Audio Logo [0:09]
Cognitive Dissonance [4:53]
Linguistic Engineering [2:44]
High Art? [2:40]
Darkness Of Error [5:41]
Trombone On The Edge [5:21]
Out Is In [4:38]
Way Cool [6:10]
Back Talk [5:24]
Ambient Event [2:52]
Hearing Disorder [5:14]
Where’s The Melody? [3:36]
Stanley Schumacher and the Music Now Ensemble
Stanley Schumacher (trombone, voice), Matthias Mueller (trombone), Evan Lipson (string bass), Christian Marien (percussion), Professor Musikmacher (oral arts)
rec. Westwires Recording, Allentown, PA, USA, dates not given
MUSICKMACHER PRODUCTIONS MM005 [50:08]
This is one of those improviser ensemble releases which could as easily end up in the Jazz review pages as the contemporary ‘classical’ side of the coin, although the information sheet which accompanied my review copy clearly states that this is “Improvised Contemporary Art Music (Classical).” The jazz association comes to a degree from the instrumentation, and anything with a title like Way Cool has to accept that their disc may be redirected by inexpert record shop rookies. Stanley Schumacher has also worked with jazz-oriented musicians such as Lukas Ligeti in the past, but the main point to classical music consumers is that this is as much A. Braxton as it is L. Berio.
Looking at the duration of the pieces tamed my initial resistance to this CD, as did Schumacher’s intelligent sense of humour, which is cleverly worked into the music, delivering quite sophisticated self-referential messages. Cognitive Dissonance is an intense exploration of the sonorities and interaction of the instruments present, as well as giving us a taste of Prof. Musikmacher’s parlando vocalisations or ‘oral arts’ as they are called here. These sounds are delivered straight or through the tubes of a trombone, mixing the perspectives and semantics of vocal sounds which are suggestive of emotion and mood, and their equally expressive instrumental counterparts. Referring to Berio again, some of the use of vocals here may remind listeners of Cathy Berberian’s remarkable flexibility as a vocal artist as well as a straight singer. Growling is exchanged for lighter noises in the trombone/voice duet which is Linguistic Engineering, which includes the first time I’ve heard snoring used as a musical device.
High Art? is a crucial track, in which the essence of our experience of this kind of music is confronted by the creator himself. “Where’s the melody?” “This is weird”, “I can’t listen to this”, and a whole shopping list of expected responses are integrated into the track, winning me over at a single stroke. Yes, it can be ‘difficult’ if your references are limited to more conventional traditions, but this takes the kind of theoretical thoughts posed by John Cage and folds them back onto both us and the musicians. Why are they playing like this? “Do they know what they’re doing?” Well, yes they do – it may not be instantly appealing, but it does open doors into areas of expression not covered by 4/4 in G major. As I write, my place of work the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague is involved in a major international ‘improvisatieweek’ which comes with a health warning: “Improvisation may seriously improve your performance.” This is a form of music which is taken very seriously by a wide spectrum of musicians, but I for one am glad to hear Schumacher able to acknowledge with admirable lightness of touch that it can have an aversive effect on many audiences.
Bear with me on this as a general point, but my only doubt about this music is, for want of a better word, its legitimacy in the recorded medium. This works in two extremes. As with many of John Cage’s scores, the improvisational element means that no two performances will ever be the same, so in a sense only the ‘live’ performance is the genuine experience – the music formed before us, shaped by the composer and the musicians, but creating something genuinely unique and hopefully rather special. Play back the recording and it becomes repetition. The other extreme is that these pieces therefore can exist only in the recorded medium, but the question arises: do we want to hear them more than once?
In the case of Way Cool there are enough interesting musical events to make this more than just a souvenir of a well prepared recording session, and let’s be honest, how other than on a recording are we going to deliver this or any other music to an audience wider than a concert venue. I’ve been involved with improviser ensembles myself in the past, and know how highly sensitive the end result depends on a deeply felt synergy between all of the players, and how easily the whole thing can be ruined by a single musician who is on a different wavelength to the rest. The Music Now Ensemble is clearly a bunch of musicians who have a natural feel for each other’s musical and dramatic strengths, and this album can serve as an object lesson to performers keen to explore non-notated musical communication. There is much to be said for the relative compactness and intelligent shaping of the musical statements made here, and I for one am grateful that the music making is less about ego and more about listening and expanding the limitations of the instruments and their interactions.
The title track is an excellent little moral story about a “snotty nosed, iPhone-iPod-MP3-playing punk”, proving that irony does exist in the US. There is plenty of contrast between numbers, from the high-octane blast of energy which is Back Talk, to the moody atmosphere of Darkness Of Error and landscape of Ambient Event. Elements of continuity include a ritualistic triangle whose sharp ‘ting’ serves as a kind of dinner gong; stopping or starting certain musical events. I won’t promise that this is an album you will definitely like, but if the intricacies and freedoms of improvisation are aspects of music you feel willing to explore then this is as good a place to start as I could name. Don’t expect to hear any tunes however: indeed, like Wally or Waldo, where is the melody?
Where’s the melody? A good place to start searching.