Essential New Music: Robbie Lee & Lea Bertucci’s “Winds Bells Falls”

The Incredible String Band’s truckload of instruments and Yes’s multi-necked guitars did each band’s appeal no harm; novelty begets intrigue and fetishization. A list of Robbie Lee and Lea Bertucci’s instrumentation might invite the same response. Tape deck? Contrabass recorder? Gemshorn? Cool!

But a listen to this duo’s music, while it will yield plenty of unusual sounds, will also deliver the demystifying news that every instrument—be it electronic, wind-propelled or made in Leo Fender’s workshop—is merely a sound-making tool, no more enigmatic than the screwdriver in your grandparent’s tool belt or the rock an otter sets on its chest to break open shellfish. (What, you thought humans were the only animals who used tools? What do you think you are, special?)

Still, it’s understandable if you wonder how those tools were used to make Winds Bells Falls. Lee utilizes his antique woodwinds, orchestra chimes and celeste the way another astute musician in a similar situation might use a saxophone, voice or piano: to obtain resonances and timbres that stand up to rough handling. Because that, sometimes precisely, is what Bertucci does. Her reel-to-reel tape deck isn’t just a means to collect sound; it’s a vehicle for manipulating it, sometimes quite literally so, as she puts her fingers on the tape while the wheels turn.

The squelch of tape being sucked into the heads punctuates the stacks of long, fluttering tones and masticated rhythms that Bertucci fashions out of the raw material that Lee chucks her way. As she warps his playing, he keeps right on tossing in more sounds, and the music becomes a sonic representation of a hall of mirrors. The outcome is a series of sonic events that are by turns playful, lulling and disorienting.

—Bill Meyer