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The Phoenix Rises

Part of the Impulse Response Series at the iEAR studio at RPI in Troy, New York, a performance with Joe McPhee, Philip Gelb, dancer, Eri Majima, and the group, Nyquist, brought a studio space, heavily laden with black velvet curtains and every other sort of absorptive material, to life.

Both Gelb and McPhee played by themselves to begin the concert and then joined to accompany dancer Majima. Nyquist, which includes Seth Cluett, Scott Smallwood, and Joel Taylor, were also joined by Gelb and McPhee and dancer Majima in the second half of the concert.

Gelb's brief performance on shakuhachi seemed to address how the instrument works. Every sound I heard I naturally associate with the shakuhachi. Gelb stood front and center towards the audience. He blew only pitched air through the flute at first, then progressively widened the sound to where he made a sonic swipe that only this tubular instrument can make. He hummed and sang between blown phrases; the singing produced a vibration which he shut off with a hum. Gelb carried on with a line in which the pitch changes were more marked and graduated these notes into a flutter that seemed to be produced by tonguing the mouthpiece. The music just stopped. I understood here, more than ever before, that stylistic technical concerns manifest themselves by adjusting the amount of air and the way that the air is blown through the pipe; this is the way all horns are played. And in stream of things, it really does not matter how long notes are held, as long as they make sense proportionally in the intervallic structure of the whole piece. So, one cannot understand the parts of improvised music either technically or spiritually before one has listened to the whole process from beginning to end.

As that idea floated around in my head, McPhee's solo began. He stood center stage as had Gelb, but turned to the side. He held his soprano away from his mouth and tapped the valves achieving changes in pitch that were ever so slight. When he put the horn to his mouth, he blew air that eventually oozed sound; squeaks slipped in resulting from the pressure that the blowing put on the reed. Mere finger tapping now expanded and extended the air into sound. Notes rolled one over the other, there was seldom a change in key. McPhee turned away from the audience, no doubt seeking resonance from the instruments that were set behind him, by blowing in their direction. Then there was a rest. He moved his horn in a circular configuration sucking in and blowing out deep tones over high tones; high squeaks sporadically came into the stream. Then there was a rest. A short phrase of notes became air which became valving without tone to tone over air. A collection of note phrases developed into tremolos and a succession of spurts. The notes were pressed, cut and moved up in range. A seemingly endless high pitch came out of the bell of the horn as it circled round. McPhee dropped the sound back to a stop. He pressed again into tuneful ostinatos; small tight note repetitions came out like raindrops. Then there was silence. The whole of this improvisation revealed to me a three dimensionality that is beyond musical line. McPhee is the only saxophone soloist, whom I have heard, who can achieve this.

When the tiny Eri Majima became a part of the music, McPhee was playing trumpet and Gelb was on alto shakuhachi. The wind was blowing, the birds were twittering and a tree was growing. Every sound change hinted at a change in Majima's motion. When the trumpet sang a tune, so did the shakuhachi, and Majima's body expressed itself less reservedly. When air came out of the musical instruments, Majima's body was more static than before. Now playing soprano, McPhee matched and intercepted the darting sounds coming from Gelb's flute. Majima was trying to find the metaphorical center between the two musicians who flanked her. She was just hanging there. A tune over air over the reed from the soprano complemented the change in the shakuhachi's approach. Majima was swaying. She now beckoned response from each of the instruments. The movement became irritated. So did the soprano. Then the movement became smooth. So did the soprano's sound become smooth. The three players were synchronous. The soprano and the shakuhachi harmonized. The soprano pronounced a strength through a slow tune. The shakuhachi paralleled with a high echoing of pitches of the tune. Gradually Majima's body straddled curvature and elongation as McPhee blew into the floor and Gelb vibrated sound through his instrument. It all made sense. McPhee played straight out to Gelb's pure tones: Majima's body was strong and long. Then she moved to the floor; she was curved, round. The soprano issued out split tones. The shakuhachi sounded out tiny tones. The soprano was silent. The shakuhachi fluttered as Majima elbowed and bent into angles; she wriggled, condensed, and struggled. The soprano's silence was a resolve. Majima stood open with her hand out.

After a 10 minute intermission, the large ensemble performed. The instruments in this group were electronic saxophone (played by McPhee), a miked steel drum (played by Smallwood), a bass guitar held as a large string bass (played by Seth Cluett), electronics & flute (played by Joel Taylor) and a shakuhachi (played by Gelb).

This set of music was a multimedia experience. The sound started as one large hum with slight variations. I was getting the whole picture; I was prodded into ambiance.

There was a birdlike whistle from the left, a harp sound from left of the center, tiny, tight, plucked sounds from the center and air came from the right. Then the total sound swelled up. McPhee' s trumpet altered the continuity with pitch changes. Cluett tapped the bass strings. And Gelb and Taylor continued to blow air. The discontinuousness of the brass contrasted the liquidity of the air. I could hear the underlayment of the steel drum. Cluett held down the bass strings as he plucked which resulted in a thumping sound and progressed into an agitated plucking. McPhee quickly valved air through the trumpet. It squeaked. Its continuity changed to distinct notes. The flutes were at a high pitch. Smallwood altered the tone of the drum by knocking on its side and then just touching it. The separation of notes from the left and the center were juxtaposed to the smoothness and swells of the flutes on the right & then all the instruments played together. Then they fell unto themselves again. The trumpet hit a peak, the steel drum tingled. Cluett began to make steady guttural sounds with his voice; there was a strain, and a vibrato; the pitch would change with the shape of his mouth. McPhee's electronic sax twinkled. The electronics scratched. The flute provided a thread that pulled everything together. McPhee now had his soprano: he blew air through the horn allowing it to leak tweaks of high pitch. Two shakuhachi's blended a depth of tone on the right. The electronics created sounds like water ripples. Everything was together again. McPhee whined through his horn & moved the whine to a split tone. The steel drum was pitched then became glossy and smooth again. Cluett's voice hissed and clicked. The flutes did not stop their music. Majima entered. Cluett's voice became louder. McPhee played shorter and louder notes; they rose and fell. A melody came through. Majima slowly became angular. The shakuhachis followed McPhee's switches. Every sound produced seemed to be aimed downward. The dancer kineticized to absolute stillness. There was no music. Majima unfolded the stillness by walking backwards from left to right. Her movement stopped. The piece had ended.

No matter how tough it had been for these musicians to make sound in this space, their efforts succeeded. The presence of a dancer was a given. Because there was no reverb to the sound, the motion of her body provided what was missing. This experience taught me that absence in the deepest sense is also a startling revelatory presence.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Various
  • Concert Date: 5/12/2001
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