a column by
Stuart Broomer


For the past year bassist/composer Carl Testa has been releasing documentation of Sway Prototypes, his developing work with interactive programming that entered its first public phase in 2017. It is an exploration of computer processing, expanding, altering and interacting in real time with the materials generated by a live ensemble, ultimately working toward a Sway system. This month he’s releasing Volume 3 in the series, bringing the released material up to autumn 2019. It’s significant work, distinctive in its processes: each volume is a stage in both the development of Testa’s processing language and an ensemble that is usually improvising freely in concert with the program’s transformation of its materials. It’s a visionary balance between a musical community and an unpredictable analysis that feeds new material back into the dialogue.

Drop into Volume 1 and you encounter the initial performance, a 2017 quintet performing Three Sections. The group includes Testa on bass and computer, violinist Erica Dicker, cellist Junko Fujiwara, trumpeter Louis Guarino Jr. and vibraphonist Andria Nicodemou. It’s unique among the documented performances in that it possesses a design for the performers, who move in concert with the results of the audio analysis through “three processing types: 1) delay, 2) granular synthesis, and 3) wave dropping (where segments of the signal are removed randomly)” (Testa’s liner essay).

In the notes to his recent Morton Feldman Piano (Another Timbre), Philip Thomas makes a germane observation of Feldman works like Three Pieces for Piano (1954), Piano Piece 1955, Piano Piece 1956A and 1956B which “reveal Feldman at his most Webern-esque. Here we see Feldman’s love of the sound world explored by the Second Viennese School, whilst eradicating the system which conjured those sounds.” For this listener, the initial resemblance of Three Sections is to the hyper-serialism of Pierre Boulez’ Le Marteau sans maître, a resemblance heightened by the mix of strings and mallet percussion. The methodological distinction, of course, is that rather than the result of an expanded serialism, Testa’s work begins as spontaneous collective improvisation that then has an analytical component applied to it. Even in this first piece, the work assumes a distinct dimension around voice-like, sustained string tones that predominate toward the end, developing an ethereal quality that enfolds the glittering metallic sounds of the vibraphone and trumpet.  

The key piece of Volume 1 is the hour-long Quadrants from March 2018. It adds the singer Anne Rhodes to the quintet, creating the group Sway Sextet that has figured in each subsequent CD as well. That element of the human voice seems like an essential step in the long-term process. Having already arisen in the choir-like sounds of the initial Three Sections, the voice may be a key sign to the general social processes that the Sway Prototypes reflect. In Testa’s descriptive remarks to Quadrant, he notes that increasing “the variety of programming ... started to move my concept of the piece towards an interactive environment of sound as opposed to a determinant system that is directly responding to the musicians.”

That the piece can sustain interest through its extended length is due in part to the timbral richness and variety that arise in the developed textures of the processing. It’s a phantom orchestra, at times very quiet, that’s taking on a life of its own. The sense of chance here is significant: “In the performance that resulted in Quadrants the musicians couldn’t hear the electronics too clearly and thus a lot of the transformations revealed by the recording were quite surprising” (Carl Testa in a note to the author). There’s  an endorsement here of the significance of chance in the musical outcome, given the complex of individual human and programmed inputs in what is a pluralistic music embracing multiple methodologies, another step in a long chain of dialogues that includes the early compound of electronic and improvised elements in Bob James’ Explosions to the immediate computer-driven dialogues of George Lewis’s Voyager and Anthony Braxton’s Diamond Curtain Wall Music.

At least as significant as the sonic transformations of the Sway processing and the element of chance is the sheer input of the musicians, with some long-term musical partnerships at work, including Testa, Rhodes and Dicker’s participation in various Anthony Braxton projects over the past decade. I’ll confess to prior unfamiliarity with the work of trumpeter Louis Guarino Jr., but a search soon uncovers a 2009 Bandcamp session by a band called Telepathy that includes Guarino and Testa with Rhodes as a special guest. It’s clearly a long-standing musical relationship and Guarino is a neglected free jazz master whose pithy utterances range from spiky to lyrical, and whose contribution to these recordings is essential. Andria Nicodemou is a virtuoso vibraphonist, as capable of adding humming, string-like long tones as fleet runs.

The two pieces of Volume 2 date from October 2018 and mark a significant development of the Sway program. Testa “started to develop my emotional and aesthetic relationship to what I was creating. It felt like I was truly discovering what it was that I was developing.” The presence of “Bloom” is a strong indication of that development: it’s a 22-minute bass solo that possesses a special reflectiveness, pun intended. As Testa notes, “Sway gives me the time and space to reflect and listen to the processing environment. I can thus stay with an idea longer than I may have normally in order for the system to kick in and change its processing and thus lead me down a pathway I wouldn’t have found otherwise.”

