Masashi Harada Condantion Ensemble

July 17, 2005

Enterprising Mass of Cilia (2001)
Emanem 4109&

Assif Tsaha & The New York Underground Orchestra
Hopscotch Records HOP27

Utilizing instrumentation more commonly associated with notated chamber music than improvisation, these Boston and New York-based ensembles become individually crafted vehicles upon which the leaders/conductors express themselves.

Although both the 10-piece Conduction Ensemble from Boston and the 19-piece New York Underground Orchestra are top-heavy with string players, the resulting performances bear very little resemblance to one another. Japanese-born, Boston-based Masashi Harada’s version of conduction promulgates a collective creation where each minute gesture or sound is consolidated into a dense whole. He calls his creations music of body. ENTERPRISING MASS OF CILIA’s nearly 66½ minutes may be divided into nine tracks, but the impression is that of a single, dense creation.

By elimination then, FRAGMENTS must be music of mind. Israeli-born Assif Tsahar, a reedist who now divides his time between New York and Europe, envisions a looser structure. On each of the 16 [!] tracks, that combined take up only slightly more than 50½ minutes, the soloist or soloists are named. Despite its title, the CD doesn’t appear to be any more fragmented than CILIA. Like a thought-out jazz composition, these interludes aren’t an interruption but an individual embellishment of the evolving theme.

That said, with the tracks raging in time from slightly more than six to slightly under one minute, not all players make an impression. The most distinctive are trumpeter Nate Wooley, clarinetist Charles Waters, guitarist Mary Halvorson and violist Lev Zhurbin. Instructively, except for Zhurbin, the others are making their name in the Free Jazz arena, Halvorson with Anthony Braxton, Wooley for his work with trombonist Steve Swell and Waters as a member of Gold Sparkle band. Moscow-born, New York-based Zhurbin splits his skills among jazz, so-called classical and film music. Curiously, as well, the only crossover player on these sessions is percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani, who again is more of an individual presence on the Tsahar work.

In fact, Zhurbin’s output might be the most memorable here. Exhibiting a minor key, Eastern-European melancholy, his extended double-stopping and upper partial exhibitions are effectively complemented by variously metallic percussion pulses, frailing and clawhammer picking from Halvorson or squealing flutes, reeds and lower-pitched strings. Elsewhere there’s even a point where the two bassists play a line that almost walks into mainstream jazz.

Chording and/or picking, the guitarist can make common cause with harsh and repetitive counterpoint from each of the four string sections, since unison playing usually confirms their legato, harmonic tendencies. Meanwhile Wooley asserts himself, adding plunger alterations and rippling chromatic work on top of a glissando of riffing, ponticello strings.

Pitch-sliding discord characterizes Waters solos as well. Squealing split tones linked to pummeled percussion from Nakatani almost shove one track into the Free Jazz arena, as he alternates multiphonics with contrapuntal string fills. Rim shot rolls and nerve beats from the sticks, as well as soft plinks from unselected cymbals are Nakatani’s response to the finale. All the while Waters vibrates double-tongued squeals from his clarinet, marking the highest range of a soundscape that elsewhere goes ever which way, including tuba burps and alternating vamping and hoe-down fiddle tones.

One earlier piece rotates on top of pedal-point tuba expression, gradually converging string textures and a single resonated cymbal slap. Another seems to ooze fluttering electronic-type hisses although no electronics are present.

That isn’t the case on CILIA – James Coleman plays theremin and Vic Rawlings manipulates electronics as well as his cello. Almost without exception though, the players featured here are minimalists who before that and since have helped develop techniques to suggest electronic signals from all acoustic tones. Two of the players, saxophonist Bhob Rainey and trumpeter Greg Kelley are particularly adroit. But on the tracks here, when they can be detected, the saxman plays lines or mouth pops and the brassman, exhibits plunger extrusions that he usually reserves for infrequent Free Music sideman gigs.

Overall, the texture is much denser than on FRAGMENTS, with such ordinarily opposite tones as oscillating accordion squeezes, swirling, spiccato string entries and ghostly theremin squawks interlaced so tightly that individualism isn’t an option. With many tones piled on top of one another and solidified, group improvisation is most prominent.

Harada’s vision is paramount. So if sibilant wind from the squeeze box, thumps from percussion, sputtering reed work or what seems to be a jocular hunt-and-peck arco shuffle from the bass and cellos peeks out, soon, like an animal caught in quicksand, it vanishes beneath the writhing concentrated musical mass. Mostly unison and sometimes polyphonic, solid pulsation doesn’t make this CD any less memorable than the other. Except, that is, for those few times when the loops, scratches and sequences appear to draw so closely together that they nearly become immobile and there’s a danger that the CD will ground to a halt.

Luckily it’s at these points that Harada’s conduction skills, or physical impulses from the players, translate into motion. Whether it be minute pizzicato from the strings, the screech of an individual fiddler or an extended spew from the horns, it gives all 10 new directions, propelling them into fresh spectral whirls.

Unlike FRAGMENTS, with its solo variations however, this performance is so uniform and viscous that it never develops enough singularity or identity. When it’s completed as well, it merely ends. Perhaps in the three years since it was recorded, Harada’s solid sound blocks have developed more distinguishing characteristics.

–Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Fragments: 1. First 2. Second 3. Third 4. Fourth 5. Fifth 6. Sixth 7. Seventh 8. Eighth 9. Ninth 10. Tenth 11. Eleventh 12. Twelfth 13. Thirteenth 14. Fourteenth 15. Fifteenth 16. Sixteenth

Personnel: Fragments: Nate Wooley, Sam Hoyt (trumpets); Christopher Meeder (tuba); Charles Waters (clarinet); Natacha Diels, Leah Paul and Jecca Barry (flutes); Mary Halvorson (guitar); Philippa Thompson, Leanne Darling and Jana Andevska (violins); Lev Zhurbin, Jessica Pavone (violas); Loren Dempster, Gil Selinger and Audrey Chen (celli); Terence Murren, Todd Nicholson (basses) Tatsuya Nakatani (percussion); Assif Tsahar (conductor)

Track Listing: Cilia: 1. Spools 2. Enterprising Mass of Cilia 3. Procession of Echo 4. Physio-Mechanical Pulse 5. A Room 6. Sprouting Self-Similarity 7. Element of Resistance 8. Distance Propitiate 9. Fleeting Despot

Personnel: Cilia: Greg Kelley (trumpet); Bhob Rainey (soprano saxophone); Aleta Cole (violin); Frederic Viger (viola); Jonathan Vincent (accordion); Glynis Lomon (cello); Vic Rawlings (cello and electronics); Mike Bullock (bass); James Coleman (theremin)