Thursday, July 26, 2018

A Stimulating Synthesis of Cello and Percussion

One of the most exciting moments in the recorded legacy of saxophonist John Coltrane came with the recording of “Vigil,” a wild and wooly improvisation whose only other performer was drummer Elvin Jones. Last night’s performance by SO AR, the duo of cellist Shanna Sordahl and percussionist Robert Lopez, may have involved a major shift in instrumentation (particularly since Sordahl also performed with electronic gear) and style; but the rhetoric of an improvisation involving only two players was just as compelling. SO AR took the opening set of last night’s New Music Summit concert, organized by Outsound Presents and held at the Community Music Center; and the experience was intensely memorable.

The title of last night’s program was The Art of Noise: a night of sonic exploration. There was no shortage of exploration in the SO AR set; but I have to say that the noun “noise” never really came to mind while listening to the pair at work. Yes, there were several explosive moments, particularly from Lopez’ drum kit; but far more significant were the ways in which the two musicians moderated their dynamic levels, making it clear that each wanted to be aware of the other and of a balanced blend of their respective contributions. For that matter, the blend was always clearly articulated, rather than a nebulous cloud of noise from which mind had to struggle to extract signal.

Consider how the session began. Sordahl restricted herself to a single tone, suggesting that she wanted the listener to attend to the unique quality of each stroke of her bow. Similarly, Lopez began with a series of beats separated by intervals of silence. However, when the two aligned, it was clear that Sordahl would hold back on her bow stroke, beginning only after the slightest of pauses. This allowed her attack to avoid being masked by Lopez’ beat.

Sordahl’s instrument was, of course, amplified. In addition, she would sometimes set it aside and work only with synthesis gear. This was probably her way of balancing the diversity of sonorities coming from Lopez’ drum kit with her own palette of sonic diversity. However, just as her cello work had begun with single strokes of the bow, her electronics tended to explore different approaches to drone sonorities.

As the set progressed, both players’ approaches to their respective instruments became increasingly diverse. As already mentioned, there were moments when Lopez approached the threshold of noise; but he rarely remained there very long. He was far more in his element with his exploratory polyrhythms, which provided an elaborately textured context within which Sordahl could explore the diverse sonorities of her instrument. There was one episode of sul ponticello bowing during which it seemed as if she was judiciously selecting the upper harmonics she wished to enhance. This was the sort of passage that benefitted from amplification, but Lopez clearly knew how to balance his own strokes to accommodate those explorations.

The entire set unfolded over a duration that probably came in around 40 minutes. That would be about four times as long as the “Vigil” track recorded by Coltrane and Jones. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that any attentive listener would have worried that things went on for too long. Whether or not Sordahl and Lopez planned out an overall “program” for their allotted slot on the program, there was very much a sense of a journey through a terrain of diverse sonorities. It would not surprise me if, at a subsequent encounter with the pair, I would find them in an entirely different terrain.

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