First published in The Herald on 24 February, 2014
City Halls, Glasgow
In the programme note for his 2003 orchestral work The Right Angel, Fred Frith tells a story about the first time he played electric guitar with an orchestra. It was 1974, he remembers, and â€œthe entire back row of the orchestra made a show of putting their fingers in their earsâ€.
What a difference a few decades can make. This concert hosted by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ilan Volkov celebrated three giants of improvised music: guitarist Frith, saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and trombonist/computer musician George Lewis. They presented orchestral scores that were intriguing, especially Lewis’s: his 20-minute Memex (written for the occasion) channels the creative scope of computer music through the visceral brawn of an orchestra — cue exciting spacial flux, shifting perspectives and ultra-vivid timbre.
Mitchell’s NONAAH is the latest incarnation of a piece first written for alto sax in 1972. Its solemnity and gravitas suits the full forces, but the orchestration is fuzzy; I missed Mitchell’s spry solo delivery during the lumbering ensemble lines. In The Right Angel, a barefooted Frith wove poetic guitar effects among warm orchestral textures, now commenting, now questioning, occasionally provoking a cheeky clatter.
But the highlight of the evening saw the three guests doing what they do best: an improvised trio, no orchestra. It proved an extraordinary piece of spontaneous composition, full of wit, ferocity, grace and proper listening. Mitchell, slight-framed and dapper-suited at 73, led with a stream of full-throttle squawks that eventually faded into the primary colours of a simple, sunny guitar tune. Lewis and Frith drifted through bluesy bass lines, industrial noise and gently throbbing pedal notes. The end was mysterious, a little melancholy and very beautiful.