Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Insurgents, Slaves and All Sorts of Music That Goes Bump in the Night

© Andrea Canter

There’s a funky little performance space in St. Paul’s utterly funky Lowertown called Studio Z. You can fit maybe 50-60 chairs in front of the stage space on the second floor of the Northwestern Building, host to a variety of artists’ lofts and studios. Studio Z is the home space for a longstanding ensemble of new music practitioners known as Zeitgeist. This past weekend, the Z folks hosted their Fall Cabaret of New Music, featuring three ensembles each of three evenings, the common thread being Zeitgeist. But what lured me for the Saturday night cabaret finale was an email from saxophonist Pat Moriarty. Pat and wife/pianist Ellen Lease have been my connections to Studio Z for the past couple years, performing as a quintet (with Kelly Rossum, Chris Bates and Dave Stanoch) and more recently as a quartet, dubbed Insurgent, with Adam Linz and Phil Hey. Linz was touring Europe with Fat Kid Wednesdays, so this edition of Insurgent was a trio. But that was to be only the first set, followed by Zeitgeist and ending with Jello Slave. It’s hard to imagine putting a more off-the-wall, inventive group of musicians on a single stage in one evening, which of course was the whole point of the “new music” cabaret.

Zeitgeist has been around for thirty years; Jelloslave (the name sort of describes the two cello (“jello?”)/two percussion group) has performed together for about seven years. For some reason, this was my first exposure to both. Where have I been? I know. I was avoiding the so –called new music or avant garde back when Zeitgeist formed, which was about the time I moved to the Twin Cities. I grew up listening to classical music but generally winced at the sound of post-Stravinsky composers. I came of age listening to jazz but never explored Cecil Taylor or Eric Dolphy or beyond until becoming a born-again jazzhound in the 90s. And it didn’t go so well initially. Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures was the first CD I returned.

But like everything else, experience and time changes our tastes. I started with small exposures. Adam Linz soloing on bass at the Cedar. Happy Apple. Craig Taborn’s Junk Magic. Myra Melford’s “The Same River Twice” at the Walker. The Out to Lunch Quintet celebrating the music of Dolphy at the Artists Quarter. The sounds grew. Then came the Ellen Lease/Pat Moriarty Quintet at Studio Z, sometimes taking off on existing compositions, sometimes just taking off on a small group of notes followed by spontaneous combustion.

I was ready for some fun Saturday night and was not disappointed. Insurgent kicked off a 40-minute free improve with a riff from Pat that sounded a lot like the opening of “Days of Wine and Roses.” Soon it became a three-ring circus. Ellen has an amazing arsenal within her hands and forearms—every square inch of which gets put to good use. Her fingers curled like soft fringe, stroking the keys as a harpist strokes the strings; but then her fingers became sharp stilettos jabbing staccato notes. Other weapons of musical construction included the backs of her hands, the flat of her wrists, the pounding of her fists, every gesture pushing out a different sound, a different mood. Similarly Phil Hey creates his own menagerie, not only with sticks, mallets and brushes, but with bare hands—gentle fingers, slapping palms, an elbow jab. Pat might appear to be the “straight” man of sorts, since he handles his alto sax in a pretty traditional way—but any semblance of “straight” music ends there. Generally serving as the melodic pacesetter, Pat can go from sweet to tart to screech within a short run of notes, a sonic acrobat whose flips and turns land where you least expect. Over 40 minutes, Insurgent surged, receded, surged again, the roles among the three musicians evolving, rotating. All in all, riveting.

We only needed to watch the stage crew setting up for Zeitgeist to recognize this would be a set of unusual sounds. A table with a half dozen bowls? A vibraphone facing a marimba? Other stations of miscellaneous percussion? A gong? Four of the ensemble participated in varying combinations, starting off with Patti Cudd’s wildly varying, 4-mallet percussion solo (“Bone Alphabet”); the ethereal vibes/marimba duet on “Shades of autumn quietly lowered a humble veil upon the ground” (Patti and Heather Barringer); the aptly titled “Wind Chimes” with vibes, marimba and now piano (Shannon Wettstein), augmented by, of course, some table-top chimes (that’s four instruments capable of long sustained tones); the very Eastern tonalities of “Varied Trio” adding violin to vibes and piano; a piano vibes duet that had a more European flavor; Heather’s soloing on her set of bowls as well as a set of overturned metal boxes. A zoo of sound but never a cacophony.

Jelloslave closed the evening, two cellos (Michelle Kinney and Jacqueline Ultan) and two percussionists (Greg Schutte on trapset, Gary Waryan on tablas). In other words, this is an ensemble focused on low tones, percussive attack, alternating glissindos and staccatos. A two-cello duet conjured Brahms with contemporary harmonies, while the ensemble swirled into another composition like a East European folk dance, something out of Bartok with a splash of Coplandish bluegrass, Wendy wielding her bow like a mallet, Greg scraping and splatting his drum skins with the ends of brushes. Another cello duet on “Jello Trio” brought contrasting string attacks, Michelle brushing the strings as if playing jazz bass, Wendy alternating pizzacato and arco strategies. Another composition focused on a percussion duet that turned things inside out, Greg using his hands, Gary using hammers. The high point came at the end on “Pick Pocket,” an original Jelloslave composition now infused with a traditional Russian waltz (or “Jello-fied”). The East European melody was transected by shifting tempos, alternately lyrical and percussive segments and a tabla dirge. It was a “Fiddler on the Roof of the Space Shuttle.”

I lost count of the number of instruments on the Studio Z stage that night. But the ideas were endless. My ears are still tingling.

Photos: Ellen Lease and Pat Moriarty at an earlier performance of Insurgent; Zeitgeist; Jelloslave. Only Lease/Moriarty photo by Andrea Canter, the others are courtesy of press kits!