Tuesday, November 24, 2015
Kevin Parks/Vanessa Rossetto - Severe Liberties (Erstaeu)
I kind of want to write about some issues that surfaced while in attendance at the AMPLIFY: Exploratory a few weeks back in New York and may take unfair advantage of this recording (and, possibly, its companion release from Devin DiSanto and Nick Hoffman later) to do so. Broadly speaking (very broadly), the two efforts map onto the two central strains that seemed to me to be represented at the festival (and Rossetto was, with Anne Guthrie, part of this). Part of it is the approach but also, as evidenced here, I think part may have more to do with the differentiation between live improvised sets and recordings that, to one degree or another, are structured in the studio. On the one hand, we had more purely instrumental performances: Olivia Block/Maria Chavez, Michael Pisaro/Ben Owen, Block/Jason Lescalleet, Rossetto/Guthrie and Lescalleet/Kevin Drumm. On the other, there were sets that had more to do with actions of non-instrumental and "extra-musical" nature: Sean Meehan/Taku Unami, Graham Lambkin/Pisaro, Lambkin/Unami and DiSanto/Unami. My reactions were mixed. While my favorite ten or so minute block of music over the three days was the beginning of the Rossetto/Guthrie set, overall I found myself much more absorbed with the work of the latter groupings which, as you can see, each involved either Lambkin, Unami or both though their companions were equal contributors in each case. Without being unduly critical of the former, which were all enjoyable to one degree or another, there was something a bit perfunctory about them or perhaps "constrained" would be a better term. Of course, they involved choices made on the part of the musicians, both what to include and what not to but I guess, for me, it wasn't so much a matter of honing in on the various attacks chosen, more a kind of automatic choice having been made prior to the concert, some kind of innate narrowing of range enough so that, as a listener, one quickly has a good general idea of not necessarily the specific sounds that will unfold but more the structural nature of the set is apparent from the beginning, that certain strictures are in effect which I wonder about. Granted, this may not be an obstacle of any sort for many and it goes without saying that I'd rather be in attendance at such an event than most anything else occurring these days. But, to take the clearest example from the festival, apart from the wonderful video intro (the sight and sound of Lee Marvin's shoe's walking down a hallway from Boorman's "Point Blank") there wasn't much doubt about what one would hear from Lescalleet and Drumm. To be sure, they delivered their goods quite well but part of me wanted expanded possibilities. I don't think we're at the point encountered in the early oughts when certain groups of musicians (which I unfairly would think of as the Swiss contingent) got into what I heard as a very rote set of procedures, music they could ably accomplish without half-trying and which became very boring, very quickly but the thought began seeping in around the corners.
Some, as said, may have to do with the difference in capability among some musicians when they're improvising live versus constructing material in the studio (whatever the source of that material). Small sample size and all, but I have that impression with Block's work. Her recorded output includes many of my very favorite releases from the past 20 years but as an improviser, I've been less enchanted. I believe she herself has said that she needs some kind of structure underpinning her music, which is (of course) absolutely fine. I get the impression that this is the case with more musicians than Block, that many would be better served outside of the free improv context. I've long held this belief regarding many members of the avant jazz community, that they'd be much better off in "straighter" environs, that not everyone is so adept at playing free and that there's nothing wrong with this. As with Block, I haven't seen Rossetto in live, improvisatory contexts apart from this and a set at the 2011 AMPLIFY: stones festival with Lambkin. Again, that Lambkin fellow. He certainly brings with him a feeling of uncertainty, very much so. The same could be said of my experience with Guthrie. In both her case and Rossetto's, I've loved most of the recordings they've created which are, by and large, constructions done in the recording studio using myriad sources, presumably including improvisations. They had, apparently, met a few times before the recent show and, I imagine, "practiced" or at least discussed options and perhaps that's a reason their set began so beautifully. But--and I'll use this as a general example of a type of thing that has occurred regularly, acknowledging the unfairness of doing so--when the ideas dissipated, there was (to this listener) less searching for new ground (or ceasing, for that matter, calling it quits) and more falling back on existing techniques or approaches. They appeared more separate, less a duo. Now, sure, this can also be a perfectly valid approach, a kind of existential acknowledgement of the difficulty or even impossibility of communication. Also, I'm long past the point of automatically expecting a "good" result from what is, one hopes, a serious exploration of possibilities where success is by no means guaranteed. There's a very complex and subtle matrix at play here in the mind/ears of the listener, trying to make qualitative judgments of both the intentions and achievements of the musicians, who might be on a different page altogether. It's just that over time certain patterns seem to gradually set in. Of course, i could be wrong.
All of this is a very roundabout way of getting to discussing the recording in question, which is very, very good. Unlike the vast majority of live concerts, which almost inevitably are presented as a single block of music (a minor peeve of mine, that this has become virtually de rigueur), "Severe Liberties" has three tracks and the structure of each is solid and, for lack of a better term, chunky. That is, there's a corporeality about it, an excellent blockiness to its complicated shape. Many of the elements are bits of aural detritus rescued and put to excellent use, molded into a volumized, plastic form. I have heard much more of Rossetto's previous work than that of Parks, so if I say that the whole strikes me as fitting in quite well with her oeuvre, I don't mean to say that she was the dominant force here, just that it does fit in very well. The sounds are placed adjacent to and interwoven with a perhaps surprising amount of (more or less) traditional musical sounds, mostly from Parks' guitar, which is featured on several occasions ranging from controlled feedback to gentle, sensitive strumming. Rossetto's viola pops up less often as far as I can tell which brought to mind the four or five times she lifted the instrument during her recent duo performance, making a brief noise of one sort or another, than returning it to her table with what appeared to me to be a look of disgust. I was curious whether that was an intended element or a spontaneous reaction.
The depth, the apparent layers between the sonically thick and thin is outstanding throughout; you get a strong sense of hearing through. A truly palpable sense of space, for example, around the eight minute mark of the first track, between Parks' delicately strummed guitar and the small welter of noise emanating, one presumes, from Rossetto--fantastic (Joe Panzner undoubtably deserves a bunch of credit for his mastering). The small vocal components are always wry and welcome, from a fellow alerting someone that a UPS man is outside, to crowd noise to (I take it) Rossetto asking Parks if he's tired, the latter answering in the affirmative, a touching allusion, perhaps, to the health issues he's had in recent years. When there's dronage, it's usually offset by rough clatter, not allowed to dominate which, in this context, I appreciated and each track contains a stretch of silence as well. There's an overall self-similarity to the disc while the constituent parts remain distinct and absorbing, no small feat. Also not much point delineating more descriptives. I found myself thinking how much more alive and vibrant, even jolting, I found this than the vast majority of "diffusion" or other INA GRM-derived music I heard while in Paris. For me, this stuff is the real deal. Hear it.
(Apologies for the above digressions but, hell, so it goes)