Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A Group Improvisation by the Tone Road Ramblers

This is a long-awaited opportunity for me to write about the Tone Road Ramblers when readers can experience one of their improvisations without its being through the abstraction of prose only. The video comes to us with thanks to Eric Mandat. It can also be viewed on YouTube.

Morgan Powell
As it’s currently constituted, the personnel of the Tone Road Ramblers are: Morgan Powell and James Staley, trombones, and Ray Sasaki, trumpet. These three are original members who have been playing together since founding the collective in 1981. Eric Mandat, the clarinetist and percussionist of odd hand instruments, came in 1989, and though Howie Smith, with his bouquet of saxophone voices (ranging from soprano through contra-bass) has been with the group in one way or another for years, he officially replaced flutist John
Ray Sasaki
Fonville a couple of years ago. Only recently have they been without a formal percussionist, and they find that it’s okay. By nature, the best improvisers are firmly grounded realists, requiring no magic to spin gold from straw. For them, there’s no important difference between them anyway. If you listen, you’ll understand where and how such distinctions dissolve.

I have written about this organization and its members many times before, in Starr Review, New Music Box, and in my book, Sounding OurDepths: The Music of Morgan Powell (2014). Yet, thanks to Eric Mandat’s filming, this is the first time I’ve had video footage from a concert that I could use to show what it is so difficult to tell without the experience. How does the writer translate what is literally inarticulate into words? (See the post before this, in which Ray Sasaki’s helpfully asserts that playing the trumpet is speech for him).

James Staley
The Ramblers generously answer questions during breaks during their concerts because their unique music leaves many with more questions than vocabulary. Let me share a precis of responses to their FAQs:

Everything you hear is spontaneous. It is unrehearsed; there is no initial plan or “setup.” There isn’t a plan about who will play first: Someone will, and there is no discomfort with silence until someone stirs.

TRR has no leader. Ensemble members play (or refrain from playing) in response to what they hear their colleagues playing. No one is waiting their turn. As Ray Sasaki explains it, they are having a conversation that has a life of its own. If we accept the idea that each musician has been speaking with his instrument for most of his life, we are listening in on conversation that takes the many tones conversations do: quiet, calm, argumentative, silly, reminiscent, irritable, celebratory and all the rest. In conversation, sometimes one has nothing to add, or recognizes that he would only interrupt the flow. Sometimes his contribution will deepen it, and sometimes he has  a lot to say. This model may help guide your listening.
Howie Smith

The conversational model also helps listeners organize the experience that is distinctive for having none of the traditional markers we normally depend on to direct us in music: no beat (necessarily), no measured sections, no dependence on Western scales, nothing to guide a listener’s expectations. The music is made of sound, incident, and the ever-occurring present that asks you neither to linger nor to jump ahead. Just listen with the concentration of an eavesdropper: You are all attention, never knowing what surprising gem will come your way, and your heart will race.

Many anticipate chaos at the very idea of group improvisation but listening—and watching—will quickly dispel this notion. This is not a free-for-all, but the production of highly refined musicianship as execution and listening both. Chaos would result from simultaneous exertion of ego, each performer closed to what is going on around him and determined to make his own point. 

Clearly, these musicians aren't in competition with one another but in cooperation. They respond to the sound environment rhythmically and tonally, and they participate in the creation of atmospheres and impulses that will create a whole. They trade places in the composition, moving as the music develops between foreground and background, sometimes supporting with underlying chords or rhythmic punctuations, at other times asserting themselves with outbursts or long lyric lines. All this is executed so fluently that it is often difficult to distinguish voices so protean that they are often unrecognizable from their orchestral exemplars. 
Eric Mandat (courtesy of Rex Gaskins)

The point is not the individual voices, but the experience of a developing composition. Consider the breadth of sounds lavished on the ear and their disposition vis-a-vis one another. These combinations of sound, new to listeners, are new to the performers creating them in the moment. This music occurs because the musicians have made it a practice for over thirty-five years to override deeply-rooted Western musical rules and to free instincts about how to use their instruments—their voices—and what music is in the first place. The Ramblers' conclusion that freedom disconcerts audiences trained to believe that constraints—structure, form and fixed relationships—define music.

But works of art, however they are created, must have limits and feel whole. Performances and compositions, once begun, convince listeners that they've not only stopped but concluded. Ramblers performances will never end with the resolutions of nineteenth-century symphonies, our beloved standard for The End. The frequently-asked question to the Ramblers, "How do you know when it's over?" is not only legitimate, but of great concern to audience members asked to suspend most of their musical information to listen in the first place. 

As with making the music, the decision to conclude a piece is a group decision. Like all their decisions at every point, it could go any number of ways and it depends on what they are collectively and individually hearing. When they hear the possibility of completion, there is no necessity of doing so. If some one or two have more to say, the music will continue, refreshed. But when it ends, it ends with a conclusion—but it's one of countless possibilities in the continuum of sound and silence from which improvised music is made.

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