Back in the day, when a mainstream jazz musician would be confronted with free jazz in a Blindfold Test setting, he would often dismiss it as music that’s more fun to play than to hear. Something similar can be occasionally said of composers who design big works for large ensembles of improvisers. The employment of cue functions with cards and hand signals, the empowerment of musicians to form sub-divisions of the ensemble and generate material on their own, and the creation of notational systems that are wide open to interpretation are proliferating compositional tools that may predominate in the 21st Century; but, their use is not in and of itself a guarantee that lucid, persuasive music will ensue. Regardless of the outcome, creating such works is universally hailed by those who compose them to be among the most invigorating musical activities they’ve ever undertaken.
Arguably, the success of such works depends on self-evident qualities, which can be discerned by the listener in real time without prior indoctrination by the composer or proxies. Such success is largely predicated on the ability to hear each musician as a discrete voice that engages in an organic development with others. Subsequently, the more successful composers and conductors in this field let timbres and phrases fully saturate in the ear. Particularly when the composer and the ensemble are part of the same established community, the musicians have at least a passing familiarity with, if not a working knowledge of their cohorts. Most probably, some of them have worked in largely, if not exclusively improvised settings with the composer, which can provide interpretative insights into the open aspects of the composition. Without these qualities and assets, compositions of this ilk can come off as mere conceits. Within just a few minutes of a first listening of Orkestrova’s “realization 1: Hand,” one of two disc-long renderings of Larry Ochs’ homage to film pioneer Stan Brakhage, “The Mirror World,” it is clear that all of the prerequisites for these compositional approaches to reach their full potential are in place. What is immediately obvious and perhaps determinative is the ability to hear each of the 15 or 17 musicians (Bruce Ackley, playing clarinet, and percussionist Moe! Staiano are brought on midway through the piece), regardless of how many musicians are playing at a given moment. Granted, credit is due to the concert engineering and post production; but, the clean definition of each instrument is also a measure of how well traffic controller Ochs, and conductors Steve Adams (who plays bass flute), baritone saxophonist Jon Raskin and percussionist Gino Robair midwifed the composition.
Ochs’ materials and methods are laid out deliberately on “Hand,” almost parsimoniously compared to the initial concussive volleys of “realization 2: Wall,” performed by Rova, Robair and percussionist William Winant (who also performs on “Hand”). Ochs begins the orchestra piece with sparse episodes featuring just a few musicians ruminating on long tones and short tentative phrases; the ample patches of silence at the outset shrink as additional musicians enter. The palette at Ochs’ disposal spans the didgeridoos played by trombonists Jen Baker and Toyoji Tomita and the electronics of Tim Perkis and Matt Wright, which Ochs and/or his conductors consistently tap, creating immediately appealing combinations of instruments. Having players like guitarist John Schott and cellists Joan Jeanrenaud and Theresa Wong, who can produce a wide band of colors, contributes significantly to the cogent build-up of intensity and mass that occurs over the course of the first half of the performance.
Structurally, “Hand” has aspects of the arch favored by composers like Bartók, the main difference being that this realization has seven parts instead of the customary five. Additionally, the keystone to the structure is off-center, occurring during the fifth movement, which opens with a suspenseful, almost menacing vamp-driven ensemble where the full-throated power of the saxophones is palpable. This passage gives way to an open section where electronics, electric guitar, trombones and percussion create bracing textures. From there, the piece slowly winds down; again, the clearly discernable interaction between musicians elevates this way above the generic endgame. The piece peters out to silence when Ackley slips to the foreground with a plaintive statement girded by the primal groans of the didgeridoos. “realization 2: Wall” is almost the mirror image of “Hand,” structurally. It is fast and furious at the onset; for the first third of this 35-minute piece, Rova’s brusque phrases and the frenzied exclamations by each of the saxophonists hurdle headlong into the blunt force of Robair and Winant’s pummeled kits. If there is a keystone to this realization’s structure, it is after the drummer’s duet, during which Robair and Winant begin to ratchet down the intensity slightly by modulating the metal-based colors at their disposal. The reentry of the saxophones marks the low tide, intensity-wise; unison long tones unravel into a string of overlapping solo statements, with Raskin’s snarling, sputtering and ultimately singing baritone spurring on the drummers. The other saxophonists reignite the culminating fires with a succession of staccato riffs that bracket scorching improvisations. Although all four saxophonists are persuasive, Adams deserves special mention for his exceptionally large alto sound in a grueling test of the instrument’s range during the penultimate movement. “Wall” then ends with a bang.
–Bill Shoemaker in Point of Departure
Side One: John Schott (electric guitar); Joan Jeanrenaud, Theresa Wong (cellos, effects); Lisle Ellis (bass, circuitry); Ben Goldberg (contra-alto and Bb clarinet); Toyoji Tomita, Jen Baker (trombones, didgeridoos); Darren Johnston, David Bithell (trumpets); Steve Adams (bass flute); Jon Raskin (baritone sax); Tim Perkis, Matt Wright (electronics); William Winant, Gino Robair (percussion); Moe! Staiano (percussion); Bruce Ackley (Bb claarinet); Larry Ochs (traffic control)
Side Two: Rova Special Sextet: Bruce Ackley (soprano sax, tenor sax); Steve Adams (alto sax); Larry Ochs (tenor and sopranino saxophones); Jon Raskin (baritone saxophone); Gino Robair, William Winant (drums, percussion)