At an eclectic house concert on the upper west side last night, a trio composed of drummer Flin van Hemmen, trombonist Ben Gerstein, and bassist Sean Ali played two extended free improvisations that together formed over an hour of music. This particular event is part of a series to take place at Papa Cookie, which has been hosting such shows for over two years.
Many contemporary musicians are exploring the relationship between sound and silence. The late Bill Dixon was famous for employing silence as his “second instrument.” Nate Wooley has done this brilliantly with his project Seven Storey Mountain in an intimate way so as to draw the heartbeat of each audience member into the sound scape. Mike Pride‘s album Birthing Days, released just this year, is a recent example of the juxtaposition of silence and intense sound. Van Hemmen-Gerstein-Ali also play with the concept of sound silence, but in a very different way.
The band began their opening piece affectionately coaxing sound from their respective instruments, easing the audience into their musical universe. From that point forward, the band experimented with sparse sounds, with no single voice dominating the others, all the time reaching towards a group sound.
They stretched their sound out, making it thin, even permeable by the silence that clung to the room. It was as if, when faced with a canvas and oil paint, they chose only to apply just enough to cover it–not too much so as to make the colors opaque, and not to disturb the silences peeking through by adding a uniformity in palate. Instead, they employed a subtle measure of color and texture in their sound, one that communicated with, but did not overwhelm the audience.
Ali, a very underrated bassist, utilized an interesting vocabulary with his instrument, digging into his bag of tricks. And I mean this quite literally–he carries as many mallets, sticks, and other implements as any drummer does to a gig. Perhaps most interesting in terms of texture was his sawing at the strings with the side of a mallet which gave his bass an industrial tone, one that worked well with the percussive nature of the other two musicians.
Gerstein, as always, was unpredictably creative, using a cymbal as a mute, detaching his slide from the bell of his horn, and other extended techniques to really push the boundaries of the trombone. He even played two prerecorded clips of voices that were appropriately obscured and stretched themselves–through static and distortion–to add another element to the music.
Van Hemmen was busy behind his assembled drums and percussive sound sources. He rolled an upside down, detached cymbal over the head of his snare drum to open, producing a shallow, muted sound that mingled well with the others. He employed other techniques to stretch his sound out: a broken drum stick, tapping on the arms of a nearby chair or the sides of the snare, and even used a glass jar and a copper bowl–these all worked well especially in the house concert setting where subtler sounds fill the space and where more direct attacks would have overwhelmed.
Despite the exploratory nature of the music, the music bonded well via a common mood. The three also had moments of great unity, the most driving of which built towards the climax of the first piece, before receding away.