There has always been a cross pollination between classical music and jazz. From the more obvious examples of Igor Stravinsky writing a piece for Woody Herman to various jazz components finding their way into some of the compositions of Le Six member Darius Milhaud (who Dave Brubeck would study under) to the not as apparent modern classical leanings of musician/composers whose work was genre defying but definitely with its complexity, has one foot in the modern classical world (Ornette Coleman, George Russell et al).
Jazz has sometimes been called “American Classical”. It has long since branched out, now being found in almost every country in one form or another. Initially, like a lot of classical genres though it mirrored some of aspects of the nation which birthed it. Just as we associate Bach with Germany and Haydn with Austria could hot jazz have come from anywhere but Storyville, bop from NYC? Jazz was modern classical in that it was a nascent art form springing up out of a young nation, aurally capturing an encroaching modernist zeitgeist. It was the towering steel and glass pagan totem poles of the skyscrapers; it was crackling with energy and the potential to artistically go off in a tangent of directions. It mirrored the diversity of the nation in regards to the styles of its top players whose individuality helped spawn a myriad of genres. The scope of the complexity of the compositions of some of the more forward thinking composers who easily kept up with their European counterparts showed that like the nation itself there was still a connection of having sprung from the old world even as new sensibilities where grafted on.
There are artists whose oeuvre contains plenty of examples of a classical/ jazz hybrid usually nestled within a body of work which also includes songs that more often than not achieved a higher degree of popularity than that of their weightier stuff. So in describing an Ellington or Mingus we split the difference and often apply the moniker of song writer but they are along with people like Gershwin and a handful of others, our cannon of composers.
As the soundtrack to youth, bohemians and outsiders, jazz has been supplanted first by rock and now by a sort of lowest common denominator aural bread and circus. Speaking in the broadest sense of the term jazz has become marginalized and if jazz has become a sort of second class citizen then modern classical even more so. The only upside to this attitude is that with commercial considerations taking a backseat it allows for artistic bravery combined with the easier to use, less expensive recording technology which has enabled pockets of artist throughout the country to bring forth their explorations for the rest of us to hear.
There is music which defies genre. It contains improvisatory elements layered within a complex composition. Although not necessarily accurate, a point of reference is needed for critics, journalists and the record buying public when discussing it. With improvisation in its DNA this music is more often than not put in the jazz category. Although often lumped in with free-jazz/nu jazz/downtown sound et al modern classical would be a more apropos moniker. This loose knit confederation of composers and compositions have some common denominators, such as improvisation but as it is not a proper movement nor genre unto itself, there is no static formula to the amount of improvising or soloing found in any given piece. This keeps it interesting and allows for much sonic individuality even from piece to piece within one composers oeuvre.
Mirage is an album whose classification straddles not just genres but musical fences, at times leaning more towards jazz at others modern classical. FFEAR is quartet co-led by Ole Mathisen and Chris Washburne. For the non-musician or more casual listener, the quartet seeks to break the traditional restrictions of a smaller ensemble by utilizing rhythmic complexity and overall layered sonic denseness. In the brief liner notes by Chris Washburne the group clearly recognizes both the jazz and modern classical in their DNA.
The album is comprised of two suites “Mirage” and “Frederick Sommer Suite” along with three original standalone pieces.
“Mirage” was written by Mathisen. It is a suite in five pieces. It is unified not as programmatic nor tone poem subject of person place or thing but by technique. Shifting emotions and sonic expansions make the mere four voices unite into dense ever changing aural kaleidoscope growing larger than their numerical reality.
A perfect symmetry, the suite begins and ends with sections titled “Haze”. All the rest of the sections’ titles allude to visual perceptions which could also be associated to some extent with sounds. ”Haze” starts out as a heated conversation carried out by compadres in a friendly tone. There is somewhat of an ascending/descending feel to it similar to components of a Monk song. Throughout the section Per Mathisen’s bass has a bright tone which is never weighed down so much as to prevent an organic buoyancy which is inherent in a lot of his playing. He brings a nice low end weight to the ensembles’ sound which is not the heaviness of concrete but of forethought. Weaving in and out of the first theme is Ole Mathisen’s sax. He plays flurries of notes which in rhythm and tempo depart, breaking the section’s orbit, to return to the theme just as quickly. Despite the ability to fire off quick salvos of notes, it never feels the discordance in his soloing is reduced to mere noise.
The second section “Shimmer’s” start features Tony Moreno’s subtle cymbal pulses which serve to offer up the abstracted mystery of the section. The first part is slow but not melancholy. It is the change from night to day, from clear skies to overcast. Chris Washburne’s trombone playing shows him to be forward thinking but not locked into one type of tone. He offers up a lament here which serves as both a small duet and contrast to what is going on with the sax.
The final section is my personal favorite of the suite. The trombone initially alternates between a sort of dream dog bark and something large bubbling or seeping upwards, an expanse of clouds blotting out the sun seeming all the more dramatic as it is already dusk. There are tempo changes punctuated by declamations of the sax. Cymbal and snare work in a sort of distorted waltz-march help suggest the image Mobius strip like of a thing attempting something which involves motion, Sisyphus forsaking his jazz for a new sonic hybrid. The last half of the section eschews its initial rhythm for a sped up climax, the dream done, for now.
