CD Reviews

Saturday 18th July

July 18, 2009

An early post today because I am going away with Julie tonight for a bit of a break that won’t involve music. Of course it won’t be a very long break and I will post again tomorrow. 😉

This morning I have been listening to two recent releases by Improvising Orchesrtras, one by the Swiss Improvisers Orchestra released on Creative Sources titled Zwitzerland, and the other just released on Iorram by their Glasgow equivalents, entitled Metamorphic Rock and also featuring the veteran American trombonist George Lewis.

The Swiss group is probably less of an orchestra and more of a large group, consisting as it does of just nine musicians. The music they make across the album’s seven tracks is more free jazz with an improvised element to it than pure improv. At the heart of most tracks there is a simple melody or series of repeated lines and rhythms that propel the music along in a medium paced, bouncy manner. This element, which does seem to be the music’s central concern doesn’t interest me a great deal. there are however plenty of nice little moments throughout the album, ironically usually when only two or thee of the musicians are playing, and often in the little moments of calm between the more busy, melodic elements in each track. The fifth track for instance, named Tales opens with a lovely, subdued passage of quiet tones played by either the group’s cellist Sabine von Werra or bassist Markus Fischer (I suspect the latter but can’t be sure) alongside one of the several wind instruments played very quietly and softly. This little vignette is beautiful, but is brought to a halt after two minutes by the other instruments suddenly bursting in, still quite quietly, but without the degree of subtlety the duo showed.

Throughout Zwitzerland these moments keep occurring, but all too often they are seen as openings or endings to more jazzy tuneful pieces with two or three musicians at the heart, and others following along with sudden jabs, wails and other flourishes. What isn’t clear to me though is how much is composed. Certainly the music is divided into sections, parts that allow free expression, others that clearly don’t, and good use is made of an instruction to suddenly cut from one section to another, often halting the music in full flow and letting something different swell up from underneath. Whether the melodies and rhythms are pre-ordained or not I am unsure. I suspect not, but still they are the weak point of the album for me, the drumming in particular, which is the one part that seems to pull the music away from improvised freedom than any other, often giving the music a marching feel to it that I just couldn’t live with.  Zwitzerland is a well played, technically assured album, but the group make a music that overall just isn’t something I am that interested in.

I wrote about another release by the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra recently released ironically on the Creative Sources label here. Metamorphic Rock follows on fast from that release though, and was recorded six months later in late 2007 at a session involving guest director George Lewis. The music on this album seems to have been recorded at a rehearsal session for a piece called Artificial Life 2007 that was written for the 18-piece group by Lewis, but is the result of the group playing on after the rehearsal had finished. The liner notes state that the only condition placed upon this extra music by Lewis was that “when the music stopped the group would not disrupt the silence but would wait and then begin again“Â

For me, Metamporphic Rock is a considerably more satisfying release than Zwitzerland. Despite there being twice as many musicians here as on the Swiss release there does seem to be more of a sense of space and depth to the music. Crucially though the music does not slip into any obvious idiom and remains fluid and abstract in the loosest sense of the word. The album isn’t as clearly recorded as Zwitzerland, presumably because eighteen microphones are an unlikely expense, but for once the music actually benefits from this. There is an echoey, cloudy feel to some of the music (partly down to the room in which it was recorded I suspect) with some of the quieter instruments playing in the background merging into a semi-featureless bed for the musicians playing more “upfront” at any one time. Compared to the Swiss release, which captures the group in a radio station studio it feels less clinical, more well, metamorphic. There is generally as much focus placed on massed texture as there is on sudden moments of expression, a real sense of seeing where things go rather than just using improvisation to more colour rigid structures. There is in fact no structure in place at all for this music.

It is true that I would much rather hear music played by far smaller groups than on Metamorphic Rock, but that is not to say that there is much to take from releases like this one. The way that eighteen musicians enact tremendous restraint here to ensure that the end result is not just an awful mess is admirable. These eighteen musicians each place aside their ego and surpress some of their creative urge to create this music. At the same time they manage to avoid the urge to slip into any simple musical structure or genre. That spirit of collaboration within a small community is great. I wouldn’t want every piece of music to be made like this, and I don’t doubt that the majority of the musicians involved would not want to be limited to such methods all of the time either, but as an occasional strategy this can only be a fruitful and rewarding way of playing, for musician and listener likewise.

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