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.


January 20, 2008


I know I’ve ranted about the poor sound quality of MP3s before, but I’ve given in and gotten myself an 8G iPod Nano. In the car, what with the engine noise and the road noise, MP3 at 256kbps sounds perfectly acceptable. So, now I have 2.4 days worth of music loaded on it and I’m ready to face my commute. Rock on!

Of course, this new-fangled technology required an upgrade of our ancient computer. While I was at it, I also set up a wireless network so I now am posting on my laptop from the living room. We have finally entered the 21st Century!

January 13, 2008

The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America at the Frist

The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the
work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its
inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.

--Marcel Duchamps, “The Creative Act”
(Jennifer R. Gross, The Société Anonyme: Modernism for America, Yale University Press, 2006, pp.29-30)

This past Thursday evening, Liz and I finally decided to head over to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts to see The Société Anonyme: Modernism in America. It had been up since October, but for whatever reason, we had not yet seen it. What had we been waiting for? It is a pure delight.

Incorporated by the artists Katherine S. Dreier, Marcel Duchamps, and Man Ray in 1920, The Société Anonyme opened a (short-lived) “Museum of Modern Art” in Manhattan almost a decade before MOMA. The first room recreates a portion of the inaugural exhibition of The Société Anonyme, the works widely spaced upon blue oilcloth walls, their frames covered with lace doilies – a Duchampian touch that is utterly charming.

Duchamps and Dreier would go on to build an extraordinarily diverse collection of art that was eventually donated intact to Yale University in 1941 and much of Dreier’s personal collection was bequeathed to the university after her death in 1952. The entire gift consists of over one thousand works, of which some two hundred are on display in this traveling exhibition. The show contains its fair share of big names including Kandinsky, Malevich, Schwitters, Klee, Joseph Stella, Mondrian, Brancusi, Picasso, and Matisse among others, but also several now-forgotten artists whose work still evokes the intense creative ferment of the 1920s and 30s.

In addition to mounting exhibitions, The Société Anonyme pursued a variety of educational activities including concerts, lectures, dance performances, and numerous publications. Photographs, letters, and other ephemera displayed in glass cases illuminate this wide ranging activity and the deepening friendship between the utopian Dreier and the enigmatic Duchamps. It is truly an inspiring and touching story.

This is such a supremely satisfying exhibition and the catalog is so fascinating that I have decided that I need to see it at least once more before it closes on January 27.

Good stuff!