Splinter Orchestra

Mungo
Split Rec 27

Making a virtue out of necessity, Sydney, Australia’s 19-member Splinter Orchestra (SO) wraps a succession of challenges into a mammoth – 3 CD – package to produce a definition of contemporary antipodean improvisation. However like theoretical scientists who serendipitously solve an equation only to come up with a broader conundrum, new queries still exist after pondering this more than 2¼ hour creation.

One of the overriding concerns of musicians convinced of the transformative properties of aleatory music is how to make a large ensemble function with the fluidity and flexibility of a smaller one. Another concern is how best to utilize non-studio spaces so that the chance textures that arise from relocation will properly figure into a recording. For a practical demonstration, the SO packed up and relocated for three days within the country’s vast Mungo National Park. The results are mixed. In terms of reflecting SO’s three preferred recording locales – two tracks from the ruined Zanci Homestead and one each from an 1869 woodshed and another from a dirt airstrip in the dark – the results are so of a piece that sonic differentiation is limited. Despite the presence of seven horn players, five string players, three percussionists and others employing electronics, objects and their own voices, the outcomes are as egoless as a patient after extended ECT sessions. There are no stand-out soloists because there are no solos as such, only the melding and mulching of tones, textures and timbres.

With that noted, of all the creations, it’s “Woolshed (Sunset)”, which takes up all of CD2 with the longest un-segmented track, which comes across best. Perhaps like most persons’ preference for compromise, the microtonal narrative takes hold because the structure suggests some citified encroachment on an area that’s otherwise rustic. Mixed among the very distant echoes of insects and animals – which are actually more prominent on the two tracks from “Zanci Homestead” – are equivalent echoes of shop and warehouse activities. The nearly 55½-minute creation isn’t some occult mediation on the metaphysical past however, with audible vibrations arising spontaneously from the structure and its surroundings. Instead the stereo mics pick up enough inflections from the instruments to confirm their presence. Throughout a threatening drone underscores the narration as brittle workshop floor-like noises mix with intermittent reed puffs, drum smacks and tremolo harmonium judders. Like a symphony’s first movement, a summation appears one-third of the way through, built out of a single guitar stoke outlined against metallic reverberations. Further on, blats sourced by pressing saxophone bells against metal plate(s) characterize the rigid part of the theme as wispy male and female voices swell and diminish vocals into whistles and twitters producing and adding more pliable timbres. Later, forceful animal-like and mechanized intimations via reed tongue slaps, saxophone overblowing, sawing double bass strings, and clever percussion whisks plus steel-drum-like reverberations confirm the composition’s malleable dual nature as it evolves into the last sequence. Climatically the polyphonic finale which reflects a cornucopia of buzz-saw-like mechanism, flute wisps and reed smears, yodels and beast-like snorts confirms the balance between human-sourced and other sounds, plus instrument-created and found acoustics that characterize this exercise by the SO.

Appending everything from desolate flute snippets, bell peals and fiddle strokes as well as dense electrical drones, the SO bolsters the program throughout the other tracks. Like the mummy’s curse that comes with the discovery of gold deposits however, the program proves that the SO has overcome two challenges to expose a third. These CDs confirm that a large orchestra can practice free improvisation with small group flexibility. And the program shows that outdoor site performance can be as organically connected as a studio gig. But Mungo also resemble a multi-paged book, doorstop-sized because the author insists on putting in every concept imaginable. For full appreciation of this set, listening to maximum one disc at a time will suffice. Its configuration and capability will be best appreciated with appropriate separation and reflection.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: CD1: 1, Zanci Homestead I (Sunrise) 2. Zanci Homestead II (Sunrise) CD2: 1. Woolshed (Sunset) CD3: 1. Airstrip (Midnight)

Personnel: Joseph Derrick (trumpet); Axel Powrie (flute); Laura Altman (clarinet); Jack Stoneham (alto saxophone); Peter Farrar (alto saxophone, PVC pipes); Andrew Fedorovitch (alto saxophone, voice); Jim Denley (woodwinds, voice); Romy Caen (harmonium, electronics); Melanie Herbert (violin); Adam Gottlieb, Cor Fuhler (guitar); Marco Cheng (guitar, voice); Maximillian Alduca (bass); Bonnie Stewart (percussion); Drew Bourgeois (percussion, shakuhachi); Shota Matsumura (objects); Tony Osborne, Mel Eden (voice, electronics); Sonya Holowell, Weizen (voice)