Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Involuntary Improvisation

I've written with pleasure about musical improvisers: the Tone Road Ramblers sextet that composes improvisationally, and the ADD Trio, which works at the pinnacle of jazz improvisation—that is, making changes on a set tune stated in a particular key. I've also written about violinist Dorothy Martirano, whose eclectic practice allows her to inform her performance in any genre with improvisational elements drawn from a multitude of sources.

We understand and accept the improvisational musicians' assumption that they are setting out to work unscripted. The art form depends on quick wits, fine technique, highly attuned perceptions, broad knowledge of musical history, and the sort of soaring invention possible only when these elements are in place. In music performance (as in acting), improvisation is a rigorous discipline that is learned through much study and practice. Those of us in the audience delight in the apparent ease and naturalness, the hallmarks of a demanding art discipline.

Part of the contract in performance art is that we, the audience, applaud from joy the stagings that performers produce for us. Their pleasure in their performances must be quite different from our own—how can we inhabit their thrills of mastery, of camaraderie, of goals fulfilled? But surely they work for our applause. Audiences count to performers, as their work does to us.  Performers wish to persuade audiences; to make a difference to us. But even in doing so, they cannot necessarily control how they do. Whatever performers consider their art to be, and however they strive to fashion it, its impact can be serendipitous.

This weekend I attended several dances at an evening of OhioDance 2013 performances held at BalletMet Performance Space in Columbus. Despite the tech rehearsals of the afternoon, the tech delivery was disastrous to two dances I saw. In the first, three  game performers continued to dance their lively drama through long periods of silence where their recorded music was to have been. It was another, though, that set me thinking about improvisation, its relation to will or necessity; to artist and audience.

The piece was Retracing, coreographed by Kora Radella of Double-Edge Dance, with music by Ross Feller. The mysterious music was performed live by violinist Dorothy Martirano, with occasional whisperings of recorded music behind her (she was to have been playing against recorded sound). There was some obvious, significant glitch at the beginning as Martirano and dancer Julie Brodie coordinated the beginning of the dance; but once the event was underway, I was mesmerized.

Visually, the dance was a beautiful integration of movement, costume, and raked light. The fragile-framed Brodie was first dressed in a layered dress of coarsely-woven, bleach-white, diaphanous cotton or linen. With her curly brown hair in a short, pixie cut, she appeared her appearance was every bit the gamine. Her movement was restricted—leased, even—by a tether, yards and yards long, that was wrapped several times around her body and extended for all the way across the stage, where a black-garbed handler controlled its length and tension; the degree of freedom available to the dancer was thus bound by it.

I was mesmerized by the girlish femininity of the dancer in her sweet layers of white skirts, so innocent at the opening, but learning to examine, dance with, then against, her tether. The growing consciousness of and exploration of its meaning was acted out with such subtly choreographed nuances of movement that the drama was lucid, but took the viewer well beyond obvious thoughts about "casting off feminine chains." Through gestures like both children and Furies, the dancer rejected, longed for, and mourned her tether. Not only was the dance beautifully conceived and danced with distinction, but its content was significant and haunting. I was deeply moved by an experience that held me rapt.

I had the privilege of speaking with Martirano, Feller and briefly with Radella afterwards. They were not happy, for there had been big disruptions to the plan. Most of the recording hadn't been played at all, so Martirano and Brodie had had to wing it. I hadn't perceived this at all, though, however upset the artists were, or how angry and frustrated they felt. They had been robbed; I had not. For them, the necessity of improvising had been a sudden burden; for me, it had been, if I'd known they were doing it, something like the Tone Road Ramblers do—using their knowledge and skills to create spontaneously within parameters they know well.

The force of expectations! Often it's the audience that declares success or failure depending on what it expects. We judge art by what we've come to anticipate, based on everything else we've seen or heard. That has to happen among artists who plan works too, who know what is supposed to occur. They, especially, don't want surprises.

 I love the experience of art to be an exercise in being where we are, traveling through time and thought from the moment we're given. What greater show of power than improvisation, especially when it's quite unexpected on both sides of the curtain. That performance of Retracing on Saturday was, perhaps, the best one yet.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Atul Dodiya: Shutters Between Us

Although Atul Dodiya is one of India's preeminent contemporary artists, he is not well-known in the United States. The Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati has mounted his first solo museum show in the States (through May 7). It is very special and makes me look forward to a future in which his path and mine will cross again.
Atul Dodiya, 26/11,2012. Enamel paint on motorize
roller shutter with iron hooks. Exterior, 108 x 72."

