Seattle: Improv, Improv, Improv (The New Way to Get to Carnegie Hall)

Seattle: Improv, Improv, Improv (The New Way to Get to Carnegie Hall)

Amy D. Rubin
Amy D. Rubin

High art or lowbrow, serious, entertaining—fit for a concert hall or suitable for a club? Many of Seattle’s music makers are stepping over these archaic lines of divisive thinking. This month I attended premieres of two high profile Seattle composer/performers, Wayne Horvitz and Tom Baker. Both curate innovative concert series, lead their own ensembles, and express their creative energies in string quartets and oratorios.

Horvitz has been experimenting with string quartets for a few years. An earlier quartet—Whispers, Hymns, and a Murmur—laid down a series of interesting vamps for the soloist to play over. A recent premiere—These Hills of Glory: Composition No. 2 for String Quartet and Improviser—goes a lot further to explore a seriously exciting concept: the creation of a piece for string quartet (fully notated) with six performances, six venues, and six different improvising soloists, one for each performance. The soloists included Eric Barber, saxophone; Eyvind Kang, viola; Peggy Lee, cello; Ron Miles, trumpet; Tom Swafford violin; and Gust Burns, piano. I was lucky to catch the last two performances of this series, one at Gallery 1412 and the other at City Hall.

The Odeon Quartet proved an excellent match for the project. Their playing, which was at different times gritty, warm, sensuous, delicate, and driving, gave shape to the music as they took real ownership of this set of premiere performances. Most often the improvised entrances come mid-movement. Horvitz indicates to the soloist where to play but never what to play. First violinist Gennady Filimonov thinks the string parts can stand on their own. I do too. When I asked the composer, he answered, “Definitely not!” Interesting.

To my mind, violinist Tom Swafford’s performance was about blending and extending, as his gestures spun organically from the quartet’s lines. Pianist Gust Burns had a greater challenge at the piano, and he seemed to search for his role throughout the performance. Horvitz writes from many musical influences but does not fall into the frequent trap of creating little more than pastiche. He is capable of honestly understanding, ingesting, and integrating a number of dialects, which results in a decidedly Horvitz sound. He frequently uses dense textures and seemingly unstoppable motion. Sometimes I wondered where there was space for the additional improvisatory voice to be heard. If the quartet was rich chocolate cake, I wondered what the soloist could add other than whipped cream? Well, that’s up to the composer and the performers. Maybe they like super rich deserts.

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Far from sugary, Tom Baker’s “operatorio”, The Gospel of the Red-Hot Stars, produced by the Seattle Experimental Opera, in association with Richard Hugo House and Gamelan Pacifica, focuses on the gruesome 17th-century hanging of Mary Webster, a Massachusetts woman believed to be a witch. Much to the shock of the community, Mary survived the hanging and the libretto reflects her night’s emotional journey from conviction, to execution, to resurrection-like survival.

The four vocal soloists, the Puritan choir, and the six musicians gave a compelling, intense, and polished performance to a very enthusiastic crowd. The venue was Seattle’s literary home, Hugo House, and its modest stage provided a feeling of intimacy. However the set, which included the execution area and inquisitor Cotton Mather’s podium, overpowered the performers just a bit given the limited space.

Composer Tom Baker is eclectic and inventive in his use of pitch sets, instrumentation, and atmospheric textures. He joined the ensemble on fretless guitar for which he is known and, not surprisingly, my favorite “aria” was his riveting duet with Mary Webster. For me, this was the most memorable music of the evening. I also enjoyed his harmonic twists given to the hymn-like pieces where cadences took us to unexpected places in astonishing ways.

Using improvisation in both the vocal and instrumental parts, Baker has designed the piece to be different at each performance. The orchestra follows guided improv structures in the “Prelude” and “Interlude #1”; short improvised solos are performed by the trombone, clarinet, and violin in various songs; all of the songs for the tenor (Cotton Mather) are notated as to pitch and given precise starting places for phrases, but the actual rhythms of the speech/song are left to the performer.The drums in the piece “Grace” are improvised over graphic notational structures.

One issue I would like to raise is the lack of action in the story. A woman is accused, she is hung, she survives the experience. The drama lies in her inner turmoil when facing death. What is visual in this material? Perhaps it would be better to do away with the attempt to create motion on stage and instead let the emotion of the music stand naked, strong, and unencumbered. Of course, this is not the only piece to raise such an issue. Philip Glass’s 1984 opera, Akhnaten, performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, featured little action—just the soloists singing from their chairs. The music spoke for itself.


Amy Rubin, pianist and composer, has written and performed music for the concert stage, jazz ensemble, film, television, and theater in the U.S. and abroad. Following a Fulbright in Ghana, she directed the music program at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, was a visiting professor at Cornish College, and now collaborates with the Seattle Chamber Players and the Seattle Symphony. Her ability to embrace all musical styles has brought her many awards including the Washington State Artist Trust Fellowship, the King County Special Projects Award, the 2005 Jack Straw Artist Support Award, and resulted in numerous recordings of her work.

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