Like improvisation itself, improvisational collaborations can be ephemeral things--creations of the moment that live in that moment and then disappear, like so many sounds dissolving into silence. Yet the fact that these alliances are the way they are--contingent on the momentary convergence of individuals on otherwise independent paths--means that they both create and thrive on a kind of compressed energy. Like an improvisation that has to cohere in the given time of its existence, an improvisational collaboration has to come together now, at this moment; it has to create a certain sympathetic chemistry from a fusion of the diverse sensibilities that its participants bring as they intersect at a given point in time. And to paraphrase Andre Breton, improvisational chemistry will either be convulsive, or it won't be: it will either succeed exhilaratingly or will fail through the musical equivalent of unrecognized epiphanies and missed connections.
The free improvisational Clairvoyance--soprano saxophonist Gianni Mimmo, double bassist Adriano Orrù, and pianist Silvia Corda--have just such an exhilarating chemistry. That they do should come as no surprise; each of the three is, in his or her own way, exemplary of some of the finest free improvisational and experimental new music being made in Italy today.
Orrù and Corda, both of Cagliari on the island of Sardinia, are life partners as well as partners in music. Orrù, a native of Nuoro in Sardinia, specializes in improvisational musics of different kinds, jazz and free improvisation, both acoustic and electroacoustic, in particular. He's played in ensembles of various sizes ranging from duos and trios to the large, international Variable Geometry Orchestra led by Ernesto Rodrigues in Portugal. As adept an ensemble musician as he is, Orrù's signature work is Hesperos, a solo double bass recording recently reissued by the Swiss label End Titles. Hesperos is a concept work in that each of its pieces is developed from the starting point of the fundamental tone of one or more open strings. By using varying bow articulations, plucking or striking the strings and occasionally augmenting the instrument with foreign objects, Orrù plays with the interactions of pitch and timbre to create something as lyrical as it is focused on discernible--and sometimes radical--changes in the tonal qualities of sound. There, as in his work with Clairvoyance, Orrù creates effects by mixing and isolating colors as an abstract painter might do.
Orrù's coloristic focus makes for a fine complement to Corda's pianism. Like Orrù, Corda's interest has taken her to jazz and improvisational musics. Her musical culture also includes a strong involvement in contemporary art music growing out of the postwar avant-garde's innovations in instrumental technique and instrumentation, and in compositional attitudes. In addition to standard piano, she frequently plays prepared piano and toy piano, as well as other toy instruments. Composition is a significant aspect of her practice and has brought her international recognition: her "Ritratti del Tempo" for toy piano and toy psaltery was premiered by Phyllis Chen at the 2013 UnCaged Toy Piano Festival in New York City in 2013 and subsequently remained in Chen's performance repertoire; her "Root of the Wind," a one-minute piece, was premiered by pianist/toy pianist Mark Robson in Glendale, California in spring of 2014. Closer to home, in March, 2017 she presented an evening of works for toy instruments in Cagliari. As an improviser, Corda is particularly attuned to the color possibilities of music, often playing directly on the strings and frame of the piano as well as on the keys. She is also cognizant of the coloristic potential of silence discerningly introduced into a performance.
Like Steve Lacy, Mimmo is uniquely associated with the soprano saxophone. In fact it was after conversation and lessons with Lacy in 1994 that the Milanese saxophonist decided to focus exclusively on the soprano. Before taking up the soprano, Mimmo had since the late 1970s played alto and baritone saxophones in experimental ensembles. His work with the soprano continues in that spirit of experimentation not only with improvisation and timbre, which is a central though often subtly approached facet of his playing, but with the kinds of contexts in which the soprano can be played. He regularly plays with ensembles of different sizes, but also, since 2003, has been exploring the possibilities of solo performance. More radically, he's experimented with melding music with contrasting literary texts--sometimes being read and sung together simultaneously--and has often collaborated with contemporary poets and other writers as well as with classical vocalists and spoken-word artists. The importance of the human voice to Mimmo's aesthetic comes out in his playing, the phrasing of which is reminiscent of the ideal set out by poet Charles Olson in his essay "Projective Verse": a line that follows the "laws and possibilities of the breath" in a necessarily variable metric that compounds the values of its constituent elements. Musically these latter would consist in the durations of individual notes or subphrases instead of Olson's syllables; and yet it isn't hard to hear Mimmo's phrasing as informed by a sense of the stress patterns falling across strings of syllables, as something akin to covert speech or song--something in fact like what Allen Ginsberg described as "speech-flow prosody."
