Spooky Actions: Early Music

Bruce Arnold—Electric Processed Guitar
John Gunther—Flute, Soprano Sax, Tenor Sax and Bass Clarinet
Kirk Dirscoll—Percussion and Drums
Mike Richmond—Bass and Cello

“I’ve often thought of music as a vessel of the human spirit, a message in a bottle that can travel across an ocean of time, and deliver a “note” from Bach, or Charlie Parker.” So writes John Gunther in his essay for this latest excursion by Spooky Actions, the band that has taken on modern interpretations of music as disparate as Native American song and the Canons of Anton Webern.

“Perhaps embedded in the intervals and sequences of the melody and rhythm are the thoughts and emotions of the composers themselves” he continues. Thus he states the raison d’être for Spooky Actions, and its continued mining of diverse repertoire for examination and re-interpretation. (The name Spooky Actions is derived from a comment by Albert Einstein, in which he noted that certain seemingly unrelated objects could nevertheless exert a powerful influence upon each other. He called these relationships “spooky actions.”)

Spooky Actions the band, is John Gunther (winds) and Bruce Arnold (electric processed guitar). The two musicians who both teach at New York University met, jammed and felt an immediate musical affinity. When Gunther started bringing in both early and modern classical music to improvise over, they were inspired to start making their own transcriptions, and to create a series of recording projects. Their first release, “Spooky Actions; Music of Anton Webern” was an informed and sensitive inquiry into the muted palette of Webern. Critics wrote:
“….they address Webern’s music on its own terms and shed new light on its strange beauty. (Jazz Times) and “Adapting music of this complexity, written for ensembles of highly different instrumentation, is not the easiest thing in the world to do. Luckily, these players are up to the task.” (Cadence)

Their next project “Songs of the Nations” found them immersing themselves in Native American melodies. Again, their respectful approach produced a memorable CD: “Spooky Actions” made sure that their additions stayed far enough back in the mix that the listener is still wrapped in the Native American experience” (Improvijazznation)

The group (currently including Kirk Driscoll on drums and percussion, and Mike Richmond on Bass and Cello) now turns its attention to a selection of beautiful Early Music. Arnold’s guitar, processed through the object-oriented computer program SuperCollider, creates an atmospheric and luminous matrix in which Gunther’s playing (soprano and tenor sax, flute and bass clarinet) by turns ruminates and soars. Both Driscoll and Richmond demonstrate what great musical interaction is all about.

The repertoire covers a wide swath of time, including as it does the “Skolion of Seikilos,” one of the earliest examples of written music, from the 2nd century BC, to the “Canzonet 1,2, & 3” of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). Other pieces are “De Virginibus O Nobilissima Viriditas” by Hildegard Von Bingen (1098-1179), “Vergine Bella” by Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474), a Gregorian Chant, “Alleluya (Nativitas) by Perotin (c. 1200) and “Ode from the Kanon for Easter Sunday” a Byzantine Chant from the 8th Century AD.

The result is a CD that can comfort, transport and inspire the listener. And while that is not surprising, since this music was originally designed to do exactly that, what is astonishing is that Spooky Actions has done it again–examined the essence of a piece of music, and made it their own, without removing its heart or intent. As Gunther concludes: “We bring them into the present and frame them with our own life experiences. And so we place the message back in the bottle, and cast it back into the deep.”

To hear or purchase music from this CD please visit the Early Music page at the record company Muse Eek Recordings

“Spooky Actions may seem an unusual name for a chamber quartet that makes serious study of music and interprets these thoughts with a unique spirit. The name is derived from a comment by Albert Einstein where he noted that certain seemingly unrelated objects could nevertheless exert a powerful influence upon each other. He called these relationships “spooky actions.”

Along with Early Music, Spooky Actions has issued projects interpreting Native American melodies and the music of Anton Webern.

This program interprets music from periods as early as the Second Century BC. The works of Hildegard Von Bingen (1098-1179), Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474), and Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) offer definitive examples from music history. The quartet has included Gregorian chant, Byzantine chant, and one secular piece that was found engraved on a very old tombstone.

Featuring John Gunther’s melodic soprano saxophone and Bruce Arnold’s lyrical guitar for the most part, the quartet’s program merely interprets this early music with sincere devotion. Arnold’s processed guitar shows up in places, however, lending an unusual texture to the mix. As with early vocal chants, his guitar is able to express devotional feelings intuitively. Guitar wails and moans accompany Gunther’s pure melodies, bass and drums adding a strong foundation.

