No Fixed Narratives: Bassist James Ilgenfritz at Kerrytown Concert House
Whether he's reframing William S. Burroughs' cut-up prose as opera with his long-running Anagram Ensemble, fusing progressive rock riffing with avant-jazz in electric trio Hypercolor, or bowing his strings with multiple bows and springs on his own, bassist James Ilgenfritz is regularly questioning perceptions and pushing back against sound barriers.
"Music is a fundamentally abstract art form, as it does not have the type of figurative quality words or images can communicate," Ilgenfritz wrote in an email, describing what inspired him to transcribe the work of composer and saxophonist Anthony Braxton for his 2011 debut solo album, Compositions (Braxton). "But we often give in to the temptation to shoehorn music into fixed narratives and the illusion that meaning can be an absolute."
The Brooklyn, New York-based musician grew up in Monroe and studied music at the University of Michigan. He played with several Ann Arbor and Detroit-based groups, including Bill Brovold's experimental rock troupe Larval, before moving out of state to further his musical path.
In January, Ilgenfritz led a string section playing arrangements he'd written for composer and performer M. Lamar's Funeral Doom Spiritual in Brooklyn. The new monodrama written by Lamar with musician Hunter Hunt-Hendrix (of "transcendental" metal band Liturgy) takes place in the future and "explores radical historical expressions and futuristic longings for destruction of the white supremacist world order."
On Wednesday, March 15, Ilgenfritz will give a solo contrabass performance at Kerrytown Concert House featuring music from his new album, his Braxton transcriptions, and an old favorite from his Ann Arbor days by a U-M professor.
Q: Growing up in Monroe, how and when were you exposed to enough jazz and improv music that you knew this was what you wanted to study in school?
A: The environment was absolutely not one that would foster this type of musical growth. All forms of the arts were strongly discouraged. For me and my friends and the few adults able to offer some guidance, it was an act of defiance to even show an interest in the arts.
My parents sent me to Interlochen to study visual arts in the summer, and it was there I heard the music of Eric Dolphy and John Cage. It became an ongoing adventure to find ways to hear and learn about this music. WEMU was at that time very supportive of progressive jazz, and I would go to Rusty's in Toledo to sit in, and I started driving up to Ann Arbor to hear concerts at Kerrytown. So for me, coming to play at Kerrytown always has a certain reverence about it, knowing the important role it played in helping me on my path.
Q: How did your time in Ann Arbor and Detroit, playing with groups like Larval, etc., inform the direction of your playing? How did that compare with what you found when you moved to New York?
A: Working with Bill Brovold in Larval brought me my first touring experiences and first-hand information about what was happening in New York, while he lived there and after. Bill also hipped me to No Wave, Brian Eno, and Arthur Russell -- indispensable influences that are essential to me.
The New York he told me about is the one I experience now, minus some of the challenges of urban blight and, instead, the problem of unchecked development. There are a lot of changes to the overall environment, but the community is still what it is. The difference is the folks who were youngsters then are now the guiding forces.
Q: For the new solo record, how did you come to work with these four composers? Was the idea always to put the pieces together as an album, or did it come together after the fact?
A: The project started at the Roulette holiday party in December 2012. Annie Gosfield, Jim Thirlwell, and I were chatting, and it struck me that a logical next step as a solo performer was to create a portrait of the porous, interactive community of artists in New York -- the one that led me to do what I do. Bill Brovold would always emphasize the way post-punk, the classical avant-garde, performance art, and avant-garde jazz overlapped in NYC. I wanted to make a record that reflected that reality.
Annie, Jim, Elliott Sharp, and Miya Masaoka are all composer-performers; all have made an indelible impression on how music is made. They all knew my work as an improviser, and I knew they would interface with what I'm doing in a way that would create a sort of "hybrid dimension," where the artistic practice is both conceptually and practically something that could not exist without the integration of our respective visions.
