Arnold's inventive, processed guitar tones propel this Downtown New York improv meets European classical into the interest zone."
"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:
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."
Melodies from the Sioux, Arapaho, Zuni, Teton Sioux, Chippewa and Cheyenne nations are given spacious arrangements that bring out their stark beauty. The internal complexities of each song are explored with grooves based on linguistic cadences. Spooky Actions mainstays John Gunther (winds) and Bruce Arnold (electric processed guitar) are joined by Kirk Driscoll on Drums and percussion and Thomas Buckner (baritone), for this project. All profits from this CD will be donated to Native American charities.
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, Music of Anton 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."