A Fickle Sonance
a column by
Circulasione Totale Orchestra Courtesy of Frode Gjerstad
Premise: What the 1980s were for midsized ensembles in jazz, so this decade is becoming for large ensembles. That is, the effect that such bands as the David Murray Octet, Henry Threadgill Sextett, Edward Wilkerson Jr’s Eight Bold Souls, Anthony Davis’ Episteme, the Guus Janssen Septet, and Willem Breuker Kollektief, among others, had on the expansion of compositional strategies in an otherwise primarily improvisational format has a contemporary parallel in the increase in large ensembles and an accompanying elaboration on and emulation of a broader range of compositional influences (classical as well as jazz). By large ensemble I don’t mean simply big bands, with their established sectional formation, but a flexibly constituted chamber group – a mixture of individual horns and reeds, a rhythm section that may not necessarily function in the conventional fashion, with the important inclusion of several string players and, crucially, an electronic component. “Orchestra” is the word most often used to describe them, regardless of size, but I propose the term “broken consort,” borrowed from the Elizabethan name for an ensemble mixing instruments from different families. (Realistically, I don’t expect it to catch on, but what the hey.)
Of course, nothing exists in a vacuum, and just as those midsized ‘80s bands took their cue principally from concepts initiated by Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, George Russell, Archie Shepp, and Andrew Hill (note to self: for future consideration, listen for possible influence of Bud Freeman’s eight-man Summa Cum Laude Orchestra on the David Murray Octet), so precedents for today’s multi-stylistic broken consorts, if you will, can be traced all the way back to Paul Whiteman, whose orchestra, at its most leviathan, was capable of featuring either Bix Beiderbecke in a jazzed-up dance tune or George Gershwin in “Rhapsody in Blue.” Others quickly took note. In 1928, for just one example, the Dorsey Brothers, having left Whiteman to strike out on their own, fronted a “Concert Orchestra,” including strings and conducted by no less than “Dr.” Eugene Ormandy, for a low-jazz-content Okeh recording session. But by the time Swing reached its commercial peak, strings typically lessened jazz credibility. At one point the enormously popular Artie Shaw added a violin section to his big band for lush-textured moody pseudo-classical interludes (like the first section of Paul Jordan’s 1941 “Suite No. 8” and his own hodge-podge “Concerto for Clarinet”), but it took composer/arrangers Pete Rugolo, Bill Russo, and especially the brilliantly iconoclastic Bob Graettinger to convincingly evoke Bartok and Stravinsky in Stan Kenton’s early-‘50s, forty-piece (sixteen strings), modestly named Innovations Orchestra. By 1971, Kenton’s equally ambitious and experimental descendent, Don Ellis, put a string quartet in his odd-metered orchestra, and had been using electronics to psychedelicize his trumpet solos for several years. In the ‘90s, the prolific, persistent Vinny Golia began incorporating strings into his Large Ensemble, and Mark Dresser concocted a tribute to John Carter for the 1991 October Meeting in Amsterdam with a prophetic, knockout ad hoc ensemble that included a string quartet and Earl Howard’s electronics (alas, only an excerpt of the latter performance was issued on Anatomy Of A Meeting, Bimhuis). And in 2004, The Transatlantic Art Ensemble, a broken consort hybrid of Roscoe Mitchell’s Note Factory and some of Britain and the Continent’s most adventurous players, issued a pair of stunning ECM albums illuminating multifaceted scores by Mitchell and Evan Parker, respectively.
All of which, though just the tip of the historical iceberg, is relevant to four recent releases which make use of an unidiomatic broken consort instrumentation and unconstrained compositional possibilities in exceedingly different ways – which in itself supports the viability of the concept. The Circulasione Totale Orchestra’s PhilaOslo (CT), under the nominal leadership of Norwegian reedman Frode Gjerstad, represents a free jazz sensibility balanced by a compositionally-minded group dynamic that includes shrewd self-editing and thoughtful, while spontaneous, alignment of voicings. In business since 1984, and committed to long-form improvisation, the current unusual instrumentation – cornet, two reeds, tuba, vibes, electric guitar, acoustic and electric bass, three drummers, and electronics – assures a changing landscape of colors and events, in a sense creating a spatial environment and then developing variations of ensemble, rather than thematic, interplay inside it. No strings per se, but Lasse Marhaug’s firestorm electronics set the tone in the introduction to “Phila” (recorded live in Philadelphia), and the industrial-strength rhythm section lays out for long stretches, allowing sparse textures and spacey atmospherics to confuse foreground and background, and sustain the flow between high-energy episodes. Their largely non-referential attitude nevertheless finds room for cornetist Bobby Bradford’s sly Monk paraphrases and, in the “Oslo” performance, looser and more extreme, rumbling rhythmic impetus amid bass ostinatos and lightning bolts of guitar and synthesizer reminiscent of electric Miles.
