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Short Take on George Lewis, Pauline Oliveros and Joelle Leandre Live in Prague

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Tonight as part of the Agosto Foundation’s vs. Interpretationsymposium and festival at the NOD arts space in Prague, we heard a freely improvised performance by the trio of Pauline Oliveros (Roland V-accordion), Joëlle Léandre (double bass and voice) and George Lewis (laptop, trombone). This morning, George Lewis gave a talk on the prehistory of improvisation studies, making a case for approaching improvisation not as a study of criteria or constraint but of what he called “conditions,” which seemed to me to be a call to attend to the diversity of generative circumstances, and their intersection in historically situated performances. He was arguing, gently, against defining improvisation as such, and instead asking his audience to consider how improvising might open up possibilities for self-aware creative practice. The concert this evening was introduced by, I believe, Cynthia Plachá of the Agosto Foundation, who reiterated something Joëlle Léandre had said at a workshop this afternoon, that when you improvise “you must be prepared for the unprepared.” Both of these assertions – around the conditional or situated sharing that improvisation enacts, and around the paradoxical acuity involved in improvisational practices – informed the trio’s collaborative music-making.
They performed one 45-minute piece, recorded by Czech Radio for broadcast, which apparently Pauline Oliveros had named “Play As You Go” ahead of time, although there wasn’t any pre-planning. Joëlle Léandre’s playing had a firmness of touch and such a strikingly clear sense of line or trajectory, her tone consistently full and resonant. Pauline Oliveros’s electronified accordion shifted between foreground and background, often supplying aural textures that were by turns cohesive and disruptive, simultaneously braiding into and fraying at the trio’s combined sound-palette. George Lewis layered samples from his laptop, many of them having a certain digital brightness that he subsequently often pulled and muddied, electronic sheen mitigated by the more closely corporeal sounds of breath and lip, particularly when he used his blue (!) trombone as both a sampled sound source and as an unmodified instrument: his characteristic fierce blatt, at the few moments when he did seem to dig into his horn, was instantly recognizable. But this wasn’t a music of solos or singular voices so much as of organic reciprocity and co-creation.
There were some passing moments – when Joëlle Léandre started to sing lyrically about the slightly oppressive heat in the performance space (“It’s hot, it’s hot . . . “) or when Pauline Oliveros echoed a cough from the audience by jabbing her right hand at the accordion’s lower keys – of humour and irony, suggesting how all sonic resources, high and low, occasional and musically dense, could be repurposed into interactive soundings. The music didn’t so much progress or develop as trace its way through a loose series of temporarily sustained, situated idioms – sometimes meditative, sometimes contrarian, sometimes melodically assertive, sometimes coevally plural: layers of shifting texture, refigurings. This was a brilliantly sui generis music, and we left the concert feeling energized, enlivened and moved.

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