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Microclimates and Supernovae

Jennifer Paull explores the vision behind a recent CD by David Sherr and The Art Music Ensemble

Look Both Ways
David Sherr - leader, alto saxophone, flute, oboe, clarinet
Brian Swartz - trumpet, flugelhorn
Scott Higgins - percussion
Joe LaBarbera - drums
Amy Wilkins – harp
Shelly Berg - piano
Cynthia Fogg - viola
Harvey Newmark – bass
Innova 541


"I have always believed that opera is a planet where the muses work together, join hands and celebrate all the arts."(Franco Zeffirelli (b. 1922) Italian stage and film director - International Herald Tribune (Paris, March 21, 1990))

     David Sherr is not only a planet in himself; he is a galaxy.

On this recording he plays alto saxophone, flute, oboe and clarinet in the Luciano Berio pieces and in his own compositions. He plays what is written and leads the improvisation of what is not. He is equally at home on the planet of jazz and in the post-modernist solo micro-climate of Berio’s superb Sequenza series. This is the series that in the space of my own lifetime altered the barriers of what the voice (Cathy Berberian Sequenza III) and instruments could and would achieve. Sherr’s compositions, with the incorporation of musique concrète (of which Berio and Maderna were the well-spring in Milan in the 1950s and 1960s), pay homage to the recently demised Great Master.

In a world where there is so much that is negative, how vibrant is the rediscovery of man’s ability to be creative, original and daring! There is talent, Talent and TALENT. David Sherr’s abilities sparkle like stardust upon the latter. His synthesis of solo instrumental chamber music and jazz is so beautiful that it feels as right as Matthew Peaceman’s electronic manipulations of contemporary music recorded on baroque instruments. The aptness of this music may also remind you of Gilles Apap’s Four Seasons with poetic as well as virtuoso brilliance upon violin, accordion, cimbalom and string bass. The norm? Absolutely not! Here again, we are propelled into another world by creative imagination at its very best!

David Sherr’s Milky Way career has included concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Francisco Ballet Orchestras. I cannot help but feel a total awareness of choreography in everything he does. Sound simply rocket leaps from his mind.

As a jazz musician, Sherr has performed (amongst many others) with Sonny Criss (Sonny's Dream, Prestige Records), David Benoit, Bobby Bryant, Buddy Collette, Billy Eckstein, Ella Fitzgerald, Freddie Hubbard, Plas Johnson, Oliver Nelson, Nelson Riddle and Sarah Vaughn. As a chamber music soloist, he has taken part in Monday Evening Concerts and the Ojai Festival, and has premiered works by Gilbert Amy, Luciano Berio, Harrison Birtwistle, Paul Chihara, Ernst Krenek, Alexina Louie, Leonard Rosenman and Iannis Xenakis.

His recordings include Stravinsky (alto clarinet soloist in the PBS telecast of Symphonies for Wind Instruments), The Beach Boys, Ray Charles (oboe soloist in the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby), Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore (more than 2,000 television shows between 1970 and 1980), and Frank Zappa: to omit a skyscape of other stars.

Having "too much talent" was something of which the general public remained stubbornly wary in times past. One thinks of Paganini who was excommunicated by a superstitious Pope absolutely certain that he had to be in league with the devil to play as well as he did.

Charles Ives would have been outrageous enough with his parallel musings in different tonalities and Unanswered Questions - but to be a genius at inheritance insurance schemes and become a millionaire – well, why not just starve nobly in a garret? Ives and Gershwin were frowned upon (for different reasons), by a public wishing for meat and two "normal", musical veg from the conformist, often impoverished, mono-directional artiste.

What of Hindemith? He claimed to be able to play any music he wrote upon the many instruments for which he wrote it. A hot air balloon burst of boasting? No way! But he could have been a violinist and undoubtedly a viola virtuoso of great distinction. It is said that he worked on the solo part of Der Schwanendreher (1935) on a train journey on the way to its premiere and performed it without having practised at all. I know this to be true of Daniel Barenboim who plotted a Mozart piano concerto cadenza on the train with the ECO en route to Oxford, and performed it from memory without having touched a pre-concert keyboard. However, as there are fewer than 100 heckelphones on Planet Earth today, when Hindemith was supposed to achieve his flying hours and subsequent wings for that particular LEM, he did not disclose.

There is, tragically, hardly any information available about a truly remarkable musician, Frederick Vogelgesang, who achieved his particular Moonwalk in the Pre-Google Age (1960s). On page 70 of Michael Compton’s French Horn Discography (Greenwood Press 1986), a plumbing loop is even extracted to modulate him to "Vogelsang".

Studying at The Curtis Institute before WWII, he was a very gifted student of violin, horn, piano and conducting. In 1964, he used multiple tracks to record himself playing the Brahms Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano, Opus 40. Originally released on Lance Productions FV3B, this remarkable, forward-looking man and his excellent interpretation are falling into oblivion. I find this a disgrace. How many people could do such a thing so ahead of the technology we take for granted today? I remember hearing his interpretation on the radio here in Switzerland in the 1980s and being totally amazed at this outstanding performer. He spent his musical career as an assistant conductor of many Broadway shows and as a member of the New York City Opera, although he did make other recordings accompanying his violin playing on the piano.

Derek Bell made an LP in 1981 (many years later), Derek Bell Plays with Himself in which his oboe hardware, plucked and percussive keyboard utensils lie scattered around him on the front cover. He looks out, butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-mouth, as though a double entendre had never crossed his tongue-in-cheek mind. Also a serious composer, engaged by the Ulster orchestra as both harpist AND oboist (doubtless with a strip of worn-out lino between the two chairs), with this sadly-missed member of The Chieftains, we had left the meat and two veg well behind and were off into orbit. It never ceases to amaze me how many musicians stay deeply embedded in convention like ancient launching platforms in reinforced concrete.

