The Chapelle Saint-Jean lies halfway along a pedestrian zone flanked by rather drab 1960s flats ten minutes walk from the centre of Mulhouse, a bustling town (famous for its automobile museum) at the southern end of Alsace. Men, women and children have been coming to this tiny chapel to pray in its cool interior for nine centuries; babies christened in its austere stone fonts grew, lived and died here long before what we now call France, Germany and Switzerland even existed as nation states. Music has inhabited this sanctuary then for more than twenty generations, a tradition that continues to this day with the Jazz à Mulhouse Festival which takes place every year in the sultry, land-locked heat of late summer. At midday on August 26, 2000, as the temperature climbed above 40 degrres in the shade, the Chapelle Saint-Jean was packed to capacity for three exceptional musicians: clarinettist Xavier Charles had been in town for several days (to perform amongst other things La Pièce with Kristoff K. Roll, while John Butcher and Axel Dörner, two of the hardest working men in contemporary improvised music, had flown in just the day before. And, happily, Jean-Marc Foussat was there too to record some of the most extraordinary musical moments the Chapelle Saint-Jean has witnessed in its long history.
Cornelius Cardew, in Towards an Ethic of improvisation wrote that it was Impossible to record with any fidelity a kind of music that is actually derived in some sense from the room in which it is taking place - its shape, acoustical properties, even the view from the windows. What a recording produces is a separate phenomenon, something really much stranger than the playing itself."
Since it's relatively easy now to produce a CD (and improvising musicians depend - paradoxically on such non-ephemeral products to supplement their income and bring in new work), literally hundreds of concerts of improvised music are recorded these days - ask Jean-Marc Foussat, whose personal archive is an absolute treasure-trove documenting over two decades of this music - but very few of them manage to capture the sound of the room itself. AMM's The Crypt obviously springs to mind, as do some of Taku Sugimoto's recent recordings.
The Contest of Pleasures is a beautiful example. Listen to how these exemplary musicians learn to read the acoustical space of the chapel: Butcher's fluttery key clicks test the stone walls for echoes, Dörner's low sustained tones and unpitched valve breathing measure the room's wavelength, and Charies' delicate high singing lines trace the resonance of its architecture. You can hear them listening to the space they play in, hear their understanding of it taking shape, and by Greengage a miracle has taken place, as their intertwined pitches create celestial choirs of overtones singing high in the chapel above them. The recording has captured it all (I'm sure Cardew, were he still alive, would not disagree): all, that is, except the glasses of cool, fruity local white wine that audience and musicians alike enjoyed in the shady churchyard after the concert. But you can't have everything. Unlike a bottle of Riesling, The Contest of pleasures can be consumed without moderation for decades to come. Of course, it's impossible to say if it'll still be around nine centuries from now, but if the Chapelle Saint-Jean is, the memory of this music will be set into its walls.
© Dan Warburton