- Charlie Gross
- Lisa Alvarado and Joshua Abrams work in studios joined by an open doorway in their shared home.
Chicago composer and musician Joshua Abrams likes to compare the guimbri (aka gimbri, guembri, or sintir), a traditional three-string bass lute associated with Morocco's Gnawa people, to the Roland TR-808, an early-80s drum machine that became foundational to hip-hop, Chicago house, and a long list of other genres. "Sometimes I'll joke that it's the original 808, because it has a percussive skin mixed with a bass tone," Abrams says. "It has a strong sub-bass too."
Abrams is widely known as a bassist, playing jazz, freely improvised music, indie rock, and hip-hop with the likes of Nicole Mitchell, Mike Reed, Dave Rempis, Will Oldham, Prefuse 73, and the Roots. During a long association with Kartemquin Films documentary director Steve James, he's created soundtracks for James's Life Itself (2014), The Interrupters (2011), and the series America to Me (2018). But Abrams plays some of his most personally significant music on the guimbri. "I think it's a very sophisticated instrument for centering and focus, and that's been an aim or concern with presenting music that can offer that possibility for the listener," he says. "For me it just became the locus to bring many different musical interests together. Sometimes inspired by very old or traditional music, sometimes inspired by contemporary music, electronic music, popular music—and that musical amalgam is central to the project's character."
The project he's referring to is Natural Information Society, a constantly evolving collective that adopted that name in 2010. It also involves his wife, artist and musician Lisa Alvarado, and it's very much a family affair: Abrams composes the music, while Alvarado handles the Society's visuals. Currently represented by the Bridget Donahue gallery in New York, she has exhibited in Chicago, Glasgow, and Tbilisi, Georgia, but NIS has given her the chance to share her work with people who might never make it to an art show. Her large-scale paintings, whose intricate, repetitive geometric patterns rhyme with the hypnotic rhythms and interwoven tone colors of NIS's music, appear as stage backdrops and album covers.
Natural Information Society
Fri 6/28, 8:30 PM, Constellation, 3111 N. Western, $15-$17. 18+
"Our aesthetic and our sensibilities worked so well together and kind of reflected each other, and now they're intertwined and inform each other," Abrams says. "Also on a life-decision level, sometimes people need to pursue very separate paths. You can be very supportive, and you do your thing and I'll do mine, and we come together to support each other. But for us it seems more fun to pursue a thing together. Then we would be in it together and be on the road together."
- Julia Dratel
- Natural Information Society open for Body/Head at the Art Institute in March 2019.
In the couple's home, which they share with a three-year-old daughter, their studios occupy adjacent rooms joined by an open doorway—so the acts of painting, playing, and composing can intermingle when they occur simultaneously. "I work in a home studio, where rehearsals and recordings happen," says Alvarado. "For me the context of where a work is made and how it is used is integral to its meaning and energy. The sounds of many great musicians, including Hamid Drake and Ari Brown, fill our home and vibrate the walls of my studio while I work. Experiencing rehearsals in front of my works showed me how well they could work onstage."
Abrams hopes the paintings can provide a focal point for the audience, and he enjoys having them onstage. "Sometimes they're hung way above us, but it always kind of changes the environment," he says. "For me that's a way to make whatever stage we're on feel more comfortable, more at home—and to give that signal that this might be a different sort of experience than is typical."
- Courtesy the artist
- Lisa Alvarado’s solo show “Sound Talisman” at Bridget Donahue gallery in New York
In a recent article that Alvarado wrote for the Wire, she credited this concept—"the stage as a home, and the home as a stage"—to one of Natural Information Society's inspirations, the artistic partnership of Don Cherry and his wife, Monika "Moki" Cherry. Don first became known as the pocket-trumpet-playing foil to Ornette Coleman on Coleman's groundbreaking late-50s and early-60s free-jazz recordings for Contemporary and Atlantic, and he subsequently traveled the world, picking up ideas and instruments that he used to make increasingly genre-transcending music. In the early 70s he and Moki, an artist and musician, formed the Organic Music Society, which performed with an international assortment of jazz and folk musicians (as well as Swedish summer-school students) and preferred communal, public settings to conventional jazz clubs. When they played at schools or museums, for instance, they discovered that people interacted with their output in different ways. Moki painted the gatefold cover of the project's double LP; look inside and you'll find photos of Don jamming with their kids.
In the Wire, Alvarado acknowledges the precedent of Moki's colorful paintings and talismanic banners. Her article also includes a 1978 photo of a young drummer who'd recently started playing with Don, reclining on a couch in the Cherrys' house in front of one such banner: Hamid Drake. Renowned for his work with Peter Brötzmann, Bill Laswell, William Parker, and Michael Zerang, among many others, Drake needs little introduction. Based in Chicago but active around the world, he's been a key figure in the development of Natural Information Society—and not just because he's one degree removed from the Cherrys. He's contributed as both a spiritual guide and an active participant, joining the band onstage occasionally and playing on two of its albums, including the brand-new double LP Mandatory Reality, released April 12 by Eremite Records.
Drake and Abrams have played together since the 1990s, when they shared the stage with venerable tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson. Once Drake knew that Abrams had a guimbri, he kept track of the bassist's progress on it. Abrams's first recording with the guimbri appears on a 2007 album by Anderson and Drake, From the River to the Ocean (Thrill Jockey). He subsequently played it in Drake's reggae-informed group Bindu. "Those experiences were very important," Abrams says. "They encouraged me to practice so that I got comfortable playing the instrument, and to let the music be the guide rather than arrive at a position that was solely intellectual."
