Sunday, June 12, 2005

Baseball to Brakhage

Lucky girls are born to a Baseball Dad, to someone who takes her to opening day, patiently explains all the rules, and now and again asks a simple question to see if she’s picking up the nuances of the game. That was not my dad, but somehow I still acquired the baseball bug. The sound of baseball is like nothing else: the crack of the bat, a fastball caught solidly in the dead center of the catcher’s mitt, the cheering fans, and the not-quite-human voice of the stadium announcer...all of it ideally heard in the wide-open acoustic of summertime air. Listening to the game on the radio is another kind of music; the practiced cadences of the announcers’ voices make way, at times, for the distant sound of the game itself. Baseball, more so than other games, retains an auditory appeal on the radio partly due to its pacing and partly because it is like a palimpsest revealing its own multiple layers.

Saturday, after an hour spent listening to the dueling counterpoint of Kruk and Kuip's broadcast (Giants vs. Indians at SBC Park), I reluctantly turned off my radio and sauntered over to the Jewish Community Center for a different sort of duo-ing: Rovate 2005’s juxtaposition of the films of Stan Brakhage and the compositions of Larry Ochs. Ochs is one-fourth of ROVA, an...improvised-music informed...saxophone quartet, and though his The Mirror World is a composition, it leaves the field wide open for the game of improv. The quartet coached guest musicians through form & structure, texture & orchestration, and solo & ensemble playing with a rehearsed sign language. Thumbs up, thumbs down, or cranking a wheel around, the deftly delivered gestures were not unlike those between catcher and pitcher at the ballpark. And the excitement of improvised music, like baseball, relies on the interplay of familiar actions (called for by coaches and by the structured rules of the game) and the surprising--sometimes stumbling, sometimes magnificent--reactions of the performers.

I could hear in Saturday's first presentation of The Mirror World (with ROVA backed by percussionists Gino Robair and William Winant) a strong correlation to the Brakhage films. Fast and noisy, loud and messy--this was virtuoso, high-energy improv, a speedily streaming aural collage. And though I could appreciate the contrasts of color and articulation, and the sensitive ways that the players created musical space for one another, a Saxophone Dad would surely have pointed out the finer techniques and subtleties ROVA’s playing. (Oo, the fingerings, the breathing, the impossible register changes!)

The second version of The Mirror World brought a familiar cast of bay area improvisers to the stage but delivered nothing of the frenetic intensity of the first set. The more atmospheric second "take" paralleled the Brakhage film (The Wold Shadow) that preceded it, in which a frame of aspen trees is viewed repeatedly in various exposures of light and contrast until the trees became scrawny scratches against a headache-inducing white-out. The opening duet between trumpet and alto flute recalled the lean lines of those trees and foreshadowed what would become a characteristic of the piece: interesting solo "licks" intertwined with everyone else's contribution of light and shadow. Ultimately, the droning, sometimes drugged-out backdrop lost steam in its aimlessness, though it allowed me to fall hard when I heard something with more distinction. Ben Goldberg provided two memorable clarinet/bass clarinet solos, each played with classical clarity in tone and projection. In comparison to the wild, unabandoned playing in the first set, the large ensemble version seemed contained. But, given the more controlled and languorously paced conducting and cueing, the tendency towards static ambiance made a little more sense.

Whether listening to baseball or a quartet of saxophonists, one can be entertained and excited even when the terminologies and rules of the game are a mystery. With improvised music, for example, I look in from the outside; sadly, it is just not my language. But a lack of insider knowledge doesn’t detract from the music's vitality, and vitality is the true measure, really, of the quality of the performance. I can't help but wish for the enthusiastic tutelage provided by a loving statistical freak (a Baseball Dad, a Saxophone Dad) and the ears thusly trained to the specific beauties of the game.

p.s. The Giants lost. Sigh.


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