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C4NM presents an evening of electronic and instrumental free improvisation

The Green Alembic logo, displayed during their performance last night
The Green Alembic logo, displayed during their performance last night
courtesy of Joe Lasqo

Free improvisation almost always plays a part in the chamber music recitals organized and performed by the sfSoundGroup; so it should be no surprise that the bi-weekly sfSoundSalonSeries concerts held at the Center for New Music (C4NM) should provide a broader scope of opportunities for this approach to performance. When Belgian pianist Stephane Ginsburgh had to cancel last night’s planned appearance, apparently due to visa problems, series curator Matt Ingalls came up with an impressive alternative. The evening was divided between an all-electronic first set and an all-instrumental second set, each bringing its own methods to the practice of free improvisation.

The electronic offering was called LANACANE, created by multimedia artist Lana Voronina. Visually, this involved little more than watching her sit behind a table with a vast array of equipment, including a laptop and a variety of control devices. Her sources seem to have come from at least one beat box and an array of sampled sounds, probably all stored on her laptop. After a brief “overture” of colored noise, she fired up her first round of beats. However, what could have devolved into simplistic “dance party” music emerged, instead, as a background for some highly imaginative improvisations, often playing against the steady rhythms with off-beat patterns and punctuations of noise-like outbursts. Eventually, the beat box pattern shifted, provided a new background for a different family of foreground improvisations. The entire set was not very long, but Voronina created the impression that her performance had been a well-conceived journey emerging from silence and eventually returning there.

This was followed by Green Alembic, an all-instrumental improvisational ensemble organized by Jim Ryan. Ryan was joined by Christina Stanley on violin, Doug Carroll on cello, Jason Hoopes on bass, Joe Lasqo on piano, Michael Cooke alternating between bassoon and Chinese sheng, Jeff Hobbs on violin, alto clarinet, and cornet, and Ron Heglin on trombone and sometimes chanting. Ryan himself performed on flute, pocket trumpet, kalimba, and a variety of percussion instruments that seem to have been home-made.

The entire performance took place in front of a screen on which were projected images of graphic art, primarily by Ryan himself. His landscapes seemed to be depictions of the local environment; but all of his human figures tended to involve grotesque distortions, somewhat reminiscent of the approach that Francis Bacon took to portraiture. Ryan also read some of his own poetry with the words displayed on the projections. This intermingling of words and images with free improvisation recalled the early days of the Beats; and I was struck that the ages of the Green Alembic performers seem to cover periods from the mid-Fifties to the immediate present.

What was most important about the improvising was the capacity each performer displayed for listening to (rather than just being aware of) the others. This was not the sort of free-blowing assault on the ear from all directions that had been explored so boldly by jazz artists like Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. Rather, what was most interesting was how, in its own self-organizing way, the ensemble was constantly rearranging itself into smaller groups that would serve as the primary domains of interplay. Thus, in contrast with LANACANE, the “journey” of this music was more “societal,” peregrinating across different regions of sonorities characterized by which instruments were participating when. This made for a much longer set than the opening electronic improvisation; but it was equally engaging, particularly when Ryan’s recitations of his poems added to the mix.

I found it a bit ironic that I should be listening to a group like Green Alembic almost exactly 24 hours after having experienced violinist Krista Bennion Feeney jamming away for all she was worth on a series of wild riffs that Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber had published in 1681. On that occasion I realized that the practice of making music often involves migrating between performing jazz as if it were another kind of chamber music and performing chamber music as if it were another kind of jazz. While there were any number of jazzy tropes that emerged from Green Alembic’s improvisations, this was very much chamber music; and it was chamber music that deserves to be practiced by more such groups and given more opportunities for performance.

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