Monday 25 October 2021

"May as well be a rainbow": Moran and McBride at the Wigmore Hall

Photograph by Richard Cannon.

Jason Moran (piano), Christian McBride (bass). Wigmore Hall, 06.10.2021. 

The first gig in Christian McBride's turn as artist-in-residence at the Wigmore Hall, following Vijay Iyer's turn in 2019, this was, also, as he announced from the stage, his first performance outside the US since the worldwide spread of the pandemic. Less clearly an experimentalist than Iyer--who played two-piano duets with Craig Taborn and brought experimental hip-hop artist Mike Ladd for two duo performances in a single night--McBride nonetheless chose for this opening duo to bring in an artist who straddles the mainstream and a more experimental approach informed by a rethinking of black compositional trajectories from James P. Johnson to J-Dilla and DJ Screw. Jason Moran will be performing with Archie Shepp in their spirituals-heavy duo at the London Jazz Festival next month. In the much larger space of the Barbican, I've found such concerts tend to lose the intimacy vital to their emotional transmission (let alone the hefty ticket prices), but there were no such problems in the Wigmore (with its heavily-discounted under-35's tickets). The Hall provides an ideal medium-sized space for music of chamber proportions, and its acoustics are excellent: the musicians played un-amplified, thankfully losing the artificial thud that characterises too many large-venue jazz performances, with each detail here singing out crystal-clear. And, despite its generally more conservative programming, the Wigmore was, lest we forget, the site of, for example, the fundamental encounter between Anthony Braxton and Derek Bailey in 1974, a precedent which was, sadly, presumably unknown to the majority of those in attendance this early October.

I'd also been to the Wigmore for the previous day's afternoon concert had seen young US violinist Randall Goosby playing a programme of violin/piano music by African American composers deriving from his recent album Roots, which aims to re-tell the story of 'American' classical music through its Black presence, from Dvorak's use of spirituals to the contributions of William Grant Still and Florence Price. The most interesting part of that concert, to me, were the 'blue/s forms', solo pieces by Coleridge Taylor-Perkinson, sometime pianist for Max Roach and a composer across film, television and classical idioms, whose pieces take seriously the formal implications of marrying what Mingus called 'folk forms' to modernist harmonic extensions. Such pieces are studies in what it means to vary and extend, to 'worry' a line that move out of the vernacular adaptations by Price and Still heard elsewhere on the programme and towards something approaching the radical repetitions later advanced by Julius Eastman. 

Something of that concern with what it means to repeat, in multiple senses--the single note, the circular rhythmic or harmonic pattern, the paradoxically cyclical-progressive nature of improvisation based on chord changes--informs Moran's work too, as it questions the parameters of bop's harmonic vocabulary as opened up by bop itself, extended by free jazz, and shut down again by the 1980s counter-reaction and its legacies, marrying this to the iterative structures of other forms of black music, from hip-hop to gospel, the instrumental transformation of the voice, the voiced transformation of the instrument.

Upon his emergence into the music in the early '90s, McBride, meanwhile, was positioned as one of the 'Young Lions'--young musicians playing traditional, acoustic, bop-derived music in the wake of Wynton Marsalis and Nationalist-turned-Conservative Stanley Crouch, with some of the resources of American capital at least temporarily behind them. Though he rode that wave during the so-called 'jazz bubble' of the late '80s and early '90s (analysed in Dale Chapman's recent book), McBride came to see the "Young Lions" term as unduly promoting a limited set of musicians and styles at the expense of others. As he commented in Down Beat at the turn of the Milenium:

The whole ‘young lions’ hype, which, unfortunately, I was part of, peaked in the early 1990s. I say ‘unfortunately’ because the hype was so strong, I don’t think any musician from that ‘movement’ will ever be looked upon by certain people as serious musicians. We’ll be looked at as puppets for record companies and managers, or People magazine–type personalities as opposed to, well, Down Beat magazine–type personalities.

And indeed, the marketing and recording strategy pursued by major labels like Verve soaked up the majority of the limited resources available to the broader field of jazz as a whole for what was ultimately a limited, blinkered vision of what the music is, based on a dubious respectability politics and an erasure of the aesthetic and political radicalism that had characterised the music of the '60s and that still suffuses free jazz, which, I would hazard, was in fact the music's major source of continued, politicised investigation and creative extension, and yet which was the principal victims of the Young Lions' success. 

