Last night the Canessa Gallery hosted the first monthly concert of the season in the Composers in Performance Series curated by the Meridian Gallery. The first set of the evening was taken by T.D. Skatchit & Company. T.D. Skatchit is the duo of Tom Nunn and David Michalak performing on skatchboxes. The “company” consisted of vocalist Aurora Josephson and Bruce Ackley, founding and current member of the Rova Saxophone Quartet, performing on soprano saxophone.
Skatchboxes are instruments invented by Nunn. Each one is a cardboard box on top of which a variety of objects made of plastic, metal, and wood have been securely fastened. Contact microphones are then attached on the other side of that surface. The instruments are played by stroking these objects, usually with plastic utensils. The result is as diverse an assortment of rhythmic tropes as can be encountered in any good jazz drum solo (frequently abetted by using a plastic knife with serrations as a “drumstick”). However the diversity of the physical materials also results in some highly innovative approaches to pitch control.
Particular attention is given to how the objects are laid out on the surface of any skatchbox:
courtesy of the Center for New Music
The geometrical patterns that are formed are more than just artistic imagery. They also contribute to defining rhythmic patterns as the stroking utensil is dragged over a series of objects. As a result, being able to observe how a performer engages with a particular surface layout contributes as much to the listening experience as the sounds arising from that engagement.
This was particularly evident in the opening duo taken by Nunn and Michalak. Indeed, their respective approaches to their instruments were not only rhythmic but also prosodic. Both of them were so attentive to pitch contours and linguistic stress patterns that one could be easily persuaded that their improvised exchanges amounted to conversation in some very foreign language. (Think of how all of that chatter among the Despicable Me Minions always manages to sound “authentically linguistic” and you will be able to appreciate just how Nunn and Michalak can get their exchanges to sound conversational.)
The opening duet was followed by trio improvisations with each of the “company” artists. Josephson went first with an improvisation that explored a spectrum of sonorities covering words, individual syllables, and, every now and then, the formants behind the vowels and the percussive elements behind the consonants. Her dynamics always faithfully matched those of Nunn and Michalak, and the underlying structure of the improvisation involved a gradual crescendo with a powerful peak.
In the second duo Ackley also explored the acoustic “elements” behind his saxophones sonorities. This included breathing without setting the reed into vibration and occasional percussive slaps of the pads covering the instrument’s holes. He also had a solid command of overblowing technique that would bring out “chords” involving upper harmonics. This improvisation was also organized according to a contour of dynamic levels. However, if one buys into the idea of skatchboxes sounding like Minion language, then one could also have imagined a narrative plan in which Minions go out on a wild goose chase and then encounter the goose.
Nunn and Michalak then took a break while Ackley and Josephson offered a duo improvisation of their own. This allowed the attentive listener to appreciate how Ackley’s capacity for prosody through his instrument was right up there with the expressiveness of the skatchboxes. Once again, Josephson occupied that boundary region between language and sound that fit perfectly into the context of Ackley’s rhetoric. The set then concluded with an “all hands” quartet improvisation, which felt a bit like a summing-up of all that had been experienced, not unlike the apotheosis choreography than concludes a full-length ballet.
Those who missed this gig may get some sense of what it was like from the Skatch Migration CD released by Edgetone Records. This is an “& Company” album whose “company” includes both Josephson and Ackley. Other “company” members on the album are Gino Robair, Bob Marsh, Tim Perkis, Doug Carroll, Scott Looney, Kyle Bruckmann, Ron Heglin, and Jacob Felix Huele. This expanded context of vocals, instruments, and electronics provides an even wider appreciation of just how expressive those skatchboxes can be.