Wayne Horvitz/The Royal Room Collective Music Ensemble

At the Reception
Songlines SGL 1609-2

Wayne Horvitz

55: music and Dance in Concrete

Other Room Music Digital DL/LP

By Ken Waxman

Composer Wayne Horvitz’s most recent recorded works show how far he has progressed since his days as a Lower East Side enfant terrible keyboardist alongside aggressive iconoclasts like John Zorn. Settled in Seattle since the late ‘80s, Horvitz now works regularly with chamber groups and dance companies, crafting scores which mix more settled themes with rational improvisations.

These two sessions are decidedly utilitarian, yet unlike most journeyman works they function so as to create notable sounds as they solve the challenges put in front of the composer. For example 55: Music and Dance in Concrete is made up of sequences composed for a modular, site-specific work in Port Townsend, Wash., meant to be performed alongside the choreography of Yukio Suzuki plus images from video artist Yohei Saito. At the Reception on the other hand, is Horvitz’s individualized adaptation of conduction pioneered by the late Butch Morris. More structured that Morris’ concept, in that the CD’s 13 directed improvisations grow out of Horvitz`s compositions, he uses hand signals and other cues to push the musicians towards maximum spontaneity.

A different set of cues and affiliations is in use on 55: Music and Dance in Concrete. That’s because the sequences preserved on this LP and download are merely one variant of the score Horvitz composed for the dance performance. Utilizing the existing architecture of Port Townsend’s Fort Worden, including its concrete bunkers and massive cistern, the four dancers in Suzuki`s troupe interpret some of Horvitz’s sequences that altogether includes 55 chamber music-like compositions and 55 improvisations. Another performance however may use different sonic fragments in another order. The 13 tracks here for example, generally emphasize the close harmony existing between the five horn players and four string players with Maria Mannisto’s supple voice wordless coloring or commenting on instrumental motifs. Despite the presence of experienced improvisers like alto saxophonist Briggan Krauss and violist; Eyvind Kang, an unchallenging soundtrack-like blandness seems to predominate on many of the tunes. Only certain segments are musically more sophisticated. For instance the speedy and violent “55 (15)” balances horn lowing and tremolo string shimmers which seem to demand muscular slides and stomps from the dancers. The raucous repetitive wake-up call propelled by staccato brass blats on “55(3)” is similarly powerful. Meanwhile a near impressionistic clarinet line coupled with distant voice and string echoes on “55 (5)”, creates an atmospheric theme which fits a glimpse of the structure’s dark crevices. Only when coupled with the dancers’ fluid movements – view parts of the performance at www.55musicanddance.wordpress.com – does the juxtaposition invest some of the music with more vibrant properties.

It’s important to note that the record is merely one series of musical snapshots though. Like many scores composed for dancers, even the most rousing sequences call out for a visual focus. Ironically as well, viewing the dancers’ terpsichorean response to the score may reveal movements that completely antithetical to what listeners may think the sounds suggest.

At the Reception has a divergent aim and result. Almost 75 minutes of music divided into two sets, Horvitz’s venture into conduction is designed to open up the tunes’ structure, giving the 14-member Royal Room Collective Music Ensemble more freedom to improvise. Like the music for 55, which involves some of the same musicians, the concept is only partially realized. Perhaps it’s the clean air and open spaces of Washington State that inured the players from urban tension, but at points the interpretations appear too perfect and lacking spontaneity. Every timbre and every voicing sounds locked-in, as if the ensemble is reading the score. Perhaps this demonstrates Horvitz’s grasp of Morris’ strategy to do away with jarring transitions from notated to improvised sequences. But this overly cautious approach almost negates any potential for musical free-falling, the thrilling tightrope-walking-without-a-net that the composer experienced playing in Morris’ groups as well as participating in Zorn’s game pieces. There are immaculate thematic elaborations by some soloists, but where are grittiness and passion that could make the tracks so much more?

That said there’s merit and even profundity in some tracks. Built on a shuffle beat, for instance, “A Walk in the Rain” opens the program on a buoyant note, and, especially when (one-named) tenor saxophonist Skerik is playing, become an unabashed swinger. Still its antecedents are the head arrangements used by a band like Count Basie’s not conduction. Additionally “Barber Shop” and faster-paced “Disingenuous Firefight” bubble along with jaunty jollity reminiscent of other little big bands like the ICP Orchestra. Happily as well there are three compositions that spectacularly realize Horvitz’s aims. Progressively blending mellow chords with incremental saxophone swelling is “First Light”, while “Sweeter than the Day” is expressed as sugary trombone timbres modify sour reed bites. “Prepaid Funeral” offers an Ellington-like sophistication as the gradually unreeling theme maintains its taunt pulse as brief, dissonant solos successively challenge the narrative.

These CDs confirm that Horvitz can almost effortlessly attain his utilitarian goals, but at the expense of spontaneity. Yet if more of his compositions were like the three best on At the Reception, and if they could be extrapolated to mesh with a dance-oriented multi-media presentation, the first rank which he’s just missing on both discs could likely be attained.

Tracks: Royal: A Walk in the Rain; Forgiveness; Daylight; Trish; Barber Shop; Ironbound; Redux #2 (Daylight); Prepaid Funeral; First Light; Sweeter than the Day; Disingenuous Firefight; At the Reception; Redux #4 (Sweeter Than the Day)

Personnel: Royal: Al Keith, Samantha Boshnack and Steve O’Brien: trumpet; Naomi Siegel, Jacob Herring and Willem de Koch: trombone; Beth Fleenor: clarinet; Kate Olson: soprano saxophone; Ivan Arteaga: alto saxophone; Skerik: tenor saxophone; Greg Sinibaldi: baritone saxophone; Ryan Burns: piano; Geoff Harper: bass; Eric Eagle: drums; Wayne Horvitz: conductor

Tracks: 55: 55(1); 55(15); 55(29); 55(10); 55(16); 55(26); 55(3); 55(5); 55(21); 55(18); 55(12); 55(12); 55(9); 55(20)

Personnel: 55: Steven O’Brien: trumpet; Naomi Siegel: trombone; Beth Fleenor: clarinet, bass clarinet; Kate Olson: soprano saxophone; Briggan Krauss: alto saxophone; Victoria Parker: violin; Eyvind Kang and Heather Bentley: viola; Roweena Hammil, cello; Maria Mannisto, voice

—For The New York City Jazz Record November 2015