Thursday, February 21, 2008

Get Well, Octopus / Orange Moon Songs

Sadly, my favourite eight-limbed percussionist, Germaine Liu plus Mark Zurawinski, came down with a big flu on Tuesday and couldn’t take part in the program with Michael Keith, David Sait, and me that I’d listed as Plumber Octopus Cracker Shoe. In a pinch, ST regular John Oswald joined me in the first set, making the evening JOUST Cracker & Shoe. It was a real treat to hear David and Michael, whom I hadn’t heard, I believe, since they played at Lennox Contemporary Gallery as part of the inaugural MUSIC(in)GALLERIES in July 2006.

Michael was in particularly fine form, extracting some extremely delicate things out of his guitar, loops, delay, and other effects. At the best moments, he created a marvelous, shifting-landscape context for David’s always tastefully timed unamplified guzheng gestures. The only problematic instances, to my ears, were Michael’s two extremely brief outbursts of heavily distorted shredding. While certainly not overly loud, his distorted guitar tone dominated the soundfield in a way that painted David’s guzheng – not really the most dynamic of instruments – into an acoustic corner. Interestingly, however, these episodes were both followed by moments of great clarity, and Michael – certainly a savvy, experienced improviser – could well have planned such effective contrast as part of his intuitive strategies.

Disappointingly, last night’s Element Choir concert was muted not only by Christine Duncan’s absence (she is working in BC this week) but also by low attendance by choir members. Only seven were on hand and, without a clear leader in the bunch, the show was extremely tentative to start. It’s clear that some in the group really don’t grasp that these residency sessions are performances not workshops (despite the small audiences) and without Christine’s hand on the tiller last night, it was extremely rare that any collective focus was fostered. As always, there were some positively brilliant moments – who knew that a scream by Parmela Attariwala could actually curdle blood? – but the night was dominated by overlong and pretty self-indulgent bits of theatrical silliness. Some blamed (credited?) the strange forces emanating from the full moon and orange-mooned eclipse for the uncharacteristic state of affairs. I do not wish to sound dismissive of forces that I can’t possibly understand but, since nobody suggested that inattention and a lack of good musical decision-making are more likely culprits, I will do so now.

I’ll be crisscrossing Germany with Maestro Ricardo Marsella for the next few weeks, so this weblog will be on hiatus until I return. Thus, it’s ST’s Non-Reading Week. School’s Out. Have fun in Fort Lauderdale, kids.

Thanks to Ken Aldcroft, John Oswald, Pete Johnston, and Nick Fraser, who will be presiding over events here in my absence.

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.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Folk Forms (or Folks Form)

Try to say that one ten times, quickly.

Due to some scheduling vagaries, I’ve had a string of Thursdays become available, and I was very happy to offer last night to violinist & violist David Prentice and bassist Aaron Lumley for a Valentine’s joust. This pair was here about a month ago (just before the inception of this site) and I was quite taken by the rapport between them and, once again, how totally brilliant David is. Last night, they picked up right where they left off, twisting knotty, this-follows-that improvisations into what may as well be folk songs. David has the rare ability among improvisers to play idiomatically ‘free’ but to develop his ideas tunefully and melodically (broadly speaking), as if a narrative logic overrides the temptation to shorten ideas within the gestural logic of the moment. It’s a capacity that he shares with the ‘likes’ of Leroy Jenkins, Paul Rutherford, and Mario Schiano, each a hero of mine for similar reasons.

Aaron is clearly the junior partner in this duo but, while he tends on occasion to default to ideas with short shelf lives, he demonstrated again how high he’s climbed on a steep learning curve. It’s obvious that Aaron relishes the big, Mingus-y sound he’s getting out of his gut strings, and he really digs into his instrument in an occasionally self-absorbed search and discovery of fantastic sounds, but last night he proved how fine and supportive an accompanist he can be in this kind of context. It’s a context, perhaps ironically, where a successful ‘accompanist’ generates roughly half of the material.