The CTO gives compositional credit as “All music by the band.” The London Improvisers Orchestra was founded in 1997 on that same philosophy, but since then has also employed a wide range of conducted, implied, verbalized, and conceptual compositional conceits – each piece usually under the direction of a single leader – as an ongoing experiment in improvisational detailing, shaping, and responding to an outside stimulus. The personnel has changed frequently according to interest and availability, though many of the usual suspects – including saxophonist Evan Parker, trombonist Alan Tomlinson, violinist Philipp Wachsmann, pianist Steve Beresford, synthesist Pat Thomas, and Adam Bohman on amplified objects – appear quite regularly. On Lio Leo Leon (psi), the LIO stands thirty-eight strong (twelve strings this time), and may be thought of in orchestral terms because of their heft and the section-like grouping of instruments. It’s an unpredictable orchestra, however, with spiritual fathers in Varèse, Ives, John Stevens, Paul Rutherford, and Sun Ra – innovators who reconceptualized approaches to orchestral configuration and methodology, identified new systems of sound production, combination, and narrative. And the members seldom if ever act in sectional consensus. “Before Tapping,” the opening group improvisation, shows how the fluid movement of tonal combinations stresses individual, not sectional, detail; the various strings, for example, emphasize polyphony and counterpoint, as opposed to unison agreement. Conductions like Alison Blunt’s “Wiretapping” and “Numbers Listening” by Caroline Kraabel merely determine who is playing, and when, thus creating rhythmic and textural contrasts out of spontaneous contributions. Somewhat more devious and genre-bending are the two “concertos.” In Steve Beresford’s “Concerto for Soft-Loud Key-Box No. 2,” pianist Leon Michener is free to devise classical flourishes and filigree, even resorting to recognizably dark Rachmaninoff chords, in close proximity to a fluctuating “accompaniment” that questions the traditional relationship between soloist and ensemble (although the truncated length works against a substantial development of roles), while Dave Tucker provides a title that defines the latitudes of solo identity and responsibility with unambiguous specificity: “Concerto for Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith & Orchestra.”
British composer/bassist Simon H. Fell has been a frequent participant in LIO activities, and his pieces typically, paradoxically, confront that improvising body with elements of compositional control – notated or predetermined material, from intervals or motifs to musical quotations or allusions; structured conditions; prerecorded sounds; scripted descriptions of tonal events – that must be handled in their characteristically intuitive fashion. Separate from the LIO, his fully-conceived compositions, several of which have fortunately been recorded, display a Kenton-like glee in manipulation of huge forces and a Braxtonian breadth of scope, scale, imagination, and complexity. Fell, in turn, acknowledges the occasional incongruity of his methods and material; he has called his works, at various times, an assemblage, a compilation, a collage, and a “Fourth Stream construct,” and made distinctions between improvisers, jazz ensembles, big bands, and chamber orchestras in presenting them. Composition No. 75: Positions & Descriptions (Clean Feed) makes no such distinctions; the fifteen-piece broken consort he leads here places jazz-oriented players like saxophonist Tim Berne and guitarist Joe Morris on equal footing with abstract improvisers Alex Ward (clarinet) and Rhodri Davies (harp), classical practitioners Andrew Sparling (clarinet) and Mifune Tsuji (violin), and wild card Steve Beresford on electronics and conduction, suggesting that the improvisational, jazz, and classical components of the music now are intended to be less of a collage and more of an intertwined fabric of related, rather than juxtaposed, sources. Having incorporated swinging passages; serial procedures; quotations from Stockhausen, Mahler, and Webern; and intimations of Ellington and Strayhorn into previous scores, Fell’s fluency in several stylistic vocabularies is obvious, and like Braxton is effective at recontextualizing his vast resources into a personalized perspective. Here, the use of complementary and contrasting materials creates a dynamic flow pattern of stylistic tension and resolution, freed by improvisational commentary. Fell designs the nine movements according to eclectic constructs and separate interludes, involving all of the techniques at his disposal – exposition, variation, serial devices, quotations from Webern and Boulez (and Zappa?), prerecorded “mobile” settings, jazz riffs, solos, a Mahlerian dream sequence, off-kilter pitch distortions, staggered melodic variables, and a tango. Given Fell’s alchemic touch, it all fits.
On the other hand, the large ensemble music of guitarist/composer Scott Fields on Moersbow/OZZO (Clean Feed) expresses a more traditional, not to say conservative, contemporary classical demeanor, which may in part be attributed to Fields’ past collaborations with composer Stephen Dembski, who himself studied at one time with Milton Babbitt. This twenty-four-piece broken consort, an outgrowth of the James Choice Orchestra that performed works by Matthias Schubert, Frank Gratkowski, Norbert Stein, and Carl Ludwig Hübsch on a 2008 Leo release, includes familiar names like reedman Gratkowski, tubaist Hübsch, saxophonist Schubert, synthesist Thomas Lehn, plus additional horns, string players, computer programmers, and a prominent accordion (Florian Standler). It should be noted that there is no James Choice, the name stems from a mispronunciation of James Joyce, which is why Fields’ calls his the Multiple Joyce Orchestra. But the music, like the band name, is a product of open-ended interpretations, multiple layers of meaning, and playful responses (it could have been the Multiple Choice Orchestra). In “Moersbow,’” a tribute to the Japanese noise band Merzbow ironically intended to be “as quiet as the musicians can manage,” the sotto voce drones, glimmering and hovering pitched and unpitched tones dissolve into serpentine lines only to end without resolution, a possible metaphor for the now destroyed Kurt Schwitters architecture (Merzbau) that provided the band’s name. Throughout the four-part ”OZZO,” perhaps due to Fields’ modular formats or the nature of the material presented to the players, the effect is of sound masses in motion, congealed from isolated lines. Flux is the order of the day; the harmonic fabric is ambiguously chromatic, different tempi are layered together, passages linger, rotate, stop, and reappear, instruments merge together in common themes and disrupt into broad polyphony or pile up vertically, often colored by jazzy brass growls and saxophone wails. The degree of composed to improvised music is uncertain, but the effect is of a process discovering its own form and concluding as a durable entity.
The broadly assimilated and insightfully re-designed, similar and dissimilar, multi-stylistic orchestral maneuvers that all four of these releases partake of may not necessarily indicate a new wave of compositional innovation, but do offer a few fanciful new directions along one of the many available paths that open-minded musicians continue to explore. I recall a Sun Ra quote: “I can compose the most free rhythms.” And one from a Marianne Moore poem: “It is a privilege to see so much confusion.”