Friday, March 5, 2010

The Orchestral Music of Roscoe Mitchell and Richard Abrams

I recently read that the New England Conservatory of Music had at some point changed the name of their "Third Stream" department to the "Department of Improvisation." I don't suppose that is surprising. The former term, coined by Gunther Schuller to mark out a musical form that combines "classical" and "jazz," has seemingly fallen out of favor, though important and interesting confluences of the two musics continue to be created today.

Before listening to the new release Spectrum (Mutablemusic), which includes two substantial orchestral works, one each by Roscoe Mitchell and Muhal Richard Abrams, you might think that you were going to be exposed to music of a "Third Stream" sort. Well, yes and no. One of the factors to keep in mind is that "jazz" as we know it has been changed radically since 1960 by such innovators as Mitchell and Abrams. They've constructed new forms, new sound universes, with new freedom and new discipline. At the same time the world of modern "classical" has become so stylistically diverse as to embrace an almost infinite number of approaches. Classical orchestral music, in the bottom line of today, is music played by an orchestra. "Jazz" is music played by musicians who improvise, in whatever way they see fit, and usually does not include an orchestra.

Whichever way you look at it though, the distinction between composition and improvisation is meaningless on one level. The complete musician composes improvisations and improvises compositions, on whatever level and style the music exists within. Abrams and Mitchell happen to be two musical masters who do both in ways that we all will be exploring and discussing for many years to come, I think.

Spectrum in the end is simply music that has been composed by maestros Abrams and Mitchell. "Romu" starts out the program, a seemingly freely improvised duet by Roscoe Mitchell on the alto sax and Richard Abrams on piano. It presents part of their musical vision, and perhaps helps the uninitiated listener get a grasp of where they are coming from, which boils down to their own musical conception of melody, color and harmony. Rhythm too of course, though this piece starts with a freely rubato meditativeness and evolves into a turbulent maelstrom of tones that is non-rhythmic in a conventional periodic sense.

From there, we hear two orchestral works, well performed by the Janacek Philharmonic under conductor Petr Kotik. The first is Mitchell's "Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City," with baritone Thomas Buckner taking a prominent vocal role. The text is a poem by Mitchell's fellow Art Ensemble member Joseph Jarman. It was first heard in an early Jarman album on Delmark. The music from that recording is replaced by Roscoe Mitchell's score.

It starts with a pregnant quietude, which is almost immediately replaced by somber yet lyrical melodic invention. It's most certainly music that has the lyrical thrust of post-Ives, post-Ornettian music. It also most certainly bears the stamp of Mitchell's musical universe. The presentation of the poem, alternately spoken and sung by Buckner (and I might add he is quite convincing in his role here) is punctuated by richly layered orchestral writing, turbulent, declamatory and reflective in turn. The poem and the music express the difficulties of urban existence for those who cannot afford to live in the penthouse. There's an angst, a kind of refusal to accept the status quo, from a physical but also intellectual standpoint, and it all translates into very moving and very captivating music. Roscoe's handling of the orchestra, his orchestration, is complex, three-dimensional and quite masterful. It most certainly makes me want to hear more of his work in this configuration.

Muhal Richard Abrams' "Mergertone" concludes the program, and it too is captivating. The piece has a kind of concerted orchestra feel to it, without directly referencing traditional forms. The piece begins with some celestial synthesizer utterances, which quite rapidly are conjoined with suspended, mysterious and then somewhat agitated orchestral passages. Again, the orchestration is quite impressive and the thematic material is filled with invention and eloquent continuity. There is a syntax of endless variation that puts this music into the free expressiveness of Mr. Abrams' music as a whole. Not surprisingly, there is a prominent piano part in the composition, and it has an Abramian thoughtful density. Most of all though, this is excellently conceived music with sound-color mastery well in evidence. It flows, it builds and it moves the listener to a better place than ordinary life normally finds us.

Before I listened to this recording, I had great expectations, since to my mind maestros Mitchell and Abrams have created some of the most important American music of the past 50 years. I wondered if their many gifts would translate into an orchestral medium. They most certainly do. This is an important recording and it confirms my conviction as to the importance of these two composer-improvisers. It should expand the musical consciousness of all listeners, regardless of whether one comes out of the improviser camp, the orchestral camp, the all-music camp, or no camp at all.

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