Bill Frisell's 858 Quartet successfully integrates sight and sound
Vancouver New Music presentation. At the Vancouver Playhouse on Saturday, November 24. No remaining performances
In his program notes for this fascinatingly bifurcated performance, guitarist Bill Frisell recounts a dream vision that he had some years ago. In it, he was introduced to a group of “nice little people” dressed as monks, who showed him what colours really look like and how sounds really sound.
“What I heard would be impossible to describe,” he writes. “It was like everything I had ever heard happening simultaneously, absolutely clear, shot like an arrow between my eyes.…It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard. Then I woke up. This dream gave me something to strive for. I may never get there, but I’m going to keep trying.”
If Saturday’s concert was any indication, Frisell is getting increasingly close to achieving his dream. His second set, in which he and his string-quartet colleagues played music inspired by German visual artist Gerhard Richter’s "858" series of paintings, was unquestionably the most successful integration of sight and sound this listener has ever encountered. (The bright and startling images, and details of them, were projected on a large screen behind the band.) And the first set, which drew more on Frisell’s usual avant-Americana approach, was as gentle and soulful as the second was provocative.
I’ve been following Frisell’s music since the early 1980s, and even produced his first Vancouver appearances, so I can say with certainty that Saturday’s concert was among the best—if not the best—he’s given in our city. But this isn’t just a fanboy’s rave: the lengthy standing ovation Frisell, violinist Jenny Scheinman, violist Eyvind Kang, and cellist Hank Roberts received is a good indication of that.
Some background on the art would be useful. Richter’s "858" images, which date to 1999, are abstract works on aluminum, a surface that allowed the artist to drag and smear his pigments with great plasticity. There are aspects of morphing form to all of them, and even though the paintings are nonfigurative, they also contain a sense of narrative drive, as well as some relationship to landscapes both actual and imaginary. The image 858-1, for instance, suggests a green, tranquil pond fringed by rushes; 858-2 connotes a seascape with a red sky dawning. In contrast, 858-6 builds on Salvador Dali’s melting figures with abrupt passages of electric blue against a feathery red-and-ochre backdrop.
Frisell’s music—available on CD from Vancouver’s own Songlines label—was not always precisely or obviously cued to the art, but when the two sensory worlds fused, the effect was extraordinary. That was especially true for the aforementioned 858-6. Here, Frisell’s brutally distorted electric guitar sliced through the more composed string parts—"composed" in every sense of the word—like a kind of psychedelic shock. My hands were literally quivering from the stimulation—and so, metaphorically, was my brain.
The contrast between the 858 Quartet’s two sets no doubt played a big part in that. The sheer sweetness of the first, which drew on the ensemble’s Sign of Life album, put the audience in a relaxed and accepting mood for the occasional astringency of the second. In both, though, Frisell and his band played with such sublime rapport that they sounded like one big instrument—truly a remarkable achievement from four remarkable musicians.