Last night Andrea Parkins and Iris performed at the William Pitt Union at the University of Pittsburgh. Two decades ago that building was my second home, including one semester when I actually did sleep there (or tried to) between finishing my overnight shift at WPTS-FM at 6 a.m. and going to a music theory class at 9 a.m. (Bad idea. I was always sick that semester and even lost my voice about three hours into my shift on one fateful night.)
But anyhow, walking into the Union was a strange step back in time, even though I have been there in recent years. It was really weird, though, to go to an electro-acoustic improvisation show in the fancy room that's normally reserved for quiet study (and sleeping) during the week and the invite-only reception for the Pitt Jazz Seminar at other times. When I was going to school there, we never got to hear free improv in that spot.....
Lo and behold that's where the lovely Ms. Parkins and her European co-horts were to play. Before them, though Ben Opie and Matt Wellins performed a piece where Opie played clarinet and alto, and Wellins manipulated it through a bank of effects, turning the single tones into droning chords, swooshing stereo ping-pong percussive effects and repetitions of what Opie played seconds prior to it coming from the speakers. It was soothing but also engrossing.
Iris reminded me that I have a problem with free improvisers who put an excessive amount of effort into playing an instrument when the sound they produce doesn't sound one-tenth as powerful. The best example would be the guitarist who acts like that E chord is the hardest thing in the world to play. A personal example that made me skeptical was seeing Mats Gustafsson wrench and twist over his baritone sax in order to produce "bweeeeeeeeee." [Note -I keep trying to get that sound to appear in a teeny point size, but it's not working. So just imagine it.]
And I got that feeling while watching two members of Iris last night. Cellist Didier Petit began the set barefoot, and make sweeping gestures where he seemed like he was going to get out of his chair, only to sit back down, hit the back of his cello with his right foot, swing the bow around, hit the cello again.... He swung his bow around so viciously that I prayed it wasn't on loan from Pitt. He also looked like he was casting a circle. Later on, he actually did get up and walk to the back of the room while swinging the cello like a pendulum.
Drummer Edward Perraud did a lot of grand gesturing too, waving his arms like he was about to kick into a Zeppelin song, only to land a crash on his snare or a "whump" on his kick drum. He has some sort of contact mike connected to his high-hat, which he ran through a sampler of some kind, since he bent the sound around with a knob on it. Also, he showed great skill at bowing his cymbals. But none of this ever seemed to come together into one thing. It just seemed like he was running through his various fields of expertise, without using them for a whole concept. And he was overdoing it in the delivery department.
Of course Perraud and Petit might have been acting this way to contrast the looks of Parkins and Hans Tammen, who both sat at tables in front of laptops. Petit especially looked the role of tenured professor in his suit jacket, and at times the duo could've been checking email for all we in the small but rapt audience knew. Parkins picked up her accordion a few times, but she just used it for slow drones, not convoluted groups of notes.
I'll admit I went there expecting an Andrea Parkins performance more in line with what she did with Ellery Eskelin more than a decade ago at Pitt, which means something more in the neighborhood of freewheeling jazz. I'm open to more intense, industrial, noisy electro-acoustic stuff like this, and while moments of it were nice, the four of them didn't lock in to anything as a group.