Muddy Ditch

Sebastian Lexer - piano+
Steve Noble - drums

1. Pool 28:07
2. Loess 37:13

Sebastian Lexer/Steve Noble


There’s an insatiable curiosity burrowing in the mind while listening to the freely improvised, deviously abstract outing of German pianist Sebastian Lexer and English drummer Steve Noble, Muddy Ditch. Robbed of the tangible, explanatory presence of a live performance, with all the small gestures and physical synergy lost to the medium, one needs to entertain what-ifs and conceive new contexts and narratives around this sparsely layered, idiosyncratic playing and interactions. In return, their music will bring enlightenment by means of sensory deprivation and by asking the listener to become an active participant in the unfolding soundscape.

Muddy Ditch documents two concerts that Lexer and Noble performed at London’s Cafe OTO in 2011 and 2014. From end to end of the two tracks, “Pool” and “Loess,” the duo’s basic language remains unchanged. Resorting to a dialect nourished by sequential superimposition and counteraction of alien, nigh impossible noises, they spawn incongruous yet mesmerizing musical patterns. To achieve this, Lexer closely amplifies his piano and feeds it through live processing and effects, creating feedbacks and mutating sounds beyond what should be acoustically possible. Contrary to appearances, it’s a reductionary process with the help of which Lexer tries to understand the instrument’s pieces while he subverts them, dissolves them into mere tones, and then builds new structures, augmented with electronic processing and abrasive resonances.

At other times and especially during the second tune “Loess,” he dives into rumbling, heady sections, as if punctuating thoughts and introducing creative conflict. But the rumbles are as abstract and diffuse as the improvisational conversations with Noble, quickly retreating and receding, avoiding any semblance of conventionality. Noble responds with measure, bouncing ideas and teasing his partner through dialogues. He approaches the drumset and various percussion instruments as a child might approach a glass bottle. As he explores, in amazement, the sounds that he’s able to produce, he tintinnabulates and crashes on the cymbals and rolls his sticks against the drum heads, mouthing tumultuous roars.

There’s not much difference in mastery between the two pieces presented here, with “Pool” being the more relaxed cut, anchored to lulling segments, while “Loess” is, conversely, nervous and spirited, with reduced space for the digitally enhanced phrases and with a preference towards analog verses. Throughout, both players seem concerned and intrigued by quaint textures and shapes of individual sounds, rather than burdened by trying to fit them into compositions. Thus Noble’s rubbing, sawing, and grating will come into contrast and clash stochastically with Lexer’s prolonged piano tones, drones, and ominously deep key blows to generate a sort of a faux electronic, deranged ambient scenery. On the rare occasions when the duo does subside into unpredictable call-and-response patterns—a snare scratch might or might not be answered with a hard stomp on the piano keys—it’s only to feel each other’s pulses, preparing for the next lunge into the esoteric and abstruse.

There’s communication and there are lone amplitudes, textures expanding and contracting, but there’s always and foremost flow—from piercing fortes to soft, gentle individual noises and silences—that makes Muddy Ditch a dynamic, engaging listen that doesn’t seem to stop to contemplate for too long even when diminished to whispers. No climaxes. No themes or motifs. Only raw artistry.

Antonio Poscic -


Sebastian Lexer extends extended acoustic piano techniques with computer-based electronics. He could wish for no better percussion partner than Steve Noble, who could play a satisfying set using drum skins only as holding surfaces for other sounding objects. Neither of them go so far as to obscure the natural characteristics of their primary instruments completely, but they do essentially rethink the box when it comes to exploiting them.

It’s incredible what strange and beguiling music they make. As well as the tinks, plinks, taps and crashes that you might expect, here are planar whorls and laminal tones closer to electronic music than anything in orthodox pianism; and amid the stacked metal clatter, percussive emphases and taut skin and rim shots of Nob;e’s playing sit shimmering tones and plaintively vocal-like sounds, either scraped-up or bowed from sympathetically resonating materials. These sonics out-strange anything most percussionists ever dream of. And better yet, this is all done with as much restraint and sensitivity as animation.

Lexer and Noble have only been playing together since late 2011, and the first and, arguably, the most remarkable of the two pieces here, “Pool” (28:06), was recorded back then, at Cafe Oto, London, in October 2011. The second piece, “Loess” (37:13), dates from another Oto concert in June 2014. In between, in July 2012, they opened for Minibus Pimps (Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and Helge ‘Deathprod’ Sen) at the same venue, and Lexer & Noble’s set was the stronger of the two (here’s my review).

“Pool” often lapses back toward silence as a glacial surface that can be scoured or fractured or made to gleam, with Noble’s percussion muffled but reverberant. But there’s also a starkness and clarity here that accentuates material physicality with pinpoint definition, and the performance climaxes with an explosive clash of energies after so much convergent evolution.

“Loess” is a brittler, more edgy and volatile performance, closer in effect to all-acoustic free improvisation, with Noble, relatively more assertive, making full and occasionally dramatic use of an arsenal of cymbals and gongs. But it’s a long performance, and just as carefully weighted and balanced as “Pool”. Lexer once studied under John Tilbury at Goldsmiths College, where he also attended AMM drummer Eddie Prévost’s weekly improvisation workshop, and no doubt that helps explain both Lexer’s acuity and his evident ear for percussive interaction.

