Jon Raskin's The Hear and Now

The Hear and Now is an amazingly flexible piece of music: the instrumentation can change completely from performance to performance; the size of the ensemble can be adapted to fit any space; any given performance is adaptable to musicians at every level of experience; the level of complexity is open whatever amount of rehearsal time an ensemble wants to give it. In essence: every performance is a virtual world premiere. The Hear and Now is a graphic composition for improvising musicians which draws on the system of group-improvisation developed by Rova entitled Radar. The work consists of visual elements, written music, conceptual strategies, and games, all employed to create a form of structured improvisation. There is a conductor who helps guide the work, but the performers decide much of the material and content as the piece develops in real time.

The original ensemble was brought together by Jon Raskin, employing Rova plus six true masters of unique Asian instruments. Namely: Shoko Hikage - Japanese Koto; Min Xiao Fen - Chinese Pipa; Jiebing Chen - Erhu; Kyaw Kyaw Naing - Pat Waing and other Burmese drums; Jim Owens – Indian Tabla Tarong (a set of tuned Tablas); Sang-Won Park – Kayagum. Gino Robair served brilliantly as the conductor.

The premiere performance took place as part of the 2004 Other Minds Festival. A rough recording of this performance is available at

at Other Minds Festival 2004

The work’s written material draws on compositional elements inspired by the traditions of the participants; it was organized so as to allow the various musicians to interact with each other in new contexts. It also allowed room for their improvisational ideas to mingle, resulting in a new approach for all concerned, as all the players found roles and the means to express themselves. The result was a very intriguing ensemble of winds, strings, and percussion where interesting timbres commingled beautifully, the exchange of different approaches to improvisation was explored, and the cross-fertilization of these sounds and ideas led to something greater than the sum of the individual parts.

The Hear and Now has also been performed at 21 Grand Gallery and Performance Space in 2005 with the following ensemble:

Strings: John Shuirba-guitar, Myles Boisen- Guitar/electric Bass, Shoko Hikage- Koto George Cremaschi-Bass

Winds: Jon Raskin- Saxes, Liz Albee- trumpet, Kyle Bruckman- Oboe/English Horn, Kiku Day- Shakuhachi, Sara Schoenbeck- Bassoon

Percussion: Seth Warren, Karen Stackpole, Harris Eisenstadt

Conductor: Gino Robair

The Hear and Now is a highly adaptive work that can be performed in different settings with many different instrumentations. The one necessary ?given? is that the participating ensemble be open to the idea of structured improvisation.


Two review of the 2004 Other Minds’ performance follow:

The Hear and Now

by Phillip Greenlief (from

Raskin and ROVA with guests at Other Minds 10 th

I went to the opening night show at the Other Minds Festival presented at Yerba Buena Gardens in SF. Thursday’s concert included compositions by Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian, Polish composer Hanna Kulenty and one of our finest local artists, Jon Raskin.

The Hear and Now score onstage at OM

The performance presented works by the composers in the order listed above. I will be brief in my descriptions of the first two performances. I have tried to live by the saying taught to many of us by our mothers: “if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything”. Of course there’s nothing wrong with negative or harsh criticism if the intentions are to aid in the development of a work, but in this case, I really don’t have anything constructive to say, nor do I feel that the so called “Avant Garde” works on the first half of the program had anything to do with new music, apart from the fact that Kulenty’s piece was a concerto for ¼ tone flute – a rare and admittedly modern instrument.

My criticisms of the opening works stem from major aesthetic differences with the intentions of the composers. I admit that I don’t have an ear for folk songs (sans passion) parading as new music, which was the case with the short pieces by Tigran Mansurian, (which is NOT to say that I don’t like folk music!). Secondly, my tastes for composition were not in concert with the pedestrian thematic content and emotionally bankrupt music of Hanna Kulenty (although I did enjoy aspects of Anne La Berge’s performance on her above mentioned instruments, especially the unaccompanied cadenza). What I would much rather discuss is the music composed (perhaps organized is a better word) by Jon Raskin and performed by the ROVA Saxophone Quartet with special guests.

Gino Robair cues a musical event

First a few words about those special guests and their respective instruments. Forgive my not terribly informative descriptions. Min Xio-Fen played pipa (a Chinese lute-like instrument), Kyaw Kyaw Naing played pat waing (circle drum - a series of tuned membranophones pitched in an array of contrasting pentatonic scales), Jiebing Chen played erhu (a two-string violin, played in horizontal fashion), Shoko Hikage played koto (a Japanese 18-string instrument well known to the fans of Hikage, Larner and Masaoka), Sang Won Park played kayagum(s) (imagine smaller versions of the koto played on tables – musician stands while playing as opposed to the crouched position assumed while playing koto), Jim Santi Owens played tabla (Indian hand-drums) and tarang and Gino Robair conducted. Bruce Ackley, Jon Raskin, Steve Adams and Larry Ochs played saxophones and were arranged from left to right on the stage in that order.

In short, ROVA was immersed in a section of instruments associated with music from Korea, Japan, Burma, China and India, and the quartet sounded fantastic in this context. They supported and blended timbres in ways that created a new musical language that I felt successfully deconstructed the traditional approaches to everyone's respective instruments. The music that emerged seemed like a true world music, but in a way that seemed similar to the approach used by James Joyce when he created a world language in Finnegans Wake by mixing phonemes and syllables from the 15+ languages that he spoke fluently to create hybrid words, as opposed to the way that Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp or Ornette Coleman played with African percussionists. Decades after those records by Sanders and company have emerged on the scene, their earlier efforts sound like two distinct cultures inhabiting the same room but not necessarily speaking the same language (not to downplay those efforts – which have their respective merits – perhaps Raskin’s efforts could not have been possible if it were not for those earlier models). But The Hear and Now produced a music that sounded as if all the musicians were speaking the same language.

