Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Squint Live In Oxford

Port Mahon, Oxford, Tuesday 20th April 2010

(Phil Wachsmann, Eric Clarke: violins; Jill Elliott: viola; Bruno Guastalla: cello, bandoneon; Dominic Lash: double-bass)

There were moments when one might have said that Squint's improvisations sounded a little like composed pieces by Lachenmann or Per Norgard. This was primarily due to the particular instrumentation, to the use of extended techniques (with the whole body of the instrument as sound-making device) by an all-strings ensemble, which one would not associate with the more jazz-associated aspects of free improvisation as much as with 'modern classical'. That said, the fact that things were completely improvised ensured a more fractured approach than that allowed by written material; the players were less likely to work in and around the same melodic material for lengthy periods, more likely to move on to another section if they felt that the music had begun to stagnate in any one kind of sonic area for too long.

One might also note the fairly considerable diversity in the backgrounds of those playing: Wachsmann studied with Nadia Boulanger and emerged initially from an indeterminate/ Cageian/ art music context; Clarke is a professor at the University of Oxford with extensive academic research on music under his belt; Elliott has been involved in classical, folk and contemporary music in Oxford for 20 years; Guastalla works as a maker and restorer of violins and cellos, as well as playing in a number of Oxford-based free improvising groups; Lash has played with the late Steve Reid, droned with Tony Conrad, plucked in straightahead jazz contexts, scrabbled away in free jazz settings, and participated in quiet textural improvisations. Such diversity by no means led to a clash of approaches: motifs and techniques were passed round in overlapping relays and leaping exchanges.

At times, one might think that one had pinned down the 'role' someone was playing in the group - Clarke as the most melodic player, tending to focus on longer bowed notes and lengthier phrases; Wachsmann as the one keeping things on edge, abrasive, physically engaged; Elliott plucking round the spaces left by other players; Lash providing the lower end of the music in a supportive role, bowing secure underpinnings or plucking harmonies; Guastalla laying out for a few seconds and then launching in with ferocious energy onto a particular idea or type of sound (notable in this regard was his use of a piece of wood against the strings to create a fantastic loud groaning that sounded as if it could almost have been electronically manipulated). But this was most definitely not a music where one could pin down any one player to any one role. Sometimes two musicians would play in near-concord, shifting echoes of one another's phrases, edging round a tonal centre, soon snapped out of it by someone (often Wachsmann) scraping or unleashing plucked flurries. Sometimes there would be contrasts across the ensemble, players dividing into short-lived separate groupings, pairings: Clarke's groaning ship's mast over brief violin harmony, Elliot and Wachsmann tapping out quiet motifs in the midst of the lower instruments' thunder. At other times, the whole ensemble would dig with slow bowed drones, or some would drop out to leave near silence, the thread of the music hanging on a wisp of sound from bow on wood or string.

This was the group's first gig (though there had been a few private sessions beforehand - it wasn't one of the ad-hoc blowing groups you sometimes find in free jazz contexts) and there were perhaps times when things felt a little tentative: the division into separate pieces (of roughly ten minutes in length) diffused the intense concentration that a single, longer piece would have yielded, for applause means you have to build things back up again, in the process losing the atmosphere and focus of the previous minutes. It must be noted, however, that little hesitation was shown on the re-starts, and furthermore, any sacrifices in terms of total cohesion were more than made up for by the variety of sounds, levels of volume, types of interaction, and musical alliances across the group. The result was intensely absorbing, and it is to be hoped that this group might further develop the many interesting directions they created for themselves during this debut public performance.


Dominic Lash said...

Thanks for the review David! Just one factual thing - Eric was playing violin, and Jill viola rather than the other way around!

david_grundy said...

Oops - now corrected!