ROVA: Orchestrova — No Favorites! (for Butch Morris) (New World, 2016)
Anybody could conduct a large improvising group into a formless junkyard sound. (Maybe not anybody. I’ve tried it.) But a conduction moves in distinct syllables, bursts of activity from parts of the group that start and stop on command. The small silences between segments are your proof that something here as been created with precision and forethought.
No Favorites! isn’t an album of pure conduction, but it’s in the same spirit, using conduction, graphical scores, and text instructions to coax unified pieces out of 11 improvisers. It’s an exercise in community.
In fact, the album documents a June 2015 concert in honor of Morris, where the ROVA Saxophone Quartet teamed up with a foursome of strings (violin, viola, cello, bass), and — adding a nice electric jolt — three “rock” instruments (electric guitar, electric bass, drums). The three pieces, written by ROVA members, are meant to be played as a full program, preferably using the same combinations of instruments.
ROVA has posted the scores and instructions to all three pieces here. Reading them beforehand enriches the listening experience immensely.
The strengths of conduction are well displayed on “Nothing Stopped / But a Future,” the lone piece featuring Gino Robair as conductor. Under his direction, the band darts and weaves, cleanly flipping channels to each new phase. Robair builds it all to a satisfyingly drawn-out conclusion with big, dramatic tones and just enough discord to retain the improvised feeling, even during the composed phrases.
“Contours of the Glass Head,” spanning 27 minutes, moves more deliberately, with the band lingering over a each of eight segments. The score consists of short paragraphs of text, describing environments for the group to dwell in
Some of those instructions appear to play off of pre-notated segments. Here’s part of a segment titled “Cycler Duos,” described thusly: “Designated pairs play short, repeated rhythmic ideas, eventually leading to a duo of Larry Ochs on tenor with Jordan Glenn on drums.”
“Contours” is a conduction piece, but this time, everybody shares the conductor’s duties. Like “Nothing Stopped,” it builds up to a definite conclusion, an agreed-upon crescendo that builds gradually, then wraps up abruptly.
The instrumental groupings (strings/rock/ROVA) are crucial to “The Double Negative,” which starts with each group giving an opening statement, directed by graphical scores. You get whispery strings, a delicate sax quartet, and as an exclamation point, a guitar-bass-drums segment anchored by Jason Hoopes‘ rattling bass. The piece ends with the three groups merging in a glorious slow crash.
Overall, there’s so much to savor. I’ve mentioned Hoopes’ guitar sound. The strings add moods from pensive to angry to madcap, led by Christina Stanley‘s violin and Tara Flandreau‘s viola. I haven’t heard John Shiurba on electric guitar much lately, and his sonically destructive crunch is just the right sound to get some of these segments really going.
And of course, there’s ROVA, punching and dancing as individuals or as a cooperative. They’ve planted Morris’ fingerprints all over this music, and it’s a fitting tribute.