2016 Fromm Players at Harvard: "Creative Music Convergences"

It's been a pleasure working on and witnessing the Creative Music Convergences curated by Vijay Iyer at Harvard yesterday and today, April 7th and 8th, 2016. I put some program notes together for these two evenings of creative music, herewith:

Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith

Vijay Iyer’s introduction to Wadada Leo Smith’s music came in the early 1990s after Iyer read an interview with saxophonist-composer Anthony Braxton, wherein he spoke of Smith “in the most superlative terms possible.” This led to Iyer’s picking up The Flam (1975, Black Saint) by saxophonist Frank Lowe, featuring Smith on trumpet in a chordless quintet setting alongside saxophone, trombone, bass, and drums. Smith’s playing, distinguished by his attention to space and silence and by his relational conception of ensemble sound, was revelatory. “I heard great silences, toneless columns of air, long tones that cut diagonally across the hubbub of the ensemble,” Iyer recalled in a 2010 NPR interview. Smith’s approach presented an alluring, mystifying alternative to prevailing jazz trumpet tendencies, where individual demonstrations of harmonic sophistication and linear invention often took priority.

Smith, a member of the first generation of Chicago’s widely influential and continuing Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), has been vastly prolific since his first recording as a leader in 1972, Creative Music - 1. His recorded output includes over 40 albums as a leader, including his representatively personal first release for the now-storied, Munich-based label ECM, Divine Love (1979), and Ten Freedom Summers (2012, Cuneiform), a monumental set of compositions inspired by key moments of the Civil Rights Movement. Collected in a four-CD set, the work was one of three finalists for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music. His Golden Quartet, which first featured drummer Jack DeJohnette, bassist Malachi Favors, and pianist Anthony Davis, recorded its first album in 2000; in 2005, Smith invited Iyer to join the band. On their first tour together, Iyer navigated the band’s shapeshifting music on piano, Fender Rhodes, and synthesizer, traversing sonic sensibilities from delicate chamber-like passages to more explicitly powerful episodes. Iyer would go on to record on several albums with the Golden Quartet, gaining a deeper appreciation of Smith’s musical-philosophical approach all the while. “Every sound is structure; every sound he places in time is a compositional choice,” Iyer says, “and it all adds up in the most amazing way.”

Although Iyer and Smith had played spontaneous duets within the context of Golden Quartet performances, it wasn’t until a duo performance together in early 2015, during Iyer’s weeklong residency at the Stone in New York City, that documenting their work in this intimate setting became an undeniable artistic priority. The resulting album, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke (ECM, March 2016), is appropriately distinguished by the very qualities Iyer first gravitated toward in Smith’s music: expanses of space where the decay and intermingling of pitch, harmonics, timbre, and silence are as important as the articulation of notes; flights into dense sonic spaces punctuated and pierced through by Smith’s clarion horn. The compositions collected on the album feature a seven-part suite dedicated to Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi, whose minimalist, abstract works reflect both 20th-century global modernist approaches and a deeper history of geometric and calligraphic design from Islamic art. A cosmopolitan thinker and traveler, Mohamedi’s diaries and writings, revealing aesthetic engagement with traditions such as Sufi  poetry, Western philosophy, and Indian classical music, were also a source of musical inspiration for Iyer and Smith as they prepared the suite. Their performance tonight will continue the musical dialogue documented in A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke. 

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Nicole Mitchell / Tomeka Reid / Mike Reed

Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding last year. A widely influential model of artistic collectivism, economic self-determination, and self-governance, the AACM inspired numerous celebrations and tributes to the organization. Among these joyous proceedings, Artifacts (482 Music, 2015) stands out, contributing fresh interpretations of compositions by AACM composers and performed by a trio comprised of some of the AACM’s most prominent later-generation members: flutist Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid, and drummer Mike Reed. Both Mitchell and Reed served in executive positions for the organization, the latter as a vice chair and the former as president of the AACM, and each member of the trio has worked with one another in various creative configurations: Reid in Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble and Black Earth Strings, Reid in Reed’s Loose Assembly, and so on.

