Hear It NOW! 2008: the new NOW, hybrid-fuelled
Hear It NOW! 2008 delivered my wish-fulfillment cocktail on time.
When NOW’s artistic director Coat Cooke joined forces with Giorgio Magnanensi, director of Vancouver New Music, two musical magi entered the house-of-how-sound-works, and a very particular musical agenda was set in motion. In putting this show together, Cooke also brought on board Jean Derome, a stalwart of the French-Canadian jazz avant-garde. Cooke, Magnanensi and Derome each contributed compositions; new and older motifs and methods that were channeled through the talented new NOW orchestra, joined in this incarnation by Sal Ferreras on vibes and Steve Wright who accompanied Magnanensi on electronics.
There’s no question that the new NOW orchestra sounds (and looks) different than the old NOW orchestra. The players are younger, looking a little more like a tribe and less like a big band. Cooke and trombonist Brad Muirhead are the sole incumbents. Of the new members there is a blessed unorthodoxy. However, they are all discrete players – almost polite – a valuable component of an improvising orchestra; and sensitivity to the moment, something that was a hallmark of the old NOW sound, is new NOW too.
Among these younger players, there is less familiarity with the licks of the free jazz improviser, and the styles that developed when all free jazzers held affiliations with conventional acoustic instrumentation and arrangements. And this is what makes NOW more wow than it has been for a while.
In the context of NOW performing with Magnanensi’s electronic sonic collages, the soundscape was flown high overhead in the Roundhouse’s blackbox performance space. This dislocation of the sound provided a distinct counterpoint to the typical Here It NOW staged setting, which Magnanensi exaggerated in one of his compositions by having the musicians leave and return to the stage, while Derome and Cooke performed a call and response tenor sax duet. However, in all compositions, the extension of the soundscape off-stage and overhead, altered musical perception.
Notably, the jazz soundscape is changing, undefining itself, and it’s more mediated — sounds come from elsewhere, moving in and among players and audience alike. The focus is not so much on the individual player’s personal performance but the experience of being sonically immersed.
Something radically other is happening, and not just in little dribs and drabs. Through the drive and vision that Cooke and Magnanensi bring to their respective organizations, Vancouverites can fill entertainment calendars year-round. They make a habit of bringing together international guests and local composers and musicians to explore kaleidoscopic dimensions of sound. It is nothing short of miraculous, even revolutionary, in this commercial climate, to find such a proliferation of the musically fantastic and strange, spreading its aesthetic into multimedia megaprojects, expanding awareness of what lies ahead in the world of sonic imagination.
The evening began with Cooke’s Un Morceau de la paix du pays, a layered five part composition he conducted. Even with the veteran sax of Derome present, for the first few sections the orchestra was finding its sound (restrained efforts, statements meant to be questions and vice versa).
As the ventilation of the sound in the space increased, the spacecraft started to hum. Some of the holdovers of parts played in previous swells echoed, bubbled up, cut and reconfigured, had a surge effect, catching the wave. By the end of this open structure piece the wave began to crest, and the players rode it into a short composition Bananas, and a longer one Train pour Nuremberg, both by Derome. These pieces had spryness and folk humour to them, much like Derome himself.
Cooke’s looming presence as a conductor was seconded by Derome’s matador like flare, quick flicks of his upheld wrist shifting musical gears while the orch’ charged. With Cooke playing a variety of horns and flute, the orch huffed, grunted, and blew blue flames from its nostrils.
Nonetheless, Derome’s compositions brought light and joy into the space, and the players were cohesive, somehow wed to his warmth of personality. The interlocking parts were quick-witted–riffs that exercise off each other, and the melodic phrases were carnivalesque; Derome’s world, I thought to myself, must be filled with mirthful phantasmagoria. This impression was emphasized by the wistful electronic motifs, sometimes menacing overhead, from Wright and Magnanensi.
The third piece was Magnanensi’s teatro dell’udito IV, an ongoing work that has had a few exciting manifestations already. Magnanensi set the electronic soundscape afloat and came forward to conduct. In the grandest conducting gestures of the night he leapt about and seemed a man possessed. In this performance, the environmental sounds told a discontinuous intimate story while the live instruments entwined in pairs and trios, conversant, slightly deranged, until they fused into climactic swells. It provided an excellent opportunity to witness individual players, the work of Ferreras, drummer Sky Brookes, and trumpeted effects by JP Carter stood out as finding the sweet spot between the live and electronic spaces being created. This composition continues Magnanensi’s mission to open the listening public to a new way of hearing, as it’s title suggests.
