in: Reviews

September 10, 2018

Two Journeys in Improvisation

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The Strings Theory Trio (Mimi Rabson and Helen Serrah-Davies, five-string violin; Junko Fujiwara, cello) joined Denver microtonalist/guitarist Neil Haverstick at The Lilypad Innman Square Friday night in Alex Lemsky’s Creative Music Series. Split into two distinct halves, improvisation united the disparate acts of the evening—one a blurred line between aleatory and composition and the other a one-man orchestra of electricity and alternate tunings.

The partially-improvisatory Strings Theory Trio featured short pieces culled from their recent CD (which everyone received) as well as some not from the CD, all composed by members of the trio. Fujiwara’s response to the (in)famous Pachelbel Canon in D, Cellist’s Revenge, opened with a reorganization of the pitches from the Canon, octave displaced to create a more interesting and demanding cello part. Fujiwara precisely controlled, creating a single line out of very disconnected notes similar to Anton Webern’s pointillism. Fujiwara set up the canonic elements that migrated to Rabson and Serrah-Davies, who played around with the material enough to obscure what was originally a very strict canon. Flashback by Rabson followed, the most Earle Brown, mid-60s aleatoric sounding work we heard. As Rabson described, Flashback was a fixed form with undecided pitch content, leading to somewhat mixed results. The form was indeed strong; Rabson signposted return to previous material clearly and cleanly. The actual ideas in the middle of the sections, however, were sometimes messy, likely due to their improvised nature. When Rabson soloed, though, she did so with such grace and lyricism that the issues with the improvisations drifted away.

Fisher King by Sherrah-Davies truly was the standout of the evening. Feeling more composed than improvised, it responded to Sir Perceval’s death in the Arthurian story of the same name, posing the question “Whom does the Holy Grail serve?” Focusing on ensemble performance, the players solidly navigated a wide range of textures that locked together seamlessly. What Sherrah-Davies created became a structurally sound and stable composition, worthy of a fair amount of praise. Impatient Traveler once again by Rabson continued in the same vein of mostly-composed pieces, this time using a post-minimalist driving motive to create a sense of impatience like that of waiting at an airport for a delayed flight. The audience got into it and began headbobbing along with the ensemble. Rabson stole the show on her solo, angular and pulsating with frustration yet deliberate, even when pumping in a wide vibrato that effectively became three separate pitches. Fujiwara added onto the solos with a biting and sharp edge that rose to the top of the wash below her.

Marking Time, again by Rabson, continued the rhythmic drive, but instead forced one violinist to mark time on one unending string of eighth notes (hence the title) as the duet of the other violin and Fujiwara played on top. Easily the strongest group improvisation, the consistent element of the violin pulse gave the soloists a solid foundation to play over. Both pairs of Rabson/ Fujiwara and Sherrah-Davies/Fujiwara almost entered a trance when they duetted, selling their ideas as they bounced off one another. Sherrah-Davies’s Kat Kopanista inspired by Bulgarian dances and interspersed with cat sounds in tribute to her two former kitties, emerged from the previous piece. This one, however, did not seem to follow the dance form it was named after (from what this reviewer recalls, it was not in 11/8 time), and there were several novelty elements like using scratch tone to imitate cat purring. The composer even meowed once. Though fun from time to time, in general, novelties wear out their welcome quickly, and the cat sounds proved no exception. The crowd seemed to enjoy it, though. At least Strings Theory knows not to be serious all the time. Niwsky, Rabson’s interpretation of Kurt Cobain writing for the viola, ended the night. Clearly defined in form, heavy rock influence permeated the hall and got the audience clapping along. The ending could not have been more engaging, though the return to certain sections could have used a bit more variation.

Neil Haverstick took the stage after the trio, with his custom-built fretless guitar and an array of overdrive and delay/looper pedals to completely alter the tone of the proceedings. Some of the music, specifically the blues material, fell a bit outside the scope of the Boston Musical Intelligencer; the first piece of the three-tune set literally paired of two Haverstick original blues tunes, “Alien Blues Man” and “Blues for North Africa.” There’s no doubt Neil is a virtuoso on his instrument, executing what he wants with an expertise most guitarists wish they had.

Nineteen notes per octave shown in tablature.

The last two pieces seemed a better fit with the BMInt reader profile. Beautiful Springtime allowed Haverstick’s microtones to shine with only a slight tinge of the blues. Haverstick controlled the rather ornery fretless guitar effortlessly, coupling it with a series of delay and looper pedals to accompany himself and expand his guitar into a synthesizer. Silver Woman ended the concert with seven-limit just intonation, requiring a lengthy retuning. What followed, however, showed just intonation’s raw power. Haverstick, expertly pounding out material, relished the purity of intervals while the pedals added the last shimmering layer. At the fadeout, the audience roared with applause. Finally, microtonal music got some praise.

Despite some wavering of interest, both improviser/performer groups wowed with flawless control and surprisingly new sounds. Chance them if you can, especially Neil, since he doesn’t get out to this coast too much.

Ian Wiese is a doctoral student composer at New England Conservatory studying with Michael Gandolfi. Friends of his performed on this concert.

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

  1. Hi Ian,
    Thank you for your kind words- but I can assure you that “Kat KOPANICA” is most definitely in 11/8 and was played as such…I can send you the music if you like ;)
    Best to you,
    Helen Sherrah-Davies
    Assistant Professor, Harmony & Jazz Composition Dept, Berklee College of Music, Boston

    Comment by Helen Sherrah-Davies — September 10, 2018 at 5:20 pm

  2. Thanks, Ian, for coming and reviewing! First such comments after more than five years in the media’s eye! Beyond my own bias as series curator and friendship with Neil, I will not hesitate to program styles and musical forms that are outside the majority of what I really like, mainly Free-Form Jazz (“Jazz beyond Jazz”), because I believe in creative variety to open the minds of attendants, and musicians, as labels really interfere with musical outcomes — and The String Theory Trio + Microtonal (with the added Blues), was a great “New Music” match. Then I became a listener and I was so enthusiastic! Both entities deserve other opportunities…

    Comment by Alex Lemski — September 11, 2018 at 1:59 pm

  3. Hi Helen,

    My apologies about that “Kat Kopanica” piece. Perhaps it was a lapse in my own perception of it. I would love to see the music if you would provide it.

    Comment by Ian Wiese — September 13, 2018 at 12:24 pm

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