The adjective “exploratory” was again put into play last night at the Community Music Center (CMC) in the Mission with the fourth concert in the 18th annual offering of the Outsound New Music Summit. The title of the concert was Expanding the Rift with the clarifying phrase “a night of exploratory composition and improvisation.” Personally, I have never felt that the separation of composition and improvisation needed to be expanded or contracted, enjoying, instead, a “Goldilocks” relation of being “just right.” Nevertheless, the opening selection by Polly Moller Springhorn definitely established new ways of thinking about both composition and improvisation.
Her “Tomography Fortunae” involved a three-movement graphic score. Each movement consisted of a single page that provided the seven performers with a road map of sorts. Their initial positions in a rectangular space were represented by Roman numbers. The first three formed a row in the center of the rectangle, and these represented performers that took fixed positions. Last night drummer Tom Scandura was the center of the three, with Tom DiMuzio working with a control panel of electronic sounds on one side and Tom Nunn playing one of his invented instruments on the other.
The remaining four players began each movement at respective corners of the rectangle. Last night they were Tom Djll (for whom the piece was written) on trumpet, Tom Dambly on a variety of different trumpet-family instruments (including the slide version), Tom Weeks on alto saxophone, and Tom Duff on computer-processes ukulele. At this point the reader should begin to recognize why the first word of the composition’s title is “tomography.” Springhorn’s instructions are as follows:
Musicians must go by the name Tom, either officially on their birth certificate, informally as a nickname, or temporarily for the duration of the performance.
The initial locations of all seven performers are designated by cards with Roman numerals placed on the floor. The paths to be followed from the corners are indicated in two ways. First, they are represented as lines on the three pages of the graphic score, one for each movement. Those pages were projected on the wall of the CMC auditorium in such a way that all the players could see them. When the paths got more elaborate in the later movements, they were also designated by cards on the floor, this time bearing the first six “Fortunate numbers,” integers derived from prime numbers by a rather idiosyncratic method invented by Reo Fortune (the reason for the second word in the composition’s title).
The cards for last night’s performance with both Roman numerals and Fortunate numbers (from the “Roman Numerals and Fortunate Numbers” Web page on Springhorn’s blog)
This was a night when I found it advantageous to take one of the few seats available in the auditorium’s rather modest balcony. I had no trouble aligning the movements of the performers with the maps projected on the wall. However, as Duff observed, performance was not so much about who was going where as it was about who encountered whom over those course of those movements. Whenever two players met along one of the paths, their individual improvisations would merge into duo improvisations. As a result, the impact of the listening experience had less to do with the inventions of any individual as with the ways those inventions would accommodate player-to-player interactions.
Thus, what seemed to matter the most (at least from my own point of view) was how Springhorn found a sweet spot between solo and duo improvisation. That significance of encounter, along with the playful spirit behind the overall plan, made “Tomography Fortunae” a pleasantly engaging perspective on acts of improvisation. It emerged as one of the more effective realizations of what John Cage liked to call his “sunny disposition.”