Sunday, May 20, 2007

Ripped and Berned at the Clef Club

Philadelphia Clef Club - Saturday, May 19, 2007
David Torn/Prezens
David Torn: guitar, live sampling, electronics, gobs of effects, processing
Tim Berne: alto saxophone, baritone saxophone
Michael Formanek: acoustic bass
Craig Taborn: Rhodes electric piano, synth, gobs of effects, bent circuits
Tom Rainey: drums

Michael Formanek/Tim Berne Duo
Michael Formanek: acoustic bass
Tim Berne: baritone saxophone

HurdAudio took a special field trip up to the city of brotherly love to check out the Tim Berne/David Torn scene at the Philadelphia Clef Club - a venue that seemingly sits just beyond the reach of the gentrifying forces of the 4-star hotels, national steak house chains and theaters just a few blocks north on the Avenue of the Arts. Music from the fringe never seemed more literal.

The Michael Formanek/Tim Berne Duo opened the evening with a set-long performance of "The Offbeat Manifesto." This is an epic, through-composed work for acoustic bass and baritone saxophone that explores extended linear lines for each instrument. There's a lot going on in this composition and I was completely engaged throughout. The middle section had some nice interplay between the bowed bass of Formanek against a texture of multiphonics from Berne.

The second set featured the big sound of David Torn/Prezens. Lurking in the center of the stage - in the center of Prezens - was an acoustic trio of saxophone, bass and drums flanked on either side by the electronics emanating from Torn and Taborn. And the compositional and improvisational leadership was coming from David Torn at stage left as he sculpted large soundscapes from his effects, live sampling, and occasionally his electric guitar. The quintet was often working with multiple layers of sound of varying thickness as they navigated a healthy range of drone-based sonic textures.

Improvising with live electronics - and especially live sampling - can be a mixed bag. And Prezens would hit moments of great sonic beauty sandwiched between stretches of meandering awkwardness. The high points would come when the players would either lock into a resonance with the electronic sounds as the players would build upon the sound as a collaborative whole or they would give in to a steady groove and ride a wave of pulse and tempo. At other times, the acoustic trio seemed to be caught in the middle and swimming upstream against the amplified tides. The difficulty with improvising with live sampling is that it often comes across as a one-way conversation between a player and something they played just moments earlier. It can be useful for constructing some intense sonic textures. But it can also be relentlessly non-responsive - leaving the "live human" performer with a larger burden in improvised contexts. It can also lead to a predictable pattern of sample-then-improvise - a pattern that Prezens deftly avoided most of the time.

I was particularly impressed with the drumming of Tom Rainey throughout the second set. He changed the sound he was getting from the drum kit over the course of these long pieces by focusing on a narrow range at any given time. At times just playing the snare, or just the cymbals, or just the rims of the toms, or just the high-hat. Yet he would always cut through the overall sound with what he was doing and he often seemed to be the instigator for some of the most satisfying waves of sound from the evening.

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