Creative Orchestra Music, Chicago 2001
New World # 80572-2

Pexo - A Soundpainting Symphony
9Winds NWCD0234

Creating structures for ensembles of improvising musicians and voices is the thread that unites these two sessions. Scott Rosenberg and Walter Thompson have formulated different paths to creation — the former by mixing improv and written material, the later by utilizing a composing-conducting system of gestured signals.

Although both methods are praiseworthy, neither disc is 100 per cent satisfying. That’s because application of the theory sometimes breaks down in the spontaneously recorded practice.

On the up side the music on these discs demonstrates that each man has already met a formidable challenge. Rosenberg, who usually plays saxophone with experimenters like Anthony Braxton, has created, adapted and conducts five longish compositions for an ad hoc mixed orchestra of 26 of Chicago’s top musicians plus a couple of West Coast ringers. PEXO, on the other hand, is the newest example of what Thompson, a woodwinds player and educator, who has taught the concept in the United States and Europe, calls soundpainting. The CD is the aural souvenir of how Thompson’s orchestra, which he founded in 1984, and includes instrumentalists, dancers, actors and visual artists, improvises material across all media as directed by Thompson. Counting actors, he manages to express the breadth of his vocabulary and vision with only 16 performers here.

Paradoxically, however, it may be the thespian vocal theatricality that retards full realization of his symphonic aspirations. Meanwhile, in his CD’s title — CREATIVE ORCHESTRA MUSIC CHICAGO (COMC) 2001 — not to mention some of the music here, Rosenberg proclaims the major influence from his former teacher Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music (GTM), as well as other composers like Morton Feldman and Muhal Richard Abrams. Yet if COMC takes its inspiration from Braxton, PEXO appears to take it from Bob Barker. No musician, Bob Barker has been host of The Price Is Right, the longest running and highest rated daytime game show in television history for more than 30 years.

PEXO’s nearly 19-minute, longest composition is named for Barker and while the entire album is described as an “abstracted sound version of a visit to a TV studio”. However, the need for dramatic color and expression for voices seems to have overloaded the game show aspect — thus “Bob Barker”. With the mumbled words from the actors suggesting that an after-the-fact written libretto may have been a good idea, the few, rather banal, phrases that peep though the miasmic instrumental sound include “keep watching for your number”, “Peggy has won a love seat” and “I can’t believe I lost”.

At other points the actors make onomatopoeia out of Barker’s name and certain syllables, vying for aural space with tuba bottom blasts, massed horn ejaculations and baroque trumpet flourishes. Too often, though, the instrumental passages merely seem to comment on the words rather than creating their own POV. Even a crackling, pseudo Bird-like alto runs and a bass thump reminiscent of Oscar Pettiford don’t make strong enough impressions. Pumping horn lines and rock music-like percussion plops don’t seem like much when they’re coupled with near-hysterical laughter. Plus a more original thought would have been to accompany the cry of “no score” with something other than weepy violins.

Perhaps visuals allow the performers’ work to seem less like speechifying. However on disc, whenever with the thematic material is transmitted through a particularly fluid instrumental passage, the disjoined stops and starts in the performance appear to reflect actorly hesitation rather than pure improv. Only a few times does Thompson’s theory take root, as when a plunger trumpet growl amplify the emotions expressed by an actor bubbling out his lines.

Even the end track, “Two Talk Show Hosts” doesn’t seem to offer enough verbal articulation to reflect the title. A singular male voice appears to be too sinister for the affable host role. Meanwhile the false hilarity of laugher in varied cadenzas, tempos and pitches vying for space with speedy, dissonant slides, glissandos and cadenzas from the horns doesn’t so much suggest network TV as much as a production midway between word play and The Living Theater.

On COMC meanwhile, Rosenberg’s most serious misstep comes with “Toys”, which is described as reflecting playful and creative anarchy, with the band split into five groups playing with different “toys”. Written, rather than improvised, the ghost of Braxton’s GTM hovers over the entire performance, perhaps understandably since Rosenberg and a couple of the other musicians had recorded a GTM piece with the maestro two months previously. Despite its more than 18½-minute length “Toys” never really comes into aural focus, with everything from the repetitive reed accompaniment and its detour into march time in one section defeating the concept.