Meanwhile, Crouch's other main target--apart from 'ethnic music'--fusion, both of which he saw as a betrayal of the virtues of acoustic, swing-based jazz, is familiar territory to McBride, who is not averse to electric playing, and is capable of an elastic transformation to seemingly any context. (It was McBride who played bass in the one-off meeting between Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman in 2011 that gathered accolades as one of the performances of the decade.) When playing acoustically, his tendency is to more traditional walking bass patterns, along with bluesy, self-consciously virtuosic solos, each note placed out for maximum effect. But Moran's distinct identity as composer and improviser promised to take things gently away from the straight-ahead territory at which McBride could excel in his sleep, and this duo, while hardly as tied to the music's avant-garde as the Iyer-Taborn duo of 2019, were sure to shake things up, just a little. 

Bass-piano duets have an obscure but storied history in jazz. Mal Waldron and Johnny Dyani, Duke Ellington and Ray Brown, Charlie Haden and Hank Jones, all offer duets with distinct characters and differing approaches to a setting that lacks the rhythmic propulsion of a drummer and in which, if the pianist isn't careful, the bass can be reduced to a mere supporting role. As a bass player who's also a bandleader, McBride is no stranger to negotiating between supporting and leading roles. While Moran and McBride have known each other for years, this was not an established duo, leaving open that crucial element of surprise. And this was their first performance, with 30 minutes of rehearsal, as McBride announced from the stage, even if that sense of spontaneity perhaps belied the careful arrangement of the programme. They began with 'Blue Monk', one of (Thelonious) Monk's catchiest and most relaxed of melodies, and a kind of meeting point for them to test the waters, laughing and calling out in mutual appreciation at a well-timed note or a spin on a jazz cliche. Despite Moran's claim that they'd only rehearsed for half an hour, they had a well-developed programme: just under a dozen pieces, each one lasting nearly ten minutes, over the course of a 90 minute programme, ranging from compositions, mainly of the '60s and '70s, from Monk, Mingus and Wayne Shorter, to Moran's originals. 

The second piece, a Moran original, begins with a moto perpetuo bassline figure, over which a melody is delivered with complexified legato as the piece transitions into a more traditional blues-type figure (Oscar Brown's work of the early 60s comes to mind--it may even have been an Oscar Brown piece.) Moran, sitting in a backed chair rather than the traditional piano stool, goes for a few scampered runs, nearly knocking over the chair, but before he can get into full Cecil Taylor territory, McBride pulls him back, tethering him to the familiar changes. This happens a few times over the night, but by the end, McBride's allowed himself to enter the free zone for a minute or so, and one of the pleasures of the night is watching how he stretches his established virtuosity into less familiar territory. Another Monk piece, the rarely-performed but captivating 'Bright Mississippi', is followed by Wayne Shorter's melting 1960s ballad, 'Miyako', from the underrated 1967 album Schizophrenia. Like Monk, Shorter delights in setting up, then undercutting, harmonic expectations, but the main impact is in the rapturous yet wistful emotional territory the tune suggests. Here, the melody's delivered with McBride's melancholic arco echoing and transforming the memory of Shorter's gently brittle tenor on the original, Moran judiciously lifting the foot off the sustain pedal at just the right point, McBride plucking the same string he's continuing to bow on the final held note as Moran trills octave chords, techniques that might appear like mere display--look, I can do this!--harnessed in the service of the music's understated grace. 

Solo features for each musician followed: Moran's 'how much more terrible was the night' sees him crossing over his hands to play a motorically-repeated figure interspersed with a bass clef toll; as the two hands uncross, Moran plays octave figures, reiterating the theme further down the keyboard, the sense that any part of the structure could be transposed at any point on the keyboard at any time lightly suggesting Cecil Taylor's methodology, if sounding very different in content.  There's something here of the quality of Ligeti's Etudes, an assured, glassy rhythmic assurance on the edge of panic, but in control at all points. McBride's solo takes the standard 'Alone Together', melodic figures moved up and down the fingerboard, with harmonics, single note trills, and bent notes not so much decoration as an integral part of the melodic trajectory. This was a lesson in embellishment and development of a solo line, delivered with poise and poignancy, and humour--from the play on playing solo and in company of the title, to the staggered pauses, well-timed delivery of cliches or their subversion--if, sometimes, a little too much polish. A meditative Moran piece saw McBride reading off sheet music. Though the piece mainly consisted of both musicians playing through the melody, the improvisation lies in the delivery, the dynamics, as much as in the development of independent solo lines. They end with a whispered iteration to silence. The next piece, again by Moran, and more gospelly, cycles in wistful hope. Moran knows he's got an earworm of a melodic line, and whistles out the melody as he continues to play it--I'm reminded of Wayne Shorter leaning into the microphone to whistle out a spooked introduction while playing with his quartet in London over a decade ago--exemplifying the feeling of relaxed camaraderie evident from the beginning, McBride laughing in delight at Moran's audacity, and vice versa.

