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Monday, September 8, 2014

Barry Guy New Orchestra – Amphi/Radio Rondo (Intakt, 2014) ***

By Dan Sorrells

To be honest, I disliked “Radio Rondo” after first listening to Amphi/Radio Rondo. I’ve long been a fan of Barry Guy’s New Orchestra, the London Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, and nearly every member of the band in their countless projects and solo ventures. Last year’s Mad Dogs was one of my favorite releases of the year, and I was impressed with “Amphi” as it came to a close. But upon reaching the full band free jazz freak-outs in “Radio Rondo,” I wrote this in my notes:
large portions of ‘Radio Rondo’ represent a strain of improvisation that’s becoming harder and harder to justify. All of the players involved are far more talented and nuanced than their combined cacophony suggests. Pieces like this offer a retreat from thoughtful improvisation by providing a dense thicket to hide in.”
A little later in the day, I was reading from Ajay Heble’s excellent Landing on the Wrong Note: Jazz, Dissonance and Critical Practice when a question was posed in the text: is musical meaning a function of intent or effect? For my money, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Meaning will always be a subjective blend of the two: the production of music is clearly an intentional act, and in the listener an effect is wrought, often as a result of experiences, moods and environments that are quite unrelated to the music at hand. In a way, there’s an additional tier of harmony that overlays the production and consumption of music: the consonance or dissonance between intent and effect. Free improvisation is interesting because in many ways it deals in dissonance at this level, too. There can be much discord between the intent of musicians and the effect that’s ultimately produced in most listeners.

Attempting to resolve this tension, the next day I sought out the earlier recording of “Radio Rondo” made with the London Jazz Composer’s Orchestra and Irene Schweizer. I found the burbling intensity to be more convincingly borne by the broader brass palette and use of strings, rather than the shrieking reeds that dominated my hearing of the New Orchestra. The strong effect of the earlier version poised me to reevaluate the new one. I returned again to Amphi/Radio Rondo, and my experience was much different. I could better sense the orchestral sweep of the piece, could discern more of its structure, how everything continually circled back to Agustí Fernández’s incredible piano performance. What was previously overwhelming seemed tempered now, and perhaps just as much as “Amphi,” I could see “Radio Rondo” as a function of Guy’s devotion to inhabiting the world of new classical music while leaving a foot in the unruly history of free jazz, too.

Though there’s nothing overtly political in Guy’s music, it comes from a long line of music in which a certain political stance is implied—the politics of struggle, regardless of whether a European or African-American path is taken to reach improvised music in its present state. Even if we never consciously consider it over a lifetime of listening, part of me wonders whether we’re ever immune to the social politics that underlie this music. For some, free music represented the very real struggle of human rights, but even at its most innocuous the music has always been a protest against the status quo, against rigid perceptions about what constitutes “real” music.

What felt different while I listened was that sheer volume and density no longer seem like the best ways to rebel. The power of a group blaring in the red is undeniable, but it also felt unsustainable. The screaming cacophony is what blazed the trail that leads to the New Orchestra today. Anger and intensity cleared the ground so that so much more could be said; hadn’t the need to shout diminished? I still believe that part of what allows the listener to fashion a bridge over the self-indulgence inherent in a lot of improvisation is the idea of a shared or—at the very least—vicarious catharsis. Rather than a release, my first listen felt more like being attacked. As I’ve listened again, I’m beginning to see how my bridge might be crafted—how I might align their intent with what I’m hoping to experience. It’s easy to misinterpret, and I want to be fair. There’s space for a limitless range of emotions in the New Orchestra’s clamor. It seems to me more and more that violence or anger or rebellion are the things that I brought to the table as I listened that day.