Overly thematic, and again with no improvisation, “Wash” is unconsciously akin to Bob Graettinger’s “City of Glass score” for Stan Kenton orchestra. For all of its nine- plus minutes the piece merely surges along in torrents of thick timbres … then just ends.

Far more impressive are Rosenberg’s other — coincidentally newer — compositions. “Forgetting Song” takes full advantage of the wordless vocalizing of Carol Genetti, an idiom mixer who has performed with composer Pauline Oliveros and drummer Michael Zerang among many others. Like Kate Hammond-Vaughan with Vancouver’s NOW Orchestra and unlike the actors on PEXO, Genetti fits ball-and-socket into the improvisations.

Singing expositions that include nonsense natterings, keening falsetto melisma and held notes that dip into a false basso range, she matches the billows, flutters and swells of the band members’ output. Most notable instrumentally are the equestrian clip clops from what appear to be bongos and congas played by a drum machine, showcased along with vibraharp pressure by the three percussionists. With a modulated mid-section of guitars, basses and the percussionists, the tune builds to a final denouement of light plunger brass and mellifluent reeds.

The other two compositions are thicker, but dense in a commendable fashion. They allow the pile up of strings, bass, reeds and percussion to deceptively augment the sound until they fracture the orchestral building blocks into organized chaos. However, these patterns of widely spaced intervals and short, colored interjections are so solid, that individual contributions are submerged into the whole, much as they are on PEXO.

Of course with 26 players on hand, the odd synthesizer oscillations from Jim Baker, reverb feedback from guitarists John Shiurba and Nathaniel Braddock and oboe punctuation from Kyle Bruckmann stands out. Still if any are extended techniques like flutter tonguing are put into play, it’s usually part of a group effort.

Still learning, Rosenberg, born in 1972 shows with CREATIVE ORCHESTRA MUSIC CHICAGO (COMC) 2001 that he’s well on his way to write memorable compositions. He’s still working his way through apprentice missteps.

Thompson, with a longer résumé, has compared his concept of soundpainting to flipping through 100 TV channels at random and creating meaningful patterns from the musical, textural, and visual associations. As good as some sections of PEXO are, it’s evident that a DVD multi-media presentation of his orchestra would be far more satisfying than this disc.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Creative: 1. Tehr 2. Wash 3. 7x with Sttm 4. Forgetting Song 5. Toys

Personnel: Creative: Todd Margasak, Nathaniel Walcott (trumpets); Jeb Bishop, Nick Broste (trombones); Megan Tiedt (tuba); Lisa Goethe-McGinn (flute); Kyle Bruckmann (oboe); Jesse Gilbert, Paul Hartsaw, Laurie Lee Moses, Todd Munnik Matt Bauder, Aram Shelton (saxophones and clarinets); Jen Clare Paulson (viola); Chris Hoffman, Drew Morgan (cellos); John Shiurba, Nathaniel Braddock (guitars); Jim Baker (piano and synthesizer); Kyle Hernandez, Elizabeth Kennedy, Jason Roebke (basses) Jerome Bryerton, Steve Butters and Tim Daisy (percussion); Carol Genetti (vocals); Scott Rosenberg (conductor)

Track Listing: Pexo: 1. Entrance 2. Prepare 3. Get Ready 4. Bob Barker 5. The Crowd 6. Two Talk Show Hosts

Personnel: Pexo: Rob Henke (trumpet); Sarah Weaver (trombone); Christopher Washburne (trombone, tuba); Jody Espina (alto saxophone); Michaël Attias (alto and baritone saxophones); Julie Ferrara (oboe and English horn); Rolf Sturm (guitar and synthesizer); Todd Reynolds (violin and conductor); Gil Selinger (cello); Jim Whitney (bass); Steve Rust (bass and electric bass); Andrea Pryor and Greg Stare (percussion); Leese Walker, Michael David Gordon, Christian Brandjes (actors); Walter Thompson (conductor)