A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

Franz Koglmann
Franz Koglmann                                                    Mircea Stănescu©2007

Gunther Schuller got a bum rap, and it’s time for some vindication. He had the audacity, back in the late ‘50s, to suggest that jazz musicians might find some fresh avenues to explore by incorporating classically-derived material and procedures into their usual modus operandi – and worse yet, he composed a few examples himself to show how it could be done, using renegade, untrustworthy improvisers like Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy alongside a string quartet. He even came up with a name for it: Third Stream. Maybe that was his mistake; once an idea has a name it becomes concrete, real, and dangerous to the status quo.

Third Stream music was attacked from the git-go, not so much for what it was, but what people feared it might be. It was the same cultural chauvinism that denied the possibility that anyone outside of America’s borders could play – much less create – jazz (Django Reinhardt was, grudgingly, accepted as “the exception that proved the rule”), despite the wealth of evidence to the contrary. This fueled objections to things that were never a part of Schuller’s agenda, like the silly novelty of “jazzin’ the classics” that was popular for a time in the ‘40s, or inflating swing combos into lumbering classical-jazz behemoths Paul Whiteman-style. And there were other fears – that classical influences would dilute the “essence” of jazz, over-intellectualize it, and rob it of its ability to swing, or that, gasp, performers would be dependent upon sheet music rather than intuitive spontaneity (pinpointing a deeply established distrust of notation, illustrated by that old joke where one jazzer tells another, “Of course I can read music, but not enough to hurt my playing.”).

Schuller tried to deflect these misconceptions in a 1961 article entitled “Third Stream” (reprinted in his Oxford University Press collection of essays, Musings), where he explained that Third Stream was not intended to replace, improve, or “legitimize” jazz at all, but that the whole point was to blend certain compatible aspects of jazz and classical music into a New Music that no longer was jazz or classical music, but something other. To counter the argument that nothing good comes from such “cross-fertilization” he pointed out that “semi-improvised lighthearted, often risqué secular troubadour ballads” had been transformed into complexly contrapuntal 15th century sacred masses, and folk music had inspired composers from Haydn to Bartok. He could have struck much more directly to the heart of the matter, however, if he had referred readers back to an article he wrote several years earlier, “The Future of Form in Jazz” (also collected in Musings), where he cited genre-stretching work created not only by Duke Ellington, but others like George Russell, Charles Mingus, Jimmy Giuffre, Andre Hodeir, Teddy Charles, and Hall Overton – and could have included Lennie Tristano, Shorty Rogers, Eddie Sauter, Ralph Burns, and Bob Graettinger among others, all gleefully intermingling various jazz and classical elements long before anyone ever heard the term Third Stream.

Nevertheless, except for its particular use (and eventually expansion into world music hybrids) as a program of study at the New England Conservatory of Music, Third Stream per se quickly disappeared from the jazz scene. That didn’t mean that the ideas Schuller supported fell into disuse as well – quite the opposite. But it wasn’t necessarily a new form that emerged; rather, they effected a broadening and deepening of the old. As time passed, more and more jazz musicians began to assimilate classical music theory and practice, through instrumental training and academic scholarship or their own personal interest (which is not to imply that many popular jazz artists, pre-1950, were not classically trained or knowledgeable about the classics; examples are everywhere, from Bix Beiderbecke to Willie “The Lion” Smith, and there’s the famous rumor that Charlie Parker wanted to take lessons from Edgar Varèse). Eventually, expanded harmonic concepts, structures not connected to conventional song form, and unusual tonal colors began filtering into the music. It wasn’t a movement, or a trend, but an evolutionary expansion of options available to improvisers, to become an accepted addition to the common vocabulary. And today these options are just as likely to be drawn upon by mainstream musicians – McCoy Tyner, say, or Benny Golson—as by more “experimental” types like Phil Wachsmann or Marilyn Crispell. For younger musicians like Jason Moran or Mat Maneri, cross-genre thinking comes as naturally as breathing. It’s no longer an issue, just a matter of degree, content, and intent.

Some current practitioners do intend to break new ground, though, or at least illuminate familiar ground from new perspectives, and by chance four new releases that came my way offer several diverse examples. The Viennese composer/trumpeter Franz Koglmann is the most experienced and conceptual of these; since the 1980s he has developed a compositional style which simultaneously references and responds to musical and non-musical resources such as poetry, artwork, and film. It happens he was commissioned to compose a piece dedicated to the Transylvanian city of Sibiu (previously known in German as Hermannstadt) as the European Capitol of Culture 2007, and, upon learning that a symphonic manuscript by Franz Josef Haydn, circa 1786, had been discovered there in 1946, decided to combine his own “cool jazz” predilections with material radically adapted from this symphony, and, at the same time, a prose text from the writings of the philosopher/aphorist E.M. Cioran, who was born in the region surrounding Sibiu. The result was Nocturnal Walks (Col Legno), an eight-movement suite that, despite its seemingly incongruous origins, has a character of its own. Cioran’s writings and the interview excerpted in the CD package show him to be, to coin an oxymoronic description, a romantic skeptic – a so-called “stranger in a strange land.” Koglmann’s music evokes this same juxtaposition of idealism and pragmatism with an ambiguity of tonality, time, and place; phrases and fragments from Haydn are reharmonized, rhythmically distorted, and re-set within a quickly shifting, engaging landscape of night music ambience (reminiscent of Bartok and Mahler) and jazz echoes, through which Koglmann’s wistful, restrained trumpet and flugelhorn improvisations wander, accompanied by the disembodied voice of Cioran (unfortunately, in German). The disc also includes a brisk and apropos performance of Haydn’s symphony (No. 27) by the Haydn Orchestra of Bolzano and Trento, conducted by Gustav Kuhn.

