Thursday, June 20, 2013

Reid Anderson's "The Rough Mixes": Concert review

L to R: Steven Copes, Sunmi Chang, Tony Ross,
Jeff Ballard, and Reid Anderson
Video image by Cristina Guadalupe
Photo by John Whiting
Anticipation was a theme of Reid Anderson’s “The Rough Mixes,” a new work for chamber ensemble, percussion, electronics and video that debuted at the SPCO Center earlier this week. 

It was for those of us who know Anderson from The Bad Plus, for which he plays bass and composes. (This would be his first public performance on electronics, his first composition as a jazz artist to include classical musicians. Would he still sound like Reid?) It must have been for Anderson himself, who has been working on this project for more than two years. And for presenter Kate Nordstrum, who kept it alive through her own job changes and a labor dispute at the SPCO that lasted several months.

How was the show? Probably not what some people expected, based on where electronic music has been. “The Rough Mixes” is not, for example, "Switched-on Bach” (traditional music made with synthesized sounds, but still totally recognizable) or Varése’s Poème électronique (a mosaic of found and new sounds linked by pitch and repetition). It’s not Subotnik’s all-electronic “Silver Apples of the Moon." And it’s not trance, although I wondered briefly if it would be, because earlier I stumbled across two trance/techno pieces written by someone else named Reid Anderson. “NOT mine,” Anderson wrote in an email. “I just listened for a few seconds… Not mine.”

His opening phrases on synthesizer were so melodic and warm that you knew you were in for Reid-style beauty. Jeff Ballard softly shook a small rattle, and then came the strings: SPCO concertmaster Steven Copes and Sunmi Chang on violins, Minnesota Orchestra principal cello Tony Ross. There were seven movements, some of which flowed into each other and some of which seemed made up of several short, discrete parts. 

It sounded like contemporary classical music acquainted with jazz. It was minimalist and complex, smooth and spikey, baroque and Bach-ish, melodic and abstract, soaring and elegant. Varied in tempo and mood, it was a lot of things. The classical musicians had plenty to do, which doesn't always happen in mergers like this one. Occasionally, Anderson said afterward, they improvised. 

Cristina Guadalupe’s video enhanced without distracting. From a Rorschach-like pairing of trees and sky falling into each other to drops on a window, floating heads, a fencer, waves on a beach and snowy fields, it made the experience of listening larger and more immersive.

The electronics were the biggest surprise. Anderson used his laptop, synthesizer, and controllers like delicate brushes, shading, refining, framing and filling in, adding dimension and color but never overpowering the other musicians. If anything, he might have been too subtle. Maybe because “The Rough Mixes” is an initial effort, he acted at times more like a conductor than a member of the ensemble. He could have given us more of those interesting electronic sounds.

Seated between the chamber ensemble (to his right) and Anderson’s table of equipment (to his left), Ballard stitched strings and electronics together with the finest of threads, adding intricate polyrhythms, his own vibrant colors, and the shimmer of brass. His imagination seems limitless, and he’s fascinating to watch and hear. In fact, Ballard is so compelling that he could have stolen the show. He didn’t, but I can’t imagine “The Rough Mixes” without him. 

Later, Ballard described how it was to play the piece, using words like “landscape” and “geology" and "layers.” He's forming a new band with Tigran Hamasyan, Lionel Loueke, and Anderson – on electronics.

Combining electronics with classical and jazz instruments in live performance, making electronically generated and altered sounds part of the mix (rough or otherwise), seems inevitable. Anderson’s piece is part of that process, a natural evolution in music. Other composers might look to "The Rough Mixes” as an example of how it’s done.



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