Posted by: Andrew | June 27, 2009

Urs Leimbgruber, and more

So on Thursday night I was invited to play in the Creative Music Guild Large Ensemble directed by Swiss virtuosic improvising saxophonist Urs Leimgruber.  The CMG is a great Portland-based nonprofit that brings many fantastic creative improvisers to town.  They are now moving into involving more local musicians as well, which is fantastic.  We had an 18 piece group (2 drummers, 2 bassists, piano, harmonium (I played my low-quality but endearing Indian harmonium which my college roommate brought back for me from a trip there), cello, violin, 4 electronics guys, 4 saxes, guitar, pedal steel) – many of them musicians I haven’t met or worked with before – the amount of people doing crazy innovative and “under-the-radar” things in Portland is immense!  Anyway, Urs led us in some vaguely structured and cued free improv – his discussions about the primacy of sound over everything else really helped the vibe and I feel that at least by the end of our hour-long set we went some really fascinating places sonically.  His obsession with playing extremely softly was also rather mind-0pening, especially with such a large group.  Having all those people with no input mixing boards and what not was very intriguing to me, as I rarely work with that crowd.  However, I am only starting to realize the sonic possibilities of collaborations of that genre.  Yes, more projects!!

Before our set, Urs played a riveting 40-minute solo set involving bird-like multiphonics with three or four separate registers of material going on at the same time, the disassembling of his tenor mid-performance, and a great interaction with a passing freight train. Here’s a short YouTube clip of Urs for an idea of his sound:

It’s always a great pleasure to hear masters of free improvisation, people who are able to create genuine structure and hold the interest of the audience in an extended solo performance, which brings me to the ever-popular issue: How does “the general public” react to “avant-garde” / free improvised creative music?  Are people’s opinions clouded by weird preconceptions?  Is it more attractive to the audience if the artist’s theories or ideas (or compositions, for that matter) are explained, as in a modern art gallery with verbose paragraphs near every painting?  I posed these questions to my girlfriend (not for the first time) after the rehearsal with Urs on Wednesday.  We didn’t come to any definitive conclusions, but I always enjoy these discussions.  I tried to argue that if this music is presented in the right way (whatever that is), that non-musicians and people heretofore unexposed to it will respond positively – there is not the whole baggage of the jazz tradition to understand and internalize before you can hear the form or chord progression of the music.  Someone may argue at this point that the tradition and precendents of avant-garde music also must be understood on a certain level, and although I admit that having a knowledge of that tradition does add to my understanding and enjoyment of the music, I still believe that the inherent simplicity of the idea, even when it is very structured out with graphic scores a la Wadada Leo Smith, etc., contains a certain directness which open-minded listeners can hopefully access with relative ease.  At the end of everything, Steph countered that no matter what, it is still art music and therefore in the realm of a very small audience sector – I suppose this is true but then again, attempting to bring as much music to as many people as possible is something I hope to remain positive about for a long time, lest I lose my motivation due to cynicism.

I am reminded of a time I took Steph  to a Paxselin gig, before we were even dating – and her reaction to what was relatively free improv on short, simple heads, was remarkably positive (at least compared with the way my non-musician friends had reacted to such things in the past) – she related everything to movement or abstract art in some way, which I thought was a fantastic initial reaciton.  Incidentally, this also reminds me of the directions Tony Malaby‘s discussions of free playing often went last month at Banff – he began his artistic career as a painter and often described things in surprisingly concrete visualizations “I will put some pointillistic stuff in above the pianist’s more cloud-like foundation”.  I have tried to keep this in mind in various free playing situations recently to, I hope, great effect – though I am yet unsure as to how clear this has been to either the listeners or the other musicians, it is at least a fascinating exercise.

This is, of course, an ongoing discussion which I will probably reprise soon enough.  If anyone has thoughts, disagreements, agreements, let’s hear them!  Meanwhile, stay tuned for some exciting news on new serieses, grants, and other positive happenings in the Portland scene!



  1. I think our last SoS tour showed us that non-musicians can handle our music and even enjoy it. We had lots of positive reactions from people who had never been to a show like this, or who were involved in a totally different music scene. However, my mother still hates it.

  2. When it comes to being able to pursue avant-garde ends in a mainstream (or pop) context, my personal exemplar is Zappa. And I think he was “successful,” if we define that in terms of having the power to take on many of the ambitious projects he imagined (not all of them, though), because his music ends up being a kind of “something for everybody” experience, without feeling either like a cheesy unappetizing buffet, or like a cheap pander to multiple audiences.

    So, for instance, the folks who liked the “dumb rock songs” could sit through the “gnarly modern chamber music” because they knew that there would be another “dumb rock song” sooner or later. Zappa’s strong compositional personality connected everything as a coherent body of work, and that coherence was important, but there was enough of a sense of variety to appeal to multiple audiences.

    Sorry, I know that was a bit of a tangent. Or was it? Anyway, cool post!

  3. Serieses is a word? Maybe it is just an avant garde way of expressing multiple series. Hi Tom!

  4. Good point, Andrew – I suppose Zappa was rather a master at that! Still I wonder if having to sit through something waiting for something else is a problem in and of itself – it could quickly become the lame smorgasbord you describe though of course Zappa’s personal touch was enough to hold it all together. I wonder if the people who originally hated the gnarly modern chamber music eventually came around to like it?

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