Min Xiao Fen, Bruce Ackley, Jiebing Chen

I believe that out of all the situations I've heard ROVA in the context of playing in a large(r) ensemble, this was the most satisfying to my ears. It captured the feel of some of my favorite recordings of Japanese Classical Music (on those Nonesuch Ensemble Nipponia recordings for example). The sound events/environments unfolded in a meditative that kept me engaged throughout the entire piece. Although the music was generally quiet in nature and practice, the large ensemble’s music produced a quiet intensity that sustained enough tension to keep you on the edge of your seat – I was consistently excited to hear what would happen next.

I also thought (from my perception on how things were arranged) that Gino did a great job of keeping things moving at just the right pace throughout and developed a wonderful overall structure of the work. This was a high point of the music for me and it relates back to the feel of traditional Japanese music and the way it slowly unfolds over time. Robair was responsible for presenting an array of cue cards that gave instructions on aspects of the music related to tempo/meter, intensity, tonal qualities, and offered the musicians a chance to change the texture or feel of any given event, initiate new sound events, or direct musicians to respond to existing materials. The conductor could also cue a variety of predetermined games that related to pitch collections, note lengths, repetitions, sound events, trills, vibrato effects, and note attacks.

Kyaw Kyaw Naing, Jim Santi Owens, Steve Adams, Shoko Hikage

In addition to the relatively new role played by the conductor (instructing them on ways to play, opposed to keeping time and making sure the musicians know where their entrance is), ROVA’s Radar practices allowed a great deal of freedom for the musicians to generate composed and improvised musical action. In terms of the philosophical aspect of the music (and similar to the music of Anthony Braxton that has enjoyed a great deal of recent discussion on BA NEW MUS), The Hear and Now allows a variety of people to initiate action – a collection of democracies, rather than a totalitarian model where the composer acts as dictator, or a form of democracy where action is predicated by the ensembles’ leader (soloist). In the context of this music, everyone on stage has the opportunity to be a leader and instigator.

    Larry Ochs and Sang-Won Park

If I had any criticism of the music, I wanted to hear more small ensemble pairings of eastern instruments with the saxophone(s). As an orchestrator (when I write for large ensemble), I am usually obsessed with getting all the possible solo/duo/trio combinations into the light. My sense is that The Hear and Now was about 30 - 40 minutes. For that length of time, I would rather have heard, say, a duo with Ackley and the pipa player than listening to two percussion duos (although the second one they did was a real gem!). This is a small concern, and it really is a concern that comes out of my personal aesthetics.

To its credit, this work could be performed again and again and never play out the same way twice. This makes for rehearsing a work like The Hear and Now particularly difficult. As Robair related to me, you try something in rehearsal and it works great, but you don’t necessarily want to try to recreate that something again in performance. The other disappointment I’m left with is that I probably won’t hear this work performed again for a long time.

Other Minds festival a glorious, meandering trip to new horizons     (

Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic

Saturday, March 6, 2004

Jon Raskin's "The Hear and Now," an extended group improvisation that concluded Thursday's opening concert of the Other Minds festival, could serve as a metaphoric poster child for the festival itself.

Fascinating, sloppy, deliriously beautiful and inclusive almost to a fault, this hour-long piece subscribes to the same stewpot aesthetic that has motivated the contemporary-music extravaganza since Charles Amirkhanian founded it 10 years ago: Throw a handful of wildly diverse ingredients into the mix, turn it to simmer and await developments.

Raskin's extravaganza, which called on the services of the Rova Saxophone Quartet alongside six musicians playing traditional instruments from China, Japan, Korea, Burma and India, merely represented that approach writ large. The opening of the three-day event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts also included some smart, sharp-edged post-minimalism from Polish composer Hanna Kulenty and arrangements of Armenian folk music by Tigran Mansurian.

And the rest of the schedule ranges across jazz, electronics, Hindu vocalism and solo accordion music, all jumbled together out of a conviction that any strains of music can speak to one another if given a chance.

Listening to the premiere of "The Hear and Now" -- an ethnomusicological purist's nightmare turned free-spirited dream -- made that proposition sound surprisingly plausible. The saxophonists flanked the ensemble, two on each side; in between were virtuosos playing the stringed Chinese pipa and erhu, Burmese and Indian percussion instruments and more.

With the most remarkable sensitivity to texture and dramatic play, the musicians found ways to combine and recombine their sounds so that new ideas constantly bubbled to the surface. There was room for solos and piquant duets, as well as plenty of full-ensemble playing that ranged from the gently melodic to the rhythmically frenzied.

The mechanics of group improvisation are of course mysterious to a listener. As conductor Gino Robair cued players with either traditional gestures or flashing color-coded cue cards, different sections of the ensemble came to the fore; the players also used a cryptic repertoire of hand signals to control the flow of inspiration.

Rova has spent decades pursuing and refining these techniques, yet it was striking and indeed stirring to see how easily the newcomers adapted to the new rules. Certainly there was no sense of insiders and outsiders among the musicians onstage.

All photos courtesy of Matthew Campbell