The second suite, “Frederick Sommer Suite” was named for the selfsame multi medium artist (1905-1999). Frederick was born in Angri, Italy. While very young the entire family moved to Rio di Janero, Brazil. His father, who was a city planner, recognized a similar talent in his son who began his architectural studies very early on apprenticing with the architects Archimedes Memoria and Francisco Cuchet whose firm Escritorio Tecnico Heiter de Mello was one of Brazil’s most important. Even as a teenager he had such visual chops that his drawings received gallery showings and after only being with the firm for two years he began getting private landscaping commissions. A meeting with American businessman and amateur Horticulturalist William Gratwick Sr. served as inspiration for Frederick to go to America (1925).
After making the acquaintance of the Chairman of the Landscape department at Cornell University, Edward Gorton Davis, William served as his assistant for a year before enrolling as a graduate student. While at Cornell he met his future wife Frances Elisabeth Watson and delved deeper into various modernist theories. By 1927 he received his Master of Arts degree in landscape architecture. He returned to Rio alone to form a firm with his father receiving many consultant commissions for various parks in Rio, Curitiba, Parana and Salvador. Now with reputation and pedigree cemented in, he returned stateside to marry Frances after which they both moved back to Brazil.
A lung hemorrhage lead to the discovery of tuberculosis (1930) and a trip to a sanatorium in Switzerland. It is while taking his rest cure he first begins to experiment with photography not to capture the end result of a commission but as an artistic medium unto itself.
After treatment first his wife, then a few months later, Frederick would go to Tuscon, Arizona whose dry steady weather would be ideal for his condition. Unlike some of his European artistic peers who emigrated or visited America, Frederick traveled the country extensively. The state of Arizona hired Frances as a social worker and she did her training at The University of Southern California which enabled them to move to Los Angeles. It was while in Los Angeles that Frederick saw composer drawn musical scores in a library. He felt that there was a direct correlation between the visual patterns and their appeal to the music contained within the body of a written out score. Although he himself had no musical training, he began writing his own scores based only on his invented theory of visual score logic. It is said that utilizing his theory he could look at a written score and know who the composer was.
He is primarily known now for his photography but he never stopped drawing and aside from his watercolors and illustrations did many of what he dubbed “drawings in the manner of musical scores”. Often Frederick is lumped in with the surrealists but this tag is somewhat of a misnomer. He socialized with some of surrealists and there are some commonalities of theme and cross pollination of ideas as exemplified by some similarities of Hans Bellmer’s “Doll Project” and his own “Chicken” photograph, his later collages and those done by his acquaintance Max Ernst or his bordering on abstract landscape photographs and some of those of fellow photographer Man Ray. Frederick was far less dogmatic in his surrealism and also forgoes the satirical darkness so often a part of other surrealists’ work. His work was well represented in galleries, museums and universities something that was anathema to surrealist’s pope Andre Breton, whose chief rule to the canon had always been that the surrealists were not allowed to publish or show except for in the very few sanctioned venues. A rule which he obsessively upheld and which would serve to facilitate every member of the group eventually quitting or being drummed out for the infraction. What Frederick seemed to get out of surrealism was permission and inspiration to break established modes of technique and even sometimes subject matter in service of his creative process.
It was not until 1968 that some of his scores saw their first public performance by Stephen Aldrich (piano) and Walton Mendelson (flute) both of whom had met him as students and moved into his circle. It would not be until 1990 that the two would again perform some of the pieces at a Prescott College reunion. The pieces available to listen to online are compelling, showing like some of his visual work, commonalities that were in the modernist air while equally displaying his individuality.
FFEAR’s “Frederick Sommer Suite” is the same in that the ensemble is not seeking to parrot his aural aesthetics but to tip their collective hat to the artist who would have enjoyed the complexity of the piece that sacrifices none their identity in service of the tribute which is drawn from their interpretation of some of his scores.
Frederick never titled any of his scores, which the band does for each section of the suite inspired by the sonics. “Borrowed Time” (No.1) has an elliptical feel to it. There is the steady bass and hi-hat work over which trombone and sax declaim. One of the successes of this ensemble overall is the warm sound they are able to maintain in their playing throughout the album. Every instrument is heard no matter how much it drops back in a piece yet there is none of that digital perfection coldness that can mar an otherwise good album.
“Circle Back” (No 2) features the two horns starting out playing in unison to great effect, so perfect is their synchronicity there is an almost fat synth like cadence to their sound. The percussion is a churning polyrhythmic cloud whose form is constantly changing. There is a break where only bass plays with light cymbal work; the effective starkness maintained until the two horns rejoin, this time not in unison, two thoughts connected but separated by the room they must fly across when said out loud.
The album ends with three more originals and they are just as enjoyable as the first two suites, not giving off the feeling of being mere filler as can occasionally happen when an album’s main program is a piece which is long but not long enough to utilize all the space.
This is a worthwhile album which easily stands up to repeated listenings. It serves as a reminder too that artistic boundaries need not be obeyed or even considered during a piece’s inception and execution.
Links of interest:
“Life is the most durable fiction that matter has yet to come up with, and art is the structure of matter as life’s most durable fiction.” Frederick Sommers
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