The concert series of this summer’s twelfth annual Outsound New Music Summit began last night at the Community Music Center with a program entitled Drift Flow Swing. The subtitle was Three original perspectives on composition & improvisation; and those perspectives came from Opera Wolf (Joshua Marshall on tenor and soprano saxophone, Crystal Pascucci on cello, and Robert Lopez on drums), KREation (also known as the Kevin Robinson Ensemble), and the Wiener Kids trio, created by drummer and composer Jordan Glenn, joined by Aram Shelton and Cory Wright on both winds and percussion. These groups were presented in an evening of three sets, each offering about an hour’s worth of free improvisation.
This amounts to a lot of music from a wide diversity of those perspectives. What I realized after the first set by Opera Wolf was that so much was going down on this occasion that I worried about how much I could keep in my head until I would sit down at my own keyboard. I therefore made the aesthetic decision to try to give a clear account of Opera Wolf in the hope that I would hear the other groups on some future occasion. It takes time for the mind to get itself around free improvisation, and I felt that trying to wrap it in too many directions on a single evening might be detrimental to the whole experience.
The first thing that impressed me about Opera Wolf was their command of dynamics. While Pascucci’s cello was amplified, she could never rise to subjective power of full-bore tenor wailing, let alone aggressively uninhibited drumming. It was thus a relief to discover that Opera Wolf had departed from the dynamic range favored by so many new groups (which is confined to the levels of intensity between loud and louder) and occupied the full scope from barely audible pianissimo to the most jolting of fortissimo passages (mostly coming from Lopez’ drums).
Dynamic control emerged as the rhetorical spinal cord of most of the selections. There would be a “dramatic arc” of energy emerging gradually from quietude, growing to a peak of strength, and then subsiding. As I experienced the different approaches that Opera Wolf took in capturing this emergence of sound from silence, I realized that I had finally encountered the most suitable way to honor the 100th anniversary of the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s score for the ballet “Le Sacre du Printemps” (the rite of spring). So much attention had been lavished on Stravinsky’s score, whether it involved the impeccable clarity of every detail performed by the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas or the academic discipline of the jazz arrangement by The Bad Plus, that I had almost forgotten that the spirit behind that music was more important than the notes themselves.
It is important to remember that, in the early decades of the twentieth century, Stravinsky was only one of many composers to become interested in sound arising from the most primal of origins. One might say that Richard Wagner had thrown the first stone into this pond with his extended prolog to Dan Rheingold, although one might go further back to the depiction of dawn in Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken XXI/2 oratorio The Creation. In the twentieth century, however, the action had moved to Paris, where both Claude Debussy (“La mer”) and Maurice Ravel (“Daphnis et Chloé”) each explored the emergence of the dawn light from total darkness in the same spirit that Stravinsky had taken to the “wakening” of the earth itself. (At one point last night, the falling and rising arpeggio triplets on Marshall’s tenor saxophone easily triggered an association with Ravel.) Stravinsky, however, was the one who captured this spirit most boldly by overlaying a plethora of independent instrumental activities; and that spirit was taken on by Opera Wolf’s approach to improvisation.
Each selection was taken by each performer as an opportunity to explore different capacities for expression on his/her instrument. There was some sense of how each would play off the others. However, what seemed more significant was the concept of overlay itself. This is why dynamic control was so important: Because the layers were, for the most part, independent, they had to be balanced in order for the listener to appreciate the full expressiveness of their superposition. This was achieved through quality musicianship, rather than relying on someone to tinker properly with volume controls. The result was that the entire Opera Wolf set became a journey of auditory discovery, the best possible follow-up to the ways in which Stravinsky shocked the world 100 years ago with the new territories explored by his ballet score.