For five years, Berkeley Arts Festival has hosted a variety of music shows, including a creative-music series curated by Phillip Greenlief. It’s also an art gallery that’s hosted various exhibits and events.
An oasis like this rarely lasts, especially when it’s in an economically desirable spot like downtown Berkeley, one block from the U.C. campus. Berkeley Arts is pulling up stakes in a few days. I’m assuming it’s the usual story of the building being sold. In fact, the hardware store next door has already vacated.
For his final show at the space, Greenlief convened a couple dozen musicians last night to perform one big, sublime, conducted improvisation called “Index.”
“Index” was based on a graphical score, with Greenlief cueing musicians in and out, creating episodes that crested and then shrank back down. After the show, he talked about the “reverence” that permated the piece — no one broke loose and really went nuts. There was a conscious effort to keep within the boundaries of the piece, maybe in deference to the community feel of the concert. This being the final Berkeley Arts show, dozens of people turned out.
For an additional emotional note, this band was considered a convening of OrcheSperry, the improvising orchestra created in honor of bassist Matthew Sperry, whose life was cut short in a traffic accident more than a decade ago.
Each phase of “Index” began with Greenlief picking one or two players to rebuild the sound from silence or near-silence. Most of the entrances were subdued, letting the blanketing air linger around the music. Gradually, Greenlief added more players until an active jam developed. He’d let that ride for a while, then drop out most or all of the musicians at once, flashing a sign with the Ø symbol to queue them to wrap up their statements.
Electronics figured heavily into the piece. Not just laptops, but good old fashioned analog as well — check out Thomas DiMuzio‘s cabling in the photo up top. Even Tom Bickley, who plays recorder, put a mic on his instrument, turning it into a growling nightmare wolfhound. (This was really cool.) The four electronics players each had their solo moments, but their main contribution was to color the periods when the energy began to surge, filling the gaps with crunches and swirls. It was a nice effect of busy-ness that helped spur the music forward.
One thing to understand about Berkeley Arts: It’s divided into two long, thin galleries, which meant the large band and relatively large audience were both arranged in long rows. I sat to one side of the band and didn’t get to see who was on the other end, in the percussion section.
That created some pleasant surprises. I hadn’t realized there was a vibraphone in the house, or that someone would be playing the piano, but boom, there they were. There was a long percussion solo that sounded like sand being poured onto a drum. I didn’t find out who that was, but Suki O’Kane, who’d brought an enormous bass drum, seems like a good suspect.
The point is, some sounds seemed to come out of nowhere. Even people in the band were saying they had that experience.
One thing that made Index work was that Greenlief, as far as I could tell, never felt obligated to get the entire band playing at once, not even for a “grand finale” moment. That kept the sounds focused, with few cases of players drowning one another out. What we essentially heard was a rotating ensemble, ranging from 1 to maybe 10 people at a time. And when violinist Gabby Fluke-Mogul and cellist Crystal Pascucci hit the right moment during a duet — with Fluke-Mogel playing a few loud strums on the violin, as if it were a guitar — it was time, and the piece ended.
In all, it was a nice finale for Berkeley Arts. But it was also a chance for all of us, including members of the band, to thank Phillip for curating this series. It’s hard work, but it helps the community so much. Thanks, Phillip.