Solid Geometry Jackson

Out of nowhere and after nine years of steady hard work comes Moss Freed – name all but unknown to these lugs for some reason (although his guitar work did appear on Rituals by Orchestra Entropy for this label in 2019). Freed’s work appears here on an amazing two-disc set Micromotives (DISCUS MUSIC DISCUS 147CD), played by Union Division, a group which he’s been cultivating and working with since 2018. Some redoubtable performers in that group, as we’ll see.

Seven instances here of Freed’s unique approach to composing pieces for improvising groups. Quick scan of the titles bodes well. Each piece dedicated to a great musician from the past, all of whom I happen to love – Braxton, Oliveros, Andriessen, Zorn, Wolff, Riley, and Barry Guy…and some of these themselves maestros and innovators when it comes to marshalling the forces of an improvising group (even Louis Andriessen believe it or not, who although a classical avant-garde composer drew influence from Thelonious). Inside panel we have five paragraphs amounting to a “mission statement” by Freed – concise summary of what he’s trying to achieve. Starts off musing on the problem of large ensemble groups – apparently Derek Bailey didn’t like them in a free improv context – and Freed is very well-informed about the history of various methods that have been used to work with some of the challenges. One of these is “conduction”, used I believe by Matthew Shipp (though he’s not named here), in his bid to combine all the best of composition, free jazz, and notation in one handy package.

However for our man Moss Freed, who has clearly made an intensive study of this field, these ways of working can introduce other problems; he wanted to find his own way out of the maze. He began doing it in 2014. He wanted to respect the “personal freedoms” of the players; he wanted to harness the electricity of free-flowing ideas that can happen in a small group situation; he wanted all the players set at liberty to create their contributions in real time as the piece was playing. Yet he also wanted a result that could not have been achieved through free playing exclusively. That’s the challenge; Micromotives is the triumph. He began work with these players in 2018, and the results we hear on this set are from two versions of the evolving group, playing in different combinations. Names in the frame include Rachel Musson, Chris Williams, Tullis Rennie, Laura Judd, George Crowley, Charlotte Keefe, Sam Eastmond, Will Glaser, Otto Wilberg…also UK founding father Steve Beresford, and Pierre Alexandre Tremblay, the electro-acoustic composer now living in the UK (his Quatre Poèmes is a brilliant piece of critical essay-writing in sound). Moss Freed alludes to his labour-intensive programme…there were workshops, building a language of hand signals, the cultivation of a “collective performance practice”, and even the emergence of an ethos. What’s especially interesting is how the band thus grew into something that was able to self-organise, and communicate among themselves while they were playing.

This strikes me as very encouraging, and Freed is right to use the word “enablers” in this context. It seems as though he’s managed to grow a unique practice of music-making, and one that is very efficient; I have seen, years ago, the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, who are very good players indeed, but looked ever so slightly clumsy on stage as they held up various coloured cards for the other players to see as they signalled their changes. The impressive results of all this effort are here to enjoy, in these spirited and maximal performances, all of which contain masses of dense musical information, and the energy never flags for a second. As Freed intended, all the instruments are clearly audible, each contribution from each player shining forth clearly. Dare we say he’s come very close to realising something that has been the dream of free improvising players for over 50 years…Derek Bailey was one who made plain his contempt for classical music composition, its orchestras, its conductors (who he regarded as little more than dictators), and even its venues, all of which (to him) seemed to lead the audience into the same blind alley every time, and yet was an institution entrenched in Western culture. If it’s true that certain strains of free playing have over time also led to their own blind alleys, then can we tentatively now suggest that it’s works like this one what are showing new ways forward, with their innovative approaches to collective music. I’m confident Braxton, George Lewis, Sun Ra, and Bill Dixon would all approve.

On top of the great music – and the titles such as ‘Hidden Hand’, ‘Union of Egoists’ and ‘Hung Parliament’, some of which seem to encode further hints and clues about Freed’s philosophy of freedom, democracy, and collectives – there is the excellent sound recording quality, courtesy of Alex Bonney. Be sure to look out for other manifestations of his work in Moss Project, The Spike Orchestra, and Let Spin. For now, this one’s essential listening if you have any interest in the future of improvised music. From 12th January 2023.

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