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Characterizing Eccentricity

Helpful to my appreciation of the ICP performance at UMass Amherst was my visual memory of the work of Pieter Bruegel, a 16th century Flemish painter. Although the subject matter explored by this late Renaissance master frequently took a religious or traditional turn, the way in which Bruegel portrayed the figures in his paintings was remarkably cariactural. Leap to the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra. This is a contemporary big band made up of an extraordinary group of musicians led by Dutch pianist, Misha Mengelberg, and drummer, Han Bennink. The band’s collective demeanor portrays a Flemish realism where the approach to music is playful and serious all in the same breath.

The connective tissue in this band has little to do with saccharine expressivity. Rather the music is produced quite above board on a beautifully clean and dry surface whence can spring spry improvisations that dip into a rich literature from composers including Ellington, Monk, Herbie Nichols, and Kurt Weill. A European temperament bursts forth from this group in ways which paint the music with more formalism than not. A sense of determination exudes from each player’s attack of his and her instrument. Tenderness and softness was perhaps evident only a few moments with Mengelberg’s treatment of the piano and in the fluidity of the strings.

The regulated direction of the band is prevalent in every moment of performance. Even though there were times when the melodies at hand dissolved into multi-directional instrumental events, a tightness of purpose carried the orchestra through. Perhaps the best example of this purpose rose out of the many gratifying spurts of harmonization which were woven in and out of the music. Any harmonic unity was complemented with the deconstructions and the single instrument improvisations. Clarinets played a prominent role in the band, endowing the sound with a Teutonic flavor. The strings contributed a deeply groovy swing signature. And the drums seemed to drive the engine of the train.

Han Bennink reveals a performance ethic that has to be experienced to be appreciated. He works a small trap set and produces a huge, sometimes impressively heavy, sound, although he does lay back often with cymbal/snare/brush hissing combinations. In any event, he maintains a constant motion and refuses to let go. The beats are standard and really satisfying. The most notable and exquisitely humorous maneuver Bennink presented in his performance occurred in a transitional surge when the orchestra was building up to the body of a number. Midst a fast and furious flurry of sticks to the drumset, Bennink placed his left foot on the snare. He was still sitting down. He transmitted a kind of carelessness with this gesture, not in the sense of being insensitive, but in the sense of being completely free and secure in his capacity to make incredible music.

Every single orchestra member had a lead role. Each was powerful in his/her own right. The playing generally was raw and sometimes odd. The dynamic, however, from one instrument to the next, in counterpoint or in synchronization, in a single accent note, or in a small group effort was crucial to the band’s communicative power.

This nearly 30 year old orchestra speaks brilliantly to a peculiarly angular vision of musical history which can only emanate from a Northern European source. This vision is porous and accepting of multiple stances, a stronghold for an ultimate heterogeneity.

(The members of the ICP are: Misha Mengelberg, piano; Han Bennink, drums; Ab Baars, Michael Moore, Tobias Delius, reeds; Thomas Heberer, trumpet; Wolter Wierbos, trombone; Mary Oliver, violin and viola; Tristan Honsinger, cello; Ernst Glerum, bass.)

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: The Instant Composers Pool
  • Concert Date: 3/30/2006
  • Subtitle: The ICP in Concert
  • Venue: Bezanson Recital Hall, UMass Anherst
  • City State Country: Amherst, MA
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