The Crowd

1.  Sport (Ackley, Ochs, Raskin, Voigt) 3:05
2,  The Crowd (Ackley, Ochs, Raskin, Voigt) 19:12
3.  Room (Ochs) 10:40
4.  Knife In the Times 1-8 (Ochs) 29:25
5.  Terrains (Raskin) 16:19

Bruce Ackley: soprano saxophone
Andrew Voight: alto saxophone and Eb clarinet
Larry Ochs: tenor and sopranino saxophones
Jon Raskin: baritone and alto saxophones

1986 - Hat Hut (Switzerland) 2032 (LP)
1992 - hat ART (Switzerland) 6098 (CD)
Studio Charles Cros. Maison de la Culture d'Amiens, France, June 20-23, 1985
During the decade of the 1960s, a rebellious, revolutionary period affecting all aspects of American society, jazz–ever an adaptable, assimilative, creative form throughout its 70-odd year history–splintered and sent out experimental offshoots whose implications eventually redefined the music’s most basic premises. It wasn’t until the ‘70s, however, that these radical developments were consolidated into the evolutionary fabric of jazz, slicing through stylistic constraints and expanding the music’s parameters into open fields of sound manipulation and cultural intermingling based on the previous decade’s innovations in rhythmic and melodic freedom (Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor), structural expansion the (Chicagoans: Mitchell, Braxton, Abrams, et al), electric polyphony (Miles Davis), ethnicity, Western (European) classical elements, and on and on.

By expanding into previously uncharted areas, the music demanded new types of ensembles, which could suggest–though not necessarily imitate–styles of the past while making virtually unique, particular statements about their own time, place, and condition. Novel instrumental combinations were one manifestation of this demand, and the resultant exploration of color, texture, density, and timbre stretched the music’s boundaries even further. In this period of such pronounced individuality and experimentation, few ensembles have sustained and grown with the strength and resiliency of the Rova Saxophone Quartet.

Formed in 1977, Rova initially drew their inspiration, energetic demeanor, and concern for structure (both intuitive and pre-arranged) from the solo and saxophone ensembles primarily developed by Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell. However, these influences were subsumed early on, as the quartet’s individuals took on a group identity of remarkably single-minded purpose. Their playing together almost exclusively since 1977 has enabled them to grow together in ways few groups experience–in sheer musical terms, their sense of line, phrasing, rhythm, dynamics, and expressive gesture are exceptionally unified. Further, though, is an almost objective group empathy which is not deviated from in their music’s frequent solo statements, as is typically the case in jazz, where the individual has long been given preference over the ensemble. Listening to a Count Basie performance from the ‘30s, say, one is made electrically aware of Lester Young or Buck Clayton’s exceedingly personal statements within the musical whole; Charlie Parker in a small group is an entity unto himself.

However. Rova’s music from the very beginning has been ennobled by its attempt to redefine the individual (soloist) within society (the ensemble) just as they’ve tried to blur the distinction between composition (premeditated) and improvisation (spontaneous). They have proved so successful at this that–as the music on these two records documents so persuasively–it’s virtually impossible to tell what’s written and what’s not, what has been left to the individual’s whim and what is a group decision. To some degree, this is because the solos take on a dramatic necessity, often stressing contrary attitudes (motion vs. static background, serenity vs. chaos, individual statements vs. group interactivity) but at all times supported by the democratic actions of the others.

By attaching a dramatic/literary component to their work, Rova thus injects their idiosyncratic forms with a feeling of inevitably–hard won, no doubt, given the care with which they approach their music, understanding that precision and realization take time in order organize the material and establish the individual and group concerns within the parameters outlined. It’s no coincidence that their very first LP, Cinema Rovaté (1978), was subtitled "Stories and Studies in Sound," as the narrative and the exploratory natures have been carried through to their current work–most readily apparent here on Knife in the Times, where the music’s thoroughly dramatic shifts reflect a rigorous desire for variety and quality. They obtain textures and utilize dynamics with far more aplomb and conviction than most larger ensembles, all the while stressing human concerns (note especially Larry 0chs’ moving tenor episode–narrative without being histrionic–and Bruce Ackley’s haunting soprano) over mechanical structure. Ochs, the composer, explains, "I’d wanted to do a piece that uses repeated cycles of rhythms, but wondered why (others working with similar material–Glass, Reich, etc.) didn’t break up their patterns and have them be a surprise instead of what you’d expect. That’s what was at the beginning of the idea, anyway–plus the fact that in ‘84 we’d just gotten hack from our USSR trip, and I was fed up with the political situation here."