Part of what prompted such a struggle over “Radio Rondo” was the truly great effect of the preceding piece, “Amphi.”  Joined by Maya Homburger’s Baroque violin, the New Orchestra is used to add color and tension to a piece Guy originally wrote as a duo for violin and bass. It brings to mind the way Luciano Berio transformed his solo Sequenzas into the orchestral Chemins. This isn’t the only classical touchstone in “Amphi”—the piece drips with the influence of many 20th century greats. Ligeti and Xenakis lurk in the atonal rumblings of the ensemble, and the Spectralists—Murail, Radulescu, Scelsi—are evoked in the wavering contrails of strings. In the liner notes, Guy equates the piece with chamber music, and it lilts between themes that are superficially dissimilar but seem strung together by some gut-level logic. A typically lithe Guy solo around 20 minutes in cements the awesome impact of the piece.

I dwell here on my listening experience because by now, fans of free music are more than familiar with the musicians in the New Orchestra. Sometimes it’s easy to take for granted the notion that the music they make is “challenging.” There are certainly many things in the musical realm that it challenges. But listening to and enjoying so much free improvisation can actually dull one to the feeling of what it truly means to be challenged. My initial distaste and discomfort with Amphi/Radio Rondo became a strength of the album, because it forced me think. It made me question what I know about this music, about my tastes, about what it means to be engaged in the strange dialectic between intent and effect. Most importantly, I had to ask myself: at the end of the day, aren’t those all the questions that drew me towards this music in the first place?

New Orchestra: Barry Guy, bass, director; Agustí Fernández, piano; Maya Homburger, Baroque violin; Evan Parker, saxophone; Jürg Wickihalder, saxophone; Mats Gustafsson, saxophone, fluteophone; Hans Koch, bass clarinet; Herb Robertson, trumpet; Johannes Bauer, trombone; Per Åke Holmlander, tuba; Paul Lytton, percussion; Raymond Strid, percussion.


Martin Schray said...

It’s a question I have asked myself very often. Is a new album still challenging? Is this music still as challenging as it has been to me before? But then I think that it still is considering the fact how worthwhile it can be for people who are relatively “new” to it and who are open to listen to it in a concentrated way.
My idea is that it is true that rather quiet pieces which might not be as easily categorized as free jazz can be as rebellious as the iconoclastic ones. It might depend on the musician, though. Peter Brötzmann once said that it is impossible for him to play less aggressive music when he has a look what is going on around him. Maybe this could be said about Mats Gustafsson, too. On the other hand even people from the first generation of European improvisers have focused rather on a musical aspect than on a socio-political one (even Brötzmann).
When I saw the premiere of “Radio Rondo” at the Schaffhausen jazz festival in 2008 I liked the piece but it was not as breathtaking as other LJCO compositions like “Harmos” (which they played in the second set then) or “Double Trouble”. But then I listened to it again and again when it was released on CD finding more and more interesting structures and wonderful, almost hidden details. To me, the great thing about these compositions is the relieving of the tensions built up by the free improv sequences in melodic and harmonic parts.
But with his smaller New Orchestra Barry Guy has always been harsher and more dissonant, which is a nice counterpart to the LJCO.
A very well-written, profound and interesting review, Dan, even if I think that a group blaring in the red is still sustainable :-). I think what more can an album do than make you think about your own listening practices? I like “Amphi/Radio Rondo” a lot.

Colin Green said...

Some interesting points Dan. Inevitably, how we listen can reflect our moods, expectations and listening habits, and often changes with repeated listening. I’d be wary of worrying too much about intent, however. There are occasions when we know something about this, as musicians tell us, but in terms of listening I wonder how much is really relevant. One could endlessly speculate whether something is the result of political, social or psychological matters, but all we have is the effect, and whether it works musically. Armed with answers to such questions, would it make the music any better or successful?

Colin Green said...

By way of further comparison, there's a performance of Radio Rondo by the BGNO from Berlin in 2009 available via this link, together with Darnaus, where they're joined by Elliott Sharp on guitar:

The recording is not as close as that reviewed, which probably helps in some of the denser ensemble passages.

Dan said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Martin and Colin.

