Beautiful Mysterious Experiments
Two chances to venture into the musical outlands
Chan, Evans, Blancarte, Walter
Imagine the upward trajectory of dense, busy free-jazz albums, going from Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz to John Coltrane’s Ascension or Om, up to the present decade; remove the “jazz” from free jazz while maintaining the intensity and adventurous spirit, fueled by adrenaline, and you’ll get the gist of the live album Cryptocrystalline, recorded earlier this year in Montreal, Quebec.
Although it primarily uses acoustic instruments, this improvised, 72-minute album is not for the faint of heart, with the quartet at hand constantly upping the ante, seemingly challenging themselves and each other to see how far they can push the fringes.
The configuration consists of Canadian pianist Charity Chan, trumpeter Peter Evans (also of Mostly Other People Do the Killing), bassist Tom Blancarte (of The Home of Easy Credit, TOTEM, and The Gate) and drummer Weasel Walter (of The Flying Luttenbachers and Behold…The Arctopus), each of whom has forged a reputation in the improvised music (under)world.
While Cryptocrystalline seemingly has no strict rules, it is not merely a free-for-all, in all its wild glory; it is clear that each player is paying attention to the proceedings and not simply in his or her own onanistic world. The musicians feed and nourish each other, adding to the controlled ruckus rather than engaging in a shouting match; although the three lengthy pieces are forceful, there is a spirit of synthesis, rather than showboating, with the players daring each other to vault to elevated levels.
At certain times, Chan and Evans step back slightly, sustaining small note-patterns or trills to maintain the pressure and tension, with admirable dexterity and precision; Walter often erupts with swift blast-beats, while self-regulating to never seem too predictable, and Blancarte’s extended sound palette offers some of the most remarkable textures on the album.
Picture a snowball rolling down a mountain, dramatically increasing in size, or the video game Katamari Damacy with an enormous ball of miscellaneous objects, rolling around all over everything and accumulating more and more stuff, and you might get an idea of what the superbly messy, formidable vigor of Cryptocrystalline is all about.
The word “experimental” is perhaps generally used too frequently to describe any sort of music that is just a little bit unusual, to the point where it has little meaning. However, there is one specific application of the word “experimental,” where it refers to music that has an outcome that is initially uncertain.
An experimental composer may create a set of rules and parameters like a scientist and then allow the piece—essentially the results of an experiment—to unfurl. So, does this produce awesomeness or random-sounding garbage?
Anything is possible, and it is up to the creator to choose whether or not to share his results; there is an additional element to be judged aesthetically: the formula, which itself may be elegant. While John Cage is the accepted “big name” in the experimental music realm, this writer is happy to suggest the American composer Alvin Lucier for curious listeners.
Orchestra Works presents three Lucier pieces performed by the Janá ek Philharmonic Orchestra from the Czech Republic and the San Diego Symphony, and fortunately, each has both a fascinating formula and interesting results. “Diamonds” presents three separate orchestras each ascending or descending steadily in pitch, either using discrete notes or gradually gliding between notes, to “draw” the two-dimensional shape of a diamond.
With elements including high, wispy strings, low brass tones and ringing bells, the paths are merely a conduit for allowing the notes to interact and interfere with each other, dramatically alternating between tension and cohesion.
“Slices” begins with 53 musicians each sustaining a different pitch of the 53-note range of a cello, simultaneously, in a messy cacophony. Methodically and patiently, the solo cellist Charles Curtis plays each of the 53 notes, and as he hits each pitch, the corresponding orchestra member playing that pitch stops playing.
Eventually, the discordant cluster is whittled down to a single note, followed by silence; then the cellist “lights up” each of the 53 notes one by one to reconstitute the cluster, presenting a disquieting type of ambient music with a fleeting, clarifying resolution.
“Exploration of the House” presents a variation of Lucier’s most famous piece, “I Am Sitting in a Room,” which creates a sort of acoustic fingerprint of a specific space by simultaneously playing and recording a segment—in this case, snippets of Beethoven’s “The Consecration of the House” overture—then playing the recorded segment using speakers while recording it again, and repeating the process until the resonant frequencies dominate the recording.
Therefore, the outcome is entirely dependent upon the acoustics of the performance hall, and the results here paint an aural picture of erosion and disintegration.
The unknown can evoke fear, but it can also be a beautiful thing; Einstein articulated this by writing, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”