IN: Reviews

Wednesday Night at the Improv


It’s hard to know where to begin describing, much less evaluating, concerts of the type your correspondent attended on January 13 at Central Congregational Church in Jamaica Plain (soon, owing to a pending merger, to be known as Hope Central Church), so let’s lead with some reasonably solid facts. There were two groups represented, one quartet known as The Meltdown Incentive, comprising Sara Bielanski, mezzo, Ed Broms, electric bass, electric banjo, mouth accordion and much else in the nature of percussion, Todd Brunel, clarinet and bass clarinet, and Delvyn Case, piano; and the duo rare degree (lower case intentional and hence heretofore in italics), being two Americans now resident in Amsterdam, Dana Jessen, bassoon, and Michael Straus, saxophones. Both ensembles were augmented by electronics and, in the case of rare degree, a couple of extra players, mentioned below. TMI as a group specializes in improvisation; its members move between the classical and jazz worlds, as their performance Wednesday suggested. Improvisatory activity played a notable role in rare degree‘s program as well.

To clear up a bit of confusion that some BMInt readers may have experienced, this concert was not sponsored or affiliated with Composers in Red Sneakers, as our calendar listing suggested. Mr. Case and Peter Lane (one of the composers represented on rare degree‘s program) are affiliated with CRS, and originally placed the listing here; circumstances subsequently changed, though the listing did not. The concert was in fact sponsored by Hope and Central Congregational Churches, who mean to revive use of their building as a concert venue—justly, as the bright acoustic of the room would be quite suitable for small ensembles such as these.

Now to the program. TMI presented four scheduled works and one unscheduled (and unnamed), all group improvisations around a variety of texts. The first was a set of seven soi-disant haiku by George Swede (they aren’t true haiku, as they don’t follow the proper syllable counts). The texts certainly follow the spirit of the style, each setting up a contrast of two images, the second of which sheds light on the first. As a set they evoke an overall sense of solitude, sometimes desolation, possibly alienation, ending with the tiniest suggestion of hope. The TMI improvisations hewed closely to the texts, the voice often given to reminders of Pierrot-style Sprechstimme and and the music with frequently bent pitches, long wails and percussive effects on and around the electric bass (placed horizontally on its back) and giving sometimes the impression of 1950s cool jazz.

There followed a setting of Thomas Hardy’s Neutral Tones, beginning with a traditionally lyrical tune and expanding to a more diversified soundscape of watercolor washes, rather Takemitsu-like. The unscheduled piece followed, a scatty contrast to the Hardy with purely abstract chattering and burbling vocalizations, multiphonics, and inventive percussive effects. The last two works, the first based on Wednesday’s horoscope for Capricorns pulled from MSNBC’s web site, and the second from’s beauty tips called 10 Ways to Wake Up Beautiful, were, as you might expect, played for laughs, and with a heavier dose of obviously jazz inflections. The performances were all high quality: Ms. Bielanski has a lovely, plummy mezzo when she invokes it, and Mr. Brunel, mostly on bass clarinet treated, to quote Judith Weir, as “a hysterical treble instrument with a surprise bass extension,” exhibited sure command of all his extended and unextended techniques. Broms and Case likewise provided solid contributions and support.

While not explicitly an improvisatory group, rare degree programmed some into its grouping, which consisted of Ms. Jessen’s own In Flux, the public premiere of Peter Van Zandt Lane’s Triptiek, Matthew Burtner’s SXueAk, Judith Shatin’s Grito del Corazon, and Terry Riley’s Dorian Reeds, the latter of which, dating fro 1964, must surely constitute early music by this group’s standards. The Shatin and Riley also incorporated visuals, the latter being effectively the soundtrack to a film Hunting for Mushrooms by Bruce Conner. Ms. Jessen’s work begins and ends with  the sound of idiophonic brass bowls, struck by the players and electronically extended to create a background drone against which the performers spin sinuous lines using a generally limited pitch and gestural range. There is a basic motif of a descending major second; the rhythmic motion picks up in a contrasting section before the bowls recur and the piece fades, as it were, to black. Our BMInt colleague Peter Lane’s partly improvisational work opens with a “big band” jazzy flourish followed by busy figuration and surprising lyricism, subsiding in a quiet midsection, and returning to the opening affect, thus fulfilling its title in a tidy ABA structure. The Burtner added personnel to the duo, another saxophonist named Jorrit Dijkstra, and Mr. Case, who assisted Ms. Jessen in very straight-facedly squeezing a variety of children’s squeaky toys into the microphone for electronic processing, to the accompaniment of wailing saxes. There was, we may add, a bit of stage business with all this. The total effect was a rather pleasant atmosphere of jolly chaos, which suddenly crumpled and blew away like the close of the second movement of Ives’s Fourth Symphony.

Judith Shatin, a well established composer now teaching at the University of Virginia, programmed extensive improvisation into Grito, which is ostensibly inspired by a Goya painting and is accompanied by projected abstract images whose relationship to the original, unless they were severely magnified details, was obscure to this observer. For this work rare degree and TMI joined forces to create something like Morton Feldman with dynamics: the music seemed largely pitch-irrelevant, although there were notated musical cells that could be performed in any order. One may, of course, look at a painting in any order, so as an intellectual exercise “structuring” the music that way makes some sense; just not musical sense. Finally, the Riley took us back to the heady days of happenings, black strobe lights, tie-dyed clothes and nascent minimalism among all the other “isms.” Originally for just saxophone and tape relay, rare degree arranged the score to add the bassoon part, which worked quite nicely by contrasting the more pointillistic staccato to the smooth sax sound. Each player contributed fairly simple diatonic phrases that the electronic media pick up and feed back, so what emerges is a fairly steady pulse and a hypnotic (hey, this is minimalism, right?) sonic atmosphere. The Conner film has, it goes without saying, nothing to do with mushrooms (unless the psychedelic kind), but juxtaposes seemingly random images from shoes to people to churchyards to fireworks, into Warhol-ish series. The music bears no descriptive relation to this, but keys into its structure rather convincingly.

As with TMI, the players of rare degree were in admirable form and presented the materials, as best we can tell never having heard them before, with conviction and authenticity.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Dear Mr. Koven,

    Thank you for the wonderful review of The Meltdown Incentive, not Initiative. We are very appreciative of your kind words and hope to see you at upcoming shows.

    Til then, all the best!

    Sara, on behalf of the “Melts”

    Comment by Sara Bielanski — January 22, 2010 at 12:33 pm

  2. Sorry for the error in your group’s name.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — January 22, 2010 at 12:43 pm

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