The British new music pianist Philip Thomas specializes in performances of composers like Helmut Lachenmann, Christian Wolff, and Morton Feldman – in other words, music that mixes traditional notation with details of graphic or nonspecific indeterminacy, if not outright improvisation. His album Comprovisation (Bruce’s Fingers) not only includes scores of wildly contrasting nature by classical composers Michael Finnissy (a complexly notated piece of pastoral cascades interrupted by pummeling rhythms titled, perhaps with tongue-in-cheek, “Jazz”) and John Cage (his abstract “Variations II”), but compositions by musicians better known as free improvisers—pianist Chris Burn, multi-reedman Mick Beck, bassist Simon H. Fell, and (if I may coin another description) electronicist Paul Obermayer – which raises several questions. Do free improvisers bring a unique sensibility to a primarily classical format? Do any jazz influences remain audible? Obermayer, for one, is a member of the wildly unpredictable groups Bark! and Furt (the latter an electronic duo with cross-genre composer Richard Barrett), and his “coil” takes great pains to reconfigure a sequence of musical cells in and out of serial (post-Schönberg) procedures. The sharp rhythms and atonal melodies are reminiscent of gestures improvised by Howard Riley, in one sense, or events constructed by Stockhausen in his Klavierstücke for that matter, but there is nevertheless a studied rigidity to the phrasing that suggests this is notated and not spontaneously developed. Chris Burn’s “pressings and screenings,” conversely, alternate dynamically varied chords and clusters with drizzled notes that surreptitiously reveal slivers of Monk’s “Trinkle Tinkle” and “Epistrophy.” Of all these works, Fell’s “Composition No. 73: Thirteen New Inventions” is the most traditional – paradoxically, because he is the musician most accustomed to working with the freest of improvisers as well as the most experienced with modern orchestral maneuvers (as we shall see). His “Inventions” refer to J.S. Bach’s “Two-Part Inventions” for keyboard and, like Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Preludes and Fugues” op. 87, they adapt Bach’s contrapuntal form to his own melodic language. These are playful miniatures, with propulsive rhythms, hammered attacks, grand Lisztian gestures, classical allusions, and not much apparent jazz, as if that matters.

Violinist Satoko Fukuda, cellist Hannah Marshall, and pianist Veryan Weston all have extensive classical training – no surprise, give the history of their instruments (Weston sports an advanced degree in musical composition as well). As the Trio of Uncertainty, their like-minded backgrounds allow them a remarkable sense of ensemble, which in this case translates into an acute alertness to compositional parameters – that is, an intuitive reaction to what the others are doing at any given moment intended to provide a balance of parts, flexibility of foreground/accompaniment, a cohesive flow of details, and a sustained architecture – which is all the more impressive because the process is improvised. The ten pieces on Unlocked (Emanem) display a nearly telepathic level of collaborative agreement, using classical materials (atonal, or bitingly chromatic, harmonic frameworks; supportive, non-pulse-generated rhythmic features; sequenced or asymmetrical melodic patterns) and an instrumentally-derived quality of detail. For example, “Unlocked” is built upon a slashing string attack, with percussives and glisses adding to the intensity, “For This Were a Dream” offers melodic passages with sympathetic piano accompaniment, and “Lost Ballad & Antidote” is a spontaneous song of substance and structural integrity. This is improvised chamber music that remains focused and lucid even at its most intense. When in the 1950s Gunther Schuller bemoaned the fact that he couldn’t find musicians able to improvise fluently in an atonal setting, he was thinking of performers like these.

Finally, an orchestral work that combines improvised solos, several systems of notation (including graphs and verbalized instructions, with intentional vagueness built in), and distinct movements exploring overlapping compositional concepts – Simon H. Fell’s Kaleidozyklen (Bruce’s Fingers). Fell’s orchestral attitudes, heard here and on previous recordings such as his Composition No. 30: Compilation III for Improvisers, Big Band, and Chamber Ensemble and Composition No. 62: Compilation IV/Quasi-Concerto for Clarinet(s), Improvisers, Jazz Ensemble, Chamber Orchestra & Electronics, have a Braxtonian sense of breadth and ambition. His familiarity with the modern classical repertoire informs his orchestral writing with recognizable traits – Lutoslawski’s rhythmic forcefulness, Varèse’s sound masses, Ligeti’s extremes of pitch and texture, Messiaen’s richness of detail, along with characteristics from the jazz side of the ledger – instrumental combinations influenced by Gil Evans, polyphony a la Sun Ra, free jazz intensity and abandon. Kaleidozyklen exploits multiple methods of organization, from serial procedures to subsumed quotations and passages of unrelated activity, though Fell’s arrangement of the latter sounds coherent and determined in comparison to his models, Cage and Charles Ives. The most surprising movement is a computer-distorted scoring of the well-known Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, layered with improvised episodes and a 23-note series. The full effect of all the ideas packed into Fell’s orchestral music may be too much to digest, and his reach may exceed his grasp, but what comes across loud and clear is an adventurous and insatiably curious sensibility, an ambitious figure with one foot in jazz and the other in classical music.

None of these examples may be quite what Schuller had in mind with his original vision of Third Stream music, nevertheless the blending of genres he proposed has grown on its own to permanently affect creative music of all styles. Third Stream or not, let’s give credit where credit’s due.

Art Lange©2007

New World Records

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