The work Dodiya shows at CAC is a series of actual, mechanically operated, shuttered shop doors collected from Mumbai. The works consist of paintings on the doors—scenes of the outer world, of the street, merchandise, references to world affairs—and painting on the "walls" too, revealed once the doors are lifted so that we can look beyond. Behind the doors are private areas where individuals reflect on the events of the world, experience the night in safety, move in psychic space and time, away from the clutter of the immediate.
Atul Dodiya, 26/11,2012. Oil, acrylic with marble dust,
and oil stick on canvas. 82.25 x 61.5."

There's a basic element of play in this show. The visitor cannot experience these works without lifting and lowering the big shuttered doors, thus causing them to rumble loudly up and down their tracks. It's impossible to be furtive in the gallery: Attention is called to the presence of every viewer. Most of us pass through galleries silently as ghosts. Here, we come as foreign travelers to a market square, seeking—what? Exotica? Souvenirs? Cultural experience? Or our own familiar hearts, differently accented?

Dodiya's shutters place viewers in specific locations. We viewers can feel like the owners of the shops whose doors we open. We can be tourists or outright voyeurs, peeking illicitly behind shutters into the intimate quarters or bared souls. We may begin, at least, with our feet and minds placed on the dusty, ordinary street, but Dodiya's doors lift onto worlds we are surprised to face.

On the shutter of 26/11 appears a street art version of Edvard Munch's The Scream, incongruously topped with the logo of Bombay's Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, lettered in 19th-century, Victorian era characters. Behind the shutter, a man sits in a yoga pose that opens his chest. He exhales to cleanse his breath. The exhalation circumscribes and defines a whole world, including a boat with full sails skimming the ocean (near his feet).

 26/11 is the date (day and month in 2008) of India's "9/11," when Pakistani terrorists arrived by sea to attack several major sites of Mumbai, the enormous, elegant Taj Mahal Palace Hotel being most memorable among them—certainly most prominent in press images that hit this shore. Over 150 people were shot dead and several hundred more were seriously wounded during the terrible attacks of three days' duration. 

By invoking the Munch image as public response to the terrorism, it seems to me that Dodiya uses it as a universal icon of horror and grief. I don't really register it as "not-Asian," even against the calming breath, the opening position, and embracing gesture of the yogi. I think the greater contrasts are between the black and gray exterior with the aggressively yellow interior, and the watery horizontal strokes of black and white on the shutter, compared with the circle of fiery exhalations from the yogi. On neither the exterior nor the interior is the disaster itself figured; only mourning and attempts to achieve balance are portrayed. Evil itself, ob skene, does not appear.

Atul Dodiya, Dead Ancestors, 2012. Enamel paint on
motorized shutter roller with iron hooks. Courtesy
Vadehra Gallery.
Grief, death, and the struggle between resignation and anger appear throughout the work in this mesmerizing show. Another door along Dodiya's street is Dead Ancestors. It, too, is dark outside, and brilliant yellow inside. I'm enchanted by this exterior, which lacks any commercial markings. The head in which the shutter rolls up simply continues the nocturnal scene to provide a literally looming sky. The volume of the housing casts a deep shadow over the top of the shutter itself, to enhanced nocturnal effect. 

The great moon illuminates and brightens the figures in the warm night below. Dodiya has painted the night atmosphere not black and gray as in 26/11, but a warmer, brownish-gray. Against this, the pure white (not ghostly-white) figures act. All appear to be elderly, the prone figure perhaps near death, as a friend helps arrange his body. Is it a tree sprouting from his heart chakra? He is giving rise to new spiritual growth, if not to new flesh. As a scene of a past generation, this isn't a scene of death per se;  it is not lonely or anxious, but comfortable, warm, and kind.
Atul Dodiya, Dead Ancestors, 2012. Oil, acrylic, marble
dust and oil stick on canvas. Courtesy Vadehra Gallery.

