Monday, March 14, 2022

MRBC 1987

Sometime in 1985, two years into my NYC tenure doing any kind of musical work whatsoever to break into the scene, I got a call for my first recording date.  This was somewhat happenstance. My girlfriend at the time, a cellist doing classical music gigs in the city, was working with a bassist named James Bergman who was part of some kind of “new music” group.  They were looking for a saxophonist to play on their new recording project and she recommended me.  They of course needed to hear me play and sent some music in advance of a first meeting with the composer, Mikel Rouse.  Upon seeing the parts I was struck by their simplicity.  I played through a few sections and put it away without finishing, thinking I’d just read it at the audition.  

At this point in time I don’t recall much about that first get-together except that Mikel Rouse looked every bit the serious composer, wearing an impeccably clean and perfectly pressed white shirt, sitting at a table, pencil behind his ear, a large set of scores in front of him and not smiling.  He was about my age but I knew very few people of our generation who presented themselves in such a way.  I wasn’t sure what to think but I was intrigued and knew enough to simply try and be professional.  Having already experienced some of the storied cynicism of the music business in the form of old-school fly-by-night contractors and jaded musicians, this was refreshing.  Plus the music seemed to present no real challenges so I wasn’t nervous.  I probably should have been.  

We began playing and within a few measures I was completely lost. 
The simple musical line I was seeing on the page represented just one of many independent rhythmic patterns unfolding through a long series of permutations resolving with the other parts at select moments before moving on again in a constant and unrelenting stream of interlocking motion.  I was holding on for dear life but fortunately the concentration required did not allow the luxury of worrying about it.  Mikel was patient yet steady and it occurred to me that this situation was almost to be expected.  I guess I must have done alright and was offered the gig.  

The Mikel Rouse Broken Concert resembled more of a jazz band in it’s instrumentation and something of a rock band in conception; keyboard, soprano saxophone, electric bass and drums.  And yet the music was completely notated, no improvisation whatsoever.  Adding to this somewhat disorienting situation there was actually no drummer, the score being composed entirely for drum machine.  That seemed pretty daring at the time but Mikel told me he had actually done an entire LP for drum machine alone called “Quorum”.  I couldn’t imagine what that would have sounded like and I wasn’t sure I would have liked it but at the same time, given that this was all new to me, I respected the fact that he actually did it. 

The recording session turned out to be an overdubbing session in that everything was already recorded except for the saxophone part.  This took place at BC Studios in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, run by Martin Bisi who established it with Bill Laswell and Brian Eno.  One good thing about this approach was that it afforded the opportunity to record the music in sections, which was a relief because it required stamina and offered few places to breathe.  We worked piecemeal in this fashion and within a few hours the session was done.  It was stimulating but I still didn’t know quite what to think about the whole thing.  

It would take about two years before the recording was finally released on Cuneiform Records, a new company at the time that has since developed an extensive catalogue of all kinds of new and adventurous music.  In the time leading up to this Mikel wanted to do some live work with the ensemble.  But rather than use the drum machine Mikel decided to look for someone who could play the drum machine parts on a full drum kit, no small feat.  Mikel’s music is constructed such that the keyboard plays the role of timekeeper allowing the drum part freer range.  In the process the drum part became much less idiomatic of what real drummers find natural to play.  I don’t know how he went about it but the person he found, Bill Tesar, wound up doing an amazing job.  Bill also ran a musical instrument rental company in the city which had a recording studio where we sometimes rehearsed.  I recall one afternoon in which guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Joey Baron came by to check out the studio.  We didn’t get to say hello but I could see them up in the control booth while we rehearsed.  When I joined Joey’s trio “Baron Down” some years later he told me that seeing that rehearsal stuck in his mind because it was so different than what anyone else was doing.  That was fortuitous since most of my musician friends either hated the music or at best were perplexed. I had invited a couple of my drummer friends to attended one of our live gigs thinking they’d be impressed that Bill managed to figure out how to play Mikel’s drum parts.  While they did seem vaguely impressed they were more like, “but, why?”  To be honest, I was often ambivalent myself.  During the performances I always put myself into the music completely and found it very compelling.  Afterwards in thinking about it I wasn’t always so sure.  Basically each piece began with no warning, maintaining a steady pulse and dynamic throughout and then stopped as suddenly as it had started.  I recall mentioning to Jim Bergman the fact that the music didn’t seem to go anywhere. He said that criticism had been made by others as well but he didn’t seem fazed by it at all.  Fact is, that was never the point.  Compositionally, a process was set in motion that simply played itself out and if you immersed yourself in it you might begin to experience it’s internal machinations as something more expansive. No need for introductions or endings but I could think of no other examples of music that operated in that way.  

