The Material of Memory
Improvisation is the concept of action as it unfolds. So says the trio of Cunha, Cunha, and Kayoche-not musicians, but authors of the article Organizational Improvisation, What, When, How, and Why, which appeared in a 1999 edition of the International Journal of Management Reviews. Improvisational activity in the business world may not have the mystique or aesthetic appeal of musical improvisation, but it suggests that creativity with a lack of predetermination-that is, spontaneous response to unexpected circumstances, intuitive shifts of direction or attitude, an openness to solutions that emerge seemingly unrelated to the issues at hand, the willingness to plot (and adapt to) an unproven course-is not the sole province of the arts. In fact, we improvise constantly in our daily lives.
What is behind the concept, then, that informs such spontaneous action? It must be something that did not previously exist, at least not in a form, shape, or context that we easily recognize, otherwise there is no surprise, no sense of creative accomplishment. But neither does improvisation take place in a presumed vacuum of originality. Premeditated is not the same as predetermined; it is a matter of degree, like the variations between the different drip paintings of Jackson Pollock, say, or the effects of sunlight on Monet's haystacks. The results are not apparent until the action is concluded, and we have the object (or the experience) to value. The unfolding action, in its spontaneity, may ultimately shape the results, but it requires the concept to initiate the action. Concepts originate in the mind, which, as we know, is a non-linear, atemporal, unpredictable state of being.
This is what the poet Marianne Moore had in mind when (in the original 1919 version of Poetry) she expressed her belief that real art should derive from literalists of the imagination, an oxymoronic collision of the known and unknown. What we assume we know, then, exists as memory (the ongoing, if variable, state of our own past personal experience), and the unknown is what we project will occur or set into place ourselves. By focusing on the creation of an experience that combines a formalized reality (through our individual perspective of it) and an amorphous state of conceptualized ritual, Moore desired art that presents imaginary gardens with real toads in them. This is the Zen-like conundrum that Ab Baars and Ig Henneman confront in Stof.
Stof is the first-time recording of their well-seasoned reeds/viola duo, in this case a program of improvisations (only two of which incorporate some written-i.e.: predetermined-material). It's an uncommon instrumental combination, all but nonexistent in classical music history, which means there is no repertoire to reclaim or revise, no past to draw upon. Improvisationally speaking, duos almost inevitably turn to some manner of dialogue, a dynamic tension based on give-and-take and closely argued interaction, using complementary and/or contrasting gestures, tacitly premeditated if not arranged, to formalize their relationship. But that's not what I hear in the music of Stof. Instead, the individual pieces seem to consist of an almost palpable substance, as if they were constructed objects moving through temporary space rather than fleeting conversations in the moment or purely sound-generated abstract patterns. As in a Schwitters collage or a Tatlin assemblage, the material with which they are working has its own history, adding to the layers of implied and invented meaning.
What is the material of music? Sound, certainly; a literal fabric of perceived colors, textures, weight, density, tones. But in order to achieve a sense of improvisational awareness-whether in music, business affairs or Marianne Moore's vision of poetry-we must consider the concept that influences how that fabric is measured, cut, shaped. And the music Baars and Henneman have created here resonates with a powerful conceptual metaphor. The clue is in the title. This is the way they describe it: In Dutch, [Stof] has many senses, as in dust (also the biblical 'dust to dust'), but it is also 'fabric or material.' The fabric or material used for clothes. [The album] is dedicated to Ig's sister Eiske, who was a clothing designer (she had her own line) and who died last March.
When art employs metaphors like this, even though they may not be predetermined, we normally prefer to respond to the experience as if it were programmatic or narrative, telling a story specific to the meaning at hand. It's not that simple. This music, like the films of Stan Brakhage (as characterized by the cultural critic Guy Davenport), does not tell a story but defines a state of mind. So these fourteen pieces/sound objects use states of memory as improvisation, embodying reflection into action. In this way, memory is identified not as relating specific emotions in a storytelling mode, but as a history of past experiences, knowledge, technique, and craft that is spontaneously translated into an immediacy of form-as they find and construct the music like a tactile object, negotiating a flow of culture (details, echoes, allusions, and transformations), as opposed to an illusory flow of time.
For example. Notice the varied approaches Henneman's viola finds-droning like a medieval hurdy-gurdy in parts of Violetto Rossastro, varying bow arm pressure to affect the rhythm and attack on Whirligig (and using intonation as a weapon), the way in which elastic sinews imply movement throughout Hisako's Body Sway, the Bartokian pizzicato of Castle Walk in Herringbone Suit, the wooden percussion of Stof -to Eiske-. She is, of course, well versed in the language of, say, Berio's Sequenza, as much as that of Stravinsky, Bartok, or Bach, which grounds the duo in a uniquely flexible harmonic and rhythmic context. Meanwhile, the acknowledged influence of John Carter on Baars' clarinet and Von Freeman on his tenor saxophone, for example, are only vague intimations here. Not since Ben Webster, perhaps, has a reed player used modification of the air flow through the instrument to such dramatic effect-the puffs of melody in Castle Walk in Herringbone Suit or how the shakuhachi barely coats his breath with color in Giallo di Napoli, the feather-light phrases of Violetto Rossastro, or Sabbia's squeals and squawks (illuminating degrees of texture like the grain in a piece of wood).
This may describe aspects of their material, but does not explain how they shape the fabric of memory. Throughout these varied improvisations, the two voices are distinct, separate, but inseparable; their parts dovetail, rotate, evade contact, mesh. Confusing the perception of background and foreground (that is, the image of hierarchical accompaniment), both spin out lines, either in layers or counterpoint, which may thin out or thicken, then splinter off into extended melody-which, in the subtle contemplation of light and shadow, tonal weight and restrained intensity, call to mind the pinpoint, nearly imperceptible clarity of lines on an Agnes Martin canvas. Likewise, emotion may be nearly imperceptible, but unavoidable as well. Stof -to Eiske-, significantly the longest performance, allows clarinet and viola each an aria of loss; as they gradually gravitate towards the other, the mood grows inescapably tender. But memory, always inexact and personal, suggests abstraction is the most reasonable response to increasingly complex emotions.
Perhaps what Marianne Moore was looking for, imaginary gardens with real toad in them, is to be found in Guy Davenport's statement that True imagination makes up nothing; it is a way of seeing the world. Likewise, such music as this, which offers us a chance to experience the material of our own memory, as song.
Chicago, August 2006