There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
The symbiosis between improvisational jazz and classical composition that Markus Stockhausen creates on his new album, Possible Worlds, isn’t unique, but the trumpeter felt the need to christen his approach with a portmanteau word: “comprovisation.”
Jazz has always joined improvisation and composition. Most songs begin with a head, open a space for improvised solos, and return to the head to conclude. Comprovisation? Certainly, though Stockhausen inverts jazz tradition on Worlds by improvising first, then augmenting sections of the ad-lib with a complementary score. Stockhausen thereby devises numerous new worlds, but they lie far outside our aural solar system.
In the late ’60s, Stockhausen’s father, avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, influenced jazz trumpeter Miles Davis with his theory that a composition should rely as much on what is taken out (and left to be inferred in the piece) as on what remains. This idea helped Davis reduce his already minimalist playing and to push it even further toward the weaving of spatial textures.
The circle of influence linking father, student, and son is closed by Markus Stockhausen in Worlds’ liner notes: “Through working closely with my father for so many years…
I’ve gained a wide view of music, experience which was invaluable to this recording. (I also asked myself what Miles’ approach might have been.)” Since Davis’ music of the early ’70s involved long impromptu jams that were allowed to develop at a speed akin to that of evolution, it’s fitting that Worlds’ single track is nearly an hour long. Stockhausen requests that the listener (and, more audaciously, the radio programmer) play the record in its entirety, a daunting task given such abstruse music—and damn near impossible in this time-crunched age.
Stockhausen’s brother, Simon, contributes synthesizer and electronic percussion, which, along with Ramesh Shotham’s exotic percussion and Rohan de Saram’s groaning violoncello, create the sympathetic sounds Stockhausen imagines on his world’s unmapped surface. The trumpeter’s piercingly tight tone and penchant for playing clipped bursts of melody recall Davis almost exclusively. Pianist Fabrizio Ottaviucci either bounces reactionary clumps of notes off Stockhausen’s melodic runs or roguishly complements the trumpeter with difficult harmonies.
The piece starts with sparse, warm ambience, then cycles through claustrophobic dissonance and (fourth) world music, before returning to the womb for its resolution. Sprawling and uncharted as any newly discovered place, Possible Worlds makes for an invigorating vacation but is not a location I’m likely to visit again soon.
Equal to Karlheinz Stockhausen as a mentor for contemporary composers is John Cage, whose theories of chance inform comprov-
isationist Robyn Schulkowsky’s Hastening Westward—though the percussionist doesn’t sheepishly follow Cage’s dictum to “let sounds be sounds.” Passivity isn’t a trademark of either of Westward’s pieces, as the sounds of Schul-
kowsky’s bowed gongs, rumbling toms, and shimmering cymbals are routinely altered at her will.
An anecdote from the liner notes confirms that the line between what is actually composed on Westward and what is improvised is blurred. Trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer assumed the duo was improvising freely throughout the session, unaware that Schulkowsky had decided on percussional presets. Unlike Stockhausen’s inverted comprovisation (“improsition,” perhaps?), Schulkowsky’s version seems truer to Stockhausen’s coinage. And by simultaneously melding the free and the scored, she hews closer to jazz ideology.
Molvaer comes across as an innocent; delightfully ignorant of Schulkowsky’s ideas, and new music in general, he admits a preference for such triphop psychedelicists as Tricky and Massive Attack. (Both Molvaer and Schulkowsky say that part of their happiness with the session derived from how successfully their disparate ideas fused.) But Molvaer’s main trumpet influence is no surprise: Miles Davis. And he also likes two of Davis’ most admired imitators: Jon Hassel (who is also a Karlheinz Stockhausen disciple) and Chet Baker.
Sadly, “Pier and Ocean” and the title track are long walks on a sh…well, you get the idea. Like Worlds, they start dreamily, evolve energetically (here through brass and drum duals), and relax at their conclusions. (So there is a pattern to this forward-looking music, however circuitous.) Perhaps it’s the presence of only two players that causes the work’s tonal range to suffer, but Schulkowsky obviously didn’t feel limited simply by the duo format, because this is her second time using it. The first was in the early ’80s—with Markus Stockhausen.
Possible Worlds and Hastening Westward suffer from the same disease. Both Stockhausen and Schulkowsky attempt to use composition to contextualize their improvisatory albums, realizing that freedom without boundaries is chaos, but it is hard to imagine the proper settings for what remain ultimately chaotic soundings. Worlds, with its sudden surges and structureless ebbing, distorts syntax to the point of confusion. How do I absorb this music? Should I listen attentively? Is it okay to read while it plays, Mr. Stockhausen? What about playing cards? The polyphonic percussion of Hastening Westward is somewhat more tangible, and when it gets too abstract, Molvaer’s relatively tuneful trumpet acts as a balance, maintaining a certain access to the proceedings.
There are certainly discernible languages in these musics, but they are personal to the point of solipsism. What is communicated is difficult indeed, and the difficulty is compounded by our ignorance of the linguistics that would describe the means by which Schulkowsky and Stockhausen have chosen to speak. These rules are probably decipherable, but ample time to unravel them is perhaps too pricey given the vast amount of reasonably accessible and thoroughly innovative music available.CP