Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Hardscrabble Songs - Part Two

I’d like to have written a follow-up to my previous post sooner, while the music remains fresh in mind, but mundane-but-necessary administrative writing has pre-empted it all week. I’m now faced with a backlog of shows about which I could write, so I’ll skip a stone across the proceedings and peck out some of the intriguing and enjoyable things to have passed. Especially memorable, though not always for the best reasons, was the third day of the Malcolm Goldstein Interface, last Sunday afternoon. Following the stormy Saturday night that preceded it, there was a healthy, post-cabin fever audience who seemed pleased to be out of the house on that sunny afternoon, and it was nice to see some old friends in attendance.

Malcolm began his spellbinding set of solo violin music with “Walls,” which incorporated a fantasy on a Balkan folk song as well as a deeply moving, self-accompanied recitation of a striking first-person narrative about the loss of a friend named Kazim (I don’t recall whose text it’s from). To follow, the depression-themed “Hardscrabble Songs” equally employed a mix of virtuosic violin scraping and vocal declamation of interleaved bits of poetic and evocative text (which brought some of Brion Gysin’s recorded works to mind). Certainly lighter in tenor than either “Walls” or the drawn out, extraordinarily delicate piece with which Malcolm closed the set, the “Hardscrabble Songs" were toughly wrought nonetheless, and the tight interplay between text, vocal timbre, and violin tone and timbre made it one of the finest multilateral solo performances I’ve heard.

Next on the program and, in advance of the event, something of a crown jewel in the lineup, was the AIMToronto Orchestra to perform two of Malcolm’s pieces, “Qerneraq: Our Breath as Bones” and “Two Silences.” The former featured vocalist Sienna Dahlen as a last-minute dep for Christine Duncan, who was working with Juliet Palmer in advance of the premiere of Stitch. From my vantage point, Sienna did an excellent job with the mostly graphic score that incorporated near-illegible shards of text from an Inuit poem. The problem, instead, was in the ensemble; in a word, given Malcolm’s aesthetic and philosophical priorities, the improvising (which was left quite open within certain parameters) was dominated too heavily by gestures.

By gestures, I mean sounds invested with a kind of subjective intent that is really the primary domain of players in the conventional field of improvised music (if that’s not a ridiculous contradiction) like the majority of Orchestra members. Instead, the music demands the execution of sounds that are as divested of ego as possible, so that the collection of timbres (“soundings,” as Malcolm likes to call them) is as mobile, open, and fluid a field as possible – enabling maximum surprise, for everyone involved. It’s a tall order for a fifteen-member group in one three-hour rehearsal and, unfortunately, it didn’t seem to come off this time around.

“Two Silences,” a fifteen-minute piece defined by three long ‘static’ (ever-changing) sound masses and the two brief spaces between them, suffered for more mundane reasons; on this one, the Orchestra simply played too loudly (myself included!) for the subtleties of the soundfields to emerge. And, like with many pieces of this sort, the fine line between fascination/beguilement and tedium was all-too-quickly crossed. Despite these limitations, the confrontation with Malcolm Goldstein’s music, not only by the AIMToronto Orchestra, but also by musicians all weekend long, introduced a philosophy of improvised music-making that is a far cry from that of typical Interface guests. Such exchange and development (as well as the fine sense of camaraderie that also defined the weekend) is really the hallmark of the Interface Series, and makes it the exciting and essential ongoing institution that it has become.

I had hoped to get to reports on visits by some other special out-of-town guests: Nova Scotian guitarist Arthur Bull (who played beautifully with Nick Fraser and Eric Chenaux on Wednesday) and Montéal trumpeter Gordon Allen and gambist Pierre-Yves Martel (who played beautifully with Rob Clutton on Thursday). Time, for now, is not allowing it. Bear with me as I attempt to corral into words the bumper crop of remarkable music that’s been filling my little studio.

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