At the time Mikel’s music was tenuously compared to minimalism.  Composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich had been writing rhythmic music based on repetition and this was certainly not unrelated.  But there were probably more differences than similarities, such that music writer Kyle Gann began referring to it as totalism for being more eclectic and having less concern with stylistic consistency.  There were other composers under this umbrella but to my ear they all sounded rather different from one another in approach.  And in listening back today Mikel’s music remains unique.  You can hear that on the recording we made titled “A Lincoln Portrait”, the title inspired by a series of allegorical paintings by artist Tim Steele that spoke to Mikel’s artistic and political sensibilities.  As for live performances, there were a handful in New York City at places like the Alternative Museum, Roulette and Dance Theater Workshop as well as a radio broadcast gig for WNYC called the Americathon and an appearance on the Transonic New Music Festival in Philadelphia, all spread out over a period of about a year.  At a certain point Mikel decided to take the group in a more electric direction and began using guitar instead of saxophone for reasons that make sense, one being that guitarists don’t need to breathe in order to play.  Well, we all need to breathe in order to do anything but you get the point.

Since that time Mikel and I have continued to stay in touch.  We both live in midtown and occasionally run into each other on the street, keeping each other informed and attending each others concerts over the years.  I began expressing to Mikel how my appreciation for his music had grown since those early, somewhat uncertain days.  Back then we would rehearse regularly for many weeks prior to a gig as it took time to learn the music and even more time for it to gel.  I remember well the first time that happened, somehow everything clicked and I experienced what I can only call the long-form groove in his music.  Those resolution points that were stretched out over great lengths began to connect and speak to each other and it all snuck up on me in a visceral way.  This longer form awareness within a music of such heightened rhythmic independence proved to have a powerful effect in the realm of free improvisation, which I was taking up in earnest at around that same time.  This was unexpected given that these musical worlds could not have seemed more distant from each other.  I’ve had a few musical experiences over the years that really turned my head around, Joey Baron’s group “Baron Down” being one of them.  The Broken Consort was certainly another one but it took some years for me to realize it. 

I’m reminded of all this because Mikel has been working on his archives of late and one of our live concerts has just been posted on his Band Camp page.  If you’re game, I invite you to have a listen to the MRBC live at Dance Theater Workshop from 1987 although you might begin with the studio recording “A Lincoln Portrait” for some context.  Additionally there is a live radio performance and interview for New Sounds with John Schaefer on WNYC, also from 1987, archived on John’s web site.   I should point out that Mikel was one of the first musicians I worked with who impressed me by being so articulate when speaking about music, something else I’ve taken inspiration from.

In retrospect, whether this particular incarnation of the group fully achieved its goals or potential remains a question. Listening back I can sense some of the struggles I had although those struggles diminish as compared to the fact that my overall experience in the group was entirely positive.  The dedication and musicianship that Mikel, Jim and Bill brought to the project helped me to become a better musician.  From this vantage point it seems clear that the effect of this music traveled well beyond the group and it’s time-frame, short lived though it was, contributing to that scene as well as informing the work we’ve each done since.  And for that I’m grateful for the experience.