This experience, as real for listeners as for Testa, goes to the complexity of our relationships to time. If the immediate experience of improvisation, whether as performer or listener, can carry the potential for disaster or disintegration, the same act as recording is utterly different: it’s a formalized unit of time outside the unpredictability of the moment. If listening to live improvisation suggests risk, the performance of such even more so, a recording of improvised music suggests assurance. Similarly, the experience of the Sway Prototypes provides musician and listener alike with a kind of pluralistic experience of time. The music is coming into being in part through an independent agency, a program, a series of parameters, a speaker system, that has even taken responsibility for the just-heard voices of the living contributors.

Playing or listening to improvised music presents a special relationship to time, sometimes an excitement, sometimes a kind of bliss, perhaps anxiety become its own mystical contrary. As social and aesthetic construct, the Sway Prototypes offer a special experience: a collective act of creation that is at once immediate and abstracted; an experience of time that is at once intensely immediate and reflective. As one goes on to the extended performances of Volume 2 and Volume 3, one begins to hear the growing depth of this dual experience of improvisers and auditors, improvisers as auditors, and listeners as assemblers of an imaginary and yet compound present.

There’s a remarkable spatial breadth to Emergence, the sextet’s 45-minute work on Volume 2, as if the addition of processed sounds has somehow opened the field to more sound, creating an expanded sense of auditory space. There are flashes of pizzicato bass, cello and violin in the foreground; Rhodes sings an ascending scale in seeming isolation; meanwhile, there’s an elusive line of high frequency bowed strings and metal hovering above in the background. All of these elements, and many more, have their own weight and an increasing sense of independence in time, a sense of their complex and contrary means of production. Among related instruments there’s an odd phenomenon: a duet of pizzicato bass and violin suggests a phenomenon of technology: is it a duet of two distinct musical personalities or simply a duet of one, meeting itself with altered pitch? Multiple versions of Rhodes’ voice intersect midway through the piece, some close enough in frequency to create beat patterns.

As with the previous releases, Volume 3 includes both a long piece by the sextet and a piece by another grouping, in this case the first of Testa’s ad-hoc groupings of musicians without prior experience of a Sway environment.

The sextet piece, called Midst, is the most recent of the recordings, from September 2019, and the densest musical environment to come from the project so far. Instrumental identities seem to have been stretched further from acoustic identities, while the musicians are enjoying a greater freedom within the situation, apparently increasingly willing to test the programming, while also interested in disappearing, leaving more room for single voices to test the process: there’s a beautiful violin solo with expanded processing that seems to reflect ancient Chinese erhu bird imitations, further enhanced by electronics that gradually lead to a rich orchestral passage in which the instruments and their multiples merge into a hive of string sound with some humming metallic vibraphone and overarching trumpet effects that blur extended techniques and electronics together to create a welling orchestra of the imagination, suggesting a synthesis of artificial and inter-species musics. It may be the current crowning achievement of Testa and his collaborators’ endeavors, but it doesn’t invalidate the results of the previous explorations.

The piece Shroud, recorded at a Chicago performance in January 2019, documents Testa’s first experience using the Sway programming environment with musicians outside the Sextet. The group includes Testa and Rhodes, along with violinist Hanna Brock whose instrument clearly falls within the original Sway textures, but the group shifts the dominant instrumental identity toward lower register reeds with Aaron Getsug on tenor and soprano saxophones and clarinet and Alejandro T. Acierto on contrabass clarinet. In keeping with its title, Shroud has an almost infernal presence, reflecting some of the hypnotic, droning quality of the first pieces. There’s a dark, mysterious aspect to the group sound at the outset with insistently bowed and dissonant violin double-stops even as Getsug’s clarinet weaves a warm melody, but the sheer density of Acierto’s sound gradually takes over, a thick bass wave set somewhere between a howl and a roar. It’s a level of sonic power not quite unleashed in the previous Sway Prototypes and it extends the music in different directions, adding a chaotic expressionism. As with the regular Sextet, however, there’s a spectrum of textures and individual sounds as the program further reveals its expanding technical analyses and creative possibilities, mining and mixing contrasts from Brock’s lyric violin and Rhodes’ sonorous glissandi to Getsug’s vocalic wails.

Testa’s Sway Prototypes present possibilities for fresh interactions between improvisation and programming that open the music, reinventing musicians’ materials out of the substance of their own voices and practices and returning them for future elaboration. Clearly some of the possibilities are already available in his current body of work.

© 2020 Stuart Broomer

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