In today’s culture saturated with more verbiage than substance, finding artistic products of value is oftentimes a laborious quest that generally produces few satisfying results. The disc you are holding in your hands is one such rare find. Recorded by a newly formed trio with an enigmatically sounding name Self-Imposed Exile, the album offers a fresh perspective on contemporary chamber music. The word “contemporary” is the keyword here, as the music you are about to experience is an attempt at a re-definition of chamber music as an intelligent mix of composition, improvisation, and electronic sounds. The new genre is not just classical, not just jazz, and not just electronic music, but a combination thereof. On the surface, these labels may seem meaningless, but if you listen to this album with open ears, you’ll know what I mean.
Self-Imposed Exile consists of three musicians: Jakub Rojek, pianist and composer of most of the materials on the album; reedman Aaron Kruziki who moves effortlessly from the clarinet to bass clarinet to alto and soprano saxophones; and the electronic guru Shaun Sutkus responsible for the overall sound-design of the album. The ensemble was formed in 2015, following an experimental live recording at the renowned Steinway Hall in Manhattan. A portion of this unique event is presented on this album.
It was actually the hall itself that determined the sonic parameters of this recording. During the recording session, the trio discovered that the naturally occurring acoustics of the twenty-two-foot Steinway Rotunda defined what could and couldn’t be played. At that moment, the musicians had to either adjust their approach to sound or to suffer the consequences of an overly-reverberant room. As a result, the trio did away with any preconceived notions of sound and form, and instead became totally attuned to the dictates of the room. Musically, the performers had to exile their old selves in order to be with their present selves. Live from Steinway Hall offers an insight into this extraordinary process.
The content of the album is minimal – roughly twenty-seven minutes of music – which in itself is a bold statement by the artists who feel no pressure to provide us with additional fifty minutes of filler music so common in the commercial music world. The limit imposed on the duration of the material was also motivated by the simultaneous release of the album on an LP, certainly a rewarding medium for this inspired set of pieces.
The album opens with Improvisation 1, a continuum of six miniatures with a well-defined trajectory. The first segment titled “Wolfless, I Approach” begins with sparse sounds of tibetan cymbals that transition into a multiphonic dialog between registers played by Kruziki on the bass clarinet. This reference to “world music” generates a sonic representation of distance in time and space – a nod towards the archaic and the natural in music. When the piano enters in the second episode entitled “Fly Try,” the concert hall aesthetic takes over. Under Rojek’s fingers, the music gains momentum, and echoes of Debussy, Bartok, and Stravinsky begin to mingle in this short miniature. What follows in the third segment, aptly titled “Attritional,” is an engaging dialogue between the piano and the soprano sax that blends together rhythmic brilliance with neoclassical touches, all of which are tastefully coated with quirky avant-garde twists. Various forms of interaction between the piano and the alto saxophone are displayed in three subsequent episodes, each of which reveals a different character. In “Sideways Mountain” the musicians expose a rich palette of colors in their ever-changing instrumental dialogues. In “Gravity Contest,” they highlight playfulness, while in “Sugarhark,” a finale of sorts, they focus on virtuosity that increases the intensity of the proceedings. It is also in this section that jazz sensibilities of both musicians come to the fore and significantly enhance this large-scale classical improvisation.
The focus on improvisation in the first piece on the album is balanced out with Sounds from the Self-Exposed Exile, sonata for clarinet and piano composed by Rojek. Unlike the former, this five-movement piece is tighter and more worked out, although stylistically related to its improvised predecessor. The sonata’s purely musical narrative is easy to follow, but for those who like guideposts, programmatic titles will surely help. The sequence of events begins with an exploration of contrapuntally-impressionistic territories in “Can It Be Asked?”, which gives way to dance-like rhythms with emotional peaks in the piano part in “Repeat Gaze.” “Lily Slip Up” is another dance with humorous quasi-slip-ups referenced in the title; it is followed by “Shade for Swarm,” a longer movement that features expansive ostinato-like rhythms with expressive highs and lows. The final movement, “Inevitable/Thrill,” goes back to simplicity viewed through a postmodern lens; we witness a natural, unadorned melody and a bit of pathos for closure – a charming and effective gesture that brings the piece to its swift end.
Self-Imposed Exile has performed at the Vancouver and Toronto International Jazz Festivals, the Opderschmelz Chopin Festival (Luxembourg), Chopin Theatre Chicago, CMJ music festival and SXSW. Additionally, the trio has received commissions from the Chelsea Music Festival, the Darmstadt International Composition Competition and Spark & Echo Arts. If you look hard enough, you may be able to catch them live in similar venues that are open to contemporary music with an edge.
Release Date: September, 11th 2015
-Zbigniew Granat 7/24/15
Tracks, Musicians, Etc.
1. Wolfless, I Approach
2. Fly Try
4. Sideways Mountain
5. Gravity Contest
Sounds from the Self-Imposed Exile, by Jakub Rojek
7. Can it be Asked?
8. Repeat Gaze
9. Lily Slip-up
10. Shade for Swarm
Jakub Rojek- piano, compositions
Aaron Kruziki- saxophones, clarinets, tibetan prayer cymbals
Shaun Sutkus- sound engineering, impulse response
Produced by Self-Imposed Exile
Mastered by Bonati Mastering on 6/3/2015
Recorded by Shaun Sutkus on 12/21/2014 at Steinway Hall, 109 W. 57 Street, New York, NY 10019
A-Side Records, 003