This record is a charming one off. A collection of romantic musical poems was the brainchild of pianist Rob Schwimmer, who at that time experimented with non-mainstream instruments ranging from theremin to daxophone. He co-opted to the project two stars of cerebral East Coast jazz of the 1990s.
Theremin never flirted successfully with jazz, but Mark Feldman and Uri Caine were no strangers to classical audience. In fact, Caine accumulated quite an impressive library of rather pretentious renditions of classics ranging from Mahler to Wagner. In the process, he confounded his audience and almost squandered his talent in shameless eclecticism.
Feldman fared better. His trio Arcado was among the very few successful attempts to fuse jazz aesthetic with contemporary classical composition. He broadened his range with baritone violin, but never went far enough to build compositions around the lower pitch, as did Mat Maneri. Feldman’s virtuosic ability earned him a regular seat with Zorn’s classicizing formations – Bar Kokhba and Masada String Trio.
Adopting some themes written by Bernard Herrmann (famous for his soundtrack to Welles’ and Hitchcock’s movies), the trio achieved the peak of neo-romantic elegy in what could yet be celebrated as the most poignant tribute to Clara Rockmore, the ultimate diva of theremin. But, as if overwhelmed by the chromatic wealth of his apparatus, Schwimmer himself, and his theremin, often took the back seat in the production and arrangement of the compositions included on this disc. He has since returned to recording cerebral piano compositions.
This first poem opens with a Mahlerian violin intro, softened further by Schwimmer’s misty contours on the theremin. The atmosphere is one of unperfumed, honest romanticism. When the inchoate, sparse piano notes wink at us, Feldman’s violin shifts to a higher range, leading a hesitant dance with the somewhat gawky theremin. Feldman substitutes his initial brushstrokes for a more confident, almost Seifert-an martelé. This could be unintentional, but the effect is similar to those unforgettable moments when Seifert transposed Coltrane’s tumultuous explorations into his virtuosic medium. Feldman’s exposé pushes Caine’s piano into low register, but does not marginalize it into an allegedly predictable ostinato. Indeed, the poem remains free, also rhythm-free. It will end caressing the extremes of aural perception (high and low), leaving glaring vacancy in the middle.
Waltz for Clara
In this piece, written on the day of Clara Rockmore’s death, Schwimmer opts for the instrument’s ‘haunted’ sound which we associate so easily with the famed ambassador of this unique musical device. Schwimmer doubles with urban (European) accordion in a most innovative fashion. Aptly transporting us into Clara’s bygone era, Feldman’s romance adopts a gypsy mantle, distinctly nostalgic for pre-war innocence. His instrument is pitched below the accordion until it frees itself into a flying solo. Soon after, the theremin takes over the lead, suffusing it with an elegiac lament, consoled by the harmonic duo of piano and accordion. A far more articulate violin always apportions a measure of penetrating drama, here further underwritten by the piano’s changing amplitude.
In this short intermezzo, Caine opens with a much faster routine, followed by Feldman’s bowed non-sequiturs. The violin briefly mimics Paul Zukofsky’s caesura-ridden attacks so strongly associated with the first act from “Einstein on the Beach”. Caine seeks a romantic ornament when it is over.
Fireflies in Tainan
I am not sure if Uri Caine, who penned this neo-classical composition, referred in the title to the quiet town in Southern Taiwan (I know for a fact that there are fireflies there). The track opens with a low-end rumble on the piano. A solo on violin is alluringly enriched with subtle nuances from both theremin and piano, but soon blazes into a scalding high pitch. This climactic experience does not prevent Feldman from resuming, mine de rien, in concerto mode, pathétique style. Only Schwimmer’s eternally formless theremin adds shades of sepia. This flame of neo-classicism does not last and an increasingly free-form piano phrasing turns the piece back into its heavy rumbling stasis. Feldman’s violin ferments sweetly before scaling up to a pitch of whistle quality. Fading ritornellos close the piece.
Bernard Herrmann’s theme for “Marnie” is an Apolline song scored for violin lead and an accompanying piano. A very cinematic (though not quite sci-fi) theremin develops a secondary theme, again interwoven with a delicate, secondary piano line. The violin brings back a sense of elusive structural predictability, but suddenly (and for the first time on this CD), Uri Caine assumes a more forceful role. In a post-hard bop, self-organizing venture, Caine improvises delightfully until the theremin pushes airily through an eerie transition. Caine descends from the plateau, but continues to develop the complex theme. Towards the end, the high pitched violin solo manages to successfully reconcile the dramatic tension of romantic pathos with parametric syncopation.
