CONTEMPORARY CHAOS PRACTICES:
Why does a composer write for orchestra? The amount of time, labor, expense, and struggle involved, not just in composing an orchestral work but in having it accepted, rehearsed, performed, and (in a perfect world) documented, would seem to indicate a Sisyphean chore. Why would anyone invite the risk of pushing that mythic boulder to the mountaintop, only to be flattened by its descent?
“Because it’s there,” the celebrated mountaineer George Mallory is famously reported by The New York Times to have said, when asked – after he’d attempted to climb Mount Everest in 1921 and 1922 – why he intended to have another go in 1924. The quotation might be apocryphal; it doesn’t matter. To the alpinist, the risk of the journey and the cost of the venture are far outweighed by the potential reward of an achievement few people can claim.
Ingrid Laubrock is a born alpinist, to judge by this, her first recorded collection of orchestral works. Perhaps it should come as no surprise: She is, after all, a saxophonist and composer who risked much in venturing from Berlin via London to establish a base in busy, competitive New York City – an improviser’s Everest, one might claim. From her arrival in 2009, she wasted no time in making an impression with her piquant writing and potent playing.
Ingrid Laubrock ©Caroline Mardok
Still, no adventurous soul is content to stay in place. “The mountains are calling & I must go,” the naturalist John Muir is quoted as having said about his own call to action. Laubrock, an artist whose influences and formative experiences were many and varied, likewise felt the call of heights intrinsic to the orchestral experience: the mighty presence of massed musicians, the elemental weight and prismatic variety of the sounds they can produce, perhaps even the daunting scale of the venture itself.
Both of the works included on this album are of recent vintage: Laubrock wrote Vogelfrei for the second Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute Reading, presented by the American Composers Orchestra at Columbia University in 2013, and created Contemporary Chaos Practices for the 2017 moers festival. But the creative spark that led to their conception came many years before, shortly after Laubrock landed in New York, when she attended a program of large-ensemble works led by Anthony Braxton and Walter Thompson at Brooklyn’s Irondale Center.
Braxton, among the most original, accomplished artists America has produced, needs no introduction in this context. Thompson, less well known outside a circle of cognoscenti and devotees, is a bandleader, multi-instrumentalist, and composer who developed a practice called “Soundpainting,” a system in which an elaborate vocabulary of hand signals is used to initiate and shape large-ensemble improvisations. (The practice is distinct from Butch Morris’s similarly conceived “conductions,” but not wholly dissimilar in practice.)
For Laubrock – who had encountered conduction previously as a performer with the London Improvisers Orchestra, and who had been mulling notions of orchestral composition already – the seamless blend of composition, improvisation, and conduction she encountered at Irondale proved invigorating. Still, that a largely self-taught musician would entertain the notion of orchestral writing was itself a show of courage and resolve. The orchestral world, even in the 21st century, is a gated community, seemingly off limits to composers whose background, heritage, or training deviates from narrowly conceived standards. Fundamental characteristics, like race and gender, also pose obstacles, if tacitly.
Ingrid Laubrock & Nate Wooley
Taking Lewis’s message to heart, Laubrock participated in the second institute, held in Los Angeles. She produced the first version of Vogelfrei for that occasion, and then had opportunities to revisit and refine it subsequently for performances by the Tri-Centric Orchestra in New York and the EOS Chamber Orchestra Cologne at the moers festival— in the process adding an instrumental soloist (pianist Kris Davis), prominent parts for amplified contrabass clarinet (Josh Sinton) and trumpet (Nate Wooley), guided orchestral improvisations, and eight vocalists. The happy serendipity of a Moers curator being present for the Tri-Centric performance also led to Laubrock’s second opportunity to write for orchestra, resulting in Contemporary Chaos Practices, which involves an orchestra augmented with improvisers on saxophone, trumpet, guitar, and piano.
The present recording, recorded in a studio by an ensemble of first-call freelancers led by two ideally sympathetic conductors, Eric Wubbels and Taylor Ho Bynum, provides eloquent evidence of what Laubrock has achieved. Both of her orchestral pieces – Vogelfrei, with its variegated textures, animated rhythms, swooping vocals, and inexorable momentum; and Contemporary Chaos Practices, where four instantly distinguishable soloists (Mary Halvorson, Davis, Wooley, and Laubrock herself) retain their individuality while negotiating a brilliantly rendered aural landscape – serve notice of an estimable composer who has something to say, and knows exactly how to say it.
Shout it from the mountaintops.
Steve Smith is the director of publications for National Sawdust, a performing-arts venue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Village Voice, and other publications, and he previously served as a staff editor and writer for the Boston Globe and Time Out New York.
with Tom Rainey's Obbligato
10/15 JazzClub Hannover, DE
with GGRIL (Grand Groupe Régional d'Improvisation Liberée)
10/27 Rimouski, QC
10/28 Casa del Popolo, Montreal, QC
with Zeena Parkins & Tom Rainey
10/29 I-Beam, Brooklyn, NY
with Mary Halvorsen and more musicians TBA
11/03 Berlin Jazz Festival, Berlin, DE
with Mary Halvorsen Octet
11/04 Berlin Jazz Festival, Berlin, DE
11/08 Oslo, NO
11/09 Bergen, NO
11/10 Gdansk, PL
11/11 Mantova Auditorium Monteverdi, Mantova, IT
11/12 Venice Auditorium Santa Margherita, Venice, IT
11/13 Madrid, ES
with Nate Wooley's Battle Pieces
12/03 Roulette, New York, NY
with Tom Rainey Trio
12/30 Cornelia St. Cafe, New York, NY