If the shutter portrays the ancestors plying a world beyond this one, the interior painting perhaps brings us back to this side of death, where a faceless corpse is laid out flat, looking a death's-head skull in the face (as it were). The skull is propped against a delicately-pink, erect phallus. Unlike the skull and the body, it is represented with some natural detail, like the botanical profiles, which appear to have been hand-printed onto the canvas. Hindus worship the lingam, Shiva's phallus and life-force, which is represented as a column, not with this literal tilt. So, while this corpse is laid out between two planes, he would seem to be placed between two worlds in a couple of ways. The lingam here is a literally generative penis, not a sacred Hindu symbol; and the prone body may be ready for Western-style internment in the earth of the sprouting plants, or for the Hindu pyre that will produce the gray sky and smoke over the sun.
As in 26/11, this work seems to present Indian concepts in suspension between ancient ways and the Western ways that came with the Raj.

Atul Dodiya, Leopold, 2012. Enamel paint on motorized shutter roller
with iron hooks. Courtesy 
Vadehra Gallery
Leopold seems to take its name from a popular Mumbai eatery located near the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. It's purported menu and its emblematic juicy roasts suggest that it caters to an international clientele—or, at least, that it does not serve vegetarians exclusively. Each slat of the door on this stall features the name of a dish offered here, with its price. The silhouetted man is a mystery to me, but he seems, like so much in this and the surrounding works, to suggest the West before the East. His modesty is not maintained by a dhoti loincloth, but by the Biblical fig leaf, and his nose reaches the length of Pinocchio's. 

Atul Dodiya, Leopold, 2012. Acrylic with marble dust,
watercolor, and oil stick. Courtesy of
Vadehra Gallery.
The menu seems to offer Indian comfort food preparations of lots of red meat and organs, which can be accompanied by the ubiquitous Western delights of fries and soft drinks. Once more, the Indian forms hold largely Western content. This idea is bitterly underscored when the screen goes up to reveal a listing of vernacular dishes served in Mumbai's restaurants whose names you'll find heavily starred in Zagat's guide. Behind the menu selections, big rats run up and down a river of offal
and a skeletal human—unnervingly closely related to the corpse of Dead Ancestors—takes notes in some infernal book. "...It's breakfast time...in and around Bombay—up and down the whole hungry longitude in fact...if I'm not mistaken," the artist writes. To work with contrasts this broad—between rich and poor, developed and developing countries, imperialist cultures and the ones too long subject—is to work where it is all too easy to make the contrasts seem less significant than merely gross or simplistic. Dodiya's combination of shocking image and understated text in Leopold shows him completely up to ironic contrast that appears to constitute a central challenge of his work.

Dodiya is a brilliant painter, a point that I had to return several times to the front of my mind. Presenting dramas that appear in two acts, on both sides of the shutter, allows us to think of his painting first as a medium for storytelling—or emotional narrative—and to neglect the mastery and beauty of his artistry  on metal and on canvas both. The shutters are often painted with watery, soft effects, evocative of memory or the distance of neglect or abandonment. (It's worth noting, too, that because the shutters are in constant real operation, their paint is literally softened and worn by their service: Note the gray stripes of wear along the left margin on this example.) 

Inside, the canvases have very different affects. He uses contrasts of sharp edges and bleeding ones; acid yellow against black; matte and gloss, and so on. His canvases are intense and taut. Even when they are not easy to interpret or are frightening, they are forceful as grappling hooks. They are difficult to detach from.
Atul Dodiya, Farewell, 2012. Exterior: Enamel paint on
motorized metal roller shutter with iron hooks. Interior: Oil,
acrylic with marble dust, oil stick on canvas. Courtesy of
Vadehra Gallery.

This view of Farewell, partially opened, demonstrates well Dodiya's brilliance at mingling several styles of painting—the liquid arabesque of vine leaves on the door; the highly textured gray skeletal form floating on the yellow ground; the dynamic, rough-edged, yet elegant black abstract shapes that sit like massively enlarged elements of language—perhaps forms borrowed from Devanagari, the writing system of Hindi. 

When I speculate about abstract likenesses to the shapes of Devanagari, I am of course, in one obvious sense skating on pretty thin ice. It's impossible for me—and surely for many Americans—to see Dodiya's work without being exceedingly aware how ignorant I am of Indian culture, Indian contemporary art, or even of the little bit I do to keep up with political and economic news of the subcontinent. Do I come to a show only as a tourist?