Dalston Sound -


Going back to David Tudor’s use of close-amplification of the piano to create in interactive feedback device, musicians have been exploring the use of electronics and amplification to dynamically expand the palette of the instrument. Over the course of the last decade, Sebastian Lexer has been developing and refining a unique approach using live processing of close amplification of a piano which he has dubbed piano+. A handful of recordings have documented Lexer’s approach, most notably his solo release dazwischen (Matchless). His newest recording, Muddy Ditch, captures duos he played with percussionist Steve Noble at Café Oto in London in 2011 and 2014. While hardly an everyday pairing, piano and percussion make for a natural union, as practiced in notable duos like Taylor/Oxley, Mengelberg/Bennink, Tilbury/Prévost, or Schlippenbach/Johansson.

Lexer could not have picked a better partner to collaborate with on his expansive strategies than Noble. They sync together immediately, entwining natural resonances of strings and cymbals, percussive attack of keys and drums, and the variegated textures of electronic processing and shuddering, abraded percussion. The two leave behind any notion of conversational give-and-take, instead diving in to the development of a constantly morphing collective voice. The two masterfully pilot the shifting fields and layers of activity with a restless intensity, from thundering torrents to pin-prick textures. While both performances are strong, “Loess” from 2014 edges out the opening “Pool” a bit, as the two allow a bit more space in to their playing. The 37-minute improvisation builds to peaks of density which release in to areas of nimble detail. One easily loses track of where particular sounds are coming from as damped, prepared strings mix in to bowed and scraped cymbals or rubbed timbres of drum heads flow into electronic scrims of processed piano. Throughout, there is a vigorous collective momentum that propels the improvisation with an edgy vitality.

Michael Rosenstein - Point of Departure -


Les deux pièces à trouver sur ce disque ont été enregistrées au même endroit (Café Oto) mais à deux ans et demi d’intervalle. Assez pour que le duo qui les a improvisées, Sebastian Lexer et Steve Noble, modifie son propos.

En 2011, le piano+ de Lexer est certes déjà une machine à sons contrariés, de graves qui rôdent en cordes qui tremblent, et la ponctuation de Noble assez expressive pour les mettre en valeur et même les développer. Un léger tintement, répété, peut ainsi stopper le patient polissage auquel s’adonne un Lexer qui multipliera ensuite les clusters démonstratifs. Mais ce sont les mois qui passent qui changeront véritablement la donne.

Ainsi, en 2014, l’emportement romantique qui parfois gagnait Lexer s’est effacé derrière des plaintes et des chants sortis d’une recherche plus méticuleuse. C’est le silence qui, cette fois, rôde et impose là sa mesure ; en réponse, Noble brusque sa frappe et, étrangement, la soigne dans le même temps. Voilà pourquoi Muddy Ditch est un beau document : il atteste l’évolution d’un duo d’improvisateurs affairé, certes, mais concerné encore par son sujet.

Guillaume Belhomme -


Quietly and with little fanfare, London’s Fataka has established itself as a go-to label for lovers of free improv, bringing together as it does some of the most high-profile names on the British and International scenes, usually with remarkable results (Okkyung Lee and John Edwards’ White Cable, Black Wires being a particular triumph), and Muddy Ditch is no exception. Whilst the instruments used, piano and drums, are not unusual these days, Sebastian Lexer is no ordinary pianist, and put simply there aren’t many drummers like Steve Noble operating in any genre.

Equally at ease in tense quietude as they are in full-on sonic assault, Lexer and Noble make for an exciting pair, unflinching as they are in their desire to trade off one another in the search of fresh and new ways of expressing themselves. As conversations go, Muddy Ditch is a boisterous and unpredictable duologue, but one rich in twists and turns.

Noble has in the past described his view of free improv as being of a “conversation,” and that is clearly the case on Muddy Ditch. The improbable effects Lexer draws out of his prepared piano elevate the keyboard instrument to something even more grandiose than one would expect (I know, of a piano), and such scale could have resulted in these two tracks sounding like the miasma evoked by the album’s title. Instead, aided by a crystalline production, the sound is limpid and clear, with both artists given ample space to shine and express themselves. Both pieces were recorded live, which makes the quality of both the sound and the performances all the more remarkable. The first, “Pool,” begins as many an improv work does, in quiet reflection, Noble sending out a patter of gentle brush strokes as if sounding out his partner. Gradually, the pair start to trade interjections, from scattered rolls on the toms and cymbals from Noble to leaps and bounds up and down the piano’s strings and the odd tinkled note on Lexer’s part. As the track develops, the two clash and combine to form impressive blocks of sound that make way swiftly to even more arresting periods of silence or quiet manipulation of their instruments. (Having seen him live, I can testify that Noble always brings an array of bells, gongs, bowls and other apparati with him to each gig.) At times it seems the pair might lock into a raucous post-rock groove, but they are smart enough not to lull listeners into any sense of security, quickly pulling back from codified notions of rhythm and form.

Lexer’s work on the piano is such an exercise in deconstructing his instrument’s known parameters and sound that it’s easy to draw parallels with the reductionist school of Rhodri Davies and Axel Dörner, and at times on the second piece, “Loess,” it’s hard not to imagine that he has crawled into the piano’s body to draw out some of these cavernous rumbles and portentous drones. As he builds up a wall of monstrous, wall-shaking sound midway through, Noble kicks in with some Max Roach-like martial drumming and the duo threatens to fly into full-on free jazz before allowing the sounds to recede almost to silence as soon as they seem set to get started. A few minutes later, scraped strings ring out like clarion calls and the piano and drums inner workings are distorted to the point of resembling horns or guitars.

Joseph Burnett -