Evan Parker ElectroAcoustic Septet: Seven

Evan Parker ElectroAcoustic Septet: Seven

Evan Parker ElectroAcoustic Septet: Seven

Seven (Victo CD 127)

Peter Evans / trompette piccolo, trompette, Okkyung Lee / violoncelle,  George Lewis / électroniques, trombone, Ikue Mori / électroniques, Sam Pluta / électroniques, Ned Rothenberg / clarinette basse, clarinette, shakuhachi, Evan Parker / saxophone soprano.
Recorded: Live at the 30th Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville May 18th, 2014.

Seven presents a compact, slimmed down, lean version of Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. The expansive, texturally rich music of the septet brings to mind the edgy feel of early free improvisation.

Parker’s compositional method is simple:

“My art of composition consists in choosing the right people and asking them to improvise. The resulting music arises from this sequence of decisions.
My art of composition consists in choosing the right people and these are the right people”

Of course, it is not quite so simple; for choosing the “right people” entails a knowledge of who those people are and what they might bring to the improvisational discourse.

In this case, two of the acoustic instrumentalists – Rothenberg and Evans – are players who, in forging their own identities, have fully entered into Parker’s own mind-bending, circularly-probing musical methodology.

Evan Parker ElectroAcoustic Septet: Seven

The four electronics players (with Lewis doubling sparingly but incisively on trombone) approach the electro-acoustic gathering differently than the way players normally do in Parker’s large ElectroAcoustic Ensembles. While in those ensembles, the electronic players have been mainly signal or sound processors who primarily reshape and remold sounds of other ensemble members, here the electro musicians do that only moderately. Through varied technical means, they emit a distinctive particulated sound field that exists as an interactive but dimensional counterpoint to the acoustic instrumental output.

Much of the edginess of Seven stems directly from this. For while the performance (in two parts) has the feel of a true organically-arrived-at ensemble music, the respective acoustic and electro players – due to the entirely different manners in which they are producing sounds – follow different “logical” trajectories. The two “logics” together in the one musical space create a good deal of the music’s inner tension.

Evan Parker ElectroAcoustic Septet: Seven

It is worth noting that in early free improvisation – say from the period of Topography of the Lungs (Incus 1, July 1970) onward – much of the tension in the music – which is the push-and-pull between known and unknown, cohesion and dissolution – was due to the players’ courageous ongoing expansion of instrumental language. But players have pushed language to its virtual tipping point; so that what once sounded outrageous and demanding of innovative responses is now heard as commonplace. So presently, it seems, formal expansions – such as we hear in the collusion of logic differentials in this music – may be more the way forward.

To be sure, both the acoustic and electro musicians of Seven are at the top of their games. While there is an overarching dramatic contour to the music – it rises and falls, opens and closes, shifts densities – the whole unfolds with unselfconscious effortlessness; it feels unscripted and of the moment.

Evan Parker ElectroAcoustic Septet: Seven

The acoustic players, while sensitive to each other, pursue the inner and outer ranges of their instruments with an independence tempered only by self-imposed structural imperatives. Evans’ trumpet frequently masks itself in electronic-sounding metallic and breathy slurs. Lee’s stringy cello pulls and tugs at the direction of the ensemble or gets lost in staccato electro barrages. Rothenberg opens and ends the long first piece on shakuhachi which, in the midst of atmospheric electro rumblings, might pass for music from a Japanese sci-fi samurai film. And Parker – always a sympathetic co-conspirator – lends full support to his musical compatriots on his most agile instrument, the soprano saxophone, which he alternately rides to levels approaching the complexity of his solo music.

The electro players for their part – I am unable to differentiate between them individually – counter the acoustic sounds with otherworldly smears, stutters, sloshes, and scribbles; or explosively pointillistic sparks, crackles, gurgles, and prickly static.

It all adds up to exceptionally stimulating music for the listener, at the center of which is an edginess we’ve long associated with classically great free improvisation.

Henry Kuntz – June 2015

Evan Parker and Joel Ryan | Other Planes of Here

Other Planes of Here

Reflections on a Performance by Evan Parker, soprano saxophone, and Joel Ryan, electronics processing, at Mills College, Oakland, California, October 9, 2010

Evan Parker

Joel Ryan

Evan Parker’s longtime association with players of electronics is well known and documented, from his work with the Music Improvisation Company in 1969-70 to his playing with his current Electro Acoustic Ensemble. Yet his one-on-one collaborations with electronics sound processors have been few, with minimal recordings.

