On “Unnameable Element,” Chang and Williams Forge Experimental Soundscapes

As self-identified experimentalists, Leo Chang (voice/electronics) and Chris Williams (trumpet) use improvisation as a vehicle for collaborative imagination. For both musicians, this process usually happens independently; since their last recording together (along with Miriam Parker) in January 2021, the two have developed new ideas with a wider community of New York and LA new musickers. But finding common ground in their attunement to “the interstices of sonic reflections and refractions,” Chang and Williams have released a second collaboration: their May 6, 2022 album Unnameable Element (Dinzu Artefacts). Using a unique combination of instruments, the duo’s atmospheric collages of timbre work to reframe a listener’s perspective from the macro to the micro.

The album begins with the sound of a struck gong – but the object producing the percussive effect is not a mallet or a scraper, but instead the miniscule articulations of an activated speaker attached to the gong, part of an instrument of Chang’s own creation called “VOCALNORI.” Using a microphone, a DAW, and a speaker, Chang projects his own voice through the gong’s speaker; electronic processing and the gong’s own natural resonance produce a series of fascinating, if eerie and unnatural soundworlds.

Throughout the album, VOCALNORI proves shockingly malleable. By changing the size, shape, and material of the speaker attached to the gong, Chang is able to highlight ethereal upper partials, the resonance of his own voice, or the clattering vibration by turn. Chris Williams responds adroitly to these choices, offering up a diverse palette of satisfyingly buzzy articulations, rasping straight tones, and clever mute manipulation. With Chang’s piri (a Korean double reed instrument) echoing trumpet and VOCALNORI textures, the duo creates an expansive timbral palette.

Alongside Unnameable Element’s tracks titled after definitely nameable elements – Cu (Copper), Au (Gold), etc. — exists one track named for a fictional element whose properties are left to the listener to imagine: “So.” Yet the abstraction of Chang’s and Williams’ titles make them no less evocative. “Cu” sounds positively metallic, and its frenetic, almost violent gestures conjure imagery of forges or fires. Williams’ driving, harshly articulated trumpet melodies weave in and out of Chang’s brash VOCALNORI growls. A listener might easily confuse the ensemble for a howling, distorted electric guitar. The intensity remains high throughout the track; only in the last 20 seconds does the energy begin to dissipate, as articulations become further apart and Williams’ sputtering trumpet abruptly fizzles.

Chris Williams--Photo by Bobby Barry Jazzography

Chris Williams–Photo by Bobby Barry Jazzography

If “Cu” draws upon the idiom of free improvisation with kinetic, wild outbursts, “Sn” is tranquil and laid back. Over a fragile drone from the VOCALNORI, Williams spins out a gently melancholic solo for muted trumpet. With sensitive articulations and subtle manipulation of the pitch, Williams’ nuanced choices about whether to sound in the texture or just above it guide the listener’s attention back and forth between timbre and melody. As the track progresses, the duo (who are also the album’s engineers and producers) change the mix to shift the frame in which the trumpet is heard. Although Williams’ pitch and intensity steadily grow higher, the addition of reverb and its placement lower in the mix give the effect of the trumpet receding from earshot, mimicking musically the effect of a camera slowly zooming out.

Throughout the album, multitracking and layering offer a bigger range to the duo’s performing forces. In “Ho,” Chang’s piri, paired with William’s timbrally similar harmon-muted trumpet has the effect of casting Williams as the soloist and Chang as a sort of doppleganger, whose pitch-bent interjections into Williams’s rhythmic agitations sit atop a sparse and percussive VOCALNORI backdrop.

Leo Chang--Photo courtesy of the artist

Leo Chang–Photo courtesy of the artist

Perhaps what is most impressive about the album is Chang and Williams’ ability to deliver on the challenge of foregrounding sonic “interstices.” Williams’ virtuosic slow-motion releases, where the buzz dissipates into discrete articulations, has the effect of drawing the listener into moments where they would normally feel space. Similarly, Chang’s self-echo between VOCALNORI and piri often prompt a feeling of deja vu, destabilizing the beginnings and endings of separate musical events. Although many might assume that an album comprised of duo and trio textures would feel limited by performing forces, Unnameable Element uses these constraints to great effect. Williams and Chang’s well of timbral resources never runs dry, and each new sound is put to use with flair and ingenuity.


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