Fred Frith, George Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell with BBC SSO - City Halls, Glasgow, Sat 22 Feb 2014
Veterans of free improvised music collaborate with BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
The idea of free improvised music appearing as part of a BBC SSO programme would have been unthinkable a decade ago except as a passing novelty. Such has been the landscape-changing effect of left-leaning music festivals in Scotland, from Free RadiCCAls and Le Weekend through to Instal, Kill Your Timid Notion, Dialogues, the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra's GIOfest and the most recent additions of Counterflows, Sonica and Tectonics that it would seem remiss of longer standing institutions not to embrace them.
So it was with this thrilling bill of works that attracted an audience perhaps more used to seeing and hearing such veterans of experimental music as guitarist Fred Frith, trombonist and electronicist George Lewis and saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell in the low level confines of arts labs and other intimate off-radar gatherings. Yet, despite their avant-garde roots, all three men are major composers in their own right on scales great and small, and can more than carry their own in more formal environments than what some of the audience might associate them with.
Nowhere was this more evident than in NONAAH, a piece originally composed by Art Ensemble of Chicago co-founder Mitchell for solo alto saxophone in 1972. Over the last forty-odd years the piece has been heard in an ever-expanding variety of quartets and trios before receiving its world premiere as a fully orchestrated work here as part of a programme being recorded for BBC Radio 3's Hear and Now strand. Possibly the most sophisticated contribution of the night, NONAAH missed its composer's presence onstage, its sumptuous ensemble arrangement made for an appealing if all-consuming alternative.
Following this, after carrying his own amp onstage, Frith cut an initially understated dash as he sat barefoot at the front of the stage, guitar clutched to accompany a version of his 2003 piece, The Right Angel, receiving its Scottish premiere. While the orchestra delivered it with a wide-screen urgency off-set by piano, trumpet and flute underscores, Frith thwacked his fretboard with shoe-brushes and paint-brushes with a practised expertise that took things beyond novelty to an abruptly truncated racket
Conductor Ilan Volkov's between-set interviews with Mitchell and Lewis were charmingly chummy affairs, with Lewis coming across as a donnish and avuncular figure, who, when asked about his move into electronics, quoted Anthony Braxton's maxim that “I want to stay interested in what I'm doing” before Lewis described himself – and Volkov – as “a cheerful post-genre radical. This was personified by Memex, a retro-future evocation of artificial intelligence expressed through the pushes and pulls of an altogether more physical means of expression.
For all it's appeal, it is nothing to the preceding improvisation by Frith, Lewis and Mitchell performing together for a short set which one suspects was the main reason many people turned out for the event. While Frith brought his full box of tricks to bear, with even a mischievous melody or two to play with, Mitchell squawked and honked his way into overdrive. Seated behind his laptop, Lewis looked positively serene as he lobbed sounds through the air while clutching his muted, lavender-coloured trombone. As the trio erupted and cut across each other, it sounded like an all too brief riot was going on before ever so gently fading out of view.