Free improvisation in a new music context can often be a challenge. How to create new sonic landscapes? How to provide a structure that encourages collective improvisation? How to stretch the limits of traditional instruments in new and unheard-of ways? With his Ensemble at Musica Genera 2002,
Chris Burn and company provide at least some of the answers in a program which challenges conventional concepts of both sound and improvisation.
Burn is a pianist who eschews all convention on his instrument. Rarely, if ever, does one actually hear what one can clearly identify as a piano. That is, in fact, both an asset and a liability of the entire ensemble: it is almost impossible to clearly identify what any of its members are doing. Unlike Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, where the individual performers are clearly delineated even through the electronic treatments, there is a certain selflessness to Burn's ensemble – which may or may not be a good thing. Since two-thirds of the ensemble consists of long-standing members, Burn evidently appreciates the specific contributions each member makes. But it remains a challenge for the listener to appreciate any specific performance; rather, one has to simply accept what is presented simply for what it is.
The program, recorded live in Poland in 2002, consists of three group improvisations and three composed pieces. It is difficult to differentiate between them, as the overall sound is so foreign, so alien, that there are no traditional forms to hang on to. Nevertheless, on a piece like Burn’s “Rotacja,” there are moments where the ensemble seems to converge on a single idea which would imply a structure that is less-than-clearly there. Using microtonality, layered textures and tone colours, the ensemble shifts from near-silence to bursts of cacophonous noise.
Even within the context of free music, the work of Chris Burn's Ensemble is extremely challenging. Because there is absolutely no convention to hang onto, the listener must give up all preconceived notions of what music should sound like. Ensemble at Musica Genera 2002 does, however, capture a moment in time with a group that provides a window onto a strange audioscape; for the listener who is prepared to work at it, there are rewards hidden within.
Personnel: Chris Burn (piano), John Butcher (tenor and soprano saxophones), Xavier Charles (clarinet), Rhodri Davies (harp),
Matt Hutchinson (synthesizer and electronics), Nikos Veliotis (cello)