Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra Fest VI
(CCA, Glasgow Days 2 and 3 (29th and 30th November 2013.Round-up review by Oliver Weindling)
The Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra has evolved from year to year since its foundation in 2002. The ensemble has grown in size, with this year more than 20 musicians on stage, even including several strings and a harp. The group has an almost even division of male and female, which is certainly a model to be emulated elsewhere.There was also a sombre mood around, with everyone there aware of and influenced by the Clutha Bar helicopter tragedy, which had happened less than two miles away.
As in most years for their festival, of which I attended the final two days of the latest in Glasgow, they augment the ensemble with several "guests". Maggie Nicols is a regular and a respected elder. It was also exciting to have pianist Marilyn Crispell, who was there for the launch of her new duo album with Raymond MacDonald. Gail Brand, from London, percussionist Gino Robair, from the Bay Area in California, Arnault Rivière (electronics, Paris), Johanna Varner (cello, Munich) were among the others.
On the first night, Maggie Nicols and Marilyn Crispell showed how strong the empathy is between them, even though their live duo was a world premiere. But it was never allowed to get too serious: for the short encore, Maggie played piano and Marilyn sang - a swap of roles (though if the truth be told, they ultimately work best on their true instruments).
Johanna Varner took advantage of the opportunities provided by such a large and varied pool of musicians to programme a series of smaller groups. A theme running through seemed to be contrasts, between strings and brass, between two guitars, or by placing some musicians behind the audience, but conducted from in front of us on the stage by MacDonald. Somehow, by the end, it seemed to transform itself into a military band sound. No particular planning from the musicians in advance; it just seemed right.
Playing on the second night was the Anglo-French band Sonsale, featuring Corey Mwamba on vibes, Andy Champion (bass), drummer Sylvain Darrifourcq, already known here for his work with Barbacana and Q and an extraordinary cellist, Valentin Ceccaldi, a worthy new member of a new generation of the French scene where Vincent Courtois has been the leading light for many years. Their own set, part of the JazzShuttle scheme, built through a range of textures and interplay. Frequently it was impossible to tell who was creating which sound. But that just added to the total band organism. It finally morphed into a eerie waltz, where the 'oompahpah' was articulated by the strings, allowing the vibes and drums incredible amounts of space.
But the main highlights of the festival are the commissions. The norm has been for GIO invite guests such as Barry Guy or George Lewis. While I was there, they focused on the home-grown commissions from members of GIO. On Friday, the commission by Graeme Wilson, 'A Peculiar Slumber', was based on the writings of Robert Walser, active in Switzerland and Berlin at the beginning of the 20th century. It captured his evolving imagination and his descent into depression and emotional turmoil most evocatively.
The parts handed out to the musicians in GIO are mainly to give them a foundation for their joint improvisations and the evolution of the music, rather than rigidly fixing the performance. So, for 'Parallel Moments Unbroken', a BBC Radio 3 commission by Raymond MacDonald, the parts consisted of his own paintings made individually for each member. Its concept was influenced in approach by the definition of 'freedom'. To understand freedom properly musicians need to place themselves in the context of others. Such is the case of parallel lines which cannot exist in isolation.
Written in four sections and 50 minutes long, it increasingly engaged the listener as it developed. And during the performance there were several good examples and reminders of the need for musicians to play off each other (rather than for themselves). It was notable too how well they know when not to play, as much as when to. As a result, the climaxes never descended into cacophony.
Raymond MacDonald's commission for the Glasgow Improvisers' Orchestra will be broadcast on BBC Jazz on 3 on 16 December. Raymond MacDonald and Marilyn Crispell perform at the Vortex on 6 December to launch their album 'Artificial Life'.