It’s the combination of such musical and extramusical concerns–real and implied–as influenced by literary and sociopolitical attitudes, that enriches Rova’s music. As early as 1980, Ochs was quoted as saying, "Rova’s music is intentionally dense. We’re throwing layers of information, of music, at the listener, and if they are able to enjoy this music–to hear it and make sense our of it–then maybe we are helping them to deal with all the layers of information that are being thrown at them in daily life. If people are sensitized rather than desensitized–television, drugs, alcohol, daily newspapers are all desensitizing instruments–they won’t be willing to put up with all the bullshit, and change will occur. This is how I see our music as political."

Such a stance demands a delicate balance of intellect and emotion, which the Rova’s have confronted not so much through the creation of a repertoire as the development of a syntax, which allows them to investigate various aspects of musical ("language") forms and recombine them into a dramatic unity without the stifling regularity overly familiar structures propose. The breadth of these syntactical components helps avoid predictability; witness their series of pieces titled Trobar Clus (a spontaneous form of poetry sung by troubadours of southern France from 1095-1295). The Crowd was, according to Ochs, at one time titled Trobar Clus #1O, before it underwent extensive reworking. This reflects the group’s emphasis on structural process–the natural, organic evolution of the material from a series of events into a dramatic, communicative whole.

Examples of Rova’s remarkable blend–again dependent upon the group’s unanimity of purpose–are everywhere apparent on these discs. Hear how the rhythms balloon and deflate, seeming to defy gravity, throughout Terrains, which (to mix the metaphor) reads like a topical map (for a literary correlative try John Ashbery’s poem Rivers And Mountains) with a variety of landscapes–some hilly, some smooth, some labyrinthine winding roads, some flat strips built for speed. Or the inspiring manner in which the four joust on Sport before coming together for the common good. Or the prelude to Room, which could conceivably sound melodramatic without the austere tang of four saxophones’ timbre and attack.

Still, to try to describe Rova’s music would be foolhardy, akin to synopsizing Shakespeare’s sonnets or Gertrude Stein’s stories. The flavor, and more importantly, the communication, lies in the experiencing.

–Art Lange,
May 1986

If this morning’s wake-up note is a C# (and I notice this helplessly) how will

the musics I hear today relate to that?

or a very long

improvisation by Cecil Taylor

Time & Sound, a marriage made in certain simple rooms. One of the strangenesses of the word "time": that it is singular. With Rova, the fixed and the moving.

Music sometimes takes quite some lengths just to declare a sound.

One is hardly ever completely listening (which requires a devotion to time of the wild leap), therefore what follows such reduced attention generates little but quick opinion, and you can feel the mass of all you missed draining away. Music must be the room you are in, for the duration.

Some sounds are not apparent in a music but have to be searched for (listened out) like that thing you didn’t notice right away turned up in the corner of the room behind the silent radio. I couldn’t hear it at first. Then it was all I could hear.

Endless material could be written into and out of this music. Though to apply any purely explicatory language to it is almost a crime, for that operation tends the sounds back to an overly dusted self-standard. To sound is to resist rested definition, to leave oneself outward into a trend where the fissures and masses spring a feeling free of its telling.

A still generative statement by Cecil Taylor, copied into my 1963 notebook: "You are the recipient of all the cultural things around you that you wish to be–things like dance, theater, literature, the people you see, so you are a departure."

Immersion in the states of a thing, it takes.

And the counted same you will never have.

The will to include enough differences is already a move toward the outside. Ornette Coleman points to zones of his Free Jazz session where "the freedom even becomes impersonal."

In a time when it gels increasingly hard to pay complete attention to any music, Rova creates a situation beyond my memories of hearing. And it is a full act, an animate field shorn of none of its…

Maybe memory is the problem?

Suppose you rehearse the Bartok Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, say, at such length it lifts completely from the paper, you can hum its every distinction in mind as wholly as the chord changes to I Got Rhythm, until its structure is shaping the least parts of your dailiness, beyond the rigidities of

recall. You play the concert as planned and then it is over. A depression sets in. Why can you not go on? And suppose most of your playing experience has been in an improvised music, jazz. Your next thought urges continuance. Everything predicts it. How can this intensely structured score just stop at

the last page?

A prime of jazz can thus be seen as a will toward mutability of any musical material in time. No composition need freeze in a single state. The possibilities seem limitless. Any horizons transitional.

Whereas, in the badly-termed ‘classical’ sector. as Glenn Gould’s performances are called "interpretations" and are criticized for eroding sanctified facets of "perfect" scores, though he has looked deeply enough into this music to realize that there is little point in adding another recording of a Mozart sonata, say, unless one plays it in a radically different way, changes it.

