AMN Reviews: Richmond Avant Improv Collective – Häxan (Cinema Paradiso Vol. I) [Bandcamp]

Häxan is a 1922 Swedish-Danish silent film that purports to trace the history of witchcraft in the West from pre-Christian times through the Middle Ages and early modern period and up to the early twentieth century. The film is a quasi-documentary on a subject often treated in a sensationalistic manner; with its scenes of pagan rites, Satanic temptations, and trials by ordeal, it can be dark, and was considered graphic for its day.

It also was an occasion for music. Like other films from the silent era it was accompanied by live music: original showings featured an orchestra playing a score comprising bits of Beethoven, Schubert and Gluck. More recent screenings have also featured live music, but of a different type altogether.

Häxan (Cinema Paradiso Vol. I) is the Richmond Avant Improv Collective’s interpretation in sound of this soundless film. The Collective, ordinarily a septet but often adding players as needed, was an octet for the occasion. Playing live in the studio, the group improvised as the film ran. The titles of the four tracks—Hell, Confession, Witchcraft Trials and Deeds of the Devil—give some idea of the flavor of the music. The sounds are predominantly dark—a looming overcast of electronics, minor-key melodies on the cello, keening sounds from the saxophone, eerily oscillating voices and distorted electric guitar chords—and evocative. One need not see the film to “see” the film, when listening.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: RAIC – Chance Operations [Bandcamp]; Ask the Trees – The Heart’s Message Cannot Be Delivered in Words [Bandcamp]; Stephen Vitiello & Molly Berg – I Drew a Fish Hook, and It Turned into a Flower [IKKI 010]

For a good number of years, Richmond, Virginia has been home to a lively, if not always well-enough known, alternative music scene. As is true of most such places its venues hospitable to experimental and creative music come and go, but its artists persist. Groups like New Loft, Ting Ting Jahe, Hotel X, RAIC, and others evolve, mutate, merge and diverge, but what doesn’t seem to change throughout all these changes is a commitment to the art and the community. Three new releases demonstrate the diversity and appeal of Richmond’s alternative music scene; what all three have in common is a spirit of collaboration that seems deeply ingrained there.

RAIC is the Richmond Avant Improv Collective, whose current core membership consists of Samuel Goff, Abdul Hakim-Bilal, Erik Schroeder, Zoe Olivia-Kinney and Laura Marina. For Chance Operations, a two-CD set inspired by the philosophy of John Cage, RAIC assembled twenty musicians of various backgrounds and genres and put them together in a series of small groupings whose memberships were determined by chance operations. As could be expected, the music is extremely varied in instrumentation, atmosphere and style, but the one constant is that the participants seem to be listening to each other. A sample of its twenty-one tracks, chosen in an appropriately random manner:

(You Got the Wrong) Eleanor Friedberger (Jimmy Ghaphery and Brandon Simmons, flutes): nimble, birdlike phrases punctuated by air notes, hisses and overtones.

Complicated Advisory (Laura Marina, vocals; Richard Schellenberg, percussion; Lucas Brode, guitar; Brandon Whittaker, drums; Levi Christian Flack, bass; Madeline Billhimer, baritone saxophone): an abstract piece whose human presence—in the form of Marina’s voice—is nevertheless to the fore.

La Grande Odalisque (Samuel Goff, percussion and keyboards; Abdul-Hakim Bilal, drums; Erik Michael Schroeder, keyboards; Jimmy Ghaphery, alto saxophone and flute; Nat Quick, selo; Kyler O’Brien, bass): a slightly menacing, noirish ambience advancing on measured footsteps, culminating in an intense freakout for sax and keys.

Oblique Strategies (Jacob Courington, bass; Kyler O’Brien, drums; Benjamin Schurr, guitar; Madeline Billhimer, baritone saxophone): guitar and sax noise over a tight drumbeat and mobile bassline.

Materia Prima (Lucas Brode, guitar): the hum, pop, shimmer, and creak of electric guitar as a percussion instrument.

Irrigating an Arid World (Samuel Goff, drums and percussion; Laura Marina and Maura Pond, voices): visceral cries in the desert answered with tom-tom, snare, cymbal, and rattle.

A spinoff of RAIC, Ask the Trees are a newly formed quintet comprising RAIC’s Erik Schroeder on tenor and soprano saxophones along with New Ting’s Jimmy Ghaphery on alto and sopranino saxophones and bamboo flute, Sam Byrd on drums and Fred McGann on Nord keyboard, along with Richard Schellenberg on bass. Their first album, The Heart’s Message Cannot Be Delivered in Words, is in the tradition of the post-Coltrane, metaphysical jazz that flourished in the early 1970s. Consequently, the music is meditative but intense, ranging from the serene flute lines introducing Air and Sky, to the expressionistic collective improvisation of Flight. There’s excellent chemistry here: the two horns complement each other with thoughtful counterpoint, as in Essence, or engage each other in pointed dialogue, as in The Path. Byrd’s drumming is noteworthy for its compressed energy, whether undergirding the Phrygian-flavored Wisdom in Imperfection with a loose, free swing, or enhancing an introspective mood with precise brushwork. McGann’s keyboard and Schellenberg’s bass are also essential components in this highly atmospheric and ultimately inspired contemporary take on an evergreen subgenre of jazz.

I Drew a Fish Hook, and It Turned into a Flower is the third collaborative release from electronics artist Stephen Vitiello and clarinetist/vocalist Molly Berg. On this recording, they are joined by drummer Justin Alexander, violinist Jennifer Choi, bassist Marcus Fischer, and lap steel/pedal steel guitarist Mike Grigoni. As with Vitiello and Berg’s previous collaborative recordings, I Drew a Fish Hook is what Vitiello describes as an “edited improvisation.” Separate parts were recorded in separate locations and mixed together; there are loops and some other types of audible processing as well. But the resulting music doesn’t sound abstract or artificial—far from it. It’s mesmerizing, atmospheric, lush and melodic, often unfolding slowly over drifting harmonies and languorous washes of electronic sound. Berg’s voice is evocative and nicely complemented by the resonant sounds of Vitiello’s guitar and Rhodes piano, as well as by Choi’s violin and Grigoni’s steel guitars.

The sound recording is the audio half of this IKKI edition; the other, visual, half is a set of images from Los Angeles photographer Jake Michaels.