The earliest recording, Hall of Mirrors (MM&T 01) with Walter Prati, dates from 1990, while the most recent recordings – Solar Wind (Touch TO 35) with Lawrence Casserley, Dividuality (Maya) with a short duo track with Casserley, and Live at Les Instant Chavires (Leo LR 255) with a long opening track with Joel Ryan – date from 1997, more than a dozen years ago. (1)

So Parker’s appearance at Mills with longtime collaborator Ryan was a rare opportunity to hear him playing in this context.

Evan Parker at St Peters Whistable | Photo by Caroline Forbes

Parker’s solo soprano saxophone music, of course, has likewise been well documented, and if you’ve heard any recent recordings – say Lines Burnt in Light (psi 01.01) from 2001, or Whitstable Solo (psi 10.01) from 2008– you’ll know that his solo music continues to expand in ease of virtuosity and in its astonishing multi-layered complexity. Parker’s single saxophone is in his hands a multiple-line instrument.

So what could possibly be added to Parker’s music by electronic means that is not already there? Certainly not complexity in itself, but perhaps a different kind of complexity, one based on extensions of sonic language unattainable through even the most virtuosic advances in saxophone artistry.

Of the early collaborations, all of which are interesting, Lawrence Casserley’s recording with Evan Parker, Solar Wind, is easily the most rarified and sophisticated. While Parker’s playing is central to the music’s realization, his physical sound is mostly audibly “hidden” in the recorded results. At the same time, it is being bent, stretched, looped, twisted, speeded, slowed, elongated, re-shaped, re-pitched, re-layered, and re-imagined by Casserley.

In a 1997 interview with Martin Davidson (2), Parker relates how he initially turned to free improvisation in an attempt to create a “music of the future” for a friend’s sci-fi film – then brought that “futuristic” impulse into his own playing in present time. Perhaps it is a similar impulse that is driving these types of electronic alliances.

At Mills, the stage was set with Parker, soprano, and stereo microphone on the right; on the left, Ryan behind a table with 2 Apple laptops that sandwiched some discreet electronic gear, all linked together by a maze of wires that flowed off the table onto the floor. The processed sound was sent to giant overhead speakers that were suspended in the air on each side of the performance space.

Joel Ryan | Photo by Caroline Forbes

In program notes for the performance, Ryan explains how he views his role:

“Imagining emusic as the direct manipulation of sound in the present moment. The desire was to learn to play with electronics in a way that could be included in the music of virtuoso acoustic players, in adapting representations of vibration and turbulence to musical acoustics, i.e. getting some air into the model. Mostly this involved a collaboration with a particular soloist to create a virtual instrument that they then both play….It is both a way that an e-player can influence the motions in the air and a way that a musician valving air can induce a music of electrons.”

How did the collaboration work and what did it sound like?

In truth, it began slowly and a little off kilter. Parker’s playing quickly filled the room and took the ear; the processed sound, mostly low blob-like entities, felt muddled and superfluous to the nimble soprano.

But things got better. With Ryan’s coaxing, the sonic balance improved and the music became more varied and interesting. The genies were released from Parker’s horn, and a pair of four and twenty blackbirds flapped furiously out. Large and small playful and mischievous spirits darted in myriad directions throughout the space – taunting, interacting with, and ignoring each other – and little high-pitched sounds danced in my ears, independent of the sounds being produced on stage. At times, if I closed my eyes, I would only “know” where Parker was because I had previously “seen” him there. But his freed saxophone ghosts were flying about, courtesy of Joel Ryan.

In the end, it was a mesmerizing and highly experiential performance rather than one emotionally engaging in any dramatic sense.

Did it reach the heights that Parker and Casserley achieved in 1997? I can’t say it went beyond the sonic language of the earlier music, though the sound was sometimes denser and more layered, but there were certainly moments of brilliance and, without question, of comparable artistry.

Henry Kuntz, October 2010

  • (1) There is also a 2004 release by Joel Ryan Or Air (psi 04.08), on which he creates electronic variations on the music of Evan Parker but without Parker himself being present. I haven’t heard this music.
  • (2) Martin Davidson’s interview with Evan Parker can be accessed on Parker’s page at the European Free Improvisation Home. Please click here… to read the complete interview.

Joel Ryan and Evan Parker from STEIM Amsterdam on Vimeo.

PLEASE NOTE that it is from 2008, so it doesn’t seem like a video of the performance under review…

Michael Tenzer | Let Others Name You

Michael Tenzer

Let Others Name You (New World Records 80697)

Genta Buana Sari and Sanggar Çudamani Gamelan Collectives; Vancouver Players (Nonet); Naoko Christ-Kato, piano; OSSIA Ensemble, David Jacobs: conductor. Recorded: Unstable Center June 19, 2003 Pengosekan, Bali; Underleaf July 9, 2006 Pengosekan, Bali; Resolution October 25, 2008 Rochester, New York; Invention and Etude February 22, 2005 Lubeck, Germany.

