AMN Reviews: David Toop – Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom: Before 1970 [Bloomsbury 2016]


9781501314513The usual caveats warning against generalizations aside, it’s safe to say that in the arts as in other fields of life, the second half of the twentieth century was an era of improvisation. Encouraged by the dissemination of ideas introduced by Zen Buddhism, Existentialism, and A. N. Whitehead’s process philosophy, avant-garde painters, poets and musicians turned to improvisation as a way of engaging art and life in a spirit of spontaneity. In Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom: Before 1970, David Toop examines the upsurge of improvisation within the music of the postwar period. The book, the first in a projected trilogy of volumes on free improvisation, is the result of the author’s long experience and intimate familiarity with its subject. Toop, who has written extensively on new and experimental music, describes himself as a being “a listener since 1966, a practitioner since 1969” (30).

Culturally, the period Toop focuses on—prior to 1970 and with most attention to the decade and a half before that year—was marked by much ferment. After the end of World War II, philosophical, compositional and technological developments all fostered a rethinking of how and why to make art; one concrete development of this rethinking was a growing interest in improvisation. Largely in America, a fascination with extemporaneity in thought and action grew out of the vogues among artists and others for Zen Buddhism, Existentialism, and the process philosophy of A. N. Whitehead, all of which contributed to the idea of art and life as an ongoing becoming made up of perpetual, open-ended, freely chosen action. In a Europe devastated by the physical and moral destruction brought by war and repressive governments, there was a felt need to start over from nothing. In music, this “Year Zero” mentality led first to serialism and soon after to aleatory and indeterminate forms of music—some of them the product of cross-pollination by visiting American composers–that to varying degrees effectively involved improvisation. Finally, the broadened availability of emergent technologies for sound production and recording, such as magnetic tape, helped provide access to a set of sonic possibilities that hadn’t been practical before.

Free improvisation, which Toop describes as “a music without score, notation, image or text, composer, director or conductor” (15), fit this postwar spirit well, becoming an increasingly formidable presence in the art from the 1950s forward and particularly flourishing in the mid-to-late 1960s. As he shows, though, its foundations had been laid earlier.

Surveying what might be termed the non-musical pre-history of free improvisation, Toop calls attention to early examples of “collaborative spontaneity” (83) congruent with, if not influential on, improvisation in music: Japanese linked poetry, the simultaneous cacophony of Dada evenings, Surrealist automatic writing and drawing, stream of consciousness prose. At the same time that Dada and Surrealism were doing their best to scandalize the Parisian art world in the 1920s and 1930s, experimental musicians and composers like Henry Cowell and Harry Partch were inventing instruments, tunings and techniques that expanded the universe of sounds available for musical use and raised the possibility of changing or displacing conventional notions of what technical proficiency might consist in.

This last point is significant. Toop suggests that one factor slowing the turn to free playing was the constraint that maintaining proper instrumental technique placed on musicians, which made for what he calls “a relative lack of abandon” (51). Early jazz, with its broadened palette of sounds created on conventional instruments played unconventionally, would begin to loosen those constraints. But exactly what role instrumental technique should have within improvisation remained an issue to be debated at least through the 1960s. Toop notes that attitudes toward technique within postwar improvisation bifurcated into two general tendencies: A tendency toward the assumption that improvisation would have to presuppose a certain technical competence or virtuosity in order to be valid, and a counter-tendency toward the opposite assumption, which saw technique as a potential obstacle to expressive immediacy (164-165). (Interestingly, it’s a conflict that hasn’t been resolved so much as it has been surpassed: It isn’t unusual for programs of improvised music to include performers with contraposed attitudes toward the necessity of technical proficiency—sometimes in the same ensemble.)

By the late 1930s, improvisation was becoming a larger presence within musical practice. Toop describes some of the “tentative steps” taken toward free improvisation during this period: Charles Ives’ recordings of 1937, Django Reinhardt’s “Improvisation” of 1938, the free duets of Roy Eldridge and Clyde Hart. Staying within the jazz tradition, the 1940s saw Lennie Tristano and his students delve into free improvisation; the 1950s and after brought the fecund experimentation of Charles Mingus’s Jazz Composers Workshop, the Chico Hamilton Quintet, and Jimmy Giuffre’s various trios. Profound experiments by Chicago’s AACM, the New York Art Quartet and musicians like Sun Ra, Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor pushed jazz-rooted music in radically new directions into the 1960s.