I'll readily admit to being a tourist in the sense of taking a visit to a foreign sensibility, a foreign culture, and a whole new world of references. This world calls on my imagination in  new and deeper ways than other shows I see of work by American and European artists. Being colonized in one's own home? I may not know it politically but I can relate to that through individual experience and emotion. Discrepancies of economic class and the erosion of society as a result? This undoubtedly comes in different flavors, but it's not unknown to me or other Western viewers. In short, where there are humans in the audience, connections will be made across cultures.

It also struck me vividly when I saw this show that I tend to think of experiencing art through information and ideas gleaned from my past experience. When it comes to engagement with this art from contemporary India, about which I know little, this art connects to my future experience. That is, Atul Dodiya's work has created a node of reference for me to which I will be comparing new experiences, adding information; around which I'll be expanding and creating my world of reference. Dodiya's work extends my sphere of art generally. But this is South Asian contemporary art for the present. It has me looking forward to new, unknown art engagements, rather than leaving me as usual, comparing my Now to Then.

All photography by the author.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Stephen Sabo: Dinosaurs, Desert Owls, and Impossible Bottles

Ohio has a phenomenal legacy of folk and outsider artists who have been received with honor in our state. Duff Lindsay, the owner of the Lindsay Gallery in Columbus, has been chief among those who cultivate the public's knowledge and appreciation of our unschooled masters.
Stephen Sabo, owls from Desert Creatures.

During April and May, Lindsay is presenting the work of such an artist who has only recently come to light. Stephen Sabo worked on our city's south side until his death in 2002 at the age of 99. His early years were spent in Murray City in southeastern Ohio. His formal education ended at age 14 when he was sent, like many a child, to work in the coal mines. Over the years he was able to leave the mines, move to Columbus and marry, working variously as a line man, machinist, self-taught taxidermist, father—and as perpetual autodidact. He loved simple pleasures of country masculinity to the end: hunting and fishing; whittling and carving in the peace and quiet of his basement at home.

Lindsay acquired Sabo's oeuvre last year. Sabo never promoted his own work beyond a local seniors' gift shop (the Golden Hobby Shop), so he was known to a limited community. Lindsay has recently shown the work at the New York Outsider Art Fair, where it was singled out for praise by Roberta Smith of the New York Times. It has also been presented in a solo show at the Springfield (Ohio) Art Museum.

This show is remarkable on the face of it for including work that spans at least eighty years.
Stephen Sabo, Fish and Crayfish,
14 x 16 x 8."
Sabo never quit carving. Some of the pieces shown, then, are very fine and detailed, both in terms of the carving itself and its painting. His fish, mounted in the manner of taxidermic specimens, are exquisite—even beyond taxidermy's possibilities for eternal freshness, I suspect—as are his birds, which are sometimes worthy of display in natural history  museums. They are prepared not only in natural positions, but in positions that best display their identifying markings. The birds are self-illustrating, like birds by Audubon or Roger Torey Peterson. Again, this may be a result of taxidermy, which would provide the perfect opportunity for close-up study.

 Stephen Sabo, Two birds, 15 x 10.5."
 Wood mounted on panel.

 On the other hand, Sabo couldn't have known natural postures without having spent considerable time observing live animals. I was fascinated by Sabo's footed, two-sided panel representing Birds North America on one side, with Animals of North America on the other. The creatures are carved in bas-relief in carefully planned designs that fit elegantly onto the panels. Birds, raccoons, and bison are all painted in true colors; the backgrounds are uniformly a creamy white with the exception of the blue around the mountain goats. Blue creates the sense that we are looking up at them, standing on a peak. That passage of blue sky clinches our sense of Sabo's sophisticated awareness, which lifts the work out of naive vision.

Stephen Sabo, Animals of North America, 
23 x 13 x 2." (Two-sided, Birds verso)
Stephen Sabo, Birds of North America.
23 x 13 x 2."
(Two-sided, Animals verso)
The background painting on these panels is rough and must have been applied at the end of the project, for it obtrudes up the edges of the animal forms and even onto a few of them. Its uneven application grants a liveliness in the background, but there's a crude, uneven outlining that dulls the acuity of the nature perceptions.

