“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” a remark usually ascribed to the late rock music guru Frank Zappa, is an observation I have always interpreted as mere smirking hyperbole. But after experiencing 90 minutes of highly charged improvisation by keyboardist Thollem McDonas and percussionist Alex Cline Saturday (September 6), I am willing to grant the point.
This sonically athletic duo opened the 2014-15 season of Bonnie Wright’s edgy contemporary music series Fresh Sound at Bread and Salt, a former commercial bakery in Logan Heights that has been turned into a performance venue, but only in a minimal fashion. Much of the building’s large machinery is still in place, and the performers play from an empty corner of one of the first-floor rooms with just enough space to set up 50 moveable chairs in front of them.
Considering the venue and Cline and McDonas’ pulsing, unrelenting musical style, I am tempted to label their collaborations “industrial toccatas.” Each improvisation–there were six–started tentatively, with discrete, open bell-like tones or small keyboard riffs surrounded by silence. Slowly and incrementally, the duo ramped up these sonic islands that reminded me of some of György Kurtág’s early chamber music to denser and more driving textures spurred by McDonas’ fierce ostinatos and Cine’s muscular drum licks.[php snippet=2]
Employing a vintage Yamaha analog electronic keyboard, McDonas crafted a sustained, electronic organ-like sound (midway between the classic Hammond B-3 and a current model synthesizer) that benefited from the rhythmic definition of Cline’s drum and cymbal motifs. McDonas’ densely constructed musical style owes something to rock, jazz, and minimalism, but would not be easily identified with any of these. Like the series’ name, he came with his own Fresh Sound.