UNsafe concert: Threadgill, La Barbara, ACO dare to fail

“Playing It UNsafe” is how the American Composers Orchestra characterizes tonight’s concert of works by Henry Threadgill, Joan La Barbara, Sean Friar and Laura Schwendinger at Zankel Hall, NYC. Afraid of classical musicians improvising? Multi-layered “sound paintings” of multi-tracked voice, electronic ambiance and instrumentalists sitting in the audience? Symphonic and light collaborations? Then walk on the wild side — or at least watch the fine videos by Jeremy Robins — like the two of Threadgill explaining his ACO-sponsored research and development project, below — 


Threadgill wants the Orchestra’s players to take responsibility for listening to and creating with the interval sets he prescribed for “No Gates, No White Trenches, Butterfly Effect,” a commissioned world premiere expanding on strategies he’s developed with his small group, Zooid. La Barbara’s “In solitude this fear is lived,” inspired in this work by the late visual artist Agnes Martin, incorporates breath and voice, electronically processed and natural, in a wash of sounds. Friar’s “Clunker Concerto” features the percussion ensemble Line 3 as soloists addressing the possibilities of junked cars as drumming surfaces. Schwendinger and her cousin Leni Schwendinger, a lighting designer, came up with “Shadings,” a confabulation of photo imagery captured in Japan (“ephemeral architecture . . . Buddhist dry landscapes”) with orchestral writing promoted as “rich pearlescent tones, with shades of grey.”

To learn more, take a look at the brief but informative video clips produced by Robins for the ACO (incidentally, these clips are the sort of thing the Jazz Journalists Association is trying to encourage with its eyeJAZZ video news training program). Robins’ work serves as intriguing trailers for the pieces and help explain what ACO artistic director Robert Beaser means when he says, “In order for the Orchestra to build on its history, we need to reinvent it.” May such reinvention never end.

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  1. says

    I love that Agnes Martin inspired one of the works mentioned above. John Zorn has an album called Redbird for Agnes Martin. The cover featuring the painting, Redbird. I worked at Dia:Beacon for two years and got to see that painting every day. In vibrant light, in low light, in mellow light. It was so meditative, and such a spiritual experience. Which is what she intended. I’m not a spiritual person, but when it comes to her work, and like Rothko or Barnett Newman, you have to have that experience.
    I think visual Art and avant-garde Jazz are so connected. And I wish historians on both sides would connect the two more often. Probably the two most influential people in my life are Ornette Coleman and Agnes Martin, and for reasons that are very similar.
    Thanks for writing Howard.
    HM: That’s for commenting, Matthew. Alfred Appel wrote two books exploring the modernist connections between visual art and jazz — Jazz Modernism: From Ellington and Armstrong to Matisse and Joyce, and The Art of Celebration: Twentieth-Century Painting, Literature, Sculpture, Photography, and Jazz. Of course many of us are affected by these connections, whether we’re aware of them or not, in varying degrees of consciousness. The Jackson Pollock cover on Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz made perfect sense even the first time I saw it. There are explicit references to jazz in Mondrain, Stuart Davis and Basquiat, and jazz-like motifs/movements as early as Kandinsky. Among the most progressive orchestras of “classical” music, the ACO recognizes the imperative to connect to jazz, and also the symphony world’s innate conservatism and long-standing exclusion of jazz-related composers — they’re trying to do something about it, and poses as Jazz Composers Orchestra premiering works by eight “jazz” composers in a series of concerts in June. More on that when the details arrive.

  2. says

    Thanks Howard for commenting back. I know Mondrian was inspired by American Jazz & Blues music a lot. He finished very few paintings after he came to America, rather reworking older paintings giving them more rhythmic elements inspired from what he often heard in African American music popular of the time.
    Thanks for the book suggestions, I’ll be searching them out at Powell’s Books here in Portland.
    …By the way, on an off note. I just want to clear up my link in my name above. I must I have mis-typed my blog address and it seems to be heading to a phishing/spam site. The actual address is: http://thisshapeofjazz.blogspot.com/
    I’m not trying to pimp my site here, I just didn’t want people getting the wrong impression if they clicked on my name above.

  3. says

    From Vivian Schweitzer’s NY Times review: “The orchestra sounded tentative in “No Gates, No White Trenches, Butterfly Effect,” by the jazz composer Henry Threadgill, who stipulated that the musicians should improvise: a daunting task for most classical performers.” That’s very interesting, because that’s exactly what Threadgill said to the ACO at the open rehearsal, which I attended, the day before the premiere: He sat and listened to the piece played through, and said, “You sound tentative.”(I wasn’t able to catch the Zankel gig; I was at Grisey’s “Le noir de l’étoile,” at the Tully Scope festival, which didn’t sound the least bit tentative.)
    HM: It takes more than a few meetings between a master composer-improviser such as Threadgill and classically trained instrumentalists such as those in the ACO to create an ease with improvisation. It’s a noble effort with long-term payoff but also requires long-term commitment. I gather the ACO will follow up on its attempt with Threadgill’s piece, since it has announced an eight-composer concert for “Jazz Composers Orchestra” on upcoming June 5.

  4. says

    “‘In order for the Orchestra to build on its history, we need to reinvent it.’ May such reinvention never end.”
    I’m looking forward to future ACO projects in this vein, and to see what they come up with next.