Composer/saxophonist Ken Thomson is a member of the Brooklyn-based punk-jazz band gutbucket. Thomson talked with music-writer Steven Swartz about the hows and whys of writing a new piece for the combined forces of gutbucket and ACO. It all comes together Oct. 19 & 21, 2007.
Among musicians, 'gutbucket' refers to an early style of blues - raw, gritty, elemental. Some say the term comes from a one-string homemade bass instrument used in the music, "made from a metal bucket used to clean pig intestines for chitterlings," according to Wikipedia.
Others say that it refers to the container that caught spillage and excess liquor from the bootlegger's apparatus in the back of a speakeasy. Sometimes bars would sell the liquor that had collected in the gutbucket. Like the music being played in those raucous places - melding together blues, jazz, and popular tunes - it packed a wallop, and was anything but pure.
For fans of the avant-punk/jazz quartet gutbucket, the name conjures an equally potent mixture - a free-range sound that's bursting with energy and invention. If Ornette Coleman were ever to meet Led Zeppelin in a very dark alley, the resulting mashup might remind you of gutbucket: Ty Citerman (guitar), Eric Rockwin (bass), and Ken Thomson (alto saxophone), joined by Adam Gold on drums.
Thomson is the composer of Wait Your Turn, commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra for the ensemble's "Hybridity" program at Zankel Hall in New York on October 19, and at the Annenberg Center in Philadelphia on the 21st. Wait Your Turn is Thomson's first work for orchestra, and it came about partly by chance.
Thomson and composer Derek Bermel, the ACO's Music Alive Composer in Residence, happened to be on a flight to London together. Bermel had recently heard an arrangement that Thomson created for the contemporary music ensemble, Alarm Will Sound, and was suitably impressed. Somewhere over the Atlantic, Bermel invited Thomson to write a piece for the orchestra, and Thomson readily agreed. Except for the length and general instrumentation, the orchestra placed no restrictions on the piece - "a little scary, in a way" says Thomson, "but the only way I would have wanted it. Everyone in the ACO was really cool about it."
From the beginning, Thomson conceived the piece as incorporating gutbucket in a dialog/confrontation with the orchestra: "two warring ensembles," in his words. As a result, the two groups rarely play together during the nine-minute piece: hence the title, Wait Your Turn.
And let's face it, nobody likes to wait. Says Thomson, "Somehow, I've never left my childhood outrage about waiting. Wanting to be always first in line. Ditching the pizza place that's not serving fast enough. Wanting to play every concert, even ones I'm in the audience for. Aching to scratch new countries to travel to off the list.
"In this piece, both groups have to wait their turn. The orchestra's 'introduction' goes on a little too long, and one realizes it's not an introduction - they're just playing the piece. After a while, someone turns off the switch and it's gutbucket's turn. The uncomfortable 'soloist waiting for introduction' is flipped on its head when the orchestra has to wait for gutbucket to play just as long as they had... and in fact, some of the very same material!"
The sparring continues until one of the groups finally gets the last word. Who will triumph? You'll find out soon enough.
The restlessness that Thomson evokes (and spoofs) in Wait Your Turn is in fact a driving force of gutbucket's music. With its virtuosic playing, intricate rhythms, and amps that "go to 11," gutbucket may remind you of a progressive rock band. But Thomson professes impatience with the genre, especially in its meandering moments: "It's like, OK, I want something to happen now!"
A manic energy surges through the group's live shows as well - there's something oddly riveting about watching the bookish-looking Thomson bounce wildly around the stage while honking on his saxophone. It's worth noting that Thomson is only one of gutbucket's composers: Citerman and Rockwin actually write most of the tunes heard on the group's CDs, "Sludge Test" and "Dry Humping the American Dream," and "Insomniacs Dream."
While gutbucket's shows feature generous doses of collective improvisation, all of Wait Your Turn is notated, except for the band's drumkit parts. Though it may sound chaotic at times, the music is tightly controlled. Thomson cites Ornette Coleman's Skies of America, scored for the composer/alto saxophonist's funk ensemble Prime Time with orchestra, as an influence. "It's such a strong statement.... For some reason he's able to make those two forces really work together, getting Prime Time and the orchestra happening at the same time and making sense but not actually playing the same thing at the same time.... What is great about him is beauty that's not sounding like it's trying to be beautiful. I think about that a lot."
Thomson also admires Bulgarian clarinetist Ivo Papasov, whose Wedding Band plays exuberant, high-energy music in shifting meters; he recommends Papasov's CD Balkanology in particular. To round out your pre-Hybridity playlist, Thomson suggests Bang on a Can composer Michael Gordon's exciting and unstoppable Trance for amplified ensemble. That'll give you something to listen to while you stand in line for your tickets.
- Steven Swartz
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