Adam Simmons and the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble
45 downstairs, Flinders Lane
Thursday December 7, 2017
Another stage along the path of Adam Simmons‘ odyssey towards working out for himself – and us – the problems of art’s utility, this program comprised nine segments, all connected with the travel theme, some of them in rather personal ways; personal to Simmons, I mean. To support and amplify this enterprise, Timothy Phillips and his Arcko musicians – 20 strings from the Ensemble – slotted into the mix without obvious bumps, although it has to be admitted that, compared to other concerts presented by this group, you were scraping to find much that would have tested their powers of ensemble and articulation.
Indeed, Simmons’ map was pretty laid-back. His beginnings opened with a gentle underpinning over which the soprano saxophone meandered quietly, before the pace changed to marching ponderousness for a single step, a segment that moved forward to a rather extended climax; nothing too harmonically adventurous and the scoring for string orchestra made its points without resorting to conspicuous efforts or tricks.
Simmons third movement, milosc, was a solo to illustrate the maxim (presumably from Milosc) that travelling while simultaneously playing music was about the life-experience you gained by doing so; unarguable, one would hope but most interesting in this context for Near-Eastern colours coaxed from his tenor sax by Simmons. In a nod to the old world, the composer/performer gives some recognition to previous times and cultures but in a manner that left not much impact on this listener.
More immediately gripping matter came in the city that never slept which was based on a rising five-note step-like motif in the strings, gradually accruing members as the movement passed by but not following a predictable path of building up volume through numbers; rather, sharing the material around between groups. On top of this, Simmons generated a wild, near-frenetic line where the night’s work came closest to contemporary practice with plenty of over-blowing and percussive slaps at the instrument’s tube and keys. No, these techniques are not unheard of and were common practice among avant-garde jazz musicians many decades ago, but in this (till now) calm dynamic context, the effect was remarkable, especially at summoning up a kind of aural equivalent to a Big Cityscape.
in threnody, the emotional atmosphere was conditioned by open 4ths and 5ths, making a deliberate contrast with the preceding movement, both sax and string orchestra weaving together in a calm consolation rather than a mournful dirge. Perhaps the most interesting part of the night followed in living by numbers which was something of an organized free-for-all for the bulk of the orchestra over the grounding of a string quartet formed by the section principals. The impression appeared to be something close to a minimalist gesture in that the material used stayed simple if rhythmically taut. But counterbalancing this was Simmons’ contribution which took the form of another gripping series of phrases/outbursts that at times followed the orchestra, but more often presented as improvisations over the sustaining string ferment; all exhilarating to experience and the whole hurtling forward to stop on a dime.
Pulling back from this energetic outburst, a song for sharing began with another solo for saxophone. For me, the communal mood spoke clearly of 1960s cool jazz, boppy and tuneful, the strings joining in after a time with canon-style imitations employed to impose an underpinning order. Finally, Simmons took up his soprano for warm croissants – referring to a consolation coming at breakfast after a night of deep and meaningful talk – and roamed over and into a sequence of slow string chords to suggest the settling back into Ithacan domesticity or a return to the land of the lotus-eaters.
What the composer presents here is, obviously, a sequence of vignettes amounting to a self-portrait. For the Arcko musicians, the stages were fully organized and scored and, if novelties or technical troubles were hard to find, they were able to concentrate on synchronicity and the generation of clear-speaking group timbres. Simmons served as a wandering voice, merging and diverging at will so that he seemed to be improvising, particularly at moments of highest tension.
And the concert fulfilled the aim of Simmons’ intent: to illustrate the usefulness of his art – both to himself and to us. I think that the basis of what he is attempting is to found his music in comprehensibility – no, instant understanding. Music that is accessible, intellectually and emotionally, is useful; composers who choose to obfuscate, inadvertently or intentionally, are heading in the other direction and writing music of no help to anyone. Which again brings to mind that story of Stravinsky whispering to his secretary Robert Craft, while both were listening to the latest string quartet by a US academic, ‘Who needs it?’
On the other hand, we might not need Simmons’ physical and spiritual travelogue but it is available and accessible, presumably unlike the afore-mentioned string quartet. More down-to-earth, the composer has succeeded in linking his own swooping performance creativity and the pervasive power of his playing with a formal framework of such character that should reassure even the most conservative listener.
Finally, as a pre-empting of apologies that may be necessary, these observations are based on a set of notes written in darkness, or its near equivalent. Recollection in tranquillity is a wonderful exercise but I hope that my scribbles superimposed on the night’s program in what I hope was sequential order still manage to bear a general reference to what actually took place.