ROVA: The Sax Cloud

The latest ROVA Saxophone Quartet invention is the Sax Cloud: four quartets of saxophonists encircling the audience. They performed two long pieces last night at ODC theater, and it was a pretty cool experience.

I wasn’t able to get a photograph that conveys the whole setup, but picture this: 16 saxophonists arranged in four arcs of four players apiece (the assigned quartets), with one ROVA member as the leader of each team.  Chairs in the middle are arranged to face each of the quartets, about four rows of chairs per section. So, much of the audience is facing back-to-back, and there’s a blank square in the center. Gino Robair conducted the first piece from there, and for the second piece, he kept his spot as a listener — best seat in the house.

The setup created a panoramic effect that you won’t get on an MP3 download. Sounds came from all sides, and for those in “front” rows, closer to the players, the quartet to the back was fainter than those to the sides or front, a really interesting disbalance.

The second piece, by ROVA’s Steve Adams, played around with the 4×4 format, although it took a while to notice.  It cycled through segments, with the players taking turns in different roles.

Some segments consisted of ad hoc, split quartets, made of one designated player from each of the four teams. The result was a sax quartet with the sound coming in from 90-degree intervals: north, west, south, and east — a really interesting effect.

That would be followed by a true solo: One player going at it, with the other three ensembles poking into the sound as accompaniment, playing set motifs. During a Dan Plonsey baritone sax solo (off to my right, in Bruce Ackley’s team), Steve Adams’s quartet (front and center, for me) was playing — and then, behind me, I could hear Larry Ochs’ quartet occasionally nosing in. I pictured it as an adversarial contest — who gets to ‘comp Dan Plonsey? It was wild, and fun.

Another of the solos was Vinny Golia on the tubax, a bass sax with a tuba-like shape. Each quartet had one member take a solo at some point, while the other three members were parts of these ad hoc N-W-S-E quartets at one point or another.

The structure of the piece made it feel almost participatory, especially as people kept twisting in their chairs to watch as the action shifted from one zone to another. I tried to keep facing forward as much as possible, because I liked the “bias” towards the Adams quartet, and the effect of having some of the music behind me. But I did look around every now and then — watching the musicians and the audience. If you ever get a chance to see a Sax Cloud performance, don’t be afraid to do the same.

The first piece, which I think was written by Jon Raskin, was more of an improvised game piece, with Robair standing in the center of the room (and the center of the audience) conducting.  Every player had a set of graphical scores to work from — little pictures that can be interpreted however the player wants — and some written instructions specific to their quartet. ROVA members used hand cues to conduct their quartets, and Robair, in the center, would give cues to the leaders or to individual players, acting as a central point of control.

I missed much of that first piece, actually, having arrived late. Due to the way the chairs were set up, there was supposed to be no late seating — but the ODC staff took pity on me and let me sneak in, taking an empty chair off to the side.

That meant I didn’t get the panoramic effect of the music — but I did get an experience the rest of the audience missed, namely: watching the audience. Many of them had eyes closed, to better feel the effect of the directional sounds, especially during quieter moments where slow tones were emerging and vanishing from different points of the circle. I also had a continual view of Robair. It was a fair trade-off.

In addition to being a groundbreaking sax quartet, ROVA arranges these kinds of group events, drawing from the deep pool of improvisers around the Bay Area. This edition featured out-of-town guests, too: Golia, from L.A., and  Frank Gratkowski, who’s in town for a few weeks’ worth of shows. The Sax Cloud practically sold out, which was nice to see; the four-way audience setup would have worked even with a sparse crowd, but somehow, having more listeners around helped enhance the experience.

Below is a YouTube video taken from the Adams piece. I’m not sure it displays the structures I was talking about (it might be starting during the solo from a Larry Ochs team member), but it does give you a feel for some of the full-group work that took place during the piece.

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