Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Michael Lowenstern gets his groove on: The bass clarinet blossoms via electronics

Al fresco here, Michael Lowenstern sounds good indoors, too.
Playing an orchestral instrument that's just to the side of the core orchestra repertory, Michael Lowenstern is hardly to be blamed for creatively applying a wide-ranging musical taste so that he can put his instrument front and center.

Presented by Indianapolis Opera and IUPUI, he brought a generous sample of his self-generated music for bass clarinet and electronics to the Basile Opera Center Tuesday night, and charmed a large audience with a pulsating array of samples and sequences, manipulated and layered around his deep-voiced wind instrument. Lowenstern's compositions draw significantly on popular music, particularly the kind that supplies the middle term of his peculiar genre — ClassicoFunkTronica.

His improvisational esthetic seemed to have free play among the sounds he has planned and/or set down in advance. Conspicuous examples Tuesday included "Ariel's Hands," which involved a repeated pattern of hand claps and a sustained sung note taken from audience volunteers, and "Lost in Translation," an edgy mismatch of male-female conversational exchanges drawn from a recorded Berlitz phrase-book and using a pair of mute volunteers to give voice to unpredictable prerecorded utterances. (How many real-life conversations seem similarly beyond conscious control!)

For the most part, Lowenstern supplies all the input, using different sources at hand to lay down building-block phrases. Vocal percussion, body thumps and slaps, some harmonica-playing and a couple of  showcases for the WiCoder (a combination EWI [electronic wind instrument] and vocoder) all supplemented the energetic diapason of bass clarinet.

There is a temptation to see Lowenstern's delving into the interplay of bass clarinet and electronics as "experimental music" — a designation that the listener needs to be wary of, remembering the useful caveat of Edgard Varese: "I do not write experimental music. My experimenting is done before I make the music. Afterwards it is the listener who must experiment."

What keeps Lowenstern grounded, to this experimenting listener, at least,  is his devotion to the black music of his hometown, Chicago, and elsewhere. The need for the listener to experiment is met by taking pleasure in Lowenstern's enhancement of his musical inspiration through electronic wizardry. In "Hum," for instance, he credited klezmer music, and I also heard the particular gift for improvising over churning rhythms that I associate with the recent crop of Israeli jazz musicians, notably the Cohen family. He can create a  virtual bass-clarinet ensemble, if he wants; or, when he picks up his WiCoder, as he did on 'What'd I Say" and "Sort of Not So," he can wail guitarllike on an instrument more molten and malleable than even his bass-clarinet virtuosity permits.

I found "Sort of Not So" a welcome instance of quasi-balladry, a respite from ceaseless boogie. The rest of the program was too groove-centric for me — throbbing beats galore, intriguing plugged-in sounds.  Again, Varese comes to mind; despite the quoted warning, the Frenchman's music courted the "experimental" label because it kept hitting listeners with sharp-edged brass and percussion sonorities; he thought violins were obsolete. From "Octandre" through "Arcana" to "Deserts," the lab was open.

He may have had the right to regard his music as achievement, rather than experiment. I think Lowenstern has that right, too. It's just that the listener comes away with the feeling that such a program could well accommodate a long list of running subtitles: "I tried this,"  "now I'll try this other thing," "now I'll bring drum 'n' bass forward," "now I'll salute Ray Charles, including that cheesy Wurlitzer electric piano in the 'What'd I Say' introduction and a few vocal samples, ending with Brother Ray's raw "Welllll...." from the start of  'I Got A Woman'."

Welllll, indeed! Fascinating, yet... it all felt so — how to say it? — experimental.