At the end of Splice Series’ Wednesday show at Beat Kitchen, a loaded quiet filled the room. Four musicians–hosts Peter Maunu & Aaron Zarzutzki, and guests Dave Rempis & Steve Hunt — packed away three times as many instruments after improvising together for almost two hours. The night had been an exercise in listening and dynamics – alternately booming and still, frenzied and calm. The musicians’ task of spontaneously hearing each other’s sounds and responding felt meaningful, sometimes difficult, and almost dramatic, but a little insular. At times I wondered which sounds were truly intended for us, the audience, if any. It seemed that many of the night’s discoveries had been confined to the stage, hadn’t made their way to us– but I also reminded myself, as I slipped my notes into my bag, that to assess improvisation after it’s done — to review it like one would a composition — is probably a little backwards, if not downright wrong.
Over the course of the night, the cozy second floor space had screamed, moaned, whispered, shouted, punched, plucked, crashed, and breathed. More often than not, it had been loud, in a way that left me overwhelmed but contemplative, as I considered the nature of that volume: what it had communicated and what it might’ve obscured, as well as the way it made a few moments of powerful softness possible.
The final improvisation of the night felt like the repetition of a pattern that had guided the previous three: out of small noises, an intense, multi-instrumental crescendo built, plateaued, and eventually peaked and subsided into silence. I was disappointed to see it happening again in quite the same way, and pushed myself to try to seek the detail, the quality in their playing that made this time around unique. I had a sense that the musicians were attempting to listen to each other, to find a common ground, but from the audience, it was a challenge to listen to all four as a group. Dave Rempis, alternating between the alto, tenor and baritone saxophone, easily overtook the room with a brassy melody or a shriek, depending on the tone that evolved at the top of the improvisation. Alongside Maunu, who alternated between mandolin, violin, and guitar, the sound of Rempis on the sax dominated those crescendos. Rempis took time in this piece to stop and breathe — his lip still on the mouthpiece — finding particular moments to enter the conversation. At one point, Rempis sustained a high note on the alto sax — maybe the first time all night that a note had sustained for quite so long. It made sudden, unexpected space for the audience to make connections between the sounds, for emotion. That singular plaintive note felt like a question, which we were invited to consider. It ended, and the music continued on, but I, in the audience, didn’t — for me, the saxophone continued sustaining; finally, a moment of feeling.
Finishing the third piece, I wondered when and how a loud sound is truly powerful, and when loudness loses or abuses its power. For the third time, the quartet built quickly to a high volume, a fast pace. As the piece drew to a close, I peeked through the window to my left, where I noticed a TV in a neighboring living room displaying the Presidential debate: the candidates present on screen, but mute, from where I sat. At this distance, with their normally loud voices inaudible, I stopped to consider the presidential race, voluntarily and not with total dismay, for the first time in a while.
During the improvisation, I saw and struggled to hear a variety of inventive instrumental choices, but no tactic stuck for long. Maunu manipulated a violin, bowing and then plucking with the end of the bow, and then switched to the guitar; Zarzutzki bent over his synth to croak into a mic. All the sounds were vying with the saxophone, and only emerged fully audible when Rempis stepped back or took a breath. There was a singular moment where Hunt’s percussion broke through and came to the forefront. All night he’d been switching between mallets, sticks, and brushes, adding cymbal crashes or rolls on the snare– a layer of energy and drive beneath the emotionally ambiguous, unsettling tone set by the others. I thought about the debate again, about unscripted public conversation, and how there must be a challenge, every time, to authentically talk to the other speakers onstage, rather than towards or alongside them. I wondered if that night’s particular instrumentation was new to Splice Series, and if they were struggling to hear each other as I leaned forward to hear them. At one point, I adjusted my seat to see past Rempis and realized, with surprise, that Hunt was playing a theremin: suddenly understanding that sound I couldn’t place, which I had reluctantly ascribed to the guitar. There was some fun in that surprise, and it helped me relax as I took in what I heard without so much analysis, expectation, or judgment. It was improvisation, after all. And there was one transcendent stretch early in the third piece that emerged gradually, like a faint memory being recalled and deliberately repeated, as if to better remember, or to cherish: Maunu on the violin and Zarzutzki on the synth found each other while Hunt brushed the cymbals and Rempis breathed, his hand resting in the bell. Maunu found a quiet melody, drawing his bow across the strings, and Zarzutzki’s synth sang out underneath, a powerful complement. We, the handful of us there listening, held our noisy breath. Then it got loud again.
The four of them took a break and went downstairs, presumably to have a beer and check on the Cubs game. I flipped through scrawled thoughts and revisited a note I made earlier: “Write this review in reverse.” By this break, the two 20- to 30-minute improvisations we’d seen felt similar to each other– they’d tested my patience, in a good way; I was craving a slower exploration, more audible detail, or more silence. But I also wanted to listen more spontaneously, less analytically. Sensitive to the risk and variability of any improvised show, I had an irrational wish for the night to finish in the same sense of possibility with which it began, regardless of what occurred. Thus far, the balance seemed off, and certain sounds had been obscured by others, or lost on me– it was a little alienating, but I was hopeful to see what was next.
As the second piece built out of silence, growing loud more slowly than the first, Rempis relied more on the sound of breath, pushing soft air through the horn and tonguing the reed. Hunt began slow on percussion, too, making use of a bow. Zarzutzki’s synth added a creeping uneasiness, putting the whole room underwater, in a cave, under hypnosis. Maunu’s guitar emerged to pull the group forward, quickening the pulse. The build was slower in this piece than the previous one, more of a sense of loosening emotional restraint. The energy diffused slightly when either Maunu or Rempis switched instruments– a momentary stepping away from immersed music-making, as they chose a new tool. But they pushed to pick it up quickly again, and the piece built toward an extended shout: a controlled scream. All four peaked together– alongside each other, simultaneous if not totally unified in sound– and then backed off together, releasing themselves back into quiet.
The first improvisation ended quickly after what had been a wild and totally engrossing swarm of sound. Throughout the piece notes, tones, noises gathered and dispersed, running towards us, away from us, over us, in patterns that felt animal, instinctual, guided by something unconscious and deep. All the dynamics– loud, screaming, soft, and loud again– were affecting. Images of the musicians exploring or attacking their instruments remain with me now: Rempis rocking back and forth, braying through the baritone sax; Maunu rubbing the back of his mandolin with a wetted finger, making a bizarre sort of squeal, and then drawing the strings softly across his jeans. It had peaked into chaos early, the four of them crashing into each other, perhaps on purpose, the spirit of it a kind of playful, intentional collision, which triggered the exciting stampede that followed. But the first moment of the piece was maybe the most remarkable: I arrived too early, and for almost twenty minutes the musicians had been setting up, chatting, discussing their days, the debate, the game. I had turned away, to chat as well with someone on my right. Suddenly we stopped talking and turned towards the stage– no one told us it was starting, and there was hardly any sound: only breath through the sax, barely audible synth, an intermittent snare, fingers barely touching strings. Somehow, though, the idle chatter was interrupted by the quiet; then, commanding our full attention, it began.