Joe McPhee & Fred Lonberg-Holm: Their First Duet, University of Chicago

Lyn Horton By

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Joe McPhee and Fred Lonberg-Holm
Bond Chapel, University of Chicago
Chicago, IL
November 9, 2009

Saxophonist Joe McPhee and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm have long been bandmates in Peter Brötzmann's Tentet, as well as in McPhee's Survival Unit III and in other groups formed during their mutual acquaintance. But never have the two had the opportunity to play with one another in a simple duo. The opportunity came when on November 9, immediately following several nights of the Chicago-based Umbrella Festival, McPhee and Lonberg-Holm accepted an invitation to perform in Bond Chapel on the University of Chicago Quadrangle as part of the Renaissance Music Programs series.

The couple could be no more different in their approach to their instruments. McPhee's focus was on exercising all the tenor voices in which he could sing. Lonberg- Holm's interest in this setting moved towards the experimental and the percussive. Despite this seeming disparity, their interaction magnified their mutual sensibilities.

Strikingly, the essence of each musician shone through. The depth and broadness of McPhee's tone never stole the listener's attention from the way Lonberg-Holm scratched, bowed through and electrified the invisible musical space. Even with the tiniest of gestures through his dubbing or arco technique, Lonberg-Holm was equally as emotive as McPhee.

Their playing was as much an expression of the individual bodily comportment of each as of the impassioned quality of the sound each produced. The grandeur of McPhee's stance contrasted with the studious posture of Lonberg-Holm, curled around his cello as he bowed and plucked his "prepared" instrument or released one hand from it in order to bend forward to turn dials and press buttons on small electronic decks arranged in a semi-circle around his chair. He shattered all expectations a listener might have had of the music by creating sounds through pedaling, stroking and applying multiple techniques to break the mold of convention and realize his instrument's full potential.

Like a snap of fingers that breaks a silence, Lonberg-Holm clipped at a string on the upper neck of his instrument to begin the one-set, hour-long session. From that point on, McPhee elaborated on his improvisational ideas using melodious overtones, while Lonberg-Holm tweaked the color of the tenor saxophone's singing tone with bright, sharp pizzicatos and drawn-out bowing, with electronic squeaks at one extreme and drone tones at the other.

McPhee soon made it clear that his intention was to hang onto a melody for as long as he could, or at least long enough for it to become a message that tightly gripped the heart. The lingering phrasing, the timing of his touch said everything. From pure-toned mellifluous lines he sprang into rousing abstractions, broad arpeggios, cascades of sounds inflected by tremulous flurries and repeated two- note slurs. He blew air over the reed of his horn, the hush of the audience permitting it to follow the developing form from the generating of an air stream to definitively articulated squeaking, which itself developed into low-pitched tones; and then he sang through the reed, finally hitting high split-tone screams. The listener could almost see aural arcs that bled and swelled into exquisitely curvilinear blues. Finally, Ellington's "Come Sunday" effloresced, through crescendos that twirled out of the horn in lustrous waves of sound, like sheets of silk caressing the wind, into a hush, his tapping the valves at the base curve of his saxophone representative of a journey that had come full circle, ending much as it began.

Lonberg-Holm's hyper-activity matched the intensity of McPhee's prolonged explorations. There were periods of harmony and anti-harmony in the music, when tonality converged between streams that had been divergent but then quickly split apart. The freedom with which Lonberg- Holm manipulated his bow, as well as his thin flexible fingers, was in itself startling to witness. His glissandos were short and sweet, as he drew his bow elegantly across the cello strings to climb or descend the scale as McPhee had. The cellist twisted and ground the bow into the strings at the center of his instrument, as if to say "Get this now... it does not get any better." He pulled his bow under and over the strings and also positioned it on its side to vary the instrument's timbre. Yet at no time could it be said that Lonberg- Holm stepped too far out of the multiple acoustic and electronic boundaries he had set for himself. Throughout, he struck a balance between eccentricity and custom. His serious, unabated expressiveness abounded with details, delivered quickly and accurately within their abstruse irregularity.

Twenty-three years apart in age, McPhee and Lonberg-Holm were a perfect pairing of traditional and contemporary, with each musician reaching into the other's territory to blend the two worlds. The two worlds merged as one in bold risk-taking to fracture the idea of incongruity. The resulting single and unified, timeless world beckoned spirit as it overthrew predictable musical concepts. The duo's premiere performance was as stunning and intricate as the Gothic architecture that surrounded the two of them.

Photo credit

Lyn Horton

For more information about the free, vanguard musical programs offered by the University of Chicago, visit The Renaissance Society on the internet.

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