A lesser-known Mingus tune from Let My Children Hear Music sets up an ebulliently sardonic swing over which the musicians overlay the familiar melody to Mingus' Lester Young tribute, 'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat'. I'm not sure the overlayering really works--the poignancy of that great melody lost to a kind of technical trick--but Mingus lines give us the opportunity to hear Moran's freer side, with its lineage in the sideman work of Moran's teacher Jaki Byard in Mingus' Jazz Workshop of the '60s and of Don Pullen in the bassist's bands of the '70, as he splashes out a few clusters. Unlike the utter exuberance of his predecessors, though, Moran tends to stick to the middle register, to restrain the energy in near-ironised anticipations and reflexive echoes: playing that's almost--but not quite--in quotation marks. On the other hand, McBride's playing took on suitably Mingus-like timbres--twanging, thick, caustic, voice-like, echoing Mingus' famous 'talking' duets with Eric Dolphy. He even briefly plays 'free' in tandem with Moran, shadowing the latter's parallel motion lines as his fingers leapt across the fingerboard. A final Monk piece, 'Evidence'--probably the most radical of all Monk's compositions--was memorably deconstructed by Anthony Braxton's standards quartet in their London residency just before the pandemic. Moran and McBride play it safer, offering the pleasures of contrast as Moran lets out high-register pings over McBridge's walking bass, opening up the spaces of the melody so that what he plays is as much about what's left out as what's there, the skeletal outline of the harmonic material described and re-inscribed in real time: which is, after all, what Monk had done as early as the 1940s. The piece that sings in the head on the way home, though, is the closing piece from Moran's most recent album, The Sound Will Tell You, 'Toni Morrison said Black is a Rainbow (Shadows)', sees Moran read out a passage from Morrison's Song of Solomon as he plays-"You think dark is just one colour, but it ain't. There're five or six kinds of black". Black as colour, condition, metaphor, process: blackness in the space of the Wigmore Hall, where, as Moran put it when he played the venue in 2019, "people like me don't play in halls like this". Rapturously received, the duo play an encore. Throughout, they put on a show, and then some. An audience until recently starved for live music were delighted. 

Beyond this, as I overheard someone saying on the way out, "[McBride] was much more weird and wiggly than usual"; often, there you could hear him adapt in real-time, particular on Moran's piece. And it was Moran's pieces that were in some ways the most interesting pieces on the programme, taking them away from the familiar virtuosity on which they--particular McBride--could easily have coasted the entire night. Moran's compositions tend to focus on gospel-tinged chordal progressions and melodic fragments, treated in the manner of a hip-hop sample as looping, lightly-modified figures that lope or stride ahead with a kind of melancholic poise--whose simplicity can at first seem affected, but which, on each repetition, increase in emotional power. Moran is a master of dynamics, in particular, of the hushed diminuendo, repeating the figure until it disappears into silence, into space, and the unexpected--but perfectly-placed--hammered fortissimo in the midst of innocuous explorations of familiar figures. Moran has learned from minimalism. Here I'm thinking in part of the familiar minimalism of Steve Reich, at one point an associate of pianist Anthony Davis (whose opera X is to be revived at the Met in 2023). But Davis broke with Reich over the latter's Reich's rigidity and refusal of emotional texture--a key feature of the Black music and speech he used (and arguably, exploited) in his work, and we might equally trace Moran's minimalism to Davis' gamelan-inspired work such as the 'Wayang' pieces. (At the least, Davis himself must be counted among Moran's peers for his fusion of composition and improvisation and for his extension of (and beyond) jazz's rhythmic parameters.) But perhaps a more important part of the mix is the minimalism hip-hop looping, a post-electronic form of acoustic music in which harmonic fragments sampled from jazz, soul or R&B records get chopped up, turned over on themselves like an ouroboros. On The Sound Will Tell You, Moran employs electronics he calls DrIp to add echoic traces to his notes in a manner he likens to the slowed-down effects of the late, great DJ Screw. But it's the fascination of hearing that acoustic transformation that takes the music from mere imitation of effect and into a consideration of the structural territories opened up by the now-decades old sonic technologies of hip-hop, an inter-genre, trans-historical dialogue that's, of course, very much within the 'changing same' of jazz's (radical) tradition. (Moran reflects further on some of these questions in a recent lecture here.)

