Paradigms Found: Town and Country

I haven’t been blogging, and have no better, nor worse, excuse to offer than the euphoria that accompanies the ending of the school year and my annual opportunity to plunge back into composing. But the year-end hysteria prevented me from recording a very interesting concert that took place a couple of weeks ago at Bard, which was quintessentially postclassical if the word has any meaning at all. Student composer Matt Wellins (Mr. New Music of Postclassic fame) brought to campus a Chicago-based quartet I’d never heard of before named Town and Country, consisting of multi-instrument performers Ben Vida, Liz Payne, Josh Abrams, and Jim Dorling. Switching around among violin, upright bass, bass clarinet, squeezebox harmonium, and a plethora of handheld percussion, this quartet has developed its own style of mostly brief minimalist pieces, somewhat improvised, somewhat collectively composed. They were catchy, engaging vignettes with often intricate rhythms, and they metamorphosed as they droned along, the players picking up not only different pitches but different instruments as well. I’ve been looking for a long time for someone to come up with an improvisation paradigm that is neither jazz nor “free,” capable of creating original pieces with a recognizable identity but with plenty of leg room for give and take in performance. Town and Country has done it. To come up with a group improv style grounded in minimalism was no small conceptual feat.

And they weren’t even the top bill! Minimalist violin pioneer Tony Conrad performed with them, and also gave a one-hour slice of his “Early Minimalism,” playing violin raspily over loud, prerecorded string drones. Conrad’s maintaining the style of performance I first saw him with at New Music America in Miami in 1988, playing behind a curtain kept in constant motion by electric fans, with a lamp projecting his silhouette on the curtain. (Don’t worry, the music is more than loud enough to completely drown out the fans.) Within this theatrically evocative setting you could hear 11th, 13th, even 17th harmonics over the drones, although Conrad believes in a roiling mercuriality rather than harmonic precision. I keep waiting for Conrad to develop his shtick to the next step, but the students (and faculty) who hadn’t heard him before got a bracing close-up glimpse of history.

Town and Country have a new recording out, called simply 5, on Thrill Jockey, and you can read more about it in this Prefix magaine article about them. They’re well worth checking out.