Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Hardscrabble Songs – Part One

AIMToronto’s Interface with Montreal violinist Malcolm Goldstein this past weekend was significantly different than any of the previous Interfaces. For one, every note was played at Somewhere There, and it’s increasingly gratifying to be moving away from the odd acoustics and questionable comforts of the Arraymusic Studio, and to invite (force?) audience members to get closer to the action as they do at ST. For Malcolm’s music, in which the lightest bow-brush can carry utmost resonance, such dynamics here are absolutely ideal, as I hear them. An even bigger difference for the event, however, is the way Malcolm’s compositions took centre stage, with four of the six sets of music throughout the weekend featuring his composed works. Ad hoc collective playing, which usually represents the brunt of Interface activities, is not very interesting to Malcolm under such circumstances, though he genially took up the challenge twice during the weekend. Instead, the event was dominated by his very particular composerly aesthetic, one in which subtle, surprising sounds live as good and long a life as they possibly can, and in which instrumental technique and chops are reconsidered, reformatted, and redirected toward collective and, ideally, egoless ends.

Three Toronto ensembles took up the challenge of his conceptual/graphic/directed improvisation pieces, which take bows in the direction of his New York School forbears (Christian Wolff and Earl Brown in particular, at a guess). Each ensemble spent a three-hour rehearsal working with Malcolm in advance of the evening shows, and the task was clearly to find out the aesthetic and philosophical closures on which he’d quietly insist amid all of the objective openness furnished by the scores. Intriguingly, it was the eight-piece band-for-a-day, Ensemble for Now, assembled by Joe Sorbara, that had the clearest view on Saturday night. “Yosha’s Morning Song” was an ostensible feature for Susanna Hood, whose vocal part Malcolm cribbed from his boy’s babysong, and who cooed and whinnied brilliantly and with stunning concentration amid the tiny events and interjections from the rest of the group, which surrounded the audience from the circumference of the room. Language was the theme for the program, as it moved from its evolution to its devolution in the second piece, “Regarding the Tower of Babel,” as close as the music ever got to theatre all weekend. Here, ensemble members unraveled the meaning of a Babel parable by Kafka with the recitation of dictionary definitions that swirled and doubled back on each other, echoed by the lumpen pulses and parlando effects on the players’ instruments, until the piece left a still confusion – perfectly eerie on so stormy and foreboding a night – as its only residue.

Confusion was also on order to an extent on Friday night, when the found-sound improvisation trio Odradek (Michelangelo Iaffaldano, Andy Yue, Jim Bailey) interpreted two of Malcolm’s pieces: “The Seasons: Vermont (Summer)” and “Frog Pond at Dusk.” The former features a recording of sounds from around Malcolm’s farm in Vermont that merge with the operations by the ensemble. Michelangelo, as always, was right in the middle of the music-making, and the sound he extracted from his miscellany maintained a productive tension between synthesis and contrast with both the recorded sounds and those of his partners (including Malcolm, who sat in on the piece). Jim, on the other hand, seemed at a bit of a loss at times and, when he defaulted a few times to fairly bland mimesis, much of that tension was unfortunately lost. “Frog Pond” was particularly striking due to the way the score seemed to bewilder the group. These pieces are so open that it’s difficult to discern successful from unsuccessful interpretation, but there was an undeniable (if intangible) switch that took place – beautiful if disconcerting – as a clear view of the piece’s roadmap was replaced by anxious, furtive glances, tentative sounds, and general uncertainty. I loved it! Jim, Miche, and Andy, while committed music-makers, never seem to take anything overly seriously, and I thought I distinctly perceived a revelry in their own discomfort that is all too rare in this insecure world – musical or otherwise.

Expect a follow-up on the other sets, including Malcolm’s improvisations with Nilan Perera on Friday, and with Rob Piilonen and Chris Willes on Saturday, as well as his solo violin set and the AIMToronto Orchestra set on Sunday, in the next few days.


Kyle said...

Don't forget John Cage!

Somewhere There said...

I haven't. Correct me if I'm wrong, but phrases of Malcolm's like "directed improvisation" would not likely have crossed JC's lips.

Kyle said...

yeah Cage wouldn't have said that exact phrase. but you're really not drawing attention to his greater influence on Malcolm's, and subsequently christian wolff and earle brown's music. What i'm saying is that Cage is too important of a figure not to mention. whether or not he would have spoken about improvisation, 'directed' or otherwise is moot.

Somewhere There said...

I said "New York School forbears." That way, I've mentioned Cage by implication and, in the context of the piece in question, that is enough. No need to be a stickler, Maestro.