Concert Review: First Annual Boston String Improvisors' Festival
First Parish Church
Sunday, October 22, 2000
Saturnalia String Trio +1:
Jonathan LaMaster, violin
Vic Rawlings, cello
Mike Bullock, bass
Jane Wang, bass
Jon Rose, violin and electronics
Harald Kimmig, violin
Carl Ludwig Hübsch, tuba
LaDonna Smith, violin and voice
Mike Bullock, bass
Harald Kimmig, violin
Jon Rose, violin
Carl Ludwig Hübsch, tuba
Jonathan LaMaster, violin
Vic Rawlings, cello
LaDonna Smith, violin
Kat Hernandez, violin
+ other violinists & tuba
Free improvisation can be a very serious business. Often musicians appear on stage, leap into a performance frenzy, and leave the audience to absorb their unbridled creativity with eyes closed.
The First Annual String Improvisor's Festival in Cambridge was an exception. Not to imply that the performers were anything but serious musicians... but the degree of interplay they achieved with the audience, and the occasional levity with which the improvisations were delivered, were something special.
Of course, there's always the usual abundance of banjo jokes to get the audience giggling. Jon Rose, a violinist from Europe via Sydney and various other locales, ended his segment with a banjo sample and a couple of silly questions:
Q: What's the difference between jumping on a banjo and jumping on a trampoline?
A: You take off your shoes with the trampoline.
Q: What's the difference between chopping up an onion and chopping up a banjo?
A: With the onion you at least cry.
During the intermission, Saturnalia cellist Vic Rawlings had another one to add:
Q: How long does it take to tune a banjo?
A: How long do you have?
The relaxed levity of the festival was not simply limited to banjo jokes. For example, when the Kimmig/Hübsch Duo wrapped up their performance, violinist LaDonna Smith (who was slated to be next) found herself in a trance. Jon Rose called back to her:
Rose: "Hey, wake up! It's you! Want a hand with that?"
Smith: "Uh, yes."
Rose got up to help Smith hook her viola up to the mixer. "Want me to do yours?"
Smith: "Uh, later. Not in public."
So much for the quick and dirty: the performance was also jam-packed with moments of serious high intensity as well. What follows is a blow-by-blow description of the individual performances that made up the festival.
Saturnalia String Trio +1
Jonathan LaMaster, a quick and trim violinist, is the unequivocal leader of this group. Unlike many string trios, Saturnalia uses a violin-cello-bass lineup, giving their sound a deeper, more resonant quality. In this special performance, additional bassist Jane Wang joined the group. Wang has spent time recently playing with Saturnalia, and the two basses were well integrated within the group.
Before Saturnalia got started, LaMaster looked around for some rosin. He found some on Rose's table along with a heap of electronic gizmos and connecting cables. He politely asked, "Can I use some of your rosin, Jon?"
Rose's reply: "Of course! It's cheap shit. Nothing special about it. Use plenty!"
Saturnalia launched into an extended group improvisation with delicate interactive interplay, tending toward a dark, open sound. Over time the performance moved through periods of extroverted intensity spaced between sparser, more staccato playing. The group relied a great deal upon overtones and understated harmony to achieve a spacious feel.
Constantly stretching the physical limits of their instruments, members of the group found amazing ways to create new sounds. For example, LaMaster bowed with the wooden side of his bow; he blew into the hole in his violin; and throughout the performance tapped, slapped, and rubbed the body of his instrument to create various wooden sounds with overtones. Bassist Mike Bullock constantly toyed with various ways to get tonal and percussive noises out of his instrument by thumping and scratching; at one point, he pulled a hair free from his bow and pulled it across the strings for a quiet, scratchy sound. Bassist Jane Wang switched between a conventional bow and alternative versions: a collection of wooden sticks taped together; or a drum stick. Cellist Vic Rawlings crept all over the entire range of his instrument, at times playing high bowed notes that sounded just like a violin. Meanwhile, a baby in the back of the audience babbled away, adding to the spectrum of sounds in the room.