Yet it's the carving finesse that carries the day. The attitudes of the animals are completely engaging. The snippety cant of the blue jay on its branch; the little confrontation between mother and child squirrel posited in the positions of legs and tails; the pan-species maternal gesture in the doe with her nursing fawn. This work lacks the perfection of the fish tableau, but we find that there is technical latitude in Sabo's expressive powers.

The range of Sabo's subjects is broad enough and so free of outright eccentricity that I fancy him a member in good standing of a time-honored fraternity of American carvers and whittlers bent over their solitary work in basements, garages and huts while womenfolks occupy themselves elsewhere more gregariously. In Sabo's work we encounter a rural, folkloric man's world undisturbed by communications. Only the automotive and athletic aspects are missing from an other wise full plate of classic male folk subjects: Nature; Christian stories and subjects of narrative rather than passionate importance; tableaux of daily life—miners, farmers, Western characters, exotic peoples; circuses; raptors and dinosaurs. There are lots of dinosaurs.      

Stephen Sabo, Deer Trophy, wood and antlers.
Because Sabo's career was so long, Lindsay sensibly speculates that deteriorating manual skill accounts for the big differences in the looks of his works. While he produced iridescent, life-like mounted trophy fish at one point (see above), at another he made a trophy head of a deer that looked like it what it is: a block head with small antlers roughly attached. Is this the difference between ages 25 and 85; between nimble fingers and arthritic ones; of prime vision and failing?
Stephen Sabo, Dinosaur
Stephen Sabo, Dinosaur, view 2
Even the more crudely fashioned work is not without its liveliness and charm, however. I found this unspecified dinosaur very endearing in its puppy-like stance and uncertain gesture toward ferocity. Most of Sabo's subjects have some quality of the observed, even when it's only through photographs. I enjoy works like this, in which I suspect that the artist called on vague, inspecific clusters of memory, supplemented by snippets of whole cloth. The results have a life of their own.

While some of Sabo's work—presumably later—is blockish and carved without the finesse that so marks the wildlife figures above, it seems to be invested with the carver's sense of curiosity and engagement nevertheless. One of the most delightful works in the show is Circus Horses, his presentation of a familiar inspiration for artists in every medium. Six horses and two ponies perform for a trainer who directs while a child performs a handstand on a pony's back. We've seen above that Sabo was once able virtually to breathe life into animal carvings. In this case, he cannot. The tableau abstractly represents the moment at the circus; none of the figures, equine or human, is naturalistically rendered. 
Stephen Sabo, Circus Horses, 10 x 24 x 21. Courtesy of the Lindsay Gallery.
The scene is far from dull, though, for it offers the delight of its stylization, the rhythm and symmetry that are essential to such circus acts. The unity of purpose between horses and people is emphasized by both the dissimilarity of sizes (big horses; tiny acrobat) and the similarity of their costumes. The abstract delights of order, fantasy, and power controlled for a beautiful design are all captured in carving technique that need not be polished for effective and convincing expression.

Steven Sabo, Indian Village, impossible bottle, 20 x 12 x 12."
Courtesy, Lindsay Gallery.
This show includes two wonderful "impossible bottles." The well-known ship-in-a-bottle in a sub-genre of this form of puzzle, in which something apparently too large to insert into a bottle is nevertheless put there. (For an enormous on-line gallery of work by Sabo's peers in this genre, see Folk Art in Bottles.) Sabo's impossible bottles are tour de force, vastly detailed dioramas of village life. One shows pioneer life, and the other is life in an Indian village. In the latter, a man cuts open a hanging carcass of an animal. The animal's head lies on the ground, miraculously unmolested by two dogs. The tiny scene contains a pony, another man,  and three woman, one with a papoose. 

There's a tipi, and a large log that lies to one side.
Stephen Sabo, Indian Village, impossible bottle, detail
The painted background places the scene in a mid-autumn landscape. The outside measurement for this busy and peaceful environment: 20 x 12 x 12." It certainly seems impossible.

