Ethos Collective improvises its way to freedom

What’s so exciting in this improv is that, given the skill level of classical musicians, we’re not talking about garage band kids thrashing around over I-VI-V chords but some of the city’s finest emerging talent bringing all their skill, and willing to be exceptionally vulnerable as creators of music, not just performers. 

The 21st century is proving itself to be a new game for classical musicians who have to answer the question, “Why go out and hear merely brilliant local performers when you can plant yourself on the couch and dial in a genius from anywhere on the planet?” Improvisation answers that question nicely.

Improvisation was the bait that enticed me to go hear the Ethos Collective perform a concert that would include several types of improvisation: music with improvised bits in it, music that was wholly improvised, musicians who improvised spoken programmatic introductions to pieces (with varying degrees of success), and a set change that appeared as if was entirely improvised.

Mandala by Ava Grayson

A composer-friend of mine once told me that the composer’s job is to weed out the best of improvisation, and then added triumphantly “Eighty percent of improvisation is garbage”. This isn’t a new conceit; it echoes the general state of affairs in classical music since back in the early 19th century when Beethoven (classical music’s ultimate control freak) abolished improvised cadenzas (the place in a concerto where the soloist gets to riff for a while on his own) in favour of the composer’s own written cadenzas. “Play THIS Dummkopf!” he’d shout loud enough to hear himself.

Ava Grayson’s Mandala offered both composed and improvised music together in one piece. The mandala was the idea that inspired the work as “a visual representation of the universe”. An ambitious idea to undertake in music to be sure, but there’s more. The programme notes (by the composer) promised the piece would bridge the gap between Eastern and Western spiritual philosophies, balance order and chaos, encourage you to “observe yourself”, end world hunger, and put a chicken in every pot. What I came away with from Mandala was that, for lack of any single objective, Grayson instead fired her entire battery of new music techniques as a musical spray and pray campaign.

Beethoven cast long shadows over music, which gradually “weeded out” improvisation like some unfortunate mountain dialect in favour of a more orderly arrangement of genius composer and dutiful performer. How this played out in Grayson’s Mandala was a tentative truce in which “semi-improvisational elements” represented chaos and “rigid material” represented order (nothing new here Ludwig), but beyond that, if it were to ever go about balancing order and chaos, it would have to get beyond its own solipsistic borders.

Video of Ethos Collective performing Mandala at the Orpheum Annex Dec 11, 2013 - Credit: Redshift Music Society

As luck would have it though, no sooner could I say “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up” than Stefan Hintersteininger’s beautiful neo-romantic cello lines (composed or improvised I’m not sure) soared up and away from the minimalistic churl it left behind to provide a transition for the new beginning of the concert (and the reason I came)—the improvisation.

Improvisation by Ethos Collective

At first I mistook the piece Improvisation to be mere filler between composed works, but quickly realized my error as the Ethos Collective began to improvise. Where improvisations in the Grayson piece seemed jerky or hesitant—what one might expect to hear from classical musicians who’d had improvisation, er, drummed out of them, the Ethos musicians suddenly found their footing in the open plains of free improvisation.

I spoke with percussionist Katie Rife after the concert and asked her how a classically trained ensemble practiced improvisation. Her answer was short and precise: “Don’t talk; just play”. Music is at once deeply subjective and indescribable in words and improvised music is about listening deeply and picking ideas out of the air, so to be free from over-intellectualizing ensures the music remains free and does not become, in Katie’s words, “predisposed to an idea”.

What’s so exciting here is that, given the skill level of classical musicians, we’re not talking about garage band kids thrashing around over I-VI-V chords but some of the city’s finest emerging talent bringing to bear all their training and skill, and willing to be exceptionally vulnerable as creators of music, not just performers. More, please.

Double Sextet by Steve Reich

Ethos Collective

Ethos teamed up with NU:BC Collective (and a few extra ringers like the unrelentingly talented clarinettist, François Houle), to perform Steve Reich’s Pulitzer prize winning Double Sextet for pairs of flutes, clarinets, violins, cellos, vibraphones, and pianos. This is a landmark piece for Vancouver and Canada as previously it’s only ever been heard here as a single sextet (with pre-recorded other sextet to accompany it) in Winnipeg and Wolfville, Nova Scotia (Acadia University), and never in a major centre like Toronto or Montreal as you might expect. Now, thanks to Ethos, the full Double Sextet has officially entered the repertoire in this fair land.

Reich’s music derives its fascination from solid structure that builds tension through building repeating layers of sound (i.e., minimalism) until the repetition finally brings about a transformation in listening. Like long-distance running or pressure point massage, you finally must give in to it and let it take you wherever it will.

I never had any doubt that the combined forces of Ethos and NU:BC would achieve this effect, but yearned to sit directly between the two ensembles (even the light use of amplification still didn’t quite provide the balance I sought) to recreate the mind-blowing effect Reich’s other works like Different Trains (a chilling juxtaposition of 1940’s train rides in America and Nazi Germany) had had on me.

Lacking the sensational programmatic script of his Different Trains, Reich’s Double Sextet is a purer work because I could ride any journey I wanted. I guess you could say it’s the listener who is the ultimate improviser.

Green improv

If you missed this concert, you can hear Ethos Collective next on September 14 at VanDusen Botanical Garden in a special premiere of Graham Flett's The Duke of Green, written for sustainable spaces and following the principles of Vancouver's Greenest City 2020 initiative.

Can’t wait that long? Then go hear François Houle’s “Sea&Sky” this Wednesday (May 21) at the Fei & Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, SFU Woodwords.

Ethos Collective

Photo credits: Chris Randle

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