Last night the Center for New Music (C4NM) hosted a performance by its current ensemble-in-residence. The group is a duo that calls itself animals & giraffes, consisting of Phillip Greenlief on reeds (tenor saxophone and clarinet last night) and Claudia La Rocco reading fragments of text from a computer screen. The group describes itself as “an interdisciplinary container for improvisation on and off the stage;” and that “container” has room for additional performers and additional approaches to performance.
Last night’s performance “contained” one other instrumentalist, Tara Jane Oneil, who spent most of her time with an electric guitar supplemented by a diverse abundance of analog electronic gear. In addition Jmy James Kidd improvised solo dance work, performing in a costume of her own design. The costume included a relatively heavy necklace whose knocking against the floorboards added to the improvised musical textures.
The performance lasted for about 100 minutes; and, as improvisations go, it was distinguished by an overall mood of quietude. As members of the audience entered, they were told to take a chair and place it wherever they wished; but everyone present ended up situating themselves as if they were a “normal” audience facing a pre-determined performance space. However, Greenlief spent much of his time at the far end of that space in areas off to the side where he was out of sight. Thus, his saxophone improvisations acquired a somewhat eerie connotation of disembodiment. Those alien qualities were further enhanced by the fact that almost none of Greenlief’s time went into setting his reed into vibration. Instead, there was a remarkably extensive set of approaches to eliciting sound through both breath and the physical qualities of the instrument itself.
This nicely complemented Oneil’s work. The electric guitar can be a wonderful medium for an improviser wishing to investigate detaching the visible aspects of a performance from the sounds that result from electronic processing. Oneil’s approach to the overall soft dynamic levels allowed her to explore how sounds could emerge subtly, sometimes prompting awareness only after presence has already been established. The result often amounted to a self-contradictory juxtaposition of familiar and the thoroughly strange.
In this musical setting both La Rocco and Kidd each seemed to be in a detached alternative universe. La Rocco’s utterances appeared to be based on “found texts,” which may (or may not) have appeared on the computer screen she faced through some algorithmic (possibly random) process. As the improvisation evolved, the listener began to recognize when texts were being repeated, sometimes assembled into longer texts with the order of the components based on juxtaposition and reordering.
Kidd, on the other hand, seemed to take the full scope of the acoustic space created by the other three performers as a metaphorical canvas on which she would improvise her own dance. Her repertoire included phrases from both ballet and modern often separated by more “ordinary” activities. Given how long I have been serving as an audience, I occasionally found myself reflecting on some of the pioneering work that emerged during the Sixties by choreographers such as Yvonne Rainer. When Rainer did this sort of thing, it could sometimes feel defiantly alienating. Now it is all part of a fabric of “accepted discourse;” and Kidd had a keen sense of delivering her “utterances” of that discourse with just the right balance of the abstract and the expressive.