Serving the San Francisco Bay Area New Music Community

Phillip Greenlief

The Hear and Now : ROVA at Other Minds
Date of Interview/Article:6/29/2004
The Hear and Now
Raskin and ROVA with guests at Other Minds 10th

I went to the opening night show at the Other Minds Festival presented at Yerba Buena Gardens in SF. Thursday’s concert included compositions by Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian, Polish composer Hanna Kulenty and one of our finest local artists, Jon Raskin.

The performance presented works by the composers in the order listed above. I will be brief in my descriptions of the first two performances. I have tried to live by the saying taught to many of us by our mothers: “if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything”. Of course there’s nothing wrong with negative or harsh criticism if the intentions are to aid in the development of a work, but in this case, I really don’t have anything constructive to say, nor do I feel that the so called “Avant Garde” works on the first half of the program had anything to do with new music, apart from the fact that Kulenty’s piece was a concerto for ¼ tone flute – a rare and admittedly modern instrument.

My criticisms of the opening works stem from major aesthetic differences with the intentions of the composers. I admit that I don’t have an ear for folk songs (sans passion) parading as new music, which was the case with the short pieces by Tigran Mansurian, (which is NOT to say that I don’t like folk music!). Secondly, my tastes for composition were not in concert with the pedestrian thematic content and emotionally bankrupt music of Hanna Kulenty (although I did enjoy aspects of Anne La Berge’s performance on her above mentioned instruments, especially the unaccompanied cadenza). What I would much rather discuss is the music composed (perhaps organized is a better word) by Jon Raskin and performed by the ROVA Saxophone Quartet with special guests.

First a few words about those special guests and their respective instruments. Forgive my not terribly informative descriptions. Min Xio-Fen played pipa (a Chinese lute-like instrument), Kyaw Kyaw Naing played pat waing (circle drum - a series of tuned membranophones pitched in an array of contrasting pentatonic scales), Jiebing Chen played erhu (a two-string violin, played in horizontal fashion), Shoko Hikage played koto (a Japanese 18-string instrument well known to the fans of Hikage, Larner and Masaoka), Sang Won Park played kayagum(s) (imagine smaller versions of the koto played on tables – musician stands while playing as opposed to the crouched position assumed while playing koto), Jim Santi Owens played tabla (Indian hand-drums) and tarang and Gino Robair conducted. Bruce Ackley, Jon Raskin, Steve Adams and Larry Ochs played saxophones and were arranged from left to right on the stage in that order.

In short, ROVA was immersed in a section of instruments associated with music from Korea, Japan, Burma, China and India, and the quartet sounded fantastic in this context. They supported and blended timbres in ways that created a new musical language that I felt successfully deconstructed the traditional approaches to everyone's respective instruments. The music that emerged seemed like a true world music, but in a way that seemed similar to the approach used by James Joyce when he created a world language in Finnegans Wake by mixing phonemes and syllables from the 15+ languages that he spoke fluently to create hybrid words, as opposed to the way that Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp or Ornette Coleman played with African percussionists. Decades after those records by Sanders and company have emerged on the scene, their earlier efforts sound like two distinct cultures inhabiting the same room but not necessarily speaking the same language (not to downplay those efforts – which have their respective merits – perhaps Raskin’s efforts could not have been possible if it were not for those earlier models). But The Hear and Now produced a music that sounded as if all the musicians were speaking the same language.

I believe that out of all the situations I've heard ROVA in the context of playing in a large(r) ensemble, this was the most satisfying to my ears. It captured the feel of some of my favorite recordings of Japanese Classical Music (on those Nonesuch Ensemble Nipponia recordings for example). The sound events/environments unfolded in a meditative that kept me engaged throughout the entire piece. Although the music was generally quiet in nature and practice, the large ensemble’s music produced a quiet intensity that sustained enough tension to keep you on the edge of your seat – I was consistently excited to hear what would happen next.

I also thought (from my perception on how things were arranged) that Gino did a great job of keeping things moving at just the right pace throughout and developed a wonderful overall structure of the work. This was a high point of the music for me and it relates back to the feel of traditional Japanese music and the way it slowly unfolds over time. Robair was responsible for presenting an array of cue cards that gave instructions on aspects of the music related to tempo/meter, intensity, tonal qualities, and offered the musicians a chance to change the texture or feel of any given event, initiate new sound events, or direct musicians to respond to existing materials. The conductor could also cue a variety of predetermined games that related to pitch collections, note lengths, repetitions, sound events, trills, vibrato effects, and note attacks.

In addition to the relatively new role played by the conductor (instructing them on ways to play, opposed to keeping time and making sure the musicians know where their entrance is), ROVA’s Radar practices allowed a great deal of freedom for the musicians to generate composed and improvised musical action. In terms of the philosophical aspect of the music (and similar to the music of Anthony Braxton that has enjoyed a great deal of recent discussion on BA NEW MUS), The Hear and Now allows a variety of people to initiate action – a collection of democracies, rather than a totalitarian model where the composer acts as dictator, or a form of democracy where action is predicated by the ensembles’ leader (soloist). In the context of this music, everyone on stage has the opportunity to be a leader and instigator.

If I had any criticism of the music, I wanted to hear more small ensemble pairings of eastern instruments with the saxophone(s). As an orchestrator (when I write for large ensemble) I am usually obsessed with getting all the possible solo/duo/trio combinations into the light. My sense is that The Hear and Now was about 30 - 40 minutes. For that length of time, I would rather have heard, say, a duo with Ackley and the pipa player than listening to two percussion duos (although the second one they did was a real gem!). This is a small concern, and it really is a concern that comes out of my personal aesthetics.

To its credit, this work could be performed again and again and never play out the same way twice. This makes for rehearsing a work like The Hear and Now particularly difficult. As Robair related to me, you try something in rehearsal and it works great, but you don’t necessarily want to try to recreate that something again in performance. The other disappointment I’m left with is that I probably won’t hear this work performed again for a long time.