Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Critical Limits

For a few reasons, it’s a challenge to write about this weekend’s events at ST which, in quite different ways, expose my limitations as a critic. The first was Saturday’s series of solos and a duet by dancer Aimée Dawn Robinson and drummer Nick Fraser. No doubt, I lack the critical vocabulary to describe Aimée’s hugely compelling performance. This has to do with more than my cursory immersion in the world of contemporary dance. For one, I think Aimée’s command of space and form has little to do with (and could well be an active rejection of) the mastery of impressive techniques (which are super fodder for critical laundry lists). Instead, there was an intangibly complete and focused sense of time that she breathed into the room. Little, seemingly uncomplicated movements – a turn, a swung arm, a straightened neck – were markers of an ongoing time-feel – oblique but undeniable – that carried me confidently through occasional moments of confusion and non-understanding.

Nick – to state the obvious to those who have heard him – also played a bit with our experience of time. Both his solo and his duet with Aimée had him parsing his vocabulary on the drumkit (specifically the deep, fat sound of ST’s house drumkit, “Big Red”) down to discrete elements, then combining and contrasting them with near-clinical precision. Taking advantage of the optimal acoustics and attentive audience, Nick kept the dynamic level very low, and that allowed him to uncover blends of texture and timbre (particularly with mallets during his solo) that multiplied his ostensibly small music exponentially.

Though there was an overt austerity to the show, it certainly wasn’t without its playful moments. I may be grasping at straws here but, during their duet, Aimée alighted on a hunched-back, swung-arm motif that looked uncannily like a child’s pantomime of an elephant. Both her movements and the evocation pointed to the wonderfully lumpen swing that Nick had on offer. It soon gave way, however, to a more straightforward groove (to which he had been alluding all along, I think). Aimée, kneeling directly before him by then, maintained a push-pull tension with the groove with a series of tiny, tangentially related movements that alternatively questioned and responded to it – never obvious, and more fun for it.

On Sunday, I welcomed the revival of the NOW Series, which has beenon hiatus since its was shut down this summer by the fickle management at the NOW Lounge. Paul Newman curated the evening and played an impromptu trio with bass guitarist Michael Morse and his drummer-son Timothy prior to the Remnants Trio of Joe Sorbara, Ken Aldcroft, and Evan Shaw. Unfortunately, Tim laboured with some wrist pain, which kept him at a bit of a distance from the core of the music-making, while Paul and Michael followed each other’s primarily intervallic offerings through a set of rather discursive improvisations. It’s doubtless that both are deeply thoughtful players, but the uniform dynamics throughout the set had me increasingly craving a more energetic outpouring.

Not surprisingly, some energy was on tap when Remnants took their turn. This is the group that it’s most challenging to write about, given my deep familiarity with all three players with whom I have played for years with Ken Aldcroft’s Convergence Ensemble. Apart from a brief, rather unprepossessing sketch by Sorbara, this set was all improvised, and it afforded me yet another opportunity to hear the gradual evolution (or consolidation) of each player’s approach to improvisation.

John Oswald once described how Dutch virtuoso cellist Ernst Reijseger would prepare solo concerts of ‘improvisation.’ Reijseger, having identified the 117 (to pick a number) ‘things’ that he could do with a cello (isolated techniques and sound activities in nameable categories), would simply string a series of these things into a more-or-less composed roadmap for performance. Whether this is how he actually works (worked) or not, I hear in this description an analogy to how Joe Sorbara was playing Big Red on Sunday.

Though I’m sure that Joe doesn’t map out what he will play and relies, instead, on intuition to decide how he’ll approach any particular situation (as would Reijseger, I’m sure, in group performance), there was a clear, composerly ‘thingness’ to his improvisation on Sunday. I was tracking transitions between discreet (and occasionally overlapping) segments where a certain technique was a relatively static focal point for the moment. This sense is amplified by Joe’s huge toolkit through which he extends the kit’s timbral possibilities, and a particular material item (a bow, a mallet, a silly-sounding toy, a school bell) will frame his music’s possibilities until another transition takes place.

By contrast, guitarist Ken Aldcroft moves headlong through a more gradual, evolving exploration of material that, on Sunday, revolved around the distended and personalized vocabulary that Ken has derived primarily from jazz harmony. The word ‘revolved’ is appropriate, since his largely middle-register chording brought to mind Mark Miller’s comment about the “circular logic” of Ken’s playing. Though maybe more movement to the extremes of register might leaven his playing a bit, there was an impressively focused internal consistency throughout.

Alto saxophonist Evan Shaw, to my ears the most mobile improviser of the three, played rather parsimoniously, deferring for lengthy stretches to the others. However, the highlights of the night, without question, took place when Evan stepped out front and momentarily took over the music. At points, he played things I’d never heard from him before – for example, a tremendous volley of vocally overblown alto reminiscent the aforementioned Mr. Oswald. Just as exciting, though, was the seamless, deft switch back to Dolphy-ish intervalism that resides at the core of Evan’s aesthetic, a transition that was exemplary of what a supple, inventive player he is.

No comments: