Live: London Improvisers Orchestra

Harry Beckett (trumpet), Ian Smith (flugelhorn) Robert Jarvis, Alan Tomlinson (trombones), Andrew Robinson (recorders), Neil Metcalfe (flute), Terry Day (reed pipes & recorder), Lol Coxhill, Adrian Northover, Evan Parker (soprano saxes), Shabaka Hutchings,...

Harry Beckett (trumpet), Ian Smith (flugelhorn) Robert Jarvis, Alan Tomlinson (trombones), Andrew Robinson (recorders), Neil Metcalfe (flute), Terry Day (reed pipes & recorder), Lol Coxhill, Adrian Northover, Evan Parker (soprano saxes), Shabaka Hutchings, Ricardo Tejero (tenor saxes & clarinets), Sue Ferrar, Sylvia Hallett, Phil Wachsmann (violins), Ivor Kallin (violin & viola), Marcio Mattos, Barbara Meyer (cellos), Rodrigo Montoya (shamisen), John Bisset, Roberto Sassi (guitars), Veryan Weston (piano), David Leahy, Guillaume Viltard (double basses), Javier Carmona, Tony Marsh (drums), Adam Bohman (amplified objects), Eugene Martynec (electronics)
Café OTO, London; 7 June 2009

The London Improvisers Orchestra came into being around 1998. Originally based at the Red Rose Club on Seven Sisters Road, they now have a residency in Dalston’s Café OTO, playing the first Sunday of each month. Here, they presented six pieces, five of which were to some degree conducted, but by a different conductor each time.
The difference between the role of a conductor in a performance of notated music versus the role of a conductor in conducted improvisation is, ultimately, not a difference of intention, but a difference of function. In a performance of notated music, the gestures and instructions of the conductor might communicate ideas as to how notation might be realised in performance. In conducted improvisation, the conductor might indicate what to play, when to play it and how to play it, with varying degrees of precision.

Each of the pieces was in some sense meta-notated. Although the players may have at times been making local, or occasionally mid-level compositional decisions, composers defined the global attributes of each piece.

Composing for the LIO, you don’t just have the instruments, but the performance personalities of the players themselves; you don’t just have a soprano saxophone, you have Evan Parker playing a soprano saxophone. And, because Parker’s an improvising musician, he is potentially making all the decisions. John Bisset’s piece, the last and longest in the programme, featured a lengthy, freely improvised middle section in which each player was at liberty to do just that. The results were, at times, exciting – frenzied, full-ensemble surges, driven by screeching winds and brass were invigorating, but such moments of focussed intention were few. Very often it was as if too many people were talking without really believing in what they were saying.

David Leahy’s conducted improvisation moved with an incisive energy. The vocabulary of signals in his conducting was large and allowed for control over minutiae. Ricardo Tejero’s piece (also conducted) came across as less focussed, but nonetheless featured moments of visceral intensity. Veryan Weston’s, in which certain players led at different times, used multiple small ensembles within the orchestra – the closing viola and cello duet was amongst the most captivating events of the evening.

Adam Bohman and Ivor Kallin both asked for extra-instrumental activity in their pieces. In Bohman’s, players made sounds in response to other players’ arm gestures – it made for neither inviting music, nor engaging theatre. But the humour with which Kallin’s piece was delivered kept me engaged, with its intermittent solo recitations of Scotts-Gaelic words and phrases.

Most often, the success of the music was primarily dependent on the compositional strategy employed, not the relative merits of the improvising. The strongest music of the evening occurred in those pieces in which the composers manipulated their materials (the improvising players) with a clear sense of purpose.

Published on 1 August 2009

Garrett Sholdice is a composer and a director of the record label and music production company Ergodos.

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