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IMOOfest 2013 Night 2: stretching the rules (review)

The IMOO Chamber Orchestra broke the rules ©Brett Delmage, 2013

Improvising Musicians of Ottawa/Outaouais
IMOOfest 2013, night 2
Saturday, November 9, 2013
GigSpace Performance Studio, Ottawa

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Night 2 of IMOOfest 2013 showed the diversity of what can be described as improvised music or avant-garde jazz.

It began with Jeff Morton playing what was billed as a solo electronics set, but which ended up at least as much acoustic. For the first half of the show, he played electronic dance music, a constantly adaptive ecology of sound with strong electronic figures over a muffled beat. It had a minimalist, hypnotic feel, and despite its intensity was never too loud.

A projection screen was set up to his right: for the first half it displayed changing abstract patterns; during the second half, his partner, Katrina Bray, moved paper origami figures to create frequently-changing, evocative shadows on the screen.

For the second half of his show, Morton pulled out a “Phono Fiddle”, an instrument sold mostly door-to-door in the early part of the 20th century for beginning musicians. It looked so odd that I had initially thought it was a home-brew device: it consists of a long wooden rod with a single metal string running down it. At the bridge, the string vibrates a phonograph needle, and that then transfers sound through a diaphragm and a small metal tube to a large metal horn attached at the bottom of the wooden rod.

Morton played it with a bow, touching both the string and the edge of the bell to double the sound. That created a sonorous but supernatural-feeling sound, initially high-pitched and then moving up and down in frequency. He added loops behind, but still kept the acoustic and very minimal feel as he continued with small variations on the melody, and eventually faded out to appreciative applause.

A carefully-constructed duet

For their second Accordion Conspiracy show, Ottawa woodwinds player David Broscoe and accordionist Bernard Stepien had prepared new compositions and tried out some new ideas: in particular adding the rich sound of the bassoon into several pieces, along with alto and baritone sax.

They played four compositions (two by each), starting by reprising their title song, Stepien's “Accordion Conspiracy”. The overall sound was very deep and melodic, almost sombre in places, with some interesting vibrating and harmonics effect on baritone. The dramatic and melancholy feel continued with “Mollusk”, for which Broscoe switched to bassoon. Partway through he interrupted the melody repeatedly with chimes from clanking metallic objects, including several tuning forks, together. Then the two returned to an almost-Dvorak-like sound which swelled through the room before suddenly ending.

“Split” by Broscoe featured him playing multiphonics, starting with some very interesting upper-register effects on first bassoon and then alto: an eerie sound which cut through the long full sweeps of sound from the accordion. He introduced dissonant notes on the alto and then breathy passages, against fast vibrating accordion riffs, and then both moved to a more punctuated style, with Broscoe on baritone, before ending.

The last piece, “Snow Rain Snow” (very appropriate for the all-too-typical Ottawa November weather outside), started dramatically with baritone sax and accordion in unison. It was more raw-edged than previous pieces, loud and intense and circling, with both instruments producing repeated vibrating riffs. Partway through, Stepien's accordion style started to remind me of gypsy jazz, as Broscoe played higher and more attenuated lines on both alto and baritone. Then, as Stepien continued his melody, Broscoe echoed it on alto in a drier, breathier version, and they slowed to the end and applause.

I really liked the way the sounds produced by the two musicians melded and fit together and the variety in their compositions. However, compared with their first concert in January, I thought this show lacked a little freshness and adventuresomeness: perhaps it was (oddly enough for an improvised music concert) over-rehearsed?

Breaking the chamber orchestra “rules”

The actual definition of “chamber orchestra” is simply “a small orchestra”. Some definitions go further to say fewer than 25 musicians; others say there is usually only one player for each type of instrument. So the IMOO Chamber Orchestra was a chamber orchestra in the strict sense, but all the “chamber” connotations – of melody, consonance, tradition, unison, classicism – it not only broke, but broke with wild abandon.

Yes, it had stringed instruments, but they were electric guitars (John Higney and Justin Haynes) and double bass (Philippe Charbonneau). Trumpet (Craig Pedersen), bass clarinet (Linsey Wellman), and drums (Jean Martin) might have been considered orchestral instruments, but not in the style they played. And the two musicians on electronics (Laura Kavanaugh, also on piano, and Ian Birse) who resided at either end of the stage definitely broke the mold.

Vocalist Christine Duncan both sang and sometimes conducted the orchestra, and video artist Pixie Cram added projections of frequently-changing abstract patterns on a side wall.

Essentially, they produced cacophony: mostly controlled cacophony, but it was often difficult to figure out where they were going next. It was free jazz at its most raw, with the musicians free to utter squawks and growls and create intense hard beats and screeches. However, it also included softer passages, with some interesting electronic sounds squirming over long lines on trumpet and clarinet, and deep patterns on the bass ringing across the room. Near the end, Duncan sang more softly using harmonics and vibrato to create a beautiful reified effect, enhanced by tender extended trumpet lines below.

What didn't appeal to me about their set was its volume: I think the orchestra misjudged the space and played too loud in places, enough so that my ears hurt somewhat afterwards. The amplitude would have been fine in a 100-seat hall but not in GigSpace, and it distracted from the interesting and appealing sections of the performance and the musical subtleties which these musicians are very capable of delivering.

The festival ends tonight with three – again diverse – performances: Juno-award-winning percussionist Jesse Stewart playing a solo set (which, with Jesse, could be played with anything from dripping water to marble blocks to children's toys to drumset to waterphone); IMOO co-programming director Craig Pedersen on trumpet with two drummers: IMOO regulars Rory Magill and Scott Warren; and two of Montreal's busiest improvisers, trumpeter Ellwood Epps and violinist Joshua Zubot.

   – Alayne McGregor

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All photos © Brett Delmage, 2013