Reverberations: Larry Ochs (Rova Saxophone Quartet) on Improvisation in the Cloud

Rova Saxophone Quartet explores the synthesis of composition and collective improvisation, creating exciting, genre-bending music that challenges and inspires. Rova (Larry Ochs, Jon Raskin, Bruce Ackley, and Steve Adams) is one of the longest-standing groups in the music movement that has its roots in post-bop, free jazz, avant-rock, and 20th century new music, and draws inspiration from the visual arts and from the traditional and popular music styles of Africa, Asia, Europe and the United States. The quartet’s most recent release is Planetary (SoLyd Records, 2011). Check out (and participate in!) the Remix Rova project.

Talk a little bit about your performance for L@TE.

It was hearing sound in previous museum shows that gave us the impetus to be a part of the series. We were excited to perform in the museum space, or make that plural: spaces. I think we might have wanted to do more running up and down the ramps, but there just wasn’t enough time to get up and down and keep the music flowing, even with the use of silence in the music. So we settled for remaining stationary on three different levels of the building in the second set. It was amazing how well one could hear the saxophonists two levels away.

Rova has prepared sets specifically for acoustically reverberant spaces only a very few times in the past 34 years. Perhaps the most extreme performances were (1) A fourteenth-century monastery in Plasy, Czech Republic, and then (2) in Grace Cathedral in San Francisco for the SFJAZZ Festival in the early 1990s. We created a piece called Grace for the latter concert. Steve Adams wrote out some composed material, and then we filled the piece with some “games” ideas I suggested, derived from Rova music, influenced by Morton Feldman. We used hand cues, “sound-specific events,” and “process-driven events,” choosing those events or games that made sense in a space with an extremely long sound delay (or “echo”).

The primary game we used is now called “Cumulous,” and if you imagine looking up at a blue sky containing a formation of cumulous clouds, you can see the layers of the cloud sliding over each other at different rates of speed. Each layer is cool when it can be perceived alone, but then all the layers make up yet another more inspiring cumulative image-the cloud. So we create three of four layers of sound. The listener can focus on one player or listen to all three or four at once and hear the cumulative sound surrounding her as she sits there, the perception changing slowly but surely as we play the improvisation and move around the audience. So “Cumulous” is a process-driven event, except that for this piece we also had a sound-specific set of choices that directed our playing.

That piece Grace was one of the pieces we used at BAM/PFA, although the improvised portions of the piece change dramatically depending on the characteristics of the performance space. We have performed this composition very infrequently, as it only makes sense in reverberant halls.

Are there unique qualities about the space that you’d want to explore or take advantage of if you were to return?

It would be interesting to be able to place wind instruments and string ensembles - all acoustic - in different galleries around the building and create a composition that threw the sound all around the building, sometimes layered, sometimes starkly revealing one room: a single instrument, or set of instruments in that room and the sounds they were generating at the time, and then moving back to the entire building vibrating. It would have to be tightly composed in terms of the sounds in the building - the big picture - but including limited improvisation within each ensemble, or each room. Dig: I’m just thinking out loud as I write this. But I think that would be cool.

More simply though: Rova only took one shot at the set of pieces we performed that night. It’s not like we said it all; on the contrary, we were just getting into it. We could investigate those pieces at least a half dozen more times on their own and still be surprised by what we were discovering each time. That’s the intent of these compositions: to set up the improvising ensemble to take off (over and over again) into the unknown. First you travel through the known layers, but if the launch is successful you get beyond the known and reach the danger zone again, where you discover more, adding another layer of “known” to the sounds/ideas you discovered in previous performances. When composing for improvisers, you really can’t find much new material in rehearsal - performances are absolutely necessary. There’s something about the audience in the room that helps to make the music come alive.

Photo: Heike Liss