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Estamos Ensemble: Improvise. Enjoy. Repeat.

August 19, 2010

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

A truly exciting new ensemble made its way to San Francisco Thursday for a local debut, and, hopefully, the first of many visits. The Estamos Ensemble, a collective of musicians from Mexico and the U.S., visited the city as part of Yerba Buena Center’s New Frequencies series. The ensemble — violin, viola, cello, electric guitar, piano, percussion, two multiple-woodwind players, and voice with electronics — offered a potent program of chamber improvisation, with nine works, all of them premieres by Mexican and American composers, plus improvised duos forming bridges between written pieces.

The players represent a kind of musician — the composer/performer/improviser — that has always been at the core of the jazz and improv worlds and is gradually finding a larger place in the “new music” landscape. The performance accomplished the best of what its varied approaches had to offer, with the music having a strong sense of being created in the moment, and with each work having been beautifully prepared and shaped with care and imagination. The program also offered a glimpse into the kind of vibrant experimental music that is being made in Mexico, a neighboring scene that’s all too rarely spotlighted hereabouts.

The concert opened with two works by Mexican composers that immediately demonstrated the group’s broad expressive range and tight ensemble. Ana Lara’s Little Steps was most notable for her rich harmonic sense, which drew on a sonic palette closer to jazz and which inspired propulsive playing all around. Disborder control desborde, by Juan Felipe Waller, began as a study in attacks and moved on to some piercing passages for sopranino saxophones and electric guitar. At the same time, it nearly become a concerto grosso for prepared piano, with alternating playful and virtuosic passages on the instrument, both solo and with the ensemble, played with power and deep musicality by pianist Thollem McDonas.

Los Angeles musician Nels Cline is best known as a guitar wizard who plays in everything from free-improv groups to his regular gig with the country-rock band Wilco. The Dead Angels, his setting of a poem of the same name by Rafael Alberti, revealed his depth as a composer. The work opens with lovely flute and clarinet counterpoint, growing into the layered sounds of the full ensemble while the haunting text is read in Spanish, with the voice undergoing electronic echoes and processing. In the midst of this transporting atmosphere, a furious amplified piano erupts, leading to an elegiac march that ends the work. It’s a dramatic and beautiful piece, heightened by Cline’s willingness to go to extremes.

Out of Their Midst

Two members of the group were also featured as composers, with strong results. The extraordinary Los Angeles multi-woodwind player Vinny Golia contributed his Enemies of the Soul …, which was highlighted by gorgeous textures that supported evolving harmonies, a study in carefully crafted moods. McDonas, the group’s founder and current artistic director, was represented by All for Now, a piece that had a rough, almost primordial quality at times, but that hung together through a coherent design and the ensemble’s collective sensitivity.

The ensemble is strongly connected to the Bay Area, featuring local musicians Theresa Wong (cello and voice) and Ava Mendoza (guitar). The program included one Bay Area composer with Hoppin’ John, by former Kronos Quartet cellist Joan Jeanrenaud. This is a graceful, minimalist-influenced work for string trio and hand percussion that gradually and organically expands a series of brief gestures, which the players handled sensitively.

The program ended with 180 Points of Light, by bassist/composer William Parker, a musician best known as part of the downtown jazz community in New York but also an original, compelling voice as a composer. Parker’s piece begins with long tones all around the ensemble, inviting a deep awareness of sound, highlighted by Golia’s playing on the bamboo side-blown flute and later the shakuhachi (an end-blown flute). A layered vocal duet emerged from the opening passage, and then the work grew into a dense soundscape that seemed both static and purposeful, until the music died out over an extended time frame, giving way to a loosely connected text that ended the work.

Listen to the Music

The improvised sections that wove the program together were never less than compelling, and some were especially fine. Carmina Escobar, a charismatic and inventive performer on both voice and electronics, joined Wong in building up an ethereal groove in the course of their duet. A duet between Mendoza and woodwind player Marko Novachcoff took a different but equally rewarding approach, veering down disjunct but still connected paths, and coming back to a sense of unity through intense listening.

Si, But …

Inevitably, with nine premieres, some less compelling moments occurred along the way. Jorge Torres Sáenz’ Improvisations Based on Through the Borderline and What Lichita Found There had an inventive mix of sounds, such as a momentary layering of string harmonics, sliding guitar, and high piano chords, that carried passing moments but didn’t cohere across the entire work. Pauline Oliveros’ Olas, sobre las olas (Waves, Over the Waves): Homenaje a Juventino Rosas 1868-1894 had some similar challenges. Leading eventually to a final, and funny, quote from Rosas’ famous waltz, Sobre las olas, this piece clearly brought the ensemble into a state of close listening. But even though the musicians projected a deep sense of internal connection, the music itself came across as fragment after fragment, perhaps especially so after the richer sounds that preceded it.

Sáenz’ piece also brought out some spontaneity from one audience member, who so objected to the “improper” Spanish that formed the work’s text that she voiced her complaint, received an unsatisfactory explanation from the musicians, and promptly walked out. In an evening full of so many new sounds, the unexpected can even come from places other than the stage.

Benjamin Frandzel has written on music and the arts for a wide range of publications. He has a background as a guitarist and composer, and has collaborated with dance, theater, and visual artists.