Mimmo, Corda and Orrù met at the Tempo al Tempo Festival in Brussels in October, 2016, where Corda played toy piano in a small ensemble alongside of Mimmo. In early November, 2017, they played together as a trio in the Cantina Sa Defenza in Cagliari. Just the evening before, Mimmo and Orrù performed as a duo in Cagliari's Bar Florio. There followed soon after another date in Monserrato and a recording session. In February of 2018, the trio played dates in Milan and gave a workshop on the city of Pavia. Their first CD, the superb Clairvoyance, was released in September on Mimmo's Amirani label (disclosure- I supplied liner notes for the disc).
As the recording makes clear, each of Clairvoyance's players has a distinctive voice of his or her own, but all three speak individual variations of what is essentially the same musical language. Their vocabulary of sounds derives as much from the innovative performance techniques that have been developed over the last fifty or so years as from more conventionally classical ways of playing; the musical syntax ordering these sounds reflects a fluency in the techniques of juxtaposition, parataxis and simultaneity found in avant-garde art music as well as the free counterpoint of post-jazz improvisation. Improvisational groups such as the Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza and the New Music Ensemble are obvious precedents in terms of the palette of sound colors available, but the continuity with which Clairvoyance weaves these colors together is something of their own.
Take, for example, the track titled "Implications." There, Mimmo, Corda and Orrù achieve textural balance through a subtle staging of voices and foreground-background relationships. The piece starts with what is in effect linked cadenzas for piano and double bass and eventually moves to a contrapuntal section for all three instruments, with the bass gradually splitting off to a walking line. The piece concludes with duets for soprano saxophone and double bass and soprano sax and piano. The overall formative architecture consists in an additive/subtractive process that runs the length of the performance and puts the individual parts in order. The textural weights of the passages for two and three voices are in turn centered and kept proportional through a fluid balancing of the field/figure relationships that ultimately give the piece its distinctive musical gestalt.
The structural soundness with which this and the other pieces are improvised is just an implication of Clairvoyance's fundamental orientation--an orientation that, collectively and individually, represents a compositional stance toward improvisation. This stance consists in a sense of developing form, of bringing to bear such values as balance, symmetry or asymmetry, repetition and variation, kinship and contrast, and so forth to the improvisational dynamic. In effect, this is an architectural way of conceiving of the deployment of sounds in audio space, in real time. Here, Corda merits special mention for the way she frames Mimmo and Orrù's melodies and countermelodies, holding open a place for them to develop--and to develop away from pitched sound if desired--without the danger of having the piano overdetermine the potential harmonies at any given moment. Architectural thinking is structural thinking but it's also a thinking of structure in the context of freedom; the elasticity and discretion of the scaffolding Corda's playing brings ensures the proper balance. Orrù enhances this structured openness by largely eschewing the traditional harmonic function of the bass and instead drawing from his instrument a range of timbres intermediate between those of the piano and the soprano saxophone. Again, balance is all, as it is with Mimmo's contribution. His lines are often characterized by a certain asymmetry--an asymmetry following speech-like patterns of accent, as suggested above--but within the group sound, his lines contribute to a more encompassing symmetry in which all three voices balance.
The compositional stance is essentially a form of interpretation. To draw an unlikely but nevertheless apt analogy, improvisation is an interpretive art, all the way down in the same way that soothsaying is an interpretive art: both call for reading physical phenomena--the flight of birds, say, for the latter; the dynamic configuration of sounds for the former--as meaningful clues by which to take action.
Like soothsaying, improvisation is about detecting possibilities for the future from the given material of the present--although needless to say, as an interpretive art improvisation stands on more solid ground than soothsaying. As an interpretive tool, the compositional stance provides a particularly effective place from which to understand and respond to the flow of sound in real time. It allows the firm finding of what Mimmo has aptly described as the performer's "sense of position" within the performance. On the evidence of the performances captured on their first CD, Clairvoyance are adept at finding mutually supportive positions within the improvisational flux and creating a beauty that Breton, had he any liking of music, would surely recognize as convulsive.