In June 2003, I was fortunate to be in Denpasar, Bali for the premiere of American composer Michael Tenzer’s piece Unstable Center for two gamelan samaradana orchestras. I wrote of the performance in my Report from Bali 2003.

But Unstable Center was only the first part of a triptych. Now it, along with the triptych’s second and third parts – Underleaf (from 2006) and Resolution (from 2007) – can be heard in beautifully detailed recordings on Michael Tenzer’s new CD, Let Others Name You.

Unstable Center (whose Indonesian title Puser Belah translates as “split navel”) was written as a response to the Bali bombings of October 12, 2002. It asks whether it is possible to bridge the gaps between inherently different cultures and values.

The genius of Unstable Center is that it is a programmatic work rooted in purely musical advances which serve in turn to further its programmatic ends.

The samaradana orchestra which the piece employs is a relatively new type of gamelan that was developed in the 1980s by I Wayan Berata. With seven tones instead of the usual five – most Balinese music is pentatonic in nature – it can be adapted to play a variety of Balinese music. Recently, new pieces have been composed specifically for the semaradana gamelan that propose a more structurally open, multi-pentatonic, multi-modal music.

Unstable Center takes these new concepts as a given and adds another orchestra. Somewhere in the middle of the piece (and in Underleaf and Resolution as well), complex South Indian rhythmic figures and patterns are woven into the mix.

Programmatically, Unstable Center has to do with a first-time meeting between two isolated cultures, each one represented by one of the two gamelan orchestras. In performance, the orchestras faced each other across an open air stage.

The piece begins primordially, as if at the beginning of time. Each orchestra plays in its own musical universe. One plays more quietly, the other more demonstrably loud and assertive. With gradual awareness of the other, there are points of musical conflict and cooperation. There are any number of textural twists, marvelous sudden rhythmic interjections and shifts in dynamics until, at the piece’s center, a powerful yet slightly uneasy unanimity is achieved between the two bodies. It lasts only briefly. Gradually, the heady communion comes apart, each orchestra retreating into its own parameters, then finally retiring to musical spaces that mirror the opening.

In performance, there were some subtle, yet important, visual components to the work as well. In the middle of the piece, one of the two drummers from each orchestra exchanged drums, symbolic of creating a cultural bridge between the groups. And at the work’s conclusion, each of the players of the large gongs from each orchestra abandoned their posts at the rear of the stage and walked to the front. As the large gong is more or less the anchor of any gamelan ensemble, I took the musicians leaving their instruments to indicate that while the piece was finished, the process itself was unfinished; unfinished because it is an ongoing one and must be continually, freshly re-engaged in.

This leads us to Underleaf, the title of which is taken from a Balinese children’s song which suggests that one can’t simply sweep away cultural differences. They remain where they are, “underleaf.”

For Underleaf , we again have two orchestras. One is a Balinese gamelan semardana, but the other is a jazz-infused nonet with 2 clarinets, 2 saxophones, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, and electric piano. For this piece, however, the two orchestras do not face each other; each is embedded as a complete and separate entity within the other ensemble.

Underleaf seems to be asking how two fully developed, dynamically self-contained cultural bodies can get along in close proximity.

Musically, the answer seems to be for them to each go their separate but equal ways, interacting for only an occasional gratuitous amenity. What’s interesting, however, is that Underleaf provides an additional if perhaps unintended answer to the question it poses. For as one becomes accustomed to hearing the piece, its built-in harmonic and rhythmic clashes begin to dissolve and fade. The ear begins to perceive a new musical/cultural unity. This, in a sense, is how real cultures evolve, shift, and form new wholes. People subconsciously begin to incorporate and eventually build upon new (if at times contradictory) cultural input.

Resolution, which follows, suggests even more. The piece employs a full classical orchestra and two Balinese drummers. While at first glance, the balance between the two cultural entities would seem to be unequal, we realize on reflection that each represents the essence of musical expression of the two cultures. In the west, it is the classical orchestra which carries cultural weight, whereas in Bali it is the drummers who are the leaders of the gamelan, the ones who direct and dynamically shape the music as it goes along.

Michael Tenzer describes Resolution as a “recessional,” a piece that would ordinarily be played as an audience exits a performance. As such, it both summarizes and re-capitulates what the audience has experienced, moving it out of performance time and space into real world time and space.