Stephen Sabo:Whittler, Tinkerer...Artist provides a particular opportunity to see a lifetime retrospective of the most condensed sort. That the work is undated is not the distraction one would at first think. I found myself thinking of the artist as an embodied human with aging faculties and body. He will either allow these to remove carving from his life; or he will adjust his carving to his changed abilities. With age's trembling of hands and fogging of vision, perception, awareness, and knowledge can continue to grow. 

For anyone who ever wonders how people come to be artists or how they develop and what inspires them, this show is a wide-open door into just such a story of unusual accessibility. Sabo had a lot of simple interests, it seems, and he thought best when his hands were busy. In this show, it's not hard to see where artists come from, and that it's persistence and continuity of desire that make the difference.

Stephen Sabo, Circus Horses, detail
All photography by the author unless otherwise specified.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Tone Road Ramblers: "Always Some Surprises"

Thirty-two is a good age: At thirty-two, we are smart, energetic and ready to take on the world. 

The power of a musical ensemble at thirty-two? It's off the charts. For a group to reach thirty-two with original members is remarkable in the first place. Rarely do six musicians have a history of cooperative musical and personal relationships deep enough to withstand the many challenges to solidarity posed by the sawing edges of personality, taste, and ambition. 
Tone Road Ramblers on the stage at Roulette, March 1, 2013. Photo by Doron Sadja for Roulette.
The Tone Road Ramblers have such strength, flexibility, and love. They formed as a leaderless ensemble to play experimental concert music, and their music continues to be renewed by the life experience and musical passions of its members. Personal openness and second-nature sensitivities to the world of sound have led them to create a nonpareil, protean, yet timeless music. 
Jim Staley. Photo by Doron Sadja.

The Ramblers arose out of relationships established at the University of Illinois School of Music. Now far flung as virtuosos with eminent careers, four founding members knew each other and played together in Champaign-Urbana during the late 1970s. They are composer and trombonist Morgan Powell; Jim Staley, trombonist and founder-director of Roulette, the New York venue for new music and performance; composer John Fonville, maestro of the flute in all its forms, and professor at the University of San Diego; and Ray Sasaki, virtuoso of jazz and classical trumpet both, and professor at the Butler School of Music, University of Texas at Austin. (Powell and Sasaki have appeared before in this blog in the September, 2012 article about Jazz Sextet: The Champaign Connection.)

I have written before about clarinetist and new music specialist, Eric Mandat, professor at Southern Illinois University, who joined the ensemble during the mid '80s, replacing the original clarinetist. Ron Coulter, a senior lecturer in percussion, also at Southern Illinois, in 2012 became the third percussionist with the ensemble. 
John Fonville and Morgan Powell. Photo by Doron Sadja.

With its core of enduring relationships, the ensemble's members are cooperative and patient; it's no wonder that their performances seem to come as the result of instinct. 

The Ramblers' primary mode is group improvisation. They appear on stage as a new music ensemble in the traditions of classical music: They arrange themselves formally in a "U" and remain seated; they read music from stands some of the time, thus disguising from the audience the long passages they improvise within scored work. Their core interest in improvisation is, in fact, usually associated with jazz. 

Powell, Sasaki, and Staley are all jazz musicians. Sasaki splits his time between jazz and classical trumpet, teaching a large studio from which his students go into both types of professional work. Powell plays jazz day-to-day. Having been brought up with the big band music, his heart is now deeply devoted to traditional jazz. From his Illinois days, Staley moved from traditional and mid-century jazz into free jazz and the avant-garde. 

Fonville and Mandat weren't raised with early training in jazz or improvisation. They each have played a variety of classical, world, new, and electronic musics, though Mandat's love of klezmer has taken him into that spontaneous, ornamental tradition.  
Eric Mandat. Photo by Doron Sadja.

In traditional jazz, musicians improvise as soloists, one at a time, within a formal structure that dictates when and for how many measures each will take a solo. They know the key, they know the tune, and, if they've played it often enough, some of their improvisation may even have become a matter of "licks," or  habitual patterns they've developed to fill the solo-improvisation spaces; spontaneous creation has taken the back seat.

Sasaki likens group improvisation to conversation in the sense that everyone has something to say and through listening to the others finds the best way to say it. The conversation will be as rich, intelligent, and interesting as the participants are attentive to their interlocutors. If no one is listening, nothing will come of the intercourse; no one will have an appropriate response or gambit; there will be no definition or sense to the flow of words.

