General 11-9-2003

Music Review: Michelle Kinney, George Cartwright, New Music / New Voices

Michelle Kinney and George Cartwright, both working with remarkable ensembles of musicians, played interesting, uneven, and engaging music at the Walker Auditorium on Friday night.

Michelle Kinney and George Cartwright are both Minnesota residents nowadays. For Kinney it’s a return (she’s been working in New York with the likes of Henry Threadgill, Julius Hemphill, and John Zorn); for Cartwright it’s an arrival: he grew up in the South and was drawn to New York, where he’s spent years creating an uncompromising Ornette-Coleman-influenced free jazz avatar. They’re now both working in town, and we’re lucky to have them.

Michelle Kinney’s cello wove its way through a great variety of musical forms and textures, created by her ensemble of voice (Timothy Hill), bass (Anthony Cox), piano (Myra Melford), guitar (Brandon Ross), and percussion (Kevin Washington). Each of these musicians provided peak moments of the concert in different works; Kinney’s compositions, though scored, are generous to each player in the manner of improvisatory jazz. This is music truly created by the group, not just played by it.

The concert began with the sound of Hill’s voice, a throaty resonant basso influenced by Tibetan chant, which becomes, eventually, a song, strung over the long walking intervals familiar from Schoenberg-based classical work. An art song appears, based on a W. S. Merwin poem, with elements of the classic art-song imitation of its subject. There were 3 such songs in this series, each full of reference to sound: an instrument string, bamboo clacking, sheep bells and the noise of steps.

The first song, “To the Sorrow String,” was not as successful as the latter two. The song speaks of sorrow as a necessary thread through joy, but it doesn’t enact it; it speaks of weeping, of being moved, but doesn’t move one to weep. But it’s a good beginning nonetheless, as the gorgeous play of Cox’s bass wove deep and subtle patterns that Kinney then drove her cello through, pulling discords from the instrument by the handful, flinging them into the weave of the music.

In the next piece, a setting of “Sheep Passing” by Merwin, it was difficult, sometimes impossible, to hear the words. The antic and everchanging tonalities and moods moved in and out of interest and decipherability, but the obscuring of the words was frustrating. My companion at the concert, who knew Merwin’s work well, described his voice in these brief poems as “quiet.” He wondered if reading the poems set off from the music would be a more effective strategy—the music would then be a response to the poem rather than its setting. The music itself could be startlingly beautiful at moments: I think particularly of an astounding piano passage by Melford.

The third Merwin piece, “Chorus,” begins with sound imitating the opening of the poem, “wet bamboo clacking in the night rain.” The whole ensemble plays pieces of wood, or little bamboo xylophones rocking on their wobbly supports, meeting the mallets irregularly; the sound grows, becomes a satisfying thicket of clicks. The imitative strategy continued as the singer moved into and through the poem. This was the most effective of the Merwin pieces. Its heart-on-sleeve onomatopoeia suits the art-song genre. But Kinney keeps things complex: her cello scribbled counterpoint to the long-drawn lines of the voice, and as the language of the poem becomes more abstract, harmony descends on the piece—an interesting turn.

“Beanstalk,” written as a vocal showpiece for Prudence Johnson, is a setting of an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem—it was in some ways the most satisfying of Kinney’s works. The whole ensemble moved through the poem with great swing and lyric grace. Millay’s spirit—playful, with a little special pleading, passionate but childlike—glittered in the weave of this music. “Tsunami Chant,” Kinney’s last work, a setting of Minnesota poet Wang Ping’s poem, excoriates the cruel and stupid warmongering of the Bush administration and its supporters. Though I couldn’t agree more with its sentiments, and think that the material could make a good essay, it makes a lousy poem. The music follows suit: it’s a bland anthem to peacemaking.

George Cartwright did one extended work divided into 6 movements, marked by Anne Elias’s recited texts. These worked well; her projections of film clips on the screen behind the musicians were less successful. My companion decried their “Manchurian Candidate” effect (all that flashing repetition of flames and feet and shuffling pigeons did evoke the brainwashing films of that ‘60s movie wonderfully). Myself, I was interested in the attempt to treat shards of visuality like musical notes or phrases, but had to agree that the projections were a distraction from the music. It was difficult to pay the kind of attention Cartwright’s free jazz deserves while one is deciphering images of, say, a seeming lump of flesh that actually turns out to be a wind-up monkey.

Cartwright’s music is risky and often very good in the way only music that risks indecipherability can be. The opener, paired with Elias’s clearly spoken, spare poem “Indifferent this Fire,” was wonderful. The dual drum kits of JT Bates and Alden Ikeda paired with the counterpointed flying voices of Cartwright’s sax and Chris Parker’s keyboard made a structure almost tangibly spatial in the hall. Guitar (Dean Granros) and bass (Adam Linz) colored at will the fierce lines of that structure. Music like this makes you remember what you’ve been missing–that immediacy, the ability to trust yourself to invent on the spot what’s needed. It proves the importance of immediate perception and the freedom to respond to it. Cartwright’s half of the concert lived up to this standard: though sometimes slipping into complexities beyond hearing, and sometimes spinning wheels, the overall effect was of an exhilarating invention.

It has seemed to me that much techno, good though it can be, is synthetic jazz–all of the gestures with none of the invention, music to help us feel comfortable in lives that trade freedoms for security, time and creation for purchased style. Cartwright’s music, a freewheeling and skilled counterpoint-driven democracy of individual players, individual voices, speaks of what we’ve lost in the imperial America. This music is far more effective political commentary, for me, than a hundred “Tsunami Chants”.