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Boxhead Ensemble: Nocturnes

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Derek Bailey, the doyen of free improvisation, took note of the surprising survival tactics of the younger generation of improvisers—"the kind of manoeuvers sometimes found necessary to safely negotiate the mire thrown up in culturally inclement times, sometimes compromise, sometimes regression. Much has changed since Bailey wrote Improvisation (Da Capo, 1980), from which the foregoing quote was plucked; the improvised music landscape has long since cycled past those initial rounds of creative exhaustion, and the palette of the improviser has even further expanded—although, perhaps, not evolved.

The sound of the Boxhead Ensemble—a revolving door project, appearing here on its fourth full-length studio album, in its umpteenth incarnation—is nothing if not expansive, encompassing but also failing to surpass a history that pits innovation and tradition against each other. Nocturnes, in all its ephemeral, circuitous beauty, isn't above, below, ahead of or behind anything: it's just "with" everything, and curiously, if engagingly, so.

The Boxhead Ensemble bypasses the more impressive touchstones in modern improvisation in favor of the less ambitious, if more ecumenical task of consolidation. Nocturnes draws from everything and takes everything nowhere, internalizing its sources (Bill Frisell's resonant, pastoral soundscaping; lonely, epic Ennio Morricone in full spaghetti western mode; the tools, if not the sensibility of electroacoustic improvisation; the harmonic mores of contemporary alternative rock; Can, circa Tago Mago—and probably some Stockhausen, if you squint) and ruminating on them.

Nocturnes sounds like a snapshot of infinite decay—vast and almost sluggish, but not probing; the ensemble is content with the wide view. The album spins like a panorama picture, skipping from elegiac, free jazz-esque rubato passages to grainy country twang—but never losing the fundamental sound of a landscape, vast and forbidding as it is.

It often seems as if the music is operating on a phantom loop, cycling the same scratchy, string-driven motifs through a fixed set of textures, anonymous and viscid, only now and again appearing to shift into something else. No single voice directs the proceedings—and, at times, the players all blend into one. This is, in its finest, most seamless moments, a documentary music, enthralled with the whole of a most beautiful history.

What results is something strangely divorced from the activity of change, precedented in every way. The refreshing element is just how unengaged the ensemble is with the duty of revolution; perhaps, as Bailey suggested, it is enough for some folks to just play in the sandbox.


Track Listing: Nocturne 1; Nocturne 5; Nocturne3; Nocturne 8; Nocturne 4; Nocturne 7; Nocturne 2; Nocturne 10.

Personnel: Fred Lonberg-Holm: cello, harmonica; Michael Krassner: guitar, organ, manipulations; Jacob Kollar: prepared piano; Frank Rosaly: percussion.

Title: Nocturnes | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Atavistic Worldwide


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