Lucas Niggli ZOOM ENSEMBLE
Intakt CD 093
BY JOHN CORBETT
The idea of the core ensemble: create a working group, an ensemble that stays consistent and works together regularly enough to have an identifiable identity. An old-fashioned, but by no means outdated, jazz methodology. According to this concept, the band itself can be treated as a compositional tool - cultivated relationships develop, interaction dynamics can be unpacked and better understood, and eventually this unit can become the material of a composer's dreams. Of course, that's the Ellingtonian ideal: improvisation and composition meld in the form of the band; the bandleader composes with the group's individuals in mind, but can count on them to make the piece new each time.
With the working group, cultivated relationships become the fundament, the substructure, the given. To turn to another metaphor, they can serve as the music's backbone. Once the core ensemble is established, those relationships cultivated (maybe even harvested a few times, in terms of core-group records), then the band can be used as a ground for other activities. Atop the sturdy working group, new elements can be superimposed, creating a web of interrelationships between old-band and new members, new members and each other, or even between the original ensemble and another working group.
Swiss drummer Lucas Niggli founded his group ZOOM as a working trio with guitarist Philipp Schaufelberger and trombonist Nils Wogram. Already well established on the Swiss creative music scene, Niggli had spent years as a member of just such a working ensemble, the Kieloor Entartet, whose CDs (on the independent Swiss improvised music label, Unit Records) are unjustly obscure, but well worth searching out. ZOOM released their first CD, Spawn of Speed, on Intakt in 2001. The following year, ZOOM issued its sophomore effort, the terrific Rough Ride. Chart the distance between these two releases and you can see the working band developing, the interaction dynamics (already finely honed on their debut) being sharpened, the relationships being cultivated. ZOOM: core ensemble.
Start with a trio, build it, nurture it. ZOOM. Add two more, call it BIG ZOOM. New animal, same backbone. In 2003, Niggli augmented ZOOM with acoustic bassist Peter Herbert and clarinetist Claudio Puntin, and as BIG ZOOM they issued the superb Big Ball, likewise released on Intakt. If the new animal survives, perhaps it replaces the old one. In essence, BIG ZOOM could now be considered the working band, having permanently augmented the original trio.
In Zürich, after a concert by this new working band, BIG ZOOM, Niggli was approached by Hans Peter Frehner, flautist and leader of the renowned contemporary chamber-music ensemble Ensemble Neue Musik Zürich, who suggested that he write a composition for the group. "I said I would love to do this," says Niggli, "but I said I will need soloists - improvisors - in the project, and that I wanted to play in it, because I cannot write music for an ensemble, giving it away and coming to the premier to hear it. So it turned out that it was a piece for the Ensemble and ZOOM." BIG ZOOM, that is, minus bassist Herbert.
Call it ZOOM ENSEMBLE. Take one working ensemble (a jazz/rock/free one), superimpose another working ensemble (a classical one), and myriad interrelations are created. But for Niggli, this wasn't quite enough. He wanted what he des-cribes as a counterpart to the new music ensemble's musical conductor, an analogous figure for the improvising ensemble. He thought of "improvisor, free- spirit" (Niggli's words) Phil Minton. "But then while I was writing the music, I discovered that there is no use for a conductor - we work with cues, and I can lead the ensemble either by playing rhythms or giving cues." The idea of having Minton, however, proved a durable one. Hence, the two ensembles were joined and augmented by a wild card (never was there a better person to describe with this term than the unpredictable, consistently brilliant British vocalist).
"Nils, Philipp and Claudio know my writing very well," says Niggli. "I also know their preferences of playgrounds. So I try to write always for the musicians, their personalities, and not only for the instruments." This of course is not the norm with classical music, which tends to treat the part as something to be played by an instrument, rather than by a singular instrumentalist. New music's focus on personalized techniques has, arguably, narrowed the gap between these philosophies, but there is nevertheless a gulf between the status of personal vocabulary in the jazz-based idea of the player and that of the classical concept of the interpreter-performer. "I met all the musicians of the Ensemble Neue Musik Zürich before writing the music, so I would have an idea how they act, react, how they listen, and what they like to use as extended techniques on their instruments. Colors are very important, and I like to have a huge variety of sounds. An ensemble with acoustic instruments can also sound like a huge sampler." Niggli tends to treat the group like this, using it as a coloristic resource rather than as a "classical sounding" group, triggering sounds like a giant finger. Listen, for instance, to the immense arsenal of notes and noises on "Run," which Niggli says was composed "to bring the complete ensemble to a collective level of improvisation, with a modular catalogue of gestures and grooves" cued by Wogram, Frehner and Niggli. (Check, especially, the adrenaline-inspired last moments of this track.) This breadth of material helps keep Sweat from developing the jazz-meets-classical, third stream sensibility, the pitfall that so often traps other projects of this species. Indeed, listening to this without knowing what kind of work it was, I doubt whether anyone would recognize it as such. It has its own kind of sound, one built very much on the unique world of ZOOM and BIG ZOOM.
Appropriate to a collaboration with a new music ensemble, many of Niggli's pieces are suites. The lead-off track, for instance, is an anthemic anti-nationalist suite (based on rhythmic relations between 3 and 7, if you're counting...) that's perfectly designed for Minton, who is something of a specialist in Anti-Anthems, having sung wondrous versions of the anarchist anthem in the past. On "Sweet Sweat" Niggli's rock roots are showing - after Minton's alternately strangulated, surreal and serene intro, the ghost of Zappa lurks somewhere nearby, in the rock and jazz-rock outbursts. The drummer explains that the sweatiness of the project was both positive - sweat of a good performance ("I love intensity and energy, to create music under the biggest physical and mental presence") - and also more troubling ("writing this whole program was like having a disease, fever"). The sweats. Trying to come up with something compelling, something right, something not trite. Sweat it out. Niggli worked from the kit, creating material, singing parts over the rhythms, then slowly developing it into arrangements and finally these suites. "I like to write complex parts, but always give enough freedom that all the musicians, especially the improvisors, can interpret my music. Then it becomes a collective work!"
Core. To return to the band,
the idea, the name. What is a "zoom"? At base, it's a motion, movement, sharp
or speedy motion. A zip. An imitation of the sound of a speeding object. Perfect
notion. An onomatopoeic word, description of a fast sound, a low hum or buzz
that travels quickly, a ZOOM. Onomatopoeia. A word that is what it means. Could
there be a better metaphor for improvising? Be what you mean. Alternately, zoom
is a lens, a kind of moveable device for changing focal-length, for zeroing
in on a detail (here, the specific colors of the instrumentalist, the textures
and timbres of the singular player, are relevant) or for moving away to get
the big picture (obviously, the compositional tool allows for an architecture,
a big-picture; the sense of the piece as a whole rather than the miniscule detail).
ZOOMing in. ZOOMing out. Motion between these two, a zoom between kinds of zooming.
The BIG ZOOM. Movement between two working bands. ZOOM ENSEMBLE. No stasis.
Fluidium. Sweat. The liquidity of motion.
John Corbett, Chicago, May 2004
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