In his definitive history of the AACM, A Power Stronger an Itself, trombonist, composer-improvisor, and scholar George E. Lewis, himself an early member of the AACM, underscores the prioritizing of “commonality in multiplicity and individuality within the aggregate”. All this to say that the notion of an “AACM sound” lies not in a single shared aesthetic so much as an attitude of resisting being “bound to particular ideologies, methods, or slogans. Rather, it could take many forms, draw from many histories (including the blues), confront different methodological challenges, and manifest a self-awareness as being in dialogue with the music of the whole earth”. The fruits of this effort toward community-supported multiplicity are shown not only in the diverse series of collaborations documented in the bodies of work between the members of the Mitchell-Reid-Reed trio, but also most obviously in the selection present on Artifacts, which came together after Reid was asked to present an AACM-based concert in Seattle.

Braxton’s Composition 23B unspools a winding unison melody, with flute and cello sailing over Reed’s ticking high-hat before launching into a fast, swinging improvisation with walking cello and Mitchell’s rippling flute runs and pitch-bent sustains. Similarly, Jeff  Parker’s Days Fly By With Ruby dips into episodes of taut, driving swing and looser, fluctuating rhythm. Clowns, by Leroy Jenkins, frames collective improvisation alongside dramatic solo exchanges between instruments and gentler, almost nostalgic melodic statements phrased loosely as a trio. The ecstatic and the elegiac coexist on compositions such as Steve McCall’s I’ll Be Right Here Waiting and Amina Claudine Meyers’s Mercy, where Reed and Reid conjure churning textures and chant-like figures as Mitchell declaims above, her natural flute sound at times augmented by loops and electronic effects. Ever resourceful, the ensemble dances most explicitly on fleet compositions like Edward Wilkerson Jr.’s Light on the Path and McCall’s BK, defying and disproving the unproductive misconception that experimentalism in music precludes groove and a communally-accessible beat.

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Okkyung Lee: Solo Improvisations

In her solo performances and collaborations with musicians and artists in other disciplines, Okkyung Lee draws upon her study of noise and extended techniques, jazz, Western classical, and Korean traditional and popular music. As she has shared in various interviews given over the years, her strictly classical musical upbringing during childhood and adolescence gave way to an introduction to jazz and various forms of improvised music after enrolling at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Prior to her time at Berklee, she had never been exposed to the music of iconic jazz artists such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman; after graduating, she enrolled at the New England Conservatory of Music to complete a Master’s Degree in Contemporary Improvisation. Although her time at NEC led her further down the road toward playing in more physically demanding and sonically diverse ways, she credits her move to New York in 2000 for catalyzing the development of her inimitable solo playing.

Her solo cello work, which is documented on I Saw the Ghost of an Unknown Soul and It Said...(Ecstatic Peace, 2008) and Ghil (Ideologic Organ, 2013) and which has been continually evolving all the while, might be most neatly categorized as “noise” music: unpitched hisses and pops, dissonant scratches and slides, effervescent bursts and sustained chapters of multiphonic denseness and ghostly echoes. But the “noise” label, like other genre distinctions, is a fiction devised for the sake of convenience; Lee’s performances might initially shock with aggressive eruptions of sound, but they reveal a vast, sound-oriented vocabulary culled through practice, experimentation, and collaboration.

Importantly, in multiple interviews she has asserted her unwavering self-identification as a cellist. Lee views her own work as a direct continuation and development in the instrument’s technical lineage: “I guess I’m interested in pushing the boundaries of the cello without giving up on the idea of playing the cello...I have no interest in putting the cello through different effects to make it sound like a guitar or other instruments...it’s only when I play certain sounds I know that the cello really represents who I am; not my emotions, but who I am as a person.” The program will be entirely improvised—she does not give titles to improvisations—and the music will encompass a panoramic range of sounds on the instrument, at times ecstatic and meditative for both performer and audience.

