Rova Special Sextet & Orkestrova / The Mirror World
Rova Orkestrova / Rova Special Sextet / Bruce Ackley, Soprano, Tenor / Steve Adams, Alto / Larry Ochs, Tenor, Sopranino / Jon Raskin, Baritone / Gino Robair & William Winant, Drums, Percussion / Full Personnel Below
Orkestrova: John Schott, El. Guitar / Joan Jeanrenaud & Theresa Wong, Cellos, Effects / Lisle Ellis, Bass, Circuitry / Ben Goldberg, Contra-Alto + Bb Clarinets / Toyoji Tomita & Jen Baker, Trombones, Didgeridoos / Darren Johnston & David Bithell, Trumpets / Steve Adams, Bass Flute / Jon Raskin, Baritone Sax / Tim Perkis & Matt Wright, Electronics / William Winant & Gino Robair, Percussion / On tracks 4 + 7 only: Bruce Ackley, Bb clarinet / Moe! Staiano, Percussion / Raskin, Adams, Robair, Cues, Conducting / Larry Ochs, Traffic Control.
Rova Special Sextet: Bruce Ackley, Soprano, Tenor / Steve Adams, Alto / Larry Ochs, Tenor, Sopranino / Jon Raskin, Baritone / Gino Robair & William Winant, Drums, Percussion.
A few “deluxe” limited-edition versions of this Double CD still available: Rova Special Sextet / OrkestRova performing two very different realizations of Larry Ochs’ The Mirror World (for Stan Brakhage): The hand-painted films of legendary American film-maker Stan Brakhage have inspired these two extended landscapes in sound, composed by Larry Ochs in 2004/05. 50 deluxe copies, numbered and signed by the composer, and each including four exclusive photo-cards from the 2005 premiere performance.
Limited edition of 750 unsigned CDs (without photos). Available from Downtown Music Gallery NYC, Squidco, ImproJazz (France), No Man's Land (Germany).
Metalanguage (MLX 2007) All compositions © Larry Ochs /Trobar/ASCAP/ administered by BUG
Recorded June 10 +11, 2005 by Myles Boisen and Jefferson Wilson at Kanbar Hall, Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. Concert produced by Rova:Arts. Mix-down in 2006 by Monte Vallier and Larry Ochs at Function 8, San Francisco. Mastered by Myles Boisen at Headless Buddha Studios, Oakland, CA . Special thanks to all the musicians involved for their dedication to the music.
All Brakhage stills used on the CD package are from the films in Trilogy (1995) by Stan Brakhage and are courtesy of the Estate of Stan Brakhage and Fred Camper (www.fredcamper.com). The stills are taken from two parts of Trilogy: I Take These Truths (part 1) and: I…. (part 3). CD designed by Tania Kac. The discfolio itself was created by LICHER ART & DESIGN, INC., Sedora, Arizona.
Preview of the live performances heard on this CD
The writings of Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, the choreography of Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham, the music of Bach and Messiaen ... it was all fair game for avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage when it came to seeking inspiration for his meticulously designed poems in light.
In much the same way, saxophonist Larry Ochs has found a rich source of ideas for organizing sound in Brakhage's spellbinding silent creations. "As an artist, you're always looking for inspiration and concepts to come up against, to push your own processes out in a different direction, or suggest ideas for form that you haven't thought of," says Ochs, a founding member of Rova Saxophone Quartet, the bracing Bay Area improvised-music ensemble founded in 1977. A longtime fan of Brakhage's work, Ochs began seeing the aural potential in the films after buying the Brakhage DVD anthology released by Criterion in 2003.
"The shorter pieces just completely blew my mind," says Ochs, sitting on a sun-drenched bench in the well-tended backyard garden of the Berkeley home he shares with his wife, poet Lyn Hejinian. "There were all kinds of ways he was organizing visuals that struck me as musical. Of course, he never wanted music attached to his films, because he thinks symphonically."
Instead of attempting to create sonic canvases mimicking Brakhage's flow of images, Ochs has created two extended works that use his films as a point of departure in "The Mirror World (For Stan Brakhage)," an evening-length program at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco's Kanbar Hall on Friday and Saturday.
The latest of Rova's annual presentations in which other artists are invited to join the quartet, the event features a sextet piece for Rova and percussionists William Winant and Gino Robair, and a large ensemble work for 15 musicians, including Winant and Robair, guitarist John Schott and cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, who has described Ochs as one of her primary creative inspirations since setting out on a solo career after two decades with Kronos Quartet.
Short films by Brakhage, presented by San Francisco Cinematheque, will be screened before, between and after (but not with) the musical performances.
While Rova's volatile improvisational aesthetic might seem antithetical to Brakhage's painstaking cinematic constructions, Ochs says he thinks the films "are very much like improvised music. You see them differently each time. If you go through it frame by frame, which isn't what he intended, it's amazing what's there."
Brakhage, who died in Victoria, British Columbia, in 2003 at age 70, was a leading force in American avant-garde film for almost half a century. Never able to support himself with his art, he taught at the Art Institute of Chicago for years, commuting every other week from his home in Colorado. He eventually landed a job at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he taught from 1981 to 2002. Though he initially adopted a neorealist style, Brakhage started departing from narrative in 1955, with his first silent film, "The Wonder Ring," a meditative spatial study of a Chicago El platform, commissioned by artist Joseph Cornell. By the early 1960s, he was producing films at a speedy rate.
Inspired by the natural world and guided by a deeply sensual inner logic, his films are often packed with fast-changing images soaked in vivid color, though he could create an intense visual experience through minute changes in monochromatic fields as well. Many of his films summon an entire cosmos in less than 10 minutes (though some works extend for hours).