Building on the strength of an extensive string section, Resolution has a dreamlike, near fantasia quality to it that rises above its own inner drama to virtually hover over the first parts of the triptych. The ease of interaction between the western orchestra and the Balinese drummers suggests to us that real world problems of cultural interaction are best solved by each of us recalling the spiritual essence of who we are as human beings. While no music can solve hardcore problems of a geo-political or economic nature – most often the basis of broader cultural disputes – it can offer us, as Resolution does, the spiritual strength to confront and solve those problems.

As a recessional, Resolution suggests as well that this is an ongoing process. There can be no final resolution, only an ongoing will to resolve that must be continually refreshed and renewed in our own psyches.

Let Others Name You also contains two short solo piano pieces by Michael Tenzer, Etude and Invention (from 2004) which are rhythmic-harmonic “studies” for the final parts of the triptych. They are stunningly and passionately played by Japanese pianist Naoko Christ-Kato.

Henry Kuntz (October 2009)

More on Let Others Name You can be found on the New World Records web page by clicking here… and on Michael Tenzer’s web page here…

Fresh Sounds from the Bay

There’s a tremendous amount of musical activity in the San Francisco Bay Area right now, more than one person can keep up with.

On a recent Saturday evening, while Evan Parker appeared with pianist Greg Goodman in Berkeley at the opening of a series of performances celebrating thirty years of Woody Woodman’s Finger Palace, the “XXXth WoodTenniel,” across town in Oakland there was a new presentation of Tom Djll’s “politically expedient musical” Mockracy featuring no less than twenty stellar local improvisers.

On the following evening, while I was joining the trio Wiggwaum for a show at San Francisco’s Hemlock Tavern, Mockracy continued in Oakland, and Gino Robair mounted an encore performance of his opera I, Norton at SF’s Community Music Center. There were also performances at the Musicians Union Hall in San Francisco presented by Rent Romus and Outsound and at Studio 1510 in Oakland.

Two days later, when guests Paul Lytton and Nate Wooley joined Mills composer-in-residence Fred Frith for a collaboration at Oakland’s 21 Grand, the show was followed by an after-hours event at the nearby Uptown Club by the quartet that appears on the CD Jus.

This is all to say that while my intention is to alert you to some of the wonderfully fresh sounds happening in the Bay Area, what I have to share with you is by no means exclusive.

Poor School / Wiggwaum (Killertree Records) is a first release by two distinctive trios in a combination LP and CD. Poor School is Bryan Ramirez – electric guitar, Nathan Hoyme – reeds, John Niekrasz – drums. Wiggwaum is Randy Lee Sutherland – drums, Douglas Katelus – Fender Rhodes electric piano, Loren Means – amplified trombone, flute, and voice. One continuous side of the LP is Poor School, the other Wiggwaum; the enclosed CD features the LP material in digital format along with an additional track by each group.

The playing is high-intensity throughout, though there are fundamental differences in each group’s musical approach. I’ve come to think of their respective approaches as symbolic of something like post-nuclear morning and evening ragas.

Poor School will wake you up and not take you down. Their modal and thickly drone-based song is awash in a sea of harmonics. Their music seems like a throwback at first, but it’s only that there’s a timelessness at the spiritual core of it. Ramirez’s high-strung electric guitar pyrotechnics most often take the lead in the trio’s rock-solid amalgam of ecstatic psychedelic jazz.

Wiggwaum shapes sound inside a nebulous cone of white noise from outer space. Their music might change your evening or your life. While its particles are made up of “real” sounds derived from real instruments, it is pushed to such a level of intensity that only a massive sound entity remains.

Randy Sutherland’s drums loosely thrash, crash, explode, and dryly implode within the sonic mush. From Doug Katelus’ Fender Rhodes come jangly runs of Ra-like “cosmic tones” or warbly layers of static-y stratospheric dis-chords that shatter and whir upon terrestrial re-entry.

At the center of the maelstrom are the distorted voice, feedback flute, and mutant trombone of Loren Means. You might recall Loren’s playing from Henry Kaiser’s Ice Death (Parachute 005). Loren’s new brass sound is like nothing you’ve heard, a muffled foghorn to guide approaching aliens. Combining crescendo-ing and decrescendo-ing globs of sound with Martian voice and Theremin-like feedback, Loren’s playing gives shapeless shape to Wiggwaum’s edgy next-age noise music.

