Spooky Actions Webern
Bruce Arnold—Processed Guitar
Description Spooky Actions Webern:
When Anton Webern was composing his Five Canons on Latin Texts, he probably wasn’t thinking very much about American improvised music. Yet formal harmonic structure is the original essential European contribution to the character of jazz. And while much of the mainstream of jazz repertoire is still mired in the harmonic concepts of Tin Pan Alley, Spooky Actions, a New York based jazz quartet, have found inspiration in the discipline and muted palette of twelve tone music.
In their debut CD “Spooky Actions Webern” (MSK 117) the quartet plays through note for note transcriptions of the Five Canons op. 16, as well as the Five Movements for String Quartet, op 5. They then improvise over the pieces. Rather than taking extended solos, the ensemble uses a sensitive and informed interaction to create original music based closely on the spirit and form of the written work.
It is astonishing to discover how suited the sonorities of the jazz quartet of drums, saxophone (and flute), electric guitar and bass are for 12-tone music. Indeed, the ears of listeners accustomed to these sounds will find that they are a kind of Rosetta stone; the pristine, compressed structures of Webern’s music take on new clarity and attractiveness, making for extremely accessible listening.
The band’s name comes from the phrase “spooky actions at a distance.” This was how Albert Einstein described the phenomenon of two seemingly unconnected, disparate objects that nonetheless exert a powerful influence on one another. Spooky Actions, the band, certainly personifies this concept, showing how vivid improvisations can be derived from music that is often thought of as “etched in stone.”
To purchase music from this CD please visit the Music of Webern page at the record company Muse Eek Recordings
Spooky Actions Webern
5 Movements for String Quartet
Reviews of Spooky Actions Webern:
John Gunther, flt, ts, cl;
Bruce Arnold, g;
Peter Herbert, b;
Tony Moreno, d, perc
certainly isn’t shy about setting themselves a challenge. On Music of Webern (Muse Eek 117), they dive right into the great composer’s works (5 Movements for String Quartet (Opus 5)/ Five Canons. 26:57. No recording information given) to deliver a brief, slightly funked-up tour through two major Anton Webern compositions – “Five Movements for String Quartet” (Opus 5) and “5 Canons” – each of which is subdivided and interspersed with multiple improvised sections. 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 (each of whom plays an equally important role here; there’s no lead/support hierarchy) are up to task, capable not only of rendering the extremely exacting 12-tone scores but in contributing fine improvised passages which do not seem inconsistent with the compositions. As with the sources, the music here moves very quickly and is sometimes overloaded with information. There is a good range of texture and instrumental techniques – Gunther’s flute and clarinet in particular blend well with Arnold’s processed guitar and Herbert’s arco, while Moreno’s drums are somewhat more conventional (he creates many excellent contrasting sections by restricting himself to this approach, cutting across the music or framing it in interesting ways). Unlike many projects with similar ambitions (though there are few brave enough to tackle Webern, Dave Douglas being the only other player who springs to mind), they navigate the transition between score and improvisation adroitly. A Fascinating experiment.”
—Jason Bivins, CADENCE
“Whether you’ll like Spooky Actions Webern depends greatly on whether you like Webern, so let’s start there. Even before he converted to the serialism of his teacher Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern had taken eagerly to atonal composition. Webern wrote compressed pieces in which single notes stand out from thin textures and achieve great intensity, helped by an exacting approach to timbre. Webern never supplies an obvious logic to connect those single notes; listeners feel the gaps and build their own bridges. Listening to Webern is something like reading surrealist poetry: suggestive, enigmatic and often fascinating.
SpSpooky Actions Webern is – John Gunther on flute, saxophone and clarinet; Bruce Arnold on “processed guitar”; Peter Herbert on bass; and Tony Moreno on drums – has transcribed Webern’s early-period five movements for string quartet and five canons and supplied its own improvisations on these brief pieces for Music of Webern. But these men aren’t trying to make this most abstract of composers into a swingin’ jazz cat; they address Webern’s music on its own terms and shed new light on its strange beauty.
In the transcriptions, Gunther and Arnold both play their sustained, quiet notes with the concentration and ardor that Webern demands, while Herbert and Moreno occasionally perk up the texture with rhythms alien to Webern, but they’re just as comfortable providing subtle but devastating accents. All four players make their timbres work with Webern while preserving their distinctiveness, for renditions that sound both fresh and idiomatic. The improvisations are just as compressed and arresting as the transcriptions; it takes close attention to hear when they pile in more notes or hit the rhythm harder than ol’ Anton would have, but that only makes the differences more affecting.
Webern will probably always be an acquired taste, but Spooky Actions has given jazz fans a great way to enter his world.”
—Andrew Lindemann Malone, JAZZ TIMES
“This is the debut album of a New York ensemble, named Spooky Actions, that features the work of Anton Webern, an early twentieth century composer of serialist, or atonal, music. Webern’s work became prevailing and influential for its classical compositions in the 1950s and 1960s with his brief, evanescent works. Linked to Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, Webern was the most radical of this modernist Viennese school of composers in that he strove for utmost purity and economy in the articulation of musical thought. Accordingly, Webern’s music requires strict discipline to play its angular and difficult pieces. This also means that it is an intense, intellectual experience for the listener.
