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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Variable Geometry Orchestra - Quasar (Creative Sources, 2016) ***½

Boasting a forty-six member orchestra, the Variable Geometry Orchestra is one of the larger free-jazz ensembles I’ve listened to, and I can’t say I’m not a little surprised. First of all, the piece itself stretches to a mere thirty-one minutes; with such a colossal group at his disposal, one could easily forgive the VGO’s leader Ernesto Rodrigues for any indulgences - before seeing the run-time, I could have imagined the piece going on for three, even four hours. The fact that Rodrigues reins the Orchestra in and caps them at half an hour is impressive enough! The question that must be asked is this: does thirty minutes provide ample time for exploring the possibilities of the Orchestra? Can each individual voice get an opportunity to contribute to the roiling, rolling whole? The answer is: probably not. And that’s not really the point. Quasar is a journey through the textures such a group can construct, not necessarily the interlocking melodies or instances of counterpoint. In fact, there are no “solos” here, nor is there anything resembling a traditional melody. The piece could be described as one, continuous undercurrent - an uninterrupted series of shifting shapes that, occasionally, swells up to engulf the listener.

The name of the piece is “Apparent Magnitude,” which references how we measure the brightness of celestial objects from the Earth. If the opening of “Apparent Magnitude” could be quantified, it would register as the faintest of glows. It begins with murmurous undulations - rumblings that issue from indistinct locations, and the tentative susurrations of some percussionist (there are five listed). At some point, burbling electronics rise from the softly-churning mass, only to become submerged again. After ten minutes, when some brass instruments emit a short series of clipped, discordant tones, it comes as a minor shock - Rodrigues is so good at guiding the Orchestra through the murky and muted topography of this sound-world that it feels as if they will never break through the canopy. Those bursts are only short detours, however. The piece quickly returns to where it seems most comfortable: hushed textures, creaking strings, and Maria Radich’s possessed voice sounding like the whispered prognostications of an ancient oracle. Despite the seeming “eventlessness” of “Apparent Magnitude,” it’s to the Orchestra’s credit that things breeze right along - because of the large number of players, and because of the lack of any set structures to capture the attention, your ear latches on to whatever it can: a stray bellow here, a short snatch of subdued strumming there, and the occasional sigh of a saxophone. If you approach this recording as a document of the distinct, unrepeatable sounds that occurred at a church in Lisbon in the fall of 2015, you will be rewarded. It strikes me as a set of field recordings that extraterrestrial beings might make and be perplexed by for centuries: listening intently, but never quite able to work out just what is going on. In the final minute, when the Orchestra releases all of the pent-up energy that has been bubbling beneath the muted surface, you can finally see the blinding Quasar of the title - but far from casting any light, it leaves you even more puzzled: What just happened? And why do I want to hear it again?