Jus (Balance Point Acoustics) is a quartet with Jacob Lindsay – clarinets, Ava Mendoza – guitar, Damon Smith – ergo string bass and lloop software, Weasel Walter –drums. Walter’s presence on the CD, along with enclosed instruction to play it “at high volume” has one thinking that this might be another high-propulsion free jazz blowout. But Jus offers music of another sort, something unique to itself.

It is music that is continually probing beneath its own surface, extracting unassuming yet purposeful sonic core samples from its oceanic depths. The sounds are low-level, deliberately dynamically uneven, but occasionally something hard is struck, and there are loud explosive bursts and eruptions.

If there is an antecedent for Jus’s musical approach, you might find it on “Translucency” where, at its most active, the music calls to mind that of the Music Improvisation Company of the early 1970s.

Jus undertakes a total group approach to improvisation. Save for Jacob Lindsay’s short Giuffre-like clarinet lead that stands in high relief on “Discrete Flavor Symmetry,” there is little in the way of individual motivic development. Yet the music engages us because despite its lack of linearity, there is held tension in the lack of line itself, in the multiple little dramas that emerge in its intervallic spaces.

The Jon Raskin Quartet (Rastscan) features Liz Albee – trumpet and percussion, George Cremaschi – bass and electronics, Gino Robair – percussion and electronics, Jon Raskin – saxophones. There are twelve pieces of music, several based on specific-to-open graphic scores created by Raskin, others completely improvised.

Of the compositions, Raskin writes: “The scores are an ongoing attempt for the musical ideas and inspirations to be on the page rather than an abstract road map….Each work has a unique set of sounds, strategies and ideas given to the visual elements. Some of the elements in the score are composer defined while others are what I call ‘self composing’ where the musician decides on the material for the performance. The intent is to give shape and consistency of form for the ensemble while leaving open the path for individual language and perspective.”

The musicians are well chosen for that task and for their adeptness at collective improvisation. In fact, there are no real solos in this music, only continually evolving group interplay of the highest order. Individual virtuosity is fundamental to the quartet’s contrapuntal improvisational approach, but it is tempered by musical necessity. What we hear in the music are lines and riffs, weight shifts, and textural openings. Any player may stand out at this moment or that, but the integrity of the music as a whole is what we hear.

I also found myself thinking of certain music of Roscoe Mitchell’s or that of the early Art Ensemble of Chicago while listening to this CD, in the way the music devolves from line to pure sound and back again. It is interesting that in this context Gino Robair’s “deconstructivist” approach to percussion frequently leads directly back to the “little instrument” sounds of Mitchell and the AEC.

There are equally compelling contributions from Jon Raskin himself whose manner of understatement or of tonal pivoting can remind one of Mitchell; from the undersung George Cremaschi whose bold fibrous bass tone holds the music’s firm center; and from Liz Albee whose trumpet first conjures up Don Cherry, then whispers, growls, purrs, or can sound like an aggregate of children’s squeeze toys.

Zen Kaiju is an intriguing new CD featuring Kiku Day – ji-nashi shakuhachi, and Henry Kaiser – electric and acoustic guitars.

When Henry handed me this CD, he told me he thought this was one of his best recordings ever of pure free improvisation.

But what is at the core of free improvisation, and how are we to judge it? After all, free improvisation is only one method among many for creating music. But it is the most open method, one that suggests that while it is possible to play almost anything, what that “anything” is will be determined in the moment of musical transaction. The self that enters into and surrenders to such a methodology will not likely be the same self who comes out of it at the end. For what is built into that open way of creating is an inherent propensity for change, an opportunity on each and every occasion to renew and rediscover the self and the self in relation to others. The idea is not simply that the players should engage as musical chameleons but as full, present, and evolving selves.

That is what Henry Kaiser and Kiku Day do masterfully on Zen Kaiju.

Kiku Day takes that most ancient of Japanese flutes, the shakuhachi, into new dimensions. Mindful of the still center of the instrument, she merges its traditional plaintive call with seeming electronic slivers of high-pitched sound, dynamic whooshes, breathy and growly wisps, mouth noises, strange percussive tongueings and tappings.

Henry Kaiser’s post-Bailey guitar slows down, becomes charged and evocative. He bends and alters his phrases, strums successions of stringy, twangy slack tones, flicks quick starry clusters of notes into incongruous orbit. On electric guitar, he holds in place big chunky motorboat chords; he sustains into infinity loud wavery-to-pure tones, cries, and wails that at times mimic Day’s shakuhachi.

Henry Kaiser and Kiku Day — between them emerge moments of interactive clarity that reveal the essence of their musical personas. Their mastery of free improvisation is revealed.

Henry Kuntz (November 2008)
(Thanks to Martha Winneker for editorial assistance.)