Spooky Actions comes from the phrase “spooky actions at a distance,” a phrase that Einstein used to describe the phenomenon of two seemingly unconnected, disparate objects that nonetheless exert a powerful influence on one another. This is perhaps an apt name for this ensemble that instead of a string quartet employs an unlikely (at least in the mind of the composer) combination of guitar, reeds, bass and drums. This produces a very interesting effect in bringing life to an otherwise seemingly austere piece of music. Mind you, the music does not exactly swing, but Spooky Actions makes this music accessible because of the jazz instruments. In particular, John Gunther’s saxophone, clarinet and flute tend to soften Webern’s sharper edges of a string quartet. This is evident in the third movement of the Five Movements composition. After each movement, there is an improvisation that is as roughly as long as the set piece. Here, the music becomes more ‘spooky’ as it starts to hint of avant-garde Japanese music, particularly how the flute is used.
This is a diverting and interesting experiment and one wonders where this ensemble is going on its next venture. Bartok? Villa-Lobos? Berg? One can also guess how Spooky Action might interpret these or other composers. It is a very intriguing beginning.”
—John Doll, JAZZ REVIEW
“Guitarist Bruce … has plumbed the goldfish bowl of Anton Weberns tiny works and found pearls.”
—Fred Bouchard, from Classical Connections DOWN BEAT
“Arranged by guitarist Bruce Arnold, these ten compositions (and nine improvisations derived from them) present an intriguing and very original “jazz” take on the music of serialist composer Anton Webern. It may not swing, but it does mean something–and Arnold’s inventive, processed guitar tones propel this Downtown New York improv meets European classical into the interest zone.”
—Guitar Player Magazine December 2003
“It’s always a pleasure to receive CDs from totally unknown labels and even more unknown artists. Will it be a big surprise, something completely new and overwhelming, yes or no? On such moments, depending on the quality of the music, I often realize how many good musicians are around all over the world, and I feel dissatisfied because I’lI never be able to know and appreciate them all. This happened when two CD’s from the label Muse Eek fell on the doormat, one by Spooky Actions, another by the duo Arnold and Keir Ourio. Let me reveal first a little from the background of the musicians involved here. Spooky Actions is a quartet: John Gunter (flute, saxophone, clarinet), Bruce Arnold (processed electric guitar), Peter Herbert (bass) and Tony Moreno (drums, percussion). They did their best in interpreting two compositions of Anton Webern, “5 Movements for string quartet opus 5” and “5 Canons”. They play each movement and canon first note by note, followed by a compact improvisation inspired on it.
Of course we know of composers like Stravinsky and Milhaud who tried to integrate jazz influences in their compositions. More rare are the examples the other way around. I know of a CD by the Keith Yaun Quartet Amen adapting works by Oliver Messiaen for improvisation. But jazz musicians who play compositions of the Schönberg twelve-tone method…? But if you listen to Spooky Actions, you ask yourself why this was not done earlier. Because it sounds very interesting and natural in the treatment Spooky Actions. This may be explained by the fact that Arnold studies already some ten years on the application of twelve-tone music to modern jazz.
Arnold teaches Princeton University and wrote over 50 instruction texts on guitar technique. As a guitar player he played with people like Joe Pass, Randy Brecker and Joe Lovano, not exactly the avant garde section of jazz music. Together with John Gunther, Arnold started improvising on classical music in 1997. This duo became a quartet and there improvisations on Webern is their first release as Spooky Actions. Listening to this CD I imagined Doctor Nerve playing Webern from an rock angle. This may illustrate that Spooky Actions are successful in transforming the work of Webern into a more down to earth version. Some very enjoyable 27 minutes!
Totally different is the collaboration between Arnold and Olivier Keir Ourio. They met on an international jazz festival in Monterry and decided to work together, because they both felt a strong musical kinship. Oliver Keir Ourio is a harmonica-player from France, raised on the island of Reunion. Arnold is responsible for the guitar and the compositions. No twelve-tone compositions, but very accessible works, almost Toots Thielemans-like easy listening jazz. Nice harmonic and melodic structures and tunes. Not overdone with sentiment, and no overacting. A music that brings peace to your mind.”
“Spooky Actions is the name of an American jazz band, whose unique musical mixture is an added attraction to the Copenhagen Jazz festival’s website, where it can be heard.
The name is derived from Einstein, according to his theory that two particles that are unlike each other, and separated by vast distances, can still affect each other. It was that strange relationship that Einstein described as ‘Spooky Actions’.
The American jazz group translates this into performances about interactions between phenomenon, (in this case music) which are separated by time and conception from their own contemporary musical universe. On their three CDs, the band plays medieval music, Native American music and the strongest, in our opinion, the music of Anton Webern, the Austrian composer known for his atonal work. All of this music is interpreted within the framework of the Jazz Quartet.
Webern was one of the three composers from the influential second Viennese School; the other two were Alban Berg, and Arnold Schönberg.
Spooky Actions has taken on two works from Webern’s atonal unit, his 5 movements for string quartet, opus 5, and 5 canons opus 16.
It is highly demanding music, containing small, perfect moments, based on tone quality and miniature motifs, in lieu of familiar chords and extended melodies. The longest sections only run 4 minutes, and the briefest 22 seconds.
It is immensely difficult to tackle this challenging and densely composed music, and do anything so radical as arranging it for a jazz quartet made up of guitar, flute/saxophone, bass and drum. Yet this is what Spooky Actions has done, and it is actually astoundingly good.
The two works have been sequenced so that after every section there is a following improvisation by the group, all based on the delicate structures set forth in the actual pieces. Spooky Actions understands, surprisingly well, that limitations can create poetry and that is the essence of Webern’s works.
In addition, taking the music from the sound of a string quartet to the sound of a jazz band with drums is tricky, but Tony Moreno, on drum and percussion successfully adds sensitivity and color.
The idea of “Webern jazz” might scare some listeners away, but they would be doing themselves a disservice not to hear what Spooky Actions has done with this music. “
—Mathias Biilmann Christensen, Musik Klassisk