March 16-22, 2006
Music : ArticleOrganic Chemistry
The past meets the future under Henry Threadgill's microscope.
"Ancient to the Future" is the subtitle of Ars Nova Workshop's series celebrating the 40th anniversary of the AACM, a slogan adopted by the organization to reflect its forward-looking philosophy as well as to pay tribute to its forebears. So it's fitting that the final concert of the series should feature Henry Threadgill, at once perhaps the least representative of the AACM sound and the fullest embodiment of that motto.
It's debatable whether the AACM even has a signature sound; any umbrella that can cover the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton and Kahil El'Zabar must be wide indeed. So it is probably less apt to say that Threadgill differs from his compatriots than that he differs from everything.
The music of Henry Threadgill's Zooid fits the "Ancient to the Future" tag so well because it is utterly timeless. There is no way to listen to a Threadgill piece and precisely pinpoint its era, unless it is an era that hasn't happened yet. Instead, scraps of the past skate atop modernist backgrounds, colliding, bouncing and finally melding into each other. As a composer, Threadgill seems to draw not just from the superficial trappings of diverse forms of music, but from whole cultures of sound, internalizing the very thought processes that gave rise to these musics. The end result sounds like an era-spanning orchestra, dead civilizations sharing space with those not yet born and joining in for a hell of a jam session.
According to the definition provided by the band, a "zooid" is "an organic cell capable of independent movement, or several cells forming a colony." The description correctly evokes the group's simultaneous freedom and discipline, as the boundaries between composition and improvisation blur. Merriam-Webster's less evocative definition is "an asexually produced individual of a compound organism." But Threadgill's music is far from asexual; if not exactly passionate, it is a heady seduction, the stimulation of engaged intellects.
Zooid's sound is emergent, arising from the interaction of divergent musical ideas played on a bizarre array of instruments. (The leader on alto and flute, Liberty Ellman on acoustic guitar, Jose Davila on tuba, Dana Leong on cello, Elliot Humberto Kavee on drums, and Tarik Benbrahim on oud, which will be replaced for this show by Rubin Kodheli's cello.) Returning to that hybrid creature depicted above, the effect is of a mass of tendrils, each moving independently, sometimes seemingly at odds, but all working for the good of the organism. Even if the central body can't be seen for the mass of wriggling extremities, it is implied by the elegant beauty of its motions. Threadgill's intricate compositions are the brain that drives the organism, playful yet complex, humorous and dramatic. And most stunning when witnessed live, in their natural habitat.
Henry Threadgill's Zooid, Fri., March 17, 8 p.m., $20, International House, 3701 Chestnut St., 866-468-7619, www.arsnovaworkshop.com.