Roscoe Mitchell: Sonic States

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Roscoe Mitchell & The Montreal-Toronto Art Orchestra
Saturday, October 15, 2016
Le Gesù, Centre de Créativité, Montreal
Closing concert of the 17th edition of the Off Jazz Festival

The stage of the Gesù Theatre in Montreal was pretty well taken up by instruments of all kinds on a recent mid-October evening: a host of woodwinds, some brass, a grand piano, two drum kits and a vibraphone. Come to think of it, it had all of the looks of a SMCQ concert (Quebec’s contemporary music society). The very size of the orchestra may well have brought to mind some of the lavish and unconventional settings espoused by composers who embrace a decidedly more experimental aesthetic in music. But this was not a performance scheduled in a concert season of some contemporary music ensemble; instead, it was the closing event of Montrealʼs Off Jazz Festival!

The mastermind behind this bold musical stroke was Roscoe Mitchell, a composer, improviser and saxophonist who has been on the cutting-edge of creative music since the 1960s. His reputation rests largely on his status as a founding father of Chicago’s AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) and his presence in this collective’s figurehead group, the Art Ensemble of Chicago. This Canadian project, for its part, was specially put together as a showcase for his daring musical concepts. The groupʼs name, the “Montreal-Toronto Art Orchestra,” was indicative of its composition, in that it was divided evenly between players of both cities, ten from each one, including a conductor (though one player from the latter city, guitarist Ken Aldcroft, did not make it because of his sudden passing three weeks before the show). Following the Montreal premiere on October 15, the complete cast moved on to Toronto for the next two days, the first being a second concert scheduled by the city’s most endurable new music presenter, the Music Gallery, the final one being an all-day studio recording session for the purposes of a CD release on a local label.

On sheer size alone, this project was impressive (to say the least), and as good a reason to write about it. The creative process displayed that night was both stunning and fascinating. It must be explained that the music heard was actually the outgrowth of previously recorded performances of freely improvised pieces for trio, released on two CDs under Mitchell’s name. These were in turn transcribed, and new materials would be generated out of these, all of which were orchestrated and further developed into full blown orchestral scores.

To rely on such a procedure is surely unusual, so much so that the musicians on hand, all improvisers, and fans might have been thrown off by it. For one, the players were challenged by the amount and complexity of the written material, at least in relationship to the freely improvised parts – and there were some spaces left open within the notated parts. Roscoe Mitchell, it must be said, is not your run-of-the-mill jazzman, but a creative mind with a broad view on music, one who follows his muse as he sees fit.

Turning now to the performance itself, it’s hard to describe it in a nutshell. Such words as “fascinating,” “experimental,” “brilliant,” or “bewildering” come to mind, but one thing is for sure: it would require more than a single listening to really come to grips with the radical thinking behind this music. (We can only be glad that all of this will be made available on a recording.) By concert’s end, a good hour and a half later (including intermission), the shock on the listeners was such that it was difficult to find one’s bearings in this genre-bending music.

Sound was clearly the crux of this lofty musical undertaking. Analogies with the music of Edgar Varese or Helmut Lachenman are certainly not unwarranted here, as it brought to mind a certain post WWII avant-garde style, both in contemporary concert music (Boulez, Stockhausen) and in the explorations of free jazz (Muhal Richard Abrams, Albert Ayler et al). Of the pieces performed, only one of them (Splatter) seemed a bit at odds with the rest because of its simpler structure, its sources of inspiration clearly more traditional. It was divided in three distinct sections, the first unfolding over a kind of urban funk groove held by the lower brass, the second resembling something of a Shostakovich fanfare for woodwinds, the last sounding more like a tapestry of textures that could even have been completely improvised. But such are the risks that confront concert-goers, who may well believe that a given passage is all improvised when it is actually all notated!

The creative freedom expressed here was most remarkable, and Mr. Mitchell earns full credit for a truly exemplary lesson in artistic integrity. That said, the music still demanded a lot from the listeners, maybe a little too much. Generally speaking, the first half of the concert was more convincing because there was a better balance between more hardcore moments of sonic exploration and others with a more visceral buzz to them. On the flip side of the coin, the second part came across as rather dry, even hermetic.

In spite of its very demanding nature, this initiative would have been a major event in the hallowed halls of art music. For the Off Festival, however, it marks an important step in its history, and we can only applaud its willingness to take on this undertaking, one that proved to be both innovative and, dare we say, spectacular. I for one am happy to see that this project will be released on record, for it will enable all of us, present or not at these shows, to best appreciate this fountain of musical youth in something of a more incremental manner.

» Read a profile of Roscoe Mitchell published in the November issue of La Scena Musicale here.

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About Author

Éric Champagne is an up and coming musician based in Montreal who is currently composer in residence at the Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur, a municipally-run performance space. When not writing music, he also writes about it, chiefly as a record reviewer for La Scena Musicale. // Éric Champagne est un jeune compositeur montréalais actuellement en résidence à la Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur. Il est également collaborateur régulier pour La Scena Musicale, notamment comme critique de disques.

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