Sqwonk and Redshift Light Up Saturday Night
It’s hard to imagine a more fun way to spend a Saturday night than watching Sqwonk and then Redshift in the West Village. Their doublebill at the Greenwich House Music School’s absolutely charming, woodpaneled, Jacksonian era upstairs auditorium was full of humor, both in the musicianship and the compositions, as much a part of the show as the ensembles’ dazzling technique and out-of-the-box creativity. Sqwonk, the aptly named bass clarinet duo project of Jon Russell and Jeff Anderle, played first. The bass clarinet is delightful for more reasons than you can count, and for anyone who plays it, it must not be easy to resist going completely over the top (or under the hedge) with the thing. By that logic, having two of them the same stage must be doubly difficult. Russell and Anderle never went straight for the funny bone, although they frequently hinted that they might.
Marc Mellits’ Black, the title track of their most recent album, sounded like a double bassline from a late 70s Kraftwerk album. With its split-second choreography, motorik rhythm and serpentine eighth-note precision, it was great deadpan fun, and literally danceable: who needs synthesizers or drum machines when you have bass clarinets? Cornelius Boots’ Sojourn of the Face contrasted, slow, spacious and thoughtfully paced, with klezmer echoes in its chromatically-tinted march followed by a sad waltz. Strict9, by Aaron Novik, brought back a jaunty vibe, Russell’s blippy staccato pairing off against Anderle’s fluid legato. They two reversed roles throughout the tricky interplay of James Holt’s Action Items and then got the chance to take the staccato/legato dialectic to its logical extreme with Ryan Brown’s perfectly logical yet deviously amusing Knee Gas (On), a series of permutations that switched back and forth between the two voices, working circular motifs, parallelisms and register shifts intermingled with peevish, insistent accents that would occasionally move in from mere enchroachment to completely hog centerstage – and must have been as fun to assemble as they were for Sqwonk to play.
Redshift – Andie Springer on violin, Rose Bellini on cello, Kate Campbell on piano and Anderle on clarinet – had the good sense to maintain the goodnatured atmosphere that Sqwonk had mined, at least for awhile, with Mellits’ Fruity Pebbles. As the title implies, the suite of nine miniatures began whimsically but shifted to dramatic for a distantly tangoish dedication to Leonard Bernstein, a playfully minimalist one for Michael Gordon and then ended with an almost shocking, cinematically plaintive sweep, an elegy that pulsed along on Campbell’s poignant, incisive sustained chords. She would get the choicest, most intense parts to work with throughout the evening, and made the absolute most of them, most vividly on David Heuser’s Catching Updrafts. Meant to evoke the patterns of birds gliding on the wind and then suddenly changing course, it alternated apprehensive atmospherics with bustling chase scenes along with the occasional, sudden scream and frequent detours that were downright macabre – “Halloweeny,” as one of our crew described them, a gleeful grin lighting up the corners of her face. Anderle got to play good cop to Campbell’s prowling slasher, Springer and Bellini collaborating so seamlessly that for anyone not watching, it was often impossible to tell who was playing what. All together, it was nothing short of riveting. Both groups joined forces to wrap up the evening with Philip Glass’ Music in Similar Motion and its 1960s avant stoner vibe – it’s one of those pieces where the individual musicians decide how long they want to run a series of simple, catchy motifs, and decide where to begin and end as well. For whatever reason, the group members eventually converged, gravitating toward a center where others might have found a maze.
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