The Necks, Weasel Walter, Butch Morris & Lou Reed
Then, at 10 pm, Morris sauntered up Avenue C a few blocks to the Nublu club, an inspirational joint that regularly invites jazz onto its thinking-person's dance floor. Morris has had a long-standing Monday night residency (which comes and goes) employing the Nublu Orchestra as his conduction pawns. This is a very different prospect from the string octet set-up. The agreed vocabulary is The Groove, and the band's house sound is pretty much in sympathy with the sonic terrain that Miles Davis was stalking during the first half of the 1970s.
There were two drummers (Kenny Wollesen was one), two guitarists (Doug Wieselman was one) and a horn section that included trumpeters Graham Haynes and Kirk Knuffke. Nublu's owner, Ilhan Ersahin, was also in the ranks, blowing tenor saxophone. Morris always makes a point of segueing out of and into whichever platter the night's DJ is spinning, and this must certainly have affected the rhythmic motion of each extended set-piece. Band sections were melded together into shifting plates of riff, as conduction proceeded.
The Nublu Orchestra was arrayed on their usual high plateau, even if the first set took 15 minutes or so to connect and stabilize (or destabilize?) its elements. There was a point where the piece locked into a shambling groove, as Wieselman strafed out jagged, fragmented guitar chords. The second set leapt right into heavy business and proceeded to pulse with a disconnected funk limp, syncopated with broken interlocking sounds. The true joy of this evening spent with Morris was its long movement from attentive seminar moderation to late-night club swirling, all of it inscrutably reflecting the many facets of conduction's mirrorball potential.
The Fireworks Ensemble: Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music"
Miller Theatre February 5, 2010
The last time that I saw the Fireworks Ensemble, they were presenting a program of cartoon music. This concert in Miller Theatre's Composer Portrait series offered a rampantly contrasting platform, as they set about reproducing the sonically excessive, scorched wasteland of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. When it was released, back in 1975, a folkloric tale took hold that the guitarist had offered his four sides of vinyl extremity to RCA as a cynical, contractually-imposed maneuver. A present-day airing of Reed's four-part overtone-feedback epic reveals this as complete nonsense, of course. In reality, he was laying the groundwork for bands such as Sonic Youth and naturally extending concepts born with The Velvet Underground. The work was revived in 2002, with a transcribed and scored version by saxophonist Ulrich Krieger (with help from Luca Venitucci). The music was performed live and subsequently released on disc in 2007 by the German moderne classical ensemble Zeitkratzer.
For this Miller Theatre show, conductor and musical director Krieger presented his score to the Fireworks crew. The process was implicitly Reed-approved, and the composer/creator was actually in the audience for the duration, without any visible earplugs. The first observation to make was that the expanded ensemble ended up being a multi-instrumentalist impersonator of the interior sound of a howling electric guitar, or even several such beasts, overdubbed into a layered cataclysm. The second observation was that it would be a willfully perverse act to actually insert the earplugs offered up by the Health & Safety folks at the door.
The eight-piece Fireworks core was augmented by a further octet that included accordionist Guy Klucevsek. The full spread included flute, saxophone, trumpet, tuba, piano, bass, percussion, viola, violins, cellos and even a sole guitar. Instruments were grouped shiftingly, forming battalions that would rise and fall as the four parts progressed. The accumulated onslaught was initially brutalizing, but as the ears and body and mind adapted, an uncanny sense of tranquility grew. It was as though the effect was similar to the buildup common to minimalist music, even though this was maximalist music to the max. Shimmering shifts of prominence were made, and the ongoing morass would lull or numb the listener periodically, before violinist Esther Noh would (mostly) direct the rhythmic staccattack-o, wielding the entire band in a swooping release before a fresh crescendo would be born. Sometimes, an accordion or a saxophone would sound like themselves, having a jarring effect as they emerged from the overall howling.