David Sherr is a chameleon. There are as many David Sherrs as there are notes in the scale, although we will need to swivel chromatically to have adequate radar screen space to capture them all. He is a flautist of great virtuosity – Berio’s Sequenza I (1958) is not for those without an astronautical helmet. He is an oboist of the same ilk: a clarinettist too, and a saxophonist to moon boot. All of this can be upon the written stave, improvised space or the Jazz Shuttle: composed by others or by himself.

He is not only a telescope – he is a microscope, and this recording defies every stuffy preconception still remaining about man’s very ability to master more than one tool and more than one medium and be quite simply, a musician of the XXI Century. This is new music at its best: Musique sans Frontières. He follows on from these heroes of the hors-piste, off-limits, sky-blazing trail.

In his own words: "The idea for this CD came in stages starting about ten years ago. It began with a couple of articles in a specialist chamber music magazine that were dismissive of jazz, in one case making the distinction between jazz and "serious" music and in the other, offering advice as to how to "advance" from jazz to it. Needless to say, the articles were not written by musicians … it occurred to me that if I were to record all three (Sequenzas) and then match them with jazz "companion" pieces, it might make a good case for the equivalency of the two kinds of music."

I am grateful to Marsha Berman for allowing me to quote from her compilation of excellent programme notes incorporating Berio’s words and her own. With Stephen Davison, she is at present engaged in preparing a bio-bibliography of Luciano Berio for Greenwood Press.

The CD begins with Sequenza I (1958). "[It] has as its starting point a sequence of harmonic fields that generate, in the most strongly characterized ways, other musical functions … a polyphonic type of listening. The codes governing the Baroque era allowed one to write a fugue in two parts for solo flute. Nowadays, when writing for monodic instruments, the relationship between explicit and implicit, real and virtual polyphony has to be invented anew, and stands as the crux of musical creativity."

A Sherr composition follows; Debussy Deb-You-Do (1999). "[This] is a set of variations, written and improvised, for two quartets. There are two themes. One is made up of a series of melodic fragments related to Sequenza I and Sequenza IXa (for clarinet). The other is from a solo by Dizzie Gillespie. The written variations are played by a quartet of vibraphone, harp, viola and flute. The improvised variations are for flute, piano, bass and drums."

The Art Music Ensemble like Gilles Apap’s Colors of Invention, is not only composed of brilliant musicians, but they appear to share the same brain and think as one.

The fourth track, Sax Lines and Audio Tape and the eighth, In The Pocketa Pocketa are part of The Secret Life of Walter MIDI (1999). Together with a 3rd movement not recorded here, they "are based on tone rows from sources where they are not commonly found. Sax Lines and Audio Tape is derived from the first 13 notes of Charlie Parker’s solo on the Jerome Kern – Oscar Hammerstein II composition The Song Is You (Verve, NG V-8005) in which he uses eleven different notes, omitting only B-flat and using A-natural and G-natural twice. It is made up of a 16 bar chorus in which no two consecutive measures except seven and eight … are in the same key. Thus there are no cadences and solos need not conform to four or eight bar phrases."

This sound world of David Sherr’s is very successful and shows us his remarkable talent as a composer. At this point, we definitely need to borrow a few accidentals to have enough overflow space to touch briefly upon his own compositions. His mixtures of chamber music and jazz are his leitmotiv. A recent work for choir, seven instruments and conductor based on Bach’s Cantata 56, was featured earlier this year at the Eleventh ACF-LA Composer’s Salon.

The next track on the present CD, Sequenza VII (1969) for oboe, "is a sort of permanent conflict … between the extreme velocity of the instrumental articulations and the slowness of the musical processes that sustain the work’s progress such as: a certain fixedness of registers, the prolonged absence of certain notes, and the increasingly insistent presence of certain intervals (the perfect fifth, for example, which is not without memories of the English horn in Tristan). I continue my search for a virtual polyphony."

Another composition of Sherr’s follows: Palimpsest (1999). To quote his own thoughts here:

"A palimpsest is a surface upon which something has been written, erased and written over, but with some of the original showing through. It seemed to fit our piece, with Sequenza VII poking through the written and improvised music. Harvey Newmark is a truly amazing musician. The second half of the piece was entirely improvised and was recorded in one take."

As Marsha Berman points out, " Palimpsest is an accompaniment to Sequenza VII as Berio has himself incorporated the music of other composers (Mahler and Beethoven among others in Sinfonia and Schubert in Rendering) into his own. Parts were written for viola, harp and vibes at the beginning and piano at the end. The flute and bass parts are improvised."

Sequenza IXa (1980) for clarinet continues this remarkable sound adventure. "[It] develops a constant exchange and a constant transformation between two different pitch fields, one of seven notes that are almost always fixed in the same register, and the other of five notes that are instead characterized by great mobility."

The final track, The Pocketa Pocketa (1999), by Sherr, "is based, however loosely, on the first fifteen notes of the development section of the last movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony in G minor, K550, in which he uses 11 different notes, omitting only G, The form is a twelve bar blues in B-flat minor."

David Scherr has moved on from this CD to more adventures exploring further microclimates. I for one am eagerly awaiting the next release.

Everything you've learned in school as ‘obvious’ becomes less and less obvious as you begin to study the universe. For example, there are no solids in the universe. There's not even a suggestion of a solid. There are no absolute continuums. There are no surfaces. There are no straight lines.
(R. Buckminster Fuller, engineer, designer, and architect (1895-1983))

© Jennifer Paull, Vouvry, Switzerland 30.11.03


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