In his own pieces, Moran plays patterns, and it doesn't seem to matter whether they're composed or improvised--though of course he'll run off a flurry up the keyboard to remind you of his chops. With McBride on pieces from the tradition, he can step inside the more functional role of accompanist or lead at will, comping and soloing on changes with the best of them. But his real interests lie somewhere to the left of this, investigating the kernel of figures and putting them through their paces. In this he echoes not only Davis but a piece like Roscoe Mitchell's 'Nonaah', albeit in gentler form. In its expansive, self-consciously historical 'modernistic' approach, Moran echoes the catholicity of musicians like Byard, exemplified in Beaver Harris' 1970s formulation "from ragtime to no-time", though there can be something almost arch and self-reflexive about his playing: this is considered music, and while it lacks the expansive re-structuralism of the compositional systems of an Anthony Braxton or a Henry Threadgill (with whom Moran performed in duet at Ornette Coleman's funeral), it merges the formal explorations and historical weight that befalls anyone who plays this music consciously and with good conscience with a moving resilience, a hope we might call spiritual or secular, but which resounds nonetheless. As Morrison puts it, night "may as well be a rainbow", its shades of gradation, of difference, resounding in the neglected, the shadowy, the obscure, brought to Black light, to Black life.

Thursday 21 October 2021

Dominic Lash Ensembles at Café Oto

Photo by Roger Huddle.
John Butcher (tenor and soprano saxophones), Pat Thomas (piano), Dominic Lash (bass), Steve Noble (drums / percussion); Consorts (various musicians—full list below). Café Oto, Dalston, 21.10.2021.

Last year, bassist Dominic Lash began a record label, Spoonhunt, releasing music by three of his own ensembles: on Limulus, a quartet featuring, among others, saxophonist Ricardo Tejero, another quartet on Discernment, John Russell’s final recording alongside John Butcher and Mark Sanders, and a large ensemble called Consorts, heard on a record called Distinctions. Much of this music in turn arose from Lash’s 40th Birthday gig at Café Oto, and so it was fitting that, with the easing of pandemic restrictions, it was at Oto that the releases could be officially launched. The venue isn’t open at full capacity until next Monday, but there was still a good turn-out for what was by no means a flashy or hip gig or something with a visiting act as a draw: an indication of the health of the UK free improv scene, pandemic or no pandemic, and of the respect in which Lash and his music are held.

Given Russell’s passing, and the unavailability of Discernment’s original drummer, Mark Sanders, the quartet that played the evening’s first set had quite a different sound to that heard on the record, with Pat Thomas—originally supposed to be on the original date—replacing Russell and Steve Noble standing in for Sanders. This could have gone anywhere: Thomas sticking to piano, rather than electronics, always promises a certain amount of contained thunder, Noble a perhaps more buoyantly rhythmic approach, but the band might equally well have trod into the more abstract/rhythmically unmoored territory of quote un quote non-idiomatic playing. (By this I mean, a certain idiom that also gets called ‘European free improvisation’, whether that’s meant to imply geography, artistic tendency, style, or genre; usually, some sort of combination of all of those). Expectations of the latter arose in large part thanks to the presence of Butcher, whose earlier work with Russell and Phil Durrant (who was heard in the evening’s second half on electronics) gives his work some affinity with the beginnings of the more minimal school of improvisation that ends up with New London or Berlin silences, while the painstakingly precise multiphonics of his solo saxophone work (latterly, often amplified with electronics or in resonant spaces), suggests a kind of bridge between minimal tendencies and the more reactive scrabble of EFI. This kind of generic hair-splitting, of course, doesn’t go anywhere near to suggest the studious fluidity of Butcher’s playing, or the expansive range of Lash, Thomas, and Noble across numerous contexts. As I say, this could have gone anywhere.

