Barbary Coast and Chamber Singers to perform Friday

by Joseph Debonis | 10/31/07 11:37pm

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The Barbary Coast will perform improvised arrangements with jazz great Butch Morris as their conductor.
by Courtesy of the Hopkins Center / The Dartmouth

This Friday, there are actually too many ways to fill the early evening hours in Hanover. The Barbary Coast Jazz Ensemble and the Dartmouth College Chamber Singers will be displaying their talents in two separate shows that, judging by their very distinct rehearsals, will be as different as the Orozco murals and Wenda Gu's infamous hair.

As I wandered into the Monday evening rehearsal of the Barbary Coast Jazz Ensemble, something quite near a cacophony of brass, strings and percussion met my ears. I assumed, naturally, that they were warming up, you know, tuning. Mistaken I was ... Barbary Coast was actually, well, rehearsing.

I gave my ear a moment to adjust, however, and realized that I was listening in on something far less mundane than a tuning session. The stage of Spaulding Auditorium, completely devoid of sheet music, held 31 Dartmouth students hanging on every flick of the wrist and head nod from their conductor, contemporary jazz innovator Butch Morris.

Morris is the pioneer of the art of Conduction -- essentially live, improvised music. Over the last twenty years, Morris has performed over 150 Conductions (conducted interpretation/improvisation) in 23 countries and on 22 CDs.

Morris originally became interested in improvised music while living in the San Francisco Bay Area in the '70s, and he cites famed jazz drummer Charles Moffett as opening his eyes to that art of conducted improvisation. He is now bringing his talent to Dartmouth.

According to Derek Stenquist '10, a saxophonist in the Ensemble, Morris lives up to his great reputation. "Mr. Morris is a brilliant guy, and his life's work for the past 20 years has been exploring this line between composition and improvisation."

It was not until this past Sunday that Morris arrived in Hanover -- on Monday, I was actually witnessing the Coast's second rehearsal with their new conductor, just four days before the show. Ah, now the cacophony makes sense. In addition to the lack of synchronization inherent in such a performance, the Coast and Morris were still warming up to each others' performance styles. As Stenquist explained, the group spent Sunday evening learning Morris's methods of conduction. Those flicks of the wrist and head nods are, as one would imagine, incredibly important.

Each conduction begins with all 31 members of the Ensemble playing whatever they want -- in any key and any tempo. When Morris hears something he likes, he motions for that performer to continue, while simultaneously orchestrating the sounds produced by each section. "Rehearsing for this concert has been different than anything I've experienced before," Stenquist said.

As I sat there listening to Morris address the group both thought-provokingly ("Have a discussion...What does it mean to sustain a sound?") and critically ("Please address the question, don't ignore it. You have to take some responsibility!"), I was fascinated by the possible outcome of each take: Would Morris mold it into something utterly brilliant, or would it be a musical train wreck?

Something tells me brilliance will pervade in Spaulding on Friday at 8 p.m., once the Coast masters the tremendous learning curve that comes with constructing real-time musical arrangements. I've always been told that the Coast has many top-notch musicians; this performance should show how musically inclined they truly are.

On the other hand, the Monday evening rehearsal of the Dartmouth Chamber Singers was a more traditional one, albeit with a ghoulish twist. The ensemble sang through a number of Halloween favorites -- those tunes you can't name but intrinsically know -- for their performance aptly titled "The Cry of the Devil: Choral Music for Halloween."

Dr. Robert Duff, conductor for the Chamber Singers as well as for Dartmouth's Handel Society, explained that the timing of this year's concert -- a mere five weeks into the term -- nonetheless proved inspirational.

Ghastly music also happened to be in line with the current research of music professor Steve Swayne. He is authoring a book on American composer William Schuman, whose "Carols of Death," set to texts by Walt Whitman, are among the songs to be performed Friday night.

Also included in the Chamber Singers' repertoire are selections by J.S. Bach, Donald Patriquin and "Four Shakespeare Songs" by Jaakko Mantyjarvi. Dartmouth's own organist, Chris Lundell, who will be featured as both a stand-alone performer and complement to the Singers, will provide a healthy dose of ominous organ accompaniment.

Friday's performance will also be the Chamber Singers' first as part of the Hopkins Center's "Stages Family Series," meaning the performance is open to and promoted toward families in the Upper Valley.

Duff was quick to add that local children in the audience will receive candy, in the Halloween spirit of the performance.

Improvised jazz and professional-grade Halloween harmonies: At 8 p.m. on Friday, opportunities will abound for musical entertainment, of both the avant-garde and more traditional varieties.