The concert resumed after intermission with Le Jeu des Formes by Derome, in which he unleashed minute frenzies from the players, but none so convincingly as Derome himself. The intensity of his performance and the technical command of instrument could have stood alone; unfortunately, from where I sat, Derome was too quiet in the mix, and something of that intense subtlety was lost.
The next short composition, Pola, allowed Cooke to conduct and play, and the orchestra rallied and was ready for Derome’s Calypso, with layered calypso rhythms that Ferreras illuminated. But in some ways it was bassist Tommy Babin who really locked on and propelled the ensemble. Babin also invigorated Spectacles, by Derome, flowing effortlessly from arco double bass to plucked electric, and Chad MacQuarrie’s effected electric guitar gained enough breathing space in this piece to shine. Derome dedicated Spectacles to Paul Plimley, in the audience that night, who performed the composition with Derome 15 years prior.
The evening was wrapped up with Thorsburger, a stellar Cooke original that has been a signature composition for many years. The players were comfortable and needed little actual conduction; the parts conflated open improvisation with ensemble rhythmic catch phrases and repeated melodic riffs that become anthemic, and it gave a good taste of what the new orchestra is capable of.
It is interesting to consider how much of this particular musical agenda, blending compositions by Cooke, Magnanensi and Derome into a coherent sonic context, was realizable in the present NOW orchestra configuration. When this new ensemble starts to burn, they don’t sound like previous incarnations of the group. They want to do, and be, something different, and I don’t think anyone, Cooke included, has tested its full potential. And this makes the New Orchestra Workshop exciting again; with careful direction, Cooke has created a super-bad sonic machine, hybrid fuelled. It will take this exceptional musical organization to new heights and its fans to new places.
The Future of NOW
Engaging with the ambient electronics provided by maestro Magnanensi pushes the ingenuity of NOW and the strategies of the jazz composer in directions that make sense on many levels. These are the directions experimental art forms need to go in, to discover new musical life-forms in the media mash-up of commercial monocrop cultures and the intensifying diversity of digital sound in daily life. This is the essential work of the contemporary artist — to protect the wilderness of the imagination.
Setting the work of making musical environments for public pleasure and study in a non-conventional spatial relation to sound sources changes musical perception. This makes a large impact, because it reorients the listener’s experience in a fundamental way. A new NOW sound pulses within this multi-dimensional audio-zone, pulling to the stage like gravitation on the listener, sometimes flaring up like a sunspot. This reshaping of the NOW sound can, and I hope will, be pushed further conceptually and musically.
The art of conducting was treated to highlight reel moments: This, too, is a lesson for the live art orchestra: The exaggeration of gesture radicalizes the play, turns energetically contagious. It is no longer really about “jazz” or even “music”; there are exceptional moments of expression built into an all-encompassing ambient embodiment. Overall, the musical dynamics created first a dizzying rush, then a sustained carnival, and finally the conducting gave way to a collective, rhythmically situated mood.
While playerly moments stand out — in particular the duets of Cooke and Derome on saxes and flutes—the experience is much more about being immersed in musical space than pure musicianship. It’s a direction that NOW can now go; I don’t think that we’ve yet seen how far this group can take it, but its fair to say that once off the leash of the traditional content for (even improvising) jazz orchestras, this group will go very far indeed.
In the Pop-eclipse of meaningful musical culture, nothing gets much chance to change the way we are, and how we experience sound. Because sound is so demystified, because so many sounds are very similar sounds, with a reliable beat, melody, hook, line, stinker, music is made extraneous to the project of culture as a site of personal and public transformation. Reimagining music is difficult when it is jammed in conditions that flatten it out, compress and suck the life out of it, spew it out as product. If we cannot make sound like yawning volcanoes, spiraling spaceships, lionhearted rallies at the fountain of life-in-the-moment, then music will make us mundane. Music background, foreground, inner pod-ground; logs hours, work days; all the ordinary dampening of distractions, excite a narrow band of emotions, a cultural monocrop — like a Monsanto Mardi Gras. Music must maintain the exceptional moments as well, the ecstatic instant.
As Magnanensi states in the program notes, the “instant is unpredictably transcendent.” Craving difference, like nubile listeners, we begin the journey into the fragile hinterland of what remains of the sonic imagination, what is musically new, and newsworthy. Hear it NOW! 2008 delivered the news.
The NOW Orchestra; Hear It NOW! 2008;
Roundhouse, Vancouver, November 7, 2008. For more information go here.