As it turns out, the set—maybe 40-minutes or so in length, though I didn’t check the time—was surprisingly like free jazz. (Surprising, that is, given the tendency of the sectors of EFI with which Butcher would normally be associated to distinguish themselves from ‘energy music’ tendencies.) The quartet didn’t suggest free jazz so much in terms of dividing the music up into ‘themes’ and ‘solos’ or even pulse, but more in certain harmonic gestures and levels of energy/volume, generally initiated by Thomas and picked up on by Butcher, working some way outside his usual vocabulary. This is not, perhaps, Butcher’s preferred territory, but it didn’t show: particular on soprano, which he alternated with tenor, with I think two turns on each instrument apiece, he touched on scalar, declarative iterations that bordered on late Coltrane at its Live-in-Japan woolliest, repeated melodies echoed—not in the rote-repetition that screams “I’m listening and reacting”, but in genuinely surprising and fitting echoes—from musician to musician to musician. Butcher began in jazz when he was starting out in the early ’80s, playing in groups with pianist Chris Burn while studying physics at Surrey University and continuing to play in Burn’s big band while beginning a Ph.D on ‘charmed quarks’ in London. As Burn remarks in an interview with Simon Reynell: “I always joke that what started off as a 22 musician big band playing jazz compositions ended as a free improvisation duo.” (By 1992, the band sounded like this.) And jazz, free or otherwise, has largely left both Burns’ and Butcher’s vocabulary since then, though an unexpected and surprisingly effective duo with Matthew Shipp—convened at the invitation of Trevor Brent in 2010, also at Oto, and followed by an equally unexpected trio with synth player Thomas Lehn—saw a rapprochement of a sort. (A 2016 interview in which Shipp and Butcher sketch out the respective traditions from and out of which they emerge makes for interesting reading: it can be accessed here.) Likewise, one of the highlights of the performance by the Lash-convened quartet was seeing Butcher adjust to a climate that—largely through Thomas’ playing—had more of an idiomatic connection to free jazz than might be expected in this setting. Particularly in a solo context, Butcher plays virtually every note with an extended technique—multiphonics, false fingering, overblowing etc—veering away from any conventionally pitched vocabulary. That certainly figured here, so ingrained is it in his style: notably, on soprano, eerie, ultra-high altissimo, whistle-pitch sounds, or whispered wind ghosts floating through the body of the instrument after the mouthpiece had been removed. Yet these were juxtaposed or combined with melodic and rhythmic shards strongly suggestive of jazz, fragments of stories that Butcher seemed surprised he knew, but which he was able to re-tell, to spin towards and away from, with authoritative relish. What might have been par for the course in the work of more free jazz-oriented group thus attained the genuine “sound of surprise” here because of its variance from the norm of Butcher’s particular idiomatic tendencies, and in any case, I don’t think Butcher, inveterate Cubist that he is, could leave those phrases entirely intact.

Pat Thomas’ approach to the piano is historically rooted yet utterly distinctive. Spaciously hammered, thick, thick two-handed near-cluster; sparingly used and stringently lush ninth chords; repeated figures that are not quite riffs, not quite melodic fragments, more like rhythmic stutters that sound like a succession of mini-hammers. Deliberately so, there’s something beautifully paradoxical about his approach: gracefully ungainly, liquid granite, utterly poised in consciously distorted fashion. It’s immutable, authoritative, declarative, but entirely adaptable; the hyper-arpeggiated, glissandi-thick, rolled and clustered figures he gets in the upper register are nothing like that of Cecil Taylor, with which such playing inevitably gets compared—partly because of Thomas’ very different sense of space, his tendency to play in measured bursts rather than continuous streams (the unbroken sections of playing tend to focus on repetition rather than constant development); likewise, I don’t think any other pianist has quite the control of the lower register that Thomas has; and his use of the pedal is inevitably much subtler than the morasses of sound he conjures up with it might at first suggest. One chord he played maybe half-way through the set saw him release the pedal before the natural stage of decay where others would have simply let the note ring out; like Butcher, Thomas reminded us, in a kind of hyper-materialist, self-conscious meta-gesture, of the sources of sound production, drawing on the power of the gesture—the reverent haze or dramatic cloud the sustain pedal allows—while also drawing attention to its provisional quality (but with none of the studied fussiness that description suggests). Meanwhile, Steve Noble’s scraped or struck, perhaps bowed, small gongs and cymbals, along with other ways of playing the drum kit as pitched more than rhythmic instrument (his kit was out of my eyeline so I could only guess as to the origin of the sounds) kept things texturally open and spacious. And Lash, of course, has it all down—bowed harmonics, free arco hinting at but never settling into walking patterns, careening caterwauls and ship-wreck groans, the perfectly-placed pluck pinging into the space like a falling droplet that sends ripples from the centre to the edges of a body of water, be that puddle or pond.

