Berkeley is so weird. It's this strange mélange of old hippy, west coast academia, greek system kids, granola, money, seediness, sixties idealism, pizza shops, clothing stores. Just going to Berkeley, I have to visit Yogurt Park, because I regard that as the city's premiere cultural institution. And yet I have to make some excuses, it does have this giant University, which never seems like the West Coast Ivory Tower it supposes to be, given the students you have running around there. I brave all this to attend Trinity Concert Series presentation of Grosse Abfahrt. Light audience. Berkeley kids no, Conservatory kids no, Mills kids? Yes, of course. It seems they are the only young folk with enthusiasm for this sort of thing. Mysterious older types come out of hilltop redwood homes to park on Durant in biodiesel Mercedes conversions and bask in the intellectual glow in the small church.
Grosse Abfahrt is Tom Djll trumpets n electronics, Chris Brown piano, Jen Baker Trombone, Fred Frith Guitar, Matt Ingalls clarinet and fiddle, Tim Perkis, electronics, Gino Robair, percussion, Doepfer modules, and John Shirurba, guitar.
So you have eight people doing free improv. With eight people performing freely structured improv brings some curious results. The main issue is that the performers can hear and respond to the mass in general and the performers most closely next to them; but because of seating and monitoring arrangements, performers could clearly not hear or be fully aware of what people seated away from them were doing. I don't think Tom Djll and Fred Frith had any line of sight or ability to really hear the more subtle things they were doing, as they had three other performers right between them. Maybe complete sight lines are not necessary; but the group ends up jiving player-to-mass as opposed to player-to-player.
Without any conductor or imposed structure, another issue was the way the improvisations were constructed. Players seemed too restless to "lay out" for extended periods, so with eight of them, there were few really effective call-and-response passages, duets, solos, or trios. These usually occurred at the beginning of an improvisation, or as things were winding down.
The players all made great sounds and there were many surprises. Tom Djill used a CD as a mute, and played a strange little mini trumpet, and was fascinating to watch. Fred Frith, guitarist extraordinare on the scene for decades, dropped metal chains onto his pickups making astounding noises. Gino Robair, Clubfoot Alumnus, made wonder happen in percussion land. All the players are fine musicians. It would have been great if there had been more solo and true duet moments. Slow down. Breathe deeply. Let music happen. As John Cage would advise, pay attention to the rests, pay attention to where you do not play. How can you analyze the rests in your composition or improvisation?
I must commend Diane Grubbe and the Trinity Chamber Concert Series for booking and presenting new, adventurous, electro acoustic music. It is truly wonderful, new, vibrant, and exciting, and it's a great programmer and curator who will include it on an equal footing in their chamber music series.