Improvisation, and creativity, flow from room to room
Soundscape 2007, a collaborative installation of art and music, was like walking through a traffic jam in which every car has its radio tuned to the same station.
Producer Savvas Spyridopoulos subdivided a fifth-story Fort Point Channel factory floor into 11 small galleries, with one or two musicians in each space. Via headphones, the players were in aural contact only with their colleagues in neighboring rooms, encouraging improvisational ideas to flow through the exhibition, current down a wire. It might sound like an avant-garde game of telephone, but the vocabulary here was straight-ahead jazz; music director and saxophonist Andy Voelker recruited an impressive cohort of reeds, brass, and rhythm. As the group worked over the changes of the Cole Porter standard "What Is This Thing Called Love?" or Thelonious Monk's "I Mean You," wandering from gallery to gallery, one could physically remix a slightly chaotic jam session.
A handful of the visual artists played off the music, either coincidentally or intentionally. Mike Newby's "Bird Land" perched life-size sculpted songbirds on angular, futurist outcroppings, both painted the same flat, neutral brown, emphasizing their artificiality. But as the viewer drew in close, the birds mechanically twitched and twittered, an avian serenade for guitarist Jon Damian. Magaly Ponce covered the head of Michael Vitali's bass drum with reflective foil, pointed a video camera at it, and projected the image on the wall of the adjoining room: a fun-house mirror, shivering with every kick of the beat.
Saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase was stationed across from the projection, creating a fascinating sensory disorientation as he wove in and out of a rhythm more seen than heard. Trombonist Bill Lowe and bassist Dmitry Ishenko, each in visually and sonically isolated galleries, embodied the gray area between individual and group as they interacted with an invisible ensemble. A Voelker original, "One Mess at a Time," alternated between collective improvisation over sustained harmonies and a sharp, repeated riff; the slow sections hinted at the different direction in which a free-jazz approach might have gone, an unruly evolution from room to room.
But for the most part, the music was of a familiar, swinging cast, and the fun was in being able to experience large-group jazz on a one-on-one level, a big band in the serendipitous close-up of a subway busker. The sight and sound of Voelker using his solo over an uptempo version of "Slow Boat to China" to genially tease a coy toddler, the two as close as friends on a playground, was, by itself, enough to make the experiment worthwhile.