During the course of the set, there were ‘episodes’, the conclusion of one and the beginning of the next generally signalled by Butcher switching instrument, but they felt more like movements in a suite than the variable incidents of a typical free improv set, moved between as they were with total, fluid assurance. The first such transition, about five minutes in, saw the music suddenly stop—one of those serendipitous pullings of the emergency-brake that generally sees the musicians wryly laugh and the audience begin to applaud, as if willing the music to end there. Here, the silence was sustained, and things immediately moved in a different direction: a focussed adjustment characteristic of the set to follow. Thomas was often the driving force behind the quality of each particular ‘movement’, though his playing was anything but grandstanding: repeated chords suggested, even as they slid away from, a harmonic direction or area. Yet it was above all a collective music, a conversation between equal musical personalities. Take away any one of the parts and the quality would radically have changed. It’s rare to see a purely improvised set of such cohesion, no hesitancies or verbiage or over-staying of welcome, each transition natural and surprising and fitting, everyone in sync, knowing when to sit out and when to step back in, no one treading on each other’s toes but no one hiding around the corner waiting for things to get going either. I trust the set was recorded, and I hope it might see release in some form or other.

Consorts, kind of chamber ensemble-cum-big band which, as far as I know, has only previously performed on the 40th Birthday gig which forms the basis for the group’s Spoonhunt release. Here’s the full line-up, taken from that release’s info sheet.
Douglas Benford - harmonium and percussion
Steve Beresford - electronics
Marjolaine Charbin - piano
Chris Cundy - bass clarinet
Seth Cooke - steel sink and metal detector
Angharad Davies - viola
Phil Durrant - modular synth
Matthew Grigg - guitar/amplifier
Bruno Guastalla - cello
Martin Hackett - Korg MS10
Tim Hill - baritone saxophone
Tina Hitchens - flute
Sarah Hughes - zither
Mark Langford - bass clarinet
Dominic Lash - double bass
Yvonna Magda - violin
Hannah Marshall - cello
Helen Papaioannou - baritone saxophone
Yoni Silver - bass clarinet
Alex Ward - clarinet/amplifier
I don’t think this was entirely reproduced on the night—Lash was playing electric guitar rather than bass; I didn’t see Alex Ward, Bruno Guastalla, Sarah Hughes, or Helen Papaioannou; Seth Cooke didn’t appear to be playing a steel sink and I’m not sure if the objects he was crouched over next to a small amplifier were metal detectors or not—but I think it’s largely representative. And whatever the individual components, the ensemble is in a sense also the piece they play, even if that piece is only loosely structured, certainly not formally scored or even conducted. With this line-up they could conceivably function in any way Lash decided, from the more conventional Improvisers Orchestra format, with its conductions and exercises, to full-on Alan Silva Celestrial Communications-style skronk. Full disclosure—Dom asked me to write the liner notes for the group’s album last year, but was more interested in what I might have to say about the music without knowing the methods that produced it than provided with the nuts-and-bolts of its structure. And I think that concern with what the music sounds like, rather than how it’s structured, is the point: an exploration of large-group texture that deliberately avoids the aforementioned large-group improv tendencies to density and information over-load while also gesturing towards—and departing from—the more minimal tendencies with which Lash’s has been involved in the Set Ensemble and other Wandelweiser-related endeavours.

