Last night Kyle Bruckmann took the first set at the Center for New Music, opening for selections from The Marrow, the latest record from Ehnahre, a Boston-based ensemble that “has been pioneering an effort to rethink and redefine what metal, extreme, and new music can be.” Bruckmann’s approach can be stated more modestly. He explores the possibilities for free improvisation among small groups often involving new ways of playing old instruments.
For those who have not yet heard him, Bruckmann is an oboist; and last night he alternated among oboe, cor anglais (English horn), and bass oboe. This turned out to entail more than an extended pitch range. Bruckmann has cultivated a skill for overblowing techniques that give rise to chords of upper harmonics, often distant enough to get beyond the pitches of the equal-tempered scale. Listening to him play last night, it seemed as if the length of the instrument had an effect on which of those harmonics could be coaxed into those chords. Thus, beyond the obvious factor of pitch level, each of the three instruments had its own characteristic sonorities arising from these overblowing techniques.
This seemed to set the theme, so to speak, of the improvisation, which lasted around 40 minutes. That theme was the exploration of familiar instruments approached by their respective performers in unfamiliar ways. Bruckmann led a quartet, whose other members were Jacob Felix Heule on percussion, Kanoko Nishi on koto, and vocalist Danishta Rivero working with analog electronic gear.
In that domain of seeking out new ways to play old instruments, Nishi was probably the most adventurously extensive. Her instrument was the Japanese koto which is traditionally played by plucking its strings. Nishi approached her instrument first with a bow and later with a mallet. She also used a fragment of a polystyrene plate both to mute the strings and to educe new sonorities by rubbing the strings in different ways. The result was a highly physical approach to performance in which just about every sound was unexpected (including the rare appearances of plucked koto strings).
In a similar radical departure from convention, Rivero’s performance often seemed to involve the appearance of vocalizing, while the resulting sounds (when they were audible at all) only seldom matched her physical delivery. In this setting her use of electronics was sparing, primarily serving to reinforce the few moments of climax realized through intense dynamics. She also had a massive shock of hair that could cover her entire face, often creating a mystery as to whether the sounds were her own or products of her electronic gear. This was as much theater as it was vocalizing, but it fit well into the overall exploratory framework of the set.
In this context Heule’s percussion work was probably the most conventional. He worked primarily with drums and cymbals and had his own devices for exploring the possibilities of unanticipated sonorities. He did some particularly interesting things with a CD slid along the surface of one of the drum heads. He also had an imaginative way of working with his bass drum pedal that always seemed to fall short (deliberately) of establishing any sense of a predictable rhythm.
The set itself seemed to be divided into two independent sections, each of which was structured according to a symmetrical rise and fall of dynamic level. Keeping the dynamics under tight control facilitated apprehending each of the knapsacks of techniques managed by each of the performers. The result may have been an improvisation of coexistence, rather than coordination; but it was populated by throughly fascinating and engaging “multiple existences.” The result was a journey of discovery that left one curious about just what this group might come up with the next time.