* * * * *

Steve Lehman Octet

On paper, the instrumentation of the Steve Lehman Octet does not in itself invite heightened scrutiny: alto and tenor saxophone, trumpet, and trombone, plus vibes in the place of the expected guitar or piano, drums, and both bass and tuba holding down the low end. In person, however, the sound of the band can seem at first impossibly resonant and vibrant, casting vivid sonorities that seem to cause an entire room or hall to throb at its foundations. In employing these particular sonic constituents for his octet, Lehman, a saxophonist, composer-improvisor, scholar, and educator, draws principally from his studies of spectral harmony with leading figures such as Tristan Murail and his studies of Afrological forms of improvisation with masters such as saxophonist-composers Jackie McLean and Anthony Braxton.

In his 2012 Columbia University dissertation, “Liminality as a Framework for Composition: Rhythmic Thresholds, Spectral Harmonies and Afrological Improvisation,” Lehman concisely summarizes some of the major goals and aesthetic concerns advanced by composers of spectral music, where the fundamental physical properties of sound are analyzed to inform compositional decisions: “Timbre (attack, decay, overtone structure) provides the source material for orchestration, harmony, duration and musical form. The most prominent overtones of a given sound - a clarinet or a church bell, for example - are used to create a rich harmonic framework that is organized according to frequency relationships, as opposed to the intervals of a musical scale.” 1 For example, in his composition Echoes, from the eight-piece 2008 cycle Travail, Transformation and Flow, harmonic structure is based on the spectral makeup of different vibraphone notes, which contain distinct sets of overtones that also include inharmonic partials, higher frequencies that are stretched in pitch (some might say “slightly out of tune,” but these are actually naturally occurring). By orchestrating the instruments in the band in a way that reinforces these naturally occurring partials, both harmonic and inharmonic, Lehman constructs harmonies that act on the ear in surprising ways, not least of which by foregrounding subtle elements of an individual note’s vast spectral profile and unleashing these in full, shimmering bloom.

Rhythmic sophistication and a keen orientation toward groove is another hallmark of Lehman’s music, which bears the unmistakable traces of Afrological improvisor-composers such as Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and John Coltrane in addition to conceptual insights gleaned from Lehman’s research on rhythmic cognition at Columbia. Coexisting polyrhythmic trains of pulse, stuttering accent-infected beats, and metrical illusions conveyed through finely wrought augmentation and diminution of note lengths are several features that lend Lehman’s compositions their distinctive sense of propulsion—compositions both undeniably grooving but at times unpredictable and even enigmatic in their organization of pulse. For the musicians in the band, however, their internalized apprehension of these detailed rhythmic and spectral-harmonic forms enables them to negotiate these dynamic environments, improvising upon and transforming compositional materials in real-time. More recently, Lehman’s continued work for octet has led to the development of a custom-built vibraphone with specially-tuned bars for octet member Chris Dingman—an innovation featured on Mise en Abîme (Pi Recordings, 2016), his follow-up to Travail—as well as the incorporation of live electronics to reinforce and heighten the environmental ambiance of the music. The program of this concert will feature compositions from both Travail and Mise en Abîme, including a spectral reimagining of master bebop pianist Bud Powell’s “Parisian oroughfare” and a new work entitled “Rhythm of the Earth.”

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Craig Taborn: Avenging Angel Solo Improvisations

“For me all improvisation is more about paying attention to sound than generating ideas,” says Craig Taborn. Fascinated by the sonic possibilities of the acoustic piano and its electronic counterparts from a young age, Taborn has long been in-demand by leading figures in jazz and creative improvised music, whether digging into grooves on Rhodes and keyboards in Chris Potter’s electric Underground band, or contributing to the dramatic, protean textures of Roscoe Mitchell’s ensembles. As he says of Mitchell and other master musicians, a signal difference between their approaches and that of merely proficient musicians lies in careful attention to “the entire shape and bloom of a note ... When it ceases to be audible and becomes imaginary.”