Monteverdi’s “Canzonets” dance lightly with a gentle air. Von Bingen’s music and Dufay’s early work provide similar examples with the gentle refrain of flute and soprano saxophone, respectively. Arnold’s guitar takes on a mellow role for these pieces as they offer soothing melodies.

Gunther’s bass clarinet interprets the “Easter Sunday” ode, while his tenor saxophone lends a mysterious quality to “Gregorian Chant.” For both of these pieces, Arnold uses a processed electric guitar that moves in and out of the eerie, mystic quality found in world music. Like the heart and lungs moving in and out, his guitar pulses evenly with a persistent motion that allows the four artists to come together naturally with seamless ease.

The oldest piece of music, the “Epitaph of Seiklilos,” receives an interpretation that recalls the spirit the Dave Brubeck quartet injected into “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” It’s a pleasant jazz treatment that employs flute, guitar, bass, and drums in a circle of mesmerizing melodies and serves as the album’s high point.

Elsewhere, Spooky Actions combines jazz with light chamber music that reflects the best of both worlds. Lovely melodies are dressed in rhythmic arrangements that bridge the time span of millennia.”
—Jim Santella, ALL ABOUT JAZZ

“Bruce Arnold and John Gunther return with their Spooky Actions project, an inventive improvisational interpretation of musics not often tackled by jazz based units. Having already rearranged the thorny intricacies of Webern and the soaring power of Native American melodies, here they address the haunting subtleties of early music, including variations on themes by Monteverdi, Dufay, Von Bingen, and Gregorian chant. The quartet achieves the skillful balance of creating modern arrangements that retain connections to the deep reverence of the originals. With Gunther on flute and Mike Richmond on cello doubling the theme, Von Bingen’s “De Virginibus O Nobilissima Viriditas” yields its gentle beauty nestled in the atmospheric processed guitar of Arnold. Kirk Driscoll’s spare steady percussion keeps the ethereal piece grounded. Arnold weaves clear toned innovations on Dufay’s “Vergine Bella.” With Gunther on sensual soprano, Driscoll and Richmond create a breezy tension. The brief take on Monteverdi’s “Canzonet 1,2, & 3,” has the light sophistication of a Ben Allison track, while “Gregorian Chant” gets a surprisingly vigorous reading. Likewise, “Introit, Gaudeamus Omnes” becomes a gentle whirlpool as the contrapuntal round unfolds. Based on written music for the second century B.C., “Epitaph of Seikilos” appropriately emerges from a mist of Frippian guitar effects. Gunther’s tenor doubles Richmond’s bowed bass through the reflective theme, before sending smokey tones entwining electronic swells. Driscoll and Richmond tap the joy of “Alleluya,” with Gunther celebrating on flute. Arnold takes a wiry solo before supporting Gunther’s extended flight. Arnold again electronically orchestrates on “Ode from the Kanon for Easter Sunday,” setting the stage of Gunther’s bass clarinet, and then bringing a springy altered guitar sound to the composition.

Spooky Actions manage to shine a modern light on ancient sacred music without bleaching the dark mysteries inherent in the initial design.”
—Rex Butters, All About Jazz

“An intriguing CD that mixes electric processed guitar with flute, clarinet, percussion, bass and cello, Spooky Actions: Early Music is a 2004 album from Bruce Arnold and wind player John Gunther. Neoclassical and Gregorian-flavored instrumental chamber music featuring electric guitar and wind instruments proves a novel idea and with a twist, Arnold’s processed guitar creates the perfect atmospheric backdrop for Gunther to soar while the pair receive expert help from Kirk Driscoll (drums) and Mike Richmond (bass, cello). Touching on music dating back to the 2nd century BC, the music is amazing and puts an entirely new twist on the improvisational aspects of early and modern classical music. Another cool CD on Muse Eek, Two Guys From South Dakota teams Arnold’s guitar with guitarist Mike Miller. A jazzy date–completely different from Arnold’s Spooky Actions set–Two Guys From South Dakota is a 2005 CD on Muse-Eek featuring two guitarists serving up light-hearted jams on jazz classics like “Giant Steps” and “All The Things You Are.” Either way, Arnold proves an amazing guitarist and these two CDs–while completely different–offers a good indication of his uncanny diversity.”
—Record Label and Music Spotlight, MWE3.com

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