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.