Reviews “Quasar”

The Variable Geometry Orchestra is a large electroacoustic ensemble with a fluid, international membership spanning three generations. For this release, recorded in November 2015 at St. George’s Church in Lisbon, Portugal, the group was made up of forty-six members. The thirty-one minute performance was conducted by VGO leader Ernesto Rodrigues.

Maneuvering a heterogeneous ensemble of this size in a way that maintains cohesion, a sense of movement and textural variety without undue clutter is a significant challenge. Rodrigues succeeds on these counts—helped in no small part by the accomplished improvisers he conducts—and the result is an integrated performance that nevertheless is constantly in flux.

The theory behind the ensemble’s process seems to be to improvise an overall architecture by arranging complexes of sounds moving in relation to each other. In practice this means modulating the dynamics and density of the background to allow different instruments or instrumental combinations to shift to the foreground. One may, for example, hear reeds skittering over the top of quiet chords underscored by a rich foundation of low strings; pizzicato double basses and guitars outlining the upper and lower boundaries of the ensemble’s aggregate compass; or brass exclamations over a simmering and thickening bed of soft-edged timbres. The collective sound is always engaging, as this version of the VGO benefits from a very rich palette of sound colors and a wide range running from double bass—no less than five of them—to flute. Daniel Barbiero


Boasting a forty-six member orchestra, the Variable Geometry Orchestra is one of the larger free-jazz ensembles I’ve listened to, and I can’t say I’m not a little surprised. First of all, the piece itself stretches to a mere thirty-one minutes; with such a colossal group at his disposal, one could easily forgive the VGO’s leader Ernesto Rodrigues for any indulgences – before seeing the run-time, I could have imagined the piece going on for three, even four hours. The fact that Rodrigues reins the Orchestra in and caps them at half an hour is impressive enough! The question that must be asked is this: does thirty minutes provide ample time for exploring the possibilities of the Orchestra? Can each individual voice get an opportunity to contribute to the roiling, rolling whole? The answer is: probably not. And that’s not really the point. Quasar is a journey through the textures such a group can construct, not necessarily the interlocking melodies or instances of counterpoint. In fact, there are no “solos” here, nor is there anything resembling a traditional melody. The piece could be described as one, continuous undercurrent – an uninterrupted series of shifting shapes that, occasionally, swells up to engulf the listener.
The name of the piece is “Apparent Magnitude,” which references how we measure the brightness of celestial objects from the Earth. If the opening of “Apparent Magnitude” could be quantified, it would register as the faintest of glows. It begins with murmurous undulations – rumblings that issue from indistinct locations, and the tentative susurrations of some percussionist (there are five listed). At some point, burbling electronics rise from the softly-churning mass, only to become submerged again. After ten minutes, when some brass instruments emit a short series of clipped, discordant tones, it comes as a minor shock – Rodrigues is so good at guiding the Orchestra through the murky and muted topography of this sound-world that it feels as if they will never break through the canopy. Those bursts are only short detours, however. The piece quickly returns to where it seems most comfortable: hushed textures, creaking strings, and Maria Radich’s possessed voice sounding like the whispered prognostications of an ancient oracle. Despite the seeming “eventlessness” of “Apparent Magnitude,” it’s to the Orchestra’s credit that things breeze right along – because of the large number of players, and because of the lack of any set structures to capture the attention, your ear latches on to whatever it can: a stray bellow here, a short snatch of subdued strumming there, and the occasional sigh of a saxophone. If you approach this recording as a document of the distinct, unrepeatable sounds that occurred at a church in Lisbon in the fall of 2015, you will be rewarded. It strikes me as a set of field recordings that extraterrestrial beings might make and be perplexed by for centuries: listening intently, but never quite able to work out just what is going on. In the final minute, when the Orchestra releases all of the pent-up energy that has been bubbling beneath the muted surface, you can finally see the blinding Quasar of the title – but far from casting any light, it leaves you even more puzzled: What just happened? And why do I want to hear it again? Derek Stone




…”Quasar”, também da VGO, são muito semelhantes, mas com uma muito maior densidade (e incluindo o órgão da St. George’s Church, onde o CD foi gravado), pois são 46 os músicos envolvidos, alguns deles com actividade nas áreas do jazz criativo (Albert Cirera, Sei Miguel, Paulo Curado, Miguel Mira, Hernâni Faustino, Luís Vicente), da música erudita (Miguel Ivo Cruz com a sua viola da gamba), da electrónica experimental (Nuno Moita em gira-discos) e do rock (Flak, dos extintos Rádio Macau, numa das guitarras de caixa). Densidade, aqui, significa coesão, quando tudo à partida (a inexistência de pautas) prometia o contrário, tendo em conta, inclusive, que a condução de Ernesto Rodrigues nunca é determinística. As nebulosas de som que vão ocorrendo relacionam-se umas com as outras sem se obliterarem, criando contrastes e complementos que depressa ganham um sentido global. Nada nos remete para o contraponto de Bach, mas é o princípio organizacional dessa técnica, em estado magmático, bruto, que está em causa. Cada voz e cada naipe encontram um lugar no todo – podemos não conseguir discernir quem faz o quê (não são os indivíduos que aqui importam, mas o colectivo), mas se lá não estivesse os resultados seriam outros. Rui Eduardo Paes