The Ramblers do play some scored music written by its members. These works often include sections of unspecified duration open for group improvisation. Such writing is characteristic of Powell and Mandat. In Powell's daFunkaMonkus, played at their March performance at the University of Texas, there is a staged, pugnacious verbal discussion among the ensemble members about committing to their musical ideas—"playing their own way"—despite audience objections. The rough dialogue leads into an exciting extended quotation about jazz from W. C. Handy, which points the listener to a big connection between Rambler music and its roots in the impulses of jazz—to the freedom and the drive toward change and surprise. This passage is sampled here from TRR's University of Texas dress rehearsal of Morgan Powell's DaFunkusMonkus on March 27, 2013.

It might seem at first blush that group improvisation would create a chaos: sounds from six performers who "do their own things" simultaneously—the ultimate clash of self-involved cross-purposes. In fact, it is the result of exquisitely attuned listening, focused on knowing where the individual can be make the clearest, most relevant, useful, and distinctive contribution. 
Roulette, on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Photo by
Angela Gaspar.

The Ramblers' brief tour during March took them to the University of Texas at Austin and to Roulette in New York City. Their concert at the University of Texas contained scored works by Powell, Mandat, and Sal Martirano, as well as improvisations. The New York concert, at Roulette in Brooklyn, was improvisations exclusively.
John Fonville. Photo by
Doron Sadja
Roulette has graciously provided rough cuts of recordings from the Ramblers' April 1 New York concert that I've sampled here to give my readers some idea of the range of sounds and the level of mutuality both of mind and virtuosity that this music demands. In SAMPLE no. 1 we hear flutist John Fonville open a piece supported by percussionist Colson. One Fonville creates the sound of at least two flutes through his mastery of overtones produced fluently, in flight, in an atmosphere shaded by the use of a subtle palette of microtones. These tones between the scale tones we are attuned to place his sound in neither minor nor major key, but in a zone of his own devising. So delicately, so vividly, so dramatically, Fonville initiates this group improvisation. It's not hard at all to understand how the rest of the ensemble will become charged with ideas and energy from the get-go. 

Ray Sasaki's lyrical trumpet leads to the close of another improvisation in SAMPLE #2. The beauty of his playing can only be experienced: his level of control over dynamics and seemingly endless phrases uninterrupted by perceptible breathing; the molten quality of his sound into which he injects brief passages of tonguing as quick and light as attacks of hummingbirds. Here, he plays blues in a way that proves the evolution that Handy spoke of. This is not blues as structure: there are no measures to count off, but a languorous, sensuous, mournful beauty; a necklace to which the ensemble attaches charms and pendants of differing weights and colors. His line is ornamented by the sounds that accrue to it. And still Sasaki delivers a seductively personal, conversational tone. It's not the tone of a man talking to himself; I think he's talking above the crowd, to us.
Ron Coulter. Photo by Doron Sadja.

I chose this THIRD SAMPLE to
show how adroitly the Ramblers propel themselves through a spontaneous composition—for it's important to understand that they are not merely making sounds together until they lose steam, but that they are executing a spontaneously created composition. Their improvisations have beginnings, middles, and ends, with evident transitions along the way. On one of their CDs on the Einstein label, Tone Road Ramblers: The Ragdale Years , all of the tracks are improvised. Lacking awareness of this fact, there is nothing to suggest that they are not playing from scored parts. 

In this sample, the ensemble is moved from the massed urgency of low, dense voices by the entrance of the piccolo, which cuts through the rumbling just as a fife is meant to do. The new voice redirects the trombones and calls forth sounds similar to its own. Lilting bird songs respond to the dance of the piccolo. The bird songs are generated by: bird calls. Coulter manages the Ramblers' serious arsenal of noise-making toys that are used throughout, as inspiration guides them.

The Roulette Store is the best source for Tone Road Rambler CDs and for CDs by Staley, Fonville, and Powell issued on the Einstein label. The iTunes Store also carries three albums and the individual tracks (including The Ragdale Years and their most recent, Dancing with the Ramblers, with music by Fonville, Mandat, and Powell.)

For a more in-depth profile of the Ramblers, the reader can access an article by this author posted on Powell's website: Off the Charts.