There may be no more utopian ideal of music (save for a Cagean walk in the woods) than the free-improvising orchestra, a group coming together with only a minimal plan if any, a spontaneous dream of community as sound, sound as community. It can be as beautiful and terrible as a traffic jam with horns laid on, a storm in the mountains, a summer explosion of crickets and cicadas or a troupe of Geiger-counter-wielding metal hunters arriving at an unmarked mine field (a massed language of clicks followed by much mixed sound). Conversely, it can be as dreary as a faculty meeting with multiple agendas, recurring components and suddenly-sprung team-building exercises that you didn’t anticipate (or did).
Lisbon is increasingly a producer of large-ensemble free improvisation (like the notable Lisbon Freedom Unit reviewed in this issue’s Moment’s Notice), most often under the direction of violinist/violist Ernesto Rodrigues. Rodrigues is the founder/director of the Creative Sources label, one of the most active free improvisation labels in the world; recently he has turned increasingly to larger ensembles. Among the early works on Creative Sources, such events are rare, like Rodrigues and his cellist son Guilherme playing with the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, GIO Poetics (CS114). There’s also a three-CD set released in 2007 of early works by the Rodrigues-led Variable Geometry Orchestra (VGO), a very large grouping drawing on the breadth of the Lisbon improvising community. In the past few years, though, Rodrigues has been leading and recording a host of different shifting groups, like Isotope Ensemble, String Theory, Suspensão, Diceros, Octopus and IKB, as well as the now venerable VGO.
Part of what makes the recent activity possible is the scale of the Lisbon improvising community, a remarkably active group that has grown immensely in the 21st century. The city is home to two of the most active labels for free jazz and improvised music, Pedro Costa’s Clean Feed and Rodrigues’ Creative Sources, and the community of musicians, used to relatively scant rewards, feels more collective and collegial than cutthroat competitive. Among them, too, are musicians who readily move between free jazz and various modes of free improvisation, like cellist Miguel Mira, guitarist Luis Lopes, pianist Rodrigo Pinheiro and bassist Hernâni Faustino.
As a frequent summer visitor, I can’t help but include Lisbon’s ambitious, forward-thinking festival, Jazz em Agosto, among the inspirations. It has provided a multitude of opportunities to hear the greatest of large improvising ensembles, including many that rarely get to travel far from their home bases. Over the past 35 years, Sun Ra, Trevor Watts, George Russell, Willem Breuker, Kenny Wheeler, Anthony Braxton, Bill Dixon, Otomo Yoshihide, Evan Parker, John Zorn, Frode Gjerstad, Peter Brötzmann, Wadada Leo Smith, Butch Morris and Barry Guy have presented improvising orchestras in Lisbon, along with the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra, Globe Unity Orchestra, Rova’s Orkestrova – Ascension and even Vancouver’s NOW Orchestra, a Canadian band that has likely played Lisbon as often as it’s played Toronto.
While Rodrigues’ several ensembles function on different principles of musical space and time, they have certain key characteristics in common, from their form to their presentation. There are always Rodrigues’ wide-ranging sources of inspiration, analogies drawn from geography or cosmology or the table of elements, and the music the orchestras develop is alive with multiple systems, internal dialogues and memoranda, parallels to other processes and aspects of thought just below the surface, a kind of collective mind, an auditory encyclopedia, a special group consciousness born of long familiarity.
There’s something about the activity that’s reminiscent of Bernie Kraus’s Great Animal Orchestra and its account of the origins of music in the natural environment. It’s sound-friendly, with a kind of pure musicality, relaxed in a way that’s in sharp contrast to the inbuilt theatricality of much conduction, that can sometimes feel like Canetti’s notorious description (in Crowds and Power) of the 19th century conductor, but further drained of all musical rigor.
I’m restricting my comments here to just a few of these groups and releases. It’s one of the difficult aspects of coming to terms with this music that there’s just so much of it and that it’s so rich, given the frequency with which Rodrigues convenes these orchestras and the quality of their music.
