.
And Brendon Heinst has accomplished his goal of serving musicians with the highest technical execution one might hope for in a recording—exceptionally transparent sound, solid imaging that remains remarkably consistent from track to track, and superbly accurate capture of instrumental timbre and acoustic space.
On The Zoo, Merel Vercammen has surrounded herself with eight like-minded musicians and together they started improvising. Not as a group, but one on one.
The improvisations have been given names from a zoo, sometimes with a first name: tristan albatros, melancholic rabbit, funky iguana. Naturally, each improvising partner brings in his or her own sound, and a mix of styles is created, a fun beast of things.
The Zoo is a double album with two parts. One is called The Zoo, the other (a kind of bonus, considering the length) Endangered Species. Listen from the latter category especially the Striped Hyena by voice artist Bernadeta Astari. Hilarious!
Merel Vercammen explains well why she came to this concept. She sees more and more improvising musicians with a classical education around her. And she is right, in recent years I have seen an increase in instrumentalists who have chosen improvisation for their encore: popping jazz by Denis Matsuev, nostalgic exoticism by Fazil Say, Finnish folk music by Pekka Kuusisto, klezmer by Martin Fröst, the list is long.
Vercammen not only chose seasoned improvisers such as organist Jaap Zwart and jazz pianist Rembrandt Frerichs, but also adventurous musicians from the classical angle. It is precisely this diversity that creates a beautifully varied Carnival of animals with an exciting mix of New Age, avant-garde, jazz and classical. The humor is also not forgotten, witness the latest improvisation,
The album is wonderful for the coffee table. I have nothing but praise for a perfectly recorded album with a great design and a good story.
NPO Radio One
You don’t often hear improvisation in classical music. Violinist Merel Vercammen (30) changes that with her new album The Zoo, which consists entirely of improvised music.
Vercammen says “I want to bring surprise back to the genre.”
The Zoo, the second album by violinist Merel Vercammen, is a brave and exceptional project.
With eight musicians, Vercammen ventures into what few classical musicians venture: free improvisation. Bundled under the title The Zoo passes a colorful parade of 25 pieces in which you are carried away associatively by the musical expressiveness of the collaborations.
Vercammen takes a risk. Interaction and excitement are paramount, so if she is dragged into dialog with pianist Rembrandt Frerichs to the tinkling underwater world of the monkfish, you will hear vigorous scanning, raspy and ragged, full of dreamy enchantment.
The Armenian mountain viper is still mildly introduced by Tobias Borsboom, but with Vercammen he immediately sticks out his giftong, in an exotic melody full of threat.
Not all 25 pieces are enchanting from head to tail, that is impossible if musicians respond to each other live. But what Vercammen performs here is highly exceptional both as a project and in its implementation.
Violinist Merel Vercammen was asked to do something new for the Gaudeamus Muziekweek, the oldest music festival in the Netherlands. Make an album where improvisation is central and then with classical musicians and classical music as a starting point.
The Zoo is of a completely different order. They are tracks in which musicians create a piece of music in real-time. Without a previously agreed melodic structure, rhythm, and atmosphere. Improvisation from start to finish, that is.
The musicians often have a classical background, just like Merel Vercammen, but there are also jazz musicians such as Rembrandt Frerichs (piano) and Ties Mellema (sax). Recording locations were a church in Batenburg and the Orgelpark in Amsterdam.
During the album introduction of The Zoo, on the last day of the Gaudeamus Music Week in TivoliVredenburg, we hear Merel Vercammen with cellist Maya Friedman and pianist Rembrandt Frerichs. We experience it as a concert that is exciting from start to finish and musically of an unprecedented level. It is, as Vercammen also says, playing with your intuition, trusting your technique and each other. The musicians communicate with all senses and that happens. In the encore, Merel Vercammen makes the room sing a tone.
We feel that we are watching and listening to something new. The improvisations cannot be categorized in terms of style (which we also do not). What makes this fascinating is that the music is created on the spot and that we as an audience witness it. This makes The Zoo a real new step in the performance practice of music.
The Dutch label TRPTK has also seen this and turned it into a beautiful production. The recording and production were in the hands of TRPTK’s producer and mastering engineer Brendon Heinst. They use premiere recording and playback equipment from Merging Technologies for Analog to Digital conversion, audio over IP and as a Digital Audio Workstation, JCAT for the network connections, Hegel amps and KEF Blade speakers for mastering, Furutech for cabling and DPA for the microphones. These have been used for The Zoo and the sound quality is so good that you can expect to hear more and more tracks from The Zoo at future audio system demonstrations and Audio shows.
In any case, we are happy that we heard it performed live and are curious about what this collaboration between Merel Vercammen and TRPTK will deliver when the album is released in Stereo and Multichannel DSD and DXD.
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