Among classically-trained musicians, the 1950s saw the development of improvised music out of the formal language of avant-garde composition and rapidly expanding methods of instrumental technique. In 1957 or 1958—accounts differ–Pauline Oliveros, Loren Rush and Terry Riley, all students of San Francisco State College composer Robert Erickson, played a completely improvised soundtrack to the short film “Polyester Moon.” During this same period, Oliveros, Rush, Riley and Erickson, joined by Laurel Johnson and Bill Butler, recorded a series of fully improvised pieces influenced by the pointillistic, sparsely-textured sounds of music composed after Webern. Not long before these recordings were made, Lukas Foss had organized the Improvisation Chamber Ensemble at UCLA, a group working with free improvisation, graphic scores and conduction; by the early 1960s, the improvisational New Music Ensemble was formed at UC Davis.

Experiments with free improvisation were by no means confined to America; they were truly an international phenomenon. In Japan, the classically-trained Takehisa Kosugi and Mizuno Shuko collaborated with the then-untrained Yasunao Tone in largely unscored improvisations during the late 1950s and early 1960s; European groups included AMM, Musica Elettronica Viva and the Gruppo Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza. Although these groups were geographically diverse there was a degree of cross-pollination among them, and some even shared personnel.

By the end of the 1960s, free improvisation had spread to more popular forms of music, most notably through the sound and influence of the West Coast psychedelic bands. The rise and proliferation of free improvisation in the 1960s was an aspect of the radicalization and democratization of the avant-garde culture of extemporaneous action that had taken root during the previous decade, and was seeping into the culture at large. Free improvisation fit the ideological temper of the time by offering “a utopian vision of freedom” (53) as an experiment in ideals of leaderless, egalitarian social organization. Which is still part of its appeal. As Toop appositely notes, it is a kind of collaboration that realizes Sartre’s idea of the group-in-fusion: a praxis or purposive activity taken up by an aggregate of individuals such that each individual’s goals and purposes are subsumed and transformed—are fused into a collective goal–as they are directed toward a common end. It isn’t surprising that some advocates of free improvisation during the mid-to-late 1960s—for example, Franco Evangelisti of the Gruppo Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza–were motivated as much by ideology as by musical considerations to adopt collectivist solutions to aesthetic problems. This was reflected not only in the makeup of the groups playing music, but in the institutions free improvisers built outside of the existing institutions.

Beyond its politics, both explicit and implicit, free improvisation was, and is, compelling as an engagement of some of the basic structures of human existence, in which the very ephemerality of the performance lends it significance. More than once Toop relates experiences—his and others’—in which the musical details of an improvised set are forgotten, while the “human drama” of the improvisers’ interactions with each other and with the audience remain memorable. It’s as if what matters most are the choices made in the moment and the pressures shaping them rather than any given sonic outcome of those choices, or the ways that people improvising together engage each other’s choices as possibilities and obstacles in relation to their own—sometimes at the same time. Toop sums it up with the observation that with improvisation “to play is both a sign and symptom of existence. I am here…” (8).  In that sense improvisation is like an image of life, condensed down to its core: The need to act, often without knowing exactly what the consequences of action will be, but making of oneself what one will as one moves into a future whose exact form is necessarily unknown but whose arrival is inevitable.

http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/into-the-maelstrom-music-improvisation-and-the-dream-of-freedom-9781501314513/

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Omar Rahbany – Passport (2017)


downloadThis aptly-titled debut release likely falls outside of a strict avant-garde categorization, but as creative genre-busting music goes, it is a notable effort. To put together Passport, Rahbany took three years and engaged over 180 collaborators from 12 countries. The resulting 60 minutes resembles, at times, jazz, classical, a musical, modern Arabic tunes, and probably a few other things.

For example, Zook the Power Station is an accordion and piano driven romp through complex lines and rhythms, while Programmusik Babel is an 11-minute amalgam of jazz and funk with interludes of blowouts and structured weirdness. Perhaps the most compelling and idiosyncratic track on the album is Mouwachahat, with Middle-Eastern melodies and choral singing, but a piano, bass, and drum backing. The singing, when present, is not in English and very well done.

Clearly, Rahbany’s influences are far-reaching, as is this recording. If you are a fan of soundtracks or musicals, you could do worse than give Rahbany a listen.  If you are more into the left-of-center, keep in mind that Passport might be what would have happened if Rogers and Hammerstein collaborated with Christian Vander in Lebanon. Thumbs up.

