Eric Chenaux / Empress Maude
Eric Chenaux makes conceptual music that’s not meant to sound conceptual. He operates among various ‘traditions’ but perhaps most broadly, Chenaux’s records grapple with the relationship between improvisation and structure in very particular, unique, idiosyncratic ways – and quite without irony or cynicism, through love.
Because fundamentally, Chenaux writes love songs, which he sings in a voice honeyed and clear, while his guitar gently bends, frazzes, chortles, diverges and decomposes. This juxtaposition of his mellow, dexterous crooning and his highly experimental (and equally dexterous) guitar explorations, explodes even unconventional notions of singing and accompaniment, of tonal and timbral interplay between guitar and voice.
As a solo artist, Chenaux’s improvisation methods are in certain literal ways solipsistic: as a singer-songwriter, he plays his guitar around and against his voice, challenging easy notions of harmony/harmoniousness, improvising ‘with himself’ in pursuit of surprising himself (and his listeners) as he unfurls ribbons of voice and instrument often to the point of seeming independence, all the better to capture – and be captured by – unforeseen, intimate moments of interdependence: a definition of freedom, as a profoundly intentional state of openness, presence and play.
Even within avant-garde currents of folk and jazz balladry, Eric Chenaux feels like an outlier. Yet his music remains wonderfully warm, generous and fundamentally accessible in spite of its irrefutable iconoclasm. While the constitutive elements of Chenaux’s solo work in recent years might suggest some underlying devotion to asceticism, the opposite is much more true: his musical reveries resist, critique and counteract austerity (in all its forms) in a joyful abandonment to the improvised space where playfulness and light-heartedness are taken seriously, and where love is invoked and expressed, without reductive or facile sentimentalism, in a full, nuanced, clear-eyed suspension/rejection of the cynical life.
Eric also composes and performs music for film and contemporary dance, and collaborates on numerous sound installations with visual/sound artist Marla Hlady, including Smedaholmen Tourist (with Amplifiers) (2012) for The Thousand And One Birds festival in Norway, and with filmmaker Eric Cazdyn, including a two week residency at Bristol's Cube Cinema, where they produced and performed the film Play The Cube in 2014. Chenaux has also performed and recorded with countless other artists over his 25-year career, including membership in Sandro Perri's band and appearances on Perri's albums, in duo with Radwan Ghazi Moumneh (a celebrated 2012 release on Grapefruit Records), Eloise Decazes, Pauline Oliveros, John Oswald, Michael Snow, Brodie West, Han Bennink, Michael Moore, Josephine Foster, Martin Tetrault, Wilbert De Joode, Gareth Davis, Jacob Wren, Norberto Lobo, Nathaniel Mann and many more.
About Chenaux’s guitar playing, music critic Carl Wilson writes: "Ornette Coleman might call it harmolodic. Chenaux might call it an amazing background. His strings chime with all those thoughts at once. I adore the way he teases out a melody, never beginning a phrase so much as joining one already in progress. The sound quivers and multiples such that I picture his strings fraying and sprouting into more strings, weeds, nests, marshes, frogs’ tongues, canceled coins, nickel pipes, drainage systems, catacombs, coral reefs…I could pick Chenaux’s guitar out of a lineup within a few woozy notes, because it’s no longer confined to the orthodox pluck, squawk and scrape of [Derek] Bailey-influenced guitar improv; instead it has absorbed Bailey’s open field of possibility into a love of song. And the songs are strong enough to take it."
Whether wowing audiences through the wonky, Meek-esque melodicism of Mia La Metta; weaving her jagged vocal incantations and circuitous drumming patterns into the warp and weft of Leeds' Beards; or lending guest vocals to Newcastle electronic duo Warm Digits' latest album, the possibilities of the human voice have always been integral to Kathy Gray's multiple musical personas. Allowing her voice to take centre stage, then, or rather allowing it to generate an encompassing sonic space on its own terms, Empress Maude inducts and reorients both listener and performer into a polyphonic, evocative and majestic sound-world.