duo B. players Jason Levis and Lisa Mezzacappa with band member Lee Hodel (photograph by Stephen Smoliar)
Last night at the Community Music Center in the Mission, the Outsound New Music Summit began its 18th annual offering of a week’s worth of concerts with a program entitled Free Flowing. The program book clarified that title with the phrase “a night of original comprovisation,” that last word suggesting a synthesis of “composition” and “improvisation.” The first set was taken by The duo B. Experimental Band. Regular readers may recognize duo B. as the partnership of Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and Jason Levis on drums. They began working on a larger scale in December of 2018 at the Temescal Art Center in Oakland, and Outsound selected their group to launch this week’s concert series.
The notes in the program book wrote about the exploration of boundaries. This included the ill-defined distinction between composition and improvisation captured in that subtitle. It also recognized that the territory of avant-garde jazz has been overlapping much of contemporary chamber music. From my vantage point, with its bias towards “bleeding edge” performances, neither genre seems to feel as if the other is stepping on its toes. Perhaps the only distinction of the genres would involve whether last night’s set should be described as two compositions or a single two-movement one.
Personally, I’ll go with saying that they played two distinct pieces, basically because the “group strategies” between them were decidedly different. The first piece depended significantly on the distribution of the performers throughout the Concert Hall space. That meant that some of the performers were beside, behind, or amidst the audience, while those in front were both on the stage and on the floor in front of the stage. During the second piece, all of the musicians were on stage; and there was also a “conductor’s podium” (not elevated), which Mezzacappa shared with violinist gabby fluke-mogul.
The two pieces were also distinguished by their approaches to performance. The first was not only spatial but also an exploration of what might be called “pre-sound.” Almost all of the performance by the wind and brass players involved different ways of realizing the sound of breath, while the string players worked with the bow without drawing it across any of the strings. A more poetic listener might have been inclined to described this piece as evoking “the birth of sound.” From my own more prosaic point of view, listening was more a fascinating journey through many ways of creating those “pre-sounds” than I could possibly have imagined.
The second piece was more “orchestral” in nature, even if that suggestion was triggered by little more than including the role of a conductor. There was also very much a “big band” rhetoric with individual players taking extended solos while the full ensemble introduced encouraging interjections. Furthermore, there was some sense that the conductor was more of a referee than a leader. There was clearly a language of symbols conveyed through the conductor’s actions; and, as the performance progressed, the attentive listener could begin to grasp at least some of the semantic content of those symbols. I seem to recall that at least some of the composers that attended the early sessions at the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, Darmstadt (international summer schools for new music at Darmstadt) explored some of these techniques applied to group indeterminacy. However, the Darmstadt crowd always had a reputation for being deadly serious, while the duo B. band seemed to be there for the fun of it (for both players and listeners).