Friday November 21st  2008
Gust Burns, LARGE ensemble
Good Shepherd Center, Seattle WA

A week or two back I made it to the Chapel performance space on a blustery Friday evening to catch what was advertised as a fifteen person ensemble playing a piece by Gust Burns.  They did three iterations of the piece in three different formations of the ensemble. The first featured two bass players, a violist, Gust playing inside the Chapels piano and three violins.  The second take was two violins, the viola, one bass player and soprano saxophone without Gust. There was a set break at this point and then a final performance with the entire ensemble, which was all of those named above plus clarinet, tenor sax and Gust on his box of piano guts whilst another player took over the Chapels baby grand. That does only add up to eleven or twelve players (I might have skipped a violin player), so either I’m forgetting some or there wasn’t quite the fifteen anticipated (or both I suppose). How ever many it was, it was a quite large group.

The piece they performed, duration, disjunction, relation was composed by Gust and he’s been working on it and performing various iterations of it for the last couple of years.  I’ve seen this piece performed a couple of times before (as a quartet just a couple of weeks prior) this being the largest group performance to date. The piece pretty much sounds similar to how I’ve described it before: longish discrete events, well spaced out, usually of a very consistent dynamic (soft to medium with some slips here and there), affectless performances, mostly dry sounds and with what seemed like highly deliberate silences. There clearly are several mechanisms involving interaction with other players, as one player would often start on their own to then have others join in. Other times overlapping sounds seemed much more indeterminate, though, as I had noticed with the quartet, the players often seemed to cut off sounds quicker then normal in order to join in a silence.  Otherwise the sounds seemed to go for a longish, though natural, duration – breath length, a few bow strokes etc.

Taking into consideration the title of the piece (which I had been unaware of ’til this show), this all pretty much makes sense: duration – probably relating to the length of the sounds, but also possibly to the fact that the piece seems to end when the players agree to it, disjunction – the players seem to be able to make sounds at will, perhaps even having a certain amount they are required to play and relation – the clear interactions I’d seen between players.  Perhaps there were players that you were assigned to, or could choose, that when they played you’d respond. Perhaps it was gesture or sound based. All speculation on my part but that was how it seemed to me as an observer.  This simple rule set, plus a few that must exist regarding tone, dynamics, and something for those forced silences, would pretty much create a structured improvisation system that would generate the performances I witnessed.  Personally this is the kind of systems and performances that I find particularly fascinating; the use of a small set of rules to structure a performance into a consistent yet endlessly varied realm. I have in fact of late been dabbling with what I refer to as Internal Scores, which are just that, systems that you internalize that guide performance.  They could be pretty specific if one wanted, but to be memorized and yet still able to generate wide diversity they tend toward being general guidelines and rules  My interest in this sort of thing could of course have prejudiced how I analyzed this piece.

Anyway what was interesting to me in this performance and what dragged me out to see it at a time I wasn’t particularly motivated to attend live music was the large group aspect.  I’d quite enjoyed the quartet version of the piece and was curious as to how that’d translate to a larger context.  There is always the tendency for large groups to fall into displays of excess, losing all subtlety and becoming an undifferentiated mass of sound.  In fact if all fifteen (or whatever) had played at the same density of the quartet this would have been the case.  While the quartet was definitely far sparser, they did play more in general then most members of the large group. So fifteen people playing at that rate wouldn’t have had the same feel at all, though with the controlled dynamics it would not have been aggressive or any such thing.  The two subsets of the group that played were in the range of the quartet, being only a bit larger especially the second group which was only a quintet. The full group also was in the same range, though there was a dramatic increase in the overlapping sounds which led to a greater density. 

In general it was all very sedate, spacious with a nice timeless quality.  However there was a couple of what I would call bad actors in the ensemble.  These bad actors were defined by imposing too much ego into the proceedings.  With everyone playing at a similar dynamic, all one has to do is play a bit louder and it becomes closer to a solo.  Additionally there was overtly gestural playing using overly dramatic vibrato and other such techniques that in this context was overly showy.  Nothing was to the level of ruining the performances but these bad actors definitely brought things down as opposed to transcending.  In this kind of music ego always ends up as a reductive force leading toward things being less then the sum of their parts.

Anyway this was an interesting and quite enjoyable evening with just a few minor quibbles as noted above. I’ve enjoyed seeing this pieces development and I really have been pleased to see this type of composition performed here.