Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Utopia Will Not Be Televised

Rovate: Fissures, Futures @ Kanbar Hall, Jewish Community Center, San Francisco, CA
Saturday, May 23, 2009

Rova Saxophone Quartet:
Larry Ochs: tenor saxophone, sopranino saxophone
Jon Raskin: alto saxophone, baritone saxophone
Bruce Ackley: soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone
Steve Adams: alto saxophone, soprano saxophone

with guests:
Lillevan: video
Lisle Ellis: bass, electronics
Charlotte Hug: viola
Joan Jeanrenaud: cello
Carla Kihlstedt: violin
Thomas Lehn: electronics
Kjell Nordeson: drums, percussion

Collaborative, structured improvisation as an aural utopia and expressive resurrection of the "Spaceship Earth" idealism of Buckminster Fuller. The musicians seated in a semicircle - spilling off of and back onto the stage - with their backs to the audience to keep an eye upon the video screen. Ironically, the video artist is seated with his back to that very screen. Video responding to aural inputs. Improvisers responding to visual stimuli. Somehow, this particular vision of utopia makes sparing use of color.

The individual members of this all-star ensemble contribute compositions that draw out thoughtful group improvisations. Composition as structured improvisation. Much of the notation is graphic and temporally laid out along grids with shapes and images triggering sound. The social order behind this music being collaborative to the point of allowing few individual forays into the sonic (and visual) foreground. Images of fluids, microscopic slides and geometric shapes often dominating the video content. Moments of conversant interplay between players bubble up and back into the mix. The sounds are alluring. The compositional structures are particularly captivating. Given the mix of media and the musical prowess of these players the event never collapses into spectacle.

The contrast between individual compositions is striking. Charlotte Hug's slipway to galaxies concludes the final set with an exploration of sparse beauty. Lisle Ellis's In Praise of the Living Verb opens the first set with a pulsating sequencing of individual players that mixes the density of its parts through addition and subtraction. The dynamic range of materials and ideas offering a glimpse into musical territories barely realized and explored. Composed music often falls well short of the intensity and extended potential mined by good "free" improvisers. These structured improvisations provide a sense of form often lacking in uninhibited creativity. Compositions that demand an active ear from the performer along with a collaborative ethic. The result is often stimulating to the ears and the brain that sits between them.

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