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Sunday, August 8, 2021

Matt Mitchell & Kate Gentile - Snark Horse (Pi Recordings, 2021) ****½

By Lee Rice Epstein

A book of one-bar compositions, a rotating lineup of multi-instrumentalists, an image that sticks in the craw of your mind. Answer: What is Snark Horse? In the expansive nether-verse that contains Sun Ra, Georges Perec, and Leonard Cohen, Alex Trebek asks this very question as Jeopardy’s Daily Double. 

The music is performed by the Snark Horsekestra, co-led by Kate Gentile and Matt Mitchell, who each contribute compositions and play drums and percussion (Gentile) and piano, modular synth, Prophet-6, MicroFreak, and electronics (Mitchell). The group is rounded out by Kim Cass on acoustic and electroacoustic bass; Ben Gerstein on trombone; Jon Irabagon on tenor, mezzo-soprano, sopranino, and soprillo saxophones and alto clarinet; Davy Lazar on trumpet, piccolo trumpet, and cornet; Mat Maneri on viola; Ava Mendoza on guitar; Matt Nelson on tenor and alto saxophones; and Brandon Seabrook on guitar and tenor banjo. Song by song, the formatting and reformatting of the lineup delivers solo, duo, trio, quartet, quintet, sextet, septet, octet, and the full tentet Snark Horsekestra. There’s an aleatoric aspect of the instrumentation and changing roles that invites the listener to take part.

There is a sentence of Gertrude Stein’s that could be something of a roadmap for Snark Horse: 

“I mean, I mean and that is not what I mean, I mean that not any one is saying what they are meaning, I mean that I am feeling something, I mean that I mean something and I mean that not any one is thinking, is feeling, is saying, is certain of that thing, I mean that not any one can be saying, thinking, feeling, not any one can be certain of that thing, I mean I am not certain of that thing, I am not ever saying, thinking, feeling, being certain of this thing, I mean, I mean, I know what I mean.” 

As mentioned above, every Snark Horse composition is one bar long, but a bar is—like one of Stein’s sentences—as long as it needs to be to meet the composition’s needs. Most are about as long as one would expect, while some, like “strikes me as wanting to make me barf,” push the limit of a listener’s expectation of what a single bar looks like, as the rhythms and melody flux and flex. Over the course of 60+ compositions (composed roughly equally by Gentile and Mitchell) and 15+ solo variations by Mitchell, the Oulipian-like rules do lead to a freer, more experimental music. Like the literature written by Perec and co., the Snark Horse book is delightfully surprising, a riotous tangle of invention and creativity. The song titles themselves give a linguistic partner to the music inside, running the gamut from the punny “key tettle” to the obscure “’s partial.” Throughout, the music is similarly expansive, a puckish mix of blues, electro-acoustic, free, funk, punk, snarl, and—yes, jazzbros—swing.  

At this size, the book. of songs is divided into six volumes: Echo Emporium, Fraughtleau, Minute Egress, Semi-Simulacral, Subfusc Quiddities, and Panoply. Each set is just under an hour, the ebb and flow distributed pretty evenly across each volume: no matter which one you’re listening to, you get a mix of groupings and sizings. So on Semi-Simulacral, the back-to-back quartet performances “regular falutin’” and “supple bicepsual/is jingles/utter balbis” sound radically different, as the lineup changes from Gentile, Mitchell, Maneri, and Seabrook to Gentile, Mitchell, Mendoza, and Nelson. Aside from the difference in voicing, the mutability of the players supports Gentile and Mitchell’s shared vision, even as they retain their unique compositional signatures. As mundane as it seems to say (especially in the context of all this playful language), it’s true: for those who loved Mannequins, Phalanx Ambassadors, A Pouting Grimace, and Vista Accumulation, you’re going to love Snark Horse.