Cobra considerations

Ensemble Offspring play John Zorn's Cobra.

Ensemble Offspring play John Zorn’s Cobra.

I spent some of last night at the excellent Petersham Bowling Club for a bunch of Ensemble Offspring‘s latest (and free!) Sizzle concert. It’s terrible reviewer indulgence to make apologies for one’s behaviour (and missing of parts of the bill) but I will preface mine by suggesting this isn’t really a review, more some random thoughts on the thing. 

Arriving too late for Jon Rose’s singing saw extravaganza (and suitably bummed about it, I might add) or the screening of Ovation, I made it to the absolutely rammed bowlo in time to catch most of the Pike/Rose/Harrison trio’s improvised set.

If you have the chance to see these three play, you’d be well served. You can read saxophonist Jeremy Rose’s thoughts about the gig – written before it, natch – over here, and they’re pretty good in that they compare improv (which was a large component of the gig) to lawn bowls; chance and Newtonian motion in action, I suppose. All filtered through some excellent drum work, some pliable horn and some deeply Big Fun-era keys. It’s perhaps damning with faint praise to call it Sunday afternoon music, but it certainly invoked the feeling of listening to Electric Miles-era stuff while drinking a Coopers Green, so that’s a win.

Following the trio, Jason Noble wrestled his bass clarinet in his version of Eric Dolphy’s take on God Bless the Child. It was remarkable in terms of the technique on display, even if there a little too much of what sounded like bassy ululation for my taste – runs of scales in between snippets of the well-known lyric line of the song. When the original melody broke through the runs, though, it was as if clouds had parted and the sun were streaming through. Just long enough, too.

The big drawcard of the evening, though, was a performance of John Zorn’s game piece, Cobra. It’s as close to a standard in ‘spontaneous composition’ as you can get; there’s been numerous versions recorded, featuring everyone from Zorn himself to Marc Ribot to Bill Frisell – and I own a bunch of them – though I’d never been able to see a version played live before.

The piece is one of Zorn’s ‘game pieces’ – that is, it’s an experiment in behaviour almost as much as it is a piece of music. The piece isn’t a collection of notations – rather, it’s a framework in which the musicians work, aided by a prompter, who ‘conducts’ the proceedings. The rules are kind of sporting. Indeed, Zorn’s other game pieces tend to bear the names of sports rather than animals – Hockey, Lacrosse, Pool – though the roots of the idea lie in Xenakis pieces such as Duel or Stratégie.

The difficulty with the game pieces on disc is that there’s very little frame of reference. The version you’re listening to may well have the rules reproduced – as seen here, on this archived page – but there’s no visual cues to explain why the sound of a clown car pileup is coming out of your speakers. There’s a tendency to overthink what’s going on, to look for meaning. Take a review excerpt, for example:

There are some colorful segments, but in general, these self-indulgent performances would be much more interesting to see in person than to hear on record. Taken purely as a listening experience, one is surprised that this material has even been released.

Live, it’s a completely different – and much funnier – experience. Ensemble Offspring’s version (prompted by What Is Music? stalwart Robbie Avenaim, visiting from Melbourne) featured a bunch of players (including local improv men-of-note Clayton Thomas and Jim Denley, as well as EO regulars including Lamorna Nightingale, Claire Edwardes) who gave their all in something a little like what’d happen if a stock market sales floor were populated with musical equipment.

All manner of finger gestures, pointings, hat-wearings and arm-wavings contributed to what amounted to musical dialogue. There wasn’t a single player without a smile on their face, perhaps because – as skilled as all the performers were – they had no idea what the fuck was going to happen, either. And that’s the joy of something like Cobra live; it lets the air out of the often overinflated balloon of improv – the feeling that it’s Important Stuff – and lets it just be a bunch of musos (albeit talented) dicking around in a Bowlo on a Sunday, waiting to see what happens next.

Would it sound as good on record? Maybe not. But for one Sunday, the sounds of slide-whistles, fiddled-with saxophones and general musical carnage filled the streets of Petersham. And it was good, even if I didn’t win anything in the meat raffle.

(If you want an example of what Cobra looks like – though obviously not with EO – then check out the video below. It’s prompted by Zorn himself.)

 

 

 

 

 

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