Grosse Abfahrt, the Latest Version, in San Francisco Tonight

Grosee Abfahrt and Birget Ulher at what looks like 21 Grand
Grosse Abfahrt, in a combination that does appear to include Birget Ulher. Source: sfSound.

The improv collective Grosse Abfahrt will be convening tonight — Saturday, Sept. 27 — in San Francisco at the Center for New Music. It’s a 7:48 p.m. show that will include out-of-town guest Birget Ulher on trumpet.

The general idea is that there’s a core group of GA players, Bay Area residents, who play occasionally and always bring outside guests into the fold, usually creating a largish ensemble of eight to 10.

You can read more about the group, and hear a sound sample, in this post from last year.

For this year’s show, I thought I’d ask Tom Djll, via email, something that’s been gnawing at me about this group — and about free improv in general, really — for a few years. Namely: If you’ve got a rotating cast of characters, how do you define a group “sound?” Or do you even bother; is it a matter of picking the people you know and trust?

Here’s what he said:

GA has not really kept its “core sound” over the years. It has definitely changed since 2004. It changes with every new iteration, really. You may hear the same language bits from the individuals over a long period of time — I certainly do — or you may not. I definitely told the players what I had in mind on the first few gatherings. There have been scores on at least two occasions, #1 and #10. I tend to think of the player mix as a big part of “the score.”

There have been at least two occasions where I felt the group sound was so far away from my conception of what it’s supposed to be that I hesitated to call it a “Grosse Abfahrt.” #2 was one of those, which was a live show done at CMC. I don’t remember the year. Sometimes all it takes is for one player to take over to tip the thing over into the zone Where Tom Is Unhappy With the Esthetic. That happened on #2, #5 and #13. #11 was too dense — too many players in a tiny space. Yet on each one of those occasions there were moments and passages of The Sublime. And that’s just my judgement, which is only worth exactly what any other person’s judgement is worth.

But, as you say, it is all very much “a matter of trust, knowing that [we] all know each other and have the same general concept in mind.” But just that would be boring. There has to be some disruption from time to time. That’s my specialty!

So, as you’d expect with free improv, there’s an element of unpredictability, and it’s up to the players to mold the piece as a whole into the right form.

Here’s the lineup for tonight’s show:

Birgit Ulher (trumpet)
John Shiurba (guitar)
Gino Robair (percussion/electronics)
Tim Perkis (electronics)
Kanoko Nishi (koto/piano)
Bill Hsu (video)
Jacob Felix Heule (percussion)
Tom Djll (trumpet/electronics)
Kyle Bruckmann (oboe/english horn)

Playlist: February 12, 2010

Click here for the full KZSU playlist for Friday, Feb. 12, 8:00 to 10:00 a.m.

The first half hour was dominated by free improv from Grosse Abfahrt (more info in a post to come, or read the review in the East Bay Express, *or* go see them live on Wednesday at 21 Grand).

Other notes:

* Jerry Granelli V16 — “Unnamed” — Vancouver ’08 (Songlines, 2009) … Had to play something from Vancouver to commemorate the Olympics opening, and this one did the trick nicely.  The album is another set of what you might call avant-blues, a rock-influenced jazz with rock/blues guitars up front but a penchant for jazzlike composing.  Some tracks, like this one, even get pretty far out there in terms of free soloing, but the guitars stick to blues-club sounds, as opposed to jazz guitar. It’s got punch. Plenty of grooves and sweat involved here.

* Matthew Welch — “Bagpipe Quintet” — Luminosity (Porter, 2009) As threatened, I played the five-bagpipe composition from Welch, warning listeners ahead of time that the sound can get shrill.  See, when we, the DJs,  preview the next sets of music we’re going to play, we can listen to it on “cue” speakers — which, in our case, happen to be cheap but resilient little things. The sound is tinny. When you’ve got five bagpipes hitting those high notes, it’s really tinny.  Anyway, the piece is only four minutes long and turns out to be less grating when heard through decent speakers.  It’s in a droney mode, with some interesting slow ostinato patterns that crop up.

* Helmut Lachemann — “Grido” [excerpt] — Streichquartette (Kairos, 2009) … I followed Welch with some harshness from the Arditti String Quartet, although this piece quickly settles into a busy and low-volume level of activity. Lachemann, we’re told, is very highly for his post-tonal work.  The CD consists of three quartet pieces, all about 20 minutes long.