For Ochs, Brakhage's work suggests a densely packed environment for presenting information, though he's quick to point out that the films are a fixed medium, while his compositions are essentially "adventures in sound," in which he sets out elaborate rules for musicians that create parameters for their evolving interactions. Many of the improvisational systems Ochs uses in "The Mirror World" have been part of Rova's creative toolbox for years, but Brakhage's films have suggested new ways of thinking about presenting sound.
"They are full of beautiful shapes, and all kinds of things get thrown at you fast, coming at all angles," Ochs says. "It's all blowing by in a way that it would probably take hundreds of viewings to be able to know when something's coming. But somehow, you feel that you're seeing it all. That's what I was thinking about with the Rova material. It's like, we throw a lot of sonic information out really fast, but everybody has a chance to hear all of it. So we're trying to make people really comfortable at the same time they're thinking, 'Wow. How is all this sound happening at the same time?' And yet it seems like it makes total sense. Because that's the thing about Brakhage's film, they really make total sense right away. You go, 'OK, I think I know what he's trying to do.' "
Back in the day, when a mainstream jazz musician would be confronted with free jazz in a Blindfold Test setting, he would often dismiss it as music that’s more fun to play than to hear. Something similar can be occasionally said of composers who design big works for large ensembles of improvisers. The employment of cue functions with cards and hand signals, the empowerment of musicians to form sub-divisions of the ensemble and generate material on their own, and the creation of notational systems that are wide open to interpretation are proliferating compositional tools that may predominate in the 21st Century; but, their use is not in and of itself a guarantee that lucid, persuasive music will ensue. Regardless of the outcome, creating such works is universally hailed by those who compose them to be among the most invigorating musical activities they’ve ever undertaken.
Arguably, the success of such works depends on self-evident qualities, which can be discerned by the listener in real time without prior indoctrination by the composer or proxies. Such success is largely predicated on the ability to hear each musician as a discrete voice that engages in an organic development with others. Subsequently, the more successful composers and conductors in this field let timbres and phrases fully saturate in the ear. Particularly when the composer and the ensemble are part of the same established community, the musicians have at least a passing familiarity with, if not a working knowledge of their cohorts. Most probably, some of them have worked in largely, if not exclusively improvised settings with the composer, which can provide interpretative insights into the open aspects of the composition. Without these qualities and assets, compositions of this ilk can come off as mere conceits. Within just a few minutes of a first listening of Orkestrova’s “realization 1: Hand,” one of two disc-long renderings of Larry Ochs’ homage to film pioneer Stan Brakhage, “The Mirror World,” it is clear that all of the prerequisites for these compositional approaches to reach their full potential are in place. What is immediately obvious and perhaps determinative is the ability to hear each of the 15 or 17 musicians (Bruce Ackley, playing clarinet, and percussionist Moe! Staiano are brought on midway through the piece), regardless of how many musicians are playing at a given moment. Granted, credit is due to the concert engineering and post production; but, the clean definition of each instrument is also a measure of how well traffic controller Ochs, and conductors Steve Adams (who plays bass flute), baritone saxophonist Jon Raskin and percussionist Gino Robair midwifed the composition.
Ochs’ materials and methods are laid out deliberately on “Hand,” almost parsimoniously compared to the initial concussive volleys of “realization 2: Wall,” performed by Rova, Robair and percussionist William Winant (who also performs on “Hand”). Ochs begins the orchestra piece with sparse episodes featuring just a few musicians ruminating on long tones and short tentative phrases; the ample patches of silence at the outset shrink as additional musicians enter. The palette at Ochs’ disposal spans the didgeridoos played by trombonists Jen Baker and Toyoji Tomita and the electronics of Tim Perkis and Matt Wright, which Ochs and/or his conductors consistently tap, creating immediately appealing combinations of instruments. Having players like guitarist John Schott and cellists Joan Jeanrenaud and Theresa Wong, who can produce a wide band of colors, contributes significantly to the cogent build-up of intensity and mass that occurs over the course of the first half of the performance.
Structurally, “Hand” has aspects of the arch favored by composers like Bartók, the main difference being that this realization has seven parts instead of the customary five. Additionally, the keystone to the structure is off-center, occurring during the fifth movement, which opens with a suspenseful, almost menacing vamp-driven ensemble where the full-throated power of the saxophones is palpable. This passage gives way to an open section where electronics, electric guitar, trombones and percussion create bracing textures. From there, the piece slowly winds down; again, the clearly discernable interaction between musicians elevates this way above the generic endgame. The piece peters out to silence when Ackley slips to the foreground with a plaintive statement girded by the primal groans of the didgeridoos. “realization 2: Wall” is almost the mirror image of “Hand,” structurally. It is fast and furious at the onset; for the first third of this 35-minute piece, Rova’s brusque phrases and the frenzied exclamations by each of the saxophonists hurdle headlong into the blunt force of Robair and Winant’s pummeled kits. If there is a keystone to this realization’s structure, it is after the drummer’s duet, during which Robair and Winant begin to ratchet down the intensity slightly by modulating the metal-based colors at their disposal. The reentry of the saxophones marks the low tide, intensity-wise; unison long tones unravel into a string of overlapping solo statements, with Raskin’s snarling, sputtering and ultimately singing baritone spurring on the drummers. The other saxophonists reignite the culminating fires with a succession of staccato riffs that bracket scorching improvisations. Although all four saxophonists are persuasive, Adams deserves special mention for his exceptionally large alto sound in a grueling test of the instrument’s range during the penultimate movement. “Wall” then ends with a bang.