And Morton Feldman has written a string quartet four hours in length. He obviously does not want his music to settle for the truncated life of what Cecil Taylor has called "viable bended plants that can be put in anybody’s garden," and goes on to speak memorably of "the life of the piece" as an increasingly primary concern.

"Kinds" of music (those sanitizing labels) no longer seem to drag along their own built-in and abstract barriers, and there is now a freed-up crossing, a taking from wherever, in motion, integral, recombinant. And acting up into the next state.

These are significant changes in realization. Rova’s music enters here. And won’t let you off the hook of the vast momentary, a sound too extensive for any single frame.

There should be another word.

"Improvise," in American English, having the connotation of last minute jury rigging or "making something up" when you’re not prepared, a fudging due to the scramblings of a half-ass nature.

But improvisation is surely a practice, perhaps more in the religious than the musical "woodshedding" direction, A daily attention to what’s possible beyond any habituated barriers.

To improvise: to know in, and only while undergoing, the process of doing. To perceive only in the motion of an act, in the movements of practicing that act. Improvisation is motion. And I think here of the bassist Buell Neidlinger’s remark, as we were listening to Ed Blackwell on Ornette Coleman’s Poise, "He really saw the motions!"

Thus, as in the definition, "not foreseen" because only experienced in the movement and passing along with it.

The French writer Maurice Blanchot has set a fine distinction which might be applied here, whatever the materials: "One can only write if one arrives at the instant towards which one can only move through space opened up by the movement of writing."

Improvisation is the heart of the voice, the seed of the art. The spontaneous aspect of creating whatever kind of own time forms in real time may even be at the heart of supposedly more studied composition or revision. Little shoots of the same momentum, etc.

Though, improvisation sometimes feels like a matter of finding the lit pin in the most dark, or moving vast fragile masses, bales of sound, or ducking (or absorbing) that projectile coming around again.

Or another feeling: the amazing ability to wait while still in motion, as if you are the train that creates all that solid scenery passing…

One could work out a speculation on what is foreseen in improvisation. A term between improvise and impulse in the dictionary.

The best statement I’ve seen on the relation of composition to improvisation is soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy’s "What I write is to take you to the edge safely so that you can go on out there and find this other stuff. But really it is this other stuff interests me."

Thinking on the matter of spontaneous interaction I’m reminded of an eerie evening in the longago at Carnegie Hall, a hit-or-miss package show Sonny Rollins was to open. Before the crowd had quieted and with the houselights still up. Sonny walked out in front of the curtain, apparently to play an unaccompanied solo. Just then a woman in the front section began screaming full-throat in shocking snap-brain madness. She was obviously in some closing chamber of mind-pain, and the audience froze. Seemingly without pause for thought Sonny began to play with her, dueling with whatever demons responsible, imitating her screams and turning them around, reflecting and shining them anew. It was astonishing. And there was much of the well-known wit in his sound, but at no remove. He was right in there with this helpless human, which perhaps says a lot about the humours, as well as about music, and Sonny’s part in these acts and more. Then the whitecoats dragged her away and Sonny stomped off Cherokee at an unbearable speed, ranging his notes and swinging the bell of his horn from some alien center of stillness.

At the entry to The Crowd, with those huge horns, I thought I was in Bhutan, comes a sort of undertonic flux possibly the movement of a large truck outside the studio, then calls up some spaces, bands of continuous shifting sounds can really define the whole of your room, breaks into pauses, suggest further figures, negatives breed positives, keeps heading in with a vast spectral sound, big dark wings or blinds of sonics, where musics become a reality beyond "tune" "beat" etc., then figures divided by solid but silent shapes, equals in time of beautiful collision figures, a group speaking which strongly tells you, speaking in reeds, speaking in primes, an eerie rate of tongues, then an almost gamelan sorting of percussive build, reducing to more isolate voices, an intertasting of essential solitudes, until just Ochs’ tenor throat, and a final treble linkage, choral. out

This record of Rova works

to dissolve formal barriers

if you can use ears prehensile.

It’s an erosion-of-habit music

a chance to encounter forms

beyond your listening history.

Rova’s music is vast, intense, sometimes complex but always graspable in terms of their search for the most basic and generative elements, ever lurking in and out.

Hear those tirelessly turning seeds, fist sized, mutating in the zonal exchange of Terrains, and throughout Knife in the Times. It’s as if the "tonal home" here were always the first thing spoken by a person.

I would always want to meet the music as in a dream one encounters the intimate stranger from whom there can never be the slightest turning away Rapt. In Rova the conditions are met.

–Clark Coolidge

October 1985

close window