AMN Reviews: Laurence Crane and Asamisimasa – Sound of Horse [Hubro HUBROCD2582]


laurence-crane_2400x2400-px-1024x1024Composer of a catalogue encompassing over eighty works, London-based Laurence Crane (1961) writes music of elementary parts and structures. The simplicity is deliberate; Crane has expressed an interest in taking simple pitch and harmonic relationships and recontextualizing them in order to renew their capacity to appeal to listeners, and to convey musical content.

The five compositions performed here, spanning the years 1998-2009, are based on drones, slowly unfolding melodies of a handful of notes, and harmonic cycles of as little as two chords. For example, Old Life Was Rubbish (1998), a slow-moving, short work for unspecified instrumentation (here orchestrated for electric guitar, bass clarinet and piano), centers on the simple motif of a unison line placed over a deliberately struck, slightly jarring piano chord. The nuance comes out in the scoring: The three voices blend into a composite timbre that seems to belong to a hybrid, as yet unidentified instrument. Even in the twenty-minute-long, seven-movement work Sound of Horse (2009), the musical material is simple and its exposition unhurried. The melodies consist in scales or scale fragments played in slowly descending or ascending sequences on clarinet or bass clarinet; long tones bowed on the cello; and broken chords. The effect can at times be hypnotic or liminal, with each musical object being differentiated from the others by subtleties of inflection or orchestration.

On all of the pieces, the palindromically-named Asamisimasa ensemble, a Norwegian new music chamber group, gives suitably uncluttered and fine-grained performances.

http://www.hubromusic.com

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: DR. MiNT – Voices in the Void (2017; Orenda Records)


dr-mint-voices-in-the-voidDR. MiNT consists of Daniel Rosenboom on trumpet, Gavin Templeton on sax, Alexander Noice on electric guitar and effects, Sam Minaie on bass and electronics, and Caleb Dolister on drums. They call themselves a “bi-coastal experimental rock band.” Rosenboom, Templeton and Noice have played together in a number of settings, including Rosenboom’s quintet, septet, and solo offerings. This trio has been teaming with Minaie and Dolister for a decade, with Voices in the Void being their fifth recording.

While the group states that their works are spontaneously composed, it is likely that there is at least an agreed-upon framework established for each piece. Their playing is too coordinated to be otherwise. Thus, this is not free improv per se, though it is heavily informed by that genre. Additional influences include heavy metal, jazz fusion, John Zorn, and even a bit of modern electronica.

But the dominating factor throughout is Noice’s aggressive chording and riffing, backed by the horns to create thick walls of noise. Still, several of the pieces provide plenty of room for soloing by the Rosenboom and Templeton. Not infrequently, these solos include the pair of horns, or one of the former teamed up with guitar and playing off of each other. Minaie and Dolister alternate between backing roles and more non-traditional approaches, the latter well-represented on the rhythmic workout of Fanfare Mechanique.

The result, is a playful, tense, and spirited exploration of untrodden paths in both rock and jazz. Ambitious and full of urgency, these eight tracks are both an intense intellectual workout, as well as just plain fun. If you are familiar with other recordings by Rosenboom or on the Orenda Records label, you will feel at home listening to Voices in the Void.

This album will be released January 26, 2017 on Orenda Records.

AMN Reviews: Dana Jessen – Carve [Innova 910]


726708691028-front-coverLike the double bass in the 1950s, the bassoon is an instrument often overlooked as a solo voice with the potential to push the boundaries in new music. In order to change that, bassoonist Dana Jessen has been endeavoring to develop an adventurous repertoire of new work for solo bassoon. On Carve, her debut release, she does that with a set of four pieces she commissioned from contemporary composers for solo bassoon and electronics.

The four compositions, written in 2014 and 2015 and recorded in September, 2015 and May, 2016 at Jessen’s home institution of Oberlin Conservatory, are the products of a collaborative process. Jessen met with the composers and played some improvisations for them; these served as the kernels around which the compositions were constructed, each of which was shaped as much by her musical language and sensibility as by the composers’ own ideas. Working this way entailed a strategy of mutual interpretation that upends and in a way reverses the conventional relationship between the composer as originator and the performer as interpreter.

