To begin with, the title of this disc, the first recorded collaboration of German guitarist Olaf Rupp (b. 1963, Saarlouis) and longtime expatriate cellist Tristan Honsinger (b. 1949, Vermont, United States), is quite apt. Stretto refers to the climactic overlapping which occurs in a fugue, a particularly vigorous form of counterpoint and something which improvised duets are often predicated upon. This sort of vigor is often maintained in a sort of competition or one-upmanship, and many of the most memorable duos often seem like sparring contests of two master musicians in a friendly tussle of locked horns and flexed muscle. Subversion is gamely applied as players tease phrases and ideas out of one another, a counteraction of communication that, if it weren’t so interesting to hear, might go against the entire meaning of “dialogue.” While not always the perpetrator of such shenanigans, Honsinger is certainly no stranger to such environments – one of his first recordings on Incus (reissued as Tristan/Duo), a 1976 duet with the late and irascible guitarist Derek Bailey, is as wry and smirking as it is intense. Honsinger has also been a member of the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra intermittently from the late 1970s, and he’s now a more permanent fixture in the group. Alongside violinist Mary Oliver and bassist Ernst Glerum, he adds a classical sense of poise to the ensemble’s string section while also recalling the devilish and sometimes feral expressionism of sometime ICP bassist Alan Silva (Tetterettet, ICP, 1977).
Rupp met Honsinger circa 1999 at the Uncool Festival in Poschiavo, Switzerland and they began playing together in Berlin several years later. The pair makes a rather surprising foil, at least on paper. Rupp is known for his unearthly application of clusters to a pure-sound environment, solo and recently with musicians like bassist Marino Pliakas and drummer Michael Wertmüller. While Rupp has recently employed the electric guitar with more frequency, here he’s heard on a six-string acoustic, perched as per usual between his legs like a flamenco or pipa player. The often-theatrical whorl of maddening classical reference that Honsinger stirs up (grunting and squawking vocally alongside) seems like the polar opposite to Rupp’s dense and sometimes heady approach. In essence, though, they operate in an even more naked counterpoint, one which gets to the basic tenets of improvisation – the presence of sound and action. In the best improvised music, these two concepts stand in relief or are joined in a semantic dance in which each takes on properties of the other.
The reasons for such a direct engagement with the contrapuntal dichotomy of sound and action are very unique and special, and could only occur with improvisers such as these two. The clusters that Rupp constructs retain a particulate purity, where each note is crystal-clear and its relationships are as plainly visible as the refracted splash from a droplet of water caught by rapidly-clicking shutters. In the case of Stretto and its eight part suite, “Can You Imagine a Conversation between a Table and a Chair?” Rupp builds these vortices of blinking clarity out of gesture and nearly classical phraseology, defined action to be sure. On the third movement, “Imagine”, strummed flecks dovetail with a thumping collegno, and as Honsinger’s bowed triple-stopped strokes emerge, chugging like a freight train, Rupp breaks down his own gestures into mercurial but interlocked fragments that dot, commingle and sweep across a three-minute landscape.
The opening portion, “Can”, is a much more delicate exploration of tone and action, where one can hear Rupp’s arpeggios slowed down to a moderato level or even paced at a crawling adagio only to be picked apart and recombined. Honsinger’s dusky sentiments are soon inverted into a higher arc, but with a naked, grainy tone that calls to mind the coarse and craggy severity of Janos Starker. Here again, albeit perhaps in a slightly different iteration, is a focus on sound – a natural component of the instrument and essentially unadorned by alternate tunings, preparation, extended techniques (i.e., ponticello) or amplification. The wood, metal and horsehair called up in Honsinger’s playing and the mutability of his poise into wailing mania is something totally derived from action, although it’s manifested in one of the most striking cello tones in contemporary music. Rupp’s role can often be supportive, underpinning and fleshing out the cellist’s arco with darting clusters or tart, softly-applied chords. Like his co-conspirator, Rupp is not one to focus on how unlike a guitar his instrument can sound; rather choosing harmonics or extensions that remain well within the space of characteristics the guitar is normally capable of. Plaintive lines that nod towards the classical tradition or even Robbie Basho’s later work are a subtle about-face to Honsinger’s gnashing, visceral pyrotechnics.
In the book The Freedom Principle: Jazz after 1958 (Da Capo, 1984), writer John Litweiler seems genuinely intrigued by Honsinger’s music and aesthetic impulses. He notes an instance of Honsinger “[playing]” the cello while stomping his feet, moaning, and groaning in a Keith Jarrett parody.” It’s rather difficult to imagine madcap impulses or high jinks entering the context of Stretto, whether at its most vicious level of spirited interaction or the more delicate explorations such as the plein-air recording of “Between” or “A Conversation.” Vocalization is a sonic component of the cellist’s playing as much as the chants and wails accentuate the work of Alan Silva or drummer Sunny Murray. Parody – whether through subversion, counteraction or undermining – is rather alien to the taut athleticism and piling/parting of tones that make up these eight duo improvisations. The interplay between Rupp and Honsinger is filled with surprise, chance, warmth and drive. On a number of occasions, one might be hard pressed to find a pairing outside the realm of breath-and-drum juggernauts with this much rhythm and kinetics. Indeed, such intensity occupies the alternately tight and broad space between sound and action.