VARIABLE GEOMETRY ORCHESTRA
The VGO is the mother of all Rodrigues’ larger projects. In 2007, he released Stills, the three-CD set of the group that occupies a special place, CS100, in the Creative Sources catalogue. It was already a sprawling ensemble, rich in winds, percussion and electronics, taking in a broad swath of the Lisbon musical community. At the time it included musicians like electronic improviser Raphael Toral, local free jazz pioneer Sei Miguel, Brazilian saxophonist Alipio C Neto and the young pianist Rodrigo Pinheiro who would soon distinguish himself in Red Trio.
Through the years, numerous musicians have passed through the large ensembles, but there’s a core of musicians who frequently appear. Central to the project is the electronic musician Carlos Santos, who in addition to playing acts as recording and mixing engineer, and who is further responsible for Creative Sources cover designs. Others who appear frequently include alto saxophonist Nuno Torres, trombonist Eduardo Chagas and guitarist Abdul Moimême.
Rodrigues is highly articulate about the dynamics and contraries that inform the various ensembles, and the recent proliferation of mid-size ensembles (anywhere from roughly eight to 18 musicians) has given the VGO an increasingly distinct identity in terms of its large forces. It’s also distinguished by the significant role of conduction, but even here Rodrigues’ bandleading is of the gentlest, most productive, least theatrical sort. Here’s his description of the group and how he conceptualizes conduction:
“The music produced by the VGO results from layers of acoustic and electronic sound matter that constantly search for detail and meaning. Its sounds contain subliminal as well as psycho-acoustic characteristics and include the possibility of complete silence. The music emerges as if from nothingness only to disappear once again back into it. Thus chaos is formally organized with the use of new concepts of indeterminism and instantaneous composition, as well as through the asymmetrical eruption of alternated moments of sound and silence (the absence of identifiable sound). Nevertheless, sound prevails.
“The conduction is operated by balancing the sound masses that travel in the acoustic space, dictating the construction of the real-time composition, and thus revealing the organized juxtaposition of specific instruments as mobile sound groups. This leaves space for the musicians to regain their natural rhythm and breathing, as well as their sense of random pulsation. It also allows them to listen to all the sound events that are happening at any given moment and thus to act accordingly. On the contrary, they can simply listen to what another musician has just begun. The musical space is thus filled only with the intrinsically essential elements.
“Another of the outstanding aspects of the orchestra is how open it is to new participants. That is one reason why it is called “variable.” The influx of new creative power is tempered only with a truly democratic spirit where hierarchy is reduced to a bare minimum, also permitting a very large number of combinations and permutations of smaller ensembles to be arranged on the spur-of-the-moment. Last, but not least, the orchestra encompasses three generations of musicians who have set age aside to pursue a common contemporary language. Each performance is a Conduction.”
That silence to which Rodrigues refers is a virtual constant in his large ensembles. Regardless of the size or instrumentation, the performance begins there, in near silence, voices entering reluctantly, the music arising as a seeming necessity. The most recent VGO release is a two-CD set, Ma'adim Vallis(CS494), named for the enormous valley on Mars “about 700 km long ... over 20 km wide and 2 km deep in some places ... thought to have been carved by flowing water early in Mars’ history” (Wikipedia). The first CD, Construction #47, stretches the ensemble to 36 musicians (including a choir of four melodicas supplementing eight reeds, one of them an accordion), while the second, #48, scales it back to 19. In part based on its scale, its receptivity to saxophonists and its long history, VGO retains the strongest links to free jazz, with elements that reach back 50 years to the Jazz Composers Orchestra. Amid the vast moving blocks of sound, the sudden squalling roar of tenor saxophonist Paulo Galão harkens back to the original liberating force of musicians like Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders.
Suspensão is among the most intimate of these ensembles, an octet on Suspensão X, Porto Covo(CS418), from 2015, a tentet on Suspensão XI, Physis (CS496). It is one of those points where the level of group consciousness seems to be at the highest level.
