Concert Review: First Annual Boston String Improvisors' Festival
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.