Crossroads 5: Blues X

Passerine, with trombonist David Manson.

Passerine, with trombonist David Manson.

This year’s “Crossroads” show (in March) was one of the most unusual and challenging musical experiences of our history as a band. Crossroads 5 was the fifth annual exploration of possible intersections between diverse musical genres, as part of the “New Music New College” series. This year’s installment was subtitled “Blues X,” and focused on mixing up blues, bluegrass and experimental music.

Passerine was invited to open the show, and we chose to do four songs that reflected both our original songwriting and our connection to folk and bluegrass traditions: “Heart & Mind” (by Tanya Radtke), “Cuckoo Bird” (traditional), “Another Song About a Bird” (Carmela Pedicini), and “Shady Grove” (traditional). We were joined by trombonist David Manson on “Heart & Mind,” which added a whole new dimension to the song.

The Open Instrumentation Ensemble.

The Open Instrumentation Ensemble.

We were just one of the three stages, however. On the stage 2, the “Open Instrumentation Ensemble” performed an original experiemental piece, “OIE Blues,” by NMNC music director Ron Silver.

On stage 3, Nat Langston performed a couple of experimental explorations of guitar blues, including a mind-stretching original piece that was called “Broken Wagon Wheel.” We thought that was pretty funny, since “Wagon Wheel” has become the “Mustang Sally” and “Freebird” of Americana music– the song that everybody plays, that every drunk seems to request, and that we usually refuse to do. Nat was then joined by the Antiquarians for a few songs that pushed the blues in a different direction– metal blues, perhaps? David Manson ended up playing at different times on all three stages!

The Antiquarians, with David Manson.

The Antiquarians, with David Manson.

The prompter for "Cobra."

The prompter for “Cobra.”

The highlight of the evening, however, was the final piece– performed simultaneously as a kind of “musical tug of war” by the musicians on all three stages. It was John Zorn’s piece, “Cobra,” which is a piece that is based on a multi-player war game. Instead of a conventional musical score, the piece has an elaborate set of rules that enable the musicians to call for different kinds of events, requiring the other musicians to bring whatever skills, knowledge and predispositions they have to an improvised response. The whole thing is coordinated by the prompter in the middle.

The three stages and the distance between the musicians made this especially challenging, but it was huge fun. Once the prompter started the process, any individual musician could call for an event, using a set of hand signals. The prompter would recognize the call, hold up the appropriate sign to let everyone know the next event, and then drop the sign when he wanted the event to start. Sometimes subgroups played together and others dropped out; sometimes themes were traded around the circle; sometimes everyone played at once. The result was an often humorous and surprising set of clashes and transitions between experimental sound that was anything but melodic, blues licks and progressions, fragments of bluegrass, and occasional cartoon sound effects.

In the musical traditions that are most familiar to us, improvisation is a normal thing but always within the frame provided by some simple musical conventions. During rehearsals, we found that we had to overcome our initial feeling of not having a clue where to begin our improvisations. We were encouraged to use what we knew, as well as to listen to what the other musicians were doing (coming out of very different traditions and conventions). It was both uncomfortable and thrilling to move so far out of our usual comfort zone as musicians and performers.

Thanks to Professor Steve Miles for inviting us, and for Ron Silver’s talented efforts in staging, sound, and direction. (Photography by Nancy Nassiff of Elan Photography.)

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