Monday, May 04, 2009

Review: The Freedom of the City Festival... London Improvisers' Orchestra... Christian Wolff... The Post Quartet...

I skated in to the four o clock show of the Freedom of the City Festival direct from my hotel – then found that the earlier show had overran – so time for refreshment. Some odd organic lager... Then into the Conway Hall, the venue for this year's bash.
The London Improvisers Orchestra was assembling in all its anarchic (in the best sense) glory – over thirty musicians (too lazy to count them all) on the stage and in ranks in front of the stage – reeds, brass, strings, percussion, laptops, electric guitars and more – I think I spotted a sarod in the front row. They performed a selection of 'conductions' - 'a type of structured free improvisation where... an improvising ensemble [is directed] with a series of hand and baton gestures' (quoted from here ) – five separate pieces, the last being a kind of 21st 'Concerto for Cootie' featuring the redoubtable Brit jazz trumpeter, Henry Lowther, ending on an all-in free improvised piece.
A fascinating set – improvised music especially benefits, in my opinion, from being experienced live where you can witness the interactions between musicians. Especially so with a band this size – I've heard them on recordings and enjoyed their work but invariably missed some of the nuances -
the vast blocks of sound they can produce sometimes becoming a bit muddy unless recorded scrupulously – and even then... No such problems today – apart from the sheer weight of sonic information coming at me when they hit full throttle, but this offers an exhilarating live encounter for the sympathetic listener. Each of the conductors employed their own style and interaction with the orchestra, which gave a variety of interpretive moves to compare and enjoy. Subtle washes of moody swooning strings, a poignant brass chorale, some violent eruptions of electric guitar, trombone tailgate rips and snorts, sudden breaks into a swinging jazz four,and much much more. Henry Lowther, employing mutes and open trumpet on his feature, lyrical yet quietly girdered with passion. The 'Concerto for Cootie' gag was only meant half-facetiously – the muted work referenced deep back into the jazz heritage to earlier collective improvising traditions. The overall concept would seem unwieldy, but they manage the contradictions and juxtaposed genres remarkably well – sections that could have come out of contemporary 'serious' art music shoved next to electronically treated and looped vocals, almost conventional big band sectional blasts, plenty of free jazz moments, plenty of more 'traditional' jazz moments especially of timbral movement, percussive effects that would amuse Steve Reich no doubt, when various members were summoned to thump on the backs of their instruments, or clap along – to produce a building wave of overlapping rhythmic ripples. I didn't quite get the Terry Day piece, where he did his crazy poet/diamond geezer routine – but his manic conduction was amusing and energetic. Throughout, in fact, there was a great sense of the pure joy of playing music together – a lot of smiles and laughs.
To go out: I wondered how they would end the collective free improvisation without a frontperson. Answer: Sun Ra style, when various members of the ensemble started to walk into the audience. Finally circling the hall with a couple upstairs who made it to the balcony, enveloping the audience in a total surround of music which was a brilliant coup de théâtre.

I was weary after a late night and early start up to town but stuck around for the Christian Wolff segment. String trio (one of the Post quartet apparently being ill/indisposed), Wolff on piano and small electronic keyboard linked to a tube he blew into (hey, I don't miss these technical details!), plus a table of small instruments played by Michael Parsons and John Lely. Performing selections from Wolff's 'Exercises.' Mainly a music of small melodic fragments, occasionally punctuated/interrupted by sharp high-pitched small-drum raps, cymbals and tambourine, plus the string players using tiny (finger?) cymbals and a bunch of keys attached to their music stands - which were also occasionally rattled by their bowsattling - for additional amendments. I found it interesting but a little dry, nearer to the post-Cageian art house than the barrelhouse of my preference. A snidey comment maybe – but, to be fair, I did get more pulled in as it progressed – a cumulative experience perhaps, where the small details slowly build. Later on there were sections where the cello gave longer deep supporting notes that opened it out more, and some intriguing duos swapped between the cello, viola and violin that balanced the dominant pointillism. Overall - despite exhaustion, I was glad I stayed for it - the contrast with the rowdy wildness of the London Impovisors made for a fascinating day/evening.
Pity to miss Wolff with AMM - but I headed for food, hard liquor and much-needed sleep...

Written on the run... just off for today's extravaganza starting at 2 pm...