On all four pieces, creatively employed electronics serve to transform, supplement or challenge the sound of the acoustic instrument. Paula Matthusen’s of an implacable subtraction is a melodic piece whose minor modality is tinted with melancholy; the electronics pick up and reinforce key points in the bassoon line, stretching and repeating them to make them a harmonic bed of lingering tones. In Points against Fields by Sam Pluta, Jessen’s extended technique and energetic playing lend the bassoon an otherworldly sound that complements the surrounding surf of electronic splashes, chirps and static. Peter V. Swendsen’s Fireflies in Winter casts fragments of bassoon melodies in the role of commentators on field recordings of the natural and urban environments. During one passage in which the bassoon is surrounded by the sounds of crickets and other nocturnal wildlife, one can almost hear the vast expanses of night sky reaching above. Cadenza and Degradations seems a contemporary improvised bassoon sonata, with an elastically-scaled virtual wind ensemble made up of composer/oboist Kyle Bruckmann’s multiply recorded oboe and bass oboe forming the backdrop for Jessen’s elegant solo lines. In between the compositions are brief solo interludes each of whose sounds derive from a gesture or technique relating to the pieces on either side. These interludes lend the CD the cohesive feeling of a suite of distinct but mutually supporting performances.

A second factor that gives the release a notably holistic sense is Jessen’s own voice. Hers is an expressive presence with a warm tone and a refined vibrato, both of which preserve a humanistic heart in the midst of technological embellishment. It’s a finely calibrated balance, achieved as well by the composers’ sensitively crafted environments in which Jessen’s voice can resonate. And in the end, it’s Jessen’s appealing musical personality that animates this outstanding collection of work.

http://www.innova.mu

http://www.danajessen.com

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Mirio Cosottini – Playing with Silence (Mimesis International, 2016)


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Silence has always been a part of music, whether as a relatively brief pause between sounds or as something more substantial, though ultimately no less transient. In recent years, particularly in work following on and following up from the implications of Cage’s 4’33”, silence has come into its own within musical practice. It isn’t unusual to encounter compositions, improvisations or other works that incorporate silence as an independent parameter, equal to or in some cases surpassing sound, or that address silence more radically as the essential conceptual ground on which a musical superstructure arises.

It is this embrace of silence in experimental music and elsewhere that provides the context for Italian composer Mirio Cosottini’s short book Playing with Silence: Introduction to a Philosophy of Silence. As its title indicates, the book engages many of the meanings, functions and possible uses of silence in both music and beyond that, in our lives in general.

Cosottini brings a multifaceted background to these various ways of considering silence. A graduate of the Academy of Music in Florence, Cosottini has composed music for dance, theater and film, and is an improvising trumpeter who co-founded the Gruppo di Ricerca Improvvisazione Musicale. In addition, he pursued a doctorate in the philosophy of music from the University of Florence. Cosottini’s practical and philosophical sides are both well represented in the book’s brief introduction and its collection of questions and exercises meant to bring the reader into a more conscious relationship to silence in its different manifestations.

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The bulk of the book is made up of questions intended to guide the reader to think about what silence is, can be, and can mean to him or her, or exercises suggesting actions that encourage the reader to become aware of the role that silence has to play in music, performance more generally, and life most broadly. Each page contains only one question or exercise; the sometimes vast expanse of empty space left over on the page itself suggests a visual analogue of silence. The book is meant to be read at a pace of one page per day; whether or not the reader chooses to act on them or to treat them instead as thought experiments, the questions and exercises serve as occasions for developing an awareness of silence.

Many of the exercises are directly relevant to musical practice. For instance, Cosottini asks, “Where do you find silence in music?” and, “If you play an instrument, do you think about sound or silence?” There are exercises for listening to silence after playing long tones or points of sounds, and an exercise that seems aimed at finding where musical silence ends and non-musical silence begins. Other exercises apply explicitly or implicitly to dance and movement, where “silence” can be read as denoting that state of actual or virtual rest which is the dancer’s equivalent to the musician’s silence. There are also several partnering exercises, many of which call for physical contact between participants. They can be used to attune musicians to one another prior to a performance or can act as the first step in a collaborative improvisational dance. Some exercises are more ambiguous in scope, seeming to apply equally to music or to dance, or to other, unspecified kinds of performances. And some seem to be independent of performance altogether.

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Not far into the book, Cosottini asks the fundamental but by no means simple question, “What is Silence?” The answer that gradually takes shape is just as fundamental, and far-reaching.

