Saturday, July 15, 2017

Solo and Group Electronic Improvisation at The Lab

Last night’s concert at The Lab consisted of two sets of instrumentalists whose performances were extended by a rich collection of electronic enhancements, both analog and digital. The opening set was a solo taken by Brooklyn-based cellist Leila Bordreuil. Her instrument served as the core of a prodigious amount of electronic technology. which included some highly imaginative approaches to the placement of pickups and a generous share of technology to route the signals both through transform modules and ultimately to loudspeakers.

Bordreuil’s performance was a highly physical one. One of the shortcomings of the space at The Lab is that the audience sits at the same level as the performer(s). This makes it difficult to see just what the performer is doing and to correlate those actions with the responses of the electronic gear. Thus, one could not really see how much thought went into placing those pickups until it was possible to have a good look at the instrument during the break between the sets. (Bordreuil was also working pedals with both feet, which were out of sight to everyone not in the front row.) In spite of all those impediments to sight, one could still observe correlations between Bordreuil’s physical gestures and the sounds that then emerged from the loudspeakers.

Overall the dynamic level tended to be kept down in order to hold a magnifying glass, so to speak, to the subtleties of Bordreuil’s gestures. Nevertheless, there were a few ear-shattering moments for which earplugs were helpful. The overall dynamic contour was one of ripples at the lower level being shattered by one major outburst and then falling back to more ripples that faded into silence. The performance seemed to last a little more than half an hour consisting of a single piece. Between the extensive imagination behind Bordreuil’s approach to creating sound and her ability to evoke a sense of the whole through dynamic contour, her performance was as compelling as it was adventurous.

The second set was a group improvisation led by Camille Norment playing a glass harmonica. Her instrument closely resembled Benjamin Franklin’s design in which all of the bowls rotate around a common axis. However, while Franklin had the bowls rotate through a trough of water to keep them evenly moist, these bowls were kept dry; and Norment had a bowl of water to keep her fingers moist. Both approaches seem to be equally effective in exciting the vibrations of the bowls themselves.

It was originally announced that Norment would lead a trio whose other members were John McCowen on clarinet and Håvard Skaset on electric guitar. However, Skaset worked from a laptop with auxiliary processing modules (which appeared to be analog); and McCowan played a contrabass clarinet. In addition the three of them were joined by Bordreuil.

This set was somewhat more problematic. Balancing the resources was a major problem. It was clear that microphones had been placed to amplify the glass harmonica, but it never really held its own within the rest of the ensemble. This may also have been the result of Norment offering a performance on the instrument that might best be called “sparse pointillism.” Those individual moments worked well against the rumbling drones from McCowan’s instrument, but Skaset and Bordreuil each seemed to be in his/her own separate universe.

The result amounted to what might be called a “group activity” piece, perhaps in the spirit of the score that Toshi Ichiyanagi actually called “Activities.” This piece was used by Merce Cunningham for his dance “Scramble.” The combination was a perfect example of choreography in which dancers and musicians inhabited parallel universes where any coordination was purely accidental.

Because Norment’s set tended to evoke the spirit of “Activities,” I found myself imagining the Merce Cunningham Dance Company going through its paces in my head while John Cage, David Tudor, and Gordon Mumma sat below the stage realizing the activities specified by Ichiyanagi’s score. Sadly, this fantasy could be sustained for only so long; and the duration of Norment’s set was about twice as long. Ultimately, that duration was the performance’s undoing, since the sense of any overall shape that had served Bordreuil so well was, for all intents and purposes, absent in those activities pursued by Norment and her colleagues.

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