rom First Contact’s liner notes: The lightbox has 10-14 variously colored bulbs each controlled by a switch. Each player is assigned his/her own light. Invitations to start and stop are signaled by the lightbox operator by turning on and off the players light. The operator may also use cue cards to make suggestions regarding the players approach, but only at the time of invitation. The cue cards reference registers, articulations, dynamics etc. or imply various musical techniques or attitudes.
Improvisation is usually a mess. Sure, only talented musicians usually partake in the practice- and even fewer actually release albums of the results, but even then the discs are usually filled with long portions of boredom, punctuated by moments of pure brilliance. Those moments, however, come few and far between. It’s the process of improvisation that becomes the main draw of the record. With this in mind, First Contact seems like a fair trade off, in terms of improvisation. The technique allows the lightbox operator to guide the improvisation, to a certain degree, to create desired effects. As the guiding is couched on an invitation basis, however, the final say in what is played is up to the actual musician.
Featured on this particular disc are residents/ex-residents of the Chicago improv scene. On the third track Jim O’Rourke and Kevin Drumm make an appearance, while on other tracks members of Pillow and Town and Country round out the line up. On each improvisation, however, the lightbox operator is the same, noted cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm. While I have never been personally witness to one of these performances, it is written that at all time Lonberg-Holm brings a sense of fun and humor to the proceedings. As the lightbox operator he exposes interesting juxtapositions because of the interesting sounds that they will create against one another, rather than instructing them to play however they might feel it might go best.
And the truth of this is in the finished product. Falling somewhere between John Zorn’s notorious Cobra project, in its conception, and Sun Ra’s more spacious moments in its execution; the disc’s tracks are entirely contingent upon the players present at the performances and Holm’s instructions. As a result each track has an entirely different feel and direction. On “#4 (Bottle)” the piece ends in a frenzied symphony of sounds being created by nearly all of the players. A palpable buildup of tension is released as the players interlock parts with one another in an engaging manner. On the final track, “#7 (Note)” a single saxophone opens the song- wailing a cry that is soon contrasted by the trumpet that plays a simple rhythm underneath.
It’s extremely hard to properly describe the improvisations found here. Holm obviously has only taken a small portion (54 minutes) from the four years of performances of the different incarnations of the group. In doing so he has more or less picked a random sampling that doen’t necessarily highlight ecstatic moments where everything comes together into a satisfying or easy conclusion. On the other hand, he hasn’t picked the worst moments (I’m guessing) from any of the performances either. Instead, this is merely a document of a typical performance- something to allow the listener to get a feel for exactly what the Orchestra is all about, and to illustrate the fact that the Orchestra’s performances vary wildly in instrumentation and tone. All in all, First Contact isn’t the most essential of improvisational releases, but it is certainly one of the truest to what it is attempting to document.