The two bass players, facing each other across the stage, exchanged perky thumping and legato bowing, occasionally breaking out into smiles as they discovered the many ways they could fit together into the group. As a whole, Saturnalia played with an emotional edge. Very rarely did anyone fully relaxeven during the quiet periods, the unexpected reared its head constantly. The philosophy behind this group appears to be to challenge expectations, and to build and relieve intensity by unconventional methods.
Jon Rose, who played next, spent a long time setting up his electronics before the show. In addition to his electric violin and MIDI bow, he had five footpedals out on the floor and a sampler on the table. Other electronic tools were tucked away out of sight. Once he got up and played, he achieved a delicate balance between live improvisation and prerecorded samples.
Rose's segment opened with a bowed violin sample, which he allowed to proceed for a few seconds before joining in and playing an improvised duet. The general feel of this portion, and most of his playing, was high energy, full-range intensity. Using his MIDI bow control, he moved into a nice legato bass sample and launched into a fast, powerful flurry of improvised notes. By switching between footpedals, he achieved a percussive effect, rapidly triggering different processed samples. Even during moments of pure straight-ahead violin soloing, Rose did not hesitate to apply electronic effects (other than the obvious volume pedal) that made the sound of his instrument vary from harsh and metallic to clean and direct, even panning between speakers.
In an entertaining kind of chair dance, Rose waved his bow around while swiveling his hips. His MIDI bow responded by generating sounds that evolved with the speed and momentum of his arm as well as triggers from his thumb. At times he looked like a conductor without an orchestra, waving his bow about and activating a variety of sounds. During these periods, he would occasionally accompany the electronics with pizzicato improvisation, plucking away with his left hand while his right swung free. Meanwhile his feet kept busy regulating tone and triggering additional samples. The level of physical coordination required appeared to be a real challenge: Rose's mouth contorted and snarled, oddly reminiscent of the high-intensity snarl of 8-string multiphonic guitarist Charlie Hunter.
Rose's great contribution to the festival was his amazing ability to create and manipulate multiple improvised lines at once. While his playing relies greatly upon technology and equipment, he has mastered the coordination of all these tools to yield a ever-evolving blend of string improvisation and electronic sound. His unique approach is a peculiar wedding of technology and art. It worked surprisingly well.
After the storm and fanfare of Jon Rose's multiphonic explosion, an intermission was called. When the audience reassembled, violinist Harald Kimmig and tuba player Carl Ludwig Hübsch took their positions on stage and engaged in a delicate, understated duet. Kimmig started the improvisation with a light, twittering bowed sound; and then Hübsch joined in with delicate amelodic puffs. The duo gradually built up intensity. While the violin entered the higher range of overtones with twisting, scratching harmonics, Hübsch took his tuba through some low farting noises and then began applying some unusual methods to get the full range of sound out of his instrument. Using a bike helmet as a mute, he sculpted the shape of his breathy tones; and then moving on to a cookie tin as a mute, he added metallic tapping and rubbing noises.
Despite moments of high intensity, much of the Kimmig/Hübsch set relied upon restraint and subtlety. During quiet moments, Kimmig applied a light touch to the violin to generate high octave air and gentle percussive noises. Hübsch rubbed and tapped the tuba while blowing quietly through the instrument, with or without the mouthpiece. This ever-evolving combination of sounds had a highly interactive, tinkly quality. After a period of contemplative improvisation, the duo re-engaged with some high-octane energy. Repeated arpeggiated chords on the violin accompanied a singing sound on the tuba; eventually violin chords pulsed through a passage of low snarling, roaring tuba blasts.
Birmingham, Alabama violinist LaDonna Smith opened her set with a bit of commentary on the cool temperature of the fall Boston evening: "I know it sounds rather political to say I represent the Southern U.S., so I'd rather say I represent the warmth and the heat." She launched into a quick-paced viola improvisation with high-end harmonics accompanied by low-end harmony. The result was a passionate burst of energy. Smith paused and casually commented, "That's the heat," before launching into more fluttering, shifting, pulsing multiphonic effects. Her early soloing relied upon high solo lines with overtones and the occasional well-matched chordal accompaniment. Indeed, her playing was quite warm.