It took more time and scrupulous experimentation for Abrams to sort out how he wanted to use the guimbri in his own music. Among the records he's made under his name or leadership, he first used it on the 2010 release Natural Information (Eremite), which combines solo home-studio creations, an electric trio session with guitarist Emmett Kelly and drummer Frank Rosaly, and recordings where Abrams plays bass with two jazz comrades, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewiecz and drummer Nori Tanaka. Linking these disparate elements is a meditative quality that's reinforced by the weighty resonance of the guimbri and by the accompanists' willingness to rein in spotlight-grabbing impulses in service to the centering insistence of Abrams's rhythms.
Alvarado first appears on Natural Information's successor, 2012's Represencing (Eremite), and though she's on only half the album, her droning harmonium (a bellows-driven reed organ) and clustered gong strikes enhance the music's ceremonial air. The personnel on Represencing vary even more from track to track than they do on Natural Information, reflecting the fluid membership of the nascent NIS. But subsequent lineups have been relatively stable (from song to song, if not from album to album), made up of musicians capable of maintaining their individuality while connecting the disparate influences that feed into the collective's sound.
"Everyone playing on any of the records is there because I love what they do and they were interested in the project," explains Abrams. "I like to work with musicians who have distinctive sounds and approaches, and I want the music to have room for their voices." Portions of 2015's Magnetoception (Eremite), which features Kelly and Jeff Parker on electric guitars as well as Drake on hand and kit drums, could almost pass for a late-night meet-up between the Velvet Underground and preternaturally eclectic multi-instrumentalist Sandy Bull. On 2015's Autoimaginary (Drag City), a collaboration with Chicago synth-and-reeds trio Bitchin Bajas, and 2017's Simultonality (Eremite), Ben Boye's radiant Autoharp and dense, winding keyboard figures sync up with terse guitar and drum-kit grooves, demonstrating a trance-inducing common ground between minimalist composition and Krautrock beats.
In June 2017, NIS returned home from a U.S. tour and played a record-release show for Simultonality at Constellation. Abrams used the show to debut a new approach: For its extended final piece, a three-piece horn section (alto saxophonist Nick Mazzarella, cornetist Ben LaMar Gay, and bass clarinetist Jason Stein) joined the touring ensemble (Abrams, Alvarado, Boye, and drummer Mikel Patrick Avery) and guest percussionist Hamid Drake. The piece was built, like many NIS compositions, around the guimbri's patiently ascending-and-descending lines. At first the horns and keyboards followed Abrams's steps, but soon the instruments branched out to follow coordinated but independent paths. Their interwoven lines fit together like the repeating abstract shapes in one of Alvarado's paintings, and the occasional solo interjections accented the billow and flux of the larger patterns like the metallic paints she uses to throw matte colors into relief. Two days after the concert, that eight-piece version of Natural Information Society went into Chicago studio Electrical Audio to record a 40-minute version of that piece, "Finite," as well as the three other compositions that comprise Mandatory Reality.
"On this record, the music is more specific—there are clearly systems at play," says Abrams. "I wanted the album to focus on extended duration and slowness, to create a space and timing where the musicians can actively listen and make choices based on that listening. I wanted to write for multiple horns in the group but maintain NIS's interwoven dynamic. In NIS the orchestration lives within the sound of the guimbri—the low tones are the soil from which the other sounds grow. The challenge of adding horns is that they can easily take over the sound of a group, so I tried to write in a way that blends their timbres with the other instruments. Everyone has the opportunity to take their time to listen across the ensemble and focus on how they approach the notes they are asked to play."
"Finite" is the album's center of gravity, and for going on two years it's been the mainstay of the Society's live sets, where it can last from 30 minutes to more than an hour. On a recent European tour, a quartet version of NIS (Abrams, Alvarado, Stein, and Avery) played it every night. Avery puts a quick backbeat behind the piece, turning some concerts into prolonged dance parties.
- Natural Information Society at May Chapel in Rosehill Cemetery, November 2017: Mikel Patrick Avery, Jason Adasiewicz, Nick Mazzarella, Jason Stein, Lisa Alvarado, and Joshua Abrams
"I think working in between the cracks of established genres has potential to find new forms," Abrams says. "My ongoing focus for the group is creating structures that might not be so obvious upon first listen. Sometimes that gets mistaken for no structure. We're trying to arrive at something different, and that's where the energy comes from—both through the process of finding and through inhabiting a sound world that doesn't easily fit categorization."
The balance of patient ensemble development and strategically complementary individual contributions that characterizes "Finite" is also evident on the album's side-length opener, "In Memory's Prism." Abrams wrote it to soundtrack the film component of artist Simon Starling's Project for a Rift Valley Crossing. "The film is of a canoe trip across the Rift Valley in a boat made of the magnesium derived from the water which it is traversing," says Abrams. "That's a beautiful metaphor for this music to accompany."
Natural Information Society plays a concert to celebrate the release of Mandatory Reality at Constellation on June 28. Between now and then, Alvarado will help keep the group's sounds circulating. In May she'll have a booth at gargantuan international art fair Frieze New York, and NIS will be with her in sound and spirit. "I'm going to be showing some new pieces that I have, some smaller-scaled works that are longer in scale. Maybe you've seen one from photos on this last tour. But there's also going to be a sound piece that Josh and I have been working on—that's going to be something different for an art-fair environment." v