An improvised-music summit offers contrasting experiences of community and austerity | Music Review | Chicago Reader

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An improvised-music summit offers contrasting experiences of community and austerity



The double album Houston 2012 captures a two-day encounter in October 2012 between English tabletop guitarist Keith Rowe and the experimental-music community of Houston, Texas. Rowe’s visit came about thanks to the initiative of Saint Louis double bassist Damon Smith, who lived in Texas at the time. While there Smith developed a strong working relationship with Sandy Ewen, who’s not only a splendid, unconventional guitarist but also an organizer committed to facilitating women’s access to the arts. In 2009 she established Lady Band (of Various Fruit Names), an all-female experimental ensemble whose political roots and widely varying experience levels bear similarities to the mixture of trained and amateur participants in the egalitarian-minded Scratch Orchestra, an experimental-music ensemble Rowe had played in 40-odd years earlier.

The album’s first disc documents that convergence. First Rowe, Ewen, and Smith improvised a thrilling set of negotiations among Rowe’s finely abraded textures, Ewen’s more eruptive attack, and Smith’s groaning drones. Then a ten-strong Lady Band, using the name Gooseberry Marmalade, played a series of Scratch Orchestra scores that they’d workshopped with Rowe. Their performances reconcile rigor and playfulness, sounding by turns like a brawl in a metalworking shop, a convention of stocking-footed mimes, and a straight-up dance party. The second disc is just the trio, recorded when they reunited in the studio the next day. The resulting improvisations are much more austere than their first, reducing each musician’s signature sound to elemental expressions of electricity and friction enacted upon a vast field of sonic emptiness.  v

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