Abaton is a musical unit of composer and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, violinist Mark Feldman, and cellist Erik Friedlander. Abaton is also the title of the group's double-CD ECM debut, produced by label boss Manfred Eicher. Disc number one is made up of four Courvoisier compositions. The second holds 19 improvisations for trio. Very different, they nonetheless dovetail to offer a solid portrait of a composer-led group that views stasis and movement with equanimity. "Ianicum," the opening work on Abaton, begins with a single lower-register pitch from Courvoisier's piano. It is repeated and answered by the other players in small, brief phrases before becoming a twinned line where left and right hands move seemingly in opposition yet with such restraint that the music is seamless. Dynamics are held tautly in this work, as Friedlander bows long enough in his statements to keep the bridge of harmonic striation constructed. Space and short tones become enmeshed as extensions of one another. On the title track, Feldman opens with a clipped series of notes that come from his middle register and then engages Friedlander in a gradually developing series of nearly pulsing lines that touch upon Eastern modalism and Western counterpoint. Courvoisier enters with a single chord to anchor the lengthening lines and bring them back to point zero as a spacious, Messiaen-like austerity gives way to more frequent pronouncements, until she becomes interwoven contrapuntally with the pair in a warm yet dissonant melody line that feels almost Occidental in its origin. There is plenty of soul in these exercises; there is a great transference of emotion taking place in the exercising of dynamics that seemingly come to explode as the first disc plays on.
Disc two is a stunning mirror image of disc one in that it reflects not only the musical tautness of this triadic union, but the pervasiveness of Courvoisier's influence as a composer. These pieces take one or two small ideas and completely dive into them, bringing out all of their possibilities at once. There is no time for development, as ideas seem to burst forth inside the silences as well as in the constructive -- and alarmingly intuitive -- engagement among the players. All this speaks well to the jazz side of the coin as well. Courvoisier is working as a classically trained composer and pianist whose psychologically trained ear for improvisational and jazz nuance is uncanny. That her music is as aesthetically beautiful as it is strange and mysterious is only further testament to her prowess as a composer. That this trio plays her music as if it has been creating it from the air is nothing short of remarkable. Abaton is Courvoisier's crowning achievement thus far, and this group points her firmly forward in a direction where everything is still possible, demonstrating that there is something new under the sun in classical music and improvisation. Perhaps Abaton is the great moment of 2003 for new classical music