For the second set, David and Aaron invited audients John Oswald and myself (a group known in the annals as JOUST) to join them for a good-natured spar. No folk songs were in the offing here, since both John and I were feeling perhaps too fanciful to let things reside anywhere too simply. Instead, the quartet lived in a web of darting lines and little blats that resulted in a joyful disorientation. Great fun. For arcane reasons that tickle my most nerd-like sensibilities, I propose that the four-piece – if and (hopefully) when we play together again – be called PLUTO. We’ll travel the spaceways.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


Big thanks to all who came out last night to the Barnyard Records Three-CD Launch for as fine a party as ST has seen. Such a beautiful thing. Lots of great friends came out, including some whom I hadn’t seen in months, and the room housed a genuine air of celebration (amid the waft of some amazing cheeses Jean Martin [pictured] and I picked out for our guests). Christine Duncan was a splendid maitre-d’ and made everyone feel totally welcome – she’s surely got the job from now on if she wants it! The music-making, while very fine (especially Evan Shaw and Jean’s really brief tête-à-tête), clearly deferred to the party, and the hang went well into the night. It was especially wonderful to welcome Lori Freedman, whom I’ve barely seen and with whom I hadn’t played since we recorded Plumb in April. She sounds utterly fantastic. Our duet was a little underheated for which I feel a bit responsible – it’s tough to change gears from host to performer and I didn’t quite make the switch capably last night – but I’m licking my chops for my next shots at playing with her: the Montréal Barnyard Records Launch Party at Casa Del Popolo on 23 March and the Sound Symposium, St. John’s Newfoundland, 3-13 July.

Thanks always to Jean Martin, the Barnyard Visionary and truly one of the most affable, creative gentlemen you could possibly meet.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Singing in the Snow

It’s a brilliant testimony to the loyalty she’s winning that thirteen members of Christine Duncan’s Element Choir braved last night’s thunder-snowstorm for their regular Wednesday night slot at ST. As usual, and very much in contrast with what was going on outside, they made the room feel very warm indeed. That seemed to be enough of achievement for some of the choristers, however, who seemed content to chat and giggle while Christine’s razor-sharp cues whizzed past them. As a result, it took a long time for the group to achieve the precious sense of collective focus – fostered by Christine’s innate conviction to musicality – that can make these shows truly extraordinary.

Highlights, instead, came increasingly from individual contributors which, upon reflection, is not really surprising. Throughout the residency, I’ve heard both trained singers and amateurs (in the wonderful, French sense) hone their improvising chops through the crucible of performance. What’s more, I understand that Christine is now leading technique workshops for choir members on weekends, so the learning curve for many of these performers is excitingly steep.

Favourite moments included Aki Takahashi’s whispering, muttering, sibilant solo that she delivered theatrically, rocking on her knees as if in intense prayer. Christine then cued newcomer Jessica Stuart to mimic her, and Juliet Palmer to accompany them both, and the tiny results were breathtakingly emotional. Colin Anthony’s best moments all sounded beautifully like an old codger complaining underwater (I propose a new cue for the Choir in honour of Colin: “Old man and the sea”). Thom Gill, who also took the conducting reigns at one point, led an excellent trio with Juliet and Erika Werry with a solo that oscillated between the nasal extremes of humming and the bronchial extremes of inhalation. Finally, another newcomer to ST, Lawrence Cotton, introduced an over-the-top yokel bellylaugh motif in his rich bass that, enacting the contagion of laughter, Christine soon had a good chunk of the choir (and this listener, inadvertently and uncontrollably) reproducing.

In other news this ratty new year, it goes without saying that I'm looking forward to the Barnyard Records Triple CD Launch and Party on Saturday night featuring music by Jean Martin, Evan Shaw, Colin Fisher, Lori Freedman, and me. We'll do what we can to emphasize the 'party' part of the event. Rats in the Barnyard.