Three or four times during Smith's performance, her neck pad detached from the instrument. She made a comment to the effect that despite their annoying instability, "neck pads are a necessary evil"to which Rose snidely replied from the audience: "It's cheaper than getting your neck shortened."
"You have a point," Smith said before initiating a piece combining her violin virtuosity with some well-placed vocal passages. Her singing was clear, open, and bell-like; it harmonized well with the evolving chordal material she played on the violin. Occasionally she would set up a regular groove, then allow it to disintegrate into clustering embers. At critical moments, she played stuttering violin passages with chant-like vocals. At all times, Smith maintained a relaxed, smiling, comfortable affectmaking eye contact with the audience and encouraging interaction.
Toward the end of her set, Smith utilized a scratching bowed effect with pizzicato: her playing was busy, noisy, and edgy. She began to walk down the aisle and approach audience members, usually turning up the intensity as she stepped in front of an individual. The audience responses were quite entertaining: some people smiled and nodded their heads, while others shyly slunk back. A woman with a minicam pulled back in order to keep Smith in the video frame. When she pushed her violin in my face, I pushed my ear up directly above her instrument and chased her away.
Betraying her Southern roots, LaDonna Smith gradually slipped into a bluegrass feel toward the end of her performance. She began tapping her foot and playing a jaunty melody. Her fragmentary groove with bits of bluegrass utilized vibrato and overtones to achieve a peculiar combination of the familiar and the unexpected. She quietly faded away into silence, only tapping her foot. The audience, meanwhile, stared intentlyperhaps out of fear that she would step in someone's face and start exploding again. Having achieved the desired effect, Smith smiled and said, "You people will listen to anything. Now what?"
As a sort of coda to this interactive portion, Smith played an unamplified violin segment (mostly because the mike fell off her instrument and could not be reattached). Her very emotional approach varied in tone from rough and fiery to legato intensity. The treble melody began to be crowded out by 'volunteer' notes below, and ended up converted to a slippery feel with the addition of vocals. At all points, Smith relied upon a pointed theatrical affect: looking around, smiling, and winking at the audience.
After a brief intermission, the instrumentalists gathered in novel combinations for a sort of encore to their performances. A trio comprising Kimmig, Bullock, and Rose was surprisingly successful. Rose was clearly the leader and the dominant force, but Kimmig showed amazing sensitivity of tone and a remarkable ability to harmonize with Rose in unpredictable ways. Bullock, overwhelmed by the other performers, played a stuttery, rhythmic pattern and rarely engaged in any melodic play.
A second recombined group comprising LaMaster, Rawlings, and Hübsch took to the stage next. LaMaster played a lead role, but Hübsch was surprisingly outspoken in his tuba performanceutilizing his full range of sound and all the toys at his disposal. Meanwhile Rawlings played a very down-to-earth supporting role, as he did during the Saturnalia performance.
The final performance of the encore started with LaDonna Smith and violinist Kat Hernandez. They harmonized for a softspoken interplay where Smith generally took the lead and Hernandez complemented it with long notes and delicate harmonics. Eventually just about all the players got on stage and the improvisation began to assume an amorphous, scattered feel. If you listened to a specific duo or trio of players, the improvisations made much more sense than if you listened to the group as a whole. But that could just be a matter of experience and taste: I prefer small groups to larger ones, because I tend to lose the abillity to parallel-process sound after about five instruments.
The First Annual Boston String Improvisors' Festival was a stunning success. Jon Rose, with his technological and artistic wizardry, stole the show, but each of the other groups also had something unique to add. Saturnalia engaged in an overtone-rich, sparse, highly interactive improvisation. Kimming and Hübsch brought the string-centered festival back into multi-instrumental territory with some very inventive and surprising play. LaDonna Smith, in her very own personal style, introduced the heat and warmth that she promised by utilizing a variety of approachesamong which the most successful were her vocal passages.