When Nick Millevoi and Daniel Blacksberg clash their guitar and trombone, they form the Philadelphia experimental music duo Archer Spade (AS). With this pair two’s company, and more than enough. Though their instruments are familiar, Millevoi and Blacksberg extract the most peculiar and atypical sounds from their weapons of choice. On December 8th, AS performed the works of another Philadelphia artist, composer Gene Coleman of Soundfield. Coleman is no stranger to the local or international music scene and has built a name for himself through sheer prolificity of output, the challenging nature of his compositions, and the diversity of his disciplines. Coleman composes for instruments as varied as cello, guitar, Sho (Japanese Mouth Organ), Koto (Japanese stringed instrument), the obscure No-Input Mixing Board, and the Bass Clarinet (his own go-to) of which he too expands the vocabulary of sounds well beyond expectation or indication of its source. Coleman is also no stranger to cinema; a filmmaker in his own right and a frequent score composer. Recent years have seen his original accompaniments written for the silent Japanese rarity Page Of Madness, and Kaneto Shindo’s existential masterwork Onibaba. AS’s December program marks Coleman’s last Philadelphia performance before his five month composer-in-residence in Berlin as part of the well deserved Berlin Prize awarded him earlier this year.
For this event, held appropriately at UPENN’s Music Building, AS curated three works, two by Coleman and an original arrangement of Duke Ellington‘s Mood Indigo. The three pieces communicated well with one another in that they share a similar sensibility of abstraction. The room, with its high ceiling and solid wood floor allowed for a fullness and nakedness of sound. For better or worse, in the emptiness of the room everything could be heard. With a modest set up: one amp, two petals, two trombone mutes, and two chairs, the evening began.
AS rendered Mood Indigo almost unrecognizable. They emphasize the sobriety of the song and eschew the whimsy. The result of having both had the song stuck in their head at the same time, their personal arrangement was soft and spare and generated a spacious primer of moods, intonations, and textures yet to come in the program. Blacksberg’s breathiness on the trombone was an excellent replication of the same quality in the clarinet on the original recording.
The second piece of the evening, Our Private Sky, was the result of a commission made by AS to Coleman in 2011, funded through a Kickstarter campaign. It was also the premier of the work in its final stage, having been performed by the duo in a previous draft at the International House. This more complex work, based upon theorist/architect Buckminster Fuller’s design of an elevator to outer space, unfolds in three movements. Movement one is startling, and evokes industrial imagery of clanging machinery, sparks, friction, and the ignition of this theoretical conveyance. Movement two slows things down. The guitar and trombone build a sense of anxiety as their intonations gradually rise up the scale. Millevoi moved a slide-ring imperceptibly up the neck of his guitar, and Blacksberg ever so slowly pulled the slide of his Trombone back from a full extension to generate this sustained effect. Their oscillating upward-moving hum is punctuated by bursts from the Trombone and scrapes from the Guitar, which suggest the fragility of the rise through atmospheric layers. Coleman’s orchestration is highly tactile and surprisingly visual. The third movement is transcendent. It is the moment where the atmosphere is breached and the vacuum of space envelopes all listeners. This is where Millevoi and Blacksberg truly extend themselves into abstraction. Blacksberg makes his trombone an extension of his breath, with hisses, deep respirations, and vibrations. Millevoi affects his guitar tones with preparations like a paperclip, strumming just past the bridge, and rubbing the strings circularly with his pick. Together, with soft sustained notes, AS evokes the majesty, fear, and expanse of space. The imagery is complete, and the cinema of the experience is undeniable: a score to a theoretical film.
The final work of the evening is Coleman’s original score to an actual film, Chris Marker’s 1962 sci-fi oddity La Jetee (the inspiration for Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys). This was a wonderful tie-in to the I-House’s upcoming Chris Marker retrospective event on December 13th, in which La Jetee, and several rare short works will be shown. Together with AS’s event, Philadelphia is showing Marker some love in the wake of his recent passing. Coleman’s score combines AS with himself on Bass Clarinet and Thomas Kraines on Cello. Having never seen La Jetee, this was surprises all around. The film, a science fiction narrative about time travel, is haunting in its own right. Coleman’s score produces a sense of calamity refracted from the film’s placement in a post apocalyptic setting. A prelude builds a landscape of tense and obscure sounds, and segues into the film itself. Coleman takes an intuitive route with his composition and undulates between urgency, hope, quietude, and calamity. It is a beautiful if not disquieting accompaniment to a film that is so strong and evocative within its 27minutes that it could easily inspire chills if seen silent. Therein lies Coleman’s challenge, to compose a score for a film that doesn’t need one. I consider the challenge met, because Coleman doesn’t go for anything manipulative of bombastic, doesn’t consult extremes. What Coleman generates is a highly textural accompaniment with a fluid continuity that complements La Jetee’s staccato continuity of static images. The score being played live, also extends the film into another dimension, more present and more alive.
Cinedelphia wishes Gene Coleman all the best in Berlin, and hopes to hear more from Archer Spade who have big plans to bring experimental music to Philadelphia with regular programming.