I agree with Colin’s assessment of intent. I think getting bogged down in speculation is part of what sent me off the rails as I was reviewing the album—in this case, I found myself initially reading the music through some lenses that might not have been fair: historical ideas about the music that likely aren’t relevant to the performance, my own distracted listening habits, and so on. In a lot of ways, I was projecting intent onto the music that, upon later reflection, didn’t really fit with my knowledge of and experience with the musicians involved. Admittedly, this still involves an element of speculation, but one that serves a corrective function. I wasn’t confident that my first reaction to the music was grounded in an honest, focused engagement with the material. The dissonance I discussed doesn’t just stop at incongruity between artist intent and listener effect; there’s also the tension between what the listener assumes the intent to be, and the effect the musician imagines the music will produce, etc.

I chose to focus on this process in the review because I think improvised music is especially bound up in these ideas about intent and effect: these kinds of speculations and reactions and re-corrections are happening between musicians as the music is being created. For listeners, it’s often easier to just stop at effect: if you don’t like it, you move on. Sometimes I think it’s worthwhile to reflect on this stuff, though, especially if music seems to be getting pulled into well-worn personal ruts. There are a lot of complicated judgments behind “liking” or “disliking” improvised music. It’s not always easy to immediately put your finger on the reasons for your feelings.

In the end, Colin and Martin are both right about the kinds of questions I raised: they’re not the sort of questions you’d ever want a definitive answer to. Those are the ruts. Inflexibly locking yourself in really misses the spirit of this music. None of these musicians are satisfied with rigid ideas about the music-making process, about collaboration, about limits or comfort zones or legitimacy. Why should listeners be, either?

Colin Green said...

Actually, we have a good idea of Guy’s intent from the title to the piece. A rondo is an old and commonly used musical form: ABAC etc. where A is material that remains largely the same which is repeatedly contrasted the other sections. It’s used extensively in classical and baroque music, popular song, and even free jazz: John Coltrane’s “Ascension” is in rondo form. One shouldn’t forget that Guy studied composition, played in various period instrument ensembles, primarily Christopher Hogwood’s Academy of Ancient Music, and has written for and played extensively with the baroque violinist Maya Homburger, his wife. (I recommend their duo recordings which mix baroque music with composed and improvised music by Guy, particularly the three CDs of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for violin: sublime music that should be in every collection.)

Because Guy recognises that there are issues in improvising with more than a handful of musicians, his pieces for large ensembles all have a general structure or overriding organisation, something that is uncommon in free jazz and improvised music, which is more usually dominated by a sequence of short term events. The nearest one gets is the head/solos/head form. In Guy’s case, certain renaissance and baroque forms have proved useful as a means of shaping areas for improvised dialogue.

In Radio Rondo, the ensemble “blaring in the red” in the cloudburst that opens the piece and returns in various forms, is by way of contrast to the sections with piano and other instruments, that have a more refined, chamber music quality. At one level, the piece plays with two very different kinds of music: one that fills up the musical space with almost pure texture, where no voice prevails, and more varied and delicate music with virtuoso improvising, when the individual is to the fore. It’s in these passages that one can hear the kind of music for small ensemble that’s on “Mad Dogs “. There’s even a beautiful melody, voiced as if it were by Gil Evans, which emerges during the piece and eventually dominates, before the hushed close. The work might also be thought of as a variant of the classical piano concerto, a play on the movement between individual soloist and tutti orchestra. In Radio Rondo, the divisions are not always cleanly marked, sometime they run into or over each other to make things a bit more interesting. These kinds of things, as well as the individual character of each piano section, are probably only apparent on repeated listening.

I agree concerning the comments on the earlier recording of Radio Rondo. Given that the LCJO was a larger group, some of the contrasts are more marked, and the piece probably needs a little more space in which to breathe than was provided by the location of the reviewed recording. It’s interesting to compare Irène Schweizer and Agustí Fernández however, both master pianists, full of ideas.

The working up of the duo piece, Amphi, for a larger group is the reverse of what Guy did with some of the music he composed for the LJCO when they were used on the recordings of the piano trio with Crispell and Lytton. They take on a very different character when played by the trio.

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