Green Alembic and Emergency String (X)tet

Recently, I happened to catch Jim Ryan’s newest band, Green Alembic, in a show that had little more meaning than usual.

Ryan had just lost a very close friend, artist Arlene Columbe-Hiquily. At this show, at the Berkeley Arts Festival space in late July, the wounds still seemed fresh, and maybe that contributed to the sound — a little bit heavy, but also with a sense of healing.

Green Alembic uses a slideshow presentation to guide a long-form improvisation. In this case, the images were paintings of Columbe-Hiquily’s and Ryan’s, displayed on two screens, one for the audience and one for the performers.

Green Alembic started by playing against Columbe-Hiquily’s floral paintings, with Ryan leading the improvisation with sad, lovely melody on the flute, in a relaxing, jazz-inflected mode. Slide after slide showed canvases filled with flowers, one frame of full colors after another.

That was followed by some more abstract paintings, minimalist and geometric, with human shapes, doorways, windows.

The final segments used Ryan’s own art, including some pieces created to accompany his poems. I particularly remember the first of the three poems, more like a grim short story about a man in a doorless prison cell of brick, who finally chips through the wall only to emerge into a larger cell.

The set was winding down nicely when the bridge popped off of Bob Marsh’s bass, making an impressive little clatter. While it kind of broke the mood, it also nicely signified the end of the piece.

One hallmark of the Green Alembic is its unusual instrumentation — in this case, french horn was in the mix, and Jeff Hobbs, who’d played violin in the opening set by the Emergency String (X)tet, was on trumpet and clarinet, and possibly other instruments I didn’t happen to see. Michael Cooke was there to play bass clarinet and the Chinese sheng (a multiple-bell instrument previously mentioned here). Joe Lasqo contributed some thoughtful piano, adding a meditative element.

The concept requires a computer and two screens — one for the band, one for the audience. It’s not something that would work in every room, and the setup did take a while, but the idea is intriguing.

I’d arrived at the show towards the end of the Emergency String (X)tet’s opening set. The group is an improvising string ensemble convened occasionally by Bob Marsh; I wrote a little about the concept last year.

The Berkeley Arts space has lots of windows, so I could see that I was arriving during one of those quiet phases, every player at the ready but letting the weight of the surrounding silence press into the music. I felt bad about rattling my way through the door at that moment, but I didn’t have to: A baby in the audience was making happy chirping sounds at regular intervals. I suppose some people would consider it rude to bring a baby to a show, but I found it adorable, and I didn’t happen to notice anybody grumbling about it later.

Marsh had stepped away from his (then-intact) bass to conduct the group at the time, pensively letting the quiet phase run its course. The usual violins, violas, and cellos were augmented by one electric guitar, played with tact — it took me a few minutes to realize the guitar was even there. I liked the way it broadened the sound.

The remainder of that (X)tet piece was to be full of small, slivery sounds, often built from different creative bowing techniques from the players. Something about the sounds of all those strings invokes, for me, an image of watching a giant loom weaving thousands of threads, all visibly separate but about to come together to from a whole. Wish I’d caught more of that set.

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