A dynamic about-face startles us with a basaltic, delinquent piano ostinato and daring, visceral violin attack. Schwimmer’s unlikely, electronic swirl injects a welcome, planispheric element into this aggressive foundry. Feldman’s portatos are a little over the top here, juxtaposed with intense, grilling noise. His variations – between classical cleanliness and über-pitched nervousness will carry this piece till the last splashes of grandiose piano ostinato.
Carlotta’s Portrait / Farewell
Another of Herrmann’s musical poems, this time from “Vertigo”. Feldman’s violin legatos stick to higher register, eventually yielding the melodic role to the hitherto discrete theremin. Feldman is never far, circulating, maneuvering and burrowing a faint line. Schwimmer ditches his theremin for daxophone. His initial forays are frail and twiddly like a mix between a squealing puppy and liquid whirl. Too bad – he could have done more with this amazingly versatile piece of wooden lute-making.
The Nightmare / The Tower
As most of the shorter vignettes on this record, this one eschews the poetic tones of the longer pieces and thrusts the listener into a more free-form universe. Amid nervous violin riffing, the frenetically tight piano arpeggios place Caine beyond Cecil Taylor’s cogent anti-classicism (de facto, rather than de iure). His honest, agitated eruptions drown out most of the violin part. Meanwhile, the forlorn daxophone wheezes deep in the background, but one has to be very attentive to notice that.
At nearly 10 minutes, “Scène” scores as the longest composition on this record. It all begins with serene theremin polygons. After this intro, a succession of bird-like voices emanates from pointillist exchanges between the piano and the violin. This (accidental?) nod to Olivier Messiaen eventually sinks into theremin’s wooly, mood shifting blankets. Feldman is particularly virtuosic here, easily catching up with speedy piano outbursts. Their climaxes are typical for European composition – violin’s projection wins in higher pitch, the piano forces up the volume. Feldman’s astounds with the sensitivity of his touch and his fluent shifts in articulation. His romantic legatos are brought alight by the returning theremin, weeping with melancholy.
Tesla – the genius engineer of ‘Yugoslav’ origin should be remembered by music fans, at the very least, for the reel tape recorder churned out by the Czechoslovak subsidiaries. This “blues” starts with an analog-sounding electronic circuitry, then some scraping and occasional, non-figurative piano notes.
This second intermission is performed by amplified daxophone and violin. This is the closest we can ever get to revive the spirit of the legendary Cora/Reichel collaborations.
Mark Feldman’s only composition here initially appears rigidly classical, placed in concerto setting, with the piano in a subjugated role. While velocity changes are sudden, decelerations inevitably bring back the comfy shading by theremin. Its feminine chorus-like configuration frames perfectly the high notes that suddenly spill from Caine’s piano. Harmonic shadowing with the violin adds some mordents to the nocturnal pensiveness of the piece.
Theremin waves in yet another loosely structured, cinematic theme. Violin repetitions and piano figures correlate perfectly, leading into another fidgety missive from the daxophone.
Parade on Mars
The wheezing intro on daxophone seems to be amplified through a digital device (DX7 ?). The instrument responds to the multi-directional impetus of the brutal attack from violin and piano with its celebrated, fretted innocence. But the trio format soon falls apart, leaving us with Caine’s deadpan voice and the squiggly mayhem of acoustic live improvisation.
Paralysis / Circle Song
Another composition by Schwimmer opens with arpeggiated piano figures that slowly mutate into schizophrenic tremolos. A rather sedate theremin salvages this tender, brooding psalm, with the piano as the only accompaniment. This brocade passage eventually unleashes Feldman into the one last exercise in default hierarchy. A bike horn ends this in an ungainly, but counter-intuitively fitting manner.
SCHWIMMER-CAINE-FELDMAN: “Theremin noir” (1999)
Although deprived of any theremin, and less colorful, the Arcado Trio of Mark Feldman, Hank Roberts and Mark Dresser arguably reached the pinnacle of the 20th century classical cum jazz fusion.
DRESSER-FELDMAN-ROBERTS: “Arcado” (1989)
ARCADO: “Behind the Myth” (1990)
ARCADO: “For Three Strings and Orchestra” (1991)
ARCADO: “Live in Europe” (1994)
The trio appeared previously together in a larger setting with Tim Berne, but it was very different music.