The Village Voice VOL XXVIII No. 46 November 15, 1983

Improvised Growth

By Gregory Sandow

BL Lacerta played Carnegie Recital Hall on Halloween. I couldn't be there which, after I listened carefully to their record, made me feel almost as if I'd missed the Halloween Parade. They may have chosen Halloween because they think they're a little weird; maybe they didn't know Halloween is serious business in New York, too busy a night for the New York debut of a Dallas new music group. Note, though, that they also chose Carnegie Recital Hall. They're improvisers, but they call themselves a "chamber-music ensemble"; they have business people on their board of directors, and appeared here not at a new music space like Roulette or the Kitchen but at the traditional first stop for nervous pianists eager to bring New York their Mozart.

BL Lacerta: four guys from North Texas State University who took the name from a radio star in the constellation Lacerta (the lizard: North Texas State's symbol). Robert Price plays clarinet and other woodwinds; Les Gay plays tuba and other low brass; Dave Anderson plays percussion, electronics, and flutes; on their record Maurice Hood plays violin and viola, but he's since been replaced by Tom Green, who plays cello. All of them sing. Most of their record (Music of BL Lacerta) was recorded live in 1980 and 1981 at the Second National Tuba-Euphonium Symposium-Workshop and the North Texas State University Art Gallery; it's on the Irida label (IR-OOO9), available from New Music Distribution Service.

At first I bought the Halloween connection, fueled by the Lacerta name and by the tangled clatter of the record's first cut. Then I sat down to listen. I've been down lately on free improvisation, which this summer I even called "banging" (shorthand for too much process and too little product: too much attention to the act of improvisation and not enough attention to the musical result). But BL Lacerta doesn't bang. The group's improvisations don't lurch from one moment to the next; instead they unfold section by section. They don't build to a climax and then ebb away, an elementary and all too predictable pattern that even some of the most famous improvisers can't escape (Derek Bailey's group. for instance, or-at least when they first performed-the otherwise expert trio of Joseph Celli, Malcolm Goldstein, and David Moss). In Third, for instance, on side two of Lacerta's record, there is a climax, but instead of subsiding from it the group all at once (like animals turning back to their grazing after a moment of supposed danger) returns to a mosaic of quiet brown dots, a peaceful texture they'd tried before in the piece that this time serves as a coda. Free improvisers rarely return together to a previous idea, and even more rarely sense the flow of time sharply enough to balance one idea against another, weighing duration, say, against intensity to measure exactly how much patter they need to end a piece after a hailstorm of squawks.

My Mother Is Here opens side two with short bursts mostly of vocal sounds, followed by longer, sustained notes and then by more short bursts mixed with sounds that sustain: the piece grows, in other words. as ideas heard separately begin to be combined. Short vocal slides- elegant sighs, sonic equivalents of birds gliding a few feet lower in the late afternoon air-lead to something similar plucked on the viola, though the credit on the viola line wouldn't so much read "transcribed from the vocal lines you've just heard" as "freely adapted from local music it's more fun to change than to imitate." The downward glide is all that's preserved: again the piece grows. as ideas are reshaped.

Soon voices cluster on a long-held chord; the viola, bowed now, arches lazily down a path so beautifully laid out and so right for the harmony above it that it sounds not improvised, but planned. (This is a remarkable effect; in free improvisation-precisely because it is free, harmony's rarely anything but random.) The piece grows once more as a new sound accompanies another transformation of the voices' descent. The viola marks the bottom of its line with pairs of dissonant notes bowed together, and then launches something new and much livelier, but still soft. We're now in what turns out to be the second half of the piece, which continues with a voice and viola duet (it's the eerie voice of the tuba player, singing through his tuba). A long drone for clarinet marks the beginning of the end. The viola leads once more with its melody, but even here there's something new: the percussion's waited nearly tiII the end of the piece to start. The clarinet breaks off for a moment with a high-pitched scream, and then drones again. Then the tuba tries the drone an octave lower. That seems to be shorthand for "conclusion"; the viola finishes with a last version of the familiar downward glide, ending in a slow trill

Drones at the end of pieces or sections were the only structural tic I noticed in the nine cuts on the record, and even they were rare. The trick throughout is evidently to look for conclusions, not climxas, to recognize when someone's ending a section and to go on from there to something else. My Mother Is Here gets its name, for instance, from disjunctly sung words (mannered, too, unfortunately, but that's not the point here) one of the group sings at what everyone else immediately decides is the end of the short bursts at the start. The violist takes the long held chord as a sign that it's time to move on, and then marks a turning point in his solo with double stops; the tuba player in effect seconds the clarinetist's motion to conclude, and the violist-acknowledging, in effect, that he's been a soloist of a sort in most of the second half of the piece-casts the deciding vote with a reminiscence, followed by a gentle version of the unmistakable conclusion a Broadway composer would call a "button."

All this is deft and at the same time unassuming, as if nobody thought the skill it takes was any big deal. You don't sense structure as such-what you sense, in fact, is the verve of improvising-but there's structure enough to keep the music moving. I don't care much for the vocal sounds (though on the record, at least, they're as rare as the structural tics): they're less varied and more conventional than what the players do with their instruments, and because of that seem oddly blank. Apart from that, this BL Lacerta record is a treasure, more Carnegie Hall than Halloween, but still Halloween enough to be fun. I wish I could get to one of the 12 concerts they're giving in Dallas this year.

(c) 1983 The Village Voice