Taborn’s consideration for the whole arc of musical events also reveals a form of musical patience reflected in other aspects of his artistry, perhaps most obviously his relative scarcity of recorded work as a leader: five albums over the past 20 years, compared to 80 albums recorded as a sideman within the same timespan. “I don’t feel that much of a compulsion to relentlessly document process,” he says in an EPK for Chants (2013, ECM), the most recent release of his trio with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Gerald Cleaver. “I feel like process is simply that, and I like to allow projects time to develop before I am really interested in documenting them.” This abiding sense of patience can be heard in abundance on his first and only solo piano album, Avenging Angel (2011, ECM). Although he has been developing his solo approach and performing in this context publicly since 2001, he has characteristically been in no rush to document. Perceiving and conjuring subtleties at the piano is a lifelong pursuit; in a 2011 DownBeat Magazine article, he emphasized the point by noting his effort to hear the difference in the hammering of three individual strings for each note on a piano, “how they resonate and how the beats work.”

The music documented on Avenging Angel is capacious and enveloping, at times floating and diaphanous and at other times maddeningly dense. In response to the classic jazz journalist question, “How much of the music is improvised?” Taborn averred that, in his estimation, about 90 percent of the album was not preconceived, save for several long, cyclical rhythmic devices that would not have been feasible to improvise. At the time, he mentioned his preference for a modular approach of organizing musical materials, using simple cells of rhythmic and melodic information and “spontaneously composing them to get a more self-referencing structure.” He explains, “...I want to evolve larger structures, but the only way I can pull that off  is to think of the smallest elements—major third, minor third—and work with them rotationally.” Bringing to bear his experiences in numerous bands and improvisational contexts before and after the release of Avenging Angel, Taborn will present an improvised set of music spellbinding in its attention to the spectral afterlife of each note and breathtaking in its surprising yet seemingly inevitable unfolding.

* * * * * 

Wadada Leo Smith & Ikue Mori

Ikue Mori is renowned for her pioneering work as a laptop artist who operates in various improvised music settings, but before shifting her attention to the possibilities of the laptop, she programmed drum machines and explored the possibilities of making them “sound broken.” Before that, she was the drummer of the major No Wave band DNA, which reached outside of mainstream rock and punk rock to incorporate noise and more experimental streams of music. Mori has also deeply studied Ankhrasmation, developed by trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith as a unique, personal approach to making music. In Smith’s own words:
Ankhrasmation is a musical language as opposed to a musical notation system. [...] The first part, Ankh, comes from the Egyptian cross. Ras comes from the Ethiopian head, meaning the leader. And Mas comes from mother. [...] It could be referenced scientifically, according to nature or biology, or it can be referenced according to fantasy, imagination. So when all these components are connected, that guarantees the possibility of success; you can definitely, in a critical way, decide what’s not making it. [...] The score itself becomes obsolete the moment the object has been rendered. 
In a 2005 Boston Globe article covering Smith’s first gig in Boston since 1988, Smith praised Mori for her superlative investigation of the approach, describing her as “the best in the world” and remarking that “...creatively she matches anything that I can do or anybody else can do.” Mori performs two duets with Smith on his Luminous Axis (The Caravans of Winter and Summer) (Tzadik, 2002), weaving a textural counterpoint to Smith’s trumpet. In the same article, Mori describes the experience of co-navigating an improvised landscape through Ankhrasmation:
Following the Ankhrasmation method is like following the map of the cosmic journey with Wadada or something... It’s not like free improvisation with others, because of the events you have to create [to] express the color and shape in a certain time. But ultimately the form of the music we create is very intuitive, and anything could happen during the journey. I preprogram and prepare some sounds and patterns with my computer and manipulate and recombine them live.
In addition to selections from Luminous Axis and a creative improvisation, Mori and Smith will present a version of Pacifica, a composition by Smith documented by his Golden Quartet on Spiritual Dimensions (Cuneiform, 2009). The composition exists as a colorful illustrated panel that Smith completed in 2005, whose constituent elements contain detailed symbolic information for the performers to interpret. Smith explains that the “sonic string” at the top contains “other material to be used in creating the music. For example, there are eight known objects connected to the sonic string. Four are from Egyptian hieroglyphs; the Udjat-eye, the Human-eye, the Heart and boat that carry the soul to the next world. Two stars, the one in the sky and a Star Fish, the new Silver Moon and the Sun, plus the sonic string are used to create the music.” Below the string, a set of multicolored waves is depicted with measurements that describe “the depth that light penetrates into the ocean. It reaches down 200-plus meters, and below that depth is darkness. The water surface reflects about fifteen to twenty percent of the in-coming light. Those depths, colors and size of waves are what the musicians use in their exploration to create the music.”

