Improv with small groups - I mean, really small, like duos and solos - seem to me almost more difficult than those problems besetting large improvising ensembles (say, the London Improvisers Orchestra) because with a small group of voices your ideas have fewer places to hide, less tonal impetus off of which to play. You're both atmosphere and what's breathing it. You're playing with or against the most demanding accompanist there is: silence. The musical ideas and how well they sequence - and the fact that 'sequence' is all they can do unless you can play 2 or 3 instruments at once - suddenly become far more important than they would with more voices. This is partially because, I suppose, directly behind that silence is the listener's or listeners' imagination(s). They're expecting to be taken somewhere, and you're the lone driver. So if your improvisation resembles any sort of 'flailing' to them, even if that's not true to you, you are not going to get across. Which can easily be unfair. Nobody expected Liszt to come up with all those flawless riffs and arpeggios on the hoof every time. We are more demanding now, and less satisfied with just technical prowess.
I don't come across many flute (Bechegas) and acoustic bass (Kowald) duets, and this one's not at all bad. There are many bits of fine interplay in "Open View I-III" (entire CD done live at Belem Cultural Center, Lisbon on Oct. 5, 1999), such as in the mammoth string-bending exercise Kowald essays under Bechegas' slow ellipses in "Open View I," which runs headlong into a squirming underbrush of contrasting minimalist patterns delightfully interlocking and fraying as they alter a note at a time. What was that about not expecting Franz Liszt in a twinkling? Whispers intrude in a David Moss-like cloud about the instruments (either Bechegas or Kowald may be responsible)... and it goes on. "Open View II" has Kowald bottoming out and sounding notes off into the air with no small abandon, as if awaiting Bechegas' entry; he doesn't appear to want to give the flautist too big an opening to dive into. Bechegas does so anyway from an iunexpected angle. And the fun begins yet again.
Where I'm not so cheered on this CD are the first four solo bits, two by Kowald and two by Bechegas, in which it seems occasionally the musicians are straining to cover all the imaginary bases. Ideas are not always developed the way it seems they might be, and both musicians' now-and-again vocalizings more cover up than sculpt. It may be my own expectations - don't tell me there's such a thing as a purely passive listener - but very often I just don't hear the ideas simply flowing with even the most idiomatic of logics on the solo bits, while the "Open View" pieces give off dynamic after dynamic, many wildly varying in intensity, none of which you can ignore.
I would recommend this CD to fans of Kowald and Bechegas, but not to newcomers. Thankfully they're much better represented on their other recent CDs.
by Kenneth Egbert