January 21, 2008

Now Playing: Roscoe Mitchell

Roscoe Mitchell/The Transatlantic Art Ensemble: Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1,2 & 3 (ECM 1872)

The notable and astute writer Art Lange began his November column in the online journal Point of Departure as follows:

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.


[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.

I quote Mr. Lange at length because he’s right (and please go read the whole thing, it's brilliant). Gunther Schuller did get a bum rap and the term, “Third Stream,” for all its faults, is what we’re stuck with when it comes to describing what’s going on with something like Roscoe Mitchell’s latest record for ECM. I have no doubt that Mr. Mitchell would object to the term himself, but there you go. I would still assert that Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3 epitomizes Schuller’s ideal of “something other” of a “Third Stream.”

The Transatlantic Art Ensemble is a combination of Mitchell’s Note Factory and Evan Parker’s Electroacoustic Ensemble (sans electronics). Mitchell’s “composed improvisations” exploit the rich textural possibilities of these fourteen master musicians. Track three is exemplary: beginning with a fully-notated and quirkily swinging ensemble passage, it develops across various rhythmic and instrumental combinations until yielding to Mitchell’s own solo saxophone excursion. From there it evolves into an ecstatic (yet somehow delicately controlled) free-jazz blow-out, building climaxes upon climaxes as each additional instrument gradually enters the fray. Just as you think it can’t get anymore intense, a beautiful chord appears signaling an extended coda to end.

The first time I heard this was a hair-raising experience. I literally felt like the guy in the Maxell ad, pinned to the sofa. The whole thing is beautifully recorded by producer Steve Lake and it sounds especially good at a realistic volume level, if you know what I mean.

Neither one of the available terms, “jazz” nor “classical”, fits this music’s true ambition and scope. “Third Stream” will have to do. Let’s give it some respect.



Sam said...

Sometimes I feel frustrated by the inability of language to come up with meaningful terms that both describe the music I listen to and will mean the same thing to everyone without connotations or prejudice. Other times I just don't give a hoot.

"Jazz?" That's a big word, and it means so much. It can mean Roscoe Mitchell, yes, even this new album, but it can also mean Billie Holiday. And yet there's a world of difference between those two artists (separate essay on the similarities to be written by someone else, not me, thanks!). "Third stream"? Okay, but why not "creative music" or "new music"? (If this were a listerv, we could then anticipate an endless discussion of the pros and cons of each of these terms, punctuated by name-calling, hopeless digressions, trolls, and semantic bear-baiting.)

Actually, I'm with you...it's easier just to think of this as third stream and move on. So, are Braxton's Ghost Trance Accelerated compositions third stream or not? Or jazz? Or just music?

--ramblin' Sam

p.s. the Mitchell album is damn excellent! I'm still absorbing it, but I love its density and its quiet unfolding.

Rodger Coleman said...

Sam, of course it is all just music and I really don't have a heavy investment in the term Third Stream (and it's probably too late anyway), but as you say, language's inability to come up with meaningful terms *is* frustrating when you want to talk about music, particularly this weirdo music we both love.

My problem with "Creative Music", if used to describe a specific kind of music, that it is inherently elitist. I mean, come on, *all* music is creative, even *bad* music.

Same thing with "New Music." All music was at one time new. What was trumpeted as "The New Music" around 1920-1950 (i.e. Schoenberg to Boulez) is now decidedly old music (if still unplayed and unappreciated). So, again, the term lacks specificity so as to be utterly useless.

At least Third Stream has a descriptive definition that refers to a specific kind of musical practice. It certainly has its weaknesses, though. Is Sun Ra Third Stream? Sometimes, maybe. Cecil Taylor? Perhaps. Braxton? Definitely. An arbitrary distinction arises that is not very useful whan talking about the overall schema and, more importantly, emotional content of this music.

Anyway, semantic bear-baiting can be fun!

RE: the Mitchell album, "density and quiet unfolding" is a wonderful use of words to describe this music.

Start your own blog, Sam!

Luke Bergman said...

Hi Rodger
Great post! Thought I'd let you know, Table & Chairs Music and Roscoe Mitchell are putting on a concert at Seattle's Benaroya hall on June 7th, 2013. It will be the first ever concert dedicated to all different versions of Nonaah including Roscoe performing solo the world premier of his newest rendition of the piece. If you'd like to feature this event in your blog get in touch with us at contact@tableandchairsmusic.com