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Courtney Bryan: “A Presence”

Courtney Bryan has described her own musical aesthetic as one of “convergence,” an orientation toward identifying and integrating common elements across musical influences, which also embodies the project of this year’s diversely programmed Fromm Players concerts. As a scholar and artist, Bryan’s recent work has explored creative possibilities in bridging sacred and secular music as well as notating the feeling of improvisation. Her 2014 DMA dissertation at Columbia University, entitled A Time for Everything, for chorus: Analysis of a Musical Meditation, is a four-part choral cycle devised as a series of musical meditations on the theme of love, drawn from different readings from the Bible. The work, although informed by conventions of sacred choral music in Western European and African-American traditions, incorporates a vast range of emotional expression, calling upon the singers at various times to unleash peals of laughter and dramatic whispers. During her dissertation studies, Bryan held a position as organist at Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey, and consciously fused her various experiences as an improvising church organist, jazz pianist, and studying composer. Many other musical influences are manifest in this work as in other works of hers, including hocketed Central African music where different alternating voices collectively form a single melody, and Rumba music and dance, an interest of Bryan’s that crystallized during a 2012 trip to Cuba.

A committed collaborator across musical communities and disciplines, Bryan’s recent collaborations include Prophetika: An Oratorio (2015), conceived with stage director Charlotte Brathwaite and installation artist Abigail DeVille, which reflects on freedom in the world today with music drawing from the cosmic vision of Sun Ra and the devotional music of Alice Coltrane; and a semi-improvised composition as part of Promise Machine (2015), a commission by Steffani Jemison for MoMA as part of a response to an concurrent exhibit on the acclaimed African-American painter Jacob Lawrence. Bryan’s recent commissions have included Sanctum (2015), for orchestra and recorded sound, which, in her own words, “explores the sound of improvisation in Holiness-preaching traditions” and draws inspiration from recorded sermons by Pastor Shirley Caesar, Reverend C.L. Franklin, and Reverend Charles Albert Tindley. The work also integrates the recorded voices of activists in Ferguson, Missouri from 2014 to foreground recent instances of police brutality.

Keenly aware of music’s relationship with communities and its ability to effect social and political change, Bryan is preparing a new work with text by poet Sharan Strange for #SingHerName, an orchestral and choral concert centered on the voices of the women of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The work will be presented in the summer of 2016 by The Dream Unfinished, an orchestra whose mission is “To create a platform for classical musicians to show solidarity with activities in the #BlackLivesMatter movement.” Bryan’s A Presence is a related but distinct work from her composition for #SingHerName that was using excerpts from the recorded voice of Sandra Bland as core material that Bryan will negotiate and interact with from the piano. “Through hearing the voice, the dead are still with us,” she says. “I’m trying to musically create this presence, blurring the line between the spirit and the body.”

—Program Notes by Kevin Sun