As I understand it, the Consorts piece is essentially a set of sustained tones building to a crescendo, and those are the only guidelines: no score, no conduction, no other signals. (And in the rehearsal/soundcheck last night, apparently no mention of sustained tones was made.) So in part Consorts can be understood as a sort of exercise in orchestration, a textural experiment. As an exercise in orchestration, there’s a kind of giddy delight in textural variety—I’ll take not one but three bass clarinets, combine a string section with various electronics, ‘small’ or otherwise, round out the bottom end with a baritone, throw in two guitars. The group Lash had chosen is not ‘star-studded’—though who wouldn’t want a violin section with Angharad Davies in the corner! —which is, in fact, all the more index of their dedication in a music that is, after all, at its best, never about egoic fulfilment: players who quietly work away, in London or Cheltenham or Oxford or Bristol, at their craft: Martin Hackett’s inimitable Korg MS10, the tripled bass clarinets of and Mark Langford, Yoni Silver and Chris Cundy; Hannah Marshall’s richly adaptive cello; Steve Beresford in small electronics mode. From my seat, the only musicians in view were Marjolaine Charbin on piano, Mark Langford, the nearest of the bass clarinet players, and Hannah Marshall on cello (with Lash’s guitar popping in and out of view behind her). Consequently, I only realised, for example, that there was a flute in the mix about 30 minutes in, and had no idea Angharad Davies had been in the mix until Lash called out her name at the end. All this meant that I had to concentrate on it as a group sound rather than focusing on the individual sources of any particular sounds. Which is to say that being able to see the individual members of the ensemble perform both does and doesn’t make a difference. The ability to identify by eye, and thus by ear, the individual contribution of a particular instrument/individual helps one pick out one texture in the weave, one dot of paint in the pointillist whole, or any other such metaphor you might choose, but it doesn’t really reveal much more than how the parts are put together—which, as Lash’s reticence about explaining the piece’s structure implies, isn’t really the point of the exercise. Hearing snippets of sound and realising half an hour in that there was a flute in the ensemble, for example, is rendered all the more serendipitous, and the overall texture all the richer.

On Distinctions, the peak crescendo section has something of the quality of the more avant strands of doom metal; the 2021 iteration, while not quite as glass-rattling, certainly reaches for an effect you might call overwhelming, for its sheer, sustained volume, and the thick intensity of its accumulated textural thicket. The groups imperceptibly reaches a massive cataclysm of sound—driven, I think, by Phil Durrant’s very loud electronics, or perhaps it was Seth Cooke’s amp and whatever objects he had plugged into it; or maybe Matthew Grigg was also doing some small-scale Hendrix things with a guitar and amplifier; or Charbin was deploying e-bows, piano strings, and sustain pedals to give similar clouds. Either way, the sound was, thick and immutable, catharsis or textural exploration, followed by a shorter de-crescendo out (though it apparently lasted around ten minutes). Live, as opposed to on record, you can really feel the music fill the space; in providing contrast to the ‘climax’ and a mirror to the opening, the de-crescendo emphasizes the piece’s architectural, or is that architectonic, qualities. It reminded me a bit of taking part in a Michael Pisaro large group piece—also at Oto—back in 2015, in which everyone played ppp so that the overall volume was the strange effect of a very large group playing at a kind of medium volume: like an orchestra with a mute on it. Harry Gilonis also suggested the piece might be set alongside new music exemplars of the crescendoing sustained/repeated tone like James Tenney’s ‘On Having Never Written a Note for Percussion’ or Stockahusen’s Inori, to which I’d add some of Giacinto Scelsi’s orchestral pieces. (Lash himself mentions Phill Niblock, whose music he’s performed and on whom he’s written academically.) The Tenney is an exercise in solo texture and focus, with its own influence on a strand of improvised music—think Mark Wastell’s tam tam or Eddie Prévost’s bowed cymbal—as well as the general ‘swell piece’ structure found in larger groups. It would be interesting, meanwhile, to think what an improvised ‘swell piece’ like Consort’s does that those composed pieces don’t, and vice versa. If Scelsi and Stockhausen’s experiments in the form associated it with a specifically ritualistic quality (in Stockhausen’s case, unexpectedly Messiaen-type sonorities, allusions to the 'Dies Irae' melody, etc), there was almost nothing ‘ritualistic’ about Consorts. Let’s call it a more materialist approach to sustained tones that aims to be a study in texture and group contributions to an overall sound rather than a trance-inducing exercise. (Of course, the whole crescendo thing might also be seen to originate in the serious musical joke that is Ravel’s ‘Bolero’.)

These are all open-ended hints rather than a final say on the matter. Suffice to say I enjoyed both halves of the evening very much: unusual in the level of contrast between the sets and the level of focus throughout. But of course, given the calibre of the players, entirely to be expected. Roll on the next series of Spoonhunts!