As practical and concrete as many of these exercises are, it quickly becomes clear that Cosottini uses “silence” in a predominantly figurative way. Taken literally, “silence” can refer to a situation or state of things in which sound is absent. This absence of sound may be an objective feature of the world, existing independently of one’s perception, or it may be a phenomenological or perceived reality, the result of one’s inattentiveness to, for example, ambient sounds. In either case, silence is a sonic property actually attaching to or attributed to the world “out there.” By contrast, “silence” as it is often used on the book goes beyond a narrowly focused emphasis on the external environment per se and instead signifies a state of emptiness or rest generally. The use of “silence” as a rough synonym for “stillness” in which one refrains from moving is one such figurative use. But at a deeper level, what Cosottini means by “silence” is a matter of comportment, referring more generally to a way of being in the world. In this sense “silence” is a manner of engaging oneself in relation to oneself, to others, or to the environment, sonic and otherwise. In most of the situations and hypotheticals that Cosottini presents, it is this deeper sense of “silence” that emerges.

“Silence” in this sense names a state of receptivity, a being still in order to be open to surrounding influences sonic or otherwise. In performance, this may translate into an openness to what a collaborator is doing. That seems to be the underlying relationship or structure intended by many of the partnering exercises in the book. To find the silence in the collaborator is to lay oneself open to what that collaborator might do, even if what he or she does is to remain silent or, in the case of dance, still. The point of the exercise is to be attuned, to be directed toward the other in the state in which the other, and the surrounding world, both are disclosed through a mood of receptivity. “Silence” in this sense has something of a dual nature: It is both the occasion for a receptive attunement to one’s way of being in the world and with others, and is that attunement itself. “Silence,” as the presence to self that resides at the heart of quiet, is both an inward- and outward-facing state; it makes us present to ourselves and to others in a particularly attentive way, which can deepen our engagement with our own playing as well as with our collaborators.

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If silence runs deeper than the simple absence of sound, absence of sound may be the primary way we recognize silence. Silence is an aspect of the world as we take it, but not only as we take it—as it appears to us—but more fundamentally, as we give it meaning. Through silence we disclose the world in a mood of tranquility or rest, or openness; our openness conveys a certain meaning on the world around us, and we designate this meaning as silence. When we do so, we are exercising a type of judgment that indicates something about the way we are engaging the world and imbuing it with a certain significance.

To disclose the world through silence is to undertake a commitment—to take up an active and not a passive stance. Committing to silence, one actively puts oneself in the relationship of openness, one responds to it drawing on a repertoire of strategies that may include the concord of mimesis or the assimilation of what is happening around one; the contrast of opposition or contrary motion; the counterpoint of complementarity and balance of reciprocity. One becomes attuned and then takes that attunement up into one’s project, which is to act in relation to the other. To play.

As is summed up in the book’s final exercise: “You are a source of silence. Cultivate silence. Play.” As with many of Cosottini’s exercises, this one ends with an invitation to play. And to play is to act—to make choices and pursue ends in a situation as that situation is interpreted through attunement. Silence informs play by disclosing possibilities; silence is an element in play in multiple senses of the word “play.” It is something to be played with, something that comes into play through an act of commitment on the part of the player, something that can be played the way one would play a sound on an instrument. And that in essence seems to be Cosottini’s message: Starting with an awareness that comes with silence, play, and let that awareness inform play as it unfolds.

http://www.casemateacademic.com

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Led Bib – Umbrella Weather (2017; RareNoiseRecords)


unnamed-5The U.K.’s proggy jazz-rock outfit Led Bib returns for its first new album since 2014. Umbrella Weather is a live-in-the-studio affair, spontaneously composed rather than fully improvised.

The band’s sound remains similar to that of its previous efforts – a dual-sax attack with prominent keyboards, fuzz bass, and busy drumming. The sound is frantic at times, with lead track Lobster Terror being an example thereof; an aggressive uptempo rhythm drives anxiously angular sax solos and motifs. The tension runs high throughout, even in spacier passages such as those in On the Roundabout. These pieces are both tuneful and foreboding, full of information-rich themes with unusual meters and jagged lines. The keyboards add a dark atmosphere when not acting as a lead instrument, and feature a palette with a vaguely 70’s texture.

With four previous albums put out by U.S. label Cuneiform Records, it is not surprising that Led Bib’s latest has sonic similarities to other Cuneiform artists, such a Rattlemouth and Curlew, not to mention the band’s own recordings.  In short, if you are a Led Bib fan, you’ll enjoy this one.

Staying on its own side of the pond label-wise this time, Umbrella Weather will be coming on RareNoiseRecords on January 20.

Previous Led Bib review:
https://avantmusicnews.com/2014/05/28/amn-reviews-led-bib-the-good-egg-2014-cuneiform-records/