Last night a solo performance by Steven Lugerner served as the “opening act” for a program at the Center for New Music curated by Larry Ochs. He presented his latest composition project, “Gravitations,” over the course of which he played clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, and alto flute. The melodic lines for each of these instruments were conceived as counterpoint against prerecorded content on a tape cassette. That content consisted of “a textured, nearly seamless blend” (quoting Francis Davis from The Village Voice) of both additional lines performed by Lugerner and recorded samples of improvisations by Angelo Spagnolo on guitar and Fred Hersch on piano.
There is nothing new about this sort of layered approach in which one or more performers add “live” layers to prerecorded ones. However, it is clear that Lugerner’s work with his two sources involved meticulous editing. He also kept those sources separate, using them to distinguish the different sections of his composition. It would thus be fair to say that neither Spagnolo nor Hersch was particularly recognizable. Rather, individual phrases from their recordings served very much like tiles of different abstract shapes in a mosaic to which Lugerner then added more extended recordings of his own playing.
It is worth emphasizing, however, that all of this recording work was done with cassette equipment. In our contemporary world of “digital cleanliness,” the sound of tape hiss has a decidedly shock-of-the-old impact. However, it also endowed the background, against which Lugerner provided his own foreground performance, with a rather unique sense of foggy qualities, meaning that Lugerner’s own in-the-moment playing served as the few beams of clear light through a rather heavy mist.
This opposition of clarity and fogginess made for an overall mood that seemed to be both comforting and melancholy at the same time. The quietude of Lugerner’s rhetoric may remind some of Morton Feldman’s softest moments. However, Lugerner’s approach to making music is very much his own; and he seems to be pursuing it to impressive advantage.