|This is only the third triple CD set ever released by Emanem—and two of the three are by Iskra 1903. Chapter One: 1970-1972 focussed on the first edition of Iskra, with Derek Bailey, Barry Guy and Paul Rutherford. The second incarnation of the group replaced Bailey with Philipp Wachsmann and ran from 1977 until 1995. (A third edition, Iskra³, has since recorded for Psi.) Whereas most of Chapter One had been previously released, none of Chapter Two has been out before. Until this release, the early years of the trio’s second edition have remained undocumented, so this is a very welcome and significant addition to the group's discography. We have Wachsmann to thank for recording these performances back in 1983.
As on every album where he is present, Rutherford effortlessly grabs attention. His knack of making the trombone sound light, airy and soaring is uncanny; no one else makes the instrument sound like this. Here, Rutherford experiments by using a tambourine as a mute (on “Eiverl” and “Vendia”), achieving an interesting effect that expands the palette, as does his use of euphonium on “Phelgstar.” But it is his unadorned trombone that most often steals the limelight. Wachsmann and Guy do not defer to the trombone unduly, but its power and range dominate the soundscape far more than the bass or violin can.
Iskra was an innovative grouping in several ways: the threesome did not include a drummer, giving their music an unfettered, free-soaring quality; they frequently played passages at low volumes, requiring intense attention from listeners, long before this became commonplace; and, unusually for the time, all three players used electronics. Wachsmann used a system that he devised himself, while Guy and Rutherford used electronic boxes made by Ian Mackintosh. Each musician controlled his own system.
By today’s standards, the use of the electronics is understated and integrated with the instruments; there is no sense that the two are being contrasted, rather the electronics serve to enhance the instruments, although occasionally—as towards the end of “Emingha”—the electronics can sound rather pocket-calculator tinny and primitive. As if realising this, Rutherford enters with a colossal blast of bass-heavy trombone that blows away the electronics and transforms the piece.
Evan Parker is present for the last track, “Epis,” from March, 1983. It makes for an interesting and contrasting end piece; Parker and all three members of the trio were well-established sparring partners by 1983 but, in truth, the addition of the saxophone dilutes the purity of the trio’s sound, making the piece sound rather cluttered compared to what has gone before.
There is a lot of music here to digest and savour. Given that the bulk of it (tracks two to seven) was recorded live in six days, the quality and variety is amazing; initial indications are that it will be an album to return to again and again, each hearing revealing fresh delights. Invariably, music featuring Guy, Rutherford or Wachsmann is worth investigating—and music featuring all three together is simply compelling.