James Choice Orchestra Live at Moers
In the forty years since the Jazz Composers Orchestra initiated the field, the idea of the improvisors’ “orchestra” has developed, evolved, nearly vaninshed, and in recent years gone through quite an active resurgence. To call an ensemble an orchestra, first of all, is not something done lightly ? after all, you could just as easily call it a big-band. But in some cases, that term clearly would’t fit. In Europe, where the notion of the creative orchestra has been most continuously explored, there is naturally another connotation to the term orchestra. Note the reference to the golden years of symphonic music, in which the idea of amassing musicians and thereby massing sound was coupled with an entire conceptual undergirding of harmony and arrangement and (feel the compact power of the word) orchestration. If you remove the Classical- and Romantic-era assumptions about harmony and arrangement, and substitute the late 20th century investigations of interdependence, indeterminacy, improvisation, modularity and mobility, it becomes clear that the orchestra continues to have potential relevance and life in the present.
Pioneering improvisors’ orchestras, like the Globe Unity Orchestra (whose HAMBURG ’74 is certainly a spiritual anscestor to James Choice) and the London Jazz Composers Orchestra, were particularly fascinated with the power of massed sounds. Composers writing or structuring works for those groups often built in sections that featured huge blocks of sound ? drones for giant brass sections, frenetic walls of screaming saxophones, dense thickets of kit drumming ? and when they used a conductor, they would capitalize of the organizational ease of the physical gesture, gathering all their communal grouped potential into cued explosions of sound. The obvious question was: Why a giant group? What can we do as an orchestra that we couldn’t as a small group? The solution was to explore sheer immensity of sound and range of expression ? make use of how many players you have, either all at once or in succession or in layers. The history of jazz came in handy, of course, with its long tradition of large group improvisation from Ellington to Ra, but so too were the innovations of Feldman, Wolff, Cage, Kagel, Xenakis, Ligeti and other contemporary classical composers, as well as crucial bridge figures like Braxton and Mitchell.
All that collective history is now grist for the mill. Contemporary improvising orchestras have an enormous storehouse of information, answers to the fundamental questions about what and why that called forth the improvisors’ orchestra in the first place, which means that there are nearly boundless possibilities. That immense range of expressive and structural potential is the starting point for the James Choice Orchestra. Founded in 2004 by Norbert Stein, Frank Gratkowski, Carl-Ludwig Hubsch and Matthias Schubert, James Choice convenes about five times a year, often around the home hub of Kln, and each of the co-leaders contributes a new composition. This practice recalls the AACM’s dictate that members must assemble large ensembles to perform their original music. It’s an incentive to use the orchestra as a place of meditation, a workshop, a tool for thought. And in its democracy it suggests the collective spirit in which all members are presumed to be important, not just cogs in a huge machine. That, of course, is the biggest difference between the old symphonic idea of an orchestra and the contemporary improvisors’ orchestra ? players are valued as part of an organism, sufficient in themselves and collaborative with the other members, not as little incomplete parts of a bigger, totalizing mechanism.
The main challenge for a group like the James Choice Orchestra is finding opportunities to rehearse, play, explore: the simple activity of staying together. That’s why today’s improvising orchestras are usually “local,” based in and around a specific place. It’s prohibitively expensive to have international orchestras these days, which is a shame. But then when you have such vast talent on hand in a place like Kln, it’s no problem at all. Consider the makeup of James Choice ? aside from the luminary leadership there’s a first rate chamber ensemble amid the orchestra, as well as huge figures in free improvisation and new music like Melvyn Poore and Thomas Lehn. In 2005, the Moers Festival gave James Choice the unusual opportunity to perform three days in a row, and from those performances these recordings were culled. Each of the pieces was created specifically for the group; they all have their own modus operandi reflecting the concerns of the composer and the potentialities of the ensemble. Schubert’s “Manico con la mia” for example, involves not only improvised music but theater and dance elements. Schubert explains that the modular piece, which uses numeric cues, has three distinct layers, one of which is musical, one of which is visual (with Merce Cunningham-like everyday movements) and one of which is “profane” (using text fragments and increasingly vulgar vocal sounds). In Gratkowski’s “Choice III” the composer takes poetry by Thomas Kling, who sadly passed away just before the Moers gig; the singers each had one of Kling’s books, and chose what to read from it live in performance. For the end of the piece, Gratkowski recycled one of his compositions, “Cirrus,” which utilizes many of the techniques available to the contemporary creative orchestra. He explains: “Three different pitch fields are kind of a framework. The last one is slowly building up and almost a piece by itself. Within these blocks are several different structures like games, total determined passages, given formations who improvise freely, and hand signs and cards to give certain players instructions like textures or patterns of behaviour.” Stein’s “Berichte aus der neuen Stadt” is also a near textbook of standing possibilities for creative orchestra. Stein explains that he thinks of his work for Choice in terms of “sound-sculptures, flows, mass and individuality, concurrency, developments, energies,” and he prefers to create “situations and space for the self-expression of improvising musicians.” Listening to Huebsch’s potent “NGC 2280″ one hears the historical storehouse fully deployed. It is a new breed of orchestral music, deploying an enormous number of possibilities, including player decisions and through composition. But a composition like this is without an axe to grind ? it doesn’t assert the primacy of composition or improvisation, of leadership or self-determination. It allows for a fluidity of organizational ways and means, a flexible sense of what is possible, what is desirable, and what is actual.
Perhaps that explains the presence of the word “Choice.” It is about choosing, about making and living with choices at all sorts of levels, as composers, as players, as listeners. Here we have Live at Moers, a portrait of the improvising orchestra as a young band, signed James Choice. Consider yourself fortunate to have a first edition.
? John Corbett, Chicago, August 2006
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