The Sestetto Internazionale is a truly international group of European musicians, having been put together by Finnish soprano saxophonist Harri Sjöström for a September 2015 tour of Finland. In addition to Sjöström, the sextet includes fellow Finn accordionist Veli Kujala; the masterful Italian soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo; UK violinist Alison Blunt; and the Germans Achim Kaufmann and Ignaz Schick on piano and turntables, respectively. This exciting live recording captures the ensemble's concerts at Helsinki and Turku, each of which is represented by one long track.
The makeup of the group is unusual even for a free improvisation ensemble unbound by conventions governing instrumentation. To begin with, there's an intriguing, built-in redundancy of function and range. Three of the instruments—the violin and the two soprano saxophones—are of similar compass, while the piano and quarter tone accordion are both chording instruments. The quarter tone accordion in itself adds an unusual flavor, but when paired with either the tempered piano or the violin, it opens up the possibility of dissolving conventional harmonies into less-determinate pitch bands. The addition of turntables to this acoustic grouping further multiplies the potential for novel sound combinations.
Accordingly, the music here is a music of detail. Movement doesn't come by way of harmonic change but rather by way of shadings of timbre and pitch. The overlap in range of soprano saxophones and violin shapes much of the sound profile, setting up contrasts between reeds and strings or even between reeds, as when Sjöström uses a mute in contraposition to Mimmo's more open-voiced sound. But contrast is as much a matter of identity as it is of difference, as when the coincidence of pitch erupting in the middle of a soundblock or during a moment of unison playing will seem to summon a new instrument whose timbre is a composite of violin, saxophone and accordion.
In the end, it isn't the qualities of the instruments alone but rather the energy and finely-honed actions and interactions of the individual musicians that animate these pieces. The two saxophonists may play the same instrument but they do so quite differently; Sjöström constructs angular, hard-edged bursts that leap registers, while Mimmo favors longer lines built of carefully balanced, rounded phrases—he is a melodist as much as a colorist. Blunt, for her part, also pursues line but with an emphasis on the untempered side of the violin, whether playing microtonally-inflected chords and passages following their own logic, or deftly deploying glissandi against Kujala's quarter tones. Underneath it all, Kaufmann's percussive pianism contributes an element of urgency and taut drama.
Much of the time the music is analogous to an abstract painting whose color fields move around over the picture plane. The picture plane in this case being Schick's turntables—a scuffy, static-permeated background much like a canvas of rough weave.