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Many world-class improvisers played around Queen’s University during this semester, from individual performers like Olaf Rupp and Atau Tanaka to group performers like Faint and MSG.

This review shall compare and contrast the performances of Faint and MSG. A group improvisation is much more difficult to perform tastefully as there are many more factors outside each individual performer’s control which greatly affect the performance. Even in a traditional performance, where the music usually has a strict structure, many factors can drastically alter the show. In an improvised show, these problems are further compounded by in-the-moment choices each performer may chose to indulge.

Faint

Faint are a trio consisting of pianist/composer Pedro Rebelo, percussionist/composer Steve Davis and saxophonist Franziska Schroeder who explore the two extremes of musical practice: the ideas of free improvisation and composition for a fixed medium. From an audience member’s point of view, it was very difficult to tell the difference between the two ideas the group wished to explore but arguably that is where the enjoyment comes from. This concert was unlike any other and left a deep impression; from the musical ideas presented, the timbres generated by each performer, the almost telepathic levels of musical communication and the audacity to push the preconceived notions of what it music to its very limits was breathtaking. Each performer used very unconventional methods to play his or her instrument. For example, Pedro paid as much attention to the tones he could reproduce from the insides of his piano as the outside while Franziska employed unusual articulation to emphasis her phrases and Steve chose to play his drum kit with a wide selection of sticks and focused much of his energy on playing the hardware as opposed to the skins of the drums.

This very different approach helped to shape much of the improvisation. From a listener’s perspective it was difficult to tell which parts of the performance had been previously rehearsed and any communication between the band members was too subtle to be noticed. This added a depth of excitement to the proceedings, as it was next to impossible to guess which direction the performance was going to take. This sense of adventure kept the listener enthralled and helped fuel the evening. While this reviewer had no love for the music presented, the extraordinarily level of musicianship, combined with the finely tuned ear and daring nature made for an enthralling show.

While there was some level of communication between the performers and the audience, it was never made clear what the music of the evening was about. There was no hint at a theme or of a musical direction. That said, the music at times felt very dark and foreboding with a great emphasis placed on building tension (through long periods of restrained and unusual playing) followed by a sharp release via frantic and chaotic playing. One unusual part of the show was the use of small amplifiers. Three of these hung down from the ceiling and played a variety of short musical ideas developed by Pedro. Were they meant to add another dimension to the playing or were they used as cues for the performers? Again, while this was unclear, it certainly added to the atmosphere and gave the listener another musical direction to ponder.

For those who missed the show, below is a video link:

http://www.sarc.qub.ac.uk/~prebelo/wp/faint/FaintLive1web.mov?id=43

MSG

MSG is another trio made up of saxophone player Rudresh Mahanthappa, drummer Chander Sardjoe and acoustic bassist Ronan Guilfoyle. Currently praised throughout the world for their virtually unheard Eastern take on jazz music, MSG are artists who are technically brilliant yet musically forceful. They take their name from the first letter of each musician’s surname.

This group also engaged in an improvised performance, but one that was radically different from that of Faint. This was a much more musical affair consisting of a more traditional structure and conventional timbres. There was also a greater focus on each player having their own part to show off their techniques and skill with many of the songs performed having a separate part for each performer to solo. From a listener’s point of view, this made it much easier to identify with the musical structure and work out the possible direction of the piece. While some would argue that with this approach the structure of each song might become predictable, one of the highlights of this performance was how the listener was always kept guessing. While you expected the solo it was never clear when it would happen and each one was radically different in terms of tempo and dynamics.

MSG approached improvisation from a different direction to Faint. While Faint’s performance was arguably entirely improvised, MSG had a more rigid and pre determined structure. Each of their songs had a theme and distinctive cues, which they explained before or after they had finished a piece. From this the audience was able to better understand and appreciate the message the group was trying to put across. The group seemed to improvise with how long they would play for, seemingly until the performer had exhausted their self after a difficult and complex solo demonstrating their talent. While one person was soloing the other performers took their cues from them. Each musician had incredibly quick ears and was able to compliment and predict each phrase produced in the spur of the moment but seemed to know when the person was going to finish leading to the idea of set cues within each solos.

One criticism that could be levelled at the performance was the occasionally directionless solos. For example, the performance ended with a 20-minute drum solo, which, while technically very impressive, left most of the audience bored. Even Mahanthappa seemed to be bored. A striking difference between MGS and Faint’s performance was the level of communication and the way each band member conducted themselves on stage. With Faint, each member was very into the music and concentrated entirely on what they were doing with little acknowledgement of the performers during each piece. With MGS, they all seemed to be really enjoying themselves with each member smiling and nodding congratulations at each other after they finished a particularly difficult passage.

In conclusion, both performances showcased incredible musicianship and the many different ways you can approach improvisation; whether it be in a more traditional set manner or in an explorative and daring manner. Both are different ways of expressing an idea and it is entirely up to the listener which they identify with more. It would be interesting to see the two groups perform again to see how similar each improvisation would be. To hazard a guess, Faint’s performance would be completely different each time while MGS would tend to play quite a familiar set.

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