An Evening of Improv at the Lounge

jan 08 pdxThe Portland New Music Society held its first concert of 2008 at the Towne Lounge on January 22nd. Society founder Brandon Conway always puts together a great show, and this one, which also featured him as one of the performers, was no exception. In spite of freezing temperatures, there was a pretty good crowd there, including some people I’ve never seen before at a New Music Society show. One of these was someone who’s worked with Fred Frith, among others. That he was as impressed as I was with the evening’s offerings may serve to indicate just how talented these musicians are.

The evening opened with Adam Reese playing a melodica that he has tuned himself and that he supplies with a continuous flow of air by attaching it to a large red ball. Adam did not appear to be making the inflation and attachment business part of the act, though several of us in the audience were able to do that for ourselves. His sitting on the ball, ostensibly just to supply that steady flow of air, was naturally theatrical.

While what Adam did was interesting to listen to, I couldn’t help feeling that everything moved at the wrong speed—either way too fast or way too slow. It may just be me, but I thought that what he played would have been better as either a virtuosic display of blindingly quick playing or, preferably, extremely slow changes from one note or chord to the next. No matter, what we got was fine, and the special tuning made for some very rich and unusual sonorities.

This was followed, after some impromptu and unintended glitches from the sound system, with a quite lovely set from Jordan Dykstra which consisted of looping short phrases on the viola and then, when several of these were well launched, by some fancy work on djembe. While this went on for a good long time, it could, of course, have gone on even longer as far as I’m concerned. This was not only enjoyable music, but it was fun to watch Jordan coordinate each new live phrase with the loops of what he had just played. An ensemble piece for soloist is what it was, and as fun to watch as to listen to.

The evening continued and concluded with two sets by Branic Howard and Brandon Conway, Brandon on electronics and Branic on some heavily amplified objects, including a wickedly sharp kitchen knife and a wine goblet, out of which he got not only all the usual sounds but—courtesy of that amplification—some very unusual ones, too. While the two sets were very different from each other (always a good sign, I think), they did share one thing; they were equally well-performed. Improv, as anyone who’s done it themselves can testify, takes incredible concentration and sensitivity and attention to detail to do well. All those qualities were on display this evening. A very gritty, scratchy, noisy, and satisfying conclusion to a lovely evening of fascinating new music.

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