The audience in the Interfaith Chapel was captivated on March 18 by the ground-breaking experimental music of The Millennium Collective, an improvisation-based group consisting of UR faculty and guest saxophonist Sundar Viswanathan.
The program featured original works by keyboardist Peter Silberman and guitarist Anton Machleder and two pieces that consisted solely of live improvisation. When joined by bassist Jason Titus and percussionist Colin Tribby, the quintet’s performance showcased not only the musicians’ composing abilities, but, more directly, the group’s ability to improvise together.
The original Millennium Collective was formed by four Eastman students in 1999, of which only Silberman and Machleder remain. Their common desire to experiment musically drew them together, and what began as casual rendezvous in the Eastman School of Music practice rooms developed into a well-structured, yet unconventional, performance ensemble.
The groups’s earlier performances were composed of improvisation only. Their music has progressed in the past five years to include original tunes, which often explore the possibilities of incorporating technology into their music through synthesizers and looped sound bits. Friday’s performance was no exception.
The opening piece, Silbermans’s “Alcazar,” consisted of a somber alto saxophone melody accompanied by a gentle guitar that quickly intensified as the drums entered with distinct accents and a soft-spoken beat. The song continued to develop as spacey synthesizer-like sounds were emitted from the keyboard, continuing to swell and recede with the pulse of the song. It was surprising to discern that the synthesizer was actually playing over a recorded piano loop from earlier in the work. Because of the two different sounds coming from the single instrument, it was actually possible to imagine that there were six performers on stage playing at the same time.
The next piece, another Silberman original titled “Memory,” contained a recorded piano accompaniment, creating an appropriate texture for Viswanathan to convey his improvised ideas. At times, he produced a darker tone and was reminiscent of Johnny Griffin in his phrasing, and in other moments, he smoothed it out to blend with the dense textures around him.
Viswanathan’s versatility was complemented by the irregular techniques employed by the percussionist. Tribby used a variety of hand percussion instruments, unusual drumsticks and even his bare hands on the drum set as well as the tabla, a traditional Indian hand-drum.
The musicians’ talents were most highlighted in the performance that followed, which was appropriately labeled “Improvisation.”
The piece was comparable to free-form jazz improviser Eric Dolphy in that almost everything that the players did was unexpected. There was no predetermined form to the music, yet it still held together as a cohesive whole. At times, all of the musicians were playing together, while at other times there was only one instrument sounding. And at other times, there was complete silence, demonstrating each player’s refined taste that an important aspect of improvising is realizing the necessity of space between sounds.
The concert continued with an equally high level of energy and flow. Machleder donned a sitar for his composition “Bells Over the Genesee,” using it to create a loop that played softly in the background for the rest of the piece. This followed by another intense improvisation that started with the strange sound of Viswanathan forcefully opening and closing the valves on his saxophone. Although this is not an original technique, it is uncommon and was quite a surprise for the audience, as well as the other performers.
The concert ended with another work by Machleder, titled “Blues in A,” a straightforward blues progression that provided the musicians with yet another vehicle for improvisational explorations.
The highlight was Machleder himself, as he switched to an electric Fender Stratocaster for a straightforward and bluesy Eric Clapton-esque guitar solo.
The Millennium Collective succeeded in doing two things. They created music that was original, spontaneous and most importantly, enjoyable and provided their audience with an experience both exciting in its freshness and thought-provoking in its originality.
Frissell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.