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Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Henry Threadgill - The Other One (Pi Recordings, 2023)

By Gary Chapin

The Other One presents the musical component of a large multi-media piece performed and recorded at Roulette Intermedium. The piece involved “film, paintings, photographs, electronics, voice loops, and orchestral music—noted and improvised.” I’ll talk about the music, per se, in a minute, but I bring this up because, though the music is playing in my home in isolation, it was created in a sort of collaboration with those other media. I’m not sure what to make of this insight, but it’s interesting to me.

The music itself is a three movement piece entitled “Of Valence,” dedicated to Milford Graves. Threadgill conducts a twelve-piece band, and brings greatness out in the orchestra.

Movement 1, sections 1 and 2, comprise a solo piano piece that begins introspectively, and then takes on a scene setting role. Like the Narrator in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, this movement lays the ground, somehow preparing us for what’s to come, taking us through a series of flexibly temporal spaces and ending on a sequence of chords that sound like genuine affection.

The first notes of the next sections begin with two altos (I think) talking back and forth, and this moment brought to mind Jimmy Lyons. I’m not sure why. It wasn’t a direct recollection, but it provoked a memory of Lyon’s work. This happened to me a number of times through “Of Valence.” My experience of it—which I’m not saying is Threadgill’s intention—was one in which some present sounds connected me to some past sounds. For me, the present doesn’t repeat the past, but sometimes it rhymes.

The two altos are on their own for but a moment and then the orchestra kicks in full a tempo, at least for a while. Threadgill’s structures are wonderfully unpredictable. We’re launched with a rhythmic ensemble passage. The tempo retards, then the 2 cellos get into a duo conversation, everyone else pausing for a moment.

Threadgill uses timbre and orchestration the way other composers use theme and motif (although Threadgill also uses theme and motif). This cycle of mixtures and timbres creates a unified thing of the parts, like bricks held together by mortar. I would say the mortar for Threadgill is Jose Davila’s tuba and Craig Weinrib’s percussion, but I think my masonry metaphor is getting out of hand.

The 16+ minute second movement is a slow build—unsectioned—beginning with an extended meditation by the embedded string quartet. Their voices are joined by a series of winds and electronics. Eventually the pile on happens and we’re whipped into a frenzy. The movement closes gently with pizzicato, drum brushes, and breathy tenor (I think). Movement 3 starts again with the strings and a short opening, before a section of “big band,” with a charismatic alto soloing over a Threadgill field.

The NY Times called this music (when it reviewed the live premiere) “obliquely danceable.” And honestly, I don’t think I can do better, because the music does move you, physically as well as emotionally. There is a dance going on. Also shifting scenes of a walk through a city. And many conversations. The combination of the improvisers’ gifts and the inherent uncanniness of Threadgill’s writing bring to mind “the sound of surprise.” Knowing that multi-media were happening in tandem with “Of Valence,” I do wonder “what did I miss?” But the music itself is an abundance and nothing is, in fact, missing. It’s a beautiful recording.

Henry Threadgill – conductor
Alfredo Colón – alto saxophone
Noah Becker – alto saxophone, clarinet
Peyton Pleninger – tenor saxophone
Craig Weinrib – percussion, electronics
Sara Caswell – violin
Stephanie Griffin – viola
Mariel Roberts – cello
Christopher Hoffman – cello
Jose Davila – tuba
David Virelles – piano
Sara Schoenbeck – bassoon
Adam Cordero – bassoon