Q: What was it like "getting into the head" of these different pieces and what unique challenges did each pose? As different as they are, they all work really well together, and as out there as they can get, there's always something for the listener to hold on to.
A: I see this project as an effort to challenge myself, primarily, while presenting something enjoyable, educational, and inspiring for the audience. I always want my work to point to something beyond -- to lead people to go on an exploration of their own. I hope this sense of discovery comes across in the music. All these pieces were built on unusual things the composer and I found together looking under rocks. The various strategies the composers used were like a treasure map.
Annie loaded all my sounds into a sampler and transcribed the combinations she created. As a performer, that involved a lot of sounds I already knew how to make, but I'd never put them together the way she did, so I got to experience my own work in an unusual way.
Jim Thirlwell mixed a lot of interesting sounds he found with some of the improvisational environments I created, and we often blended them together, so the boundaries are quite porous in that piece.
Elliott's use of multiple bows is something he's explored with many bowed instruments, but this was a first for the bass, and it led to some very otherworldly discoveries.
And Miya Masaoka's use of Just Intonation ratios creates a sea of beautiful chords, executed entirely using harmonics. The bass simply does harmonics better than any other string instrument in the world. Miya's work, "Four Moons Of Pluto," conveys a sense of terrestrial bodies floating in space.
Q: For the Braxton record, what appealed to you about transcribing his work for bass and what keeps you interested in playing this music?
A: For me, Braxton's work still serves as the archetypal interface between sign and action. Braxton's notational systems inherently call the relationship between symbols and sounds into question, calling on the performer and listener to consider the hidden complexities between a thing and whatever that thing could mean. I saw the process of adapting his work to my instrument as a way of encoding his ideas into the fabric of my musical vocabulary.
Moreover, I'm doing this on the bass, an instrument whose role and sonic potential has repeatedly been redefined by various bassists who've worked with him over the last five decades. Dave Holland, John Lindberg, Mark Dresser, Rufus Reid, my good friend Carl Testa, and many others have all contributed to the growth of this instrument's vocabulary. I hope this record adds something to that as well.
Q: You recently worked with M. Lamar and Hunter Hunt-Hendrix on their Funeral Doom Spiritual project. This seems like a really intense, timely work with a lot of personalities involved. How did you get involved and what was the experience like?
A: I've known M. Lamar for a long time, since we were both still younger and getting our feet wet in the arts community in New York. He brought me in to lead a special version of my group The Anagram Ensemble, one focusing on drone, using low strings and brass to compliment Hunter's electronics and M. Lamar's beautiful falsetto.
I've always seen some relationships between Hunter's approach to harmony, rhythm, and texture in the constant speeding up and slowing down of tremolos in the guitars and drums in his band Liturgy. I absolutely wanted to communicate that in the string arrangements.
The work itself is so profound and so timely. It seems that everyday forces are pushing us closer to some time of terrible day of reckoning. M. Lamar's music offers a vision that has beauty along with the destruction.
Q: It seems like you keep plenty busy with collaborative projects of varying size and scope. What do these solo performances allow you to explore that gets you excited?
A: My interests are so vast, and our society's ability to access information is at such a high capacity right now. I don't see how anyone could possibly not respond to what's going on by diversifying their work as they refine their skills. For me, every single day presents a new challenge to get better at what I already know how to do and to push beyond my comfort zone into areas that will force me to reevaluate the limits of my perception.
This type of activity depends on collaboration. I have skills and discoveries that I can share with others, and they have something to share with me. Together we can find something new.
Q: This is a homecoming of sorts for you. Anything special planned for the Kerrytown show?
A: I do have one special treat in mind: I will be returning to a piece that professor Stephen Rush wrote for me in 2007, which I played at Kerrytown 10 years ago and will play again a few times on this trip. The piece is a tribute to Jimmy Giuffre, "Synchroma I (or 18 Ways)." The piece also offers references to Stockhausen, Braxton, Wilbur Ware; there's so much in this piece. I can't wait to play it again!
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Concentrate Ann Arbor.