The most limiting observation I can make about composer and improvising multi-instrumentalist Henry Threadgill’s activity at Roulette this weekend is that he debuted some really exciting new chamber music. Because he also offered much more.
His multimedia programming spanned Friday and Saturday, lasting more than two hours each night. While the first set was entitled “One” and the second – in a playful, non-specific way – was called “The Other One”, both versions of his composition “Of Valence”, for three saxophones, two bassoons, two cellos along with a tuba, a violin, a viola, piano, and percussion.
Threadgill, 78, has long used playfulness, ambition and unusual configurations in his work. His 1979 album “X-75 Volume 1” included none of four basses, four horns, and one vocalist.
In 2016, he won the Pulitzer Prize for music, for the double album ‘In for a Penny, in for a Pound’, which spotlighted Zooid – his late career group featuring a tuba, acoustic guitar, cello, drums and Threadgill’s own flute and alto saxophone. . Players in that ensemble improvise over quasi-serialized sequences of intervals (befitting a composer who is just as likely to bring up Elliott Carter in conversation as Duke Ellington).
But this weekend’s shows were something new. Tuba player Jose Davila, cellist Christopher Hoffman and pianist David Virelles are some of Threadgill’s closest collaborators, able to give panache to the brass band his most contrapuntally complex music. Joining a larger group, their sound drew directly from the Zooid language – and some of its freer uses, as heard in Ensemble Double Up – while the multimedia shed new light on this composer’s late style.
Those multimedia elements include collage photos of street trash taken by Threadgill during the mass exodus from New York at the start of the pandemic, projected onto a screen; live readings of prose written to accompany the images; looping, pre-recorded vocal choruses, with all voices provided by Threadgill; and video essays midway between images of even more chamber music and the composer’s droll sermon on smartphones and distractions.
Threadgill did not pick up alto saxophone or flute for live performances, although the video did show him on bass flute. His instrumental contributions were limited to a few short piano-plus-vocal moments, which were influential in their vulnerability, but a tad too cautious to come across as safe. (His pre-recorded choirs were more vocally assured.)
He also focused on conducting the 12-piece ensemble. On Saturday they sounded like they were in step with all its surprising rhythmic feints – producing an obliquely danceable, straight forward joyful Threadgillian energy.
At one point, in the second hour of both evenings, a string trio of cellist Mariel Roberts, violist Stephanie Griffin and violinist Sara Caswell played staggered lines that seemed to tease traceable canonical patterns, but remained melodically and rhythmically independent. It was tightly plotted and resisted easy decomposition; yet it didn’t sound very much like Zooid’s zigzagging interplay.
A new glow came from electronically manipulated cymbal tones, courtesy of drummer Craig Weinrib. (The transducers he used to manipulate those metallic timbres paid tribute to the late percussionist Milford Graves, to whom the music was dedicated. The performances as a whole were dedicated to pioneering critic and musician Greg Tate, who died last year.)
These booming metallic timbres were in subtle, haunting contrast to the string trio’s vibrato sound production. Then the tenor saxophonist Peyton Pleninger developed a solo from falling motifs in the strings. Building a frenetic, improvisational energy from melodic cells, the strings began to delve into the extended technique, involving scraping, bending on the bridge and lightly plucked pizzicato.
In addition to Weinrib on his drum kit, some of Noah Becker’s howling alto sax figures inspired beautiful portamento lines from Griffin’s viola, as did the entry of both bassoonists who played brooding long notes before moving on to peppery, explosive outbursts. The gradual increase in instrumental forces continued; on Saturday, this section had a galvanic sense of swing, even through Threadgill’s successive, minute tempo changes.
Sometimes, if you wanted the groove to continue, a quick exclamation from the ensemble and a surprising jolt in the rhythm would bring it all to a dramatic, unexpected end—at which point Threadgill, for example, would go back to reciting sections of his prose. against projections of paintings by his daughter, Nhumi Threadgill. Or he sat by the stage while a video played in which Henry Threadgill moved several talismans around a horizontal mirror. At the same time, a voice-over provided the composer’s observations on contemporary life.
If Threadgill’s spoken or sung lyrics were not narrative, they were by turns poignant or humorous as cultural critique. In a video that made him laugh out loud, he recalled both his and a barista’s annoyance at a coffeehouse customer who, immersed in texting, failed to get an order.
But while the public was invited to join the composer in cranky irritation, this was not the sole purpose of the vignette. Instead, this bite thematically harmonized with Threadgill’s broader concerns about what we throw out too easily, including our attention. When his narration referenced rat populations and their proximity to outdoor restaurants, his pre-recorded vocal chorus began singing about something “creeping down my leg.” Such light-hearted moments had a way of balancing the more serious qualities of the text — not least about the nature of inequality in New York, before and during the pandemic.
While the precise placement of videos and narration changed from night to night, the musical order was largely the same. The advantage of Saturday’s set was the greater tightness, both in the ensemble and in the multimedia transitions. If some form of this lively chamber orchestra music is recorded, it must be accompanied by documentation of the experience in the hall (similar to the way a studio recording of Anthony Braxton’s opera “Trillium J” contains a video of the semi- staged premiere, also at Roulette).
“Of Valence” occasionally got to the point of being too much to take in at once, so it was a good thing Roulette booked the show for two nights. This long-term, forward-thinking Brooklyn venue is the only place in town with the chops to make a sharp presentation of Threadgill’s multimedia, as well as the willingness to put this composer before anything else.
Performed on Friday and Saturday at Roulette, Brooklyn.