According to Rodrigues, “It is mostly a tentet. Sound masses and frequency shocks are not here. The aesthetic line adopted is therefore that of orthodox reductionism, with a focus on timbral games and the maintenance of textures. It touches a lot (by the association of all contributions) with little (what each provides for the whole). The focus is on the sharp or suspensive treatments of the notes. Tension and stillness are combined in unusual ways, one undermining the other.”
Porto Covo, named for a coastal village south of Lisbon, starts with its evocative cover. The cover design by Carlos Santos is a minimalist one, light sand against contrasting blues of sky and water, with Mercator projection lines drawn over them, physical and abstract representations converging in the plane just as the two are alive in every sound. That movement that Rodrigues describes, between the tense and the still, is a kind of perfect balance, resulting in an encroaching sense of the microsecond, the infinitely detailed instant a sample of consciousness. It’s an art of great restraint, where the pop of a saxophone key can register as a significant event.
Rodrigues describes the group Diceros’ music as “Extended improvisation of mostly quiet, occasionally cantankerous, but always intriguing free music, primarily acoustic playing with a strong cast of string players, plus reeds, keys, and computer, creating suspenseful music of great tension and impressive restraint as the sound evolves in gradations and facets of sound.”
The CD Urze (CS426) testifies to Rodrigues’ ability to construct absolutely distinct ensembles within the broad range of his activities, even turning his personal sound palette inside out as he exchanges his violin and viola for a collection of other string instruments from distinctive folk traditions: a small harp, zither, dulcimer and rebec. The collective emphasis is on quiet instruments, and the group largely eschews both orchestral strings and the louder brass and reeds (Guilherme Rodrigues’ cello and pocket trumpet are the sole representatives). Some of the musicians in the nine-member ensemble have appeared only recently in the Creative Sources orbit, like André Hencleeday (he’s credited with megaphone on Ma’adim Vallis) who plays piano and psaltery here, or else appear infrequently, like “Flak” (João Pires de Campos), a guitarist who turns up playing acoustic in some of these large ensemble projects and who first appeared in the VGO’s Stills. Psaltery, acoustic guitar and Rodrigues’ zither are keys here, the entry point to the “little sounds,” myriad discrete events with relatively short decays, creating an unlikely pointillist blur. The winds, restricted largely to Bruno Parrinha’s clarinets and Paulo Curado’s flute, are also played with a special delicacy.
STRING THEORY (and strings in general)
Rodrigues is a dedicated string player. The Creative Sources catalogue abound in recordings with him and Guilherme in various free improvisation settings. There’s also a special place for strings among the large ensembles. The group String Theory pulls together interests in strings and physics, with Rodrigues proceeding from string theory, the notion of one-dimensional objects called strings propagating through space and interacting with each other. For Rodrigues, “This is the core idea and underlying the musical practice of this ensemble. Of variable formation, this ensemble is composed exclusively of strings (of all species and families). Everything can happen but in a controlled way. The strings family already transmits stability.”
That stability assumes the form of a drone in Tellurium (CS500), frequently a hive of sound created by a sixteen-member orchestra that tends strongly to low strings, including in its number five cellos and four basses, creating a droning, moving hive of great mass.
Sul (CS534) presents a similar string ensemble with American percussionist Andrew Drury matching discrete sounds with the string continuum. The music often has the serenity of chance composition, of an orchestral piece by Cage, with patterns that move at once toward symmetry and asymmetry. As monolithic as these performances can be, there are always instants where individual interactions can suddenly stand out. Here it’s the slashing power of the two basses, played by Hernâni Faustino and Alvaro Rosso.
This is just a brief sampling of what is already a great experiment in highly disciplined, large-scale improvisation, embodied in other groupings as well, including Isotope Ensemble, IKB and Octopus, each exploring different textures, different approaches, with sometimes subtle sonic metaphors for the elements, for particles, for the structure of time. More information about these releases is available at the Creative Sources web-site, and some of them can be readily heard at Rodrigues’ bandcamp site, a convenient point of entry to a vast and expanding world. Stuart Broomer (Point of Departure)